If I could bring anyone, I would bring someone whose heart has been in this vision of exploration all along, but wasn’t yet seen.
Cady Coleman has been part of two space shuttle missions, and in 2011 lived and worked on the ISS for nearly six months. Now retired, she continues to advocate for inclusion in STEM and STEAM. Cady is one of the astronauts featured in new documentary The Wonderful: Stories from the International Space Station, which is out now in the UK on Blu-ray, DVD and digital.
We discussed women astronauts, how far humanity will go into space, who she’d like to take to the space station to show them the Earth, and — of course — her favourite space movie (do they spend their downtime on the ISS watching Alien?)
The international space station — the largest peacetime international project in history — has been continuously occupied since November 2000. The documentary weaves personal stories of space and how to get there with the bigger picture of science, exploration and international cooperation.
We “met” on Zoom last week — this interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Sarah: I wondered if you’d appear with your hair like it was in the film — when you took your Santa hat off on the ISS and your hair was up here! It was a great visual. [in the documentary Cady removes her hat during a Christmas interview and her shoulder-length hair rises up because of the lack of gravity]
Cady Coleman: You now, actually, for being up in space I like my hair long. I did cut it short at one time just because I felt like it but then when I got assigned to the space station, I started growing it because to me, when I grew up, I didn’t see a lot of women who were astronauts — when you just don’t see that, it doesn’t speak to you like, “hey, this could be you”. And I really wanted to subliminally plant an image that when people would see somebody working in space, even if she wasn’t speaking, they would know that there was probably a woman up there; either that or a guy with long hair.
That’s interesting though, because you’ve broken through so many barriers for women. And one of the biggest ones I think is that mothers who pursue goals that risk their lives, even if it’s a small risk, get much more criticism than fathers who do the same thing. I liked what your husband was saying in the film, how you accept the risk with your job and nothing he says will change that so he has to go along with that, and he’s the primary carer. So, you’re breaking all these barriers down, but then also, “I like my hair long. I want people to see a woman in the space station”. I thought that was interesting, the two sides to it.
Cady Coleman: Me too, really. I love how in the film — and I thought it was a very unique point of view — our story is largely told through the voices and the eyes of my husband and one of my sons, and for me it was wonderful to hear those viewpoints of what it meant to them. This is something I discussed with Claire Lewin, the director, and George Chignell, the producer, that I think it’s important to show that women can have families and do the things that they feel like they’re they were meant to do.
I show pictures of my family almost every time I speak in public for that very reason. And at the same time, in looking at the film, it’s hard for me to be impartial. I look at it and I hear my husband saying, “I’m the primary parent” and what he is meaning is for that time: training for the space station and going up on the space station. And at the same time we’re definitely co-parents for most of our son’s 21 years. So I find myself listening with a different ear; because I think there is that scrutiny, and I think people don’t really ask the guys very much “did you mind leaving your son and your husband back on the planet?”
And it’s not really fair to the guys because they mind as well — all of us mind. It’s just that we think that the mission is really important, the mission of exploration. Plus, I actually learned a lot of my family coping skills from my guy colleagues during training who were saying, “Hey, this is how I help with homework at night. That way, my spouse gets a little break while I help with the homework, even though I’m training in Russia.”
Yes. But also, I quite like the idea that women who’ve given birth are at the forefront of exploring where life can go. It’s like: out in front, Warrior Mum! I say this from the safety of my chair, I’ve never been anywhere.
Cady Coleman: That’s very funny. Actually, I had had a long birthing process and at a certain point, I said to the doctor, “At some point, I could show you the little seven-minute film of one of my space flights.” And he goes, “Well, couldn’t we see it now? We’re all kind of waiting.” Aren’t I having a baby? He goes, “Aren’t you fairly comfortable now after we figured everything out?” I said, okay. So, I narrated my flight film.
If I’d been an astronaut, honestly, I would get it into every conversation; at the supermarket, “did I tell you I was an astronaut?” It’s such an incredible thing. When you come up against those prejudices against women and mothers, do you argue them head-on to individuals or do you bat them away, like, “What I’m doing is enough to refute those ideas”?
