In 204 days spent in space, NASA astronaut Anne McClain and her crew orbited the Earth 3,265 times and traveled more than 86 million miles. McClain, a Spokane native and Army lieutenant colonel, was part of a crew that made history as the first to edit DNA in space. She also performed two spacewalks — though, memorably, she was also scheduled to be part of a third, with fellow astronaut Christina Koch, that would have made history as the first spacewalk performed by an all-women crew. That one, however, was scrapped due — according to NASA — to a “spacesuit sizing issue.”
McClain, 39, landed safely in Kazakhstan on June 25. With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing coming up this month, The Seattle Times conducted a phone interview with McClain last week to talk about her experiences in space, the multitude of uses you can find for tortillas in zero gravity and how weird it is to reacclimate to Earth. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
The Seattle Times: When did you know you wanted to be an astronaut?
Anne McClain: I first told my parents that I wanted to be an astronaut when I was 3 years old. I’m not really sure why. It’s hard to describe, but I tell kids to listen to that voice inside of you that wants to do something so bad even if you can’t put words to why.
ST: What did the first moon landing mean to you?
AM: The moon landing was such a magnificent accomplishment in U.S. space history. I think that boots on the moon was just one indicator of the rapid technology advancement and really just showed what we can do when all of us are dedicated to a single goal over a long period of time. That’s what we can accomplish.
ST: Were there any specific astronauts you looked up to growing up?
AM: Honestly, any and all of them. I couldn’t get enough astronaut news. I didn’t care what country they were from, what their background was; if they were an astronaut, I wanted to read and learn about them. There was just always something magical about watching somebody working in space and I just knew that I wanted to join them.
ST: What was it like being in space for so long? What did you like most about space?
AM: The most uncomfortable thing about going to space is coming home. It’s a little strange to get used to gravity again. One of the coolest things to me about living in space was it really caused me to think about how the human body and mind can adapt to completely different environments. For me personally, I’ve had 39 solid years of gravity. Then all of a sudden, I get to space and other than maybe some mild nausea on the first day, my body was like, “Oh we’re weightless and we’re still going to function.”
Coming home I noticed the same thing: it’s amazing what we’re used to. One of the things I’ve noticed most in the last week is, “what does it mean for everything to have weight?” It’s really fun to look at everything with a completely different perspective. Oh my gosh my wristwatch has weight! It’s pulling my arm down!
ST: Do clothes feel heavier to you?
AM: It doesn’t necessarily feel heavy but you feel the weight of it. And you have to get used to that again. There was actually an experiment up on the space station — we do them before we leave and after we get back to compare the results. I was running an experiment this last week using some equipment that I had only used in space. My first thought was, this piece of equipment must be stuck on something, then I realized, “Oh that’s just gravity pulling it back.”
The really cool thing about getting to go to space for those 204 days is we were fully accustomed to living in space. We didn’t just go visit and come back. We were living in space and working in space.
ST: What did you miss the most about Earth? How hard was it being away from your son and how often were you able to communicate with your family?
AM: I think being away from family is the hardest part. There’s kind of a common understanding among the astronauts that if our friends and family could come visit us in space we’d never come back. It’s really good to see family and friends again. We can do a video chat with our families once a week. We have pretty good internet so we have email and we can use an internet phone to make phone calls when we’re not working.
ST: What was the first thing you ate when you got back to Earth? What were you craving up there?
AM: It’s funny, I was thinking about what I’d want when I get back down but you actually forget what you miss when you’re not eating it. When you’re up in space you just don’t have that food available and your body stops craving them.
But for my first meal when we got back on the ground; we were picked up in Kazakhstan with one of the NASA planes and in the back of the plane they had a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and jelly. So my first meal back was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.
ST: What was your favorite food in space?
AM: We had really good oatmeal. I know it sounds weird but it was just one of those things. The food is pretty good. We have dehydrated food. They fix it on the ground, just like you would in your kitchen, then they dehydrate it for you then we rehydrate it. So we actually have pretty good food up there. I think everyone’s favorite dish is pizza or tacos. We don’t have regular bread up there because it’s too crumbly, so we get pretty creative with tortillas.
ST: What was the most incredible thing you saw from space?
AM: The first thing that just made me sit and stare out the window was watching the moon rise and set. Our bay window from the station looks down at the Earth, and if you look out the side, you see the Earth’s horizon. When the moon rises off the Earth’s horizon, because of our combined relative speeds, it jumps off. It’s like watching a moon rise in fast forward. You can watch as it comes through the atmosphere. The shape gets distorted because of the bending of the light through the atmosphere and then it just pops out of the sky and rises.
What’s really neat about it is you don’t feel like you’re watching the moon or planets move. You feel like you’re part of it, of the orbital mechanics. You feel like you’re an object in the solar system and you can see planets and moons going around one another. It’s just the perspective that’s hard to describe.
ST: What’s the weirdest thing about coming back to Earth?
AM: There’s a lot of choices that you have to make on Earth. Grocery shopping, choosing what to wear in the morning. I was so completely accustomed to this other environment and the way I did things was so different, but it was totally normal. So it’s almost like I’m relearning my life. It’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
ST: What is it like being a female astronaut?
AM: When you’re an astronaut, you’re living in an environment where everything is artificial. The air that we breathe is made by a series of machines and monitors, and the things we need in our air is the same for men and women. When we’re out doing a spacewalk, what we require for temperatures and pressures, it’s the same for men and women. When we’re controlling our spacecraft, when we’re working on the International Space Station, the consequences of our decisions are exactly the same for men and women. So, to be honest, there’s no difference between being a female astronaut and a male astronaut because you are in an environment where your requirements are exactly the same. So, for me, the great thing is we just don’t think about it from day to day.