August 24, 2017 by Speakers' Spotlight
What it Takes to be an Astronaut, According to Chris Hadfield
When Commander Chris Hadfield went in search of Britain’s next astronaut, he wanted to make clear that the job wasn’t all “Hollywood and glamour”.
Speaking from his home country of Canada, Hadfield explained: “You are always one meteorite from death. Always.
“The world gets hit by 50 tonnes of meteorite every day and every gram of that goes by the space station. It’s a cosmic shooting gallery, as Carl Sagan said, and you are one of the ducks.”
His warning comes ahead of BBC documentary ‘Astronauts: Do you have what it takes?’, which puts 12 candidates through their paces to see if they’re worthy of joining the 550 men and women who have made it to orbit.
Hadfield who has performed two space walks – as well as a famous cover version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity – during his stellar career, explains to iNews what it takes to make the trip to space.
There’s no turning back
This wasn’t Hadfield’s first experience of space travel recruitment; he has assisted in NASA’s and the Canadian Space Agency’s selection processes. He insists the 12 contestants involved in the BBC programme went through the same rigorous process.
“I want them to see the fun part of it, the glamour part of it, the science part of it, but also the irreversibility of the risk,” he says.
“That you’re signing up for the service of others and that it’s going to be decades of your life and almost all that work is unheralded and all with a high risk.”
Just the right size
Hadfield explains that, physically, there’s a Goldilocks size required for space travel: “not too short, not too tall so you can fit in a space suit. Not too fat, not too thin.”
If they’re the right fit, the candidates then take part in “the most restrictive physical in the world”.
‘I lost 8% of my skeleton’
Unsurprisingly, living in space has a profound impact on the body – and all candidates involved with the BBC show were well aware of this.
Despite performing unique exercises in space, Hadfield’s bone density reduced by eight per cent during his time on the International Space Station (ISS).
“This is because you don’t need as heavy a skeleton, because you’re not constantly trying to hold yourself against the force of gravity.”
Hadfield reveals that zero-gravity can have an effect on an ISS resident’s eyesight too.
“We’ve had some astronauts get a change of vision,” he says. “The changed pressure within the orbital cavity can cause some people’s eyeballs to change shape.”
The importance of self-belief
Along with being physiologically sound, astronauts must have the psychological strength to cope with six months in space.
“That’s something that has really evolved over time,” Hadfield notes, describing the mental attributes he and his team were looking for.
“Fifty years ago, space flights were short, when Al Sheppard flew it was for 15 minutes. “When Neil and Buzz went to the moon it was only eight days, it’s a very short time, you can put up with anyone for eight days.
“Now more than ever you don’t want a person who needs other people around them to make them feel happy in themselves, you need someone who’s got an ability to be comfortable without other people telling them that they’re great.
“Someone who can be confident in who they are, with the right sense of reserve, patience and interpersonal skills, and an ability to put the mission ahead of their own concerns.”
Hadfield details the training that astronauts undertake in order to test their psychological strength to the extreme.
“I’ve lived in a deep sea habitat, I’ve done desert survival and arctic survival and various forms of isolation training, intense high consequence training, flown various complex machines and run all kinds of different simulations.”
“All of that so when we arrive in orbit we are as technically trained, but also as psychologically ready as we can possibly make ourselves.”
“Because most of the time you only really get one try to do most of the critical stuff and the consequences are life or death – or extremely high financial consequences.”
“It’s so delightful to have done something that complex, to have prevailed and succeeded and to have helped push the doors open a little further.”
Accepting a 38 to 1 risk of death
Before becoming an astronaut, Hadfield, 57, was a fighter pilot during the Cold War and after that a test pilot – two occupations arguably even more dangerous than being an astronaut. Accepting the grave risks is simply a part of the astronaut’s job.
“During the nine-minute launch into orbit there’s a 38 to 1 chance of dying,” he explains. “The idea of facing up to that risk, of how it fits in, of how you psychologically deal with that, how you get ready for it, that’s just part of the deal of accepting this as your profession.
“Anything worth doing in life has risk of course, and you have to decide why am I doing this thing, what is the benefit, what is my motivation for taking this risk, what is the potential reward and how ready am I to face up to this risk, am I ready as I can possibly be?”
But the rewards are unimaginable.
“To me that is the very essence of accomplishment in life and one of the highest challenges I’ve ever tried to rise to was to be able to be trusted and capable to fly a rocket ship and command a space station.”
“It’s so delightful to have done something that complex, to have prevailed and succeeded and to have helped push the doors open a little further than they were in the past, to have done things that most people haven’t been able to do yet.”
Love everything you do
Making the move into space travel involves countless difficult decisions, chief among which is performing the less heralded work.
Hadfield explains that being positive and refusing to view difficult choices as sacrifices are his secrets to happiness.
“I always try and love everything I’m doing. I say I could hate this or I could love this – it’s kind of up to me, no-one’s telling me so why don’t I really try and enjoy what I’m doing.”
“If I’m going to drive from Edinburgh to London I could hate every metre of it and every time someone doesn’t use their turn signal or brakes badly or there’s a traffic jam, I could drive myself crazy.”
“Or I could say ‘wow I’m listening to a podcast and I’m starting to understand the very nature of black holes. Wow, there’s a traffic jam, I get another 15 minutes to listen to this thing and that’s totally my choice.’ “You could say ‘driving was a huge sacrifice’ or you could say ‘hey, this was a great opportunity to become a slightly different person.’”