Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars
(St. Martin’s Press, 2020)
“This is my friend Kate. She’s a poet…and an astronaut.” Although it embarrasses her, I love introducing author Kate Greene in this way. Typically, the wide-eyed third party will look at her in disbelief and ask, really? The answer is: well, sort of. In 2013, Kate was crew writer and second-in-command on a simulated Mars mission for the NASA-funded HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) project. For four months, she and five fellow crew members lived in a geodesic dome on a remote volcano in Hawai'i conducting research on the effects of isolation, health, and well-being for astronauts on potential Mars missions.
I first met Kate at Columbia University, where we were studying writing at the School of the Arts graduate program. I interviewed her for the position of poetry editor at the Columbia Journal, for which she was selected. During the interview, I recall being taken by the way she spoke about poetry and her extensive experience as a journalist, laser physicist, and “almost” astronaut with such confidence and enthusiasm. I invited her to read at a number of events, none of which I thought she would agree to but all of which she eagerly accepted. One night we bonded in an archway of my friend’s tiny gallery on 11th street over the death of her brother, who was born with spina bifida, and the recent passing of my mother. Teary eyed, we walked over to Veselka, a classic NYC Ukrainian coffee shop, and talked for hours. Although I don’t drink, the next day I felt completely hungover from our strange and wonderful conversation.
Since that night, we’ve become great friends. As an early reader, I was lucky enough to partake in the voyage toward her first book, Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars: Space, Exploration, and Life on Earth. A collection of 12 essays, Once Upon a Time I Lived on Mars does far more than chronicle day-to-day life on “Mars.” Throughout this powerfully moving memoir, a deep and introspective insight is brought to space travel along with threads of science, technology, poetry, philosophy, and economics woven throughout personal experience. Some of the most endearing moments dwell in the difficult passages revisiting the decline of her brother’s health and ultimate dissolution of her 14-year relationship. Each essay brazenly propels into subjects few space enthusiasts have traversed, asking critical questions like who gets to go to space and why? As a reader, you will learn a lot about space, but more importantly, be prompted to critically consider how we've historically viewed space travel and astronauts. You will be reminded that although space seems like an opportunity for exploration and renewal, it is still tethered to humans and our many, many problems (cue up Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon).
Kate and I discuss her book, isolation, the difficulties of disembodied communication, robots, and masturbation on Mars via phone call as the “PAUSE” stay-at-home order is still in effect for New York City. Our conversation takes place two weeks prior to the murder of George Floyd and consequential mass protests that would bring our city, along with the rest of the nation and many parts of the world, out of our homes and onto the streets.
Jacquelyn Marie Gallo (Rail): One of the things I loved about Once Upon A Time I Lived On Mars is that I felt so much smarter after reading it. For weeks I found myself repeating parts of the book to my friends and family: telling Ava (my stepdaughter) about the Golden Record (two LPs which were sent into space in 1977 loaded with sounds, greetings, and music representative of Earth) or telling a group of people at a reading why it makes more sense to send an all female crew to space (slower metabolisms = less food = lighter load, for one). I think it’s partly because you sneak a lot of information and research in without the reader realizing it. There’s a lot of back and forth between scientific writing and the more emotionally charged, personal passages that felt unexpected and satisfying. You seem to have an ingenious knack for almost tricking readers into consuming information. I was wondering if that was a conscious move?
Kate Greene: Thank you! This means so much to me. I think information delivery has a lot to do with how I became a writer. When a poet writes a novel or prose book, and you're like, “this is such a different novel, I wonder why?” It's because if the author is really a poet, they make weird moves, they bring that sort of poetic sensibility to it. The sensibility I was bringing was as an explanatory journalist. I have many years of experience writing about science and technology in a way that, I hope, is understandable. And when you write about complex topics, one of the biggest challenges is to not have people stop reading. If an explanation gets too dense, most people peace out.
But the book isn’t like the science journalism I was trained on. The way a lot of this information showed up was a little bit unexpected and something of a mystery to me. I had some ideas, but didn't really know. I was interested in a lot of the information floating around in my head, stuff I would read and hang on to like the Golden Record or Apollo spacesuits and how they were made by a bra company (Playtex) and what it was that allowed them to engineer this exquisite spacesuit no one was expecting. I love those bits of information and love sharing them. In order to share them effectively, you have to explain it well. But I didn't outline the essays or impose any rules on how the stories should unfold. It was dictated by the actual process of writing it.
Rail: Do you think because you weren't tethered to a specific form, that allowed for new ideas to work their way in?
Greene: Yes, absolutely. It allowed for pieces of the essay to sit next to each other that I wouldn't have expected. I keep going back to the Playtex Bra company making the spacesuit. I started with the idea of wondering what a vessel is. I was thinking, a spacecraft, but also, a home—but then what is a home and what are the technical challenges of building a home on Mars? So, to have that essay include a brief history of Apollo spacesuits, alongside descriptions of my own living space, descriptions of my parents' living space, and architects who think deeply about what it is to build a home, in particular, Madeline Gins and Arakawa and the work they did on the Lifespan Extending Villa. Having that show up along with [Gaston] Bachelard talking about bird nests—you can roll your eyes at that a little but all of a sudden to have Bachelard on Mars, that's a crazy thing to me! That was a really interesting experience for a lot of these essays, just to see what showed up.
