During a seven-hour spacewalk, International Space Station crew member Andrew Feustel couldn’t help but tear up. As he later found out, anti-fogging solution inside his helmet had gotten into his eye, and it stung like no other. The problem? His body wasn’t able to react how it normally would: by crying. Instead he ended up slinking in his suit long enough to get a spongy device to wipe his eye.
This story was just one of many reminders that much of what we are learning about space is coming through its effects on the humans who are living in it—that is, in the space station orbiting around Earth. Megan Barber for The Atlantic covers the rest:
Astronauts can, certainly, tear up — they’re human, after all. But in zero gravity, the tears themselves can’t flow downward in the way they do on Earth. The moisture generated has nowhere to go. Tears, Feustel put it, “don’t fall off of your eye … they kind of stay there.” NASA spacewalk officer Allison Bollinger, who oversaw Feustel’s EVA, confirmed this assessment. “They actually kind of conglomerate around your eyeball,” she said.
In other words, yep: There’s no crying in space.
Tears, in theory, shouldn’t hurt. We don’t know why, exactly, we cry, but we’re pretty sure that the action, evolutionarily, has a palliative effect. Tears should soothe, not sting. But we know as well that life in near-zero-gravity can have a deleterious effect on human vision – and one explanation for that could be fluids shifting toward the head during long-term stays in microgravity. It could be that space gives you a pretty wretched case of dry eye – and that sudden moisture to the cornea, particularly when it takes the form of (eeesh) “a liquid ball,” could sting rather than soothe.
So the next time you’re tearing up and mourning the death of the shuttle program, just remember: ISS work found that humans wouldn’t be able to do that in space.