Being an astronaut sounds like an amazing job, yet for many of these people, going to space was not their first choice. This is why many early astronauts as well as current ones have military, medical, or flight experience with normal aircraft. Yet once you’re involved in the space program, regardless of which one, it is tough to do anything else. For many, returning to Earth came with a ton of problems. Life after space is rarely easy for an astronaut.
You might hear of billionaires spending a ton of money for just a few minutes in space, but astronauts spend several weeks to several months up there. Most will spend time at the International Space Station but some have gone on extra missions as well as the Moon. Others are sent up to make repairs to things like government satellites. Regardless of why you’re sent up there, coming back does a lot to a person mentally and physically. These are the stories of astronaut life after space.
Chris Hadfield’s Weightless Tongue
Most people who watch Discovery or Science Channel might know about Chris Hadfield. The Expedition 35 Commander for the Canadian Space Agency has been to space twice. It was his second Space Shuttle mission where he held the command on the ISS. Between those two missions, he spent a total of 166 days in space. That does a lot to a person because it takes a bit to get adjusted to everything in space. Now, your body has gotten used to everything and you have to readjust yet again.
Life after space can be a tough adjustment for many astronauts. Hadfield referenced how talking back on Earth was a bit difficult for him at first, but he had an odd problem very few discuss. He claimed: “Right after I landed, I could feel the weight of my lips and tongue and I had to change how I was talking. I hadn’t realized that I learned to talk with a weightless tongue.” This is one of the first times someone mentioned how a weightless tongue affected how one spoke.
When you’re in space, you have to exercise a lot due to the lack of gravity. One of the biggest issues is the attempt to prevent fluid from building up too much in the body. A lot of the time, fluid will float into your head causing a chubby appearance. It’s not the appearance you worry about, but the pressure this fluid will put on your optic nerve. If it becomes too much, this will affect vision. We now know that many astronauts suffer through vision issues when they return to Earth too.
Mark Shelhamer is the former NASA Human Research Program Chief Scientist. He referenced the vision issue for astronauts in an interview with Air and Space Magazine. He claimed that most who suffer from vision issues upon returning to Earth usually spend about six months in space, or longer. While many negative issues from time in space tend to go away after a few months, vision is the one thing that when impaired for astronauts, has trouble fully coming back to where it was prior to space.
For many, it is a lifelong dream to go to space. For others, it becomes an opportunity that you appreciate and will want to experience over and over again. Dr. Leroy Chiao served as an astronaut for NASA from 1990 to 2005 and went on a total of three Space Shuttle flights and was the Commander for Expedition 10. During his command period, he lived on board the ISS from October 2004 to April 2005, a total of around six months. He spoke about the life-changing experience, saying:
“What do you think about during a long flight? [A] spaceflight is a life-changing event. I thought a lot about my life on Earth. I gained a new perspective. Do I miss space? Sometimes, a little bit. After each short space shuttle flight, I couldn’t wait to go back up. But, after my long flight, it was like eating a big, satisfying meal. Ten years later, I am still satisfied. But, I suspect that after not too much longer, I will again start to get hungry.”
It’s likely we all know the name “Neil Armstrong” by now. The man is a household name, as he was the first human to step foot on the Moon in 1969. Nearly 50 years later, and we all still know his name. But Armstrong never wanted to be famous, so when he came back to Earth, this was a lot to handle. For many, coping with a return from space is hard on them physically but for Niel, it was a humbling and difficult mental strain. Not from space but from his newfound celebrity, making life after space very hard for him.
Armstrong once said about himself: “I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics.” Jim Lovell later recalled about Neil, “he decided to be very reclusive, but that’s also his nature.” Pete Conrad went on to say, “they sent him to Washington and kept trotting him out, sending him to this dinner, that event. I guess he felt obligated to do a certain amount of it, but when he figured he had that square filled in, he was gone.” Armstrong’s children also claimed they used to get death threats over Armstrong trying to keep out of the spotlight.
There’s a lot of major problems people might have when they come back to Earth. However, there is a slight comedic one that can happen to some. A person might try to go about their lives as normal, but will still have moments when their brain goes on autopilot. This specific problem once happened to Mike Massimino, who served as spacecraft communicator in Mission Control before going to space himself on the fourth Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.
