Fueled By Death Cast Ep. 18 - NICOLE STOTT
NASA ASTRONAUT - NICOLE STOTT
“There are a lot of people who don’t know for the past 16 years we have been living peacefully, quietly, successfully even - off our planet.” - Nicole Stott retired NASA astronaut
ON EPISODE 18:
Special guest Nicole Stott joins the Science segment this week and Dustin and Jeff ask her about the recent spacewalk, and what it was like when she walked in space. Also, do astronauts drink coffee in space? On What Fuels You, the idea of teamwork is essential for success, and the hosts explore what it is like to be part of a team. Finally, there will be something brand new available soon from long time Death Wish Coffee collaborators, Deneen Pottery and news about the World's Strongest Coffee expanding across the globe.
ABOUT NICOLE STOTT:
Nicole Stott was the first person to paint in space and has had an incredible career as an astronaut for NASA. She joins the show to talk about living in space at the International Space Station, what astronaut training is like and what flying on the Space Shuttle felt like.
Jeff: This week Dustin we got something really fun for science and I think you're not going to be scared for once.
Dustin: I don’t know that’s probably not possible.
Jeff: We have our special guest who you are going to hear later on in this episode, astronaut Nicole Stott is with us. The reason why is because I’m bringing up recently March 30th there was a very very cool thing happened in space, another spacewalk on the international space station. I thought it was really cool to have you as a part of this today, Nicole because you actually did this as well right? You did a couple of spacewalks while you were up there.
Nicole: I did only one spacewalk, which I can tell you it’s like the number of times you go to space it’s never enough. I did one and wished that I had done another because I think that maybe my brain would have remembered more of the experience but only one.
Jeff: How long were you out on that spacewalk?
Nicole: That one it was a little over six and a half hours.
Jeff: And you were doing like the same thing they were doing like maintenance on the space station I believe?
Nicole: We were. There was a mix of maintenance and there was, one of the coolest things I got to do on the spacewalk was ride on the end of the big robotic arm like this big long path on the big robotic arm, hanging on to this box that on the ground would have weighed, I don’t know, 800 pounds or something but up there you can just do whatever you want with it and rode on the arm with that. That was some science experiments that we had outside of the station that were attached to the outside of the station and they needed to bring them back to earth. We were taking it from the station down into the space shuttle. Most spacewalks are a mix of assembly, building the station or maintenance or bringing science back to earth.
Dustin: What were they doing yesterday in particular Jeff?
Jeff: They were getting it ready for, they were fitting more couplings and different things on it to get it ready for new docking and things.
Dustin: Like an upgrade, a little upgrade?
Jeff: Yeah. One of the things that happened yesterday actually at, well, depending on when you're listening to this on March 30th during that spacewalk was, a part of cloth shielding actually floated off. Everything is tethered down like you are tethered down Nicole like you were saying on that big arm and all that stuff. Is it scary when things kind of float away?
Dustin: You said I wasn’t going to be scared Jeff, I'm so scared right now.
Nicole: [inaudible 00:02:32] gravity
Jeff: Because I know you're using, you're using tools and you're using all these different things, everything must be tethered to you right? Was there ever moments for you where things kind of almost floated off? I'm just so curious about stuff like that.
Nicole: I don’t remember a moment where things almost floated off. It is really easy for that to happen though, not so much with your person. I think there's a diligence, a very deliberate attention to that when you're outside with your own tethers. We have a lifeline that we call our safety tether that goes back to the main anchor point and then whenever you’d get to a particular location, just imagine if you were rock climbing, you kind of local tether yourself so you can’t get any further than four feet away from the structure and that kind of thing. So very deliberate there. There is a real opportunity for little pieces and tools to be liberated from their tether for a number of different reasons. No crew member wants that to happen. They don’t want that to happen but it’s kind of an accepted part of that work. It's that there is a possibility of that happening and just, unfortunately, they experienced that yesterday but they were covered beautifully with it.
Jeff: Yeah, they maneuvered their way out of it and it was incredible. I was watching some of it live. That’s what so cool about living in the future that we live in now, is just like I can watch astronauts in space working on the space station.
Dustin: On Facebook.
Jeff: Yeah that’s incredible.
Nicole: Spacebook live.
Jeff: Yeah it’s absolutely incredible. The other question I wanted to ask you, what is the process like? You're in the space station and you're going to go out on a spacewalk. So you have to get in your suit and get out there. What is that process like? Does it take a lot of time to get-?
Dustin: What theme music is playing when this is happening?
Nicole: There is always music. I wish I could remember what music was playing when we were suiting up. Somebody’s always got the music going on on the station. It’s a, again, a very deliberate scripted process to go out the door. There's communication with our ground team. They are working along right beside us on the checklist for any of the people they are helping get the crewmembers that are going outside ready to go out and it works beautifully. It’s scripted so nicely that you … If you do miss something you’d catch it down the way. It’s really a great process but it takes a while. It’s a few hours of getting ready to go out.
These days, we do something called an exercise protocol before going out the door where before you get in the suit you actually get on an oxygen mask and you ride the bike at a certain level for a while. That’s to help get rid of that nitrogen in your body. You want to prevent the bends from happening just like you would if you were going out on an extended dive. It used to be that we would sleep overnight in the airlock at a reduced pressure to help get that nitrogen out of your body but this is where it’s so neat. I mean how technology and what we know about our bodies, what we’ve learned on the ground from deep sea diving kinds of things and what we know from doing earlier spacewalks, we’ve developed easier techniques for ridding ourselves of that nitrogen in our body to make it easier to get out the door too. It’s a process and you want it to be a process because you want all of the ceiling surfaces to be holding the pressure suit and you want it to work when you go outside.
