Interview With An Astronaut

I think the greatest job ever is the one where you get to go into space.

Ever wondered what that’s like?   To float around?  To sleep strapped to a wall?  To be one of those people who is helping to push humanity toward a space-flight future, while also working to improve the scientific and technological present?

I’m talking, of course, about being an astronaut.  Arguably the greatest job on (and off) Earth.

I happen to have an ear to the ground (or the sky, as it were) about what’s going on outside of our atmosphere.  An insider perspective, if you will.

I'm told this suit weighs hundreds of pounds.  The fact that he's standing is a feat in and of itself.  (Official NASA Photo)

I’m told this suit weighs hundreds of pounds. The fact that he’s standing is a feat in and of itself. (Official NASA Photo)

I recently sat down with Astronaut Tom Marshburn, who’s still working to get his Earth legs back after a trip to the International Space Station.  He told me a little bit about what it’s like to live and breathe the astronaut life.

This, my dear friends, is an interview I’ll not soon forget.

So tell me a little bit about yourself, Tom.

“Well, I am a physician.  I started off my career as a medical doctor.  And I’ve been working for NASA for about – almost 20 years now.  I started off as a flight surgeon actually.  I was assigned to a space flight that lasted half a year and I just got back from that in the middle of May.  I flew up on the Russian Soyuz Spacecraft to the International Space Station, where we performed a lot of research.  I just got back home a couple months ago.”

How was it?

“The space station is incredible.  The work was fantastic.  People think of spacecraft, they think of isolation and loneliness and the deep vastness of space.  And while space itself is incredible still, we were very busy.  A lot of meaningful work up there.  We had 130 experiments we were doing up there.”

“When I think of flying in space, I think of working in the laboratories.  But we’re working with scientists, experts from all around the world.    Living in zero gravity is just spectacular.  The view of the earth is life changing.  It takes your breath away.  So it’s hard to trade that experience with anything.”

What was your job as an astronaut on the ISS?

“Everybody’s main job is to do research.  We also have to maintain the space station.  We are the research technicians up there.  We’re the eyes and the ears and the hands of the scientists.  Often times we’re in direct communication with them as we perform their experiments.  So we’re ready to do a lot of things, but our primary goal is to do research.”

Did you get to go outside and do a spacewalk?

“Yeah, I did.  I got to do the space walk.  We couldn’t believe it.  We saw a leak.  We saw little ice crystals flying away from the space station, at least that’s what we thought they were.  And the ground confirmed it.  They studied our videos and our photographs from just the previous several hours.  Within about a 12 hour period, they determined this is ammonia coolant that’s leaking from the outside.  They had a plan for us when we woke up the next morning for us to go out and do a spacewalk in a day.  Typically it takes months.  The minimal amount of time is nine days as currently planned to do a spacewalk.  And within 36 hours, they had us out the hatch doing the space walk to fix the leak.”

What was that like?

Oh, we just couldn’t believe it.  We still couldn’t believe it, even when we were out the hatch.  I went outside with Navy Commander Chris Cassidy, he’s a Navy Seal.  This was our third spacewalk together, because we were on a shuttle flight before that time.  [We opened] the hatch and the light from the outside, this incredibly bright yellow light came in the hatch.”

“Seeing the earth down below in the middle of the orbital daylight…it just takes your breath away.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the unbeatable selfie.  (Photo courtesy of Tom Marshburn)

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the unbeatable selfie. (Photo courtesy of Tom Marshburn)

So what do you hope to achieve as an astronaut?

“Well, every astronaut, of course, wants to fly in space.  Our job is to implement the program.  Right now the space station is about science and exploration.  I say exploration because of future spacecraft, they’re going to be going into deep space.  They’re going to be using technologies and processes that we’re using on the space station right now.”

“Being a space fearing nation means it takes years and years to develop the capabilities – both the personnel and the communication – as well as building the actual space ships and materials you need to go.  So we’re a part of all of that.”

“That’s what we’re doing on the space station.  I think that’s the goal of every astronaut; to stand on the shoulders of the people that were before you and go further.”

Did you use any technology to work on any type of science that could aid the military, help with military missions?

Absolutely.  They’re very closely linked.  What NASA does, and what the military does as well is it asks very smart people to solve very hard problems.  To enable the performance and keep people healthy, and enable their performance in remote situations.  In dangerous situations.  That’s what it’s about.  Space flight is very much about that.”

“I work quite a bit on medical experiments, using ultrasound, which is a standard ground-based technology for diagnostic imaging, but expanding it in ways that the ground just doesn’t ever do it, they don’t need to.  We have cat scanners and MRI’s on the ground, but in space we don’t.  So a lot of the techniques we’ve been developing for medical care for astronauts have been applied in the military and have been applied actually in emergency rooms.  And it’s really improved medical care across the country and even remote areas of the world.”

“Space stations are a great platform for assisting technology development for the military.”

If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

“So first of all, I want it to be clear that Earth is a great place to be.  So if I go to that place, I want to come back to the Earth.”

Me: [Laughs] Okay!  So noted.

“Now, my choice would be one of the XO planets that we’ve been finding that looks like it might have life.  We’re starting to see little signatures of maybe planets that are in the right place, the Goldilocks Zone, just the right distance from their star, just the right size, and maybe even have signatures that maybe there is some water on those planets.  I’d love to go to those and actually look and see and be an explorer at those places.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

“The space program, in my mind, is an incredible thing for the benefit of mankind.  Joining together the world’s wealthiest nations to build the most complex things ever been built by humans and put it in orbit, 16,500 miles per hour that it travels over the surface of the Earth, circles the Earth 16 times a day.  To me, that speaks very well for human kind; that we can take this endeavor for peaceful circumstances to help solve problems on the Earth.  Being a part of that is one of the most wonderful things I can imagine being able to do.”


I imagine so, Tom.  All the time.

Want to watch the whole interview?  You’re in luck, because it’s right here!

The space race is not over, my friends.  Oh no.  It’s only just beginning.


Thanks to Astronaut Tom Marshburn and NASA for this unique look at what we’re doing on the ISS! Follow Tom on Twitter!  Help him get over 50,00 followers! 

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.

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