Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Mushroom Rocket Fuel



SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Europa Report. Continue reading at your own risk.

Over the weekend I went to see Europa Report; a science fiction film portraying a privately-funded human-on-board mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's 67 moons. Europa has particular interest because of its fractured icy facade and potential sub-surface oceans. What tentacled creatures might be creatching in the depths?


Using documentary-style cinematography reminiscent of the Truman Show and District 9 the film is presented as "found footage" compiled after-the-fact leading the viewer up to the big reveal at the end. The footage is choppy and claustrophobic as it is mostly from the perspective of "web-cams" mounted around the ship.

I commend the directors for staying true to the realities that may accompany a space journey hundreds of millions of miles long; pale complexions, back-sweat, and the drab glow of florescent lighting.  I could barely stand two hours of it so I can only imagine the psychological effects of 22 months in that environment.

I'm not here to completely spoil the film for would-be movie-goers but I want to talk about a specific plot twist that amused my biochemical inclination.

When communication with earth is lost due to a solar flare chaos ensues. The crew-members start dying off by a series of unfortunate events. The first character to go is Engineer James Corrigan played by (pictured above).  The situation which leaves him hanging is where the mushroom connection comes into play.

Corrigan is suited up with fellow engineer Andrei Blok () to go on a repair mission outside the ship.  While attempting to repair the communication fuse-box Corrigan reefs on a stuck pin which causes a minor explosion. As the metal panel flies off the communication module it tears a hole in Andrei's space suit and draws blood.  Andrei tries to cover the hole with his other hand but is loosing air quickly.  The two engineers high-tail it for the ships open hatch but before they enter Andrei notices a yellowish-brown smear all over Corrigan's space-suite.  Hydrazine! Hydrazine is a rocket-fuel used by NASA inside the orbital maneuvering systems (OMS) and reaction control systems (RCS) of spacecraft and also as fuel to stabilize landers during terminal descent. If Corrigan enters the ship he'll pollute the precious oxygen supply and everyone on board will eventually get sick and probably die. If it were just him out there they could perhaps figure out a way to get him out of the suit in space and then he could enter the open hatch but Andrei is running out of air because of the tear in his space-suit.

Hydrazine, hydrazine. Where had I heard of this before? It was in a wildly different context.  Ah ha! It was during an edible mushroom identification course at the Oregon State University extension building in Jacksonville, OR.  An MD was highlighting the worst-case-scenarios of misidentifying morels.  He described receiving patients in the ER who had passed out while chopping up a bag full of what they thought were the edible morels (in the genus Morchella). The cause of their hostpital visit? A form a hydrazine in the false-morel (genus Gyromitra). Whilst preparing what they thought would be a culinary delight filled with complex earthy flavors, the unwitting victims of the false-morels were breathing in the volatile hydrazine off-gassing from their mound of mushrooms. If these ill-trained mushroom hunters had not received medical attention they very well may have died.  And here we come back to our crew of marooned Eurpopans.  If they had allowed Corrigan to enter the hatch they would all breath in the same substance the poor Oregonians had encountered but without the benefit of a hospital down the road.

In the movie the captain () made a decision to let one person die to save everyone.  This is not a difficult decision when put in a broader context of time (if Corrigan had been allowed in everyone, including Corrigan would have died) but in the moment the captain shuts him out it seems cold.  This dilemma is a microcosm of the bigger ethical question proposed by the film as a whole. What kind of sacrifices are worth making for discovery?

 
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