Chris Hadfield had enjoyed a peaceful and productive few months aboard the International Space Station. He’d become the first Canadian to take command of the orbiting outpost, and his frequent updates on social media had generated an unexpected surge of interest in his mission. And his biggest web hit, his rendition of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, was yet to come. Under his command were two Americans, Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy, and three Russians, Roman Romanenko, Pavel Vinogradov and Sasha Misurkin.
But the tranquility on-board wouldn’t last. As Hadfield writes in his forthcoming book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth—launching Nov. 3 at a Maclean’s In Conversation event–with just days to go before his return to Earth on May 13, 2013, he and the crew faced a crisis.
An exclusive excerpt from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth:
I existed in a parallel universe, one where 681,000 people were following me on Twitter; in total, more than 1.2 million were along for the ride, via various social media sites. There were too many magazine and newspaper articles, TV clips and radio mentions for [my son] Evan to track. I was being hailed as a photographer, a poet, even a celebrity. I was aware this was happening, of course, but on orbit, none of it seemed real, nor did it bear much resemblance to my everyday life of sweating the small stuff and fixing toilets.
Evan wanted me to do one more thing: make the first music video in space. He wanted me to sing David Bowie’s Space Oddity. He’d suggested this not all that long after I got to the International Space Station (ISS), and was doing all kinds of work on the ground to make it happen, lining up the right people to help with the editing and so forth. This video, he assured me, would corner the market on wonder.
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I wasn’t entirely convinced, but if there was one thing I’d learned over the past few months, it was to trust Evan’s judgment. He’d understood all along that what people are really interested in is other people; showing the humanity of the ISS is what had captured the popular imagination and driven millions of people to go on to watch the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)’s educational videos.
First, Evan rewrote some of the words of the song. In his version, the astronaut lives, and the Soyuz and Station are both mentioned. Next, I recorded the audio track, using a mic and my iPad. All told, between January and February, I did three takes, which required a minimal investment of my time.
Only after we got David Bowie’s permission did I film the video, in late April and early May. Using a camera mounted on a flexible arm, I filmed myself floating through different parts of the Station. But the real magic had to occur on the ground, where seemingly endless details had to be looked after; some people at the CSA worked evenings and weekends, for instance, reviewing video and doing the legwork to get legal approval.
I was pleased with the video, and Evan had worked out a master plan for its release during my final days on the ISS. But once I’d finished my part, I hardly thought about it. I had something else to think about: a crisis was unfolding on my watch.
More than a year before you go to the ISS, you have to decide as a group which holidays you’re going to observe up there. This requires some negotiation because the crews are always multinational. On Expedition 35, we’d decided in advance to take off Thursday, May 9, which is a big holiday in Russia: Victory Day, commemorating Germany’s surrender in the Second World War. At about 3:30 on May 9, 2013, then, I was puttering around when Pavel came over to say, “There is something interesting you might want to see. Little sparks and fireworks outside.” Pavel’s English isn’t the greatest, so it took me a second to figure out what he was talking about. Then I got it: fireworks, Russia, Victory Day—made sense, though it was surprising that he could see them from space. I floated over to the Russian segment to look out the window: no, it wasn’t happening on Earth—it looked like fireflies were coming off the left side of the Station.
Inside, we had no indication of a problem, and my first thought was that we’d been hit by a meteorite and sustained a little damage. Tom took some photos with a big lens and, when we blew up the images, we saw that the fireflies were different shapes, like flecks of paint or little lumps of something. This was unusual and merited a call to the ground, though I had to think for a minute about the wording. “Houston, we have small, unidentified flying objects surrounding the ISS” didn’t have quite the right ring to it. I went with something a little more circumspect, telling Mission Control that we were seeing flecks; they agreed with the meteorite damage theory, as they’d seen nothing unusual in our telemetry. We took more photos from different angles, sent them down and went about the rest of our day.
About four hours later, we got word from the ground: the ISS had an ammonia leak on the port side. That’s a big deal. Ammonia cools the Station’s huge batteries and power conversion systems, as well as the living quarters, via a heat exchanger. There are independent cooling loops, and the one that was leaking cooled a heavily used electrical power bus; without it, there would be a significant Station power-down—we’d be unable to run all the experiments, due to potential overheating or lack of power. I quickly ran through possible options in my head: let the ammonia leak out and lose a critical power string, leave it for the next crew to fix, delay our departure and try to fix it ourselves on short notice—we’d probably need a week to get ready to do a spacewalk. Then, as the hours went by, more bad news: the rate of the leak was increasing. The Station was losing its lifeblood.
