Living With Kids: Karen Nyberg

[ This home tour (in space!) was originally published on October 8, 2013. ]

This tour doesn’t exactly qualify for our Living With Kids series. Rather, I should probably title it Living Without Her Family And Missing Them Like Mad While She Is In Outer Space! Because Karen Nyberg is an astronaut. I know. Incredible, right? Just wait until you see her daily views from her windows.

(New York and south along the US East Coast)

I couldn’t resist her generous offer to show us around her out-of-this-world living space (A little sterile, but the view!), share some of her best coping tricks (Again, that view!), and maybe even inspire those of us with kids who routinely travel as part of our careers. (A two-hour plane ride and three days at a Hilton doesn’t sound quite so unbearable when you compare it to a six-month expedition with a waiting husband and toddler son!)

She’ll tell us how she brings her family into the mission with her, how she prepared to climb aboard a rocket and leave her family, dog, and home for six months, and how she will satisfy her need to create something with her hands (She is a DIY girl and an astronaut!) and clear her mind with a good run while living on the space station.

Super inspiring. Friends, you are going to love this one. I promise.

Q: I think this is the first time I’ve described a home as “out there,” but it truly is!

A: I am currently living on the International Space Station about 250 miles above the surface of the earth. We orbit the earth every 90 minutes; that’s sixteen sunrises and sunsets every day! There are usually six crew-members living here at a time, and we exchange three crew-members approximately every three months.

I arrived on the Space Station via a Russian Soyuz rocket on May 29 with two others, and will be departing for home in the same capsule on November 11. Other residents of ISS at this time include one American astronaut (an US Air Force Flight Test Engineer), an Italian astronaut (an Air Force Test Pilot), and three Russian cosmonauts.

Our primary job while living on the Space Station, now that it is mostly built, is to conduct scientific research. We study everything from the behavior of fluids to improve the quality and efficiency of everyday household products, to looking at how diet can help mitigate bone loss. We also use resources to study changes on the earth and to look further into our universe. There are about 150 different experiments from investigators around the world active during any one six-month expedition here on the Space Station.

(US Laboratory)

Q: Your home away from home looks like something out of…well…a film about outer space!

A: The International Space Station is much larger than most people think, with an internal volume close to that of a five bedroom house.  We usually refer to the Space Station in two separate segments: the Russian segment and the US segment. The US segment includes laboratories from the United States, Japan, and Europe, and it is where I spend most of my time. It is composed of several modules which were all delivered to space on separate Space Shuttle missions over the past 15 years. (In 2008, I was on the Space Shuttle that delivered the Japanese Laboratory).

(Japanese Laboratory)

There are three modules we call Nodes that have been used to connect other modules together – think of Tinker Toys! – and most of our living space is in these Nodes. Node 1, the first of them to arrive in orbit, is where our pantry of food is located and where we join together to eat our meals. The back of the Node 1 leads to the Russian segment. On the starboard, or righthand, side of Node 1 is the airlock, which is where we go out of the space station in spacesuits to do work on hardware and equipment that is outside of the Space Station.

(Storage Attic)

Attached below Node 1 is the PMM, which we often call this the garage or attic, where we store supplies and spare equipment. To the Port, or left, side of Node 1 is Node 3. Node 3 is primarily our gym and our bathroom! We have a treadmill and a resistive exercise machine for keeping our muscles and bones strong for the return to earth.

(Gym)

Perhaps the best part of the entire ISS is attached to the bottom, earth-facing side of Node 3: the Cupola, made of seven windows with a 360 degree view of our earth!

(Cupola)

I spend a lot of time there taking pictures and just looking in awe. To the forward side of Node 1 is attached the US Laboratory. Our last piece of exercise equipment, a cycle ergometer, is in the Lab. Otherwise, it mostly contains racks of scientific equipment.

