In 1783 there was a pair of slightly eccentric Frenchmen who decided for various reasons to send a sheep, duck and rooster up in a hot air balloon. Space.com deems it “One of the Great Moments of Flight” but to me it’s just the first example of animals being sent into space. Another being the golden years of American AstroChimps from 1948-1961.
Recently besides some animal experiments on the ISS it’s primarily been people going up into space. Which is good because for scientific purposes there’s too many potential errors with animals to fully equate their conditions with that of humans. But with the rigorous tests that the people up there have had done to them. We’re finding out that space does some weird things to people.
The Overview Effect
I’ll start with the positive. In his book “The Overview Effect” Frank White talks about how seeing space from beyond fundamentally changes your perspective. It’s like in Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” speech. It makes all the human bickering, arguing and conflict. And the harm and loss of life contained therein, seem absolutely ridiculous and wasteful. Ron Garan puts it pretty succinctly in his book The Orbital Perspective;
In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet. ” -Ron Garan
The people who return from space are not the same ones who have gone up. For a variety of reasons space does weird things to its visitors. It affects their bodies, their minds and their emotions. In some very profound and impactful ways.
The Psychology of Confinement
Recent studies involving long-term stays aboard space vessels have proven one thing. The astronaut of the future won’t be the square-jawed icon of days past. It’ll be the one who can survive for years in cramped confinement with the same few people. Without fighting or breaking down and while still being productive within a very restrictive daily schedule.
Mission Control sets the schedules the astronauts follow each day. They typically run from about 7am to 7pm, with weekends off. Except for some cleaning on Saturdays and perhaps a bit of work on Sundays. However that’s just the scientific endeavors. The reality is being in space is nothing but work. The exercise requirements, preparing food, going to the bathroom, even sleeping. It’s all vastly different from on Earth and that, coupled with the sheer distance between the astronaut and their home, plays havoc with astronauts psyches.
Depression is an ongoing issue for astronauts. Its been found that midway through missions astronauts start getting very testy with each other and Mission Control. Through a psychological phenomena known as “displacement” They begin blaming others for their own frustrations with the micromanaging and circumstances. This is of course, a very different reality than what most people picture when they think of “astronauts”. Less sexy for sure, but infinitely more real. And it’s these problems we’ll have to overcome as we work towards a multi-year manned mission to Mars.
Over 130,000 Sunrises
The ISS fully orbits the planet every 92 minutes. That means if you’re paying attention you could see around 16 sunrises a day. The ISS has been orbiting this planet for over 5200 days. However the astronauts onboard really only stay up there for 6 months or so. It may not seem like that long, but life aboard the ISS has some unique challenges. And then there’s Scott Kelly who stayed up there for an entire year as part of NASA’s One Year mission. While up there he will have lost some bone and muscle density. That’s expected and even the 2.5 hours of exercise each astronaut does a day can only limit the damage. For reference heres Mike Hopkins showing off some space workouts.
Scott Kelly will likely have lost some vision as well. It’s still not fully understood but over 20% of returning astronauts report some significant vision loss. Some researchers suggest its nutrition, others the lack of gravity on the eyeballs displacing fluids.
Research will continue on these physiological effects of microgravity. But it’s becoming quite clear that long stints without gravity plays havoc with the human body and mind. Returning to Earth is equally challenging. Astronauts return physically weak. Emotionally and mentally drained. They’ve achieved whats likely been the result of a lifetimes work. They did it! Yet they return weak, and uncertain.
That Feeling of What Comes Next
This is because reaching space is a triumph and a weight off the astronauts shoulders. But then the crushing reality of month after month of deprivation, confinement and challenging adjustments begins. Everything they’re used to is different. Moving through and interacting with their surroundings is different. The people they care about are inaccessible except for occasional phone calls. They’re among humanities finest, but that doesn’t mean these things don’t impact them. Buzz Aldrin reports significant depression and alcoholism after his return from the historic moon landing. Modern space travel can be crushing.
But push on we must. For space travel and the challenges within rank among the most noble, worthy and awe-inspiring missions someone could devote their lives to. And the benefits the entire species reaps, makes the sacrifice worthwhile.
I’m a poor enough writer on the subject, and I don’t intend to diminish these brave men and women in any way. My intent is just to share some of the harsher aspects of modern space travel and to help share an understanding of how truly brave these people are. Because they know WAY MORE about these struggles than I do. And yet they still choose to go.
The Mission is Mars
Mary Roach in her book “Packing For Mars” does a very entertaining overview of some of the foibles of the Space Program and the challenges facing astronauts today. I highly recommend giving it a read.
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