Don’t look now, but NASA is looking for people who can live away from human contact for an entire year.
Gee, I wonder who could possibly qualify?
OK, yes, they’re looking for potential space crew here – specifically, people who are ready to set up shop in a mock Martian habitat at Johnson Space Center. But once you peel away the specific (and strenuous) science and engineering requirements, the needs sound curiously familiar to anyone who faced down calendar year 2020.
Spending months on end with the same handful of faces? Check.
Working with limited resource availability and sudden unexpected emergencies? Check.
Planning for regular walks outside the home – pardon me, the habitat – and a whole lot of Netflix consumption to fill time after work? Check and Check.
Really, all that’s missing is a Zoom elementary school and regular Amazon deliveries and it’d feel just like home.
I know, it’s a serious study, not reality TV. They’re not just going to grab some Joe Average off the street, no matter how good a simulation of the Red Planet might sound in comparison to delta variants, wildfires and the latest breaking news stories about “The View.” NASA wants some lessons it can build on, and I hope it gets them.
Nonetheless, it’s one heck of a reminder. We really have been living on another planet lately, haven’t we?
We’ve learned more than we ever wanted to know about isolation and its effect on the human psyche, an aspect of human psychology that was once mainly of use to submariners, astronauts and the crew of the USS Minnow.
We’ve had to be as alert as any astronaut about making safety and security a part of the daily routine. We learned how far away six feet really is in the grocery store, how long 20 seconds is at the bathroom sink, and just how many masks one wardrobe can hold.
And yes, we’ve been as tethered to electronic communication as any space traveler dreamed, with just a few differences in content. (“Hulu, we have a problem.”)
But in among it all, there’s one huge difference. (OK, there’s a lot of huge differences, but work with me on this.) There’s one shift in perspective that makes this particular ride one of the most challenging of them all.
Space colonists in training know when their mission ends.
Astronauts know their expected return date.
But in our case? That’s in our own hands. Ours, and our neighbors, and a lot of strangers we’ve never met.
It’s a little like those group projects we all endured in school. You can work like crazy to do everything right, but if someone on the team doesn’t take it seriously, it makes it that much harder for everyone else.
That doesn’t mean “give up.” Far from it. It does mean that even in these days of semi-demi-hemi-normality, we have to keep doing the work to make things better and encourage others to do the same. Getting the shots. Staying alert and taking precautions where we need to. Learning from what we’ve gone through and then applying the lessons, as surely as any experimental NASA team.
Because the last thing any of us wants to do is keep cycling through the 2020s hamster wheel.
Pandemics take time to resolve. They always have. And if we keep our eyes on where we’re going and how we get there, we can find our way through.
That would be out of this world.
Even by Johnson Space Center’s standards.