Friday, June 29, 2007

Space Pioneers Wanted

A curious item from Agence France-Presse, June 19, 2007: the European Space Agency is asking for six volunteers to live in a cramped spacecraft simulator for 17 months to gather information about the psychological stresses of flight to Mars. The volunteers will be sealed in, eat space rations, and communicate with the rest of the human race only by radio.

Perks? All the Internet you want, I’m sure. Upload songs to your iPod, OK. You‘ll also have the exhilarating knowledge that you are furthering humanity’s Destiny in Space and plenty of time to study for a Master’s in astronautics. Drawbacks: No fresh food. No printed books. Harmonica practice may or may not be tolerated by shipmates. Severe limitations on art materials and field sports. No trees, grass, sun, sky, or soil. No walks in the fields of summer—no walks anywhere. No new faces. Just you and five other dedicated Euro-Russian souls sharing 550 cubic meters of space, the equivalent of a 20-by-20 foot room carved up into cubicles.

Certain realisms will be lacking, casting doubt (I would argue) on the relevance of the psychological data gathered: unlike a real space mission, you can opt out whenever you like and all emergencies will be imaginary. Nothing life-threatening can happen, unless the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems, where you’ll be canned, suddenly burns down. On the other hand, since you won’t actually be flying to Mars, you’ll lack the sustaining sense of heroic self-importance that real astronauts would presumably enjoy.

According to Viktor Baranov, a Russian scientist with the project, “the problem is that it is very difficult to find healthy people for this kind of experiment.”

I’ll bet.

Trapped on Earth . . . . . . . . free in space!

What about sex? It depends. As of June, 2007, male applicants for the experiment were outnumbering females almost ten to one. Apparently America isn’t the only place where it’s harder to find women than men who are gung-ho about human
spaceflight. Why?

Maybe men are more socialized from childhood to perceive themselves as empowered or personally extended by machines. (About 80% of pickup-truck buyers are
men.) In any case, it is a fact that millions of people, most of them men, would rather not live on Earth at all. They believe that our only hope for survival and spiritual well-being is for as many of us as possible to go live on Mars, or elsewhere in space, instead.

Putting aside questions about cost and feasibility in favor of questions about fundamental wisdom, I can’t help but think of Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), whose sufferers are passionately convinced that they cannot be happy until a healthy limb, usually a leg, has been amputated. The belief that leaving Earth for a mechanized habitat in space would produce not only personal happiness but global weal, as space-colonization advocates allege, is curiously reminiscent of BIID: an ultimately pathological urge to sever what is integral, to substitute a void for a living connection, to replace the organic with the prosthetic. In the Space-Ho! mindset, as in BIID, radical self-curtailment is perceived not as an option, luxury, or tool but as an existential necessity. Most BIID sufferers, incidentally, are men.

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