Spacewalking: the view from the Space Station

Steve Swanson is a former NASA astronaut and ISS commander. He talks about isolation and the night sky...
21 April 2020

Interview with 

Steve Swanson, NASA Astronaut


A picture of the Earth from the ISS space station


Steve Swanson is a former NASA astronaut who during his career helped build the International Space Station, and is a former ISS commander. Phil Sansom asked him about his tips for dealing with isolation, as well as what the view is like from so high up...

Steve - My first spacewalk, I went out the hatch and I worked my way out to my work site, which happens to be on the very end of the station, the last hand rail on that side of the station. I set myself up getting ready to work, started working, all this; and then the sun comes out and I get to see the earth way down below me and the space station off to the side. I gripped my hand rail so tight I didn't move for a minute. Because it was like this idea that you're way above Earth with nothing below you, and you should be falling down, and this is not a safe place to be. It's not on a conscious level, like "I can control this, I can figure it out". There was some sort of innate kind of fear thing and you don't really have much control over it for a minute until you calm yourself back down.

Phil - That view that you get... how does the view you get of the night sky from the ground compare to what you get when you're up there in space?

Steve - The biggest difference is there is not an atmosphere to look through. So there's no twinkling of the stars, they're all just pinpoints of light. It was not so easy to stargaze on the space station. We don't really have a window that goes up. If you wanted to look at a star, which we'd get to a couple of times because we'd move the altitude of the station a little bit, we had to make this area really, really dark. And it's like trying to see the stars from inside your house: if there's any lights on at all, it's gonna ruin it, you can't really see anything. So we would... I made a blanket with Velcro on the edges that I could put around this whole area and really make it dark, and then we could watch the stars.

Phil - I don't know about you - are you in lockdown like so many of us across the world?

Steve - Yes. We're at a stay at home policy here in Idaho.

Phil - How does that compare to being up there in space with maybe just a couple of other people? Is there a similar isolation or is it very different?

Steve - Yeah, I guess similar in a way, it's quite a bit easier right now, at least where I am. Because I can go out and go for walks or runs or go to the grocery store. I can still do all those things. I just have to be careful about what I do when I do that. On the space station, I mean, you just can't go outside, right? And so you're stuck inside for almost six months.

Phil - Have you got any tips then for how to keep healthy and emotionally OK? And generally well?

Steve - Yeah, so I mean it's... everybody's gonna be different, so I'll say what works for me and maybe people can take this and adapt it for what works for them. First thing was: stay busy. And that wasn't really a choice on the space station, it was a very busy schedule, it was like a 12 hour work day. So I didn't really think about, "oh, I'm isolated, I can't go back home and can't do these things". I was enjoying my time up there and I was busy. Next thing is: stay in communication with your friends and family. And the last thing I like to say is: definitely have some fun too, because now if you're stuck in your house, you're not going to be doing the same things you would normally do. And we did that on the space station, we came up with new games to play in this floating environment, and it helped relieve all our stress and tension.

Phil - Like what sort of games?

Steve - Oh man. Well we had Nerf dart guns, so we would come up with a game of... we could do duels. We had a full-on Nerf dart gun war the first time we brought out the Nerf dart guns, and there was only nine bullets out of all this and it took us an hour and a half to find them. So we decided not to do that again, so we came up with, everybody gets one bullet, we'll just do duels and stuff like that. Competitions to see who could do the most flips... basically our fun day was Sunday. We played all sorts of games.


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