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Kelsey Wagner For Buzzfeed News

Can Virtual Reality Fix My Fear Of Space?

Some places just don’t need to be explored, OK?

Posted on July 1, 2021, at 11:58 a.m. ET

Even though I try my best, I don’t like anything. I travel only when forced to, I experience new things only when obligated, I adapt only when there’s no other choice. I don’t live a completely joyless life — you don’t know pleasure until you’re seated at a restaurant next to a couple having a rippling fight, close enough for you to hear every word of it — but it would be fair to say I take less pleasure from the wonders of the world than the average person.

But of all the things I don’t like, the top spot goes to the moon. God, how I hate the moon. I know it’s “Earth’s only natural satellite,” but FUCK the moon. It’s so bossy — always telling tides when to ebb and flow, turning perfectly normal people into werewolves, giving me my period. Just a quick glance at that stupid hunk of cheese in the sky and I’m muttering to myself about how much I hate it, along with the stars, the sun, the planets, the solar system, and pretty much everything else that’s out there.

I’m not a psychologist, but if you ask me, my aversion to space started in grade school, when we had to go to the planetarium at the science center and the girl I got paired up with bit my arm while we looked at the stars. I only went to sleepaway camp once, in the sixth grade; I didn’t want to, but my parents said it was mandatory. “You have to learn to be outside,” my mother told me, after 12 years of not allowing me to go outside. But it wasn’t being outdoors that I hated — it was that I was in a place so remote that I could look up and see every twinkle in the sky, every mocking gaseous spheroid. It made me feel like I was bound to be crushed by the universe. It was bad enough to feel insignificant as a human being on Earth. Why did I need the added burden of feeling insignificant on a celestial level?

Working from home for over a year did not, surprisingly, make me more amenable to the vastness of space. (I also hate the desert, and the endless expanse of the ocean makes me feel nauseous.) I like my apartment. I don’t mind being home. But I’ve started to notice that more and more normies are trying to find a way to go to space. Even Jeff Bezos, a man who can literally have anything and everything he wants here on Earth, is willingly traveling to space in a few weeks. (I can personally only hope that he doesn’t return so that I never again have to be tempted by two-hour free delivery for a $1.99 egg of glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty.)

People talk about space with a quiet awe that’s always made me feel like I’m missing out. So in the pursuit of being less of a space coward, I contacted someone at Facebook and asked if they’d send me the Oculus Quest 2, a VR entertainment set that allows you to play video games, watch movies, or, in my case, try out a few space simulations. The Oculus comes with a clunky headset, two joysticks, and arguably very few instructions. Over the course of a month, I logged on, strapped in, and prepared myself for my journey to nowhere. Not to spoil the story so quickly, but I hated it.

The Oculus offers several apps that replicate the experience of space travel. I started with Space Explorers, a series about NASA astronauts, which I watched in small bursts to get comfortable. But comfort never came. Turning my head and seeing someone placidly float by gave me heart palpitations. Then I tried Mission: ISS, which let me wander through the International Space Station in zero gravity. I didn’t love that either — VR headsets are a wonderful way to experience car sickness in the comfort of your own home — still, I could manage. But then I’d turn my head, see the glowing, terrifying orb that I live on (aka Earth), and scream like someone was stabbing me, rip the headset off, throw it in a corner of my apartment, and hope it would burst into flames.

While it’s very clear I will never be a NASA candidate, I did want a deeper understanding of what exactly was wrong with me. I spoke to several experts to try to understand my phobia and hopefully get to a place where I’m not plagued with anxiety when I look up at the stars.

Kelley Slack, a personality assessor who used to be contracted by NASA, told me that the testing to become an astronaut is rigorous and meant to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to who can go to space. “[Astronauts] go through a two-hour psychiatric interview and a two-hour interview with psychologists,” said Slack, who now works at Birkman International, a behavioral and occupational assessment company. During the NASA interviews, each candidate is asked the same questions in the same order, and the psychologists consider any possible diagnoses. Those with mental health conditions — claustrophobia, for example — are unlikely to make it into the great unknown.

“The other half is picking the people who are most suitable for going,” Slack said. Candidates are put into small teams and placed in a field — “there’s a pecan grove on Johnson Space Center” — and tasked with various exercises to demonstrate how they’d work together in a team. “Do we think this person can go into space and be healthy?” Slack said. “Can they adapt well in space? Can they work well with their teammates? How will they do in an ICE — isolated, confined, extreme — environment?”

