In March of this year, Mark Vande Hei returned to earth after spending 355 days in outer space. Today on the show, I talk to Mark about what it was like to spend nearly a year in orbit, and how he ended up setting a new record for the longest spaceflight by an American astronaut. We first talk about how Mark went from being a soldier in the Army who served twice in Iraq, to working for NASA. Mark explains the application process for becoming an astronaut and what he thought were the hardest parts of his training. He then shares how you exercise in space, what a typical work day on the International Space Station is like, and how it feels to do a space walk. I ask Mark whether he was worried when the Russians threatened to abandon him in space, whether life on the space station is hard on morale, what it’s like physically to return to earth, and whether there’s a letdown when it’s time to hang up your astronaut pack.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM Podcast #654: How to Astronaut
- United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command
- Video of Mark’s time in space
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In March of this year, Mark Vande Hei returned to earth after spending 355 days in outer space. Today on the show I talk to Mark about what it was like to spend nearly a year in orbit, and how he ended up setting a new record for the longest space flight by an American astronaut.
We first talk about how Mark went from being a soldier in the Army, he served twice in Iraq, to working for NASA. Mark explains the application process for becoming an astronaut and what he thought were the hardest parts of his training. He then shows how you exercise in outer space, what a typical work day in the International Space Station is like, and how it feels to do a space walk.
I ask Mark whether he was worried when the Russians threatened to abandon him in space, whether life on the space station is hard to morale, what it’s like to physically return to Earth, and whether it’s a let down when it’s finally time to hang up your astronaut pack. After the show’s over check at our show notes at aom.is/space.
Mark Vande Hei, welcome to the show.
Mark Vande Hei: Well thanks, Brett. It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are an astronaut and you just got back in March from a nearly year-long stay in the International Space Station, and we’re gonna talk about it ’cause that’s an American record. We’ll talk about the day, how that happened. But before we do, let’s talk about just being an astronaut, how long you’ve been an astronaut, what’s kind of the stuff you’ve been doing as an astronaut?
Mark Vande Hei: Oh, I became an astronaut in 2011. Prior to that, I was an astronaut candidate here at Johnson Space Center, started in 2009. And from 2011 on, a lot of it’s maintenance training, trying to make sure you’re ready for a space flight, and I served as the director of Operations in Russia for a year, so I spent that year in Star City, Russia, where the three members that were then assigned to launch in a Soyuz spacecraft to get to the space station were training. That was definitely a highlight for me of that time.
I also studied Russian a lot, quite honestly, in the intervening years. There’s a lot of neutral buoyancy lab training we do to get ready for spacewalks, that’s a big part of it, and that’s some of the recurring training I mentioned. And probably about once a month, I would do a public affairs event, where I go and talk to anything from organization to elementary school.
Brett McKay: How many missions have you flown as an astronaut?
Mark Vande Hei: I have flown two, both to the space station and both getting there and back on a Soyuz spacecraft.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And so is being an astronaut, is this like, were you like a typical kid who, “When I grow up, I wanna be an astronaut.”? Was that something you’ve always wanted to do, or did it just kind of happened?
Mark Vande Hei: It wasn’t something that I wanted to do, only because I didn’t think it was possible. It was… I think I was just trying to be too cool. I didn’t want to say I wanted to be an astronaut some day, ’cause it felt a lot like saying I wanted to be Spider-Man or Superman someday, and it just, that wasn’t something that I thought made sense.
I still am quite shocked that I actually have gotten to be an astronaut, and even getting to go through the interview process to be an astronaut I thought was amazing, and being able to say that I’ve actually been to space as long as I have, I’m still a little puzzled by that.
Brett McKay: Well, what’s interesting about you and your career, unlike a lot of astronauts who get to NASA via the Air Force, they’re a pilot or fighter pilot, something like that, you had a military career but it was through the Army. So how did the Army lead you to NASA? ‘Cause you typically don’t think of Army and space in the same thing.
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah. Actually, we have pretty consistently had at least one Army officer in most, not every, but most astronaut candidate classes. It’s something that the Army, unlike the other services though, initially it wasn’t getting very well represented and we don’t have high performance jet pilots in the Army. So in that regard. And that was what NASA is looking for initially, almost exclusively.
So at some point, if I understand correctly, the Army said, “Hey, what can we do? We’ve got some really good people,” and then I think the Johnson Space Center director at the time said, “Why you let us borrow a few of them, and then we’ll see how they do?” And so we would send typically helicopter pilots eventually, once that was a thing for the Army, sent in helicopter pilots here, and again, they weren’t high performance jet pilots, but they were great leaders and did a wonderful job, and so that was a way to get those folks in.
