Rusty Schweickart felt sick. It was March 1969 and he was on the Apollo 9 space mission, attempting the very first extravehicular activity (EVA) in space. The nausea is called ‘space adaptation syndrome’ and about half of space travelers experience it. It’s the opposite of motion sickness: the person and object appear to be in relative motion but there is no corresponding sensation in the body and inner ear. The brain goes, ‘what’s up with that?!’ and the strong urge to vomit takes over.
Rusty recovered enough to undertake a limited version of the EVA and to test the portable life support system (this was then used by the following 12 astronauts who walked on the moon).
During a five minute pause during his EVA, he was tethered to the ship and looked down on the earth, considering its place in the universe. As he stared at our planet, he underwent a metaphysical experience, sensing the interconnectedness of all things. It changed his perspective forever. On his return to earth, he started practising transcendental meditation. He continued his work at NASA and remained committed to space exploration.
Rusty is not alone in his experience. Many astronauts report similar shifts in perspective. Author Frank White has called this the ‘overview effect’ in his book of the same name. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Schein describes the emotion as ‘interconnected euphoria’.
What does this mean for you and how is it useful?
When your child comes screaming to you because their sibling has stolen their Frozen-themed lunchbox, or when your spouse nags you to fold the laundry, or when your staff member interrupts yet again with ‘have you got a minute?’…
We are far from the bliss of interconnected euphoria.
And yet, if some part of us can remain tethered to this awareness, like Rusty looped to his spacecraft looking down on the planet, then we can become ever so much more down to earth. We can remember that life is at once temporary and endless, painful and full of joy. We can take everything in our stride, smile through chaos, and savour all of it. And get down to work.
How wide can you cast your perspective? How much can you contemplate? How might this settle your concerns and help you be more down to earth?