Welcome to the latest Fireside Chat! I sat down (ie emailed back and forth, but I’m sure there was a roaring fire at some point) with Brian Ramos, an all-around awesome person with degrees in engineering and a Masters in International Space Studies. He previously did work with Engineering World Health (a non-profit that works to improve healthcare systems in developing countries). He also recently completed an 8 month long stint in the HI-SEAS Mars habitat. This essentially saw him living inside a dome, next to one volcano and on the slopes of another, alongside a small crew, to help the study of what these kind of living conditions would be like for potential future manned missions to Mars. So we talked about his experiences and his ideas about depictions of space in media and science-fiction.- Chloe
Can you tell us a bit about your background and interest in space and science?
My academic background is in Biomedical and Electrical Engineering. I also have a degree in International Space Studies from the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. My professional experience ranges from working on improving medical care in developing countries to work in the space industry. As much as possible, I try and make as much of my life about exploration, and both traveling and space/science fulfill this need (living in a dome on a volcano included).
Because you brought it up in there, can you explain the dome part of your answer?
Although living in a dome may seem as if it’s the opposite of exploration, given its stationary nature, it fulfilled this need to delve into a different way of life. It was an adventure in its own way. Rather than trekking around the world, what happens when you step outside of it entirely? What happens when you’re able to turn down all the noise and tear yourself away from the constant connectivity of the modern world? These were the sort of questions I was able to answer or at least dive into with the experience. On a more surface level, there was also a lot to learn through the research and performing of work, such as exploring lava tube caves.
Do you think the experience inside the habitat changed your perception of how community and/or relationships in space/sci-fi media are portrayed?
I haven’t thought about its connection to space media, as much as it’s given me some insight into how a real astronaut may feel under certain conditions; such as what may actually be necessary or unnecessary for creating a positive work and living environment, in an isolated space.
I did give thoughts to some sci-fi pieces such as I Am Legend or the movie Passengers in relation to being isolated. I tried to imagine how different I would feel if I were on the same mission alone.
What kind of space media (books, movies, tv) have you enjoyed? What made these works stand out positively to you?
I’m going to have to say Firefly is probably my favorite space-themed show. Its incredible writing, character backgrounds and interactions, and well-meaning but stern protagonist all make me wish the series had continued. There’s something enticing about a group who lives job-to-job, traveling around to different planets. It scratches a certain traveler’s itch and envy, you know, except without the forced life of crime.
For movies, I’ve enjoyed the new Star Trek movies (the first in particular), Star Wars, and movies like Arrival. Star Trek provided this fantasy of an organization that anyone could join and lead a life, and career, exploring and observing the universe—basically a dream come true for any of us who would want to leave the planet someday. Plus, there’s a market for skills like martial arts; so, for once, my childhood hobbies would be respected on a resume!
Additionally, the idea of Star Trek’s prime directive is a really important thought in science fiction, I think. Having a rule of not meddling is something that we, as humans, rarely emphasize enough in practice. The crews in Star Trek aren’t looking to create settlements or colonize, but instead exploring to understand. I’ve enjoyed that idea of exploration rooted in good moral intentions, as well as the thought of curiosity being enough of a motivator for us to go out there.
I’ve enjoyed movies that try and have a degree of realism involved. The Martian or Gravity might be good examples of this. Though they’re not perfect, they have some elements that relate to actual space exploration as we know it, and that can be exciting for someone who knows the field. That being said, I don’t think that realism is necessary in science fiction. If anything, I want the media to take me somewhere new—show me possibilities rather than reality. Arrival did a nice job of this. Both the short story and the movie ask questions, and propose possibilities, that leave you thinking a while after the credits roll. It begged for conversation.
It wouldn’t be fair if I left out movies about actual space missions. Apollo 13 is probably the best example of this. Truth is often more engaging than fiction, and the story of what those men went through is engaging in every aspect.
Since you brought up films about actual space missions, I’m curious as to whether you feel those kind of films have an easier or harder time depicting space (since they have to stick to realism)? And, do you think it’s important for non-realistic science fiction to still realistically depict space? If so, why?
I’m not sure that it’s a question of whether one is easier or harder to depict space, but perhaps more about the intent. A movie about Apollo 13 would likely go to great lengths to get the story correct, consulting with experts and the like, and the dramatization might be amplified for storytelling purposes. They consult experts on movies such as Star Trek, as well, a lot of times, but they don’t necessarily strive to be accurate and I don’t think they really need to be.
What are your feelings/thoughts on science-fiction?
Oddly, space fiction isn’t something I indulge in much. Science-fiction in general does have a lot of utility. First and foremost, it needs to be good entertainment. Anything beyond that is a bonus. Science fiction does a good job of sparking ideas and showing off what kinds of things we may be able to create or want in the future.
