Bewilder for The Washington Post

50 astronauts, in their own words

The views are great. The bathroom breaks, not so much.

Nothing prepares you for the view. From space, Earth is alive. The greenest greens and bluest blues, auroras dancing at the poles, lightning storms flashing like fireflies. Landmasses defined more by ancient, tectonic textures than any arbitrarily imposed border. The impossibly thin atmosphere protecting 7 billion people from the dark, unforgiving void beyond.

All seen while floating weightlessly.

Weightlessness — the experience is surreal, at least at first. Rookie astronauts bumble about like babies learning to walk and delight in sleeping on the ceiling. Arms come to rest in the zombie position. Hair stands on end as if electrocuted. Everything not pinned down floats away — glasses, tools, grains of rice scattering into a cloud of debris, while fugitive sauces paint stains on walls.

Since the dawn of the Space Age, only about 570 people have ever been to space. For the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, The Washington Post interviewed 50 astronauts from seven countries. A total of 26 reporters and researchers reached out to women and men, those who flew during Apollo and those who traveled on the space shuttles and Russian Soyuz spacecraft. They spoke to Russian cosmonauts, the first Malaysian and Afghan astronauts, and two NASA astronauts while they were on the space station. The goal was to describe what going to space is really like.

The astronauts remembered traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes, sunrise after sunset, on one constantly repeating loop. They conjured up the majesty of viewing Earth from a distance, the horribly bland food, the rattle of blastoff, the sensation of stepping outside for a spacewalk, seeing the Earth below and suffering the ultimate form of vertigo — the fear of falling all the way back down.

“Gravity sucks. It’s horrible.”

Sandy Magnus, flew three NASA shuttle flights between 2002 and 2011, including the last shuttle flight

Everyone, of course, had a different experience. Some went to the moon, others to low Earth orbit. Some stayed for months — or in the case of former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, nearly a year. As the command module pilot for Apollo 11, Michael Collins traveled 242,113 miles away from Earth. Fifty years later, Beth Moses, the first woman to fly on a commercial spacecraft, went 56 miles up without reaching orbit but still scratched the edge of where many believe space begins.

One theme throughout the interviews was the overwhelming desire for others to go to space. If the ranks of astronauts were expanded significantly, if others could go to space as they did, life on Earth, they said, would be vastly different.

The sensation of seeing Earth from above has a name — the “overview effect” — an experience that turns astronauts into evangelists, preaching the gospel of orbit. Yuri Gagarin, the first person to reach space, said in 1961, at the height of the Cold War space race: “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.”

In the decades since, hundreds have come back singing a similar refrain. Even Neil Armstrong, the stolid, reticent pilot, found his muse out in the beyond.

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth,” he said. “I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Gagarin and Armstrong are both dead. But the journey continues, one small step at a time. For nearly 20 years, humans have lived continuously in space, on the International Space Station, the orbiting outpost some 250 miles up. That’s barely a toe dip in the vast waters of the universe. But it’s high enough to gain some perspective.

The first time former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino saw Earth from space he felt like he should avert his gaze, like the scene before him was a secret that was supposed to remain invisible.

“It just seemed so beautiful,” he said. “How can something so beautiful be tolerated by human eyes?”

“It was just a totally different moon than I had grown up with.”

Michael Collins, NASA command module pilot for Apollo 11 who stayed in orbit around the moon during the first lunar landing in 1969


At first, liftoff was slow and smooth. Surprisingly so, given the explosion happening more than 300 feet below him at the business end of the Saturn V rocket. Blasting off to the moon was like a car drifting forward when “you take your foot off the brake,” said Al Worden, who flew on Apollo 15 in 1971. Then the rumbling began, though not nearly as violent as he expected.

Charlie Duke, who flew on Apollo 16, had a different experience. The rattling was so intense, he wondered: “Is this thing working right? Is it supposed to shake this hard?”

Nearly three decades later, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger had the same sensation, but on a different rocket. Flying on space shuttle Discovery, she felt “the biggest kick in the back I have ever felt. I didn’t play football or anything. I don’t know if there’s any equivalency there. But it’s intense. And then all of a sudden everything is shaking. You’re shaking. The vehicle is shaking. . . . Our commander was like, ‘Wow, it’s like a lot of energy.’ And our pilot was like, ‘Yeah, it’s really something.’ And I was like, ‘Um, it’s crazy! Let’s put some perspective on this!’ ”

For former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, the math of the shuttle liftoff — applying 7 million pounds of thrust to get the 4.5 million pound rocket off the pad and then accelerate it to 24 times the speed of sound in 8.5 minutes — added up to an experience that made her body feel like it was ready for marshmallows and a mold: “It was like Jell-O inside.”

