Linux Foundation interview with NASA Astronaut Christina Koch
Jason Perlow | 26 June 2020
JP: You spent nearly a year in space on the ISS, and you dealt with isolation from your friends and family, having spent time only with your crewmates. It’s been about three months for most of us isolating at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We haven’t been trained to deal with these types of things — regular folks like us don’t usually live in arctic habitats or space stations. What is your advice for people dealing with these quarantine-type situations for such long periods?
CK: Well, I can sympathize, and it can be a difficult challenge even for astronauts, and it can be hard to work through and come up with strategies for. For me, the #1 thing was making sure I was in charge of the framework I used to view the situation. I flipped it around and instead about thinking about all the things I was missing out on and the things that I didn’t have available to me, I tried to focus on the unique things that I did have, that I would never have again, that I would miss one day.
So every time I heard that thought in my head, that “I just wish I could…” whatever, I would immediately replace it with “this one thing I am experiencing I will never have again, and it is unique”.
So the advice I have offered since the very beginning of the stay at home situation has been finding that thing about our current situation that you truly love that you’ll know you will miss. Recognize what you know is unique about this era, whether it is big, or small — whether it is philosophical or just a little part of your day — and just continually focus on that. The biggest challenge is we don’t know when this is going to be over, so we can quickly get into a mindset where we are continually replaying into our heads “when is this going to be over? I just want to <blank>” and we can get ourselves into a hole. If you are in charge of the narrative, and then flip it, that can really help.
I have to say that we are all experiencing quarantine fatigue. Even when it may have been fun and unique in the beginning — obviously, nobody wanted to be here, and nobody hopes we are in this situation going forward, but there are ways we can deal with it and find the silver lining. Right now, the challenge is staying vigilant, some of us have discovered those strategies that work, but some of us are just tired of working at them, continually having to be our best selves and bringing it every day.
So you need to recommit to those strategies, but sometimes you need to switch it up — halfway through my mission, I changed every bit of external media that was available to me. We have folks that will uplink our favorite TV shows, podcasts, books and magazines, and other entertainment sources. I got rid of everything I had been watching and listening to and started fresh with a new palette. It kind of rejuvenated me and reminded me that there were new things I could feast my mind on and unique sensory experiences I could have. Maybe that is something you can do to keep it fresh and recommit to those strategies.
JP: I am stuck at home here, in Florida, with my wife. When you were up in the ISS, you were alone, with just a couple of your crewmates. Were you always professional and never fought with each other, or did you occasionally have spats about little things?
CK: Oh my goodness, there were always little spats that could affect our productivity if we allowed it. I can relate on so many levels. Being on the ISS for eleven months, with a lot of the same people in a row, not only working side-by-side but also socializing on the weekends, and during meals at the end of the day. I can relate because my husband and I were apart for almost two years if you take into account my training in Russia, and then my flight. Of course, now, we are together 24 hours a day, and we are both fortunate enough that we can work from home.
It is a tough situation, but at NASA, we all draw from a skill set called Expeditionary Behavior. It’s a fancy phrase to help us identify and avoid conflict situations and get out of those situations if we find ourselves in them. Those are things like communication — which I know we should all be doing our best at, as well as group living. But there are other things NASA brought up in our training are self-care, team care, leadership, and particularly, followership. Often, we talk about leadership as an essential quality, but we forget that followership and supporting a leader are also very important. That is important in any relationship, whether it is a family, a marriage, helping the other people on your team, even if it is an idea that they are carrying through that is for the betterment of the whole community or something like that. The self-care and team care are really about recognizing when people on your team or in your household may need support, knowing when you need that support, and being OK with asking for it and being clear about what needs you may have.
A common thread among all those lines is supporting each other. One way, in my opinion, the easiest way to get yourself out of feeling sorry for whatever situation you might be in is to think about the situation everyone else is in and what they might need. Asking someone else, “Hey, how are you doing today, what can I do for you?” is another way to switch that focus. It helped me on my mission, and it is helping me at home in quarantine and recognizing that it is not always easy. If you are finding that you have to try hard and dig deep to use some of these strategies, you are not alone — that is what takes right now. But you can do it, and you can get through it.
