And so, gentle readers, we’ve made our way gracefully through the 3rd chapter of Packing For Mars. I quite enjoyed the way in which Roach poetically captures the grandeur and tantalizing awe of space that some astronauts experience, known to NASA as “space euphoria.”
To begin with, the idea of just how small (and insignificant?) Earth is, let alone a human being, in the whole galaxy is nothing short of mind blowing. While those of us grounded on Earth may not give it too much thought, when floating in the void, astronauts are faced with the problem (if it is one) directly. I loved Jerry Linenger’s quote: “the thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming…that I try not to think about it before going to bed.”(73) Hopefully Roach will discuss the effects of returning from space in later chapters; how does the experience change an astronaut? Do they become depressed? Nostalgic? Do they find religion? Or are they too scientifically minded? How do extremely analytical, logical, and scientific men and women deal with such an experience?
This is a situation in which being a “big picture” person could have seriously dangerous consequences. Rather than being able to focus on the details of the mission and the everyday particulars, one could become so lost in the scope of the universe that everything else falls away. While this is a highly romanticized notion (and as we’ve seen, fails to give credit to the sane, controlled, and highly vetted astronauts that are chosen for the missions), Roach’s examples of astronauts reluctantly returning to their shuttles, or describing a state similar to bliss, illustrate that it is possible.
It’s intriguing to see the impact of sending humans into a place where scope and scale disappear. How do you measure or situate yourself when there is nothing to define relativity? Nothing to compare to? (I’m curious about the “space vertigo” that Roach mentions; I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that astronauts could experience just how quickly they were plummeting through space (apparently at 17,500 mph). Perhaps I’ve been falsely misinformed by Hollywood, but wouldn’t everything be so far away that you would be unable to detect any significant movement or speed? Apparently not; I’ll have to brush up on my physics.) Regardless, the idea of reconciling a human or Earth’s role in space, in the “grand scheme” of the universe, is a wonderful, beautiful, messy philosophical and psychological enigma.