In Space, No One Can Hear You Compartmentalize


Author: Douglas Vakoch

Douglas Vakoch is the President of METI International 

Teaser: Rage, father-son conflict, and a distant husband launch Ad Astra, a science fiction action film.

The further we travel into outer space, the more we realize our most important connections are down here on Earth. That’s the message of Ad Astra, a science fiction action movie that doubles as a psychological study of deep space exploration and complex intimate relationships.


Astronaut Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is filled with rage. But he may not realize it. Roy is so in control of himself that his pulse never goes above 80, even as he’s plummeting to what would be sure death for a less capable pilot. The rage is directed toward his father, Dr. Clifford McBride, who abandoned Roy to become the first astronaut to travel to Jupiter. And Saturn. And Neptune … where he led the world’s most ambitious project to Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), wherever such intelligence is located, anywhere in the universe. In short, no pressure on Roy to live up to his absent father’s reputation.

Or so it seems to Roy, who is very good at compartmentalizing. Even when he’s chosen for a secret mission to save the Earth from anti-matter surges that seem to be coming directly from Neptune. Surges that may be evidence that Dr. McBride is alive and responsible, thirty years after he and his entire crew went silent and were presumed dead.


From Earth’s Orbit, to the Moon, and Beyond

To date, no astronaut has ever traveled any farther away from Earth than our own Moon. We’ve sent robotic probes to explore nearby planets as well as planets in the outer solar system, but no human has come even close to orbiting another planet, let alone taking a step onto its surface.

To travel to another planet is a completely different beast than puttering around the Earth—Moon dyad. So far, astronauts have always been able to look back on their home world, a slowly rotating orb of seas and continents when viewed from Earth’s orbit—or a fragile blue marble floating in the blackness of space when seen from the Moon. When astronauts can see with their own eyes the glorious world that holds all that they love, that connection provides a sense of stability and reassurance, a vivid reminder of everything that the astronauts will return to after their mission is over.

Astronauts are separated from family back on Earth, but even as far away as the Moon, phone calls and Skype chats can be scheduled, with no more than a couple seconds of delay as the radio signals travel 250,000 miles in each direction. Conversations from Earth orbit are seemingly instantaneous, like a typical international call any of us could make.

In a voyage to another planet, the conveniences of proximity disappear. The orb of the Earth is soon invisible to the naked eye, and by the time you get to Mars, any roundtrip exchange between the spacefaring astronaut and a spouse or child back on Earth will have a time delay of up to 40 minutes. Gone are the interactive chats, which are replaced by emails and prerecorded videos. A back-and-forth exchange with an astronaut in Neptune’s vicinity would take over eight hours, even with the message traveling at the speed of light.

With increased distance comes increased autonomy. In lunar orbit, astronauts can seek advice from Mission Control, even in an emergency. On another planet, astronauts will have to make the most time critical decisions on their own. Still dependent on Earth for supplies and support, astronauts on other planets will still need to coordinate their activities with the space agencies that sponsored their missions.

Perhaps the most unrealistic detail of human adaption to space in Ad Astra was the depiction of a spacecraft’s captain as flustered when his cabin was breached, paralyzed into inaction, continually asking Mission Control for guidance on what to do next. Any commander headed to Neptune will be forced to make split-second decisions with no outside advice. We already expect as much from any licensed airplane pilot. Surely deep space astronauts will be trained to act on their own.

We most clearly see the psychological impact of long-duration missions on Roy’s relationships. Or lack of relationships. As he compartmentalizes his feelings, uncertain whether he’ll return from his next mission, he detaches from his wife Eve (Liv Tyler). Her periodic video messages in the midst of his missions don’t bring him solace, but instead provide a reminder of their emotional distance from one another. It’s not until he has accomplished his mission at Neptune, and he is on his way back to Earth, that he can overcome his regret at not being available for Eve and admit to himself, “I look forward to the day my solitude ends, and I am home.”


Coping in Space

As astronauts raced to the Moon in the 1960s, they were dauntless heroes with the Right Stuff, courageously heading into an unforgiving environment. These former fighter pilots were trained to focus on the task at hand, and when missions lasted mere hours or days, these men could endure the most stressing conditions by toughing it out. Mercury missions featured a solo explorer, Gemini had twin astronauts, and Apollo held a three-man crew. All needed to coordinate their actions with Mission Control back on Earth, which was never more than a couple seconds away by radio communications, except for infrequent but always planned radio blackouts while passing behind the Moon or re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. The astronauts where the only people physically in those spacecraft, but they were connected to a vast technical and administrative support system on Earth, cheered on by an entire nation.

Ad Astra gives us a preview of the New Right Stuff that future astronauts will need as they travel to the Red Planet and beyond.

With Earth beyond the visual range of deep space explorers, we can expect spaceship designers to find ways to bring reminders of our planet’s natural environment with them—perhaps even in the form of video screens showing sights and sounds of Earth, as in Ad Astra.

Psychological evaluations can provide mission-critical feedback for astronauts, but they can also threaten the careers of spacefarers. We saw what happened the one time that Roy failed his psych evaluation—he lost his security clearance. Today’s astronauts are afraid to acknowledge the stresses of space, for fear they’ll lose their flight status.

