One of the most significant health risks facing humankind is not a physical danger but an emotional one. It’s likely you have all experienced this risk at some point in your life. The risk is loneliness. While it is prevalent in our societies on Earth, nowhere is loneliness more profound than in Space.
Impaired cognitive functioning
Over the past decade researchers have discovered how significant loneliness is and its danger to our overall health. Whether an individual is alone or feels lonely, the effect is the same: Loneliness hurts. Additional feelings often accompany it. Anxiety or depression may be stressful on cognitive functioning, interfering with memory or learning.
The expression, ‘he died of a broken heart,’ can be very real as well. Research has found that loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke. Simply put: Human beings are not wired for feeling or being alone. This problem however, is not just for the earthbound, but is a risk for the space bound.
Preparing for deep space
Currently, the International Space Station is home to a contingent of six astronauts, many of whom are now spending about six months or longer orbiting 248 miles above the planet–not far above earth, but very far from home while orbiting for a long time. While aboard the station astronauts rely on the companionship of crewmates but are still separated from the support of emotional connections of close family and friends back on Earth.
Consider our national space goals of the near future: to establish a presence on the moon by the early 2020’s and human spaceflight to Mars in the mid 2030’s. These goals mean that humans will be away from our home planet longer than ever–almost three years for a round-trip to Mars. Currently when staying in touch with home, astronauts can occasionally make a call with seconds of delay, but for flights at distances and durations of the future, communications could be disrupted by significant delays in real-time communication of up to 24 minutes. The vision of home will take on a new perspective, one no human has yet experienced and can only be imagined: instead of earth at their feel 248 miles below, our blue dot shrinks as the flight continues onward and deeper into space. Resupply missions to offer care packages may be rare if at all. While their journey will be awe-inspiring, it will likely be incredibly isolating too.
A countermeasure that connects them
NASA is seeking new ways to support connections between astronauts and their friends and family on long missions. The research I am conducting, as a graduate student, is leading to an innovation to help this connection. The project is a countermeasure, called Sunspot™, and will bring together human factors needs and technology. This new development will use a robotic (AI) technology in a new way. I look forward to sharing more details of Sunspot with you soon.
For space – for society
It is my hope that the work I will be sharing with you in the months to come will provide support, continuity, and empathy between astronauts and those who are dear to them during long space flights. It will possibly help with the growing problem of isolation in our society.
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.
Humankind is by nature curious, and that curiosity has led us far from home to explore new worlds. Making new discoveries means taking risks, but as Martin Buber says: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Nothing will be truer than our journey to go to Mars. Our exploration to our neighboring planet will lead us to discover not just a new world, but a better understanding of ourselves as well.
Humanity’s long history of exploring began about 70,000 years ago with crossing Earth’s blistering deserts on foot which would be followed later by sailing wooden ships across uncharted seas which would be known as the Age of Exploration. Names like Columbus and Magellan, Vespucci and de Sota, are engrained in our collective consciousness as the pioneers of discovery. But the most remarkable pace of exploration has actually taken place in just the past 114 years. In 1903, near wind-swept cliffs, the Wright Brothers invention of powered flight lifted us skyward for the first time and opened new possibilities of exploration. And a short 56 years ago we escaped from Earth’s firm grip of gravity to take our first human steps into space. Who could imagine that 66 years from the Wright Flyer’s historic flight that a man would be walking on the Moon? This span of time seems so small to have accomplished so much. And now, our next exploration will take us even further, to our neighboring planet, Mars.
A Promise of a New World
Historians tell us that our exploring is inspired by one or more of the three “G’s”: gold, glory, or god.
Gold is in the stars. Exploring space has certainly provided gold in the form of the many benefits it offers to help people on Earth live healthier, more productive lives with new therapeutics and materials developed only in zero-gravity.
The glory of space is best illustrated by the pictures of the international endeavors conducted on the International Space Station. From the ISS orbit over 220 miles about the earth the astronauts aboard send us pictures of the delicate beauty of our small blue planet from the Cupola window of the Space Station showing both what world wide cooperation can accomplish while putting our place in this Universe into perspective.
Finally, there is the ‘god’ inspiration, where we want to know how it all began. The genesis for it all is the Big Bang that created the “star stuff” of which we are made, including nitrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, some of the most common elements found in the cosmos. For some, we are inspired by how we all got started and, as Einstein said, to keep understanding the ‘thoughts of God’) which could be the key to all future discoveries.
As product of our universe and one with conscious thinking, our destiny to be explorers of our world is more than understandable it is built into our DNA. It is no wonder that we want to discover more about how our universe began, if we can live on other worlds, and where we could go from there. The three G’s have inspired us for a long time and there seems to be no end to our interest to explore.