He once recalled a story from when he came back from the grocery store, after only being home from space for a short time. Mike said: “It was probably my third day back, and I was taking groceries out of the minivan, and I wasn’t sure where to put them. I had all these plastic bags from Kroger’s and I had to get them out of the car and into the house. So I thought, why don’t I just float this one here? And I just dropped it, thinking it was going to float.” Mike eventually got used to life after space and no longer believes his groceries will float.
For many, life after space can be tough initially because of the feeling that you’re still very much there. You feel you’re still in space and now you’re not, which is odd. The best way to compare it is spending a week on a ship. When you get off, you might sway side to side without meaning to, for example. This type of issue can be kicked up a notch for astronauts, especially the moment they touch down on Earth.
This was an issue that Soichi Noguchi dealt with. The Japanese JAXA astronaut served as a Mission Specialist aboard STS-114 for NASA and served with the Soyuz TMA-17 crew on Expedition 22. When landing, Noguchi claimed: “up to the moment that the capsule touches down on the ground and the hatches open and you feel the fresh air, you feel like you still space-traveling. It’s a mixed feeling. It’s good and bad, but all I feel is: Now we are back to reality – and sometimes reality bites.”
Pavel Vinogradov Perfectly Explains How Space Changes Perception
Perception is usually always down to experience or belief. If I believe something to be true, then this belief might not mean much. However, if I hold a powerful position, I could make laws that affect all who do not believe the same as I do. This happens a lot in nations all over the world. It seems that Pavel Vinogradov has figured out a way to fix this, send important leaders into space.
He claimed that space flights change the perception of all people. Regardless of their nationality, religion, or even the place they started. They realize that there is nothing to divide, that the Earth is small, you look at the atmosphere which protects us, at this very narrow blue strip above the surface of the Earth. We try to divide religion; this religion is good and that one is bad; we start to divide resources; gas, oil. The first thought you have is that many things which people do are not worthy of the name of the civilization called humanity. Life after space seems to have opened Pavel’s eyes quite well.
Gregory J. Harbaugh’s Entire Life Experience Changed
Gregory J. Harbaugh took part in four different space missions for NASA. The first was STS-39 Discovery, an eight-day mission for the U.S. Department of Defense. The second was the STS-54 Endeavour, a six-day mission that deployed the TDRS-F. For his third mission, he took part in STS-71 Atlantis that featured the first docking mission with the Russian Space Station known as Mir. Finally, he took part in STS-82 Discovery, which was the second Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.
You expect to come back a bit different than when you left, but Harbaugh’s life after space seems to involve a newfound appreciation for life itself. He claimed: “I’m so much more appreciative of how amazing our home planet and my life here is. I don’t know how to say this without sounding hokey, but music sounds better. I appreciate art more, I love being outside, mowing the grass, and being in the environment I’ve created for myself and my little plot of land.” Harbaugh spent a total of 34 days, 1 hour, and 59 minutes in space across all four of his missions combined.
When you’re in space, you’re not allowed to have the same types of foods you eat on Earth. Any small crumb or meat issue in zero gravity could get inside a machine and bring everything down. It is not worth the risk, so astronauts tend to have a diet consisting of what’s pretty much paste for their entire space mission. When you come back to Earth, you’re now able to have real food again. For some, especially Colonel Doug Wheelock, this is a joyous feeling. He claimed:
“Your sense of smell and taste is dulled in space. I craved the aroma of leaves and grass and flowers and trees. These things are not present on the space station. When you get back to Earth they are literally intoxicating.” Life after space for Colonel Wheelock has been easier than most, but this could be due to still being involved in NASA. He is currently testing the Orion Spacecraft. He offers valuable insight, having spent a total of 178 days, 9 hours, and 34 minutes in space.
For Chris Hadfield, returning from his time in space allowed him to have a spiritual epiphany. He claimed: “the big pervasive feeling onboard looking at the Earth [from space] is one of tremendous exquisite privilege that it exists. I think what everyone would find if they could be in that position – if they could see the whole world every 90 minutes and look down on the places where we do things right, and look down where we’re doing stupid, brutal things to each other and the inevitable patience of the world that houses us – I think everybody would be reinforced in their faith.
