In this excerpt from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, astronaut Chris Hadfield writes about losing six friends to the Columbia disaster, the risks and rewards of spaceflight, and the power of negative thinking.
In addition to his illustrious career as an astronaut, Chris is well known as the astronaut who sang David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” aboard the ISS in an endearing viral video.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Book Excerpt: Part 3)
Although simulating a catastrophe does get you accustomed to the idea that it could happen, you’re never inured to the point of indifference. I doubt I will ever be able to forget the morning of February 1, 2003. I’d flown back to Houston from Russia the night before, and forgot to turn my phone back on until Helene and I were driving to brunch in the morning. As soon as I did, I saw I had a massive number of messages; she checked her phone, and so did she. Our friends on Columbia were coming home that day. We turned the car around and drove back to the house with an awful, awful feeling, like all the air had gone out of everything.
I turned on the TV and immediately there it was, a replay of Columbia’s disintegration in the skies not all that far from our home. My eyes filled with tears even before I’d really processed the information, and Helene crumpled to her knees, weeping. The sudden, irretrievable loss was devastating. We knew all seven astronauts on that Shuttle. We’d shared the same dream. We cared about their spouses and children. The commander of that mission, Rick Husband, was my classmate at test pilot school; we’d sung together and worked on a research project together. Rick had signed on to help my family at one of my launches, and wound up cheerfully driving to Orlando when my parents got stranded there and bringing them back to Cape Canaveral. Great guy, close friend. I mourned, and still mourn, his death and the deaths of our six other friends on that flight.
I also felt a huge sense of disappointment and responsibility: I was part of the program that had let this happen. When I got to the office an hour or so later, they were already mounting teams to go help pick up the pieces of our colleagues and their spaceship, which had been scattered across the state because of the way the Shuttle broke apart. I helped out at JSC and did what I could for Rick’s family. But there wasn’t much anyone could do. Highly talented, hard-working, genuinely nice people had been killed doing their jobs, through no fault of their own. It was a terrible, needless waste.
Yet I never considered leaving NASA, nor was it a topic of discussion with my family. I hadn’t been assigned to another Shuttle flight and didn’t think I ever would be, so there was no threat to my own safety. My job was to help others fly safely, and the Columbia disaster only strengthened my sense of purpose. We had to persuade the world all over again that the Shuttle was safe to fly and that the work the crew had been doing was vitally important and should be continued. Like most people at NASA, I felt that accomplishing those two things was the best way to honor Columbia’s crew, and I’m sure it’s what they would have wanted. I’ve never known an astronaut who doesn’t believe that the work we do is far more important than we are as individuals.
I’m extremely proud to have been part of the effort to figure out how to identify, prevent, and mitigate risks so the Shuttle could fly again without harming one more person. There were three things we had to do: one, decrease the chances of damage during ascent; two, figure out a better way to recognize, while the Shuttle was still in space, whether there had been any damage; three, come up with ways to repair damage on orbit. Shortly after Columbia, I became Chief of Robotics at the NASA Astronaut Office, responsible for developing space robotics techniques and hardware and making sure astronauts and cosmonauts knew how to use them, so I was very involved in helping figure out solutions to the last two challenges. Actually, every single person in our organization got behind the effort, despite the fact that morale was low and public support for the space program was even lower.
We were entirely successful. We changed how we attached and inspected foam; we devised a way to survey the vehicle once it was in orbit (we repurposed some unused Canadarm hardware to build a kind of boom for the Shuttle, then mounted a camera on it so we could survey all the most fragile parts of the spaceship); we figured out how to use a special type of glue during an EVA to fix any damage – and we always had a rescue Shuttle standing by in case the first one got in trouble. The Shuttle became a much safer vehicle and we never lost another crew member. I never had another opportunity to fly on one, but I would’ve done so in a heartbeat.
The reason is not that I have a death wish. I’m not even a thrill-seeker. Few astronauts are. Strapping yourself on top of what is essentially a large bomb is plenty risky – there’s no need to up the ante. I’ve never been interested in the just-for-the-hell-of-it rush of, say, bungee jumping. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, I understand why you’d find that exciting. But I’m not, and I don’t.
To me, the only good reason to take a risk is that there’s a decent possibility of a reward that outweighs the hazard. Exploring the edge of the universe and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and capability strike me as pretty significant rewards, so I accept the risks of being an astronaut, but with an abundance of caution: I want to understand them, manage them and reduce them as much as possible.
It’s almost comical that astronauts are stereotyped as daredevils and cowboys. As a rule, we’re highly methodical and detail-oriented. Our passion isn’t for thrills but for the grindstone and pressing our noses to it. We have to: we’re responsible for equipment that has cost taxpayers many millions of dollars, and the best insurance policy we have on our lives is our own dedication to training. Studying, simulating, practicing until responses become automatic – astronauts don’t do all this only to fill NASA’s requirements. Training is something we do to reduce the odds that we’ll die. Sometimes as with Challenger and Columbia, a vehicle fails and there’s absolutely nothing the crew can do. But sometimes there is. Astronauts have survived fires on the launch pad and in space, ballistic landings where the Soyuz has come back through the atmosphere like a rock hurled from space – even a collision that punctured a spacecraft and caused sudden depressurization. In a real crisis like that, a group hug isn’t going to save you. Your only hope is knowing exactly what to do and being able to do it calmly and quickly.
My kids used to make fun of me for having more homework than they did and for taking it a lot more seriously, too. But when the risks are real, you can’t wing it. The person that homework should matter to most of all is me. Having safety procedures down cold might save my life someday, and it would definitely help me avoid making dumb mistakes that actually increased the risks. No matter how bad a situation is, you can always make it worse. Let’s say the Soyuz engines start failing going into deorbit burn, so I shut them off, but then can’t start them again – well, I just took a big problem and made it huge.
Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them. When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy. Aside from anything else, the possibility of a sequel is nonexistent.
It’s puzzling to me that so many self-help gurus urge people to visualize victory, and stop there. Some even insist that if you wish for good things long enough and hard enough, you’ll get them – and conversely, that if you focus on the negative, you actually invite bad things to happen. Why make yourself miserable by worrying? Why waste time getting ready for disasters that may never happen?
Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive. Likewise, coming up with a plan of action isn’t a waste of time if it gives you peace of mind. While it’s true that you may wind up being ready for something that never happens, if the stakes are at all high, it’s worth it. Think about driving down the highway listening to the radio and enjoying the sunshine, versus scanning the road, noticing the oil truck up ahead and considering what will happen if, just as you pull out to pass, you’re cut off by the van that you’ve noticed has been driving a little erratically in the left lane for the past 10 minutes. Anticipating that problem would be the best way to avoid it.
You don’t have to walk around perpetually braced for disaster, convinced the sky is about to fall. But it sure is a good idea to have some kind of plan for dealing with unpleasant possibilities. For me, that’s become a reflexive form of mental discipline not just at work but throughout my life. When I get into a really crowded elevator, for instance, I think, “Okay, what are we going to do if we get stuck?” And I start working through what my own role could be, how I could help solve the problem. On a plane, same thing. As I’m buckling my seat belt, I automatically think about what I’ll do if there’s a crisis.
But I’m not a nervous or pessimistic person. Really. If anything, I’m annoyingly upbeat, at least according to the experts (my family, of course). I tend to expect things will turn out well, and they usually do. My optimism and confidence come not from feeling I’m luckier than other mortals, and they sure don’t come from visualizing victory. They’re the result of a lifetime spent visualizing defeat and figuring out how to prevent it.
Like most astronauts, I’m pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That’s the power of negative thinking.