Space psychology is an extremely significant area of study. Combining insights from all areas of the wider field (i.e., organizational, industrial, cognitive, psychiatry), it aims to optimise human behaviour and cognition in space.
In terms of its history, space psychology has received varying degrees of attention over time. Whilst its importance was acknowledged at the inception of NASA in 1958; in the early 1990s Dr Patricia Santy (a NASA flight surgeon and psychiatrist) illustrated the industry’s relative disregard for the area, claiming that the application of psychology to space was running 20-30 years behind most other areas of medicine. However, with ever-increasing pressure from academics (i.e., the Committee on Space Biology and Medicine), the establishment of continuously inhabited long-term research stations with multinational crews (i.e., with astronauts joining cosmonauts on Mir in 1993, and the first stay on the ISS in 2000), and a number of high-profile incidents, for example, the theorised termination of the Soviet Soyuz T14-Salyut 7 mission due to depression and the attempted murder by astronaunt Lisa Nowak, the relevance of psychological issues has become increasingly pertinent.
Research within the field is predominantly focused on ensuring selection/training programmes prepare astronauts for the psychological demands of space travel, developing effective inflight support strategies and helping individuals re-adapt following their return to Earth. Studies can be conducted both in-orbit, and in terrestrial simulators and space analogs (i.e., undersea vessels and polar outposts), which attempt to produce a degree of environmental realism, and have aided in identifying the consequences of the intrapsychic/interpersonal stressors that astronauts encounter, such as team conflict, impaired communication/”psychological closing”, social isolation, threat of disaster, high-stakes/demanding work, public scrutiny, microgravity, radiation exposure, immobility etc... Such research findings can then be applied to develop models of successful crew performance (i.e., in terms of gender composition, and types of goals) and produce effective intervention strategies, like enhancement medications and therapeutic software. For instance, optical computer recognition scanners have been developed by NASA to track astronaut facial expressions and assess potential changes in their mood, allowing for personalized intervention strategies (i.e. computerized CBT treatment). Notably, whilst much research focuses on studying/overcoming the negative aspects of space travel, a robust finding is the salutogenic “overview effect” (White, 1987), which refers to how viewing the Earth from space fosters a sense of appreciation/wonder, spirituality and unity amongst crew members. It is theorised by Yaden et al. (2016) that this emotional reaction is a result of the juxtaposition between the Earth’s features and the black backdrop of space, which emphasises the beauty, vitality, and fragility of Earth.
With forecasted missions focusing on the potential for interplanetary (and eventually interstellar) travel, we need to prepare accordingly. Not only will these missions be much more protracted in terms of their distance/duration (with the longest period spent in space currently standing at 14 months, and a round trip to Mars predicted to take 2.5 years), they will also be subject to the pressure of larger, multinational crews, with no hope of evacuation, lack of protection from the Earth’s magnetic field, and distance-related communication delays (averaging 25 minutes to Mars/500 minutes to Neptune and back). Additionally, astronauts will not be able to observe the Earth and derive the aforementioned associated benefits of this experience; coined the ‘Earth-out-of-view phenomenon’ (Kanas, 2015; Kanas & Manzey, 2008), which may magnify potential feelings of homesickness and isolation. As such, we need to develop effective strategies to counteract these novel stressors, with researchers considering the benefit of fitting protective outer shields to isolated parts of spaceships (where astronauts spend the majority of their time) in order to mitigate against the effect of radiation from cosmic rays, email messages that conclude with suggested responses in order to reduce communication times, and virtual reality systems/on-board telescopes to minimise feelings of separation from Earth.
Having discussed the historical development of space psychology, the scope of research conducted, and the forecasted future of the field, I hope I have impressed on you the significance of such an exciting area of study. Managing human behaviour in space is an interdisciplinary effort, and as the government monopoly on spaceflight diminishes (i.e., with the launch of commercial/private space ventures like SpaceX), and the number/complexity of missions increases, the importance of space psychology will become ever more apparent.