Rail: What was that writing process like, mentally revisiting this space on Mars? What city were you in when you wrote it?
Greene: I wrote some of it in San Francisco, some in Vermont while staying with my sister, and a significant portion in New York.
Rail: So, pretty non Mars-like environments. Was it difficult to go back into that desolate space, to conjure up some of those images?
Greene: Mars was a strange experience, so those memories are pretty strong. The mental spaces to get into some of the more emotionally resonant pieces—writing about my brother's illness and his death, and also my relationship to my ex-wife—was harder. It's not too difficult to remember crazy times with scientists pretending to live on Mars.
Rail: Since you brought up Jill (Greene’s ex wife) and Bachelard, I was thinking about who you ended up “bringing” to space with you and wondering how you made that decision. Did anyone play a bigger role than you anticipated or feel closer to you with distance?
Greene: I did bring a box of books pre-selected for the mission. I brought some poetry collections: Mark Jarman’s Bone Fires and Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars. I ended up reading stuff on my phone too: some sci-fi like Roadside Picnic by Soviet-Russian brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and Renata Adler’s Speedboat. The thing was, it was such a strange environment, such a strange variance, and we were busy setting up experiments and figuring out how we were living on Mars, that I found it very difficult to settle into a book. It's actually similar to what happened when I first started isolating in March [during the COVID-19 self-isolation]. I had books I wanted to read, but simply couldn't focus. Luckily, I had also brought Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel and was surprised that that was the book that cracked it open for me. My attention would stray when I tried to read a novel, but with that book I was really captivated. I think it had something to do with the fact that it was images and words so my attention was really focused.
But actually, one of the most important reading materials were emails from Jill. She had asked our writer friends to send poems about space, the moon, or Mars. She collected 120 poems, one for each day of the mission, and every day she would send one with a little bit of commentary, and then I would respond with something I thought about the poem. That was a great grounding correspondence. I also got this great poetry education. It's so weird because I don't think NASA anticipated funding a writer's retreat, but if you invite a writer, they're going to read and write, and things will change for them and the way they do their work. That's what happened with me at least.
Rail: Did the mission prepare you for the current COVID-19 isolation experience? Were you better equipped in some ways to handle isolation or boredom?
Greene: I was anticipating it would be kind of similar to Mars but solitary isolation has been a whole different beast. Even though, as a person in normal life, I am not extraordinarily social, the fact that I don't have a choice whether or not to see people in person makes a huge difference. That said, I am fairly comfortable with a sense of boredom. I almost invite it in my day-to-day life because I know what I can get out of it, it’s where a lot of ideas come from. So, in terms of boredom, bring it on. But in terms of true social isolation, that's a lot harder than I anticipated and very different from Mars.
The other thing is, throughout this pandemic, there has been a very strong sense of fear, so much uncertainty. That wasn't the case on Mars. We felt pretty secure in our safety and that makes a huge difference. Of course, going to space is extremely dangerous, but here, now, on Earth, going outside has a dangerous element I was not prepared for.
Rail: In the essay, “On Correspondence,” you note the limited technology on your Mars mission (no social media and a 20-minute delay in correspondence). It's interesting that you feel more isolated now, even though you have more access to technology. It brings me to another point in that essay I found fascinating: “Technoschmerz.” You first define the German word “weltschmerz,” which translates to “world pain,” as “a weary or pessimistic feeling about life, an apathetic or vaguely yearning attitude.” Drawing from that, you invent this new phrase, “technoschmerz” which you say emerges when “We expect technology to do one thing, but then it does another, less satisfying thing.” Can you speak a little more about that? Why aren’t our expectations being met?
Greene: The idea of technoschmerz occurred to me years ago when I expected new technologies, especially social and communication technologies, to actually solve a problem. You expect them to make it easier to connect but, while in some ways it does, trailing behind is a host of other weird things that happen, making you reconsider whether you wanted that connection in the first place. Say, for instance, Facebook reminds you that it's someone's birthday, but the algorithm doesn't realize that person is dead. Maybe you didn't want a social portal to bring that up, you want a little bit more sensitivity there. That isn't built into these social technologies that are meant to connect us and make us feel better.
I’ve heard a number of people discussing why it feels so disappointing to have a video call with someone when all you want is to be in their presence. When you're talking on the phone, you know it’s a voice connection. But when you're seeing and hearing someone during a video call, it's like a simulation of a real-life interaction, but it's lacking the actual real-life interaction part, the shared space. So your brain is working harder to imagine it’s actually happening. When it's over, you're tired in a way that you wouldn't have been had it been a real interaction. That's a great example of technoschmerz, wanting something deeper, something more out of a video call connection, and then feeling exhausted afterwards and not quite being sure why. It taps into the idea of the uncanny valley, that thing that's almost real but not quite. In that valley is discomfort and disgust. That's the sort of thing that doesn't make these machine-mediated interactions feel better, it can make them feel worse. Something to truly consider when building social technologies for long distance space expeditions. If you’re building a communication tool that mimics what happens on Earth, you might want to ask if it's creating other problems, if it makes feelings of isolation even worse.
Rail: What is the workaround? Could they potentially have a robot or dummy communicating messages? Would it help if it was coming out of a physical object?
