Mark T. Vande Hei, 55, is a NASA astronaut who spent a year in space orbiting the Earth.
He just returned, and he did not expect his term to last 355 days, but he was prepared for it.
He said his days included meetings and experiments. On the weekend, they had a movie night.
This essay as stated is based on a conversation with Mark T. Vande Hei, a 55-year-old NASA astronaut. It is edited for length and clarity.
Before joining NASA, I earned 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 US Army, a senior Army astronaut came to an Army Space Operations conference looking to find someone to work in the astronaut office as part of an agreement to base the experience of space operations officers in the Expand an army.
I completed my training to become a NASA astronaut in 2011. In March, I returned to Earth after spending 355 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station. I am officially the American who has spent the most days in a row off our planet.
Before our launch, there was a lot of uncertainty about how long the spaceflight would be. 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 there was a chance, we planned to be away that long. My previous spaceflight lasted about six months, so I saw this longer and latest one as a unique kind of challenge.
The trip up to the ISS in the Soyuz was very smooth. While observing a launch from the ground involves a lot of light and noise, on the spacecraft itself, you go through the speed of sound so quickly that you leave all that noise behind. The loudest sound was the pumps whirring to push the fuel out the back.
When you first arrive at the ISS, it takes a while to get used to the fact that the room you’re in is constantly falling towards Earth.
You quickly realize that, on Earth, there are many things you do every day that don’t require conscious effort. So when you’re in orbit, you have to relearn how to do them. For example, if you don’t pay attention to the procedure of how to go to the bathroom, you could end up in a messy situation. When you sit down to use your laptop, it’s important to always put your feet on the floor in some way, otherwise you’ll float to the ceiling.
The ISS is the equivalent 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 shut down in the event of an emergency. On this latest flight, the Russians added two new modules, so the ISS now seems closer to a seven-bedroom house.
Most weekdays start between 6 and 7 am GMT
We plan to wake up and have breakfast before the 7:30 am daily planning conference. In these sessions, we check in with all the ground control teams in Japan, Russia, Europe and the US. During the day, you have an hour for lunch, and then two hours and ½ hour for exercise – on board, we have a resistive-exercise device, a stationary bike, and a treadmill. Our bodies adapt well to swimming, so exercise is important to keep our strength and bone density at a healthy level. We spend most of our days doing various tasks that have been set out for us by the teams on Earth.
On our team’s schedule, there is a row with each astronaut’s name and a horizontal line that slowly progresses throughout the day. It guides us in what we are supposed to be working on and helps us stay on track. My favorite part is when I get to work with the other astronauts, but we often have separate assignments. If you happen to succeed in your own work, you can go help someone else, which is always nice.
During this latest flight, we helped conduct hundreds of experiments — whether they happened behind the panels or on us
I see my role more as a lab technician than a scientist because I facilitate the success of experiments more than taking down data, analyzing it, or writing reports.
Within the team on board, there are surprisingly few “specialists.” During the long flight, we have realized that it is important to be a generalist because often the plan will change during our time up there. So you often need people who can multitask effectively.
Apart from meetings, experiments, and maintenance around the station, spacewalkers take up the rest of the day
For example, we were upgrading and adding solar arrays, which are on the outside of the ISS. The ISS is solar powered, so it is important that we have consistent power. Although I myself did not go on a spacewalk during this most recent flight due to a pinched nerve in my neck, I have had to in the past.
Being in space is like an extended fall towards the planet, with you and everything around you falling at the same rate, and with no interference from the wind. That’s exactly what it’s like to be in orbit.
During the week, the workday continues until about 7:15pm, when we finish with another planning meeting.
On weekends, we usually had free time, apart from about 3 hours of house cleaning – I love to say to school children
Every Friday or Saturday, we had a full team dinner, and then on Sunday, we would all watch a movie together. Each week, a different astronaut got to choose whatever they wanted: One of my choices was “Yesterday,” with all Beatles songs.
During the flight, I talked to my wife every day, and to my children usually every weekend. I also reconnected with many relatives. It’s a very cool situation when you call someone and they are shocked by the fact that you are talking to them from outer space. Also, I started meditating every day, and often, I would do it sitting at the window looking out at planet Earth.
I still get quite choked up thinking about it. It really is all a unique experience.
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