“Suddenly my left eye slammed shut in great pain”
Chris Hadfield was temporarily blinded while holding on to the exterior of the International Space Station
Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield suddenly felt pain in one of his eyes while he was on his first ever spacewalk. Within a short time his other eye was also affected, plunging him into even greater darkness as he worked on the ISS.
What mission were they on?
Hadfield was Mission Specialist 1 on STS-100, his second-only spaceflight, and he was working to deploy a UHF antenna on the Destiny lab. “In April 2001, I became the first Canadian to walk in space. I performed two spacewalks. the first one felt comfortable and familiar; I knew what I was doing. I felt confident. I knew that no matter what went wrong I could deal with it, but I was blinded during that spacewalk. suddenly my left eye slammed shut in great pain and I couldn't figure out why it wasn't working. But I kept going and because without gravity tears don't fall, the ball of whatever was mixed with my tears on my eye got bigger and bigger. Eventually it became so big, the surface tension took it across the bridge of my nose like a tiny little waterfall and went ‘goosh’ into my other eye. Now I was completely blind.
“It turned out we had contamination in the suit and it blinded both of my eyes for about half an hour. It was pretty unexpected to be outside the spaceship, blind and holding on, hoping my vision would clear. But rather than panic – which would be a natural reaction – my training took over. By that point we knew everything there is know about the spacesuit and had trained underwater thousands of times. We don't just practice things going right, we practice things going wrong all the time, and not just underwater, but in virtual reality labs with the helmet and the gloves so you feel like it's realistic. the panicky reaction didn't happen.
“I might actually have been struck blind permanently. In fact, some of the chemicals in the suit are toxic enough that they could permanently damage the mucous membrane, so that could have been very bad. But it wasn't. It was something much more minor. Just because something makes you feel vulnerable and uncomfortable doesn't mean its necessarily dangerous or risky. the key is to look at the difference between perceived danger and actual danger: where is the real risk? What is the real thing that you should be afraid of? Not just a generic fear of bad things happening.
“so I wasn't really afraid because it was just that my eyes were not working. I thought, ‘oK, I can't see, but I can hear, I can talk’, and scott Parazynski, my partner on the spacewalk, was there with me, and he could float me like a blimp and stuff me into the airlock if he had to. And actually if I kept on crying for a while then whatever that gunk was in my eye would start to dilute and I could start to see again.
“so I was more worried that we weren't going to get the spacewalk done because time is really tight. It's like when you get a bug in your eye or if you get shampoo in your eyes so that you can't see in the shower. You're not really afraid, just sort of irritated. fortunately it eventually cleared and I could see again, and so we got everything done. When I came back inside, Jeffrey s. Ashby got some cotton batting and took the crusty stuff around my eyes.
“It turned out it was just the anti-fog, sort of a mixture of oil and soap that is used to polish the spacesuit visor, that got into my eye. Now we use Johnson's No More tears, which we probably should have been using right from the very beginning. I went on to perform a second spacewalk and I spent a total of 14 hours 50 minutes outside, travelling ten-times around the world during that time.”
Luckily this bubble was not about to cause Hadfield any trouble