Ahead of her Kepler’s talk on Oct. 19, astronaut, engineer and aquanaut Nicole Stott talks jury duty, watercoloring and how to save the world from space
It wasn’t long into her first stay on the international space station that Nicole Stott learned that space has the “sweet, metallic odor of an overheated car radiator” (or at least the materials exposed to space do).
She learned that astronauts can totally receive jury duty summons while 420 kilometers above Earth (and, yes, be excused). She learned that fire burns in a different shape, with round flames, in microgravity.
But Stott will tell you that the greatest lessons she gleaned from her 30-year career as a NASA astronaut, engineer and aquanaut weren’t about what’s happening off the planet. They were about how to change what’s happening on it.
Her new book, “Back to Earth,” transforms her well-earned expertise in problem-solving and crisis response into Earthbound tips for reversing global warming.
Turns out there’s a lot of similarities between protecting the thin walls of a space shuttle and repairing the ring of atmosphere that greenhouse gases are burning through:
A “we can do it” attitude is necessary. International cooperation absolutely helps. And each of us must remember we’re all crewmembers who risk perishing at excessive passivity.
Stott, who’s set to speak next week at Kepler’s Literary Foundation, took a moment to chat with us about those ideas, plus space tourism, artivism and a little ritual she calls “earthing.”
I notice you use the word “interconnectivity” a lot throughout your own book. Tell me about the thinking you’re doing around that term and what it means to you.
Astronauts always learn something in space that they should’ve already known. For me, it was, and I really mean this, “Oh my gosh, we live on a planet. Holy Moly. Would you look at that.”
It’s true for everything. When you step aside and look at things from a different perspective, it all just becomes crystal clear and obvious how connected everything is. To look at the Earth from space, it’s clear there’s no ‘other side of the planet.’ Everything that’s going on where I am is absolutely connected to every other place on the planet.
Like, thunderstorms: Wow. I grew up in Florida, where I thought thunderstorms were a thing happening over your head. And I always thought once thunderstorms pass, they pass, but that’s not true at all. In space, you can see a storm wrapping itself around the planet. To watch these lightning strikes firing in a way that looks like neurons firing in your brain — stuff like that makes you realize it’s all bigger than interconnected. It’s interdependent. Everything is depending on everything else for life to work.
When it comes to the climate change conversation, it feels like we put so much pressure on individual agency. But I think some people get stuck on that concept because our actions feel irrelevant if big industries and governments and real powers that be aren’t doing anything. How do you think through those questions of agency?
I think there’s a good astronaut metaphor for this. When you’re a crew of six or seven aboard a space station — which is just this mechanical life support system that mimics what the Earth does — when you’re stuck in that small space, you start to see how every individual’s actions can impact the whole environment. If all six people decide they’re going to trash the place, it’s going to get really messy. But if even one person starts to put stuff away, that alone can have an impact on the rest.
The same is true for the way we monitor the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere, the amount of clean drinking water we have, and the way we respond to those numbers.
I think that doing something as simple as saying, ‘I’m not going to use plastic straws in my drink anymore’ might seem like no big deal, but it can do a number of things. For the person as an individual, it starts to make you more and more aware of the other things you can be doing, all those subtle changes you can start to make in your day-to-day life. The people close to you will witness that. Hopefully, they’ll see something positive coming from it.
My friend Guy Laliberté — who’s in the book and is the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil and was a space flight participant when I was also up there — he has this saying that goes, “every drop matters.” Even the littlest things we do can have a ripple effect.
That connection between small moments and big change is a theme of your book, too. You write about your “earthrise moment,” for example — the moment in space when you were able to look back on Earth and the new perspective sparked a deep, profound, maybe even spiritual connection with it.
Where do you go when you need another “earthrise moment” here on Earth? Without being able to hop in a spaceship every day, how do you reconnect with that sense of awe?
There’s two ways I can always reconnect to what it felt like to look out the spaceship window. One is meditation. The other is this thing I call “earthing.”
I try to do it every day. You just walk outside barefoot. You stand in the grass, stand in the dirt, and just contemplate the feeling for a moment. Think about the fact you’re on a planet that’s spinning a thousand miles per hour, circling the sun at 76,000 miles an hour. I know we all look up at the sky and think that it goes on forever, and yet it’s like this veil — just a thin blue line wrapped around us all. It’s wild to consider how the sky doesn’t go that far, and how such a little thing can do so much for us.
