They say the hardest thing is just to begin… but I’m pretty sure that’s utter crap because I “began” writing a book nearly 3 years ago, wrote the first draft in 26 days, and barely touched it again until recently. These days I’m certain the hardest thing is just getting things DONE: don’t pour constantly over it trying to make it perfect, putting off working on it till you feel “inspired”, or waiting for someone else to come along and finish it for you. Just. Get. It. Done.
So with that in mind, I’ve spent the last week housesitting, watching Netflix, playing ukulele, running and generally finding anyway I could to procrastinate in every way possible to avoid editing and finishing my damn book.
There is some truth to the “hardest thing is to begin” thing though, because as soon as I ran out of things to watch and actually opened up the old book draft documents I started to immediately pick it apart and edit – change a phrase here, update with new research there, cut a section because it doesn’t fit with the overall message, ect. There’s also the added bonus of knowing that you’ve fallen way behind on all your Patreon commitments this month, but there is an absolute mountain of content already written in your book drafts that you can share.
So with that in mind I give you the first draft of the first 3000 words of “Becoming Martian” – my long overdue book about how colonising Mars humans will change physiologically (body), psychologically (mind), and culturally (spirit). Don’t get too attached to any of this – it’s just a draft. And for Patreon-supporters, you can expect to be inundated with more drafts for the rest of the book over the next 3 weeks of my housesit while I write, re-write, edit, tear out my hair, wonder how I could have written something so stupid, consult a thesaurus to find a 4th way to say “crap in a plastic bag”, scribble inane pictures because I can’t find creative common images of what I’m describing, and generally have the same nervous breakdown each writer has trying to publish their first book.
Sitting on the edge of the couch, mouth agape, I was staring at the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She smiled gently back, floating ceaselessly in front of me like a flame-haired goddess. Suddenly another passenger appeared from the right of the screen, seemingly on a collision course this perfect being, but with just the slightest push of her finger she sent him sending him spinning away again into the distance. This floating ginger Diana turned back to me, smiled that most glorious of smiles, then effortlessly sailed away out of frame like a dream. Abruptly the scene jumped to a shot of strangers in blue jumpsuits bouncing weightlessly around inside a padded aircraft, with the sounds of angels singing in my head slowly fading back to the overly enthusiastic American narrator describing parabolic flight training… and she was gone.
For weeks I’d been tirelessly working my way through a documentary series on the challenges of sending humans to Mars, and to be honest the eye-candy was generally dismal. No disrespect to the likes of Professor Paul Delaney or Dr Robert Zubrin, but after literally hours of watching aging white men talk to the camera about the finely-tuned personality dynamics required for deep space exploration, I was yet to see much evidence of this “mixed gender crew” everyone was so keen to send to Mars. My initial primal “Who are you and will you bear my children?” response to the floating redhead subsided however, and as I picked myself up from the puddle I’d formed on the floor there was a horrible, dawning realisation: If I were ever to actually meet this majestic space unicorn, it’d probably be while I was stuck to the floor of an aircraft during a 2g climb, hurling up breakfast into one of those sarcastically labelled “Motion Sickness Discomfort Bags”, impotently waving my arms around like a sea turtle stranded on it’s back and while she told she didn’t date other gingers because of the in-flight fire hazard.
You see weightlessness isn’t all champagne, floating red hair and Strauss’s Blue Danube. You might gape slack-jawed at the wondrous freedom of micro-gravity from the comfort of your lounge room, but modern humans have also spent the last 2.3 million years eating, shuffling and shagging in the consistent pull of Earth’s gravity. So while your mind is buzzing at the idea of zero-g backflips, the rest of your body should immediately start screaming “AHHHHHHHH!!! WHY?! Hang on, is that… wait, I think I’ve got… NOPE – MOTHER OF MONKEY ZEUS, WHAT EVEN IS THIS? WHY CAN I TASTE PURPLE RIGHT NOW? AHHHHHHHHH!!!”
