Personal Conflict: Surviving Outer Space Part 1

star_trekMy trilogy The Disciples of Cassini centres around humankind’s quest to colonise space. The story is fuelled by the premise that earth will only be able to support human life for at most another one thousand years.  This assumption comes from the prominent mathematician and physicist Stephen Hawking who said:

“We must continue to go into space for humanity. If you understand how the universe operates, you control it in a way. We won’t survive another 1,000 years without escaping our fragile planet.”

In the first book, Lost Souls, an expedition team to the Antarctic explore what it will take for human’s to withstand living in hermetically sealed environments similar to those that could be expected on a space station or another planetary habitat.  The science I investigated before weaving it into the storyline came from a number of research papers and books examining the issues of living in isolation in inhabitable environments.

This post is the first of many looking at the different issues that need to be addressed before sending humankind permanently into space.  Let’s start with sociological issues and interpersonal relationships.


From the experience of long sea voyages, researcher, Ben Finney, has found that the cultural differences between scientists and seamen cause conflict especially when the goals of each group clash.  He likens the relationships that develop between pilots/crew and astronauts/scientists to those of scientific sailing expeditions.  The first of these in recorded history was the three-year voyage of Captain Cook’s Endeavour from England to Tahiti.  It was the first exploratory sailing ship to include three scientists on board.  Throughout history, such voyages have been plagued with conflicts between the crew and scientists.  Through analysis of multiple missions, M. Dudley-Rowley identified seven factors that increased crew/scientist tensions that would also be an issue in prolonged space flight:

  1. increasing distance from safely – e.g. how long it would take for a rescue in case of emergency;
  2. decreasing proximity to strange phenomena – e.g. tension rises the further you are from earth and the closer you are to the unknown;
  3. increasing reliance on vessel containment – e.g. how much of a threat a breach to the hull would be to survival;
  4. increasing difficulty in communicating with those at base camp;
  5. increasing reliance on those on the voyage with you;
  6. decreasing reliance on base camp for aid or technical assistance; and,
  7. decreased availability of resources required to sustain life.

Decatur-Boarding-Tripolitan-vesselThe point of views from each subculture is nicely demonstrated in actual quotes reported in a research paper by Bernard and Killworth that investigated scientific sea voyages.   A crew member who was interviewed had this rather colourful attitude toward the scientists:

“These characters come out here to get the wrinkles out of their bellies. They don’t know the first fucking thing about life at sea and most of them don’t care to learn because they’ve got their minds on one track.  They out to make everyone of these doctors take a course in horse sense so they don’t kill themselves.”

On the other side of the coin, a scientist said:

“You can’t run a research vessel by the hour. When a scientist needs to take a core at 3 AM that’s it. You can’t stand around negotiating overtime pay while the chance to get [our] data goes by. [We] pay $5000 a day for this piss-pot and [we] are entitled to use it.”

The endeavour of human exploration and expansion has always involved a mix of all types of personalities and skill sets.  So whether it be a voyage to discover the Americas or an expedition to build a colony on Mars personal conflict will always be something that will threaten any mission. So how do we deal with it, before we set sail?

Enter the new field of astrophysiology (and no, I didn’t just make that up) or the study of sociology of space colonies.  Its fundamental rule states that the construction of the social environment [for a space colony] is just as important for survival as construction of the physical environment.  The recommendations from astrophysiology research by Jim Pass of the American Institute of Physics for constructing successful space colonies include:

  • space engineers should not only design internal spaces for functionality but also conducive to normal social life by working with urban sociologists;
  • we should learn from our mistakes and take on board the lessons learned from life aboard submarines, aircraft carriers, space stations and polar expeditions;
  • terrestrial mockups that accurately simulate the conditions in space should be tested and evaluated before real ones are deployed;
  • colonists should be selected that lead to a population of elites.  Diversity is key (social class, sex, race, personality etc.) and traditional conflicts prepared for; and,
  • the social conditions expected in the colony should be reproduced en route to avoid culture shock at the final destination.

The conflict between crew and scientists is a long one and something that can’t possibly be avoided.  The  cultures of the different groups mean their worldview and goals will sometimes not match up.  However, once we leave the safety of our little blue-green planet, the seven factors listed above will become tend to the extremes and produce interpersonal tensions never seen before.   Space colonisation will stretch our behavioural psychology to the limit, but with careful and clever preparation we should be able to manage it.