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TED2014

Chris Hadfield: What I learned from going blind in space

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There's an astronaut saying: In space, “there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.” So how do you deal with the complexity, the sheer pressure, of dealing with dangerous and scary situations? Retired colonel Chris Hadfield paints a vivid portrait of how to be prepared for the worst in space (and life) -- and it starts with walking into a spider’s web. Watch for a special space-y performance.

- Astronaut
Tweeting (and covering Bowie) from the International Space Station last year, Colonel Chris Hadfield reminded the world how much we love space. Full bio

What's the scariest thing you've ever done?
00:12
Or another way to say it is,
00:17
what's the most dangerous
thing that you've ever done?
00:20
And why did you do it?
00:24
I know what the most dangerous thing is
00:28
that I've ever done
00:30
because NASA does the math.
00:31
You look back to the first five shuttle launches,
00:33
the odds of a catastrophic event
00:35
during the first five shuttle launches
00:38
was one in nine.
00:40
And even when I first flew in the shuttle
00:42
back in 1995, 74 shuttle flight,
00:44
the odds were still now that we look back
00:47
about one in 38 or so -- one in 35, one in 40.
00:49
Not great odds, so it's a really interesting day
00:55
when you wake up at the Kennedy Space Center
00:57
and you're going to go to space that day
01:00
because you realize by the end of the day
01:02
you're either going to be floating
effortlessly, gloriously in space,
01:04
or you'll be dead.
01:07
You go into, at the Kennedy Space Center,
01:10
the suit-up room,
01:14
the same room that our childhood heroes
01:16
got dressed in,
01:20
that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin got suited in
01:21
to go ride the Apollo rocket to the moon.
01:24
And I got my pressure suit built around me
01:26
and rode down outside in the van
01:30
heading out to the launchpad --
01:34
in the Astro van -- heading out to the launchpad,
01:35
and as you come around the corner
01:38
at the Kennedy Space Center,
01:40
it's normally predawn, and in the distance,
01:42
lit up by the huge xenon lights,
01:46
is your spaceship --
01:49
the vehicle that is going to take you off the planet.
01:52
The crew is sitting in the Astro van
01:56
sort of hushed, almost holding hands,
01:59
looking at that as it gets bigger and bigger.
02:01
We ride the elevator up
02:03
and we crawl in, on your hands and knees
02:06
into the spaceship, one at a time,
02:08
and you worm your way up
02:10
into your chair and plunk yourself down
02:11
on your back.
02:14
And the hatch is closed,
02:16
and suddenly,
02:20
what has been a lifetime of both dreams and denial
02:22
is becoming real,
02:27
something that I dreamed about,
02:28
in fact, that I chose to do when I was nine years old,
02:29
is now suddenly within not too many minutes
02:32
of actually happening.
02:35
In the astronaut business --
02:37
the shuttle is a very complicated vehicle;
02:40
it's the most complicated flying machine ever built.
02:42
And in the astronaut business,
we have a saying, which is,
02:46
there is no problem so bad
02:49
that you can't make it worse.
02:51
(Laughter)
02:53
And so you're very conscious in the cockpit;
02:55
you're thinking about all of the things
02:58
that you might have to do,
02:59
all the switches and all the
wickets you have to go through.
03:00
And as the time gets closer and closer,
03:03
this excitement is building.
03:05
And then about three and a
half minutes before launch,
03:06
the huge nozzles on the back,
03:09
like the size of big church bells,
03:10
swing back and forth
03:12
and the mass of them is such
03:13
that it sways the whole vehicle,
03:15
like the vehicle is alive underneath you,
03:16
like an elephant getting up
off its knees or something.
03:19
And then about 30 seconds before launch,
03:23
the vehicle is completely alive --
03:25
it is ready to go --
03:27
the APUs are running,