(Treadmill)

Forward of the US Laboratory is Node 2. This is where four of our sleep stations are located. Two others are located in the Russian segment to total room for six! Attached to the left side of Node 2 is the Japanese Laboratory, and the European Laboratory is to the right.

(European Laboratory)

The Space Station runs entirely on solar power from some beautiful, golden, very large solar arrays. Our air and water systems are closed-loop, meaning we generate oxygen, clean out carbon dioxide from the air, and turn air humidity and urine into usable water. The entire Space Station is an impressive piece of engineering!

Q: It’s all so high-tech! Do you miss your home and all of your things?

A: I do miss my home, very much so. I love to be at home with my family, my dog, my things. The Space Station is very lab-like and not very colorful, and certainly not pretty! I love flowers and usually have fresh flowers in the house. I miss that. I miss our yard, which my husband has turned into a wonderful oasis, with a pool surrounded by yellow flowers…my favorite.

(Sleep Stations)

We are allowed to bring a few items with us. To me, the most important is pictures of my husband and son and the three of us together. I have my husband’s wedding band on a necklace that I wear, along with a charm that has a “J” on it for my son. I have a couple small toys that my son likes. I keep all of these items in my sleep station, which is about the size of a phone booth, making it the most personal and homey place in the Space Station.

(Karen’s Sleep Station)

I also miss using a normal toilet!

Q: How do you deal with living in such a sterile, not-so-private environment?

A: During the workdays, we have video cameras turned on in almost all of the modules of the Space Station. The camera views are sent to the Mission Control Center in Houston and are broadcast on NASA TV and live on the internet. It can be a little intimidating at first when you realize you are being watched at work all day long! It is something we get used to, however, and almost forget they are there.

(Bathroom)

Evenings and weekends are more private, and the cameras are turned off. With Space Station the size it is, I’ve never felt crowded. And I always have the privacy and comfort of my sleep station if I feel I’d like some time alone.

(Dining Room)

Q: How is your family coping with you being away?

A: My husband, Doug Hurley, is a former Marine Corps F/A-18 pilot and also an astronaut. He flew on two Space Shuttle missions, including the final mission of the Space Shuttle in 2011 before it was retired. Both of his flights were to the Space Station, so he has been here and he knows exactly what it is like. I think that makes it a lot easier to communicate about what I’m experiencing.

We have a three-and-a-half year old son, Jack. He is very outgoing, talkative, inquisitive, perceptive, and funny – such an amazing little boy. We also have a ten year old dog named Charlie. Another person who has become a very important part of the family is our nanny, Lucy. Her love and special care for Jack has been vital during this period of time. They are keeping themselves busy while I’m gone, but I know they miss me and are eager for me to return.

Since I flew to ISS on a Russian vehicle, the final portion of my training was in Russia. I left the United States in April. My son traveled to Russia with me and was able to spend close to a month there with me. My husband joined us for a week and then took Jack home before I left Russia for Kazakhstan on May 15 two weeks before launch. I haven’t seen Jack since then. Doug came to the Baikonur Cosmodrome a few days prior to my launch, leaving Jack at home with grandparents. The last time I saw my husband was the day of my launch into space.

I will be returning to earth on November 11.

Q: How do you stay connected with them when you’re so far away?

A: We have an internet phone that allows us to call home almost any time of the day. We are constrained by space station communication antenna coverage, but I am able to talk to my husband every day, and sometimes more than once. We also have a family video conference set up by a support team at NASA one time per week, usually on Sundays. Since my son is so young, it is difficult to talk with him for any length of time on the phone, so the video conference is really the time to interact with him.

My husband sends me pictures and videos from home, and I have also been making a short video for Jack every single day that I e-mail to my husband. I show him weightless tricks, look out the window, sing him a song, talk about things we’ve done together, and always end it with an “I love you and miss you” and a blown kiss.

