Speaking to the Only Female Astronaut with Ukrainian Roots
4 January, 2020

Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper is an American astronaut of Ukrainian origin. Her father was originally from Lviv, her mother was from Germany which is where they met there after World War II, and then moved to the United States, where Heidemarie was born. Heidemarie became only the eighth woman in the world to enter outer space.

Hromadske's Angelina Karyakina came to the Kyiv Planetarium to meet with Heidemarie to talk about space, the profession, and preparation for it. Before becoming an astronaut, Heidemarie served in the U.S. Navy — working as a diver and repairing ships underwater, and says that this job helped with work in space.

Hromadske’s journalist raised the questions of what a person feels in open space, how work there is possible and what thoughts Heidemarie had during her first encounter with open space.

This isn't your first time in Ukraine. How do you feel about traveling here and why do you travel here?

I'm always very happy to come back to Ukraine. It's been a long time since I have been back. But coming back to Ukraine is always very special because this is where my father is from. It's really interesting to come back and see places and just to be here is something that's near and dear to me. 

Have you ever met in Ukraine here girls or young women who are aspiring astronauts, who would like to be an astronaut and who are asking you about the profession? 

Yes. The last time that we were here I have had an opportunity to talk to schoolchildren and to see the young girls get really interested and want to be astronauts. I tell them all what you need to do is you need to study hard and you need to learn because if you're not technically competent, then you are not going to stand a chance in getting selected because a lot of people want to be astronauts and they only pick very few. 

I know that it's that much harder here in Ukraine because your space agency here is not as large as NASA. So it is harder for a Ukrainian. But I have no doubt that sometime in the future, Ukraine will select another astronaut, and I really do hope that they select a female astronaut. You've had Kadenyuk, the first astronaut and then his backup was Yaroslav Kustovyi (Ukrainian astronaut and engineer. The backup pilot of the first Ukrainian astronaut Kadenyuk. He has no experience in space flights -- ed.). So hopefully the next one will be a female and she'll have an opportunity to fly in space. 

American astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper during an interview in Kyiv, October 19, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

Your way to NASA was also quite long. You went to MIT then you joined the navy and you joined NASA in 1996, but you didn't go to space until 2006 which is almost 10 years. So how long does it really take to get prepared for your first spacewalk? And what do you really do during those years?

The preparation prior to me coming to NASA that's everything that makes up your application and the minimum that's required for NASA is you have to have at least a bachelor's degree in a technical field, which is four years in college. Realistically, I tell people you really need to have at least a master's degree which is another two years of college.

Not necessarily [as] a pilot?

No. Then the work experience comes important. NASA wants to see what you did with education, how you applied it. Did you apply it in a way that would prepare you for going into space?

I joined the navy because they paid for my college. When I went into the navy, I became a diver, I was fixing ships underwater. That gave me the experience to be able to go to NASA and be able to do spacewalks. Going out in open space is very similar to working underwater. 

The Atlantis spacecraft crew poses after returning from a mission to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA, on September 21, 2006. Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper (second from left). Photo: EPA / NASA / KIM SHIFLETT

How is it similar? What did it really give you? What skills, psychological traits or preparation to go into outer space?   

It's similar in the sense that you have to have a lot of protective equipment on your back or underwater the helmet, big wet suit, gloves — because it's cold. And when we were diving under a ship you don't have tanks on your back — you have an air hose that goes to the surface. But because you have all this cumbersome equipment, it limits your visibility —  you can't see all around because you have this helmet on. It's harder to work because you're not standing on a platform. 

When you have to do your work, you're forced to think about how am I going to move in doing this work and how can I get myself in a good position to be able to do the work properly. 

And that’s the same thing in space. When you're out in space, you have a different type of suit on, but you're not standing on a platform — you're floating around and you have to figure out how is it that you're going to make yourself steady enough, so that you have to do the tasks that you have to do.

You cannot help yourself with your legs or anything?

No. Unless you happen to be on a platform, which we do in space, and we have the same thing underwater. But most of the time you free-float. 

Because I already had that experience and developed those work habits that also played directly going into space. Also from my diving, I learned very easily and early that as long as I had a helmet on or a regulator in my mouth, then I had plenty of air and as long as I had air, life was good. You get very comfortable being underwater, being upside down, being sideways and that's the same thing in space.

What was the hardest while you were trained to become an astronaut?

The hardest part was training for the spacewalks. At least, the hardest physically. Our spacewalks are 6.5 hours long and so our pool sessions would be 6 hours long. So you're underwater for six hours in a big suit working. That was just very physically tiring.

Let's go back to your first flight. You take off in a shuttle, it takes around 8.5 minutes to get to the orbit. You're there. Your first thoughts and feelings at that moment? 

The first thought at lift-off when you feel that thrust from having those two rockets light, and you just feel this tremendous acceleration and you just know that there's this tremendous amount of power trying to push us off the Earth which is what it's doing. It's amazing! You're sitting in a seat not too much unlike the seat like this.

Astronaut Stefanyshyn-Piper works to clean up the starboard side of Solar Alpha Rotary Joints (SARJ) station during the STS-126 mission, August 7, 2017. Photo: NASA

What were you thinking about?

All I was just thinking about was “wow, I'm actually gonna be going into space. This is actually happening, I'm going into space!” 

