Imagine this: you are in the capsule of a rocket, strapped in and ready to blast off. Suddenly, the ground rumbles beneath you, and the speakers in your headset crackle to life. T-10, 9, 8… Ahead of you, you stare into the sky. You’ve been chasing after it for so long, and now the moment is finally here. T-6, 5, 4 … In mere seconds, you’ll be hurdling 17,500 miles per hour towards outer space. T-3, 2 … Think about how you are feeling at this moment: are you afraid?
Everyone deals with fear – even astronauts. It is a part of human nature that we can’t get rid of. We can, however, be courageous and work to overcome our fears so that they don’t stand in the way of our dreams. As I wrote in Chapter 5, “Facing Your Fears,” of my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, “Remember, courage isn’t the absence of fear, but rather the ability to act in spite of it.” This ability to act in spite of fear is something that astronauts have spent years mastering. During spaceflight, there are countless things that could go wrong, but astronauts always manage to stay calm and perform at their best. Keep reading for more about the fears of current and former astronauts and learn how their tactics for being courageous can help us reach our own dreams!
Image credit: NASA JSC
What Astronauts Fear About Space Travel
While going to space is an exciting, unforgettable adventure, it is also dangerous. Astronauts today face a roughly 1 in 20 chance of death each time they launch. That percentage alone would be enough to keep any person from traveling to space, but it’s not the only thing astronauts have to worry about.
Technical Failures of Space Travel
While in space, astronauts live on the International Space Station surrounded by technology, but unlike here on Earth, they don’t have a place to buy new parts when old ones break! Due to this, before they begin their mission, astronauts need to consider possibilities like fire, the toxicity of the atmosphere, micrometeoroid impacts, and depressurization. One technical mistake, and any one of these things could occur, leaving astronauts constantly on their toes.
While extensive steps are taken to limit technical errors, failures do still happen. In 1970, an explosion occurred on the Apollo 13 spacecraft, causing the three crew members to evacuate to a landing module only meant to hold two of them. A little over 15 years later, in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch. Even today, in the modern century, failures can still occur. While out on a spacewalk in 2001, CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield’s helmet visor broke, and for a few moments, he was unable to see. Years later, Hadfield encountered another terrifying situation when the ISS began leaking ammonia, a toxic chemical that is harmful to breathe. These situations are only a few examples for technical failures, and they are lingering reminders for astronauts of the dangers of space travel.
Astronauts Have “Normal” Fears, Too
Here on Earth, we don’t often worry about the pressurization of our homes or the likeliness of being hit by a micrometeoroid. However, astronauts share some of our “normal” fears, too! Take NASA astronaut Drew Feustel, who has a fear of heights, for example, or ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano, who nearly drowned in his spacesuit. Their fears show us that astronauts are just like us!
For years, Luca Parmitano has been a mentor of mine (check out our picture together below!), and his advice about overcoming fear has been incredibly helpful. As he said in one of his blog posts: “My humble opinion is that only fools say they are never afraid – and they are lying when they say it. Fear is a series of sensations, a primordial mechanism that has developed over millennia of evolution to preserve our lives. It would be a waste not to use such a tool. But like any tool, it can be used well or badly: a scalpel, in the expert hands of a surgeon, can save a life while the same scalpel can be lethal when used without skill and knowledge.” I couldn’t agree more!
Overwhelmingly, the unknown is what astronauts fear most. In space, anything can go wrong at any time. It is impossible to plan for every situation, and no matter how many steps you take to prevent them, failures are bound to occur. Additionally, astronauts are miles away from home with limited supplies and contact. When their fears become reality, they must rely on themselves and on one another to overcome them.
Image credit: NASA JSC
How Astronauts Overcome Their Fears
As we’ve seen, there are many reasons for astronauts to be afraid of spaceflight. However, despite all of them, astronauts continue to go to space, dedicated to advancing science and relentlessly pursuing their dreams. This begs the question: how do they manage their fears, and what can we learn from their strategies?
Years of Training
When reflecting on their experiences, astronauts say that their years of training played a significant role in managing their fears. NASA astronauts typically go through 2 years of general training, preparing for all types of situations that may arise. They master working with the ISS, gaining confidence in their skills, and supporting other crews from the ground. Even before they become astronauts, they are required to have at least three years of experience in their profession, a STEM degree, and the ability to pass a physical exam. These preparations ensure that astronauts are more than ready to deal with any situation while in space.
Take it from Chris Hadfield himself! As he said, “The greatest antidote for fear is competence. If you’re spending 10 years preparing for one launch, then hopefully by the time it arrives you’ve changed your skill set such that a launch is no longer foreign and unknown. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s exhilarating.”
Hadfield uses a bicycle analogy to explain the importance of training to overcome fears. When you don’t know how to ride a bicycle, it seems terrifying (balancing on two wheels… no thanks!). However, after you learn to ride it, that fear diminishes, and it becomes second nature. This can be applied to us and our dreams! The more we work at something, the less scary it will be in the future!
The Power of Teamwork
The second way astronauts overcome their fears is through the power of teamwork. No one astronaut is completing the mission alone; the crew must work together to complete their tasks. As they do so, astronauts grow close with their crew, learning to trust and support one another. They also have an incredible team of support back home, from scientists and engineers to their family and friends.
Through teamwork, astronauts learn that they don’t have to deal with their fears alone. On Earth and in space, they have others supporting them, and that gives them the confidence they need to not only overcome their fears, but pursue their dreams and advance space exploration.
Don’t Let Your Fears Hold You Back
Through their work, astronauts have shown that your fears don’t have to hold you back from reaching your goals. It is possible to work with your fears and overcome them, and by doing so, you’ll not only get one step closer to dreams, but you’ll also grow as a person.
Want to learn more about overcoming your fears? Be sure to check out my book, Dream Big!: How to Reach for Your Stars, today! Dream Big! is a guide to all things dreaming – from planning and goal setting to overcoming obstacles and getting back on track when you face setbacks. With anecdotes, interactive activities, and more, I hope it normalizes having fears and helps you to overcome them on your journey towards your dream!