On Flying

This passage still lingers in my dreams and the recesses of my mind:

There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Pick a nice day, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy suggests, and try it.

The first part is easy. All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.

That is, it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.

Clearly, it is the second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.

One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.

It is notoriously difficult to prize your attention away from these three things during the split second you have at your disposal. Hence most people’s failure, and their eventual disillusionment with this exhilarating and spectacular sport.

If, however, you are lucky enough to have your attention momentarily distracted at the crucial moment by, say, a gorgeous pair of legs (tentacles, pseudopodia, according to phyllum and/or personal inclination) or a bomb going off in your vicinty, or by suddenly spotting an extremely rare species of beetle crawling along a nearby twig, then in your astonishment you will miss the ground completely and remain bobbing just a few inches above it in what might seem to be a slightly foolish manner.

This is a moment for superb and delicate concentration. Bob and float, float and bob. Ignore all consideration of your own weight simply let yourself waft higher. Do not listen to what anybody says to you at this point because they are unlikely to say anything helpful. They are most likely to say something along the lines of “Good God, you can’t possibly be flying!” It is vitally important not to believe them or they will suddenly be right.

Waft higher and higher. Try a few swoops, gentle ones at first, then drift above the treetops breathing regularly.

Brilliant, Mr. Adams.

Beware the Dream Killers!

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.