The next instalment of a fascinating blog series by ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen who spent a year at the Concordia research station in Antarctica. Catch-up with his previous blogs at Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
And so we keep delivering. Questionnaires about stress, physical and mental wellbeing, questionnaires about nutrition habits, stool samples, saliva samples, blood samples, taste tests with taste strips, smell tests with ‘Sniffin’ Sticks’. I make pictures of what I am eating twice a day, and our cook records our menu a whole year long. And, perhaps best of all, we all take a sachet every day, without even knowing if it contains a probiotic supplement, or nothing but just powder…
‘This reminds me of the dentist. And this of flower fields when I was young. And this one is industrial banana for sure!’ The ‘Sniffin’ Sticks’ induce vivid memories, but do our smell and taste change in this understimulating environment? And how does that relate to our eating habits? Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen
This time the tests are for another study called ICELAND (‘immune and microbiome changes in environments with limited antigen diversity’). ICELAND doesn’t focus on altitude, but instead uses the homogeneous environment of Concordia, another stressor to our body and mind, as a testbed for examining changes in immune health. Have you ever thought of the idea that, just like in Concordia or in space, a lack of new bacteria and viruses can actually deteriorate your immune system? Have you ever considered that we may be too hygienic? Just like losing muscles when we spend too much time on the couch, or losing skills if we don’t practice our brain, we can lose immune function when it is not stimulated, and according to the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ this may be one of the reasons for an increased incidence of asthma and skin inflammation in children in developed countries. In a similar way, prolonged isolation and confinement in the stressful and ‘clean’ environments of Antarctica or space is thought to increase susceptibility to infections and even allergies!
But the immune system is complex, and the many interactions it holds with other body systems such as our digestive system and our brain are just being discovered. For example, changes in nutrition can have an effect on the composition and health of our gut bacteria, which in recent years have been found to play an important role in the development of immune-related diseases such as allergies and cancer. Other studies in addition have found gut health to be related to mental wellbeing as well. So can we maintain a healthy brain and a healthy immune system if we maintain a healthy gut? We still have much to learn about ourselves, and ICELAND aims to investigate these interesting interactions. Hence those daily sachets: comparing the test outcomes between those of us who took gut bacteria-stimulating probiotics and those who didn’t can give us valuable information about its potential to counter these health risks!
Director of Innovation at FAPERN/Coordinator of Space Analog Station @HabitatMarte
The space experience must be creative, cooperative and respectful. This is what the partnership established between the analog space station Habitat Marte and InnovaSpace is all about. The operationalization of the Habitat Marte project has permitted the bringing together of numerous enthusiastic people from the space area, this being the case for the virtual meeting that took place between myself and Thais Russomano, CEO of InnovaSpace.
When I see how much more we can do to help children and young people through the debate, education and popularisation of science using the space theme, this generates a high state of consciousness. It’s excellent having the possibility of interacting with the right people in order to create genuine relationships and interest in the professional growth and development of others, thus collaborating for a better world, with more justice and prosperity, especially for those who would like to include themselves more in the aerospace field. Many people find the space theme to be very inspiring and it seems to foster confidence and a great sense of personal fulfilment. I observe this in the trajectory of many young people who see this area as a future professional field
Bringing space into the forum of debate helps to expand our awareness and embrace a new vision/perception of problem-solving, as we have observed in the Habitat Marte experience where we are contemplating future space stations and how they can operate as self-sustaining models, considering water and waste management, food production in closed systems and energy generation. Indeed, the research interest in these three areas can translate to benefit the sustainability of planet Earth, especially in arid and semi-arid regions and those under the threat of climate change.
Furthermore, the popularisation of science education using space as a conduit can contribute to a revolution in education, as researchers believe space can serve as a gateway to attract the interest of children and young people and stimulate their enthusiasm for the STEAM areas, or as I put it S3TEAM - Space Science Sustainability Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics.
Retaining that interest in space can guide scientific career and advanced training choices, which is likely, in time, to lead to innovation and solutions to important problems faced on planet Earth. In this sense, the Habitat Marte space analog station is a pioneering project, as it has led to many young people developing new skills and building greater self-confidence to undertake careers and projects linked to space.
Habitat Marte emerged as an analog space station in December 2017, completing 3 years of activity during 2020. Before the pandemic in Brazil emerged, 32 missions had been carried out, however, following the spread of the coronavirus, face-to-face missions were suspended, and the alternative of virtual missions was introduced, which led to Habitat Marte completing 62 missions by the end of 2020. In addition, Habitat Marte has transformed from being a national organisation with Brazilian participants only, to receiving international applications from 28 countries.
