What If Our Spaceships Can Make It, But Our People Can’t?

October 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

Matt Damon. Need I say more? Some say that love is moving past physical attraction and toward a gradual love of the person’s personality and quirks. I sat in my movie seat smiling when he smiled, laughing when he laughed, and really worrying for him when his potatoes froze. The Martian might as well be a love story up there with The Notebook and Titanic. I wouldn’t mind living on Mars if it were with him.

Ahem. Anyways. Once I overcame my beating heart, my brain finally got enough blood to do some actual thinking and processing. I heard prior to seeing the film that producers collaborated with NASA to make the film more realistic, and with that in mind, I spent the movie scrupulously analyzing and critiquing every little detail. Was Mars’ atmosphere really thin enough for Mr. Damon to cover the nose of his ship with a tarp and blast off the planet? Could the soil on Mars, when enhanced with a few human contributions, really support plant growth? Could Mars have such violent storms if it has a thin atmosphere?

And then it hit me. Say all of the scientific plot points were plausible and accurate with sufficient scientific developments. Say everything I doubted, questioned, and critiqued was suddenly true without a scientific doubt. Would Matt Damon’s character have the psychological health and mental endurance to thrive through such an ordeal?

Researchers with Georgetown University, among other research facilities, have investigated that concern and found that a combination of alienation from relationships on Earth, cultural differences, language barriers, differences in personal values, restriction to small facilities on the space crafts, and other physiologically influential variables can lead to the gradual physiological deterioration of those onboard. And in a series of studies conducted by both government and independent space exploration organizations, researchers often found negative consequences of long-term space travel, including suicidal thoughts and tendencies, decreased group cohesion, sleep disorders, irritability, and changes in appetite.

So what does all of this mean for Mars and the future of long-term space exploration? It means that human development may not keep up with scientific development. I say “may” because, for all I know, there could be incredible advances in psychology and medicine that overcome the negative consequences of extended space exploration. But from where we stand right now, Matt Damon probably wouldn’t be so positive and clear minded being stranded on Mars.

And for our relationship’s sake, I really hope science can figure a way around human psychology. I can’t spend my life with a negative and depressed person, so I guess time will tell if we make it or not. I mean that both in marrying Matt Damon and society making it to Mars without killing each other.

– S. Jamison

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§ 3 Responses to What If Our Spaceships Can Make It, But Our People Can’t?

  • Demosthenes says:

    I really enjoy the tone and the humor with which you write! When talking about movies like The Martian, I was always so focused on the science behind it (“Could that really happen in real life?”) that I never actually stopped to think about how traveling in space affected how we were feeling, what our mental state was, etc. Matt Damon’s character seemed to be so likable because no matter what obstacle he was presented with, he was always able to plunge head-first into looking for a solution, while cracking some jokes along the way. However, this makes me wonder how our current astronauts would react when put into the same situation that Matt Damon’s character was. I know that I would have panicked immediately and lost hope for survival. Your blog post brings up a very interesting point: what good is it to have the technology if our human psychology is not yet adequate to cope with the changes that it brings?

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  • This is a really interesting concept. I wrote a blog post a while ago about the year in space experiment that NASA is doing. This is actually one of the things that they’re testing for. They think a journey to Mars will take approximately a year or so, hence the length of the experiment. And they’re trying to determine the psychological effects of being isolated for such a long time. I honestly think that while it’s true that some people might not be able to handle such a mission, there are definitely people with the strength of mind to do it. That’s why NASA has to be so selective in choosing whom to send to Mars, or even the ISS for that matter.

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    • sarahmjamison says:

      I think one of the problems with the studies currently being conducted, though, is that the conditions are not necessarily representative of what the actual mission would be like. What I mean to say is that, it has been long proven that the ISS is “safe” in the sense that countries have been successfully sending astronauts to the ISS and it is a proven concept that the ISS is capable of longterm survival.
      The difference with sending astronauts to Mars is that it is not yet a proven concept. It is difficult to understand how the astronauts would actually react in a situation that the travel is inherently more dangerous and there is not yet a stable structure on Mars in which to live in. There is a greater risk that would undoubtably put more pressure and stress on the astronauts chosen for the mission.
      You could reasonably counter that astronauts have been put under considerable stress before when they were the first to do something, such as orbit the earth, land on the moon, etc. But deep down I somehow separate space travel to Mars as an entirely separate category of space exploration. In my mind, landing on the moon was like playing Call of Duty on the “Recruit” difficulty and landing on Mars playing on the “Veteran” difficulty. I feel like the stress the astronauts would feel being the first to attempt a mission to Mars would be unprecedented, and therefor almost unsurmountable.

      But, thank you for your comment. I love being challenged with an alternate view because it generates interesting debate and conversation.

      – S. Jamison

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