‘Can you train yourself to stay calm during space flight?’

| Trethyn Trethyn

In a few years from now, Mindy Howard will almost certainly be the first Dutch woman in space. On the first day of the Week of Inspiration, she gave an enlightening lecture about her journey to become an astronaut and her work in training astronauts to be mentally prepared for the extremes of space.

When she first comes on stage, Dr Howard is particularly striking. Dressed in a NASA flight suit, she begins by asking the audience to think of their dream in life. After giving us a moment to think about it, she says: ‘By the end of this talk I am going to tell you how to accomplish your dream.’

Steve Austin

Dr Howard has wanted to be an astronaut for most of her life. She explains that the dream began for her when, as a six year old child in the United States, she watched The Six Million Dollar Man and was inspired by the character of bionic astronaut Steve Austin. ‘Steve Austin and I are gonna go to Space together!’ The daydream faded as she grew up, but the desire to become an astronaut remained strong.

And so, after obtaining her PhD from Eindhoven University of Technology, Dr Howard applied to NASA. She got ‘down to the last two hundred people from the thousands’, but no further. Undeterred, Dr Howard had more plans – by becoming a Dutch citizen, she could apply at the European Space Agency (ESA). However, the ESA did not hire astronauts until she was 38. The maximum age of entry was 37. So, for the moment, she gave up. ‘I guess I had better get a job on Earth.’

Peak experience

She worked as a sustainability manager for Shell for several years, before leaving in search of something else. In career counselling, when asked what she wanted to do, she answered ‘I want to be an astronaut’, and she ended up being sent to flight school. Part of her training there included gravity training in a centrifuge. Before she began the training, Dr Howard recalls being very afraid. ‘If I did not do well, my dream of becoming an astronaut could come to a crashing screaming halt.’ Happily she did very well, she recalls feeling as though time stood still. ‘My face was hurting because I was smiling so much’, she describes what she felt as a ‘peak experience’.

Others in her team did not do so well in their centrifuge training, leading Dr Howard to wonder: ‘Can you train yourself mentally to stay calm during space flight?’. The answer given was: ‘No, only physically’. So she started her business, Inner Space Training, to teach people to stay calm in extreme conditions. A few of the training techniques she uses are explained, including the BOBUSA technique for anchoring oneself in the moment, and several more high tech solutions including ‘neurolinguistic programming’.

Watch the space

Despite the success of her company, Dr Howard did not want to spend her life training other people to go into space. In 2018, ‘the call finally came’. She was contacted by a commercial space flight company, who wanted to employ her. ‘We’re having a competition, we’re going to pay for the winners to go to space, and we saw your TED talk – how would you like to train the winners and go to space with them?’

Dr Howard is currently working on this training programme, originally planning to launch in 2023, though there will be a few years of Corona delay. Dr Howard is still working on other Space travel plans, saying she may make it off the Earth sooner. So, she concluded, we should ‘watch the space’.

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