People, last week was quite a week. I just went to Huntsville, Ala. with a platoon of journalists to endure the rigors of astronaut training. OK: high school student-level astronaut training. And let’s just say I am not only very pumped for the upcoming National Geographic program One Strange Rock and the second season of the rather amazing Mars. I am also going to be looking at those shows with seriously different eyes after what just happened.
After speaking to Space Camp experience directors, emeriti of NASA, actual astronauts, actors who play astronauts, and production folks behind these two very thought-provoking shows (about which I will be writing plenty more closer to their respective premieres), as well as some whip-smart TV and science journo-nauts, I have a few preliminary insights to share.
1. Space farts are a thing. Going potty in outer space is, unsurprisingly, complicated, involving a lot of gravity issues and containment and recycling of human waste. What they don’t always tell you is that people apparently seatbelt themselves to walls because if you let one rip in a weightless environment you might find yourself in the awkward situation of… propelling yourself through the space station.
2. Spider webs are different in space. So, some kid apparently wrote NASA asking if spiders can spin webs in space. Being devotees of knowledge for its own sake, a crew brought two cross spiders (a common variety of orb-weaver) to the space station. It took the arach-nauts some time to adjust to that, but once they did, they did what spiders do and built webs. Only these ones were three-dimensional and the silk had a greater tensile strength than it does on Earth. I just find that fascinating. (As a side note, spiders from Mars have not been discovered thus far, but in the future perhaps they’ll be spinning silk for human use up there, causing silkworms everywhere to sigh in relieved gratitude.)
3. Docking a module to the space station is really stressful. I mean, we all knew it was a simulation, but seriously, it was scary. Real astronauts must be the most Zen-calm people on or off the planet, because most of us were freaking out and we were on the ground inside a building.
4. Female instinct is still the best protector of eggs. One of the coolest things we did was to try to build a heat shield that would survive re-entry. We were given an array of materials we could use (including uncooked lasagna, thin sheets of cork and various fabrics). We were not really told much about the properties of the materials, but we were given a tutorial on the nature of the technologies employed in the construction of heat tiles. Our small shields would be clipped to a bracket. On one side, an egg (or “eggstronaut”). On the other, three solid minutes of direct 3000 degree blast from a blowtorch. My team was the only all-female one, and none of us were scientists. We discussed which materials might work best, and I was worried about aluminum foil because it was so thin but one of us remembered that in the oven, aluminum foil never gets as hot as what’s inside or under it. And when one of my colleagues asked why I was trying to shape it a certain way, I said, “I don’t know. Instinct.” We were the only team whose eggstronaut survived re-entry. So, like, women for the win. It was pretty cool. And so, importantly, was our egg.
5. It is literally impossible for any civilian born between 1957 and 1988 to get through Space Camp without breaking into a David Bowie song at least twice. And for a couple of us, the throw down to insert a minimum of 10 lyrics from “Space Oddity” or “Life on Mars” into our Mission Control scripts during a Mars landing sim proved even more irresistible than gravity. (For the record, guys, I was not drunk at PAYCOM. I was specifically directed to create a Medical Anomaly at the panel by acting disoriented. Sheesh.)
6. It is actually incredibly satisfying to say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
7. If you ask ten film and TV nuts what they think is the best space movie, there will be no duplicate answers. Our group ranged from Contact to 2001 to Spaceballs, and one person narrowly escaped permanent ostracism for admitting that she despises Chewbacca. I believe the words “I want to push that furry asshole off a cliff” were uttered. (If you’re wondering if that was me, it wasn’t, though I can get pretty worked up about Jar-Jar.) And, for the record, I had to give it to the scene in Mars Attacks where the aliens are trying to kill Tom Jones, even with Plan Nine on the table.
8. National Geographic is doing some amazing work on science and science fiction programming and the range of thinkers and doers and actors they have in their stable is formidable. I’ve said it before: Sci-fi has never been my go-to genre. But these people just might convert me.
One Strange Rock premieres March 26 and Mars Season Two in Spring 2018 on National Geographic Channel. Stay tuned to Paste TV for more coverage in the coming months.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.