Every question you’d like to ask an astronaut, answered
We write a lot about things that suck in these over-heated, over-valued, super-greedy startup days.
But even I have a few unabashed guilty pleasures.
Today’s installment of things-I-actually-love is about Quora. It’s impossible to know if Quora will ever build a standalone sustainable business. It’s gone from overheated Valley darling to forgotten to YC entrant (still weird) to quietly hoarding its cash and focusing on the product. It’d be wrong to say it’s currently enjoying its most hyped days. But given the quality of the site, the Facebook mafia founding team, and the backers, it’d be equally wrong to assume it’s a zombie just because it keeps a low profile.
What I love most about Quora is that it’s a rare site online that prizes high-quality, well-written answers to hard-to-find-the-answers-to questions. The fear early on was it would go the way of Yahoo Answers. Whether Quora will ever build an amazing business or not, we should all admit it’s gone decisively in the other direction. It’s become-- if anything-- more Poindextery in its posts as the Internet has arguably gotten dumber.
I’ve written before how much I love Quora’s newsletters, and find it a more modern, more authentic Wikipedia. You can go down the same kinds of rabbit holes of information, reading about, say, dinosaur after dinosaur with engaging answers written by paleontologists. You can find answers for how to explain to a child why the sky is blue written by scientists.
But Quora was absolutely made for one of my recent favorites: Prolific posters Garrett Reisman and Clayton C. Anderson keep showing up in my weekly newsletters, and keep sucking me into the site.
Both are former NASA astronauts who inexplicably have become mini-Quora sensations. Founder Adam D’Angelo has said neither were courted or recruited in any way, it’s all serendipitous.
Both feeds are basically anything you’d ever want to ask an astronaut if you happened to be having dinner with one. They excel at describing the mundane, which to us sounds totally not mundane because it’s happening…. IN SPACE!
It’s the opposite from the grand epics of “life in space” that are brought to us by Hollywood. These posts don’t explore how we would, say, find a new planet that can support human life. They answer questions like “Has anyone actually farted in a spacesuit?” (Answer: yes,) “Do astronauts need passports?” (Answer: No) “What would astronauts do if their faces itch when they’re in spacesuits?” (Answer: Wriggle) Those were all from Anderson’s feed.
What makes these posts so compelling is that -- to many of us-- astronauts don’t seem like a real thing. They seem like one of those things you want to be when you grow up, like a fairy princess, that just fades away as reality of adult life sets in. The fact that a handful of people actually make a living going into space seems so far removed from reality that it’s almost magical. And it’s one of those few things in the world that none of us will ever get to experience. That may change for future generations if commercial space travel becomes a thing. But for now, it’s literally and figuratively another world. To read such mundane accounts of everyday life grounds it all in a way that makes space travel seem more real and more compelling.
Some highlights from Reisman’s feed:
Mostly what you hear is the sound of the pumps and fans that circulate air and water through your suit. It's not terribly annoying or anything, but it's not the silent lonely environment with no sound other than your own breathing like often depicted in the movies.
Plus you are wearing a headset so you have the sound of your crewmates and the folks in Mission Control talking to you fairly regularly.
It is true, however, that sound cannot travel in a vacuum so you do not hear things outside. When you drive a bolt or tap a piece of equipment with a tool, you don't hear a thing.
(He also confirms in this post that in space no one can hear you scream…)
He seems to answer with astounding clarity questions that I would assume weren’t answerable. Like this one: Do astronauts living and working in a space station suffer from panic attacks such as spelunkers in deep caves?
First of all, they test all of us for claustrophobia prior to selecting us as astronauts. The way NASA does this is by giving you a headset with a microphone, wiring you up with a pulse monitor and then sealing you up in a big beach ball.
Then they zip up the ball, fill it with air, turn off all the lights in this small room, and close the door. Oh yeah, they don't tell you how long you will have to stay in there or let you wear a watch either. Then they simply go outside and monitor your heart rate.
