What It's Really Like To 'Walk' In Space The International Space Station conducted a spacewalk this week to mark 15 years in space. Three people who've walked in space share their miraculous — and miserable — experiences.
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What It's Really Like To 'Walk' In Space

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What It's Really Like To 'Walk' In Space

What It's Really Like To 'Walk' In Space

What It's Really Like To 'Walk' In Space

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The International Space Station conducted a spacewalk this week to mark 15 years in space. Three people who've walked in space share their miraculous — and miserable — experiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And this is For The Record.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR TREK")

WILLIAM SHATNER: (As Captain James Kirk) Space...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "APOLLO 13")

TOM HANKS: (As Jim Lovell) Houston, we have a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GRAVITY")

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Lieutenant Matt Kowalski) Astronaut is off-structure.

SANDRA BULLOCK: (As Dr. Ryan Stone) What do I do?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR TREK")

SHATNER: (As Captain James Kirk) ...The final frontier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MARTIAN")

MATT DAMON: (As Mark Watney) I'm going to have to silence the [expletive] out of this.

MARTIN: Most of our ideas about space come from movies or maybe your third-grade trip to the planetarium. Today, you can log on to NASA's website and watch live feeds from the International Space Station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) On both. Thanks much. So Jeff, when you're ready, Kate's go to free egress.

JEFF WILLIAMS: OK, Kate, come on out.

KATE RUBINS: OK, copy.

MARTIN: On Friday, astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins made a spacewalk to install a piece of equipment to the International Space Station.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARTIN: What's important to remember here - they were outside the space station, secured only by a tether, floating in outer space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUBINS: Man, the view is phenomenal.

MARTIN: Their assignment was to install a docking adapter, which will allow future commercial spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Jeff, as you know, when you're ready, you'll be leading out...

MARTIN: Today, we hear from three astronauts about this very particular space experience. For The Record, walking in space.

SCOTT KELLY: Can you see that?

TRACY CALDWELL DYSON: I can see it. And that looks good, Scott.

MARTIN: Those are the voices of astronauts Scott Kelly and Tracy Caldwell Dyson. Back in October, Dyson was monitoring a real-time feed of Commander Kelly's spacewalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DYSON: I am totally in their air. I mean (laughter) to an annoying degree probably (laughter).

MARTIN: Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren were out on their first spacewalk, and their only connection to Earth was Tracy Caldwell Dyson. She was the NASA astronaut in Houston giving them directions.

DYSON: It's nice when you have someone that's done it before because then they can, you know, relay experiences or at least speak to them in a manner that they know that they would want to be spoken to.

MARTIN: She knows what it's like because she's been there. She's done three spacewalks herself. She's a member of a small group of people who have had this experience - not just going up into space, but actually floating around in it.

TERRY VIRTS: I've flown jet fighters and been a test pilot. And there's a lot of things that I've done in my life, but there's nothing like spacewalking.

MARTIN: This is Terry Virts. He's been on two spaceflights, and he's done three spacewalks. Before you get to float around in the atmosphere, there's a lot of training, as you'd expect. Much of it happens in a huge swimming pool at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. It's the closest you can come to simulating the experience. Here's Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

DYSON: You know, we take it for granted in the pool here where we train that we don't have to have a death grip. But when you're out in space and you realize there's no tether other than the one that you've attached to structure - there's no diver floating around to keep you safe - and you just see this planet beneath your feet going 17,500 miles per hour and you and the other person in the puffy white suit are the only two out there in the vacuum of space, you tend to hang on a little tighter (laughter).

MARTIN: And that puffy white suit is really heavy.

VIRTS: The spacesuit itself weighs about 400 pounds on Earth, and it's pressurized. And so what looks like a big, thick bulky, you know, winter parka - when you pressurize it, that material becomes like steel. And so moving around in the space suit, just to move your arm, requires physical exertion.

MARTIN: Tracy Caldwell Dyson remembers her first spacewalk clearly.

DYSON: I had to go out the hatch and go immediately on top of the crew lock. And when you go on top of it, you are basically looking behind the space station. And there's nothing - no structure in your view and you just see the earth. And I'm up there, and, you know, even though I've got a - you know, probably 50 handrails all around me that I can hang on to - and I've got a hook, a big hook from my waist to structure, so I know I'm not going anywhere - it was still one of those breathtaking moments where it's like, whoa (laughter).

MARTIN: Those moments of reflection are rare. These spacewalks can take more than seven hours, and they demand intense, focused concentration.

