Landing: After a Year and a Day Away

A year and a day ago, I came here with a stack of books, a small pile of clothes, and a leather medical bag.

The stack of books got larger. Don’t ask me how (fed them after midnight, maybe…). The contents of the doctor bag shifted and changed as tools were removed and used; medicines dispensed; instruments cleaned and returned to their places. As of right now, it looks a bit like a baby that just got changed: clean, quiet, and ready to erupt again at any moment. The clothes… let’s just say that I would give the survivors to Pele, the volcano goddess, in gratitude for her hospitality, but I don’t want to make her angry. Not for at least a few more hours ;).

The hatch is opening in…11 minutes. Soon, for the first time in a year, I’ll be able to exchange words with someone outside this dome in real time. Hello. How are you? Nice day, huh?

How long has it been? A year and a day. Once again, I’ll be able to walk down the street. To watch a cat curl up in a window; see a dog lying in the sun with such stillness that you wonder if he’s still alive – and then he bolts upright at the sound of a passing care or twitches an ear, and you laugh at yourself for wondering. I’ll be able to see the stars without cleaning my faceplate twice (once inside and once out). I’ll be able to answer the phone: Hello? Hello! You do these things everyday without thinking about them. It’s been 366 days since I answered a phone.

No offense to the world, but I may wait a little longer on that last one 😉

Technically, my crew never left the planet. Just as true: our species has only just arrived. To this day, in fact, we’re mostly not of this world. I don’t mean in the Carl Sagan, we-are-stardust way, though that’s true too. I mean that each and every one of us is mostly water. Most of the water on this Earth has been measured and proven to be from comets. So you were brought here, really, bit by bit, molecule by molecule, assembled and constructed over eons. Maybe that’s why we’re always trying to leave here: The journey was never mean to be one-way. Or maybe the joy and terror of riding through the skies was captured along with those bits of ice and rock. Maybe the will to wander through the stars still resonates in the bonds that hold one hydrogen to another. I couldn’t say for sure. I am a just traveler myself. I came here with a leather bag. Tools were taken out. Tools were used, and returned.

As I write these words, “used…returned”, I’m reminded of the sword I inherited from the Quaker side of my family. What a bunch of Pennsylvanian farmers, Latin teachers, and civil rights lawyers were doing with a 15th century Spanish cavalry saber, I couldn’t say. What I can say is that one side of the sword reads, “I will not draw you without reason.” And on the other, “I will not resheath you without honor.” Whether on this planet or another, however you get there, it seems like a good way to live: with thoughtful intention, with good conduct, with reason. On the other side of the family, my grandparent’s grave says something very similar: “Reason above all.” That the plaque sits at eye level in a Jewish temple is either a stroke of Semitic semantic genius or a parting quip (or possibly both). I can’t say what they were thinking, but I can say that, while reason is wonderful, it is simply not enough sometimes. Reason supplies us with the technical ability to live, to overcome physical obstacles, to get to space, but it doesn’t supply the political and personal will that launches us into space; it doesn’t keep us from quitting when things go wrong out here; and it doesn’t inspire thousands to join us in living on the edge of endless darkness, piercing cold, and perpetual uncertainty.

What does? Wonder, I think.

We are born into it, seek it, find it or die trying. The roots of our humanity are buried in it and reach for it, growing towards the light of the only sun we have ever felt on our skin and beyond, to other suns, to other stars. This was a year of my life. Light from our sun traveled 5,878,499,817 miles out towards other words, 3,375 of which are known to us as of this moment. Light from their suns hurled the same distance towards are. We are, in a metaphorical and physical sense, reaching for each other – not for any reason. It just does. We just are.

In many weird and wonderful ways, this Universe around us all just happens. We can give it a reason for happening. We can give it a million reasons it should continue to happen and probably as many that it shouldn’t. People are poor. People are hungry. People are sick. True, true, and don’t I know it. Those poor hungry sick people are, at this minute, waiting for me back on Earth, and I for them. We’ll find each other soon enough. The hope that keeps us seeking each other out, the faith that they place in me when they come for help, and the strength that I find to keep trying to help them come from somewhere – not from reason, but from and towards the better world we all want to live in. In that world, in that vision of ourselves, we are travelers among the stars. In wanting a better world, in pursing that vision, we take reason in one hand and our humanity in the other. Neither is perfect. Both, I believe, will  be enough to get us there and sometimes, though not always, to bring us back.

You know what interests me most about humanity and space: when we go, what on Earth will we bring? Books? Medical bags? Stuffed animals? Seasonal Holidays? Nuclear families? Patriarchy, democracy, sexual identity? When given the chance to reinvent ourselves as citizens of the solar system and then the galaxy, will we do it? And if so, how?

I have no wish to live forever, but if I could look into the future, I would do so with an eye on who we choose to become, when Earth has faded into the blackness of our viewscreens. I remember, in my previous simulation at NASA, watching Erth shrink to the size of my thumb, then the size of the Moon. Then, the only question on my mind as we set our course for that Mars-crossing asteroid was, “Now what?”

My bag of tools sits in the corner. I know what lies ahead for me, to some extent. My husband Ben is just outside the door, along with  my mother, brother (also, Ben), and all of you. I hope to see them soon, and I know that I will. For the rest of humanity, I hope for something very simple and quite difficult: that we just keep going. That we conquer poverty, find peace, make our way to the stars. I don’t know that we will do it in that order. Given what it takes to make it out here, peace may be a necessary part of a space-fairing race, at least at the start. And health? Given what it takes to keep people alive in the void – to keep them healthy on sMars for just a year – I can basically promise that by going to space we’ll learn what it takes to keep people healthy in places with heat, light, and gravity. We’ve already started. We’ve been at it for decades. I’ve been at it for 12 months straight, been on call for almost 365. 25 days.

What now? For you all out there: just keep going. It will be the hardest and best thing you ever do. For me, for now – I’m going on vacation.