At this moment it is important to present the values of Habitat Marte:
Creativity - because I believe in a methodology of encouraging participants to think about various characteristics of the operation of a Mars station, and these ideas have led to the publication of abstracts and papers.
Respect – because we believe in equality in all things, with women making up more than a quarter of our participants and our policy is to not discriminate on the basis of nationality, religion, social class, gender or sexual preference. Habitat Marte does not make judgments on these matters but encourages everyone.
Collaboration – because the activities of Habitat Marte focus on the participation of people from different areas of knowledge, generating opportunities to participate in competitions and other activities, to promote the creation of new content for application in space and on Earth.
Our social networks constantly share motivational knowledge and invitations for new participants. More information about Habitat Marte can be found by searching for the @HabitatMarte profile on social media, and by accessing our YouTube channel, where you will find almost 300 videos of quality content, many of which demonstrate the contribution of our projects to the ideals of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
With creativity, we hope that Habitat Marte will continue to expand its activities throughout 2021, finding economic sustainability, and also strengthening its ties with InnovaSpace.
The fascinating blog series chronicling a year in the life of ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen at the Concordia research station in Antarctica continues. Catch-up with his previous blogs at Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
Concordia, July 28, 2020
Sunlight: none, but the skies are turning colours again!
Windchill temperature: -83°C
Mood: some days a little tired, and on others, like the skies, full of colour
If you have read my previous posts, you have probably had enough of the beautiful-environment-and-working-together-drivel, and I am guessing you are now thinking something along the lines of: weren’t you supposed to do space research?
Good question, and it makes me realise that perhaps it is time for something more interesting: science!
But I am not sure if an ESA blog can go without any music, so before we continue here is a nice tune to walk you through:
Take, for example, the altitude. Here in Concordia we live at an altitude that is equivalent to about 3800 meters above sea level at the equator. As such, it's as if the air were to contain about 40% less oxygen for us to breath, and you definitely feel that when you arrive here by plane. Low energy, panting with the slightest exercise, waking up gasping for air multiple times a night, headache, dizziness, loss of appetite. Some really get sick from it, and in rare cases people have to be sent back to the coast due to life-threatening build-up of fluid in the lungs or brain! Yet, in 1978 Messner and Habeler reached the summit of Mount Everest at an altitude of 8848 meters without using any supplemental oxygen at all. How? They allowed time for their bodies to adapt.
At Concordia it usually takes a few days before you feel better. As your body senses a decrease in oxygen pressure it immediately tries to save your cells from getting damaged by sucking in more air (breathing) and pump more oxygen through the body (by increasing heart rate), and subsequently starts up a remarkable cascade of physiological processes that eventually leads to an increased production of red blood cells. As a result, the composition of our blood can drastically change over weeks, to help deliver sufficient oxygen to each of our cells. Pretty cool, don’t you think? Even though after eight months I still find myself hyperventilating up the stairs and having miserable nights every once in a while, at least it allows me to go to beautiful places like Concordia!
The adaptation however comes with a trade-off: if the need for oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood is too high (at higher altitudes, where there is less oxygen) and too many red blood cells are made, the blood can become so thick that it increases the risk of blood clotting, high blood pressure in the lungs, and even heart failure! Such health issues have been seen in some people living permanently at high altitude. So how healthy actually is a year of adaptation at Concordia? Knowing that similar low oxygen conditions may exist in future space habitats for technical, economical and safety reasons, and considering the simultaneous blood volume alterations usually seen as an effect of microgravity, answering that question is important to understand astronaut health and safety during future long-duration space missions.