Dustin: In my line of work I feel like we put in procedures because we’ve kind of messed it up already. Does that happen for you guys? Where it’s like oh-
Jeff: This didn’t work.
Dustin: ... that was a mistake. We probably should put a procedure and process so we don’t do that again.
Nicole: Yeah absolutely and that’s a good thing. There’s the good and the bad of that. there’s the good in it that, you should very deliberately be learning from the lessons that you’ve had before. You shouldn't have to do that, make that mistake again. So we do try as much as we can to incorporate those lessons learned. What you don’t want to do is bog yourself down with so much other procedural stuff that it opens up new opportunities for making mistakes. There’s a really interesting balance there.
Jeff: The final question is, we talked about getting out there but you're out in space you said for like six hours or whatever. When you come back into the space station, is it like an acclimation process? Does it take your body a little bit, like is it different from being in space to being back in the space station or is it kind of like an easy transition?
Nicole: It really is a pretty easy transition. I think once you get back in the airlock, there’s the procedures. It’s all very scripted and check-listed again to bring you back in. You don’t want to hurt yourself pulling the helmet off and all that kind of thing. It’s much quicker than going out the door.
It’s kind of like when you really work hard at anything and you finally get to get all of the equipment off, you get to think about just chilling and relaxing afterwards, that’s where it’s just kind of a wind down because when you're out on a spacewalk, there is the physical aspect of it, there's the, wow look I am outside in my own little spaceship really. I’ve got my own little visor, it’s just between me and 250 miles below me that beautiful planet again. That by the way is a distraction so you've got to kind of look away from that or you’ll just be looking at that the whole time and not doing your job. There’s kind of a mental, you're working hard mentally when you’re out there too. It is you come back in, you’ve successfully got your work done and
Jeff: You're exhausted probably right?
Nicole: You want one of these.
Dustin: Yeah, a cup of coffee.
Nicole: You know you want to chill a little bit.
Jeff: Do you drink coffee in space?
Nicole: Yes you do.
Dustin: How do we get Death Wish to space?
Nicole: You know what let’s talk about that, I think people would love it.
Dustin: Great I am so into that. Jeff and I and you will be responsible for putting Death Wish in space, I love it.
Jeff: Well this was officially the coolest science segment we’ve ever had thank you so much, Nicole.
Nicole: Thank you.
Jeff: Becoming an astronaut, was that something when you were a kid that you wanted to do because I know you went to school for engineering and then that track obviously led you to NASA and then into an astronaut. Was that something as like a dream as a child that you had?
Nicole: It was a little later in life that I actually started thinking about the possibility of being an astronaut. I watched the first moon landing with my family, I have a vivid memory of that and thinking how cool that was but I don’t know, it was even … I was little then seven, whatever and it didn’t cross my mind that it could be real. I thought it was really cool but it just didn’t even cross my mind that wow this is something you could do Nicky if you wanted to or that there would even be the possibility. That’s not because anybody ever told me I couldn’t do it, I never heard that. It just didn’t seem like a real thing for me.
I grew up, my dad flew airplanes and built small airplanes in our garage and out the local airport growing up. Our family was out helping him or at the airport flying the whole time I grew up. So I knew I wanted to do something with flying. Ultimately that turned into wanting to know how things fly, which is why I chose aeronautical engineering to study. That turned in if you were going to want to know how things fly, why wouldn’t you want to know how rocket ships fly and ended up with the job at Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. It all went kind of from there. I ended up having some really great mentors at Kennedy. They when I started questioning, encouraged me to apply and I don’t think I would have done it without their encouragement quite honestly.
Dustin: That’s awesome.
Nicole: I would never have believed in nothing about anything I had done. Why would anything I’d done be something they’d want to pick as an astronaut but you know, I pinch myself every day.
Jeff: That’s so cool.
Nicole: Very thankful to them.
Jeff: When you were at Kennedy Space Center, you held a variety of different positions actually. One of them that I was kind of curious about, it’s listed that you were the orbiter project engineer for Columbia. What does that entail when you …?
Nicole: There’s a whole lot of titles and weird names and things of that stuff but basically what all of us were doing whether we were … The organization was kind of broken up into operations and engineering. When I first started there, I was in operations. That was kind of a physical moving the vehicles around getting things where they needed to be, the people, the tools all of that stuff together to make sure that once we landed we got back to the launch pad safely and ready to launch again. Then somewhere along the way, I shifted over to engineering. Then back in that day, ops people and the engineering people, they would look at you weird if you moved from one group to the other, why would you do that. All I could think was wow, operations I’ve moved to a couple of positions and it’s been really interesting. Every time I’ve done something different within the same shuttle processing world, I’m learning something new and seeing something different and I thought why wouldn’t I want to do that over in the engineering side too.
Orbiter project engineer was basically kind of an interface to the ops people and to the logistics world and to the engineering world that was at Johnson’s Space Centre too. The shuttle program was broken up across a couple of the different centers. So it was more about what really and truly from an engineering side of things are we having to do as part of this whole plan to get the space shuttle ready to launch. Some of that was paperwork and some of it was down on the floor with the technicians working side by side with them on the vehicle itself. So very, I don’t know, interesting is kind of not a good enough word.
Dustin: Would you say fulfilling?
