Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Astronaut

February 1st, 2010 · 2 Comments

About a decade ago, we had the privilege of spending some time out on Greenland’s ice sheet, in the company of the Air National Guard unit responsible for keeping polar scientists stocked with food and medicine. Much of that trip is a blur, due to the fact that we lost innumerable brain cells due to both frostbite and schnapps, but we do have vivid memories of the jocular scientists, who spent six months at a time living in tents out on the ice. It was an unbelievably harsh existence, yet one that didn’t seem to faze them in the least. I came away mightily impressed by their psychological fortitude.

But as detailed in this great Men’s Journal piece, not every egghead assigned to the planet’s most frigid climes is able to endure the isolation. The article looks at the mysterious death of one such scientist, and pays close attention to how such men and women are selected for their duties in the first place:

The physical screening is rigorous — it’s often said that everyone handed a winter contract has perfect wisdom teeth, and some bases won’t even consider you if you have an appendix — but psychological screening is far less straightforward. Through a series of tests and interviews, the NSF tries to hire people with a rare and delicate balance of good social skills and an antisocial disposition — basically, loners with very long fuses.

Some of the first behavioral studies on the South Pole winterover were launched after the sudden onset of schizophrenia in a construction worker in 1957. He had to be sedated and quarantined for almost an entire winter. Lore has it he was put in an improvised mental ward — a specially built room padded with mattresses. Because incidents like these can spiral out of control quickly this far from civilization, putting entire crews at risk, NASA saw a South Pole winter deployment as an interesting analogue to long stays in space.

That last point is key, because we’re deeply skeptical of NASA’s current efforts to develop long-term hibernation for space travel. We can’t foresee such technology being in place before we’re ready to visit Mars, for example, or perhaps establish some sort of permanent lunar research outpost. That means we’ll have to be very, very particular about picking who to dispatch on those missions, lest they turn mentally unstable or murderous (or both). That, of course, is easier said than done—the current screening process obviously has some flaws, though flaws that may never be excised due to the complexity of the human psyche.

Perhaps the solution isn’t to spend so much time and effort on developing hibernation technologies, but rather to devote ourselves to formulating diversions that can make the time pass quickly. Perhaps David Foster Wallace was on to something when he concocted the idea of “The Entertainment.”


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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Russia is going to be starting their test to see if people can survive a year plus in cramped conditions. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how that shakes out. Though these people will have it easy. Getting by without gravity for that long won’t be a walk in the park.


  • omellet

    Let’s hope that whatever Entertainment we come up with isn’t fatally awesome.