09/11/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Conversation With an Astronaut

Recently I had the privilege of speaking with an astronaut. Tom Marshburn has been with NASA for more than 16 years and has performed three spacewalks for a total of 18 hours and 59 minutes of Extravehicular Activity (EVA). Tom is currently in Russia, approximately 40 kilometers east of Moscow, stationed on an old Air Force base that has been converted into a cosmonaut training center. In December, Tom will be headed to the International Space Station (ISS) for a six-month mission. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Tom recently via phone.


Photo credit: NASA


Tom practicing opening the helmet purge valve. (Photo credit: Thomas Marshburn, July 28, 2012)

Tell me about this training you're currently doing in Russia.

I am in Russia training with a diverse group, several of whom will be headed to the space station in December. The U.S. is currently launching four Americans each year out of Kazakhstan. There are typically one to two Europeans training at any time, along with one to two Japanese and one to two Canadians training.

Training begins when you're selected. You go through a two-year process to gain flight status and you go through several expeditions. Training for a flight involves a lot of flying jets and a lot of simulators. It's also very busy academically. We must learn Russian. We need to learn how to take care of the space station and how to fix anything that may break. Additionally, we learn a lot of science. We need to be prepared to do any experiments up in space. We also train extensively on space walks.


Training Russian EVA procedures: Russians are EVA and Tom is "in the ISS" checking for hatch leaks. Photo credit: Thomas H. Marshburn, August 14, 2012

At what age did you first desire to become an astronaut? What inspired you?

I loved adventuring in general. Space flights and reading books about it mesmerized me. I distinctly remember the Apollo 11 moon walk, sitting on the floor in my room in my slippers. I didn't initially think I could be an astronaut. I originally wanted to be an artist. In high school I started focusing a bit more on math and science.

After grad school for engineering, as well as medical school, I put in my application to NASA. I got in after my third application. NASA asks for references and they conduct background checks. There are several hours of psychological and physical checks as well. There were roughly 4,000 people who applied in my year. In my class, 11 Americans were accepted and three Japanese got in. So it is quite competitive.

Please describe your previous experience in space. What stands out most vividly to you?

In 2009 I went up on the space shuttle. I was in space for 16 days and docked at the space station for 11 days. The entire crew did five space walks of which I was involved with three of them. When you're doing a space walk, you always have a buddy with you. It's a very dangerous environment when you're doing a space walk.

Humans have an incredible capacity to adapt to what they're doing and to their environment. However, at least once per day when I was in space, I did get really, really excited. Simulators get you prepared but nothing can provide the exact same experience as actually being in space.

As an astronaut, when you're getting ready to go out of that hatch, you know that's the pinnacle of both your career and your life. The view completely blows you away. The real challenge is getting past the excitement and getting focused and down to work. Because the reality is that when we're in space, there is a lot of work that we are trying to accomplish.

In terms of the view, seeing space actually has just as much of an impact on you as seeing Earth. The way we see space from up there is very different from the way we can see it from Earth. The blackness of space was a big shock to me. It is a deep, three-dimensional, oily blackness. You can feel the distance

Another thing that stands out to me from the experience is feeling the temperature change. When we're on the space station, we orbit the Earth 16 times per day, which means we're constantly moving to and away from the sun. From light to shadow, the temperature swings by 300 degrees. Of course we're protected by the gear we wear, but you you can definitely feel this temperature change.


Prep for space walks: astronauts experience the vacuum of space at Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: Thomas Marshburn, July 24, 2012

That's really fascinating. Can you describe your gut reaction to your first-ever view from space?

I was just astounded by the beauty. It was a view I'd never seen before. There is a 120-degree view from the station. I was stunned by the beauty but also by the silence. It was very quiet. You take a deep breath.

Tell us about your upcoming mission to space. When are you going, with whom, and what is the purpose of the trip?

My mission is scheduled to launch December 5, 2012, from Kazakhstan. We're launching on the same launchpad that Yuri Gagarin launched from. The mission will last six months. We try to keep missions to six months for a couple of reasons. First of all, you want to get as much use out of the spacecrafts. Also, during a six-month mission, I'll receive more radiation than someone who works at a nuclear power plant during their entire career.

We'll be going to the space station. That is always where we go now. The space station is roughly the size of a five-bedroom home that includes a power plant and a huge laboratory. The main purpose of the mission is to conduct scientific experiments.

Do you guys do anything up there to leave your mark? Do you sign your names or leave special mementos for future visitors to the space station?

The shuttle crews are allowed to sign a sticker of their mission patch and leave it up at the space station.

That's very cool! Are you going to look for your signature from your previous mission? What are you looking forward to the most during this mission?

What I'm looking forward to most is zero gravity. This is magical. You can simulate zero gravity for approximately 25 seconds on Earth so you get close but you don't truly capture the feeling until you're up there.

When you're in space for months at a time, are you busy most of the time or is there tons of downtime? What do you do during the downtime?

It's incredibly busy. You're pretty much sprinting the entire time. We refer to it as "racing with the red line." We tend to go really strong for approximately 14 hours per day, then there is time to eat and sleep. Fourteen hours does include two hours of exercise. You have to exercise or else you essentially turn into jelly up there. Without proper exercise, we can end up with tremendous physical issues. With no exercise, our bodies would go through an aging process that is many times faster than on Earth.

Does it get lonely when you're in space for an extended period of time?

It is well documented that after roughly two to four months people start to miss a lot of Earth-bound thing, such as family. But they do have satellite communications as well as email. Also, video conferences with families are scheduled for every two weeks.

What else comes to your mind that you think would be fascinating to non-scientific people?

There is no doubt that zero gravity, the view, and looking into deep space is fascinating. But one thing that hit me recently is here we were watching a robot land on Mars and the videos I was seeing everywhere were of people hugging and crying and slapping each other on backs. The human component of being on the space station is what is most meaningful to me. I work with incredibly bright and enthusiastic people -- not just while I'm in space. The folks who train us, the people who built the spacecrafts, and tons of others. Everyone at the space center is extremely excited about what they're doing. It feels like we're constantly racing toward a further step in human evolution.

Who are your greatest heroes and your inspirations?

Definitely some early astronauts. Neil Armstrong stands out for being incredibly humble, quiet, and noble (Note: this interview was conducted approximately one week prior to Mr. Armstrong's death). I've always been very inspired by artists and other people who have put a huge chunk of their life into something. Michelangelo, for instance.

I have also been inspired by my family. My father was a preacher. He and my mom set the tone for my family and my siblings set the bar extremely high. There was always an unspoken desire for excellence in my family. I am the youngest of seven children so I was inspired by my parents and all of my siblings.

For a fascinating journal of Tom's experiences and thoughts, follow him on Twitter (@AstroMarshburn)

What intrigues you most about astronauts and space?