Have you SEEN the new pictures from the crazy new James Webb telescope? The first images are gorgeous, just glorious. Images from space are almost always joyful and exultant, each one surpassing the last, and I’m always a little baffled by people who say they see them and feel small and insignificant. For me, they have just the opposite effect.
Here’s a little essay I wrote in 2018 (and sightly updated), about that expansive sensation. (And I’m once again amazed at what a great guesser stodgy old C.S. Lewis turned out to be, when he imaged what you’d see as you plow through the fertile fields of space.
Astronauts grow in space! Actually, they don’t really grow, which would mean they would have more cells. What they really do is 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 mistakenly thought he grew 9 centimeters, or 3.5 inches, during only three weeks aboard the ISS. Happily, even such prodigious growth was anticipated, and the space suit and custom protective seat that cradles the astronauts’ bodies at the impact of landing and suit could be adjusted to keep Kainai safe. As it turns out, he measured wrong, and he had grown a more typical 2 centimeters. He and his companions made it home safe (and he apologized for the measuring error).
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 astronaut’s tone remained cheerful, but (snd I apologize that I can’t seem to find the recording online) 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 meteorites, 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.