And maybe readdress the real true tenets of what’s good and what gives them strength.” Other times astronauts, who did not have a connection to any religion prior to their time in space, end up subscribing to one when they return. Others are forever changed by their space experience and can find how one has a connection to religious faith. This includes Russian astronaut Yury Usachov, who once said: “nobody can remain indifferent. I am not a religious person, but I got a thought that such beauty could be created by a very big love.”
Perception is altered for many when they return from space, especially when it comes to “national” pride. Along with the idea that borders mean nothing. In space, you do not see the Earth as it comes across to us on a world map. In space, there are no borders visible. Former Afghan Air Force member and astronaut for the Soyuz TM-6 mission, Abdul Ahad Mohmand, spoke about this very topic when he came back from space.
He said: “when you see the Earth from space, you think globally. When you are on Earth, you think about your country, your motherland, about its borders, about your embassy. But when you are in space, you see that your home is the Earth. My first words when I got back were, ‘Earth is our common home.'” Mohmand is right for sure. Although he spent roughly nine days in space, he returned to life after space that he wanted to make the most of. That is respectable.
Buzz Aldrin Suffered Trying To Find The High He Had When Landing On The Moon
Buzz Aldrin also took part in the NASA mission to the Moon with Neil Armstrong and was the second human to step foot on the Moon. Yet when he came back to Earth, he could not get back to what he loved. NASA paraded Aldrin and Armstrong around heavily and neither man wanted to be in the spotlight. Aldrin once recalled: “I wanted to resume my duties, but there were no duties to resume. There was no goal, no sense of calling, no project worth pouring myself into.” This caused him to go into a deep depression, forcing him to turn to alcohol.
He tried to find fulfillment as a test pilot for the Air Force but his drinking caused many collisions and he quit nine months in. Buzz would struggle with alcoholism until 1978, and his anger and temper caused him to be sued for assault by 2002. Several divorces later, Aldrin claimed his trip to the moon did more to him than he realized. He later said: “I participated in what will probably be remembered as the greatest technological achievement in the history of this country. I traveled to the moon, but the most significant voyage of my life began when I returned from where no man had been before.”
Scott Kelly’s Horrific Bodily Reactions Upon Returning To Earth
While Scott Kelly did take part in a 340-day stay at the ISS alongside Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, Kelly’s portion of their study was crucial. Kelly has a brother named Mark, who happens to be his twin. Using Scott and Mark, NASA could properly analyze how a person is truly affected by long-term space travel or a long-term space stay. NASA then compared everything to his brother Mark once Scott returned. It was a massive study that helped us understand a lot of important things.
Yet Scott’s time upon returning was pretty miserable physically. Most space trips last for six months, so nearly a full year in space can do a lot to you. He claimed every part of his body hurts. Kelly felt feverish and delirious, broke out in a bad rash, experienced blood rushing to his legs when he stood up, felt nauseated but never upchucked. If this was not enough, he also dealt with severe pain that you would not want to wish on your worst enemy. Life after space was hell for Scott obviously.
Again, Scott Kelly spent nearly a year in space which came with a lot of drawbacks. Once he came back to Earth, he knew his body would have to get used to the gravity he did not experience on the ISS. When he returned, he was actually a few inches taller than he was before leaving. Yet this did not last long, as his body quickly felt gravity upon it. Kelly claimed: “All my joints and all of my muscles are protesting the crushing pressure of gravity.” He further elaborates upon this, saying:
“I can feel the tissue in my legs swelling. I shuffle my way to the bathroom, moving my weight from one foot to the other with deliberate effort. Left. Right. Left. Right. I make it to the bathroom, flip on the light, and look down at my legs. They are swollen and alien stumps, not legs at all. “Oh sh*t,” I say. “Amiko [Kelly’s wife], come look at this.” She kneels down and squeezes one ankle, and it squishes like a water balloon. She looks up at me with worried eyes and says “I can’t even feel your ankle bones.”
Well before the world was talking heavily about climate change, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was pushing for humanity to take better care of our planet. Yuri was the first human in space, as he went into orbit for a small spell back in 1961. His mission ultimately led America to get heavily involved in the now-infamous “space race.” Yuri spoke about what he felt when he was in space upon returning, saying:
“Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.” Yuri went on to have great success in the Soviet Union upon his return. This made life after space pretty easy for him, but his newfound celebrity did come with some disadvantages. The Soviets wanted him to remain a public figure and tried to keep him away from flying again. After the disastrous Soyuz 1 flight, Gagarin was banned from ever flying into space again.
