Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Defying Limits: An Interview with Astronaut and Author Dr. Dave Williams


"Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning." 

-J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan


Every seven year-old knows an important secret: life is lived for exploration, for grand adventure beyond the folds of the imagination. As a child, Dave Williams had lofty dreams that stretched to the moon and back. Reading books and learning about the nascent international space program led the young Dave, by age seven, to know he wanted to be an astronaut someday.


Though children often wish upon the stars, many grow into adults and forget the enchanted explorations of their youth. They forget the power of their dreams. But even as an adult Williams never stopped dreaming. He never stopped reaching for the stars. He became a Canadian hero when in 1992 he joined the Canadian Astronaut Program, and in 1995 he became an Astronaut at NASA. He journeyed on two spaceflights and set a record of three spacewalks. How did Williams make his dreams a reality?


To find out, Library and Archives Canada, the Ottawa Public Library, and the Ottawa International Writers Festival jointly hosted Dave Williams for public event. Gathering a large audience filled with starry-eyed children at Library and Archives Canada, Williams spoke about his journey to the stars.


Charting a path wasn’t easy. Williams chose the title Defying Limits for his book because of the many challenges he faced. The first was when Williams wanted to become an astronaut as a child; his teacher said it was impossible for there was no Canadian Space program at the time.  So, Williams decided to take up the next best thing, and learned to scuba dive at age 12.  Williams later struggled with university while managing part-time jobs to cover costs of tuition. He didn’t get into medical school the first time he applied, so he applied a second time. Courage, as Williams told his audience, includes the bravery to embrace your failures. Brave people will allow themselves to fail again and again.


Sometime, what it takes to move through obstacles is a shift in perspective. When Williams first experienced failure, it hit him hard. Initially, he confessed, he felt badly about his grades in school. Later, he took ownership of the problem and realized his actions had a role to play in his success. Williams studied at the campus library until midnight and ended up graduating from McGill University with top awards. Then, at the zenith of his career, at age 50, Williams was hit with another big roadblock when he was diagnosed with cancer. Williams admits his first thought after the diagnosis was: I’m going to die. Then a shift happened. His next thought was: What can I do? Williams engaged with his illness, became proactive in his recovery, and at age 54, he flew into space as a cancer survivor.


Admittedly, Williams is a Type-A personality. He has big dreams but also does whatever it takes to deliver.  One of the most important life lessons Williams learned was from his son, who taught him that sometimes the best goal is not to set any goals. Sometimes, Williams told the audience, the best goal in life is simply to have fun. “Cosmic time is infinite. . . My life is a speck of sand on the infinite beach of time,” Williams observed. “We should not live to leave a legacy, but instead live our legacy,” enjoying life with the ones we love.