Up and away: Former astronaut Coleman loved thrill of ride
Having orbited the Earth more than 4,000 times, flown in a Soyuz rocket to the International Space Station for a long residency and been part of two Space Shuttle missions, Catherine "Cady" Coleman tends to have some things to talk about.
And, a great many fascinated people, even after listening to her speak about space adventures, always seem to ask the same question: "What was it like?"
Coleman, who'll take part in the Voices Lectures series virtual event Wednesday, April 28, always appreciates questions and resists losing patience — after all, it takes a patient person to ride in a Soyuz rocket with inside space of two Smart cars with Russian astronauts, and then spend five months with them on a space station.
She recognizes that people see her as a "special person" who gets to experience something other people only can imagine by watching "Star Trek" or "Star Wars."
Well, in short: Coleman loved the 8 1/2-minute ride into space, and enjoyed her 159 days on the International Space Station in 2011.
"The space station is actually huge — on a football field, it'd be goal post to goal post, and the place we lived would be on the 50-yard-line," Coleman said. "There, it's a series of modules the size of large buses, going up and down and sideways, 10 of them without seats. So, it's a large amount of room.
"And, you think about being in space and it's not about floating around, but to go anywhere you have to 'fly.' You push off and 'fly.' It's like being around the first settlers, exploring the new world."
Coleman was lead robotics and science officer on ISS, and she became the second person to ever "capture" a supply ship in 2011. Her good friend, Nicole Stott, was the first. Yes, two women — and the third would have been a woman if not for a change in plans. A guy named Don captured the third. "Turns out boys are OK with that," she joked.
Now, supply ships, sent by SpaceX and others, go to ISS more frequently. But, even 10 years ago, being in space and accomplishing missions up there were rare things; it's still a rare thing to leave Earth, something Coleman said should never be taken for granted.
Coleman was a member of the U.S Air Force and "loaned" to NASA for 26 years before retiring in 2016.
Her journey from wide-eyed child to somebody rocketing into space, orbiting the Earth and "flying" on the International Space Station serves as an inspiration to any girl or young woman out there aspiring to do great things. For Coleman, her message to them would be to seek people who help you understand that "you belong here," in whatever endeavor. It's what she and Stott shared as astronauts and mothers.
"In our society there are still a lot of signs and sign posts that don't blare out the message that, 'You belong here,'" she said. "Not that you don't belong ... but that 'you belong.'
"I'm somebody who reacts well to surrounding myself with people who believe in me and who I might be," from teachers growing up to family members to NASA people. Math and science teachers told her, "You can do this." It was as simple as that.
Coleman, also a mother and wife and hailing from western Massachusetts, still has relatives living in Vancouver, Washington — stepmom Jane Coleman, a retired school teacher, and one of two stepbrothers, Tom Coleman. Her late father lived for many years in Clark County, and Coleman credits him with sparking her interest in adventure and exploration.
"I grew up in a house where exploration was the normal," she said. "Dad was a deep sea diver, in charge of helping build habitat for Sealab (U.S. Navy) program. (Astronaut/1959 Mercury Project member) Scott Carpenter came to my house for dinner at 7 years old. As far as exploring, and thinking it was normal, and thinking kind of dangerously and going someplace not many people went was normal to me, and it wasn't like I couldn't be one of those people.
"I still remember where I was sitting and how I felt when, in college, I went to a lecture with Dr. Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut. She loved learning and research in astrophysics, and still had this job of adventure, and I just remember thinking, 'I could try to do that.' She looked and felt a little like me."
Just being an astronaut who has been on two Space Shuttle missions and lived on the International Space Station makes her somewhat of a historical figure. For Coleman, it was more the experience than the history-making aspect of it all. The most exciting thing was leaving Earth.
"When you're in the Soyuz capsule, it's smaller than the Space Shuttle, and you feel every single bit (of movement) to get that rocket into space and the space station," she said. "It's visceral; it's very hard to leave the planet. At the time you're watching gauges and making sure everything works, but I enjoyed every single minute of that — 8 1/2 minutes into space (about 250 miles). Then, it takes about two hours to 'parallel park' to the space station … and you have to catch up to the space station."
She added: "The ride up in the rocket was like a taxi ride; I didn't care if it was Russian Soyuz or Space Shuttle. I wanted to live and work on that space station. And, you get there and you realize that you're still part of Earth, you're still connected. You're an Earthling."
She misses space. She woke up at 2 a.m. on a day recently to watch the latest SpaceX rocket launch.
She's also excited that about 40 percent of people in the astronaut program are women, up from about 17 percent when she was involved. Coleman said, proudly, that she helped convince NASA that it needed to make space suits that fit women more comfortably.
And, yes, Coleman does follow the current Mars expedition, which includes the Ingenuity helicopter. Recently, it flew on Mars. That's mind-blowing stuff, even to a retired astronaut like Coleman.
"It's a Wright Brothers moment," she said, of the first people to fly an airplane. "I, myself, call it a Wright brothers family moment. Their sister was their test director. Their mom was this very inventive mechanically inclined person, and the Wright brothers said she taught them design thinking."
Coleman recommends "The Lady Astronaut" series of books, as well as the "Hidden Figures" movie women who helped NASA early on. Included was Katherine Johnson, a Black woman mathematician, who developed trajectory for NASA rockets to leave Earth.
Sending people to Mars will happen, eventually, she added.
"The reality is further away than we'd like. It'd be hard," she said. "I think we're talking 2030 or 2040. We're bringing so many different people into space exploration — SpaceX, Boeing and Blue Origin. … We absolutely will be going to Mars — it's a matter of when. We should go to the Moon first; it takes about three days to get to the Moon, and six months to get to Mars. That's a lot of flying in space. That's why having commercial partners is nice. For NASA, being flexible and efficient is not what they're made of."
Cady Coleman will provide one of the more unique testimonials for the Voices Lectures, a women's empowerment series — perhaps, if you will, an out-of-this world perspective. She'll talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 28. For tickets and access and more info, see www.voicesinc.com.
Coleman hosts a new podcast, "Mission: Interplanetary," available on all podcast channels.
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