A Reporter, Three Orioles, and an Astronaut’s Family: The Grand Experiment (Jennifer Semple Siegel)
Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.
– Albert Einstein
The journey to the International Family Space Station (IFSS) commences as we board the SpaceX Shuttle, which resembles an ordinary 767, along with its typical steerage-class discomforts.
My fellow passengers are three very tall Orioles, their faces blurred; they look like identical triplets. If anything stands out about them, it’s their ability to fill a space and make it seem small. Under their space suits, they wear gleaming white uniforms with orange letters and numbers, also blurry.
“Why are you visiting the space station?” I ask.
In unison, they say, “To interview the astronaut family for our fans.”
Community outreach, a concept embraced wholeheartedly by the Orioles franchise.
I have been assigned to write a feature story for People.
We dock with the space station, which looks like a typical American ranch-style home – supposedly to make the astronaut’s family feel more at home.
No one questions the configuration of the space station, for, in my universe, it seems logical.
After much-needed supplies slip through the airlock – delivered by the pilot and flight attendants – we shuck our suits and follow, the family welcoming us by offering us space food and drink.
As guests, we gladly eat what is placed before us: various flavors of paste and liquid, delivered through packets resembling toothpaste tubes.
After eating, I and the three Orioles, their long legs and arms floating about, fill the small living room, for we are all weightless.
They present the young family with Orioles’ swag: signed Jerseys, baseballs, autographed photos, and bats.
After an hour of mundane, predictable questions and patient answers, an Oriole tentatively raises his hand.
The astronaut nods.
Hemming and hawing, the Oriole blushes. “Well, how does, you know, happen in weightlessness?”
The astronaut, holding the baby, laughs. “That’s actually a good question…”
A question I was too embarrassed to ask.
“Sometimes we just head on over to the gravity room.” She pauses. “Seriously, though, that’s part of the experiment, to determine how humans make love and reproduce in zero gravity.”
The husband reddens and pretends to brush non-existent dust from his khakis.
“In fact,” the astronaut says, “Next week, we begin trying for our second child.”
She explains the projected experiment: coitus, conception, gestation, and birth, all occurring in zero-gravity space. “The last three phases being contingent upon the success of phase one.”
“No more gravity room,” the husband says.
The second Oriole asks, “When it’s time, will your husband assist you?”
“Hell, no,” the astronaut says. “At five months gestation, NASA will send an OB-GYN.”
The last Oriole: “What if something goes wrong?”
The astronaut raises a brow. “I don’t expect any problems. I’ll be monitored 24/7, just as we are now.”
The Oriole presses on. “But what if it does?”
“Well, then,” the astronaut says. “It’s all part of the experiment, isn’t it?”
The room grows quiet.
The husband floats toward the astronaut and takes the baby from her. He somersaults the infant into the air.
As the baby continues to roll, she laughs and giggles.
The proud father grabs his baby and stops the roll. “Otherwise,” he says, “Baby would just keep rolling around and around, for all time.”
I’m kind of surprised that a father would roll his baby in zero gravity – it seems a bit dangerous and cruel –
But, then, how logical is it to blast a baby into space – a spouse, yes, but a baby?
When I ask why SpaceX decided to send her entire family into orbit, the astronaut says, “Our CEO wants to study how family units endure the rigors of zero gravity and the psychological effects of family isolation. When asked, my husband and I agreed to be the first family in space.”
She then explains that the ranch-style space station was part of the equation: to mitigate the unfamiliar surroundings. “The only difference,” she says, laughing, “We can sit on our ceiling, which is why you see furniture on the two opposite sides of the square. The agency decided that two sides should remain as wall space, that some sense of up and down should be maintained.”
The station was built long before the family was hurtled into space, the square rooms individually encased in round clear bubbles with short tunnels (much like hallways) connecting the squares, the bubbles acting as safety barriers.
Also, outside maintenance and work can be done within the bubble, minimizing the possibility of a mishap involving an astronaut being separated from the station and hurtled into space.
The floor and ceiling offer minimal furniture, designed for hundreds of visitors inhabiting the space station at the same time.
The astronaut explains: “We’re a way station for stranded travelers, which is why we have lots of extra rooms, rations, and strap-in nets.”