VIRTS: Ninety-nine-and-a-half percent of your time - my time on my spacewalks, I can say - was completely focused on what was going on. I felt - not rushed, but pressed every second that I was outside, like there's no time to stop and look around. There's no time to take pictures 'cause you don't want to spend extra time outside.

MARTIN: Because things can go wrong.

LUCA PARMITANO: My name is Luca Parmitano. I live in Houston because I am an astronaut.

MARTIN: Three years ago things did go very wrong for this Italian astronaut. Early on in his spacewalk he felt water on the back of his head.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PARMITANO: And I knew that something was not right.

MARTIN: There was a leak in his helmet. Parmitano didn't want to tell ground control in Houston. He knew they might cancel his spacewalk. And at that moment, he really didn't think it was a big deal. But he told them anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARMITANO: I feel a lot of water on the back of my head.

SHANE KIMBROUGH: Are you sweating? Are you working hard?

PARMITANO: I am sweating but feels like a lot of water.

That is when things went really south. The sun went down. And when the sun goes down on an orbit, it is not like one of those beautiful sunsets. It lasts only a few seconds. One second, you have light, and the next, you have no light whatsoever. It is complete, utter blackness. And at the moment I was also upside down. And that's when the water covered my eyes, my ears and my nose.

MARTIN: A liter and a half of water had flooded into his helmet. It came from the cooling system in his suit. Water acts differently in space. It forms a goopy kind of gel that sticks to your skin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIMBROUGH: Hey, Luca. Can you clarify - is it increasing or not increasing?

PARMITANO: It's hard to tell, but if feels like a lot of water.

MARTIN: Pretty quickly that water disabled Parmitano's communication system.

PARMITANO: I couldn't hear anything anymore. I couldn't see anything anymore. And I couldn't breathe through my nose because my nose was filled up with water.

MARTIN: He could still breathe through his mouth, but he couldn't see. Slowly, he felt his way along the surface of the space station in the direction of the airlock. When he finally made it back, his partner on that spacewalk, Chris Cassidy, radioed to Houston that Luca was fine - miserable, but fine.

Has this changed your ambition? Has this changed your desire to go back up in space again?

PARMITANO: Well, I was - I wanted to go out the next day.

MARTIN: No matter the risk, it's hard for astronauts to call it quits. Here's Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

DYSON: It's my hope that I get to go again. But we have so few flight opportunities. And we have new people that haven't flown once, even. And so you need to give everybody a chance to get up there and get that experience.

MARTIN: NASA ended its shuttle program in 2011, which means when NASA sends astronauts into space, they ride on small spacecraft operated by other countries. Astronauts just don't have as many opportunities as they used to.

VIRTS: The flights that you've had are fine. But the only flight you really care about is your next flight.

MARTIN: Again this is astronaut Terry Virts.

VIRTS: I can remember watching the sunrise, which is just spectacular. It reaches from one side of the horizon to the other. It's a long, thin, blue-orange band. And I just remember, you know, almost hearing from God sitting there, thinking about creation.

It's almost like you're in some secret room seeing something that, you know, humans weren't meant to see or something. It was kind of a glance into the forbidden view.

MARTIN: Astronauts Terry Virts, Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Luca Parmitano.

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What It's Really Like To 'Walk' In Space

What It's Really Like To 'Walk' In Space

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Extravehicular crewmember 2 (EV2) Terry Virts is reflected in the helmet visor of EV1 Barry Wilmore during Extravehicular Activity 29 (EVA 29). Earth is in the background. Courtesy of NASA hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of NASA

Extravehicular crewmember 2 (EV2) Terry Virts is reflected in the helmet visor of EV1 Barry Wilmore during Extravehicular Activity 29 (EVA 29). Earth is in the background.

Courtesy of NASA

Astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren left the International Space Station on Friday for their second spacewalk in less than two weeks. Their assignment was to configure a vent door on the port side ammonia tank. That meant they were outside the space station, tied only with a tether, floating in outer space.

Most of your ideas about space might come from movies — or maybe your third grade trip to the planetarium. Today, you can log onto NASA's website and watch live feeds from the International Space Station for a real-life space adventure.

Perhaps even more life-like, let's hear about this very particular space experience from three astronauts themselves.

This week on For the Record: Walking in space. Click the audio link on this page to hear the full conversations.


Tracy Dyson: 3 Spacewalks

When Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren were out on their first spacewalk on October 28, their only connection to Earth was Tracy Dyson, the NASA astronaut in Houston giving them directions on the other end of the line.

