Seventeen thousand five hundred miles per hour orbital velocity: at that speed, it takes the space shuttle only 90 minutes to do a complete orbit around the Earth. With nearly equal periods of darkness and sunlight, astronauts experience 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in a 24-hour period. The brightness of the sun during the passes through daylight is starkly contrasted by the darkness of the passes through night.
While spacewalking, this contrast is so extreme that we have a golden visor on our helmet to shade our eyes from the sunlight, so we can see what we are doing. We typically use it in a rhythm of 45 minutes of visor down (to block the light), followed by 45 minutes of visor up, during the night passes.
My first spacewalk on my second flight to the Hubble Space Telescope was different. For most of it, I didn’t notice the light blinding my vision – I was working inside the telescope, or the shuttle was blocking the sun, so I didn’t put my visor down. But it took over seven hours to do the spacewalk, and while I was finishing up the sun was blinding me. I put my visor down. When we entered darkness, I forgot to put it back up.
My next task was unhooking my safety tether. If I did this incorrectly, I’d float off into space for ever – but I could barely see a thing.
Not realising the cause of my near-blindness, I thought that I was simply beginning to die. I wasn’t scared. It was almost peaceful. I’d had a good life, a successful spacewalk was nearly over, and if this was the way I was going to go, so be it. I hoped that I would live long enough to get back inside the spaceship, and I did. As soon as I entered the airlock, I saw my reflection. Ah, I thought, that’s why you couldn’t see. You aren’t dying, you just forgot to bring your visor back up.
I was embarrassed. Once we were back inside the shuttle, my buddy Drew Feustel said, “Hey, I noticed you had your visor down at the end during that last night pass.”
“What?!” I said. “Are you kidding me? You noticed that and never said anything? I couldn’t see a thing, I thought I was passing out or dying! Why didn’t you say anything?”
Drew replied, “I didn’t want to embarrass you.”
I said: “Didn’t want to embarrass me? Wouldn’t it have been worse if I messed up my safety tether transfer and floated away into space?”
“Good point,” Drew said. “My bad.”
I told him that he should have pointed out my error, rather than keeping me at risk of making a bigger mistake because I could barely see. A life lesson for us all: it’s better to speak up and risk embarrassment, rather than to regret for ever that you didn’t warn your buddy.
Mike Massimino is a former Nasa astronaut. He has appeared in the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind