Head Over Heels: the Playful Astronaut

At Lunchtime GMT, 15 January this year, I watched Tim Peake’s spacewalk. Like many live transmissions, the first venture into the ‘void profound’ by a British astronaut was a curious mixture of the exciting and the anticlimactic. The hatch opened; I sat up. The endless tests went on; I went back to my sandwich. When Peake finally ventured out he broke off dialogue with Ground Control, liturgical in its stiff formality, to say something simple and moving. ‘Beautiful sunset’, he remarked. ‘I know’, replied his partner, Timothy Kopra, with a chuckle. Peake and Kopra’s spacewalk was far from an aimless evening stroll. They needed to replace a failed electrical box. ‘Beautiful sunset’ was an acknowledgement, however, that to the audience on earth the spacewalk was irresistibly poetic. Peake positioned himself, for a second, in the tradition of the heroic astronaut. This was his ‘one small step’ moment. Yet on arrival at the ISS, Tim Peake was interviewed by the BBC, and did something less weighty. At the interviewer’s request he somersaulted with glee, his bare feet arching into view as his torso disappeared, only to come up grinning as he remarked ‘practice makes perfect’. Peake’s somersault, too, has its precedents. Pete Conrad elaborately planned a somersault across the deck when his Gemini 5 spacecraft touched down in 1965. Two years before, as American space ambition accelerated and astronauts became celebrities, Life magazine ran a cover story entitled ‘The New Astronauts: they go head over heels into training’.

Peake’s somersault is an emblem of the playfulness, the boyish larking about, at the heart of spaceflight and its representations. Of course, the reality of astronaut life is hardly ludic. Most of Peake’s time on the ISS is spent conducting experiments which are anything but light-hearted in their precision. Life ‘up there’ can be mundane, even uncomfortable, full of nausea and dizziness and moments of intense claustrophobia. Pete Conrad’s planned somersault was a garnish of exuberance on a highly serious, combative project: space was a Cold War battleground, and the resemblance of rockets to nuclear warheads was more than coincidental. Yet since 1991 space has become less of a battleground — the West’s new enemies have shown little interest in that frontier — and more of a playground.

Christopher Boone, the hero of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), declares ‘I think I would make a very good astronaut’. Christopher, who probably has Asperger’s syndrome, suspects that for him the assumed downsides would be perks:

You also have to be someone who would like being on their own in a tiny spacecraft thousands and thousands of miles away from the surface of the earth and not panic or get claustrophobia or homesick or insane. And I really like little spaces…[1]

Christopher’s syntax treats ‘claustrophobia’ as an adjective, like ‘homesick or insane’. He knows it’s a thing, but he can’t understand it, because he thrives on enclosed solitude. ‘Sometimes’, he says, ‘I get into the airing cupboard in the bathroom and slide in beside the boiler and… sit there and think for hours’. Snug space, in the imagination of those lucky to have grown up in comfortable houses, can be powerfully associated with childhood. Psychoanalysis, of course, explains this as an intuitive memory of the womb, and indeed it was difficult not to think of birth when Peake and Kopra, after hours of preparation, emerged. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958) deploys a phenomenological approach to expand the often constricted readings of space offered by psychoanalysis. The spaceship is an example par excellence of what Bachelard calls ‘intimate immensity’, the snug house built against, but also built by, the infinite exterior. The dream of the spaceship is the dream of our childhood home, and in our childhood memories we play in our shelters.

[caption id=”attachment_7768" align=”alignnone” width=”2275"]

Pete Conrad having a weightless dental check-up, 1973
Pete Conrad having a weightless dental check-up, 1973

Pete Conrad having a weightless dental check-up, 1973[/caption]

Snug in the spaceship, astronauts become weightless. Somersaults, which on earth were both difficult and socially unacceptable for adults, become possible. Weightlessness, to those who experience it, brings nausea and muscle entropy, yet it also allows for larks. Real footage of life in space tends to stress this link between floating and playing. In a NASA video recorded just before the 2014 football World Cup, astronauts from Expedition 40 send good luck messages — not to particular nations but to ‘all the teams’ — and then demonstrate a series of spectacular bicycle kicks and diving saves with the generously floating ball. Peake himself recently released footage of his colleague Scott Kelly chasing him around the space station in a gorilla suit. Childlike playfulness characterised his mission long before lift-off: en route to the launch site in Kazakhstan, he touched fists with local children through the bus window glass and made an explosion gesture. The logo on his uniform was designed by a British child at primary school, and he recently wrote the foreword for a children’s book set in the solar system. In space, playfulness exists alongside and ameliorates drudgery, boredom, loneliness, and unimaginable tension: the spectacular spacewalk with which Gravity (2013) begins depicts life hanging by detachable leads; improbably, and perhaps impossibly, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney keep up continuous badinage.

