It isn’t everyday you get the opportunity to ask someone first-hand what it’s like to venture into space, but that’s exactly what the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex offers to thousands of visitors a day. Whilst travel might not be on our agendas for the coming weeks, there is no reason why this time at home can’t be spent dreaming about our next big trip and Florida is certainly one to consider for your 2021 agenda.
STYLEetc recently spoke with NASA astronaut Steve Smith, a veteran of 4 missions where he completed 7 spacewalks and who now relishes his role as a NASA ambassador and public speaker. Steve, or one of his astronaut colleagues, can be found daily at the Kennedy Space Centre to delight, educate and entertain guests with tales of their great adventures into space.
STYLEetc: Hi Steve, nice to meet you, could you just start off by telling us a bit about your background? Where you grew up, what inspired you to get into this career and the path you took to end up in NASA.
Steve Smith: So I grew up in California, very interested in the outdoors because there’s so much beauty there and also living in Silicon Valley where we had all the technology innovation, I had that atmosphere of big thinkers and creative thinkers. I was watching the astronauts on TV as well as other explorers of the day and I kind of became thrilled with the idea of going places where few people had been before and discovering things there, so I really wanted to be a professional explorer. I started reflecting that in pictures that I drew as a child, which you’ll you find on my website, showing myself for example doing spacewalks, even at the age of 7 or 8.
Then there’s this long 30 year path where I tried to get into the US military, I couldn’t do that because of a huge medical issue, a near death experience as a 15 year old but then ended up going to University for engineering, gained a pilots licence, then onto IBM. Then finally I was eligible to apply to NASA, I applied 4 times and was rejected each time over about a 10 year period and was finally selected at the age of 31. After that I joined the astronaut core and flew 4 times and did 7 spacewalks. I ended up being the Deputy Chief Astronaut of the office.
STYLEetc: That’s quite a career! After all that preparation and being rejected 4 times how did you feel when you finally made it to the launch pad for your first mission?
Steve: Joyous! You know you’re sitting in the launch vehicle for about 2 hours before launch, you’re on the launch pad next to the Atlantic Ocean in Florida. You’re not scared at that point cos you’ve trained and trained, for me 2 years as an astronaut and of course I’d being trying to get in for 2 or 3 decades so it was kind of a sense of relief and excitement, a little bit of nervousness just because you’re fearful of making mistakes. You’re most worried about your family, who are watching 3 miles away and of course they bare the burden of the drama and the consequences if we’re killed in the launch and so we really consider them the heroes of the Space Programme, it’s not the ones inside the spaceship, it’s the ones who designed it, built it and then our families that support us.
As you rise into space it’s 8 and a half minutes of a heck of a ride, we’re riding 88 million horsepower! It’s almost hard to imagine these numbers, just massive vibration and acceleration. Just after 8 and a half minutes we’re going 17,500mph.
STYLEetc: Were your family the first people you told when you were accepted into NASA?
Steve: Oh yes of course, well first of all believe it or not NASA decided to call all of us who were waiting for the news on April 1st 1992, not the right day to call someone with big news! In any case I was sitting at my desk at the Johnson Space Centre, because I was an engineer there at the time, and I hung the phone up and without talking to anybody I walked out to my car, got in my car started it up and started to drive 2 miles back to my apartment and during that drive I had the radio up very loud and was making all kinds of primal screams of joy, I still remember the 4 or 5 minute drive home. My wife was on her way to a meeting in Florida and I had the number of the company she was meeting with and I called them, they found her and I told her first. Then I called my Mommy and Daddy, they were pretty happy!
STYLEetc: Just going back to that first launch, how do you describe the moment after the acceleration ends and you’re heading into nothingness? I imagine it to be really silent and eerie, is that what it’s like?
Steve: Yes, that first 5 seconds everyone’s kind of startled because the engines shut off and instantly everything’s floating, cos at that moment right there you’re in space and there’s no gravity. So the seatbelt straps start to float up and if there’s any dust in the cockpit it starts floating around, then you start to float out of your seat so you undo your seatbelt and you kind of feel awkward for the first 20-30 seconds. What really captures your attention is when you look out the window, we were flying during daytime at this point and I remember looking out and seeing this stunning, beautiful blue and green marble floating in space. Awe is probably the right word there cos you’ve got this magical feeling that you’re floating inside the spaceship and there’s this awe inspiring view.
STYLEetc: Aside from the breath-taking beauty of Earth from that vantage point, is there anything else that training doesn’t prepare you for, or that surprised you?
