One morning a strange thought occurs to me shortly after waking: the socks I am about to put on are the ones I’ll wear to leave Earth. That prospect feels real yet surreal, the way a particularly vivid dream does. The feeling intensifies at breakfast, when reporters jostle each other to get a good photo, as though I’m a condemned man and this is my last meal. Similarly, a little later on, when the technicians help me into my custom-made spacesuit for pressure checks, the joviality feels forced. It’s the moment of truth. The suit needs to function perfectly—it is what will keep me alive and able to breathe if the spacecraft depressurizes in the vacuum of space—because this isn’t a run-through.
I am actually leaving the planet today.
Or not, I remind myself. There are still hours to go, hours when anything could go wrong and the launch could be scrubbed. That thought, combined with the fact that I’m now wearing a diaper just in case we get stuck on the launch pad for a very long time, steers my interior monologue away from the portentous and toward the practical. There’s a lot to remember. Focus.
Once everyone in the crew is suited up, we all get into the elevator in crew quarters to ride down to the ground and out to our rocket ship. It’s one of those space-age moments I dreamed about as a little kid, except for the slow—really slow—elevator. Descent from the third floor takes only slightly less time than it does to boil an egg. When we finally head outside to walk toward the big silver Astro van that will take us to the launch pad, it’s that moment everyone knows: flashbulbs pop in the pre-dawn darkness, the crowd cheers, we wave and smile. In the van, we can see the rocket in the distance, lit up and shining, an obelisk. In reality, of course, it’s a 4.5-megaton bomb loaded with explosive fuel, which is why everyone else is driving away from it.
At the launch pad, we ride the elevator up—this one moves at a good clip—and one by one we crawl into the vehicle on our hands and knees. Then the closeout crew helps strap me tightly into my tiny seat, and one of them hands me a note from Helene, telling me she loves me. I’m not exactly comfortable—the spacesuit is bulky and hot, the cabin is cramped, a distinctly un-cushion-like parachute and survival kit is wedged awkwardly behind my back—and I’m going to be stuck in this position for a few hours, minimum. But I can’t imagine any place else I’d rather be.
After the ground crew checks the cockpit one last time, says goodbye and closes the hatch, it’s time for pressure checks of the cabin. Banter ebbs: everyone is hyper-focused. This is all about increasing our chances of staying alive. Yet there’s still a whiff of make-believe to the exercise because any number of things could still happen—a fault in the wiring, a problem with a fuel tank—to downgrade this to just another elaborate dress rehearsal.
But as every second passes, the odds improve that we’re going to space today. As we work through huge checklists—reviewing and clearing all caution and warning alarms, making sure the multiple frequencies used to communicate with Launch Control and Mission Control are all functional—the vehicle rumbles to life: systems power up, the engine bells chime for launch. When the auxiliary power units fire up, the rocket’s vibration becomes more insistent. In my earpiece, I hear the final checks from the key console positions, and my crewmates’ breathing, then a heartfelt farewell from the Launch Director. I go through my checklist a quick hundred times or so to make sure I remember all the critical things that are about to happen, what my role will be and what I’ll do if things start going wrong.
And now there are just 30 seconds left and the rocket stirs like a living thing with a will of its own and I permit myself to move past hoping to knowing: we are going to lift off. Even if we have to abort the mission after a few minutes in the air, leaving this launch pad is a sure thing.
Six seconds to go. The engines start to light, and we sway forward as this huge new force bends the vehicle, which lurches sideways then twangs back to vertical. And at that moment there’s an enormous, violent vibration and rattle. It feels as though we’re being shaken in a huge dog’s jaws, then seized by its giant, unseen master and hurled straight up into the sky, away from Earth. It feels like magic, like winning, like a dream.
It also feels as though a huge truck going at top speed just smashed into the side of us. Perfectly normal, apparently, and we’d been warned to expect it. So I just keep “hawking it,” flipping through my tables and checklists and staring at the buttons and lights over my head, scanning the computers for signs of trouble, trying not to blink. The launch tower is long gone and we’re roaring upward, pinned down increasingly emphatically in our seats as the vehicle burns fuel, gets lighter and, 45 seconds later, pushes past the speed of sound. Thirty seconds after that, we’re flying higher and faster than the Concorde ever did: Mach 2 and still revving up. It’s like being in a dragster, just flooring it. Two minutes after liftoff we’re hurtling along at six times the speed of sound when the solid rocket boosters explode off the vehicle and we surge forward again. I’m still completely focused on my checklist, but out of the corner of my eye, I register that the color of the sky has gone from light blue to dark blue to black.
And then, suddenly, calm: we reach Mach 25, orbital speed, the engines wind down, and I notice little motes of dust floating lazily upward. Upward. Experimentally, I let go of my checklist for a few seconds and watch it hover, then drift off serenely, instead of thumping to the ground. I feel like a little kid, like a sorcerer, like the luckiest person alive. I am in space, weightless, and getting here only took 8 minutes and 42 seconds.
Give or take a few thousand days of training.
Hadfield recently spent 144 days serving as commander of the International Space Station. As he and his crew conducted a record number of scientific experiments and completed a risky emergency spacewalk, Hadfield also gained worldwide acclaim for his stunning photographs, videos, and commentary from space, and he has been credited with single-handedly reinvigorating interest in the space program. The top graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School in 1988 and U.S. Navy Test Pilot of the Year in 1991, Hadfield was selected to be an astronaut in 1992. He was capsule communicator for 25 Shuttle launches and served as director of NASA operations in Star City, Russia, from 2001 to 2003; chief of robotics at Houston’s Johnson Space Center from 2003 to 2006; and chief of ISS operations in the Astronaut Office from 2006 to 2008. He is also a fully qualified flight-engineer cosmonaut, is fluent in Russian, and is designated a “specialist” on all Space Station systems, meaning that he has earned the highest qualification level possible for every imaginable task on board. In June 2013, after more than two decades as an astronaut, Hadfield announced his retirement.
Author photo credit: NASA
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