When Down Is Up and Up Is Down

A heroic space explorer — and he’s being carried away in a stretcher? That actually happens on occasion. In the year 2016 we take space travel — albeit limited — for granted. The reality, though, is that the number of hurdles that space living presents is staggering. Sleep, for example, is no small undertaking. In the zero-gravity of space, horizontal and vertical are meaningless; you just float around. Astronauts have to strap themselves into bed to make sure they don’t bang into things while sleeping!

Personal hygiene in space was once limited to sanitizing wipes until the introduction of the cylindrical shower-cell. When there is no up and no down, waste water refuses to “go down the drain.” After the astronaut is finished, he can turn on the suction mechanism to pull the floating droplets of soap and water into a holding chamber.

Among the significant ill effects of space travel is loss of muscle mass, blood volume and bone density. In the absence of needing to overcome gravity, muscles atrophy, blood-pressure increases in the head (thus causing the body to lower blood volume by as much as 22 percent), and bones atrophy at a rate of about 1 percent per month (normal bone loss on Earth begins at age 50 at a rate of 1 percent per year!).

On March 1, 2016, Scott Kelly — who tallied four space flights and commanded three expeditions — returned from space for the final time and brought back with him a U.S. record: an accumulated 382 days in space, 340 of which were consecutive — the latter often referred to as the year-long mission. On May 25 — almost three months since his return — Kelly was still grappling with significant physiological effects of his yearlong space outing: sore feet, stiff legs, and fatigue. And this is a major improvement, considering that Kelly felt he deserved an award for the way he acted “fine” when he first disembarked from the Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan. He was so ill after returning to his Houston home that he would have headed straight for the emergency room if he hadn’t just returned from space.

Some of the side effects of space travel are relatively easy to rebound from, and others much harder. Research carried out by NASA shows that bone mass can take a number of years to recoup, and that bone density might never fully recover. In practical terms, that can mean a higher risk of bone fractures when under strain, such as lifting heavy objects or experiencing a fall.

What’s particularly fascinating about all this is that gravity is a force that pulls us down. Quite literally. And yet, it is precisely the ongoing process of overcoming that force in our daily lives that keeps our bodies healthy and functioning optimally. Weightlessness may sound utopian — after all, you’re lighter than air and there’s zero resistance — but it turns out that it is a sure recipe for gehinnom on Earth!

Throughout life, we experience a lot of resistance. Physical resistance, logistical resistance, emotional resistance. And the list goes on. It can be frustrating at times, particularly since the Western culture by which we are inevitably influenced espouses an ethos that equates fast and easy with good and beneficial. Contemporary society — with its vast array of dazzling devices — exponentially exacerbates the challenge of seeing anything other than instant gratification as being something in which to take pleasure.

Besides moving mankind light-years forward in technological advancement, space travel has taught humanity so much about the universe and the world we inhabit. What it can and should also teach us, though, is that contending with forces that are forever trying to pull us down is not a curse, but a blessing. We usually think of l’fum tzaara agra as being relevant to Olam Haba. That’s where we’ll see the fruits of our strenuous labors … but down here it’s no picnic. True. It’s not a picnic. But picnicking doesn’t exactly keep one in top shape, either.

A common theme in Chazal is that the Torah life Hashem gives us is not only so that we should have it great in Olam Haba, but also to provide us with the best of Olam Hazeh. “When you eat [from] the toil of your hands, you are fortunate and it is good for you.”[1] On the words “ashrecha v’tov lach,” Chazal elaborate: “Ashrecha baOlam Hazeh — fortunate are you in this world, v’tov lach laOlam Haba — and it will be good for you in the world to come.”[2]

Ongoing struggle is what keeps us strong and fit, both physically and spiritually. The need to overcome resistance is what maintains the balance that is crucial for life’s optimal functioning. So the next time you encounter something that feels like it’s pulling you down, remember that in the end it’s there to launch you up.

[1]. Tehillim 128:2

[2]. Avos 4:1