And for me, it was kind of a strange path. I had switched… Because I got the opportunity to go to grad school as part of the preparation to teach at West Point, I was in grad school studying physics and the physics as I was most interested in was space physics. And then at the same time I was in grad school, the Army opened up a new career field called Space Operations, and I recognized that I was gonna spend five years away from the tactical environment I was familiar with in academia, and recognized that was gonna potentially, in a 20-year career that was gonna set me back quite a bit.
So when Space Operations came up as a possibility, I thought, “Wow, I should… This is something that might be uniquely suited to help out with.” So I checked into it, I thought it sounded really interesting, and I managed to become a Space Operations Officer. And then it turned out that because this whole field was new, there was an Army astronaut who was talking to the general in charge of Army space operations and are talking about this new career field and how it would be nice to have the ability to broaden the experience base of Space Operations offices by having one of them actually work at the astronaut office and be exposed to human space flight in that regard, and then come back to the Army.
And so, shockingly at some point, I got invited to work at NASA, when I always thought it would be cool to work at NASA, but I never thought it would actually happen. So that’s kind of a long story for how I ended up working at NASA in the first place. I actually started working at NASA in 2006.
Brett McKay: So you’re more of like a liaison between the Army and NASA?
Mark Vande Hei: Actually, what I did when I was working here as what we call an engineer in the astronaut office was I was working as a capsule communicator, so my job was to have the astronaut’s perspective and work in the mission control center and understand enough of what the mission control, the flight controllers were talking about in the mission control team.
So that when the flight director said, “Tell the crew this,” I understood well enough what that was about to be able to explain to the crew. Which was a fantastic job. You’re sitting… You’re communicating, history is happening, you’re getting to watch what they’re doing in space as part of your work day. I just, I loved it. It was fantastic.
Brett McKay: Tell me a bit more about space operations in the Army. This is new to me, I didn’t know this existed. What is the Army trying to do with space operations?
Mark Vande Hei: Granted, I have been out of it for quite a while, because the last time I was really involved in Army space operations was prior to 2006, so a lot of it might have changed, but the Army recognized that there is a lot with all the digitization that’s coming on, that the Army can take great advantage of assets in space. But we weren’t really doing a good job of influencing investments in space that would benefit the Army, so we recognized that was a lack.
So that was part of it, getting some people in the Army, all with some experience in the field, pretty fairly senior officers at least with 10 years under their belt, typically back then, getting involved in space operations. And space operations in the Army was… We could provide some promotional imagery, for example. There are some detection assets that we had access to.
There’s satellite communications we could help out with. It was really to help the military units we’re supporting take full advantage of the space assets that are available to the country.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Okay, so you end up at NASA, you’re working there, an opportunity arises for you to apply to be an astronaut. What’s the application process like? It’s very thorough, I imagine.
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah, it actually starts out with something pretty simple. It’s just you go to usajobs.gov, and it’s the same application process that you use if you want to be a fireman for the federal government. Every federal government job is out there, including astronaut. So that’s where you start. And if you make it through the thousands of applications to actually get an interview, then it definitely gets more intense.
Brett McKay: How long does the application process take?
Mark Vande Hei: Oh gosh, it’s probably on the order of more than six months, I would think, because… And that’s really because every one of those applications gets reviewed by somebody, and we’ve had up to 18,000 applicants in some recent classes. And that process gets the, that number down to about 400 that are considered really highly qualified, and then we start checking references. And after that, once the references have been checked, we’ll pick a 120 people or so to actually start coming in for the first round of interviews.
Brett McKay: That’s really competitive. And then so there’s multiple rounds of interviews, and I imagine there’s tests involved too. Are they doing psychological tests to make sure this is your fit for this position?
Mark Vande Hei: There are definitely psychological tests, and I’m not sure if this is a good idea, but I admitted during my first interview week that after three hours of filling in the dots, I stopped. So at first, every dot I filled in I thought, “What are they gonna think about me when I put this in there?” and I was really, really putting a lot of thought into everything. And then after three hours of that I just didn’t care.
I just wanted to finish the darn thing. So I told them that they had definitely gotten the real me at some point because I was, I just was exhausted by the process.
Brett McKay: Alright, so you go through this process, you’re selected. Let’s talk about training to become an astronaut. Now, I imagine a lot of people who apply to be an astronaut, they’ve been training to be an astronaut their entire lives, either physically training and doing all the math and getting hours in the cockpit. What did your training look like after you got picked?
