An astronaut hunches by her spacecraft window, gazing into the starry void. Pictures of loved ones decorate the cabin space around her. She thinks about the mission, resolute in her determination to finish what she started.
Or perhaps she contemplates what it means for humanity to have gotten this far, full of pride at having been chosen to carry the mantle.
Or she might be going mad. Distance and isolation are cracking the mental eggshell. She will see people who aren’t there, manifesting friends, lovers, or inhuman visitors.
She presses a few buttons and queues up a ten-second “happy birthday” video from her husband on Earth. She plays it, then repeats, running the video on a loop.
A large non-anthropomorphic robot approaches. It asks in soft monotone if she would like some tea before she repairs the communications satellite. Or coffee? She doesn’t take her eyes off the stars, but the rectangular head looms large in her peripheral. Its single blue sensor watches like a cyclopic eye.
I want none of those things, she says. I just want to watch a movie.
We’ve seen many versions of this scene. It’s a cherished sci-fi trope: astronauts stuck alone in space, isolated from humanity, trying to keep it together. But it’s a trope that may soon disappear.
A recent Gizmodo article got me thinking our fictionalized space loneliness. It listed all the movies currently available to watch on the International Space Station. They even included a picture of the station’s HD theater:
The film list is quite long. Given the setting, it includes some very interesting choices—like Moon, Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and all four films in the Aliens franchise.
Have you seen Moon? It’s about a lonely astronaut going insane aboard a space station. Just what you want to watch while going insane aboard a space station.
And 2001: A Space Odyssey? I don’t even like watching that one here on Earth.
Before I go further, let me say this: of course astronauts get lonely. I’m astonished by what they accomplish. Astronaut Scott Kelly finished a year in space on March 1st. I’m sure it was lonely as hell, not to mention all physical stresses involved.
What I’m getting at with the title of this post is space travel 15 or so years from now. Advances in memory storage, AI, VR, and biotech will make obsolete our classic stories of astronaut isolation.
Sam Bell, the character in Moon, won’t have time to question his sanity. He’ll be too busy posting to the future version of Instagram between VR meals with his family.
What about the problems of data transmission in deep-space communication?
The International Space Station orbits at about 250 miles above the Earth’s surface. No problem. We talk coast-to-coast in real time, and that’s around 2500 miles. Zuckerberg has already done a Facebook live chat with astronauts. (I wonder if it appeared with a hundred annoying notifications like it does in my feed).
Transmission from a moon station would be close to live, with only a 1.3-second delay. Good enough.
Mars gets a little trickier. One-way communication delays can span between 3 and 21 minutes. The film The Martian depicts real-time communication with NASA, but I don’t know if that was a storytelling necessity or a prediction of expected advances in communications tech.
But I digress. Astronauts won’t have to wait for downloads or streaming. They will enter space with entire VR worlds ready to explore, pre-populated with realistic AI inhabitants. Sitting at the dinner table with their families might not be perfectly interactive, but you could probably get a new “dinner recording” every few days.
It won’t be limited to visual, either; touch, smell, sensation—it’s all on the way. If the emptiness of space gets to be too much, astronauts will just walk down to the local coffee shop to have an espresso and people-watch. Or fight monsters. Or hang out in the Mos Eisley cantina.
Communication with NASA will be like sitting in the room together.
I don’t know how VR will work with the lack of gravity, but let’s just assume that NASA solves that issue, too.
I’m not saying this will be a perfect substitute for physical human contact any more than smartphones are a substitute for in-person conversation. But it gets a lot closer to human “company” than our classic depictions of space travel ever have.
Perhaps we will rely on deep-space travel for our “astronauts-going-insane” stories. Decades spent beyond our solar system. I could envision that; all the pre-loaded VR worlds become boring, repetitive. Or an astronaut’s eye implants fail with no resupply of component parts, so she must return to staring out the window.
Moon was fun. The conversation with the dead commander in Gravity was great. I’ll never give up loving my space-isolation insanity stories, even if they become obsolete.
But the scary non-anthropomorphic robot with the soft monotone voice? Let’s hang onto that one, please. Some tropes are just too fun to abandon.