- Mark T. Vande Hei, 55, is a NASA astronaut who spent a year in space orbiting the Earth.
- He just returned and didn’t expect his sentence to last 355 days, but he was prepared for it.
- He said his days included meetings and experiments. On the weekends they had movie nights.
This essay is based on a conversation with Mark T. Vande Hei, a 55-year-old NASA astronaut. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Before working at NASA, I received my master’s degree in applied physics from Stanford University and was a physics professor at West Point. One day during my long career in the U.S. Army, a senior U.S. Army astronaut came to an Army Space Operations conference to find someone to work in the astronaut office as part of an arrangement to expand the experience base of Army space operations officers .
In 2011 I completed my training as a NASA astronaut. In March I returned to Earth after 355 days in orbit aboard the International Space Station. I’m officially the American who has spent the most consecutive days off our planet.
Before our launch, there was great uncertainty about how long the space flight would take. At first they told me it could take up to 355 days, but that didn’t become official until about halfway through the flight. Knowing this was possible, my wife and I made plans for me to stay away for that long. My previous spaceflight had lasted about six months, so I saw this longer, last one as a unique kind of challenge.
The journey with the Soyuz to the ISS went surprisingly smoothly. Although watching a launch from the ground involves a lot of light and noise, on the spacecraft itself you are passing the speed of sound so fast that you leave all that noise behind. The predominant sound was the whirring of the pumps to push fuel out the rear end.
When you first arrive on the ISS, it will take some time to get used to the fact that the space you are in is constantly falling towards Earth
You quickly realize that there are many things on earth that you do every day that do not require conscious effort. So if you’re in orbit, you’ll have to relearn how to do them. For example, if you don’t pay attention to the procedure of going to the toilet, you could end up in a chaotic situation. When you sit down to go to your laptop, it’s important to always anchor your feet to the floor somehow or else you’ll end up floating on the ceiling.
The ISS is about the size of a six-bedroom house, but you can go days without seeing any of your six or seven housemates. Basically, the ISS was built in parts, and each part or module can be isolated and locked down should an emergency arise. On that last flight, the Russians added two new modules, so the ISS now looks more like a seven-bedroom house.
Most weekdays start between 6am and 7am Greenwich Mean Time
We are supposed to get up at 7:30 am and have breakfast before the daily planning conference. In these sessions we talk to all ground control teams in Japan, Russia, Europe and the US. During the day you have an hour for lunch and then two and a half hours to work out – we have a resistance training machine, stationary bike and treadmill on board. Our bodies adapt well to floating, so moving is important to keep our strength and bone density at healthy levels. We spend most of our days completing various tasks that the teams on Earth have set for us.
On our team’s schedule, there is a line with each astronaut’s name and a horizontal line that slowly moves forward throughout the day. It guides us on what to work on and helps us stay on track. I prefer to work with the other astronauts, but we often have separate tasks. As you get on with your own work, you can help someone else, which is always nice.
During this final flight, we helped conduct hundreds of experiments — whether they happened behind the panels or on ourselves
I see my role more as a lab technician than as a scientist because I promote the success of the experiments more than I record data, analyze them, or write reports.
There are surprisingly few “specialists” within the team on board. With the longer flight duration we realized that it is important to be a generalist as the plan often changes during our time there. So you often need people who can do a variety of jobs effectively.
Aside from meetings, experiments, and maintenance around the station, spacewalks take up the rest of the day
For example, we have upgraded and added solar arrays located outside of the ISS. The ISS is solar powered, so it is important that we have a constant power supply. Although I didn’t spacewalk myself on that last flight due to a pinched nerve in my neck, I have in the past.
Being in space is like an extended fall onto the planet where you and everything around you fall at the same speed and no interference from wind. That’s what it’s like to be in orbit.
During the week, the working day lasts until around 7:15 p.m., then we end with another planning meeting.
We usually had weekends off apart from cleaning the house for about 3 hours – I like to tell that to school kids
Every Friday or Saturday there was dinner for the whole crew, and then on Sundays we all went to see a movie together. Each week a different astronaut got to choose what they wanted: one of my choices was “Yesterday” with all the Beatles songs.
During the flight I talked to my wife every day and to my children usually every weekend. I am also in contact with many relatives again. It’s a pretty cool situation when you call someone and they’re blown away by the fact that you’re speaking to them from space. I also started meditating every day and often sat by the window looking at planet Earth.
I still get sick when I think about it. All this is really a unique experience.