Failures of Astronauts and What They Learned From Them


Astronaut Abby_Failures of Astronauts Header Image

Do you ever catch yourself trying to be perfect? We often strive to be perfect in all that we do, be it a school assignment or a project at work. This mindset, though, is not as beneficial as it may seem. The reality is that no one is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes. By striving for perfection, you are setting yourself up for an unattainable goal and will only be met with disappointment.

The idea that failure is inevitable can be uncomfortable. However, as I wrote in Chapter 6, “Failure to Launch,” of my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, “The stories of success that inspire us the most are those that include perseverance in the face of failure, and often, perseverance in the face of repeated failures.” Hearing how successful people overcome their failures can help us deal with our own. Astronauts are a perfect example of this. While they are experts in their fields, they too have made mistakes, and the lessons they learned from them were incredibly valuable. Keep reading to learn more about astronauts’ past failures and why they are better for it!

Astronaut Abby_Astronaut on Spacewalk Image_Failures of AstronautsImage credit: NASA JSC

Failures of Current and Former Astronauts

Astronauts are no strangers to failure. They often fail dozens of times along their journey before they make it to space…and even then they still make mistakes! While some failures are unique to their field, others are things we all experience, and they can teach us important lessons about failure.


Whenever you apply for something – be it a job or a school – there’s always the possibility of getting rejected. This is no secret to astronauts. Before they applied to become an astronaut, they first went through years of schooling. Bachelor’s, Master’s, and for a sizable amount, PhD – every degree they earned came with more applications to colleges and universities, and more applications meant more rejections.

Many astronauts don’t receive an offer letter to their space agency first try, either! Mike Massimino was rejected from NASA three times, while José Moreno Hernández was rejected eleven. Clayton Anderson applied 14 times to become an astronaut before finally getting the chance to pursue his dreams! Despite their numerous rejections, none of these astronauts gave up. They were relentless in pursuing their dreams, and despite their setbacks, they knew they were capable of becoming great astronauts. Eventually, NASA saw that and gave them the opportunity they had been waiting for. Persistence pays off!

Technical Failures

Mistakes don’t just happen on Earth – they happen during missions, too! From broken equipment during training to accidental 911 calls, mistakes are inevitable anytime and anywhere (and that includes space!). Sometimes, equipment even gets lost, like when Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper’s tool bag wasn’t secured properly and drifted away while she was conducting a spacewalk. However, thanks to the countless hours of preparation astronauts put in, they don’t dwell on their failures; instead, with the help of their team back on Earth, they recover quickly and get back on track for the mission at hand. Even better, these mistakes motivate space agencies back home to create improved designs and technologies!

Getting Used to Zero Gravity

While astronauts spend months on the International Space Station living in zero gravity, they don’t start out being more used to it than you or me! One example is when NASA Astronaut Mark Vande Hei forgot to secure himself before typing on his computer and accidentally launched himself towards the ceiling! Another time, NASA Astronaut Ken Mattingly lost his wedding ring, and it was only thanks to zero gravity that it didn’t disappear forever. Perhaps the best mistake of all was when British Astronaut Tim Peake once spilled 150 M&Ms, and they all began floating in different directions (that sounds more like a delicious snack than a mistake to me!).

When reflecting on his career as an astronaut, Steven Swanson said this about getting used to zero gravity: “The first thing I really noticed is, I am a klutz in space. I cannot move well at all.” However, Swanson embraced his klutziness. He didn’t let it embarrass him or make him feel like he was unfit to be an astronaut. He rose to the challenge and knew over time he would improve at moving in zero gravity.

Astronaut Abby_Astronaut with Science Experiment Image_Failures of AstronautsImage credit: NASA JSC

What Astronauts’ Learned From Their Failures

When we make mistakes, we often fixate on everything we did wrong. That negativity weighs us down; it doesn’t help us grow. Instead, we should be focusing on what we can learn from our mistakes. This mindset is more future-focused and will help us be better the next time. Throughout their training, astronauts master this mindset, and as a result, they have been able to turn their past failures into future successes.

Patience and Persistence

Despite their failures and setbacks, these astronauts never gave up on their goals. They were patient, waiting for their opportunity to turn their dreams into reality, and were persistent in overcoming any obstacle throughout their journey. At the end of the day, it was this determination that led them to success. What would have happened if Mike Massimino didn’t apply to NASA for the fourth time, or if Peggy Whitson had given up on her experiment because of her miscalculation? We wouldn’t have many of the scientific accomplishments we have today!

Take it from Mike Massimino himself. As he said, “The most important thing is to never give up. As long as you keep trying, there is always a chance.”

Teamwork and Accountability

Astronauts’ failures also reflect the importance of teamwork and accountability. When something goes wrong, they own up to it quickly, knowing that avoiding it will only delay the problem further. As a part of a team, personal accountability is especially important. Astronaut crews need to work together as they are living on the International Space Station. If a mistake happens, they need to be transparent with their crewmates so they can tackle the problem together. No team relies on just one person to fix a mistake and this is especially true in a high-stakes environment like space; one person’s mistake is everyone’s responsibility to solve.

Mistakes are Inevitable

While astronauts have an out-of-this-world job, that doesn’t mean they don’t experience things like you and I do. They make mistakes and face setbacks and obstacles, but what’s most important is how they manage to overcome them. When we apply their lessons of persistence, teamwork, patience, and accountability to our own lives and our own dreams, we will face fewer setbacks and instead come out the other side as better people.

Perhaps the most important message you should take away from astronauts’ failures is that mistakes are inevitable! Everyone makes mistakes, so don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, mistakes are how we learn and grow. For instance, after technical failures on the Apollo 13 mission, scientists redesigned oxygen tanks, monitoring systems, and thermostats. They also added emergency oxygen, water bottles, and batteries to the spacecraft. Following the Columbia explosion in 2003, scientists created a new polymer sealant that could withstand 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Mistakes lead to innovations and better solutions for the future, especially in space exploration!

Failures Happen

As you can see, everyone makes mistakes and everyone fails from time to time…even astronauts! However, the obstacles you face don’t have to stop you from chasing after your dream. Instead, they’ll propel you to your dreams! Take it from the astronauts who were rejected dozens of times before achieving their goals: determination is key.

If you want to learn even more about developing a healthy mindset and overcoming obstacles, check out my guide to all-things dreaming, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars. In it, I break down how to plan for your dream, set attainable goals, and more!


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