What do you say when you meet a NASA astronaut?

I was a rare kid who never wished to become an astronaut. Instead, I dreamed about becoming the people who respond when astronauts say “Houston we have a problem”.

I had to tell that to astronaut Mike Fossum.

It was in the bar after a day full of NASAsocial activities that I summoned the courage. At moment I morphed in the embarrassing fan, a techie equivalent of crazed Justin Bieber teenagers. It was then that I poured my heart in adoration. I had to tell him. “I live vicariously through you”, I said.

***

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With Mike Fossum and NASAsocial fans in front of a space station replica.Photo by NASAsocial.

I received an invitation from NASAsocial headquarters to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston. My heart almost stopped with the chance to see mission control with my own eyes. Owen Software made it possible by sponsoring the trip, so I spent a day marveling at the Soyuz capsule, Saturn V rocket, and space station replicas. I even drove a Mars rover simulator. But I was not prepared to have such a heartfelt conversation with one of the icons of the space program: an astronaut.

****

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Mike gave us a private tour of the space station. Photo by the author.

When I said “I live vicariously through you”, I meant “you” as in an astronaut collective. I wanted to tell Mike, as a proxy for the body of astronauts and cosmonauts, that I’ve followed their journeys from the ground.

Mike Fossum has three space flights and seven spacewalks under his belt. It was after a few engineering degrees, air force experience, and seven tryouts that he was accepted into the astronaut program in 1998.

I was honest. “I don’t have what it takes to be an astronaut,” I paused in embarrassment, “I don’t have that personality.” At this point Mike looks at me more attentively (perhaps trying to appease the crazed fan expression?) I explained I always wished to be the observer and the supporter. “I wished to be the one who answers when you call Houston with a problem, which is why I became a scientist”.

I said my piece. I was relieved; it was out of my chest. I could go home now. Step out of the bar and into a plane back to DC. My job was done, and my 5-year old self rejoiced. But Mike kept the conversation going, he told me something I’ll never forget.

****

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On our private tour, Mike listens to a question about his sleeping quarters at the station (a padded wall directly behind him). Photo by the author.

At a neuroscience lab that day in Houston, one of the researchers explained that astronauts have to re-adapt to gravity when they return to Earth. They even have balance and coordination issues, and therefore are not allowed to drive for a while. “They have to be chauffeured around for three weeks, which astronauts hate because they are very driven people”, the neuroscientist told us. My first instinct was incredulity: who wouldn’t love to be chauffeured around? I would, which is probably why I’m not an astronaut. Later that same day, astronaut Mike Fossum proudly told me he started sneaking out to drive only four days after he was back on Earth.

*****

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Mike Fossum. Photo by the author.

Mike asked me what kind of scientist I am. “Biophysicist”, I said, “I work with DNA, proteins, molecules.”

That’s when he tells me “Well, I could never do what you do – I don’t have that personality”. An astronaut told me HE COULD NOT DO WHAT I DO. The man floats in space in a glorified diving suit tethered to a rope between him and oblivion so he can build us a flying research lab. He proceeded to shake my hand, enveloping it with both his hands, and paused. His casual tone was briefly replaced by an ominous one. “You are an explorer too – of microscopic worlds – you are a scientist.”

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Astronaut Mike Fossum and author at the end of a NASAsocial day. Photo by NASAsocial.

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8 responses to “What do you say when you meet a NASA astronaut?

  1. Great post! Mike is from here where I live in McAllen. I’ve had the privilege to talk with him on a few occasions while working at the newspaper. He chooses his words wisely and if he said that, you can believe him. He’s as genuine as they come!
    – Henry

    Follow South Texas Golf on Facebook

  2. Had the privilege of meeting and visiting with Mike when he came to address the graduates of his high school Alma Mater, McAllen High School on the occasion of their 100th Commencement exercise. What do you say to an astronaut? “Nice to finally meet you, Mr. Fossum.” And he responded in kind. No pun intended, but for being an outer-space kinda’ guy, Mike is really a down-to-earth fellow. Fun, funny, engaging, puts-you-at-ease.

    And when he told you, “Well, I could never do what you do – I don’t have that personality”, he is exactly correct. We all bring our separate, individual talents, whatever they may be to the table. Keep looking to the stars!

    God bless John Wayne. God bless Mike Fossum…

  3. Great blog post! I have the unique experience of having worked with Mike while he was training for his previous increment flight (I was his robotics trainer). He is such a genuinely nice guy. He has such a respect for all the sciences. I’m glad you got a chance to meet and talk with him.

  4. By the way, if you don’t know, he posted this to his personal Facebook page, which is how I came across this post.

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