Dayna Tortorici is managing editor and co-editor-in-chief of n+1.
Six years ago, I was wandering around an abandoned bridge by the commuter rail in Chicago when I got caught in a frightening electrical storm ? my first. For immediate shelter I had two options: a narrow wooden switching tower that looked as if it might crumple in the rain, and a green pickup truck with its headlights on. I hesitated but picked the truck. A man opened the passenger door from inside. "You're lucky you're a girl," he said. "If you were a big scary dude, I wouldn't let you in." We sat quietly until he introduced himself: His name was Matt, he was an electrician for the Metra rail. But he moonlighted as a comedian. He gave me his card to prove it?it said COMEDIAN.
For the next hour, Matt was good company. I learned about electrical storms and heard the better half of his stand-up routine (a lot about his kids and about his wife's attempts to remodel their bathroom). When the rain let up, we parted ways. I felt quite lucky: not just not a creep, but an electrician and a comedian! What better combination of traits could a stranger possess, if we were going to be stuck in an electrical storm together?
Tom Kizzia's "Roommates on Mars," in last week's New Yorker, made me think of Matt, and about the largely impractical human traits that become valuable in extreme situations. What kinds of people can go into deep space together without going crazy? Kim Binsted, the University of Hawaii computer-science professor who is conducting isolation studies on the Mauna Loa volcano to figure out what makes a successful flight crew to Mars, herself "had a long side career in improvisational comedy." Being in extreme isolation with an improv comedian may be your personal vision of hell, but it also might save your life ? bad-communicator cowboy types tend to break down more quickly. The piece is a novel or a bad sitcom ? whichever you like better.
Kizzia also answers a delicate question that had been nagging at me from the beginning, about sexual assault in space travel. He describes a 1999 study in Moscow by the Institute of Biomedical Problems: "A month in, on New Year?s Eve, a fistfight between two Russians left blood splattered on the walls. Minutes later, the crew commander forcibly kissed a female volunteer, a Canadian with a doctorate in health sciences. When she protested, she later recalled, the Russian scientific coördinator reported that she was ruining the atmosphere in the test module. Then she got head lice. A Japanese participant quit in protest. A decade later, when Russia launched its five-hundred-and-twenty-day study, to simulate a trip to Mars and back, all six participants were men. 'I guess their solution to the problem of sexual assault was to not have women,' Binsted said." A better idea might be an all-female crew: "Women tend to make a lighter load and to burn fewer calories for the same amount of work."