The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to take more risks? Surround yourself with test pilots and skydivers.

Why was I so willing to put my life on the line?

SpaceShip Two, a Virgin Galactic craft designed for space tourism, crashed in 2014, killing one pilot and injuring another in the Mojave Desert.
SpaceShip Two, a Virgin Galactic craft designed for space tourism, crashed in 2014, killing one pilot and injuring another in the Mojave Desert. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)
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Four years ago, I climbed into the cockpit of a spaceship, buckled up and visualized a tree nut.

Three . . . two . . .

When the countdown reached one, I was thrown back in my seat, walloped by a gravitational load of more than six Gs. To help me stay conscious, a doctor had urged me to breathe and activate my pelvic floor by pretending to squeeze a walnut down there.

The altimeter indicated that I was on my way to space. But I was actually just spinning inside a 75-ton centrifuge in a strip mall outside Philadelphia. Test pilots from Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson's space tourism company, were there to train. I was embedding with the company for a magazine piece that later turned into my new book, "Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut."

As part of my reporting, I wanted to witness and experience as much as I could about Virgin Galactic's experimental rocket ship program. I shadowed the pilots in meetings, at briefings, on trips and, most important, into the air — as a passenger in the acrobatic plane they flipped and rolled and banked to build up their G-tolerance, in the glider they used to practice their landings and in the paraglider their lead test pilot flew for pleasure on his days off. Now, as my cheeks gathered near my ears and I labored to conjure the walnut, I felt I had done everything I could to know what it might be like to ride a rocket out of the Earth's atmosphere. When CNBC interviewed me about the new "space race" a year later and asked if I'd board Virgin Galactic's rocket, SpaceShipTwo, I meant it when I vowed, "I would go now," that very instant.

Today, I feel less sure. Rocketry is a dangerous business, and I have two young children. Was I reckless then, or have I lost my nerve? As it happens, our calculations about risk, research shows, are highly situational. In other words, we might be naturally more risk-prone or risk-averse, and therefore gravitate toward people with similar attitudes, but those we surround ourselves with often influence our thinking. We might have an interest in backcountry skiing or aviation, but we're often making decisions about risk while rooming with other ski bums or fraternizing with test pilots — which is why skiing an avalanche-prone mountain or strapping into a rocket ship could feel more like a matter of course than of consequence.

This explains why some people live in what seem to others like communities of extreme risk: big wall climbers who camp in Yosemite, people who blatantly pay no heed to the coronavirus, traceurs who practice parkour atop skyscrapers, people who drive drunk. If your friends are cavalier, you are likely to be, too.

We’ve been left to calculate our virus risk on our own. We’re terrible at it.

I grew up in a relatively safe home that encouraged relatively unsafe activities. My dad was a fighter pilot who raced motorcycles and hunted wild boars. When I came of age, I moved to Pakistan to pursue a career in journalism. Being a freelancer, I knew that I would have to take certain risks to get work. I met with separatists, smugglers and militants in supposedly forbidden parts of the country. Eventually, I was deported. I sought dangerous opportunities elsewhere, like in Nigeria, where I interviewed kidnappers about their role in the ransom business.

I gradually began to write more about other people's perilous adventures and less about my own. A moment of tragic peril was what first piqued my interest in Virgin Galactic: During a rocket-powered test flight in October 2014, its spaceship broke apart 50,000 feet over the California desert, destroying the ship and leaving one of the pilots dead. I wanted to try to understand the psychology of these test pilots who routinely flew unproven vehicles into harm's way. Before Virgin Galactic's lead test pilot took me up in the acrobatic plane, he tore off a yellow sticky note and said, "They want you to write down next of kin."

Perhaps my waning desire for derring-do was the only sensible, mature response to what I was learning about my subject. Lately, Virgin Galactic has not inspired much confidence. After a spaceflight in February 2019, it discovered significant structural damage to the ship. "I don't know how we didn't lose the vehicle and kill three people," said Todd Ericson, a test pilot who subsequently resigned as Virgin Galactic's vice president of safety because he'd lost faith in the safety regime. The company has not conducted a rocket-powered test flight since: A December 2020 mission was aborted in midair, and a February 2021 attempt was postponed on the eve of the flight because the cause of the previously aborted flight had not yet been fixed.

That is not the only factor, however. A pandemic has upended our lives and made us hidebound. Over the past 14 months, we have lived a lifetime's worth of fear. We are stuck at home studying daily death tolls and infection rates. Before we go out, we calculate and assess the risks: Do we really need fresh bread for dinner tonight? Is going into a grocery store worth it? We cross the street to avoid contact with other humans and sometimes even hold our breath. We see friends posting vacation photos on Facebook, check the date and whisper about whether they're taking the virus seriously enough.

These whispers are more critical than we may think. Try as we might, we decide what is and isn't sensible based on what our sensible peers say and do. I remember having dinner with my parents before I went to Nigeria for the kidnapping assignment, and how different that conversation felt from the ones I used to have with journalists in Islamabad before going off on a reporting trip: My parents' wariness weighed me down and prompted me to second-guess myself, whereas, among other journalists, I felt a kind of competitive bonhomie spur me to take even greater risks. "It's the wisdom of the crowds," said Elke Weber, a social psychologist at Princeton. "If everyone thinks it's fine, you assume it's fine as well."

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I asked Weber if this wasn't just old-fashioned peer pressure. What if I just wanted these pilots not to think I was a wimp? Maybe, she said. But it was more likely that my proximity to them recalibrated my gauge of what did and did not feel risky. "It happens to anyone in any situation," she said. "As an introvert who comes into a room of extroverts, chances are you're going to open up a bit more than you would normally. We tend to imitate behavior and attitudes around us. We're influenced by people's fears, or lack of fear."

And so I remain, battened down at home and left to watch Virgin Galactic's spaceship program from a distance. This battening won't last forever. And just as I reckon with my shaky nerves and wavering resolve, we are all about to reckon with reinstalling our travel apps, booking flights and going to bars.

Herd immunity is a scientific phenomenon. But it has a psychological component, too. That first foreign trip? Or first drink in a crowded bar? The more we do it and the more we see others doing it (and posting about it on social media), the safer and more normal it will seem. But the first time will probably feel wild and somewhat vertiginous. When in doubt, conjure the walnut.

Twitter: @nickschmidle

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