W.T.F. That sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. Said Reisman:
I enjoyed this immensely. It was the only time during the entire interview week when I got to just relax. In fact, I started to fall asleep, but the observers kept waking me up over the headset, telling me that I would invalidate the test. (On the contrary, it seems to me I would validate the test results should I fall asleep, but rules are rules...) Anyway, pretty soon thereafter the door opened and they let me out.
Ok, clearly that dude was meant to be an astronaut. I would have failed right then and there.
There are so many more. Do astronauts have to get their wisdom teeth removed? What is the International Space Station’s Wifi SSID? What happens when an astronaut in a space suit has to sneeze? and What is it like living on Earth after living in space?
From Reisman’s answer to that last one:
The first thing you notice is that everything seems really heavy. After 95 days on the International Space Station, I returned to Earth in the Space Shuttle Discovery. I took off my helmet and it felt like I was holding the anchor of the U.S.S. Nimitz in my hand. Oh great, I thought, how am I ever going to brush my teeth - the brush will be too heavy!
It’s essentially like reading the transcript of a dinner between Fred Willard’s character in “Best in Show” and a man who’s been in space.
Reisman not only answers the mundane, he answers the absurd. To this question: “If you say, "greetings, Earthling!" does that imply you are an alien or that does that mean you are merely greeting your fellow earthling?” he said:
Not really sure, but I can tell you that we are able to make VOIP phone calls from the ISS and my customary greeting to friends and family was "hello, Earthling!" Man, I miss doing that.
What’s so astounding about these posts-- some of which get hundreds of thousands of views and upvotes-- is the mix of smarts, writing clarity, sincerity, and heart. Something that simply separates the “knowledge” you glean from Wikipedia -- which is supposed to be all impartial facts-- from that of Quora-- which is very experiential but high level experiential.
My favorite example of this may be Reisman’s answer to what astronauts thought of the movie Interstellar, beginning with this:
As for myself, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, but there were a few things that struck me as inaccurate. First and foremost – the casting. I mean, is it really necessary to fill every astronaut movie with actors like Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Bacon? How am I supposed to live up to that? I’m only 5 foot 5 inches tall, for crying out loud! Once, just once, can’t someone make a blockbuster space action-adventure movie starring Paul Giamatti or Wallace Shawn? Please?
After he gets serious debunking the science of the movie and crediting where it went right, he stole my heart with this:
Of course, the other main theme of ‘Interstellar’ is the relationship between fathers and their children. This aspect of the movie definitely rang true to me too.
A short while ago, I returned from a speaking engagement wearing my blue NASA astronaut flight jacket. When I arrived at home to tuck my 4-year old son into bed for the night, he looked up at me and asked if I had just been to space again. When I told him no, he asked, “Well, are you going to space again soon?”
“Not without you,” I replied sincerely.
At first a look of reassured contentment came over his face only to be followed by the furrowed brow of concern and worry.
“But I don’t have a flight jacket,” he said.
I love that kid. I’d definitely fly into a black hole in order to save him.
Andersen has had his sensitive moments too. To the question “If you’re in the International Space Station, do you feel a warmth from the sunlight that passes through its windows?” he said this:
Absolutely you can feel the warmth from the sunlight passing through the station's windows! ...As the sun would rise from it's half-orbit concealment behind our earth, I could feel its warmth on my cheeks and its bright light bathing my eyes.
To gain the maximum effect, I would keep my eyes tightly closed and imagine that I was back home on earth, lying with my family in our back yard on a beautiful summer's day... soaking in those life-giving rays from our solar system's star, some 93 million miles away. For just a few short moments, I was back home, and it felt good.
Astoundingly, neither are the only astronauts on Quora but both will seemingly answer anything and everything, with humor, science, and heart. You get the sense they spend their life wanting to be asked such questions, perhaps to continually relive such a unique life path. Andersen has written a book and Reisman has appeared on TV, but Quora is really the only platform where they could find an audience and a forum quite like this. Wikipedia is just the facts, not point of view. Blogs wouldn’t get enough traction or have the question prompts and interactivity. Twitter is too short. And Facebook would require us friending them.
As Medium continues to devolve into the home of the personal press release, I hope Quora figures out its business model and continues to grow. Because it’s simply unlike anything else on the Web.