Authors: Mary Roach
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Humor, #Historical, #Science
Packing for Mars
To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You’re inconstant. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you’ll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos. A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego. Its structural elements don’t start to break down without gravity, and it works just fine without sleep.
To me, you are the best thing to happen to rocket science. The human being is the machine that makes the whole endeavor so endlessly intriguing. To take an organism whose every feature has evolved to keep it alive and thriving in a world with oxygen, gravity, and water, to suspend that organism in the wasteland of space for a month or a year, is a preposterous but captivating undertaking. Everything one takes for granted on Earth must be rethought, relearned, rehearsed—full-grown men and women toilet-trained, a chimpanzee dressed in a flight suit and launched into orbit. An entire odd universe of mock outer space has grown up here on Earth. Capsules that never blast off; hospital wards where healthy people spend months on their backs, masquerading zero gravity; crash labs where cadavers drop to Earth in simulated splash-downs.
A couple years back, a friend at NASA had been working on something over in Building 9 at the Johnson Space Center. This is the building with the mock-ups, some fifty in all—modules, airlocks, hatches, capsules. For days, Rene had been hearing an intermittent, squeaking racket. Finally, he went to investigate. “Some poor guy in a spacesuit running on a treadmill suspended from a big complicated gizmo to simulate Martian gravity. Lots of clipboards and timers and radio headsets and concerned looks all around.” It occurred to me, reading his email, that it’s possible, in a way, to visit space without leaving Earth. Or anyway, a sort of slapstick-surreal make-believe edition. Which is more or less where I’ve been these past two years.
OF THE MILLIONS of pages of documents and reports generated by the first moon landing, none is more telling, to me anyway, than an eleven-page paper presented at the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the North American Vexillological Association. Vexillology is the study of flags, not the study of vexing things, but in this case, either would fit. The paper is entitled “Where No Flag Has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon.”
It began with meetings, five months before the Apollo 11 launch. The newly formed Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing gathered to debate the appropriateness of planting a flag on the moon. The Outer Space Treaty, of which the United States is a signer, prohibits claims of sovereignty upon celestial bodies. Was it possible to plant a flag without appearing to be, as one committee member put it, “taking possession of the moon”? A telegenically inferior plan to use a boxed set of miniature flags of all nations was considered and rejected. The flag would fly.
But not without help from the NASA Technical Services Division. A flag doesn’t fly without wind. The moon has no atmosphere to speak of, and thus no wind. And though it has only about a sixth the gravity of Earth, that is enough to bring a flag down in an inglorious droop. So a crossbar was hinged to the pole and a hem sewn along the top of the flag. Now the Stars and Stripes would appear to be flying in a brisk wind—convincingly enough to prompt decades of moon hoax jabber—though in fact it was hanging, less a flag than a diminutive patriotic curtain.
Challenges remained. How do you fit a flagpole into the cramped, overpacked confines of a Lunar Module? Engineers were sent off to design a collapsible pole and crossbar. Even then, there wasn’t room. The Lunar Flag Assembly—as flag, pole, and crossbar had inevitably come to be known—would have to be mounted on the outside of the lander. But this meant it would have to withstand the 2,000-degree Fahrenheit heat generated by the nearby descent engine. Tests were undertaken. The flag melted at 300 degrees. The Structures and Mechanics Division was called in, and a protective case was fashioned from layers of aluminum, steel, and Thermoflex insulation.
Just as it was beginning to look as though the flag was finally ready, someone pointed out that the astronauts, owing to the pressurized suits they’d be wearing, would have limited grip strength and range of motion. Would they be able to extract the flag assembly from its insulated sheath? Or would they stand there in the gaze of millions, grasping futilely? Did they have the reach needed to extend the telescoping segments? Only one way to know: Prototypes were made and the crew convened for a series of flag-assembly deployment simulations.
Finally came the day. The flag was packed (a four-step procedure supervised by the chief of quality assurance) and mounted on the Lunar Module (eleven steps), and off it went to the moon. Where the telescoping crossbar wouldn’t fully extend and the lunar soil was so hard that Neil Armstrong couldn’t plant the staff more than about 6 or 8 inches down, creating conjecture that the flag was most likely blown over by the engine blast of the Ascent Module.
Welcome to space. Not the parts you see on TV, the triumphs and the tragedies, but the stuff in between—the small comedies and everyday victories. What drew me to the topic of space exploration was not the heroics and adventure stories, but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them. The Apollo astronaut who worried that he, personally, was about to lose the moon race for the United States by throwing up on the morning of his spacewalk, causing talk of tabling it. Or the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, recalling that as he walked the red carpet before the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and a cheering crowd of thousands, he noticed that his shoelace was undone and could think of nothing else.