Nicole: [inaudible 00:13:43], yeah oh absolutely, absolutely. I hope you guys feel this in what you are doing. I kind of sense the excitement through your website and the social media stuff and the fact that you're doing a podcast to do with coffee as a product and stuff like that. When you work with people that are on the one hand have really great personality, it’s fun to be there, everybody is there because they love what they're doing, there’s just passion excitement about it. In the shuttle world, that’s what it was like. These people were there because they felt like they were responsible for the care and feeding of the space shuttles and making sure that they were ready, safe to fly for their crews. They were fun to work with too.
Then on the other hand, you know if it hits the fan, which it's probably going to do somewhere along the way, you can usually count on that, or things aren't going to go exactly as you planned, when that happens, they are the most professional and ready to respond and take care of it kind of people that you can imagine. I think I’ve been really fortunate with that, both when I was working as an engineer there and then as an astronaut and flying on the shuttle, all of the things. That was the kind of thing that really made the place so cool and great to work, was the people.
Dustin: That level of teamwork must be so exciting.
Dustin: We have that here definitely but it must be some next level stuff when you're out in space and something goes wrong and then your teamwork kicks in to like that next level. What is that like? Have you had like really scary moments up in space and everybody kicked into gear?
Nicole: What I think is neat is that they don’t seem like really scary moments because down here on the ground we’ve trained so well together for all of those things that we think we know could go wrong. The bulk of our training is responding to ammonia leaking into the space station or a fire in space or some major system issue going wrong.
So you get all of this time working together as a crew and working with your ground team too, your ground support team like the mission control folks and stuff to figure out, okay how are these people going to work together. I really kind of wonder, we’d done all these things on the ground and to see how we work together that way and then when an alarm went off in the middle of the night in space and you’re floating out of your crew compartment at three o’clock in the morning and everybody is doing what you would expect them to do; Bob is going to the radio, Frank’s making sure that everybody’s together, I’m pulling the procedure. To see that happen in this just very methodical, deliberate, professional kind of way, was really refreshing.
Dustin: It's like second nature teamwork almost, that's pretty impressive.
Nicole: Yeah and all the training is, we do really fun training that’s not just the fire starting in the space station but we go live under water for 18 days in this habitat at 60 feet under water and basically do an analog mission to what it would be like living in space and over rock in the frozen tundra of Russia at the coldest winter at [inaudible 00:17:25] winter survival things together. It’s fun stuff too where you're not just in a class or a simulator with things going wrong but you're in a real mission environment as well where you don’t know what’s going to go wrong.
Dustin: I wouldn’t consider being under water for 18 days fun. That’s just me.
Nicole: It’s awesome. It is the closest thing to flying in space and you are not in the water for 18 days. You're in a habitat that’s like the size of a school bus and it’s actually at 60-foot pressure so your voice changes a little bit but you are walking around in regular clothes. Whenever we would go out and dive like to do our surface exploration tasks and stuff, we would treat it just like a spacewalk. We had folks on the surface that were our mission control. To me, it was as close as I got in training for what it was like to live in space.
Jeff: That’s crazy and that’s the Nemo operation there that you were a part of. Is that still implemented today for training astronauts?
Nicole: Yeah absolutely that’s still going on and the name of the habitat and the facility is Aquarius. Florida International University is the group that runs that facility now. They do other things too. They support the NASA missions with the Nemo stuff but there’s also navy divers come in and test out new equipment and things, marine biologists and oceanographers use the facility as well. It’s the only one on the planet like it.
Jeff: That’s incredible. Speaking on your training, your training with your crew in Johnson’s space center and that kind of stuff and with the Nemo but it must have even been even more so because when you finally make it to the international space station, you’re working with crews from Russia as well. So you must have had to train with Russia as well correct?
Nicole: Yeah I would say for my first flight it was about three years worth of training. Over 50% of that time we spent out of the country at our international partner facilities. They do the same. They come to the US, as well, to train. So we are training as an international crew. It’s not like you get to the space station and the Russians have to stay in the Russians module, the US folks are down, the Europeans can only go in Columbus. It’s not like that. You are a joint crew. It’s one of the coolest things about the whole program is that we are doing really cutting edge stuff with science and the facilities, the way we could live in space the way we do, the maintenance that we're doing all of that. I think in the end the real, like what historically we’ll think about when we think about the space station, is the relationships that allowed us to establish.
Quite honestly, the way we do things both in space as a crew on the station, the way we work across programs on the ground and then the way we communicate with each other between the ground and in space, it is the best example for how we should be doing stuff down here, just globally, how we should be doing stuff down here. Really and truly is.
Jeff: I’m inspired by that and I think that’s such an inspiring thing is the international space station. I’ve grown up in the era of the heyday of that and it is such a microcosm of exactly like you said of how everything should work. It’s just so inspiring to hear you say that too.
Dustin: Just look at what they're able to achieve by just working together in that way. That’s really really cool.
Jeff: So you went up there-
Nicole: It is great, go ahead.
Jeff: You go, you go.
Nicole: Well I was just going to say that I love that you guys are aware too. Part of me, as a retired astronaut now, I think that everybody that leaves the office and goes on to something new, like the new adventure whatever that’s going to be, for me it’s based on art and sharing the experience of my [inaudible 00:21:48] and communicating with audiences that might not even know that we have a space station. There’re a lot of people out there that don’t even know that we have for the past 16 years, as long as my son has been alive, we have been living peacefully, successfully, quietly even off our planet for 16 years. People circling every 90 minutes on that space station. That’s a pretty impressive thing, especially with, like we just said, the relationships that made that happen, not to mention the technology that has been developed to allow that to happen but also that everything we're doing up there it’s helping us to explore, live in space and off our planet but it is ultimately about improving life here on earth. That’s a pretty cool thing.
