Sitting there with a stranger in the center seat of an otherwise unoccupied van, my leg worked to jack-hammer out my nerves. A reporter from a major news outlet leaned over, mic in hand and oversize headphones around his head and asked, “What will you do in your spare time on the mission?”
I thought for a moment before answering, “I’m hoping to write as much as possible.”
He grinned and stared out the window at nothing, pondering the potential psychological consequences for someone who would be stepping out of society for nearly a year.
He looked back over at me and offered his idea, “Maybe after you’re locked in there for a while you might start seeing things and be able to write about that…”
I debated for a moment if I should explain that although we are a small isolated group with a common interest and bearded leader, we would not be doing LSD, nor would our fruit punch hold any special surprises. Hell, we’re not even allowed beer.
I decided to let his statement hang in the air instead.
We are now four months into the mission and still no hallucinations. Disappointing, I know, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that this is a good sign.
I have, however, dreamt every day.
I love dreams. Dreams are the closest thing to writing that I can think of. Your mind shapes thoughts, feelings, and observations into fabricated worlds and scenarios before throwing you into them. The decisions you make directly influence those elastic worlds, which in turn present you with a new set of questions, all while sleeping.
Dreams entice us to lay in bed a bit longer, not for warmth and comfort, but for the opportunity to be an explorer inside our own mind’s construction. For a short time, you get to swim around your own neurons as an outsider and better understand your day’s thoughts with a level of honesty that your conscious self doesn’t normally allow.
This piece is about a dream I experienced on the night of April 12th that held onto my thoughts through the waking hours of the following day.
Yuri’s Night and Komarov’s Flight
Each year on April 12th, hundreds of events are held around the world to celebrate Yuri’s Night. Some are as small as two people hanging out in a living room while others consist of large parties at major space conferences with hundreds partying throughout the night. These people are dancing and drinking to commemorate the flight of Yuri Gagarin, the first of our species to travel into space.
As space professionals stuck in a box with limited recreational options, this celebration was basically obligatory. We observed this day in various ways, including the timeless tradition for honoring heroes of the human race: 3D printing a cookie cutter of the man’s face:
We also watched footage from Yuri’s Vostok-1 flight and a documentary about Yuri himself. It was strange to receive so much information about the man. He had always been presented as the symbol – the patron saint of human spaceflight, but never as a flawed human being.
Yuri became the first person to fly into space at the age of 27, instantly transforming into an invaluable national symbol, so much so that the pilot was not even allowed to fly anymore. As a powerful tool of the government, his death was feared. Ironically, meeting his dream meant that he could no longer do what he loved most.
He was able, however, to fly all around the world as a Russian celebrity. And as you can imagine, a 27-year-old suddenly given unlimited access to anything he wanted would probably trip over some pitfalls.
In America, this is known as the Bieber effect.
One of the most striking stories in the documentary was not about Yuri or his flight. It was about Soyuz 1, a later flight that was prematurely launched partly due to political pressures. This resulted in the death of its pilot, Vladimir Komarov.
Throughout its development, several technical issues and a severe lack of testing were well known among the engineers and pilots working with the equipment. The consequences of these issues remaining unresolved were well understood by Komarov himself. Ultimately, these problems were ignored.
Komarov still boarded that module on April 23rd, 1967. He stated that he did not refuse to fly so that the life of his backup pilot, Yuri Gagarin, would not be endangered.
It is conceivable then that he knew that he was very likely to die on that spaceflight; one once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in exchange for one’s life.
At the very least, he probably figured it out when systems began failing on board during his flight: a communication line, solar panel deployment failure, and orientation engine pressure drops. After all this, he was somehow still able to get the capsule to reenter the atmosphere, only to have the vehicle’s main chute not open.
“…he knew that he was very likely to die on that spaceflight; One once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in exchange for one’s life.”
Komarov circled the Earth 19 times above clouds and countries before reentering the atmosphere manually and crashing into the ground. He left behind a wife and daughter. I wonder how much of that time was spent focused on troubleshooting the issues in a scramble for survival and how much was spent contemplating his potentially final hours.
The night after watching this documentary and discussing it with my crew mates, I drifted to sleep to find my mind processing the night’s information.
I dreamt that I was picked to be one of the crew members of a mission to Mars – no surprises there.
I don’t know why I was selected for the adventure or what the selection process even was. Perhaps I won it by collecting chocolate pudding packs like Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love.
Regardless, I was selected. Should be a great dream, right?
The catch was that this rocket was not being sent by NASA, nor a known spaceflight company. It would be launched, underfunded, by an unknown organization. They had enough money to have made a rocket, but not enough to make sure it was safe. The best estimations were a 50-50 chance of survival, but everyone assured me the odds were much worse. News outlets and those close to me all thought it meant certain death. The rest of the dream was a series of conversations with friends and family as the organization waited for my answer.