JP: I have heard that being in the arctic is not unlike being on another planet. How did that experience help you prepare for being in space, and potentially places such as the moon or even mars?
CK: I do think it is similar in a lot of ways. One, because of the landscape. It’s completely barren, very stark, and it is inhospitable. It gives us this environment to live where we have to remember that we are vulnerable, and we have to find ways to remain productive and not be preoccupied with that notion when doing our work. Just like on the space station, you can feel quite at home, wearing your polo shirt and Velcro pants, going about your day, and not recognizing that right outside that shell that you are in is the vacuum of space, and at any second, things could take a turn for the worse.
In Antarctica and some of the Arctic areas that were very isolated, should you have a medical emergency, it can often be harder to evacuate or work on a person in those situations than even working on the ISS. At the ISS, you can undock and get back to earth in a matter of hours. At the south pole, weather conditions could prevent you from getting a medevac for weeks. In both situations, you have to develop strategies not to be preoccupied with the environmental concerns but still be vigilant to respond to them should something happen. That was something I took away from that experience — ways to not think about that too much and to rely on your training should those situations arise. And then, of course, all the other things that living in isolation gives us.
The one thing that I found in that realm is something called sensory underload. And this is what your mind goes through when you see all the same people and faces, you keep staring at the same walls, you’ve tasted all the same food, and you’ve smelled all the same smells for so long. Your brain hasn’t been able to process something new for so long that it affects how we think and how we go about the world. In these situations, we might have to foster new sensory inputs and new situations and new things to process. NASA is looking into a lot of those things like reality augmentation for long-duration spaceflight, but in situations like the Arctic and Antarctic, even bringing in a care package, just to have new things in your environment can be so important when you are experiencing sensory underload.
JP: The younger people reading this interview might be interested in becoming an astronaut someday. What should the current, or next generation — the Gen Y’s, the Gen Z’s — be thinking about doing today — to pursue a career as an astronaut?
CK: I cannot wait to see what that generation does. Already they have been so impressive and so creative. The advice I have is to follow your passions. But in particular, what that means is to take that path that allows you to be your best self and contribute in the maximum possible way. The story I like to tell is that when I was in high school, I was a true space geek, and I went to space camp, and there we learned all the things you need to do to become an astronaut.
There was a class on it, and they had a whiteboard with a checklist of what you should do — so everyone around me who wanted to be an astronaut was just scribbling this stuff down. And at that moment, I realized if I were ever to become an astronaut, I would want it to be because I pursued the things that I was naturally drawn to and passionate about, and hopefully, naturally good at. If one day that shaped me into someone who could contribute as an astronaut, only then would I become truly worthy of becoming one. So I waited until I felt I could make that case to apply to become an astronaut, and it led me to this role of focusing on the idea of contributing.
The good news about following a path like that is even if you don’t end up achieving the exact dream that you may have. Whether that’s to become an astronaut or something else that may be very difficult to achieve, you’ve done what you’ve loved along the way, which guarantees that you will be successful and fulfilled. And that is the goal. Eyes on the prize, but make sure you are following the path that is right for you.
JP: Some feel that human-crewed spaceflight is an expensive endeavor when we have extremely pressing issues to deal with on Earth — climate change, the population explosion, feeding the planet, and recent problems such as the Coronavirus. What can we learn from space exploration that could potentially solve these issues at home on terra firma?
CK: It is a huge concern, in terms of resource allocation, so many things that are important also warrant our attention. And I think that your question, what can we learn from space exploration, is so important and there are countless examples — the Coronavirus, to start. NASA is studying how the immune system functions at a fundamental level for humans by the changes that occur in a microgravity environment. We’re studying climate change — numerous explorations, on the space station and other areas of NASA. Exploration is enabled by discovery and by technological advances. Where those take us, we can’t even determine. The camera in your smartphone or in your tablet was enabled by NASA technology.
