I’m currently reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. I’m a fan of Roach’s previous books, so I bought Packing for Mars when it first came out in paperback, then I promptly stuck it on my bookshelf and never got around to reading it. Now that Roach has come out with a new book, I figured I should go back and read her “old” one, so I’m currently slow-poking my way through her tongue-in-cheek account of the scientific challenges behind manned space travel.
The basic premise of Packing for Mars is that space exploration calls for absolute precision and predictability, but human beings are anything but. Rocket scientists can engineer a spacecraft down to the merest micron, but what happens when an astronaut inside that craft gets an upset stomach, needs to relieve him- or herself, or falls in love with a crew-mate? In her usual hands-on style, Roach travels to Moscow to visit the Martian Surface Simulator, a module designed by the Institute of Biomedical Problems in order to study the psychological effects of long-term confinement. Were Russia or any other country to send human beings to Mars, they’d want to know how well those humans would cope with the isolation of being locked for months inside a cramped space capsule.
In the course of talking with various Russian researchers, Roach discovers something that doesn’t surprise me at all. Apart from the simple discomforts of being away from family, sharing tight quarters with colleagues, and eating processed food from tubes, astronauts suffer woefully from the simple absence of nature. Sitting in the climate-controlled isolation of what David Bowie famously described as a “tin can,” astronauts come to crave the things the rest of us take for granted, like grass, trees, and flowers. As Roach explains, this phenomenon isn’t limited to astronauts:
I once met a man who told me that after landing in Christchurch, New Zealand, after a winter at the South Pole research station, he and his companions spent a couple days just wandering around staring in awe at flowers and trees. At one point, one of them spotted a woman pushing a stroller. “A baby!” he shouted, and they all rushed across the street to see. The woman turned the stroller and ran.
Although I haven’t chased any baby strollers lately, every spring I feel a bit like those South Pole researchers. Having been locked for months in the tin can called “winter,” in spring I find myself gazing in wonder at the simple beauty of fresh leaves and flower buds. After all these years, you’d think the whole “spring” thing would get old, but it doesn’t. This year like every year, I still find myself looking at unfurling leaves and blooming flowers, wondering how exactly they ever fit inside their tight buds or how those buds ever survived months of snow, sleet, and cold.
Later in the same chapter, Roach talks with cosmonaut Alexandr Laveikin, who spent six months in the Russian space station, Mir, and now runs Moscow’s Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts, where Roach tours a replica of the cramped living quarters inside the Mir’s main module. Recounting her conversation with Laveikin, Roach concludes
Humans don’t belong in space. Everything about us evolved for life on Earth. Weightlessness is an exhilarating novelty, but floaters soon begin to dream of walking. Earlier Laveikin told us, “Only in space do you understand what incredible happiness it is just to walk. To walk on Earth.”
The moment I read Laveikin’s remark about the “incredible happiness” of simply walking on Earth, I thought of one of my favorite passages from Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, a joyful little book that describes meditation as being as simple as paying attention and being grateful for life’s mundane wonders:
People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own eyes. All is a miracle.
Thich Nhat Hanh has never explored outer space, but as a Buddhist monk, he’s spent plenty of time in the isolation chamber of his own mind. Most of us would have to leave Earth to appreciate Earth, and most of us have to spend a few months in the drear barrenness of winter to appreciate spring greenery. But Nhat Hanh realizes what it took Russian cosmonauts a lengthy space mission to figure out: the biggest wonder in the entire Universe is the Earth under your own two feet.