Mark T. Vande Hei, 55, is a NASA astronaut who spent a year in space orbiting the Earth.
He just got back and didn’t expect his tenure to last 355 days, but he was prepared.
He said his days included meetings and experiments. On weekends, they had a movie night.
This essay is based on a conversation with Mark T. Vande Hei, a 55-year-old NASA astronaut. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Before working at NASA, I graduated with a master’s degree in applied physics from Stanford and was a professor of physics at West Point. One day during my long career in the United States Army, a senior Army astronaut came to an Army Space Operations conference looking for someone to work in the astronaut office as part of an agreement to expand the experience base of space operations officers in the army.
I completed my training to become a NASA astronaut in 2011. I returned to Earth in March after spending 355 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station. I am officially the American who has spent most consecutive days off our planet.
Before our launch, there was a lot of uncertainty about the duration of space flight. At first they told me it could last up to 355 days, but it didn’t become official until about halfway through the flight. Since my wife and I knew it was a possibility, we had planned to be away for so long. My previous spaceflight had lasted about six months, so I saw this longer, the last one as a unique kind of challenge.
The journey to the ISS aboard the Soyuz was surprisingly smooth. While watching a launch from the ground involves a lot of light and noise, on the spacecraft itself it exceeds the speed of sound so quickly that it leaves all that noise behind. The predominant sound was that of pumps buzzing to push fuel out of the back end.
When you first arrive on the ISS, it takes time to adjust to the fact that the room you are in is constantly falling towards Earth
You quickly realize that, on Earth, there are many things you do every day that do not require conscious effort. So when you are in orbit, you have to learn how to do them again. For example, if you don’t pay attention to the procedure on how to go to the bathroom, you may end up with a messy situation. When you sit down to go to your laptop, it is important to always anchor your feet to the floor in some way, otherwise you will end up floating on the ceiling.
The ISS is the size of a six-bedroom house, but you can go days without seeing one of your six or seven roommates. Basically, the ISS was built in parts and each part, or module, can be isolated and closed in an emergency. On this latest flight, the Russians added two new modules, so the ISS now feels closer to a seven-bedroom house.
Most weekdays start between 6am and 7am GMT
We need to wake up and have breakfast before the 7:30 am daily planning conference. In these sessions, we check out all ground control teams in Japan, Russia, Europe and the United States. During the day, you have an hour for lunch and then two and a half hours for exercise – on board we have a resistive exercise device, an exercise bike and a treadmill. Our bodies adapt well to buoyancy, so it’s important to exercise to keep our bone strength and density at a healthy level. We spend most of our days completing various tasks that the teams on Earth have assigned us.
In our team’s schedule, there is a line with each astronaut’s name and a horizontal line that moves slowly throughout the day. It guides us on what we should work on and helps us stay on track. My favorite part is when I work with other astronauts, but we often have separate tasks. If you happen to get on with your job, you can go and help someone else, which is always nice.
During this last flight, we helped conduct hundreds of experiments – whether they happened behind the panels or on ourselves
I see my role more as a lab technician than a scientist because I facilitate the success of experiments more than taking data, analyzing it or writing reports.
Within the crew on board, there are surprisingly few “specialists”. With the long duration of the flight, we realized that being a generalist is important because often the plan will change during our time up there. So you often need people who can perform a variety of tasks effectively.
In addition to meetings, experiments and maintenance around the station, spacewalks take up the rest of the day
For example, we have updated and added solar panels, which are located outside the ISS. The ISS is solar powered, so it’s important to have constant power. While I didn’t go out for a spacewalk on this last flight due to a pinched nerve in my neck, I have done so in the past.
Being in space is like a prolonged fall towards the planet, with you and everything around you falling at the same speed and no wind interference. This is exactly what it is to be in orbit.
During the week, the working day continues until about 7.15pm, when we finish with another planning meeting.
On weekends, we usually had some free time, apart from about 3 hours of house cleaning – I like to tell school children.
Every Friday or Saturday we had dinner with the whole crew and then on Sunday we all watched a movie together. Each week, a different astronaut could choose what he wanted: one of my choices was “Yesterday”, with all the Beatles songs.
During the flight I spoke to my wife every day and to my children usually every weekend. I was also able to reconnect with many relatives. It’s a pretty cool situation when you call someone and they are amazed that you talk to them from outer space. Also, I started meditating every day and often sat at the window looking at the planet Earth.
I’m still pretty choked thinking about it. It is all truly a unique experience.
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