From there, the astronauts picked to go into orbit make contingency plans for things that could happen while they’re away. One astronaut’s mother died while he was up there, Slack told me. “There was a plan for that already in place, including who would tell you that kind of thing,” she said. This I can’t fathom; I’ve had a hard enough time being separated from my family on Earth, never mind a rocket ship ride away.

I told Slack how much I hated space, about my inability to even handle a virtual version, and that the idea of a vast nothingness was my worst nightmare. “I can imagine,” she said.

Kelsey Wagner For Buzzfeed News

Yet humankind is still trying to get to Mars. NASA is investigating the possibility of water existing there, even though it is made of fucking lava, and Elon Musk is trying to explore the possibility of “making humanity multiplanetary.” But that trip would be much, much longer and far more complicated, both technologically and psychologically. On that journey, Earth would become not the threatening, enormous glowing orb I saw in the Oculus, but almost nothing at all, just another dot in the sky. This presents a whole other set of problems for some potential astronauts. “One thing that concerns us about people going to Mars is what’s called the Earth-out-of-view phenomenon,” Slack said. “The most favorite activity of astronauts is to look at Earth and take photos of Earth. So how’s that going to work?”

Slack seemed to be empathetic about my fear of space, but she was still hopeful I could get over it. “You’re standing on the threshold of the ship and you have to take that first step out,” she said. “That’s gotta be terrifying.”

“I believe in you,” she added, which made one of us. After speaking to her, I made another attempt to launch myself into space with the Oculus. Again, I only lasted 10 minutes. The sheer sight of an astronaut gently drifting toward me, their leg a foot from my head, made my heart rate jump so high that my Apple Watch asked me if I needed an ambulance.

Slack knows what it takes to go to space, but she’s never been herself, so she can’t speak to the appeal of actually being there. So I also called Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and begged him to tell me why he likes it. Much of his career has been spent talking to children about the wonders of space; I can’t imagine talking to me was much different.

“I don’t get it,” I told him. “It just stresses me out. What do you see in it?”

“How ‘bout this,” he said. “Imagine if, in the last hour and a half, you’d seen the entire world. You’d been around it once.” He described his own trajectory around Earth, a trip he’s made more times than I’ve been to the dentist. “You’ve seen Ireland and then all of Europe and the Alps. You cut down across the Arabian Sea and right across India and down across Malaysia, and you skirted the edge of Australia and you crossed the coast in 30 minutes. Imagine if that was rolling out in front of you like this kaleidoscope carpet.” I imagined it along with Hadfield, those enormous expanses of land, some filled with people I care about. It sounded sublime, to glide above literally everyone.

“What did you do in the last hour and a half?” he asked me. I shifted in my chair so that the buttcheek that had fallen asleep could take a break. “I’ve done things,” I said.

Hadfield is a retired astronaut, but I wondered if he should pivot to doing space PR professionally. Talking to him was, frankly, the closest I got to being convinced that it was good for anything at all. “It’s way beyond beyond. It’s profound. I don’t know if you like the Sistine Chapel or the Taj Mahal or the redwood forests, where you walk into a place and you feel overawed with the import of the beauty that surrounds you, the immensity of it and the age and intricacy of it,” he said. “That’s how you feel all the time up there.”

Natural majesty does indeed sound breathtaking. But I suppose what really bothers me about space is that, ultimately, it’s isolating. You’re basically alone up there. Stillness doesn’t settle me; it makes me panic. Not being able to hear ambient noise — music from someone else’s headphones, a stranger screaming, a toddler laughing, a traffic jam, anything to alert me that humanity is near — makes me feel dread. Maybe after the year we’ve all had, I’m not interested in a type of exploration that makes me feel alone in a brand-new way. Who needs to be in orbit when I already feel like I’m on the moon, waiting to come back down to Earth?

Hadfield reminded me that I’ve actually been alone for years. “It may stem from a fundamental fear of losing people or getting hurt or getting lost. Your family is in Canada. You’re in New York. You’ve found a way to cope with it,” he said. “The best you can be is touching someone else, but you’re seldom touching someone else. You’re always separate. The real question is: How big is that separation?”

