Mark Vande Hei, 55, is a NASA astronaut whose recent expedition to the International Space Station spanned 355 days and set the record for the longest single spaceflight of an American astronaut. He lives in Houston with his wife.
When people think about astronauts, they think mostly about space exploration, but with your record-setting 355 days in microgravity, I wanted to ask about your physical recovery — its significance and what it helps us learn.
Well, when we eventually go to Mars, we’re going to have quite long space flights on the order of this type of length, just to go there, potentially. Mars is just a really, really far distance to travel. It’s hard to even comprehend that distance.
Would it really take a year to get there?
It could. I wouldn’t want to be quoted on how long — the technology’s developing that could make it less — but the one-way trip is significant. And then, of course, you’ve got to be there for a certain amount of time, literally for the planets to be properly aligned, potentially, to come back home. And then it’s a very long trip back as well. All of that is without having a medical staff like I had when I landed to receive me. So it’s really important for us to understand what a human being can do after a lengthy stay in zero gravity — how they can perform on the ground, what they can do to take care of themselves.
When I got back and landed in Kazakhstan I was given some physical tests within the first hour of being back on the ground to try to get an assessment of how functional you were. And then another eight hours later. One more time within 24 hours and another maybe a week later. Just trying to figure out how quickly we recover. And because we don’t have that many data points, it’s really important that we gather the data.
Was any of it surprising for you?
I was actually pleasantly surprised that I could walk pretty well. But, as soon as I closed my eyes, I had no idea which way was up. And so for me to take a step forward, I was leaning on the person next to me because I could not stay vertical without assistance when my eyes were shut.
How do you describe it to someone who has not been in that situation? Is it like when you’re in a dream and trying to move? Or underwater?
Gosh, well, I’m going to go ahead and say this — hopefully in a way that it won’t embarrass me too much. But it was a lot like being a teenager who was drinking and trying to hide the fact that you’re buzzed from your parents. So you could walk, but you were having to put a lot more mental energy into walking so that it looked natural than you normally would have to.
A couple weeks before you were to return home [aboard a Russian spacecraft], Russia invaded Ukraine, and tensions between the United States and Russia escalated. You were up there with two Russian cosmonauts. How did that play out for you all, as human beings, as representatives of your countries?
All of the above, I would say. I was a crewmate of theirs. We were part of a team. I have trained a lot with my Russian crewmates. And especially with Pyotr [Dubrov]; I spent my entire 355 days in space with Pyotr. And they have been, currently are, and I’m sure for the rest of my life will be very, very dear friends. So on a human level, I certainly talked to them about how they felt about it. I don’t want to give what their answers were. But, you know, they’re human beings. And the sources of information that we draw on to form our opinions have a big impact. Information, sources people use, change what their perspective is. Sometimes, for me, it was an opportunity to ask questions, and sometimes it was an opportunity for me to poke holes in people’s logic and say, “Hey, did you think about this?”
I certainly never had any concerns about how I was going to be treated by the Russian space program. Honestly, our interactions, our partnership with the Russians has been one of the reasons we’ve been able to fund the space program. Because people that don’t care about space exploration, some of those people care a lot about international relations. And so having something going on with the space program that allowed us to enhance international cooperation made our cooperation with the Russians, or the Soviet Union back then, something that was very important during the Cold War.
Are there insights you can share from that kind of collaboration that folks in international relations or government leaders in different countries can draw from in charting a peaceful path forward?
I think the key for everybody involved is to just try to be curious about what the other person’s perspective is and to be humble enough to recognize that maybe we don’t understand well enough, and to try to keep asking questions. If everybody’s approaching things from that perspective, then there’s a lot of hope.
You served in the military before becoming an astronaut. Has that level of international cooperation with a so-called Cold War “enemy” — you grew up in that era, as did I — shaped your view of your role in the military or the role of militaries generally?
Oh, gosh. That’s such a great question. So, certainly, I think, for a typical American, we don’t get the opportunity to interact with Russians. Previously, I was a co-pilot on a Russian spacecraft; I got lots of opportunities to interact with Russians. And because of that, there’s a lot of really wonderful things about the Russian culture that I think are great. And there are stereotypes we have about Russians that I realized we’ve got some skewed viewpoints about. Like, for a while, on my previous flight, we would, once a week, get together and watch a movie. The U.S. support team on the ground was really good about coordinating with movie directors who were excited about sharing their movie with us. Even before it came out in theaters, we’d get this latest blockbuster and watch it all together. A lot of action movies. And I realized at one point that all the bad guys were Russians.
Was that awkward?
Yeah. It kind of gives me chills even thinking about it because at one point, I looked at my cosmonaut crewmates and said, “How does that make you feel?” And they said, “It’s kind of scary when we see that everybody in the United States, the mass media in the United States, is portraying Russians as the bad guys.” And so we shifted to instead of us just getting the latest movie, everybody got a turn to pick a movie they’d seen and wanted to share with everybody else. It became much more like a film festival type of thing and much more pleasant and less awkward because of that.
With this unique perspective, this small group of you, what would you share with people — regular people, people in the military — in both countries?
I would say it’s really easy to hate somebody or a group of people that you know nothing about. I think humans have the tendency to put people in the category of “the others.” And if you keep them far enough away, then it’s really easy to think poorly of them. So I think if we’re going to have a more peaceful future, we’ve got to seek opportunities to mix and have social interactions with, frankly, people that we might have a tendency to try to avoid. And honestly, that applies to politics in the United States, too.
Do you worry about what the further deterioration in relations, even since you’ve been home, could do to the space program if cooperation were to go away? And do you think it will?
I think that’s way above my pay grade — I don’t have to worry about things like that, fortunately. There’s really good people, both at Johnson Space Center and at NASA headquarters that are working really hard. So I feel confident that we have the right people with the right skill set that have the right perspective trying to keep things going. And I know there are people on the Russian side doing the same thing, really trying to find ways to cooperate. So I guess the best thing to say is that I’m hopeful. It’s not something that’s keeping me awake at night at all. I’m not saying that I have some special insight that lets me know that the future’s going to be this way; I’m just saying that I feel hopeful about it.
So all that Twitter posturing doesn’t bother you?
I heard about it from my wife. Some of the allusions were that my crewmates might leave me behind. I laughed when I heard about it. I said, “Oh, there’s no way.” It wasn’t something that we had concerns about. I mean, the most difficult conversation wasn’t with my crewmates. It was with my wife trying to say, like, “There’s no possible way that that would ever happen.”
I think the hardest part for me was seeing how, because there weren’t enough facts to report on, the gaps being filled with speculation. And the way that comes across, in many cases, is as if that speculation was fact. So that concerned me when I saw well-known media sources fill in those gaps, but confidently. I was living the history. I knew the facts, directly. We don’t get the opportunity to be in those situations very often. So it was really a good lesson for me to recognize how you’ve got to be very discerning because if you just take it all in, and you’re just absorbing everything without having a critical eye for those things, you can head off on the wrong path.
This is not the first time we’ve had conflicts with Russia or the Soviet Union during our cooperation in space programs. And I think it’s really important that we continue that cooperation because all the paths to peace, from wherever we’re starting, always involve conversations. And we’ve got to have the type of relationships where we can have conversations with people that trust each other, in order to get to the places we all want to be.