On the International Space Station nothing is comfortable and everything is a challenge. There’s no running water and even less privacy. Your world is covered in Velcro. And it’s loud. Fans whir and hum constantly, interrupted by the occasional micrometerorite slamming into the Station’s armor.
Weightlessness does a number on your sinuses causing congestion, so food always tastes bland like when you have a head cold. There’s an emphasis on oatmeal, pudding and cooked spinach because food that clumps is more practical in a place where your dinner might float away from your mouth.
And that doesn’t even cover the most dangerous part: getting there. You’re basically strapped to a 4.5 megaton bomb. And a very claustrophobic bomb at that. The Soyuz spacecraft has 265 cubic feet of space inside. By comparison, a Dodge Caravan is about 163 cubic feet. (And, family vacation or not, the Dodge Caravan isn’t loaded with as much cargo as the Soyuz.)
Take off feels like an 18-wheeler going full speed hitting the side of the ship. And to add insult to injury, you’re wearing a diaper. You’re also wearing cotton long underwear. Why cotton? Because when engulfed in flame it just chars and doesn’t burn or melt. (Yes, these are the lovely factors that inspire your clothing choices.)
And once you get to the Space Station it doesn’t get much easier. The thing is orbiting earth at 17,500 mph and frequently needs repairs. (You thought home ownership was a chore?) And nobody is coming quickly in case of an emergency. You need to handle anything that occurs with what’s already on the ship. You better be resourceful and an excellent problem solver. By comparison, the hardest thing you and I do is try to squeeze into pre-pandemic jeans.
Well, if you ever want to get promoted to Senior Vice-President of Extremely Important Things you gotta be able to deal with challenges — and astronauts are the perfect people to teach us about how to succeed under pressure. Previously we’ve learned from bomb defusers, Navy SEALs, hostage negotiators and Special Forces. Now let’s get some lessons from people whose surroundings are literally trying to kill them, 24-7.
Our guide will be Colonel Chris Hadfield. His wonderful book is “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything.”
Let’s get to it…
Many of us dreamt of being astronauts when we were kids. But the more you learn about what they actually face, the more it seems like they woke up one morning, looked up at the sky, and thought, “I want to work in a place where the commute could potentially explode.”
I hear your naive little voice saying, “Well, they should be optimistic, look on the bright side.” Oh, you sweet summer child. When you’re an astronaut your environment is constantly conspiring to kill you. Everything for tens of thousands of miles screams, “Your puny mortal body should not be here and we will end you.” Challenge comes in so many flavors, it’s like Baskin-Robbins up in here.
Chris doesn’t recommend positive thinking. That gets you killed. What’s he suggest? “We’re trained to look on the dark side and to imagine the worst things that could possibly happen. In fact, in simulators, one of the most common questions we learn to ask ourselves is, ‘Okay, what’s the next thing that will kill me?’”
Being ready means knowing what could go wrong and having a plan for it. Positive thinking makes you passive. “Oh, it’ll all work out.” Negative thinking keeps you on your toes and it’s productive: 1) Imagine problem, 2) Go solve it before it rises up and slays you.
Thinking about the worst might seem like a prescription for depression but Chris says, actually, it’s the reverse: “Rehearsing for catastrophe has made me positive that I have the problem-solving skills to deal with tough situations and come out the other side smiling.”
Chris isn’t truly pessimistic because he leverages negative thinking to plan for the worst. And following through on those plans makes him calm and confident. He’s calm because he’s always ready. Really ready. And that beats the heck out of wishful thinking.
That attitude serves him well in difficult circumstances. But what works even better is what he’s doing loooooooong before the hard problems ever arise…
“An astronaut who doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut.”
Astronauts are stereotyped as thrill seekers and cowboys but that’s totally inaccurate. They’re actually calm, conscientious, methodical and detail oriented. They have to be. There are no “accidental” astronauts. They prepare for months for every day they’re in space.
And they need all that prep: this really is “rocket science”. Dealing with problems for the first time once you’re in space is like trying to get sober in Vegas. NASA even has them fight real fires in an ISS simulator over and over again because, to state the obvious, fires on a space station are not good. (Imagine if things on fire floated around the room setting other things on fire.)
So Chris recommends preparing for the worst long before anything goes wrong. Don’t just imagine it. Don’t just have a plan. Simulate it. He considers it a permissible form of cheating. Imagine if you could stop in the middle of a chess match and go study classic games and test which gambits might be most effective. Can’t do that during a game but you can do it as much as you like beforehand.
Maybe Chris sounds like he’s some sort of Superman, but he’s not. In fact, this explorer of outer space is actually afraid of heights. Yes, really. But by getting the knowledge he needs and preparing over and over he’s managed to tame that fear. It’s not a thought process; it’s a get-off-your-butt process of understanding your environment and practicing until you can handle it. This is what transforms you from a soggy mess of a human being into a glittering beacon of resourcefulness.