Chris Hadfield Now Is Awe Of The Earth’s Toughness
While Yuri spoke of preserving Earth, Chris Hadfield has often recalled the toughness of Earth, as it has survived for an incredibly long period of time without fading away. His space flight experience forced him to look at the Earth from a place very few ever have. This allowed him to see it in, quite literally, another light. He found himself in awe of Earth’s endurance when seeing it high above. Hadfield once recalled:
“I got to watch the world take one regenerating breath, and it gave me a tremendous, unquenchable sense of optimism. The world is so indescribably tough and we’ve had life continuously here for 4 billion years without a break. Life is tough and tenacious.” While some might see this as Hadfield ignoring environmental science, he hasn’t. In fact, he spoke about climate issues when working on educational television programming. Therefore, he has dedicated his life after space to space education. On top of telling people how impressive our planet is too.
Thomas David Jones Managed To Be Fulfilled After His Time In Space
Thomas David Jones (Tom Jones) began working with NASA in 1990 and took part in four different Space Shuttle missions before he finally retired in 2001. He was part of the STS-59, STS-68, STS-80, and STS-98 crews. He spent exactly 53 days and 48 minutes total in space. Today, he operates as a planetary scientist and space operations consultant. While doing so much in NASA would normally make someone yearn to go back into space, Jones felt he did enough. He claimed:
“You can’t forget the bigger picture, which is, hey, you’re a spaceman! Nothing can match that. So after that, I think I had a sense of being at peace with my life. I didn’t have to struggle or strive to try to match the last thing that I did. I thought I can’t top those four missions. So I’ve been very relaxed ever since. You know, whenever I get into a stressful situation these days, I think, well, you know, compared to being strapped on a rocket, this isn’t too bad.” It sounds like Jones has adjusted to life after space just fine to us.
A lot of astronauts risk their lives going into space. The lucky ones will shoot off into space and never experience a problem, then return just as safely. Yet takeoffs and landings have ended lives in the past and could again. Furthermore, once you’re in the vacuum of space, anything could happen. While a family might miss their astronaut father, mother, brother, or sister…they miss them just as much. One astronaut spoke about this as they adjusted to life after space, saying: “After four or five months at the station, you realize that yes, space is great, but there are things that you want to go back for.”
They’d elaborate more, saying: “your beloved children, your beloved wife, your friends whom you really miss. And we are at a modern station, we can write emails, we can have space Skype once a week. You can talk to your family and you see them. But at some point, it becomes insufficient. We are people, and we have our roots on the Earth… I look at my kid and understand that I missed something. During half a year, he turned into a little person who could speak in sentences… I was an iPad dad for him. But children need a dad who plays with them and talks to them.”
The Bittersweet Feeling Of Going Home, But Wanting To Stay
Dr. Leroy Chiao is very experienced as an astronaut for NASA. The man has done as many missions as anyone and has spent a total of 229 days, 7 hours, 38 minutes, and 5 seconds in space across three space flights. A chemical engineer in his spare time, Chiao was crucial to NASA’s Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity project. It was a U.S. government-funded study to see how telemedicine could work in space. Chiao recalled how he was happy yet bummed each time his mission ended.
He once wrote: “sometime around the three-to-four-month point, you start thinking that you wouldn’t mind going home. But, psychologically, you have prepared yourself for the long flight… The arrival of your replacement crew is a joyous occasion. Not only are you glad to see your friends, you are also glad because it means that you can go home soon. You look forward to the reunion with your loved ones, to looking back with satisfaction on a job well done.”
Even A Small Stay In Space Has A Dramatic Effect On The Body
Dr. Chiao has been very open about his experiences when returning to Earth. Life after space is, according to Chiao, difficult at first. He claimed that even a ten-to-fourteen-day mission can be tough. Your balance is completely off and you’ll feel very dizzy as a result. When standing for the first time, gravity sets in for the first time in a while for you. It makes you feel about five times heavier than you are, according to Dr. Chiao. Naturally, this is pretty tough on you.
However, after a much longer space flight (6 months+), these symptoms become more intense for humans. On short flights, things start to get better in a few days. But coming off the longer ones, it could take several weeks before you feel even close to normal. You want to just lay around because then you’re at least not dizzy. Yet to recover properly, you have to force yourself to move around and be as physically active as possible to help the recovery process.