[caption id=”attachment_7766" align=”alignnone” width=”500"]

'Astronauts' Wives', Life Magazine, September 1959
'Astronauts' Wives', Life Magazine, September 1959

‘Astronauts’ Wives’, Life Magazine, September 1959[/caption]

Tim Peake isn’t the first British astronaut — Helen Sharman went into orbit in 1991 — but most space cowboys have been men or, indeed, boys. The astronauts selected for the pioneering Mercury and Gemini flights of the 1960s were turned into cultural icons of American masculinity. Fifteen years since Japanese surrender, here was a new generation of heroes: upstanding, fearless, Soviet-hating, and (mostly) married with kids. Not all the astronauts fitted the stereotype neatly: Rusty Schweickart, one of 14 astronauts who joined operations in Houston in 1963, hosted a literary discussion group with his wife and had left-leaning views. Yet most astronauts ‘went hunting or worked on cars in their spare time’[2] , and it was this red-blooded manliness, rather than Schweickart’s reflective maturity, that American and Texan society valued. When Pete Conrad and five colleagues routinely drag-raced their Corvettes to work along Interstate 45, their straightforward masculinity was simply bubbling over in youthful exuberance. The sense of contest is important. President Kennedy had inaugurated a geopolitical race against the USSR, but among the American astronauts miniature competitions — at varying degrees of playfulness — were always taking place. The logic of the exuberant race to work found its way into the office: the 14 astronauts were vying for prestigious positions on the Gemini flights, and at one point were asked to conduct a secret peer review. The intertwining of play and contest constructed an atmosphere of sparring camaraderie, a staple and a stereotype of the postwar American representation of boyhood.

It’s appropriate that one of the most enduring figures of millennial pop culture is an astronaut. Buzz Lightyear competes only with Woody for a place in Andy’s heart. Toy Story taps into a longstanding, even hackneyed analogy of the cultural genres of cowboy and astronaut. Buzz, thinks Andy, is Woody’s upgrade. Emerging from his box, Buzz radiates the soaring ambition of the pioneering American space programs. He’s an avatar for the ambitious daydreams of the child — someone they’d like to be ‘when they grow up’. Yet his buttons don’t work and his ‘laser’ is just an LED. ‘You’re a toy’, Woody breaks it to him; only once he accepts this can Buzz be actually heroic, not in a grand delusion of spaceflight but in local loyalty to Andy and defence of his toys. In representing astronauts we turn them into heroes, but our post-modern sensibilities are uneasy with the grand narrative of the pioneer. So we make our astronauts playful and boyish, heroes not in the mould of Buzz the hubristic explorer but Buzz the toy.

114 years before Tim Peake arrived at the ISS, Captain Scott made his first expedition to Antarctica, an extreme frontier of knowledge which was to the Edwardians as space is to us. A quarter of a century had elapsed since the Nares expedition (1875–6), the last British Antarctic foray. In the absence of real journeys, polar exploration had happened on paper: an explosion of adventure stories aimed at boys and set in the Poles captured young hearts and minds, just as Parry’s Polar Voyages had electrified a nine year-old Clements Markham, Scott’s patron. Scott’s last expedition, too, was full of boyish play: at the base camp where they spent the polar winter, Scott and his men ‘have become gloriously junior again’.[3] On Christmas Day, that winter, Titus Oates received a popgun, and took great delight in running around pretending to shoot the others. This simplicity of play goes alongside the inclination towards cadet-like protocol and ‘form’ that made the natural response to reaching the Pole a team photograph. More than a century later, men suspended in a spaceship 250 miles above the earth muck around in gorilla suits: far from the boundaries and limits of Earth, they briefly become boys again.

[1] Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (London: Vintage, 2003), Ch. 83.

[2] Andrew Chaikin, Man on the Moon: the voyages of the Apollo astronauts (London: Penguin, 1994), 48.

[3] Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English imagination (London: Faber, 1996), 306.

The Inkling Magazine

A magazine that, between 2012 and 2018, provided a space for young writers to write weird and wonderful essays.

    The Inkling Magazine

    Written by

    The Inkling Magazine

    A magazine that, between 2012 and 2018, provided a space for young writers to write weird and wonderful essays.

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