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Review: Space: The Longest Goodbye

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Space: The Longest Goodbye
directed by Ido Mizrahy
87 minutes, not rated

NASA is offering people a chance to go to Mars—or, rather, “Mars.” The agency announced last month they were accepting applications for its second year-long mission in its Crew Health and Performance Exploration Analog (CHAPEA) project. Participants, who NASA says must be “healthy, motivated U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are non-smokers, 30-55 years old, and proficient in English,” would not, of course, go to Mars, but rather spend the year in a simulated Mars habitat at the Johnson Space Center, following on the first CHAPEA mission that started last June and is scheduled to wrap up this summer.

The film, especially in the second half, tried to fit in a lot of additional material that either seems extraneous or lacks detail.

CHAPEA is the latest in a long line of simulated space missions by NASA and others intended to study, in part, how a small group in confined quarters can live and work together. There have been so many such simulations that some question why NASA is even doing CHAPEA. “What uncertainty exists about what’s going to happen when you lock people inside a room for a year?” asked J.S. Johnson-Schwartz, a philosophy professor and space ethicist, in a recent New York Times article that examined those studies using the ongoing CHAPEA mission as a frame. “Just because the room is painted to look like Mars doesn’t mean it’s going to change the results.”

The studies of, and interest in, the effects of isolation in long-duration spaceflight continue, though, as demonstrated in the new documentary Space: The Longest Goodbye. The movie, available for rental or purchase on several platforms now and slated to broadcast on PBS in May, explores the challenges astronauts face on the International Space Station being separated from their families for half a year as part of planning for eventual longer missions to Mars, but tries to cover too much in less than 90 minutes.

A key part of the film is the experience of NASA astronauts Cady Coleman and Kayla Barron, who each spent about half a year in space. Coleman flew in 2010–2011, when her son was in elementary school, and the film includes extensive clips from video conversations she had while in space with her son and husband, as well as more recent interviews with them. Barron, who previously served on submarines in the Navy, was on the ISS in 2021–2022; we don’t see as much of her outside of NASA videos (perhaps because she is still an active astronaut) but the film does interview her husband, an Army officer.

Had the film stuck to those accounts and related items—like a study by NASA psychologists where ISS astronauts kept journals to keep track of the highs and lows of their stays in space—it would have done a good job highlighting the challenges of being isolated in a confined spacecraft for months at a time. But the film, especially in the second half, tried to fit in a lot of additional material: how NASA helped rescue trapped Chilean miners, the role virtual reality could play in long-duration missions, tests of a German robot called CIMON (basically a chatbot designed to float inside the station), and even whether we should just give up dealing with isolation and have the astronauts hibernate on the journey to Mars. The segments either seem extraneous or lack detail: the segment on VR, for example, suggests loved ones on Earth could transmit messages that astronauts could experience in VR, but doesn’t make clear why that would be better than a simple video message, since time delay would make interactivity impossible.

“In the next decade, NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars,” it declares at the beginning, which is clearly false: NASA would be doing well to get humans to Mars by 2040.

The documentary also mentions analog missions, but in a weirdly oblique way. “The following events occurred at a Mars simulation facility,” the film states. “The visuals were filmed at a similar facility, at an undisclosed location.” The events are clearly what took place on the sixth and last of the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) simulations in early 2018, which ended just a few days into an eight-month stay when one participant was electrocuted and briefly hospitalized. One of the HI-SEAS participants, Sukjin Han, is interviewed in the film, but the film never explains why they don’t give the specific details about the incident. The “undisclosed location” used for the visuals in the film appears to the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

That gives the documentary a rushed, at times sloppy, feel. “In the next decade, NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars,” it declares at the beginning, which is clearly false: NASA would be doing well to get humans to Mars by 2040. The film also depicts a lone Orion spacecraft heading to Mars, as if the crew would be cooped up inside the small capsule for the entire journey. (The sloppiness extends beyond the content of the film itself: a publicist for it emailed me at least three times to promote it, addressing me as “James.”)

The concerns about isolation and confinement on a long-duration missions, to the ISS for six months or to Mars for up to three years, are clear, but not necessarily intractable, as Coleman herself suggests in a comment—or confession—about her time on the station at the end of the documentary: “If I could have spent another six months, I would have stayed in a minute.” The merits and needs of further isolation studies continue to be debated, but for those who want to get away from it all, NASA is accepting applications for the next CHAPEA mission until April 2.

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