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.

Make me a channel of legitimately sourced quotations

Emily Stimpson, bless her, once swatted down a story I’ve heard my whole life.  Stimpson says:

[T]he election of our wonderful new Holy Father, Pope Francis, has triggered an avalanche of people talking about the first Francis and his injunction to, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”

But see, here’s the thing. St. Francis never said that. We don’t know who did. But it wasn’t Francis. It’s not in any of his known writings. It’s not in any of his companions’ writings. It’s not in anyone’s writings about Francis for the first 800 or so years after his death.

Someone invented the quote and put it into poor St. Francis’ mouth. And ever since then, people have used it as an excuse to not evangelize with words, to not have the uncomfortable conversations or say the unpopular things.

I have also learned, to my great relief, that there is no compelling reason to believe that St. Francis ever wrote the spiritually flaccid “Make me a channel of your peace” prayer.

We can assume that these misattributions were honest mistakes:  somebody once upon a time said something that somebody else liked, and somebody else said, “Hey, that sounds like something St. Francis would say,” and somebody else took it to mean that St. Francis did say it, and so on, like a centuries-long game of telephone.  But no matter what the intentions, sloppiness with attributions can lead to real trouble, especially if the person to whom the quote is misattributed has some influential heft.

Even if you’re sure you have your attribution right, quoting people rightly can be tricky.  A few days ago, someone posted an inspirational image on Facebook.  Before a backdrop of cattails in the sunset, it said in golden script,

“It is in God’s hands. One must be content to leave it there. One must have Faith.” — C.S. Lewis

Something about that chewy use of the impersonal “one” made a gong go off in my head.  Did C.S. Lewis really say that?  The sentiment was too vague to be called false, exactly, but it sounded . . . chewy.  So I looked it up, and it turns out the quote is from Perelandra, where Elwin Ransom has been transported to an unfallen planet ruled by an unfallen Lady and her absent husband.  To Ransom’s horror, Hell has sent a representative to try to tempt the Lady into defying God.  It describes the thoughts that go through Ransom’s mind as he figures out what to do next — what God (Maleldil) wants from him. The quote in question is in bold:

He, Ransom, with his ridiculous piebald body and his ten times defeated arguments – what sort of a miracle was that? His mind darted hopefully down a side-alley that seemed to promise escape. Very well then. He had been brought here miraculously.He was in God’s hands. As long as he did his best – and he had done his best – God would see to the final issue. He had not succeeded. But he had done his best. No one could do more. “‘Tis not in mortals to command success.’ He must not be worried about the final result. Maleldil would see to that. And Maleldil would bring him safe back to Earth after his very real, though unsuccessful, efforts. Probably Maleldil’s real intention was that he should publish to the human race the truths he had learned on the planet Venus. As for the fate of Venus, that could not really rest upon his shoulders. It was in God’s hands. One must be content to leave it there. One must have Faith ….

It snapped like a violin string. Not one rag of all this evasion was left. Relentlessly, unmistakably, the Darkness pressed down upon him the knowledge that this picture of the situation was utterly false. His journey to Perelandra was not a moral exercise, nor a sham fight. If the issue lay in Maleldil’s hands, Ransom and the Lady were those hands. The fate of a world really depended on how they behaved in the next few hours.

So, yeah, Lewis said that, in the same way that Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true”: through the mouth of a character who’s immediately proven wrong. It was not a recommended course of action; it was an illustration of the sort of lies we can tell ourselves when we’re trying to get out of something.  Attributing the shorter quote to C.S. Lewis without context is only half a step above the Hollywood promoter who prints posters that say, “Critics say ‘[Y]ou’ll love this movie!  It’s full of … good scenes!”‘” when the critic’s actual words were, “If you’re a grade A moron, you’ll love this movie!  It’s full of nonsense, and has no good scenes!”

And of course, some people don’t even bother to be technically accurate.  Have you heard the story that Pope Francis, when handed the papal mozzetta, said waspishly, “Wear it yourself!  The circus is over.”  That quote turned out to be made up out of whole cloth,  either by someone who really did regard Benedict XVI as some kind of bling-happy, medieval vulgarian, or by someone who maliciously wanted to portray Francis as someone who saw Benedict that way.  Either way, there is no evidence that Francis said it — and, more importantly, there is no evidence that he is the kind of person who would say something like that.

As Shakespeare once said, there’s the rub.  Consider the purported source.  Listen to your spidey sense.  If you see a quote by a famous person, and it either sounds the tiniest bit “off” to you — or, conversely, if it makes you think, “Oh man, that’s exactly the kind of thing I knew he was thinking all along, and now we’ve got him” — then think, and do a little research, before you forward it to all your friends!

As Marie Antoinette once said, “Famous people say enough stupid things on their own without you making stuff up.”  Well, I bet it sounds better in French.

***

This post originally ran in a slightly different form in The National Catholic Register in 2013.

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)