1996-2013: My Space Odessy

Constellation Cassiopeia in the night sky.

Ever since I was 12, I’ve been tight with Cassiopeia, the vain Ethiopian queen of Greek mythology who sits in an upside chair in the sky half the year. Credit: Till Credner, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

When I was in sixth grade, my science teacher gave us an assignment: to record the phases of the moon every night for a month. So, fairly faithfully, I would head outside after nightfall into the cul-de-sac of my suburban Cincinnati home and painstakingly draw the moon’s fluid shape on a series of 3×5 index cards.

The idea was that we were creating miniature astronomy flipbooks that would show the time lapse of the moon waxing toward full and waning toward new. I called my little book, “Flipping the Moon,” complete with a cartoon Man-in-the-Moon doing gymnastics on the cover.

In addition to my lunar sketches, I was supposed to write down any additional observations of the night sky, but between the light pollution and my limited knowledge, I think my most common comments were about seeing the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, and Cassiopeia. Clearly, I was discovering the edges of the universe!

My Galaxy and Me

Another memorable moment in my early fascination with the worlds beyond my own was when I was on an overnight trip of some kind as a teenager and first discovered my own galaxy. The Milky Way was breathtaking. And I actually was at the edge of it. It felt so empowering to be able to recognize that creamy band of stars and planets stretching across the sky. Like when you learn a new word and suddenly you start hearing it everywhere–and understanding in a way you hadn’t before.

It’s something I carried with me as a college student spending a summer in the northwoods of Wisconsin, sitting in a small boat with two other students, taking samples of tiny drifting zooplankton at 2:30 a.m., staring at the perfect mirror the lake made of the stars and my galaxy when I looked up and when I looked down. All I could do was contemplate the universe and my place in it as we dropped the sampling equipment off the side of the boat into the dark waters below.

Space Does Weird Things to You

Since my early starry-eyed ruminations, however, my occasional forays into space as a “grown up” have taken a different turn. Ever since I read Mary Roach’s book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, when I now think about space, I almost can’t help but think about the bizarre things weightlessness does to the human body.

Here are a few of my favorite facts I learned about life that is out of this world:

  1. Without gravity, your normally heavy organs actually float inside your body, drifting up your ribcage and “reducing your waistline in a way no diet can.”
  2. You can’t tell when you have to urinate until your bladder is nearly full. In weightlessness, the urine spreads out around your bladder and not in its bottom, preventing you from feeling the usual “I’ve gotta go” pressure that comes with an expanding bladder.
  3. Early astronauts had to complete eye exams (posted on the space craft’s dashboard) constantly to confirm that weightlessness wasn’t changing the shape of their eyeballs to the point that they couldn’t see properly.

For more details about how outer space affects the few humans who make it there, check out an interactive web feature from NASA.

And every once in a while, don’t forget to look up.

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