The most valuable thing science fiction provides, for me, is a barometer for our society’s current trends. Culture drives everything, and space exploration is no exception. As interest in space and science has increased throughout the last several years, so has the amount of shows, movies, and projects about space. Ten years ago, only people in the industry could tell you what SpaceX was. Now, Elon Musk is a well-known name, complete with appearances in science-fiction blockbuster movies, such as Iron Man 2.
What are things you’d like to see more of in science fiction (ideas, technologies, etc)?
I’d like to see more depth, in general. Science fiction, like any work of fiction, is stronger when it urges us to question ourselves and the world around us.
I would love to see more movies like Moon. In general, I’d love for filmmakers or whoever greenlights those films to feel less inclined to put in action scenes or pointless explosions into movies just for the sake of it. I loved 90% of Passengers—having to make the choice of waking someone up in the face of an eternity alone, at the expense of guilt, is a fascinating concept all on its own. I could have done without the engine heat body-blasting. These pieces don’t often offer up much, and often detract from the story.
That being said, given that no filmmakers will read this and think, ‘by gosh, he’s right!’, I’ll go ahead and say, at the very least, I would not be opposed to Star Wars adding a heavy second dose of Donnie Yen or more lightsaber battles. Nobody goes to those movies hoping to see Darth Vader falling in love.
You’re interested in cultural issues and aspects of space, as well as the science, is that something that you’d like to see addressed more in science-fiction? What are your feelings on science fiction’s depictions of exploring and living on other planets? Having had the habitat experience, do you think there’s specific elements of living on another planet that you’d like to see depicted?
I’m going to answer your questions in what might be a different way than what you’re asking.
The old saying that truth is stranger than fiction is very true. If someone were looking for science fiction inspiration, I would look towards organizations that look at concepts for things like multigenerational worldships – the concept of having a self-sustaining society, contained within a ship, which would travel over many generations before reaching their destination. These are real studies that consider launching a group of people into space, with the knowledge that the ones who arrive at the destination will not be the ones who left Earth. Because of the complexity of the scenario, there are a lot of interesting questions that arise from the thought exercise. What might religions look like in that worldship, for example? Would they exist at all? Would they be Earth-based religions or something new? Would religions that focus on Earth matter to people who had never seen it? What happens when a terrible leader comes to power in one of the generations? How likely is that to happen? What might an economy look like on this ship?
These are just a few examples but the point is that a creator can take one simple concept – a Mars base, a worldship, the theory of panspermia, and run with the idea. Start with the truth and show me where your mind runs to.
Where do you hope to see the representation of space in science fiction and media go?
I’d like to see a growing demand and supply for space-related science fiction, simply because it shows that people are becoming interested in the topic. NASA is a publicly-funded organization, which means it depends on voters who care about space exploration. Without a desire and popularization of space exploration, I think it will be difficult for us to go anywhere interesting. At the end of the day, people need to care about the search for life and thirst for understanding of our universe.
For people wishing to learn more about space, what would be good resources?
It depends on what sort of space they’re trying to learn about. There is a lot on the NASA.gov website about their research and progress. Speakers, such as Neil Degrasse Tyson, do a great job of being effective space communicators. I urge people to look outside of what NASA is doing. There are space programs, in many different nations, that look to leverage space in new and interesting ways. For those looking for an academic institution to grow their space industry knowledge, I highly recommend The International Space University.
Are you involved in the creation of anything space media related? (This question is essentially so you can plug your podcast, because I am helpful like that)
Yes! We run a podcast called Space For Everyone that’s going to explore interesting aspects of the space industry, ranging from religion to space organizations in developing nations. Our goal is to showcase the international and cultural aspects of space exploration. I also run The Traveling Spaceman blog which talks about my HI-SEAS mission and other lessons learned through exploring the Earth.
Since often the focus, at least in the news and popular media, on space is linked to technology and exploration, are there aspects of space or space exploration that you wished people talked about more?
There are a couple of things.
This isn’t unique to space exploration, but news media tends to focus on the accidents. When something goes wrong and people’s lives are threatened, there is a ton of coverage. There isn’t a lot when things are running smoothly. When the space shuttle program was cancelled, many people back home asked me what I thought of ‘NASA being shut down’. The International Space Station has been flying for over 15 years consistently and I think that should be recognized. When things are running smoothly, we tend to take for granted that the astronauts there are risking their lives every time they strap themselves to a rocket.
I wished that people connected more with the idea of exploration being something we should do simply because we are, because we exist and we can. No one asks why we want to breathe or be loved. We all understand that:those of us who are addicted to traveling or space feel the same wayabout hopping on a plane or discovering a possible signal of life on another planet.