Now that reaching Mars is possible, it seems that our nation is also ready for this next big adventure. A recent Boeing-sponsored opinion poll found that 71% of Americans believe we will land humans on Mars by the year 2033. When we look back at the landmarks of space exploration, from the Sputnik satellite launch in 1957 to that historic moonwalk 12 years later, it makes you wonder how much can be accomplished in those 16 years till 2033.
I’m excited to update you on the project I’ve been leading this past year. I’m proud to say that on March 22nd Gravity Games hitched a ride on a rocket from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station (ISS)!
As many of you may know I created Gravity Games for Made In Space, developer of the latest zero gravity 3D printing technology on the ISS. Gravity Games is a new way for students to innovate and build a playable game for zero gravity! These student design teams created the first hand-held game to be 3D printed in space by the astronauts on the Space Station.
The students of this new project embraced the challenge and I watched their imaginations soar. They took on the challenges of design limitations and gained a better understanding of the life of an astronaut on the ISS. I could not have been more proud of them as we watched and cheered the launch online when the Orbital ATK rocket lifted off, carrying their creation into space.
Gravity Games has been invited to present our program at the annual ISS Research and Development Conference this summer in San Diego. NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space will consider Gravity Games as a new space creation challenge to help inspire innovation for many other future students.
Leading Gravity Games has been a unique opportunity to share my passion for the sky and space with our future leaders and inventors.
The Space Games Challenge, a watershed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program has been created as a pre-college students space dream where students game inventions will be printed on a Made In Space, Inc. zero-gravity 3-D printer aboard the International Space Station (ISS), then ‘played’ by ISS astronauts.
In late 2015, Made In Space deployed their additive manufacturing zero-gravity printer aboard the ISS as a first step towards the future of manufacturing off-Earth construction in space. The printer currently provides ISS astronauts the ability to produce replacement parts and tools in a zero-gravity environment. The Space Games Challenge inspires students to hone STEM skills in a practical, motivating, and fun program to produce a hand-held game to be played by astronauts in zero-gravity. The pilot test and first Space Game design, called ‘Star Catcher, will be delivered to the Station aboard the Orbital ATK’s Saturn V rocket to be launched from Cape Canaveral on March 22.
“Guiding a brilliant, creative group of students to work with Made In Space to produce tools to address camaraderie on long-duration space flight, both motivates STEM participation and exposes students to a critical dimension of future human space travel,” says Space Games Challenge creator and author, MJ Marggraff.
Current data forecasts a critical shortage of one million STEM college graduate students by 2022. The Space Games Challenge is a partnership between Made In Space and the International Space Station, combining unique, engaging challenges to STEM-interested students, and designed to enhance curiosity and increase STEM retention with practical and exciting applications. This pilot is a template to engage future students in STEM for space.
“The brainstorming and effort that goes into developing a Space Game is similar to the work that goes into creating more essential items,” says high-school junior, Ray Altenberg, co-captain of Space Games, from Campolindo High School in Moraga, California. “Our goal is to come up with something that would remain interesting for astronauts on, say, a trip to Mars, which would take two to four years. The idea that we can design a game, send a file, and have the game printed in zero gravity, millions of miles away, is pretty fantastic.”
MJ Marggraff is the creator of Space Games, and leading the first team of students to produce the world’s – or space’s – first zero-gravity Made In Space game. MJ is also a pilot and an author, with a soon-to-be-released book, “Finding The Wow”, Avail. May 4, from Amazon books.
‘Teamwork makes the dream work in spaceflight”, said astronaut Mark Kelly, who learned this from someone smart. “And spaceflight is the biggest team sport there is,” he added. Mark’s long ride has also brought us closer to the dream of long duration space flight.
As Kelly completed his year in space aboard the International Space Station, orbiting at 250 miles high, from March of last year to March of this year, we can be sure that he will be asked for more wisdom like this—our man of longest spaceflight travel—to show us what it will take to make such flights possible. The data from Mark is invaluable and we owe him our gratitude for his contribution and sacrifice.
One thing we know, astronauts have their humorous side too, as seen in this ‘gorilla in space’ caper:
Putting ourselves in Mark’s place, let’s look at his daily environment. The Station is a collection of modules and solar arrays and is, overall, the size of a football stadium. The narrow working quarters, and even smaller sleeping rooms, require that you would see and interact with the other astronauts. There are usually six on board. Their daily schedule includes lists of experiments that are best done in zero gravity.
Recall a similar condition when you went away, although not as far apart from home as Mark. Was it summer camp? To college, a new job, or relationship? How did you make it work with others in your new environment?
How would you make spaceflight survivable for you?
What would you take along on a long ride into space?
Let me hear from you! Your answers could influence what we need to consider when packing for Mars!