Resources for Recovering Resilience: What Orbiting in Space Taught Me about Resilience

You may have already seen the YouTube video of astronaut Chris Hadfield making a peanut butter and jelly burrito in outer space – on his 5-month mission on the International Space Station last year, orbiting the earth at 17,500 mph, seeing a sunrise every 92 minutes.

Or heard his interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air when his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me about Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything came out in October 2013.

I didn’t compile a list of Favorite Books of 2013 for Resilience and Well-Being. (See Greater Good Science Center for excellent recommendations; Bouncing Back was awarded an honorable mention, which makes me very happy and proud.)

Hadfield’s book would be at the top of my top ten if I had. I heartily recommend it as both a superb exploration of resilience and well-being, on earth even more than in space, and a well-written, fascinatingly good read.

Hadfield analogizes launching into outer space: “Maybe it’s not unlike childbirth in that the end result has been in your head all along; you’ve read the books and seen the pictures, you’ve prepared the baby’s room and taken the Lamaze classes, you’ve got a plan and think you know what you’re doing – and then, suddenly, you’re confronted with a squalling infant, and it’s wildly different.”

For an astronaut, resilience means thousands of hours of study and training on earth to prepare for the 8 minutes of lift-off into orbit. “Learning to parse and solve complex problems rapidly, with incomplete information, in a hostile environment.”

Rehearsals in endless simulations identifying gaps in knowledge and encountering domino effects that simply never occurred to anyone before. It means sweating the small stuff, improvising good solutions to tough problems when every second counts. It means cultivating “expeditionary behavior” when the lives of others depend on the choices you make.

It means learning how to anticipate problems in order to prevent them, sticking with a task even when it seems hopeless, neutralizing fear, staying focused, and responding effectively in critical situations. Chapter titles like The Power of Negative Thinking and What’s the Next Thing that Could Kill Me? give you a hint of the relevance of training for resilience in our own lives that Hadfield developed over three missions in space, two spacewalks, and two decades of commanding flights from the ground.

A few excerpts from the book:

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. 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.

Rehearsing for catastrophe has made me know that I have the problem-solving skills to deal with tough situations and come out the other side smiling. For me, this has greatly reduced the mental and emotional clutter that unchecked worrying produces, those random thoughts that hijack your brain at three o’clock in the morning.

Individual mistakes are teachable moments. The response to an error is never, “No big deal, don’t beat yourself up about it.” It’s “Let’s pull on that” – the idea being that a mistake is like a loose thread you should tug on, hard, to see if the whole fabric unravels.

When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts. If you’re not sure of what to be alarmed about, everything is alarming. Being forced to confront the prospect of failure head-on – to study it, dissect it, tease apart all its components and consequences – really works. Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong – and having a plan to deal with it.   In order to say calm in a high-stress, high-stakes situation, all you really need is knowledge. Sure, you might still feel a little nervous or stressed or hyper-alert. But what you won’t feel is terrified.

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. 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. 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 spend visualizing defeat and figuring out how to prevent it. That’s the power of negative thinking.

What we do in space is serious, yes, but it’s also incredibly fun. It’s not just about the epic spacewalks; but it’s also about the M&M’s dancing merrily inside the package, colliding colorfully in weightlessness. Weightlessness is like a new toy you get to unwrap every day, again and again, and it’s a great reminder, too, that you need to savor the small stuff, not just sweat it.

Floating in the airlock before my first spacewalk, I knew I was on the verge of rare beauty. To drift outside, fully immersed in the spectacle of the universe while holding onto a spaceship orbiting Earth at 17, 500 miles per hour, I was poised on the edge of the sublime. But I faced a somewhat ridiculous dilemma: How best to get out there? The hatch was small and circular, but with all my tools strapped to my chest and a huge pack of oxygen tanks and electronics strapped onto my back, I was square. Square astronaut, round hole.

The cinematic moment I’d envisioned when I first became an astronaut, the one where the soundtrack swelled while I elegantly pushed off into the jet-black ink of infinite space, would not be happening. Instead, I’d have to wiggle out awkwardly and patiently, focused less on the magical than the mundane: trying to avoid snagging my spacesuit or getting snarled in my tether and presenting myself to the universe trussed up like a roped calf.

Who was the vice president three administrations ago? Which movie won Best Picture at the Oscars five years ago? Who won gold in speed skating at the last Olympics? I used to know. These were big events at the time, but soon afterward, they were largely remembered only by the participants themselves.

A space mission is the same. The blast of glory that attends launch and landing doesn’t last long. The spotlight moves on, and astronauts need to, too. If you can’t, you’ll wind up hobbled by self-important or by the fear that nothing else you do will ever measure up.

Some astronauts do end up mired in the quicksand of bygone celebrity, but they are the exceptions. More than 500 people have had the opportunity to see our planet from afar, and for most of them, the experience seems to have either reinforced or induced humility. The shimmering, dancing show of the northern and southern lights; the gorgeous blues of the shallow reefs fanning out around the Bahamas, the huge, angry froth stirred up around the focused eye of a hurricane – seeing the whole world shifts your perspective radically. It’s not only awe-inspiring but profoundly humbling. I take great pride in what our crew accomplished while we were on the ISS, but in the annals of space exploration, we’ll be lucky to merit a footnote.

This is not to say that space travel has made me feel irrelevant. In fact, it’s made me feel I have a personal obligation to be a good steward of our planet and to educate others about what’s happening to it. From space, you can see the deforestation in Madagascar, how all that red soil that was once held in place by natural vegetation is now just pouring in to the ocean; you can see how the shoreline of the Aral Sea has moved dozens of miles as water has been diverted for agriculture, so that what used to be lake bottom is now bleak desert.

I feel a sense of mission about this that I didn’t have before I went to space, and people who know me sometimes find it exasperating. Recently a friend got frustrated with me because while we were out for a walk, I kept stopping to pick up trash, which slowed our progress considerably. This turns out to be one of the little-known aftereffects of space flight: I now pick gum wrappers up off the street.

An Astronaut’s Guide is not only fascinating and illuminating; it’s so grounded in wisdom for life on earth that reading it is pure joy.

Here’s the link to how to brush your teeth in a spaceship.