Jack spent a month this summer with his grandparents in upstate New York. There were a couple nights toward the middle of his stay when he wouldn’t let his grandma leave the room when she put him to bed. He cried and cried. Since he was a baby, he has always been very good about going to bed, so this was definitely unusual.

It broke my heart. I wanted nothing more than to go sit and rock with him. This happened for a few days until my husband was able to visit for a weekend. After Daddy put him to bed once, he never did that again.

(A corner of Jack’s room.)

Q: Do you ever get scared?

A: I don’t think one could be human and not get a little scared once in a while; it’s a natural reaction. There are certainly things that will get my heart rate elevated. I’ve had many moments of nervous anticipation throughout my career; moments when my heart feels like it could beat out of my chest. However, I’m generally more apt to react in situations when my performance has a direct impact on the outcome. My body reacts more to giving a speech in front of a crowd or during an interview than it did the two times I rode a rocket into space!

(Karen’s sewing space at home…)

Q: Did you do anything special to prepare your son for your time away? For those of us who travel – albeit not nearly as far as you! – your advice is appreciated.

A: In the two years prior to launching to space, I had traveled quite a bit. I often took my son and our nanny with me. The longest time I’d been away from him prior to now was five weeks. We talked a lot about what Mommy was doing and where Mommy was going. My goal was to try and never make it a negative thing that I would be gone, and to involve him as much as possible. He knew what the space station was and that there was no gravity there and that Mommy was going to live there. He met all of my crew-mates. We tried to simply make it all as comfortable and familiar as possible for him.

(…and at work!)

All over the world, when conditions are right and we are flying overhead, it is possible to see the Space Station as a very bright star moving across the sky. My husband will try to get outside every time he’s able to see it. We’ve been showing my son since he was a baby and telling him that it is where Mommy is going to live for a while. When my son looks up and sees it he yells “Hi, Mommy!”

Q: What has surprised you the most during this period you’re away from home? Both professional and personally as a mother and wife.

A: I have been very surprised at how quickly the days pass by here. When, at the same time, it feels like an eternity since I left my home and since I launched into space. When you’re given such a unique opportunity like this, and you’ve sacrificed time with your family to do it, you really want to make the most of it. I’ve been surprised to find that my free time on the evenings and weekends often seems to go faster than the busy work days.

My first priority while here has been to stay connected with my husband and son. I’ve also been trying to share this experience with others in the world the best I can through Twitter and Pinterest. I have a lot of other personal things I’d hoped to do while here and I find myself not having nearly the time to spend on them that I thought I would.

(Eastern Mediterranean Sea coast: Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.)

Q: What do you look forward to the most on your return? How are you imagining it?

A: I daydream about being at home with my husband and son. I can almost smell the Saturday morning coffee that my husband has brewed, drifting into my bedroom. I can see us sitting in the morning sun in the kitchen talking about the week behind us and the day to come. I also daydream about sitting with my son on his bedroom floor, reading books, being silly, singing songs. I’m longing for the simple things and our daily routines. I miss that.

(Day turns to night at the terminator.)

Q: Please finish the sentence: I wish someone had told me…

A: I wish someone had told me how difficult spaceflight is on the families of those flying. The aspect of a loved one being far from home for a significant length of time is difficult enough. But it can be considerably more unnerving for family when they think about the risks associated with riding a rocket into space, living in a place where, just outside a relatively thin metal wall, lies the harsh vacuum of space, and the only way home is a fiery trip through Earth’s atmosphere.

Having been on both sides – launching into space myself and twice watching my husband – I can say with most certainty that it is harder on the family watching than on the astronaut doing his or her job.

–-

Sixteen sunsets and sunrises a day. Karen, that is a lot of beauty to take in! Thank you so much for escorting us on this educational and unbelievable tour. I’m so proud of the sacrifice you’re making, and feel lucky to add you to my list of friends who inspire me with their talents and generosity. Can’t wait to hear news of your wonderful return home!

