Prior to joining NASA, I had completed a master’s degree in applied physics at Stanford and taught physics at West Point Military Academy. One day during my long career in the Army, during an Army Space Operations Conference, I met an astronaut who was looking for officers to collaborate on expanding the Army’s expertise in space operations.
In 2011, I completed my training and became an astronaut. In March of this year, I returned to Earth after 355 days in space aboard the International Space Station. I am officially the first American to spend such a long time outside our planet.
Before we went into orbit, we weren’t sure how long the flight would be. Yes, I was told it could last up to 355 days, but I eventually found out in the middle of the task. My family and I had been warned of the possibility, so my wife and I were prepared for a long separation. My previous spaceflights took about six months, so I saw this mission as a unique kind of challenge.
The trip to the International Space Station (ISS) on Soyuz was surprisingly smooth. Even if viewing takeoff from Earth is associated with a lot of light and noise, in the spacecraft itself, the speed of sound exceeds so fast that all that noise is left behind. The dominant sound is the hum of the pumps pushing the fuel out of the stern of the ship.
When you first enter a space station, it takes some time to adjust to the fact that the room you’re in is constantly pointing toward Earth.
You quickly realize that there are many things on Earth that you do every day unconsciously and effortlessly. So when you land in orbit, you have to relearn how to make it. For example, if you don’t focus properly on how to use the toilet properly, things can get boring. On the other hand, when you’re sitting at your laptop, it’s always important to stick your feet somehow on the floor, or else you’ll just float toward the ceiling.
The International Space Station is the size of a six-bedroom house, but sometimes you don’t see your roommates for days. The station is made up of parts, and each part, or a small unit, can be isolated and shut down in an emergency. During my flight, the Russians added two new units, so the ISS is more like a seven-bedroom villa.
Most days of the week start between 6 am and 7 am.
As planned, we had to get up and have breakfast before our daily scheduled meeting at 7:30 in the morning. During that, we contacted all the ground control teams in Japan, Russia, Europe and the USA. During the day, we had an hour for lunch and then two and a half hours for exercise. There is a resistance trainer, stationary bike and treadmill on board. Our bodies are well adapted to buoyancy, so it is important to exercise and keep your bone strength and density at a healthy level. We spent most of our days carrying out the various tasks assigned to us by the units on the ground.
The team list displays each astronaut’s name and next to it is a horizontal line that moves slowly forward throughout the day as the missions are completed. It shows what we are currently focusing on and helps us keep pace. My favorite part of the day is collaborating with other astronauts, but we often have separate missions. If someone happens to be way ahead of their responsibilities, they can help someone else, which is always nice.
During the last trip we helped each other run hundreds of experiments, on people on and off our team.
On the ship, I’m more of a lab technician than a scientist. My job is to facilitate the effective conduct of experiments, rather than writing, analyzing or reporting the data.
Surprisingly, there are a few “specialists” on board in the team. Due to the long flight time, we realized that having general knowledge and skills is more important as the business plan changes frequently during our stay on board. So you need people who can perform a variety of tasks efficiently.
In addition to meetings, experiments, and facility maintenance at the station, we spend the rest of the day on space walking tours.
During them, we have updated and added the solar arrays located outside. The International Space Station is powered by solar energy, so it is important for astronauts to have a constant power supply. On the last flight, unfortunately, I did not participate in a spacewalk due to the pressure on the nerves in my neck, but I have done so in the past.
Being in outer space is like going down to a planet for a long time. You and everyone around you fall at the same time, without disturbance or drag from the wind. This is how I would describe being in orbit.
During the week, the working day continues until about 7.15pm, when we finish our last meeting.
We usually had free time on weekends, except for about three hours cleaning our apartment.
I like telling the kids at school that we ate dinner for all the crew every Friday or Saturday, and then watch a movie together on Sunday.
Each week, a different astronaut decided what we were watching. Once upon a time I chose “Yesterday” with all the Beatles songs.
During the trip, I talked to my wife every day, and usually with the kids every weekend. I also managed to renew my relationship with many relatives. It’s great when you call someone and they can’t believe you’re talking to them from space. I also started meditating every day and practiced it a lot, sitting by the window and looking at the floor.
When I remember my stay at the station, I can still feel queasy with emotion. It was a really unique experience.
The above material is based on an interview with Mark T. Vande Hei, a 55-year-old NASA astronaut. The text has been drafted for length and clarity.
Author: Stefano Montale
Translation: Dorota Salus
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