Chapter 6: Long Term Space Travel, JFK, and Dreaming

Geoff Notkin is a story come to life. In our short few hours together, I heard many of his tales. He was in a punk band back when punk was legit. He knew the Ramones, went to art school with Spiegleman, and has now made a name for himself as a meteorite hunter and tv host. If I shared our entire conversation, I would have to write a book specifically about him. Instead, I’m excerpting a piece of our discussion I found to be the most interesting.

It began with a comment about long-term space travel and evolved from there. Imagine all of Geoff’s words in a lovely, British accent.

Geoff: Our ideas come from our imagination. In my dreams, I’ll be playing with a band again and I’ll be playing a fantastic song. I’ll wake up and write it down. The next morning I’ll take a look and it’s just something like “don’t forget to polish your boots.” My unconscious mind had created this thing that was so realistic it bleeds over into my waking world. I want to pull it over there but it didn’t quite happen. We do this every day as a creative person. It’s very rich, our inner world, so if you could learn to spend a lot of time immersed there, like you do in your dreams, then long distance space-flight and other endeavors where physical activity is limited could be more palatable.

Melissa: My question is how do you transition back into the real world? If you’re having multi-generational long distance space flight or teaching multi-generations to live in this way, how do you transition them back into living in the real world once you reach your destination? You have people living in these dream states now. Think of those who become addicted to drugs or live in video games or get addicted to Netflix marathons or are consumed with online relationships and refuse to have real life relationships — we see that in society now. When you imagine what that would be like long-term in a contained space, how do you transition that back? You’re starting a whole new society, in a new space, on a new planet or wherever you’re taking that spaceflight to. That’s going to take serious real life community and interactions to make happen.

Geoff: That’s true and something I’ve learned with Astrosociology Research Institute, I’m on the editorial board so I peer review a lot of papers, and one of the topics which has come up frequently from authors and experts is those kind of lifestyle choices like being consumed with Netflix or fantasy gaming. Some of these things involve other people but they typically don’t involve the physical presence of another person. A lot of these escapes that the modern technological world offers us are solitary ones. There’s an interesting phenomenon long duration astronauts talk about. They say, “we don’t get any privacy. Ever. Except in the tiny toilet.” And yet there’s a feeling of pervasive loneliness among a lot of them. They’re in close physical proximity to others but they still feel lonely. Perhaps because these are people who have been selected as companions for them, rather than people they themselves have selected as companions in their own lives.

I find it fascinating that proximity itself doesn’t alleviate loneliness.

Melissa: Do you think part of the issue on the International Space Station is because the astronauts are from different countries and there is a sense of separation in that too?

Geoff: Yes, and again this is something which has come up in work for the institute. It is easy for someone who is joining the group to feel like or be viewed as an outsider. Because you have a very small group who’ve been working together for a very long time under adverse situations, not unlike the military. An outsider joins the group and I think there is a natural tendency for clique-ishness to happen. I’m not suggesting our astronauts do this. I think they’re very well-adjusted people.

Melissa: I think it’s a tendency no matter how well-adjusted people are.

Geoff: And then of course there is language barriers, ethnic background, different religious and political viewpoints, but I think overall it’s a great thing. We have to deal with these things if we’re going to go forward as a species and certainly if we’re going to embark on very long duration spaceflight. These are issues which are very important. They are new to us; relatively new to humans. We have to think about them and explore. Our longest spaceflight with people have involved trips to the moon, Skylab, ISS. Even with ISS and Skylab, there still may be a subliminal sense of connectedness because you’re orbiting the Earth. You could go back if you have to. There are crew changes. But if you’re on a ten year flight to a destination in deep space, there is no going home. And what do you do if someone starts to develop character issues which are bad for the crew?

Melissa: People change and evolve. That can happen in months, let alone ten years.

Geoff: Right. So, I find it exciting that we have to address these problems, that we’re looking at them now. Because these are questions that a space-faring society asks. These are not questions a society wastes time thinking about if they do not have spaceflight. I’m not a fan of hypothetical questions. These are real questions. How do we populate a ship? How can we get people to Mars and back? Can we establish a colony there? The answers are “yes.” We just have to figure out the nuts and bolts.

Melissa: I met a guy at the airport this morning who was from New Zealand. He had been staying with a friend who was an astronaut training at Houston Johnson Space Center. He was telling me how exciting it was for him because there isn’t a space program back home. I hadn’t really thought of that before. That sounds obtuse but I’m so accustomed to our programs. In this context, it makes me wonder how we will represent humanity as a whole for long-term space travel, with so few countries having space programs. Will we represent all of the human race or just those who can afford it?

Geoff: Indeed. US and Russia are the countries who have probably spent the most on space, but we’ve also had astronauts from other countries.That’s a great question. I don’t think it’s just the countries who paid for the hardware who should get to put people in space. Private sector space exploration is very near and dear to my heart. It’s a very exciting time to be alive when it comes to that. I love NASA and am sad to see how badly funded they currently are, but why does the government have to do this? The private sector is historically more quick and efficient than the government.

Did the Wright Brothers have any funding? No. They did it on their own. This is the case for most great inventions in history. Or at least many. Like the aircraft, radar, the steam engine, the telescope. Many discoveries that changed world were made by small groups of people without government support or sometimes in the face of government or religious adversity. Galileo is a good example. Until the modern era, spaceflight was too expensive for the private sector. Now we have numerous billionaires, much more widely available technology, and a global community that is interested, so it not onlycan happen, it is.

We will see real space tourism, asteroid mining, and hopefully colonization of other planets and asteroids; those things which were dreamed about in the era of JFK. He inspired the world and not many people get to do that. He changed the way we want to do things. He brought the US and manufacturing and industry together to do something that was just impossible at the time. When Kennedy made that famous speech about putting a man on the moon, he didn’t run it by NASA first to do a feasibility study. I’ve spoken to a lot of NASA employees over the years and they were shocked by it. They said, “That technology didn’t exist. It wasn’t a question of making it better. We had to actually make it.” To inspire people to that level? Many of the designers and engineers I’ve spoken to said, “We did it for President Kennedy.” Even though he was gone, they were determined to get that landing on the Moon.

We’ve been talking about dreams and determination. That’s dreaming on the biggest possible scale. That’s one person saying, “I believe we can get to the Moon and back in less than ten years.”