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Peace and Progress Aboard the International Space Station

Nicole Stott,ISS,Astronauts
Alex Lin
Angie Asemota
June 23, 202010:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

Former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden once said that the International Space Station should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Humanity’s orbiting laboratory serves not only as a proving ground for our future missions deep into the solar system, but also as a strong platform for diplomacy between cooperating nations. 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of continued operation of the ISS, and Supercluster is reflecting on the successes and experiences of those who joined expeditions to maintain the laboratory and participate in the ongoing science and experimentation so critical in expanding the human footprint beyond Earth

Today, retired Astronaut Nicole Stott is an artist who dedicates much of her time to outreach and awareness at the intersection of art and space exploration. You’ve seen her in Olay’s recent Super Bowl commercial, National Geographic’s acclaimed One Strange Rock, and most importantly, on the International Space Station itself as a member of Expedition 20 and Expedition 21 — flying there on the shuttle Discovery. 

Stott joins Supercluster to chat about her work aboard the space station and to reflect on her time with former astronaut classmates Doug Hurley and Bob Benhken, who just became the first NASA astronauts to fly to the ISS on a privately built vehicle, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.

Supercluster: How do you plan on celebrating the 20th anniversary of continuous human presence on the ISS this year? What will you be reflecting on?

I try to celebrate the awesomeness of the ISS every day. I think there is no better example of how human beings from around the world can work together peacefully and successfully for the greater good and improvement of life on Earth.

I will be reflecting on the audacity of a project like the ISS that sought to bring together Earthlings in space on a mission of science and exploration, but also of cooperation and interconnectivity. The station itself is this masterpiece of technology with components from all of the partner agencies and has served not only as a laboratory, but as a platform for peace. We have built a mechanical system in space that mimics as best we can what the Earth does for us naturally. I will be thinking about these kinds of things and how, on a spaceship, we are demonstrating the best example of how we should be living together here on Spaceship Earth. 

I will also be thinking about what the next 20 years holds for us and about the beautiful platform the ISS has given us for exploring further off our planet and improving life here on Earth.

Supercluster: With the global pandemic, we’re all taking the time to adapt to a new status quo one day at a time. Before we get into space, any thoughts on how this crisis might impact us on a macro level?

My hope is that there will be some better understanding of how we can successfully work together as an international crew. We have been doing this voluntarily on the ISS for 20 years. COVID-19 put us all in a place of needing to do this here together on Earth.

The way we can come together to overcome the challenges of exploring space together on a space station and of social distancing in response to COVID-19, should prove to us that we can proactively come together to overcome even greater planetary challenges like climate change and access to clean water and how we generate energy and how we produce our food and… and how we continue to explore space.

Supercluster: Getting to space exploration, what's the first thing that needs to be addressed before setting off for an expedition to a place like the space station?

I think the critical step was knowing that we need to work as a team — as a crew. All of the training we do to go to space, whether it’s how the systems on the station work or to perform the science or to do a spacewalk or to respond to emergencies, really came down to how we work together as a crew.

Supercluster: To get an inside look at the nitty-gritty, can you tell us about a challenging day you spend aboard the space station

The emergency alarm sounding in the middle of the night has a way of making for a challenging day. I was really impressed how the training we did on Earth in simulators for an emergency prepared us so well to respond to one in space. It was so cool to see how everyone floated out of their crew compartments and came together — we accounted for each other and floated to the control computers in the Service Module and we would all go to work just the way we’d trained to do. Completing the immediate action “bold-face” checklist first and then doing the work in concert with Mission Control on the ground to make sure we were in a safe configuration.

An emergency depressurization alarm sounded one night during the joint Expedition 21/STS-129 mission, which happened to be the night Shuttle astronauts Mike Foreman and Randy Bresnik were camping out in the station’s airlock in preparation for a spacewalk the next morning. When the alarm sounds it also automatically reconfigures some of the station systems — this time including a re-pressurization of the station airlock. Long story short, it was really impressive to see how our ISS and Space Shuttle crews worked together so effectively in response to the situation.

Thankfully nothing had put a hole in the station or shuttle and none of our precious air was leaking into the vacuum of space, but we did have to really hustle to get Mike and Randy into a safe configuration where they would still be able to perform their spacewalk. Great work was done between us in space and our team on the ground to activate the exercise protocol for Mike and Randy instead of trying to depressurize the airlock again. Was proud to be part of the team that made that happen.

Supercluster: Do you keep up with ISS news? And what do you make of its growing social media presence and place in popular culture?

I definitely keep up with ISS news — to follow the amazing work going on there and to live vicariously through my friends onboard.

When I was there the whole social media thing was just getting started — Jeff Williams and I were part of the first live TweetUp from the ISS and it was really great to have new ways to communicate the awesomeness of the work on ISS. I love seeing how the ability for the crews to creatively communicate their experience and to personalize it a little bit through their own stories is really helping to engage with new audiences that might not even know there is an ISS.

I think this is really important for us to do. First of all, people want to know about the “people” that are in space. They want to be able to make a connection with them somehow and then I believe they are more open to excitement about the work that’s being done there.

