Meet the adventurer: Steve Smith on space and perseverance

With space tourism slowly becoming a reality, we speak to the astronaut about his experiences in space and how they’ve changed his outlook.

By Amelia Duggan
Published 19 Mar 2020, 07:30 GMT
Steve Smith in space
Steve Smith is a former NASA astronaut and ambassador for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Tell us about your upbringing

I grew up in California. We have redwood trees, mountains and the ocean, so we did a lot of camping and backpacking. And with Silicon Valley right there, I was also surrounded by engineers, tech people and big thinkers — people who take risks. Space was always my dream from a young age.

How did you become an astronaut? Did you face many setbacks?

I had a near-death experience as a 14-year-old; there was a long hospital stay and 10 transfusions. But I came out of that with a new mindset on how to live life: keeping it simple and getting rid of the noise. I also learnt how to overcome big challenges. You learn perseverance — I believe the modern term is ‘grit’.

That medical emergency knocked me out of becoming an air force pilot, which is what I’d wanted to do in order to be an astronaut. I had to think of another way: I learned to fly planes as a civilian, and I started working at IBM which was the tech company at the time. I applied to NASA four times over a 10-year period and was rejected four times. I was 31 when I was finally accepted.

What’s the hardest thing about going to space?

They give you a crushing amount of information to get your head around. The space shuttle itself is 1.5 million pieces and there are 1,500 switches in the cockpit. You have three different space suits, and if you’re working on Hubble you have to know about Hubble Space Telescope. But saying goodbye to your children is the hardest thing. Once you’re in space you worry about something happening to them while you’re away.

Tell us about the explorer’s mindset

Explorers are people who set high goals, knowing that the path to reaching them is going to kick their ass and that there’ll be setbacks and disappointments. But they take this path because they know that whatever shows up, they’ll be able to solve the problem through creativity. The ability to embrace change is important, too.

Why do we go to space?

We go into space because it makes our lives better here on Earth. We take big risks to do that. The money we spend sounds like a lot but $20million for NASA is just a tiny part of our federal budget, so it’s a small investment for a big return.

Do you think a return to the Moon is imminent?

We’re on track to get back to the Moon in the next few years, but we won’t be going by ourselves; it’ll be an international effort — just like the Space Station. We’re going there because we want to practise before we go someplace further: Mars, which is about 32 million miles away. A trip to the Moon is three days each way; a trip to Mars is nine months each way. And the next American to walk on the Moon will be a woman, almost certainly.  

Why do we seem so keen to visit Mars?

There are 50 reasons for going to Mars — more! Part of it is sort of spiritual as we’re born explorers who want to go do things like that, but we might also find something there that would make our lives here on Earth better.

What’s the future of space tourism?

The commercialisation of space is largely thanks to wealthy entrepreneurs who love space — thank you Branson, Bezos and Musk. They’re building spaceships that we see launch from the Kennedy Space Centre on test flights and that will eventually carry tourists. It’s not going to be financially accessible to the common person yet, but 100 years from now, it’ll be just like flying a plane. Someday people will be deciding whether they want to go to the US on vacation or to a space station.

What was your first spacewalk like?

I went outside for the first time with a veteran, Mark Lee, which helps, and I’d trained really hard. But it’s more dangerous outside the spaceship than inside: our life insurance multiplies by four or five if we’re going outside. All that’s connecting you to the ship is a metal wire. It’s really this true feeling of freedom, so that’s when you really feel like you’re flying — at 25 times the speed of sound. When I went outside it was daytime (we go around the world 16 times a day, so we see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets); I remember coming up over the Atlantic and the Namibian Coast — the contrast between the blue waters and these giant orange sand dunes along the coast was beautiful.

Has being an astronaut changed how you feel about this planet?

When you see the Earth from overhead, it looks like an island in a vast ocean. It strikes you that we need to take care of the island; we need to love Mother Earth. It’s really an honour to live here. Astronauts come back as really strong environmentalists. Another impact is that you really see it as one community; you don’t see borders. You realise we need to promote peace — and be nice to each other.

Who are your heroes?

Growing up, I was influenced by Jacques Cousteau, the famous undersea explorer. When I became an astronaut, I wrote to him to thank him — and he wrote back. I invited him to the Kennedy Space Centre to watch a launch and he accepted. We met there and we talked about the Earth; his real passion was clean water for everyone. We have to protect the Earth for future generations, he said. It was really this spiritual moment. We have to love the Earth and, as explorers, help the cause.

Do you collect any souvenirs?

Only in my mind. I have great memories of the places I’ve been, and learning about myself in those places.

Steve Smith is a former NASA astronaut and ambassador for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Located just 45 minutes from Orlando, Florida, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex brings to life the epic story of the U.S. space programme, offering a full day or more of fun, inspiration and educational activities. Opens daily at 9 am, closing times varying by season. Admission is $57 (£44) + tax for adults and $47 (£36) + tax for children ages 3 – 11.

Published in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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