02/19/2012 05:10 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2012

Paradoxically Ordinary

Events of February 14, 2012

"If you look, you'll surely see they're you and me.
Heroes are plain old people."
-- Lionel Richie and Darrell Jones, "Heroes"

It was a cloudy winter 8 AM as I stood outside of my dorm shivering. It seemed like twenty cabs had gone by in the past few minutes, and not one had pulled over. How did the old expression go -- that a journey of a thousand miles began with a single step? It certainly seemed true right then!

I'd been lucky enough to be selected for the Valentine's Day TweetUp at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. 150 followers of the @NASA account who had submitted an application were randomly chosen and invited to come to DC and meet with astronaut Ron Garan. But at the moment, standing on Commonwealth Ave, Washington, DC was more than 400 miles away.

Finally, a taxi pulled up in front of me.

"Logan Airport?" I asked, worried someone else in my dorm had ALSO made a reservation to be picked up at 8 AM and be taken somewhere else.

"Yup." The driver said.

I jumped into the back seat, buckled up, and sat my backpack on the floor. The taxi started moving, and the campus buildings moved past the windows. I was on my way.

I'd eagerly followed Colonel Garan's blog posts and incredible photographs during his five-month mission to the International Space Station in the spring and summer of last year. His images and insights really captured the feeling of being in space. (And it doesn't hurt that he's from my home state of New York... ) Seeing him in person would be incredible, as would getting to hang out with other space fans before the event. Visiting NASA HQ after interning there over the summer would be a special additional treat.

After arriving at the airport, I headed for Terminal C. I went through security and had time to buy some water and call my mom before boarding. I had a window seat, but there wasn't much of a view because it was cloudy for most of the flight down the coast. I passed the time by doing my readings for my Archeology 210 class.

I'd never flown into Reagan National Airport before, so I wasn't sure what to expect. But when we came out of the clouds, we were right above the Lincoln Memorial, and I had a perfect view right down the National Mall, all the way to the Capitol Building. I could make out the Smithsonian Castle, the National Air and Space Museum, and all the other spots I'd visited so frequently over the summer. I wanted to take a picture, but I was too awed to do anything but stare. Before I knew it, we were on the ground.

Luckily, my Metro card from the summer still worked, so I was able to walk right out of the airport terminal and onto a train to the Federal Center Southwest station. Walking out into the station with its familiar curved ceiling and cool lighting felt like coming home. (I guess it's not really fair to compare the Metro and the T, as DC had 70 years to see what New York and Boston were doing wrong before they built their own subway. Still, Washington's subway remains the only one on which I consider the ride as much fun as the destination.)

NASA Headquarters isn't especially eye-catching. It's a federal office building on a block full of similar ones, but the black granite marker out front reading "National Aeronautics and Space Administration" and the flagpole flying an "International Space Station" flag hint at the awesomeness inside. After having lunch with my friend Ms. Natalie Simms, I headed into the Visitors' Lobby to wait for the TweetUp to start.

My old friends, the NASA HQ Librarians, were happy to see me again.

"Zoe! Where've you been?" One asked, giving me a hug.


"Oh, okay, I guess that's important." He joked.

I picked up my badge and goodie bag at the main desk and hung out with the other invitees. One man showed me a book he'd had signed by six moonwalkers, while a woman and her boyfriend checked out the spacecraft models in the library. I got my picture taken with Camilla Corona SDO, the official mascot of the Solar Dynamics Observatory mission. The people at the TweetUp were mostly professionals, with an interest in science, and a special appreciation for what NASA has accomplished. Some were writers, directors, and producers who were fascinated by the power of social media. There were people doing what I plan to do, remote sensing, using satellite technology to study the Earth.

Finally, it was time for the Q&A! Mr. Garan walked out, wearing his blue astronaut flightsuit, and took the microphone. He explained that he enjoyed sharing his photographs on Twitter -- even when his followers pointed out mistakes in geography he'd made! He considered his followers to be "fellow crewmates." "You guys are not spectators," he told us, "we're all in this together!"

