His surrendered body: Astronauts (and others) who grow in space

Astronauts grow in space! Actually, they don’t really grow, which would mean they would have more cells. Instead, they stretch, especially in the spine, because their bodies take a vacation from the constant compression of gravity.

Most astronauts grow a few centimeters, but Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai grew 9 centimeters, which is 3.5 inches, during only three weeks aboard the ISS — and he’s now afraid he might not fit into his space suit or his custom protective seat that cradles their bodies at the impact of landing. In the interview I heard (which is not yet available online), the expert assured us that the seat and suit are adjustable, and can be modified to keep Kainai safe.

I love listening to astronauts. They always convey some combination of the good cheer of rugby players, the unflagging courtesy of retired military men, and the bland precision of engineers. The fellow they interviewed for the BBC was no exception, but I was taken aback when the interviewer asked how quickly astronauts return to their normal height after they return to earth.

Almost immediately, it turns out. The astronauts tone remained cheerful, but his vocabulary suddenly turned rather florid as he described feeling the discs of his spine compressing under gravity, the “punishing oppressor.”  He seemed to take the effects of gravity personally; and he seemed to feel that space was where he truly belonged.

I thought immediately of Out of the Silent Planet, which I recently re-read. It’s the first in C. S. Lewis’ “space trilogy,” and has philologist Dr. Elwin Ransom kidnapped and forced onboard a small ship that travels to Malacandra (Mars), where, his captors erroneously imagine, the natives demand human sacrifice.

Out of the Silent Planet was written in 1938, nearly twenty years before the launch of Sputnik; so the science of space travel in the book is vague and conjectural. The kidnappers’ spaceship is spherical, and the cabins are grouped around a hollow center, which feels “down” to them. It’s never explicitly explained, but presumably some kind of artificial gravity has been contrived. Ransom’s body, we are told, feels unmanageably light, and so the three men wear weighted suits — which they later strip off when their vessel gets too hot for clothing. So, some inconsistency, unless I’m missing something.

(I also tried reading this book to my kids, and they got very hung up on the part where Ransom is still naked, but decides to hide a kitchen knife in case he needs to defend (or kill) himself. Where did he hide the knife? We never got past that chapter. )

Anyway, I adore the way Lewis describes the effect of the sun on Ransom. Here are some of his first impressions after he gets over his initial terror:

The Earth’s disk was nowhere to be seen, the stars, thick as daisies on an uncut lawn, reigned perpetually with no cloud, no moon, no sunrise, to dispute their sway. There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations to dreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pin-pricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote: and between all and behind all, far more emphatic and palpable than it showed on Earth, the undimensioned, enigmatic blackness. The lights trembled: they seemed to grow brighter as he looked. Stretched naked on his bed, a second Dana, he found it night by night more difficult to disbelieve in old astrology: almost he felt, wholly he imagined, ‘sweet influence’ pouring or even stabbing into his surrendered body. All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises. He knew now that these were made by meteorite’s, small, drifting particles of the world-stuff that smote continually on their hollow drum of steel; and he guessed that at any moment they might meet something large enough to make meteorites of ship and all. But he could not fear. He now felt that Weston had justly called him little-minded in the moment of his first panic. The adventure was too high, its circumstance too ‘solemn’, for any emotion, save a severe delight.

How I would love to ask some astronaut if any of this rings true. Lewis continues:

But the days — that is, the hours spent in the sunward hemisphere of their microcosm — were the best of all. Often he rose after only a few hours sleep to return, drawn by an irresistible attraction, to the regions of light; he could not cease to wonder at the noon which always awaited you however early you were to seek it. There, totally immersed in a bath of pure ethereal colour and of unrelenting though unwounding brightness, stretched his full length and with eyes half closed in the strange chariot that bore them, faintly quivering, through depth after depth of tranquillity far above the reach of night, he felt his body and mind daily rubbed and scoured and filled with new vitality. Weston, in one of his brief, reluctant answers, admitted a scientific basis for these sensations: they were receiving, he said, many rays that never penetrated the terrestrial atmosphere. But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now — now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren; he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the Earth with so many eyes — and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens — the heavens which declared the glory — the ‘happy climes that ly Where day never shuts his eye Up in the broad fields of the sky.’ He quoted Milton’s words to himself lovingly, at this time and often.

