In Conversation with NASA Astronaut Joan Higginbotham


Ever wondered how it feels to be 330kms above the surface of the Earth at zero gravity? Pooja Patel interviews Joan Higginbotham, former NASA astronaut


Born in Chicago, Joan Higginbotham has worked with NASA for 10 years and has received the NASA Exceptional Service Award. She successfully accomplished her first space mission, STS-116, in the space shuttle Discovery in 2006 Joan was in Mumbai recently and RobinAge caught up with her to know more about life in space.

Tell us about your experience in space?
It was amazing. Within eight and a half minutes my crewmembers and I were 330kms above the surface of the Earth. I spent 12 days in space, which is around 308 Earth hours. Due to the constantly changing position of the space shuttle, we could see the Sun for a few hours and then it was dark for the next few hours. This way we were able to see 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in just 24 hours!


What kind of training did you undergo before going on the STS-116 mission?
That was a really long procedure. As part of my basic training I had to study for one and a half years. After that I underwent mission training for another year. Basically, I had to complete 3,500 hours of mission training. Tell us a little more about the mission training. I had to learn how to walk, eat and sleep in space. There is no left-right or up-down in space due to zero gravity. You have to sit, stand and sleep as per your convenience. So I had to undergo a training called Space Walk, which was conducted in a large pool of 60 million litres of water. I had to spend several hours underwater wearing my spacesuit. At the base of the water, I had to stand and try to balance myself just the way it is required in space.


How did you sleep in the space shuttle?
There were these big blue bags called 'sleeping bags'. These bags were tied up with strings so that we did not float away while we were asleep.


Why do astronauts wear those huge spacesuits and how comfortable are they?
We called our spacesuits "pump kin suits" because they were so huge and orange in colour. They were very heavy and uncomfortable. But after a lot of training, I was able to manage in it. The temperature in space varies a lot. It could be very high or extremely low. The heaters inside these spacesuits balance the temperature for the astronaut. Also, every suit has its own supply of oxygen and a water tank.


Once you get back to Earth, is it difficult to acclimatise again?
Yes. It was very difficult for the first few days. When I walked, I felt like an elephant because I felt so heavy. I could not walk properly. Initially, when I walked, I literally lifted my legs up and walked and I would bang my feet. Being used to living in space for so many days, I was not able to judge distance. If I had to walk and turn left, I would walk straight and bang into things. It took you two attempts to be selected by NASA.


How did it feel to be turned down the first time?
I was very disappointed. But I was aware that being disappointed and sad won't help. So I decide to pursue my master's degree. After that I applied again and I was selected. Anything in life worth having is not easy to get. So push yourself to achieve your goals, study hard and listen to your parents and teachers. You will be able to achieve your dream.


What are your thoughts on space tourism, which will be available by 2015?
I think everyone should get a chance to visit space and experience the wonderful feeling of seeing Earth from up there. But it is very important to keep in mind that going to space is dangerous. It involves a lot of risk if you go without training. 


What has brought you to India?
I feel it is important to talk to children about space studies and its related career options. Mission Apollo, Pune and International Space School Education Trust (ISSET), UK are helping children understand space-related studies and careers. They do it by conducting various programmes like Astronaut Camps and Star Treks, which are held at outdoor locations. These outdoor camps focus on adventure, knowledge and the environment.


You had a chance to work with Sunita Williams. Tell us about your interaction with her.
I call her Sunny. She was my crew member on the shuttle and it was very nice to work with her. Sunny and I are good friends and she is a wonderful person to be with.


Do you believe in time-travelling theories, UFOs and aliens?
I have never experienced timetravelling so I really don't know. I have never seen aliens and UFOs so I can't vouch for it.


What qualities should one have to become an astronaut?
A person should have a science or engineering background. Along with that one should know how to get along with people because an astronaut has to work with people of different nationalities. Hence, inter-personal skills are also required.

- Joan enjoys weightlifting and cycling.

- After living is space for several days, Joan's height had increased by 1cm. But after coming back to Earth, she went back to her original height.

- Before becoming an astronaut, Joan was part of a space shuttle launch team and had launched 53 space shuttles successfully.

- Joan has won many awards including the Group Achievement Award for STS-26 Return to Flight, the Presidential Sports Awards in bicycling and weightlifting and the Outstanding Woman of the Year Award.

- Joan was featured in Essence Magazine's Top 50 Women of 2004.

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