An Army astronaut on a six-month mission in space recently shared her experience, saying she still leans on her military training while aboard the International Space Station.
Lt. Col. Anne McClain, a former helicopter pilot who has flown over 200 combat missions, blasted into space on a Russian Soyuz rocket in early December to serve as a flight engineer for her crew.
“I spent my whole career working high-risk missions in small teams in remote areas, which is what we’re doing right now,” she said in an April 24 interview.
McClain, 39, is one of five Soldiers in the Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s astronaut detachment. Its commander, Col. Andrew Morgan, is slated to launch July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
During her stay, McClain has been able to complete two spacewalks — both about 6.5-hours long — for maintenance outside the space station, which is about the length of a football field.
On March 22, she and another American astronaut replaced batteries and performed upgrades to the station’s power system. Then on April 8, she and a Canadian astronaut routed cables that serve as a redundant power system for a large robotic arm that moves equipment and supports crews while outside the station.
When she first started to train for spacewalks back in Houston, McClain said it reminded her of being an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter pilot on a scout weapons team.
The spacesuits, she noted, are like small spacecraft that need to be constantly monitored in order for their occupants to stay alive against the extreme temperatures and vacuum of space. Suits have their own electronics, power and radio systems — similar to components helicopter pilots often cross-check while remaining focused on the mission.
Then there is the buddy team aspect of both operations.
“Up here on a spacewalk, that’s the other astronaut that’s outside with you,” she said. “On the ground, that was the other helicopter that I was flying with.
“Most importantly, you have to be able to work with that other person and their system — their spacesuit, their helicopter — in order to accomplish the mission,” she added. “It was actually amazing to me how many of the skills kind of carried over into that environment.”
Unique from her Army days has been her participation in scientific experiments on the station, the only research laboratory of its kind with over 200 ongoing experiments.
An upcoming experiment, she said, is for an in-space refabricator, a hybrid 3D printer that can recycle used plastic to create new parts.
“That’s a really exciting new technology to enable deep-space exploration,” she said.
In December, NASA announced plans to work with U.S. companies to develop reusable systems that can return astronauts to the Moon. Human-class landers are expected to be tested in 2024, with the goal to send a crew to the surface in 2028.
What’s learned in these missions could then help NASA send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s, according to a news release.
While currently in low Earth orbit, McClain explained that resupply vehicles can come and go. Beyond that, crews would need to be self-sustained for longer periods of time.
“We’re using the space station as a test bed for some of the technologies that are going to enable us to work autonomously in space,” she said, “and hit some of our deep-space exploration goals.”
As with other astronauts, McClain has also become a guinea pig of sorts in human research tests that study how the human body reacts to microgravity.
One experiment she has been a part of is monitoring airway inflammation up in space.
With a lack of gravity, dust particles don’t fall to the ground and will often be inhaled by astronauts. The tests measure exhaled nitric oxide, which can indicate airway inflammation, she said.
This research could be important if astronauts are sent back to the Moon, which is covered with a fine dust similar to powdered sugar, she said.
“If that’s in the air and we’re breathing that for months on end, if we’re doing extended stays on the lunar’s surface,” she said, “we need to understand how that affects the human body.”
While there is no typical day in space, McClain said their 12-hour shifts normally start with a meeting between them and support centers in the U.S., Russia, Germany and Japan.
When not helping with an experiment, astronauts do upkeep inside the station that includes plumbing, electricity work, changing filters, checking computer systems, or even vacuuming.
The best parts of her day, she said, are when she gets the chance to peer down on Earth. Every day, the station orbits around the planet 16 times, meaning astronauts see a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes.
“One of the cool things about going to the window is if you’re not paying attention, you don’t even know if it’s night or day outside,” she said. “You could look out and see an aurora over the Antarctic or you could look out and see a beautiful sunrise over the Pacific.”
After seeing Earth from above with her own eyes, McClain has come to realize people there are more dependent on each other than they may think.
“You get this overview effect where you realize how small we are and how fragile our planet is and how we’re really all in it together,” she said. “You don’t see borders from space, you don’t see diversity and differences in people on Earth.”
Those back on Earth can also gaze up and enjoy a similar effect.
“Sometimes we focus too much on our differences, but when we all look up into space, we see the same stars and we see the same sun,” she said. “It really can be unifying.”
Whenever she glanced up at the stars as a young child, she said it was a magical experience and eventually sparked her interest in becoming an astronaut.
Her family supported her dream and told her she could do whatever she wanted as long as she put in the work.
“They didn’t tell me how much work it was going to be,” she said, laughing, “but it certainly was a lot more than I anticipated.”
Before she was selected to NASA’s human spaceflight program in 2013, McClain, of Spokane, Washington, attended the U.S. Military Academy and was commissioned in 2002.
She later became a Marshall scholar and earned two master’s degrees. She then flew over 2,000 flight hours on 20 different aircraft and became a Kiowa instructor pilot.
In June, she is set to return back to Earth.
“No matter what your passion is, you really can find it within the Army,” she said. “The opportunities really are endless and the sky is not the limit.”