But what do you do when you’re in the middle of an unexpected, life-threatening situation tens of thousands of miles from assistance?
Chris has been trained to react unemotionally, prioritize threats, and deal with them. Astronauts call it “working the problem.” Go through possible responses methodically looking for the best solution (and hoping you find it before you run out of oxygen).
First thing they do is go through the big three: “warn, gather, work.” Tell everyone onboard about the issue. Gather to discuss the problem. Get cracking.
Again, advance simulations play a big part here because it’s about acquiring knowledge about how things go wrong and learning what’s serious and what’s not. This is what allows you to prioritize, to understand which problems are related and what must be dealt with first.
And they’re not all as sexy as fighting fires. Sometimes it looks a lot more like what you deal with when your computer misbehaves. You’d hate to lose all your work in Microsoft Word but if the computer Chris uses on the Soyuz crashes, um, so does he.
Sims called “part task trainers” (PTTs) are just sitting in front of a laptop next to an instructor with a laptop. The instructor is throwing error messages to your screen saying it’s 100 degrees inside part of the ship. And Chris has to figure out: is the engine overheating or is the thermometer just busted? Where is the malfunction? And is this minor enough to ignore while he deals with the other error messages the instructor just threw at him because now pressure is dropping in the crew cabin and thrusters are inexplicably failing. Eventually they’re throwing every problem imaginable at him. Chris says it’s one of the most stressful and exhausting things astronauts deal with – and it’s just sitting in front of a laptop.
We often avoid problems but the closer we can get to trouble in a safe way in advance, the faster we learn. “Working the problem” only works if you constantly increase your comfort zone so that when things go sideways, you feel like you’ve been there before.
People assume that launch day must be stressful but Chris says it’s the exact opposite. The only thing he feels is relief. He’s been preparing for years: “Fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts.”
So far we’ve discussed a lot of technical annoyances astronauts deal with. But life is filled with all different kinds of annoyances. And by annoyances, I mean people…
You think you have it bad with co-workers? Imagine being locked in a tin can with them for six months. With no showers. Or Scotch. You have to count on them for your very survival and you can’t even go outside to let off steam. Chris has heard rumors about people refusing to speak to each other for days – and even fistfights. On a space station.
Chris says the key question to ask when you’re part of a team is, “How can I help us get where we need to go?” What is the most important thing for you to be doing right now that advances the team’s goals?
Often we’re trying to do too much or getting into the weeds with drama. And then we try and fix things by adding layer after layer of problems that further complicate the real issue of getting the job done.
Chris simplifies it. There are only three kinds of people on a team. You can be a “minus one”: someone who causes problems. You can be a “zero”: someone whose impact is neutral. Or you can be a “plus one”: someone who actively adds value.
The real problem is everyone thinks they’re a “plus one.” And when you walk around arrogantly thinking you’re a plus one, you drive everyone else crazy — even if you really are a plus one.
So start by being a zero. Do no harm and don’t make assumptions. Even if you have skills, if you don’t fully understand the current context, there is no way you’re going to be a plus one. Don’t cause problems for anyone else and don’t have an attitude. Once people know they can trust you and you fully know the current lay of the land, then try to add value. You have to demonstrate competence and be reliable before you can be extraordinary.
Okay, time to round it all up – and discover the lesson that matters most over the long haul…
This is how to succeed under pressure:
It feels good to do well in the simulations astronauts use for prep. But that’s not what they’re about. You don’t want to win; you want to learn. Doing well is nice but more often it’s about noticing gaps in your knowledge or skills and improving. In school, the people who never make mistakes are called “intelligent.” But after we grow up, it’s the people who make mistakes and learn that are truly “intelligent.”
Astronauts are perpetual students. They are always learning because there is just so much to learn about this relatively new environment called outer space. After a four-hour sim there will be a one hour debrief. After an actual trip to space the debriefing takes a month. Nothing but analyzing every part of the trip, all day, for a month.
The purpose? To add to NASA’s list of “Flight Rules.” It’s a compendium of everything they’ve learned from every space flight since the 1960’s. Instead of impulsively reacting, Ground Control has a database of what did and did not work in every situation thus far. It’s like the legal precedents for space flight.
A learning focus would serve you as well because success rarely happens overnight. And your own personal “Flight Rules” book would be helpful as well. Nobody likes making the same mistake twice.
Chris has learned an enormous amount and he’s admirably passed that knowledge on. He did a wonderful series of videos while on the International Space Station that answered common questions kids had about being an astronaut. How do you eat in space? Brush your teeth? Go to sleep? What happens when you wring out a wet towel in zero gravity?
Preparation, sweating the small stuff and teamwork have given him the confidence and competence to handle the most difficult situations imaginable. Time and time again, Chris has been able to find the right answer to almost any challenge.
There was the time Chris went into space again and his 30-year-old son spoke into the microphone at Mission Control:
“Hi Dad, great to see you launch. Now can I have a pony?”
As usual, always prepared, Chris knew the proper response:
“Ask your mother.”