There are countless practical examples, but to me, the real answer is bigger than all of that — and what it can show us is what can be accomplished when we work together on a common goal and a shared purpose. There are examples of us overcoming things on a global scale in the past that seemed insurmountable at the beginning, such as battling the hole in the ozone layer. When that first came out, we had to study it, we had to come up with mitigation strategies, and they had to be adopted by the world, even when people were pointing out the potential economic drawbacks to dealing with it.
But the problem was more significant than that, and we all got together, and we solved it. So looking towards what we can do when we work together with a unified purpose is really what NASA does for us on an even bigger scale. We talk about how exploration and looking into space is uplifting — I consider it to be uplifting for all across the spectrum. There are so many ways we can uplift people from all backgrounds. We can provide them with the tools to have what they need to reach their full potential, but then what? What is across that goal line? It is bigger things that inspire them to be their best, and that is how NASA can be uplifting for everyone, in achieving the big goals.
JP: So recently, NASA resumed human-crewed spaceflight using a commercial launch vehicle, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. Do you feel that the commercialization of space is inevitable? Is the heavy lifting of the future going to come from commercial platforms such as SpaceX, Boeing, et cetera for the foreseeable future? And is the astronaut program always going to be a government-sponsored entity, or will we see private astronauts? And what other opportunities do you see in the private sector for startups to partner with NASA?
CK: For sure. I think that we are already seeing that the commercial aspect is playing out now, and it’s entirely a positive thing for me. You asked about private astronauts — there are already private astronauts training with a company, doing it at NASA through a partnership, and having a contract to fly on a SpaceX vehicle to the ISS through some new ways we are commercializing Low Earth Orbit. That’s already happening, and everyone I know is excited about it. I think anyone with curiosity, anyone who can carry dreams and hopes into space, and bring something back to Earth is welcome in the program.
I think that the model that NASA has been using for the last ten years to bring in commercial entities is ideal. We are looking to the next deeper set, going back to the moon, and then applying those technologies to go on to Mars. At the same time, we sort of foster and turn over the things we’ve already explored, such as Low Earth Orbit and bringing astronauts to and from the space station to foster a commercial space industry. To me, that strategy is perfect; a government organization can conduct that work that may not have that private motivation or the commercial incentives. Once it is incubated, then it is passed on, and that is when you see the commercial startups coming.
The future is bright for commercialization in space, and I think that bringing in innovation that can happen when you pass off something to an entirely new set of designers is one of the most exciting aspects of this. One of the neat examples of that is SpaceX and their spacesuits — I heard that they did not consult with who we at NASA use as our spacesuit experts that have worked with us in the past. I think that is probably because they did not want to be biased by legacy hardware and legacy ways of doing things. They wanted to re-invent it from the start, to ensure that every aspect was re-thought and reengineered and done in a potentially new way. When you’ve been owners of that legacy hardware that’s difficult to do — especially in such a risky field and in a place where something tried and true has such a great magnetic draw. So, to break through the innovation barrier, bringing commercial partners onboard is so exciting and important.
JP: Let’s get to the Linux Foundation’s core audience here, developers. You were an engineer, and you used to program. What do you think the role of developers is in space exploration?
CK: Well, it cannot be understated. When I was in the space industry before becoming an astronaut, I was a developer of instrumentation for space probes. I built the little science gadgets and was typically involved in the sensor front-end, the intersection of the detectors’ physics and the electronics of the readouts. But that necessitated a lot of the testing, and it was fundamentals testing. Most of the programming I did was building up the GUIs for all the tests that we needed to run, and the I/O to talk to the instruments, to learn what it was telling us, to make sure it could function in a wide variety of environmental states and different inputs that it was expected to see, once it eventually got into space.