Mark Vande Hei: After I got picked. So we’ve got this astronaut candidate time period, you effectually call the people that are in that situation, you call them “ass cans”.
It’s two years where you are… Almost everybody passes. We have had some people not make it through. The training is everything you need to do to demonstrate potential to be assigned to a space flight. So we train people on EVAs in our neutral buoyancy lab, in a very large pool. We… And when I say “EVAs”, I mean spacewalks.
We train people on the International Space Station systems, and when we had a shuttle program, we’re training people on the shuttle system as well. So whatever spacecraft we have available, we train people on those systems. We use a T-38, that’s a NASA jet, that helps get people in an operational mindset.
The other things we do, we’ve got robotics training, that’s a very challenging task too, learning how to operate the robotic arm that we have on the space station, so we put people through a course on that. And then it’s, our space station program is an international program so, and there’s a lot of training that happens in Russia. So a big part of the training is a learning Russian, and that is no small task either.
Brett McKay: Are you now fluent in Russian?
Mark Vande Hei: I would say I have been pretty fluent in Russian, but it’s a surprisingly perishable skill. I think the most fluent I was in Russian was on the day I launched for my first flight. Because I had spent so much time in Russia learning how to be a co-pilot for a Russian spacecraft, and I felt pretty comfortable.
I was fluent enough to be able to talk on the radio very publicly, to make reports about their spacecraft in Russian and understand what they were saying. So in some regards yes, but there’s so much further to go. There’s certainly topics, many, many topics I could get into where I would be very clueless about how to communicate.
Brett McKay: We’ve had another astronaut on the podcast, and he mentioned part of the training was like wilderness survival training. Did you do that?
Mark Vande Hei: We have what we call Land Survival Training. I’m not sure, I think you’re talking about Terry Virts, is that correct?
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, correct. Yeah.
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah, I listened to that podcast too. [chuckle] And actually, I was an office neighbor with Terry for a while. We do land survival training up in Maine, and back then, at least we used to, I think it’s changed now, it used to be run by the Navy. I think we switched down to the Army at Fort Rucker in Alabama. Alabama, I hope I’m saying the right thing.
Brett McKay: Out of all the stuff you had to do, this two-year process, what was the most difficult component of your training that you had?
Mark Vande Hei: Oh I would say both the Russian and EVA training. And they’re very different. The EVA training, the space walk training is very physically demanding, but it’s also very mentally demanding, so it’s a combination of being in good enough shape to have enough mental capacity left over to do the right things in an environment where you really do not wanna mess that up.
And then the Russian is just so humbling. It’s one of those things where I think if you’re a person who really likes to know that you’ve got a grasp on this and this is gonna work out, it’s just something about language just feels like… It’s shocking that it works, but you don’t… It’s either there or it’s not. It’s a skill, and you don’t really know… I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s just challenging.
Brett McKay: So being in space without gravity is surprisingly hard on the body, and we’re gonna talk about that here in a bit. So what did you do as far as fitness training to get ready for a space mission?
Mark Vande Hei: I always liked exercising, so I don’t think I changed anything specifically to get ready for a space flight, I just did the variety. I would look… Honestly, I would look at the CrossFit website, I’m not trying to condone any products, but they had a variety of workouts and I would pick one of their workouts and I would go for it.
I did recognize at my age if I try to do the prescribed workout set, I would hurt myself. So I recognized that if I hit muscle failure five times, it was time to stop that exercise or drop the weight to half of what I was doing, something like that. So I certainly had a learning process with how to survive those workouts.
Brett McKay: Does NASA just have astronauts prepare physically on their own, or do they set out like, “Here’s a suggested workout plan.”? Or is it like, “Well, it’s up to you.”? It sounds like you just did whatever you wanted to do.
Mark Vande Hei: I did. There’s a wide variety of enthusiasm about exercise in the astronaut office, and certainly people tend to be much more on the fit side, but some people like to work out in the facilities we have here on Johnson Space Center, other people like to do it at home or in a different facility.
The nice thing is you’ve got a lot of resources here to help you out, so we’ve got some strength and conditioning and rehab specialists that are fantastic coaches. In fact, one of the things I’ve been working on is snatches lately, and the strength coach that helps out, he’s fantastic, so that’s just a wonderful resource.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about exercise in space. What does that look like and how do you do that in zero-G?
Mark Vande Hei: Great question. We have three devices we use for exercise on the space station. One of them is called ARED, it means Advanced Resistive Exercise Device. It’s a very large device we use for, the closest we can get to weightlifting, ’cause weightlifting doesn’t really makes sense in space.
