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Full interview: NASA Astronaut Anne McClain on her trip to space

Spokane native and NASA Astronaut Anne McClain sat down with KREM 2's Jane McCarthy to talk about going to space, returning from the ISS and visiting her alma mater.

NASA Astronaut Anne McClain sat down with KREM 2’s Jane McCarthy Friday morning before receiving a YWCA Women of Achievement Award in Spokane for her recent expedition to the International Space Station.

Q: So you were staying with your mom. Tell me about when you came in and what was happening in the city.

A: “Well we came in and I kind of got a little bit of a clue before we got here. My mom said, ‘I think it’s going to be cold.’ And then it rained that first night, and then that first night was the night we woke up and it may as well have been December. Then the power went out, but Avista got it back on, so thank you!.”

Q: You spoke yesterday at your alma mater. Tell me about that.

A: “You know, it’s always really fun going back, and I think the experience is probably the same for all of us. When we go back to where we came from and the roots because inside we’re still the same people. We still have all the same hopes and ambitions and doubts and fears, and the emotions of going back to your own school, it’s like, for me I just have to pinch myself that I’m not still one of the students sitting on the bleachers. But I also know that for me, when I was sitting on the bleachers, all of my dreams seemed so far away. And so whatever I can do to try to reach out to those students and make them realize that the world really is within their grasp, like they really can go do it. That’s the message I really want to get across from them and it’s just so special for me to be able to share that with schools that I went to.”

Q: Were there any kind of funny questions that kids asked?

A: “We get all sorts of fun questions of course. Everybody wants to know how we eat in space or the fun things that we do in space or how we use the restroom in space – those are all kind of the fun questions. I did tell a funny story about the first time I tried to take a picture of Spokane and I wasn’t used to how fast we go in the space station, and this was the first week that I was up there, and I was looking down telling my crew mate, ‘I’m trying to take a picture of Spokane.’ And he said, ‘Well is it in Minnesota? Because that’s where we are.’ And I was, oh my goodness we were just over Seattle three minutes ago, now we’re over in Minnesota. So I had to get used to it a little bit, but I did get some shots of Spokane that I shared.”

Q: What was the most surprising thing on the space station?

A: “A lot of people ask us how our perspective changes on the space station, and I think it’s such a deeply personal question that is so different for everybody. For me personally, what was amazing was – you know the distance and being off of the Earth and be able to physically look back on our environment was one thing, but what really struck me and what I feel like I’m taking away from it is working with people. We worked with people all over the world. My life was literally dependent on people from other cultures, other countries, live on the other side of the world that I’d never met, yet my life was in their hands and I’m sitting here today. So everybody did their jobs and everybody that I talked to and everybody that I work with was there to try and make my life a little bit easier and I tried to make their life a little bit easier. What we could accomplish when we wake up in the morning and just try to do the right thing, try to make life easier for somebody else, it really is incredible. That is the strength of the space program is the international cooperation and to me, it’s so humbling. And so when I come back, that’s another thing I talk to the kids in Spokane about was like, listen it’s not just what you do, but it’s how you do it. What kind of teammate are you? What kind of friend are you? What kind of person are you? If everybody was like you, would the world be a better place? That’s really what I came back with from my mission.”

Q: Do you have a different perspective now?

A: “What I feel like I came back with was, first of all, how exciting exploration is. We really worked on the edge of what humans are capable of. We worked on the International Space Station, I lived for six and a half months in a space station, which is an environment which humans are not supposed to exist in – yet there we are. Living and working and learning and developing new technologies for Earth. So that was an amazing perspective – just the excitement of how much more we can do. I think that was kind of the biggest thing for me to take, was just working with other people, accomplishing this amazing mission, and then coming back here and really wanting to spread the mission. Like, I feel so connected to everybody on Earth now. I told this other funny story that when I got back it was like, I was visiting this planet from another planet and all of my 39 years of experience that I had before my flight were gone and I was looking at everything with fresh eyes. And I distinctly remember the first day that I was allowed to drive again, I went out and I stopped at a coffee shop. I was walking into the coffee shop and this person passed me, and I was still not used to just passing random people. It was like, something that I was really aware of, and I was so happy to see her and I smiled and I looked and she didn’t even say hi, and I remember standing there for a minute, kind of in shock and thinking, she didn’t even say hi, that’s so weird. It was just these little interactions that I was really aware of. Hopefully maybe what I can spread is just like, hey we’re all people, we’re all just on this spaceship Earth, trying to do the right thing and we’re all in it together. I really feel a familial connection with every human I meet now.”

Q: Does the Earth seem smaller to you now?