At the start of the 1950’s Gemini program, NASA wanted it’s future astronauts to have a tiny taster of what micro-gravity is like. The idea was so they could get a sense of how to move themselves and equipment around without the binding embrace of gravity, while also observing how their bodies reacted to the changing forces. So they ripped all the seats out of a C131 Samaritan military cargo plane, covered the cabin with white cushions so it looked like a padded white cell with a curved roof, then started flying this winged roller-coaster through the sky on what was benignly referred to as “parabolic flights”.
Just seconds from filling their helmets with carrots & peas [Credit: NASA]
Each parabola is broken into two parts that are filled with wildly different levels of joy & despair. For the first 90 seconds the aircraft climbs at a rather aggressive 45 degrees, where you’ll be stuck to the floor with nearly twice the force of gravity trying to force your stomach out through your back. But as the aircraft reaches ~35,000ft, the pilot gently arcs the plane out of the climb and straight into a 45 degree dive, so that for about 25 to 30 seconds your body is still going up while the plane arcs downwards. Done at the right speed, you and your fellow passengers will be weightless. Which is great, because now instead of your stomach trying to come out your back it’s lurching forward trying to float in front of you. Delicious. Then you go back into a 45 degree climb to do it all again – over a standard 2 to 3 hour NASA training flight, the aircraft will do 40 to 60 of these parabolas. Which is why 60 years later astronauts still call it the “Vomit Comet”.
Motion sickness in a deliciously nifty diagram [Credit NASA]
In the mid 70’s NASA replaced the original aircraft with two KC-135 Stratotankers that stayed in service till 2004. And like everything that survived the 80’s, NASA even tried slapping on some shoulder pads and skin-tight lycra by renaming them the “Weightless Wonders”, but to no effect. The “Vomit Comet” nickname has lived on like the Dread Pirate Roberts of motion sickness. There was even an attempt later to call the aircraft “Dream Machines” during the 90’s as part of another sexy re-branding, but unless your idea of a sexy dream resembles a David Lynch-esque nightmare where re-tasting the pasta linguine you had a few hours earlier forms an important part of a bizarre erotic fantasy involving the Log Lady… chances are you’re still going to have a bad time no matter what the aircraft is called.
Not that sexy re-branding is a bad thing when it might genuinely reduce passenger fears. According to John Yaniec – lead test director for 15 years to NASA’s Reduced Gravity Program – anxiety is the biggest contributor to airsickness among passengers, and the chances of re-visiting lunch seem to follow a rule of thirds: “one third violently ill, the next third moderately ill, and the final third not at all”. Which also matches up pretty closely to how Ron Howard and the stars of Apollo 13 fared filming the movie’s weightless scenes. Over 10 days, 612 parabolas and 4 hours of cumulative weightlessness, the scorecard finished with Gary Sinise and Kevin Bacon regularly filling their vomit bags, and Tom Hanks and Ron Howard feeling green but managing to keep it all down. But Bill Paxton? He was zooming around grinning without a care on every parabola, and I can only hope he was also having flashbacks to playing Private Hudson in Aliens and occasionally screaming “WE’RE ON AN EXPRESS ELEVATOR TO HELL, GOING DOWN! WOOOO HOOOO!”.
You are really not helping the situation here Bill… [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
So it’s not all airborne despair. Nor do you have to be a trainee astronaut or a Hollywood star to experience weightlessness on a parabolic flight. For every day civilians wanting to get a tiny taste of space, a 90-100 minute flight aboard Zero-G Corporation’s “G-Force One” might be as close to the full physiological nightmare of weightlessness as you might want. Founded in 2004 by Peter Diamandis, astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and NASA engineer Ray Cronise, the Zero-G corporation offers regular parabolic flights all over the US for a cool $5000US per person. And thankfully, they also do it with a surprisingly low vomit ratio. It seems most people are okay for about the first 15 parabolas, but then start to go green at around 20, and the cascade hurling is usually in full force by the 25th. So instead of subjecting paying customers to a 3-4 hour flight involving 40-60 parabolas like NASA does to it’s astronauts, Zero-G avoids the dry-cleaning by only performing 12-15 parabolas over a flight. It might only equate to about 5-6 minutes of weightlessness, but a slew of ex-girlfriends will attest this is plenty of time for someone like me to have fun and make an idiot of out myself in front of dozens of people we don’t know. Unfortunately I’m yet to experience a parabolic flight myself though, because if I had I probably wouldn’t be writing a book about going to Mars, I’d be sitting on a back porch playing banjo and enjoying domestic bliss with my curly-haired ginger wife and our half dozen soulless ginger children.
