This weekend I read an article about Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his recent return to earth after spending five months aboard the International Space Station. Hadfield is an Internet celebrity because of the Twitter account he maintained while in space, and he became a virtual rock star after sharing on YouTube a video of himself performing a version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in zero-gravity. What I found most interesting about the article describing Hadfield’s homecoming, however, was his description of the intensive rehabilitation he and other returning astronauts have to undergo upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, their bodies having become unaccustomed to the incessant pull of gravity:
“Right after I landed I could feel the weight of my lips and tongue … I hadn’t realized that I had learned to talk with a weightless tongue,” he said.
He is suffering overall body soreness, particularly in his neck and back which are again having to support his head after months in weightlessness.
These details about an otherwise healthy man having to relearn the basic mechanics of life on earth—like how to shower without fainting or how to walk on feet that are no longer toughened with protective calluses—is fascinating enough, but I found them even more interesting since I’m still reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which also provides fascinating insight into life after zero-gravity. (If Roach’s book sounds familiar, it might be because I blogged it back in April.) What is it like to return to the familiar weighted existence of “home” after having floated rootless in space for so long?
I’ve previously used the term “Re-entry” to describe my own experience of coming back to my mundane life at the end of the academic year, after having spent too much time buckled down and focused on the minutiae of end-term grading. In many ways, my experience feels like the opposite of Hadfield’s: all those paper-piles and an accumulation of end-term tasks were oppressively weighty, and now I’ve been freed to float in the relative tranquility of summer, with “only” my online classes to tether me to earth.
But even so, the end of every academic year requires more than a bit of rehabilitation. While I was laden with papers and projects, I fell behind with other obligations and am now slowly digging my way out, taking my car for a long-overdue oil change on Friday, for instance, while slowly re-introducing myself to friends who don’t see much of me during the school year. I still need a haircut, which is something I never seem to find time for during a busy academic term; I still need to clean the bathroom. The dusty bookshelves and piles of unsorted junk in the basement—tasks I’d optimistically thought I’d tackle over winter break—are still staring me in the face, silently asking me “If not now, when?”
Before I devote myself to such weighty projects, however, I want to take a few days to enjoy the (relative) weightlessness of summer; before I devote myself to my summer checklist of projects, I want to spend some time doing as close to “nothing” as I can get away with. A couple times this past week, for instance, I found myself puttering around our backyard with a camera, simply content to spend time enjoying the scenery. Chris Hadfield has also been enjoying the earthly (and entirely grounding) art of puttering, noting that he and his NASA colleague Thomas Marshburn have been “sort of tottering around like two old duffers in an old folks home” while rehabilitating in Houston. It sounds like re-entry is the same regardless of where you’re returning from.
Click here for more photos of rain-bejeweled greenery, shot during this morning’s stint of backyard-puttering. Enjoy!