Jeff: It really is. For the last, I don’t know, handful of years with the smartphone technology and stuff like that, I have an app on my phone that tells me every time the space station passes goes over my head and I always wave because it’s always cool to be able to see it as it’s going. So you went up there-
Nicole: I think when you think about people up there, that’s pretty impressive.
Jeff: It really is.
Dustin: Yeah, blows my mind.
Nicole: [inaudible 00:23:02] has 6 people from around the world on it yeah, pretty neat.
Jeff: That’s so cool. So you went up there for the first time-
Nicole: Ask your question I keep interrupting you.
Jeff: No, no.
Dustin: That’s okay.
Jeff: In 2009 is when you went up there for the first time. Here’s the question I’ve always wanted to ask. How long does it actually take from lift off on the ground to actually get to the space station?
Nicole: Well to get to the space station when we flew on the space shuttle, it was about two days but that’s because we planned the whole chasing down the space station that way. We did it delibSoyuzerately. We could have gotten there quicker. The orbital mechanics of it all would allow you to get there quicker. In fact our Soyez, our Russian partners with the Soyez spacecraft, they do what they call a four-orbit rendezvous now and basically six hours from the time you launch to when you’re docked with the space station.
They used to do two-day day thing as well but the importance of the two-day thing was, get to orbit, which only takes eight and a half minutes on the shuttle. We launch it and in eight and a half minutes you are circling the earth. Then the point was to very deliberately on a path chase down the station and along the way, you would open up your payload bay doors and make sure that those systems were working, deploy the big antenna and make sure all the communications were working. So do a very thorough check out of the space shuttle before you docked it to another piece of big hardware in space.
Jeff: Seems like a really good idea.
Nicole: It is and it gives you a little time to adapt to where you are and get to know the shuttle a little bit better before you're docked with the station. Then on the way home you could undock and be home in an hour if you wanted to but why would you want to come home that quickly?
Jeff: Right no way.
Dustin: How long did it take to come back then for you?
Nicole: Well we undocked from the station and then there’s usually about a day before you close the payload bay doors and burn the engines to come back into the atmosphere. It was typically about a day but I think on my first flight we, actually I think on both flights we delayed a day coming home for weather at KSC and so had an extra day in space because of that which none of us looked at each other and complained about that at all.
Jeff: I've got to ask too, you're one of the last crew members to actually come back on the space shuttle. Is it a little scary coming in a space shuttle? We see it romanticized in Hollywood movies and stuff like that but like in real life, what is it like to come back into the atmosphere?
Dustin: I’m scared, I'm scared just listening to him. My palms are sweaty, it doesn’t take much but that’s it, man.
Nicole: The space shuttle what was … The space shuttle, I hope we figure out how to do something as beautiful as the space shuttle again. The space shuttle launched from a launch pad and glided into landing on the runway. The launch on the shuttle was really dynamic. More than I, after watching launches for years working out there, ever imagined. I thought it was going to be like here and I can’t even stretch my arm high enough for how your body is like jello shaking all the way up but it’s outstanding. Just a little detour here but on launch, nothing prepares you for it I don’t think. Then you do it again thinking, “Oh you know been there done that.” It’s like a whole new experience all over again and I don’t know if our engineers who designed the shuttle did this deliberately or not but in about the first minute and a half, there’s not a whole lot the crew can do about anything. You monitor the system, there’s some things, you know immediate switches you can throw and stuff, but for the most part, you're in monitor mode.
I think that was such a good thing because that first minute and a half it goes by so quickly and the whole time you’re just like the smile is across your face, inside your helmet, you're high fiving with the guys [inaudible 00:27:39] woohoo and stuff because it just, I think it just drives it out of you. It’s about, talk about a human experience. It just comes out of you then. That’s really dynamic on the shuttle. The landing on a space shuttle was, it was like graceful and peaceful and yeah it was almost kind of this contrast because once you start entering the atmosphere and if you can get a view out a window, you're seeing that heat and some of the plasma moving across the vehicle there, like, “Oh wow it’s really hot out there.” You're going super fast but it just was inside just a little bit of a rumble every now and then but no, no dynamics at all like launch.
Then when you land it’s just this circling kind of S turn and spiral into the runway and you are gliding, you're not even on engines anymore. The key there is you got one, it’s one time [inaudible 00:28:47] going around. It was just this little screechy noise on the runway and then you are home. It was so, so mellow.
Jeff: Wow that’s crazy.
Dustin: The thing that’s most inspiring about you for me is that you have this perfect dichotomy of like cheerfulness and positivity teamed up with like a bold and fearlessness. Where do you get that from? That’s amazing.
Nicole: I don’t know my mom and dad both very cool. I think the opportunity to be out there that my parents shared what they were excited about with us was I think a really huge thing. We're trying to do that with my son as well. In fact like when I flew the first time that three years of training, he was seven when I flew the first time. So this kid his whole life has been mom traveling back and forth to other countries and trying to take him when I could and getting him out to whatever. If we were doing training where you're in orange suits or the big white suit or in a simulator, I tried to get him to as much as that as possible so he was part of the crew.
That’s the way I felt with my family. I felt like I was part of the crew and if somebody enjoyed something they shared it with you and I think that kind of gets in your blood that way. Very thankful to my dad for the passion he had for flying. My gosh, I don’t know, I hope that I would have found that some other way but I don’t know if I would have or not.
Dustin: Would you call yourself an adrenaline junky?