The ANTARCV study (‘alterations in total red blood cell volume and plasma volume during a one-year confinement in Antarctica: effect of hypoxia’) is implemented this year to do so. Each month the crew comes to the ESA lab for a lucky treatment of vein punctures, and an awkward procedure of breathing a very small and safe dose of carbon monoxide through small, restrictive tubes. This way I can determine our blood volumes. Besides I analyze how thick our blood is, store blood samples for further analysis in Europe, and we all wear a watch one week a month to record our activity. That way we make sure that the changes we see in blood volumes are not just a result of changes in physical activity. You can understand the crew loves me for it…
ANTARCV on full speed. By administering carbon monoxide and determining the increase in its concentration in the blood, we can calculate how many red blood cells are circulating through the body/ANTARCV op volle snelheid. Door koolstofmonoxide toe te dienen en de concentratietoename te bepalen in het bloed, kunnen we berekenen hoeveel rode bloedcellen er door het lichaam circuleren. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–S. Thoolen
Still, all of us are participating in the research, and that is awesome! You see, doing human research here can be quite a challenge, not only because of language barriers, limited data transfer possibilities, or complex transportation logistics, but mostly so because the participation in these experiments is entirely voluntary. None of us works here primarily to serve as a test subject, and it is not that I can force anyone really… So to make sure I come home after a year with sufficient interesting data, I better make sure that everyone is happy with what we are doing here. For me perhaps a tricky mix between work and private life, but all for the good cause of science! After all, who doesn’t want to be part of the space program, bring benefit to future hivernauts and astronauts, and on top of that help to understand health challenges of our present-day society?
Space Law & Policy Analyst
On the 2nd of October 2020, the Astro Zimba space education curriculum for young children began its programme, launching a pilot study with the Whitestone School, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. This space education curriculum recognises that building Zimbabwe’s space autonomy is hinged on the nation’s capacity to make a critical mass of skilled individuals. This capacity-building must necessarily begin from the early developmental stages.
The Astro Zimba curriculum, created by myself and Marco Romero, in collaboration with InnovaSpace and Students for Exploration & Development of Space (Zimbabwe), is a series of lectures on space and space-related themes, using interactive sessions, games, videos, comic books and other learning activities to spark space science and technology curiosity amongst the youth. This is done in the hopes that more children, especially young girls, will be inspired to take up STEM subjects and careers. The founders of this programme identified a gap in existing curricula, one which they wish had been filled during their initial years, and one which they believe has a profound impact on the development of the space industry.
Space sciences and technology, while a rapidly developing and exciting field, can often be quite a technical subject area for young children to understand. That said, having a dedicated programme which delivers science content in an engaging, tailored and fun way helps to boost interest in young children. It has the dual effect of inspiring both genders to become involved, which is the goal of the Valentina project for girls, facilitated by InnovaSpace, acknowledging that young girls are underrepresented in the STEM sciences. Giving access to quality education boosts social and economic circumstances, alleviates poverty and empowers young girls, positively impacting on the SDG 1 (poverty reduction), SDG4 (quality education) and SDG5 (gender equality).
The following lesson plans were presented during the pilot study. The introductory video sought to spark the learner’s curiosity and inspire more children to pursue careers in the space industry. Having careers in the space industry, the Founders thought it important to add a touch of personal experience and insights, including initiatives that have made a difference in their personal career journeys. The learners are introduced to each week’s theme through an interactive video message, before proceeding with practical in-person class sessions.
As can be seen from the introductory lectures, the Astro Zimba programme is intended to be a very low and cost-effective means of disseminating critical space education and information, tailoring it to a young audience, and creating a model that will one day be replicated through schools throughout the country and Africa. As the programme gains momentum, so will the need for more resources and collaborators, especially towards the procurement of equipment (such as telescopes), and funding (towards the publishing of a space education handbook, videos, and other digital content).
The use of visual media has had a profound impact on children because much of their learning has been facilitated through Google Classrooms. With the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, having a virtual platform has meant that the children can still participate and receive content even from the comfort of their homes. This has made a tremendous impact on the potential to scale vital space education and skills to even the most remote of communities. Which is why the Astro Zimba project will also diversify into Youtube and podcast versions, to cater to as many diverse needs and requirements across the country. We count on your support to continue to make this endeavour a reality for all children in Zimbabwe.
The InnovaSpace Team says: If you would like to find out more about the Astro Zimba project, please do get in touch and we will put you in contact with Ruvimbo - it is an excellent project!
My Dad and I have discovered a way to combine the smartphone iPad with ultraviolet/infrared with space observation telescopy to make space discoveries, with assistance of the DIGI phone network and iCloud. My Dad and I devised this lens innovation. We were always fascinated by the surface of the Moon and planet Mars.