Kelsey Wagner For Buzzfeed News

After talking to Hadfield, I tried the Oculus again, hoping I was finally cured. I walked into Spheres, produced by Darren Aronofsky and narrated by Millie Bobby Brown, which, sure. But the experience, which is vaguely interactive but mostly a horror show of aurora borealis, overwhelmed me so much that I could only stand among the shooting stars for a few minutes before I again let out a guttural scream and almost stepped on my cat while trying to avoid VR space death. When the planets literally aligned in front of me, I had to hit them with my hands to send them into orbit. I threw the Oculus back under my bed, treating it like a monster that goes bump in the night. I knew I needed more help.

I called John Mongiovi, a Manhattan-based hypnotist who works with people on phobias and habits, from fear of flying to smoking and, I guess, hating the moon. Surprisingly, there’s little data around whether hypnosis cures swarthy women of their fear of space. But hypnosis has been shown to be effective in treating smoking cessation, PTSD, and disordered eating. “I’ve never helped someone with this phobia before,” he told me when I arrived at his office a few days later. “I don’t mean it to laugh, but it’s really unique.”

He asked me if there were other things that made me feel the way space does, and I immediately thought of plane travel. In the before times, I’d usually fly two to four times a month, but I never got used to it and have never been able to look out the window without feeling disoriented. I hate seeing nothing but the horizon. Similarly, I can tolerate a forest, but I’d rather not. The ocean is fine if I’m standing on the beach, but if I’m on a boat, out in the middle of nowhere, I feel incensed and spooked. I began talking about my other pressing anxiety: how I haven’t seen my family in 17 months.

Hypnosis feels like particularly intense guided meditation. During our session, I lay down and closed my eyes while Mongiovi sat next to me, delivering a raspy monologue into my ear. He gave me some instructions to follow on my next Oculus jaunt. “When you put that headset on, notice what takes place in the body. Notice some of the images that you remember from that experience,” he said. “Imagine the vastness. No beginning, no end. Nothing but space. Feel your back on the couch. When they allow you to look through the window and you see the tiny little Earth, remember where you put the VR headset on. Notice your breathing.”

Then, unexpectedly, Mongiovi coaxed out a long-forgotten memory of the swim classes I used to take in the deep tank at our local pool. The water there was darker than that of the other tank, so I couldn’t see clear to the bottom. I always felt like I would drown, even though I could swim. I told Mongiovi about how I would cling to the edge of the pool, eventually lifting myself out, and thinking, Fuck this. I don’t need to dive for rings like a dolphin.

Mongiovi asked who would be there for me after swim lessons, and I told him it was my mom. “I want you to imagine your mom at her most encouraging, positive, if these are words that can define her,” he said. I laughed, mid-hypnosis, instead. “Not so much,” he said.

Even without the insight of a specialist, the psychology of why I hate space isn’t that hard to figure out. I don’t like feeling out of control. I don’t like feeling insignificant. I don’t like feeling like I could float away and die. I’m not interested in learning new things about the universe, because what I know so far is depressing. I’ve been apart from everyone — most of my friends, all my colleagues, my entire family — for more than a year, and that won’t change soon. When you’re sad, everything feels like a metaphor, and this began to feel like one too. Space just reminds me that my despair means nothing in the grander scheme of things.

But Mongiovi did remind me that, back then, I got myself out of the pool. I clung to the edge on my own. I could float; I never drowned. I knew how to save myself every time. “Hold on to the edge of the pool,” he said. I repeated it to myself for days. “Hold on to the edge of the pool,” I said to myself on the subway. “Hold on to the edge of the pool,” I whispered to myself at night while I thought about the Oculus tucked under my bed.

The next day — with the help of a patient friend, who was there to remind me that I was on Earth and not out there in the great big nothing — I put on the headset one more time. I stepped out onto the space station, holding the VR space boat with one hand. “I hate this!” I screamed. “People need to have more natural fear about things! They need to respect the boundaries of what’s necessary to know!”

I started to lose my grip on the space station, rolling backward even though my feet were firmly planted on the ground. “I am in FREE FALL!” I yelled at my friend. But I stayed. I even flew around with a jet pack. I tried to admire the Earth, or the facsimile offered by the Oculus. I felt dizzy and hateful, but I did it. After a half-hour, with only a few short breaks, I pulled the headset off. I was drenched in so much sweat that my makeup was dribbling down my chin. It was a miserable experience; I have never hated the endless expanse of space more. But I made it. I held on to the edge of the pool. ●

This story is part of the BuzzFeed News Travel Week series.


A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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