Medically speaking the nausea of motion sickness stems from a mis-match between what we’re seeing, and what the tiny loops of fluid in our inner ear – the vestibular system – are telling the brain. If your inner ear is saying you’re spinning & bouncing around but your eyes say you’re not moving (like when you’re inside a parabolic aircraft), then your brain thinks you’ve been poisoned and gets your hurling reflex cranking. Likewise if your inner ear says you’re standing perfectly still but your eyes believe the world has been flipped upside down you’re also probably going to be tasting lunch twice too.
There’s one of these in each of your ears telling you which was is up [Credit: NASA]
The quickest and easiest way to ease the nausea and re-establish some sense to your world is to simply find a window and look out to the horizon. Not only does this give your visual system a fixed frame of reference that will partially subdue the vertigo, it also provides a psychological “horizon” that you can pin your hopes and dreams on. But as an ex-girlfriend once told me there’s no “horizon” when one of you is going to spend 7 months hurtling through the darkness of interplanetary space on a one-way trip to Mars. With nowhere to look to but the yawning abyss to subdue your motion sickness and relationship issues, the best option is legitimately curl up in a ball to cry yourself to sleep. The actual tears themselves do very little, but closing your eyes stops the visual element from confusing your brain’s balance system, and if you do actually manage to sleep you’ll get a few hours bliss to forget about motion sickness and instead dream of giant hammocks, bouncy castles and emotional security.
Also like an emotional, wailing infant you’ll find chewing on things can ease the nausea too. Obviously you don’t really want to eat anything substantial out of fear of adding to the washing machine that has replaced your stomach, but light snacks and chewing gum appear to help at least distract nausea sufferers. There’s also evidence that ginger can help: chewing ginger root or drinking ginger-infused tea won’t stop the raw sensation of nausea, but it’s been proven to be an effective herbal remedy to reduce vomiting. Chewing on an actual ginger person however will likely result in physical violence by making them “rangry”.
Even if you’re Bill Paxton you’ll still want to take some sort of medication to ease the trauma of bouncing around inside an airborne roller-coaster though. After a few days filming inside the vomit comet for Apollo 13, Tom Hanks got a little too confident one morning and decided to skip his daily dose of Dramamine to see what it would be like un-medicated – this was not a mistake he would repeat. While there’s plenty of remedies that claim to treat motion sickness that are “all natural with no drugs, artificial additives or stimulants” and contain “only the freshest, highest quality Chamomile, Lavender and Frankincense oils”, most space agencies like to give their trainee astronauts medication that actually works, instead of simply leaving them smelling like vomit and potpourri. Same goes with those band things that put pressure on your forearm’s “Nei-Kuan” point: by all means give it a go, but the scientific consensus is that pharmacology & psychology are more likely to win the nausea battle.