By 11:00 p.m., the capcom [capsule communicator] had no news for us, except that everyone at Mission Control was still trying to figure out what to do. So I told the crew we should go to sleep.
We woke up on Friday at 6:00 a.m., as usual, and first thing, checked our laptops for the daily plan that NASA always sends us overnight. It said, “Welcome to prep for EVA day!” It took me a moment to register this. There’d been no inkling of this the night before, and pulling off an EVA [extra-vehicular activity or spacewalk] with just one day of prep was unheard of. Usually, spacewalks are planned years or, at least, months in advance; even for unplanned walks, procedures are tested in the pool at JSC [Johnson Space Center in Houston] first.
But we had no time for that. NASA wanted to conserve as much ammonia as possible, so the plan was to pull out the pump controller box and try to figure out what was going on. When you see water underneath a refrigerator, you don’t know whether the leak is from a hose, in the wall or inside the appliance itself—the first step is to pull the refrigerator out from the wall. The same idea was behind this EVA: pull out the big pump box, which is on the very end of the Station, as far as you can go without falling off. And overnight, it had been decided that Chris would be EV1 and Tom, EV2.
In other words, I wasn’t going out. I had a moment where I allowed myself to experience the full force of my disappointment. This would have been the heroic climax of my stint as commander: helping to save the ISS by doing an emergency spacewalk. I’d never have another chance to do an EVA—I’d already informed the CSA that I planned to retire shortly after returning to Earth. But Chris and Tom had both done three previous EVAs, two of them together, on the same part of the Station where ammonia was now leaking. They were the obvious people for the job. All this went through my head and heart for a minute or two, then I made a resolution: I was not going to hint that I’d had this pang of envy, or say, even once, that I wished I was doing the EVA. The right call had been made, and I needed to accept it and move on so that we could all focus on the main thing—the only thing, really: working the problem. It wasn’t the test I would have chosen, maybe, but it was a test of my fitness to command the ISS. Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine. It was time for me to do that. It was time to be a commander.
I stuck my head out of my sleep pod and, at almost the same moment, Tom and Chris poked their heads up out of their pods: three prairie dogs, all grinning. Did you see that? We’re doing an EVA! We did the scientific experiments that couldn’t be put off, then all three of us focused entirely on preparation. Normally, we’d have had days for that. Now we just had one.
We started working on Tom and Chris’s diet, figuring out what they should be eating; they needed lots of carbs, which their bodies would burn more slowly, so they’d have enough energy if they did wind up spacewalking. We had to recharge batteries for the spacesuits, gather all the necessary tethers and equipment, pre-stage the airlock with everything we’d need the next day, resize a spacesuit that had been sized for the next crew, so that Tom could use it—and that was just for starters. Meanwhile, Mission Control was refining the plan. The choreography got more detailed as the day went on and the leak showed no signs of stopping: EV1 would do this, EV2 would do that, and they’d need to have this equipment and those tools. I spent part of the day fashioning something that looked like an oversized dental mirror so they could inspect an enclosed space to look for a leak; using copious amounts of tape and zip ties, I modified an existing mirror to turn it into a spacewalking tool.
Fill the drink bags, polish the visors, get the right number of emergency bottles of oxygen into the airlock, check and double-check everything—we needed to be methodical and try to think of everything that could go wrong. One possibility was ammonia contamination: Tom and Chris might be squirted with the stuff when they pulled out the pump controller box, and then we’d have to be sure they were decontaminated before they came back into Station. Ammonia decontamination is a rarely used procedure and one we don’t practise much, so I had us do a mini-simulation, where we looked at all the hardware and worked through the whole matrix of things we might have to do.
In the meantime, I’d asked NASA to negotiate with Roscosmos [Russian Federal Space Agency] to see whether I could get a cosmonaut’s help with suit-up and prep the next day. Sasha’s English was pretty good, but he was a rookie. Roman had the deepest training in the American spacesuit, but he was packing the Soyuz—a critically important and time-consuming task, because the position of each item affects how the vehicle flies. NASA and Roscosmos both wanted Roman to keep going, so we could undock on Monday. Privately, I thought this was crazy—there was no way we were really going to leave on schedule three days from now. Oh yes, there was, both space agencies insisted, and they reached a deal: Pavel, who would take over command of the Station when I left, could help.
