In 2016, NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins spent 115 days in space—or as she would say, 115 days "off planet." On this episode of Broadband Conversations, listeners will get to hear Rubins, a biologist by training, describe life on the International Space Station and the process of re-entering life back on Earth. As a NASA astronaut, Rubin's shares how she went from a little girl with a dream to be among the stars to the reality of spending nearly 13 hours of spacewalk time.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hello, and welcome to Broadband Conversations, the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology innovation and media industries. You get to hear what they are working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.
I'm Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the Federal Communications Commission.
And, my guest today, I am going to go there, I'm just going to say she is out of this world, and that's because she's NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins.
And, I'm going to let her tell you more about herself in a minute, but I'll get started by telling you that in 2016 she spent 115 days in space aboard the International Space Station. And, she completed two spacewalks, for a total of about 13 hours of spacewalk time.
She was the first person to sequence DNA in space, and I can't imagine living in zero gravity, much less running those kind of scientific experiments.
She has a Bachelor's degree from the University of California, San Diego, in Molecular Biology, and she has a PhD in Cancer Biology from Stanford's Medical School. And bonus, she was born in my home state of Connecticut.
So, Kate, thank you so much for joining me today. It is so great to have you.
MS. RUBINS: Yes, absolutely, it's great to talk to you.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Now, before we get, you know, all into space travel, I want you to take us back and really tell us how you got to where you are today.
MS. RUBINS: I guess probably a good place to take you back to would be a stargazing party when I was about five or six, and announced to everybody there that I intended to be an astronaut, which is, you know, a really cute thing when a five year old says that.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Totally.
MS. RUBINS: It was really my childhood dream, and it was my dream for quite a while until about late high school, when you start to think about what college you are going to go to, and real majors, and real careers. And obviously, being an astronaut is not really a thing that people do. So, I was encouraged to go in different directions, and ended up starting out as a biologist.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And so, how does someone then become an astronaut, like walk us through the process. I mean, I love that it started when you were five years old in the backyard looking at the skies, but I'm sure there's a lot more to do other than just sort of pine for the heavens.
MS. RUBINS: Yes. So, I was really intent on being a biology faculty member. I had started a lab at the Whitehead Institute at MIT, and we were doing research on viruses in Central and West Africa.
And, out of the blue, one of my friends called and said, you know, I noticed that the USAjobs.gov has applications online to be an astronaut. Didn't you want to do that when you were a kid?
And, I sort of laughed and thought it would be kind of a funny story if I applied to be an astronaut to tell my grandkids about it some day or something.
But, I applied, and the moral of the story is, if you apply for a job you might get it.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That is the best story about the USA Jobs website I have ever heard.
So, what was the process? What did it entail?
MS. RUBINS: So, yes, it's like applying for any Federal job. You submit your application online. They do have some additional things. They want you to go get, for example, a physical for health data. And, there's some interesting questions on there about times that you've worked in small teams, or been in dangerous environments, or been on expeditions. So, it's a little bit out of the ordinary, in terms of that part of the job's application process.
And then, the applications are reviewed at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and, eventually, they narrow it down to a much smaller group. They ask some follow-up questions. They ask for letters of reference, and then they invite a group down for interviews.
So, it's about a week-long interview process, with a lot of medical tests, and it covers everything from, you know, all the academic and kind of scientific work that you've done, to what are your hobbies? What do you like doing in your free time?
And, they finally narrow it down, about every four years they take a new astronaut class.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, every four years, I didn't know that.
MS. RUBINS: Yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, it's not your typical government job interview. I think that's fair to say.
And, I know you were in space, as I said at the outset, for 115 days in 2016. So, here's just sort of a question, something I wonder about: What do you miss most from the earth while you are away?
MS. RUBINS: So, I, actually, missed weather the most, just the variation in temperature. Even things like a rain storm, the smell of a forest, you know, wind on your hair. You are in a very sterile environment. So, it's nicely temperature controlled, but it's fluorescent lighting, and you are sort of in this metal tube orbiting the earth. You don't really get to experience weather in the outdoors anymore.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow. It's like you are in this permanent laboratory without any kind of, you know, sensation from the outdoors, right?
MS. RUBINS: Absolutely, yes.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Weather, I would not have thought of that.
So, how about this one better. What did you enjoy most about being in space, and also tell me what did you enjoy least?
MS. RUBINS: It's really fantastic once you get used to it to be able to do work from any position. So, you can do work hanging upside down from the ceiling if you want to. You have to get a little good at orienting yourself.
