Tuesday, September 25, 2018

'Some people don't worry, baby': Skylab blues and space junk anxiety

I do love the music inspired by the re-entry of the US space station Skylab in 1979. This one is by Grimsdell, a person or band about which I can find out almost nothing. Like several other space junk songs, it is rather grim, focusing on junk falling on people and houses. Skylab is almost drawn into some kind of karmic economy - it is coming for YOU, as if the guilty will die and the virtuous be saved. Or perhaps it's that virtue won't save you, and this is what's most frightening. Be apathetic, like the couch-potato Coors-sippers, or don't; it won't matter when the end comes.

You could also say that Skylab here is just a metaphor here for a general apocalypse, standing in for nuclear devastation

They say Skylab's fallin' out of the sky
They say some people may have to die
Could fall on my house, could fall on yours

Some people don't worry baby
They just sit back, watch TV, sip on their Coors
But each day now that passes by
Death and destruction come closer from the sky

They say it'll rain tons of scientific trash
The camera vault, a one mile-crater it'll mash
One supersonic bolt or one supersonic screw
May be fallin' out of orbit straight for you

But each day now that passes by
Death and destruction comes closer from the sky
They say the scientists don't know where it will fall
But people you know, it's gonna fall on y'all

They say there's no place, no place to run
They say there's no place, no place to hide
When it's all over baby, don't you know,
Many people gon' die

But each day now that passes by.
Death and destruction come closer from the sky

Skylab blues
Skylab blues
Skylab blues
Skylab blues

Monday, September 03, 2018

Flying dreams and the human relationship to gravity

From time to time, I have flying dreams. Standing on my feet, just a tiny movement will launch me into the air, and I go soaring above the ground with my arms outstretched, as effortlessly as a bird, delighting in the freedom.

When I think about these dreams, they have certain elements in common. It's always sunny with a blue, blue sky - maybe a couple of white fluffy clouds. There is green, even grass below me. The ground is flat or gently undulating at most. There's always a house. Not a familiar house, more like a greeting-card house or a children's book illustration. There are no houses nearby, just the house on a wide green lawn. I fly above the house at a certain height. I can see trees and often there's a Hills Hoist clothesline in the garden. No fences, though. It's much lower than aeroplane height, and the view is always of the immediate environment of the house.

It's a domestic dream, and perhaps a child's dream, when your whole world revolves around the house and the extent of space is a concept you've yet to fully grasp.

When I wake up from a flying dream, I often still feel the lack of gravity. The sensation that I can just will myself into the air and fly stays with me until I put my feet on the ground and realise how heavy I am, and how adhesive gravity is. I feel intense sadness at this moment. Being heavy seems such a burden. After a few steps, the residues of the dream evaporate and I'm fully awake.

Thinking about these dreams has led me to a curious thought. What if they are part of a pre-adaptation to space?

Now it's true that the human body is not well adapted to microgravity, and we know a fair bit about this because of astronauts' experience in Earth-orbiting space stations. Blood pools in the upper body, muscles atrophy, bones lose their calcium and weaken. We probably don't really know enough yet about the long term health affects of living in space either - a year is a long, long time in space, and only a few people have spent that long up there.

Despite this, humans seem to have an urge to defy gravity, whether it's aeroplanes or rockets. This starts very early. Remember how you loved being thrown up in the air and caught when you were a little kid, and how it made you laugh? The thrilling sensation of a centrifuge, when an adult or older child held your hands and swung you around in a circle? And just how much fun swings in the local park were? Even little tiny babies love these things.

Swimming is fun because we can also defy gravity in water, moving in any direction we want with a twist and flap. In the water, our feet are not stuck to the clay of the Earth. There's nothing beneath them and our personal space expands to a sphere rather than a dome. It's just a shame that water exerts a drag that's absent in the air. Also, there are things that can bite you in water.

My desire to fly doesn't mean I'm drawn to sky-diving, or hang gliding, because that's not what this is about. It's about flight being in one's body, not a result of technology.

Having said that, I also have a slightly concerning desire to throw myself off heights just to experience the exhilaration of falling through the air. Maybe this is like Douglas Adams' 'learning to throw yourself at the ground and and miss'. I'm not afraid of heights, just afraid that if there isn't a barrier, the compulsion might become too great to resist. My lack of fear frightens me because I know logically that hitting the hard ground at acceleration is not going to have a good outcome.

I've learnt that this is called the High Place Phenomenon. One person described it thus: 'It was the opposite of vertigo. It was the urge to fly'.

I wonder how old this urge is, and if the much-vaunted 'urge to explore', when applied to space, is really just echo of a flying dream.

Collage by Pilar Zeta.