The Gonzo Scientist

The Gonzonaut Goes to Mars

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Science  14 Dec 2007:
Vol. 318, Issue 5857, pp. 1719
DOI: 10.1126/science.318.5857.1719b

John Bohannon

A series of reports on connections between science, culture, and the arts from Science Contributing Correspondent John Bohannon, who, in true gonzo style, will participate in the events he covers.

I was relieved to see security so lax at the Vienna Konzerthaus. The only thing standing between me and the meeting was a crabby Austrian. “Can I see some identification?” she asked as I blew past. It was a reasonable request considering that I had just walked in off the street in a Soviet Sokol KV-2 space suit. I didn't look back. My social skills had been dulled by spending the past week in isolation on a simulated Mars mission. Plus, I was late and history was being made upstairs.

When I entered the darkened room, Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier was showing photos taken from the International Space Station. I tiptoed to the back and eased my oversized-nappy-clad rear into an empty seat, scattering nearby pens and notebooks. I didn't catch my breath and relax until well into the next session when Jacques Arnould, a philosopher employed by the French national space agency, was giving a talk entitled “Philosophy of humans leaving the Earth,” which turned out to be a recitation of Greek mythology. Possible contact with aliens calls for the formulation of “extraterrestrial diplomacy,” said Debbora Battaglia, an ethnographer from Mount Holyoke College. And before we send people to Mars, said astrobiologist Gerda Horneck of the German Aerospace Center, we should designate several areas as nature parks.

There was a time when the Americans were the space romantics. Back in the 1970s, NASA brought scientists together with people from the humanities for zany ventures like the Voyager time capsule of musical recordings, greetings in 55 languages, and whale song. A few space-shuttle disasters later, Americans have become space realists. But the romance didn't die out—it just migrated to Europe. And this meeting, called “Humans in Outer Space—Interdisciplinary Odysseys,” is the proof.

Its concept was spelled out on the Web site of one of the conference funders, the European Science Foundation (ESF):

“Space-faring nations are heading again for human exploration of the Moon and, eventually, of Mars. They might soon be prepared with regards [sic] technology development, but what about the viewpoint of the humanities (history, philosophy, anthropology), the arts as well as the social sciences (political science, economics, law)?”

So humanities scholars from far and wide had gathered to share their extraterrestrial viewpoints and jointly produce a document called the Vienna Vision on Humans in Outer Space. It was to be part road map, part cautionary tale, and part love letter—from the humanities to all those who dare venture beyond the atmosphere.

A draft text of the Vienna Vision appeared on the screen, and the scholars began to debate its wording. I raised one thickly insulated arm to ask who was taking notes, wincing as the anodized aluminum helmet seal cut into my collarbone.

That's when security caught up with me.

What's Ahead

All illustrations by Katrien Kolenberg


  • Audio snapshot of Bohannon's odyssey

  • Video clip of Bohannon in “space,” courtesy of Okto (Vienna Cable Television, Channel 8)

The Launch

Additional Feature: Audio Snapshot

Listen to an audio essay by John Bohannon on the perils of a journey to Mars in the comfort of your own apartment.

This whole affair started with a phone call to Jean-Claude Worms, the executive secretary of the ESF European Space Science Committee. His number was provided on a press release announcing the Vienna meeting. The first thing I wanted to know was the venue, as it wasn't named. “I'm definitely interested in taking part in the space-colonization meeting,” I said. “Where is it taking place exactly?”

There was a pause. “It's not a space-colonization meeting,” he said.

“It's not?” I asked, scanning the press release again.

“The term colonization is certainly not the right one,” he said. And then, to my astonishment, he began lecturing me. “You could, for example, ask the American Indians about the significance of the word.”

I finally did get the information I needed, but I got so much more. Before I was set straight by Worms—a Frenchman with a Ph.D. in physics—I thought I knew a thing or two about outer space. But carelessly tossing around terms like “colonization” revealed my ignorance of cutting-edge space scholarship. I was embarrassed. How could I attend this meeting—let alone participate—without first immersing myself in the subject?

Luckily, I had a plan and an entire month to pull it off. The first thing I did was to call the United Nations. It just so happened that the space-colonization meeting was taking place on the last day of World Space Week, the “largest annual public space event on Earth.” The event's epicenter is the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs—a 15-minute drive from my apartment. I dialed the local number and explained my plan to the first U.N. space officer to answer. “For World Space Week, I am going to Mars,” I said. “But I need your help.”

The conversation didn't get very far until I explained that I was an American journalist—usually sufficient to explain away even the most outlandish behaviors—and that this was to be a simulation. “To immerse myself in the culture of outer space, I'm converting my apartment into a space capsule.”