We also won an International Special Award presented by the World Invention Intellectual Property Association (WIIPA), and a Gold Award and Special Award presented by the Toronto International Society of Innovation & Advanced skills (TISIAS) Canada
The International Programme Committee (IPC) also selected our presentation - Lunar Surface, To Support Growth & Development Of A Sustainable Society On The Moon - for their repository at the Moon Village Association's online Workshop & Symposium in cooperation with the Cyprus Space Exploration Organisation.
My Mom is also a part of our team. The role of women is important in space discovery and space planetary surface observation technologies, and women like my mom and their abilities don’t get recognised enough. The UNOOSA Space4women mentors are always trying to get more kids my age and women to participate in space programs globally through their network.
Take a look at all of the Moon photographs captured and displayed here. These were all as a result of our invention, the space lens innovation smartphone iPad ultraviolet infrared incorporated into telescopy, which we recently filed for a patent in Malaysia. It was difficult to know how to commercialise our space lens innovation product as we couldn’t find anyone to give us advice in Malaysia, so we had to learn by ourselves and by getting bits and pieces of advice from international space agencies.
We have thousands of videos and photographs that we've captured, and these could potentially help to prepare other kids my age for space and lunar exploration.
The team at InnovaSpace would like to congratulate Arav for some amazing photos of the Moon & planets, and for all his study and hard work. Congratulations must also go to Arav's Mom and Dad for all the encouragement and support they clearly give him, which is so invaluable. Keep studying Arav and keep looking up to the stars - perhaps one day you may find your place among them on the Moon or Mars!
LINK for Part 1 of On Spaceships and Saunas
Human nature has long been associated with pleasure, a powerful feeling capable of articulating body and soul, thus releasing mankind, even if momentarily, from its all-too-grounded existence on Earth, destined as it seems to endure a rather laborious, extenuating, survival oriented life.
As we've reached the 21st century, any contemplation of a better world has been blatantly discouraged by the force of capitalism and the so-called Anthropocene. Indelibly marking the planet at current times, and acting as a new geological era signalling the exhaustion of life on Earth, this human phenomenon brings into question how the promiscuous entanglement between culture, technology and nature has utterly transformed our landscapes and lives, forging a second nature as artificial as the romantic projection of a first nature – or of what it had possibly been prior to civilisation.
COVID – 19 is just one of the side effects of a runaway world, whose current features are as resembling of a sci-fi novel as they are of our innermost disquieting images of a collapsing future, depicted with the same curiosity and fear of extinction that propels humankind vertically towards the outer space, the Moon and beyond. In the midst of this not so brave new world, how could the overlapping spheres of angst, science and pleasure impact our minds and future?
It's still soon to predict how the world will appear and operate in the near future. Philosophers and scientists alike argue that the current pandemics and climate atrocity has opened up The window of opportunity that could allow us to reshape the world, not only environmentally speaking but also politically on all levels: to slow down consumption, communication and capitalism; to (re) establish the welfare state; to expand democracy and consolidate democratic societies, which have been gradually fading in recent years (the US and Brazil to name but a few); to preserve the ozone layer, the Amazon and endangered species elsewhere; to nourish solidarity among nations and citizens; to enjoy a more fulfilling, frugal and pleasurable life; the list of wishes/demands goes on and on...
For all we know, so far, not only life on the planet has been exposed in its extreme feebleness – to the extent of reaching a point of no return – but also the innermost human qualities have been put at stake, risking gradual loss of affection and therefore emotional numbness.
Humanity has been enduring dramatic shifts in its sensibility in the recent past. AIDS had already reframed sexuality in the 1980's, banning free sex from the world agenda and establishing caution as the common ground for all human sex interaction, while the Internet has virtually been separating individuals physically and therefore emotionally in an unforeseen fashion.
In this increasingly aseptic world – at least, when it comes to human interaction – that nonetheless bears a tremendous virulent and filthy relationship towards nature, it remains to be seen if our civilisation will eventually be able to preserve not only saunas, sex and the human factor in all its diversity, but foremost the planet as a sustainable, democratic and pleasurable environment for generations to come, in the near and distant futures.
Albeit this toxic atmosphere, it would be wise to keep Mars and the black holes as speculative research fields – even if we do manage to reach them in the flesh – and not the sole and only escape route of a sombre, drained and dangerous, ill-fated world.