It’s why I think it’s important for us to remember that we are humans doing human spaceflight and we need to make sure people understand that. We need to make sure we remember it, too. One of the ways I see this happening is through social media outlets, but it’s been going on forever too — back as early as Alexey Leonov bringing colored pencils to space and sketching orbital sunrises and drawing portraits of his Apollo-Soyuz crewmates. And musical instruments — Kjell Lindgren even brought bagpipes to ISS. And quilting, like Karen Nyberg brought her sewing kit to ISS. And, even if you weren’t a photographer, before you got to space you become one once you get there because you have the most stunning subject out your windows.

I think it’s our way of putting the human in human spaceflight. I’m so thankful to have been able to bring my small watercolor kit with me to space and to be able to paint while I was there. It gave me a wonderful connection to home and the Earthly things I like to do. And it’s given me wonderful inspiration for sharing my spaceflight experience in a creative and meaningful way through my artwork and the work of the Space for Art Foundation.

It gives me the opportunity to connect with people that might not even know there is an ISS. And everyone should know there is an ISS!

Supercluster: Tell us the raddest thing about the ISS that most civilians wouldn’t know.

Wow that’s a difficult question — I think there are so many rad things about the ISS and sadly so much of it is still largely unknown by so many people.

If someone knows about the ISS, I think one thing they are generally unaware of is the fact that we are working together as one crew with one commander and that the crew represents all 15 countries that are partners in the ISS program.

I think this is really significant with respect to everything else that goes on there that ultimately is about working together as an international team to improve life on Earth.

Supercluster: In October of last year, Christina Koch and Jessica Meir made history by participating in the first all-female spacewalk during Expedition 61 to the ISS. Tell us about your experience on the ISS, where you were the only woman on an otherwise all-male crew.

It’s funny because the only time I ever thought about being the only woman on my crew was when someone would ask me what I thought about being the only woman on my crew…  I had an amazing experience in space with other human beings that will be my friends for the rest of my life. I think every one of my crew mates realized what I tell kids all the time, which is —

"The spaceshipdoesn’tcare if you’re aboy or girl."

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t excited about watching Christina and Jessica float out the hatch and rock their spacewalks.

Supercluster: What are some workplace rituals that you and your team liked to partake in?

During our time together in space we would have meals together and watch movies together and float in front of the windows during our free-time gazing at the Earth and taking pictures.

Supercluster: What’s the craziest thing that happened to you on the job?

This is a tough one too because as astronauts we have the opportunity to experience so many amazing things — not just flying in space, but in the preparation for flying in space. I am so grateful for all of these opportunities and for all of the people I was able to meet and work with along the way.

I think about things like Soyuz winter survival in Russia when it was the coldest winter in 100 years and Soyuz sea survival in the Black Sea when it was the hottest summer I’d ever experienced. I think about spending 18 days with my NEEMO 9 crew during our mission on the Aquarius undersea habitat — experiencing “inner space” in preparation for “outer space.” I think about flying in T38 jets and the Shuttle Training Aircraft and the Vomit Comet. I think about flying the ISS robotic arm with my Expedition 20 crewmates to capture the first free flying HTV spacecraft.

I think about our Expedition 21 crew photo with Guy Laliberte’ on ISS in our flight suits and clown noses. I think about our Expedition crew Halloween picture. I think about my STS128 and STS129 crews who shared the experience of getting to and from the ISS. I think about my STS133 crew and our mission on the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery. I think about things like being able to effortlessly float and fly and move in 3 dimensions. And I think about seeing things like a shooting star below me, and lightning that wrapped around the planet, and proved to me that everything and everyone on the planet is interconnected.

And I think about the opportunity to do a spacewalk on the ISS and to ride the end of the robotic arm for 25 minutes as my crewmate Kevin Ford flew me from the end of the ISS to the payload bay of Discovery and I never felt like I was moving. I was the furthest person from the planet and my feet were strapped into the end of the arm and in what seemed like total silence I watched the ISS move out of my view, the Earth moving into and out of and rotating in my view, and finally the payload bay of Discovery appearing. Just awesome!

In all of this I think it comes down to the people we share these experiences with that make them so special.

Supercluster: What are your thoughts on the upcoming return of human spaceflight to Cape Canaveral with SpaceX's DM-2 mission?

I’m really excited to watch my fellow Bugs, Bob and Doug, take this historic mission to the ISS.  As an STS133 crew member, having had the honor to fly on the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery, I know what it felt like to walk away from that perfectly performing Space Shuttle on the runway to know it would be much longer than predicted before the “new” vehicles would take us to the ISS again.  I’m looking forward to this mission and to where it will lead us with future missions, both through the critical NASA-Commercial partnership that’s made this possible and to the broader opportunities in space that can come from it.

(FYI — Bob and Doug and I — and their wives Megan and Karen — are all in the astronaut class of 2000, aka The Bugs)    The station itself is this masterpiece of technology with components from all of the partner agencies and has served not only as a laboratory, but as a platform for peace. We have built a mechanical system in space that mimics as best we can what the Earth does for us naturally.  I will be thinking about these kinds of things and how, on a spaceship, we are demonstrating the best example of how we should be living together here on Spaceship Earth.

I will also be thinking about what the next 20 years holds for us and about the beautiful platform the ISS has given us for exploring further off our planet and improving life here on Earth.

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Alex Lin
Angie Asemota
June 23, 202010:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)