Birthday Post: Let's Talk About Astronauts / by Adeene Denton

Let's talk about astronauts, and why I want to be one. 

Wanting to be an astronaut is probably the most selfish thing about me, for many reasons. Do I want to be a good scientist and contribute to our global understanding of what makes the planets tick? I should probably stay on earth, do the academia grind, and publish papers like a good scientist would. I should study all the existing spacecraft data (and we have so much of it) rather than pushing to use US tax dollars to generate more - and proposing myself as one of the people to collect that data. Do I want the scientific community to get knowledge as efficiently as possible in the most cost-effective way? Then we should be sending spacecraft and rovers, not people to explore the planets. And certainly not me. People are expensive, and rovers don't have to sleep or eat or pee.

 Pictured: not Adeene, but it could be!

Pictured: not Adeene, but it could be!

But here's the thing - I need to be an astronaut. I have to do it. If there were a chance that I could be an astronaut, I would take it in a heartbeat.  But why do I want to be an astronaut? It's hard to explain something that, for me, feels fundamental to my person.  Why do I keep traveling to the farthest, most isolated places I can get? I keep going to the Himalaya, to the Arctic Circle, anywhere the air is scarce and the people scarcer. I have to do it. It was built in me, in a way I can't describe or explain – I have to go to the edges of the world. I have to look into the abyss to know myself.  Some people get it when I try to explain, some people don’t.

I'm a geologist. When I look at mountains I don't see them as solid, immortal giants - though this is what they appear to be. I see their past and their future, their tumultuous birth and their inevitable erosion. These supposedly static, immovable pieces of our world are constants only to those who are afraid of the insignificant scope of their own lives in comparison. I live and die, and so does the very ground on which I stand.  The earth tears itself open and sears itself shut; it cracks and breathes and builds and sinks... I have always been fascinated with this concept, though I could not always articulate it.  Getting my geology degree just facilitated my exploration of this idea, and gave me the language I need to express my own ideas about the world.

I am driven to the big open spaces of the earth, to rugged mountains and parched deserts, and once there I try to understand how they work and why they are where they are. It's an automatic instinct - to get to know my surroundings in a physical way, through sight and touch in ways that I cannot accomplish through distant, intellectual survey.  I am thrilled by the adventures taking place on a scale I cannot truly understand, from the rise and fall of continents to the hot, angry birth of the earth itself. I need to know. I need to know how these mountains got here, how the earth and the solar system formed out of a madly swirling torus of particles. I need to understand how I was made - a small spark of consciousness, a tiny lens through which the universe can observe itself.  That need is at the core of my being - to explore and understand. And I think that's a very human thing.

 For better or for worse, this is who I am. This is what I do.

For better or for worse, this is who I am. This is what I do.

Still, wanting to be an astronaut and go to the Moon or Mars is incredibly selfish. No one's disease will be cured because I went to the Moon. My footprints in the regolith cannot end a war (though that would be nice). By saying I want to be an astronaut, that I HAVE to be one, I am saying that I am the best person to go out into the void, taking the hopes of scientists and engineers and politicians and regular people, and exploring for them all. And I know in my brain that this is not true - there are people much smarter and more qualified than me. There's bucketloads of them, I'm sure.  My imposter syndrome will not let me forget it. But silly, naive me - I need it to be me.  I need to go up there. I need this more than anything else.

I think all humans have that exploration gene, somewhere in their minds (probably not an actual gene in our DNA – I’m a geologist, not a biologist).  Over the scope of human history we have crossed distances increasingly vast in search of knowledge, whether it's “who lives on the other side of those mountains?” or “what happens at the edges of our solar system?”  We have thrived as a species because of our need to explore the unknown – it drives our technological advancements and our personal optimism.  Our combination of idealism and curiosity is an advantage rather than a crutch – or at least, that’s what I tell myself.  Sometimes it feels like I have a little more of both traits than one person should reasonably have, and it’ll probably get me into trouble one day.

 Pictured: one of the objects of my affection.

Pictured: one of the objects of my affection.

With that in mind, I have a request:

NASA, send me to the Moon. Send me to Mars. I will step onto that surface and I will tell its story. I will ask too many questions and I will use all of the geologic knowledge that I am cultivating. I will go with joy and curiosity in my heart, and a healthy amount of fear. This entire blog post has been an exercise in being presumptuous, but here I am: NASA, make me an astronaut. I want to step onto that surface and look at those rocks myself. I want to study and learn for the whole world.

I don't know what I was born to be. Am I a scientist? I think so, even if there are days when I feel like the least qualified person in the room (thank you imposter syndrome, my old friend). Am I an astronaut? I think so, though it's not like I've had the chance to try, and thoroughly insolent for me to claim.

All I can really say, since I’m not actually an astronaut and I’m barely even a graduate student, is this: I’m twenty-two years old today, and I still want to grow up to be an astronaut. And it would be really cool if that actually happened, so I’m doing my best to get there.