On Friday, my dad and I went down to London together to see the show Space Shambles at the Royal Albert Hall. It was a one-night-only event, and had been presented as a blend of “science, music, comedy and wonder” – neither of us really knew what to expect.
It was my first time inside the Royal Albert Hall, and it certainly felt fancier than other venues I’d been to. We ate our dinner at Verdi, an Italian restaurant inside the venue, which meant we didn’t have to worry too much about finishing in time. Our pizzas – mine was folded over and stuffed with ham, mushroom and mascarpone – were delicious, and the staff were both friendly and professional, usually holding one or both hands behind their backs when they spoke to you. Then it was time for the show, where we found ourselves seated in a box!
The show itself, chiefly presented by comedian Robin Ince and former astronaut Chris Hadfield, was a collection of different presentations and acts, each very different apart from being themed around space. Even the science presentations were on individual topics without an overall story. This wasn’t a bad thing, though; the variety on offer worked very well, and almost all of it was entertaining. The performance by Stewart Lee – a moaning comedy act making fun of astronauts – was the only thing I couldn’t get into; Robin Ince’s segments, looking over the over-optimistic predictions for future space travel in old space books, and the contents of 1969 newspapers and TV guides, were funnier – plus his impression of Brian Blessed. It was a real treat to see Chris Hadfield in person, and he also did an excellent job at presenting, particularly when paying tribute to the late Professor Stephen Hawking and Alan Bean.
There were some really fascinating scientific lectures; it was a shame that each one couldn’t go on for longer than it did. Professor Jim Al-Khalili gave a summary of the origins and ultimate fate of the Universe, which made me want to look up more of the details I didn’t already know. Dr Helen Czerski was joined by Hawaiian elder Kimokeo Kapahulehua, on his first trip to the UK, to talk about how Pacific natives navigated using the stars. Professor Monica Grady talked about the Rosetta probe, and Professor Lucie Green went from explaining observations of the Sun to the crash landing of the Skylab space station in Australia. (Dad told me how, in 1979, with nobody knowing for certain where Skylab would come down, “Skylab helmets” were on sale in Blackpool.) I would have liked to see more of Dr Suzie Imber – the space scientist who won the Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes show – who was part of a Q&A at the beginning of the second half. Probably my favourite of the science presentations – though they were all excellent – was by Festival of the Spoken Nerd, who performed an experiment to calculate pi using a pendulum with an actual pie as the weight. With the length of the pendulum being 9.8 metres – equal to the force of gravity in metres per second squared – the time of each swing was expected to equal to pi, i.e. 3.14 seconds. Chris Hadfield was responsible for recording the total time of 10 swings, which came out at 31.7 seconds; not bad!
The musical acts were good, too. There was “Stargazing” by She Makes War, some of which wouldn’t have felt out of place over the opening credits of a Bond film; Grace Petrie with “The Golden Record”; and Sheila Atim giving a great rendition of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”. Public Service Broadcasting would close the show with some tracks that featured their own music accompanied with historic audio on Yuri Gagarin, Apollo 8 and Apollo 11; I liked this unique style a lot once I had time to get into it. (Plus they’ve produced similar work based around the Titanic.) Especially cool was Hadfield bringing out his guitar to perform “Space Oddity”, as he did on the ISS.
A few more segments fell into more miscellaneous categories. Hadfield spoke to Rusty Schweickart, veteran of the Apollo 9 mission which performed the first manned test of the lunar module in Earth orbit. Schweickart talked about how the spacewalk he performed during Apollo 9 widened his perspective of the world and humanity, and how future developments in space flight could progress, particularly to become more cost-effective than the Apollo program. Seb Lee-DeLisle then demonstrated his giant laser projection of a lunar landing arcade game, which Schweickart was able to complete admirably. It didn’t work so well when a setting was enabled so the applause of the audience would control the lander’s thrust; the audience eventually started laughing and sent the lander flying out of sight. Then Reece Shearsmith gave a reading of Carl Sagan’s writing on the Pale Blue Dot, the picture of Earth taken by Voyager 1 from six billion kilometres away.
Sagan’s words, talking about the loneliness and fragility of Earth conveyed by the image, definitely lent themselves well to a wonderful and stimulating evening. I was sad when the event came to an end, and I left with a renewed appreciation of what we’ve learned about the Universe and what could come in the future with the right attitude.