Dr. Dave Williams, one of Canada’s most accomplished astronauts, is marking the recent launch of his inspiring memoir, Defying Limits: Lessons from the Edge of the Universe.
In it, the 64-year-old offers an uplifting and life-affirming story of passion, resilience and living life to the fullest. He shared those lessons during a recent and riveting appearance in Toronto, where he spoke to business leaders and aging influencers during YouAreUNLTD’s inaugural conference, UNLTD Live!
Dr. Williams mesmerized the audience, weaving tales from his incredible life story with a core message that he also outlines in the dedication of his book: “Time is our most precious resource, not to be squandered, but to be nourished into rich experiences that will stay with us forever.”
He certainly has made the most of his time here on earth (and in space). The former director of Space & Life Sciences at NASA has defied gravity twice, once on the space shuttle Columbia and once on Endeavor, logging more than 17 hours of space walks. As Canada’s first dual astronaut and aquanaut, he has lived and worked on the world’s only undersea research habitat and is the recipient of five honourary degrees, the Order of Canada, and the Order of Ontario. The retired healthcare CEO now lives in Oakville, Ont. with his wife, Cathy (a pilot), his children, Evan and Olivia, and nephew, Theo.
It’s an impressive track record, but Dr. Williams simply positions himself as a curious kid from Saskatchewan who always wanted to be an astronaut, despite being told it was impossible. To realize his dream, he pursued every opportunity, navigating setbacks, challenges and, now that he’s retired from the space program, he’ll acknowledge, fear.
“I can tell you, I was scared to death half the time,” he says, which, when you think about it, is a perfectly normal response to sitting on top of a controlled explosion and travelling 25 times the speed of sound in eight minutes to reach the space station. He also lost close friends when Columbia broke up during its return to earth in 2003.
Throughout it all, however, he never lost sight of his curiosity, his goals, or his desire to make a difference. Today, he encourages others to do the same, regardless of impairments or age. It’s shift in mindset, to see getting older as a positive life stage, one of opportunity and purpose, not a life sentence.
“Aging does not equal illness or loss of function,” says Dr. Williams, who knows what is to experience and recover form a life-threatening illness. “As a physician, I want to tell you, you can get sick when you’re young. Don’t associate being older will being ill or infirm.”
In addition to being an astronaut, aquanaut and ER doctor, not to mention a jet pilot, scientist and CEO, Dr. Williams is also a cancer survivor. At age 50, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and, for a moment, thought he’d lost everything. “It sucks being diagnosed with cancer. As soon as I heard those words I thought I was dying and my life was over… I went from being vertical to horizontal, I went being an astronaut to a patient.”
During his treatment, he learned more about being a doctor and how the healthcare system could better serve its patients. (Suddenly those hospital gowns that tied in the back weren’t so convenient.)
“It’s now been 14 years and I am still cancer free,” says Dr. Williams, who, like many cancer survivors is monitored, undergoing blood tests every six months. Where he differs, however, is that he re-certified as an astronaut and, in 2007, flew his second space flight as a cancer survivor.
It’s this resilience that defines his life. In his book, he outlines the rigorous process and the hours involved with the Canadian astronaut program. Space walks are carefully choreographed and astronauts practice in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, an underwater mockup of the space station.
The scuba diving lessons he took at age 12 laid the foundation for his work underwater. Dr. Williams also talks about his work at Aquarius, an undersea research habitat, as an important hub for experiments in health. For instance, remote telerobotic surgery where the simulated patient is beneath the ocean is the groundwork for telemedicine. “This is the future of healthcare,” he says. “Hospitals without walls.”
While much of the work being done as part of the space program is designed to inform the future, Dr. Williams also emphasizes the importance of living in the moment. When he talks about his space walks and riding on the end of the Canadarm, it’s with a sense of wonder and awe that still resonates.
“One of the things we humans do is become complacent to the gift of life.”
“One of the things we humans do is become complacent to the gift of life,” says Dr. Williams. He draws inspiration from the late poet and author Ted Rosenthal, who was in his 30s when confronted with imminent death and wrote: “You can live a lifetime in a moment.”
Dr. Williams continues to make the most of every moment and encourages other to do the same. In his memoir, Defying Limits, he shows us “that whether we’re gravity-defying astronauts or earth-bound terrestrials, we can all live an infinite, fulfilled life with adventure and purpose.” No matter our age.