At the end of the Apollo program, astronauts were interviewed to get their feedback on a range of topics. One of the questions: If an astronaut were to die outside the spacecraft during a spacewalk, what should you do? “Cut him loose,” read one of the answers. All agreed: An attempt to recover the body could endanger other crew members’ lives. Only a person who has experienced firsthand the not insignificant struggle of entering a space capsule in a pressurized suit could so unequivocally utter those words. Only someone who has drifted free in the unlimited stretch of the universe could understand that burial in space, like the sailor’s burial at sea, holds not disrespect but honor. In orbit, everything gets turned on its head. Shooting stars streak past below you, and the sun rises in the middle of the night. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much normalcy can people forgo? For how long, and what does it do to them?
Early in my research, I came across a moment—forty minutes into the eighty-eighth hour of Gemini VII—which, for me, sums up the astronaut experience and why it fascinates me. Astronaut Jim Lovell is telling Mission Control about an image he has captured on film—“a beautiful shot of a full Moon against the black sky and the strato formations of the clouds of the earth below,” reads the mission transcript. After a momentary silence, Lovell’s crewmate Frank Borman presses the TALK button. “Borman’s dumping urine. Urine [in] approximately one minute.”
Two lines further along, we see Lovell saying, “What a sight to behold!” We don’t know what he’s referring to, but there’s a good chance it’s not the moon. According to more than one astronaut memoir, one of the most beautiful sights in space is that of a sun-illumined flurry of flash-frozen waste-water droplets. Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the line between.
Japan Picks an Astronaut
First you remove your shoes, as you would upon entering a Japanese home. You are given a pair of special isolation chamber slippers, light blue vinyl imprinted with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency logo, the letters JAXA leaning forward as though rushing into space at terrific speed. The isolation chamber, a freestanding structure inside building C-5 at JAXA’s headquarters in Tsukuba Science City, is in fact a home of sorts, for one week, for the ten finalists competing for two openings in the Japanese astronaut corps. When I came here last month, there wasn’t much to see—a bedroom with curtained “sleeping boxes,” and an adjoining common room with a long dining table and chairs. It’s more about being seen. Five closed-circuit cameras mounted near the ceiling allow a panel of psychiatrists, psychologists, and JAXA managers to observe the applicants. To a large extent, their behavior and the panel’s impressions of them during their stay will determine which two will wear the JAXA logo on spacesuits instead of slippers.
The idea is to get a better sense of who these men and women are, and how well they’re suited to life in space. An intelligent, highly motivated person can hide undesirable facets of his or her character in an interview* or on a questionnaire—which together have weeded out applicants with obvious personality disorders—but not so easily under a weeklong observation. In the words of JAXA psychologist Natsuhiko Inoue, “It’s difficult to be a good man always.” Isolation chambers are also a way to judge things like teamwork, leadership, and conflict management—group skills that can’t be assessed in a one-on-one interview. (NASA does not use isolation chambers.)
The observation room is upstairs from the chamber. It is Wednesday, day three of the seven-day isolation. A row of closed-circuit TVs are lined up for the observers, who sit at long tables with their notepads and cups of tea. Three are here now, university psychiatrists and psychologists, staring at the TVs like customers at Best Buy contemplating a purchase. One TV, inexplicably, is broadcasting a daytime talk show.
Inoue sits at the control console, with its camera zooms and microphone controls and a second bank of tiny TV monitors above his head. At forty, he is accomplished for his age and widely respected in the field of space psychology, yet something in his appearance and demeanor makes you want to reach over and pinch his cheek. Like many male employees here, he wears open-toed slippers over socks. As an American, I have large gaps in my understanding of Japanese slipper etiquette, but to me it suggests that JAXA, as much as his house, feels like home. For this week, anyway, it would be understandable; his shift begins at 6 A.M. and ends just after 10 P.M.
On camera now, one of the applicants can be seen lifting a stack of 9-by-11-inch envelopes from a cardboard box. Each envelope is labeled with an applicant’s identifying letter—A through J—and contains a sheet of instructions and a square, flat cellophane-wrapped package. Inoue says the materials are for a test of patience and accuracy under pressure. The candidates tear open the packages and pull out sheaves of colored paper squares. “The test is involving…I am sorry, I don’t know the word in English. A form of paper craft.”
“Origami, yes!” Earlier today, I used the handicapped stall in the hallway bathroom. On the wall was a confusing panel of levers, toggles, pull chains. It was like the cockpit of the Space Shuttle. I yanked a pull-chain, aiming to flush, and set off the emergency Nurse Call alarm. I’m wearing pretty much the same face right now. It’s my Wha? face. For the next hour and a half, the men and women who vie to become Japan’s next astronauts, heroes to their countrymen, will be making paper cranes.
