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How NASA Trained Me to Write a Book

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My first day at Johnson Space Center, Kathie Thomas-Keprta (of Martian ALH84001 fame) handed me a silver vial and said, "Don't lose this or we're in trouble." I asked what was in it. She said it was a sample of stromatolite--calcified bacterial mats that are analogues for the earliest life forms on earth, and therefore, possibly, on other planets. It was my research assignment to study them.

Summer interns at NASA got to do cool things.

The shuttle program hadn't been canceled yet. We were all young. I felt like a rock star, like we were the new generation of The Right Stuff--fit, confident, attractive polymaths. We sped along I-45 in the back of a pickup truck blasting "Fortunate Son" with the wind in our hair, en route to star-watching parties in the swamp. We all wanted to be astronauts and were plotting different ways of getting there--the doctor route, the pilot route, the scientist route.

I was taking the last. I'd read a sidebar about astrobiology in my ninth-grade textbook and decided on the spot that there was no better way to spend a life. Newsweek said a mission to Mars was only 15 years away: I would be 29, then, at the crest of my career and in peak physical condition. So I had to start planning.

(1) Get Ph.D. in astrobiology-related field.

(2) Apply for the Astronaut Corps. Go to Mars.

When people asked why, I was baffled. What greater vocation could there be than going to another world and discovering new life forms? I'd been raised on Contact and Star Trek: The Next Generation. I craved extreme novelty and infinite variety--all the forms life takes on earth, and all the forms it could take elsewhere, on other planets, in nebulae, in interstellar gas clouds, in other dimensions, with their own languages and cultures and art forms. My Dad got me Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars for my sixteenth birthday, and when I was studying for my statistics or trigonometry exams in high school, I would put the pencil down, close my eyes, and try to imagine what it would be like to be one of his characters, actually standing on Martian soil. How the alien sand would feel on my fingertips. How the alien sunsets would look through the window. How I would reshape all my daily rhythms to the twin orbits of Phobos and Deimos.

These were the dreams shared by my fellow interns. We gossiped about the current astronaut class, the deeds of the elders, sightings on campus. We drove out to Ellington Airfield to see the crew of STS-104, freshly returned from space and released from quarantine. They sat on a stage under a vast hangar. They each got up and said a few words, mostly the same things.

But more than anything, what I took away from that day was one of the female crew, sitting in her plastic chair onstage, looking weary, mouthing to someone in the front row: don't worry, it'll be over soon.

~

A few months after my internship at NASA, I was visiting friends in Chicago and we were planning a night out. They scanned the indie film listings for something they thought I might like, and found one called The American Astronaut. We were expecting a documentary about the American space program.

The opening credits showed it was decidedly not about the American space program.
The American Astronaut, as it turns out, would go on to become a cult classic. It's an appallingly low-budget black-and-white surrealist musical about space pirates who looked like refugees of the California gold rush, including an evil professor, an interstellar rogue, and a young stud being delivered to Venus, the only planet on the solar system that still had women, who resided in a pine forest and wore Victorian gowns. Everything was fake. They'd clearly shot the "asteroid scenes" on a beach at night. "Venus" seemed to have only a dozen women on it.

But I thought to myself, "I want to make things like that."

I didn't have the language to explain why; only that the film gave me pleasure, far more than a documentary would. For the time being, I joked with my friends that I'd added new items to my ambition list:

(3) Return from Mars.

(4) Write Great American World Novel.

~

I worked two more summers at NASA, earned a pilot's license, and started at MIT in organic geochemistry. My next few years were one long checklist: Get my doctorate. Get a good postdoc. Apply to the Astronaut Corps. Pass the physicals. Make it to the interview phase. Get selected as an Astronaut Candidate. Get promoted to Astronaut. Get selected for a mission. Go to space. Get selected for multiple missions. Go to space more. Get selected for the Mars mission. Survive the journey. Survive the journey back (question mark).

But for now I was just a first-year graduate student in the lab, compiling isotope profiles of an Eocene-era stratigraphy, which would, in theory, tell me something about ancient climate change.

I badly wanted to feel pleasure in my work, the way scientists I admired did. For them, work and play were indistinguishable--an emergent property that seemed only to arise from extreme expertise. So I spent nights in the lab with my separation columns, bleeding out samples and feeding them to the mass spec. And waited for the pleasure to come.

But I'd come up straight from undergrad. I was underprepared, and struggled in classes. My advisor was emotionally abusive and eventually let go for his mistreatment of colleagues. Since there was no one else in the department whose specialization matched my interests, I'd have had to switch departments.

The checklist started over.

Meanwhile, I'd started taking improv classes and writing for The MIT Tech as "distractions" to take my mind off school. In these spaces, there was no struggle to feel pleasure. The silliest, most basic warmup game in improv class was the highlight of my week. At The Tech, I founded a column called "I Did It For Science," wherein I narrated experiences like going to a strip club, getting my tarot read, and attending a Cuddle Party.

I so looked forward to those writing sessions. I never looked forward to the lab.

Of course, these activities weren't "distractions." They were pressure valves that kept me sane, if only for a few hours a week, and felt far more pleasurable to me than the numbers on a screen that ostensibly told me something about climate change 50 million years ago, but were so far removed from my daily sensual experience as to be indistinguishable from fiction.

I go through my journals from those days, and I barely ever mention my research. It's all about songs I listened to, films I saw, places I went, food I ate, people I met, conversations I had, crushes I developed, and how they made me feel. In other words, I observed external phenomena and ascribed to them an internal system of meaning. That was my delight and my pleasure. That was when I lost all sense of time because I was so absorbed in the work. At one point I finally asked: like with the scientists I admire, can I give myself to a kind of work that feels like play?

In Picard's 24th century, travel to Mars is as easy as a transatlantic flight is now. But today, the practice of science is limited by available technology, whereas art has no such limitation. In graduate school I realized that the scientific tools available to me in my lifetime would not allow me to explore the universe in the way I needed to. Instead of waiting for someone else to decide to send me to other worlds, it seemed better to me to create them.

~

My best memory of NASA didn't happen in the lab, or at Johnson Space Center. It was when I drove with the other interns into downtown Houston to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. The display itself was Texas-sized and never-ending: pear blossom rings, silver cascades, strawberry sparks, golden foam, and violet stars exploding against the Houston skyline. And we were under the starry Houston sky, which itself feels like being suspended upside-down over the well of the galaxy.

It was one of the happiest moments of my life. And I didn't have to go anywhere to get it, other than right where I was.

(5) Be on Earth.

(6) Explore the universe.

Monica Byrne is a writer, traveler, and playwright based in Durham, NC. Her debut novel The Girl in the Road came out from Crown Publishing on May 20th.