“Is this thing really working right?”

Charlie Duke, youngest person to walk on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission in 1972, when he was 36

One moment, you’re listening to the countdown on the Florida Space Coast. The next you’re halfway around the world.

The sudden darkness outside the windows and floating pens are among the first signs you’ve escaped the deep well of Earth’s gravity and are in space. Even for the most experienced astronaut, that first weightless step can be a doozy.

“The first thing I really noticed is, I am a klutz in space. I cannot move well at all. It took a while to not feel like you were just a moron,” said Steve Swanson, a former NASA astronaut who flew three space missions.

In microgravity — gravity still exists, but in a much diminished state — there are a few key points to remember: There is no up or down, Velcro is your friend and Newton’s third law — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction — is no joke.

The key is to move slowly, nimbly, “as a cat, very smooth,” said Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazansky. Push off too hard and “you immediately hit your head on the wall.” At first there’s a lot of that. “During the first two weeks we have bruises,” he said.

Shortly after arriving in orbit, Mark Vande Hei made the mistake of banging away on a computer without securing himself: “The first time I tried typing on the keyboard, I launched myself to the ceiling.”

“It’s really hard not to play with your food.”

Jim Voss, holds the world record with Susan Helms for the longest spacewalk at 8 hours and 56 minutes

'Gravity sucks'

Soon, though, weightlessness becomes second nature. Pass the ketchup by simply floating it across the table. Astronauts fly Superman-style, arms in front, and compete to see how many flips they can do in a row. They play "stupid astronaut tricks," as former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy called them, "where you're shooting Cheerios and M&Ms into each other's mouths."

When NASA’s public relations office would book Sandy Magnus for on-camera interviews from the space station she would intentionally do them upside down. The PR people were not amused and asked her to, please, right herself for the viewers. She complied, begrudgingly: “I was like, ‘Okay, fine, you two-dimensional Earth people.’ ”

After three shuttle missions during which she traveled more than 60 million miles, she came to a firm conclusion: “Gravity sucks. It’s horrible,” she said. “We adapt to this whole new environment . . . and then we come back and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. What the heck is this? I can’t believe we live in this all the time.’ I mean it’s just horrid. It’s this huge force that’s just pressing down on us every day.”

There is another, better, way to live, she said, where you float and do somersaults and sleep without joint pain. “And you experience that on orbit.”

In space, there are many skills that divide the rookies from the veterans. One is the ability to know what continent you’re flying over by being able to, at a glance, differentiate the deserts of Africa from Australia. Toe dexterity is another. Feet become as important as hands and, like monkeys using their appendages to climb trees, astronauts are constantly hooking their toes under “handrails” to stabilize themselves.

This leads, however, to a pair of unexpected side effects: The tops of your feet grow calluses, and the calluses that were once on the bottom disappear.

“After about a month or so all the skin comes off like a snake shedding its skin,” said NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy. “I remember taking my sock off one day about a month or two into the mission, and it was like an explosion of dead skin floating around me. Then I realized my feet were as soft as a baby’s bottom.”

“Holy cow! I live in space!”

Peggy Whitson, flew to space three times as a NASA astronaut between 2002 and 2017; first woman to command the International Space Station

Hot sauce as savior

Frank Culbertson always had a bit of advice for crews preparing to head to space for the first time.

First, spend as much time as possible hanging upside down on the chin-up bar at the gym. Second, sleep with your feet higher than your head.


Two words: “fluid shift.”

Without gravity, body fluids run amok, making astronauts feel constantly congested. “You head starts feeling really full,” Culbertson said. Some are overcome by nausea, their vestibular system gone haywire by a new, disorienting reality. It even has a name, “Space Adaptation Syndrome,” or more commonly, space sickness. Whatever it’s called, it can be a crippling condition that can sideline even the most hardened astronaut.

The nausea soon goes away, but the fluid shift remains. It can mess with your sense of smell, which affects taste and appetite. And so in space, Scott Kelly had unusual cravings, as if he were pregnant. On Earth he didn’t have a sweet tooth; in space he yearned for chocolate. A year in space meant a year of blocked sinuses: “I used Sudafed and Afrin much, much more than I probably ever should have.”

The food is bland anyway. Lots of military-type meals, but occasionally there are stashes of fresh fruit that arrive on resupply missions and the occasional care package from home.