03:28
the computers are all self-contained,
03:29
it's ready to leave the planet.
03:31
And 15 seconds before launch, this happens:
03:33
(Video) Voice: 12, 11, 10,
03:36
nine, eight, seven, six --
03:40
(Space shuttle preparing for takeoff)
03:44
-- start, two, one,
03:47
booster ignition, and liftoff of
the space shuttle Discovery,
03:50
returning to the space station, paving the way ...
03:54
(Space shuttle taking off)
03:58
Chris Hadfield: It is incredibly powerful
04:11
to be on board one of these things.
04:13
You are in the grip of something
04:15
that is vastly more powerful than yourself.
04:17
It's shaking you so hard you can't focus
04:19
on the instruments in front of you.
04:22
It's like you're in the jaws of some enormous dog
04:23
and there's a foot in the small of your back
04:26
pushing you into space,
04:29
accelerating wildly straight up,
04:30
shouldering your way through the air,
04:32
and you're in a very complex place --
04:34
paying attention, watching the vehicle
04:36
go through each one of its wickets
04:38
with a steadily increasing smile on your face.
04:40
After two minutes, those solid rockets explode off
04:42
and then you just have the liquid engines,
04:46
the hydrogen and oxygen,
04:48
and it's as if you're in a dragster
04:49
with your foot to the floor
04:51
and accelerating like you've never accelerated.
04:53
You get lighter and lighter,
04:55
the force gets on us heavier and heavier.
04:56
It feels like
04:59
someone's pouring cement on you or something.
05:00
Until finally,
05:02
after about eight minutes and 40 seconds or so,
05:04
we are finally at exactly the right altitude,
05:06
exactly the right speed,
05:08
the right direction, the engine shut off,
05:10
and we're weightless.
05:14
And we're alive.
05:16
It's an amazing experience.
05:19
But why would we take that risk?
05:20
Why would you do something that dangerous?
05:23
In my case the answer is fairly straightforward.
05:27
I was inspired as a youngster
05:29
that this was what I wanted to do.
05:32
I watched the first people walk on the moon
05:34
and to me, it was just an obvious thing --
05:36
I want to somehow turn myself into that.
05:38
But the real question is,
05:41
how do you deal with the danger of it
05:42
and the fear that comes from it?
05:45
How do you deal with fear versus danger?
05:47
And having the goal in mind,
thinking about where it might lead,
05:51
directed me to a life of
05:54
looking at all of the small details to allow
05:56
this to become possible,
05:59
to be able to launch and go
help build a space station
06:01
where you are on board a million-pound creation
06:04
that's going around the world at five miles a second,
06:06
eight kilometers a second,
06:09
around the world 16 times a day,
06:10
with experiments on board that are teaching us
06:13
what the substance of the universe is made of
06:17
and running 200 experiments inside.
06:19
But maybe even more importantly,
06:22
allowing us to see the world in a way
06:23
that is impossible through any other means,
06:27
to be able to look down
06:30
and have -- if your jaw could drop, it would --
06:31
the jaw-dropping gorgeousness of the turning orb
06:35
like a self-propelled art gallery of fantastic,
06:39
constantly changing beauty that is the world itself.
06:43
And you see, because of the speed,
06:47
a sunrise or a sunset every 45 minutes
06:49
for half a year.
06:52
And the most magnificent part of all that
06:56
is to go outside on a spacewalk.
06:58
You are in a one-person spaceship
07:01
that is your spacesuit,
07:06
and you're going through space with the world.
07:08
It's an entirely different perspective,
07:12
you're not looking up at the universe,
07:13
you and the Earth are going
through the universe together.
07:15
And you're holding on with one hand,
07:18
looking at the world turn beside you.
07:20
It's roaring silently
07:22
with color and texture as it pours by
07:26
mesmerizingly next to you.
07:29
And if you can tear your eyes away from that
07:31
and you look under your arm
07:33
down at the rest of everything,
07:35
