When NASA begins launching astronaut teams on 800-day missions to Mars, one of the greatest survival tests these explorers will face is the inevitable alienation they’ll experience with their remoteness from Earth and the harshness of the frozen Red Planet.
After rocketing halfway around the solar system for 180 nights, these astronauts will start the first of 500 days on the Martian surface observing a cocoa-colored dusk fade into a star-saturated nightfall. Earth, 400 million kilometers away, will appear as just a twinkling blue diamond in the skies. The astronauts will have never felt so alone.
But NASA thinks it has an answer to the psychological challenge of interplanetary isolation. While aerospace engineers are designing the Ares rockets to be deployed in the Mars missions, a more starry-eyed contingent at NASA is testing networking and virtual reality technologies that they think will connect the first wave of Mars pioneers with their families, friends and colleagues back on Earth, in a 3-D virtual world cut from the mold of Second Life or World of Warcraft.
“We want to help our remote explorers ‘phone home’ in a way that lets them sit around a dinner table with their family, help their children with homework and analyze the latest findings with their Earth-bound peers,” says Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The initiative is the latest in the space agency’s enthusiastic push into virtual worlds. In May, NASA set up its own island in Second Life to enable online collaboration on technology projects, and the agency is working to create 3-D simulations of the orange-red deserts of Mars, so astronauts can experience the Red Planet before going there.
“Virtual worlds will play a key role in returning to the Moon and exploring Mars, says Jessy Cowan-Sharp, who helped create NASA’s CoLab island in Second Life.
But an interplanetary virtual world faces the seemingly intractable limits imposed by the speed of light. When on diametrically opposite sides of the sun, Mars and Earth are separated by 20 light-minutes; when closest, the planets are still four light-minutes apart. That’s a long ping time, and jacking into a virtual world over a radio link of that distance would be like diving into a vat of very thick molasses.
I’m wondering about that pesky light-speed time delay myself. The explanations NASA gives doesn’t make much sense to me. I can understand the email message concept, sending packets of images that consolidate into the Second Life environment so the sender avatar can give long, loving and maybe pornographic images, but nothing that can approximate real time. The Photon Cops are the Photon Cops after all, they enforce Einstein’s Law(s).
And if the VR is as good as NASA claims it might be, would the astronauts want to leave it? And what would be the purpose of sending people anyways? As one commenter put it, “…with geometric increases in computer processing and virtual reality capacity, humans should be able to explore Mars and other environments pretty successfully without going there…”
That’s a good argument. But as Stephen Hawking commented recently after taking a “zero-g” flight on a 727 concerning human space travel, “…if not for any other reason, than for possibility of life extinction on earth…”.
Migrations are part of the Human Story also.