Mars on Earth

So I lucked into an advance copy of Stiff author Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Set for publication in August, the book shows us the cosmic lengths to which space agencies must go to replicate off-world conditions here on Earth for the purposes of testing their equipment — and more to the point, the puny, hungry, fragile humans who rely on it to survive in a place nature clearly never meant for us to reach.

I haven’t read any of Roach’s prior books, but it took her about a sentence and a half to seduce me with the humor and sense of wonder she brings to her uncluttered reportage of complex scientific stuff. One chapter talks about an experiment called Mars-500 wherein Moscow’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems locked would-be astronauts in a mockup spacecraft together for 500 days, the span of time required, using current technology, for a manned ship to journey to the Red Planet and back.

The test subjects faced simulations of the various emergencies they might have to cope with on a real Mars mission, but the primary purpose of the experiment was examine the psychological effects of so long an isolation. An similar experiment the IMBP hosted in 1999-2000, using an eight-member, coed, multinational crew, ended early. There was unwanted French-kissing and, in a separate incident, writes Roach, “a fistfight that left the walls spattered with blood.”

Having grown up on Star Trek, I’ve always wanted to believe that space travel will become commonplace and comfortable. The Starship Enterprise, through all its iterations, has always looked more like a funky hotel than a submarine, or the interior of the Skylab Orbital Workshop you can walk through at that National Air and Space Museum.

More plausible-seeming fictional depictions of interstellar travel have the crew hibernating in sleep-capsules for months or years en route to wherever, missing out on enormous chunks of their loved ones’ lives back on Earth. (Plus the sleep-travelers would age at a different rate than their Earthbound friends, on account of both the hibernation and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Right?) That strikes me as the kind of grave, existential, for-the-good-of-the-species sacrifice space travel will always demand. In hibernation you’d at least be be spared the tedium of army-crawling across the cosmos in a can, something I’m guessing — and that the IMBP studies would seem to bear out — not many people could tolerate without cracking up.

2001: A Space Odyssey gave us both models of interstellar travel: Most of the crew en route to Jupiter in that film were asleep, but two astronauts, Dave Bowman and the Other Guy, had to stay up and keep an eye on things, with little to do besides run in (three-dimensional) circles around the command module of the Discovery and play chess with HAL 9000, the ship-governing supercomputer that, you’ll recall, wigged out and killed everyone but Dave. Must be hard to get software updates out there.

I’m skeptical now humanity will ever advance to a point where going anywhere in space doesn’t impose extreme privation on the traveler: chiefly, physical confinement and loneliness. That means that even excluding other factors, like wealth, obviously, I imagine space flight will remain be the sole province of people who have the Right Stuff. (Roach has a fascinating chapter about how Tom Wolfe’s “right stuff” — lightning reflexes, nerves of steel, etc. — is exactly the wrong stuff for a prolonged detail aboard the International Space Station, where getting along with your teammates matters more than physical bravado.)

Anyway, the AP has a story today about IMBP kicking off a new 520-day iteration of the same experiment. This one has an all-male crew, any member of which can walk away at any time, obviously not a survivable option on a real spaceflight. The AP piece notes that the simulation might actually be harder to endure than a real mission, “because the crew won’t experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel.”

That sounds about right. In another chapter of Packing for Mars, Roach writes of the first spacewalk by an American, in June 1965: “There are moments when the mission transcript reads like the transcripts of a 1970s encounter group.” During the 22 minutes Gemini IV astronaut Ed White is out there floating above the Earth, he’s so overtaken by what he sees that he stops speaking to Mission Control for moments at a time. White ignores several orders to return to the ship, until his commander, James McDivitt, has to yell at him over the radio to get him to come back.

Finally maneuvering toward the hatch, White says, “This is the saddest moment of my life.”

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