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The Raconteur Astronauts

March 16, 2010
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One of the advantages of the relatively tiny number of people who have been to space is that they can be selected in part for their ability to describe their experiences upon return. Someday, I’d like to gather a collection of short personal accounts of key parts of the big trip (if you know of any good books like this, please leave a comment.)

Apollo IX astronaut Rusty Schweickart gives a gripping account of going through a launch in this podcast episode.  If you don’t listen to it, you should be ashamed of yourself. 

In 2001, Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian to spacewalk.  Today, I came across his gorgeous account.  It’s pretty long, so I am going to forgo the usual block quote formatting.  Enjoy:

 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 pull-overs 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 if 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 miniscule 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 it was just overwhelming!

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.

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