Watching the Soyuz launch to the International Space Station, I was overcome with how calm and focused the three astronauts on board appeared to be. The mission commander was peacefully controlling the Soyuz from an iPad while three stages of rockets pushed him into orbit at a rate of 4,000 miles per hour.
American astronaut Scott Kelly will not return to earth for a year. Kelly is part of a NASA twin study to explore the health effects of long-term space flight. The study is integral to one day mounting a manned mission to Mars.
Even though he leaves his family behind for 12 months, Kelly gives the camera a thumbs up during launch. He smiles, setting all the live viewers at ease. But on the inside, there has to be a host of anxieties. Watching him bulldoze stress and remain the very definition of composure, I couldn’t be more impressed.
Of course, astronauts aren’t easily perturbed, but there’s still so much at stake. They’re not ignorant of the consequences of something going wrong. They’re not unaware of how our hopes hang on their every action, how the world looks to them. What they do, after all, isn’t selfish. They study space to further all of humankind. They carry a weight, but to look at them you’d never know it.
I’m an anxious person. In fact, I used to watch shuttle launches like this one to help me get over my uneasiness with flying. “If you think flying on a commercial aircraft is uncomfortable, think about what astronauts are going through,” that’s what I used to tell myself.
Watching the launch of Expedition 43 live, I studied Scott Kelly’s face and I thought, “If he can remain calm and composed right now, how am I ever impatient or anxious in my own life?” It’s not that I’m not allowed to feel my feelings. But when it holds me back, causes distress, and interrupts my everyday functioning, I know I’m getting into DSM territory.
I know my anxiety holds me back. It’s paralytic. I’ve seen it close doors, make me turn down opportunities and avoid adventures. It kills spontaneity. And while there was nothing spontaneous about the latest space flight, the people involved in that flight were able to improvise come what may without losing their cool. They probably deal with each moment as it occurs.
Nowadays everyone wants to be in the present moment. Mindfulness exercises and meditation are attempting to get us all grounded in the now and able to appreciate the very moment in which we exist. I’ve never been able to sustain it. I’m always worried about tomorrow, about the future, about the long term. It’s so detrimental that it causes me to worry, although everything is okay. It also means that I miss accomplishments, praise, awe, beauty, fun — everything positive. I’m looking out for the next bump in the road. I anticipate stressors all the time.
On March 27, 2015, Scott Kelly wasn’t anticipating stress or failure. He wasn’t bellyaching about how he won’t see his girlfriend, family, pets, home, or personal belongings for 12 months. He wasn’t crying over the fact that he won’t be eating real food and has to follow a vigorous exercise regimen just so he doesn’t lose bone density. He’s not focused on the fact that his eyes will deteriorate, like they have been known to do during long periods in weightlessness. He is focused on the task at hand.
I think the future looks bleak just because I have to give a public speech, but my odds of surviving that speech are much greater than 1 in 90. Sometimes I can’t even face going to the DMV. Kelly’s going to a place where there’s no oxygen. He’s going to live in a cramped space station for longer than any American ever has. But he doesn’t send a proxy. He doesn’t retreat. It’s inspiring.
For one year, Scott Kelly will be in space on our behalf. If he can do that, I can work harder at being patient and calm. I can try to rewrite the script and not fall into my old habits. It’s work I’ve had in front of me for years and it’s time to get cracking. Come what may, it’s not a 679,000-pound rocket on my back.
Who else was inspired at the determination and sacrifice of Expedition 43?
Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls