what the coronavirus mass quarantine can teach us about space travel

If we're going to explore space, we have to prepare for long periods of isolation and boredom. Can social distancing during this pandemic teach us how to deal with them?
lonely astronaut explorer

Even if you’re an introvert, being under an indefinite mass quarantine isn’t easy. It’s one thing to have options to go out and choosing not to, knowing you can change your mind if you want to see friends or just leave home to get some fresh air. It’s another when leaving home means facing a greater risk of being infected with a completely new pathogen that could kill you or seriously damage your lungs and heart, or worse yet, leave you oblivious to your own exposure while you infect dozens of high risk individuals. This is why while our pets are happy that we’re spending a lot more time at home — well, our dogs anyway — we’re actually starting to get pretty miserable and frustrated on average.

We’re drinking a lot more alcohol, indulging in more marijuana, watching more porn if Pornhub traffic stats are any indication, and are either developing or exacerbating mental disorders. Like the tigers in Joe Exotic’s zoo, we’re going stir crazy and starting to get unhealthy and aggressive while our supposed caretakers seem to think of us as nothing more than revenue streams and have no problem sacrificing those of us they no longer deem profitable. It’s little wonder some of us are now lashing out with a bad case of cabin fever on top of a terrifying dose of social and mass media-assisted conspiratorial thinking. And while all of this is sad and aggravating, it may also be an insight into another challenge of the future.

getting the worst of the astronaut experience

When reading these disturbing metrics in my finest quarantine couture sweatpants and hoodie and rocking my social distancing beard, something clicked in the back of my mind. It was as if I’ve seen similar conditions described elsewhere. Turns out, similar concerns were raised after studies simulating long trips to Mars, which found that forced confinement resulted in a disrupted circadian rhythm, boredom, lethargy, aggression, depression, and personal conflicts as stir-crazy would-be astronauts struggled to cope with their voluntary imprisonment. While you might think the excitement of being in space would make the real thing more bearable, the truth is that it would quickly get dull.

This is why astronaut Scott Kelly is writing tips on how to stay sane in isolation based on his experience of spending a year in orbit. The situation was quite similar, minus the lack of gravity, air, and the radioactive bombardment that will kill you if you step outside, and he could look down on Earth almost any time he wanted. Just imagine what happens when our planet is just a distant bluish dot among thousands glowing faintly in the darkness, you have nowhere to go, a list of daily chores to finish, and nothing more than terabytes of movies, TV shows, and games to pass the rest of the time. If astronauts could drink and smoke weed in orbit, they absolutely would between arguing over hot sauce.

why space exploration will require isolation

Because space is so vast, even spaceships armed with solar sails would take months to reach destinations like Mars, Europa, and Titan with those on board stuck in conditions very much like today’s mass quarantine. We could make things better for large numbers of astronauts if we invested in creating large, luxury space ships resembling rotating space stations and making them capable of interplanetary travel. More personal space would give people the ability to self-isolate to cool off and feel less confined, as well as offer more social and entertainment options, making exploring the solar system more bearable. But of course, all bets would be off for interstellar missions.

Unless we can create a functional warp drive, which is a very big open question, crews being sent to other solar systems would never see Earth again and spend their entire lives in the dark void of space in the equivalent of a floating small town. Their very existence would be a sort of sacrifice and many sci-fi tropes like suspended animation and “warp gates” may be impossible in the real world, so we’d send 10,000 people to die in space so generations of their children could live and die also, all so one day, their descendants can reach a world tens of trillions of kilometers away. And if a disease breaks out or evolves during the trip, the results could be catastrophic, although, thankfully there would be far fewer vectors for this on a spaceship.

how to explore responsibly and sanely

So, one of the big takeaways here is that while there are people like me who promote space exploration as a way out of the incredibly boring, fragile, and exploitative world we’ve set up for ourselves after mastering industrialization, we need to keep in mind that while it would be an adventure, it would require making our own fun and getting really good at entertaining ourselves and each other for months, if not years at a time. Unlike the ships that crossed the oceans again and again during the golden age of exploration, the ports of call will be very few and far between once we venture past the Moon. Being well prepared to handle the mental challenge will be every bit as important as the logistics of the trips themselves.

Knowing when we will arrive will be a great help, as will access to as many comforts of home as possible. It’s also very likely that we’ll modify ourselves to better cope with the journey and be able to do more on arrival to another world. Competent leadership would be another major boost to morale. But if we underestimate the challenge and forget why we’re doing this, we’ll end up with very similar problems to the ones we see with COVID-19 quarantines today, ending up with frustrated, angry crews with a serious case of cabin fever trying to drink, game, and sleep the days away at best, and getting into fights with each other at worst, with serious consequences for the mission.

# space // mental health / space exploration / space travel


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