Learning to Think Like an Astronaut

Col. Chris Hadfield learned important lessons while working in space.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, gestures shortly after the landing of the Russian Soyuz TMA-07 space capsule about 150 km ( 90 miles) south-east of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. A Soyuz space capsule with a three-man crew returning from a five-month mission to the International Space Station landed safely Tuesday on the steppes of Kazakhstan.
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Only a few dozen people on the planet know what it's like to be hurled through space at thousands of miles per hour. Fewer still have recorded music videos at zero gravity or tweeted their thoughts about life on Earth while literally looking at it. After two decades of training and nearly 4,000 logged hours in space, Col. Chris Hadfield has chronicled his lessons for survival and success in "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything." He recently spoke with U.S. News about dealing with fear, learning from criticism and how space travel has changed his perspective on this planet. Excerpts:

When did you realize that you wanted to be an astronaut?

I grew up in the '60s, watching "Star Trek" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." And on top of that science fiction, there was the reality of the space race to the moon, and it was intoxicatingly exciting for a young boy. But on July 20, 1969, when Neil [Armstrong] and Buzz [Aldrin] actually stepped out onto the surface of the moon, that's when I made the deliberate and conscious decision that that's what I wanted to do when I grew up.

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When you were finally selected, you said you needed to learn to think like an astronaut. What does that mean?

It's an extremely complex and wide-ranging job, with very high risk and stakes - and very few people to call upon when things really matter. The entire responsibility of everything that happens on a spaceship or on a space station has to be solvable by the very small crew on board. And the methodology by which you can prepare for that and be ready for it, have both the expertise and the optimism to be able to do it, takes a different mind-set. The book has various ideas, such as sweat the small stuff, visualize disaster and a bunch of fairly simple ideas that may seem counterintuitive but are at the very heart of thinking like an astronaut.

How do you deal with fear?

If you go to space for six months, 50 percent of all the risks that you're going to take is in the first nine minutes, when the rocket is firing underneath you. I am not afraid of rocket ships; I am afraid of the rocket blowing up or me hitting the ground. For every single way that might happen, [I need to] figure out what I am going to do to deal with it. Visualize the failure and then absolutely sweat all of the small stuff, so that no matter what problem might crop up, I have a plan and a backup plan and a backup plan to that. When you start feeling competent and ready, then the fear fades, and you feel calm and sort of optimistic. You can apply it to any fear in your life, whether it's fear of public speaking or spiders or whatever. And once you've overcome a fear, the beauty of that is it allows you to do something that otherwise you would have been denying yourself.

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Why is depersonalizing criticism a basic survival skill?

Most people don't take criticism well. But if you can make it part of your normal culture, that at the end of every event you sit down and you go, okay, here is what I did wrong. What did anybody else see me do wrong? And then everyone around the room does that. If you get used to that as being okay and being normal, then you can learn so much more rather than just everybody trying to defend why they did what they did. If you can build the right culture, and that is true within a family, a business or a relationship, then it is much healthier and much more productive, and you don't spend your time being defensive. Instead, you spend your time improving.

What kind of impact does extreme isolation have on you?

You know, people tend to think that astronauts feel lonely and isolated. But in my experience, the loneliest people I've ever met live downtown in cities. And I've never met a farmer who felt lonely. I don't think being distant from a million people is what makes people feel lonely. It's a psychological, not a geographical thing. On board the space station, we were there with five good friends most of the time, and we could see the whole world out the window, see the entire planet over and over again. And we're constantly talking to mission control, we had email, I could phone my wife and I could communicate via social media. So I have never felt more connected with everybody on Earth.