An editorial collaboration that celebrates the biggest ideas in our world. Join us every week for new stories and mind-bending video.
Angelo Vermeulen’s four-month vacation to Hawaii was unlike any other. Rather than splaying out on a beach, he sat locked inside a bubble atop the Mauna Loa volcano. Instead of lounging around in a Speedo, he fumbled around dry lava in a space suit. And forget feasting on juicy tropical fruits; he gnawed on prepackaged instant food. So goes the life of a fake astronaut.
Three years later, Vermeulen — a volunteer crew commander of HI-SEAS, a NASA-funded Mars simulation — has rejoined society and no longer dons a space suit just to step outside. And in the time since his bleak summer getaway, the long-haul race to the real Mars has sped light-years ahead. NASA is shooting for the 2030s, with “deep-space habitation facilities,” says NASA spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton. Vermeulen is optimistic on all fronts: “It might take 50 years or it might take 500 years, but it’s going to happen,” says the 44-year-old TED senior fellow in his TED Talk. Yet whether the trip takes decades or millennia, Vermeulen’s radical “pre-enactment” in Hawaii may prove more crucial to reaching “the big-picture dream of humankind,” he says.
Few are “space-suited” for the dual task of philosophizing about the future of space colonization and ensuring we aren’t incinerated by cosmic radiation in the process. Vermeulen is a space systems researcher — a biologist who’s finishing up research on interstellar travel for his second Ph.D., at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands — and when not digging in on the science of astrobiology, he brings his space passion to Earth, serving as a veritable Marina Abramovic of terrestrial-astral performance. He designs art installations like Biomodd, which uses algae to “cool its computer processors,” and spacecraft sculptures such as Seeker, a global community project of starship prototypes. His work is exhibited worldwide, from New York to the Philippines, with the goal of encouraging the public to more rigorously explore the future of humans in space.
Vermeulen is so committed to his interactive art that he once locked himself, along with five other artists, inside one of his creations on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia. “We test what we build,” he says simply. The European Space Agency came knocking, asking Vermeulen to consult on MELiSSA, an artificial ecosystem for long-term space missions.
Growing up in tiny Belgium, hardly a space giant, Vermeulen never considered a career as an astronaut. But at age 8, when his parents gifted him his first microscope, he started cultivating an interest in ecology. He earned his first Ph.D., in biology, from the University of Leuven in Belgium, where he analyzed the plant and animal specimens he collected during nature walks. Today, Vermeulen has moved well beyond the microscopic, with bigger plans on the horizon. Getting to Mars is merely half the battle, he says. Humans must be psychologically ready to deal with the isolation and limited resources, or even endless boredom. What’s there to do for fun in deep space? How should we spend our time? “I really don’t think the human mind is ready,” Vermeulen says with a shrug.
Neither are our wallets, it seems. Government funding for space has plummeted, from 4.4 percent of America’s federal budget in 1966 to 0.5 percent today. Plus, Mars is such a long-term, expensive project, it’s vital that the Mars missions are backed not just by dollars but also by public support. It’s precisely why we need more scientists — and yes, artist-scientists, says Mark Lupisella, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Granted, others are already imagining our future in space, including wunderkind Elon Musk, who’s planning for a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2025 (SpaceX didn’t respond to requests for comment; their heads are probably in the clouds). Creative types like Vermeulen, though, can evince the wonkiness of space habitation and interstellar travel in ways an engineer can’t, and “better tap into all of the stuff that motivates and moves people, emotionally, philosophically and spiritually,” Lupisella says.
Along with his doctoral research on starship development, Vermeulen is pondering not only how to get to the Red Planet but how to live there once landing. For him, it’s not enough to survive the lethal danger that awaits humans in deep space; the threats to soul and psyche must also be addressed — what, he asks, will humanity do as it redefines itself, its notions of social life, community, identity, leisure and recreation in zero gravity? Vermeulen’s must-have item for space is “a healthy dose of autonomy” — that’s what makes us human, he says. Ironic, coming from a man who keeps trapping himself inside strange, tiny structures.
But if NASA, SpaceX and the rest of the space-braving crew don’t properly prepare for how we’ll stay mentally grounded as well as reorient our social identity (“the culture of Earth”) in a radically new environment, we’re doomed long before those spacecrafts ever reach their launchpads. “Psychologically, emotionally and socially, this could very well become a big disaster,” Vermeulen says.
He would know. Stepping forth from his self-imposed volcanic isolation of 120 days, Vermeulen was blinded by the explosive green and blue hues of life on planet Earth, “the beauty of vision,” he says. For him, this is home sweet home — if only he could take it with him to Mars.