Cady Coleman: I think trying to create change, everyone does it in their own way. And there’s sort of a spectrum where you go, “What? You addressed me like that?” or “you assumed?” that kind of thing, and I’m more towards this end of the spectrum of trying to make your statement in a way that people can hear it, and going to the trouble to find a way that they can hear it.
We had a commuting marriage for 26 years going back and forth; our son was one of the youngest frequent flyers. But often, a woman gets on a plane with a child, and when we flew a lot we would get upgraded and it would be seven guys in First Class just going, “oh no, really?” And I would look at them and just say, “You know, he is really good at this. Probably better than you are.”
Go back to when you first arrived at the international space station. You’ve done all this training, and you’re a scientist, but is it a visceral shock when you get there? “Oh my god I’m on the space station”. Or was it very much, “this is my work, let’s just keep going”?
Cady Coleman: Absolutely, you know, “I am here”. I remember from my shuttle missions, my prevailing feeling was “we’re packing up, we’re coming home, we’re coming in for a landing”. I’m like, why in the world are we going home? We have so much good work to do up there. So, I really wanted to be on the space station, living, working every day, getting a lot done. But that moment of arrival, of opening the hatch and really being there — it’s told in the movie through Samantha Cristoforetti’s eyes and she’s a very good friend. I really just loved her description of looking out and it happened to be the time that the sun hit the solar rays and it was so bright and beautiful.
And for me, that moment was arriving like that and looking — I didn’t get to see the solar rays through my window, but I saw the structure. I had practiced hundreds of times in the swimming pool in my spacesuit doing space walks, and underwater it’s this kind of crusty blue green… And then when you see this pristine, beautiful structure and you realise you have arrived and you’re going to stay and you’re going to live there. I just loved that.
When you see the space station, the epitome of humanity’s engineering, it looks like it’s hanging there in front of this natural blue and white world. We’ve seen these images for years, but watching the film it shocked me again. If you could take someone up — maybe a politician, a family member, someone from history — and let them see Earth from there, who would you take?
Cady Coleman: I would take one of the women in the early space programme. I would actually take a page from Jeff Bezos’s book really in that, on his recent very first space flight, he chose to bring Wally Funk, one of what we call the Mercury 13.
These are women that passed all of the tests that the Mercury 7, the original astronauts, passed, and they passed them or did better. So, here’s 13 women with amazing experience flying, all those kinds of things. And it’s not that anyone said, “oh, you’re going to go — oh now you’re not”. They were invited to go through the testing. And given the results of the testing, everyone hoped that people would say, “well, we should probably be bringing someone from the other 50% of the people on the planet with us with their valuable insights and experiences”. When in fact, from what I can see from the research that I have done and people have shown me, the answer was, yeah, I’m sure that would be great. But it would really be a lot of trouble to go back and change the selection process and figure out, they’ve got thousands of hours in airplanes, but not test pilot school. It’s just so much easier to be able to pick these people, all of them guys who come with their military records so intact.
And so we didn’t then have women astronauts until the early ’80s. I had the privilege of flying with Eileen Collins, the first woman commander of the space shuttle, and I think 11 of the Mercury 13 came to our launch.
So, if I could bring anyone, I would bring someone whose heart has been in this vision of exploration all along, but wasn’t yet seen. And hope that it inspires others who don’t feel seen as the people who can bring part of a solution, to realise that they certainly have something to bring to the planet.
When you talk to young girls about working in space exploration, what do you say to them in terms of how they can achieve this, or do they even think they can achieve it to start with?
Cady Coleman: Some of them do. There’s some people, there’s just something inside them where they’re just sure that could be them. And I have a little of that, but I also have a part of me that when people are like, “do you really fit in that spacesuit?” where I’m like, “I do!”, but inside I’m like, “well, not exactly, It’s pretty hard!” — that kind of doubt. I just think that the world should be designed to include everyone — everyone who hasn’t seen that spark inside of them, who maybe didn’t get to see me up on the space station with my big hair and realise that it could be them.
