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Despite starry-eyed promises by the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin, only a handful of humans will actually experience existence outside of Earth’s atmosphere within our lifetime. The rest of us are stuck learning about life in space second hand but that’s where How to Astronaut by former ISS commander Colonel Terry Virts comes in. Virts shares his myriad experiences training for and living aboard the ISS — everything from learning Russian and space-based emergency medicine to figuring out how to unpack an autonomously-delivered cargo shipment or even prep a deceased crew member for burial among the stars — through a series of downright entertaining essays.
And where many titles of this genre can become laden with acronyms and technical jargon, How to Astronaut remains accessible to aspiring astronauts of all ages. Just maybe don’t read the story below about how the ISS crew thought they were all going to die from a toxic ammonia leak to your 6-year-old right before bed.
Excerpted from How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth by Terry Virts (Workman). © 2020.
For all the emergency training I went through as an astronaut, I never expected to be holed up in the Russian segment of the ISS, the hatch to the US segment sealed, with my crew waiting and wondering—would the space station be destroyed? Was this the end? As we floated there and pondered our predicament, I felt a bit like the guy in the Alanis Morissette song “Ironic,” who was going down in an airplane crash, thinking to himself, “Now isn’t this ironic?” This is how we ended up in that situation.
Every space station crew trains for all types of emergencies—computer failures, electrical shorts, equipment malfunctions, and more serious fire and air leak scenarios. However, on the International Space Station, the most dangerous of all is an ammonia leak. In fact, our NASA trainers used to tell us, “If you smell ammonia, don’t worry about running the procedure, because you’re going to die anyway.” That sure instilled confidence.
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