Life in a Box

Excerpt / by Mary Roach /

In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach reveals that space exploration is really an exploration of what it means to be human. In this exclusive excerpt, she talks with former cosmonauts about the psychological challenge of living in space.

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Alexandr Laveikin took the third option. He turned the hostility inward. The result, familiar to any psychologist who deals with isolated, confined populations, is depression. Later, after Romanenko leaves to drive home, Laveikin confides that there were moments when he thought about suicide. “I wanted to hang myself. Of course, it’s impossible because of weightlessness.”
Romanenko predicts trouble on a Mars mission. “Five hundred days,” he says with evident horror. Romanenko remained for another four months after Laveikin left. Zimmerman writes that Romanenko became increasingly unstable and uncooperative, “devoting his time to writing poems and songs” and exercising. I ask Lena to ask him about this phase of the mission. Earlier, I had told her I’d like to hear some of the songs Romanenko composed in space, and this is what she asks about.

“You want us to sing?” Romanenko laughs his grainy laugh. “We would need fifty grams of whiskey!” I apologize for not having brought any.

“I have it,” Laveikin says. “In my office.”   
Laveikin sits down to look on his computer for a recording of a song Romanenko wrote while on board Mir. The surface of his desk is mostly empty. An appendage like a gangplank protrudes from the front of it. Laveikin gets up to unlock a liquor cabinet and sets down a bottle of Grant’s whiskey and four crystal shot glasses on the plank. It’s a bar. In Russia you can buy a desk with a built-in bar!

Laveikin raises his glass. “To …“ He searches for the words in English. “A nice psychological situation!” 

We clink our glasses and empty them. Laveikin refills them. Romanenko’s song is playing, and Lena translates: “Sorry Earth, we say good-bye to you … our ship is going upwards…. But the time will come when we will drop into the blueness of the dawn, as a morning star.” And the chorus: “I will fall into the grass and fill my lungs with air. I will drink water from the river… I will kiss the ground, I will hug my friends….”

People can’t anticipate how much they’ll miss the natural world until they are deprived of it. I have read about submarine crewmen who haunt the sonar room, listening to whale songs and colonies of snapping shrimp. Submarine captains dispense “periscope liberty”—a chance for crewmembers to gaze at clouds and birds and coastlines and remind themselves that the natural world still exists. I once met a man who told me that after landing in Christchurch 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.   

Nothing tops space as a barren, unnatural environment. Astronauts who had no prior interest in gardening spend hours tending experimental greenhouses. “They are our love,” said cosmonaut Vladislav Volkov of the tiny flax plants with which they shared the chilly confines of Salyut 1, the first Soviet space station. At least in orbit, you can look out the window and see the natural world below. On a Mars mission, once astronauts lose sight of Earth, there’ll be nothing to see outside the window. “You’ll be bathed in permanent sunlight, so you won’t even see any stars,” astronaut Andy Thomas explained to me. “All you’ll see is black.” 

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.”

Romanenko missed the smells of Earth. “Can you imagine being even one week in a locked car? Smell of metal. Smell of paint, rubber. When girls were writing us letters, they were putting drops of French perfume on there. We loved those letters. If you smell a letter from a girl before you go to bed, you see good dreams.” Romanenko finishes his whiskey and excuses himself. He hugs Laveikin again and shakes our hands. 

I’m trying to imagine NASA filling resupply vehicles with sacks of love letters. Laveikin says it’s true. “From all over the Soviet Union, girls were writing letters.” 

“To girls,” I say.  Glasses are raised.

“You really feel the absence of a woman,” Laveikin tells us. With Romanenko gone, he speaks more freely. “There are sexual dreams, as a substitute. It’s constant through the flight. We were even discussing that maybe we have to take something from the sex shops. It was discussed at mission control.”   

I turn to Lena.  What does he mean? “An artificial vagina?” 

“Vagine?” asks Lena. A discussion ensues. Lena turns back to me. “A mock-up.”

Laveikin breaks into English, as he does sometimes to tweak a translation: “A rubber woman.” A blow-up doll. Ground control, he says, nixed the idea. “They said, ‘If you would do that, then we would need to put it in your schedule for the day.’”

“We have a joke. You know we have food in tubes.” I nod. Tubes of space borscht are on sale in the museum gift shop. “There are white and black tubes. On the white is written: ‘BLONDE.’  On black one: ‘BRUNETTE.’   

“But please understand, sexual concerns are far from being the dominant concerns in space. It’s down here on the list.” With his hand, he indicates a level down by his knee. “It would just be a nice supplement. But when we talk about five hundred days, it’s true, this problem starts to grow higher on the list.” He believes a Mars crew should be made up of couples, to help ease the tension that builds during a long mission. According to NASA’s Norbert Kraft, the agency has considered sending married couples into space. When they asked his opinion on the matter, he discouraged it. His reasoning was that an astronaut might find himself with an untenable choice: jeopardizing his spouse or jeopardizing the mission. Astronaut Andy Thomas, who is married to astronaut Shannon Walker, told me another reason NASA shies away from flying married couples. In the event of a crash or explosion, they don’t want one family to have to endure a double loss, particularly if the couple has children.

Laveikin listens, then amends his statement: “Not necessarily married.” 

“That’s right,“ says Lena. “There would be a different ethic there. When you come back to Earth, your wife should understand that at that time it was like different dimension, different rules, different you.”

Laveikin concurs. “My wife is a clever person. She would understand. She’d say, ‘You’re not completely faithful even on Earth. Let it be in space as well.’”

Kraft would agree. He told me he advocates sending non-monogamous couples—straight and/or gay—to Mars. “[Space agencies] are going to have to be more liberal and open about that. Mix and match or whatever.” Andy Thomas imagines that happening naturally on a Mars mission—as it tends to in Antarctica. “It’s very common for people there to pair off and form sexual relationships that last through the duration of their stay—to gravitate to a support structure to help them get through the experience. And then at the end of the season, it’s all over.”

For 17 years, only men worked the research bases in Antarctica. Women, the excuses went, mean trouble: distraction, promiscuity, jealousy. It wasn’t until 1974 that the McMurdo Station winter-over personnel included women. One was a spinster biologist in her fifties who appears in photographs wearing a gold cross over her turtleneck. The other was a nun.

These days one in three US Antarctic personnel are women. They are credited with a rise in productivity and emotional stability. Norbert Kraft told me about a teamwork study he ran at NASA Ames that compared all-male, all-female, and mixed-gender teams. The mixed-gender groups performed best.

Laveikin: “Can you imagine six men on the way to Mars, what will happen?” He quickly adds that he cannot recall hearing of any instances of “man-on-man love” in the Russian cosmonaut corps. In the end, the least problematic Mars crew might be the kind Apollo astronaut Michael Collins (jokingly) suggests in his memoir: a “cadre of eunuchs.”

Mary Roach is a popular science writer and author of the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. This article is excerpted from her latest book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which is on sale now.


Originally published August 2, 2010

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