But, it's really, it's amazing to be able to use all of the space in a three-dimensional environment.
We have a very kind of planer view of life on earth. We move around in two dimensions, and we don't really go up or down very much. And so, once you kind of discover that third dimension on orbit, it's joyful to hang upside down from a ceiling and type away at your computer.
In terms of things that I enjoyed least, I think there wasn't really anything that, you know, you do in space. Like even the routine stuff, cleaning, fixing the toilet, just the standard stuff that you would do around the house, we do maintenance on space station.
Even those were fun. It was kind of this delightful thing to be working in the space station and supporting the NASA mission and the international partner mission.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, I still have this image of someone upside down typing on their computer that I can't even imagine.
Is there, actually, internet on that computer or on the space station?
MS. RUBINS: Yes, we are able to remote desktop into a computer on the ground. So, for security reasons, that's behind a bunch of NASA fire walls. But, we can get internet access. It's a little slower than you are used to on earth, but it is possible.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Were you emailing back home or were you, you know, binge watching an episode of your favorite show? What kind of things did you do?
MS. RUBINS: So, I actually had a rule to not do too many things in space that I could do on the planet. I figured, you know, in your lifetime I was only going to have a few months off world, and the rests of the time would be spent on earth.
So, I tried to do things if I had free time like take pictures of the earth. We have some incredible resources up there for photography, for earth photography, even just losing yourself, just looking out the window, you can float in one of the big windows and spend an entire orbit, 90 minutes, flying around the earth, just flying over continents.
So, I did watch a few TV shows when I was running on the treadmill, and, of course, there's always work email that just never goes away.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's true.
MS. RUBINS: But, I tried to enjoy it as much as possible.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: How about your work sequencing DNA in space, tell us about that, because you are known for your efforts in that department.
MS. RUBINS: Yes, that was -- that was a really exciting experiment. I'd been involved with that group for quite some time, and it was a pretty big effort from several major universities, as well as different NASA centers.
And really, the goal of the first experiments were just to see if we could take the small portable technologies used to sequence DNA on earth, and utilize this in space. We didn't know if they were going to work. A lot of things change when they get to micro gravity.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right. So, what did you find?
MS. RUBINS: So, we just did like a proof of principle experiment, and we sent up sequences from mice, from e coli, which is a bacteria, and from lambda phage, which is a virus, all mixed together. And, we found that we could, actually, do the sequencing reaction, it performed incredibly well in orbit, so we were able to sequence over 2 billion base pairs of DNA, and even reconstruct the genomes from scratch after the fact.
So, it was a pretty cool proof of principle experiment.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes. Okay. So, you get back, what's the first thing you do when you get home?
MS. RUBINS: Actually, it sounds like you want to do anything, right, you just returned to the earth. What you get to do is a whole bunch of medical tests. So, that's part of the -- that's, actually, part of the research that we do on space station, is we are often the experiment.
So, one of the very first things I did was donate a huge amount of blood and urine to the medical experiments and go sit in an MRI machine for a few hours.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes, that's hardly like the rewarding, like go visit family and friends and say hello to them, right?
MS. RUBINS: Yes, exactly. We didn't get to go to Disneyland.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, no. So, you mentioned photography before, and so few people get to see the kind of views you were describing. I mean, it's such a radically different perspective. So, how did that impact you?
MS. RUBINS: I really felt like after a while there were parts of the planet that I don't know if I'll ever see from the planetary surface. There were glaciers in Pakistan. There were, you know, nearer the South Pole, just incredibly beautiful landscapes in southern Chile.
But, you get familiar with them. So, it starts to look like your own neighborhood or your own backyard. And so, we would get really excited, you know, when, oh, Morocco is coming up soon, everybody fly to the window and look out, because it's this incredibly beautiful stark ocean against a continent kind of view.
And so, you really start to feel like after a while you are familiar with the whole earth. It's kind of this amazing incredible ongoing geography lesson.
There were a few times when I would be really surprised at the scale of things. So, we are flying about 400 kilometers above the earth surface, and you go very quickly within a few seconds across a continent. I remember I was looking out the window at Vancouver, and Seattle, and I saw something out of the corner of my eye and I was thinking what is that lake? I didn't know there was this really big lake near Seattle. And, it turned out it was the Great Lakes. We were just moving that quickly over the Continental U.S.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It's like hard to apply what you know from looking at your sort of flat maps back on the earth when you are rotating above it, I guess, right?
