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How astronauts prepare for the unknown in space: An interview with NASA's Victor Glover

Astronaut Victor Glover Headshot_NASA
NASA astronaut Victor Glover (Image credit: NASA)

NASA astronaut Victor Glover, the first black astronaut to arrive at the space station for a long-term stay, launched to the International Space Station, at a time where many were forced to isolate due to the pandemic, and returned to a world where vaccines had begun rolling out.

After spending so much time away, and in such challenging circumstances, how does one adjust? What kind of training and mental fortitude go into a spaceflight mission taking place against such an unusual backdrop? What fears run through an astronaut’s mind before they hurl themselves into space in the pursuit of science?

Related: How To Become An Astronaut

For every story about breaking free of the "surly bonds" and finding adventure among the stars though, there’s another side of that trip into the unknown. Sure, humanity isn't planet-hopping across the solar system or encountering cosmic horrors like we do in the best space horror movies, but as we all remember from the 1978 classic Alien, "in space, no one can hear you scream."

We wanted to understand the process astronauts undergo before heading out into space, not through simulator training, but how they prepare themselves mentally. For those of us non-astronauts, the closest we'll get is the International Space Station VR experience.

The following conversation has been edited for length. 

What makes an astronaut

Space.com: Is there a particular psychological profile that suits an astronaut?

Victor Glover: There is, absolutely. We have psychiatrists and psychologists that are a part of our selection process that are a part of the maintenance of our health and well-being for astronauts as they're here annually. And then while you're in space, that’s a very important part of your mission support team.

Space.com: But what does it take to be the man that was spacewalking for around six hours earlier this year?

Glover: You know, there are just things about living in what we call the ICE environment — isolated, confined, extreme environments. People who winter over in Antarctica, people who live on submarines, or deploy in our military out into the middle of nowhere, living in tents for months on end, fighting in combat. Those things require a certain type of mentality. And so, you’ve got to have mettle.

There’s a lot of NASA's research into resilience and how to quantify it, how to find it when looking for candidates, but also in your workforce that you have.

How do you instill it? What things do you do to highlight it and then reinforce it? That’s a big one. There are probably tons of other things, but I would say that [mettle] is one of the most important. Resilience is a big part of it.

Related: What It's Like to Become a NASA Astronaut: 10 Surprising Facts

NASA astronaut Victor Glover celebrates after returning to Earth on SpaceX's Crew-1 Crew Dragon capsule Resilience with a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico near Panama City, Florida on May 2, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Space.com: It sounds like a huge part of being a successful astronaut is a sense of adaptability. You have an impressive history, and we know that you yourself became an astronaut following military service. Did you feel this helped with your astronaut training?

Glover: We all come from these various walks of life — science, engineering, education, the military – and we bring these skills from all parts of, you know, all types of professions. But at the end of the day, it’s not what you used to do that’s going to make you successful here: It’s what you’re able to adapt to, what you’re able to become no matter what you did before.

It’s not going to be enough to make you a successful astronaut, so you really have to stretch personally and professionally. I think that resilience, adaptability, and flexibility are very important.

And having a healthy sense of humor, being able to just kind of laugh at things. You’re going to make mistakes. Your colleagues are going to make mistakes. And, at the end of the day, if you can have a laugh at yourself, that perspective is healthy.

"There are no standard missions"

Space.com: Spaceflight has been part of humanity for decades now, but we're still some way off it being commonplace (if you’ll excuse the phrase), despite recent advances. How much of a fear of the unknown is there with even the most ‘standard’ missions?

Glover: I think that first of all, there’s no such thing as a standard mission. As soon as we start believing and treating things like they are standard in this business, we've taken the first step and lined up what’s going to go in the mishap report — we were complacent.

There are no standard missions. I think understanding that is one of the things that permeates the way we train, and the way we operate and fly the space station. And soon these Artemis missions [crewed lunar landings], even though they’ll be shorter, will receive the scrutiny they deserve because they’re so unique.

Sending humans into space will never be commonplace, even right now with what’s going on in the world. We’re looking at William Shatner flying to space. That’s amazing, but that’s not commonplace. More of that won’t make it commonplace, it will still be unique.

And there’s the unknown, you know? I think that’s one of the reasons that education and training are so important. There’s no way to always make the unknown, known. But, you prepare for the unknown with just a solid foundation of education. You have enough tools that you can use in a given situation so that when you face the unknown, you make one decision at a time. You do one thing at a time and you just keep working on that problem.

Fear is when you’re not prepared. We respect the environment we’re going into, but I wouldn’t use the term fear. We’ve done all the preparation we can, which emotionally desensitizes you, so you can focus on your tasks.

NASA astronaut Victor Glover is seen working outside the International Space Station on a spacewalk on March 13, 2021.

NASA astronaut Victor Glover is seen working outside the International Space Station on a spacewalk on March 13, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Space.com: Without meaning to sound morbid, what is the most frightening thought that’s running through your mind ahead of a launch? What's the most frightening thought when heading into space? 

Glover: The most frightening thought for me was “this could go badly, right?” This could go badly and I could not come back. I’ve thought about that. I’ve been deployed in combat before, so I thought about it even before trying to hurl off the planet, at least for a really extended long period of time.

But it was the fact that my family was right there, like my parents, my wife, and that it’s also so public that that part would be a challenge for my family. The hardest part for me was just knowing that if something happened, they would be dealing with it without me, you know. Not in terms of like I was Superman and going to swoop in and save them, but just that they were going to have to figure it out.

Hurling skyward on top of high explosives, as crazy as it sounds, was awesome. A lot of it was unknown, it was my first time flying into space, but I had things to focus on. I had to do the thing I was trained to do, which put things in a great perspective — for me, it was fun, even though it was unknown.

There and back again

Space.com: It's clear that those risking their lives in the pursuit of science are made of stern stuff. But what about coming back? How does life change when you go from the International Space Station and come back to Earth? After an astronaut has been to space, is there a mental 'hangover' associated with having achieved what so many never will — and the relative mundanity of life back on Earth afterwards?

Glover: Coming back from space can really be disorienting, literally and figuratively. We launched in a pandemic, and there were no vaccines. We came back, and there are vaccines, and we’re still figuring it out and working our way through that.

Likewise, I landed and my eldest daughter graduated from high school, and that was great, I just fell into that. We wanted to celebrate her and we had the transition of getting her to college, but it took my mind off of “wow, I’m back on Earth.”

That's just one experience. Had I landed last year, while the pandemic was in full swing, I think in a world where you want to be closer to people, having been in space, that could’ve been really disorienting.

Being in space is like living a dream — you can float, you can lift heavy things. And then coming back to Earth, it’s like a concentrated, extra strong dose of reality. But looking at Earth from space, as beautiful as it was, it was a reminder that, next to my crewmates, everything I love is down on Earth — so I tried to make the most of being in space. I did everything up there I wanted to do, so that when I came back, I had closure. Coming back to Earth really felt like what I needed at the time. I wouldn’t call it a hangover – it was just great to be back home and see my girls and my dog.

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