A: “The Earth does seem smaller to me, and I think we traveled so much in preparation for this flight and we interacted with people all around the Earth on a daily basis and we saw 90 percent of the Earth every single day. We were going over 17,000 miles-per-hour, we did 16 orbits every single day, every 45 minutes there was a sunrise or a sunset. We were around the Earth fairly quickly. We saw the auroras in Antarctica and then 20 minutes later you’re looking over Australia and Japan and so you do realize how interconnected we all are and from where we were in the space station looking back at Earth, was actually hard to comprehend that on this little globe you see is everything that ever meant anything to you. And it’s everything that’s ever meant anything to everybody – is on that Earth. History and your family and your ancestors and it’s just so amazing to see it with your eyeballs. But I felt really connected and close to Earth, like when I was out on the spacewalk, people say, well did you feel so far away? To me, it was just the opposite because when I looked at Earth it was right there. We’re holding onto the space station, I can see Earth but when I look the other direction, it was the most infinite forever that you can possibly imagine. And I felt very connected to Earth by this invisible thing called gravity, luckily, that holds up. I felt like, an ownership over the Earth and really a part of it and I wish everybody could have that experience.”

Q: I know you were working, but will any vacation ever compare?

A: “It’s funny because I’ve never really been a risk-taker, in our job it looks very risky but actually we’re professional risk-mitigators, and so I don’t even have a desire to go on roller-coasters anymore right now, but I really enjoy just the peace and the tranquility of nature. When I’ve come back, I want to go walking through the trees and just sit there and look at the backyard, and Spokane is such a great area for that. I mean, is there a city as beautiful as Spokane? Of course, I’m bias, but it’s so nice to be here in nature and just the stillness and the calmness on Earth is just something that I really appreciate.”

Q: Is there anywhere in particular you look forward to visiting, or going out to dinner?

A: “It’s interesting – a lot of astronauts say, ok, what got put on your bucket list after you saw it from space? Because for everybody, something catches their eye for whatever reason on Earth that they had never seen or never been to before. A lot of astronauts after their flight travel all over the world to go just look at this one island they saw, or to go look at this one crater they saw. For me, it’s actually not that far. One of my favorite things to photograph and to see and to fly over that just gave me chills was the Great Lakes. They are absolutely beautiful from space, and I’ve never been there. So that is definitely on my short-list of places that I want to go soon. It’s really incredible – when we fly up from Houston in the space station, obviously we’re going pretty quickly and then as soon as you get over Houston, you can look up and it’s just like the Great Lakes – there’s this huge, the Finger Lakes and the northern half is just snowcapped and naturally beautiful, and then the bottom half you can see Chicago, Detroit and all the other cities in there, but they are so beautiful from space and I can’t wait to go there in person.”

Q: What’s the hardest thing to get used to when you’re back?

A: “Earth is very complicated. It’s very busy and there’s a lot of energy and there’s a lot to do everyday, it’s very stimulating. So I think for me, the hardest thing to get used to – you know, we were gone for six and a half months, we were living in a very small area, I had two crew mates for half that time and then I had five crew mates, so a total of six people. So when you get back to Earth, the first thing I noticed was how busy everything was. There’s cars everywhere, there’s information everywhere, there’s phones and emails and calls and people talking to you. It’s this sensory overload that we have all really gotten used to. I got used to that relatively quickly. Physical adjustments are probably the longest lingering effects on the body. Micro-gravity is a very harsh-environment for your body, and actually micro-gravity itself isn’t, but the adjustment between gravity and micro-gravity is hard on your body. So when you come back from space after there’s really been no forces on your body, it’s kind of easier in space once your body adjusts that you don’t get sore muscles, you don’t get hotspots when you sleep, your back stretches out. I grew two inches in orbit. And then that all went away within two days. So coming back to gravity and having the weight on your legs, it probably took about three months for me to be able to run without feeling like there was weights on my legs because your muscles aren’t used to actually having to lift your legs up. In the immediate time, and this is one of the considerations for when we start doing the Mars missions, is we’re going to fly crews for a really long time to get there and then they’re going to perform spacewalks on the surface of Mars – one of the effects we have when we come back to Earth is, we have orthostatic issues. It’s like our systems forget how to pump blood back up to our heads. So if I had landed and just started running right away, I probably would have passed out because all of the blood would have pooled in my legs. So developing the counter-measures for those physical effects for long duration, planetary missions is one of the big things that NASA and others are trying to figure out right now.”

Q: We have that video of you getting out of the space station. Do you remember what was going through your mind?