Greene: That's something that has been tested on the [International] Space Station. They've sent up companion robots which do double duty: there's a video face and a camera. The Japanese space agency JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] sent up this robot a few years ago to monitor the facial expressions of the astronaut, to categorize their emotional states. Ultimately, the thinking is that if there is an astronaut that has been feeling not so great emotionally, then this robot could, based on algorithms that have learned about that person's facial expressions, offer more supportive language or offer to connect with someone in mission support.
Rail: Wow, they could even have a video screen where they superimpose the person you're talking to, the image of them, onto a blank face.
Greene: It seems having an embodied version could be better, but you also have to wonder what other disappointment that might engender. The closer you get to having that person there, but that person is not there, might actually create an even larger emotional rift, and that's that valley. You don't want it anymore, you're disgusted by the idea of close, but not quite the real thing. It's an absolutely fascinating area of human computer interaction and interface design that could probably play a large role on a Mars mission.
Rail: During the pandemic, I notice my days have become routine in a way: I wake up and do yoga, have coffee, either write or watch (NY Governor) Cuomo’s daily briefing, take a shower, have lunch. What I don’t do a lot of is go outside, especially during that first month, even though going for small walks was recommended. The act of putting on a mask and gloves and dealing with what might be outside was so mentally draining and restrictive, I just didn't bother. I stuck to my roof or inside the apartment. You also spoke about not wanting to go outside as much as some of the other crew, and part of that was due to the difficulty of putting on the spacesuit. It's interesting because, presumably, one of the biggest reasons we go to space is to quench a desire to explore. Now that you've had a lot of time and distance, do you think there are other reasons you didn't want to go out as much? Do you regret not exploring what was outside?
Greene: This is such an interesting question because I have noticed that, like you, I’ve found it hard to go outside and part of me has thought it's just the process: Do I wear gloves? Or make sure I have enough hand sanitizer? Where do I keep the hand sanitizer so it's easy to access when I open doors or go into the grocery store or wherever? Also, wearing the mask, do I wear sunglasses?—sunglasses fog and it's annoying. What I recognize is happening, and one of the reasons I don't necessarily go out as much as I should, is whenever I go out, it becomes a process and I have to spend time and energy envisioning exactly what's going to happen, what my path is going to be. I find myself getting stuck in a mental loop. It's a pretty large cognitive load for me to consider going outside. Because of that, and because there is an element of danger, I don't want to.
There was something similar happening on Mars. There wasn't as much, but there was some mild danger. We were walking over shifting rocks and climbing in and out of caves, so if you broke an ankle, that was kind of a deal breaker for the entire mission. And the suits were extremely cumbersome by design because real spacesuits are not comfortable or easy to maneuver in, so that meant for each walk, not only suiting up, but requiring other people to help you get into the suit. It was kind of a whole crew activity, and other people seemed to really want to do it, while I was happy to tend the home fires. But that was to my detriment, I needed a change of pace and something else going on.
The other day I went for a walk in the park and picked up some groceries and then decided, kind of on a whim, to get one of the frozen margaritas from the Mexican restaurant nearby—it comes in a tub, it’s absurd! But that was something new and different. Then I decided to go up on the roof of my building and, after having done a lap, the door that was held open by a cement block started to close. I raced toward it but it closed right as I put my hand on the handle. And of course it was locked. I started banging on the door, thinking maybe someone had closed it. Turns out there was a guy who had propped the door open earlier that morning and was coming back up just to close it, not knowing anyone was there. He thought my banging was the wind so he didn't open it immediately, which caused extra panic in me. But I felt for the first time in a really long time, I actually had a day where things happened: I got this Margarita, I went up to the roof, I almost got locked out and was full of delight and panic and anxiety. Even the bad things were really great. I was like wow, I haven't lived like this in weeks!
Rail: It's funny reading about Elon Musk who was pretty late in the game to close his factory during the pandemic and is now reopening irrespective of the laws. I guess the state is working with him on that, but it seems exploration can't be halted for some, especially if you're a very wealthy, powerful white man.
Greene: Yeah, exactly. Who are these rules applying to? Who doesn't have to wear a mask because they’re special? Space exploration should be this great equalizer. Everyone has to go out in a spacesuit—except when the spacesuits don't fit because your body is smaller than other people's bodies—but everyone is vulnerable to the same challenges. Then it becomes a question of what technology is allowing you to be in space and is that technology considering you? I'm referencing the fact that there was supposed to be an all-female spacewalk last year that was cancelled when NASA realized, the day of, they didn't have enough suits to fit the women because their bodies were smaller than the suits could accommodate. So, while space should be this great equalizer, you always have to consider the technological mediators and how that's not evenly distributed.
Rail: You talk about sending more women to space and why it makes sense for so many practical reasons (less food is required and women are, in many ways, more medically and emotionally suited). In the same vein, you use your brother’s physical disability as an opportunity to discuss how sending people with non-normative bodies to space could have a lot of advantages. You give the example of sending veterans, or someone without limbs, because, “Legs in microgravity mostly get in the way”. That really made so much sense. What role could an artist play in guiding engineers, or other decision makers, toward creative problem solving?