Nicole: I don’t know. There are certain things that I think I like doing that other people think like, “Holly Molly why would you ever, do that?” but put me at the edge of a cliff or drive me on one of those roads in Europe where there’s no railing and, I just, over the Skyway Bridge I don’t want, I really don’t want anything to do with it. There’s particular things I guess.
Dustin: That’s surprising.
Jeff: Yeah that’s a little surprising I mean you have been to space.
Nicole: Well, everybody says that. How can you be afraid of heights if you’ve been to space? You did a spacewalk. How can you be afraid of heights and things? It is totally different. It is totally different and maybe it’s a naïve trust in your equipment or something I don’t know. Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon with no protection nothing is very different to me to going out on a spacewalk in a space suit that’s designed to protect you.
Dustin: Do you think that’s because you were on part of the engineering operational logistic side that you were able to put that trust in your equipment?
Nicole: When it came down to flying on the shuttle, actually going out there strapping in and launching, I had total confidence in the team that had put that vehicle together. That’s not to say that there's no risk associated with it because we all know there is. That’s not to say that there’s something that was not humanly possible for them to deal with or that got missed because we are human beings doing this but to the best degree possible I knew that those folks were doing what they could to make this a safe vehicle. So that was definitely part of the comfort zone. When people ask me was I scared, was I afraid to go launch on the shuttle, I’m like, “No.” It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t being afraid, it was, I was anxious. Like I want to know what this is, I’ve been training for a long time to do this. I know the people that worked on this vehicle and I am anxious to see what it’s going to feel like and to get up there to do work that I believe is important as well.
Jeff: that’s really cool. One of the questions we had actually from another one of our employees which I thought was pretty funny, with all the different operations on the shuttle, all the bells and whistles and everything when you’re getting up to the space station, our buddy John here wanted me to ask you, is there, does the shuttle have a horn? Can you beep at the space station when you get up there?
Nicole: Well you could but I don't know if that sound would travel through space in a way that would make it to them. But we do have, it’s a good question though because-
Dustin: No, it’s not.
Nicole: It is, although we're calm, we’re alerting them in some way the entire time we’re approaching. Then kind of in line with that, it wasn’t a horn but you know how the navy on ships has this when an officer is arriving or departing, they have this bell they ring or when another ship is departing or arriving they have this bell they ring, we have one of those bells on the space station. So when the shuttle or any vehicle would dock and our crew would be ready to come on board, they would ring the bell to announce that you’re arriving and then after we’d undock they would ring the bell and go through this kind of ceremonial traditional just departure thing to say, hey safe trip home.
Jeff: That’s so cool.
Nicole: Space Shuttle Discovery departing.
Dustin: How often were people coming in and out?
Nicole: It’s not that often, probably in the every three to six-month timing. With the shuttle, it was probably about every three to six months, with us not flying shuttle now and the Soleus being the vehicle that’s getting us to and from the station, that’s, actually the timing is about the same I guess because we rotate crews. They’re usually up there from like a four to six-month mission. So we're overlapping and rotating crews throughout but probably three months for people showing up.
Jeff: Wow and you were up there your first time for just over three months, and you were saying that the space station actually goes around the earth every 90 minutes?
Jeff: Do the days blend together? I’ve always wondered, is living in the space station what it’s like to go to sleep?
Dustin: Yeah, sleeping must be so weird.
Jeff: Is that tough to get used to?
Nicole: Sleeping is outstanding because, on the space station, each of us has our own personal crew compartments about the size of a phone booth. It is the best sleep I’ve ever had in my entire life quite honestly. You stick your sleeping bag up on the wall and you float into it and there’s no, literally there’s no pressure points, you’re not having to roll around to get comfortable and stuff. It really was like the first couple of nights in space are a little difficult because you just don’t know how to, your body doesn’t know how to respond to that almost. When you get to the microgravity environment there is no load, no gravity pulling your own body down anymore. So your spine elongates a little bit. So I grew a little over an inch while I was there just because your spine completely offloads.
Nicole: That hurts a little bit, it’s like lower back pain. So you’re trying to get, just like down here, you’re trying to get comfortable when your back hurts to sleep but then it just goes away. It’s just gone. It is the most … I would get in my sleeping bag, shut the door, turn, do a little Sudoku puzzle for a couple of minutes or something, stick it back on the wall, turn the light off and I think within five minutes every night I was asleep. I woke up in the same position, to the alarm, whether that was an emergency alarm or the alarm on my watch going off to tell me it was time to get up. It was so comfortable.
Dustin: You must have had the craziest dreams up in space?
Nicole: They change, they do change. They changed for me down here after getting back too. I found that like before I flew, I used to have these dreams all the time and I remember as a kid too having these dreams where you kind of run and jump to fly just to be able to fly on your own and sometimes I could and sometimes I couldn’t in my dreams. There’s probably some psychology to that struggling or something or whatever if you couldn’t get or a test you’re going to fail, I don’t know. In space, I never had those dreams. Dreaming started to incorporate things that were happening in space too. Those activities, that feeling, floating all that and then since coming home, I’ve never had that run and jump dream anymore.
Dustin: You’re free now, no more jumps?
Nicole: [inaudible 00:13:43] yes but I think it’s because, maybe it’s because your body knows, your brain knows what it feels like to do that and it doesn’t have to fight it anymore yeah.
Dustin: Did you use floatation tanks for training at all? It sounds like that would be useful.