The next morning, right after breakfast, we got started. I was the intravehicular crew member (IVA), choreographing the suit-up of the spacewalkers and getting everything ready for them to go outside. It turned out to be much more demanding than I’d imagined, and having an extra set of hands was a big help. Pavel is one of those people who, as my dad says, thinks with his hands— he just has a natural, innate sense of how all the fussy mechanisms of space equipment work.
As IVA, there are probably 50 ways to blow it without knowing you’ve blown it until it’s too late, like hooking up a helmet camera improperly. It was clearly an ideal moment to aim to be a zero. My goal wasn’t to get Tom and Chris out the door in record time; it was to stick to the procedures, which Pavel and I had never done before, either independently or together. It was finicky, engrossing work and I took huge pleasure in doing it meticulously, in having the language skills to be efficient and safe while tasking Pavel, in making sure our guys, our team, were being set up properly to try to pull off this difficult, dangerous, important job. Building the spacesuits around the astronauts, getting everything configured right, installing the equipment—it’s like assembling a big Meccano robot, and Tom and Chris couldn’t help much because they were wearing masks, pre-breathing pure oxygen. The pressure inside the spacesuit is much lower than ambient cabin pressure, so they had to breathe pure oxygen in order to flush the nitrogen from their bodies and ensure they didn’t get decompression sickness—the bends. All of this took hours, but eventually, we were ready to stuff our crewmates, one at a time, into the actual airlock, then close the hatch and start depressurizing it.
I felt some trepidation. Once you close the hatch to the airlock, you’re saying goodbye to redoing anything. I knew I’d been careful, but if I’d messed something up or they were missing a piece of gear, we might not find out until halfway through the EVA. I watched them until they were outside and doing something straightforward, and then I quickly worked through the routine tasks Houston had put on my timeline. But it never left my mind that my crewmates were outside, doing something crucial; I was also very aware of their vulnerability. Relief wouldn’t really come until they were back inside.
In the meantime, my role was simply to support in any way I could. I followed along with the procedures Tom and Chris were doing, so I always knew exactly where they were in the process, and I listened to their communications with the ground. When the ISS was out of range of the satellites that let us communicate with Houston, I was ready on the radio with information and the next steps, so Chris and Tom could stay on schedule.
Throughout that 5½-hour spacewalk, I felt a bit like a choreographer probably does while watching dancers perform; there was a sense of involvement and responsibility, a feeling of shared risk and reward, but also a necessity to detach and trust them to do their jobs properly. It felt good, when they were safely inside the airlock and we were using the ammonia sensors, to be able to say, “Okay, we’re going to do what we practised yesterday.”
The unknown part was over. It felt even better when it turned out their suits were not contaminated and we didn’t have to repeat the entire complicated rigmarole we’d rehearsed. Best of all, it appeared that they had not only located the problem, but fixed it. When they’d pulled out the box that holds the pump module, expecting to see evidence of a leak underneath, there wasn’t any, and the box itself was pristine, suggesting the leak was inside it. They’d swapped in a new module, a spare that was stored nearby, bolted it into place and, once they were back inside, Houston gently repressurized the line that circulates the ammonia. No more leak.
When I’d repressurized the airlock and Pavel and I were pulling our crewmates’ gloves and helmets off, the feeling was wonderful. We’d beaten the long odds, done our job right, and maybe even fixed the problem and sort of saved the Station. What’s more: we were still on track to undock in less than 48 hours. The crew had come together to pull off an EVA in unprecedented time. The shared feeling of pride was palpable. I was proud of Tom and Chris’s hard-won competence, of Pavel’s skill, even though he was doing something for the first time, of Sasha’s willingness to shoulder an extra load so Pavel could help out, of Roman’s dogged industry, continuing to pack our Soyuz so we could leave on time.
And I was also proud of living up to NASA’s belief that I was capable of commanding the world’s spaceship. On my first day at JSC, I hadn’t been an obvious candidate. I was a pilot. I didn’t have much leadership experience to speak of at all. Worse: I was a Canadian pilot without much leadership experience. Square astronaut, round hole. But somehow, I’d managed to push myself through it, and here was the truly amazing part: along the way, I’d become a good fit. It had only taken 21 years.
Excerpted from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, on sale Oct. 29. Copyright © 2013 Chris Hadfield. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. For the next exclusive excerpt, see the Oct. 28 issue of Maclean’s.
Join Maclean’s and Chris Hadfield in Toronto on Sunday, Nov. 3 as Hadfield launches his first book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Click here to purchase tickets, which include a signed copy of the book.