An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

I decided. I had to imagine what an astronaut might do if he were 9 years old, then do the exact same thing.

Would an astronaut eat his vegetables or have potato chips instead? Sleep in late or get up early to read a book?

I recognized even as a 9-year-old that I had a lot of choices and my decisions mattered. What I did each day would determine the kind of person I’d become.

one reason our marriage has flourished is that Helene enthusiastically endorses the concept of going all out in the pursuit of a goal.

Bagotville has much to recommend it, but it is very cold in the winter and it is not Europe in any season.

An advanced degree seemed like a must, so I worked evenings and weekends to complete a master’s degree in aviation systems at the University of Tennessee, which had a great distance learning program. I only had to show up to defend my thesis.

I had about 10 feverish days to write and submit my resumé. Helene and I set about making this thing the most impressive document ever to emerge from rural Maryland.

In the van, we can see the rocket in the distance, lit up and shining, an obelisk. In reality, of course, it’s a 4.5-megaton bomb loaded with explosive fuel, which is why everyone else is driving away from it.

without question, being on the ground for six years between my first and second flights made me a much better astronaut and one who had more to contribute both on Earth and off it.

it takes me longer to understand when the culture is not my own, so I have to consciously resist the urge to hurry things along and push my own expectations on others.

The upshot of all this is that we become competent, which is the most important quality to have if you’re an astronaut—or, frankly, anyone, anywhere, who is striving to succeed at anything at all.

On the Soyuz, there’s simply not room to fly someone whose main contribution is expertise in a single area. The Russian rocket ship only carries three people, and between them they need to cover off a huge matrix of skills. Some are obvious: piloting the rocket, spacewalking, operating the robotic elements of the ISS like Canadarm2, being able to repair things that break on Station, conducting and monitoring the numerous scientific experiments on board. But since the crew is going to be away from civilization for many months, they also need to be able to do things like perform basic surgery and dentistry, program a computer and rewire an electrical panel, take professional-quality photographs and conduct a press conference—and get along harmoniously with colleagues, 24/7, in a confined space.

To me, it’s simple: if you’ve got the time, use it to get ready.

I didn’t walk into JSC a good astronaut. No one does. The most you can hope for is that you’re good astronaut material.

It’s never either-or, never enjoyment versus advancement, so long as you conceive of advancement in terms of learning rather than climbing to the next rung of the professional ladder.

“Working the problem” is NASA-speak for descending one decision tree after another, methodically looking for a solution until you run out of oxygen.

That incident reminded everyone that there’s a good reason we train for disaster. Space exploration is inherently dangerous. If my focus ever wavers in the classroom or during an eight-hour simulation, I remind myself of one simple fact: space flight might kill me.

What had initially seemed like a subtle failure—a tiny leak in an oxygen tank—wound up killing us.

A sim is an opportunity to practice but frequently it’s also a wake-up call: we really don’t know exactly what we’re doing and we’d better figure it out before we’re facing this situation in space.

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.

When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy.

A lot of people talk about expecting the best but preparing for the worst, but I think that’s a seductively misleading concept. There’s never just one “worst.” Almost always there’s a whole spectrum of bad possibilities. The only thing that would really qualify as the worst would be not having a plan for how to cope.

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 spent visualizing defeat and figuring out how to prevent it.

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. That’s the power of negative thinking.

Academic failure was new to me—between hard work and natural ability I’d always been successful. It didn’t occur to me to try to defend myself, because the guy was right. I’d messed up.

I was forced to look inside myself to try to figure out why I hadn’t been ready. Was I tired? Hungover? Not assertive enough at the controls? Too focused on the wrong things? No. The problem was simple: I’d decided I was already a pretty good pilot, good enough that I didn’t need to fret over every last detail. And it’s true, you don’t need to obsess over details if you’re willing to roll the dice and accept whatever happens. But if you’re striving for excellence—whether it’s in playing the guitar or flying a jet—there’s no such thing as over-preparation. It’s your best chance of improving your odds.

In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack. But for an astronaut, depersonalizing criticism is a basic survival skill. If you bristled every time you heard something negative—or stubbornly tuned out the feedback—you’d be toast.

began asking my trainers and crewmates, “How did I fall short, technically, and what changes could I make next time?” Not surprisingly, the answer was rarely, “Don’t change a thing, Chris—everything you do is perfect!”

One of the main purposes of a debrief is to learn every lesson possible, then fold them back into what we call Flight Rules so that everyone in the organization benefits.

One reason we’re able to keep pushing the boundaries of human capability yet keep people safe is that Flight Rules protect against the temptation to take risks, which is strongest when momentum has been building to meet a launch date.

Having hard and fast rules, and being unwilling to bend them, was a godsend on launch day, when there was always a temptation to say, “Sure, it’s a touch colder than we’d like, but… let’s just try anyway.”

That’s one good thing about habitually sweating the small stuff: you learn to be very, very patient.

Even the most gifted person in the world will, at some point during astronaut training, cross a threshold where it’s no longer possible to wing it.

The lesson: good leadership means leading the way, not hectoring other people to do things your way.

You can choose to wallow in misery, or you can focus on what’s best for the group (hint: it’s never misery). In my experience, searching for ways to lighten the mood is never a waste of time,

It was a happy day for me when that astronaut left the office, but in retrospect, I learned a lot from him. For example, that if you need to make a strong criticism, it’s a bad idea to lash out wildly; be surgical, pinpoint the problem rather than attack the person. Never ridicule a colleague, even with an offhand remark, no matter how tempting it is or how hilarious the laugh line. The more senior you are, the greater the impact your flippant comment will have. Don’t snap at the people who work with you. When you see red, count to 10.

