Monday, May 06, 2024

Independent Lens: Space, the Longest Goodbye

The original Mercury 7 astronauts were test pilots, because they were expected to go up and come back down, while somehow holding their spacecrafts together. In science fiction, crew and passengers often spends millennia in suspended animation as they travel to distant galaxies. The three-year trip to Mars and back will be something in between, without the means to communicate with family back on Earth. It is a peculiar challenge that the psychologists and “human factors” specialists at NASA are trying to prepare for in Ido Mizrahy’s documentary Space: The Longest Goodbye, which airs tomorrow on PBS, as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

It is sort of hard to believe, but they did not really have people doing what Dr. Al Holland does at NASA, until he started his department in 1994. Of course, the hard-partying “Right Stuff” generation had their own ways of dealing with stress (read Tom Wolfe). There was also a deep institutional fear of confiding personal information that could potentially get astronauts scrubbed from future missions. However, Holland and his colleagues slowly gained their trust, after showing a need for their feedback, to help prepare future astronauts for longer and longer deployments on the International Space Station (ISS).

Mizrahy and Holland certainly diagnose potential problems, using the experiences of former astronaut Cady Coleman, her husband, and their son as a case-study. Hopefully, current astronaut and potential Mars crewmember Kayla Barron can benefit. The Naval Academy grad and her Army vet husband managed her 176 days in space, but they realize it will get more complicated when they have children.

Although it is still considered the stuff of science fiction, some form of deep sleep is duly considered as a method of combatting loneliness and isolation (along with virtual reality). However, Dr. Holland worries about the shock of waking up to three years of elapsed history. For instance, imagine how jarring it would be to suddenly learn the Mets won the World Series?

Viewers can learn a lot from
Longest Goodbye. It certainly instills a greater appreciation for the sacrifices astronauts make. However, the pacing feels a bit languid. Frankly, Ramachandra Borcar’s politely ambient score arguably does the film a disservice. It might feel like a good match to the celestial visuals, but it has a lulling effect. Some stronger, more emotionally resonant melodies would have better sharpened viewers’ focus.

Regardless, Mizrahy and company thoroughly explain the psychological challenges of a Mars mission and the research underway to help astronauts cope. Incidentally, it provides a timely reminder of the Russian anti-satellite missile tests, which produced space debris that put the entire ISS at risk, including the Russian cosmonauts on-board. Can you imagine the resulting outrage from Russia and its puppets, if America did anything to endanger the ISS’s crew? Why does the Western media essentially accept this double standard?

Frankly, we need to think of more contingencies to protect our astronauts from both Russia and loneliness. Mizrahy focuses on the latter, hopefully planting a seed for further consideration. Respectfully recommended for space exploration boosters,
Space: The Longest Goodbye premieres this Tuesday (5/7) on most PBS stations.