So the way it works, the way I like to describe it is imagine that you have a seesaw and there’s a kid on the other side that’s pulling up on their end of the seesaw and you wanna pull up on your end of the seesaw, and that kid always applies the same amount of force. So if you put the fulcrum right in the middle, you’re gonna pull on… To change the position of that seesaw you’re gonna have to exert a little more force than the kid on the other side of the seesaw.
But let’s say you wanna vary that, you can change the pivot point between you and that kid, and then you can make it a very small amount of force to a very large amount of force based on what mechanical advantage or disadvantage you give yourself. So hopefully that helps you visualize what I’m talking about, but the way it works is we have that lever arm with a pivot point that’s adjustable and allows us to change the force from 20 pounds to 600 pounds.
And that “kid on the other side of the seesaw” is a couple of vacuum cylinders. So when you pull up on the bar or the cable that you’re pulling up on, you are forcing a couple of plates that are being pushed on by the air pressure in the space station, and that’s what provides the force.
Brett McKay: What kind of things were you doing with this thing? Squats, shoulder presses?
Mark Vande Hei: You can do squats, shoulder presses, dead lifts, Romanian dead lifts. Curls, crunches, bench press.
Brett McKay: Pretty much anything.
Mark Vande Hei: Pretty much, although we tried doing things like thrusters, where you use the cable and you put the bar on your shoulders and go from a deep squat into a standing position with the bar over your head, but having that cable run across your chest and across your face makes it not quite the right position, so I actually didn’t like doing that in the launcher. And then for another thing, I tried doing kettlebell swings using the cable, but you don’t have momentum like you would. That’s one thing we really don’t have.
So in a kettlebell swing, that momentum that you generate with your hips and your legs prevents you from, ideally prevents you from having to use your shoulders as much, but it started feeling like it was just a front raise for me when I was trying to do a kettlebell swing.
Brett McKay: So you got this resistance device. What other devices you have on there for physical fitness?
Mark Vande Hei: We’ve got two devices we use for cardiovascular fitness. One is T2, it’s a treadmill, and that’s interesting in space, because if you just ran on a treadmill, as soon you’ve pushed off with your foot, you would depart the treadmill. So what we have is a, what I would describe as a backpacking harness minus the backpack.
And that is a fairly comfortable harness which we attached some chains to on the side, and those chains attach to bungee cords, and you can adjust the length of the chains because in that case it changes the length of the bungee cords, and that allows you to adjust to… At my height, it was about upto 130 pounds of force, so it still wasn’t as much as I actually weight.
But I talked to… We’ve got some pretty impressive athletes in the astronaut office, and one of them mentioned to me that they actually just added a second set of bungee cords and doubled it, and I was blown away. ‘Cause for some reason 130 pounds, it feels a lot like you’re wearing 130 pounds on your back and your hips. So it’s not comfortable at all. It really starts to wear…
In fact, there was… I went for a two-hour walk one time, and by the time I finished, those hip pads had worn a hole in the skin on my hips. So it’s not comfortable, I was not a big fan of it. Although I’ll tell you what, if I ever get to weigh only 80 pounds, I can run really, really fast.
Brett McKay: What’s the other cardio device?
Mark Vande Hei: The other cardio device is called CVIS, I don’t know what every letter in the acronym means. But it’s an ergometer, it’s a bicycle. A bicycle without a seat ’cause you don’t need it. And I love that one, that’s a really challenging exercise device. You can go up to 350 watts. And yeah, I really got some brutal thigh burning workouts of that machine.
Brett McKay: And so this physical activity during space is important because when you’re up in space, what happens to your body in zero-G?
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah, humans are very adaptable, so we adapt quickly to the space environment. Which means your body recognizes you don’t need the skeletal structure to help you be able to stand upright on the floor, and you don’t need as much musculature, so very quickly all those things would atrophy, and so it’s very, very important to workout.
Because of that, every single day NASA schedules an hour and a half for resistive exercise and an hour for the cardio exercise. Sometimes actually, because again I like exercising, I would try to do two hours of resistive exercise instead of an hour and a half, and I actually got up earlier in the morning just to be able to try to do that.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take quick break for a word from our sponsors.
And now back to the show. So when you went to space, what was your job on the space station? Why were you there and what were you doing?
Mark Vande Hei: Everything every crew member is doing on the space station is to support the science mission that we’ve got. There’s science we’re doing to help with exploration, there’s science we’re doing that actually helps people out on the ground today. There’s technology demonstrations, for example, as well.
