Astronaut Christina Koch just returned from 11 months in the International Space Station. While up there she was researching things like weightlessness, isolation, and the stress of long-duration spaceflight. She is also a surfer who grew up in North Carolina. While on her mission she photographed some of the world’s most famous surf spots. That made me think about how surfers and astronauts are alike and the qualities shared in both. Maybe surfers would make the best astronauts?
The first obvious comparison are they are both explorers. An astronaut’s dream is to fly to the heavens, gazing down on Earth and out into the galaxy with a vision to learn as much as possible about both. To complete their journey, they might spend months in space. And for the next generation of astronauts heading to Mars, they might never return home. Surfers spend their lives exploring new coastlines and the waves that may be ridden. Sometimes all they have is a map or just the advice from a surfer who had visited the spot before. They may take flights through multiple time zones, drive for hours, or sail for weeks just to reach their destination.
They both call it a ‘mission’. And at times both have to go at it alone, which they are fine with. The stillness of space, floating silently is a similar feeling to sitting on a board in the middle of the ocean. The horizon is endless and you feel like you are alone in the galaxy. On other missions you are part of a team, working together to accomplish a goal. You have to get along since you are tight quarters for a long period of time. In her interview with Kelly Slater, Koch explained that her “private space is about the size of a phone booth.” Both surfers and astronauts are used to this and are known for their friendly, laid back attitudes. They need it to handle the discomforts and unexpected problems that happen on any journey.
Something unexpected always comes up on a journey, where it is a surf trip down the coast or a trip up to space. An astronaut spends weeks training for their mission, but mechanical or technical glitches can cause an emergency. They know how to handle it, with a series of practiced protocols and failsafe measures learned to protect themselves and their craft. They know that rash decisions and fear could lead to mission failure and even their death. The same can be said for surfers. They train for months and even years to handle the conditions they may face in the water. Sometimes unexpected wipeouts, collisions, and two wave hold-downs happen, but they know to stay calm. They know not to stress, to relax their body and mind as it might make the difference in their survival.
Both also train to stay fit. For every hour they perform a spacewalk, astronauts spend seven hours training underwater to mimic microgravity conditions while wearing a heavy spacesuit. They do core building and strength exercises to help them maneuver inside the space station and handle the extra G-forces from taking off and landing. They also work on their balance and eye hand coordination for spacewalks and handling delicate instruments. Surfers follow a similar training regimen. To surf well they need the same core strength, balance, and ability to handle the forces of being pushed under waves.
At times, surfers are restricted in their movements by having to wear thick wetsuits, boots, gloves, and sometimes even hoods. The wetsuit protects them from hypothermia while sitting in a frigid ocean or being battered by freezing winds. In other locations they may be subjected to stifling heat under a tropical sun. Astronauts can face the same extreme temperatures. For example, the temperature on the ‘dark side of the moon’ is -387 degrees Fahrenheit. Astronaut Koch shared in her interview with Surfer Magazine why she chose to work at the South Pole. “The Antarctic represented to me another frontier where I could explore and provide not only the technical challenges of a job but the physical and mental challenges of living in isolation in a harsh environment.”
Surfers are a unique group that undergo great hardships to find the perfect wave. They train to keep their bodies fit and spend months researching the best locations to surf and the exact time to get there based on wave models, tides, winds, and weather patterns. They are prepared to leave their loved ones behind, travel thousands of miles, and sit in the middle of the ocean waiting for just the right swell. Those qualities make them the best candidates to become astronauts and explore the final frontier.