“That's a great idea!” said the now enthusiastic space officer. “Then you should come to the U.N. for the space day.” He explained that on 4 October—the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, and hence the Space Age—there was going to be a kind of space training day. Experts were being brought in to explain everything there is to know about Mars and how to get there. “This will be useful before your launch, no?”

My launch. Hearing that made me tingle. “I'll be there,” I said.

But I would need more than just training. What should I bring to eat in space? What equipment do I need? And most importantly, how do I leave my capsule to attend the space-colonization meeting once I get to Mars? Obviously, I needed a space suit. The space officer told me that the U.N. didn't have one. “We don't actually have any astronauts,” he said. “They're all at the ESA.”

I called the European Space Agency. “If you find a space suit, please let us know,” an ESA information officer told me. “We're also looking for one to use for public outreach events.” ESA has plenty of space suits, he said, but they are all in active use.

So I got on eBay. Sure enough, there was a space suit up for auction. The current bid was $10,000 with just a few days remaining. (Full space suits can go for more than $50,000.) If I bought it below market value, I reckoned that I could resell it to ESA after my trip to Mars, perhaps even at a profit.

But before I could work up the nerve to ask my editor for a loan, a space suit found its way to me. I had described my dilemma to Gernot Groemer, an astronomy Ph.D. student at the University of Innsbruck and one of the organizers of the U.N. space-day event. Groemer sent me an e-mail. “I know a guy who has a space suit,” he said.

Space Madness

By day 4 of my mission, I'd learned that outer space has both its ups and downs. What got me in the end wasn't the environmental pressures of the capsule—chief among them, claustrophobia—nor the stress of constant vigilance against hazards. Instead, just as Groemer had warned me, the greatest threat of life in space proved to be social psychology.

And he should know. Groemer took part in a simulated Mars mission himself last year, spending 2 weeks in a sealed capsule on a remote Utah desert. “All the dangers of outer space that you hear about, those are actually the easiest to solve with technology,” he told me on the day of my launch. “The hard problem is people.”

For the first few days, I found space travel quite pleasant. I had spartan expectations going into this. As per Groemer's protocols, my diet was limited to the rations I brought onboard, and these had to be spoil-proof and as dehydrated as possible to minimize mass. Thanks to Thai curry paste, Lebanese falafel mix, and Sri Lankan rice biryani-in-a-bag, I ate very well indeed in my capsule.

I even lost weight in space. This is a known effect of microgravity. Astronauts can lose up to 20% of muscle mass after just a week due to muscle atrophy—but I lost fat instead of muscle. My antiatrophy regime was similar to the one followed onboard the International Space Station: 2 hours of daily exercise, mostly in strength training. But because those hours on the stationary bicycle and thousands of pushups and crunches were under full terrestrial gravity, I came out 2 kilograms leaner.

If there was a difficult part of my routine, it was the bathing. I was on a water budget of 10 liters per day, not only for drinking but also for cooking and cleaning the dishes—and myself. Groemer's bathing protocol is a 3-day cycle: no shower, a sponge bath, and finally a navy shower—a nautical method for cleaning yourself with 15 seconds of running water. Due to a technology failure—that is, my clumsy use of a bucket—I dumped half of my water budget while desoaping. (To answer your question, I just used a normal toilet.)

At first, I welcomed the isolation. It provided the ideal environment to explore Worms's claim that “colonization” is a dirty word in space culture. In addition to articles and books on space, I had a dozen of the major space-related films of the past 50 years burned onto my hard drive. (The legal aspects of copying DVDs in outer space are surprisingly fuzzy—but more on that later.) Rather than a conquistadorial “doomed to repeat history” attitude, my survey of space filmography revealed a terrified awareness of colonialism's historical reality. In film after film, from Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) to They Live (1988), encounters with alien cultures are disastrous, usually for us.

Additional Feature: Video Clip

Vienna's cable TV station Okto (Channel 8) visited the Gonzo Scientist during his mission beyond the infinte, for a segment on the station's “Super Nova” program. Here's a video promo, courtesy of Okto. (Flash 8)

The isolation was good for work, but it was also my downfall. The tone of my early ship's log entries is upbeat, even heroic. An Austrian television company had decided to make a show about my Mars mission, and they were sending a camera crew to film my last day. My capsule was alive with the sound of space music—particularly The Planets, by Holst. All the while, I was sending updates to my friends and family back on Earth.

The telephone remained unplugged, but e-mail was allowed. Whenever I received a message, I had to wait some minutes before responding to account for the delay: twice the distance divided by the speed of light, accounting for both the travel time of the message plus that of my reply.

My ship's log turned gloomy on day 4. I had slept poorly. The dark, empty capsule spooked me. And when I'd woken up, I'd been deflated by the discovery that a total of three e-mails had arrived, two of them spam. “It's the little things that set people off,” Groemer had warned. Weren't people back on Earth thinking about me?

