No Lifeline But Numbers

a play by Stephen Livesey Ashworth

Already 2001, the year of Arthur C. Clarke's fictional space odyssey, has come and gone. The International Space Station is open for business, though at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. What is the justification for spending such vast sums on a project whose benefits are so hotly disputed? What is it really like to live in space? Is the food really that awful? Is space really that dangerous?

My new play No Lifeline But Numbers is designed to address these questions, while having a bit of fun at the same time.

The setting is on board the fictional Sir Isaac Newton Space Station. Our two intrepid astronauts, George and Freddy, are visited by Monica, the lady inspector from the Ministry. Her official mission is to report on whether the station is providing the British taxpayer with value for money, but in addition she has been secretly charged with sabotaging the station to force its abandonment and bring the whole project to an end.

George is a "right-stuff" astronaut with a childish sense of humour and the view that anyone with a pretty face and a skirt is fair game. Ask him what space means, and he'll tell you in no uncertain terms. If Freddy, his sober scientist colleague, has answers, they are sure to be different ones. But thank goodness that in matters of space politics, at least one of the astronauts has his feet on the ground. And that's certainly where Monica wishes she was when she arrives at the station. Her shrill, critical manner hides a deep sense of insecurity at finding herself whirling through space on a flimsy contraption whose every jitter threatens her with a fiery or an icy death.

What can go wrong on a space station? Plenty, as we saw with the Russian Mir station. Fire in such a confined space could be devastating; a broken giro or mismanagement of the batteries could cut off the power supply; an error when docking a spacecraft to the station could lead to a crash and the sudden loss of the last precious lungful of air to empty space. All these mishaps enlivened the story of Mir in its later years, and all are reproduced, for the amusement and edification of a terrestrial audience, in the adventures of the Newton Space Station.

Supporting -- or hindering -- our space voyagers are three Earthbound characters, making a total of six acting roles. Professor Juneaux is the chief designer of the station and mission director. Embittered by a broken marriage and the hostility of his colleagues, he still strives after the idealistic visions of his youth. Charmaine is the cheerful astronaut at Mission Control. And Sir William Broadthymble is Juneaux's arch-enemy, the man who would destroy the station and all it represents if only he could. Yet even Sir William has a point of view which should command our respect, if not sympathy.

Most of the play is set on board the station. For the rest, a curtain is used to hide the main set, allowing dream scenes and flashbacks to earlier events on terra firma to be presented on the forestage with minimal effort.

A number of special effects are required, together with a cluttered high-tech main set. The effects include smoke and flames, the use of fire extinguishers on stage, various sound effects such as a rocket launching, and a live two-way audio and video link between the onstage control panel and an offstage Mission Control.

A rehearsed reading of the play was presented in October 2001, in an Oxford pub, organised by the Oxford Theatre Guild (Oxford's largest non-professional theatrical society).

Why might a professional theatre company be interested?

The revolution in space exploration and astronomy is the great adventure of our age. We are witnessing the creation of a civilisation of such wealth, power, confidence and expanded consciousness as has never existed before -- and at the same time the growing-pains are hurting more than at any other period in history.

One would have thought that every writer would want to reflect this in his work, but, in the theatre at least, space-themed plays have been as rare as eclipses. I know of two.

In 1995 a play commissioned by the Royal National Theatre and described as "an imaginative investigation of the experience of space" was premiered at the Cottesloe Theatre. This play, Paul Godfrey's The Blue Ball, was remarkable, given its supposed subject matter, for being set entirely on the surface of Earth. As regards the serious questions which spaceflight inevitably raises, the playwright chose to portray characters who asked these questions and other characters who did not know how to answer them, but for reasons of his own chose not to portray any of the characters with strong and strongly conflicting answers which can be found in real life.

Again, in July 2001 the National produced Robert Lepage's The Far Side of the Moon. Despite its technical brilliance and its use of sound and images from space shots of the Apollo era, this play focused on a single individual whose interest in space exploration was conditioned by his unsatisfactory family relationships. The astronaut puppets used were clearly phantoms in the main character's imagination, not characters in their own right.

No Lifeline But Numbers is therefore (to my very incomplete knowledge) the first serious play to portray astronauts in orbit, and the first to present the dramatically conflicting points of view of those who are interested in promoting or halting space exploration.

Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,

18 September 2003 / 33rd Apollo Anniversary Year