Jack Ridley: Nothing these guys do is gonna be called a failure…but you’d think the public’d know that they’re just doing what monkeys have done…
Chuck Yeager: Monkeys? Think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode? These astronaut boys, they know that, see?
– From the movie “The Right Stuff”
In her most recent article, my fellow crewmember Shey discussed what being an astronaut means. I’d like to add a slight nuance to that.
…but first, a tangent.
Talk to many of the folks involved in space – engineers, scientists, astronauts – and you’ll find out that many of them were inspired by science fiction. Star Trek and Star Wars are the typical examples.
My source of inspiration was a bit different. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike either series – quite the contrary! – but I didn’t exactly find them “inspirational”. Star Wars is really a fantasy movie disguised as a sci-fi movie; take away the planets and starships, and replace them with, say, villages or castles and mounted birds or dragons, and the story itself would be unaffected. And, thanks to warp drives and transporters, Star Trek managed to almost completely ignore the whole traveling-through-space thing.
Nope, my inspiration came from a largely-forgotten, somewhat campy 80’s film called SpaceCamp.
Yup, that’s the one. I know, not the usual choice of inspiration, but bear with me for just a moment…
You see, what got my attention about SpaceCamp was the realism of it. I know, I know, there are some glaring errors in there (and by that, I mean things they just completely made up: main engine tests on the pad, thermal curtain failures, a space station conveniently hanging out in just the right orbit…), but think about it for just a moment. The movie featured a real space shuttle, Atlantis, being operated by a real space agency, NASA. The people on the shuttle did things that real astronauts do: solve problems, float in zero-g, put on spacesuits, and spacewalk in an MMU (also real hardware). And it was a group of kids just a little older than me getting to do it all!
…ok, so that last part isn’t anywhere close to reality, but it did help me to connect with the movie even more. The point is that these were real things that I could strive to attain someday. I could actually grow up to work for NASA, and fly in the space shuttle Atlantis. It was something tangible, something real, something achievable.
I tell this to illustrate a point about myself: I value realism in storytelling. I tend to read nonfiction books instead of fiction, and I tend to prefer science-fiction movies that try to stay as close to real life as possible.
With that in mind, I’d like to take a moment to discuss another movie that’s attracted my attention recently: Interstellar.
I’ve seen the movie several times. I first saw it before my participation in HERA C2M2, but I also watched it with the crew during the mission, and I’ve watched it a couple of times since. Thanks to my experience in HERA, what I’ve come to appreciate in these repeat viewings is how much the movie absolutely nailed. No, I’m not talking about the research-paper-inspiring special effects or the 2001-esque ending; I’m talking about the character of Joseph Cooper and his interactions with the people back home.
When people think about astronauts, they tend to think about the “cool” things: flying on rockets, floating around in zero-g, planting flags on planets, that sort of thing. What tends to be forgotten, however, is the personal cost of being an astronaut. What I appreciate about Interstellar is that it isn’t afraid to show the harder side of the life of an astronaut, and, in fact, puts it as a central part of the story. We see Cooper desperately trying to cling to time as orbital trajectories and relativity relentlessly tear it away from him. We see his desperation as he observes, in small recorded snippets, the world he left behind go on without him. He watches, separated by the void and powerless, as his father-in-law passes away, and his children grow up without him.
The fact of the matter is that there is never a “good” time to carve years out of your life to simulate a space mission in a dome in Hawaiʻi, or to fly through outer space to visit an asteroid or Mars. Leave the world for months or years at a time, and the world will move on in your absence. You will miss important events, and the world as you knew it will change.
In this sense, there’s nothing “simulated” about our mission at all – the separation will be very real. In this way, we’re no different from the “real” astronauts. And, of course, this is intended, as one of the aims of the study will be to see how we’re able to keep hold of the thin threads that connect us with our lives back home.
This isn’t the most cheerful subject to talk about, I know. But I wanted to write on this subject, and sooner rather than later, because I know there will be questions about this as we approach our mission. Some people will wonder how we’re able to separate ourselves so completely from our friends, our families, and our everyday lives; I’m sure more than a few think we’re downright crazy.
But I do know this about our crew: we’re an extraordinarily-intelligent and highly-motivated group of people. We all fully understand the high personal cost we will all take on. And we all believe the cost is justified: we believe in furthering the cause of human spaceflight, and believe that the research performed on our mission will be vital to enabling spaceflights deep into the Solar System. Additionally, for those of us who wish to become real astronauts one day, we understand that this is a unique opportunity we’ve been given to prove our abilities to handle the unique challenges of spaceflight – both to ourselves as well as to NASA.
So, this is the nuance I would add to Shey’s description: sacrifice. We already have plenty of scientists here in the relative comfort of planet Earth. But the willingness to take on this unique level of sacrifice is what distinguishes astronauts from the rest: the willingness to risk life and limb, and to face the hardships of the separation from our home planet, in order to push forth the boundaries of human knowledge as far as we are able.