Steve: Excellent question, no ones ever really asked me that, but the really clear answer is the training prepares you how to operate a very complex machine and how to do things like eat in space, use the restroom and all these little housekeeping things. We really have no magical place on Earth where you can turn gravity off, so there’s just no way to prepare for that. We do have an aeroplane that flies in parabolas, so you get like 15 seconds of zero gravity, so I probably had like 2 minutes of zero gravity time before I flew in space. You feel a little clumsy and it’s quite shocking but the word I use to describe it, after you’ve settled down, is magical. It’s almost like a movie, you can’t believe that massive objects that weigh thousands of pounds will just be floating in front of you. If you want to move them just take 2 delicate fingers and move it out of the way.
You can’t prepare also for that view of the Earth, I mean you hear about it, you’re listening to me talk about it but gosh when you see it it’s more stunning than you can even imagine. That’s why astronauts come back with this new mindset, once they’ve seen the Earth, it’s called the Overview Effect. It’s really stunning to see the Earth as an island, it makes you want to protect the environment and we also don’t see any borders, so it really has this spiritual effect that we really should all be at peace with each other.
STYLEetc: How does it feel to be back on Earth after having those experiences?
Steve: It’s definitely different when you come back, I think first there’s frustrations because the Earths sirens are sounding right now in terms of the environmental impact we’re having such as the coral reefs, ice caps melting, sea level rise, temperatures rising, things like that so to be here in the middle of it is frustrating but that’s one of my missions, to be an ambassador for the Earth and encourage change, so I do a lot of speaking about that.
The other part of course is that you do observe conflict here on Earth between countries and individuals and it makes you wish you could fly every world leader into space because I think their perspective would be much different and maybe we would treat the Earth and each other better.
STYLEetc: With that in mind, in your opinion, how far away do you think we are from regular space tourism?
Steve: Private space flight is here, it’s going to start very soon. Some rocket ships will take people up into space and come back in the same hour, basically you’d have 15 minutes of weightlessness. You’re flying one big parabola back to Earth, we call it a ballistic trajectory, Sir Richard Branson of course is ready to go I think for $250,000 a shot. I think I saw they had 20 flights on the manifest from their New Mexico spaceport. So that will be regular in that the machines and technology are ready to go, but not everybody will be able to afford that. Just like commercial airline flying is super normal for us now it will be for space flight too. Then we have the other entrepreneurs that are making spaceships to go around the Earth, so that’s Boeing, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, 2 of those I’m certain will fly in the next 60 or 90 days, hopefully by the half way mark of this year. Those will first be tens of millions of Dollars and the astronauts will be government astronauts from various countries, including the UK, I’m hopeful to see Tim Peake on one of those.
Some day hopefully the price will come down so it’ll become normal that people will look at a vacation maybe 30 or 40 years from now and decide whether they want to go to the Space Station or the Moon, it will definitely happen but we don’t quite know when.
STYLEetc: Do you think that in your lifetime you may end up being a space tourist?
Steve: Oh my gosh I’d love to! I’ve dreamed about maybe being a flight attendant on one of those things! I have the qualifications so I’m not joking you I’ve actually thought about that, maybe they’d like to have someone experienced go up!
Style: What can you tell us about the future of government funded space travel? It seems like the future may become a more international effort.
Steve: Most of the people I’ve spoken to I have to say we have these 2 parallel paths, so you’re correct. I’ll call it government space travel, low earth orbit is relatively easy compared to going to the Moon and then onto Mars and so that is truly a multinational government effort, just like the International Space Station (ISS). If you look at the mission patch for the ISS it has 20 different flags on it, including the UK, and it’s really kept countries working together that here on Earth are sometimes arguing with each other, you know having good old political battles, like Russia and the US for example, so it’s really this wonderful project that engineers, scientists, astronauts and cosmonauts love working together on and just keep going despite all the noise. We have actually written up a draft proposal to be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.
That’s how we’ll go back to the Moon, hopefully in this decade, the US is building a rocket and we’re working with European Space Agency (ESA), including the UK, to build the crew module and that’s the way we’ll go to the Moon and eventually onto Mars.
STYLEetc: Will future Moon missions have larger crews than the previous Apollo missions and do you think we will see the first woman on the Moon this decade?
Steve: Yes absolutely. First of all the vehicle will carry more than 3, at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex we’ve got the Orion Space Craft, that actually flew in space all ready, it didn’t have anybody in it but it was the farthest object to fly away from the Earths surface and return and it was in very good shape. The next flight of it will carry people inside, I think it can carry up to 5 or 6 people.
