Space travel is no longer science fiction: humans have already traveled to the moon and the International Space Station, and companies like SpaceX promise to soon bring us to a new frontier, Mars.
But how will our bodies and our minds cope with the challenges of space travel? Neil F. Comins, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Maine, addresses this question in his book The Traveler’s Guide to Space, out February 27th from Columbia University Press.
Paste recently spoke with Comins about his book and his thoughts on space travel. What follows is an edited, condensed version of that conversation.
Paste: What do you think the biggest challenge will be for first-time space travelers?
Neil Comins: The physical adjustments to zero gravity. In other words, with perhaps the exception of flights that go into space and right back again, virtually all other first-time travelers are going to get violently ill. You have to get through that period of adjustment, which can be a minimum of hours and conceivably much longer, before you can enjoy the experience.
Paste: If someone is interested in venturing into space, say on Elon Musk’s spacecraft to Mars, what sorts of questions do you think they should ask themselves first?
NC: First of all, it’s very expensive. One thing is: can I afford it, or is it worth the money? Number two: do I have the time to train for it? For going into space, there’s a variety of training for a variety of things, including weightlessness. That training will undoubtedly vary, but it’s going to take weeks, at least.
Another thing: the reality is that when most—if not all—people come back from space, they have a different perspective or view on the world than they had before they went. Going into space, you can see the world as a single entity. You have a different perspective about humanity, nature and our interaction with the rest of the world than you had before you left. That changes people. And knowing that you’re going to be a different person when you come back, is, I think, something to think about. I doubt it will ever stop people from going, but it is important to know that you are going to change.
Paste: Which do you think are more difficult to overcome—the physical or the psychological challenges of space travel?
NC: Short-term, physical. Long-term, psychological. In a matter of days, you’ll be over the physical ones related to short-term spaceflight. Changing your view of the world…that doesn’t go away.
Paste: In the book, you say of long-term voyages that “Big Brother will be watching you.” What do you mean by that?
NC: For the safety of everyone on the spacecraft, it’s really important to know who’s doing what, when and where, so that people don’t do things that endanger themselves or others. In that sense, it’s important for the spacecraft commander, as well as people on the ground and elsewhere, to know what’s going on so that they can respond quickly to potential problems. And in these days of artificial intelligence, the supervision doesn’t have to be human. Make one bad mistake that could have been avoided, and you could endanger the entire mission.
Paste What sort of mistakes?
NC:For example, if there are manual controls for temperature, air pressure or other environmental considerations, and if somebody changes them intentionally or otherwise while on a mission. That can endanger the flight.
The worst-case scenario is if someone was to do something that would allow air to escape. If that problem was not stopped in a matter of minutes or less, people will start dying. Oxygen deprivation, the air pressure, as well the amount that you breathe, would have effects on the bodies, so you’ve got to respond really quickly. Therefore, people have to know what’s going on reliably, just about everywhere.
The issue is mental health. One could imagine that, even if somebody is normally evaluated as just fine, that person could have a mental health event. They might do something dangerous, like poke a hole in the side of the ship, or destroy a computer. The list goes on. And preventing that kind of thing, or being able to respond to it quickly so it isn’t fatal, is what makes Big Brother important.
Paste: Would you go into space?
NC: [laughs] Yes I would, even knowing what I know. I’ve done a lot of things, and that’s one that’s sort of outside the realm of anything I’ve done. And my life has been a process of exploring, so that would be something to explore.
Stephanie has a degree in the History of Science from Harvard University, and has written for publications including Quanta, Live Science, and NY Mag. In her spare time, she also writes children’s books.