Since art and science operate as portals to the realm of fiction, allowing us to delve into the unknown – and perhaps to grasp reality in all its (lack of) plasticity –, the notions of invention and discovery become analogous, driving forces that help us shape both the present and the future through politics and imagination.
Luis E. Luque Álvarez, M.Mus.Ed.
Violin Teacher, Kittenberger Kálmán Primary & Arts School, Nagymaros, Hungary. Member of ELGRA
Across centuries playing and listening to music has been an important human psycho-physiological communication path with or without lyrics. It is clear that in space sciences music has intervened in the life of most scientists as a motivational and alternative health resource. Pythagoras of Samos studied the physiological effect of certain scales and melodies on the human body, he believed each different modal scale would induce a different mood state to the listener or player. Several astronomers like the Galilei family, and William and Caroline Herschel, among others, were strongly connected to music, indeed they were exceptional musicians themselves.
And it was during the Apollo 9 mission when Rusty Schweickart carried a Sony Tape recorder, strictly for the purpose of providing a musical environment for the astronauts. Since then, astronauts have often highlighted the importance of music for their mission performance and have taken their music with them, indeed a tradition of wake-up calls from Mission Control has long been established to begin the astronauts’ days. These anecdotes indicate how strong is the importance of music, at least psychologically, perhaps physiologically too, for astronauts under the stress and pressures caused by the confinement of a spaceflight mission.
Music for Space Project
As a music student in 2016 I became curious about the idea of experimenting with the effect of listening to and playing music in space. At that time, I didn’t find much scientific literature about the effects of music in microgravity, hypogravity or hypergravity. Music has been highlighted only as a leisure practice and for psychological support, though I believe it provides much more than that. In 2018, I was lucky enough to have the support of the ESA Education Office, DLR, European Astronaut Centre and the European Low Gravity Research Association, teaming up with some French and Hungarian students to perform a first experiment using personalized music intervention as a psycho-physiological countermeasure under exposure to hypergravity in a Short Arm Human Centrifuge. During the ESA Spin Your Thesis Human Edition programme, our student team, along with two others (SpinKings and Spin Doctors), were able to perform some very interesting research in different space physiology fields. Our research involved 10 male participants, divided equally into two groups of 5, and spinning them in the centrifuge at 1Gz and 1.5Gz of hypergravity, with one group listening to a different style of music per spinning protocol, while the other group were spun without music. We recorded many different variables, including sociocultural background, psychological mood states, muscle tone, and galvanic skin response, among others.
Preliminary results have shown there is a clear tendency in the effect of music to decrease the tension, anxiety levels compared with the control group without music, and there was a certain stabilisation of stress muscles, which previous centrifuge studies have shown to be affected in a different way. Currently, the data is being re-analysed with the cooperation of scientists at ESA aiming to publish the complete data results. Since the Spin Your Thesis Human Edition campaign, the audio device with stereo signal installed specifically for the music experiment still remains attached to the short arm human centrifuge, where nowadays ESA astronauts and study participants can enjoy their favourite music playlist on the centrifuge.
This experiment was the initial phase of the Music For Space project, which aims to continue the research with music as a psycho-physiological countermeasure to improve astronaut’s health with alternative medicine methods and perhaps one day for Earth citizens as well.
We have in music history thousands of music styles, genres, instrumentations, and performance versions. To determine their specific benefits or disadvantages, we would need to perform more terrestrial tests, such as using a human centrifuge, parabolic flights, and analog simulations. In addition to music listening, I aim to measure in space how the playing of musical instruments could support brain, muscles, and bone health. Further studies could lead us to obtain enough data to approach an adequate and systematic music therapy method for spaceflight crews.
I encourage all students and young researchers from fields that seem to be far from space sciences to feel curious, to pursue your dreams and to try the student experiments offered by the ESA Education Office. These are an unforgettable life experience and a wonderful opportunity for students to contribute to space-related research.
We welcome back ESA-sponsored Dr Stijn Thoolen, as he continues his tales of life at the Concordia research station in Antarctica, in the harsh environment of the world's southernmost continent. If you have missed them, do check out his earlier blogs, complete with wonderful photos - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Dr Stijn Thoolen
Medical Research Doctor, Concordia Research Station, Antarctica
Concordia, July 10, 2020
Windchill temperature: -84°C
Mood: still OK
The Antarctic winter solstice is special. As the Earth’s south pole is maximally tilted away from the Sun and the longest night falls over the southern hemisphere, people everywhere and since prehistoric times gather in tradition to celebrate the change of season and welcome the return of sunlight. But for a bunch of lost scientists and technicians on the Antarctic continent, that longest night lasts much longer. They won’t see any Sun for another one-and-a-half months. For them, mid-winter marks not just the gradual return of daylight, but much more so the midpoint of an extraordinary nine-month winterover adventure.