View of Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 23 Flight Engineer (FE), posing at window in the Cupola Module. Photo was taken during Expedition 23 / STS-132 Joint Operations. Courtesy of NASA hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of NASA

View of Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 23 Flight Engineer (FE), posing at window in the Cupola Module. Photo was taken during Expedition 23 / STS-132 Joint Operations.

Courtesy of NASA

"I am totally in their ear, I mean to an annoying degree probably," Dyson says. She's watching a feed of Cmdr. Kelly's spacewalk.

"It's nice when you have someone that's done it before, because then they can relay experiences or at least speak to them in a manner that they know that they would want to be spoken to," she says.

And she knows what it's like because she's done three spacewalks herself. She's a member of a small group of people who have had the experience of, not just going up into space, but actually floating around in it.

Before you get to float around in the atmosphere, there's a lot of training. Much of it happens in a huge swimming pool at Houston's Johnson Space Center. The pool is the closest you can come to simulating the experience, but Dyson when you are in space you quickly realize it's a little bit different.

"There's no diver floating around to keep you safe, and you just see this planet beneath your feet going 17,500 mph, and you and the other person in the puffy white suit are the only two out there in the vacuum of space; you tend to hang on a little tighter," she says.

And that puffy white suit is really heavy.

"The spacesuit itself weighs about 400 pounds on Earth" says astronaut Terry Virts. "And so moving around in the spacesuit just to move your arm requires physical exertion."

Dyson remembers her first spacewalk clearly.

"There's nothing," she says. "No structure in your view and you just see the Earth and I'm up there, and even though I've got probably 50 handrails all around me that I can hang onto and I've got a hook, a big hook from my waist to structure so I know I'm not going anywhere, it was still one of those breathtaking moments where it was like, 'Whoa.' "

These moments of reflection are rare. Spacewalks can take more than seven hours and they demand focused concentration. Just ask Virts.

Terry Virts: 3 Spacewalks

Virts, who is also a U.S. Air Force colonel, has been on two space flights and completed three spacewalks.

Self portrait of Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts in the Cupola module. Courtesy of NASA hide caption

toggle caption
Courtesy of NASA

Self portrait of Expedition 43 commander Terry Virts in the Cupola module.

Courtesy of NASA

"I've flown jet fighters, and been a test pilot." But, he says, "There's nothing like spacewalking."

He says, "99.5 percent of your time, my time on my spacewalks, I can say, was completely focused on what was going on. I felt not rushed but pressed every second that I was outside. Like there was no time to stop and look around, there's no time to take pictures. There's no time to do anything other than you've got another task going on because you don't want to spend extra time outside."

That's because things can go wrong.

Luca Parmitano: 2 Spacewalks

Two years ago, things did go very wrong for Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano. Early on in his second spacewalk, he felt water on the back of his head.

"And I knew that something was not right," he says.

There was a leak in his helmet.

He didn't want to tell ground control in Houston, fearing they might cancel his spacewalk. But he told them anyway.

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano gestures after landing in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan on November 11, 2013. Shamil Zhumatov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Shamil Zhumatov/AFP/Getty Images

Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano gestures after landing in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan on November 11, 2013.

Shamil Zhumatov/AFP/Getty Images

"Are you sweating, you working hard?" asked the Houston responder.

"I am sweating," Parmitano said. "But it feels like a lot of water."

"That is when things went really south," he recalls. "The sun went down. And when the sun goes down on orbit, it is not like one of those beautiful sunsets. It lasts only a few seconds. One second you have light. And the next ... It is complete utter blackness."

A liter and a half of water had flooded into his helmet while he was upside down. It came from the cooling system inside his suit.

In space, water forms a goopy gel that sticks to your skin. Pretty quickly, that water disabled Parmitano's communication system.

"I couldn't hear anything anymore. I couldn't see anything anymore," he says. "And I couldn't breathe through my nose. Because my nose was filled up with water."

He could still breathe through his mouth but he couldn't see. Slowly, he felt his way along the surface of the space station in the direction of the airlock.

When he finally made it back, his partner on that spacewalk, Chris Cassidy, radioed to Houston that Parmitano was fine — miserable, but fine.

Even after that, Parmitano says, "I wanted to go out the next day."

No matter the risk, it's hard for astronauts to call it quits. Tracy Dyson hopes she'll get the chance to go again.

"But we have so few flight opportunities and we have new people that haven't flown once even and so there's need to give everybody a chance to get up there and get that experience," she says.

Since NASA ended its shuttle program in 2011, astronauts now ride on small spacecraft operated by other countries. There just aren't as many opportunities as there used to be.

"The flights that you've had are fine," Terry Virts says, "but the only flight you really care about is your next flight."