By the way that capsule is just one of many space flown vehicles that are at the Visitor Complex, one of the spectacular things to see is the Space Shuttle Atlantis, just in the way it’s displayed and revealed, it was the last Shuttle I flew on and every time I see it of course it brings back great memories. Then of course there’s the simulator that people can ride in that gives them an idea of what it’s actually like to fly in a Space Shuttle, it’s very accurate!
Back to the second part of your question, absolutely the first woman to walk on the Moon will be in this decade I’m sure. Interestingly the Western part of the ISS, so the ESA, the Japanese Space Agency (JSA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA, that’s what I’ll call the Western partners, we have 3 people on the ISS now and 2 of them are women, they’ve done a couple of spacewalks together. I hope that a year from now we’ll stop talking about gender equality cos we’re trying to get there now, In fact in the last astronaut class at NASA we had 11 people selected and it was 5 women and 6 men, and by the way a higher percentage of women selected than the application pool, so that’s super positive. My sister was actually one of the first female FBI agents and was an agent for 5 years so we’re really into strong women!
STYLEetc: Do you have any souvenirs from your missions or things to remember them by?
Steve: Oh of course, I’ve taken tens of thousands of pictures, I have a couple of space food items that I show to groups. On each flight we could take a small number of items, around 10 that fit into a very small container about the size of 3 CD’s on top of each other. Generally, it was jewellery, for Mom and Dad and my children, people did ask me to take some unusual items, one person asked me to take their expired passport! That passport travelled 4 million miles! Charles Lindbergh, who crossed the Atlantic in 1907, he and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were famous aviators and their daughter, Reeve, is a friend of mine and she asked me to take a rock into space, a small smooth pebble.
I kept a few of the insignia from the space suits that I used to do spacewalks, nametags and some of those striping’s that identify me, I have those too so it’s fun to have a few small things, I’m not a big collector of things. This life experience I had at 15 where I nearly died made me somewhat of a minimalist and someone who tries to simplify their life, so it’s mostly about experiences in my family.
STYLEetc: Further to that, do you and former crewmates ever celebrate the anniversary of your launch dates?
Steve: We do! Not like we have parties, but you know I’ve flown with maybe 25 people and we’re all really good friends. When those dates come the email chains start and we’ll dig out a couple pictures from the flights to send them around, it’s always good memories.
I was in space one time for my wife’s birthday and you know we have telephones on board, we can call, and I knew that I was flying over Egypt at the time and I had a watch set on Texas time, where Peggy was, and I knew she was at a Mexican restaurant with all of her girlfriends celebrating and so I called her cell phone and she said “Oh hi Steve, where are you?” and I said “I’m flying over Egypt” and of course the cell phone went all the way round the table because everyone wants to talk to an astronaut! Now every birthday she has we always reminisce about that Mexican restaurant phone call.
STYLEetc: I never thought about how easy it would be to call an individual mobile phone from space, that’s quite amazing.
Steve: Oh yeah, we can call any time, video too! Its funny I’ve been doing this for a long time now with NASA for almost 30 years, and as an ambassador at the Visitor Complex, we have an astronaut there every day and I was there for 5 days in early January and the questions you ask are the same genre that people ask me of all ages and the responses are very similar too. It’s incredible, we’re accessible every day there and I think that just really blows peoples minds. We have a lot of launches now, we have 20 this year, including one today and 3 in the last 2 months. To be able to drive to an amusement park called the Visitor Complex, pay the money get on a bus and go out to see a rocket launch is a real life experience, I’ve seen people cry watching launches go into space. There’s something emotional or patriotic about it, I don’t know what it is, I hope you can come and see us!
STYLEetc: We’d love to see one in person, when is the next manned launch planned from Kennedy Space Centre?
Steve: The rocket that launched today was a SpaceX, their third launch of the month, they’re going wild! That Elon Musk is just brilliant, he does some funny things once in a while but he’s one of these historic entrepreneurs that we’ll always look back on. The launch was the last test of their spaceship to make sure it’s safe for people to fly and so it’s basically ready to go, I think they’ve committed to flying before the half year is over. It’ll be a really joyous day , it’s not just about the American’s being able to launch astronauts again from their own soil for the first time in 9 years, but again it’s all about our international partnerships so for example Tim Peake could end up launching from the Kennedy Space Centre in the next few years, he’s all ready assigned to another flight and they don’t want to keep paying the Russians $80 million!
STYLEetc: Plenty to look forward to in the future then! It was a pleasure to meet you and thanks for your time Steve.
Steve: My pleasure, come visit us any time at the Visitor Complex at Kennedy!