Astronaut Kate Rubins is no stranger to inhospitable environments. As a molecular biologist, she has done fieldwork in the Congo and worked with some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens. So she was more than up to the challenge of spaceflight. In July, Rubins and two spacegoers from Russia and Japan launched to the International Space Station for a four-month adventure full of spacewalks, science, and a bit of civic duty-Rubins filed her electronic ballot from low Earth orbit.
Rubins wanted to vote early just in case her return to Earth was delayed. But it wasn’t: On October 30, Rubins and her colleagues landed safely in Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz capsule. Not that she’d have time to vote today, anyway: Her schedule is packed with medical exams, debriefings … and a quick check-in with WIRED. We asked Rubins about the experiments she conducted at the ISS, her first spacewalks, and what it feels like to land on Earth after months in microgravity.
You got to do the first DNA sequencing in space with the portable MinION device. Did it work any differently than expected?
We’re hoping that some of that gets published very soon. We were able to do the first proof of principle experiment and show that it’s feasible to sequence DNA in orbit. After we got done with the tech dev part of it we really shot right out of the gate and ended up sequencing a little bit over 2 billion base pairs by the time I left. We did a number of experiments to look at how the nanopore technology works for sequencing, and in talking to the principal investigators, it actually works slightly better in space. It may be something due to the flow cells we don’t quite understand yet.
Before you left, you talked about practicing to work in the tissue culture hood in microgravity. What was the learning curve like?
It takes quite some time to learn how to control motion in six axes. The big delta is you’re floating and you’re controlling your motion with your feet while you’re doing culture. Your two feet are in some foot rails, and then you use your shins and the tips of your toes to control your motion as your arms are in the hood. It takes some time, because on Earth you want to launch yourself up a little bit to counteract gravity and that’s a recipe for smacking the top of your head into a wall or a hatchway. So there’s a little bit of immediate reinforcement.
What experiments from the station are you most interested in following up on?
All of them. All of the cellular, the molecular biology experiments are fascinating to me given my background. I plan to work on a lot of those actually from the ground, so I don’t have to leave. I think I have about 12 jobs waiting for me when I get back into the office.
Were there any things about being on the ISS that shifted your perspective?
The really interesting thing from the cupola is that it’s got windows all around it, so you can actually see the Milky Way on both sides of you. I really convinced myself that we live in a spiral galaxy by looking at both sides of the Milky Way. You also actually get a chance to see orbital motion. It took me about a month of just kind of looking out the window, but if you hit the right beta angle with the moon, you’re orbiting around the planet, the moon is orbiting around the planet, and it’s lit up by the sun. I’ve always taken this as fact, you know, Kepler was right, but I really got a chance to see it, and it’s pretty amazing to see things in orbit around a planet with your own eyes.
Can you describe the physical experience of your two spacewalks?
You absolutely know you’re in space when you’re doing a spacewalk. That was pretty interesting because you can feel vacuum. It actually changes your vocal cords because the pressure inside the suit drops quite a bit, so your voice feels different. When you go to vacuum in the airlock and you take the hose off the front of your space suit, there’s a little bit of water in there, and you can see that sublimate and ice crystals form and fly away. My thought at that moment was, “Oh we are no kidding at vacuum here, we are really in space.”
What did it look like up there?
The experience of being able to see the planet through just a visor is incredible. When we’re doing the space walks we’re working very very hard. Every single minute is choreographed. But there’s a few minutes here and there where ground is maybe talking about something and you have to put your tools down and wait. Just getting a chance to look through your visor and see the planet go by was incredible.
How did the landing go?
The landing sequence is incredibly dynamic. You get strapped down a little bit like an Indy race car driver. We hit a peak of about 4 Gs, which we’ve done in the centrifuge before, so I know what that felt like. But after months of weightlessness, 4 Gs felt like about 9 or 10, so it was quite a load! There’s a huge opening shock of the parachutes-I think Scott Kelly has said it’s like you’re in a barrel lit on fire going down Niagara Falls, and that is about the best description I’ve heard so far. There’s another huge impact when you land that’s about like a car crash. The capsule bounces and rolls a little bit and settles down. At some point and we looked out the window and we saw dirt. We were pretty sure that we hit planet Earth at that point.
After the initial impact, how did you notice your body responding to the gravity?
Yeah about 48 hours into it, I was ready to go back into space again. I don’t know you guys deal with gravity all the time! It seems very heavy to me.