April 12, 2020 at 12:01 pm by Frank White
Note: It’s Easter and a time when we tend to think of death and rebirth, regardless of our faith tradition. Our world is experiencing a lot of deaths right now, the passing of truly innocent victims. My emphasis on lessons learned is not to ignore the sacrifices that are taking place today, but to honor them by doing our best to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.
The pandemic is challenging us to think about viruses, and ourselves, in new ways. How do we get a handle on something that has, to our knowledge, never before happened in human history? By that, I mean something that affects every human being on planet Earth and something that threatens every one of us.
Interestingly, astronauts have been weighing in on this question, comparing what is happening with COVID to their experiences on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. On April 11, during a virtual version of Yuri’s Night, Chris Hadfield addressed this issue with a short video and a conversation with Loretta Whitesides. (1)
As he and other astronauts noted during Yuri’s Night and elsewhere, self-isolation is one aspect of the two situations that is very similar. Typically, there might be six astronauts on the ISS and they are physically isolated from the seven billion people on Earth, including their family members. As is the case for those of us in isolation during the pandemic, they have an ability to communicate with people on the planet, but not to visit them.
A second similar element is the pervasive sense of danger that a space mission and the COVID virus engender in us. Astronauts are in a shirt-sleeve environment on the ISS, but, as Hadfield noted, they know that a micrometeorite might penetrate the hull at any moment. While their safety is being monitored by mission control personnel around the world, the harsh environment of outer space will be unforgiving if anything goes wrong.
Like us, the astronauts have to don protective clothing if they go outside. Even more than inside the Shuttle or ISS, danger is ever present on a spacewalk.
Finally, Hadfield pointed out that uncertainty is a big part of the experience. Astronauts leave the Earth on spacecraft and expect to return on a certain date, but that is not always the way things turn out. For example, we are currently marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, which was supposed to be the third lunar landing of the Apollo era. However, something went terribly wrong on the way to the Moon and getting the astronauts home safely became the actual mission. The same has happened with the Shuttle and ISS expeditions. Unexpected events can lengthen or shorten flights into orbit or the Moon.
Like the astronauts, too, Hadfield said that we are being taken out of our ordinary daily lives and given a unique experience. He said that Yuri Gagarin and most astronauts who followed him felt compelled to share the meaning of the spaceflight experience, which has come to be called “the Overview Effect.”
These similarities are striking and may give us a start at developing language to understand what I have begun calling “the COVID Effect.” (2) But what stood out for me the most was that Hadfield also said that each of us should ask ourselves “what is our mission” during this unique time; "what do we want to accomplish?”
In another video, he noted that sending a crew to the ISS is designated as an “expedition” because you are a “small group of people doing something that has elevated risk in a very different environment...” (3)
So maybe we ought to consider this period of lockdown and social distancing as a period of time with a purpose, an expedition. Just as astronauts experience the Overview Effect when they are in outer space and return with a new worldview, maybe we will experience the COVID Effect during this time and emerge with a new perspective on ourselves, our planet, and our place in the universe.
The big difference between us, as “astronauts of Spaceship Earth” and astronauts like Chris Hadfield is that we did not know our mission when all of this began. We have to define it while we are in the middle of the expedition. Unlike a professional astronaut, who carries out a mission that has already been assigned to them, we get to choose the meaning of this experience, the nature of humanity’s mission.
What do you think it might be?
(1) You can watch the video and conversation between Chris and Loretta, as well as the entire Yuri’s Night program here: https://www.space.com/yuris-night-2020-human-spaceflight-webcast.html
(2) I have resisted using this term, because I don’t want to be seen as creating new “Effects” to go with the Overview Effect. However, it really seems to fit the situation, so I am using it, but sparingly. If people find it valuable and it helps to move the conversation along, that will be a great benefit.
(3) Here is a link to the other Hadfield video, which is excellent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtd3rwDLn7E
Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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