Bellevue – How did it feel to land back on Earth? What is your favorite space food? Do you sleep in space?
These were the burning questions a group of students at McAuliffe Elementary School in the Green Bay School District had to ask NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hee when he visited them on Monday.
Vande Hei returned in March from the longest US spaceflight on the International Space Station, totaling 355 days. He has traveled to the stars twice, with his first voyage taking 168 days in 2018.
As the cousin of a speech-language pathologist at Bellevue Elementary School, Vande Hei gave McAuliffe students an inside perspective on life in space while asking him about anything and everything they wanted to know.
Vande Hee, a retired Army colonel, joined NASA as an astronaut in 2009 after serving in Iraq as a combat engineer and physics professor at the US Military Academy at West Point.
Here’s what I asked a hall full of the eager, raised hands of the astronaut on Monday. Questions and responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did you feel when you landed on the ground?
Vandy Hey: The first time I landed, it felt like someone had hit me in the back of the head with a 2×4. I actually felt bad. You made a mistake.
The Russians said to me, ‘Be sure to keep your head in the seat and keep your mouth shut because you will be hit hard. You don’t want to bite your tongue, and you don’t want to hurt yourself.
And I thought we only had eight seconds left before we got there, so I looked up. But I looked up at the same time we hit it. So I hit my head hard in the back of the seat and thought I might have had a concussion.
I was fine. Everything was fine. But I was really surprised like I was almost offended that we’re going to hit the ground so hard.
What research or studies have you found most remarkable on the International Space Station?
Vandy Hey: The things I enjoyed the most were being able to see and interact with them. So my favorite name was “SPHERES”.
It’s an experiment where we leave[miniature satellites]inside the space station, and the students on Earth have written algorithms, they write computer code, to help those satellites control themselves.
The reason we’re able to do this inside the space station is that any time we let go of the spoon, that spoon is in its own orbit. We had a couple of satellites (where we were) trying to understand how we could catch another satellite with a partially full fuel tank and the fuel flowing.
Was going to the International Space Station scary?
Vandy Hey: Actually, it wasn’t.
When we set off, it was such a smooth ride that I was disappointed. I wanted a better, more dramatic story.
We spent a lot of time in simulations where they would simulate that we would have decompression, or fire, that the control systems would break, and we would be really exhausted trying to control those things and save ourselves.
And it was almost weird because it didn’t go wrong on launch day.
What is your favorite meal in space?
Vandy Hey: I think because it was a little repetitive, the uniqueness of eating some Russian food was really nice. They had some really good canned lamb of all things.
Oh, let me take that back.
We didn’t get much fresh food. So when I got an apple, a fresh apple from a spaceship, it was the best apple I’ve ever tasted.
Did you want to be an astronaut when you were young?
Vandy Hey: I thought being an astronaut would be really cool. But I had a misconception that the chances of becoming an astronaut were as good as becoming Spider-Man.
Only in my early twenties when I was in the military and someone handed me the minimum requirements to apply to be an astronaut—and seeing that I had a lot of those requirements—did I leave myself excited at the idea of it.
What is your favorite part of being in space?
Vandy Hey: My favorite part about being in space was the view. I felt so lucky to see the world from this perspective. It was amazing.
If you could, would you go to the moon?
Vandy Hey: actually yes. If I had helped build a lunar base that would establish a permanent human presence on the moon, I think it would be a tremendous honor.
I don’t expect to get that chance because I think I’m going to get old because we’re getting ready to do these things.
How did you feel when eating?
Vandy Hey: I pretty much felt like eating food or water on the floor. But the thing I think is the most different about space eating is that you have to be very careful about getting things scattered.
Once I had a borscht can. This is a red Russian soup, and it was hot. And any time you open a box it’s space-trained to put a piece of tissue on it because as soon as you pop it can pop a little bit, it will release the pressure.
In space, it won’t just fall on your hand. It will flow and continue until it reaches the ceiling. Well, that’s exactly what I did.
There was a stain I knew I left on the ceiling of the space station.
What is the hardest part about living in space?
Vandy Hey: I think the hardest part about living in space was probably being separated from my family for so long.
I spent almost a year in space so I broke up with them because of this part. But even training and leaving to go to launch, I left my family behind for three months before I even left for launch. So I went almost 15 months without seeing my wife and children.
However, due to internet access, I was able to make a phone call every day to talk to my wife. And every weekend, NASA had a video conference with my wife and kids.
Do you have to be a scientist to go to space?
Vandy Hey: Currently, to be considered an eligible applicant, you must hold a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.
But I am not a scientist. I was a military officer with a degree in physics.
Do you sleep in space?
Vandy Hey: Yes, every day.
We sleep in a sleeping bag, and sleeping bags are similar to the sleeping bags we see on the floor. It doesn’t have to be too warm because it’s like you’re sleeping indoors.
But sleeping bags are special because they have arm holes. My arms were floating in front of me.
You can sleep with your sleeping bag attached to the ceiling. not important.
When you landed, did you drop things and think they would float?
Vandy Hey: I’ve heard a lot of people think that because I can let go of something and it won’t fall into space, I will do it on Earth. But here’s the trick. If I leave a pencil in space, I will lose that pencil very quickly because it is a very visually crowded environment.
Contrary to what you might think, in space you have to be very deliberate about letting something go.
So, back on the floor, I wouldn’t be in the habit of just dropping something and dropping it on the floor.
Danielle Duclos is a report on Member of America’s Arms covering K-12 education for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-717-6851. Follow on Twitter Tweet embed You can support her work directly with a tax-deductible donation at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA or by check presented to The GroundTruth Project with a subject line report for the America Green Bay Press Gazette campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Dr, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.