Space Anxiety - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Space Anxiety

When I was in high school my physics class was hard for me because I had a hard time thinking about planetary bodies. I could do the math and understood the concepts, but thinking about space was just a little too much for me. I would begin to feel a panicky and dizzying sensation when I thought about astronomical sizes, about other planets, and about the total number of galaxies and planets in the universe. Whenever we had physics problems that involved large planetary bodies I had to push past this space anxiety and think about hypothetical tennis balls rather than Mercury or Jupiter.
Today I have mostly gotten over my space anxiety. I can watch Crash Course Astronomy with Phil Plait and read his blog. I can think about space, listen to podcasts about deep space, and imagine the huge vastness of space without spiraling into an existential crisis. But I have never been in space before, and according to Mary Roach, many astronauts experience a similar type of space anxiety, but on an entirely new level once they have left earth’s atmosphere.
Roach writes, “every now and then, you do come across astronauts who describe an anxiety unique to space. It’s not fear (though apparently astrohobia, fear of space and stars, does exist). It’s more of an intellectual freak-out, a cognitive overload. The thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming, wrote astronaut Jerry Linenger.”
Space anxiety for me occurred in a similar way, but I was not actually venturing into deep space. I was only imagining deep space from a small classroom in Reno, Nevada. I assume that the intellectual freak-out that comes form knowing how small and temporary our lives are compared to the universe itself is much worse when floating in the vacuum of space, confronted with a view of the world from the outside.
The cognitive overload that comes from our discoveries and exploration of space is the result of the size distortions of our lives. For nearly all of human history the space beyond our planet was unknown and unimportant. All that mattered was what was on Earth, but we now know that there is so much more out there. So little of what takes place on our planet will ever matter in the great vastness of space. So little of what humans throughout history have believed seems to be of any importance or relevance when we think about a hundred trillion galaxies. For my high school self, for some astronauts, and for many many people, these considerations don’t inspire awe and wonder, but trigger anxiety, overwhelm the mind, and shake foundational beliefs and understandings of life and the universe.
Confinement in Space

Confinement In Space

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.
Bored in Space

Bored In Space

“With each successive mission, space exploration becomes a little more routine. To the point, incredibly, of boredom,” writes Mary Roach in Packing for Mars. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and that means that we adjust to extraordinary circumstances and accept them as normal once they have been part of our lives for a long enough period of time. In Packing for Mars Roach explains that this has happened with space travel. Riding a massively explosive rocket outside the earths atmosphere and living in a confined space beyond the protective shell of the Earth is an incredible achievement for all of humanity. And it is also routine and hardly thought about by most people. In some ways it is inspiring that space travel is hardly inspiring. It means we have succeeded beyond a level any human could have imagined just a couple hundred years ago. It is also, however, somewhat depressing. It means we don’t recognize just how far our technological innovations have taken us, and we don’t always appreciate just how much we have learned and done through scientific exploration.
Today is an interesting time to be thinking about human adaptability, unprecedented times that become normal and routine, and major discoveries that could reshape our world. We have been dealing with a global pandemic that many of us have simply accepted at this point in time. Many of us just want to ignore it and move on with our lives. We have adapted to the risks of COVID-19, maybe modified our behaviors and life patterns a little bit, and we barely think about the number of cases and deaths from the disease each day. Early in the pandemic I spent an unreasonable amount of time looking at case statistics, charts, and trend lines of what was happening with the virus. Now, with two vaccine doses under my belt (or in my arm) I hardly think about case counts, even though I am aware of breakthrough infections and rising deaths across the country. I have simply adapted and the story of COVID-19 as normal and sometimes boring. I know I am not the only one in this boat, and that is part of why the pandemic hasn’t ended.
The pandemic also brought us breakthroughs with MRNA vaccines in the last year, a big scientific step forward in fighting diseases and developing vaccines for many diseases in the future. This was the key to returning the world to some sort of normalcy and vaccine news was huge for a few months, but now my sense is that many of us expect to get a booster shot, but that it barely registers in our day to day thinking. Vaccines, just as space travel, are amazing, but routine and boring (at least for the 49.6% of Americans who are vaccinated according to the CDC on 8/28/2021).
I think it is important that we be aware of how adaptable we are as human beings. Just as we get used to the idea of people living on space stations and vaccines being developed for deadly diseases, we adapt to our spouses and partners who were once the most exciting sparks in our lives. We adapt to the houses we live in, the cars we  drive, the restaurants we eat at, and everything that becomes a  normal part of our routines. We become bored living lives that our ancestors could only dream of. We fail to appreciate how wonderful some of the relationships in our lives are, we stop being thankful for the nice things we live with, and we become bored with miracle innovations like safe drinking water. When we don’t appreciate these things we don’t give them the attention they deserve, and things can break down and atrophy, only to remind us of how fortunate we were to have that thing. We should pause and think about how amazing our lives may be (recognizing that many of us have serious challenges to overcome in our lives), and we should try to be amazed by even the simple things we have come to take for granted. We are incredibly adaptable and that can help us survive in extreme circumstances, but it can also mean that we fail to appreciate the small miracles that make our lives worth living.

