I also understand that I’m seriously not suited for even the most basic realities of space survival. I’m fairly claustrophobic, experience serious vertigo with any exposure to dizzying heights, and get horrifically motion sick in any kind of 3D simulation environment (no Disneyland Star Tours for me). And my eye-sight is seriously bad, even with outrageously strong corrective lenses (no astronaut/flight school for me).
So, I’m particularly envious of the Scott Kellys of the world (of which, there’s really only one…well, maybe two, but that’s just because his twin, Mark, is also an astronaut. Who handed out the odds on that one, I ask you?). These are real-life people who volunteer to be blasted out of Earth’s atmosphere on the back of a massive explosion in order to live in a glorified tin can (apologies to the engineers of the ISS) orbiting our planet through a minefield of space debris, the smallest particle of which could do serious damage to said tin can. That Scott Kelly would volunteer to spend the better part of a year floating about in such a perilous environment never fails to leave me in complete awe.
Because that’s truly what space travel is all about. Perilous, claustrophobic isolation plagued by scarce resources and the ever-present possibility of being driven completely bat-nuts crazy due to the perilous, claustrophobic isolation and scarce resources. Survival in our own planetary orbit is completely dependent on our ability to successfully launch and dock resupply ships with the ISS, which doesn’t always have such great odds for completion. (Watch the PBS documentary, A Year in Space, for all the evidence you’ll need). The distance between survival and destruction is a really thin line, so very easy to just slip over.
So, I always fall back on the rosy fantasy that is Star Trek space travel. In spite of all the very real dangers, at least on board the Enterprise one has the fairly reliable comforts of food replicators, holo-decks, transporters, protective shields, and a galaxy filled with friendly occupied planets and star bases within hailing frequency. That’s the universe you want to be jetting around in.
Not the Alien universe. Let’s leave the issue of rampaging Xenomorphs aside and just focus on what the intrepid crews of the Nostromo and Solaco were faced with on a day-to-day basis. Yes, the technology and sheer construction of their vessels is impressive. (Heck, there are androids who completely pass as humans, glitches be damned.) But even in these seemingly indestructible vessels, the crews are always out there on the raggedy edge of nowhere, with no possibility of timely rescue. The resources they carry with them are all they have. There’s not going to be a convenient dilithium crystal planet within warp-speed range when they run out of juice.
The vessels themselves have seen better days. Retrofitted and repurposed, the Nostromo requires constant maintenance and benefits from really the most skeletal of maintenance crews. Battling an unseen and unknown enemy on its decks, the already small crew is quickly decimated. When blowing up the ship becomes the only option for survival, Ellen Ripley is left to maneuver the complex mechanics of setting the self-destruct sequence on her own. She has one shot to make it to the one available escape shuttle and is ultimately left floating in the vast nothingness, barely making it back to even the most remote human outpost decades later. (Without the advantage of hyper sleep, this would have been a quickly ended story.)
On the Solaco, a ship capable of carrying thousands of troops, we have one meager troop of Marines, scarcely sufficient to survive even the first few minutes of reconnaissance on the planet they’ve been sent to investigate. When it’s time to escape, they’re faced with the reality that there are only two drop ships capable of transport back and forth from the surface of LV-426. You never escape the sense that it will be the corporate cost-saving measures (in both physical and human resources) that will bring everything down in the end.
It’s this sense of corporate realism that brings the Alien universe uncomfortably close to the reality, and potential horror, of space travel today. I recently read Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (a book I don’t recommend for the ISS recreational reading list). In it, humanity’s only hope for surviving a global extinction event is to hastily outfit their fictional ISS to house a few hundred selected humans. The catch is that they will need to live on their floating tin can not for just years, but centuries, perhaps even millennia. Feasibility of such a scenario aside, it raises interesting questions about what truly long-term survival in space would mean for human existence.
So, Xenomorphs or not, I’m very grateful for, and always in awe of the Scott Kellys of our universe. Until we have all the benefits of Star Trek flight accommodations (and at no extra charge), I think I’m content to do my galaxy hopping from the comforts of my couch and with the protective distance afforded by my Blu-ray player.
Boldly go . . . but bring a really, really big suitcase.