That was just my aspect — and then there is all the processing of the data. If you think about astronomy, there is so much we know about the universe through different telescopes, space-based and ground-based, and one of the things we do is anticoincidence detection. We had to come up with algorithms that detect only the kind of particles or on wavelengths that we want to identify, and not the ones that deposit energy in different ways that we are trying to study. Even just the algorithms to suss out that tiny aspect of what those kinds of X-Ray detectors on those telescopes do, is entirely software-intensive. Some of it is actual firmware because it has to happen so quickly, in billionths of a second, but basically, the software enables the entire industry, whether it is the adaptive optics that allow us to see clearly, or the post-processing, or even just the algorithms we use to refine and do the R&D, it’s everywhere, and it is ubiquitous. The first GUIs I ever wrote were on a Linux system using basic open source stuff to talk to our instruments. As far as I know, there is no single person who can walk into any job at NASA and have no programming experience. It’s everywhere.
JP: Speaking of programming and debugging, I saw a video of you floating around in the server room on the ISS, which to me looked like a bunch of ThinkPad laptops taped to a bulkhead and sort of jury-rigged networked there. What’s it like to debug technical problems in space with computer systems and dealing with various technical challenges? It’s not like you can call Geek Squad, and they are going to show up in a van and fix your server if something breaks. What do you do up there?
CK: That is exactly right, although there is only one thing that is inaccurate about that statement — those Lenovos are Velcroed to the wall, not taped (laugh). We rely on the experts on the ground as astronauts. Interestingly, for the most part, just like an IT department, just like at any enterprise, the experts, for the most part, can remotely login to our computers, even though they are in space. That still happens. But if one of the servers is completely dead, they call on us to intercede, we’ve had to re-image drives, and do hardware swaps.
JP: OK, a serious question, a religious matter. Are you a Mac or a PC user, an iOS or an Android user, and are you a cat or a dog person? These are crucial questions; you could lose your whole audience if you answer this the wrong way, so be careful.
CK: I am terrified right now! So the first one I get to sidestep because I have both a Mac and a PC. I am fluent in both. The second — Android all the way. And as the third, I thought I was a cat person, but since I got my dog Sadie, I am a dog person. We don’t know what breed she is since she is from the Humane Society and is a rescue, so we call her an LBD — a Little Brown Dog. She is a little sweetheart, and I missed her quite a bit on my mission.
JP: Outside of being an astronaut, I have heard you have already started to poke around GitHub, for your nieces and nephews. Are there any particular projects you are interested in? Any programming languages or tools you might want to learn or explore?
CK: Definitely. Well, I want to learn Python because it is really popular, and it would help out with my Raspberry Pi projects. The app that I am writing right now in Android Studio, which I consulted on with my 4-year-old niece, who wanted a journal app. I’m not telling anyone my username on GitHub because I am too embarrassed about what a terrible coder I am. I wouldn’t want anyone to see it, but it will be uploaded there. Her brother wants the app too, so that necessitated the version control. It’s just for fun, for now, having missed that technical aspect from my last job. I do have some development boards, and I do have various home projects and stuff like that.
JP: In your keynote, you mentioned that the crew’s favorite activity in space is pizza night. What is your favorite food or cuisine, and is there anything that you wished you could eat in space that you can’t?
CK: My favorite food or cuisine on Earth is something you can’t have in space, sushi, or poke, all the fresh seafood type things that I got introduced to from living in American Samoa and visiting Hawaii and places like that, I missed those. All the food we have in space is rehydrated, or from MREs, so it doesn’t have a lot of texture, it has to have the consistency of like mac and cheese or something like that. So what I really missed is chips — especially chips and salsa. Because anything crunchy is going to crumble up is going to go everywhere. So we don’t have anything crunchy. Unfortunately, I have eaten enough to have made up for without chips and salsa since I was back.
JP: Thank you very much, Christina, for your time and insights! Great interview.
Watch Christina’s full OpenJS World keynote here:
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