Last Friday afternoon, three of my colleagues launched from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station. The launch was successful and their capsule rendezvoused and docked to the Station in the late evening. Amongst the crew was cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of the Russian Space Agency. This was Alexey’s first spaceflight following several years of training.
Astronaut training is not easy. Several years ago, Alexey, Richard Garriott de Cayeux (American astronaut and video game developer) and I participated as a crew in a water survival exercise on the Black Sea. Water survival is an important, but also a no-kidding-difficult, skill to acquire. In fact, it was one of the more challenging aspects of my astronaut career.
Successfully completing a grueling training session like water survival creates a special bond amongst crewmembers. Richard and I are delighted that Alexey has now launched on his first flight. Following docking with the Station, we sent a note of congratulations up to him and wished him well for the rest of his five month expedition. Alexey wrote back and said that everything is perfect and that he is fulfilling a dream.
In 2011, I told the story about our tough training day to the graduating class of Simon Fraser University. I’ve included my address below for you to read. While the water survival story may not be uplifting, it was important for me to share with the SFU graduands that the trajectory to professional and personal success is not always straight and smooth.
In May 2009, two crewmates and I launched to space in a Soyuz capsule atop a Russian rocket and an ascending pillar of flame and smoke.
Returning to Earth six months later in the same spacecraft remains one of the most vivid memories of my astronaut career. After undocking from the International Space Station, our capsule plummeted through the upper atmosphere as a fireball. Descent through the lower atmosphere was a wild, jarring ride akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
At the end of a nominal mission, a Soyuz capsule lands under parachute with its crew on the steppes of Kazakhstan. But in an emergency situation, it could land in an ocean – anywhere in the world. Following a water landing, the crew must exit the capsule by themselves and survive alone in the ocean for up to two days.
One of my most grueling days as an astronaut took place a few years ago during water survival training in the Black Sea of the Ukraine. The scenario for our simulated exercise was that my crew had just performed an emergency de-orbit and our Soyuz capsule was now adrift in an ocean. We were to take off our spacesuits and put on several layers of thermal protective clothing and a water-tight rubberized suit. Although encumbering and hot, this clothing would protect us against the frigid water temperature. We would then open the hatch of our capsule, jump into the Black Sea and wait for the search and rescue forces to locate and retrieve us.
I must mention that three men in a Soyuz capsule is like three men in a telephone booth. It is impossible for the crew to do much of anything all at once. For our exercise, one crew member laid across the laps of the other two while we worked together to try to remove the spacesuit and put on the survival clothing and gear.
The secret to success is to complete the training exercise before our core body temperatures rise too high. Working at an optimal pace is critical. If we work too fast, our core body temperatures will increase due to an elevated metabolic rate. If we work too slowly, we will also overheat under the multiple layers of thermal garments that we wear and in the stifling cabin atmosphere.
We failed the training exercise. As our body temperatures rose from 36 degrees Celsius to 39 degrees, we became drenched in sweat, and our spirit and efficiency fell. After two draining hours of struggling to get into our survival gear, not even one of us was completely suited. Our core body temperatures were high and rising. The medical doctors who were monitoring the exercise became alarmed and aborted the run. The three of us exited the capsule – exhausted and demoralized.
If this had been our actual landing day, my crewmates and I would have died from hyperthermia inside the capsule or from hypothermia in the ocean.
Space exploration is no-kidding difficult. The harsh environment can be unforgiving. Astronauts are consequently expected to live and work at the extremes of our capabilities.
My crewmates and I were determined to successfully complete the Black Sea water survival training, and that’s why we pushed ourselves to do it again. We reviewed each step of the procedure, adjusted our work pace, and were ultimately and joyfully successful during a second attempt.
In spite of its challenges, I can’t imagine any career so fulfilling and downright fun as being an astronaut. Astronautics is synonymous with exploration. One great thing about my job is the repeated opportunities to explore inwardly as well as outwardly – to discover the limits of my personal capabilities as well as the frontiers of my external world.
In the Black Sea, I didn’t just explore the limits of my physical capabilities, but the limits of my mental and emotional ones as well. I discovered, for instance, that my energy, cognitive abilities and willpower shut down when my core body temperature reaches 39 degrees.
A couple years later during my International Space Station expedition, I discovered that living in an isolated, confined environment for six months makes me homesick for my family and Earth.
I discovered that maneuvering multi-billion dollar spacecraft safely and precisely with Canada’s robotic arm requires supreme mental concentration. I discovered that relating well with five people of different nationalities, cultures, beliefs and native languages requires the utmost in psychosocial skills.
Some of the skills required of an astronaut come harder to me than others. Learning foreign languages is my Achilles heel. While I may not be the most linguistically gifted person in the world, I bet I am one of the most persistent. What I may lack in natural ability, I make up with determination to reach what may seem impossible.
If I have been successful in my career, it is because I have had these repeated opportunities to function at the limits of my personal capabilities. It is when I function outside of my comfort zone that my performance is highest and my achievements are most meaningful.
Exploration is a basic instinct of humans, whether it be inwardly or outwardly directed. Outward exploration of our physical world is about breaking through barriers – barriers of height, of depth, of location, of capability, of knowledge.
People sit up and take notice when someone climbs Mount Everest for the first time, when someone dives the depths of the ocean to discover the wreck of the Titanic, or when someone leaves Earth orbit and ventures into the solar system.
I’m proud to have represented Canada in outer space. While space exploration has provided many pragmatic benefits, one of its greatest symbolic benefits is that it bolsters our national spirit of exploration. It inspires us to contemplate the unknown and to attempt the difficult.
Today when we speak of outward exploration, we no longer refer solely to geographical frontiers. Most of the regions of the world have now been charted. Rather, the new frontiers of exploration are in the Arts, Sciences, Technology, Medicine and Management. There is much left to discover – the basis of disease, the riddle of consciousness, the nature of dark matter, the meaning of humanity.
Some contemporary explorers wear parkas. Other explorers wear lab coats, pressure suits, scuba gear and business suits. Still others carry video cameras or a paint palette.
You have graduated from a university that is not named after a city or a province or a benefactor. You are graduates of a university that is named after an explorer. Simon Fraser worked at the limits of his abilities to chart unknown lands, to navigate difficult rivers and to establish new communities. The name of this great explorer is now part of your curriculum vitae, and his spirit is now part of your being.
To the 2011 graduates of Simon Fraser University – live at the limits of your capabilities, expand the scope of your skills, and break through the barriers of knowledge. This convocation ceremony represents your launch pad. Begin to explore!