Friday, 26 April 2013

26/04/13 - Ex-Astronauts

Being an astronaut is quite a tricky thing, I imagine. You need to know all sorts about science and stuff, but also have the extraordinary bravery to be strapped into a relatively flimsy metal tube and fired into a harsh, high-pressure atmosphere which is both extremely cold and somewhat lacking in oxygen. So the fact that spacemen always look so nonchalant in the videos they shoot of themselves while orbiting the Earth is nothing short of astonishing, frankly.

But when the heroics are over and they find themselves with their feet back on terra firma, it must be quite a disorienting and unnerving process, trying to reacquaint themselves with gravity and what-have-you. The Earth would surely seem a strange and annoyingly busy place once you’ve seen it in widescreen from above. Some potential challenges would probably include:

Dropping things
The thing about hanging out in spacecraft is that there’s no gravity. You just float about the place, as does everything around you. You must quite quickly get used to moving about the vessel by grabbing on to bits of it to propel yourself along, and to be very careful when you sneeze. And while things like pens and toothbrushes do tend to float about of their own accord, they will generally be roughly where you left them for a few seconds at least; for example, if you’re brushing your teeth, you can leave the brush hanging while you turn around to grab the toothpaste, and when you turn back you’ll probably find that the brush is still hanging there. This doesn’t happen on Earth. Gravity will make a fool of you. I wonder how long it takes astronauts to get used to gravity again, and how many cups of coffee they drop in doing so? They must constantly be breaking things.

In space, as the old saying goes, no-one can hear you scream. They also can’t knock on your front door and invite you to go out for a walk in the park. There’s nothing out there. (Well, no, there’s loads of stuff out there, but it’s not really accessible to you.)
And when you’re used to being hermetically sealed in a quite small craft, with the prospect of immediate sucking death should you accidentally crack open a window, it doesn’t really enamour you to the concept of going outside, does it?
The thought of opening up the front door and ambling to the shops may well be something that astronauts hold dear, something they can look forward to having the freedom of doing once they’re safely home. But it’s equally possible that they might become irreversibly chained to the notion of spending all of their time in one small space. Outside? Outside is dangerous.

Other people
Manned space flights are not busy things, personnel-wise. There’s only going to be a couple of other guys up there with you, or thereabouts. This must mess with your head a little; you’d know them inside-out (possibly literally, if you accidentally flick the ‘reverse’ switch on their catheter or what-have-you), they’d be the principle touchpoints of your day-to-day existence. So how much of a mind-bender must it be to be wandering around a crowded station or down a busy high street once you’re back home? People must be terrifying. There’s just so many of them.

Other people’s problems
One thing people love to do is whinge about their lives. Whether they’ve got a horrible disease or have suffered some unfortunate natural disaster or terrorist act, or they’re just caught up in the irritating minutiae of modern living, the quantity of peer-to-peer griping is pretty much constant across all levels of the misfortune strata.
If you’ve been to space, some of this must grate a little. People moaning about their phone’s poor battery life or the misspelling of their name on their Starbucks cup would come across as all the more insignificant if you’ve just spent several weeks on the very knife-edge of death. ‘Your Sky+ box keeps randomly cancelling your series-links, does it? Fuck you, I’ve been to space.’

Sense of scale
The Earth looks massive from space. When you’re on it, it’s just there. That must be bewildering. You know when you see something everyday like a hair or a biscuit under a microscope, and it gives you a whole new perspective on the complexity of it? Every day on Earth must be like that for somebody who’s been into space. I bet they get transfixed by small objects like tennis balls and jars of Marmite, wondering what it would be like to walk on their surfaces if they were planet-sized. And whether there are already tiny people doing that.
NASA call this ‘the space-crazies’. Ex-astronauts often complain of seeing tiny people crawling about on their food. Probably.

Sense of futility
Much like being a retired rocket scientist or brain surgeon, returning to Earth from space really reinforces the fact that you’ve already achieved the most impressive thing you’ll ever do, and everything thereafter will be a relative disappointment.
‘It’s not rocket science,’ people say, or ‘it’s not brain surgery’, implying that either of those two disciplines represent the pinnacle of human achievement. Similarly, saying that you’re one of the handful of humans who’s actually flown out of the atmosphere and then come back again is something that no sane person can fail to find impressive. But, in knowing that you’ve done something that so few people will ever get to do, what do you have to look forward to? Sure, you can dine out on the kudos for life, but what’s your next goal?
Get drunk and get fat, I guess. Fuck it, you’ve been to space, no one can judge you.

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