23 minutes. It doesn’t sound like a long time, does it? Well, I guess that’s because it isn’t. Think about it, what meaningful, life-changing thing have you done in the last 23 minutes that will forever impact on the lives of those around you and the course of history?
Me? Unless that three month-old yoghurt I just binned from my fridge was cultivating a cure for the common cold, absolutely nothing. But 23 minutes was all the time Mike Foale had left when the Mir Space Station was accidentally damaged, before he and his crew mates succumbed to blissful unconscious and onwards…
The former NASA astronaut who has spent 374 days of his 58 years so far in space, spoke candidly and beautifully about the moment a supply craft put a hole in the space station on which he worked, at a Mission Discovery event held by 29studios in Glasgow this week. And I’ll admit it, afterwards I felt slightly guilty about all those 23 minutes wasted in my life, when the end moved ever closer but not so perceptibly that the preciousness of seconds forced me into any kind of action.
Mike spent the evening making the unreal real and the extraordinary… nope, definitely still extraordinary. I imagine it’s not really possible to listen to another human being’s tales of space travel, the limits of understanding, and unshakeable team spirit in the very ugly face of imminent death and return to life uninspired. For me, it was impossible. For the wide-eyed young people in the room, I’m guessing it was a seminal moment in at least one fledgling science career.
Mike spoke, not of how exceptional he was, nor of how unique, but of how lucky and determined he had been. Life lessons for any aspiring world-changer. But it was his attitude to everyone else that really made a lasting impression. When asked if he had ‘astronaut’ on his passport, Mike replied, ‘why would I? I’m just a normal person.’. And even though we knew he had been physically so far above us, in that moment, he put us all right back on the same level. That’s a pretty special skill. Cover a bundle of smiles, anecdotes and optimism with a blanket of humility, and you’ll have an approximation of this space-walking, Mir-saving, Hubble-repairing, astrophysicist. Not a real blanket though, eh, the guy still needs to breathe.
So go on, I dare you, make the next 23 minutes meaningful. Do something that frightens you or challenges you or just wakes you up a little. That’s all Mike Foale had left; and look what he did with it.