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Astronaut Mark Vande Hei on his record-breaking spaceflight and adjusting to life on Earth
Geoff Bennett: On March 30, NASA's Mark Vande Hei stepped foot on Earth for the first time in nearly a year. Earlier this week, I talked to the astronaut about his record-setting journey.
Geoff Bennett: NASA Astronaut Mark Vande Hei set a new record for the single longest spaceflight by an American, spending 355 days in orbit, and surpassing the record held by retired Astronaut Scott Kelly.
So 355 days in space. When you left for this flight, did you know it would last that long?
Mark Vande Hei, Nasa Astronaut: Jeff, I did not know it was ñ it would last that long. I knew it was a possibility. And thankfully, my wife and I decided to assume that was going to be what would happen. So it made it very easy for us to adapt to whatever happened.
Geoff Bennett: What's been the biggest adjustment returning to Earth?
Mark Vande Hei: The biggest adjustment returning to Earth has been finding stuff in my kitchen. My wife has done a lot of remodeling and I keep having to - I had to ask where the garbage bags were, I've had to ask where the utensils are, so I'm ñ It'll take me a little while to catch up. I'm getting there.
Geoff Bennett: It's understandable after spending nearly a year on the International Space Station, which Vande Hei describes as an orbiting laboratory with hundreds of experiments. It's the only place to study the long-term effects of zero gravity. He is now an experiment himself, helping expand NASA's knowledge about how the human body adapts to long-term spaceflight as the agency plans for future missions to the moon and to mars.
How do you feel?
Mark Vande Hei: Well, I feel a little more achy than I did before I launched. I feel better than I would have expected, though. I'm very pleasantly surprised at how quickly things are readapting. But whenever I bend over to tie my shoes, it gets my attention. My lower ñ the muscles, the small muscles in my lower back, have been deconditioned with not having the ability to fall down for 355 days.
Geoff Bennett: Yeah. What is space station living like? And how do you keep your wits about you when you're there for such an extended period of time?
Mark Vande Hei: The view is absolutely incredible. And I think keeping your sanity on the space station depends a lot on understanding the type of narrative you give yourself about how you're doing.
If you ñ if you're beating yourself up about every little mistake or filling in gaps or making assumptions that people don't think you're doing a good job, it can make it very, very rough to be on the space station so you've got to be aware of that.
Geoff Bennett: I read that you did a fair amount of meditating, and there's this phenomenal picture of you in this sort of tiny cupola where you are meditating and you can just see the universe all around you. What was that like?
Mark Vande Hei: That was amazing. For the majority of the flight, I meditated in my crew quarters so it's kind of like a little closet. It's your own private space. And then at some point, I realized that it might be nice to meditate with my eyes open and looking outside. Some of my favorite moments with that was because I did that early in the morning before everybody else was awake, I had the ability to turn off all the lights.
And if it was at night, looking out those windows, with about 10, 15 minutes for my eyes to adjust, the stars were just glorious. It was absolutely amazing. I don't even know how to describe it.
Geoff Bennett: The International Space Station started as a joint effort between the U.S. and Russia in the late ë90s. In the wake of the Cold War, it was considered a major feat of international collaboration. But now, Putin's bloody invasion of Ukraine has severely strained U.S./Russia relations. I asked Vande Hei if the events on the ground affected his relationship in space with his Russian cosmonaut crewmates.
Mark Vande Hei: It didn't negatively affect our relationship. It was something that we did not talk about often. It just with how focused we were on cooperating and doing our job every day to help further the accomplishments we were making to help out all of humanity, it really we had to stay focused on our job.
Geoff Bennett: How did you become an astronaut? I understand you have a background in physics. You're a retired army colonel, you served in Iraq. How did you go from that to being an astronaut?
Mark Vande Hei: There is one incredibly important step in becoming an astronaut for everybody, it's you've got to apply. Usajobs.gov, I think, is the current way we do that, just like every other federal job.
Geoff Bennett: So wait, you applied to be an astronaut just like on the website?
Mark Vande Hei: Yes, that's part of the process. And the reason I bring that up is I almost didn't because I thought there was no way they'd ever hire me. And my wife said, hey, how are you going to know if you don't try? So I tried. But, again, I didn't think it would work. So the message I'm trying to get out to all of you out there is it doesn't hurt to try, it's just some of your time.
Geoff Bennett: That is phenomenal that you applied on a website like any of us would apply for a job on a website and you became an astronaut, an American hero, that's incredible. So what about this experience will you remember the most?
Mark Vande Hei: The people. The people that I got to work with on the mission control team that took such incredibly good care of us, and I mean mission control teams around the world.
We've got mission control centers in Huntsville, Houston, SCUBA, Japan, near Munich, Germany and Moscow. And especially the support I got from my family throughout this long period of time, the sacrifices they made and the support I got from my crewmates in orbit. All of those were not just essential, but they made it a pleasant experience.
Geoff Bennett: Mark Vande Hei, thank you for your service and your sacrifice in the name of science and exploration.
Mark Vande Hei: Oh thanks you - thanks very much, Geoff. Appreciate it.