TED Radio Hour
9:10 am
Fri May 23, 2014

How Do You Deal With Fear Versus Danger?

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode What We Fear.

About Chris Hadfield's TEDTalk

Astronaut and retired colonel Chris Hadfield discusses how to prepare your mind for the unexpected, and the worst.

About Chris Hadfield

Every day aboard the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield would tweet "Good morning, Earth." In his five months on the ISS — three as commander — Hadfield used social media to bring back a sense of wonder about space, including posting a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Hadfield is also the author of the recent book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED radio hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And today on the show, we're asking this question - what's your biggest fear? Can you describe the day of a launch? Like what happens on that day?

CHRIS HADFIELD: Oh, yeah. It's beyond butterflies, it's...

RAZ: This is Chris Hatfield. He's...

HADFIELD: ...An astronaut - a retired astronaut. I was 21 years an astronaut. I've launched off the planet three times.

RAZ: And the thing about those space launches - the odds of a catastrophic accident were 1 in 35.

HADFIELD: It's like a - that feeling in a roller coaster, I think, where you get into that little chunka, chunka, chunka chain thing that drags you up the hill to make the ride begin. And the closer you get to the top, you see more and more of the world. And there's sort of this - OK, nothing bad is happening right now, but this process is leading to something. And our process is, like, 20 years that leads to - it's 20 years of chunka, chunka, chunka up the hill. And that last day is where suddenly you're - you come over that crest, and you're away.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUNCH SEQUENCE)

FLIGHT COORDINATOR: This is the FC performing a launch status check at this time. All systems verify red, or it don't count. And go for launch, OTC. All...

HADFIELD: So you wake up in quarantine somewhere where they've been preventing you from catching a head cold. There's sort of a wedding feel to it of all of these practiced and unusual places where there's a whole bunch of expectant people. And you're wearing clothes you don't normally wear. And it builds. It builds in complexity. And it definitely builds in danger until, finally, after all of the preliminaries, you are wearing the right outfit, and you're sitting in the right seat.

There's an enormous amount of fuel gurgling and jostling in the tanks down underneath you in between you and the earth. And somewhere there's a spark and, bam, some unseen giant just stuck his foot in the small of your back and is now hurling you...

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)

HADFIELD: ...With a lot of vibration and very little pity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)

HADFIELD: And you're along for that ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLASTOFF)

RAZ: So what's the scariest thing you've done, Chris?

HADFIELD: (Laughing) The scariest thing I've done is ride a rocket ship to space.

RAZ: Today on the show - what we fear - ideas about making sense out of our fears, and the possibilities we find when we actually embrace them. And over the next hour, five TED speakers who reveal the things that scare them the most, like...

KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: ...Just people, what people are thinking.

JOE KOWAN: One of my most vivid fears is being on a plane imagining it crashing.

STEPHEN CAVE: I'm scared of speaking on the phone.

RAZ: Is there anything that you're afraid of right now?

DAVID BLAINE: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE ODDITY")

HADFIELD: (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom.

RAZ: So in the case of Chris Hadfield, he probably never would have made it up there in the first place if he hadn't learned something about fear and really how to deal with it. Oh and if you were wondering, Chris Hadfield is, in fact, that astronaut.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE ODDITY")

HADFIELD: (Singing) This is ground control to Major Tom. You've really made the grade.

RAZ: He recorded a pitch perfect cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" on the international space station. And he was just one of 200 or so people who have ever been on the space station. Chris Hadfield picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HADFIELD: It's an amazing experience, but how do you deal with the danger of it and the fear that comes from it? How do you deal with fear versus danger? And having the goal in mind - thinking about where it might lead to be able to launch and go help build a space station where you are on board a million pound creation that's going around the world at five miles a second - to be able to look down the jaw-dropping gorgeousness of the turning orb like a self-propelled art gallery of fantastic constantly changing beauty that is the world itself.

And you see, because of the speed, a sunrise or a sunset every 45 minutes for half a year. And the most magnificent part of all of that is to go outside on a spacewalk. You are in a one person spaceship - that is your spacesuit. And you're going through space with the world. It's an entirely different perspective. You're not looking up at the universe, you and the Earth are going through the universe together. And you are holding on with one hand, one link to the other 7 billion people.

RAZ: Do you remember a time early on in your career as an astronaut where, like, the first time that you were afraid of something - not just nervous but afraid?

HADFIELD: Yeah. Fear is an autonomic reaction to perceived danger. I mean if they grabbed you right now and stuck you in the cockpit of the space shuttle and said OK, we're launching in 15 minutes.

RAZ: I would say stop, don't.