Every crew member, I think of them as laboratory technicians, where we’re not the scientist per se, we’re not the ones who design the experiments, a lot of times we don’t do any observations or gather data for the experiments, and we’re certainly not analyzing the data and writing papers about those experiments later, the scientists are doing all that.
We’re just making sure that what they’ve dedicated so much of their life to is functioning as well as possible on the space station. We’ll help troubleshoot, make sure they have all the resources they need, and things like that.
Brett McKay: So what did a typical work day look like for you? What time would you wake up? That’s another thing, I guess time is different up in outer space, but how long was a work day for you?
Mark Vande Hei: The work day officially starts with a morning planning conference, typically at 07:30 in the morning, and ends with an evening planning conference that finishes around 07:30 at night. And that sounds like a really long day. Those are only the weekdays. Ideally, Monday through Friday would be that. We have weekends off with a couple hours of house cleaning on the weekend.
But in that 12 hours on a weekday, we’ve got an hour for lunch, and we’ve got the two and a half hours I mentioned for exercise. So it ends up being about an eight and a half hour work day.
Brett McKay: So you did space walks. What was your first space walk like? And did you have any sort of spiritual or awe-inspiring experience with it?
Mark Vande Hei: It’s definitely awe-inspiring. I would say the spiritual stuff that I ran into was just looking out the windows on the space station before the space walks actually happened. I would say… So as far as the emotions associated with doing a space walk, you study a lot to make sure you’re ready, ’cause it’s a very public eight-hour shift, or six and a half hours, seven hour shift working outside.
The first emotion I remember is the sense of the lighting changing inside of the crew lock. So imagine you’re in this clunky space suit with another crewmate and you’re head to toe, and the more experienced crew member or the person in charge of the space walk is the one who opens the hatch.
And so on my first space walk I was EV-2, extra vehicular crew member number two, the less experienced person, and I didn’t have my face over the hatch, I had my feet over the hatch. But when Randy Bresnik, was in charge of that EVA, opened up that hatch, there was the bright light shining, reflecting off of the Earth into that space that previously just had artificial lighting, and it was clearly outdoor lighting, it was like looking through a storm door on a winter day in Minnesota. It was just very bright all of a sudden, an I had the sensation that, “Whoa, that’s outside, and this is real, this is really gonna happen.”
Once I actually got outside, it was nighttime, which probably made it a little bit easier on me, and the neutral buoyancy lab that I mentioned earlier, does such a good job of making us familiar with the terrain of the outside of the space station that that seemed like a very familiar environment. And all I can say about… It’s just hard to get your head wrapped around the distances that you’re looking at.
When you’re holding onto a spacecraft going at 5 miles a second and it’s dark outside, it’s just, the distance between you and the Earth is hard to grasp. The distance between you and the stars, this vast openness that you’re in this space suit in. It’s hard to get your head wrapped around it. And honestly you got a lot of work to do so you don’t wanna spend too much time trying to dwell on it.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And some people don’t realize this about the EVAs, this is a gruelling thing. You’re in there, like you said, for six hours.
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah, we plan ’em for six hours, but I’ve had a space walk go to seven hours and 40 minutes. I think we’ve had cosmonauts go for more than eight hours on their space walks.
Brett McKay: So during that time, I guess they have things for the bathroom, but you can’t eat during that time, right?
Mark Vande Hei: We don’t have any food. No, I would typically, even in the neutral buoyancy lab I would basically eat everything that I would eat throughout the day before the day started. At least psychologically, I knew I had all the calories, even though I wasn’t eating at the normal pace I would.
Brett McKay: And then when you’re done with this thing, you got back in the space lock, were you just exhausted? Like you’re just, “Oh my gosh, get me out of this thing. I wanna go to sleep.”
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah, this might be little too graphic, but I was exhausted and soaked in my urine and sweat, quite honestly.
Brett McKay: It sounds pleasant.
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah, it’s not as sexy as it sounds.
Brett McKay: I think you and I talked on a call while you were in space and you describe the space suits as just really smelly. You showed us the space suits like, “Yeah, these are pretty smelly.” And I’m like, I don’t imagine space being smelly, but I imagine that would be smelly if it’s just soaked with urine and sweat.
Mark Vande Hei: It’s smelly inside once you finish the space walk, but we do a really good job of cleaning them up before we do it, so they’re very well maintained.
Brett McKay: So you have the distinction of being the American… The longest time and space. How did that happen? Was this planned?
Mark Vande Hei: It was a possibility, I always knew. And I gotta clarify, I don’t have the record for the longest time career-wise in space for an American, I just have the record for the longest single space flight. So I’ve had a lot of people thank me for being so flexible and accepting the job without knowing with certainty how long I was gonna be in space, but I recognize that the folks that gave me the assignment actually made it very easy on me.