it's unfathomable blackness,
07:37
with a texture you feel like you
could stick your hand into.
07:42
and you are holding on with one hand,
07:45
one link to the other seven billion people.
07:48
And I was outside on my first spacewalk
07:50
when my left eye went blind,
07:52
and I didn't know why.
07:56
Suddenly my left eye slammed shut
07:58
in great pain
08:00
and I couldn't figure out why my eye wasn't working.
08:01
I was thinking, what do I do next?
08:05
I thought, well maybe that's why we have two eyes,
08:06
so I kept working.
08:08
But unfortunately, without gravity,
08:10
tears don't fall.
08:13
So you just get a bigger and
bigger ball of whatever that is
08:15
mixed with your tears on your eye
08:18
until eventually, the ball becomes so big
08:20
that the surface tension takes it
across the bridge of your nose
08:22
like a tiny little waterfall
08:25
and goes "goosh" into your other eye,
08:27
and now I was completely blind
08:29
outside the spaceship.
08:32
So what's the scariest thing you've ever done?
08:35
(Laughter)
08:38
Maybe it's spiders.
08:42
A lot of people are afraid of spiders.
08:43
I think you should be afraid of spiders --
08:45
spiders are creepy and they've got long, hairy legs,
08:46
and spiders like this one, the brown recluse --
08:49
it's horrible. If a brown recluse bites you,
08:52
you end with one of these
horrible, big necrotic things
08:55
on your leg
08:56
and there might be one right now
08:57
sitting on the chair behind you, in fact.
08:59
And how do you know?
09:02
And so a spider lands on you,
09:03
and you go through this great, spasmy attack
09:04
because spiders are scary.
09:06
But then you could say, well
is there a brown recluse
09:08
sitting on the chair beside me or not?
09:10
I don't know. Are there brown recluses here?
09:12
So if you actually do the research, you find out that
09:14
in the world there are about
50,000 different types of spiders,
09:17
and there are about two dozen that are venomous
09:20
out of 50,000.
09:22
And if you're in Canada, because of the cold winters
09:24
here in B.C., there's about 720,
730 different types of spiders
09:26
and there's one -- one --
09:30
that is venomous,
09:32
and its venom isn't even fatal,
09:33
it's just kind of like a nasty sting.
09:35
And that spider -- not only that,
09:37
but that spider has beautiful markings on it,
09:39
it's like "I'm dangerous. I got a big radiation
symbol on my back, it's the black widow."
09:42
So, if you're even slightly careful
09:46
you can avoid running into the one spider --
09:48
and it lives close the ground,
09:51
you're walking along, you are
never going to go through
09:53
a spider web where a black widow bites you.
09:55
Spider webs like this, it doesn't build those,
09:57
it builds them down in the corners.
09:59
And its a black widow because
10:01
the female spider eats the male;
10:02
it doesn't care about you.
10:04
So in fact,
10:06
the next time you walk into a spiderweb,
10:07
you don't need to panic and go
with your caveman reaction.
10:09
The danger is entirely different than the fear.
10:13
How do you get around it, though?
10:18
How do you change your behavior?
10:20
Well, next time you see a spiderweb,
10:21
have a good look, make sure
it's not a black widow spider,
10:23
and then walk into it.
10:25
And then you see another spiderweb
10:27
and walk into that one.
10:29
It's just a little bit of fluffy stuff. It's not a big deal.
10:30
And the spider that may come out is
no more threat to you than a lady bug
10:32
or a butterfly.
10:36
And then I guarantee you if you
walk through 100 spiderwebs
10:38
you will have changed
10:41
your fundamental human behavior,
10:43
your caveman reaction,
10:45
and you will now be able to walk
in the park in the morning
10:47
and not worry about that spiderweb --
10:50
or into your grandma's attic or whatever,
10:52
into your own basement.
10:54
And you can apply this to anything.
10:59
If you're outside on a spacewalk and you're blinded,
11:03
your natural reaction would be to panic, I think.
11:05
It would make you nervous and worried.
11:08
