Why astronauts shouldn't be heroes.

Why astronauts shouldn't be heroes.

Why astronauts shouldn't be heroes.

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Feb. 6 2003 4:17 PM

Astronauts

Why they shouldn't be heroes.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

If there's one good thing that can be said about tragedies, it's that they create heroes. In the past year and a half, catastrophe has refurbished the daring and adventurous careers dreamed of by first-grade boys: the firefighter, the police officer, even the president. Now, the Columbia shuttle disaster has restored astronauts to their rightful place in the pantheon. Before this past weekend, many Americans viewed the "Space Age" as a kitschy thing of the past, like AstroTurf or I Dream of Jeannie. The great scientific challenge of the day, the one the president dared the nation to aspire to, was the creation of hydrogen-powered cars. Space? Been there, done that.

As astronauts boldly went where many men had gone before, we forgot how bold they were. "It's a job that doesn't have anything to do with exploring space," NASA's first flight director sniffed to USA Today in 2001. The Right Stuff flyboys had been replaced with nerdy tinkerers and scientists, seemingly as carefully selected for race and gender as a Benetton ad. Newspapers sneered with headlines such as "Quick, name an astronaut," and "Lost in Space: Being an Astronaut Isn't What It Used To Be." Saturday's sad reminder that astronauts are among our bravest men and women has led to calls that our space program be made more ambitious, to honor the courage of our pioneering astronauts. Others have proposed that manned space flights be halted. But both actions would be an insult to the memory of the Columbia astronauts—one to the grandeur of their quest, the other to its peril. In the short term, the nation should set a more modest goal: Manned space travel must become boring again.

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It will be a daunting task because space travel is magnificent, for all the reasons laid out by eulogists over the past week, but also because it's quite dreadful—and not just because 24 astronauts have died in America's quest to reach the stars. It's not always fun for those who make it out alive. Between half and two-thirds of all astronauts—including incredibly fit military test pilots who never get airsick—throw up when they experience weightlessness. (Think vomit is gross? Imagine floating vomit.) Body fluids normally held down by gravity rush to an astronaut's head, causing nasal and sinus congestion. Spines stretch painfully, and astronauts can grow up to two inches. As NASA astronaut Kenneth Cockrell told journalist Mark Bowden about the rigors of space travel, "You don't hear astronauts complaining about it, but what you do see are people who come back lying about how great the experience was and then quietly leave the program."

Or perhaps they leave because of what weightlessness does to their bathroom habits. (Imagine floating vomit. Now imagine something grosser.) Astronauts urinate into vacuum-powered bags, and bowel movements require the use of a special toilet, four inches in diameter. Astronauts train in an earth-bound NASA-built model, practicing the use of retaining bars to prevent themselves from floating away. The model toilet has a camera in it, so astronauts can see how they're doing. (That's right, part of training to become an astronaut involves watching your own ass on television.) Once in space, however, there is a plus side: "A rite of space flight is to urinate upside down," an astronaut told the Washington Post.

Long space flights create even more problems. Blood volume drops, muscles atrophy, and bones lose their density—at the rate of about 1 percent a month, or faster. After spending 4 and a half months on Mir, "I had lost 40 percent of my muscle mass, 12 percent of my bone, and 23 pounds," astronaut David Wolf said in National Geographic. Balance problems upon his return caused him to run into doors. "It took six months to feel strong again, a year to get the bone mass back, and two years to get the details of my life together." Scientists worry that astronauts who spend too long in space will lose some of their bone density permanently, the way paraplegics do.

The Russians have developed a strenuous exercise program for space-station residents in an attempt to ward off muscle loss, and it works for some. But exercise creates its own problems: "Sweat in space looks like mercury out of a thermometer," a flight surgeon told the Washington Post. "It rolls around in a big blob. It covers your body like a sheet of jello." And even with the exercise, some cosmonauts have to be carted off in stretchers upon their return to Earth.

These are frontier conditions to rival the "starving time" faced by the Jamestown colonists. That the space shuttle made us forget about them is among its greatest accomplishments. In 1981, the buzz over the Columbia's first flight was that space travel was about to lose its glamour. And the shuttle did exactly what it set out to do. We briefly achieved the dream of yawning as rockets hurtle men and women into outer space.

The space shuttle may be too dangerous, but the goal of ordinary men and women routinely leaving the planet unnoticed shouldn't be abandoned with it. "The last role in the world NASA had in mind for Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the Challenger crew was pioneer or hero," Tom Wolfe wrote in Newsweek after the 1986 disaster. The same goes for Ilan Ramon and the Columbia. Many more heroes will be created while our species explores the universe. But let's hope there aren't too many of them.