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Space oddity

SCIENCE / Unraveling NASA's mission to Mars and the psychological toll it entails in a poignant reflection on space travel and human spirit.

This carefully constructed science documentary about NASA’s preparations to send astronauts to Mars, which premiered at the Sundance and was later shown by all major documentary festivals, screened its Italian Premiere at Visions of the World in Milan this month. The vision this film promotes is particular and surprising in more than one way. Still, the most outstanding is its attentive analysis of the closeness that connects the vision of outer space and the human soul, like two sides of the Moebius band. The outside and the inside, the infinitely far and infinitely close. A poetic, almost transcendental view that is well balanced by the director Ido Mizrahy’s dry, down-to-earth documentarist approach.

The Longest Goodbye Ido Mizrahy
The Longest Goodbye, a film by Ido Mizrahy

The cyborg

The need to help humans survive in new and unknown conditions has been why, in the past, research into space travel enhanced the knowledge about humans. The idea of the cyborg as a combination of organism and mechanism, and in a broader sense of human nature that has been socially constructed, has been developed during the preparations for the travel to the Moon. The notion of a cyborg became the key notion of the critical feminist theory and its postulate that social roles are assigned to biological humans as soon as we are born into this world. This view of the cyborg has been made particularly well known in the writings of Donna J. Haraway and what she called «the reinvention of nature». Its basis was the idea of cyborg as the unity of organism and mechanism, resulting from the attempts to develop scientific and technological means to support astronauts during space travel. The Longest Goodbye shows that, to a significant degree, these attempts have persevered to this day and are crucial for the contemporary preparations for the travel to Mars.

Like miners trapped underground

The film’s main protagonist is Dr. Al Holland, a psychologist who leads the NASA group responsible for providing psychological support to astronauts since its formation in 1994. The film follows with great attention his presentation of the idea that a «prolonged separation from Earth remains one of the biggest threats to a mission to Mars». Considering that travel to Mars is expected to last three years, a great part of the challenge stems from the isolation’s duration. Dr. Holland developed a set of measures to counter it, starting with the selection of the potential candidates to complete the mission. For example, he chose Kayla Barron as one of 18 astronauts for the Artemis Programme, which aims to send humans to the Moon and then on to Mars because of the nature of her relationship with her husband, Tom. Through the interviews about their past decisions and future expectations, Mizrahy reveals their relationship as solid, based on trust and mutual respect.

NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars in the next decade. The most elusive difficulties at the moment are not the physical but the psychological ones. Mizrahy places a very strong emphasis on this – from one of Dr Holland’s fellow experts’ observations about the «engineering culture» of NASA that would «prefer not to have humans involved» to the practical example of the use of NASA psychological research during the 2010 mining accident in Copiapó in Chile, when dr. Holland provided help to the 33 miners who were trapped 700 meters underground to survive the 69-day-long isolation.

The Longest Goodbye Ido Mizrahy
The Longest Goodbye, a film by Ido Mizrahy

The paradox

Nevertheless, to claim that psychological problems related to NASA’s plans to send astronauts to Mars can be resolved on a psychological plane alone would be rather paradoxical. Particularly considering the notion of cyborg and, in general, the history and nature of space travel. The solutions might not be known yet, but the longing for human touch and contact with the Earth during the astronauts’ 3 years-long isolation will have to be satisfied through contemporary technology. The experience of the former astronaut Cady Coleman, who spent 159 days in space aboard the space shuttle Columbia and the International Space Station, is good proof of that. Seeing her now adult son Jamey recalling, with pride in his voice, how it felt to watch his mother being launched into space is one of the most touching moments of the documentary. But included is also the material from Coleman’s family archives, and there we can see the family members communicating through a computer screen during her stay in space.

Because of the distance, real-time communication will not be possible during the mission to Mars, yet other technologies are available. The head-shaped AI robot used in the International Space Station CIMON (or Crew Interactive MObile CompanioN), for example, mainly aims to help astronauts manage tasks during long-term missions but might also serve as a tool for isolation and anxiety relief.

The most obvious reason for the theory of cyborg as the reinvention of nature – that only white men were selected to travel to the Moon – has been made obsolete. The Longest Goodbye leaves no doubt there will be a woman among the astronauts travelling to Mars. But what about others? Is the essential need for a family not another culturally invented feature of human nature? The Longest Goodbye, a model scientific documentary, treats its subject clearly and transparently. Leaving for some other occasion the question, how come humans so easily identify with the stereotypical notions of themselves that already seemed outdated once, again and again?

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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