Exploring Humanity by Exploring Space

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.
Humans to Rocket Scientists

Humans to Rocket Scientists

Mary Roach opens her book Packing for Mars with the following:
“To the rocket scientists, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You’re inconstant. You take weeks to fix.”
Packing for Mars is all about the science of space that doesn’t get talked about. The news covers rocket launches, successful missions, journey’s to asteroids, and space vehicles on other planets or beyond the solar system entirely. Popular culture celebrates astronauts, sometimes asks about the food they eat, but rarely addresses the end products of that food. Roach dives into the particulars, asking the difficult and sometimes gross questions that someone has had to ask in order for human beings to become a spacefaring civilization. As the quote above shows, the most difficult aspect of this journey into space, at least for the engineers, has been figuring out how the challenges of navigating space when you take people along for the journey.
Humans, and living creatures in general, are amazing. We are incredibly adaptable to almost any situation we find ourselves within. Space is no different. We can live in a tiny hunk of metal floating without the effects of gravity thanks to our incredible adaptability skills. However, that adaptation and the effects of our environment on our living bodies has created incredible challenges for engineers who need to keep people (and mice and plants) alive. Throughout the book Roach shows not just how adaptable humans are, but how challenging it is to keep a living being alive in a reasonable way in space, and all the miraculous, and sometimes gross, innovations that have been developed along the way.

Embrace Your Life

 Yesterday I listened to Tyler Cowen’s latest episode of his podcast Conversations With Tyler in which he interviewed Karl Ove Knausgard. In typical Tyler Cowen fashion, the interview went all over the place, with in-depth questions about Knausgard’s writing, influences, and thoughts on a variety of topics. Early in the interview Cowen asked Knausgard about writing and having children and how his writing has changed with kids. Knausgard talked about the ways in which having children has taken away some of the mysticism and rituals surrounding his writing and forced him to learn to write at any time in any situation.

 

So often in our lives we have things that we like to do and want to make sure we do, and we end up building our own rituals around those things. In my own writing, I wake up much earlier than what is really necessary, make coffee, turn on just a single light, and write by myself in my quite house while I drink my coffee. When I go to the gym I have my phone and my headphones and I listen to specific music (Mid 2000’s/2010’s LA rap) and I wear certain shoes. I know people who prep for big sports events (that they are watching not that they are competing in) by purchasing certain foods, wearing certain clothes, and doing certain activities to set up the atmosphere for the game. All of these rituals create a world around us that we enjoy and are comfortable within, but these worlds are in a sense our own withdrawn fantasy worlds, and we likely cannot keep them together for ever.

 

Knausgard explains to Cowen that his writing was ritualized in this way before he had children, but that once he had kids, his writing could no longer occupy a fantasy space. He had to learn to adjust to the world and adapt his writing to fit into his new life with kids. His lesson is that writing cannot only take place in certain ritualized settings or it will never be done at all, and that adjusting out of our ritualized space is not a bad thing.

 

In a quote from the episode he says, “I think the best advice I ever got —  to accept everything that happens. So if you have many children, it’s a good thing. If you don’t have children, it’s a good thing. You have to embrace it because that’s your life. That’s where you are, and writing should be connected to that —  or painting or whatever it is.” I really enjoy this quote because it shows that we cannot judge life to be good or bad based on our rituals, our experiences, and our predetermined ideas of what makes a life good, bad, valuable, or meaningful. We must accept what happens in our life and find the best way to move forward with what we have. Life packs our suitcase for us, and we must make do with the items packed for our journey. In this spirit, Knausgard explained that writing went from something he only did in certain contexts to something he had to learn to do whenever he had a moment available. It took the magic and mysticism away from the process of writing, and it freed him to write more frequently and consistently, allowing him to actually be a more prolific writer after children than before children.

Danger

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are more creative when we are in safe spaces and we are less creative when we feel stressed and threatened. He explains that our brain is constantly examining the where we are, scanning the environment, and determining whether we are in a safe space or a dangerous space. Safe spaces allow us to open up and become more detail and nuance oriented. Dangerous spaces seem to have the opposite effect on us. Regarding dangerous spaces and our reactions, Bungay Stanier writes,

 

“When the brain senses danger, there’s a very different response. here it moves into the familiar flight-or-fight response, what some call the ‘amygdala hijack.’ Things get black and white. Your assumption is that ‘they’ are against you, not with you. You’re less able to engage your conscious brain, and you’re metaphorically, and most likely literally, backing away.”

 

This response to danger probably served us very well as members of hunter-gatherer tribes. When we were in an environment where a dangerous animal may have been threatening us, or when we were pushing too far out onto ice in search of a hole to fish from, or when we got too close to a cliff to get some berries, our brain’s fear center would kick in and pull us back and take away any nuance from the dangerous situation. Something was bad and our brains evolved to keep away from the bad thing.

 

In the 21st century where our greatest physical danger on a typical day is the threat of spilling coffee on our pants (if you work in a typical office setting — construction workers and iron smelters may have some more serious dangers to watch out for), this danger warning system is probably a little overboard and can hinder our performance and ability.