I have to be honest; I didn’t realize how much was happening in the Space Station. Friends, do you think you could ever be an astronaut? Scratch that. What I mean to ask is could you ever sacrifice so much time away from your family for a greater good? Could you, would you, and have you ever? I’d love to hear your experiences and opinions, whether you’re a parent who travels once a year for three days and agonizes over it, or you’ve got a job that requires a lot of time out-of-town. I’m somewhere in between, so I’ll be super interested in your stories and coping tricks.

P.S. — Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here. And if you’d like to share your own home with us, just send me a note! It’s a lot of fun…I promise!

119 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Karen Nyberg”

  1. That. Was. Awesome!!! Best thing I read all day.
    Thank you, Karen, for showing us your life on the Space Station. Its fascinating, and a little terrifying. I so admire your bravery, and envy your views of space and the earth.

  2. This is so amazing!!! Thank you for sharing. I love hearing about space travel, the space station, and this astronaut family. It is inspiring. I am surprised that the days pass so quickly confined in such a small area. I can imagine the views never getting old and wanting to watch out the windows all of the time. Best wishes to them for a safe and happy return home.

  3. Wow! Unbelievable, and yet it’s real! I just never think about the space station… it’s like, always there, old news, except that there is so much important work being done and so many people away from their families for months at a time. Bless them all and thank you for sharing your experience with us, Karen.

  4. Whitney Smith Cripe

    SO SO SO GOOD! Yes! I love this. Living in Space. This woman’s brilliant perspective and sacrifice for science and for her career and her honesty are just marvelous. Great job, Gabrielle.

  5. So fascinating! I just read through it twice already. This is truly a way of life that seems so secretive and hidden away, thank you for a peek into the life of an astronaut! I was wondering if you have to be strapped to your bed to sleep? The zero gravity aspect is so intriguing.
    And I’m sure I’d spend most of my time staring at the views, too!

    1. They have sleeping bags attached to the wall in their sleeping quarters — so yes, they’re constrained so they don’t float away during the “night.” (Although day and night don’t really exist up there like they do down here!)

  6. Thank you Gabrielle for this awesome interview!
    Thank you Karen for your work, your sacrifice and sharing! When I was little I dreamed of being an astronaut, but… when I realized I had to be quite good at math, physics and others, I let the dream go by… today, I just stare in awe at all astronauts!!!
    Gabrielle, my mom and dad traveled a lot for their work all my life…. They would go away also for 6 months, and even if it wasn’t outer space, it was often in the other side of the planet… no way for us to afford the trip, there was no internet, phone calls were extremely expensive and letters could take 2 to 3 weeks to arrive! Of course we missed them dearly (and once we forgot how my dad looked like… Ooops!). But we were never traumatized by it, they did it for humanitarian causes and we always respected that!
    So, my mom started to leave us little messages for every day in a notebook, months before leaving. We solved the “how did dad look like?” issue with tons of photos on the house, recording their voices and letters as often as they could! When we were little it was hard to measure time… so the parent who would be at home would buy a satin ribbon and mark little marks, we would cut a little bit every night and we would have a idea of how long until we saw her or him again. And the arrival was always a huge party, we would dress up, go to the airport, decorate the house, take tons of pictures…. There was some frustration when one of the parents was too tired at the arrival though. My mom always tell us the day that my brother seeing my dad sleeping almost 2 days on a role , said: ” We sent a perfect dad and they sent us back a broken one…” LOL!!!!
    But it was all wonderful and there are no family regrets on it! I guess it really depends on how you prepare the kids for it and how we handle it as a family….
    : )

  7. wow. I can’t wait to show this to my boys who are obsessed (OBSESSED) with space travel. Adam has memorized the book “moonshot”

    (did you mean ‘equator’ in one of the last pictures? Terminator seems odd!

  8. This is sooo surreal!!! I had so much realizations while reading this so thank you so much for sharing this story. I’ve always wondered how it is in the outer space, looks really cool and amazing!