Space madness was setting in by day 5. That's when my girlfriend returned from an astrophysics conference, docked with the capsule, and found me pale and unshaven. She delivered the space suit, on loan from Michael Köberl, Austria's unrivaled collector of space culture, thus launching phase II of the mission.

Near-Death Experience

It was a crisp, clear Vienna morning when I set off for the space-colonization meeting. I pulled down the transparent visor of the built-in helmet until it locked with a satisfying click, mounted my bicycle, and off I went. With its multilayered fabrics and thick metal O-rings, the Sokol KV-2 is not a light garment. (Rather than for spacewalks, it was designed as a survival suit for takeoff and landing.) I had broken into a sweat just getting into the thing up in the capsule. But flying downhill through the cold autumn air, I was happy for the insulation. I made a hard right turn at the bottom of Kochgasse, passing a crowd waiting for the bus. The adults didn't give me a second look, but the kids went crazy. I gave a thumbs-up to a wide-eyed toddler tugging at his indifferent mother's skirt.

The trouble began when my breath caused water vapor to condense on the visor. I had gained considerable downhill momentum when the outside world began to white out. Being hooked up by umbilicals to the Sokol portable life-support system would have prevented this. But I didn't have one and, to be honest, couldn't have carried it on my bicycle anyway. (I was surprised to learn that bicycles are being seriously considered as a means of transportation on Mars.)

No problem, I thought, I'll just open my helmet a crack to let the temperature equalize. I groped at the visor seal with my thick glove but couldn't find the release. I was nearly blind when I heard the angry warning bell of an oncoming tram. I slammed on my brakes and bashed violently onto the curb. I finally sprung the helmet and found myself at a busy intersection surrounded by curious pedestrians. These are just a few of the dangers for which my U.N. space training had not prepared me.

But as I would soon hear from the humanities scholars, despite the hazards, putting humans in space is worth it — especially for the humanities.

The Two (Space) Cultures

By the time security caught up with me, I had already colonized the meeting. They frisked me for press credentials, but I wasn't too concerned. The Vienna Vision was already clear to me. I can sum it up in seven words: Space needs more humans and more humanities.

The first point is one that makes many scientists roll their eyes. Robotic probes usually do the job better, safer, and far cheaper. If the goal of space missions is good science, then limited research funding should be used to launch machines rather than people. But according to Worms, this misses the point. “What is exploration? It's science, yes, but not only,” he said. “Can robots do everything that a human explorer can do? No, because we can only relate to the experiences of another human.”

While saying this, Worms showed an image from Star Trek, but I couldn't help thinking of a scene from another television show. In the 1994 “Deep Space Homer” episode of The Simpsons, a NASA executive asks one of the scientists in the control room how the space shuttle is doing. “I dunno,” he says. “All this equipment is just used to measure TV ratings.”

I found the second point more intriguing. Worms says that Europe is “forging a new approach, with rocket scientists working with humanists.” I wonder what this might entail. In some cases, space science can clearly benefit from humanities guidance. For example, which laws apply if someone commits a crime in space? If the crime happens on the International Space Station, then it is the criminal's “own country which is able to exercise jurisdiction,” explained Frans von der Dunk, a legal scholar at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. But beyond the space station, the law shades to gray. What's to stop someone from destructively mining the moon, or carving a visible-from-Earth advertisement, for that matter? There is something called the 1979 U.N. Moon Agreement that provides guidelines for good lunar behavior, but “this is very weak,” said ESA legal scholar Ulrike Bohlmann, “considering that only 13 countries have ratified it, and none of them have the means to go to the moon.”

Most of what I heard at the meeting suggested a one-sided relationship, with space scientists just giving humanities scholars something new to chew on. The most awe-inspiring example was provided by Paolo Musso, an Italian theologian from the University of Insubria, who discussed the implications of discovering intelligent extraterrestrial beings. It is not clear whether Jesus was born only on this planet, he said, or rather many times on many planets, presumably in nonhuman form. But in either case, said Musso, once we make alien contact, it will be a Christian imperative to spread the gospel. (This message brought to you by the European Science Foundation?)

There's another 50th anniversary that may be more relevant to the Vienna Vision than the launch of Sputnik. It was nearly 5 decades ago that the English physicist C. P. Snow launched the concept of “the two cultures”: the idea that a chasm has opened between science and the humanities, creating mutually incomprehensible worldviews. With the help of a boom in science popularization and “transdisciplinary” efforts like this one, the idea of a disconnect between science and the rest of academia has faded away. But until I see an alien Jesus, I'll continue to misquote Twain: Reports of the death of the two cultures are greatly exaggerated.


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