David Wellington: Five Things I Learned Writing The Last Astronaut

A huge alien object has entered the solar system and is now poised above the Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate.

Out of time and options, NASA turns to its last living astronaut – Commander Sally Jansen, who must lead a team of raw recruits on a mission to make First Contact. 

But as the object reveals its secrets, Jansen and her crew find themselves in a desperate struggle for survival – against the cold vacuum of space, and something far, far worse . . . 

The view of Earth from space is better than cable.

“Dave should talk to some female astronauts,” the publicist said, in a sales meeting. This was well after I’d started writing the book, long after I thought I was done with research. I had a long list of things that seemed more pressing, like finding the third act or remembering to connect on an emotional level with my wife every evening as she shoved my dinner under the locked and bolted door of my office. Interviewing actual astronauts sounded like homework. But I did it. Grumbling and cursing a lot, but I did it.

Once I was done with the interviews, I took a moment. I nodded thoughtfully to myself, cracked open another diet soda, and waited for my hands to stop shaking. Because I knew what having access to all this new information meant. It meant I was going to have to rewrite the book, almost from page one. Originally it had been packed with heavily-researched data, lots of acronyms and numbers, details about how much thrust you can get out of a Delta-IV rocket engine and what partial percentage of oxygen will make you start to hallucinate. What I got from the astronauts was something different.

I got what it meant to be human in space. To actually live there. It made the book immeasurably better. I learned things like…

A bunless hot dog might be the best thing you ever eat.

Everybody gets space sickness, to a greater or lesser extent. Your first couple of days in space are going to be miserable no matter how tough or experienced an astronaut you might be. One of the astronauts I spoke with told me about the glorious moment, three days into her mission, when she realized that she could hold down solid food again. She ate a hot dog and realized she was going to be okay. She could get back to work. Which was good, because—

They keep astronauts so busy they’re barely aware of being in space.

A lot of the questions I asked turned out to be useless, because I kept getting the same answer. “I don’t really remember, there was so much going on…” Whether I was asking about what re-entry was like, or the hours sitting on the launch pad waiting for liftoff, for instance. Such events, though they must rank as among the most memorable a human being can experience, were lost in the general business of astronaut life. NASA keeps its astronauts on a ridiculous schedule. Almost every moment of their day is spent running through safety checklists, exercising to prevent bone loss, doing media events or just the common chores required to keep people alive inside a trailer in space. There’s almost no downtime at all, very little time to sit staring out the windows (which was, hands down, the favorite leisure time activity of every astronaut I spoke to).

A lot of the checklists and rundowns and equipment inventories sounded like busywork. Like maybe NASA was just inventing things for them to do so that the taxpayers would feel like they were getting their money’s worth. The astronauts I spoke to weren’t so sure. For one thing, space is pretty deadly—there’s a whole lot of different ways to die up there, and staying alive often means double- and triple-checking every blinking light and green indicator panel. The other reason to keep the astronauts so busy was to keep them from thinking too much. Those long hours on the launch pad are a perfect time to meditate on the fact that you’re sitting on top of a ballistic missile full of highly explosive fuel. Working out endlessly on the exercise treadmill is a good way to keep your mind off the fact that you’re about an inch of metal away from the cold vacuum of space. The constant work is also good for keeping people from getting on each others’ nerves as much, which is super important because—

Everyone in space is ugly and ready for a fight.

Human bodies were never meant to exist in weightless conditions. All the fluid being pumped around your body right now needs gravity to get it to the right place. Think about hanging upside down from a jungle gym, the blood rushing to your head. How long do you think you could handle living like that? How many days in a row?

In microgravity, all of your internal organs climb up into your chest cavity, because the mass of the Earth isn’t holding them down anymore. This makes it a little hard to breathe. Farts collect inside your intestine until the pressure suddenly forces them out when you least want them to. Fluid builds up in places it shouldn’t, and there’s no good way to pump it back out of your tissues. The most dramatic—and obvious—way this effects you is that your face gets super puffy, distorting your features. And that’s when you learn just how much of living with other people is processing their facial expressions. Since everyone in space looks like they have the mumps, people start to get irritable. Innocent comments get misconstrued, and tempers flare. I spoke with one astronaut who joked that in the future one big career option is going to be “space lawyer”. Because of all the fistfights that are sure to break out during long missions to Mars. Of course, bouncing off other people all the time and getting in their way is inevitable given the close quarters. It might be better than the alternative, though…

You definitely don’t want to be alone up there.

Alone time is something I treasure. As much as I love the people in my life, if I can’t get a little solitude every day, I get irascible. Downright cranky. Speaking to the astronauts about life in space, my immediate thought was that it would be tough when you couldn’t get away from your crewmates, even just to take a minute to yourself.

Oh, no, they told me. Oh, no, you don’t want to be alone. Now, I happened to be writing a novel that was part science fiction and part horror. The horror writer half of me perked up his ears at the sound of that.

Space is noisy, or rather spaceships and space stations are noisy, because there’s always a fan blowing somewhere and a computer beeping for no good reason. There’s always something moving, and maybe as elements of your ship heat or cool they creak and ping. But those are noises you can get used to. Those are noises you can tune out. And that’s when the real silence, the silence of the void, hits you. That’s when you curl up in your sleepsac and wonder just how far you are from home, and what your chances would be if something went wrong (not very good). Inside a space suit it’s much, much worse. The only thing you can hear is your own breathing. And then you stop hearing that, and you hear your heart beating, instead. You fight to keep it from beating too fast…

Having other people around you is crucial. Human beings need social interaction just as much as they need gravity and oxygen. In my research I found a great story about that. Back in the ‘80s, the Soviets launch a space station called Mir where two cosmonauts would spend up to five hundred days in space, simulating how long it would take to get to Mars and back. Two people living for more than a year in a space the size of, say, three minivans duct-taped together. You might think these two cosmonauts would get sick of each other in a matter of days. Instead, they made a pact with each other. If you were working in one of the minivans while your partner was in one of the other ones, you had to keep at least one foot visible in the junction between modules. No matter how much stretching and contorting it took, some piece of a human body had to be there for the other person to see, every second of the day. The cosmonauts laughed when they talked about what happened when the system broke down, and, just for a minute or so, they were all alone. The brain is a fantastic machine, very good at imagining all kinds of scenarios. It has no problem imaging what it would be like to suddenly be all alone in a very quiet, very fragile tin can, a hundred miles up. The cosmonauts laughed about the things they imagined, the little terror fantasies their minds dredged up. They laughed about these things… once they were back safely home on solid ground.

For all that, space is still super cool.

Well, it’s hard to write a science fiction novel if you don’t feel that way. But yeah, the research I did for The Last Astronaut, while it often terrified me, still made me want to be out there just so bad. To get to see other worlds, to feel what it’s like to be without gravity, even for a moment. And at the end of the day to look back and see what I’m missing, to get what they call the “Longview” effect. Astronauts talk about it in hushed, reverent tones. The sense you get, looking down on Earth from above, just how precious it is. How fragile, and how beautiful.

I wrote a book about horror and screaming panic out in space, a story of death and fear up there, but even in the midst of the scariest bits I knew one thing. Offered a chance to go up there, even for just a day, for an hour—I would give anything to make it happen.

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David Wellington is the author of twenty-one novels, from his first, the zombie tale Monster Island, to this year’s The Last Astronaut. He got his start in 2003 serializing his work online and has made a living at writing ever since. He’s also worked in comic books and video games. He lives and works in New York City.

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