Greene: Engineers are always dealing with a ton of very practical constraints. They try to simplify solutions to systems as much as possible so they can be produced easily, cheaply, or with a lot of redundancy. Artists don't necessarily think in terms of mass production or trying to do something in the most economical way, though these can certainly be considerations. But in some ways, artists seek out or embrace difficulty to unlock possibility. They're looking to open up new ways of thinking.
It would be a dream to have more artists or creative people working hand-in-hand with engineers. A challenge I've seen in those group constructions is that the engineer's perspective is privileged. So, even if an artist comes in with an idea that approaches a solution at a different angle, if it slows down the problem solving process, or seems too weird, it's easy for those sorts of solutions to be dismissed. That's emerged from the space systems we know of today having been led and designed by engineers, so in some ways it's like any legacy problem. If you were to include artists, would their opinions be given the weight needed to actually make real change and allow innovations that could do something truly incredible with space system design? It's like the more general question of diversity in workplaces. You can say, “Well, if we hire more women and people of color or gay and trans folks in science and engineering fields, then we're doing better,” but do they actually have a say in anything?
Rail: In “The Standard Astronaut” essay, you describe meeting your potential crewmembers during the preliminary round of the HI-SEAS selection process. You refer to yourself as “the odd person out” while they were “astronaut-like people, near or actual heroes, every one of them.” During this meeting, as candidates discuss their recent adventures in scuba diving, skydiving, or as “entrepreneurs in new medical technologies,” you say you felt “so ordinary and of Earth.” But it struck me that none of those people would have brought back the same information and insight that you did. They wouldn't have the sensibility of a writer, someone who's observing on a different level, who can communicate and ask critical questions. Should we only be sending these sorts of extraordinary adventure-seekers; what are we overlooking by not sending people “of Earth” to space?
Greene: The more perspectives you can invite to the conversation, the richer the story. How wonderful would it be to see what a farmer, someone who has spent a lifetime working on a farm, could bring to a space mission? What could they do with agriculture on the ship and then on Mars? Or a librarian, what sort of information is collected and conveyed and organized, all the resources that could be used? NASA looks for people who have multiple talents and drives within them, so, not simply a scientist, but a scientist-pilot, for instance. But still, in that regard, you're getting a certain kind of mindset, a certain type of person, and you have a lot of those people making up a mission. So when you consider diversity, what kind of diversity do you want to have? What kind of perspectives? This is probably a pretty radical thing to ask, but do you want a crew of only type-A, competitive achievers? If you have only extraordinarily high achievers on a mission, people who don't like to be bored, or refuse to believe that they're ever bored, what are you missing?
Rail: You’ve mentioned how you learned more about astrology in order to communicate with other poets.
Greene: [Laughs] Yeah. And my fellow gays.
Rail: There seems to be a number of languages we need to learn in order to communicate with each other. What new languages could space exploration teach us? What is the relationship between language and space?
Greene: I like this idea of new languages. Maybe the idea of inspiring people on Earth to think about space, or differently about Earth, could be one of the goals. When we talk about languages, I think of not just verbal, but also visual languages: pictures or video. The most recent astronaut class has very little online presence, they are not using Tik Tok to make videos about their experiences as NASA astronauts, but that is a legitimate language people are using to communicate a host of human experiences now.
I go back and forth on this a little. I do believe there would be more richness in the discussions about space and exploration and, subsequently, what it is to be an earthly person on Earth, if there were more kinds of people who went to space and brought back different kinds of stories about their experiences. But, I have always been impressed by those astronauts, so highly trained in procedures and rationality, who went to space and brought back the Earthrise photo. Taking photographs of the Earth was definitely not on the mission plan, the camera was there to take photographs of the moon, but capturing the Earth like that was so compelling, it had to happen. To me, that's actual art. The human impulse to create, to capture and make this record of an event, was alive and well in that image.
There is other art that has emerged from the space program, in particular during the Apollo days, and on Skylab too. [Skylab] wasn't built like the International Space Station, which is a series of skinny pathways astronauts fly through. It was the entire width of the Saturn V rocket with multiple levels of wide open space. One example I think about is Al Bean, who was an astronaut who wrestled in school but really loved diving and gymnastics. He decided to do an entire routine of somersaults and spins that was recorded and is on YouTube. To me, that's art. And you have Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, who plays guitar and makes music videos. There's a bit of frisson. You feel like this shouldn't be happening because space is for machines and astronauts are like robots, completing monotonous tasks, the drudgery of space station maintenance and so on, so when they do break out of their robot persona, it feels pretty exciting. And frankly, it is a bit dangerous for them, career-wise. Hadfield said he waited until his last mission before he did anything so publicly creative knowing that had it backfired on him, he'd never be sent up again. So, there's a tension between bringing your whole self, including your creativity, to this job. In some ways, creativity is considered frivolity that space exploration, which operates on very narrow margins of engineering precision, cannot afford.
Rail: Maybe it's a question of what we want the future of Mars to look like? Do we want it to look like a copy and paste version of our system: imperialism and what we have here? Or do we want it to look like something else?
