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.
Carolyn Chute wrote a letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, which is a collection of letters from creative artists, independent film actors, and writers and poets. In her letter Chute writes about coming together and finding true value in everyone. Chute writes, “Another nice thing to try is forgetting everything you learned in public school. Especially the competition part — the “there are winners and losers” part. try to think in terms of working together. EVERYBODY has an A+.” What she is explaining with this quote is that public schools get us in a mindset of constantly comparing ourselves to others and competing in certain situations to see who can have the best grades and prove themselves to be special. The problem with this style of competition and proving our self worth through school work is that it excludes some students based on their personality or skills. Chute continues, “Everyone’s A+ isn’t visible or marketable or reflected in their possessions, appearance, or social graces.” What she is speaking of is true from grade school through college, into the business world, and all the way to parenting.
The school situation that Chute referenced is a reflection of how we judge people in our society, and how we chose to evaluate the successes and failures of others. In society we tend to judge people based on their financial success, how big their home is, and what type of car they drive. We assume that the greater they are in these areas, the happier they must be, and the more successful their relationships and health must also be. The school system builds this in by putting us in situations where everyone hides their failures, and hangs their A+s above their desk for all to see. And what is worse according to Chute, “School recognizes only those things you can WIN at. or at the things you can do quietly at a desk.” In much the same way, society only judges people based on an individual’s financial “wins”.
Judging a student as successful based solely on their ability to complete their multiplication tables or score well on a vocabulary test misses out on what makes that student unique, and does not reveal the student’s personality, character, or interpersonal skills. Judging them on a few categories that are easily visible and simple to compare against others does not give us a full understanding of the value of the student. What Chute does in her brief paragraph is help us realize that we fall into the same pitfall in society when we judge others based on their financial status and material gains. Comparing outward financial projections is an easy way to compare our value against others, but it certainly is not the right way, accurate way, or meaningful way to determine who has been successful or lived a valuable life. What Chute explains is that we can not approach the world from such an individualistic perspective because we must all be connected in order to build a better planet and establish society together. Each one of us has special skills and abilities, and we should all be working to highlight the strengths of others as opposed to working to make our own skills stand out.