The Fear of Space

The drive onwards and outwards – but also the challenges.  This edition published by Penguin Books 1971.  Cover design by Harry Willock.

The drive onwards and outwards – but also the challenges. This edition published by Penguin Books 1971. Cover design by Harry Willock.

The term “astrophobia” is increasingly creeping into our language as a term referring to an intense fear of space and celestial objects.  Perhaps it’s not surprising given what we see in popular culture.  Science fiction films have routinely depicted invasions from outer space, the devastating effects of objects colliding with the Earth, or the possibility of horrific diseases arriving on returning spacecraft.

From It Came from Outer Space in 1953, through movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s highly effective The Thing of 1982, to more recent films such as Dark Skies in 2013, the idea that there are things coming here from “out there” that we would sooner not meet has been common.  And ever-increasing realism only adds to the impact.  They are bound to have at least some effect on certain viewers who treat them as more serious than they’re ever meant to be.

But the term has previously been used in a rather more specific sense – one which may have a more significant impact on the future of space exploration.

Arthur C Clarke expressed this concept of astrophobia well in his 1957 novel The Deep Range.  An astronaut may become psychologically deranged, if not incapacitated for the purposes of future spaceflight, as a result of being isolated in space with a perception of no hope of being saved, yet with the infinity of the cosmos all around.  Indeed, even the depths of the sea do not invoke the same despair and horror – as Clarke suggested in his novel, we have a deep evolutionary link with the sea, but may never feel truly at home in space, at least as long as we are genuinely human.

Extra-vehicular activity outside any spacecraft must inevitably bring a certain element of fear.  In Low Earth Orbit, at least there is the sight of the home world filling the sky, however unreachable it may be in practice.  But in interplanetary or interstellar space, there is no such comfort.  In Poul Anderson’s 1970 novel Tau Zero, external repairs to a spacecraft moving at close to the speed of light can only be carried out in the near total vacuum between super-clusters of galaxies, to avoid the danger of collision with any material outside the safety of the ship.  The utter blackness of surrounding space is unnerving.

The imagery of a lonely and hopeless death in space is highly disturbing.  One only need think of Frank Poole’s death by suffocation once his link to the Discovery is broken in 2001: A Space Odyssey – what was going through his mind in the final seconds?  Despite all the practical precautions that may be taken, the fear of such an event will be ever present in the mind of an astronaut.  And there may always be a HAL in the background which does not have your best interests at heart.

A reluctance to face the vastness of the cosmos was an underlying theme in John Wyndham’s 1959 novel The Outward Urge, which later included his 1961 short story The Emptiness of Space as a final chapter.  It follows several generations of the Troon family, who demonstrate a clear enthusiasm for venturing into space and thus play key roles in the process.  But comparisons with those who don’t share that same focus suggest that conquering space is far from straightforward.

In evocative language when talking about the attitude of most people housed in a solitary base on the Moon: “we are shut in, in a vast emptiness – it made a pretty grim mental conflict for a lot of them… Any measures that will keep this wilderness from howling in the men’s minds, and the horrors of eternity from frost-biting their souls, should be employed without delay.”

The psychiatry of long-distance space travel may reveal some serious problems.  Only time will tell.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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