You’re In A Spacesuit, Blind. This Astronaut Survived It And Explains What He Did Next

“There is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse.” So with that old astronaut principle in mind, what is the best reaction to take when your eyes become blinded while you’re working on the International Space Station, in no more protection than with a spacesuit?

The always eloquent Canadian (retired) astronaut Chris Hadfield — commander of Expedition 35 — faced this situation in 2001. He explains the best antidotes to fear: knowledge, practice and understanding. And in this TED talk uploaded this week, he illustrates how to conquer some dangers in space with the simple analogy of walking into a spiderweb.

Say you’re terrified of spiders, worried that one is going to poison you and kill you. The first best thing to do is look at the statistics, Hadfield said. In British Columbia (where the talk was held), there is only one poisonous spider among hundreds. In space, the odds are grimmer: a 1 in 9 chance of catastrophic failure in the first five shuttle flights, and something like 1 in 38 when Hadfield took his first shuttle flight in 1995 to visit the space shuttle Mir.

So how do you deal with the odds? For spiders, control the fear, walk through spiderwebs as long as you see there’s nothing poisonous lurking. For space? “We don’t practice things going right, but we practice things going wrong, all the time so you are always walking through those spiderwebs,” Hadfield said.

And then he tells the tale of his 2001 spacewalk during STS-100 when he was outside, blinded by a substance in his helmet, trying to work through the problem. (The incident has even more resonance today, just a few months after an Italian astronaut had a life-threatening water leak in his NASA spacesuit.)

Be sure to watch the talk to the end, as Hadfield has a treat for the audience. And as always, listening to Hadfield’s descriptions of space is a joy: “A self propelled art gallery of fantastic changing beauty that is the world itself,” is among the more memorable phrases of the talk.

TED, a non-profit that bills itself as one that spreads ideas, charged a hefty delegate fee for attendees at this meeting (reported at $7,500 each) but did free livestreaming at several venues in the Vancouver area. It also makes its talks available on the web for free.

Hadfield rocketed to worldwide fame last year after doing extensive social media and several concerts from orbit.

Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield at a TED talk near Vancouver, British Columbia in 2014. Credit: TED/Sapling Foundation (screenshot)
Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield at a TED talk near Vancouver, British Columbia in 2014. Credit: TED/Sapling Foundation (screenshot)

Teenaged Space Station Thriving After 15 Years Of Science, Extreme Construction And Tricky Repairs

Extreme conditions surround the International Space Station’s scientific work, to say the least. It takes a rocketship to get there. Construction required more than 1,000 hours of people using spacesuits. Astronauts must balance their scientific work with the need to repair stuff when it breaks (like an ammonia coolant leak this past spring.)

But amid these conditions, despite what could have been show-stoppers to construction such as the Columbia shuttle tragedy of 2003, and in the face of changing political priorities and funding from the many nations building the station, there the ISS orbits. Fully built, although more is being added every year. The first module (Zarya) launched into space 15 years ago tomorrow. Humans have been on board continuously since November 2000, an incredible 13 years.

The bulk of construction wrapped up in 2011, but the station is still growing and changing and producing science for the researchers sending experiments up there. Below are some of the milestones of construction in the past couple of decades. Did we miss something important? Let us know in the comments.

It's a baby space station! The Russian Zarya module (left) and U.S. Unity module after they were joined on Dec. 4, 1998. Photograph taken by the STS-88 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
It’s a baby space station! The Russian Zarya module (left) and U.S. Unity module after they were joined on Dec. 4, 1998. Photograph taken by the STS-88 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
The space station with newly installed U.S. solar arrays (top) in December 2000. Picture taken by the departing STS-97 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
The space station with newly installed U.S. solar arrays (top) in December 2000. Picture taken by the departing STS-97 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA
The Expedition 1 crew, which docked with the space station on Nov. 2, 2000. From left, NASA's Bill Shepherd, and Roscosmos' Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev. Humans have lived continuously in orbit since that day, more than 13 years ago. Credit: NASA
The Expedition 1 crew, which docked with the space station on Nov. 2, 2000. From left, NASA’s Bill Shepherd, and Roscosmos’ Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev. Humans have lived continuously in orbit since that day, more than 13 years ago. Credit: NASA
STS-114 NASA astronaut Steve Robinson in 2005 aboard Canadarm2, a robotic arm designed specifically for International Space Station construction. Canadarm2 was installed during STS-100 in 2001. It took more than 1,000 hours of spacewalking assembly to put the station together. Credit: NASA
STS-114 NASA astronaut Steve Robinson in 2005 aboard Canadarm2, a robotic arm designed specifically for International Space Station construction. Canadarm2 was installed during STS-100 in 2001. It took more than 1,000 hours of spacewalking assembly to put the station together. Credit: NASA
With NASA Expedition 2 astronaut Susan Helms controlling Canadarm2, the Quest airlock is brought over for installation on Unity Node 1 aboard the International Space Station. Today, Quest is the usual departure point for U.S. spacewalks. Credit: NASA
With NASA Expedition 2 astronaut Susan Helms controlling Canadarm2, the Quest airlock is brought over for installation on Unity Node 1 aboard the International Space Station. Today, Quest is the usual departure point for U.S. spacewalks. Credit: NASA
November 3, 2007 – Canadarm2 played a big role in helping astronauts fix a torn solar array.  The arm’s reach was extended by the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, and here, allowing astronaut Scott Parazynski analyses the solar panel while anchored to the boom. Credit: NASA
From time to time, astronauts are called upon to perform tricky repairs to the International Space Station. This October 2007 spacewalk by NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski during shuttle mission STS-120 repaired tears to one of the station’s solar panels — while the panel was powered. Spacewalks have also addressed ammonia leaks, among other things. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel works on installing the ESA Columbus laboratory in 2008. The ten racks on board Columbus can be worked on by astronauts or controlled remotely from a center in Germany. NASA is trying to position the station as an orbiting laboratory that can perform experiments that are impossible on Earth, but astronauts must balance science work with maintenance tasks aboard the station. Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel works on installing the ESA Columbus laboratory in 2008. The ten racks on board Columbus can be worked on by astronauts or controlled remotely from a center in Germany. NASA is trying to position the station as an orbiting laboratory that can perform experiments that are impossible on Earth, but astronauts must balance science work with maintenance tasks aboard the station. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson reflects on the view from the ISS's Cupola. Credit: Doug Wheelock/NASA
Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson (Expedition 23/24) reflects on the view from the ISS’s Cupola in 2010. This panoramic window to Earth was a late addition to the station, in February 2010. Credit: Doug Wheelock/NASA
Space station construction is still ongoing. In 2015, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be attached to the station as a sort of inflatable room. The test will examine the viability of inflatable structures in space. Pictured in front are NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Robert T. Bigelow, president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace in 2013. NASA/Bill Ingalls
Space station construction is still ongoing. In 2015, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be attached to the station as a sort of inflatable room. The test will examine the viability of inflatable structures in space. Pictured in front are NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Robert T. Bigelow, president and founder of Bigelow Aerospace in 2013. NASA/Bill Ingalls