Whether or not the actual experience of being in space is anything like what Lewis imagined, his fictional description has forever rescued the word “space” for me, too — Lewis, aided by many happy childhood memories of bundling into the car in the middle of the night with a telescope to see some wonder, a comet, a convergence of planets, or just the naked, glorious river of the Milky Way, way out in the country where no streetlights glared and the only sound came from cows shifting their weight as they slept.

I never understood the common trope that gazing at space makes us feel small and insignificant. Why on earth would beauty make you feel that way? Beauty tells us that the world means something, and so do we.

Whenever there is a story on the news about space, I feel myself stretch and grow a little bit, and I don’t compress again until the story is over.

Hugh Hefner sacrificed the human person. Catholics, beware of doing the same.

Hefner is not alone in thinking we may feed as many bodies we like into the oven, as long as we tell ourselves we’re building a fire that benefits all of mankind (and never mind that mankind is made up of individual bodies just like the last one that passed through our hands).

It’s wrong when Hugh Hefner does it, and it’s wrong when anyone does it. If we catch ourselves feeding an individual human into the flames to fuel the fire of our just cause, then we are no longer just.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Photo by Alan Light via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Immediate book meme: Old Adult edition

Time for another round of Darwin’s Immediate Book Meme! The Darwins (who are not responsible for the terrible image at the top. I’m responsible for it. I alone) say:

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let’s focus on something more revealing: the books you’re actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let’s call it The Immediate Book Meme.

1. What book are you reading now?

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.

This is one of the books I agreed to read in our almost-successful summer book swap.  It’s a dystopian YA novel (I know. WHERE DID I EVER FIND SUCH A THING?). The author’s vocabulary has an oddly stunted, juvenile quality to it, but the way the story unfolds is pretty skillful, and the plot is a pretty good adventure. The action takes place in Opium, a country that runs between the US and the former Mexico, where super-wealthy drug lords control the lives of everyone else, even putting brain implants on some, to make them pliant, witless slaves, and making clones of themselves to use as ever-ready organ donors. But . . . dun dun dun . . . one clone is different. Not bad at all, and unexpectedly Catholic in its ideas and also explicitly in the plot, in places.

I’m also in the middle — well, “middle,” but really about 3/4 of an inch in, and the thing is about seven inches thick — of War and Peace.

As far as I can remember, I’m reading the Constance Garnett translation.

In a reverse from last time I read this book, I’m finding the “war” part much more compelling than the “peace” part; and I’m finding Tolstoy much snippier than I may be able to handle for the whole seven inches.

1a. Readaloud

Nothing at the moment, sadly. We’re still adjusting to the school schedule, and we’re doing well if we get to bed half an hour later than we meant to, so read-alouds aren’t happening now. I’d like to read Out Of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

to the middle and older kids, and probably a Narnia book to the younger kids.

2. What book did you just finish?

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

Here’s a book I avoided my whole life, because something something Oprah something, bestseller ptui ptui. You know: Lit major reasons. Well, my older girls assigned it to me, and it’s great. It’s great! It’s miraculously light on agenda and heavy on well-conceived characters, searingly memorable scenes, and a beautiful melancholy that stays with you (because you needed that). Each chapter could stand alone as a well-crafted short story. It’s not Dostoevsky, but it’s worth your time.

3. What do you plan to read next?

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate.

Boy, did I overestimate how many books I could easily read over the summer. My kids have been begging me to read this slim volume apparently about a gorilla, so I guess I will.
4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?
Another Summer Reading Swap assignment, and what a slog. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read, but, on the other hand, it stinks.It’s written by someone who enjoys reading quirky, fascinating, fantastical story about scrappy kids solving mysteries. There’s a good story in there, but it needs to be edited, and then that editor needs to quit because she wanted to be with her boyfriend in Scottsdale, and then another editor needs to take over, rename the publishing house, cut about 40% out of this particular novel and replace it with something that makes some sense, and then buy everyone new office chairs.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander

Everyone tells me this is so good, so I just now finally ordered it–
Shut up, Amazon! I’ve been busy! You don’t know me!
6. What is your current reading trend?
YA, I guess. I could really go for something Old Adult for a change. But not too hard, because I am tired.

Chasing pleasures and chasing God

All licit pleasures can lead us to God. All licit pleasures can prepare us to enjoy the eternal presence of God. That is what pleasure is for: to teach us, to form us, to remind us of what we once knew before our forefather Adam brought darkness and distance and forgetfulness between us and our creator. It is perverse to try to prolong pleasure past its purpose. It is profound to try to submerge ourselves in the source of all pleasure.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

Photo by Katya Austin on Unsplash