Nicole: Well for spacewalks, we use this ginormous pool. In Houston, there is this pool called the Neutral Buoyancy Lab. It’s like 100 feet wide, 200 feet long and 40 feet deep and it’s got a full markup of the space station in it. They can’t lay it out in the same configuration as the station but they have all of the pieces are in there.
So you get into the same big, 300-pound white suit and get into the pool and they get you as neutrally buoyant as possible and you go through that whole same six and half hour space lock there like you would if you were in space. It’s just a lot harder in the pool than in space. That’s really the only buoyancy training that we do. A couple of times during your training, you’ll get to fly on the Zero-G airplane, the Vomit Comet, to see just what it feels like to float. That thought really doesn’t give you any indication of how you will feel when you get to space.
Dustin: Yeah I imagine that.
Nicole: It’s just too short, the burst but it’s cool to do it.
Jeff: That’s cool. So you were up there and I can’t imagine being able to look upon the earth from that vantage point. Was there any part of the earth that was more beautiful than the other? I’ve seen a lot of your photos and stuff like that but anything that you think back on where it’s just like, I can’t believe I got to see this point of the earth from this vantage point kind of thing?
Nicole: Yeah and I’ll tell you, the earth is stunning. You know before you go from the pictures and videos that it is going to be, there’s no doubt. You don’t have any question about whether it’s going to be pretty looking out the window. It’s like that launch thing here versus here with what it really is. It just glows. It’s like you’ve taken a white bulb and just painted it with all the colors that you know the earth is and it’s just crystal clear and glows like that. For me and I actually, behind my Skype screen here, I have the picture. It’s like the horizon of the planet with Florida and then the Bahamas and all that tropical water there. I really think even though I’m a Florida girl, where I might have a little bit of a prejudice towards Florida being the most beautiful, I can tell you that water and that whole stretch of the planet from the southern tip of Florida to the northern coast of South America as a single place is probably the most beautiful place on earth.
Every place, every place you look there's a surprise that’s interesting. There’s this little tiny heart island in the Red Sea that just is naturally shaped heart island out there and these expanses of salt lakes in Australia that look like pink, they just look like Georgia O'Keeffe painting almost, like if you were to paint flowers on the ground. It’s the patterns of the dunes and the Sahara that look like bird prints, bird footprints across the earth. It’s just incredible. To me, I just remember looking out the window thinking, “Now, God must have a really wonderful sense of humor," because all these things, why are they there? Why is there a little heart-shaped island out in the middle of the Red Sea, naturally? There's a lot of manmade Palm Island and all that stuff that’s manmade but these are naturally occurring things that you look out and you're like wow?
It’s like it’s meant to be there for us to discover it. That was pretty cool to me because every time you’d look out the window there’d be something like that, even if you were looking at the same place there was something surprising about it whether it was the way the clouds were if it was night versus day, all of that kind of thing that just, I can’t imagine us ever getting to the point where we’re pulling the shade down on the space station to watch a movie or something.
Jeff: Wow. That’s so cool.
Nicole: Why would you not want to look out the window?
Jeff: Yeah and that leads me to my next question. You are the first person to paint in space, and painting what you saw and things. What is that like? I’m really curious. What kind of paint did you use and how does it stick to the canvas in microgravity? How does that work?
Nicole: It was really fun. I always put a shout out to my crew member Bob Thirsk because he took the one and the only picture I have of painting in space and I wish … I’ll tell you, if I were to go back I would take that watercolored kit again or I’d find it because I didn’t bring it home with me and do it again and videotape what it was like to work with the water and the paint and how you had to organize yourself because everything floats away.
So you've got to have velcro on everything and be really organized about it. I didn’t do that so I didn’t try to describe it but it was really fun. I think in the end it turned out like most things up there, they're different than the way you have to do it down here and that’s like everything. Going to the bathroom, leveraging yourself, working on things, it’s different but it’s not necessarily more difficult than it is down here. To me, that’s all part of the adventure. Why would you want it to be all exactly like what you do down here when you’re in space?
Dustin: It seems like it would be more difficult that’s surprising.
Nicole: It was interesting because you just can’t have a bowl of water [inaudible 00:44:02] but it could have been a really cool science demonstration too just to show the characteristics of surface tension and viscosity and things like that while you’re painting. Because the brush, I would squirt out of my drink bag, we have this like free stand bags with a straw and a little bulb on the end and so you can screw out this tiny little bowl of water, then take the brush and you just touch the tip of the brush into the water and sax it right into the brush.
Nicole: Then I remember looking at the tip of the brush and I was like, normally down here it’s like just a glob of water that’s all mixed in with the brush. You don’t really notice any difference but up there you could see almost this ball of water just floating around the bristles of the brush. Then I had, the watercolor kit I had was just one of those little ones with the hard paint, like a kids kit.
Dustin: That’s what I was imagining.
Nicole: So I just took the water and mushed it around on the paint, the hard paint and then it would, as soon as I started to pull the brush away it would suck that colored water into the brush again and then I had watercolored paper and it was like the same thing. It’s like the paper wanted it then. As soon as you touched the brush to the paper, the paper would suck it up onto the thing.
Jeff: That sounds so satisfying.
Nicole: That was really neat. It was totally surprising to me that I was the first person to paint in space. It never crossed my mind when I went up there. Somebody told me afterwards, I’m like really seriously how can that be because we've had people playing musical instruments up there, we have people really very talented photographers doing different things with the pictures that they’re taking and we had Alexei Leonov one of the first Russian Cosmonauts, was the first cosmonaut to draw in space. He took the colored pencils and drew like an orbital sunrise and then he sketched all of his crew members that he was up there with. So to think that nobody else had painted before was really very surprising to me, very surprising.
