“Space: The Longest Goodbye” review: A sanity study for Mars… | WORLD
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Space: The Longest Goodbye

DOCUMENTARY | Film ponders how to address astronaut isolation on the first human voyage to Mars


<em>Space: The Longest Goodbye</em>
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PACKING ENOUGH toothpaste won’t be your biggest challenge if NASA selects you as an astronaut for the first human voyage to Mars. According to the new PBS documentary Space: The Longest Goodbye, the three years of isolation travelers to the red planet will experience could lead to serious mental breakdowns and mission failure. In the film, International Space Station (ISS) veterans explain the emotional toll separation from their families had on them, and psychologists and operational experts offer remedies, some of which promote artificial surrogates of questionable efficacy.

Cady Coleman spent six months on the ISS in 2011. Since the space station orbits a mere 250 miles above the Earth, she was able to have real-time communication with her husband and son Jamey, then in fourth grade. Still, Jamey says, “You never know how much you miss a hug from your mom until you don’t have it.” The documentary plays their recorded personal video conversations, and other interviewees question whether their separations were worth it.

Astronaut John Glenn, who died in 2016, recounts how he helped NASA advise the Chilean government in 2010 when 33 miners were trapped underground for more than two months. Once a video communication cable was established through a pipe, “stabilizing the families’ emotions helped stabilize” the trapped miners, Glenn says. All of them got out alive.

Glenn insists Mars astronauts will need to maintain contact with family to survive. But the vast distance involved in a Mars voyage won’t permit real-time communi­cation. Jacquelyn Ford Morie, a “virtual reality pioneer,” recommends that astronauts use a VR headset to engage with avatars of their spouses delivering recorded messages. (Morie didn’t say if spouses and kids should do the same back home.) The film also shows ISS astronauts interacting with CIMON, a floating AI robot head that engages in (rather shallow) small talk. A European Space Agency scientist recommends astronauts undergo medically induced hibernation to save resources, such as—although he didn’t mention it specifically—toothpaste.

Some viewers will be disappointed that the documentary almost entirely neglects to address the technical challenges of a voyage to Mars—the difficulties of getting there and back, as well as routine concerns like doing laundry, providing three years’ worth of water, and handling crew illnesses.

On that last point: University of Texas professor Sukjin Han discusses a 2018 Mars simulation in Hawaii that he commanded. The five-person crew quit the planned eight-month operation less than a week in when one member suffered electric shock and they had to call 911. You can’t do that (or order extra toiletries) 140 million miles from Earth.

Bob Brown

Bob is a movie reviewer for WORLD. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and works as a math professor. Bob resides with his wife, Lisa, and five kids in Bel Air, Md.



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