Transcending Politics: An Interview With an Astronaut

Expedition 49 NASA astronaut Kate Rubins is carried into a medical tent shortly after she Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos, and astronaut Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016 ( Credit: Bill Ingalls / NASA

NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins spent 115 days aboard the International Space Station, from July through October 2016. During the flight, she conducted two spacewalks totaling 12 hours and 46 minutes.

While circling the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour, Rubins also sequenced DNA in space for the first time and knocked out a ton of other research. She’s booked pretty impressive feats on the ground, too, earning a degree in molecular biology from the University of California, San Diego, where she studied HIV in the Infectious Diseases Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from Stanford University Medical School. She and colleagues with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed the first model of smallpox infection. Rubins also headed a lab of 14 researchers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at MIT studying viral diseases affecting Central and West Africa, conducting field research in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition, she studied genome sequencing of filoviruses, which include Ebola and Marburg, and collaborated with U.S. Army researchers to develop therapies for such viruses.

In whatever spare time that leaves, she runs, cycles, swims, flies, and scuba dives.

Men’s Journal talked to Rubins about her experience in space and what lies ahead — for herself and for NASA.

When you were selected as an astronaut candidate in 2009, 44,658 people had applied to become astronauts, with 330 accepted into the astronaut candidate program, 48 women and 282 men. What do you think was key to your selection?

You see a diverse mix of backgrounds in the astronauts, usually from one of two pipelines: fighter pilots or the scientist/engineer/researcher route. I obviously came from the scientist route. For long-duration exploration missions, NASA is looking for folks with a lot of operational, hands-on experience, people who have been in field-type situations such as military deployments. In my case, I worked in the Congo and in Biosafety Level 4 labs on smallpox. These are high-pressure situations, and there are lots of analogs between those types of work and what we do in a spacecraft.

Astronauts train for two years. What was most challenging about training?

It was all incredibly enjoyable, and varied. We did wilderness survival training up in Maine, the SERE School, and a lot of water survival training, initially with the Navy. That seemed like the Navy attempting to drown you in many different ways. We train in how to respond. Then we started flight training, which does a nice job of putting you in a situation that is both high criticality and immediate time pressure. Ebola research is high criticality, for example, but if something goes wrong, you pour bleach on your experiment and think about what happened. Flying a jet at the speed of sound is not only high criticality, you don’t have much time to think when something happens.

You need nerves of steel if climbing aboard a rocket is your career path. NASA trains you to assess emergency situations and react in a way to keep yourself and everyone else safe.

What did you find most challenging about spaceflight?

The constant attention to detail and vigilance. It is one thing to do these activities for a few hours, and during a six-month mission we do relax and have fun. We’re loving every minute of our jobs, but it is always in the back of your mind that you aren’t on planet Earth. Just on the other side of those walls and windows — which are not as thick as you might think — is an absolute vacuum. I was especially reminded of that on spacewalks. That was one of the highlights of the flight, and I was incredibly honored to be able to do it. But at same time, it is not without risk out in the vacuum of space, where it can be minus 212 degrees. As a biologist, I was acutely aware that there were no air molecules on the other side of my helmet. Your vigilance can never flag because, at the end of the day, you are responsible for this incredibly complex machine, the hundreds of thousands of people on the ground who work so hard, and all the research. It is a big responsibility.

What was the strangest thing about being in space?

Looking out the window. It is incredibly amazing. The stars don’t twinkle up there, there is no atmosphere, but there seems to be many more of them. The station has a cupola that we use for Earth observation and science and where crew members hang out. You see the Milky Way surrounding you, not just out one window, but in your entire field of view. For the first time, I felt I could actually see where we were in the galaxy.

I thought I was prepared for space and it still absolutely defied every expectation and dream. It is an incredible thing to put yourself on a rocket and launch off the planet. It is an amazing thing to see the planet from space. This blue sphere is almost indescribably beautiful.

Anything about spaceflight that surprised you?

I was surprised at how easy it was to adapt. I thought it would be incredibly challenging, and it is, you have to learn a lot of skills over again. For one thing, you don’t walk, you float. They teach you to fly a plane but not how to fly you — it’s a skill. New astronauts are mini-hurricanes, ripping cords out of the wall and banging into things. Your brain is used to gravity. We all have bruises on our foreheads for the first few weeks, learning how to work in freefall. It’s not like you have a week to learn to float, because on day one you have a huge list of tasks. The pace is relentless and you’re doing all that while learning how to stabilize yourself.