Greene: Right! Unfortunately, it seems that question is being left to science fiction writers and less and less discussed when we talk about the systems being built. Each component of the space system has within it designs that tacitly foster certain social behaviors. Think about the interactions Facebook or Instagram fosters. The technology is not neutral, it nudges people to behave in a certain way. So many of us, myself included, are letting our technology guide our behaviors in an uncritical way. How often do I check Instagram? How does it make me feel? So, if we're using space technologies that were designed during the Cold War era and only modified slightly at a surface level—instead of single-use rockets, we now have reusable rockets with SpaceX, is what I mean—we're not actually challenging much of the social designs that were implicit in that era’s technologies. And that era is certainly imperialistic and has trappings of colonialism. With NASA you have the scientific, inspirational impulse to go, but it was initially based on militarism and geopolitical competition, then, you have SpaceX, which is very much a capitalist enterprise. These are the ideologies built into systems that are potentially going to Mars. Could it be done differently? Whose responsibility is it to build different systems and change that conversation? What if, just by changing the conversation, it inherently changes something about the technology? Or do you have to change the technology first, and then you're suddenly changing the conversations around why we go to space or why we explore? And I don't mean to be naive, in the whole history of human exploration, there have always been capitalist imperialist impulses. Any expedition to any polar region, any circumnavigation of the globe, or colonization of islands has always been for the glory of a crown or for materialistic goals or colonialism or capitalist ideals. What other models could we dream up and go to Mars with? I don't know exactly. We can look to science fiction writers, for sure, but it's unfortunate if those ideas just seem to stay there and are not integrated into the discussions around the designs of the technology.
Rail: Is there a separation between the individuals that go, their personal reason or desire, versus the overarching agenda from capitalist or imperialist organizations? What was your first attraction to space? Were you led there by some of these artistic photos and can you speak to that for some of the other astronauts?
Greene: My first attraction to space was just the possibility of it, being able to imagine myself in a place so different from anything on Earth. As a kid, it was a dreamy escapism. I don't know if that's similar for actual astronauts, but I suspect there's something of a not fitting in, or not belonging, that compels people to achieve astronaut status. You don't belong, so you work hard to belong to the astronaut corps so you can then go to space and realize an absolute non-belonging feeling. But at the same time, you might find you're actually an emissary for the entire human species. You become the ultimate belonger.
Rail: Are these people (space explorers) becoming doormats for the institutions to work through?
Greene: Everyone has to jump through hoops and look as attractive as possible so they can get on a mission. Then, they have to be on their best behavior if they want to fly again, and the best behavior is subjective. Even if you have an astronaut who is extremely creative, who kind of sneaks through and might be a little bit of a rebel, they might only fly once. Scott Carpenter’s a good example of this. He flew on an early Mercury mission, but he evidently fiddled too much with his camera film and ignored mission control a few too many times, ultimately overshooting his landing location. Other astronauts said Carpenter was a better poet than astronaut. Nice diss. Former astronaut Mae Jemison, who founded the 100 Year Starship Project, only flew once by her own choosing. She's extremely creative, someone who loves asking difficult, creative questions and bringing together different kinds of people to think about solutions or even better questions. When we talked about it, she said, and I paraphrase, “I wanted to go to space and I got to go to space. I didn't want to have to do the rest of it.” So for her, she got the space cred and then said, “Thank you. I’m out.”
Rail: What does the “the rest of it” mean, what would that look like for her?
Greene: I suspect it meant being a mouthpiece for NASA. I think she wanted more control over her own identity than she might have had had she continued to be a NASA astronaut. I mentioned this to Sian, my HI-SEAS crew mate and astronaut finalist in 2009. Her assessment of the recent astronaut candidates, because they didn't have very strong online presences which is unusual for people of their age, was as if NASA wanted to craft their identities. That tracks.
Rail: It's hard to think they're not up to something more nefarious.
Greene: Right, what are they trying to control? There had been no gay astronauts—Sally Ride was the first female American astronaut who was gay, but only outed posthumously—until recently, with some news about Anne McClain, an astronaut whose ex-wife accused her of some illegal financial maneuvering while in space. So this was The New York Times headline. And, of course, if you catch wind of potential gay space crime even though the accusation didn’t hold up—you're going to write about it in your newspaper. But this was the first time it was widely known that any active astronaut was gay. NASA didn't want to play the identity politics game at all. Then it blew up and to my knowledge there was no official statement about there being a gay astronaut. And [McClain] did not talk about it in a particular way. She's in the army, so her early career was steeped in an environment of “Don't ask, don't tell.” I wonder if because of this her sense of identity is basically: keep it to yourself. It is really interesting, there are certain identities that are okay, if you're Black, you can talk about being a Black astronaut. But being gay is not something NASA has ever talked about. Not that I could qualify to be an actual NASA astronaut, but this obvious omission made me less and less interested over the years.
Rail: Had you seen more examples of gay astronauts, even in literature or film, that may have enabled you to envision yourself as an actual astronaut. And I think about them not wanting to “play the identity politics game” but by not talking about it, it seems they're playing it even more so in a way.
Greene: I absolutely agree.
Rail: So what is the fear there?