He explained that he'd wanted to be an astronaut since he was seven years old -- since the night he, along with millions of other people, saw Neil Armstrong take the first steps onto the moon. However, the Apollo program had ended a few years later, and becoming an astronaut hadn't seemed realistic, so he'd entered college as a business major. However, in his sophomore year, the first space shuttle mission, STS-1, had taken off, and the day after it landed, he met with his advisor and asked how soon he could switch to science and engineering courses. After becoming a fighter pilot following graduation, he was selected for astronaut training in 2000. (A lesson for undeclared majors everywhere!)

One little boy asked Mr. Garan what his favorite memory of his time in space was. He said he had trouble choosing just one, although one of the things he missed the most was the view of the Earth from above, especially watching lightning flashes in thunder clouds and seeing the lights slowly turn on down below as the station passed onto the night side of the Earth. Meteors and auroras were "absolutely beautiful", although he had to look down to see them, rather than up, like people on Earth do. Crossing the terminator line separating day and night from space was awe-inspiring, and imagining the billions of people that the lights represented created a great sense of concern and responsibility.

Another guest asked what it was like to live in an underwater habitat as part of training for space. Mr. Garan said that the coral reef around the habitat had been beautiful, and that the telemedicine experiment they'd conducted had been very interesting -- a surgeon in Canada had guided a robot inside the underwater lab through a perfect mock operation even with a time-delay built in to simulate lunar conditions. In addition to helping keep astronauts healthy on long spaceflights, this remote surgery technique could also be used in disaster areas on Earth.

Back in December, I'd gotten to meet astronaut Cady Coleman at an event at MIT. Since she and Mr. Garan had been onboard the space station at the same time, I e-mailed her before the TweetUp asking if there were any inside jokes I could share with him. She said that I should ask him if he missed brushing his teeth next to her.

Mr. Garan laughed when I asked my question. By chance, they had always ended up brushing their teeth at the same time while onboard the station, and it had become a joke among the crew. After everybody in the audience laughed, I asked a more serious question -- what does it feel like to float in microgravity?

"Floating feels kind of like floating in a pool, but not. If you go upside-down in a pool, you feel upside-down, but if you go upside-down in space, there is no real up or down, so you don't feel any differently." He said. However, after spending a long time in space, you do get used to a certain view of your surroundings, and being upside-down seems weird, even if the blood doesn't rush to your head like on Earth.

"It's hard to describe the feeling, other than to say that it's wonderful. I mean, it really feels very liberating, there's a freedom involved in it. My commute to work every day was flying!"

Unlike riding in the space shuttle, riding in a Russian Soyuz rocket, as Mr. Garan did on his second mission, feels more like WEARING the spacecraft than being inside it. "Every valve that opens, every pump that turns, every explosive bolt that fires, every engine that turns on... you feel it!" He said. Landing in the Soyuz is also very different from landing on the shuttle. Shuttle landings are smooth glides, but Soyuz landings are hard. Once you land on Earth, you sometimes bounce a few times before coming to rest.

When I hear astronauts speak about these less-than-enjoyable parts of spaceflight, or read about them in books, my instinctive response is to think, "I could never do that!" Of course, when I read or hear about the really incredible parts, or see pictures and video of the view from space, I think, "I want to do that!", but when I reconsider the hardships, I can't decide if the benefits quite outweigh the discomforts.

And so I think about that for a while, and eventually, I can't come up with an answer and decide that I probably have something else I should be doing. But I think that, clearly, these people have found an answer, and their answer is yes, the positives are enough to make the negatives worth it. And my first thought then is, "They must have extraordinary endurance and courage, they must be truly extraordinary people."

But, when I count them all up, I've met 22 astronauts so far, and all of them have been ordinary people just like me. People who shave and brush their teeth and go to the grocery store and have best friends and favorite foods and miss their families when they're away from home.

But they've walked in space, and they've lived on the space station, and they've landed the space shuttle and they've driven on the moon -- they've done all of these truly extraordinary things. And yet they are such paradoxically ordinary people.

And all of these extraordinary things were done by ordinary people just like me... then it can't be that difficult to overcome the negatives, can it?