“One thousand cranes.” JAXA’s chief medical officer, Shoichi Tachibana, introduces himself. He’s been standing quietly behind us. Tachibana came up with the test. A Japanese tradition holds that a person who folds a thousand cranes will be granted health and longevity. (The gift is apparently transferable; the cranes, strung on lengths of thread, are typically given to patients in hospitals.) Later, Tachibana will place a perfect yellow crane, hardly bigger than a grasshopper, onto the table where I sit. A tiny dinosaur will appear on the arm of the sofa in the corner. He’s like one of those creepy movie villains who sneak into the hero’s home and leave behind a tiny origami animal, their creepy villain calling card, just to let him know they were there. Or, you know, a guy who enjoys origami.
The applicants have until Sunday to finish the cranes. Paper squares are spread across the table, the vibrancy of the colors played up by the drabness of the room. Along with the shoebox architecture and the rockets reclining around the grounds, JAXA has managed to duplicate the uniquely unappealing green-gray you often see on NASA interior walls. It’s a color I have seen nowhere else and on no paint chip, yet here it is.
The genius of the Thousand Cranes test is that it creates a chronological record of each candidate’s work. As they complete their cranes, candidates string them on a single long thread. At the end of the isolation, everyone’s string of cranes will be taken away and analyzed. It’s forensic origami: As the deadline nears and the pressure increases, do the candidate’s creases become sloppy? How do the first ten cranes compare to the last? “Deterioration of accuracy shows impatience under stress,” Inoue says.
I have been told that 90 percent of a typical mission on the International Space Station (ISS) is devoted to assembling, repairing, or maintaining the spacecraft itself. It’s rote work, much of it done while wearing a pressurized suit with a limited oxygen supply—a ticking clock. Astronaut Lee Morin described his role in installing the midsection of the ISS truss, the backbone to which various laboratory modules are attached. “It’s held on with thirty bolts. I personally tightened twelve of them.” (“So that’s two years of education for each bolt,” he couldn’t help adding.) The spacesuit systems lab at Johnson Space Center has a glove box that mimics the vacuum of space and inflates a pair of pressurized gloves. In the box with the gloves is one of the heavy-duty carabiners that tether astronauts and their tools to the exterior of the space station while they work. Trying to work the tether is like dealing cards with oven mitts on. Simply closing one’s fist tires the hand within minutes. You cannot be the sort of person who gets frustrated easily and turns in a haphazard performance.
An hour passes. One of the psychiatrists has stopped watching and turned his attention to the talk show. A young actor is being interviewed about his wedding and what kind of father he hopes to be. The candidates are bent over the table, working quietly. Applicant A, an orthopedist and aikido enthusiast, is in the lead with fourteen cranes. Most of the rest have managed seven or eight. The instructions are two pages long. My interpreter Sayuri is folding a piece of notebook paper. She is at step 21, where the crane’s body is inflated. The directions show a tiny puff beside an arrow pointing at the bird. It makes sense if you already know what to do. Otherwise, it’s wonderfully surreal: Put a cloud inside a bird.
IT IS DIFFICULT, though delightful, to picture John Glenn or Alan Shepard applying his talents to the ancient art of paper-folding. America’s first astronauts were selected by balls and charisma. All seven Mercury astronauts, by requirement, were active or former test pilots. These were men whose nine-to-five involved breaking altitude records and sound barriers while nearly passing out and crashing in screaming-fast fighter jets. Up through Apollo 11, every mission included a major NASA first. First trip to space, first orbit, first spacewalk, first docking maneuver, first lunar landing. Seriously hairy shit was going down on a regular basis.
With each successive mission, space exploration became a little more routine. To the point, incredibly, of boredom. “Funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much,” wrote Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan. “Should have brought some crossword puzzles.” The close of the Apollo program marked a shift from exploration to experimentation. Astronauts traveled no farther than the fringes of the Earth’s atmosphere to assemble orbiting science labs—Skylab, Spacelab, Mir, ISS. They carried out zero-gravity experiments, launched communications and Defense Department satellites, installed new toilets. “Life on Mir was mostly mundane,” says astronaut Norm Thagard in the space history journal Quest. “Boredom was the most common problem I had.” Mike Mullane summed up his first Space Shuttle mission as “throwing a few toggle switches to release a couple comms satellites.” There are still firsts, and NASA proudly lists them, but they don’t make headlines. Firsts for shuttle mission STS-110, for instance, include “first time that all of a shuttle crew’s spacewalks were based from the station’s Quest Airlock.” “Capacity to Tolerate Boredom and Low Levels of Stimulation” is one of the recommended attributes on a Space Shuttle–era document drafted by the NASA In-House Working Group on Psychiatric and Psychological Selection of Astronauts.