Greene: Project managers at NASA have a fear of upsetting people politically. NASA research centers are distributed throughout the country and employ a lot of people. It’s a major jobs program. And then you have congresspeople and senators. There was this Texas senator [Tom Coburn] who put out a Wastebook for many years about how wasteful our government is. He always included NASA and the year our HI-SEAS mission ran, he included it as a wasteful government project. This was very upsetting to the project managers who had signed off on the project. They were extremely nervous and afraid there would be blowback, that the press would get wind and excoriate the project and they'd be the laughingstock. It's an interesting predicament because NASA has consistently been one of the most popular government agencies throughout the decades. Everyone knows and loves NASA—kids know NASA, all the museums—so that there's still that much fear is really interesting. But what that means is, a lot of decisions are made with fear and wanting to not rock the boat or do anything that could be perceived as politically risky.
Rail: It makes me wonder who is being elevated within NASA.
Greene: Exactly, people who play by those kinds of rules. So those attitudes and fears are being built into systems and decisions, being built into plans to go to Mars and the moon.
Rail: I noticed a duality, a sort of inward and outward expression, throughout the book. There’s a moving passage about your brother which speaks to this: “His dry weight was 87 pounds. His legs were shriveled from disuse in his normal life. But even more so from the hospitalization. How is it possible that as his body shrank, it also seemed to extend, to encompass this collection of people and systems?” It’s as if the smaller we become, the larger we see. Even with the Earthrise photo you mentioned, as we get further from Earth, the bigger it feels. As your brother's body becomes smaller, his being expands and encompasses this greater being beyond the self. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
Greene: In my brother's case, I didn't know where I was going with it. That's in the essay, “On Isolation” and when I started I wanted to say he was isolated, completely cut off. But as I was describing the actual reality of it, I saw how through that isolation, he seemed connected, somehow more than I could have imagined, with the doctors and the nurses and through the technology, the systems, the telemetry, the machines that were keeping him alive. I even thought of the other people on machines, and I thought of the people who made those machines, and how that's a form of correspondence. They're all involved and how a singular life tendrils out through other people and through machines and systems. What surprised me during this pandemic, was something similar. We were all suddenly shut up in our apartments and homes and it felt like all these millions of amputations to New York City. And at the same time, it was through this isolation that we saw how we are actually undeniably connected. And it's that interconnectedness, which usually operates on an invisible level, that was suddenly revealed through isolation.
Rail: I love that you use the term, “amputation.” You know my father was a prosthetist, and he had this friend, a patient, who had phantom limb syndrome. He would always talk about his missing leg, how he felt the limb cramping and hurting. He’d even make jokes about it. It's like you don't think about your leg until it's gone, and then it becomes more of a leg in a way.
Greene: Yes! It becomes more of a leg. When the leg is gone, it becomes more of a leg. That's so interesting. There's a failed poem I wrote, and in the poem there is a line—
Rail: I love failed poems! I want to read a whole book of your failed poems.
Greene: Ha! That’s very funny. Well, it has this line that when some people die, their death becomes their one big thing. So when you're missing a limb, the limb becomes the very largest thing.
Rail: Your relationship to it changes also. I think about that with death, or beyond existing in a body.
We haven’t talked a lot about the day-to-day stuff. But, I do have a couple of questions. I was thinking about your movie night, which you say “felt like messages from our past selves.” Were there any sexist or otherwise offensive movies played? Was that issue discussed beforehand or did it create any tension?
Greene: One thing about movie night I loved was it was my introduction to [Andrei] Tarkovsky. [We watched] Solaris, which was very strange and wonderful, and I ended up watching Stalker after the mission—that film is based on Roadside Picnic, which I read while I was there. Someone brought in Stargate, which I know is a classic for a lot of people, but I wasn't a huge fan. It seemed like it was scooping up a bunch of cultural signifiers, and then gluing it all together with militarism. One person did bring The House Bunny which was a comedy about a Playboy Bunny who aged out of the mansion and had to build a second life as a sorority mother trying to make this very unpopular sorority viable so that they wouldn't all get kicked out of their house.
Rail: How was that received?
Greene: Not that critically, we weren’t too picky about the media in general. I mention it in the book. It was Simon [chief engineer] who brought this. He loves comedy and wanted to do a good thing because he said, “You know, there are so few comedies with female leads, this one has a female lead so I thought it'd be fun.” So it was a gesture. I was actually open to it for that reason, but it ended up not being one of my favorite movies of movie night.
Rail: I love all these (kind of terrible) reality shows where people have to live or work together for a long time. And, of course, there's always little romances that flare up or different tensions between people. How did you guys navigate that? Did you discuss it beforehand?
Greene: Something one person observed early on was that the mission is essentially like being married to five other people. We have to be that level of considerate with each other and invested in making these relationships work. On a reality show, producers revel in the tensions that arise, but we had to find the opposite of that. A lot of us were partnered going into the mission, so that put a natural barrier up, and, because we were the first mission, we felt a strong responsibility to not fuck it up. There's the assumption that if something did happen, that could risk future HI-SEAS missions, so we were conscientious in that regard. Plus, it was only four months.
