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January 14th, 2013

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“Space Exploration” by Alison Wilgus
Oh, how I love space exploration! I love the Mars rovers, patiently crunching their way across a frozen alien desert; I love the Cassini orbiter, which has snapped breathtaking photos of Saturn, its rings and its moons for fifteen years; I love the Voyager 2 probe, coasting through the outer edges of the heliosphere that shields our little solar system from violent interstellar winds; I love the Hubble Telescope, our school-bus-sized near-failure of a satellite that peers out into the universe and backwards through time. I LOVE IT ALL, because space is fascinating and mysterious and enchanting.

But most of all, I love manned spaceflight — the five hundred and twenty-seven astronauts, cosmonauts, taikonauts and private citizens that we’ve launched into orbit and beyond.

By all accounts, the job of an astronaut in space is a minute-by-minute juxtaposition of the romance of adventure and exploration (you’re in space, and its beauty will change your life forever!) and the crushingly dull mundanities of keeping yourself alive (you’re in space, and IT’S ALWAYS TRYING TO KILL YOU!) You’re at once a brave hero, looking down on Earth in a way that fundamentally alters your perspective, and a hardworking long-suffering maintenance worker, cleaning out metal shavings with a toothbrush and repairing the micro-g toilet. Scientist and mechanic; pioneer and electrician; executor of state-of-the-art experiments and amateur inventor of drinking cups that work without gravity. Your home office is warren of payload racks and velcro tabs, an Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to collect charged particles and loops of duct tape to keep your spoon from floating away. The Earth spins beneath you in the infinite vacuum while you tighten a bolt with a cordless drill.

A few months ago, I had the chance to ask astronaut Joe Acaba about improvisation on the ISS. He said,

You know, you plan for things to work a certain way, and the ground always has a good plan, but you just never know if it’s gonna work. And that’s one of the best things about being up there — you’re improvising pretty much every single day. And so, for those young kids that are out here (and Don and I talked a lot about this) you wanna be book smart, you need to know your sciences, your engineering, your mathematics and all that. But you also need to have common sense and be good with working with your hands, because that’s what we do 90% of the time that we’re up there. So it’s important to have that balance. And so, study hard! And if your parents have a car, ask permission, but go see if you can work on the car. Those are all good skills! (And if you take the parents’ car apart, it wasn’t my fault.)

And then we have astronaut Chris Hadfield, describing his first spacewalk and how it felt.

…Opening the hatch is probably step 750 of the day. And steps 1 through 749 were all boring and minuscule and each one was on a checklist and you had to do every one right, so you were very painstaking. But suddenly you do this one step, and suddenly you are in a place that you hadn’t conceived how beautiful this could be. How stupefying this could be. And by stupefying I mean, it stops your thought.

[…] I knew I couldn’t keep notes up there and I would forget stuff so I sorta resolved to myself that I would verbalize and attempt to, as eloquently as I could, express what I was feeling and what I was seeing. […] And yet when I listen to the transcripts of what I said, most of it was just, “Wow!” It was so pathetic! But the experience was just overwhelming!

Stars in my eyes. Astronauts in my heart.

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Alison Wilgus is a writer and artist who lives in Brooklyn, and is the sort of person who tears up while watching NASA TV. Her recent projects include Off Nominal, a science fiction novella the follows the first manned mission to Mars; and A Stray in the Woods, an interactive webcomic about a cat, a mysteriously empty house, and a dark foreboding forest.

Check out Alison asking the first question from the audience!

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Read more LOVE LETTERS & HEART CONTAINERS blog entries:
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