So it is an important moment. A time for celebration and for reflection (or perhaps just celebration…). To me it looks a little like Christmas, or New Year’s Eve, but with a twist perhaps (we are winteroverers, after all). Presents, dinners, parties, and (digital) mid-winter greetings from all the other Antarctic stations, kindly inviting us to come over to celebrate together. ‘The door is always open’, ‘generous parking space for motor vehicles and sledges’, ‘plenty of accommodation with ice sea vistas’, ‘bring your sleeping bag’, ‘COVID-19 free’. Anyway, you get the much-needed humour.
At first I wondered: being here only for about half a year now, how can such a completely new thing already hold such importance to people? No ritual, no guidelines, no one really knowing how to celebrate it, and yet the expectations are high in our crew, and the ideas plentiful. But looking back I have to admit: mid-winter is a beautiful tradition, even though never celebrated before…
While hints of daylight can be spotted on the horizon around noon, there won’t be any sun for another one-and-a-half months.
Winter can be harsh, without sunlight, far away from home, and with the same twelve people, for such a long time. And even in such an interesting and beautiful place, also I have recognized a few moments of disappointment. I guess, with all those different backgrounds and being the only Dutch around, it is not always easy to feel understood. Or perhaps it is just me who is getting a little less tolerant, in higher need for emotional support. And while that doesn’t make life always easy here, I recently read a beautiful sentence:
‘Do not worry that others don’t understand you. Rather worry that you don’t understand others.’
Can we still bring up that flexibility to try to understand each other, in a world where we are tempted to blame our problems on all but ourselves? On the ethical playground of Concordia, where walking away is out of the question and a lack of group cohesion can have direct consequences to our own wellbeing, I like to believe it is essential. And wasn’t this exactly what I was here for? To learn to become a better person?
With such thoughts in the back of my mind and realizing we still have another half to go, mid-winter then becomes the perfect excuse to work a little on ourselves. To do an extra effort for each other, give rather than ask, and just share some fun. To collaborate in a positive way to get closer as a group, building that tolerance for each other again, and making us all a little more willing to see the best in each other. And as such, music went back on loud again, and we went to work…
Brazilian night complete with exotic travel stories (you can imagine how popular these become here) and table soccer tournament, quiz night, cheesy fatty Alpine dinner, ‘kermesse’ games event including prizes to win, a spa (our hospital doctor decided that we could give the hospital a better use for the winter months), the first Antarctic championship of the traditional Italian game ‘Ruzzolone’ (Google it, and let your imagination do the rest), and, for once this year, an opportunity to actually go out for dinner (we eat in the same room all year long) in our ‘McDome’ fast-food restaurant (you may know it better as the astronomy shelter…). Ordered by radio and served upon arrival. Burgers, chips, milkshakes, and amazing reactions from the rest of the crew: everything a deprived winteroverer needs!
Mid-winter was great! Each of us participated to organize some of the festivities, and it kept us busy for sure. We celebrated five days full of the most ridiculous activities, and we were all exhausted afterwards. I guess that all these efforts may seem trivial back home, and the details may not look like much from the outside, but here I feel it is pretty important to us. These ridiculous activities bring variety, make us smile, and get us fueled up for another four-and-a-half month together. These will become the memories that we take home after a year on ice, and I think that makes mid-winter worth all the effort!
It makes me wonder how I will feel after a yearlong of practicing the much-needed tolerance and social consciousness here in Concordia: do we put the same amount of effort in each other at home?
Art has insightfully contributed to shaping the future throughout modern history and beyond; if not always forging reality itself, feeding our prospective imagination. In regard to literature, suffice to mention the visionary minds behind the novels From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne; 1984 by George Orwell; or Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson, to name but a few. As for cinema, so that we keep it as close as possible to the imminent dystopian reality, one could recall Outbreak, by Wolfgang Petersen, or Contagion, by Steven Soderbergh. Yet, there is another film we could call into play in order to foster images and ideas that may offer us a devious perspective on intimacy in an era of space missions to Mars, HIV, COVID–19 and other pandemics alike.