    I currently got accepted in a job that entails a lot of travelling. I decided not to pursue it because turned out my husband is not ready yet, and I guess, so was I. This is very inspiring.

  9. This was fascinating. What a fantastic role model for young girls – someone who is at the top of her career and also a great mom. We need more women in STEM fields!! Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Mind-blowing!! Best surprise read ever!

    What a great way to present a working mom’s perspective, too. I admit that I make too many choices out of fear that something may happen to me or my children, so I have the utmost respect for Karen’s courage and fortitude!

    Karen, many thanks to you and your colleagues for your work, and to the Government for allowing us to share in your home away from home. Godspeed!

  11. This both inspires me and freaks me out! I am fascinated by space, but the sheer magnitude is completely awe-some.

    Do you think she had to come home because of the shutdown? I tried to check out the live cam that she mentioned and it wasn’t available because of the shutdown. Just thought she maybe had to return home. That would have been bittersweet, I’m sure.

    1. Nope, the astronauts onboard the space station — as well as a small group of people working in Mission Control — were excepted from being furloughed due to the government shutdown. 97% of NASA employees like me are sitting home at the moment though. :(

  12. Just WOW.
    I took a year off blogging and it is very cool to come back for this post. I so enjoyed all of it, the inside look at both the living quarters and the emotional toll and feelings of an actual astronaut. My husband is going to LOVE looking at these photos.
    Good insight about it being harder on the family left behind.
    Thanks :)

  13. That is SO COOL! Thank you so much for sharing, Karen! This is by far my favorite living with kids post. So incredible.

  14. Gabrielle & Karen… what a treat to read this “real world” experience. It sounds as if you spend some time on the computer during your times off? you mentioned Pinterest… Isn’t it thrilling to be able to connect with your family while circling the earth… that is mind-boggling. Have you thought about taking your pictures and creating a picture book for elementary school girls & boys. What a fabulous contribution this would be for our young readers & exposing them to the wonders of science & math would certainly help educate our children. I’m planning to share this link with my family. Thank you! thank you!

    BTW – do you read blogs & spend time online while in space? I have so many questions to ask too – kids want to know what you eat, how you use the bathroom, do you shower? what sort of clothes do you wear in the capsule? what did you pack for the trip (that sounds funny)? have you gotten sick? how do you get back to earth? what are your hobbies? how long will it take to acclimate to earth (standing, walking)? what will you plan to do when you arrive home?

    Gabrielle – have you considered a follow-up interview with Karen (on earth)?

  15. I’ve always loved Design Mom, but this has to be the coolest, most fascinating post I’ve read. As soon as my boys get home from school I want to show them the entire thing. To get such a first-hand look at what is happening on the space station is amazing. Thank you Karen for taking the time, and Gabrielle for posting! (Also, this really makes me want to go see that new movie “Gravity!”)

    1. I saw “Gravity” last weekend, and this looked familiar! :-) I simply can’t imagine what it’s like to be gone from family for so long, and in space nontheless! What a great post–yes, thanks so much for this amazing bird’s eye view, Karen. I’m in awe of what you do. Wish you a safe stay up there and a safe journey back home. I’ll wave too!

  16. What a stellar interview! I can’t wait to show my husband, and I’m looking up Karen on Pinterest. So nice to “get to know” someone there, so it makes the ISS so much more relatable!

  17. Waow! I love that. It gives a new dimension to DesignMom, doesn’t it? Amazing and so inspirational. What a model for young girls, and for Mums and Dads! Follow your dreams is the message!

  18. wow! That is definitely going to be my favorite post EVER on Design Mom. I’m certain of it! I do hope you can do a follow up. I’ll definitely be sharing this with my kids and would love to tell/show them more!

    Thanks so, so much for a great article! Now I want to be an astronaut when I grow up!

