Fighting in the Afghan desert, Chris Cassidy seemed a world away – literally – from ever achieving his real dream.
Leading a crack unit in a nine-day mission to take out terrorists in 2004, the US Navy Seals captain harboured an ambition of one day going into space. But belief was key.
The first step would be only months away – when he was selected to train as a NASA astronaut.
The dream finally became reality in 2009 when he boarded the Space Shuttle as part of a seven-strong crew headed for the International Space Station.
It was the first of three space trips for this real-life Rocket Man.
During NASA training he loved to belt out Journey’s classic rock anthem Don’t Stop Believin’. Fitting, given that Chris never did.
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And the leadership and heroism he displayed as a Navy Seal would serve him well on trips back to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz rockets in 2013 and 2020.
His adventures – and those of fellow spacemen 250 miles above Earth– are captured in the jaw-dropping new series Among The Stars, on Disney+.
It was in 2009 that 51-year-old Chris became the 500th human in space. In the show, he recounts the incredible highs as he carried out 10 spacewalks totalling 54 hours and 521 minutes.
He has spent a mindboggling 378 days in space. Of the spacewalks, Chris, from Massachusetts, says: “It can be a little frightening the first hour or so you’re out there. But every now and then, you stop and take a look. It’s a beautiful sight, when you see the Earth out on a spacewalk.
“It’s usually between your toes, going by at five miles a second. You know how far it is between cities and coasts and you see it from a distance in minutes! “It really blows your mind. I enjoy everything about a spacewalk.”
There were scary times too. In 2013, Chris witnessed the terrifying moment Italian space pal Luca Parmitano almost drowned inside his own helmet because of a malfunction which released water.
Nail-biting footage of the incident is included in Among The Stars.
Chris recalls: “It was pitch dark and I remember seeing Luca and his silhouette disappearing and thinking this is a really cr**py feeling.
“The momentum of his motion starts making the water move around. It then sloshed over his eyes and nose. It was almost fatal. Any given mission can end in a catastrophic way. But pushing the boundaries of exploring is what humans do and we get to do that. We get to do that in space!”
Most days are far less dramatic and are spent on experiments which keep astronauts on the ISS for many months at a time.
In the TV show, Chris brings the world of space to life during visits to schools. He also fends off practical questions which, maybe, only kids dare ask.
When one giggling boy asks how astronauts go to the toilet, Chris responds: “Our pee is collected in a machine which is turned into drinking water.”
As the pupils let out a collective “Yeeeukk!”, Chris jokes that they’ve just installed the same system in their school as well. Cue laughter. Chris worked at NASA for 16 years.
Harking back to his early days, he says: “It’s a true privilege. I’m no one special. I’m just doing a special job. At the beginning you’re in awe that you’re now inside the club. It gave me chills thinking about it.”
So what was his first space ride like? “It’s very bumpy and violent,” he says.
“I didn’t know what to expect. Once I realised everything was fine, I remember taking a mirror and looking outside at the flames and smoke below and thinking ‘Wow’!”
In an exclusive chat with the Sunday People, Chris also reveals that life on the ISS can be a bit, well, whiffy.
He says: “The thing I miss most is the smells of cut grass, the smells of the ocean, the smells of the kitchen with a yummy dinner cooking.
“Space has smells… smelly people, smelly feet, experiments that have odours but none of those you associate with Earth.
“We try to do things you can’t do on Earth like do fun things with floating, experiment with water, take thousands of pictures. It’s funny, this particular mission I was providing the mental help for everyone on the ground because of Covid. NASA does a great job of supporting us psychologically, providing movies, books and allowing you to communicate with friends.”
Chris is also a space travel enthusiast who defends the billions spent by Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
He says: “I’m excited, all those things bring enthusiasm to our industry, to the space community, and ultimately it’ll bring cost down to a point where many people can enjoy space flight. I think the world is better off for people like those guys.”
The TV series charts Chris preparing for last year’s ISS mission as part of a $2billion experiment to determine the origins of the universe.
One clip sees him fitting a transmitter on the outside of the space station.
Another shows his pal Drew Morgan giving a “wish you were here” wave to the camera. It all offers a rare glimpse into NASA life.
Speaking ahead of his final launch, Chris says: “This time I’m excited about sharing my return to space with my friends and family.”
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Back home, wife Peggy – they have five children between them – says of his months in space: “I wake up and think, where’s that guy who makes coffee every morning?”
Chris has officially retired from NASA but admits he would love to go to the moon.
He says: “I don’t think the timing is gonna work out for me, but some of my colleagues will get to return to the Moon.”
Not so fast, Chris. Don’t Stop Believin’.
■ Disney+ Among The Stars is available for streaming October 6