Nicole Stott has been to space twice – in 2009, she spent three months aboard the International Space Station, then in 2011 she was part of the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery during its final mission.
During 20 years at Nasa, she’s performed a six-hour spacewalk, and trained astronauts how to land space shuttles, among other things. She’s now a full-time artist, and supports STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) educational organisations.
Did going to space change you as a person?
Ultimately, all space exploration is about improving life here on Earth. Seeing Earth from that perspective gives you a new take on everything, especially our relationships with each other. You realise that from one side of Earth to the other is not really that far, so why are there these divisions between us? I call it a kumbaya moment.
Do you think more people should be able to experience this?
Definitely. It’s why space tourism is so exciting. Once you’re up there, you can’t deny it. I really hope we never get to the point where we’re pulling the shade down on the window, like we do in aeroplanes. Because I was up in space for months at a time, I did wonder if I would get tired of the view. But it never becomes normal. Once I saw a shooting star below us – it took a while to work out what it was, because we’re so used to looking up to see them. Then I was just glad it hadn’t hit our spaceship!
What was the most valuable lesson you learned?
The power of international cooperation. The International Space Station is a great example – it shows how we can do really complex things in a very challenging environment, and be successful at it as an international community. It’s how we should be doing stuff down here! It’s not unthinkable. All of the work that’s behind it – the relationship building, the negotiating – all happens down here on Earth. It’s certainly something to aim for.
What didn’t anyone tell you about?
Space has a very distinct smell. You notice it when you come back in from a spacewalk and open up the airlock. It’s very mild, like a sweet metallic smell, kind of like an overheating radiator. The space station creaks as well. As you pass in and out of the sun, the metal shrinks and stretches. It’s a little disconcerting at first! But these surprises are all part of the adventure.
What was your reaction to Nasa’s recent discovery of Earth-sized habitable planets?
My reaction was ‘Wow! How cool is that?’ It’s so incredible, to start thinking about the possibility of exploring those places. It makes these things we want to do here in this close planetary system seem so much more doable.
Was the technology very different when you were in space?
The advances come in baby steps. When I was on station, we didn’t have live internet, so you’d only get your emails uploaded a couple of times throughout the day. But now the internet up there is indistinguishable from down here. It makes a huge change to how you operate up there. We also had video conferencing, but my family had to use a Polycom video phone. Now you just use an iPad. These might seem trivial changes, but when you look at the progress, it bodes well for other challenges we’re facing.
Is there one particular breakthrough that will make a huge difference?
Propulsion is a big deal. Right now it takes nine months to get to Mars. One solution would be to launch from space, perhaps from the lunar surface. Then you don’t have to fight your way out of Earth’s gravity, which is what takes the most power.
Do you think enough women are encouraged to go into STEM careers?
Sadly not. It really bothers me – and that’s putting it politely – when I see girls being discouraged. I’m so grateful I never had anyone tell me I couldn’t do something because I’m a girl. But I know that not everyone is that lucky. Girls need to see women doing the things that seem out of bounds to them. I try to be that example as much as I can.
Did you start making art after your space career?
I’ve always liked to paint. I took my paints to the space station, but it was a little tricky. You can’t have a bowl of water to dip your brush in, because it would float away, so we had these drink bags and I would squeeze out the tiniest drop of water out of the straw onto the brush. It’s very different to painting on Earth. Looking back, I should’ve videoed it.
You can find out more about Nicole on her website at npsdiscovery.com.