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)

Spacewalking: Through an Astronaut’s Eyes

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What is it really like to go on a spacewalk? Some astronauts have said there are no words to describe the experience, but we talked with astronaut Chris Hadfield – the same guy who gave the best description ever of going to the bathroom in space – and asked him to convey his thoughts about his EVA experiences. Hadfield has done it again, and has now given the best description ever of a spacewalk.

UT: Chris, you were part of the STS-100 space shuttle crew that flew to the ISS 2001, and you had the opportunity to do a couple of spacewalks to help in the construction of the station. I once heard you describe one of your spacewalks where you said you were holding on to the side of the space station with one hand with your face into the wind as it were, and you were looking out at the rest of the entire Universe. For all of us that wish we could experience it, what is it really like to do a spacewalk?

Chris Hadfield during an EVA in 2001. Also in the image is the Canadarm2 robotic arm on the ISS. Credit: NASA

Chris Hadfield: Gosh, I’m not sure how to describe it. I was there for the birth of all three of my children. I did the first F-18 intercept of a Bear bomber off the coast of Canada. I represented Canada in a bunch of different levels, including as a fighter pilot. I was a test pilot doing all sorts of very fascinating, challenging, brand new work. I went to Mir, I went to the ISS. But nothing compares to going outside for a spacewalk. Nothing compares to being alone in the Universe; to that moment of opening the hatch and pulling yourself outside into the Universe.

Sometimes you’re driving on a mountain road, it’s slippery and you’re doing a bunch of curves and you don’t really see anything because you have a cliff falling away on one side and another cliff up on the other. But suddenly you come around a corner and you say, “Oh wow!” And there you’ve got the whole valley in front of you, or they make one of those nice pullovers where you can stop and look out, and you do, and you stop and you get out of your car and walk over to the edge and you see where you are, where all those little myopic turns have taken you.

A spacewalk is very much like that in that the opening of the hatch is probably step 750 of the day. And steps 1 through 749 were all boring and minuscule and each one was on a checklist and you had to do every one right, so you were very painstaking. But suddenly you do this one step, and suddenly you are in a place that you hadn’t conceived how beautiful this could be. How stupefying this could be. And by stupefying I mean, it stops your thought.

You’ve probably heard me say this before, but I knew I couldn’t keep notes up there and I would forget stuff so I sorta resolved to myself that I would verbalize and attempt to, as eloquently as I could, express what I was feeling and what I was seeing so that later I could listen to the recordings of it and remember, and not have missed such an amazing experience. And yet when I listen to the transcripts of what I said, most of it was just, “Wow!” It was so pathetic! But the experience was just overwhelming!

Chris Hadfield during an EVA in 2001. Credit: NASA

It is like coming around a corner and seeing the most magnificent sunset of your life, from one horizon to the other where it looks like the whole sky is on fire and there are all those colors, and the sun’s rays look like some great painting up over your head. You just want to open your eyes wide and try to look around at the image, and just try and soak it up. It’s like that all the time. Or maybe the most beautiful music just filling your soul. Or seeing an absolutely gorgeous person where you can’t just help but stare. It’s like that all the time.

So, it’s an extremely distracting place to work. But it also really puts yourself into perspective because this human creation is right next to you and its inherently, massively beautiful, like the prow of the Titanic or something, where you feel this great human achievement of building this great structure that takes us to a place we’ve never been. But then you notice that even though it is huge and capable, it’s just a speck between everything which is on your left and all the colors and textures of our planet that are just pouring next to you on the right. And you are this little peephole of a microcosm in between those two things, both physically and historically. And you’re very much aware of that the whole time. I’m sort of gushing, but that’s what a spacewalk feels like. It is infinitely worth all the thousands of steps it takes to get there. It’s a great, great thing – I recommend it very highly.

You can hear Chris Hadfield give his description of a spacewalk, as well as talk about NASA’s current situation and his views on the International Space Station on the March 11, 2010 edition of the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

Hadfield on the flight deck of the Endeavour orbiter during the STS-100 mission. Credi: NASA