Faced with Constant Risk, an Astronaut’s Decision for Family

By 1996, Terrence "Tom" Henricks was a success, by any measure: the son of an Ohio farmer, he was the first member of his family to graduate college, and a senior flight leader and astronaut piloting space shuttle flights to the Russian space station Mir. Then came the moment when a glance out the window and a meeting with his children changed the course of his life.

After a decade of space missions, Henricks measured the risks and its effects on his personal life. During a visit to Abu Dhabi for the recent Festival Of Thinkers, Henricks told Arabic Knowledge@Wharton that his decision to retire was about his family and acknowledging that career ambition comes with a cost. "I'd had my fair share of space flight, and I didn't have to risk my life to experience it again."

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Can you explain your decision and what led to it?

Tom Henricks: It was my fourth mission in space; very long and productive. I was very comfortable in space and I could do the job. We had a quiet moment and I decided, looking down at the earth, that I'd had my fair share of space flight, and I didn't have to risk my life to experience it again. I had satisfied my personal goals as an astronaut. It was one of those winds in the road of my life where I realized I didn't have to do that or pay the same price for those experiences that I had. That's when I sat down with the family and had the discussion.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: To talk about what was the price of those experiences?

Henricks: Time away from family, the risk, and then being a government employee, as opposed to (making) more money in industry.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How old were your children, and how did they react when you called the meeting?

Henricks: Katie was 14, Tommy, 12, and Heather was eight. We discussed it at home around the kitchen table. I just wanted to hear their views. I told them I would have to move if I stopped working for the government. Their reaction convinced me it was time to move on. I realized they understood the danger of being on the shuttle. They would rather see us re-locate than watch me risk my life.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Were they emotional?

Henricks: No, but it just struck me, at that time that they were more passive than active in family meetings anyway. In this case, they said it was okay. They didn't want to see me take the risk again — that's just the way I interpreted it.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What was their understanding of the dangers of the job?

Henricks: When we arrived as a family in Houston, it was just six months before the Challenger accident. (The U.S. space shuttle Challenger exploded just after launch on January 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard).

At launch, they treat the families of crew special. They're isolated in case something does go wrong. And they saw how concerned my own parents were, so they understood. I didn't understand that they understood until we had that conversation. We never had a discussion after that. Probably should have. At that time, they may have had trouble expressing that. They wouldn't now.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Since fatherhood is also leadership, what sort of example do you think this decision and the discussion of it set for your children?

Henricks: I think it helped them understand that there was a balance. I'm sure they felt they were being shorted on time with me. My first marriage failed, which was not unusual, so we were having this meeting with their stepmother. You have to make more of an effort to see them. If an astronaut has demands on his time — and he does — it's the families who tend to suffer some of it. I don't think of the percentage of failed marriages (at NASA) as different to the general population. But there is some expectation when you live a public life that your life is more stable. We had stresses, like any other families, plus the added strains of space, every so often.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Can you describe those added strains?

Henricks: Each time, after the four missions, came that reunion with the kids. Every time but once, it was back in Houston. So I had been back on the ground for hours or overnight. It's a public reunion. You get off the airplane in front of the public. So it's kind of emotional, but again, a public setting, so it's not a private reunion, and yeah, it's hard on the emotions — you can't fully express that emotion.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Did that also take a toll on your relationships?

Henricks: My ex-wife's stepbrother was one of my college classmates and a good friend of mine before I ever met her. He was killed in an aircraft accident on New Year's Day of her senior year of college. I already knew his parents and went to visit them after his death and that's when I met her. Her sister was dating a naval aviator who was also killed in an aircraft accident. The danger of aviation, I think, was driven home to her.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Did being the first of your family at college serve as motivation?

Henricks: It wasn't a real motivator. The way I explain it to young people now is not to set their goals short, they can dream big. When I was on the farm, I just wanted to get through college. Then, at the Air Force academy, I could be a pilot. I never considered being an astronaut until I was older. So I was selling myself short for no reason. So I try to encourage young people not to set artificial barriers to their dreams.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Can you explain how an astronaut calculates and accepts risk?

Henricks: Test pilots don't take as much risk as fighter pilots. Test flying is very controlled, with engineers supporting every mission. If it's a new type of aircraft, the government and the company have a lot invested. There's risk, but there's a lot of control of that risk. An operational fighter pilot goes out three or four times a week, training for combat, if not going to combat. If you end up as an astronaut, it's a high-risk event that you only do, at most, every other year. So I looked at it overall as a relatively even risk. You took a lower risk, more frequently, as a fighter pilot and a higher risk, less frequently as an astronaut. Being a test pilot was probably the safest flying I ever did!

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