To the Moon and Back with Astronaut Karen L. Nyberg

While many of us are concerned with earthly pleasures, some are looking to the skies. “Shoot for the stars and you might land on the moon,” astronaut Karen L. Nyberg advises us after two voyages to space.

Karen dreamed of becoming an astronaut from a very young age. In high school, she decided to pursue an education which would lead her to her dream career. She received a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of North Dakota; followed by a Master and Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.

“I thought about Mechanical Engineering because I really like math. I also like drafting, and I did some research and found that many astronauts have a background in engineering,” says Karen.

During college, the Vining, Minnesota native landed a co-op, short for Cooperative Education, internship at NASA in 1991 and has since worked in a variety of areas before she was selected to do her first spaceflight.

But not only engineers can aspire to become astronauts; the career path is very wide and each individual in the field has their own unique experience. Karen says about NASA’s mission:

“It’s essential for NASA to be continuously involved in exploration and discovery.”

Nyberg was thrilled to be chosen as an astronaut in 2000. After eight years of preparation and training, she was assigned to her first flight in 2008.

“Dreams come true; it was so exciting! From 2000 to 2008 was a long wait, but you know that your turn is coming up. It’s also very rewarding to be part of a small but amazing shuttle crew and become friends with everyone.”

Karen’s first mission to space was on Discovery, the 26th shuttle flight to the International Space Station which was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. In 2013, Dr. Nyberg was launched into space for the second time aboard the Soyuz TMA‐09M from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan along with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Luca Parmitano.

Remembering her experience right before the launching, Karen says: “I was seated in the shuttle on my back for a couple of hours. The engine starts with a little bit of motion when suddenly ‘boom!’ It goes, and jeez, it’s really an exhilarating ride. It’s awesome. After a few minutes – again it’s kind of a surreal moment – all of a sudden you are floating. Then you know you are in space.”

Imagine how impressive is to contemplate the beauty of our limitless Universe and see for the first time Earth from Space.

“It takes a while for you to process what you see. We have great cameras that take great pictures, but it never looks as good as in real life. The first time we opened the payload bay doors on the shuttle, we have a very broad view, with the very intense blackness of space contrasting with the beautiful blue and white, and of course the oranges, the red. The vibrant blue of the Earth, it’s overwhelming. I wish I was a poet so I could describe it a little more effectively.”

Regardless of the fact that there is no gravity and that the sunrise and sunset are every 45 minutes, astronauts try to match their activities with the rhythm of GMT time.

“We run typical days. We wake up at six o’clock in the morning, have a conference with Mission Control Centers around the world, and then we start our day with a couple of hours of exercise. We do our research and close the day with another conference with ground teams. Then there is a little bit of personal time for us,” reveals Nyberg.

The work with the ground team is also key to a successful mission, which starts before launch in a meeting the lead flight director who is in charge of the flight control team and mission control in Houston.  “We trust that they are taking care of our ship. On our end, we bear the responsibility of being trusted with what we are doing on board as well,” comments the astronaut.

But not everything is work in space. There is also time to have fun and laugh. “One of the funniest moments was when we took up the Japanese laboratory, which is the largest laboratory at the Space Station. Because it was so heavy, it was launched without its all internal hardware, so it was pretty much an empty can when we attached it to the Space Station. When we first entered, it was a huge volume, and one of our space station crew members was in a middle of the module, and he was trying to get to the wall making all sorts of movements. That was very funny,” says Karen.

After the mission is completed, the way back to Earth and landing varies depending on the spaceship. “The shuttle arrival is much smoother. In the Soyuz, you land with a parachute, and when it opens, there is a lot of motion. It’s a pretty hard landing.”

Now girls who aspire to become astronauts can witness successful stories like Dr. Nyberg’s and see more possibilities in pursuing their dream of visiting space.

“I have heard firsthand from other parents: ‘My daughter saw you, and now she wants to be an astronaut.’ It feels great to hear that. It might be a slow process, but I think it really helps girls to say, ‘I’ll go for it as well, and I will push for my dreams.’ I am hoping it will be a natural progression to get more and more women in the field as astronauts. The fact is that there is a smaller percentage of women than men in the fields astronauts come from. But it’s shifting, and I think, we, as female role models right now, are contributing to that. I am very excited about that.”

Karen currently continues to work at NASA while enjoying her eight-year-old son and supporting her husband, also an astronaut, as he prepares for his next flight to space. She is also an artist and hopes to develop her passion and craft for textile art. Nyberg shows us the future is headed to space. When we work hard in aligning with our desires, we create from inspired actions, as a result, the possibilities become limitless as our endless Universe.
photography courtesy NASA