Space: The Longest Goodbye

The current goal is to send people to Mars within the next decade. That is certainly an ambitious and worthy undertaking. Want to be on that first three-year mission? Perhaps you should watch the Independent Lens documentary Space: The Longest Goodbye before you get too enthusiastic.

Director Ido Mizrahy had planned on making a film about the first crewed mission to Mars, but along the way he met Dr. Al Holland, a senior NASA psychologist. Soon the focus was on the psychological issues that would be involved. While NASA’s engineers know the breaking point of every bolt used in the mission, they know that humans are not quantifiable. But the whole mission will depend upon them.

The first half of the film focuses on the emotional and psychological issues that have been involved with astronauts on the International Space Station for long periods. These people spend months at a time in an isolated and cramped environment. They and their families undergo some difficult times. Even though they have real-time communications, it is often frustrating when technical issues end contact with loved ones. The astronauts we meet who have been on these ISS missions have some fairly mixed feelings about their experiences, and about the potential journey to Mars.

Astronaut Cady Coleman and son speaking while she’s on the space station

On the Mars mission, there will be no real-time contact. The crew will spend the first six months in a vehicle about the size of a motorhome with no windows. There will almost no privacy. How will they deal with issues that crop up? A planned eight month test of what it would be like on Mars lasted only seven days when problems arose.

Various groups are working on trying to find the solutions to anticipated problems. Can they put them into the equivalent of induced comas for the trip? (What will it be like to wake up a billion miles from home to learn of the death of a parent, or spouse, or child?) Can an AI bot with a stick figure face provide comfort and support?

Astronaut Matthias Maurer and CIMON (robotic companion) on the space station

This film is a reminder of the fragility of human experience. The people who go to Mars will not only be going to an unknown physical environment, they will going new and possibly frightening emotional realms as well. It is well to remember that the people who go on these missions (whether to the ISS, the moon, or Mars) are not interchangeable parts. Each has his or her own strengths and weaknesses.

Since the film deals with psychological issues involved in these space programs, it is good to remember that the word “psychology” is based in the Greek work psyche, usually translated “soul.” Anytime we consider these deep-seated emotional and personal issues, it is really about seeing a bit more into the soul and spirit of human experience. A trip to Mars will, in that way, be as much a spiritual experience as a scientific one.

Space: The Longest Goodbye is an Independent Lens episode now available on PBS Passport and airing on local PBS stations May 6. (Check local listings.)

Photos courtesy of Independent Lens.

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