HADFIELD: And if you - and you can't stop it, and if you touch any of the wrong switches, you kill yourself and everybody on board, then you would be, rightly, terrified. But in our case, it's the opposite. They say OK, you're preselected. You're choosing yourself, but also 15 years from now, we're going to put you in the cockpit. We're going to teach you so much about every single switch that you will know them more intimately than anything you've ever know anything in your life.

And so you're so aware - it's like you're playing a harp. And I think if someone handed me a harp, and told me we were now playing in the symphony, I'd be kind of terrified, too. But if you spend the years in advance and instead it becomes more like beautiful music that you're part of and less like just a daunting, scary, petrifying thing. And the only time I really remember that happening in my career as an astronaut was watching a huge meteorite burn up in the atmosphere while I was in orbit.

RAZ: Wow.

HADFIELD: I was looking down at the world. I was looking at Australia at night which is nice because everybody lives on the coast. It's kind of like a necklace. But I was looking at Australia in the night by myself, and then a big meteorite came blundering into the atmosphere. And at first, my reaction was oh, look at that, a shooting star from space. And it was a big one. It took several seconds to burn out. So it was quite scenic. But then immediately after sort of marveling at the beauty of it, I recognized that that was just a dumb rock from the universe that was probably going, you know, whatever 20 miles a second that just came screaming in between me and the planet.

And it could have just as easily been 100 miles higher and smacked right into the side of us - a completely random event that I couldn't have done anything about. No matter how much I trained, that would've obliterated our crew and our vehicle right away. And that - the randomness of it, the lack of the ability to do anything about it - that sent a shiver up my back of just straight animal fear.

RAZ: Why you do it? I mean, why take the risk?

HADFIELD: I think if you're going to take any risk in life, if you're going to expose yourself to any danger, it's worth asking why. For me, if I'm going to take a risk, I want it to be for a purpose. I want it to have a reason. And also, something that I have some control over, so that I can help be master of my own destiny and fate, at least to some degree. That's sort of the essence of exploration.

RAZ: The last time Chris came back from space, it was in a Russian capsule called the Soyuz, and he was hurtling back to earth at 755 feet per second.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

HADFIELD: And in essence, you are riding a meteorite home. And riding meteorites is scary, and it ought to be. But instead of riding into the atmosphere just screaming, like you would, if suddenly you found yourself riding a meteorite right back to earth - instead, 20 years previously, we had started studying Russian.

And then once you learn Russian, then we learned orbital mechanics in Russian. And then we learned vehicle control theory. And then we got into the simulator and practiced over and over and over again. And in fact, you can fly this meteorite and steer it and land in about a 15 kilometer circle anywhere on earth.

So in fact, when our crew was coming back into the atmosphere inside the Soyuz, we weren't screaming, we were laughing. It was fun. So we came thundering back to earth, and then, eventually, the Russians reach in, drag you out, plunk you into a chair, and you can now look back at what was an incredible experience. You have taken the dreams of that nine-year-old boy which were impossible and dauntingly scary and figured it out to reprogram yourself - to change your primal fear so that it allowed you to come back with a set of experiences and a level of inspiration for other people that never could have been possible otherwise.

RAZ: Do you think most of our fears are irrational?

HADFIELD: I think fear is good. I think fear keeps you alive. You know? If a saber-toothed tiger comes bursting out of the bushes, you want to be the fastest running person around. And you want, you know, to have superhuman strength and all the rest of it. But most people, through their entire lives, respond to a perceived danger - sort of amorphous danger.

And we put it behind the category of I'm afraid of - getting married, driving a race car. I'm afraid of whatever. It's easy to say. But in a modern, much more constrained world where the saber-toothed tigers very seldom come jumping out of the bushes, I should maybe try and change my caveman fear reaction to things. If I can evolve it some and, instead, experience the opportunities that exist in life, and don't let those primal fears be the main dictator of the life that results.

RAZ: Astronaut Chris Hadfield, you can find his talk at ted.com

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE ODDITY")

HADFIELD: (Singing) Though I've flown one hundred thousand miles...

RAZ: Did he ever, like, get in touch with you and say hey, you know, nice job or...

HADFIELD: Oh, yeah. He said it was the best cover of the song ever done.

RAZ: Wow.

HADFIELD: Yeah, that's what I thought.

RAZ: Bowie told you that? Oh my god.

HADFIELD: Yeah, he sent us an e-mail.

RAZ: The best cover of Bowie ever, from Bowie.

HADFIELD: Well, I had a pretty good sound stage up there.

RAZ: More stories and ideas about fear in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED radio hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.