Former NASA astronaut Jim Voss remembers how the crew made a ceremony of opening the hatch of a Russian supply vehicle, knowing what would greet them. There was “this wonderful smell, an earthy kind of smell. It was fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. A refreshing contrast to the “sterile” smell of the station.

Unable to taste much, Vande Hei added garlic paste to almost every meal. For others, Sriracha hot sauce was a savior.

Nicole Stott, however, liked the variety on the International Space Station. The Russians had excellent soups. The Japanese had delightful curries and rice. Her family would send her favorite, chocolate-covered ginger. Even the mac and cheese was okay. But she drew the line at the cheese grits. “I don’t think I ate a pack the entire time I was there.”

Eating is a small challenge compared with going to the bathroom.

Urine is suctioned by airflow into a tube, so good aim is key. Same with solid waste. Problem is “it tends to be sticky, and therefore it tends to stick to you,” said Richard Garriott, a civilian who paid a reported $30 million to spend nearly two weeks on the space station. “And so it’s actually very tricky to separate yourself from what’s coming out of you.”

Over the course of three missions, Swanson still hated going to the bathroom in space. “It’s just something that you dread every day,” he said.

The space station is usually kept at a balmy 72 degrees with moderate humidity. But astronauts are constantly exercising to keep up bone density and muscle mass. Which means they sweat. A lot. Like blood, sweat is not something you want flying around the station. Thankfully, it doesn’t drip off. It pools on your skin. But if you shake your head briskly, sweat sprays like droplets off a wet dog.

“It’s pretty gross,” said former NASA astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz.

Having a towel nearby during workouts is considered good space etiquette.

“I look up and my knife is floating right in front of me.”

Steve Swanson, flew on two NASA space shuttle flights between 2007 and 2009; flew to the International Space Station on the Soyuz in 2014

Classic rock, folk songs — and taps

For a bunch of military test pilots, scientists and engineers, it turns out that the astronaut corps has a lot of musicians. So many that there's even an astronaut band, called "Max Q," named for the moment when the aerodynamic pressures are greatest on the rocket during ascent.

Their repertoire is mostly classics, easy to remember: “Take It Easy” by the Eagles, “Listen to the Music” by the Doobie Brothers, Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

The band formed after the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 as a morale booster, and astronauts have found that music in space is a reminder of their humanity. NASA’s astronaut office took notice and in the summer of 2001 sent a guitar up to the space station.

“It gets played all the time,” said Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut. “In the evening, it’s nice for someone to be able to play the traditional songs from their own culture or country.”

It’s almost too bad campfires on the station are strictly forbidden. Still, Hadfield made himself and the guitar famous when in 2013 he recorded a music video, a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” that would have certainly earned him a spot on “American Idol.” He sang with passion and tenderness, and played guitar floating with the Earth passing by through the window. The video went viral with more than 43 million views on YouTube.

By the time Andrew Feustel got there for his third mission last year, NASA had sent up a second guitar. Which was a good thing since several of the astronauts on the station could play.

“We had a couple of jam sessions up in space, which was really kind of cool,” he said. (For a drum, one of the crew members commandeered a piece of the toilet — a spare metal container used to hold solid waste.)

There have been a variety of instruments in space, a flute, bagpipes, even a didgeridoo.

Culbertson brought his trumpet. Then the attacks of Sept. 11 happened. Culbertson, the only American not on the Earth at the time, rushed to the window as the station flew over New England. He could see the column of smoke rising from the twin towers and the gash in the Pentagon as he snapped pictures and relayed what he was seeing to controllers on the ground. Soon, he was amazed at how the contrails left by the airplane traffic, normally visible from space, had disappeared as authorities grounded all planes.

Within a few days, he learned that one of his friends from the Naval Academy, Charles “Chic” Burlingame, had been the pilot whose plane crashed into the Pentagon. For his memorial service, Culbertson got out his trumpet and played taps, trying to tamp down his emotions.

“It took me a few takes,” he said.

“You feel that you’re close to the creator.”

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, first Malaysian astronaut; flew to the International Space Station on the Soyuz in 2007; first Muslim to spend Ramadan in space

International colleagues

On the ground, there might be war and geopolitical tension, sanctions and trade wars. In space, everyone has to get along. For the most part they do, astronauts playing nice even if their political leaders are not.

“We grew up in different countries, we have different ideologies, different cultures. Of course, we are different,” said Pavel Vinogradov.

