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An astronaut’s way with danger: How Chris Hadfield overcomes fear

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What's the scariest thing you've ever done? Or, to put it another way, the most dangerous? I know the most dangerous thing I've ever done because NASA does the math. The odds of a catastrophic event during the first five Space Shuttle launches was 1 in 9. Even when I first flew on the Shuttle in 1995, the odds were still about 1 in 38. Not great odds.

So it's a really interesting day when you wake up at the Kennedy Space Center and you're going to go to space that day. Because you realize that by the end of the day, you'll either be floating effortlessly in space or you'll be dead.

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Why would you take that risk? Why would you do something that dangerous? In my case, I was inspired as a youngster. I watched the first people walk on the moon, and to me it was just an obvious thing.

But how do you deal with the danger involved, and the fear that comes with it?

I was outside on my first spacewalk when suddenly my left eye slammed shut and was in great pain – some substance had leaked into it, and it had gone blind. I thought, "Well, maybe that's why we have two eyes." So I kept working, but unfortunately without gravity, tears don't fall. You just get a bigger and bigger ball of whatever got into your eye mixed with your tears until the surface tension takes it across the bridge of your nose like a tiny waterfall into your other eye. Now I was completely blind outside the spaceship.

So what's the scariest thing you've ever done?

Maybe it's spiders. A lot of people are afraid of spiders. I think you should be afraid of spiders. Spiders are creepy and they've got long hairy legs. So if a spider lands on you, you have this great spasm attack, because spiders are scary. But if you actually do the research, there are about 50,000 different types of spiders, and there are about two dozen that are venomous. In Canada there is one. And its venom isn't even fatal, it just stings.

How do you get around this fear? How do you change your behaviour? Next time you see a spider web, walk into it. Then when you see another spider web, walk into that one, too. It's just a little bit of fluffy stuff. The spider that may come out is no more a threat to you than a ladybug or a butterfly.

I guarantee you, if you walk through a hundred spider webs, you will have changed your fundamental human behaviour: your caveman reaction. You will now be able to walk in the park in the morning or through your own basement and not worry about that spider web.

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You can apply this to anything.

If you're outside on a spacewalk and you're blinded, your natural reaction would be to panic. But we had considered all the venom. We had practised with a whole variety of different spider webs. We knew everything there is to know about the space suit. We had trained underwater thousands of times. We don't just practise things going right, we practise things going wrong, so that you are constantly walking through those spider webs.

So when you finally go outside on a spacewalk, it feels much different than if you just went out for the first time. Even if you're blinded, your natural panicky reaction doesn't happen. Instead, you look around and go, "Okay. I can't see. But, I can hear. I can talk. [Astronaut] Scott Parazynski's out here with me. He could come over and help me." We had practised incapacitated crew rescue. So he could float me like a blimp and stuff me into the airlock if we had to. Eventually my vision cleared, and when we came back inside, crewmate Jeff got some cotton batting and took the crusty stuff off around my eyes.

The key question is: By looking at the difference between perceived danger and actual danger, what is the real thing that you should be afraid of? By moving away from a generic fear of bad things happening, you can fundamentally change your reactions.

This allows you to go places and see and do things that otherwise would be denied to you. You can see the hard pan south of the Sahara. You can see New York City in a way that is almost dreamlike, or the Great Lakes as a collection of small puddles. You see a beauty that otherwise never would have been possible.

You have taken the dreams of that 9-year old boy, which were dauntingly terrifying, and figured out a way to re-program yourself to change your primal fear so that it allowed you to come back with a set of experiences that never would have been possible otherwise.

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Chris Hadfield, a retired astronaut and fighter pilot, flew two Space Shuttle missions and was a commander on the International Space Station.

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