Friday, November 18, 2016

What do veterinarians and astronauts have in common?

The universe works in mysterious ways. I was thinking about this post over lunch when the pathology courier turned up in this car featuring a feline astronaut. Major Tom???
“Imagine you're in your living room, intently reading a book, and then you look up casually and you're face to face with a tiger. No warning, no sound or smell, just suddenly, that feral presence.”
That is Col. Chris Hadfield's description of taking a break from a technical task on a spacewalk and looking behind him at the entire universe. 

The highlight of this week was seeing another astronaut, Terry Virts, give a talk on perspective, having spent over 200 days in space. The talk was hosted by the School of Life.

I need a car like this!
Sure, vets have stressful days at work, but few of us have ever space walked, where a millimetre-thin visor and awkward, bulky space suit are the only things between us and instant death. (I say few of us because I know of and have spoken to at least one veterinarian astronaut – RichardLinnehan).

Astronauts have a unique perspective on the world. They get an overview of the wonders of nature, as well as anthropogenic environmental damage (according to Col Virts, you can see – among other things – deforestation of the Amazon and smog from space). They see how finite a resource the planet is – a perspective that many of us struggle to empathise with, making behaviour change difficult to motivate.

So what did I learn? Not much about being a vet (except I am glad I didn’t have to be a test pilot first), but a couple of things.
  1. It takes a few months to master the art of floating. Gravity is a lifelong habit that is hard to throw off. Virts reckoned it took him two months to learn how to float well – and use his hands to move while carrying things with his feet.
  2. There’s no weather in space. The astronauts missed this a lot and he talked about one weekend getting all the laptops together and playing the sounds of rain. Something we whinge about so much on planet earth.
  3. Being an astronaut isn’t all rocket launches and space-walking. The same way that being a vet isn’t about cuddling puppies and kittens. In fact, Col. Virts mentioned that it was around 8 years from when he got accepted into NASA’s program to when he went to space. He said something to the effect that it was fun for the first five years, but after that it was a bit of a downer when everyone said “oh, so you’re an astronaut? What’s it like in space???”. When they ARE up there it’s all about work – it seems that, just like on planet earth, there’s no escaping emails, errands, mundane tasks. They would be worn out and then at the end of the day tuck themselves into their wall mounted (so they don’t float away and impale themselves on equipment) sleeping bags. For those who wanted to, they could velcro themselves to the wall.

Something I learned from Chris Hadfield's book is that worst-case scenario thinking is actually useful – and can have a positive impact on mental health. They simulate everything – multiple times – from fires in space to computer failure (I wonder if they are cursed by ill-timed Windows updates?) to their own deaths.
“While play-acting grim scenarios day in and day out may sound like a good recipe for clinical depression, its actually weirdly uplifting. Rehearsing for catastrophe has made me positive that I have the problem -solving skills to deal with tough situations and come out the other side smiling. For me, this has greatly reduced the mental and emotional clutter that unchecked worrying produces, those random thoughts that hijack your brain at three o'clock in the morning.”
This has made me realise two things. First, I am definitely sure I don't wish to become an astronaut (in awe of them though I am). Second, astronauts and veterinarians have a lot more in common than I thought.
“An astronaut is someone who's able to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter.”
And we don’t have to wait sometimes a decade between missions!


Hadfield, C (2013) An Astronaut's Guide to Life On Earth: Life Lessons From Space. Pan Books.