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Q&A: Astronaut and CSU alumnus Kjell Lindgren on living in space

For as long as he can remember,  Kjell Lindgren has known he wanted to be an astronaut. Lindgren, a Colorado State University alumnus, pursued and achieved a career as an astronaut — he was a flight engineer and “space doctor” for international Space Station Expeditions 44 and 45. He spent 141 days in orbit and a total of 15 hours and 4 minutes on two space walks. While aboard the International Space Station, he worked with astronaut Scott Kelley, who spent a full year in space. While in space, he ate the first space-grown lettuce and played the bagpipes.

On Tuesday at 6 p.m., Lindgren will talk about his experience in the Lory Student Center Theatre. In an interview with the Collegian, he talked about living and working in space. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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(Photo courtesy of SOURCE.)

You mentioned that you wanted to be an astronaut since you were a kid. What was the first moment in space like? Can you describe it? 
It’s almost overwhelming. I mean, of course, we are in a very dynamic phase of flight at that time. So during a launch, you’re concentrating on how the vehicle’s performing, going through your procedures to make sure you’ve got everything covered, that the vehicle is doing what it’s supposed to do so we don’t have to take over to address an emergency. After the third stage cuts off, we are at the end of powered flight. Successfully getting to main engine cut-off means that we made it into lower earth orbit successfully, and that’s an opportunity to take a breath and just experience the fact that you’ve made it into orbit. You can look out the window and see the curve of the earth and see that bright white light coming through the window really for the first time. So, it’s a profound experience. You know, to not only make it to earth orbit, to realize this life-long dream. So, it’s indescribable. 

What were some of your daily duties at the space station?
Well, the space station is a designated national laboratory, and the international aspect of that station really makes that an international laboratory. Our mission on the space station (is) to do science and research that extends our presence in the solar system as we prepare for our journey to mars and then to also make life better on the earth. We’re doing fundamental research, we’re doing basic research in physics, fluid dynamics, combustion. We’re doing biomedical research, life sciences research, all to prepare ourselves for this journey to Mars and also … we’re doing protein growth that had direct impacts on pharmaceuticals for the treatment of conditions on the earth. First and foremost, we’re conducting science. Now, the space station has been occupied continuously by humans for over fifteen years, so it’s been in space for quite some time. So, it requires preventive maintenance, and when things break, we do corrective maintenance. We have to exercise every day to maintain bone health and cardiovascular fitness, and then there are other activities like doing space walks. So, every day is a little bit different. It’s always interesting and busy, and so it was a phenomenal experience. kjell.by_.the_.numbers.graphic

What was your favorite thing that you did? 
The space walks were fun. I think, in general, getting to share the experience is probably my favorite thing. You know, it’s such a privilege to get to be on this incredible miracle of engineering that we’ve created in lower earth orbit. Tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands of people, spent countless hours building this place, and only a few people get to see the real thing in operation, and so that is not lost on those of us who get to be there, and so I think we desperately want to share that experience. 

What was it like coming back to earth after such a long time? Was it an adjustment? 
Psychologically, it was not as much of an adjustment as I would have thought. You know, I think that when you’ve been in a small enclosed area with just five people for an extended amount of time, you would think that being back in a wide open area surrounded by people, sights and smells that you have seen or heard or experienced for an extended period of time, that that would be almost shocking, and I felt like I adjusted to that very quickly. That didn’t bother me at all. Physically, it’s a significant adjustment. Gravity is a significant challenge when you haven’t experienced it for a certain amount of time, and so even getting up and walking for the first hour is difficult. Your body again quickly adapts to the environment and so I would say that your balance is a little bit off, your muscles aren’t used to working against gravity. But all of that, you adjust very quickly. So for myself, within a month, I was feeling very close to a hundred percent.

What’s something that intrigues you about space? 
The intriguing thing to me, is really our perception of the environment. It’s such a different thing to be in a weightless environment, and you get good at being up there when you’ve been up there for a certain amount of time. So, I really appreciated the opportunity to be up there for almost five months, to really learn how to live and work up there. But our brains are wired to being in this gravity environment, where there is this up, there’s a down, things fall to the ground — and being in space, it’s so easy to lose things and it’s really difficult. You know when you open a bag, everything just wants to fly out and float away, and so just adapting your brain to how you have to do things differently up there is very interesting, and I think you never plateau. Even at the end of five months, I was still getting better at how to work and live up there, and just your perception of being in this really — of course, we live in a three-dimensional environment, but where things don’t necessarily fall down. They can go in any direction, and you can use any surface for stowage and as a surface to walk on or anchor yourself to. Prior to flying, I didn’t have an appreciation of how profoundly different it is up there, and so I think that was the most intriguing thing about living and working in space.

What would you say the best and worst things about living in space are?
I would say the best and the worse thing is weightlessness. It’s awesome to float around. Things you normally wouldn’t be able to move around on your own, you can float them one side of a module to another, and so it makes living in space very enjoyable and unique. But then, weightlessness is also incredibly frustrating at times. Like I said, you know, if you have to inventory a bag for instance, here on earth you can open the bag, lay it all out in front of you, count it up and put it back in the bag. In space, if you’re going to inventory a bag, you open the bag up and everything just wants to fly out. When you’re looking at one thing, another thing is floating away. So, you either have to duct tape it, velcro it or put it underneath a bungee, or you transfer everything into a different bag and count and move things back to the original bag and hope that they don’t float away. So, it makes some activities very inefficient and difficult to do that when you’re thinking about it on the ground, seem trivial. So, weightlessness is awesome and frustrating all at the same time. 

Concerning future of space travel, where do you think we’re headed? 
I think we are in an incredibly exciting time right now where we have the space station where we’re working to figure out what we need to know for our journey to Mars. We have commercial companies providing cargo capabilities, providing cargo delivery to and from the space station. We have a similar commercial company developing crude spacecraft to carry astronauts to and from the space station. We have other commercial companies that are pursuing providing flight opportunities to paying customers like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin. Getting people into space is something that only three nation states have been able to do in the history of mankind, and yet we now have commercial companies aiming to provide that service. So, I think that’s incredibly exciting. I think the more people that get to experience space and see the planet earth from that perspective, the better stewards we will be of our home planet. All of that being said, now NASA is leveraging the space station and our experience of long-duration space flight and looking deeper into the solar system, and so I’m very excited about this journey to Mars and the possibility that individuals that I might get to work with will someday plant footsteps on the red planet. 

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Seth Bodine can be reached online at news@collegian.com or on Twitter at @Sbodine120.

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