Years of training together melted away the cultural chasms. “All Americans with whom I flew are top professionals, and not just professionals. . . . The main thing is not just to be loyal but to be friends and to be able to rely on your colleague.”

He felt that way about NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, with whom he performed a spacewalk in 2006. “I trusted him as I trust myself.”

For Peggy Whitson, bonding with her Russian counterparts took more time. On training trips to Russia she would say, “Okay, set your watch back 40 years. . . . There are definitely cultural mindsets about women’s roles, and it takes some time to prove your value in some way. But it’s totally doable, and I felt like I did become very close and become very respected by the Russians, which I think is very important.”

Afghanistan’s only astronaut, Abdul Ahad Mohmand, flew to space on a Soviet spacecraft with two cosmonauts. It was 1988, as the Soviet occupation was coming to an end, and when he reached the space station Mir, he spoke to the Afghan president by phone.

“I read out a statement, an address to the entire world” he recalled. “I said that the war should end, that we should all unite. That people, particularly Afghans, didn’t need this war.”

“You know what does command full attention from everybody? Space gorilla.”

Scott Kelly, flew four missions for NASA between 1999 and 2016; spent almost a year on the ISS; retired Navy captain

The power of perspective

The Earth is beautiful. Every astronaut says so. But the view is made powerful also by the change in perspective. From space, you see the world differently. Entire continents fill your field of vision. Countries whiz by in a moment. Thousands more stars are visible. From the moon, the Earth is so small you can hide it behind your thumb.

The view is at once intimate and vast. Zoom in and there are thousands of tiny, granular details. Zoom out and there’s the curvature of the Earth, the endless panorama of the universe.

From the space station, Michael Lopez Alegria would focus the powerful lens on his camera to seek out familiar places — “where I grew up, where I went to school, where my parents were from.” But when he would step outside for a spacewalk “it’s all about the wide angle.” Seeing the world as a whole, “where the totality of human history has passed.”

Zoom in: “One of the things I wanted to do was take a picture of my hometown, Opelika, Ala. It’s an obscure little town,” Jim Voss said, “impossible to figure out exactly where it was.” He started with the Gulf of Mexico. From there New Orleans was easy to spot. He could trace inland to Mobile, then follow a river up to Montgomery. Then he could see the Auburn University football stadium, which was eight miles away from Opelika, population 25,000.

Zoom out: “I remember looking out the window and seeing the Rocky Mountains,” said former NASA astronaut William Shepherd. He looked the other direction: “Wow. I can see Cape Cod. . . . I can see everything from the Rocky Mountains to Cape Cod.”

Zoom in: “At one point I just sent out a [tweet] at the suggestion of my son and just said to everybody, ‘What do you want me to take a picture of?’ ” Chris Hadfield recalled. “And the overwhelming result from everywhere around the world was ‘my hometown.’ That means people are proud of where they live.”

Zoom out: “But the flip side of that is they also want to see how they fit, and how their hometown fits, into the big kaleidoscope of all the hometowns in the world,” he continued. “I found that really unifying.”

Christian Davenport

Christian Davenport covers the defense and space industries for The Washington Post's Financial desk. He joined The Post in 2000 and has served as an editor on the Metro desk and as a reporter covering military affairs. He is the author of "The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos" (PublicAffairs, 2018).

Julie Vitkovskaya

Julie Vitkovskaya is a projects editor for The Washington Post who focuses on innovative storytelling and enterprise stories. She was previously the operations and digital editor for foreign and national security. She joined in 2015 after spending two years in South Korea working at an English-language newspaper as a Princeton in Asia fellow.

About this story

This project was produced with the help of the Uniphi Space Agency, a public relations and marketing agency that represents astronauts.

Astronaut interviews conducted by Christian Davenport, Julie Vitkovskaya, Anton Troianovski, Simon Denyer, Moriah Balingit, Frances Stead Sellers, Martine Powers, Amy B Wang, Emily Rauhala, Lillian Cunningham, Alex Horton, Patrick Martin, Jacob Bogage, Sophia Nguyen, Anthony Rivera, Susan Levine, Natalia Abakumova, Emily Ding, Rachel Hatzipanagos, Timothy Bella, Jessica Contrera, Niha Masih, Anna Rothschild, Amie Ferris-Rotman and Joel Achenbach.

Development and design by Andrew Braford, Matthew Callahan and Jake Crump. Story editing by Mary Hadar. Copy editing by Nora Simon and Elizabeth McGehee. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Produced by Julie Vitkovskaya.