How astronauts can teach us about grit and tenacity

Carolina Bento
Jul 14, 2020 · 5 min read

Growing up I was not the type of kid who wanted to be an astronaut. And even though science found its way into my life through engineering, I was never interested in space or cosmology.

But when I read the Martian it sparked my interest in sci-fi and, unexpectedly, my interest in space. After that I discovered Chris Hadfield’s book, An astronaut’s guide to life on Earth. One book leads to another and, a few weeks ago, I finished Scott Kelly’s book Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery. Both men have spent a lot of time in space, but Scott Kelly’s book caught my eye because it’s about his one year mission.

These memoirs are phenomenal! They go into a lot of detail about their careers, training and mission preparation and launching into space for the first time. They also share what it’s like to live in the International Space Station for long periods of time.

Their first person narrative made it much clear what it’s like going to space and what it represents to us on Earth.

The whole process of becoming an astronaut helped me understand that what really matters is not the value someone else assigns to a task but how I personally feel while performing it. ー Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s guide to life on Earth

In my mind, astronauts had rockstar, superhuman-like status. Maybe it was the futuristic suits, all that technology, and the fact they run science experiments in space. But it is far from glorious or easy.

A lot of their work happens behind the scenes, and we only get to see the result of a year of hard work. Some astronauts might train and prepare all their lives and never get to go to space. They spend their time supporting other astronauts who are in mission and studying. Learning about all the systems, old and new, about the hardware they might deal with every day, so they know how to fix things if something breaks, and preparing the experiments they’ll conduct in space. And then there’s space walk training.

In movies, spacewalks look cool and fun. But it was only after reading these books that it dawned on me the danger astronauts put themselves into whenever they go on a spacewalk. Not to mention the meticulous process that goes into it.

Suiting up, depressurizing, tethering themselves so they don’t drift into space, and performing hardware maintenance in the vacuum of space. All the while in a bulky suit that doesn’t give them with a lot of mobility. It’s an enormous achievement for any astronaut but, the smallest error can also be fatal.

These books gave me a new sense of appreciation for astronauts and their mission.

It made me realize astronauts are a great example of grit, tenacity, focus and passion for challenging the status quo. These men and women are test pilots, flight test engineers, but also experienced scientists and engineers. They go through rigorous training just to get to the point where they can apply to be an astronaut. And they are constantly pushing the boundaries of knowledge and science. They are pushing the limits of what we see as humanly possible.

The ongoing training and deliberate focus on a goal, or a mission, makes them deal with adverse conditions like it’s a walk in the park. Astronauts learn to focus on what matters, so they can deploy their skills if something goes astray, like a severe malfunction or a fire. And in difficult situations, instead of panicking, they use their energy to find the best possible solution to the problem.

Like anyone on a scientific field, they stand in the shoulders of giants. They learn from the missions and the astronauts that came before them. And they work together with the huge team of specialists on the ground that helps them along the way.

The people we see in the NASA control room during launches are only a fraction of the team. There’s an enormous group of scientists and engineers on the ground, at NASA and other space agencies, as well as technology partners. They work together to develop new technology that assists astronauts during their missions.

I’ve learned that an achievement that seems to have been accomplished by one person probably has hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people’s minds and work behind it, and I’ve learned that it’s a privilege to be the embodiment of that work. ― Scott Kelly, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery

It’s thanks to them that we have tons of new technology and know so much more about the Universe and life on Earth. And these scientific and technological advancements also end up benefiting the general public.

NASA has a long list of spin-off research, research that started at NASA mission work and made its way to us on Earth. For instance, we’re familiar with baby formula, but what most of us might not know is that its origins can be traced to NASA-sponsored research.

Learning about space from the perspective of these two astronauts, both commanders of the International Space Station at some point during their mission, inspired me.

It made me aware of the challenges of being in space, and creating the conditions for space exploration. But it reinforced my belief that it always pays off to never stop learning. That it always pays off to challenge yourself to be better. There’s a lot of hard work involved, and most of it will go unseen, but it always pays off.

Discipline and dedication are long-term investments, and they compound over time. Everything you put in today, you’ll be building on top of it tomorrow.

Most people look for big changes, big leaps in the short-term. But, at the end of the day, consistent small increments compound into big leaps over time. You can see it in the journey of these astronauts and it’s deeply inspiring.

Life can be so much better when we are curious and have an open mind. We should challenge ourselves, and the ones around us, to better everyday. To give yourself permission to dream, and work towards it.

From a scientific and human perspective, these stories opened my eyes to a vast Universe. I’m glad they decided to share it.

Thanks for reading!

Side Notes by Carolina Bento

Notes on books, learning effectively and other thoughts

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