These days the astronaut job title has been split into two categories. (Three, counting payload specialist, the category into which teachers, boondoggling senators,* and junketing Saudi princes fall.) Pilot astronauts are the ones at the controls. Mission specialist astronauts carry out the science experiments, make the repairs, launch the satellites. They’re still the best and the brightest, but not by necessity the boldest. They’re doctors, biologists, engineers. Astronauts these days are as likely to be nerds as heroes. (JAXA astronauts on the ISS thus far have been classified as NASA mission specialists. The ISS includes a JAXA-built laboratory module, called Kibo.) The most stressful part of being an astronaut, Tachibana told me, is not getting to be an astronaut—not knowing whether or when you’ll get a flight assignment.
The first time I spoke to an astronaut, I didn’t know about the pilot–mission specialist split. I pictured astronauts, all of them, as they were in the Apollo footage: faceless icons behind gold visors, bounding like antelopes in the moon’s weak gravity. The astronaut was Lee Morin. Mission Specialist Morin is a big, soft-spoken man. One foot turns in slightly as he walks. He was dressed in chinos and brown shoes the day we met. There were sailboats and hibiscus flowers on his shirt. He told me a story about how he helped test the lubricant for a launch-pad escape slide on the Space Shuttle. “They had us bend over and they brushed our butts with it. And then we jumped on the slide. And it passed, so [the shuttle mission] could go forward and the space station could be built. I was proud,” he deadpanned, “to do my part for the mission.”
I remember watching Morin walk away from me, the endearing gait and the butt that got lubed for science, and thinking, “Oh my god, they’re just people.”
NASA funding has depended in no small part upon the larger-than-life mythology. The imagery forged during Mercury and Apollo remains largely intact. In official NASA 8-by-10 astronaut glossies, many still wear spacesuits, still hold their helmets in their laps, as though at any moment the Johnson Space Center photography studio might inexplicably depressurize. In reality, maybe 1 percent of an astronaut’s career takes place in space, and 1 percent of that is done in a pressure suit. Morin was on hand that day as a member of the Cockpit Working Group for the Orion space capsule. He was helping figure out sight lines and optimal placement of computer displays. Between flights, astronauts spend their days in meetings and on committees, speaking at schools and Rotary clubs, evaluating software and hardware, working at Mission Control, and otherwise, as they say, flying a desk.
Not that bravery has been entirely phased out. Those recommended astronaut attributes also include “Ability to Function Despite Imminent Catastrophe.” If something goes wrong, everyone’s clarity of mind is needed. Some selection committees—the Canadian Space Agency’s, for instance—appear to put greater emphasis on disaster coping skills. Highlights of CSA’s 2009 astronaut selection testing were posted in installments on the Web site home page. It was reality television. The candidates were sent to a damage-control training facility, where they learned to escape burning space capsules and sinking helicopters. They leapt feetfirst into swimming pools from terrifying heights while wave generators pushed 5-foot swells. A percussive action-movie soundtrack ramped up the drama. (It is possible the footage had more to do with attracting media coverage than with the realities of choosing Canada’s next astronaut.)
Earlier, I asked Tachibana whether he was planning to pull any surprises on his candidates, to see how they cope under the stress of a sudden emergency. He told me he had given thought to disabling the isolation chamber toilet. Again, not the answer I was expecting, but genius in its way. The footage might not play as well with a kettledrum soundtrack (and then again it might), but it’s a more apt scenario. A broken toilet is not only more representative of the challenges of space travel, but—as we’ll see in chapter 14—stressful in its own right.
“Before you arrived yesterday,” Tachibana added, “we delayed lunch by one hour.” The little things can be big tells. Unaware that a late lunch or a malfunctioning toilet is part of the test, the applicants behave truer to character. When I first began this book, I applied to be a subject in a simulated Mars mission. I made it past the first round of cuts and was told that someone from the European Space Agency would call me for a phone interview later in the month. The call came at 4:30 A.M., and I did not take care to hide my irritation. I realized later that it had probably been a test, and I had failed it.
NASA uses similar tactics. They’ll call an applicant and tell her that they need to redo a couple tests on her physical and that they need to do it the following day. “What they’re really doing is saying, ‘Let’s see if they’ll drop everything to be one of us,’” says planetary geologist Ralph Harvey, whose Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program personnel sometimes apply for astronaut openings. (Antarctica is a useful analog for space, and people who thrive there are thought to be psychologically well equipped for the isolation and confinement of space travel.) Harvey recently got a call about one such applicant. “They said, ‘We’re going to give him a T-38 to fly for the first time tomorrow. And we’d like you to go along with him as an observer and tell us how you think he’s doing.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. What they were doing was assessing my confidence level in the person.”