MS. RUBINS: Yes, absolutely.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And so, when you came back, I know you had to go through all those medical procedures. But, did you notice any physical changes in your body when you returned home, because you were out of your own gravity environment?
MS. RUBINS: Yes. There is definitely a lot of changes. So, there's adaptation on the way up to the space station, when you first encounter micro gravity, and then coming back, actually, the adaptation is a little bit worse.
I remember I was floating around the dinner table, and one of my crew mates was coming home on an earlier expedition, and he said, oh, gosh, I'm not looking forward to going back to the planet, the gravity sucks.
I was kind of thinking, well, you know, I'm not sure I really got briefed on this. This might have been good if somebody explained that a little bit before I launched off the planet.
And, it is true, it really is not super fun to return back to a one G environment. You feel like you are about 300 or 400 pounds. I, actually, felt like I was kind of stuck to the planetary surface with magnets, because you are so used to floating.
And, and I was kind of wondering if I was going to be permanently disabled, always feeling gravity. And, it turns out that, you know, the good thing is that sensation goes away after a few weeks.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: It takes a few weeks?
MS. RUBINS: But, you definitely have to get used to it. Yes, a few weeks of feeling gravity, and you just -- you know, you pick up a pen or a phone and it feels like it weighs ten pounds, and it's kind of dragging itself back down to the planet.
So, you get used to that and you start to compensate.
You also have some neuro vestibular issues, you are a little bit off balance, and some things like proprioperception. So, how you feel the floor under you and how you balance when you walk takes a little bit to come back.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow! So, I'm going to go there, I'm going to ask, do you think we should have more women like yourself in the space program?
MS. RUBINS: Well, I think we are actually, doing a pretty great job of that, if you look at the last couple classes. So, we hire every four years.
In our 2013 class was four men and four women, and our 2017 class had a large number of women in it. So, I think, you know, the applicant pool in the math and sciences is really starting to have a lot more women in it, and also our astronaut classes are.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's fantastic. So, do you have any future plans to return to space?
MS. RUBINS: I would love to, yes. I am still on the active astronaut list, though. So I am assignable to a future mission.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's exciting. Oh, we are going to be looking for you.
Now, I have a few final questions I ask everyone on this podcast before they go.
So, Kate, what was the first thing you recall doing on the internet, which I assume was here on earth and on the ground?
MS. RUBINS: It was, yes. So, that was high school, and I think I was looking at, you know, this was back in the day when websites were just lists of things. And, I think I remember looking up some, you know, '90s bands lists of things.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: That sounds totally legitimate. So, what's the last thing, what's the last thing you did on the internet, it can be totally mundane, it's okay.
MS. RUBINS: Oh, just today?
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.
MS. RUBINS: Oh, this is nerdy. I was just reading a study before this call on the impact of long duration in space missions on the astronaut micro bio.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right.
MS. RUBINS: I should have a much cooler answer, I'm sorry.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: No, let's call that totally on brand. Okay?
Now, what do you want the future of digital life and the internet to look like?
MS. RUBINS: I think, you know, it's, actually, pretty exciting to see how space is a player in the future of digital communications. There are a lot of companies that are, I mean, they are really looking at this as a place to expand internet access, particularly, hard to reach corners of the globe.
I used to work a lot in Central Congo, and it was pretty amazing to see the impact of things like tele medicine, you know, places where you would not have access to medical care. All of a sudden you can take a portable ultrasound, and you can now diagnose people from clinics in the U.S., that would normally not have the access to healthcare.
So, I think really improving the lives of people who aren't fortunate enough to live in neighborhoods with broadband connections is really a great place to go for us.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Absolutely. And, as we move away from strictly terrestrial networks to having more, you know, nano-satellite constellations, we are going to be able to deliver that capacity to more people in more places all around the globe. And I think that's going to be really exciting.
MS. RUBINS: Yes, I'll be excited to see that, too.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: All right. Now, before we go where can folks follow you to keep up to date with what you are doing and where you are doing it?
MS. RUBINS: Yes. So, when I was in space I started tweeting to the NASA astronauts account on Twitter, and that's, actually, a great place to follow any of the NASA astronauts. So, people who are on board the international space station, astronauts who are training in Johnson Space Center, and really keep up with everything that's going on at NASA.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: And, what's that address and what's that handle?
MS. RUBINS: It's @NASA_astronauts.
MS. ROSENWORCEL: Awesome. Now, that wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. Thank you for being here, Kate, and thank you so much for the work you do on this planet, and in space.
Thanks to everyone for listening. Take care.