Jeff: You’ve spent all this time in space, you’ve been up there two times to the international space station and kind of the veil has been lifted because you are an astronaut. You know the ins and outs of all that stuff and I wanted to ask you the question, does it cheapen science fiction for you now? I brought up before like the Hollywood Block Buster’s gravity or interstellar or something like that, do you watch those now and just go like, “Uh that’s not how it works.”?
Nicole: I can’t imagine that anybody has any particular expertise in something when they watch a Hollywood version of it. I think there’s always the critique of we would never do that. Science doesn’t work that way.
Dustin: Kind of like actual martial arts, watching a Kung Fu movie and then being like what?
Nicole: They're being so unsafe, we would never do that. So there’s some of that that goes into it but I try to watch, my husband is the hugest Sci-Fi fan that you can imagine and from the enjoying watching it, reading it to the history of Sci-Fi, all of it. He is the guy when it comes to that stuff and so I don’t even scratch the surface of that. I like going to the movies and reading the books but …
Dustin: You just go to actual space instead of reading about it?
Nicole: Yes. I wish I could say I could go. Ask me when I’m 95 I do want to go to space, so maybe I can become independently wealthy and [inaudible 00:48:00] that would be good.
Jeff: I’ve always actually wanted to ask this question of an astronaut as well and this might be a little existential but do you think we’re alone in the universe?
Nicole: I don’t know. I’m not opposed to us not being alone in the universe. I think there's plenty of opportunities for us to not be alone in the universe. I felt like when I flew and this might be a long answer to this question but before I flew, I remember reading things and hearing things from earlier astronauts like the Apollo guys who my goodness they got to see the whole planet out there. Some of the words that were used were like in describing I think the size of where we are, this sense of insignificance. That always bothered me. I remember thinking, “Men I really hope they mean that they’re humble. They’re an awe.” It was like this thing that was so impressive you feel like maybe you’re just this tiny speck in it all.
I remember getting to space, seeing earth for the first time. I’m thinking okay, that is not the word. There is total significance to us and why we're here. That’s whether you believe like I do that there is, I am a person of faith, I believe in God, I think there is a tie into that and why we are placed where we are, why those things are out there for us to see and discover, a little bit closer, a little further from the sun not so good for us, all that to me which is totally significant. I don’t care how small we are.
Dustin: Yeah that’s a great way to look at it.
Nicole: [inaudible 00:49:50]. For us to be from a size, again, size not all that important but for us to be so small in this universe and to be so perfectly placed and on a planet that is just designed to take care of us, why can’t that be possible somewhere else? I really think there's a total possibility to it. While I didn’t see anything that said, there are the little green guys flying down the [inaudible 00:50:29] or coming to see, I didn’t see any indication of that kind of thing when I looked out the window but I can tell you from almost, we know the words soulful, human kind of perspective it makes you think wow, total possibility that we are not the only ones out here in this huge space.
Jeff: So cool.
Dustin: You have such awesome perspective in life. How much do you think that was from being out in space? Do you feel like you came back a different person?
Nicole: I feel like I came back with perhaps a new appreciation. Certainly, I don’t know how you can experience what I was blessed to experience. I don’t know how you can look through the window at where we live, you look down and we were like, Holy molly. I’m in space on a space station but we are in space on a planet. This is not, all of us are essentially crew members on earth and I think what it did for me was a more of an appreciation for the unifying connective things. It’s another of those deals where a lot of times when you separate yourself from something, you see it a little bit more clearly or from a different way that gets you appreciating it differently and I think that’s what went on. I think I have a better understanding of the word awe. I use that word a lot also, that’s awesome but I really think when you talk about that aspect of it, this looking at earth in a totally new way, that is awesome. It’s really awesome.
Jeff: That is awesome. You started off in the operation side and then you became an astronaut and now you're retired and you’re doing all these really interesting things. What fuels you to keep doing what you do? To keep going out there and being so positive? What fuels you to do that?
Nicole: Well I think at the core of it is inspiration. I feel like I’ve been inspired every step of the way. I don’t think when you’re in the middle of it you even necessarily know what’s inspiring you. As a kid growing up with my family hanging out at the airport, I was just having fun. I didn’t know that that was going to be this big push in my life towards something that ended up being for me incredible. What I would probably think of as impossible. I second guessed myself all along the way. Why would they want me to do this but there was, underlying it was inspiration coming from many different places. I think that for me, I just built on that throughout my life. What is inspiring me? If anybody goes to space and is not inspired by what they experience, then there's something wrong with them.
I feel obligated to share that experience. If I can do that through my artwork, if I can do that through connecting with kids that are in treatment at cancer centers and get them doing things, if I can talk to you guys and use your platform to help show that, how can that not be something that’s fueling you? And I want people to know about what we’re doing in space. I want them to know that it’s all about improving life here on earth and I want them to know that we are doing that not just as six people from the United States on that space station but as six people that represent a global community. There is plenty of opportunities for us to use that same model in other ways and all ways down here.
Jeff: Well, you are such an inspiration.
Dustin: I’m so moved. I really am. It’s amazing to talk to you.
Jeff: I want to talk a little about your transition. You retired from NASA in 2015 and since then you’ve done so much like you said with your art and you’ve started a couple of charity organizations as well. I just want to talk about what you’re doing now. Do you do a lot of public speaking? Do you do a lot of that kind of thing like a lot of appearances and stuff?
