Op-Ed

Op-Ed
Context Sensitive: In Space, No-One Can Hear You Sleep

Susan Arendt | 7 Aug 2008 21:05
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Mostly, though, Garriott has been learning how not to get himself or anyone else killed. As he puts it, "There's a surprisingly large number of ways to kill yourself or be injured in space." The threats to space travelers was, I thought, a topic upon which I was exceedingly well-versed: Rogue asteroids colliding with your craft and venting all but three hours' worth of oxygen, the ghosts of shipmates who've been sucked into alternate dimensions coming back to haunt you, spatial anomalies that will trap you in a time loop, shipboard computers that suddenly turn homicidal, and let's not forget the various ways alien life forms are out to get you. I quickly learned that my years of research had failed me yet again. The easiest way to kill yourself in space isn't to explore a derelict freighter before you've properly translated its distress call, General British explained. The easiest way to do yourself in is simply to take a snooze.

When you sleep on Earth, the carbon dioxide you exhale is lighter than the oxygen around you and so floats upward and away from your face. In space, there is no such thing as up, so if you're not sleeping in a well-ventilated area, the carbon dioxide will simply hang there in front of your nose and mouth, waiting to be sucked back in again. Stay in that position long enough, and your catnap can quickly turn into a dirt nap.

Of course, you might just freeze to death first. The ISS' sleeping quarters only has space enough for two; the remaining crew members have to strap up their sleeping bags wherever they can find room. Garriott had originally planned on sleeping in out-of-the-way airlock alcove that provided a bit of privacy, but was warned that it might not be warm enough to keep him from becoming a Britishcicle.

Space, it would seem, isn't sexy. It's cruel and unforgiving, making the most mundane of activities into life-threatening events. Who needs black holes or Kodan armadas when simply sleeping in the wrong part of the hallway can seal your doom? Space, I discovered, isn't interested in your drooling desire to be part of it. Space has never heard of Flash Gordon, the Nostromo, John Crichton, or the Yamato. Space doesn't care that you grew up with visions of tribbles and daggits dancing in your head. Space demands respect, and will coldly punish those who don't provide it.

In all likelihood, my digitized DNA, along with the rest of the Immortality Drive, will gather dust in some forgotten corner of the International Space Station until an astronaut does some spring cleaning and shoves it out an airlock. That doesn't mean I'm any less excited about the opportunity, though. I can travel to the most exotic, far-flung corner of the globe, someplace no human has ever set foot, and I'll still be just another Earthling, glued to the surface of the big blue marble. My DNA, on the other hand, will be out among the stars, in a place that's wild and strange and full of the unknown. Space my be dangerous and intimidating, it might have no qualms about killing you while you sleep, but it's still the final frontier.

If the aliens do come and wipe us off the planet and we're forced to start anew, I can only hope that Future Susan is wise enough to give space the respect it deserves without sacrificing her sense of wonder and awe. I also hope she has four arms and cybernetic implants, because that would be wicked cool.

Susan Arendt is still hoping to get a robot butler someday. Or a jetpack. Maybe a robot butler with a jetpack.

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