And yet it’s so easy to feel grounded here. You get this sense that this is where you’re supposed to be. This place was designed for us to survive and thrive here.
It kicks in the whole responsibility/accountability paradigm. There’s not a day that goes by for me where I don’t go, “Oh my gosh, I’m on a planet.” And I can feel those things without having to go to a space station.
Okay, well, since you put it that way now I have to ask. More and more people are going into space these days, searching for their own genuine earthrise moments. What do you make of the space tourism movement? Do you think letting CEO’s chase that sense of wonder will impact the climate change conversation?
I do, and I’m really hopeful for it.
I’m sure if you look back at the days of wagon trains and big ships, there were people who thought that, too, wasn’t acceptable. If you look historically at how big exploration shifts were made, it usually translates well for the public. I think with space travel, we’re really in the baby steps.
Underlying all of it is an extension of what we’ve been doing in space all along. When we return to the moon, travel to the space station, launch the Mars expeditions — these things are all, ultimately, about improving life on Earth. I know that doesn’t get publicized all the time. But think about even the way we’re able to talk right now on this call. The way our phones are like another appendage. Even thermometers — the infrared kind we’re using from a distance during coronavirus every time you go in restaurants and museums — that was technology that was first used to measure the space between planetary bodies.
One business I’m really looking forward to is space-based solar power. Why don’t we lift all of these energy issues off our planet and put them into the benign environment of space? That’d be huge! That’s going to happen through the person who wants to travel for a vacation in space. Everything we’re going to do for space tourism is going to help our life down here on Earth as well.
You were the first astronaut to paint watercolors in space. It feels to me like a brilliant way to make space cool in a new way to someone who might not be a science person. Your book, to me, does a similar thing. It’s about science underneath, but the surface is so wildly entertaining with your very human, grounded impressions of that science.
Do you think storytelling is key for making science accessible? Were you thinking about that when you decided to bring the brushes along?
I can tell you for sure there was no conscious effort or grand plan when I took the paint kit into space. Really, I wouldn’t have even thought to do that on my own.
As astronauts, we get so wrapped up in the checklists and systems and the astronaut-y part of the job. Thankfully, we have people around us who are there to think for us. My friend Mary Jane Anderson is one of the people who helps astronauts pack up to go to space.
She was like, “Hey, Nicole, you’re bringing your son’s stuffed dog, and you have all the photos of your family, but is there something you can bring for just you? You’ll have free time when you’re up there. Is there something you like doing on Earth that you might like to bring to space with you?”
Wait, okay, how can I get that job? Professional astro-packer?
She made it cool, too! It was like, “Here’s the one pair of pants you’re going to wear for a month, but also let’s get you a hobby.” When I think about Mary Jane now, I realize she encouraged me to bring a bit of my human side to a human space flight.
We think of astronauts as science-y, technical people, but they’ve been doing this since the very beginning of space flight. There’s been music on board the craft. My friend Karen Nyberg quilted. Some people write poetry. It’s so much bigger than just going and doing work in space, because we’re humans.
Don’t get me wrong, we should purposefully send people who are real artists to space. I can’t wait for that. But it’s great to recognize that the humans we’re already sending to space have these interests and talents. We want people to use their whole brains so they can really solve the world’s problems.
It makes me think again of the climate change conversation. I think a lot of people might get turned off from taking individual action because learning the science can be a burden, something we don’t feel qualified for. It’s so important to remember that you don’t have to be an expert to engage with something meaningfully — whether you’re an astronaut writing poetry or a kid recycling.
Absolutely. I think, for the most part, the purpose of art is to raise awareness and get people thinking about a topic. Art is like the universal communicator. It’s all about engaging people in the conversation.
I can paint how the Bahamas look from space, and some people might be interested by the view alone — but then you can tell them about the international space station. And, the next thing you know, they’re the ones with the app on their phone tracking when it’s going to fly over. And then they’re wondering, if those people can work together in space, how can we be crewmates here on Earth?
We can’t ignore the numbers, for sure, but I think people are spurred more by hope than doom and gloom.
Nicole Stott’s book, Back to Earth, is available now from Seal Press.
She will be interviewed by Kishore Hari at Kepler’s Literary Foundation next Tuesday, October 19. Tickets are free, but book sales and donations are encouraged. Reserve your spot here.
(Editor’s note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.)
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