Science

You Are Not an Astronaut

And living through a pandemic isn’t like going to outer space.

An astronaut.
Looks fun! Brian McGowan/Unsplash

There is a genre of self-help piece that looks to people in extraordinary circumstances for tidbits on how the rest of us can get through our days: how a billionaire CEO schedules their mornings to inspire us to stop hitting snooze, how the superstar actress washes her face to clarify what we should do to ours, et cetera. In the pandemic, one manifestation of this genre is: how astronauts get through spending so much time in such a small space, crammed with fellow crew members, so far away from all other people or pleasantries of daily life. No movie theaters for the astronaut. No dive bars. No hugging friends. And, none of those things for you, now, either.

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“Sure, you’re not floating 250 miles above the ground,” offers a recent iteration of this in the New York Times, “but you can still use the same tactics astronauts use to keep going.” In Business Insider, NASA’s Scott Kelly “reveals” the lessons he learned that “can help the rest of us cope.” For Slate, writer and former laser physicist Kate Greene shared tips gleaned from her four months pretending to be in a cramped, isolated bunker on Mars—and actually living in a cramped, isolated bunker in Hawaii—as part of NASA’s HI-SEAS experiment.

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These pieces, which have been published throughout the pandemic, at their best draw a lovely connection between space travel (or simulated extraplanetary living) and what the luckiest among us are going through currently. I have, at turns during the past few months, thought of Sunita Williams “running the Boston Marathon” via a treadmill on the International Space Station, or the concept of “auditory privacy,” passed on from a researcher who studies simulated missions, which is applicable to any of us who have turned to headphones to survive among roommates and family members these past months. On a good day, reading about a NASA crew member’s experience might imbue us with a little extra purpose: “Maybe, like me, you have the sense right now that we’re all traveling to an unexplored planet, some different version of Earth waiting to be revealed,” Greene wrote in Slate, back in mid-March. I did not have that sentiment then, but I do now. It’s a very nice way to look at whatever this is.

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But these pieces, which keep coming out, have a fatal flaw, as space writer Meghan Bartels pointed out on Twitter last month: The reader is not an astronaut. “You have not undergone years of training for a pandemic!,” tweeted Bartels. “You do not have a huge support team in mission control! You do not have a return date!” To be fair, the Times piece acknowledges that it’s not exactly the same—and it even features an astronaut whose mission was extended on the fly. But the differences between you and an astronaut go well beyond the variation between the interior of the International Space Station and the interior of your apartment, which the Times notes are indeed distinct. Bartels’ point is a good and satisfying one to dwell on, so let’s: You will not have people celebrating your return to Earth-as-usual as a unique and special achievement. You will not even really have an Earth-as-usual to return to. You will not have the coolest line item ever on your résumé; you will not get to go talk to your kid’s classroom or wow your Tinder dates. “Spending months cooped up on the ISS is a childhood dream come true,” wrote Marina Koren in the Atlantic, in a piece headlined, “How to Survive Pandemic Reentry.” Koren shares some tips, but then ends up explaining why we Earthly pandemic denizens have it worse (and she wrote this back in March!). “Self-isolating for an indefinite period of time because of a fast-spreading disease is a nightmare.”

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You have not been specially selected to go through what you are going through right now. Everyone is involved in this pandemic. In contrast, the people involved in space missions take on the very, very tough job of staying in close quarters voluntarily, and after rigorous selections. Astronauts in various national programs might be disqualified for snoring, or bad breath, as Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars, has noted. To be a NASA astronaut, in addition to relevant education and work experience (for example, 1,000 hours of flying experience), one must be detail-oriented, adaptable, and emotionally stable.

A pandemic does not put you at risk of having your blood vaporized, as can happen if so much as a micrometeorite strikes you in space. But a pandemic can involve an enormous amount of potential suffering. “It’s not just you who could at any minute experience a fatal failure of protective equipment,” Bartels notes. “It is also all your loved ones and acquaintances and all of their loved ones and acquaintances and all of their loved ones and acquaintances!” Again, it is everybody, and worrying about everyone is very exhausting.

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To keep extending the metaphor, some of our fellow astronauts are even refusing to wear their protective equipment. That is not a thing you would have to deal with in space! Also, the guy who is de facto in charge of the mission—at least for now—is outright mocking the concept of protective equipment altogether. Some people have giant, hulking, spacecraft with grassy yards, and others have teeny, tiny shuttles. And, somehow, it is the people with the tiny shuttles who by and large are the ones who have to hazardous space walks every day. It does not, frankly, feel in the least like we are all working toward a common goal, as astronaut Scott Kelly suggests keeping in mind in a Today piece. “We trust each other,” Kelly said of his fellow crew on a mission. America definitely does not trust one another. Kelly says he would now choose his apartment over a spaceship, to which I say: Good for you. Put me on the spaceship, instead.

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