Excitement quickly turned to nervousness, and I felt a very real pit in my stomach for the remainder of my time asleep. What was interesting is the reason I was nervous.
The obvious initial guess is that I had a potentially life-threatening decision to make: Choose to fly and most likely not survive but risk it for the sliver of a chance of making it to another world and back, or give up the one-time opportunity entirely in exchange for a potentially extended life. After all, it would be perfectly normal to be nervous about any decision that puts your life on the line.
“If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” – Gus Grissom
When I finally awoke, I had something rare after a night of dreaming: clarity.
I was not nervous because of the decision I needed to make, but because I already knew what my answer was.
If there was even the tiniest chance that the mission would be successful, I would go. How could I not?
Spaceflight is inherently dangerous, but our place in it is summed up in the words of Gus Grissom, an astronaut who died during the Apollo program,
“ If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. “
As I laid in bed, the self-preservationist part of my brain was making me physically nervous because of what my subconscious had told it was going to happen.
In all of this- Yuri’s success transforming him from man to symbol, Komarov deciding to fly to an almost certain death, and my dream – were several questions worth asking:
- Is your dream/job/passion worth the risk of life?
- At what point does the scale tip in the battle between postponing death and accomplishing what you set out to do?
- Is being the first to do something, or being remembered in history important to you?
- Why can’t I just dream I forgot to wear pants to school like normal people?
Let’s discuss these a bit:
Imagine having had a life’s goal drive many life decisions. Perhaps the goal was writing a book, supporting yourself as a performer, or flying around the world. Moving towards that goal has meant sacrificing careers and loves. After years of work, you’re given the opportunity to realize that goal, but reaching it means a potentially shortened life.
Is the risk worth it? What would you do?
Is what you work towards each day worth the investment of your life’s limited hours?
It’s easy to focus so much on an ultimate life goal without asking why. It’s important to ask why achieving that goal even matters to you at all: Is it because it will bring self-validation? Acceptance from others? A sense of peace? As far as I can tell from listening to those who have achieved their career goals, none of those can come from success. The goal itself needs to stand as its own reason.
“Why can’t I just dream I forgot to wear pants to school like normal people?”
Sometimes, our obsession with goals can adversely affect those closest to us. When I think of Vladimir’s reasoning of wanting to protect Yuri, I can’t help but wonder if this was a way to justify a difficult decision. Perhaps it was a purely selfless move. Perhaps it was simply an excuse to be able to do something that he wanted to do, despite knowing it could cost him his life. The decision to fly would have dire consequences for his family, while giving up the chance may have felt like betraying his own purpose.
Historically, NASA astronaut applications have doubled every time there has been a fatal shuttle disaster. Is this the result of causing people to ponder their work’s worth, or simply an effect of increased media coverage?
*This doubling in applications, by the way, has been true up until the previous selection when numbers jumped significantly to a record high of 18,000 applications, smashing previous numbers for much different more exciting reasons (See: Welcome to the Second Space Age)*
In movies, it’s cliché for a character to desire to be remembered for greatness of some sort. In the space world, that often means being the first. Every American knows the names Armstrong and Aldrin. Every Russian knows Gagarin. How many in the general public know Komarov or Collins off the top of their head?
I’ve never understood the appeal of being the first and often wonder if it’s yet another thing I’ll begin to understand as I get older. Perhaps it somehow becomes more important as your life’s past begins to outweigh your life’s future. Does being remembered have any real value when compared to having a full life?
Can you consider a life to be fully lived without pursuing a passion or ‘personal legend’? If not, and if your dream is dangerous, then I suppose you’re out of luck.
There’s something strange and undesirable about being remembered, especially for being the first to do something. If it’s for something positive, all your flaws are simply forgotten, steamrolled by the reputation and slick sheen of your accomplishment. In the case of someone like Yuri Gagarin, your achievements may come to define you entirely.
Of course, I understand the desire to leave something behind in the world. Parents have children to pass a piece of themselves on. Painters paint. Writers write. Is any of it different? Artists fabricate worlds and characters, breathing life into their ideas. It makes a part of themselves tangible, bringing it into existence.
My hope from this rant is to share what I was given in this dream: not answers, but questions worth asking.
At the very least, let’s all ask ourselves these questions until we have good answers for them:
If you are one of the few people lucky enough to have a dream and the opportunities to pursue it: Is your dream or the thing you value most worth the risk of life? Would you hesitate if you had to sacrifice time on this Earth to fulfill the very reason you feel you walk it? Why or why not?
Is your goal as worth dreaming about at night as it is thinking about during the day?