High Life, a feature by French director Claire Denis, takes place on a spaceship launched into the cosmos bearing a crew of expatriates whose diverse biographies have accomplished a vast array of crimes and misdemeanours – they all had been sentenced to death prior to their departure from planet Earth. This manned mission is destined to reach the outskirts of the universe, to source energy from a black hole and to conceive human life through artificial insemination in outer space. Here, instead of the most "apt and healthy" (as envisaged by NASA missions, for example), a vessel is filled with outcasts.
The onboard scientist played by Juliette Binoche, condemned for having killed her very own baby in the earthly past, switches between scientific commitment and nymphomania. Notwithstanding, she uses her criminal peers as guinea pigs to give birth to a child in this increasingly hostile environment. And since sexual intercourse is prohibited in the spacecraft, in order to get sexually aroused, ejaculate and survive the deprivation of pleasure, they all make use of a special device called The Box: a dedicated S&M room of sorts, equipped with an ergonomic technology designed to fit the human sexual needs, deeds and desires.
Within this volatile context, the crew is invested with deep, obscure purposes. Repressed sexual drive affects each and every passenger in this hermetic and remote capsule of life, producing the spark of madness that eventually unbalances that highly combustible atmosphere, unfolding an uncontrollable stream of violence and death.
On a different note, consider another type of vessel, one that is not floating about the universe but instead rooted in a rather mundane, if not decadent environment, also designed for pleasure: a sauna.
Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão has been obsessed painting steaming rooms for over 20 years now. Devoid of human presence, her grid-tiled canvases appear as both physical and mental spaces onto which one can project its most secretive imagination; those are rooms of utmost intimacy where fantasies and desires acquire shape.
The human body, although absent in Varejão's saunas, remains an ever present ghost emanating frailty, sex, pain and pleasure – from time to time, the artist maculates her pristine surfaces with blood, or a wad of hair, remains of a fluid and perishable human nature. Those paintings transpire a residue of life: the stillness of an action that has just evaporated from earth. A moment suspended in time, or a moment of death, perhaps?
Now, imagine not a spaceship but a sauna drifting in deep space, in the vacuum of time. No one is inside, just the interior covered in tiles, producing a steamy & misty atmosphere charged with the latency of human desire, impregnated by the vestiges of human dreams. This vessel might be carrying microbes, bacteria, illnesses elsewhere, nobody will ever know.
Above all, this flying sauna encapsulates everything that once was human and is no more; this inhospitable room no longer serves any purpose as there is no man or woman to inhabit the ever-floating cocoon of imagination, sex, desire and struggle to breathe.
Sex in space remains a tacit taboo. No one talks about it – and presumably no one has ever had sex in outer space.
NASA has never revealed any research on the well known odds of attempting to engage in sexual contact in a zero gravity room, although speculation allows us to imagine that synchronising the movements would be a difficult, if not impossible task – not to mention the amount of sweat produced by the human body under such conditions. Apparently, there would be bulky drips of sweat floating around, splashes of human sticky secretions all over the room, besides the thick layers of grease covering the lover's skins.
Much has been said about cosmic sex between astronauts in space missions, although nothing has been confirmed yet. In the year 2000, an article in The Guardian, by Jon Henly, referred to a book published by a French science, space and astronomy writer called Pierre Kohler, who claimed that both US and Russian astronauts had enjoyed sex during separate important research programmes into how humans might survive for several years in orbit.
According to Kohler's book, "there existed a confidential Nasa report, to which he had gained access, detailing a space shuttle mission in 1996 during which a project codenamed STS-XX was to explore precisely which sexual positions were possible in a weightless atmosphere; two guinea pigs had reportedly tested the 10 positions deemed most suitable for a spot of the old zero-gravity how's-your-father." The report, again according to Kohler's book, concluded that "only four positions were in fact possible in space without 'mechanical assistance' (the missionary position was not one of them). It added, tantalisingly, that a videotape, albeit censored, existed of the experiment."
These claims ended up deemed as pure hoax by the space agencies of both nations. Who knows?