It's 8.5 minutes long and it goes by very quickly. After two minutes the two solid rocket boosters are expended, they are fully used up, they stop burning. It does get a little bit quieter and not as shaky, not as much vibration. You hear this bang-bang which is the pyrotechnics that separate them and they go away and we continue on the main engines and so the ride gets much smoother. 

The last 30 seconds is when you get the maximum force on you. You're sitting in your seat and you're just being pushed back.

Into your chest? It feels like it's your chest or your head? Or everything?

It's everything. I just kind of felt heavy. If I tried to lift my hand it was just very heavy. I've heard other astronauts describe it as having an elephant sitting on your chest. 

I didn't think it was that bad. You just feel very-very heavy, and that's 30 seconds. 

At the end of 30 seconds, the main engines shut down and everything just gets very quiet. If there was anything loose in the cockpit at that point, it will fly out.

You were trained also by veteran astronauts who used to tell you that when you go out into open space, your fear that you might drift away is not really logical because you won't and you need to work with the tip of your fingers. Is it really so?

By the time we went out, we had already been in space for three or four days. So you started getting used to what it felt like to be in space and how to move around floating. When you go outside it's still the same, the only difference is that you're outside, as opposed to being inside the cabin. 

You do know that you’re not going to float away unless you push. You do have a safety tether but in general, you don't want to be off on a 50-feet cable. You don't want to be on the end of a 15-meter cable bobbing around out there in space and have to reel yourself in. You just get in the habit of not being more than [an arm's length] away — I want to be able to always touch structure.

American astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper during an interview in Kyiv, October 19, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

What does it really feel like? What do you see? 

If it's nighttime, it is dark. If you're on the backside of the Earth because when we're in orbit we're really going around the Earth. It takes us 1.5 hours to go around the Earth. If you started on one side, the sun comes up, you're coming to the front of the Earth, and you get about 45 minutes of sunlight and then you're on the backside and you don't see the sun, so it's night. And if you're working for six hours you'll see four sunrises and four sunsets. 

So it's sunny like on Earth? 

It's sunny like on Earth and it's a really interesting thing. When you see the sun it is sunny but the sky is — if you wanna call it a sky — black. Because the only reason you see the blue sky is because of the atmosphere filtering the light and you see the blue. Out there, there's no atmosphere and everything is black even though there is this big white light which is the sun.

When it comes down, it's pitch dark. So your lights are on and you can usually about two meters in front of you and that's all you need to see when you're doing work. 

During the daytime, you do see the Earth underneath your feet or elsewhere depending on your orientation. You do see it's moving because even though you're the one moving, it's like being in an airplane and the Earth moves beneath you. That can be disorienting. 

I've heard some people say they get the feeling of falling when they see the Earth. You've got a big structure you’re holding on here, there's nothing underneath your feet and you see this movement beneath you. I never had this sensation.

What were your sensations?

Just wow. That's amazing! That's the Earth that I'm looking at. 

How about your fears? What was your biggest fear when you went on a spacewalk?

I think my biggest fear was just knowing that everybody was watching you and not making a mistake.

How does it really feel to work in this huge costume? I know that this sort of a backpack on you back is something like 300 pounds. How flexible are you? 

It is big, your hands come out like this, your arms are "soft", you can bend them. From your shoulder, you are very limited as to how you can move. You wear these heavy gloves because you need the gloves for protection and they have made modifications over the years to try to make the gloves to have the dexterity in your fingers to be able to do tasks, but it is hard.

Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper checks the suitability of her spacesuit while preparing for the launch of the Atlantis spacecraft, August 8, 2006. Photo: EPA / NASA / CORY HUSTEN

Recently NASA finally provided female astronauts with more suited suits, medium-sized ones. It got me thinking about how this job is designed also for female astronauts. What were you feeling when you were getting prepared, when you were on the job? How is it really comfortable for a female astronaut to do that job?

The thing with the suit is — it's not a special suit for women. The suits come in three sizes: medium, large, and extra-large. Because we don't have as much resupply capability on the space station as we did when we were flying the shuttle, they keep certain sizes onboard and it just happens that for most if not all the women is that we'll wear the medium suit because we're smaller in stature than most men are. 

But there are so few female astronauts, why is it so? Is it because of the job? Or is it because of the way females were educated, prepared and had an opportunity to do that job?

There are fewer female astronauts than male astronauts because there are fewer females in the technical fields that NASA selects their astronauts from. If we had more girls going to engineering, going to astrophysics ... 

There are a lot of girls and women that study biology, chemistry and medicine but that's not 50% of the astronaut office. Most of the astronauts are engineers. 

What would you tell young females who would like to become an astronaut one day?

What I tell the girls that want to be an astronaut is: first off, you have to find out what is your passion: you have to go to school and study that subject and you have to go out and get a job in that subject so that NASA sees how well you work. You have to figure out what that passion is.

And if you don’t know what your passion is, I will say: look at engineering because there is a lot of engineering fields that are very diverse. I'm a mechanical engineer. Mechanical engineers do everything from designing structures to materials work. They do robotics [too] which is a big field now. 

American astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper during an interview in Kyiv, October 19, 2019. Photo: Hromadske

There's a lot of things you can do with a mechanical engineering degree and if you get that degree and you find a field you want to be in. There are a lot of other companies that aren’t really engineering companies but they hire a lot of engineers because they like the way engineers think. If you get an engineering degree and go work for a financial company, that’s probably not going to get you into the astronaut core. But if that’s something you like to do, that's going to set you up for a career, that's going to make you happy and you'll be successful in your lifetime.