Almost 11 years ago, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield lost seven close friends when the Shuttle Columbia disintegrated. In his new book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, he explores ‘the power of negative thinking’, describing how he and his colleagues at Nasa tried to make sure it could never happen again…
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 1 February 2003. I’d flown back to Houston from Russia the night before, and forgot to turn my phone back on until Helene (Hadfield’s wife) 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. We didn’t have to listen to them to know something terrible had happened. 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 out 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 a programme 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 ever 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 honour 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 recognise, 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 organisation got behind the effort, despite the fact that morale was low and public support for the space programme 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 on 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, practising until responses become automatic – astronauts don’t do all this only to fulfil 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 depressurisation.
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 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 non-existent.
● Extracted from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield. Published by Macmillan and available from all good bookstores at a recommended retail price of R255.