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IP Expo: Visualising failure is key to any transformation project, says astronaut Chris Hadfield

In May 2013, Chris Hadfield was seven months into his last space voyage. The Canadian astronaut was serving as the commander of the International Space Station (ISS) when, on Thursday 9th, his Russian colleague Pavel Vinogradov alerted him to an unnerving sight.

“Pavel was looking out the window and saying ‘there’s something weird going on outside – it looks like fireworks’,” he told reporters at IP Expo on Wednesday (3 October). Hadfield immediately got in touch with mission control, but they couldn’t identify the source of the problem. Upon closer inspection, he realised the craft was leaking coolant into space. 

Without coolant, the ISS’s solar powered batteries become so hot they stop working. Without batteries, the ISS cannot function. Hadfield calculated that if the leak could not be patched, the entire crew would have to be evacuated.

Over the course of five and a half hours, two astronauts, Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn, carried out a space walk in an attempt to fix the leak. Normally, the ISS’s crew would have more than a week to prepare for such a mission, but Hadfield’s had just a few hours. When Marshburn returned, he had been so badly knocked around that he was suffering nerve damage. But the leak was fixed; Hadfield returned to Earth, as scheduled, three days later.

Visualising failure is what astronauts do for a living

Sports stars often talk about visualising success, but for Hadfield, visualising failure is just as important. “It’s what astronauts do for a living,” he told attendees during his keynote speech. “In one day, we had to come up with a plan, reconfigure the ship and get outside and fix the leak. It would not have been a good time to get to grips with space walking.”

He added: “It was very much the result of taking nothing for granted, having relentless curiosity on how things work and why, and then infinite repetitions of practice to be able to be solve the problems when they go wrong.”

But visualising failure is, Hadfield said, just one element of any major transformation project. “If you want to transform things, you have to remind yourself that impossible things happen,” he said. “When someone sets an idea and the technology advances forward and people apply themselves to enact that transformation, it’s incredible what can be achieved.”