A Mars space station design by prisoners at HMP Glenochil, winner of a Silver Koestler award in 2018

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Life beyond our planet

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Could humans live on the Moon and Mars? Professor of Astrobiology Charles Cockell is, with the help of prisoners, on a mission to answer how we might survive the extreme and confined conditions of space settlement.

A garden-filled space station, a Martian cookbook and a lunar government system may sound like the stuff of science fiction. However, these are some of the ideas generated as part of a science education programme designed for prisoners by Professor Cockell at the UK Centre for Astrobiology in the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

Space exploration made accessible

A key area of research at the Centre involves the study of life, such as microbial life, in the space environment. For example, in 2016 scientists in the Centre developed technology, specifically bioreactors, that went on to be flown out to the International Space Station in 2019 to gather fundamental data on the growth of microbes in space.

“I wanted to take our knowledge of space exploration and make it available to people who do not normally have the opportunity to take part in these activities,” explains Professor Cockell, who has headed up the Centre since 2010. “I had an idea for some time that prisons were a little like settlements on other planets and this led to the idea that maybe prisoners could make a significant contribution to thinking about space exploration.”

It was this idea that led to the launch of a pilot in four Scottish prisons in 2016 to see if science education for prisoners could be enhanced by focusing on astrobiology. This paved the way for the first full course, known as Life Beyond, being delivered in 2017.

The design of a Mars space station by prisoners taking part in Life Beyond
The Elysium space station design by prisoners taking part in Life Beyond

Today, around 160 prisoners in Scotland are taking part in the four-phase course that runs over several months, in which their experience of long-term confinement and isolation allows them to plan and design space stations. In turn, the course offers them the opportunity to improve their own knowledge and skills.

A design for life in space

“Designing a station for the Moon or Mars can involve engineering, for example designing the station modules, artistic work, for example painting the station, and creative writing, for example we had prisoners write their first email from Mars,” says Professor Cockell. “So in a nutshell, the project benefits literacy, scientific, creative and organisational skills for those who take part. In the process, they make a direct contribution to original ideas for the exploration of space.”

Throughout the Life Beyond course, prisoners work in small groups and share ideas with the other groups taking part. As well as drawing space station concepts, they calculate requirements such as fuel, oxygen and food, and plan theoretical expeditions and experiments. They also consider and discuss the governance and civic responsibilities of a space settlement society.

Some of the participants designs have reached award-winning status. In 2018 one of the groups at Her Majesty’s Prison Glenochil won a prison art charity Silver Koestler Award for their work on a Mars station. The effort the prisoners put in is something that Professor Cockell has noted on his teaching visits to the prisons.

“The designs themselves are highly original,” he continues. “For example, we had one group develop a station for Mars, called Elysium station, that had a giant graphene dome with an oak tree growing underneath it which provides the inhabitants with a type of garden on Mars. This was a beautiful and extraordinary idea.”

Professor Cockell has also been profoundly impressed by the way the prisoners have evolved their concepts: “I think what I found most remarkable was the way in which they went beyond the purely practical engineering ideas of how you live in these extreme environments through to developing stations that really touched on deep human needs that we will have to address in extreme terrestrial environments.”

Taking part in the course has had a major impact on the prisoners involved, both on an education and emotional level, and this is highlighted in the many testimonials they have shared.

One participant said that the course: “helped me with better perseverance, patience and the value of mutual cooperation… This project is a great motivator and it has a very positive psychological effect which may help other people in prison with mental health issues, enhance their mood, improve motivation, and generate optimism as it provides people with a great activity to look forward to.”

A design of a moon base by a prisoner on the Life Beyond course
A design of a moon base by a prisoner on the Life Beyond course

Aspirational learning

Developing stimulating education programmes in prisons is not only beneficial for enhancing learning opportunities for participants, it has also been shown to reduce the chances of individuals returning to prison and enhances social integration after release.

With this in mind key decision makers in the prison education system have been promoting a shift from standard remedial literacy and numeracy courses to more aspirational learning.  Life Beyond has been acknowledged by the Scottish Prison Service as being in line with this thinking.

On reviewing the course, the Head of Learning and Skills at SPS, Jim King, commented that: “The subject matter not only engaged learners but enabled them to imagine other entities and other realities and other possibilities. This helps learners to think more critically, furnishing them with skills to reimagine their own lives, appreciate the necessity and benefits of cooperation, citizenship and human endeavour and how they, as marginalised and often disaffected learners, could and should embrace the opportunities to contribute to the unfolding and flourishing of new knowledge and understanding.”

The cover of Professor Cockell's book Life Beyond – From Prison to Mars
The cover of Professor Cockell’s book Life Beyond – From Prison to Mars

Inspirational impact

The work of the participants has been collated in two books published with the British Interplanetary Society, Life Beyond: From Prison to Mars and Life Beyond: From Prison to the Moon. These have been distributed to major space exploration organisations, such as NASA, ESA, and trainee astronauts at the European Astronaut Centre, to showcase the prisoners’ original research.

“Their work, of course, can never have the detail of a space agency, because prison libraries are quite limited, although we do provide them with books,” says Professor Cockell. “But what they might lose in technical detail is made up for in originality. So we have been able to produce a large quantity of imaginative ideas which other people can use. Above all, Life Beyond has demonstrated that from behind the confines of a prison, prisoners can make a tangible contribution to one of humanity’s greatest ambitions to settle the cosmos.”

Although the pandemic temporarily halted physical teaching within the prisons, Professor Cockell saw an opportunity for participants to continue accessing Life Beyond: “We thought, wouldn’t it be excellent if we could create a distant learning version of the course? So we created those materials in lockdown.”

“We published these materials through the journal Astrobiology and made them available through the Prisoners’ Education Trust,” explains Professor Cockell. “Now any prisoner anywhere in the world can take part in designing settlements for the Moon or Mars by using these materials. We would like to see them picked up by prisons around the world, or any prisoner who’s interested, giving them an opportunity to contribute to this exciting vision of our future. We are currently working with colleagues in Lithuania to explore the use of the materials there.” The course was recently highlighted by Europris, the European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services, as an example of best practice in prison education.

The cover of Professor Cockell's book Life Beyond – From Prison to the Moon
The cover of Life Beyond – From Prison to the Moon

The online offering includes short activities, such as designing a lunar sport or contributing to a lunar and Martian cookbook, and longer activities such as designing a full space station, including thinking about a lunar government and justice system.

A vision of the future

This exciting future is something that Professor Cockell and his team at the Centre continue to move closer towards. Recently, the Centre has been involved with the science team designing the instruments planned for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars rover. In addition, Centre members are on the science teams for the Raman spectroscopy instrument, the CLUPI (Close-Up Imager) and the HABIT instrument designed to study the habitability of the Martian surface.

Professor Cockell is bold and ambitious as he looks ahead to the possibilities for space exploration over the next ten years: “I would like to see the establishment of a station on the Moon and Mars and a significant advance towards establishing a permanent human presence in space, particularly on Mars which is the most Earth-like planet in the solar system. I believe that looking after Earth and settling space should be humanity’s two greatest priorities.”

Images courtesy of Professor Charles Cockell and participants on the Life Beyond course.