Space, 1957: What’s up in the sky?

What I’m Reading: “5,200 Days in Space,” by Charles Fishman, Atlantic Magazine, January 2015

In the fall of 1957 I was eight years old. The USSR had just launched a little satellite no much bigger than a fishbowl, and my parents took me out in the dark to see it, a dim point of light, barely visible against the background of stars except for the fact that it was moving. Moving! A slow, stately traverse across the arc of the sky.

I feel lucky that my introduction to space was also the world’s. We were all there, variously astonished, aghast, proud, frightened, outraged and dismissive, depending on what country you lived in and what politics you ascribed to there.

Through the next five decades of my life the exploits of men and women (and some unlucky animals) in space served as markers for me: I remember where I was when they landed on the moon. And I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up.

But I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t paid much attention to the International Space Station except to know that it’s been up there for a number of years, and there are always a few people in it. Thus it was quite a thrill to read “5,200 Days in Space,” a feature article on the space station in the January Atlantic Magazine by Charles Fishman (The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, and The Wal-Mart Effect)

Fishman pretty much takes you up to the station with a good level of detail and description about living for months at a time in zero gravity and with no way out—except the occasional spacewalk which, by the way, requires 400 check-listed items to be accomplished before the door opens.

And another thing you probably never thought about; if you float too long in the same spot,

“…the carbon dioxide you exhale has a tendency to form an invisible cloud around your head. You can end up with what astronauts call a carbon-dioxide headache.”

Gravity, it seems, is that attraction of one mass for another that we simply don’t think about, until it’s not there. Astronauts keep diaries, and Fishman says,

“The diary entries make it very clear that six months is a long time to be in space—a long time to go without family and friends, without fresh food, without feeling sunshine or rain or the pleasures of gravity…Gravity is an indispensable organizing tool, [says one astronaut], one you don’t appreciate until you have to live without it.”

Which is not to say that flying around in the station isn’t an absolute blast. Apparently learning how to move in three dimensions is, for the astronauts, just about more fun than anything in the world. Except, perhaps, well, sex. But Fishman chooses not to go there in this article. Not much about toilets, either, except for the cool fact that the urine an astronaut excretes today becomes drinking water three days later.

He closes the story with an intriguing observation. Everything the astronauts do in the station is scripted. They are essentially technicians, he says, with no real autonomy. They are tethered to Mission Control by routines and rules and checklists. The space station did not develop into the full-fledged orbiting research station and zero-gravity manufacturing facility that were part of the original vision. For now, essentially all the astronauts are doing is maintaining the place against some time in the future when it might serve as the jump-off to Mars.

But the two year trip to Mars will require astronauts who are able to work and think autonomously, and the question that Fishman poses is how are we going to train those people?

“That could be the real value of the Space Station—to shift NASA’s human exploration program from entirely Earth-controlled to more astronaut-directed, more autonomous. This is not a high priority now; it would be inconvenient, inefficient. But the station’s value could be magnified greatly were NASA to develop a real ethic, and a real plan, for letting the people on the mission assume more responsibility for shaping and controlling it.

Learning to let astronauts manage their own lives in space is going to be as hard as any engineering challenge NASA has faced—and it’s an element of space travel neither Houston nor American astronauts have any experience with.”

By the way, you can get a free IOS or Android app which will track the International Space Station, and tell you when you can see it, at night, in your location. When you see it, think of me, 8 years old, 1957, standing in my back yard in Menlo Park, California, staring up, slack-jawed, into the future.