The Annual Novato, CA, Space Festival on August 1, was spectacular: several Apollo astronauts and Star Wars troopers greeted about 4000 guests who came to see what’s happening in the world of space. Experts from many fields, with telescopes to view the sun to samples of what’s been manufactured in space, were there to explain how we discover the universe and how we endeavor to do more. As I looked over the crowds of inspired visitors, I even spotted Darth Vader who cheerily waved back. Enthusiasm for space filled the air and for several hours made us all feel like members of the same club.
I was there to explain sub-orbital flights for Virgin Galactic, in my role as mission support for my colleague, a VG space agent. Suborbital flights will one day show the edge of space to citizen flyers. Curiosity about such a flight always draws a lot of people.
After an explanation of the trajectory of the flights and the rare vision of seeing Earth wrapped in turquoise against a midnight of stars, I stopped to answer questions. One woman waited quietly. A small girl of about six years stood behind her shyly watching. When the small crowd moved on, they stayed.
“Could you please,” the women asked mildly, “take a moment to help me? My daughter has a question. Maybe you can answer it.”
I knelt to meet the girl who had a head of blonde curls going out wildly in all directions as if defying gravity, and a small stuffed bear under her arm. She gently touched the paw of the bear to her lips and starred at me. “If I can, I’d love to help you with your question,” I said. “I’m MJ. What’s your name?”
She tentatively lowered the paw. “Katie,” she said.
“Hi, Katie. What question do you have?”
She hesitated. “I wanted to know,” she began softly, “if astronauts can take their Teddy Bears with them. When they go into space.”
That question was a first. The questions, even from small children, are about speeds, and what it feels like to leave Earth’s gravity. Our national plans to establish long-duration stays on the Moon and a round-trip mission to Mars are just 10-20 years away. This little girl is at the right age to be directly engaged in these endeavors. But the moment felt profound. Teddy Bears in space? My first thought was that, yes, the bear would be light enough to be included in missions that must consider all flight weight. Then it occurred to me that the matter was much deeper than the weight of a Teddy Bear. Rather, it was an innocent question about our basic humanity. What does it mean to be human, anywhere? Perhaps especially in space.
“Astronauts,” I began, still at her eye level, “are people, just like you. And some are moms and dads with children, like you. They take all sorts of things with them into space when they go. Like pictures of their family, a guitar to play, and books. And yes, Katie, sometimes a favorite Teddy Bear.”
Katie nodded, taking this all in seriously. “They do then? It’s okay?” she said, returning the bear to her lips and watching me.
“Yes, Katie. Teddy Bears can go to space,” I confirmed. “You know, they float in space too, just like the astronauts! But I’d like to ask you to promise me one thing?”
She continued watching me. Then nodded cautiously.
“Promise me that you will take yours with you. When you go to space. When you’re an astronaut one day.” Her mother smiled.
Katie’s was my favorite question of the day. Perhaps the best question of all, asked of anyone that day at the space festival.
Human spaceflight will take us deeper into the solar system than ever before. Those astronauts will leave Earth behind, and everyone they know, for months to construct platforms on the Moon or for up to 1000 days to get to Mars and back. They who will embark on such missions will need to take many things with them, including our best flight technology, protection from solar radiation, and interventions to preserve physical strength, to get them there and back safely. Along for the ride will go their humanity, too, and expected span of experiences: exhilaration and exhaustion, unity and conflict, courage and doubt, and the fulfillment of accomplishments to the enjoyment of sports. These must be addressed in space as on Earth. The question that day reminds us that while working to meet our goals for space, we must never forget that astronauts are, above all, only human.
So yes, Katie. When astronauts go to space they will take their Teddy Bears too. Your concern, asked from the heart, is important to consider in making our plans.
[MJ is working on research on team cohesion and long-duration space flights. As an aviation instructor, she addresses fears of all kinds and how to manage them. She tells about the humor and terror of her first flying lessons in ‘Finding the Wow’, due out in late 2015.]