Space is vast. The size of space is mind-warping and hard to comprehend. Our brains are able to understand feet and miles (or meters and kilometers) here on Earth, but once we get outside of Earth’s atmosphere and the distances of space shift to lightyears, it is a bit overwhelming and hard to picture. That is why it is so strange that space exploration, for the humans who have been to space, is often dominated by tight confinement within cramped spacecraft. The void outside the ship is enormous, but the space inside, where humans mostly experience space travel, is tiny.
In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach explores the tight spaces of space travel and what it means to live and work with other people in such confinement. She describes the lengthy selection process for astronauts for space programs and the physical and mental considerations that selection committees make. It is not enough to be a brilliant scientist, engineer, or pilot, you have to work well with others in isolation, you have to have the right gut to handle the food, and you certainly can’t have bad breath. Writing about the selection process and isolation chamber tests, Roach writes,
“In the previous isolation-chamber test, one applicant was eliminated because he expressed too much irritation and another because he was unable to express his irritation and acted it out passively. [JAXA psychologists Koji] Tachibana and [Natsuhiko] Inoue look for applicants who manage to achieve a balance. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson strikes me as a good example. On NASA TV recently, I heard someone at NASA tell her that he could not find a series of photographs that she or some member of her crew had recently taken. If I’d spent the morning shooting photographs and the person I’d shot them for then misplaced them, I’d say look again, lamb chop. Whitson said, without a trace of irritation, that’s not a problem. We can do them over.”
The confinement of space exploration means that people have to be comfortable working and living with the same people without a chance to escape them for a long period of time. The success of expensive science experiments, the continued functioning of space equipment, and possibly the lives of everyone onboard are dependent on a good working relationship between each crew member. Small things, such as gross hygiene habits and passive aggressive behaviors could be disastrous. In an environment where physical space is overwhelmingly large, our successful exploration is defined by incredibly cramped spaces, and that changes what personal characteristics are necessary for success.