But we had considered all the venom,
11:10
and we had practiced with a whole
variety of different spiderwebs.
11:13
We knew everything there is to know
11:15
about the spacesuit
11:17
and we trained underwater thousands of times.
11:19
And we don't just practice things going right,
11:21
we practice things going wrong all the time,
11:23
so that you are constantly walking
through those spiderwebs.
11:26
And not just underwater, but
also in virtual reality labs
11:29
with the helmet and the gloves
11:32
so you feel like it's realistic.
11:33
So when you finally actually
get outside on a spacewalk,
11:35
it feels much different than it would
11:38
if you just went out first time.
11:40
And even if you're blinded,
11:42
your natural, panicky reaction doesn't happen.
11:44
Instead you kind of look around and go,
11:47
"Okay, I can't see,
11:49
but I can hear, I can talk,
11:50
Scott Parazynski is out here with me.
11:53
He could come over and help me."
11:55
We actually practiced incapacitated crew rescue,
11:56
so he could float me like a blimp
12:00
and stuff me into the airlock if he had to.
12:02
I could find my own way back.
12:04
It's not nearly as big a deal.
12:06
And actually, if you keep on crying for a while,
12:07
whatever that gunk was that's
in your eye starts to dilute
12:09
and you can start to see again,
12:12
and Houston, if you negotiate with them,
12:13
they will let you then keep working.
12:15
We finished everything on the spacewalk
12:18
and when we came back inside,
12:21
Jeff got some cotton batting and took
the crusty stuff around my eyes,
12:22
and it turned out it was just the anti-fog,
12:26
sort of a mixture of oil and soap, that got in my eye.
12:28
And now we use Johnson's No More Tears,
12:32
which we probably should've been using
12:35
right from the very beginning. (Laughter)
12:37
But the key to that is
12:40
by looking at the difference
12:45
between perceived danger and actual danger,
12:47
where is the real risk?
12:49
What is the real thing that you should be afraid of?
12:50
Not just a generic fear of bad things happening.
12:52
You can fundamentally change
your reaction to things
12:55
so that it allows you to go places
12:57
and see things and do things
13:00
that otherwise would be completely denied to you ...
13:02
where you could see the
hardpan south of the Sahara,
13:04
or you can see New York City
13:08
in a way that is almost dreamlike,
13:10
or the unconscious gingham
of Eastern Europe fields
13:12
or the Great Lakes
13:16
as a collection of small puddles.
13:18
You can see the fault lines of San Francisco
13:21
and the way the water pours out under the bridge,
13:24
just entirely different
13:26
than any other way that you could have
13:28
if you had not found a way to conquer your fear.
13:30
You see a beauty that otherwise
13:33
never would have happened.
13:35
It's time to come home at the end.
13:39
This is our spaceship,
13:41
the Soyuz, that little one.
13:42
Three of us climb in,
13:44
and then this spaceship detaches from the station
13:45
and falls into the atmosphere.
13:47
These two parts here
13:49
actually melt, we jettison them and they burn up
13:51
in the atmosphere.
13:53
The only part that survives is the little bullet
13:54
that we're riding in,
13:56
and it falls into the atmosphere,
13:57
and in essence
13:59
you are riding a meteorite home,
14:01
and riding meteorites is scary,
14:05
and it ought to be.
14:08
But instead of riding into the atmosphere
14:09
just screaming, like you would
14:11
if suddenly you found yourself riding a meteorite
14:13
back to Earth -- (Laughter) --
14:15
instead, 20 years previously
14:18
we had started studying Russian,
14:20
and then once you learn Russian, then we
14:23
learned orbital mechanics in Russian,
14:25
and then we learned vehicle control theory,
14:28
and then we got into the simulator
14:31
and practiced over and over and over again.
14:32
And in fact, you can fly this meteorite
14:35
and steer it and land in about a 15-kilometer circle
14:37
anywhere on the Earth.
14:39
So in fact, when our crew was coming back
14:41
into the atmosphere inside the Soyuz,
