May 23, 2022

Training, Readiness, Leadership: An Astronaut Reflects

By Ed Rutkowski

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (May 23, 2022)—As a teenager in southern Maine in the 1970s, Capt. Chris Cassidy was in his guidance counselor’s office when he came across a picture of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Intrigued by the prospect of free tuition, and undeterred by the five years of service he would owe in return, Cassidy decided to apply. The service academies’ rigorous process required an official nomination from his Representative in Congress, which Cassidy obtained by the fall semester of his senior year. But he somehow forgot to complete the more mundane requirement of submitting an application. Judging from Cassidy’s keynote address this morning at AIHce EXP 2022, which extolled the virtues of training and readiness, the story of how he nearly didn’t get accepted to the Naval Academy seems to illustrate one of the few times in his life he wasn’t prepared.

By the time Cassidy discovered his mistake, he was partway through his spring semester and time was running short. Thanks to the intervention of a kind-hearted Marine, Cassidy was accepted into the Naval Academy Preparatory School, an institution that would allow him to transfer to the university after one year. Without the Marine’s help, Cassidy’s subsequent career, which included two tours in Afghanistan and 17 years of service as an astronaut, would not have been possible.

In 2004, as a Navy SEAL platoon leader, Cassidy led a mission in Tora Bora, the mountainous region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where Osama bin Laden and Taliban fighters had taken refuge in a sprawling cave complex. Right before the mission, Cassidy had an encounter with his commanding officer that has stayed with him ever since. “I know what I expect of you,” his CO told him, according to Cassidy. “I expect you to make good decisions and bring the men home.” The moment helped him recognize that the many years of specialized training he had received as a SEAL, while vitally important, was secondary to his ability to use his judgment to keep people safe.

That judgment came into play in dramatic fashion during a space flight nine years later. While conducting a planned spacewalk, Cassidy’s partner experienced a malfunction with his space suit that resulted in cooling water entering his helmet, obscuring his vision. Sensing his partner’s distress, Cassidy helped him return to safety—although, as he told AIHce attendees, he doesn’t remember exactly what he did. It was a moment when his training took over and he acted on instinct.

Despite the demands of training and the stresses of spaceflight—he described the experience of blastoff as similar to a gorilla stepping on his chest—Cassidy expressed thankfulness for being among the small group of people who know what it’s like to leave earth’s atmosphere. He recalled a moment soon after his third and final spaceflight when he wondered why he had been so lucky to have that experience, and he reminisced about looking down from space and seeing the earth’s surface zip by. From his vantage point at his spacecraft’s window, whole cities came into view and vanished moments later. “Fundamentally, I think the world would be a better place if every single one of us could look out that window,” Cassidy told attendees. “It really made me appreciate earth for what it does for all of us.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the highlights page on AIHA’s website.