Astronauts without a compass

At the start of the 21st century, humanity is preparing to expand into space. Either via the curiosity that drives the human race to success and catastrophe, or because of the need that will arise when we have destroyed the Earth, for many years scientists have been planning the long journeys that will lead to the colonization of other planets, such as Mars. Inside the spaceships and the colonies will be people, with all their virtues and weaknesses. That’s why the personal tragedy of Lisa Nowak became front-page news across the world last week. Nowak, 43, is not just any woman who lost control and tried to frighten (as she claims) or kidnap and murder (as the authorities charge) a rival for a man’s affections. Nowak is an astronaut, one of the top members of the most select group of people taking part in the great adventure of space travel. She was a school valedictorian, a graduate of the Naval Academy, a captain in the US Navy, a test pilot and a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery mission last July. Nowak is also the mother of a teenage son and twin 5-year-old girls. Like the other astronauts, she made great personal sacrifices, she devoted herself heart and soul to her mission, and she got through the most intensive and demanding training a human being can face. And all the time with the clear understanding of the ever present and overwhelming dangers that space flight entails. A few weeks ago, the success story began to unravel as Nowak separated from her husband of 19 years. Last Sunday, she drove non-stop 1,500 kilometers to attack Colleen Shipman, a 30-year-old air force engineer who seems to have been involved with the man that Nowak was in love with, fellow astronaut William Oefelein. Oefelein, 41, a space shuttle commander, is the divorced father of two. We cannot draw any conclusions regarding the marital stress that astronauts face but it would seem that they burn with the same desires and face the same difficult choices as everyone else. What we do not expect, however, is that one of those select few, who have been studied and assessed for so many years, should suffer a catastrophic breakdown and not find the strength to check herself in midcourse. It also seems very odd that this was not anticipated by anyone at NASA. For many years, as other scientists work on the math and mechanics that will get astronauts to their destinations safely, physicians and psychologists have been studying the behavior of people who will travel into space. These studies include the experiences of people in extremis on Earth: explorers who have spent a long time alone or in groups, cut off from the rest of the world, enduring or collapsing in the face of insurmountable difficulties. Space travel is similar to journeys of the explorers of the early 20th century and even earlier who went into the polar areas knowing that if anything went wrong there would be no rescue. There are no second chances on a space ship or a colony if someone loses control. Nowak’s collapse, therefore, immediately prompted NASA to say it was re-examining its procedures for astronauts’ psychological assessment. But maybe there is something in us humans that is beyond procedures and assessments. Because the time comes when the training and the mission are over, as are the strict controls. When the astronauts complete their mission, as Nowak did, they have no more great challenges ahead of them. Then, their controllers ease their grip and, most probably, the astronauts’ self-discipline also relaxes. That is when the human being, naked without the spacesuit or the uniform, comes face to face with himself or herself, with what has been achieved and what was lost, what was done and what is still desired. And, as Lisa Nowak showed in such a tragic way, whatever we do, however much we may try to hide it, however much it may cost us, deep inside us remains the primitive and fundamental desire to be loved – and to be loved alone.