Travelling with Severe Food Allergies, or Space Walking on Mars

Disclaimer: This is a demonstration of what it’s like to live and travel with life-threatening food allergies, not a scientifically accurate account of space walking. If you’re more interested in the latter check this out

I want you to imagine that you’re an astronaut and you’ve just landed on the planet Mars. This is a big deal for you since you’ve spent most of the last few years hanging around in a space station orbiting the Moon.

On the Moon, you’re a space walker. Only about one in 13 astronauts do space walking – but you are special and you do space walks every day, sometimes three times a day; sometimes even more. But space walking can be extremely dangerous. If any of the seals are faulty, you could die within minutes. A leak in the cooling system could interfere with your equipment, or at worst, drown you. That said, you’re pretty much a pro at safely prepping your own suit. You know exactly what to do to prevent leaks. Sometimes, though, you’re in a different part of the station so you have to ask a local technician to prepare your suit, but you know all those people pretty well by now – after all, you’ve been there for years. You can trust them.

Now, though, you’re on Mars. Mars is awesome but you don’t know anyone and you don’t have your suit-preparation equipment. So if you want to space walk, which you do, you’re going to have to ask technicians you’ve never even met and certainly don’t trust to do your suit prep.

Like most Moon walkers, this situation freaks you out. It’s pretty well known that most technicians on Mars don’t regularly deal with space walking. Some of them have family members who space walk so they learn to be careful, but there’s no way to be sure. Your only line of defence is to ask a lot of questions. Did they test the internal pressure? Were they using equipment that could have compromised the electrical equipment? It’s necessary to go through this. That doesn't make it less uncomfortable for both of you.

It doesn’t help that there’s no standard training procedure or legislation for prepping suits. Sometimes a young space walker dies because a technician screwed up, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Corporate technicians will often say things like “This suit may contain leaks” or “Our workshop does not provide guarantees to space walkers” to cover themselves legally. It makes them feel better. You, don’t.

Another unsettling thing about technicians is that they work behind closed doors. For most astronauts, this isn’t a big deal because if something is wrong with whatever is being fixed, they just send it back. Space walkers don’t have that luxury. By the time you find our your suit is compromised, you’re already deep in space and there’s little time to turn back. And inspecting their equipment after they prep it for you, or worse, watching them prep it would be...awkward.

You could have chosen to stay on the Moon. No one would have blamed you. When you first found out you would be a space walker, that actually seemed like a reasonable thing to do. You spent a lot of time building a safe system on the Moon, and the moment you leave, nothing and no one will be able to guarantee you the same level of safety. Despite all your precautions, the anxiety of a possible malfunction will always be there.

But part of what’s exciting about being an astronaut is making the universe smaller. It’s discovering new people, new structures, and new parts of space while managing the risks. It turns out that you’re a pretty cool Moon astronaut (space walking aside), and people on Mars want to meet you. They want to you hear about your unique experiences. Exploring new planets is what you do. It just so happens space walking is what you do to, and that’s ok.

So here’s to Mars (it’s awesome). And here’s to you, space walker.

I'm planning on following this up with some practical stategies to deal with allergies/create a safe space at conferences in this github repository: https://github.com/k88hudson/conferences-and-severe-allergies. I'd love to hear about your experiences too