A: “The landing itself was the best roller coaster ride I have ever been on in my life. I heard that it was a mix of the spinning cups at the fair, a roller coaster and sitting inside of a washing machine. And it didn’t disappoint, it was incredible. Part of the excitement of when I got out was what we had just been through the last 30 minutes, and trying to wrap your mind around the fact that a few minutes ago we were just floating in outer space, we just came through the plasma layer, we slammed on the brakes and slowed our vehicle down from 17,000 mile-an-hour to sitting on the surface of the Earth in gravity , these parachutes deployed perfectly after being up in the harsh environment of space for seven months, and then all of a sudden it was the first time we had seen people other than each other for so long. It was just such an overwhelming experience that, hey, we just did this thing, we just did this mission, and we did it together. I was with David, who’s a Canadian, I was with Oleg, a Russian, and the three of us just did this together. It was just so fun to come back to Earth, because it just felt like home. It looked like I was in a field in the middle of nowhere but there were people and faces that I felt like, were my family and I was on this planet that I now felt like was mine and it was just so exciting.”

Q: Was there anything scary about coming back?

A: “I didn’t feel any fear coming back. Same with launch. I think I had a lot of years as a test pilot before that. So you really are able to just kind of let go of any of those emotions and just focus on what we’re doing. Coming back, the vehicle, the way it’s designed, you have very little interaction with it. Unlike launch, when we were constantly monitoring multiple systems and interacting with the systems and really having to follow our procedures – once you come back and once you’re under the parachute, you’re really just waiting. So you have kind of this 15 minutes before you land, after the parachute had opened to really just take it all in and just sit there and look around that vehicle and just know, none of us know if we’re going to go back, and you’re just trying to carve in your mind every memory, every vision – what it looks like out the window, what it feels like to sit in those seats. It’s a pretty incredible experience."

Q: What’s next for you?

A: “So, I’m still in my recovery period –“

Q: How long is that?

A: “About six months, and that includes a lot of different outreach, medical experiments – a lot of the things we did on orbit are still going on here on Earth. So I still work with a lot of the scientists to finish up some of the experiments and testing that they did on my body and on some other aspects of flight. Our office right now, it’s actually really exciting and really busy time at NASA. We are looking at launching a commercial crew vehicle up to the space station, SpaceX and Boeing, within the next six months, so we’re helping their crews now. We are usually either in the mode of us getting ready to fly, or we’re getting each other ready to fly, so I’ll immediately go back into a support role and get my crew mates up to have their space adventures. Then NASA’s going to put boots on the moon by 2024 with the Artemis program. So a large chunk of us are going to be working on the test and development of those programs.”

Q: Might there be another space trip for you or is it kind of like, we need to rotate?

A: “Both. We need to rotate, but with all the folks that are going to be flying up to the space station on the commercial crew vehicles, the seats that we’re going to get on the Artemis program on Orion, and then we’re still going to be flying on the Russian Soyez – we’re going to be trading them seats so that every time a commercial crew vehicle launches, we’re still going to launching with our Russian crew mates to keep that international cooperation going. So there’s plenty of seats out there, but there’s usually a lull of three to five years between flights. So I’m going to look forward to the downtime, enjoying planet Earth and hoping my crew mates get up there. Right now, as we speak, two of my closest friends are out on the spacewalk, and I’ve got six friends up there at the space station right now and it’s so incredible to watch other people achieve their dreams and get to experience it. Incredibly jealous looking up at them, but definitely looking forward to my next flight.”

Q: Speaking of dreams, you’ve said something about dreams before. It was something to the effect of waking up in the morning, thinking about that dream and going for it.

A: “Most of us have dreams that are pretty lofty and so far from where we’re starting at, and so it can seem overwhelming. And so it’s kind of moving the mountain one teaspoon at a time. But it’s waking up every morning if you have a dream and just doing one thing that day to get you a little bit closer, and the culmination of all those small actions really can take you to incredible places. I still am just breathless when I go back to my old high school and my old grade schools here in Spokane and realize, wow, all those little decisions actually did get me to where I am. It’s hard trying to communicate to those kids, just wake up, you can change the course of your life with small decisions every single day, and just start doing it, start working toward it.”

Q: Being here, at the YWCA, why is this an important event for you to attend?

A: “The YWCA is an incredible organization that does so many things for our society and recognizing the achievements of accomplished women from every facet of life. The thing I’m most excited about today is just meeting the other nine awardees – I’ve read all of their bios, I’ve read about them, I can’t wait to shake their hands. It really speaks to the power of what passionate women can do to chase their dreams no matter what that passion is. We have professors, we have police officers, we have judges, so whatever your passion is, whatever gift you’ve been given, share it with the world, despite any doubts, despite any barriers you think are there. If you think there’s barriers, than take them down. I’m really excited to meet the other nine women, and just to be included in a group of such accomplished women is really humbling to me."

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