What are the Most Memorable NASA Spacewalks?

The official name is “extra-vehicular activity,” (EVA) but most of us like to call it a spacewalk. However, when you think about it, you don’t really walk in space. You float.

Or more properly speaking, clutch on to handlebars as you make your way from spot to spot on your spacecraft as you race against the clock to finish your repair or whatever outdoor tasks you were assigned. But hey, the view more than makes up for the hard work.

Some astronauts actually got to fly during their time “outside.” During STS-41B 29 years ago this month, Bruce McCandless was the first one to strap on a jetpack and, in science fiction style, float a little distance away from the shuttle.

He called his test of the manned maneuvering unit “a heck of a big leap”. Nearly 30 years after the fact, it still looks like a gutsy move.

What other memorable floating NASA spacewalks have we seen during the space age? Here are some examples:

The first American one

Ed White did the first American spacewalk in 1965. Credit: NASA
Ed White did the first American spacewalk in 1965. Credit: NASA

The pictures for Ed White’s spacewalk on Gemini 4 still look amazing, nearly 48 years after the fact. The astronaut tumbled and spun during his 23-minute walk in space, and even tested out a small rocket gun until the gas ran out. When commander Jim McDivitt ordered him back inside, the astronaut said it was the saddest moment in his life.

The dancing-with-exhaustion one

Eugene Cernan during his spacewalk on Gemini 9. Credit: NASA
Eugene Cernan during his spacewalk on Gemini 9. Credit: NASA

On Gemini 9, which took place the year after Gemini 4, Eugene Cernan was tasked with a spacewalk that was supposed to test out a backpack to let him move independently of the spacecraft.

Cernan, however, faced a lack of handholds and physical supports as he clambered outside towards the backpack. Putting it on took almost all the strength out of him, as he had nowhere to hold on to counterbalance himself.

“Lord, I was tired. My heart was motoring at about 155 beats per minute, I was sweating like a pig, the pickle was a pest, and I had yet to begin any real work,” Cernan wrote in his memoir, Last Man on the Moon, about the experience.

The situation worsened as his visor fogged up and Cernan struggled unsuccessfully to use the backpack. Cernan was so exhausted that he could barely get inside the spacecraft. “I was as weary as I had ever been in my life,” he wrote.

The three-astronauts-outside one

Three astronauts grab the Intelsat VI satellite during the STS-49 mission. Credit: NASA
Three astronauts grab the Intelsat VI satellite during the STS-49 mission. Credit: NASA

Spacewalks traditionally (at least, in the shuttle and station era) happen in pairs, so that if one person runs into trouble there’s another to help him or her out. However, two astronauts working outside during STS-49 couldn’t get enough of a grip on the free-flying Intelsat VI satellite they were trying to fix. So NASA elected to do another spacewalk with a third man.

Pierre Thuot hung on the Canadarm while Richard Hieb and Thomas Akers attached their bodies to the payload bay. Having three men hanging on to the satellite provided enough purchase for the astronauts inside the shuttle to maneuver Endeavour to a spot where Intelsat VI could be attached to the payload bay.

The facing-electrical-shock one

scott parazynski space station
Scott Parazynski repaired a damaged solar panel on the space station. Credit: NASA

In 2007, the astronauts of STS-120 unfolded a solar array on the International Space Station and saw — to everyone’s horror — that some panels were torn. Veteran spacewalker Scott Parazynski was dispatched to the rescue. He rode on the end of the Canadarm2, dangling above a live set of electrified panels, and carefully threaded in a repair.

In an interview with Parazynski that I did several years ago, I asked how he used his medical training while doing the repair. Parazynski quipped something along the lines of, “Well, the top thing in my mind was ‘First do no harm.’ ”

The International Space Station construction ones

Sunita Williams appears to touch the sun during this spacewalk on Expedition 35 on the completed International Space Station. Credit: NASA
Sunita Williams appears to touch the sun during this spacewalk on Expedition 35, which took place on the completed International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Spacewalks used to be something extra-special, something that only happened every missions or, on long-duration ones, maybe once. Building the International Space Station was different. The astronauts brought the pieces up in the shuttle and installed them themselves.

The station made spacewalking routine, or as routine such a dangerous endeavour can be. For that reason, an honorary mention goes to every mission that built the ISS.

What are your favorite EVAs? Feel free to add yours to the comments.