“Am I sitting in a tin can? Far above the world? Planet Earth is Blue, and there’s nothing I can do.” – David Bowie Space Oddity
After the SpaceX Dragon launch a few weeks ago – which I wrote about – I’ve found myself becoming quite fascinated by space travel. I’m even massaging an idea about writing a short story about space travel. This has led me to watch a lot of videos on YouTube about space travel.
I’m sure this was why this video showed up in my YouTube feed.
I’d gotten off a pretty heavy virtual session with my therapist and I needed to decompress a little bit. I got on YouTube and saw a Ted Talk that absolutely changed my perspective on life.
Chris Hadfield is the first Canadian astronaut to perform a spacewalk, as well as the first Canadian astronaut to command the International Space Station.
Hadfield is a veteran of two Space Shuttle launches. And he was ferried to and from the ISS on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, since his time aboard ISS was after the retirement of the American Shuttle.
During Chris’ second Shuttle flight in 2001, the main mission objective was to install the Canadarm – the main robotic arm on ISS. This was to be accomplished during two different spacewalks.
Chris beautifully shared this story in his Ted Talk. And I’m going to use it to illustrate my point.
Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to launch into space?
All of us are familiar with the launch stack of the Space Shuttle. The spacecraft itself is as large as an airliner. The pressurized crew compartment is large enough for upwards of 8 astronauts to live and work, though flights were usually held with seven or fewer crew members. And it has a payload bay as large as a city bus.
The spacecraft is mounted vertically on a massive fuel tank. With an aluminum shell holding two internal fuel tanks – one holding liquid oxygen and the other, liquid hydrogen. This is essentially a massive H-Bomb – as the crew of Challenger tragically found out in 1986.
On the left and right are two giant solid rocket boosters. The only job of these boosters is to shoot lots and lots of fire out of the bottom providing much of the thrust as the Shuttle goes up into orbit.
And did I mention the fire? So…much…fire!
At T-6, the Shuttle’s three main engines light and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water are pumped on the launchpad to keep the deafening sound of this vehicle from destroying itself! Also to keep the rockets from burning up the launch pad.
At T-0, you lift off and shoot up vertically for a couple of minutes before you perform a 180-degree roll. You’re at Mach-one in a little over a minute, and you’re in orbit in less than 9 minutes. Orbiting speed is over 17 thousand miles per hour, by the way.
The shuttle launched 135 times in a little over 30 years. There were two catastrophic events in the history of the program – Challenger’s ill-fated launch in 1986, and Columbia’s ill-fated return to Earth in 2003. Columbia broke up and burned up upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere after her heat shield was compromised on liftoff, killing all seven of her crew members.
The humans who rode this beast put their lives and trust into the hands of hundreds of people. From the vehicle maintenance crews, to launch control in Florida, to Mission Control in Houston. Everything has to go right for those humans to reach orbit safely. And you’re riding on the back of a controlled hydrogen bomb for nine minutes, let’s not forget.
If any little thing goes wrong, it could be catastrophic. Not unlike what happened with Challenger. The Challenger disaster was caused by an O-ring gasket that failed to properly seal in one of the booster engines. Hot gasses and flames started to escape the booster and caught the external fuel tank on fire.
A rubber gasket was the cause of all that.
Let me ask y’all this, what’s the most dangerous thing you’ll ever do?
Now, back to Chris. In April of 2001, he and a crewmate were out on their first spacewalk. When you take a spacewalk, you must wear a special suit which is essentially a self-contained spaceship. Air-tight and pumped full of water and pure breathing oxygen. Because if your suit gets compromised in any way, and you get exposed to the vacuum of space, your blood will vaporize, and you’ll die a violent death 200 miles above Earth.
While Chris was at work, his left eye started to get terribly irritated. And since you’re wearing a huge, cumbersome helmet as part of your spacesuit, it’s not exactly possible to rub your eyes for any reason. It got so bad he couldn’t see.
And his eye was tearing up trying to protect itself. And since you’re at zero gravity in orbit, the tears have nowhere to go. Except to travel across the bridge of his nose, and into his other eye.
Here he is, in the vacuum of space, and he’s completely paralyzed with fear.
Helluva place to go blind, no?
They got him back inside the Shuttle, and one of his crewmates performed first aid and got his vision restored. He communicated with the medical personnel in Mission Control, and he was okay. He completed his second spacewalk two days later, and they got their work done.
Turns out he was allergic to whatever they sprayed into his helmet to keep it from fogging. Add that with his sweat and an artificial atmosphere and it was a recipe for trouble.
Astronauts train for years before they fly a mission. The train for all the possibilities and all the what if’s. But I’d wager a guess that it’s not exactly easy to train for going blind on a spacewalk. When you’re 200 miles above the ground, floating with a tether in zero gravity, and the only thing that’s keeping your blood from vaporizing is that suit.
Let me ask y’all this, what’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?
Few people get the thrill of strapping onto a rocket and headed to orbit. If I ever got to do that, I’d probably have to radio down and be like “Uh, Houston we have a problem. I crapped my spacesuit.”
Riding a rocket into space is incredibly dangerous. And as I said before, everything has to go right to get to space safely.
And it’s a human instinct to fear danger. It makes complete sense.
But let me ask you this, is what you’re afraid of actually dangerous?
I mean, unless you actually are in physical danger, what are you afraid of?
If you’re willing to look at your fear, face it down, and make it blink, then look at what you can do.
Let’s look at one more thing…how cool is Chris Hadfield. From his rugged looks, to his space resume – those are serious cool points right there. He’s also a dynamic public speaker, and he’s a gifted musician who covered Space Oddity while in orbit. The video of which went viral and got a shoutout from David Bowie himself!
Save some cool points for the rest of the human race, Chris! C’mon, man!
But would Chris Hadfield have been a household name if he didn’t learn to recognize the difference between danger and fear?