astronauts

A Trip To Mars: Hollywood Or Hell?

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On November 4th 2011, after 520 days in a sealed containment vessel in Russia, 6 would be astronauts completed their simulated mission to Mars.

The Mars500 study, a collaboration between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Institute for Biomedical Problems was designed to determine the human capacity to cope with a long haul space flight and its physiological and psychological demands. The simulated mission included a launch, a mars landing and a return to earth, allowing the crew to experience every aspect of long range space travel except zero gravity.

mars500-2The crew’s health and mental state were constantly monitored over the 17 months they lived in the cramped confines of their space craft, on its lonely journey through deep space. You can find out more about this amazing mission here:

http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Mars500/

But it begs the question how would a real flight to Mars (or elsewhere) in the Solar System compare with Hollywood’s film representations and what would it be like to be a real astronaut on a mission into deep space?

If we start with APOLLO 13 and the award winning SHADOW OF THE MOON – a documentary based around the highly successful Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s, we can see how early space exploration captured the imagination of (Ron Howard and) a whole generation. From a historical perspective these films show exactly what early space flight was like. With barely enough room to move, in early moon missions the astronauts were jammed together in a claustrophobic metal can for almost a week, with the only compensation being the zero G environment.

The now retired Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS) ushered in the modern era of space travel. The Imax film, SPACE STATION is a fantastic insight into what life in space is like for astronauts, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The ISS has a pressurised atmosphere similar to Earth’s, and an array of work and recreation areas, allowing a crew of 6 to live and work in zero gravity in an area similar to that of a 5 bedroom house.

The Mars500 mission recreated a very similar environment to that of the ISS with roughly the same amount of living space. For the record Cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov currently holds the record of 437 continuous days in space, still well short of the 520 days required for a successful Mars mission.

At least in our lifetime, any real-life journey to Mars wouldn’t differ much from life on the ISS, and to that extent the Hollywood interpretations in MISSION TO MARS or RED PLANET tend to get some aspects of space travel right. Although MISSION TO MARS had a scientific advisor credited in its making, the plot is so poor, the clunky expositional dialogue that dominates the journey to Mars manages to recreate for the audience the painful boredom an astronaut might suffer on a long haul mission.

redplanetRED PLANET on the other hand is quite accurate in its operational portrayal of the mission, featuring everything from a spaceship constructed in earth orbit, a crew of 6, a Mars style cushioned surface landing and the design of the pressure (space) suits. But even then, the most interesting aspect of this film was the on-set brawl between stars Kilmer and Sizemore which almost stopped completion of the film, and which if had happened on a real life Mars excursion would have put the entire mission in similar peril.

Perhaps the two films that best capture the realities of space travel are 2001- A SPACE ODYSSEY and MOON, both of which are intensely realistic in their depiction of life in space. The use of predominantly white sets and silence in both these films emphasise the artificial environs and isolation space crews will experience in the lonely depths of space. This is one of the reasons astronauts are kept busy working and exercising in space, just to combat the tedium.

The other reason for all this activity is to keep their strength up, as muscles waste quickly in the absence of gravity. Both RED PLANET and 2001 include artificial gravity as a feature in their space-craft, and although no one at NASA seems to have a real life solution for this yet, this will be an important adaptation if we are to one day ‘live’ in space. Interestingly the next generation of space travel as depicted in Hollywood films set 50 years in the future like SUNSHINE, EVENT HORIZON and ALIEN all have artificial gravity; perhaps Hollywood knows something the rest of us don’t?

Hollywood is an industry that is very good at helping us ordinary mortals imagine what something special might be like, and these films do a fantastic job of helping us imagine life in space. For all their flaws, they are still worth watching if you are a sci-fi fan, a space enthusiast or even dream of joining the astronaut core.

But for those that just want to bypass reality and don’t mind their science mangled by a journey through hyperspace, Hollywood offers even more. Films like LOST IN SPACE, STAR TREK and STAR WARS, are of course pure fantasy, but all offer the film fan something special to think about.

Will robots, cyborgs and crazy looking aliens all be a normal part of life for the human space farer 1000 years from now? Will leaving Earth never to return be just one of those things you do? And will humans ever live on giant megacity style spacecraft that seem to wander aimlessly around in space waiting for the next combative encounter? The questions are a plenty, but the answers will only come when human endeavour takes us further than we have been before, to places we are yet to travel.

Congratulations to all involved in the Mars500 mission for their role in what history will one day record as humanity’s greatest journey.

Watch FiST Chat 47: Mission To Mars On Earth for more on the Mars-500 experiment.