In space, you feel like you have superpowers. The lack of gravity allows you to move heavy objects with ease and feel like you’re flying. It’s like being Superman, and there are few others who can explain that feeling better than Jim Voss. He flew on five different space missions from 1991 to 2001. Along with Susan Helms, he holds the record for the longest spacewalk at 8 hours and 56 minutes. He said about his experience:
“Floating is very special. It’s wonderful. I always liken it to being like Superman because I can fly. I can move heavy things around. Every day, I think, I would – I hate to say “play” – but I would find some aspect to being in space that allowed me to do something unusual. If I was moving from one side of a module to another, I could do a flip in the middle of my transfer over there, which is a pretty abnormal thing that you could do.” Voss has mentioned how losing these abilities can be jarring when you return to the gravity of Earth. You know it’s coming, but it’s still difficult to cope with for a while.
While a lot of astronauts do not realize or feel it at the time, they are all being exposed to incredible rates of radiation when they are in space. The most exposure happens when you’re outside the ISS on spacewalks or repairing. But you are also exposed to a lot on the ISS too. This is likely why some report feeling sick when on the ISS. It is not just the lack of gravity for them that causes problems. But why is it that they are exposed to so much?
On Earth, we are protected from the Sun’s radiation due to our atmosphere and geomagnetic field. This will allow rays in but keep us from taking on too much radiation. Such aid is not present for astronauts. That means, the longer you’re in space, the more radiation you’ll take on. This can be a huge problem for humans. We have known the risks of radiation exposure for years thanks to the Curie Family. Thus, astronauts go through an incredibly thorough health screening when they return from space and NASA continues to have them come in for testing. Especially those who took on longer spaceflights.
There is a lot of problems that astronauts experience when they are in space, but one specific issue NASA has started to worry about is the immune system being compromised. We now know micro-organisms that naturally live on our bodies can transfer from person to person in these closer habitats. Since stress hormones are elevated for many in space, the immune system is altered by this and it could cause problems with allergies or other sicknesses.
While crews do not typically get sick upon returning from space, there is still a risk that there could be problems with their immune systems. In fact, more research has been requested to figure out if the altered immune system issues in space could lead to autoimmune disorders. This is especially something they want to figure out before going for the Mars mission that everyone is hoping will go well. Yet if we return people to Earth that have compromised immune systems, it means we need to figure out how to keep this system in working order whether one is in space, on Mars, and obviously on Earth.
We might talk about Armstrong and Aldrin a lot due to both walking on the Moon. But another man was on that same Apollo 11 spaceship and stayed on it the whole time. Michael Collins flew that ship and safely landed it on the Moon, then safely landed his crew back on Earth. He recalled how stressful this was for him, claiming he could not return to Earth without his crew members. He knew he’d be a marked man if he did such a thing. Once they landed on Earth, Collins’ stress was eased. However, while his crewmates became well known, Collins also experienced his share of fame.
He had to also attend all the parades and press conferences they did. He was often asked by reporters “how did it feel to be alone on the ship?” It annoyed him greatly, according to his daughter Kate. Michael once said: “I’m going to find a nice big rock, and I’m going to hide under it.” Collins never went back to space and took on the role of director for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Life after space was difficult for Michael Collins, especially when called a hero. He never wanted this title and claimed astronauts should not be counted among the heroes.
Many people are uncertain about their future when they come back from a space mission. Many only get one chance to go to space. However, as we’ve mentioned, there are some who go on several missions to space. Yet when space work is done for them, what’s next? This is a struggle for many to answer because they just do not know. Early on, most astronauts had military experience and ended up going back into the Armed Forces for their respective nation. However, others went on to take various other jobs. Several decided to go into teaching, as most astronauts are incredibly intelligent.
Some are chemists or biologists, even doctors, and return to this. Of course, memorably John Glenn went into politics. Neil Armstrong worked in many areas with NASA, such as consulting on investigations. But he also returned to the Navy and taught at the University of Cincinnati too. Jim Lovell among others was pushed to go into politics but turned it down. There is an expectation to be a role model after coming back from space that seems to burden many astronauts. That expectation weighs incredibly heavy, making life after space hell for many on a mental level. As they have to live up to something quite difficult.
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