They show us Baby’s room: squared like the living room, except that it is padded and devoid of sharp edges (room controls hidden and locked behind padded panels), even the baby’s bed, really just netting with straps , which can be stored behind a padded panel.
The astronaut explains that this is the only place where Baby can “swim” and “roll” with complete abandon. “This station is filled with too many ‘no-nos’: sensitive buttons, touchy computer equipment, and hard edges, so we insisted on this room. Thankfully, our CEO listens to the needs of his crews.”
The astronaut then shows us a large ring room, spinning to create an artificial gravity. Here, an assortment of exercise equipment is available: a treadmill, stair stepper, stationary bike, two regular bicycles, and one tricycle. Baby toys are strewn about. The middle path remains clear, acting as a running or walking path. “We all spend at least one hour a day in this area, so that we can minimize bone and muscle loss.”
One gravity bathroom is located here, complete with shower and tub, and a small kitchen area where regular meals can be cooked. “We use this kitchen only occasionally because part of the experiment involves monitoring how our bodies process food paste and food grown in space,” the astronaut says.
The husband says, “Baby and I spend a lot more time here. Her bones are still growing, so it’s important that she experience gravity. Also, she’ll soon begin walking. Once we return to earth, she’ll need to be familiar with gravity.”
The tour continues. We are shown the private areas: myriad bedrooms (at least 25, presumably their suite of three bedrooms, plus 22 guest squares) and zero-gravity bathrooms with showers, the specs being fuzzy, something I must research later.
We are shown a central computer room (although every room contains a laptop), including some bookshelves, mostly children’s books. “My wife and I don’t mind reading on our Kindles, but we thought Baby should be exposed to print books,” the astronaut’s husband says.
We tour the greenhouse, complete with grow lights, and rows and rows of hydroponic vegetable plants and food storage areas, both canned and tube foods.
I start toward a locked tunnel door. “What’s that?”
The astronaut shakes her head. “Our lab. Unfortunately, top secret.”
Finally, they show us a well-stocked, albeit small, escape pod, which also acts as Central Control. “This is an area we hope we never have to use in an emergency situation,” the astronaut says, laughing a bit nervously. “But we’re glad it’s here – just in case.”
Back in the living room, the husband presses a button, to reveal a large screen. “We enjoy cable, YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix,” he says. “But we don’t have much time for extensive TV viewing. Although I’m considered a ‘trailing spouse,’ I’m also a General Practitioner, handyman, and tech support, so I have little time for entertainment.”
Then, in unison, the three Orioles speak: “Where can we wash up?”
The husband says, “The zero-gravity toilet is down the hallway, but water in zero gravity has its own rules. You might want to use the gravity bathroom.”
He gives us directions, and off we go.
When we return, it’s time to say goodbye.
We help the crew and flight attendants load the waste containers and completed experiments conducted by the astronaut and her husband.
On the Shuttle, the crew of SpaceX, the three Orioles, and I board, where we suit up and then blast off for Earth.
Ten months later, the three Orioles; Earl Weaver, the Orioles’ manager; a NASA official; and I stand before reporters and photographers, their questions shouted in a rapid staccato, with cameras clicking.
A large TV screen shows the astronaut and her family, now considerably larger.
“Yes, yes, it’s true! The astronaut family has made history today,” the NASA official says, trying to quiet the press. “The first birth in space!”
“Identical triplets!” one Oriole shouts.
“All boys!” the second one pipes up.
“Mother and babies are doing well!” says the third Oriole, doing a little happy dance.
Earl Weaver raises his arms and shushes the crowd.
The din of chatter and cameras quiet.
“That’s better,” the manager says. “Now I am happy to announce that the boys have been named after the three Orioles who visited the station last year.”
A cheer rises from the crowd.
The astronaut says, “The Grand Experiment has passed with flying colors!”
The astronaut’s husband: “We now have one-third of a baseball team!”
“Meet little Brooks, Boog, and Cal!” I say.
Three pink babies, wrapped in identical orange and black Oriole logo blankets, appear on the TV screen.
Must be the beginning of a beautiful season.
Note: This story is based on a dream, which is posted here.