Adaption to change – in space and on earth

Todd Hirsch and Rob Roach of ATB Financial are co-authors of a new book entitled Spiders in Space: Successfully Adapting to Unwanted Change. What an intriguing title! The book profiles several Canadian individuals, organizations and businesses who have successfully adapted to change. Drawing on inspiring stories and lessons learned, the book provides insight on how to adapt to change in our lives. When we are faced with change– change that is particularly sudden and unwanted – there are strategies to follow that can help us not only survive, but thrive.

Todd and Rob asked if I would write the Foreword for their new book. I was pleased to do so since change management is a topic that interests me. While I am a strong advocate for brevity, I thought you might wish to read the long version of the draft that I first submitted to Todd and Rob before their publisher cut my word count by half (darn editors!) to properly fit in the book:


Along with a half billion other people from around the world, I sat mesmerized in front of a television set on the evening of Sunday July 20, 1969. From our living room, I watched a video transmission that was being broadcast from the surface of the Moon. What an amazing and memorable event! The images of astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounding across the lunar surface in their white spacesuits held my attention and fired my youthful imagination.

Only hours earlier, Neil and Buzz had skillfully piloted their Apollo Lunar Module to a nail-biting landing near a crater – an heroic achievement. Within minutes of climbing down the ladder of their lander and stepping onto the bleak landscape (Buzz Aldrin famously described it as “a magnificent desolation”), they began work on a busy program of scientific objectives. Observing their historic spacewalk, I was astounded that the Moon’s alien environment – dust, vacuum, extreme temperature, 1/6 gravity field – did not impede our two earthlings’ abilities to explore and be productive. They quickly adapted.

Buzz Aldrin deploys the solar panels of the Seismometer payload during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In the background is the spider-like Lunar Module.

Buzz Aldrin deploys the solar panels of the Seismometer payload during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In the background is the spider-like Lunar Module.

The Apollo 11 mission was my first realization that humans have an impressive ability to learn and adapt to extreme situations and settings. An even more compelling lesson in human adaptability occurred several years later during my own space mission.

The 8 ½ minute ride to space aboard the shuttle Columbia was a rollicking one. Upon reaching orbit, my crewmates and I floated out of our seats and began work to transition our spacecraft from a rocket to an orbital research laboratory. Launch-related software programs and hardware systems were shut down. We loaded new software into the computers, activated onboard systems, and unstowed needed equipment. Our so-called ‘post-insertion’ timeline was fast-paced and reconfigured Columbia for on-orbit operations.

In the midst of all this busyness, Kevin Kregel, one of my flight-experienced crewmates, paused his work to pass on some wise counsel to a rookie astronaut. “Bob, something will happen to you in two days,” Kevin remarked. “I won’t tell you what will happen, but when it does, it will be unmistakable. Come and see me then.”

What a curious comment! I had no idea what Kevin was talking about and was too busy stowing launch gear and routing cables around the cabins to inquire more. Instead I replied “Okay, Kevin”, and made a mental note to be on the lookout for something odd that might happen.

STS-78 crewmates: Kevin Kregel and Robert Thirsk

STS-78 crewmates: Kevin Kregel and Robert Thirsk

A couple of mornings later, I flew to work. We had a long tunnel that connected the shuttle middeck cabin to Spacelab – a multipurpose laboratory located aft in the cargo bay of the shuttle. Since I was in an upbeat mood (what newbie spaceman wouldn’t be!), I did a pirouette or two as I passed through the tunnel. Then with a playful somersault, I entered the lab, picked up a procedure book and got to work.

After powering up several payload facilities, I paused for a short break. Looking around, I was surprised to find myself on the ceiling (not the floor) of the laboratory module. Wow! In my aerobatic passage through the tunnel, I must’ve entered the lab upside down and had spent the first ten minutes working on the ceiling. I was completely at ease there. How bizarre!

“Aha!”, I thought, “this must be what Kevin was referring to on launch day.” I immediately reported my experience to Kevin who confirmed that this is what he had been talking about. With time spent in weightlessness, the notion of up-and-down becomes irrelevant. The ‘down’ direction becomes wherever we mentally determine it to be – it could be the wall, ceiling or floor.

In a world with no up or down, it is more efficient to fly about Superman-style when performing our activities

In a world with no up or down, it is more efficient to fly about Superman-style when performing our activities.

This freedom from the terrestrial norm for ‘down’ is a neurological adaptation to weightlessness. Every organ system, in fact, is affected by spaceflight – not just our brain. Blood volume decreases, muscles lose strength and bones demineralize – all part of the body’s adaption to space.

Common daily activities that I took for granted on Earth had to be relearned. Without running water, I swallowed the toothpaste after brushing my teeth. Use of the shuttle toilet involved restraints, precise body alignment and fans to move waste away from my body. My eyeglasses floated away and out of sight when I neglected to restrain them with tethers or Velcro.

Space exploration is synonymous with change. A demonstrated ability to adapt to change is a prerequisite to become an astronaut. Following recruitment, ongoing training hones our abilities to assess, create and improvise in changing circumstances. We develop novel techniques and tools in order to build space stations, repair telescopes, perform research and operate robots in challenging environments.

Novel techniques and tools are required to operate successfully in challenging environments

Novel techniques and tools are required to operate successfully in challenging environments.

The spaceflight experience is admittedly unique. Numerous successes during the first half-century of space exploration shouldn’t mislead us into thinking that the management of change is generically easy. I have been fortunate to work for the Canadian Space Agency and NASA which are organizations blessed with sufficient resources and highly motivated employees.

The reality is that adaptation to change on Earth is not straightforward. Organizations in the throes of transformation face many hurdles including addiction to the status quo and opposition from powerful vested interests. While executive managers may advocate for change, they often misunderstand the processes that make it happen. Consequently, 70% of all corporate change initiatives fail.

We also struggle with change at the personal level. Employees may outwardly agree to change, but inwardly fear it. Our first reaction is to question its need. Many of us like things as they are and may scheme up ways to get things back to normal.

Abrupt change, in particular, is regarded as unfair, unjust or undesirable. Every one of us will, at some point, be faced with sudden change. A phone call relaying bad news. A customer going a different direction. An employee left behind by restructuring.

Adaptation is particularly germane when change is sudden and unwanted. Accordingly, it is the subject of this book. In the following pages, ‘Spiders in Space’ authors Todd Hirsch and Robert Roach profile 15 individuals, companies and industry associations. Their interviews with these exemplary adapters provide insight into the essentials of the change management process as well as the traits of those leaders who are master adapters. What an opportunity to learn from those who have “been there, done that!”

Oh, by the way, a couple of the adapters profiled in this book are eight-legged extraterrestrials. Esmeralda and Gladys were two golden orb spiders who launched aboard space shuttle Endeavour to the International Space Station in 2011. While the spiders were flown as part of an animal biology experiment, Todd and Robert show how these plucky arachnids taught us so much more. The spinning of webs in space, it turns out, is a fitting metaphor for dealing with sudden change on Earth.

An extraterrestrial of the two-legged kind was also interviewed. My fellow Canadian astronaut Dr. Dafydd Williams speaks from his flight experiences about the physiological adaptations to spaceflight and shares his perspectives on crew responses to challenging, unexpected (‘off-nominal’ in astronaut lingo) situations.

Adaptation is a relevant topic in today’s world as well as a critical skill for workers and organizations. I know that you will enjoy reading Spiders in Space: Successfully Adapting to Unwanted Change and will find the book to be inspirational and instructional. It will serve as a helpful reference for everyone trying to cope with the dynamism of this 21st century epoch – on the planet or off.

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