Historically, Russians cosmonauts have been more open than American astronauts about the stresses of human spaceflight. In both countries, the earliest spacefarers were turned into heroes, but in the American version, there was no room in the Right Stuff for vulnerability.

NASA’s standard practice is to have a dedicated psychologist that astronauts can consult during missions, without fear that their problems will be shared with others. That’s a completely different approach from the Big Brother surveillance of Ad Astra, with physiological monitors working in parallel with astronauts’ self-reports of how they’re coping.

Another way to deal with the stresses of space without threatening an astronaut’s career is to give each astronaut an interactive computer program, kept on an individual thumb drive, so astronauts can review tutorials on dealing with interpersonal conflict and depression, without anyone back on Earth being any wiser. The more that astronauts can be assured that they have a modicum of privacy, the more they can be open with themselves about the psychological challenges they face. Without this escape valve, the natural alternative is to submerge their emotions, as Roy did with his rage—hiding it even from himself.

Ironically, the most ambitious future missions may provide the greatest freedom to acknowledge the psychological challenges of outer space. In Ad Astra, Dr. McBride was the first astronaut to go to each of three planets in the outer solar system. In reality, any of those journeys would likely be a career-defining mission, and he would never go to the other two planets, just as none of the Apollo astronauts ever headed on to Mars. The final big mission in an astronaut’s career might provide the room to acknowledge publicly just how challenging the microgravity of space really is, because the astronaut wouldn’t need to worry about qualifying for future missions.


Avoiding Interference

The greatest obstacle to detecting radio signals from extraterrestrials is the accidental leakage radiation emitted by transmitters on Earth and by spacecraft orbiting Earth. You can avoid this interference by moving away from it, but does it make sense to conduct a SETI search from as far away as the outer solar system?

Scientists have seriously proposed the creation of a protected zone on the far side of the Moon as a sanctuary from terrestrial interference, creating a radiation-free site for a lunar SETI observatory. Greater distance from Earth can provide protection from TV and radio signals generated down here, but it’s also more expensive to schlep the building materials into orbit. Unless telescopes are made from materials mined on the Moon, the price tag could be prohibitive, and even with the advent of space mining, it wouldn’t be cheap.

As the decades pass, our telecommunications on Earth will increasingly rely on fiber optic cables and narrowly targeted transmissions from space satellites. As a result, interfering radiation will continue to disappear, and our planet will become more radio silent.

Do we gain anything by conducting SETI from as far away as Neptune? The Earth orbits the Sun at a distance we call the Astronomical Unit (AU). Neptune is 30 AU from the Sun—thirty times the distance between the Earth and Sun.

It’s not until you can travel out to 550 AU that you get just the right distance from the Sun to set up a space telescope that can be used as part a gravitational lens system, using the Sun itself as a massive amplifier, letting us see incredibly faint signals even from other galaxies. But in the fictional world of Ad Astra, such space technology would need to wait for even additional generations.


No One’s Home?

In Ad Astra, astronomers complete their survey for signals from ET, scanning the whole universe. And they discover … nothing. Plenty of planets, for sure, but no signs of intelligent life.

We already have the technological know-how to search the entire galaxy, all the time, for radio signals from other civilizations. We’re only lacking the funding to build and operate the telescopes. It’s an immense leap, though, to go from scanning our own galaxy, the Milky Way, to conducting a comprehensive survey of the entire universe.

In SETI, we have the possibility of discovering aliens as early as tonight. It will take a few days or weeks to confirm the signal and decide we’ve really detected an independently evolved intelligence on another world, but eventually it will be clear if we’ve really discovered extraterrestrial technology in deep space.

But what if we never find anything? Does that mean we’re not alone? That’s not so clear-cut. Are there extraterrestrials out there who are transmitting, but using a technology we haven’t yet discovered? Or are they out there, watching us, but waiting for us to take the initiative in sending the first message?

In Ad Astra, we’re not able to eavesdrop on the deliberations that would take years, as scientists decide whether it’s time to give up the search. If the search does end, though, it won’t be simply from a mutiny from the outer solar system, as suggested in the film.


Alone in the Universe?

In the real world space missions we’ve conducted so far, astronauts talk about the overwhelmingly positive impact of looking at Earth from afar, seeing their home world from a distance, where there are no boundaries between nations, and where our fragile planet is protected by a thin sliver of atmosphere. This “Overview Effect” can profoundly change how astronauts see the world, even after they return to Earth.

But what will happen when future astronauts travel to the outer solar system, spending years passing through the vastness and emptiness of space? Ad Astra explores this question through the search for extraterrestrial life. For many of the scientists engaged in the film’s fictional SETI project, their failure to find intelligence in another star system left them wanting to go home, to reconnect with the only populated world they knew.

For some not directly involved with the search, concluding we are alone in the universe might bring a sense of relief, a reprieve from being once again demoted from our central place in the universe, as we were when Copernicus moved the Earth from the center of the cosmos, and when Darwin removed humankind from its status as the pinnacle of creation.

Even if we do some day find life among the stars, those who are hoping to feel less isolated will be disappointed. Aliens may be intriguing, and perhaps even able to teach us something, but they’ll never be family. For that, we need to reach out, through the rage and regret and all the rest of our emotions, to others right here on planet Earth.