July 27, 2007

Frailty thy name is Astronaut

NASA has revealed that many of its astronauts have departed for the heavens reeling under the influence of alcohol, sodden to the point of incoherence, and as other astronauts warned a danger both to themselves and to others on board the flight. Surgeons even at two points warned that sending two particular astronauts up amidst the galaxies was something that might endanger lives because of the diminished reaction times and mental responses of the astronauts involved. NASA has not yet issued an official response- but the evidence has been collected in the light of a recent murder incident at the agency and comes from an official report that is yet to be published.

Thinking about this- there is obviously a slightly humorous side to it- the picture of a reeling drunken astronaut floating midst the stars has its moments of comedy- but it is also deadly serious. Deadly because the safety of other crew members depends on each member of the team being alert in case a crisis should arise- deadly as well for the wider human race because the ammount of debris in space is a real concern and as it grows the chances say of a collision between a piece of debris and a satallite grows.

But I think there is something more interesting here going on- and that is that going into space involves the kind of calculation which like war ultimately requires the suppression of some rational faculties. Reading as I do often about soldiers about to go into battle in the seventeenth century, the fact is that men confronted by death or a large chance of death need to supress that fact. Sometimes through alcohol- the image of the drunken soldier rampaging through a town is true for a reason, one of the few ways to get yourself to climb a wall in the face of arrows and gunshot is through getting appallingly drunk. Religious inspiration can work the same way- Thomas Harrison at the seige of Langport in 1646 chanted psalms to stir himself up to attack the town and the New Model used religious symbolism again and again just before battles. The videos made by terrorists are also interesting in this context- they are made yes to leave a message and do all sorts of other things- but also they psych up the terrorist for the literally suicidal aspect of their mission.

There is something about facing death that requires a kind of hysteria to set in in the human mind- you need to avoid the face of death, need to avoid the sense that you are about to die, to block out the nerves that would afflict you otherwise. For millennia soldiers have faced this dilemma and dealt with it in different ways- but often in conscript armies through the use of alcohol, religion or other drugs. Astronauts too face death- as the Challenger disaster proved its possible that as soon as they strap themselves in they might well be blown to small pieces and scattered through the atmosphere- one can understand that for highly intelligent minds faced with that prospect drink becomes attractive.

The human mind cannot cope with some realisations- and the realisation of instant death is one that we find hard to cope with- at some points for some people the only way to deal with it is to suppress it using alcohol or other substances or a cause- it shouldn't come as any surprise that astronauts are normal people in this regard!


Vino S said...

I agree. I am not surprised astronauts need a drink to steady themselves given the risky task they are undertaking!

Unpremeditated said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unpremeditated said...

All very true. From a different angle the, always fascinating, sci-fi writer Cordwainer Smith wrote about "the great pain" of space. Although he was talking in part about a physical sensation its clear he also envisaged something existential. Not only do astronauts face the fear of death they also have to face being isolated somewhere utterly different from anywhere humankind has ever been before.

Still, on the flippant stuff, who knew that the right stuff was actually bourbon whiskey??

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I think the real terror of being an astronaut must be looking down and seeing the earh.
And realising just how far you are from it.

6 billion people, all no more than 12,000 miles from eachothr.

And you and your crew are 300,000 miles from all of them...

Colin Campbell said...

Having confronted death through attempts to escape depression, it is an interesting experience now that I am somewhat transposed from the actual experience. I can confirm that alcohol was the drug of choice, along with sleeping tablets. It is quite a surreal experience confronting your mortality.

The most sobering experience was discussing with the policeman who took me from the bridge about what it was like to pick up the pieces of dead human who had jumped and who he had to put into a plastic bag.

I was momentarily embarrassed. What an imposition on a Christian Family Man.