In her book Packing for Mars Mary Roach writes, “space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much normalcy can people forgo? For how long, and what does it do to them?”
I really like this quote. When I typically think about exploring what it means to be human I think about current art and pop culture, about ancient human societies and the art and culture of those societies, and about our relationships and connections. I don’t often think about the cold vacuum of space, of planets beyond the earth, or of gravitational waves. But Roach suggests that we can learn a lot about humanity by studying the ways in which we have studied extreme cosmic phenomenon and explored those places where our bodies were never meant to be. By studying humans in such environments, by looking at the innovations that keep us alive in space, and by examining our search for the secrets of the universe, something deep and meaningful about humanity is revealed.
Roach is famous for exploring the parts of the world that we would rather not think about. There are countless innovations and discoveries that make life easier for all of us, but that we would rather not think about. Roach, however, is not afraid to look at dirty, messy, and sometimes disgusting science directly, all in an attempt to better understand our humanity. It turns out that space exploration is a perfect area of study for someone like Mary Roach. It also turns out that we can learn a lot about who we are, about the things we need, the luxuries we could live without, and how our societies operate when we study space and the efforts that go into keeping people alive and comfortable in space.
Humans did not evolve to live in space, and keeping someone alive on a space station or flying on a space shuttle requires that we truly know what it means to be human. It means we have to think about the mind, the body, our basic needs, and beyond. What does it mean to live on a diet of food designed to be highly digestible to leave the fewest possible waste products at end? What does it mean to be in a confined space for long periods of time? And what is it like thinking about these problems and how to solve them? The answer to each of these questions teaches us more about ourselves. By looking up, by striving to move away from the planet, and by putting ourselves in places we never belonged we learn more about ourselves, our societies, and our shared humanity. Space teaches us about ourselves, even if that wasn’t the goal when we set out to explore the stars.