Fatima Hayat realized she was terrified of space after watching a few episodes of Cosmos while growing up and saw, with her own eyes, how “vast, empty, eerie, lonely, and meaningless” the universe is.
“It makes me feel like I have a plastic bag wrapped around my face and I’m suffocating to death,” she told The Daily Beast. “I can’t breathe. I’m claustrophobic, but it is peculiar that space triggers my claustrophobia, when space is vast, open space. Maybe it’s because there’s no air to breathe there. Or maybe because it has no sky and no ground, no end upwards or downwards. It is just dark, still, lifeless and… cruel.”
Hayat, a 26-year-old economic and social development consultant for the government of Pakistan, said that her fear is so bad that she’s even had panic attacks thinking about traveling through the vast expanse of space alone. “I feel dizzy and my heart beat rises. I sometimes get cold sweats, palpitations, and nausea.”
She’s one of the many people who suffer from astrophobia, which—as the name suggests—is the fear of space. The condition even affects the way she consumes space news—or rather, doesn’t consume it. Hayat said that she actively avoids anything space-related if she can help it. But it’s more difficult nowadays as missions from the likes of NASA and SpaceX begin to ramp up in a serious way. If a piece of space news comes to her accidentally, say, through her Twitter feed, she said she can end up having another panic attack.
She isn’t alone either. While it ranges in severity, astrophobia can manifest itself in anyone. Of course, this might seem like a strange occurrence as the world embarks on a new space age—one where the infusion of private aerospace companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin with national space agencies like NASA have opened the doors to a bold vision for the future of exploring the cosmos. But, as is the case with Hayat, that doesn’t mean everyone is onboard the veritable rocket to the stars.
In fact, a comprehensive report from satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat released on Thursday suggests that many people are apathetic—and even “terrified”—when it comes to space exploration.
The report—which surveyed 20,000 people across 11 countries—found that less than a quarter (23 percent) of the public believe that space exploration is important, while just about a third (34 percent) of them feel that they are excited about space. Additionally, some 97 percent of the world believe that space is a threat in some form or another, whether it be satellites falling onto Earth, or astronauts getting lost in the infinite expanse of the universe.
The numbers get even worse for younger generations. While respondents who were 65 and older—those who were alive at the height of the first space race to the moon—say that they remain optimistic and excited about space exploration, Gen Z respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 say that they’re more concerned with existential issues plaguing the Earth such as anthropogenic climate change.
“I think it's always a challenge,” Scott Kelly, the former NASA astronaut who previously held the record for longest time spent on the International Space Station and contributor to the report, told The Daily Beast. “We have limited bandwidth and are constantly bombarded with information all day long, so it's important to understand that and try to speak to the younger generation because they're the ones that are going to be important to having growing and robust technological advances—not just space exploration.”
“Fifty years ago, people grouped around the television to watch the first momentous space launches,” Edwina Paisley, the senior director of satellite programs at Inmarsat, told The Daily Beast. “It was more of a unifying activity because there wasn’t as much noise in our daily lives. Whereas now we have to pay attention to so many things. I think that’s why perhaps the interest in space has shifted a bit.”
For both Kelly and Paisley, the report is a stark reminder that, while many are excited about recent developments in space exploration and its future, it’s not going to last long if we don’t get more investment from young people. Entities like NASA need Zoomers to buy in. If they don’t, they won’t want to become scientists, engineers, and astronauts. Without them, our hopes of colonizing the moon or Mars would go up in flames (like so many SpaceX rockets on the launch and landing pads).
Digging into the data, the reason why younger people might not be as interested in space is clear: We got bigger problems on terra firma. And the fact of the matter is, even if we get humans to build off-planet colonies, not everybody would be able to go. All we’ve seen from recent missions to space are cadres of billionaires looking to get in splashy photo ops on glorified vacations.
So why would anyone want to worry about some future generations of the uber wealthy living on Mars colonies when our home here is either underwater, on fire, or some hellish combination of both? That’s the question that places like NASA and SpaceX need to answer if they want to realistically see the future of space exploration take off the launch pad.
“In general, children learning STEM subjects is really one of the most important things to the future to our economy, because scientists, engineers, and the people who work in the tech world are the ones that are going to solve these major challenges we have in the future,” Kelly said. “I think we can’t ever lose sight of the fact that we have to stay relevant and within the field of view of our target audience.”
The other issue is that there does seem to be a significant amount of anxiety surrounding space—one that can manifest itself into a full on astrophobia like Hayat. In fact, 13 percent of respondents saying that they are “terrified” by space and 24 percent saying they feel “overwhelmed” by space.
This fear might be an even hairier problem for the likes of NASA to solve, especially with the proliferation of movies and TV shows like Gravity, Alien, and The Martian that paint space as a deadly, inhospitable place that is just out to kill every human that dares enter it (which, to be completely fair, is completely the case). It’s no wonder that we aren’t all terrified of what space can offer.
Paisley attributes some of the fear to a lack of understanding and knowledge. You’re afraid of what you don’t understand and “it may bring about fear and worry and concern about space—be it space junk or debris hitting you, space safety, or whatever else,” she said.
It’s all a matter of messaging. It’s the responsibility of the space community to remind the public about what’s at stake when it comes to the cosmos. “It’s important for NASA, government agencies, space industry companies, universities, and all of us as a society to have a large number of people become scientists and engineers because, without them, society will stop functioning at some point right now,” said Kelly.
After all, these missions aren’t not just about traversing new planets and exploring the stars. It’s also about doing work that can positively affect life on Earth.
“We use space systems every day to take money out of a cash machine that uses signals from space, or a ship that’s delivering your next Amazon package,” Paisley said. “There's so many parts of our lives that are connected with space. In order to increase that excitement and that interest, organizations involved in space need to tap into that. It's tying in the value of space with our day-to-day lives and how it's going to make the world a better place.”
In the end, we take the advancements of science and technology from space initiatives for granted. Everything from our phones, to our Internet connection, to travel infrastructure come from a discovery made in space. In the seven decades since the first space race, we’ve managed to turn it all into an abstraction once again—one that fills us with apathy at best and abject fear at worst in the case of folks like Hayat who are more than happy staying on the planet they know and love.
“I am already in space. Right?” she said. “Earth is in space. It’s a lovely, beautiful and warm place brimming with life of all kinds… I am already on the best real estate of space. Why would I endanger my life and put my mind through immense trauma and leave Earth to go to space?”
These are the kinds of questions that the likes of NASA needs to answer as we enter the dawn of a new space age. It’s clearer than ever that if we ever hope to keep these advancements and discoveries going, we need everyone’s curiosity and excitement—young and old—to take flight.
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