Because when my boss’s boss asked me if I wanted to do this, he was able to say right from the get-go, that this might be about a year-long flight. So when I talked to my wife and children about whether I should say yes to this, I was able to tell them that if I say yes, we need to expect that it will be a year-long flight.
So even though I didn’t know it was gonna be a year-long flight until about four and a half, five months into the flight, it wasn’t a big… It wasn’t a challenge. It was something that my family and I had already accepted as the most likely thing.
Brett McKay: Okay, so this was… So you always knew this is a possibility. I think people don’t realize this, there’s a lot of logistics in getting astronauts back from the space station to Earth. ‘Cause you’re not only dealing with our country, but you have to deal with other country’s schedules as well.
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah, certainly. Especially if it’s other country’s space craft, they get the final say in the timing of things.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So the other country is Russia, how we get up there? Or it was.
Mark Vande Hei: In not all cases. We’ve got a very successful commercial crew program right now that’s delivering four people at a time to the space station, but we still, and hopefully, we’ll continue with this, we still are sending astronauts on Russian spacecraft, that Soyuz spacecraft I mentioned.
And the reason I say I’m hoping we continue with that is because ideally we’ll put US and Japanese, Canadian, European astronauts on that Russian spacecraft, and at the same time, we’ll put Russians on the US commercial spacecraft.
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of Russia, while you’re up there, the whole conflict and war in Ukraine started. What was that like? Did that affect you guys besides the logistics of getting you down, but did it affect the camaraderie amongst the astronauts up there?
Mark Vande Hei: It really didn’t. The cosmonauts are wonderful people. They have been great friends. They are currently, and I’m sure there will be great friends of mine for life. There are different perspectives on things, and I think it was a good eye-opener for me on how the variety of information sources we use, or maybe where we get our information has a big effect on how we view a situation. And that’s certainly obvious in the United States with the big political divisions we have going on.
So that can be challenging, but it really… We spend so much time cooperating with the cosmonauts to try to get our mission done, that the crisis in Ukraine is not something that would come up a lot.
Brett McKay: So there was a while back ago, right before you were supposed to come down, there was I think some Russian… Some government guy made a threat that, “Oh yeah, we’re not gonna bring Mark down.” Were you like, did that make you nervous? Or did you think that, “Oh this is just bluster.”?
Mark Vande Hei: So I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to social media, and that’s how that came up, and the first I heard about it was talking to my wife on our internet protocol phone. She told me about it and I started laughing ’cause I thought it was so ridiculous. And I didn’t realize how I was not being the best husband at that moment, because she was very stressed about the situation and I was just laughing at her.
I wasn’t laughing at her, but I realized that because of the information she was getting, this is a legitimate source of stress for her. But it seems so far from the realm of possibility, knowing the situation I was in and kind of living the situation, I was up there on the space station, I have a relationship with the cosmonauts, I just never thought that was a possibility.
So it never… I think the biggest effect it had on me was trying to figure out how to be a better listener and to understand the perspective that my wife had, because it was just so foreign to what I was living.
Brett McKay: So putting aside geopolitics, do astronauts, do they just get on each other’s nerves being cooped up there in the space station?
Mark Vande Hei: You can. That certainly can happen, and there’s personality differences that can be challenging. I’m saying that because there have been situations where because of the way I behaved, I felt like I definitely needed to apologize to someone after the fact. And we all have our moments, we’re human beings who are definitely not perfect.
But I also think that NASA is doing a fantastic job recognizing every astronaut that’s getting hired now is going to be on some type of extended duration space flight, or stuck in a very small space with very few people, and they’re picking people that I say are very good campers. They’re pleasant to live with. So I really enjoyed getting… That was one of the best things about being on the space station for me, was getting to live and work with some wonderful people.
Brett McKay: Well, we talked about the physical toll that being in space for a long time can have on the body. Your bones start deteriorating, basically, you start losing muscle mass. What about the psychological toll? Does the psychological toll of space travel look like?
Mark Vande Hei: It depends a lot on the person. So my first flight, I was in a situation where I had trained really, really for a long time, from 2011 until I launched in 2017. And in some way, I was training for that space flight. But I was the only rookie on that space flight, and so every little mistake I made, I would beat myself up about it, and every time… I kinda had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder.
Every time someone felt like they needed to spend a little bit extra time hovering over me, watching what I was doing, I felt like they were just expressing a lack of confidence in me. Which quite honestly I didn’t like, because I had a little bit of a lack of confidence in myself. I was shocked at how many things I could mess up after all that training, because there’s still a big adjustment to that zero-G environment.
