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George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey or Matt Damon already got their astronaut outfit and now it's up to Brad Pitt and Tommy Lee Jones. The space is still a source of inspiration for the writers of Hollywood, who more or less realistically send their stars from time to time to explore other planets.
Tomorrow Friday premieres Ad Astra (towards the stars), a film directed by James Gray in which Brad Pitt plays a brilliant astronaut who travels to the confines of the solar system in search of his father (Tommy Lee Jones), a missing hero during his mission to Neptune.
Both have to face all the psychological challenges and problems that, in real life, space agencies try to anticipate while preparing a future manned mission to Mars for which there is still no date. Because in 2019, the Moon, which takes a few days to arrive, is the farthest destination man has gone to. The longest stays take place at the International Space Station (ISS), 400 kilometers from our planet. In both cases it is possible to return to Earth if an emergency occurs and communications are almost immediate but how will a human being react when he spends years away from home , for months in a spaceship, exposed to radiation, seeing them people every day, performing very complex tasks and without having direct communication with the Earth?
Ad Astra `[ Per aspera ad astra means by adversity to the stars] explores that scenario in fiction and astronaut instructors like Iñigo Muñoz Elorza do it in real life. " The training of the crew makes the difference between a successful mission or another in which problems arise ," says this Basque engineer who has been training astronauts for the European Space Agency (ESA) for two and a half years.
To become one of them, it is not only necessary a great deal of dedication and technical knowledge accumulated over the years: « It is very important that they know how to work as a team . And also, that they can keep a cool head and don't get frustrated when things don't go out because they are usually people who get things done at first. It happens sometimes that after a very long preparation and despite the effort, something is not going well but you have to continue, ”says Muñoz, who works at the ESA European Astronaut Center in Cologne (Germany) and is also an analogous astronaut, it is that is, rehearse space missions in extreme places on Earth.
As he explains, the training of people traveling to space is varied: «At ESA we now have from Italian Air Force fighter pilots to scientists, volcanologists or engineers. Their profiles are different but they share the urge to do things right. They have a tendency to perfectionism although they are also patients. They do their best but they must know how to tolerate that things don't always go the way you want. Because it's not just what you do or say, you do a job that depends on a lot of people, ”he reflects during an organized day at the Higher Technical School of Telecommunications Engineers of the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM).
This center has a laboratory to test antennas in which instruments of ships such as Mars Express have been tested. In Ad Astra , the astronaut that Pitt embodies leads the construction of a gigantic space antenna built to try to locate intelligent extraterrestrial life. Taking advantage of the visit, we enter one of the so-called anechoic chambers of the UPM, where the conditions in which the waves are propagated in the free space are simulated to test equipment before sending them to space. The graphite-coated foam rubber material that wraps the walls absorbs the echoes. The silence is absolute. Almost as it should be in space.
Isolation and the feeling of loneliness are challenges that astronauts who travel to Mars will have to face, which is where, according to Muñoz, "we will have more problems." " Not seeing the Earth for so long can cause a sense of detachment so it is important to keep people cohesive."
And as Gabriel G. de la Torre, clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Cádiz, emphasizes, " it is about preparing astronauts for the unknown and the unexpected ." His team is part of a NASA project that studies all aspects that may be important for a real mission to space.
«This movie shows something very important. An astronaut is not just an individual who performs tasks perfectly and is very prepared; He is also a human being. Relations with others, empathy, cognitive performance (not only emotional), cultural aspects and their resilience, that is, being able to overcome adversities, are fundamental, ”he says. "We take care of cultural factors , how the coexistence of people of different nationalities can affect a long-term mission."
This NASA project has three similar environments, each of which has a different level of insulation: the underground facilities of the University of Pennsylvania (where they stay days); NASA's Hera station in Houston (which simulates a ship where people are locked for several weeks) and a German Antarctic station, where they remain for months.
Likewise, De la Torre details, «similar astronauts are subjected to psychological tests and it is studied whether there are biomarkers (genetic or hormonal) that tell us which subjects are more prepared to be in this environment or have greater resistance to stress» , adds the scientist, who also participated in the study of data from the Mars500 simulated mission in Russia.
Although astronauts are very prepared, "you have to avoid overloading them with tasks," says Muñoz Elorza, who also works as an analogous astronaut. That is, he pretends to be an astronaut in places on Earth where practices are practiced to rehearse royal missions, such as Austrian glaciers, deserts in southern Spain, Cantabria caves or Hawaii volcanoes. The instructor, who admits that he would like to travel to space, will return to the next selection of European astronauts.
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