Earlier in 2020, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy spent 196 days in outer space, where he took part in hundreds of experiments at the International Space Station.
Cassidy also completed his 10th spacewalk and managed to find some time to record videos of himself playing soccer up there.
Then he returned back down to a very different world. Cassidy spoke with The World’s Carol Hills about his experiences.
Carol Hills: Now, I want to jump back to April. At that point, you knew you'd soon be on your way up to the International Space Station. But of course, the coronavirus pandemic was then in its early throes. How did that alter your preparation process?
Chris Cassidy: So, ironically enough, two years ago, I knew I was going to be in complete quarantine in March and April. I just didn't know that the whole entire world was going to join me there. The real impact was that none of my friends or immediate family could come over to enjoy the launch in person. It was just our crew and a few people at the launch pad and that was it.
This wasn't your first space expedition. You've now spent a total of 378 days in space. That's the fifth-highest number of days among US astronauts. What's the experience like of returning back to Earth and reacclimating?
You know, our bodies are amazing things and I'm convinced that the more you do it, the more your brain and your body just know exactly how to flip the switch and adjust. When you come back to Earth, there's still a physical aspect to it, like you got to get your balance system used to working again. We have exercise machines up there, so our muscles are strong. They're just not used to working together. But the mental adjustment is instant after you've done it a couple of times.
I just have to ask — you have exercise equipment up in space, but doesn't the lack of gravity affect how you use the exercise equipment up there?
It certainly does. Instead of putting metal plates on a bar like you would and you're used to at a gym here, we have an air cylinder with a piston in it and we crank that piston up and down to deliver different amounts of resistance — air pneumatic resistance. And we connect through a series of linkages to the bar, and the feel itself, it's very, very similar. So the engineers did a great job of designing this machine. It's gigantic. It's a beast of a machine, but it works fantastic.
So, back to reacclimating. I'm wondering if it was different this time because you came back from space and are reacclimating in the middle of the pandemic.
Oh, no question about that. I left America in February before the coronavirus was really affecting the population. While we were in space, we were waiting and wondering, just as the rest of the world was, how it was going to play out by the time we came home in October and we landed right in the thick of it. So, opening that hatch and seeing people with masks on and people social distancing at the landing site, we knew intellectually what we were going to experience. But until you're there living it, it was a shock to us.
You were up at the International Space Station for 196 days. What was the goal of this expedition?
The goal of the station is the same throughout all the missions, and we're there to conduct a robust science program that exists now. And there's an international team of researchers that all participate. And really, anybody can send their experiment up there. So we activate, monitor, troubleshoot these experiments. And that's probably 60% of our time. And now with the true goal of the manned space program, or space program in general, is to get to Mars — making sure that we've got really, really robust systems that can withstand those harder expeditions.
You weren't up in the space station alone. You traveled there with Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin, Russian cosmonauts. What was your relationship like with them?
Oh, we're great friends. The interesting part was I trained for two years with two other cosmonauts leading up to the mission. Three weeks before we were set to lift off, one of them, Nikolai Tikhonov, was walking his dog in the woods outside of Moscow, like he's done hundreds of times, and a tree branch jabbed him in the eyeball severely. So he had to be pulled off the mission. And because it was so close, the other gentleman, the two cosmonauts, kind of train hand-in-hand as a pair, if you will, like a pilot and copilot — and there was not enough time for the other gentleman to train with a new buddy. So, they replaced the two guys that I trained with for two years, with Ivan and Anatoly, and so we kind of came together as a crew three weeks before launch. I knew them in passing because it's a small community of international space guys and gals. But I didn't know them on a working level. We became great friends. They were wonderful guys to be with for six months, and I really enjoyed being up there with them.
Just how small of a space were you living in up there?
They say when you see a PowerPoint slide of the space station, that it fits on the footprint of a football field. But that includes the solar arrays and all the external components, which we cannot live in, the living components. I like to describe it as maybe eight school busses connected in different orientations. So it's bigger than people have in their minds.
Is there really any such thing as downtime when you're up there?
We work really hard to mitigate mistakes. When you're flying an airplane, pilots have a thing called crew rest, and it's there for a reason. When you're fatigued, you're error-prone. And therefore we treat, rest and sleep like gold. Eight hours of rest is always there. We generally work from about seven in the morning to about seven at night and then go to bed around 10. And so those couple of hours in the evening from seven to 10, I generally like to do things that I can't do on Earth when I'm in space, like take advantage of the window, get pictures of our planet and that sort of thing. So that's what we would do in our downtime.
You mentioned all the pictures you take and you have a wonderful Instagram account. You made an observation about looking back at Earth and seeing it as this single entity. I wonder if you could paraphrase what you said.
When you're looking down at Earth, it's just this blue ball of peace. I'm from the northeast of the United States and I know that I-95 at certain times you can't drive — everybody's just at a standstill. Or there's unrest in different parts of the world, and this year, in cities in our own country. But you don't see that from space. You just see this giant blue thing swirled with white, brown and greens and amazing blue in the Bahamas, and it just reminds you that it's one planet that holds 7 billion astronauts. It's our own spaceship and we got to take care of it and treat it right. Before going to space, I never was a big Earth-conscious person. That just wasn't part of my daily thoughts. But going to space made me much more Earth-conscious. Take care of the planet. The Amazon jungle is burning. That's the lungs of our planet. And carbon emissions — all that stuff — I’m much more attuned now, having seen the planet from a different vantage point.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.