So I really try to reach all of them, just by talking with them and being a regular person, I think that I don’t even have to say anything, they go, “wow. I thought she’d be bigger. And I thought that she’d be not really like me, but she is kind of like me”. And just by sending that message, I think you’re accomplishing a lot.
But I also talk to them about filling out applications. When they’re going to get a job in the summer, or when you just want to go and find out what it’s like to be a veterinarian or a doctor or an entrepreneur or this or that, you have to say, “hi, this is who I am, and this is why I think you should let me do this for a few months”. And in filling out these applications, there’s going to be a form, there’s going to be questions, and they’re expecting certain kinds of answers. Realise that if you have something to say that isn’t asked for in that way, find a way to get it on that form. Find a way to tell people who you are, because if you don’t tell them who you are, they cannot pick you.
And I think in the movie, you see that: there’s about a dozen people’s stories in there and every one of us are really different from each other.
Yes I thought it was really encouraging how there was more than one person in the film saying, “I wasn’t top of the class, I was the dreamer at the back”. That’s what I loved about it, these children showing that you can come from different backgrounds in different countries and not be the A-student from the age of five. You can find your path there.
Cady Coleman: Especially when you think about testing in the way we judge people’s capabilities, often with a written test or asking them to say things that they could find on the internet, that’s a waste of brain power. It’s really like, “what do you think about? What are your ideas?”
In terms of space exploration, how far do you think we’ll get and how far do you think we’ll get in your lifetime?
Cady Coleman: How far we’ll get, I don’t think we even know because we haven’t seen those places yet, but I think we’ll get to them. There’s no question in my mind that we’ll be going back to the Moon and that we will be going to Mars. And I would say certainly, unless I’m unlucky, in my lifetime.
I think what’s interesting to me is I’m really happy to have so much more news about space that’s out there that people can see and hear. And yet it can still be a little inaccessible. Right now, as you and I speak, at the Kennedy Space Center in the vehicle assembly building they are stacking the pieces of the rocket that is going to go back to the Moon, around the Moon and back home, gathering data about the environment out there in deep space, not just around the Earth: the Moon is three days away, and Mars is six months away. And so, right now, we’ve got a rocket that’s ready to launch sometime this Fall or early next year.
The Moon is coming. Even more exciting, for me anyway, is that the US is committed to sending the first woman to the Moon and the first person of colour. It’s a very exciting mission and it’s going to happen.
And at the same time, we’re doing a lot of research, like the Perseverance Rover on Mars. Those rovers are collecting data so that as humans, we can understand the environment. And we can design the ships, the plants, the people, everything that we need to go and explore.
I’ve got one more question for you: what’s your favourite space film? Because I have visions of you all up on the space station watching Alien.
Cady Coleman: You know, Alien is not — I’m sorry Sigourney — but it’s not my favourite movie. Mostly because I am the person that jumps — “Oh no!”
You can’t do that on the space station can you, you’d hit the roof!
Cady Coleman: It’s true! Sometimes it turned out my friends liked to watch Alien just so they could watch me watching Alien. But I really do love Gravity.
Didn’t you work with Sandra Bullock on it?
Cady Coleman: I did. My brother met her brother-in-law and he said, “Do you think your sister would talk to my sister Sandy? She’s making this movie.” And my brother said, “She’s been up there for four months with five guys. I think she’d talk to anyone! And I think she’d talk to Sandra Bullock!”
It’s not as if I did so much coaching, but we got to talk and she asked some questions about what’s it like to move up there physically, what does it feel like to live up there? We talked a lot about that. And then what it was like to live far away from everyone, especially when things were very hard back on Earth.
What I actually loved about the movie was that with the special effects, they brought you this view of the Earth that I have been so privileged to see and not enough people have. But not only just the view of the Earth, but what it felt like to see the Earth.
And I think that brings us back to The Wonderful — I love that title. It shows you the magic of living up there and how that magic is different for so many different people. All of us are different and we all see it and feel it and remember it in a different way.
The Wonderful: Stories From The Space Station is available on digital, blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.