It is starting to get real: Serena, Sergei and I will squeeze into the cockpit of our Soyuz capsule at the top of a 50-m rocket and blast off into space with a thrust equivalent to around 26 million horsepower. We will fly upwards to the sky, and beyond, for eight minutes and 48 seconds with the energy of five nuclear power plants behind us propelling us forward. Awesome!
We have been preparing for this for a long time: over 6000 hours of training are now behind each of us, many of which we completed together. I learned how to manually fly a space ship. In International Space Station and Soyuz simulators we practised hundreds of emergency scenarios. For example, we learned how to react if a fire breaks out, if the Space Station springs a leak or if toxic gases escape. We also learned how to stitch wounds, organise food supplies and handle the many complex Space Station equipment and procedures.
Thanks to my experience from the Blue Dot mission, many exercises were repeat procedures. On the other hand I now have to fly as a co-pilot of the Soyuz, and I have to take on even more responsibility in the second part of the Horizons mission as the Space Station Commander: I had to keep an overview of the whole team’s training, plan the logistics on the Station, assign crew tasks and ensure good communication with ground control. This is important to keep good spirits and avoid an “us up here” versus a “those down there” attitude. One thing that helps is to organise a barbecue before launch: getting to know each other socially allows you to talk more openly during the mission and offers a better understanding of your colleagues.
On board I will have to make sure that everything goes well. That does not mean that I will boss everybody about and constantly give commands. On the contrary, my colleagues know very well what to do on the Space Station on a daily basis. We have studied in detail together with the trainers, how to best distribute tasks according to the strengths and weaknesses of the team. I try to lead by example, motivation and consensus, ensuring a good mood, supporting the crew, and help them alleviate their schedule if I can – and of course I will be doing the same amount of daily tasks as my crew members.
The commander of my Blue Dot mission, Steve Swanson, had such a relaxed way of dealing with us that at first I thought: he is not leading us at all. But after a while I noticed how much he was coordinating with mission control in the background so that we were all doing fine, he was constantly looking out for us. He never bragged about it, an impressive quality that I aim to adopt during the Horizons mission.
This includes using humour in everyday life in order to stay calm in a difficult situation. But if there are serious situations like emergencies, then we must switch to a different mode and communicate clearly. There is no room for jokes and long discussions in these situations.
At the beginning of our training it was not easy to cope with this new responsibility. But I have grown into it and I have learned time and again that decisions are often not one hundred percent perfect: when things happen fast, or when you are in a tricky situation, many complex problems need to be solved at the same time. Getting it 70 or 80 percent right is often enough to defuse the situation at hand.
At an event in Berlin I once met US President Barack Obama and asked him how he came to terms with the fact that his decisions typically cannot please everybody. He answered that it was easier to do if he told himself that the decisions he had to take would not have ended up on his desk if they were easy ones. By definition, therefore, he mainly took decisions to problems that no one else knew how to solve, and for which there was no clear solution.
That is how it sometimes is for us astronauts, too, and I find that quite reassuring: in such a situation, you do not have to do everything 100 percent correctly – because there is no such solution. It is a balancing act, and knowing that makes every decision easier. The most important thing in a spaceship and on the International Space Station is to take the decision. Because if you do nothing, in space during a serious emergency, you die. That much is certain.
That is why we prepare ourselves so intensively for these situations, going through all kinds of emergency scenarios over and over again – until we master them in even our sleep.
Now we are ready: 100 percent.