Dave Williams is an astronaut, scientist, physician and author of Defying Limits: Lessons From the Edge of the Universe. He is the Canadian spacewalk record holder.
Many have asked if it is silent during a spacewalk. It is not. The sound of the fan in my spacesuit was a continuous reminder that life depends upon the circulation of oxygen. A constant hum – not loud enough to be bothersome, but ever-present in the background. I opened my eyes to a view that few have seen. Perched on the end of the Canadarm2, extended 60 feet beyond the International Space Station, the horizon of the Earth cast against the black infinite void of space was the only thing I could see. Absorbing the panorama unfolding beneath me, I felt completely alone.
From space, our home planet is a beautiful blue oasis surrounded by an ocean of darkness. Travelling 25 times the speed of sound, the space station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. During the five minutes that I spent at the end of the fully extended arm, I travelled over one-fifth of our planet. The pattern of the clouds above the Pacific Ocean in the far distance was mesmerizing, an ever-changing vista reminding me that the Earth is never constant.
The voice of our pilot and robotic operator, Charlie Hobaugh, brought me back to the present moment. Halfway through my second spacewalk, which lasted 6½ hours, it was time to get back to work. I felt the arm beginning to move and unconsciously turned my heels outward to stay locked in the foot restraint that is attached to the arm’s end effector. The rotation began and as I was turned to my right, the pale blue orb that is our planet disappeared, replaced by complete blackness. I stared into the vastness of space, a seemingly infinite void that to this day still makes me wonder about limits, beginnings and endings. In the distance I could now see faint pinpoints of light from stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way, where the closest stars are in the Alpha Centauri system, 4.3 light-years from the Earth.
It was as though I were looking back through time. When the light that I saw left those stars more than four years ago, we had just started training for this mission. Beyond, the 11 farthest stars in our galaxy are 300,000 light-years away. The light from those stars left around the time of the Middle Paleolithic period on Earth, when our ancient ancestors first appeared. Although it was time to get back to work, I found myself contemplating my life in the context of cosmic time, and I realized the greatest opportunity we all have is to live our lives to the fullest and appreciate those moments we have with our family and friends.
Our crew was like a second family to me and despite the challenges of the mission, the complexities of the spacewalks and the pressures of living together, we enjoyed the opportunity to work together to help build this amazing outpost. We understood the danger that exists in the extreme, harsh environment of space. We learned to focus on the task at hand, the mission we had to accomplish. Routine was our friend. The daily schedule provided an ever-present backbone around which we built our days.
Caring for each other and ourselves became second nature in such a confined space. Relentless optimism was important for success. Doing what needs to be done when it must be done and being there for one another are all part of living together. Managing our sleep, exercise and more importantly, balancing our time between mission objectives and moments to relax, to read, to play music or simply look out the window and share stories with one another was crucial to finding harmony living together. We couldn’t leave until our mission ended. We couldn’t really go outside at all. But it was clear to each of us that we had to do what it takes to succeed. Soon our mission would be over, and we would return to life as we knew it, but the experiences we had changed us forever.
Now, we are all isolated. Recalling the images of the Earth from afar, the lessons I learned in space resonate with me during this difficult time. Although I am at home with my family, I am distanced from friends and relatives. But no matter what the challenges are, we can choose how to respond to our circumstances. For those of us not on our own, we should embrace this time, stuck together in close quarters like the crew of a space station, and find reason, however small, to celebrate these strange days. And we can all perhaps find meaning in recognizing that the world, like space, is sometimes hostile, but always a beautiful place.
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