14:44
we weren't screaming, we were laughing;
14:46
it was fun.
14:48
And when the great big parachute opened,
14:50
we knew that if it didn't open
14:51
there's a second parachute,
14:53
and it runs on a nice little clockwork mechanism.
14:54
So we came back, we came thundering back
14:56
to Earth and this is what it looked like
14:58
to land in a Soyuz, in Kazakhstan.
15:00
(Video) Reporter: And you can see one of those
15:03
search and recovery helicopters, once again
15:05
that helicopter part of dozen such Russian
15:08
Mi-8 helicopters.
15:11
Touchdown -- 3:14 and 48 seconds,
15:15
a.m. Central Time.
15:19
CH: And you roll to a stop
15:21
as if someone threw your
spaceship at the ground
15:22
and it tumbles end over end,
15:24
but you're ready for it
15:25
you're in a custom-built seat,
15:26
you know how the shock absorber works.
15:27
And then eventually the Russians reach in,
15:29
drag you out,
15:31
plunk you into a chair,
15:32
and you can now look back at
15:34
what was an incredible experience.
15:37
You have taken the dreams of that
15:40
nine-year-old boy,
15:42
which were impossible
15:44
and dauntingly scary,
15:45
dauntingly terrifying,
15:48
and put them into practice,
15:50
and figured out a way to reprogram yourself,
15:53
to change your primal fear
15:56
so that it allowed you to come back
15:58
with a set of experiences and a level of inspiration
16:01
for other people
16:05
that never could have been possible otherwise.
16:06
Just to finish, they asked me to play that guitar.
16:11
I know this song,
16:17
and it's really a tribute to the genius
16:19
of David Bowie himself,
16:25
but it's also, I think,
16:27
a reflection of the fact that we are not machines
16:28
exploring the universe,
16:31
we are people,
16:32
and we're taking
16:33
that ability to adapt
16:36
and that ability to understand
16:38
and the ability to take
16:39
our own self-perception into a new place.
16:41
(Music)
16:46
♫ This is Major Tom to ground control ♫
16:52
♫ I've left forevermore ♫
16:56
♫ And I'm floating in a most peculiar way ♫
17:02
♫ And the stars look very different today ♫
17:08
♫ For here am I floating in the tin can ♫
17:15
♫ A last glimpse of the world ♫
17:23
♫ Planet Earth is blue and
there's so much left to do ♫
17:30
(Music)
17:38
Fear not.
17:56
(Applause)
17:58
That's very nice of you. Thank you very much.
18:11
Thank you.
18:14

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About the speaker:

Chris Hadfield - Astronaut
Tweeting (and covering Bowie) from the International Space Station last year, Colonel Chris Hadfield reminded the world how much we love space.

Why you should listen

“Good morning, Earth.” That is how Colonel Chris Hadfield, writing on Twitter, woke up the world every day while living aboard the International Space Station. In his five months on the ISS (including three as commander) Hadfield became a worldwide sensation, using social media to make outer space accessible and infusing a sense of wonder into the collective consciousness. Check out his cover version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," sung while floating in his tin can, far above the world ...
 
Now back on our home planet, he continues to share the excitement of science and space travel. He's the author of the 2014 book An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. As he says, "There are no wishy-washy astronauts. You don't get up there by being uncaring and blasé. And whatever gave you the sense of tenacity and purpose to get that far in life is absolutely reaffirmed and deepened by the experience itself." A photography geek, in 2014 he also published an album of his photos from the shuttle: You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.

Hadfield is also a font of Canadian firsts: He was Canada’s first shuttle mission specialist, and the first Canadian to board a Russian spacecraft (he helped build the Mir), do a spacewalk (he's done two), and of course, to command the International Space Station.

 

More profile about the speaker
Chris Hadfield | Speaker | TED.com