Nicole: Yeah I try to. I try to do ... I'm just now really getting out into the speaker thing. I’ve never done, we do that as part of our astronaut job. We get out to a lot of places and speak to a lot of different people. I think what’s so neat about it is that you can take the story of training to be an astronaut, flying in space, working as part of the ground team or the in-flight team and all about the program and you can really map that to pretty much anything. That’s whether it’s kindergarteners that you’re talking to about what the space station even is to professional organizations that are trying to do team building activities or they’re changing their leadership structure or something.
There’s the extremes that you can very nicely map the story of training and flying in space too. So the speaking thing is fun because you meet a lot of different people that are doing a lot of different things. In the background, I can be achieving my mission of spreading that word about what we’re doing in space to improve life down here on earth. One example of something that I've participated in since retiring that I really think is probably the most meaningful thing I have ever supported is this thing called the Space Suit Art Project. I don’t know if you guys read about that at all or saw anything about it?
Jeff: I saw it very briefly about it but I was hoping you’d talk about it.
Nicole: Well really cool and I feel it’s one of these things where you move through your life and you’re put in particular places that then allow you the opportunity to be invited to participate in other really cool things. This is one of those to me where I think my whole time getting ready to and flying in space and having this artistic thing in the background put me in a position to be able to support this Space Suit Art Project. It really started as the idea of another artist Ian Sion who I call the artistic genius behind this because he really is. He was the founder and director of the arts and medicine program at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and worked in the pediatric cancer center there. He had always done these really neat projects where he would have the kids do some small piece of art and then he would build it and then with their help into some really large format piece of art.
His idea was that, yeah these kids could do art and then hang it in their hospital room or mom could take it home and stick it on the wall but the point of it was, first of all, they’re coming together as a community there in the hospital, painting together and then taking those pieces of art and putting them into something that’s bigger than just their individual painting or drawing. He came to NASA with the idea. First of all, he thought it would be really cool to be an artist in residence on the space station, which I totally agree with them that would be awesome, but we had to talk them down a little bit. It came down to space suits. Why? Space suits are cool to everybody? Kids really dig space suits. I really like space suits and why not take the artwork and do something with suit space suits.
So he had the kids at MD Anderson paint all these little paintings and then we got our real space suit company, ILC Dover tie it in and made quilted all of these individual canvases into a space suit to the same pattern that we use to build the real space suits. That first suit was called Hope and that was just the MD Anderson kids. Then we thought, maybe we can get one of these suits up to the space station. The NASA guys at Johnson Space Center were very supportive and the ISS program office. We knew we wouldn’t be able to get one of the big suits up there so we had the kids paint right on a flight suit like you would wear in a jet or something. They painted right onto it and that suit is called Courage. We just got it back from the space station. We sent it up, it went up there. One of our astronauts Kate Rubins, she wore it while she was up there and we did this live video conference with the kids and mission control and-
Dustin: That is so cool.
Nicole: It was so cool. It was like, I was doing the MCing for the event, so [inaudible 01:00:07] thing and when Kate came up on the screen in this suit and I can send you guys some pictures of this, It was so cool. She comes up on the screen and it was like, all I could think to say to her is like, “We're having our first art exhibit in space," because these colors, inside the space station I think it’s a really cool place but it’s all white and grays and cables. There’s not a lot of colors there. It was just so stunning to see this on the screen. We got the courage to suit back and then in parallel with that, we wanted to do something that was more global, that was more modeled after what we’re doing with the relationships on the space station.
So Ian and I traveled to all of the headquarter cities for the different station partner countries and we painted with kids in the hospitals and it was like Cologne Germany, Tsukuba Japan, Moscow Russia and Montreal Canada. I had some of my, I pulled in my network of astronaut and cosmonaut friends to come paint with us and the kids too. We brought all that artwork back and ILC Dover quilted it into a third suit called Unity. It’s really neat. You've got hope, courage and unity and the parallels between sadly what these kids are going through and what I hope is the most difficult thing they ever have to deal with in their entire lives in this treatment, they’re part of this much bigger thing now. They’re part of it not just locally in their own hospital but around the world. I get goosebumps. I've got them. Thank you [crosstalk 01:01:46]
Jeff: You've given me goosebumps.
Nicole: It’s such a great thing and so now, we’re figuring out okay what is phase two with these suits because I think there’s the momentum has been so good with it and anybody who’s seen it or participated in it is like, “What can I do, how can we help?” We’re trying very hard now to figure out what is that mechanism that we can put in place to allow people to donate to do it if they want and keep it going. We really think there’s an opportunity for facilitating other artists to do things like this and other hospitals or other places where you can see this really great, positive tie between art and science. In this case, it’s art and medicine, art and healing. There’s a real power in that. So if we can help facilitate that in other places around the world, that would be awesome. If we can get some research to the station that's targeting this area, that would be awesome. I think there’s just so many things that could spin off from this that are good things that we need to keep it going.
Dustin: So how do people find out more about you and the space suit art project? How do they find you on the internet? How do they-
Dustin: ... be a part of this space suit art project as well?
Nicole: Well, my website is theartisticastronaut.com and there’s some information there. You can find me on Facebook under that same thing and I’m on Instagram and Twitter with that as well. Then the space suit art project has a Facebook and Twitter handle as well so you can find it there and where else can you go? I think those are the two main places. I’m going to try and since we’re in kind of this transition stage with the project, I want to use my site to showcase it a little bit more too and get the word out but it’s a beautiful thing.
Dustin: It really is.
Jeff: It really is wow that’s incredible. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us on the podcast. You’re such an inspiration and what you’re doing for the world it’s all inspiring.
Dustin: It’s incredible.