So the second flight, I just had gotten better about paying attention to my own mental processes and could better recognize that there was a narrative that I was giving myself that wasn’t necessarily true, and I think I was probably much more pleasant to be around and I enjoyed my existence up there a lot better. So I’m not so sure space takes any bigger psychological toll or puts a bigger psychological stress on anybody that… It’s really just a human thing. It’s much like whatever job you’re doing.
Brett McKay: What do you do… Are there things you do just to relax and kill… I mean not kill time, but just relax and decompress after a workday? What do you do for fun on the space station?
Mark Vande Hei: Oh, I liked reading. We also got together once a week to watch a movie together on the space station. And once a week we would have a group dinner, which is always pleasant. We even had some dance parties on the space station, that was kind of fun. We just get some music on and just play around with what it’s like to…
It turns out if you’re dancing in orbit, you gotta really pay attention to where your feet are and your elbows are, because anybody, the person next you could be upside down and you don’t wanna elbow someone in the face, so it’s a very different challenge.
Brett McKay: So even though you’re in the vastness of outer space out there in space station, you spend nearly every waking minute in a confined physical quarter. How big, how many square feet is the space station?
Mark Vande Hei: The best way for me to describe it is it’s got the internal volume of a six-bedroom house. And it’s gotten bigger recently, we added a couple of extra modules while I was on orbit. So it’s actually really large. That was one of the most shocking things for me. We don’t… Even though we’ve got really good mock-ups of the internal volume of the space station, in the United States, we have the US part really well mocked up, and not so well mocked up to the Russian part.
The Russian part has pretty lengthy modules that go towards the Earth or away from the Earth, and those aren’t oriented that way on the ground, so just doesn’t work for us to train in. So it was shocking to me how much it kinda… I don’t know if this is something that most of your… I don’t even know if people still make these, but I had a hamster as a kid and a Habitrail, and it reminded me a lot of a Habitrail ’cause there are just tunnels that go on in all kinds of directions.
Brett McKay: What is your sleeping quarters like? Is it pretty small? What is that like?
Mark Vande Hei: It is small, but you don’t need much space. To give you an idea, if I put my back against the wall where my sleeping bag was and stuck my arm out straight in front of me, I could just about touch the far wall. And then I did not have enough space to put my arm. It was about the same width shoulder to shoulder. Probably if… I think if I put my elbows out in both directions, I might have been able to hit the side walls.
There’s a door that shuts, there’s a fan that gives you some white noise. And there’s a lot of sound insulation, so it does give you a lot of privacy. I could hear if people were talking outside of my crew quarters, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. And we got a laptop in there, so you can do your email. That same laptop is what I used to get on the phone with my family to do video teleconferences. It was plenty of room. It really was fine.
Brett McKay: You never got claustrophobic?
Mark Vande Hei: I never got claustrophobic at all.
Brett McKay: You’re up there for a year, you finally get back. What was it like physically, to get back from space?
Mark Vande Hei: You feel wobbly was for sure. I was pretty fortunate I didn’t have any nausea. The medicine I used worked really well to help me out with that. One of the things we do when we land, or at least I did when we land is a field test, because we’re trying to understand how when we launch people to other planetary objects that are really far away, that will involve an extended space like to get there, we wanna know what they can do.
So I did a field test within an hour of landing, and before I got any medical interventions like an IV to help rehydrate me, just to see what I could do. It was very much like a sobriety test, and I probably… Of course I wasn’t drinking any alcohol, but space flight probably would have prevented me from passing the test.
Brett McKay: How long did it take for you to feel like “I got my Earth legs back”? Did it take a while? Or it was pretty instantaneous?
Mark Vande Hei: It took… Well, it’s a gradual process. The first time I can kinda give you a milestone, so I was able to walk around without assistance in that first hour, if I had to close my eyes and walked toe heel, toe heel, I had no idea which way was up, I would fall over right away. Eight hours later, it was getting more comfortable, eight hours after that, I was able to feel very celebratory. So 16 hours, 20 hours after I landed, I was back in Houston already and I was very comfortable walking down the steps and throwing my arms in the air and feeling really excited about being able to see everybody.
I couldn’t drive probably for 10 days because there’s concerns that if you turn your head really quickly that you might get the spins and that would be very bad if you’re driving a car by yourself, so we had to wait a little while for that to go away. The biggest thing for me that I noticed was if I was in one position, say prone for an extended period and then stood up quickly, I felt light-headed, very light-headed when I would change orientations. And that existed probably for two or three weeks.