 

What I want to write about given this phenomenon, is not how we can think more clearly and face our dangers to perform better, but to think about the spaces we create for others and how we contribute to those spaces. While we certainly can overcome our danger mode of thinking, we should also think about how we contribute to a given environment and if we make the environment feel safe or threatening for others. If we know that dangerous environments make people back away and perform worse, then we should be trying to create more inviting spaces where people can better engage their conscious brain, feel more relaxed, and produce better and more creative work. Whether we are purchasing tickets at a movie, driving down the road, talking to someone at a basketball game, or chatting in our work environment, we can think about how we are treating other people and whether we are making the space we are in feel more like a safe space or a dangerous space. If we are trying to always “win” with our presence and be the most powerful and intimidating figure in a room, then we will drive people back and suppress their conscious brains. We may feel successful, get a lot of material rewards, and even be admired by many, but at what cost to other human beings who we can assume have the full range of emotions within themselves as we have within ourselves? And now that we know the way the brain’s fear center works, is it truly reasonable for us to attack that weakness in others? I think we can all, on the margins, improve ourselves in any given situation and take steps to make the environment we are in a little safer for all those involved. This will open new avenues of thinking and perceiving the world for those we interact with, and hopefully, the rising tide of human consciousness and creativity can raise all boats and improve everyone’s well being. This is not to say that we should not still challenge ourselves and others, but we should not exploit danger for our own gain at the expense of others.

Space in a Relationship

How much independence one has in a relationship is something that is rarely discussed openly and honestly within a relationship, but it is an important consideration for a healthy and successful partnership. The challenge in finding the right level of independence is that it is unlikely two people will have the same need for space and the same need for intimacy. Throughout his books, author Colin Wright provides us insight into his life, and he often refers to his need for time on his own. His reflections on his time alone give him a unique insight into the importance of space in relationships.

 

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, Wright creates a policy for approaching independence and writes, “Having space in a relationship means that you’re able to get time alone. It means being able to tuck away somewhere and read without being distracted by someone who is, lets be honest, quite distracting for many wonderful reasons.” There is a pressure, especially in romantic relationships, to always be near your partner, and finding time together in a world that moves fast and demands much of our time for work is quite important, but Wright thinks we should also discuss the time we need to ourselves. Failing to be honest about how much independence and time we need on our own is in some way hiding ourselves from the person we care about.

 

For Wright, it is important to find the right balance of time to ones self to be able to recharge and be content with who we are. It is hard to be a fully committed and connected individual in a relationship if one does not feel confidence and fulfillment in their own self. Allowing ourselves or our partner to have the space and time that they need will allow for that confidence and individual fulfillment that each person needs to bring to a relationship.

Life in the Universe

Peter Singer shares with his readers a wide variety of areas where individuals can focus in an attempt to make donations of time, effort, or money with a goal of helping the world move in a positive direction in his book The Most Good You Can Do. He discusses donations to individuals in poverty in the developing world, donations to political advocacy organizations, and even donations meant to prevent human extinction through global (usually man made) crisis. Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer makes an effort to quantify the benefit and the return on investment of directing donations and efforts toward various causes.

 

When writing about the preservation of the human species through donations meant to prevent our extinction Singer states, “The universe is so vast and so sparsely inhabited with intelligent life that the extinction of intelligent life originating on Earth would not leave a niche likely to be filled anytime soon, and so it is likely to reduce very substantially the number of intelligent beings who would ever live.” By taking this view Singer is elevating the importance of the role of humanity in the universe and justifying any effort made to protect our species and the lives of humans into the future.  He is advocating that we fill a special spot in the universe because we are the only intelligent life that we have been able to detect in the surrounding areas of our galaxy which we can study at this point.  For Singer, there is an intrinsic value in human life simply because we exist and will exist into the (at the least very near) future.

 

For me, the quote above makes me question Earth’s value.  The vast space and time of the universe is on a scale so large that it is hard or possibly impossible for any individual to fully encompass.  On an episode of the podcast Startalk, Neil De Grass Tyson once said, “Think about a beach full of sand, and for every grain of sand on the beach, we have more planets in the universe.” With that in mind I cannot imagine that the intelligent life on earth is truly as unique as we imagine we are. We simply have not been able to view life on another planet in the space near Earth that we can study. Throughout the space-time of the universe which operates at a different scale than what we perceive and comprehend on earth it is incredibly unlikely that life has not been quite abundant relative to our standards and experiences in studying the universe to this point.

 

In my mind, Singer’s view of humans importance in the Universe overinflated the value of humanity. By focusing and placing so much attention on intelligent life Singer also leaves out other species on this planet that play an incredible role but may not be considered intelligent relative to humans. I think our role even on Earth is less than that which Singer imagines.  When human extinction does occur it will only be humans that truly suffer. Life will not suffer, as species will change and adapt and probably thrive with biodiversity returning to the planet in new ways.  The universe will not miss a single species no matter how intelligent or dominant they are within their section of the universe. Life, and the continued organization of the randomness of the universe will continue to expand be it intelligent or not.  I would therefor argue that providing for our continued existence as humans on this planet is less important than the improvement and elevated life quality of those who are currently living.