  19. I am a teacher and have been loving the video clips created by Karen and her colleagues aboard the International Space Station. If you have kids (0r are now super interested yourself) you should check them out on YouTube. The give a video tour of the space station, show how they eat, wash their hair, use the bathroom, etc. It’s fascinating!

    I have to admit, I wondered how families dealt with the huge gap of space between them. I can only imagine staring at North America from space and wondering how my little specks were doing. It sure puts life into a very different perspective.

    Thank you, Karen, for sharing your life with the world. The work that you are all doing on social media is creating a whole new level of interest in space research!

  20. ¡Este post es fantástico, Gabrielle!
    This is fantastic, Gabrielle! This leads your blog to another level. These are the reasons (or post) why I love your blog. As for Karen, what can I say? It is wonderful to read her story. I admire women who go beyond the borders (in this case goes to space!) yet still betting to motherhood and all that that implies.
    Can you imagine her little boy telling his friends that his mom and dad are astronauts? So cool!!

  21. Wow, wow, wow! What an amazing home tour and what an amazing person! I have a new hero to show my son tonight when he comes home from 1st grade – he LOVES astronauts and is convinced he will be the first man on Mars! This morning we had a breakfast conversation today about women scientists, explorers and inventors and this would be a great follow-up!

    My heart nearly broke when Karen explained how hard the separation has been on her family. I echo the request for a follow up when she “returns to Earth,” to repeat her words. I can only imagine how brave and strong and this will make her son Jack feel someday – to know his mom can love him all the way out from outer space!

    Oh, and Karen – if you are reading this, did you find the geocache on the International Space Station? My son and husband love geocaching and he mentioned there is one up there. If you find it, can you tell us what’s in it? And, do you do any classroom presentations from space?

    Again, WOW! Thank you Karen and thank you Gabriel. :)

  22. Whoa, my worlds are colliding! I work at NASA in Houston also (though I’m not an astronaut, lol!) and have been loving watching Karen’s activities from space since they overlap so closely with my own. So excited to see her here on one of my favorite blogs!!

    1. Just wanted to say thanks to you for all your feedback throughout the comments. Nice to have another expert around!

  23. So cool! I will wonder from now on if I am seeing a moving star or a space shuttle in the night sky!
    I typically only travel 1-2 times for my work but always experience anxiety – praying and having friends reassure always is helpful! I always enjoy the trips — great for the boys too!

  24. I’ve been reading this blog for years now, but this is the first time I’m posting a comment. This was the B.E.S.T. house tour I have ever read on your blog. So fantastic! I love the role-model that Karen is to young women, especially my own daughters. Thank you Karen for your dedication to science and your family!

  25. wow, karen! thanks so much for sharing that. i feel so inspired as well.
    i especially loved the story of your son seeing the ISS in the sky & saying Hi Mommy! i wonder if & how he will remember this time when he’s older?

    ps: i would love a follow up interview, too!

  26. Amazing! The perfect post to celebrate World Space Week. Can’t wait to show my daughters! They loved the model ISS bathrooms at the Kennedy Space Centre and I know they will love this tour!

  27. Incredible. Those photos! Beyond beautiful. I’m so glad to have learned more about what happens on the space station. I don’t have it in me to be an astronaut — I have a hard enough time getting on a commercial aircraft for a short airplane ride! — but I so admire the dedication, talent, service, and sacrifices of Karen and her colleagues.

    Thanks for this awesome interview/home tour, Gabrielle.

  28. Wow, that wasn’t what I was expecting when today for this series. So awesome. I was able to show my 5 year old son your pictures and tell him all about your experience. He then went and got out his legos to build his own space station. My son was also very excited that you were coming home the day before his birthday. :) Thanks for all you do and the sacrifices you make.

    Gabby, how cool is it to know that someone in space reads your blog?!!

  29. Wow. We have always held our astronauts in high-regard, but never have I read a Mom Perspective. This post is somehow humbling–it puts a lot of other things in perspective. Thank you, Karen and DM.

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