It’s not enough to shelve your own competitive streak. You have to try, consciously, to help others succeed. Some people feel this is like shooting themselves in the foot—why aid someone else in creating a competitive advantage? I don’t look at it that way. Helping someone else look good doesn’t make me look worse. In fact, it often improves my own performance, particularly in stressful situations.

If you’re focused on the wrong things, like the bee in your helmet or whose fault it is that the g-suit came unplugged, you are likely to miss the very narrow window of opportunity to correct a bad situation.

“Boldface” is a pilot term, a magic word to describe the procedures that could, in a crisis, save your life. We say that “boldface is written in blood” because often it’s created in response to an accident investigation. It highlights the series of steps that should have been taken to avoid a fatal crash, but weren’t.

However, if I had a recurrence in space, our mission would be cut short and we’d have to fly home early. Another crew would have to launch earlier than planned to replace us. The cost would be astronomical.

How do you get 30 drunk Canadians out of a pool? You say, “Please get out of the pool.”

Even if you’re highly competent, when you’re careening full-speed toward a deadline or a destination, you usually arrive breathless, still mentally scanning your to-do list and not fully focused on the task ahead. You may achieve impressive results anyway, but you’re likely to deliver less than you would if you didn’t feel harried.

Early on, and aided considerably by the fact that suffering in silence is not considered a virtue by any member of my immediate family,

suffering in silence is not considered a virtue by any member of my immediate family,

In the end the suit techs on board had to help us undo all the tricky fasteners they’d painstakingly closed not an hour before, so we were able to urinate manfully on the tire without spoiling our plumage.

Female astronauts who bring little bottles of their pee to splash on the tire may feel just as self-conscious, but I doubt it.

Really, we had practiced doing everything

It’s obvious that you have to plan for a major life event like a launch. You can’t just wing it. What’s less obvious, perhaps, is that it makes sense to come up with an equally detailed plan for how to adapt afterward

The next thing to come off: the diaper. Pride compels me to report that I’ve never used mine, but those who have are particularly happy to remove it.

The approach to hygiene on the Soyuz is about what you’d expect on a camping trip. Decorum is a relative concept on a vehicle that size; there’s no bathroom, for instance, so if you need to go, your crewmates simply look away politely while you pick up a thing that looks a bit like a DustBuster with a little yellow funnel attached. It’s simple to use: turn the knob to “on,” check that the airflow is actually working, then hold it up close so you don’t get pee everywhere.

“There’s nothing more important than what you’re doing right now” is a standard astronaut adage that’s never more true than when an engine is firing.

Over the years, I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.

Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform. This might seem self-evident, but it can’t be, because so many people do it.

Only, we couldn’t get the hatch open. On the other side, they were kicking it with all their might. But the Russian engineers had taped, strapped and sealed our docking module’s hatch just a little too enthusiastically, with multiple layers. So we did the true space-age thing: we broke into Mir using a Swiss Army knife. Never leave the planet without one.

When you’re the least experienced person in the room, it’s not the time to show off. You don’t yet know what you don’t know—and regardless of your abilities, your experience and your level of authority, there will definitely be something you don’t know.

Without gravity, heat doesn’t rise,

In zero gravity, there’s no need for a mattress or pillow; you already feel like you’re resting on a cloud, perfectly supported, so there’s no tossing and turning to find a more comfortable position.

When I closed my eyes, for instance, I occasionally saw very faint bursts of light: cosmic rays—high-energy particles from some distant sun racing across the universe and striking my optic nerve like a personal lightning bolt.

Unless, that is, you’re taking part in an experiment of some sort and peeing for science, as astronauts are about 25 percent of the time.

(for some reason, there is no sim at JSC where you learn to corral a bunch of small, weightless objects while also holding a hose and attempting to relieve yourself).

Tim Hortons coffee, the preferred caffeinated beverage on board (Roman took to calling everything else “deputy coffee”—second-best).

Yuri, who is unusually unflappable, even by cosmonaut standards, felt liquid dripping onto his legs and figured, “Oh, it’s molten metal; the Soyuz must be melting.” His response was to say nothing, move his legs a bit and continue fighting to control the vehicle

Typically, the last minute is also when you finally get around to doing all the little things you’ve been meaning to do for months: shooting a video tour of the ISS to show friends and family back home, taking photos of crewmates in bizarre, only-in-space poses and, just because you can, peeing upside down.

he was the only person who was nervous about it—a good indicator of ownership.

Our little gamma-ray altimeter waits for an echo from the ground, and then, two seconds before impact, sends a command to fire our optimistically named Soft Landing Rockets—

My helmet comes off and someone hands me a satellite phone. Helene. A few reporters press forward for the photo op: E.T. calls home. I hear my wife’s voice, sure and clear, relieved and happy. I tell her I love her, then ask the question: Did the Leafs win the game?

But if seeing 16 sunrises a day and all of Earth’s variety steadily on display for five months had taught me anything, it was that there are always more challenges and opportunities out there than time to experience them.

quickly learned that as the ex-whatever, you only get so many golden opportunities to keep your mouth shut, and you should take advantage of every single one.

I was surprised how long it took for these side effects to go away. Months later, my feet and back were still complaining—frequently and loudly—about what a drag gravity is.

Endings don’t have to be emotionally wrenching if you believe you did a good job and you’re prepared to let go.