Interview: Ido Mizrahy and Cady Coleman on SPACE: THE LONGEST GOODBYE

Ido Mizrahy’s SPACE: THE LONGEST GOODBYE, now in theaters and available on VOD, explores the next generation of human spaceflight missions to Mars and beyond. As NASA contemplates manned flights to regions beyond the reach of real-time communication, the vital work of its Psychology and Human Factors departments looms large. What impact does it have on the human mind to experience such long-term isolation? What solutions – from AI companions and virtual reality to induced hibernation – might become standard practice in caring for astronauts on missions for as long as three years? We sat down to explore these questions with director Ido Mizrahy and one of the film’s primary subjects: former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, whose served bout the International Space Station (ISS) in 2010.

Science & Film: Can you tell me about the genesis of this project?

Ido Mizrahy: A producer on my last documentary, Valda Witt, wanted to do something about the mission to Mars. This was back in 2014. We started taking these fun trips to Marshall Space Center, Johnson Space Center, and Kennedy Space Center to meet astronauts and flight directors. It was all fascinating, but I couldn’t figure out the story. It felt like a huge canvas. When we finally met the psychology and behavioral health team at Johnson Space Center, it changed everything. I thought, ‘We're not talking about space right now. We're talking about the importance of keeping these familial, personal connections between people in order to support the mission. This is a story I can relate to.’

Shortly after that I was introduced to Cady. It was important to talk to the psychology teams [at NASA]. It was important to talk to Dr. Al Holland, but then Cady told me her personal story. That really opened the door.

Cady Coleman: I love that Ido talked to many different astronauts, with NASA's great cooperation, because we all have different stories. We always joke around [saying], if you ask five astronauts, you'll get six opinions.

S&F: Cady, the documentary makes clear you’ve communicated your experience to NASA as part of standard protocol, but how did participating in this documentary change your narrative?

CC: Ido asked things that nobody had ever asked. I think that the human aspect of this movie puts the human into ‘human spaceflight.’ It is something that must be a part of the journey when thinking about going further [into space.] I loved that Ido was going to help NASA tell this story because it's not NASA’s forte to dwell on this part of it.

Ido also interviewed my son Jamey separately. Answering Ido’s questions opened up a real avenue of exploration for Jamey. I cried at different things, including the trailer. Some of the lines are just so true about how hard a thing this was to do, yet I don’t regret going. Those hard things are part of life and part of exploration.

S&F: The film points to NASA having had an engineering culture, where psychology and human factors were less of a consideration until the ISS was established, meaning longer-term missions. Ido, what did you learn about the development of those areas of study within NASA?

IM: Dr. Al Holland, Dr. Jack Schuster, and Dr. Alexandra Whitmire are all open about how complicated it has been for NASA to transition over the years from a culture that initially came from the military. Then it was rooted in engineering before coming to recognize that the human is a slightly more complicated piece of machinery. It's not machinery at all. That needs to be addressed and is always evolving. For instance, how much these departments help in selection now is a much newer thing. That was only added in the last few years.

What should NASA be looking for in a candidate? There are so many things that go into selection, but it’s this idea of an astronaut being an imperfect human being who understands their own frailty and realizes that when they go away for a very long time, it's going to be complicated. It sounds simple, but promoting this facade of everything being fine is much harder to work with psychologically. That concept has really helped bring along some of the people you see in the film. They're incredible, but they're also one of us, which makes for much more interesting storytelling.

S&F: Cady, what developments did you see during your career at NASA?

CC: Traditionally the psychiatric element has been simply evaluation. Is this person mentally stable or not? That’s been the required question, not whether you’d want to spend six months with them. What I find to be a great challenge is that astronauts have many different personalities. I flew with Scott Kelly and he knows that I tell this story: From the outset people asked him ‘How are you going to be with Cady? She talks a lot.’ Nobody asked me if I wanted to go with a person of so few words! In the end, even though we're very different and didn't know each other that well at all before we flew, we had a very special relationship. You find the things that you have in common, things you didn’t expect.

S&F: The film touches on some of the tools that might be employed to benefit forthcoming Mars’ missions’ astronauts: virtual reality, AI companions, even hibernation. Cady, how do these solutions strike you considering your own experience?

CC: I am a person who explores verbally and needs to vent at the end of the day, so the ability to have conversations with family and get feedback was vital. I’ve thought about what I would do if I couldn’t get that feedback for long spans of time, so to have an AI presence that would answer just like the person you care about would be interesting.

It's easy to poke fun. I've done some things with the MIT Media Lab where I’ve been asked questions like, ‘Do you think it would make a difference to you to eat lunch in your favorite restaurant, brought to you by Google Earth and Google Street?’ I didn’t think so. Then when I tried it, I felt differently. You must be open to realizing you can’t have exactly what you had, so why not bring in these new things?

S&F: At one point hibernation solution to is referred to as ‘the stuff of science fiction.’ Ido, as a filmmaker, what are your thoughts on the interplay between science fiction and real scientific innovation? Do you think films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY inspire scientific innovation or are certain misrepresentations in cinema a hindrance?

IM: It’s hard. As a filmmaker, that’s the stuff that makes you want to be a filmmaker. Whether it’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or more recently MOON, I think the important thing is not to cave into fear. It's easy to go to that dark place right away. Maybe it’s because of those cinematic references. Maybe it’s because of very normal fears around technology stealing who we are and making us disposable. That's the easy way to think about those things and we should continue to think about them because you want to be careful and you want to regulate, but you also want to explore those things fully without keeping your foot on the brake.

CC: I celebrate what a film brings: the ability to have more storytellers. I think of movies like Ido’s as a way to start the conversation.

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