What is the most important thing you learned from living in space?
– To see Earth from above and the perspective that gives, is totally transforming. You see how everything is connected, all of the landmasses, all of the oceans. But you don't see the man-made borders that we've imposed upon ourselves and that gives you a very strong feeling of how we are all connected on this planet and how beautiful and fragile Earth is. Sometimes we joke about that we need to send all of our world leaders to space so they have that view. I think that would dramatically influence how they make their decisions.
What is your best advice to students who want to pursue a career in the space sector?
– Make sure that what you do is the thing you are the most passionate about. I truly believe that if you’re not doing what you really love, you will not excel or be successful and most importantly, you will not be happy. A fundamental background in the STEM fields [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] can propel you in any of those directions. Then, it is all about hard work and perseverance. Sometimes you need to take a risk and go slightly outside of your comfort zone to push that envelope a little bit in order to take that next step.
You smashed the glass ceiling when you and your astronaut colleague Christina Koch did the first all-female spacewalk. What was that like?
– Spacewalks are the most challenging thing we do, both mentally and physically, and the riskiest thing we do. To us it was not really that significant, it just happened to be that it was two women that day. After the spacewalk, I had more time to process the significance of it. I was surprised and quite shocked how many people paid attention, spacewalks are quite boring to watch if you do not have knowledge of what is going on, they are pretty slow. However, people all over the world watched this walk. Anybody that had a dream, and in particular, anyone that maybe came from a disadvantaged background or one background that was not as represented historically. It was just our job that day, but now we look at it as a celebration and a triumph for generations of women and other minorities that came before us. They were the ones that really shattered those glass ceilings at a time when it was much more difficult.
You have a great career, but there must have been obstacles and bumps in the road. How do you overcome that and push yourself forward?
– I think that we need to encounter those bumps. In the end, you learn from those things. One obstacle for me was the application process to become an astronaut in 2009, I was not selected that time. The biggest obstacle for me wasn't not getting selected, it was deciding to put myself out there and to apply again. You need to be able to fail and learn from it and then take that risk again – it is the only way to reach your goal.
Was there anything that surprised you once you arrived to ISS and space?
– In many cases, we have hours and hours of training on very technical tasks, for example flying the robotic arm and doing spacewalks. You need to trust in your equipment, learn how to concentrate and it takes time and familiarity on the ground. But you can't train or prepare for exactly what it feels like to be in microgravity. It is completely incredible to experience that, you feel your organs inside and your arms floating up. On Earth it's 3-dimensional, but we do not really use our whole 3-dimensional space. We are using the floor, the tables, we're putting things down. But we don't really use the ceiling area or the walls as a useful space on a regular basis. In space, we're actually using the entire 3-dimensional volumetric space. What I had not really thought about before, is that when we navigate on the ground, our sense of direction and our spatial awareness – is relative to gravity. It's the reason why we have right and left, it is all relative to that gravitational vector pointing down. That's how we maintain our spatial awareness. If you take that away, suddenly your brain doesn't know what to do. For example, if I was in the overhead location for a little while, focusing on something in front of me, I would actually feel my brain do this sort of flip. If you left that location and went somewhere else, you almost didn't know which way to turn because your reference frame had sort of flipped and you really had to think. After a couple of weeks you could feel that flip flop feeling go away and you feel like Spider-Man every time you jump to the ceiling.
You're in NASA’s Artemis program. Why do we need to go to the Moon again?
– To me there are three main reasons for returning to the moon. The first one is just simply exploration; I truly believe it is an innate characteristic that we are all born with. To me even that alone is enough, to satisfy that human element and drive for exploration. But of course there are other factors that we need to think about, especially when we interpret things in terms of the whole good of the planet. The second reason is science. If you look at the Apollo program for example and the geological samples that we brought back from the Moon, with advances in technology we are still learning new things from those samples every day. Thirdly, all of the other unanticipated outcomes. Again, if you use the Apollo program as an example, there was such a huge amount of resources poured into that program, stimulating the growth in all of the STEM fields. So many people in areas totally outside of the space sector became interested in these fields. All of these different types of spin off technologies and advances that we've made because of pursuing this lofty goal in space have had so many other applications right here on Earth.