I’m a space nerd.
When I was thirteen I went to Space Academy in Huntsville, AL, (NB Space Camp was just what they called the kiddie camp, for us teens it was Space Academy). I remember the hope that maybe, just maybe, if an astronaut got sick, they’d call on one of us to take his place. That didn’t happen.
What actually happened was stranger: my bunkmates were huge The Little Mermaid fans and having never seen the movie, I was inducted into the cult of Menken by unending choruses of “Les poissons, les poissons!” I went to get an education about the shuttle and left with the lyrics to Under the Sea.
Space ignites the imagination and some dreams won’t be extinguished easily. In 2002, I attended NASA’s Aerospace Medicine clerkship. I’d contend that there is no better way to learn physiology than to learn about a body in an abnormal physical environment. Puking when you burp? Moving forward feels like diving? Face swelling up? It all makes sense, but only when you really understand how the body works on Earth.
I started to think: hmmm, maybe I should try to become an astronaut. After med school, I’d probably need a mechanical engineering degree and start doing triathlons weekly, but it could be done. I bought the Star Trek concept of “the final frontier.” I blew off concerns that a Mars trip would be dangerous (psychologically or by radiation). I wanted to conquer the unexplored, the daunting, the harrowing.
What killed the dream? The only thing that could kill something that exciting: the really, really mundane. Dreams of rocketing into space and exploring distant worlds thrive on the abnormal, the special. They must remain separate from the dull and the ordinary. Unfortunately, education makes the unknown known. Beware learning, for it can kill the special.
After a month at NASA, living in space became decidedly not sexy. For bureaucratic reasons, it is extremely loud, to the point that hearing a co-astronaut (never mind accents and different languages) can be nightmarishly challenging. In practice, space pharmacology is more DIY than you’d ever expect for pilots of a billion dollar enterprise. Panel-wiping is a full-time job on the ISS to keep the slime growth in check. And when you’re not up there, being an astronaut sounded decidedly like a job.
They say a little learning is a dangerous thing, and when it came to space, I wish I’d remained ignorant. God speed, Endeavour. I hope you get home safely. I will be watching, just from a distance.