“Space Cannibals” sounds like the perfect title for a Roger Corman sci-fi movie but it’s actually something space scientists are thinking about as we move closer to sending humans on long space flights to set up bases on the Moon and Mars and put themselves in situations where they could be stranded without food or hope for survival. If the history of early land and sea expeditions is any indication, the chance that stranded space explorers might also turn to eating the flesh of their comrades is real. But is it inevitable?
“We had to eat these dead bodies, and that was it. The flesh had protein and fat, which we needed, like cow meat. I was also used to medical procedures so it was easier for me to make the first cut. The decision to accept it intellectually is only one step, though. The next step is to actually do it. And that was very tough. Your mouth doesn’t want to open because you feel so miserable and sad about what you have to do.”
In a real example of survival cannibalism, Roberto Canessa recounted to National Geographic the tragic story of the rugby team from Uruguay that crashed in the Andes in 1972 – Canessa was one of 16 survivors whose accounts of cannibalism were told in the book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors and in the movie Alive. Dr. Cameron Smith, a space technology researcher, one of the scientists researching cannibalism in space, told The Metro that Canessa and his fellow survivors tried to work together and only ate the flesh of those who had already died. He thinks survivors of a space event would do the same – provided they established pre-agreed rules to follow in the event of such situations.
“The systems have to be really reliable and that’s why they need to be tested before.”
Dr. Charles Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at Edinburgh University, agrees that rules help but he focuses on extensive preparation and testing … things which history tells us don’t always stop cannibalism either. Cockell refers to Captain John Franklin's Arctic exploration expedition in 1845 – which we know now as “Franklin’s Lost Expedition.”
“That’s based on historical situations – Franklin’s crew tried to find the north-west passage on ships in the late 19th century – they were the most sophisticated pieces of technology available at that time. They had tinned food, which was the new technology – and yet, they got lost, stranded and they ended up degenerating into cannibalism. So even with the best technology, isolated human communities can degenerate very quickly.”
His version of the Franklin expedition is a space trip to Jupiter’s moon Callisto, which appears to be hospitable enough to allow the travelers to establish and control the means of their own survival – set up a self-contained community that creates everything it needs and is based around a renewable space farm. Unfortunately …
“If you put a group of people on Callisto, things start going wrong and the plant growth module breaks down, they are going to eat each other if there is no other way to survive.”
In other words, the key to survival is food … and the last resort when it comes to food is each other – something no amount of technology, testing or pre-arranged deals can prevent.
Roger Corman – who is still alive at age 95 – may not be able to solve this problem cinematically … but he could definitely make “Space Cannibals” sexy, exciting and entertaining.