Brett McKay: And how are things now?
Mark Vande Hei: I think they’re great now. The only thing I’m… The only thing I’m not doing yet that I’m looking forward to doing is running. The doctors told me not to run for the first month, and I thought, “Come on, this is kind of silly.” So I literally went running for 10… Or walked for 10 minutes, ran for a minute, walked for two minutes, ran for a minute, did that cycle four times and then walked for 10 minutes.
But in just that four minutes of running spread over a half an hour, I managed to step off a curb and my knee started swelling up. So the doctors were basically, they were kind about it, but there were certainly a lot of “I told you so”. I’m not trying, I’m not running yet, I’m gonna wait for a couple of more months before I start trying to run. The issue apparently is a bone contusion, so my body just wasn’t used to the the forces involved, and yeah, things start swelling up.
Brett McKay: So going to space seems like one of the biggest achievements a human can hope for. Did you experience any psychological let down when you got back?
Mark Vande Hei: This time, not so much. And actually, I don’t think… I certainly understand what you’re talking about, where if you spend so much time trying to get ready for something and your whole life is focused on that one thing, and then when it’s done, you realize, “Wait, I don’t have a plan for this next period.” I’ve experienced that.
But I didn’t experience it with space because I think while I was in the space I was thinking about, “What am I gonna do next?” and looking forward to spending more time with my family, living a more simple life. So I think… And maybe it’s just got to do with my age too, I’m in my mid-50s, so I’m really putting a lot of emphasis on the importance of relationship with my friends, my family. My career, I recognize is not something that’s gonna be a big focus for more than about a decade, so I’m in a good spot.
Brett McKay: What’s next for you career-wise? What do you do? I imagine you’re not gonna go… Are you gonna go… I imagine you’re not gonna go to space anymore?
Mark Vande Hei: Yeah, I don’t think most astronauts do this, but I’ve been making it pretty public that I don’t plan on going back. I made a commitment to my wife that I would fly twice and that would be it, and she was very supportive of that. So I don’t plan on going back to space. And that’s because it’s a big sacrifice. There’s things like when my kids went to college, I wasn’t around to take them to college. When one of my sisters got married, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t able to go to her wedding. My brother got married, I wasn’t able to go to his wedding.
There’s a lot of really important life events that you can’t do because you’ve turned over your schedule for your life to the federal government, and when things change, you just gotta change with it. So as far as my career, I’m definitely planning on continuing my career at NASA for a bit. There’s a lot I’m looking forward to, it’s a very dynamic time period. We’ve got tests for spacecraft coming up soon for lunar flights, we’ve just had successes with a new commercial spacecraft getting to the space station.
I’m looking forward to working as a capcom again, and really, when I worked as a capcom talking to the crew on orbit, I had never been there. And so having been there, I feel like there’s some more I can help out with in that situation. I’ve got a lot of friends that are gonna be flying to the space station in the future, so being able to participate in that space flight in some way, small way, would be great for me. Certainly if there’s leadership opportunities that come up, I’d be open to that as well. We’ll see.
And then after that, I’m very interested in the sustainability of the Earth. As one of the few people that have gotten to look at the Earth from outside the atmosphere, really have a sense of how thin that atmosphere looks relative to the scale of the Earth. I don’t think most of us realize that we’re not really separate from space.
When you’re on the Earth, all of us, when we step outside, the only thing that’s separating you from the vacuum of space is what I like to call a puddle of air molecules. That if you walk… If you go to Colorado, you can actually feel that you’re starting to climb out of it. You go up to Mount Everest and you’re in a thin enough part of that atmosphere that it’s not survivable for a extended period of time.
Brett McKay: So it’s a very, very thin layer that… That’s the thin layer that we live in, that’s the only part that humans live in. The Earth is so huge, but this atmosphere just feels like it is small to me, and it’s a very precious resource. So I’d like to be smarter about how, the way we consume things, just how we live our daily existence, to understand what the impacts of that are, and maybe at some point help educate people about what I’ve learned associated with that. So we’ll see.
Mark Vande Hei: I certainly am enthusiastic about being outdoors. I’ve always been enthusiastic about being outdoors, but being stuck indoors for such a long time has certainly reinvigorated that enthusiasm. So stuff associated with the outdoors, I’m excited about as well.
Brett McKay: Well, Mark Vande Hei, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Mark Vande Hei: Thanks Brett. It was really wonderful talking to you, and I’m still blown away I get to do this.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Mark Vande Hei, he is an astronaut who spent 355 days in outer space. Make sure to check out our show notes on aom.is/space, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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