The space station is a microgravity science lab orbiting the Earth. Why is it important?

It’s incredibly important. If you’re a researcher, you’re always looking at ways to study your system by changing your variables. The space station is the only place to do research where gravity is a variable. All research on the planet is done in gravity. The kinds of questions that need this lab are really varied — one we did is on understanding how heart muscles organize and contract and beat in orbit, a fundamental understanding of cellular behavior without the force of gravity. It is amazing the questions we are answering, questions with implications for medicine, energy, microbiology. The space station has been a completely separate environment from Earth for 16 years. That helps us understand how microbes grow. It is a completely closed-loop environment; what you drink today turns into tomorrow’s coffee. That has led to big advances in water purification, which is incredibly important for human health. There is a lot of overlap with the developing world, human health and disease.

Why should we send people to Mars?

We are answering a lot of questions about keeping people alive in remote environments to tell us how we’ll keep people alive on Mars. Those things are very useful in the developing world as well. We’re learning how to scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into oxygen. We’re learning a lot about remote medicine. One example is using ultrasound. We can’t bring an MRI to the space station, but we can bring an ultrasound, and using it has taught us a lot for remote or wilderness medicine. We have counties in Texas where people have to drive for hours to a medical center for an MRI, but they can walk into a nearby clinic and do an ultrasound. There are potentially big impacts to health care. Anytime we put humans in an extreme environment, we end up solving problems for humans on the planet in less extreme environments.

In December 2015, NASA received 18,000+ astronaut candidate applications, almost three times the number received in 2012 and more than twice the previous record of 8,000 in 1978. What do you think accounts for that increase?

I think part of it is the way NASA has been reaching out and the interest young people have in science and technology. We’re a lot more connected, too. People learned about the call for applications through social media, versus Sally Ride finding out from a poster on campus when she was a student. I go around the country and talk to students, and they sense that this is a place to be. The world is changing rapidly, and careers in computer science, engineering, and biology are important. My biology career started before we even had the human genome sequence, now we are sequencing DNA in space. These are revolutions in data processing. Students are connected in the science world in a way that we haven’t seen since maybe post WWII, which was focused on the space race. It is coming back to the forefront of people’s minds.

These are interesting political times. Do you feel there is public support for the space program?

I do. As people learn more about how space affects their daily lives, there is an incredible amount of support. People understand that this is how we push technology. They make the connection between the cell phone in their pocket and the push in Apollo days to miniaturize technology. The space program drives all technology forward.

NASA currently has 45 active astronauts eligible for flight assignments. What are they all preparing for?

When we are not flying, we are training. We have a continuous presence on the space station and need a rotating crew there at all times. We have a commercial crew cadre, training to fly on new commercial crew vehicles, vehicles that US companies are designing to go to low-Earth orbit.  We also need people preparing for deep-space exploration, for our journey to Mars. We need to start to answer all the questions of how we go back to deep space, sending people away from the planet for a long time.

What is next for you?

I am taking a job as deputy director for health and human performance at Johnson Space Center. But I’m still an astronaut, and the next rocket seat that is available, I will raise my hand and volunteer in a minute.

What do you think is next for NASA?

Expanding capabilities on the space station. There is a lot of commercial investment in the station, a lot of companies interested in sending research to space, as well as academic and other government collaborators. There is a whole series of exploration missions, Orion and deep space exploration architecture.

Launching from U.S. soil. Multiple capabilities to launch to the station is important. We’re in a high-risk activity and things don’t always go right, so having redundancy built in makes it more possible to launch. We’re looking at recent accidents we’ve had. There’s been no human toll, but it shows that space travel is not routine.

An exciting part of the job is working with our partners, in Russia and Japan, where my crewmates were from, as well as Europe and Canada. These are incredibly strong partnerships. If you look at the history, the exchange and cooperation and scientific collaboration between us and Russia has always been one of the real strengths of the space program. As international relations wax and wane, space exploration is something that really anchors our relations. The International Space Station is truly international. I participated in research with all the other countries. We are united by this common goal of space exploration. Politics is in everything, but sometimes something transcends the politics.