Katie Vecina, Sense Activist
Once upon a time, my sole ambition was to become an astronaut. Fuelled by an overdose of scifi books and films beamed at me by my older brother, I engineered my spaceship out of discarded kitchen worktop and spare car parts; it even had its own hydroponics system. For most of the summer holiday, I travelled in it, across the universe, in a space oddity that only a nerdy six year old with an overactive imagination could dream up.
When my brother gleefully tried to shatter my dreams by informing me that I could never be an astronaut, I zapped him with my super-powered laser, which consisted of a washing up liquid bottle filled with cold water. My obsession with becoming an astronaut was short lived, which is just as well: my brother was right, my impairments did mean I could never become one. Or, so I thought, until I came across this article in the Guardian about the likely psychological impacts of the Mars One mission, concluded that my life is remarkably like that of an astronaut and that, therefore, deafblind people would make perfect astronauts.
The four person-strong Mars One crew will be subjected to isolation, confinement and loss of privacy, each of which are damaging to mental health and combine into a dangerous cocktail, potentially causing depression, psychosis, suicidal thinking and other mental health problems. These are serious risk factors, with serious consequences, that must not be ignored by the Mars One planners. There is no personality trait or training that can reliably protect astronauts from these risk factors and their consequences. So, why not turn those of us who experience these risk factors here, on Earth, into astronauts?
The Mars One crew will be able to communicate face-to-face with each other but transmissions to and from Earth will take around ten minutes. There are three people I can communicate with face-to-face, and I do not see them every day. Communication with other people happens with a time lag: asynchronous communication in email or interpreted conversation that takes four times as long as speaking and consists of just words spelt onto my hand. Whilst this isn’t exactly the ten minute time lag that the Mars One crew will contend with, it is a disruption to social relations, leading to an intense and painful feeling of isolation whilst conversing.
I have spent weeks confined to my house because going out was too difficult, the undetectable dangers of traffic and people too overwhelming. This is not exactly having to spend eighty per cent of my time cooped up in a fifty square metre capsule to avoid the Martian environment, with its unseen danger from radiation, it is, nonetheless, confinement.
I have written before about the incessant scrutiny that disabled people face when applying for support. No aspect of our lives is left private; everything must be revealed to assessors. Whilst this is not exactly 24/7 cameras for reality TV, as the Mars One crew will be subjected to, it is a deeply uncomfortable loss of privacy.
This isolation, confinement and loss of privacy is not going to change for us. So, would it not be a smart move to spare hearing-sighted people from these risk factors and simply select astronauts from the deafblind population?
Granted, it would add some complexity to the technology required in spacecrafts. Everything would need to be made tactile. But think of the energy savings that would be made from not requiring lights. And, think of the spin-off benefits of this technology for those deafblind people left on Earth. Austerity Britain, I have news for you: create the technology needed for deafblind astronauts and most of those deafblind people left on Earth will no longer need expensive social care services, they will be able to use commercialised versions of the technology.
If this isn’t a win win proposal, I don’t know what is: my childhood dream to be an astronaut realised; hearing-sighted people spared from a dangerous cocktail of mental health risk factors; new technology developed to give independence to deafblind people; and, a reduced social care budget.
So, beloved space agencies around the world, I look forward to receiving astronaut job offers.
Who will join me in this deafblind mission to Mars?