The notion of sending astronauts to Mars no longer exists only in the realm of science fiction. In 2023, the question isn’t whether we can send people to Mars; it’s when.
But just because we have the technology to send people to Earth’s big red neighbour doesn’t mean we can do it humanely.
The employees at NASA spend their careers transforming the science fiction dreams of yesterday into today’s reality. NASA won’t send a crew into space without meticulously planning every aspect of the mission. Their engineers are so precise they can account for how the weight of every nut and bolt on a rocket factors into the amount of thrust needed to reach orbit.
However, one thing NASA’s eggheads can’t precisely account for is space travel’s effects on the human spirit.
Director Ido Mizrahy’s new documentary The Longest Goodbye explores the measures being taken to maintain astronauts’ mental health on long-term missions. Mizrahy has crafted a riveting film that is as inspiring as it is insightful.
Most kids go through an “I want to be an astronaut when I grow up” phase. Blame it on a generation who grew up with Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. It doesn’t hurt that society treats current and former astronauts like rock stars. But after watching this doc, it’s clear that fewer kids would hold onto their space fantasies after witnessing the cold, sterile tedium of actual life in space.
Mizrahy’s film makes viewers understand the harsh day-to-day realities of space life. There are the broom closet-like sleeping quarters, lousy food, and having to deal with coworkers in your personal space 24/7. There’s also the journey’s punishing physical toll, like solar radiation and zero gravity wreaking havoc on the human body. But the biggest threat to a space mission is an astronaut’s psychological well-being.
Space missions are high-pressure jobs with actual life-and-death stakes. And the job demands astronauts perform at a high level regardless of their mood and exhaustion. Factor in that these men and women are trapped in tight quarters hurtling through an empty void for months at a time and that’s enough to drive anyone to their breaking point.
The most surprising aspect of The Longest Goodbye is how long it took NASA to properly address space travel’s psychological toll on astronauts. The film blames this delay on NASA’s logical engineers failing to factor in the “squishy” human side of space exploration. We’re introduced to some of the key figures NASA brought on board to address this issue like human factors specialist Dr. Jack Stuster and senior NASA psychologist Dr. Al Holland, who developed the program’s psychological readiness protocols.
One of NASA’s major hurdles was finding ways to get astronauts to open up about the emotional distress they experienced on missions. The problem is that showing signs of emotional instability could get the pilots grounded. Dr. Stuster had the astronauts submit confidential journals that “opened a rare window into the effects of prolonged space isolation.” His research provided the foundation for crucial mental wellness practices.
There’s an enormous emotional cost to leaving the world behind for a space mission. It doesn’t matter if that mission is three months or three years. Mizrahy provides viewers with a real-life case study to humanize the issue.
In 2007, Cady Coleman left her husband and fourth-grade son behind to spend six months on the International Space Station. The film presents clips of teary-eyed Coleman speaking with her family over glitchy video calls. It’s a crucial reminder people can’t simply switch off their personal attachments once they step onto a shuttle. Coleman may give 100% effort to her mission, but she left a pieces of her heart and soul back on Earth.
Staying in touch with loved ones presents a greater challenge the deeper NASA travels into space. The distance between Earth and Mars is so vast that real-time communication is no longer possible. You can’t simply schedule long distance video chats with loved ones. That means the journey to Mars demands innovative mental health practices.
The doc dives into how virtual reality simulations, artificial intelligence companions, and even medically induced hibernation may ease the journey. But when it comes down to it, these measures are distractions more than solutions. Space travelers still must wrestle with the emotional angst of being separated from everything they know and love for years on end.
The Longest Goodbye is an illuminating documentary that challenges pop culture’s vision of space travel. The film is a testament to NASA’s technical ingenuity and a sobering reminder of the actual cost of humanity’s voyage beyond the heavens.
The Longest Goodbye is screening as part of Sundance 2023’s World Cinema Documentary Competition.
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