On subsequent, longer missions with other crews, the romantic aspect came to the fore. Historically, it’s not been easy for NASA to ask questions about an astronaut’s romantic and or sexual desires and needs, especially on long duration missions, in mixed crew environments. This is untapped research territory that’s important to explore and be honest about. I was having a conversation with a friend who is a science journalist and podcaster, and he asked if there had been any studies on masturbation in space, because everyone always asks about sex and space. That answer is basically, no. I found one article where there were some cosmonauts who did talk, I think it was mostly people who are well out of the game, about the fact that, of course when you're in space you masturbate. Everything works like on Earth. But it's one of those questions that has been off the table for researchers because it's a sensitive issue, especially when you're supposed to be this upstanding representative of humanity. Also, because it's government funded, the data NASA researchers collect is at some point publicly available. This is really wonderful because it means people can start asking different questions and slicing and dicing the data in different ways to get different kinds of answers about the social issues that arise in isolation. But if you ask questions about astronauts’ sexuality, that's pretty sensitive information and maybe not all astronauts are excited about having that data publicly available. Even though it's anonymous, it could potentially be traced back to them depending on the sample size and information surrounding it.
Rail: I wonder if there's also something about not making sexuality into a system, a desire to keep that aspect of a person wild or having an appearance of being wild or secretive.
Greene: When we say wild, it's the absolute wildcard because it's such an important part of being human. And if there are no questions asked about it at all, then you send four to six people on a two-and-a-half-year journey with no idea about how it might affect the mission…I mean, absolute wildcard.
Rail: So maybe there will be a sex study in the future you could sign up for.
Greene: I'll be first in line.
Rail: I definitely have masturbation on my list of questions. Was there a level of privacy on your mission where that was possible? Is that true for all the missions?
Greene: We all had our own rooms, but the walls are extremely thin. You could hear people burp and fart and snore and yell when they were having nightmares.
Rail: How would that work with a vibrator? Or would you not do that?
Greene: For sonic privacy, I would not have done that. And I did not do that.
Rail: What if you had to do that?
Greene: If someone had to do that, I imagine that it probably would have been audible. I didn't hear any vibrators but, had that happened, we would have ignored it, out of privacy and respect. When you’re living in such close quarters with each other, you ignore a lot of things.
Rail: I imagine you'd have to neutralize a lot of stuff. Like even your personality if you're, say, a flirtatious person or something.
Greene: Yeah, but that's the weird thing about isolation. In a way, you're being watched, but in a way, no one's watching. There are plenty of things that did happen on Mars that weren't discussed, that aren't in the book, or any of the reports. For all missions, no doubt, there's stuff that didn't make it out. I think about all these astronauts who, for their entire careers, the goal was to have as neutral a personality as possible to fit a mold of an upstanding astronaut who can fit into an engineered system nicely. I don't know if I took that approach. I just thought, I'm living with these people for four months, it would be easier for me to be myself.
Rail: I imagine they look for people with good boundaries or good senses of boundaries?
Greene: Yeah, in our first mission, the crew selection wasn't as stringent as it was on subsequent missions. In fact, some of the research questions in later missions really did focus on crew selection, how to make sure you're getting a good mix and no one's slipping through who might have a personality disorder. NASA's extremely interested in making sure people with personality disorders don't slip through. It's a real problem because you have highly ambitious, highly competitive people. It wouldn't be a surprise if you got some people who have extreme narcissistic tendencies or other sort of personality disorders that could be detrimental to a crew. So, for our crew, it was done less systematically, and more based on interviews and observation of interactions between people leading up to the mission.
I'm so glad you asked about sex and masturbation. That's great. I had kind of forgotten we might even talk about that.
Rail: It’s definitely one of those day-to-day living questions that comes up when I think about living in close quarters. There should be a reality show about astronauts.
Greene: God, it would be so boring.
Rail: Ha! We’ve talked a lot about who gets to actually go to space, but what about the people involved on the ground? Are they reaching out to enough artists and other types of people?
Greene: NASA could have more programs that involve artists. While we were on the mission, there was a poetry contest for a probe that was going to Mars to explore the very minimal Martian atmosphere. There's this idea that the charged particles from the solar wind sheared off the atmosphere at some point in its history because there isn't a strong magnetic field that could hold those air particles in place. So this probe was going to Mars to study the atmosphere and that phenomenon and they had a contest [to include a haiku on the spacecraft]. I did enter a poem, it definitely did not win.
Rail: Another failed poem.
Greene: Add it to the book! So, there is some outreach like that. It's becoming cheaper to send satellites into space, relatively small satellites, like the size of shoeboxes and smaller, thanks to SpaceX and reusable rockets, so there have been more art projects in space. There was one recent call for artists to send projects that would go on a trio of satellites that spin in such a way that they produced the gravity of the moon, mars, and then zero-g. So, if you were to create an art project that could be distributed across these three gravitational fields, then what would that art project look like? That stuff exists, but it's not super widespread, well covered, or well known.
Rail: Even the dialogue between explorers and people in ground control is a potential place where a creative person could enter. What are the questions currently being asked, are they interesting enough?
Greene: Poets’ questions tend to be different. I went to a panel on the black hole photograph at Pioneer Works a year or so ago with poets Anastasios [Taso] Karnazes and Dorothea Lasky. There was a Q&A section for the audience and Taso asked this question about how, even though this photo is exciting because we've never seen a black hole before and this is the first evidence, we seem so obsessed with what things look like since we are such a visually driven culture, is anyone asking what a black hole sounds like, or what a black hole smells like? The question was so interesting, but the scientists got very uncomfortable and just doubled down on the importance of the visual image. There was no question the visual image was important, but why not for a minute consider something different? It's one of those examples of when you start asking different questions, it has to be in an environment where those kinds of questions are taken seriously for it to actually make a difference. To be fair to the scientists, though, the way Taso phrased his question was full of suspense—no one really knew where he was going until the question crystallized, which could have given the impression that he was maybe trying to punk them. But still.
