MJ MARGGRAFF

According to NASA administrator Robert M Lightfoot Jr., Mars remains the next great goal in space exploration. At a conference in Dublin, Lightfoot went on to say that “Right now we’re working on trying to get there in the 2030s, with crew. We’re building off what we’re doing in the International Space Station – we’re using that to do research on humans and the technologies we’ll need to go further into space.” Going further into space has some clear physical and technical challenges but more subtle ones exist that require a more emotional solution.

A trip to Mars and back can take as many as 1,000 days. Due to the great distance of approximately 40 million miles separating Earth and Mars, real-time communication will be difficult resulting in 20 minute delays. While twenty minutes might not seem like a great deal of time, when you’re having a conversation and waiting almost half an hour for each reply it could be excruciatingly frustrating. The difficulties in being apart from all that is loved and familiar on Earth for that long and that far away is only one aspect to this isolation astronauts will encounter on this long voyage. For humankind is a social species, and evidence shows we are least at ease when isolated, especially for extended time, away from the people who we care about and who most care about us. Even the most capable and space-worthy astronauts will miss their friends and family on Earth. Keeping connected to friends and family can be as valuable as Oxygen after so many years away from those they love. To empathize with the plight of loneliness these travelers will experience and try to find a solution for this experience is vital to their success in space exploration.

To help provide our future astronauts with a way to buffer the effects of isolation, I am working on a way to help connect astronauts on long-duration spaceflights with their friends and family on Earth. Through my studies as a graduate student at USC, I’ve conceptualized an answer to this problem and one that I’m hoping to develop in the coming months and years. The project is called ‘Aerobot’, and it holds great promise to address and mitigate the problem of isolation in space while also addressing the growing number of people who feel isolated here on Earth. More information about Aerobot, its taxonomy and capabilities, will be coming in future blogs. For now, I am excited to share with you that each day working on this project gives me great meaning and purpose. It’s as deeply inspiring as flying. It’s almost as important as my family, which is perhaps why I understand the need for developing a connection for the astronauts to their own family.

When the astronauts go to Mars and return, we will demonstrate our capacity to care about them. And when in the universe, they will have what they need to succeed knowing that we have not forgotten that, for all the discoveries they will make in the name of humankind, they are humans on a difficult journey. It will be a defining journey for us all.

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