Fear, while on a mission (see below for a French translation).
It was not that long ago, my husband was strapped on a missile (on purpose) at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. I sat in the dirt at 17:21, on the bare Kazak Steppes, eyes focused on the Soyuz Rocket that held my husband, and watched on with your three babies aged 2, 5, and 7. T-minus 1- minutes.
“You must be scared?” was a question that I asked every other day for the three years of training and the mission. I was not, I was ready for this.
Three years ago we were sat in NASA’s building 4. A 1980s grey room with neon and floating ceilings for our family’s contingency planning briefing. Approximately 4% of astronauts die at work. Every family goes through this process at the beginning of training. A team of ten, around a long table: the chief astronaut, the flight doc, and family support. Everyone is wearing some rocket crested polo, and the walls surrounding us are full of framed montages of floating astronauts and blasting rockets. There’ a PowerPoint presentation, to-do lists for us to complete. They clearly remember Challenger and Columbia, they have worked through too many « near-miss » situations to ignore how exposed we are. They know how important it is to prepare. You would think that you would just fill out the paperwork and bury it, as deep as you can. You don’t, you tame the beast.
We listed all utility numbers passwords and authorizations, we wrote our wills. I had to choose my Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO) and a backup, who would knock at the door (before the media does) if David died in space. I briefed him on how I wanted the news broken, and I had him track my phone so he would always know where to get me. I remember this CACO file on our desk for a few days. After we felt confident about our decisions, it went to live in Mission Control, and we moved on.
For a while, everything was tinted with the knowledge that David may not come back. Sometimes I was scared, mostly as we were working through contingency planning, but once it was all sorted out – I came to accept the risk. The fear, somehow, mostly dissipated. I was able to be a positive, proactive and serene mission team member. I was able to support my husband through his own journey. Astronaut families have a hard time protecting young kids from footage of exposing spacecraft, and bystanders who like to comment on the perils of space-living, but all my kids really cared about was how I was feeling. They looked up to me. David looked up to me. The whole team looked up to us. At some point in contingency preparation, we all came to peace, and moved along towards mission objectives.
Things I did in stressful times:
- No screens in the evenings
- No more news
- Decaffeinated my life (!)
- Sleep time was protected
- I watched Mr. Bean
- Danced with the kids, played ball and board games
- Sang in the car (again, no news!)
- Kept in close contact with friends
To all of those right now who are scared and thinking about death and your will; just do it, NASA style! Address it, do the paperwork. It just may free you. Embrace preparedness. Once you feel prepared enough, review your odds; David had a 96% chance of survival, after all, fear had no right to ruin the mission. Be diligent about minimizing the risk to you and your family. We are the center of this COVID-19 mission, and there will be a lot to be very proud of once this is all over. Look at your odds of surviving this mess, and take the risk to be the mission member you really want to be.
Dr Véronique Morin is a family physician. She spent most of her career working in remote communities of Nunavik, Quebec, and recently in Texas. She currently works in public health, on the COVID-19 team of the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services.
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