Context Sensitive: In Space, No-One Can Hear You Sleep

Susan Arendt | 7 Aug 2008 17:05
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

As a child devouring all the science fiction she could get her magic-marker stained hands on, I dreamed of someday making the journey into space. I longed to travel between stars, to explore the unknown, to, well, let's be honest - to boldly go where no man has gone before. Now, thanks to a moderately ridiculous and utterly nerdy publicity stunt, I'm finally getting the chance. I'm going into space, but it's not quite the way I had imagined it. For one thing, it involves far more spit.

When legendary game designer Richard Garriott heads off to the International Space Station this October, he'll be toting along the dramatically-named Immortality Drive, which will be crammed with all sorts of digital information, including the character data from everyone who's ever played Tabula Rasa, private messages from the TR community, and the results from a poll about mankind's greatest achievements. It's a blatant, if incredibly creative, plea to generate interest for his sci-fi themed MMOG Tabula Rasa, which has received a fairly lukewarm reception from the greater gaming audience. Silly? Of course it is, but you must admit, it's certainly more attention-getting than giving away hoodies emblazoned with the game logo.

The Immortality Drive will also contain the digitized DNA of the "brightest, most talented minds today," which, thanks to what I can only conclude was some sort of enormous clerical error, includes me. The idea is that should aliens wipe out the human race - not coincidentally, an event that serves as the backbone for Tabula Rasa's story - we will be able to rebuild humanity from the genetic information stored on the Drive. I'm not sure that using my personal building blocks as the foundation for a new civilization is in humankind's best interests, but I am stoked, nonetheless. I, or at least a small part of me, is going to fulfill my lifelong dream of travelling to the stars, of being somewhere other than the Earth.

When I heard that my own little double-helix would be collected and sent soaring skyward, I envisioned a visit to a gleaming white lab and the ministrations of a highly-trained scientist in a spotless coat and mask. What I got instead was a package full of Q-tips and a return envelope. As I ran the swabs across my cheek (horizontally, in a back and forth motion, as per instructions), I realized two things. First, someone should really look into making flavored Q-tips. Secondly, this space stuff was decidedly less sexy than my steady diet of science fiction had led me to believe.

I knew sci-fi didn't present an accurate view of what space travel was like - the "fi" stands for "fiction," after all- but surely it wasn't really so...mundane, was it? Aware that my romantic notions of life among the stars hung in the balance, I nonetheless resolved to discover the truth of the matter. Finding myself without a single astronaut on my speed dial or Facebook friends list, I turned to the one person I knew who might be able to restore my vision of space travel to its previous romantic glory: Richard Garriott himself. Not only does the man own an actual Sputnik (yes, there was more than one), Garriott's father, Owen, was an astronaut on Skylab. If anyone had a love of the stars, I figured, it would be General British, but I soon learned that loving space and being romantic about it were two very different things.

Garriott has spent most of the last year undergoing various types of training for his October trip to the International Space Station. Last year, he did a lot of medical and psychological prep work; since January, he's been in Moscow for more hands-on training. Some of it has been fun, he says, like the simulated weightlessness of zero g training. Other exercises have been somewhat less enjoyable, like the spinning chair training, which makes pretty much everyone who tries it puke like they've been on a three-day tequila bender.

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