NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is preparing for his second trip to the International Space Station.
He and two Russian cosmonauts are scheduled to launch from Kazakhstan on Friday, April 9. Vande Hei completed his first spaceflight in 2018 and spent 168 days at the space station. This time, he could be up there for twice as long.
Vande Hei says he expects a “surprisingly calm” trip on board Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
“A lot of our training involves everything possible going wrong. We get trained on how to respond to all that,” he says. “But we very rarely get to experience what a space flight will really be like when a spacecraft, ideally, will work just fine.”
It takes 8 ½ minutes to get into orbit, he says, and the spacecraft should arrive at the station three hours after launch.
Vande Hei might need to give up his seat on a return flight to Earth in the fall because a Russian film crew will be at the space station making a movie, meaning he wouldn’t come home until the spring of 2022. Astronauts understand that their assigned mission might change, he says.
“If I do end up staying in space for a year, that's a great deal for me,” he says. “Again, I'm not certain that's going to happen, but if it ended up being the situation I'm in, I think it's a new opportunity — a new life experience that I've never had before.”
Vande Hei describes working at the International Space Station as “a fantastic science lab in a basement with a beautiful view of the Alps behind the boiler.” There’s plenty of space at the station, which is as big as a six-bedroom house, unlike the tiny but efficient spacecraft that will take him up there.
“When you get a chance to look out the window, you cannot get a better view than that spot,” he says. “But it's not your normal work environment.”
A few other Americans have made trips to space for more than 300 days. Vande Hei says he’s most concerned about his bone density after losing 7% on his previous flight.
He regained all of his bone density but recovery took time. On his upcoming trip, he intends to persevere his bone density by carefully following his nutrition and exercise plan.
A much longer trip to a faraway planet like Mars poses major physical and psychological challenges for astronauts, Vande Hei says. On top of the length of the flight, he thinks humans will struggle to see their home planet in the way earthlings view Mars in the night sky.
“Imagine what it would be like looking back: This place where all the people you love — your entire life history before that time — looking back and it just looks like a faint blue star out there in this vast field of other stars,” he says. “I think it's going to be hard for humans to be that far away from home.”
But Vande Hei believes that humans will take the risk and make the long trip to Mars anyway.
“Even crossing the Atlantic or Pacific to get to new places, that involved tremendous risks,” he says. “We've still done them and I'm sure we'll do them again.”
This segment aired on March 29, 2021.