I read a lot of books. Most of them don’t feature a blind character. But if one does, I’ll mention it here on Adventures in Low Vision when the writer’s story, characters, voice, or context strikes me, too. Scott Kelly’s Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery certainly did. So, here we go to impairment and beyond.
Our galaxy interests me. It’s a topic I’ll visit at times as an escape from life stress or to learn something cool. I’m curious, not passionate. Sure, in the 90s when my dad sat on the couch and turned on Star Trek: The Next Generation, my sister and I watched, too. But our family owned one TV and Dad tended to control the remote. I’ll happily listen to Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard command his crew through interplanetary conflicts over silence before bedtime. And I’ll happily read any well-written memoir that takes me to places I’ve never been, like a desolate launch site in Kazakhstan, the busy control center at NASA, and the functional International Space Station (ISS) which Kelly recounts in his fascinating book, Endurance.
Kelly remembers many things in his book, not just the year he spent in space. He talks about growing up with his twin brother, Mark, and how they both join the Navy and eventually become NASA astronauts. Their journeys diverge and I won’t ruin the specifics for you. Throughout the book, Kelly uses detailed description and a direct voice with touches of humor to make you feel like you’re right along with him wherever he goes. But of course, I was drawn the most to his time in space. Nerding out about space and what goes into making space travel possible is compelling enough, but in Chapter 1, Kelly gave me greater pause. He talks about the physical toll of long-term spaceflight:
“On my last flight to the space station, a mission of 159 days, I lost bone mass, my muscles atrophied, and my blood redistributed itself in my body, which strain and shrink the walls of my heart. More troubling, I experienced problems with my vision, as many other astronauts have.”
Many others have? That is troubling. That sounds like a pattern. Of course I researched and found a great article from the Washington Post about this vision impairment and intracranial pressure. Since everything seems to have an acronym, the ailment is referred to as VIIP. Intracranial pressure and changes in routine fluid movement is bad because it causes stress on your optic nerve. If your optic nerve stops functioning, your vision is essentially unplugged. Yikes, Houston, we have vision loss. And a blind character for Susan to write about.
A few chapters in, Kelly mentions another problem affecting the health of the working astronauts: rising levels of CO2 on the ISS. At one point he says, “the CO2 is climbing, and I can feel the accompanying headache coming on.” High CO2 causes blood vessels to dilate. Whether the situations are caused by more crewmates residing on the ISS and/or less air scrubbing from the Seedra equipment, it’s a pain. And it might be the cause of the vision problems, too.
Scott explains for his year in space, he and his cosmonaut counterpart, Misha, were in an experiment called “fluid shifts,” for short, hoping to tackle the causes of VIIP. Fluid movement, high CO2 and dietary sodium levels are all contenders. As he mentioned early on in the book, he did not take his vision changes (swelling of the optic nerve and choroidal folds) lightly:
“At first these changes were assumed to be temporary. Once astronauts started flying longer and longer missions, though, we showed more severe symptoms. For most, the changes gradually disappeared once the mission was over; for some, the symptoms seem to be permanent.”
I’m with him on the desire to root out the cause of the vision changes, but then he makes this quick comment that didn’t speed past me like the 17,500 mph traveling ISS:
“ if a long-term spaceflight could do serious damage to astronauts vision, this is one of the problems that must be solved before we can get to Mars. You can’t have a crew attempting to land on a far away planet – piloting the spacecraft, operating complex hardware, and exploring the surface – if they can’t see well.“
I concede those flight suits and helmets do cut down on tactile sensitivity and hearing input. But I want to say, Scott, maybe not with the current inaccessible technology astronauts use to operate space machines, but I bet there’s a person working for NASA with a visual impairment that would love to try some options. Like maybe a Ray Kurzweil-type dictation and screen reading technology. Or a VR unit controlled from Earth. Is a capable blind astronaut really that inconceivable for people willing to contemplate the greater areas of our solar system?
I continued reading my audiobook and heard Kelly go on to say:
“…only male astronauts have suffered damage to their eyes while in space, so looking at the slight differences in the head and neck veins of male and female astronaut why also help scientist start to nail down the causes. If we can’t, we just might have to send an all -woman crew to Mars.“
And to this reader, he redeems himself. Plus there’s this comedic scene that follows where Kelly tests out these “pants that suck” to relieve intracranial pressure. The next time I experience sinus congestion, I’m going to be vicariously nostalgic about those pants.
Finally, there’s spacewalking for this character with vision changes. It’s a complicated and dangerous task to spacwalk and when Kelly tells readers about his experiences, it’s one of those moments that truly makes you forget where you are and you become his shadow. At one moment, I found myself surprised by how disoriented Scott gets when he can’t use visual clues. The darkness and cold of the 90 minute nights astronauts experience makes him confused when he gets turned around in orbit. Would he feel any of the sun’s warmth? I remember then, no wind, no gravity. He says:
“In the darkness, I get turned around and upside down. I can only see what’s immediately in front of my face, like a scuba diver In murky waters, and it’s completely disorienting. Everything looks unfamiliar the dark.”
You’ll have to read the book to learn what he does. My sense of hopefulness makes me wonder if anyone living with blindness would be able to assist NASA about orientation and mobility techniques to enhance nonvisual cues. Different perspectives unearth solutions. But perhaps they have done so and the challenges of weightlessness in airless space continue to baffle the hard-working engineers. Like writers, they do spend a lot of time thinking.
Scott Kelly wrote an interesting book about becoming an astronaut, living in space, and the risks associated with scientific progress. He may not be what you consider a blind character, but there’s a spectrum to blindness with degrees of duration. A person experiencing vision loss–temporary or permanent–who tells you about it can blast your expectations apart. When I reached the end of his complex story, I knew I enjoyed it and I bet you will, too.
Have you read Scott Kelly’s book, Endurance? Are you interested in the solar system and space travel? What would you risk to go to space? Tell me about it.