By far the most commonly prescribed motion sickness medication is Dimenhydrinate, more commonly known as Dramamine. Combining a nausea-quelling antihistamine with a stimulant not dissimilar to caffeine, Dramamine WILL help reduce the nausea associated with motion sickness… but it might also knock you out in the process. While other medications such as Meclizine may not put you in the land of nod quite as quickly, all current motion sickness medications make people at least a little bit drowsy because they work by telling your central nervous system to calm down instead of freaking out and bringing up breakfast. Which is why most aviation authorities worldwide prohibit pilots in command from using motion sickness medication at all, and why the boxes recommend not to take it and operate heavy machinery. Warnings that I’m guessing probably also apply to flying a multi-billion dollar spaceship to Mars…
There’s also the minor issue that when these drugs start to mess with your central nervous system they can also make you trip harder than Ringo Star writing Yellow Submarine. In sufficient doses Dramamine acts as a deliriant, with recreational users talking about “Dramatizing” or “going dime a dozen”, and giving the drug a whole series of different street names like “dime”, “D-Q” and “drams”… all of which I just pulled straight off Wikipedia because I have no experience with Dramamine-induced delirium what so ever. But my Mum does! A few years ago my parents went on a scuba diving trip out to the the Rowley Shoals: a series of atolls about 260km out from Broome on the Australian north-west coast. While Dad has always prided himself on his cast-iron stomach, the 8 hour boat trip to the shoals took it’s toll on Mum. Luckily though there were some friendly Germans on the boat too, and rather than indulging in their national past time of Schadenfreude by laughing at her suffering, they gave her a couple of tablets that they assured would help the nausea… and it worked! Mum didn’t feel an ounce of nausea while she chased non-existent “molecules” around the deck of the boat for the next few hours, trying to scoop them up gently in her hands and showing them to everyone on board. So the Germans had their Schadenfreude after all, only with less “projectile vomiting” and more “Australian mother of two hilariously tripping her face off while hundreds of kilometers into the Indian Ocean during in heavy seas”.
While Dramamine might be the solution for parabolic flights and regular car/seasickness, the best option for astronauts seems to be the far stronger and longer lasting Scopolamine. Usually coming in the form of a VERY sexy* trans-dermal patch that gets stuck behind your ear like a leech (*not sexy at all), Scopolamine patches slowly administer the drug over several days and provide astronauts nausea relief during their initial adapting to life in space. Just make sure you wash your hands if you touch the patch though, as it’ll cause blurred vision if you manage to get it in your eyes. Scopolamine still causes drowsiness though, so the military found a solution for their fighter pilots: “Scop-Dex”, or Scopolamine mixed with dextroamphetamines. That’s right: the air force took heavy-duty motion sickness medication, and mixed it with the pills your friends used to buy/steal from the ADHD kid in high school before dancing to Moby. Scientists didn’t believe it was even possible to dance to Moby, but the kids you went to school with proved it, while the ADHD kid just bounced awkwardly in the corner as the un-medicated control sample.
Space agencies are obviously keen to avoid having astronauts a) vomit on expensive control panels, b) doze off at the flight panel, or c) throw out all the supplies to make room for an all-night space rave. As a result, a huge amount of research is continuing into how nausea from motion sickness can be minimised in space without medication. One of the most promising technologies currently being investigated by NASA is the use of strobe lighting and LCD shutter glasses that flicker at a sufficiently high frequency to not interfere with your vision. Initial experiments with participants on the ground and during parabolic flights have now shown that a short duration flash 4 to 8 times per second significantly reduces the symptoms of motion sickness. So while I might not be drowsy or vomiting into a paper bag when I finally meet that ginger sky unicorn on a parabolic flight, but I’ll probably be suffering the indignity of having to wear NASA-designed shutter shades and feeling like I’ve helped Kanye West get into space.
Atleast Daft Punk have moved on from the full-size helmets [Credit: New Scientist]
Speaking of indignities, if you were hypothetically to type “zero g corporation redhead” into google image search, Jake Gyllanhal is the 8th picture you’d see. Probably. When you eventually found your ginger space unicorn on the 14th page of results, it’d also be instantly obvious she’s not really a red-head, and all your ginger militia-founding hopes instantly disintegrate right there. In retrospect though if I’m falling in love with a women based on about 8 seconds of footage from a documentary series made in the late 90’s, I’m probably not in the right place emotionally to be contributing to the gene pool anyway.
But for all the wonder and inspiration of space, all the spiritual awakening that astronauts report seeing our beautiful, fragile planet from a perspective that doesn’t see borders, racial or religious differences, just one Earth… chances are you’re STILL going to be tasting your own stomach acid. Your life-altering spiritual experience is being tainted by a little thing space medicine experts casually refer to as “S.A.S.” or Space Adaptation Syndrome. And we can’t talk about Space Adaptation Syndrome without talking about Senator Jake Garn…
End of Draft.