Dylan Taylor is the founder and CEO of Voyager Space and a commercial astronaut who flew on Blue Origin’s NS-19 New Shepard suborbital space mission.
When Astronaut Chris Hadfield gazed at Earth from Space Shuttle Endeavour, tears formed in his left eye as he experienced the Overview Effect. He didn’t expect these tears would make him go blind.
Within minutes the tears used the bridge of his nose like a waterfall, spilling into his right eye, until he couldn’t see. Fear should have paralyzed Hadfield since he was now blind in space. Instead, Hadfield assessed his surroundings, evaluated the risk, trusted his training, and continued his spacewalk. Back in the shuttle, he realized that an anti-fog solution had irritated his eyes, which were fine after a good cleaning. Hadfield returned to Earth with first-hand experience of space psychology in action.
“What is the real thing that you should be afraid of?” Hadfield said during a Ted Talk about his experience. “Not just a generic fear of bad things happening. You can fundamentally change your reaction to things so that it allows you to go places and see things and do things that otherwise would be completely denied to you.”
Astronauts ride a pillar fire off the planet, so naturally, they encounter some fear along the way. But astronauts confront a host of other stressors in space, too: isolation, sensory deprivation, sleep disruption, pressure, boredom, and close-quarters tension. Given this collection of ever-present stressors, NASA has trained astronauts to live, work, and even thrive in extreme environments.
The space environment will grow more intense as more humans venture to more locations – and situations. Space psychology, a vital long-term field of study at NASA, is gaining special importance as humans prepare for long-distance space travel. Missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond require astronauts to push their physical and mental abilities in unprecedented ways. Astronauts already train for deep-space missions in the Antarctic and underwater. They isolate for months in hostile environments with no reasonable expectation for extraction — just as they will in space.
Space psychology certainly matters on the 140-million-mile journey to Mars. But it also can help humans here on Earth as we meet challenges in our lives. As Hadfield said, we can learn from astronauts who practice what goes wrong and right. So let’s start with him.
Life Lessons From an Astronaut
Hadfield, a retired Canadian fighter pilot and astronaut, has turned his 166 days in space into a blueprint for life on Earth. His book ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ translates his rare experiences into practical advice everyone can use. Here are a few suggestions.
Have an attitude
In the NASA vernacular, attitude refers to a craft’s positioning in three-dimensional space. To reach a destination, spacecraft must be pointed in the right direction. They must have the correct “attitude.” Hadfield suggests that we view life the way NASA plans missions: with an attitude. Unforeseen factors may alter your path, but with the proper mindset, they won’t change your course.
Aim to be a ‘zero’
Hadfield ranks team members in three categories:
- Plus-ones: The high-performers
- Zeroes: Capable workers who don’t cause problems
- Minus-ones: Liabilities
Hadfield encourages people to be “zeroes,” whether they work on the International Space Station or a marketing team because zeroes listen, learn, and contribute without conflict. They help build consensus in a roomful of alphas and can be plus-one performers without telling anyone.
What’s the next thing that could kill me?
Astronauts ask this constantly. Though most of us don’t face such omnipresent risks, we still deal with problems that can be exhausting and debilitating. Asking, “What’s the next thing that could kill me?” helps to bring this collection of risks into focus. It allows people to separate true obstacles from mere bumps and then develop solutions. Asking that question could help people relax because it leads them to prepare. Hadfield also calls this the “power of negative thinking.”
Sweat the small stuff
“An astronaut who doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut,” Hadfield said. We can overcome our fears by learning as much as possible about them. So prepare for situations you know will cause anxiety: speaking engagements, doctor’s appointments, the check engine light. Or, as Hadfield advises, by “visualizing failure.”
Strive to CONNECT
During the pandemic, psychologists asked astronauts for tips on living in extended isolation. So NASA behavioral scientists developed the acronym CONNECT to represent the valuable ways in which astronauts deal with stress and confinement. This tool has utility beyond the pandemic.
- Community: Isolation deprives us of meaningful connections. We should build community wherever possible, including at work, through charitable interests, and with neighbors.
- Openness: Astronauts must be open to myriad solutions that could save their lives. Being open to change benefits everyone.
- Networking: Astronauts look forward to restorative video chats with family. Call your mom!
- Needs: Proper nutrition, exercise, and sleep are imperative, particularly for astronauts. Prioritize them. Physical health impacts our mental health.
- Expeditionary Mindset: Expeditionary skills include stress management, conflict resolution, communication, and even cleaning your room. Adventurers have good habits.
- Countermeasures: NASA recommends that astronauts journal or meditate as coping mechanisms. Being mindful of our strengths and weaknesses helps counter stress.
- Training and preparation: Astronauts constantly refine their skills and build new ones. Training reduces the possibility of failure and encourages success.
Thinking Like An Astronaut
We all deal with risks every day. We’re aware of the risks and well-practiced at dealing with them if they present themselves. Astronauts have an extra batch of risks to deal with — but oftentimes, they are on a par with soldiers, firefighters, law enforcement and construction workers. Astronauts have to adapt to some new risks and tend to spend a little more time on the structure of their training. But so do people in a myriad of professions. How an Astronaut trains to prepare and deal with risks – has a lot of relevance to those of us on Earth – even if we’re just going on with our daily tasks. The next time you stop to think about a risk, look back and ask, “What would an astronaut do?”