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Finding traction in space

On Feb. 7, 1984, Bruce McCandless II made the first, untethered, free flight spacewalk in the Manned Maneuvering Unit.

That’s a terribly tame and sterile name. They definitely should have called it “Outer Space Frickin’ Jet Pack,” or “Look Mom! No Hands!”

In any event, it makes for one of the most terrifying, awe-inspiring, and shiver-inducing photographs I’ve ever seen.

Floating Through Space


Fortunately, the MMU itself performed flawlessly and was used on three separate Shuttle missions in 1984.

But look at that photo again and imagine for a moment that you are the astronaut. And now erase the MMU. And now pretend that you’re trying to reach a spot just five meters ahead.

You would be flailing your arms about wildly. Maybe instinctively windmilling them as you might have done down on Earth, trying to create some forward momentum. Your legs kicking backing and forth, your entire body curling inward and thrusting out. Just. Trying. To ... inch. Yourself. Forward.

What could possibly be more frustrating than the complete and total absence of traction?

You feel defeated.

All It Takes is a Tether

Now, extend a simple tether out to your adventuresome, astronaut self and suddenly, you’ve got a tool to make progress even though little else has changed.

Your legs remain ungrounded. The surrounding environment is still as alien and unnatural as ever. But now, you’ve got something to hold on to.

You give a little tug and you’re pulled forward.

“Hey. Here we go,” you say to yourself.

You feel hopeful.

Eventually You Settle Back Into Orbit

Your tether leads you back to the still ungrounded, but relatively more predictable confines of a cramped, simple capsule. You’re hurtling through space at breakneck speeds and you never thought squeezing yourself into a cube barely larger than your body would feel like a luxury, but at least now you feel something push back when you extend your limbs.

And best of all, instead of aimlessly floating in the direction of nowhere, you are in orbit.

You feel prepared.

Until You Are Back on the Ground

For the sake of expediency – and because it sort of botches my metaphor – we’ll skip the harrowing descent through the atmosphere. Feel free to color in your own piece of the story here and consider how you might go about building the heat shield that ensures your safe return to the earth. Ok, maybe it doesn’t completely mess things up after all. :)

Finally, you’re grounded.

Compared to the empty vacuum of space, devoid of feedback loops with only nothingness in every direction, here on the ground, your mastery of and influence over your environment is life-giving.

You feel invincible.

Processes, Not Goals, Are the Tether

When you’re flailing about aimlessly, going absolutely nowhere, and wondering, “what in the world am I going to do now?” Probably, the best thing you can do is give yourself a tether in the form of a simple process you can wrap your hands around today, and tomorrow, and the next day.

Setting a big, lofty goal and fixing your eyes only on that outcome is like floating in space, looking down at the Earth, and trying to swim there.

Yes, that is where you want to go. That is where you’re headed.

But for now, the best thing to do is get a grip on the process that will eventually take you there and put one foot (or hand) in front of the other.


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