Solitude of Earth and Space Exploration

Those who sailed with Columbus faced potential solitude unknown to most explorers. Because they had no firm knowledge of the extent of their voyage in leagues and days, solitude was greatly amplified. Apollo crews knew to the nearest second and mile the magnitude of their journey. The not knowing must have affected Columbus in ways space voyages have not encountered. Among science fiction stories are those which feature "generation ships." Such vessels are designed as "worlds in space" on missions of vast distances (light years). Those who set forth for a distant star will never arrive. It will be their descendants who set foot on planets orbiting suns light years away. The loneliness faced by Columbus would exceed even these space travelers. The Santa Maria was not a "world on the sea." Its confines were modest in comparison to science fiction craft reaching forth for the stars.


Anyone who has spent three weeks without sighting land would experience the side effects of such solitude : irritability, i.e., "getting on one another's nerves," people becoming disagreeable grumbling among themselves, imaginary fears arising, verbal and even physical fights breaking out. Worst of all, a mutiny from the goal of the mission may result.

How did the crews of the 1492 and 1972 voyages deal with the stress of solitude during their respective missions?


Whether tasks involve sailor's duties or scientific enterprises, the performance of work discourages loneliness. For the men of Columbus's fleet, the everyday work of maintaining a ship in varying weather conditions did much to reduce the feeling of solitude.

A day at sea consisted of "watches" which amounted to a division of the twenty-four hours of a mariner's day into 6 four hour periods (3, 7 and 11 o'clock A.M. and P.M.). An on-board "half hour glasss" recorded the time. A ship's boy turned the device after sand flowed freely out of its upper portion entirely into the lower half. Eight of the recorded half hour emptyings comprised a watch. The duty of an on deck officer was to record with a mark on a slate each time the glass was turned. The time measurement could be corrected by the appearance of the Sun directly overhead at Noon. So important was the half hour glass that every ship carried numerous spares.


Among the sailors' entertainment during Columbus's day were games designed to pass the time. Likewise, sailors told real and fanciful tales which entertained their crewmates as surely as any campfire ghost story told by a Boy Scout leader. Other games based on rolling of dice or other "chance-like" tokens offered diversion from the monotony of the sea. Perhaps, the most popular of the entertaining pursuits was singing. Sometimes the lyric was more a chant than a song, but the lyric often related to biblical themes or nautical terms. In either case, the practice of singing a melody did much to pass the time. Even to this day, some of the most moving and appreciated of songs are those composed by ancient mariners. These folk songs have been passed from generation to generation of seamen.


Though Santa Maria's creature comforts were all but absent, there were "hot" meals. A wooden firebox, much like today's barbeque grills, had a bed of sand at its bottom and a hood to shield the fire from the wind. The menu consisted of a boring consistency of lentils and beans, salted meat, olive oil, hardtack (a type of bread or sea biscuit), and a beverage of water or red wine. The olive oil was used in the cooking of fish and meat. Additionally, barrelled salt sardines and garlic might have been aboard for foodstuffs. It is thought the seamen had but one hot meal a day, probably at 11:00 A.M. Though the water could become stagnant, it could be replenished when torrents of rain fell.

Columbus's Food Manifest

"Victualling them should be done in this manner: the third part of [the breadstuff to be] good biscuit, well seasoned and not old, or the major portion will be wasted; a thired part of salted flour, salted at the time of milling; and a third part of wheat. Further these will be wanted wine, salt meat, oil, vinegar, cheese, chickpeas, lentils, beans, salt fish and fishing tackle, honey, rice, almonds and raisins."

Astronaut Solitude

The abbreviated time required for a lunar journey compared to a 4,000 miles voyage in a sailing ship makes the challenge of solitude a much lighter burden. Nevertheless, alertness is so very important in operating a spaceship that adequate sleep and avoidance of boredom are paramount.

On board audio recorders provided modest entertainment during the nearly two week lunar trips. Additionally, ground control often broadcast over the audio communication's channel daily news reports. Efforts to keep the Apollo 17 crew alert included voice exchanges with family members as well as television interviews broadcast throughout planet Earth from space.

The challenge of astronaut solitude becomes a very real factor in missions to Mars. Such voyages compare timewise to the months Columbus took to reach, examine, and return from the New World. Of course, life aboard an orbiting space station poses solitude challenges similar to those faced by Columbus and his crew.

The popular television series Star Trek addresses life aboard a space station. With the advent of virtual reality games and content on CDROMs and DVDs, and other digital sources of amusement, even the mass transporter command "Beam me up Scotty" won't be needed to keep a space crew free from isolation and loneliness.

1. What entertainment would you like to take with you on a trip to Mars?

2. If you crewed on the Santa Maria, what would you have brought with you to keep from getting bored with the voyage? Why did you choose this item? Remember you are limited to items existing in the year 1492.

3. Using library resources, you are to determine what foods the astronauts ate on their jouney to the Moon. How were these foods preserved?

4. Think of an activity which was really boring. Why was it so boring? The next time you participated in this boring activity how did you make it less boring?

Return to Home Port Mate.

Last modified: Monday, 28-Aug-00 04:00:00 PM CDT

Author: Jerry Woodfill / NASA, Mail Code ER7,

Curator: Cecilia Breigh, NASA JSC ER7

Responsible Official: Charles Gott, NASA JSC ER7

Automation, Robotics and Simulation Division, Walter W. Guy, Chief.