Rail: I love that black hole photo because it looks like a cervix. It's so...
Greene: So cervical.
Rail: Yes. In Service of My Cervix, a failed poem.
Greene: I love that.
Rail: If you did this mission now as a poet, do you think it would have been different?
Greene: Oh, definitely. I mean, I already was kind of a weirdo on the mission, just being a writer. Always saying strange things. But I probably would have written about it in a stranger way than this book, which I was interested in being readable. My next project is about artificial intelligence and it’s already not nearly as straightforward as this book. It’s a more experimental correspondence.
Rail: Maybe we should create our own Golden Record.
Greene: Ann Druyan, who along with Carl Sagan and others curated the images and sounds on the record, admitted they were limited in what they put on it. That they all had limited perspectives. They were Western and if I recall, mostly white with scientific sensibilities. If that project were done today, what could that time capsule look like and how would it be put together now that the internet has actually enabled significantly broader, worldwide connection and communication? That would be part of the innovation, how that information would be collected and decided upon.
Rail: What if you let it be a democratic decision?
Greene: Or what if you let it be chaotic? Think about how curated the Golden Record is. What does that curation truly represent? I think of a poem, the content and form are usually working with each other in some way, either against or for, or there's a mix. So you have that record, the form of it is so curated and structured, it almost belies the actual reality of what Earth is, what Earth was at that moment, and the actual craziness of what it is to be an earthling in an industrial era heading into the information age, the acceleration of it. The form doesn't allow for that possibility. You get the information in a linear fashion, it's sequential, when actually, there's a cacophony of sound and event all the time. So, it's a false representation. It was excellent for what it was, and it's beautiful that it's a time capsule that will exist for millennia, but I wonder what would happen if it were a bit more wild, a bit more representational of humanity in not just its content, but also its form.
Rail: I guess it's possible the record wouldn't be played sequentially. Maybe there's a way to take all the information in at once. To hear that cacophony, as you say.
Greene: Throughout our conversation, I've thought about the movie Contact. You were talking about how we didn't see representation that wasn't straight and male and there's something about Jodie Foster, who wasn't out at the time, playing Dr. Ellie Arroway, that was really important to me because I sensed as a young, queer person that she also was gay. She was a model for how I might be a scientist. In that movie, she was a true outsider, and the only way she was able to experience being a passenger on that ship was through an eccentric billionaire, another outsider who decided she should go. But also, the extraterrestrial instructions to build the ship couldn’t even be read unless you realized the pages weren't meant to be read as a flat page, that they should be folded into a three-dimensional shape which would be a more efficient way of getting more information across. And the guy who helped recognize the signal early on was blind, that was a testament to how a differently abled person was able to discern certain features that were useful for decoding the message. There's a lot embedded in Carl Sagan’s story that does point to the importance of differently bodied persons, different perspectives, and outsider triumphs. So, what I’ve been saying, with these ideas, isn't out of the blue. They've existed for a while, but they do seem to be muted at this moment in time.
Rail: It makes me think of that Herzog film (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) about the paleolithic Chauvet Cave in France. There are all these flat, sketch-like drawings on the cave walls but once you add a flickering fire, the shadows animate the drawings and they come to life. Somebody had to consider that and apply it to unlock meanings and messages that might have been hidden within those drawings. That's where a non-normative perspective comes in.
Greene: Absolutely. Great example. Who knows who might play the Golden Record, or who might receive some other time capsule we send out. It would be impossible to conceive of all the ways they might interpret it.
Rail: You and I have talked previously about this idea of queering space exploration, queering in the more general sense.
Greene: Yes, why don't we? What happens if you inject a little bit of strangeness? The fear is that systems will break. When you inject a fair amount of diversity into social systems, in the beginning, it can feel harder for everyone because it’s such a mix. People have to learn each other in a way they might not need to if the group is composed of people who are similar. So without the ability to use social shortcuts there can be some discomfort and potentially a lack of efficiency. But, business school studies show—Stanford in particular has a bunch of research on this— through diversity you have more resilience. A team that's more diverse is fundamentally more resilient because you have different life experiences, expertise, and perspectives that allow for a whole host of problem solving approaches that would never exist if you just have people who are fundamentally similar.
Rail: Right, it's space exploration. Do we explore to find the same? Or do we explore to find something different?
Greene: Exactly! Are we just trying to verify what we think we know, or are we actually open to discovery, to mystery? One thing I wanted to add, right after the mission wrapped, Kim Binsted [HI-SEAS principal investigator] said that NASA is very excited about the data because the people that were selected for the mission are astronaut-like in so many ways, but very different from astronauts in that we talk. Meaning, we actually talk and share our experiences. We say what was hard and what might need to be fixed in the future, whereas astronauts have been trained—or through the various pressures of being and wanting to continue to be an astronaut and be selected for future missions—not to talk about the challenges and what's difficult about being isolated for a long period of time with other people. So, I guess that's something this entire book is, an example of someone who's talking.