To my adventure friends,
We’ve all experienced the feeling of panic and fear in the middle of an intense crisis. One second all is well. In the next moment, you see events occurring that could result in injury to yourself or someone you care about. Your body immediately reacts to the situation, working with your mind to take the necessary steps to avert disaster. Sometimes those moments come quickly—a car accident, crashing your bike, falling, or suddenly encountering a dangerous animal. But sometimes we are faced with situations where something unknown develops and rather than having immediate consequences, it seems something more serious is developing. It can be really hard to keep calm and not panic in the face of immediate danger, and it can feel even tougher to keep calm in the face of an unknown danger that seems to grow stronger every day.
I experienced something like this on the International Space Station (ISS) during my first mission. I was with one of my fellow astronauts helping to move supplies from the Italian Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) into the storage locations on the ISS. Think of the MPLM like those storage units your parents may use for things they don’t currently use.
While moving the supplies, a loud grinding sound began to echo through the MPLM and ISS. To me, it sounded as if a large piece of machinery was breaking down and coming to a halt. The noise reverberated throughout the metal structure of the ISS and obviously was not expected, nor did it sound normal. I immediately looked over at my fellow astronaut who had lived on the ISS for several months and asked if he knew what was that sound. He smiled slightly and said he had never heard that noise before. I shortly wondered if there was something mechanically wrong with the ISS and would we have to prepare for an emergency de-orbit. As you can imagine, while a computer going offline or something breaking is more annoying than dangerous on earth, the stakes are pretty high in space on the ISS. A potentially small problem like a piece of machinery breaking can easily escalate to a real emergency if the situation isn’t handled properly.
We both remained calm, and we soon learned the source of the noise from other crew members scattered throughout the ISS. A Control Moment Gyro (CMG) failed. A CMG is a giant piece of machinery called a flywheel attached to the ISS used to maintain a proper position on orbit for certain needs, such as pointing the giant solar panels towards the sun. When this CMG failed, it ground and gnashed and caused vibrations throughout the ISS, making the loud noise we heard. Fortunately, the ISS has four CMGs, so the loss of this one was not critical. In fact, we would find out later that ground personnel had been tracking the failure of the CMG for several days, and they knew there was no problem. However, in the moment, it sounded as if something bad was occurring that would send us into an intense and dangerous emergency situation.
Not only was there no emergency or immediate danger, but the entire crew also reacted well to the unknown sound. No one panicked, only momentary concern about what was the source of the noise as we figured out if we needed to do anything about it.
As I write this, there are some pretty frightening things happening in the world. I can’t help but think about our small adventure in space as I listen to the news about the Coronavirus and the actions we are taking in our families, communities, and nation to make sure we are safe and healthy. It isn’t hard to feel overwhelmed with fear and panic, especially in the face of such a big unknown. The constant news and discussions taking place on television and social media (and maybe even at family discussions) that throw around scary words like “global pandemic” and “state of emergency” certainly make things feel more dangerous and out of control than ever.
Feeling fear in the face of the unknown is okay. Many of us have never experienced anything like this Coronavirus pandemic before, and it is okay to admit that makes you feel afraid! What is important is what you do with that fear. Remember that in a situation like this, just like on the ISS when the CMG failed, panicking doesn’t help anyone, and it often makes things worse.
When you think about what is happening in the world right now, remember there are many smart and dedicated people that are working to control the situation, much like our missions at NASA. As an astronaut, I always knew there were thousands of dedicated people working to solve any problem or emergency that may develop at any point during our missions, whether during launch, on-orbit or re-entry. Yes, things feel frightening right now, but there isn’t a reason to panicked or overwhelmed with fear. The operative word when dealing with the Coronavirus, or any other challenge may encounter in your life, is caution. Remember to stay calm and follow the advice of those working to help keep you safe like your teacher, doctors, and your parents or guardians.
None of us know what will be coming in the next few weeks and months but remember that there are people working around the clock to control and contain the spread of the Coronavirus. None of us are alone, so it is important for us to remember (both now and in whatever challenges we face in the years to come) to stay calm and try our best to keep a positive attitude, just like the astronaut who smiled at me when we heard the CMG fail on the ISS. As always, focus on doing the right things at the right time. For now, that means washing our hands frequently, avoiding touching our faces, social distancing, and letting an adult know if you start feeling sick.
Remember, the Coronavirus pandemic will ultimately pass, but this won’t be the last time you face a challenge that might make you feel afraid. Whether you’re on the ISS dealing with a failing CMG, here on earth dealing with a virus, or anywhere in between, remember to remain calm, don’t panic, and remember you’re never alone when facing the unknown. Focus on doing the right thing at the right time, and we’ll all get through this together.
Until next time.
Your adventure buddy,