Astronaut Nicole Stott on ‘One Strange Rock’ and Painting in Space

     March 21, 2018

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One Strange Rock, NatGeo’s latest docu-series, takes an interesting approach to exploring the odd wonders of the Earth and its place within the cosmos. Each episode is intercut with the perspective of the people who have seen and know the planet the best of all: astronauts. It makes for a personal entry point into the science and natural photography of your typical Planet Earth-like show. You get the wonder and spectacle of natural phenomena (volcanoes!, acid lakes!!, mountainous ranges!!!) alongside the triumphs and struggles of each astronaut’s story.

Nicole Stott holds quite a distinction: having spent 104 days in orbit, she’s the first person to ever paint in space. She also lived and worked on the International Space Shuttle, performed a spacewalk for over six hours and spent over two weeks under the sea (earning the title of aquanaut). All to say, she’s done more than most of us ‘Earthlings’ could ever even begin to imagine.

In the following interview with Stott, she discusses training to become an astronaut, painting in space and how she first became involved in Nat Geo’s One Strange Rock:

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Image via National Geographic

QUESTION: How much does training prepare you for space?

Nicole Stott: There’s nothing that you do that mirrors the moving and floating in space, but the training to me was really good… Let me say it this way when I floated into the space station, I felt like I’d already been there. The simulators they have for us are so good that – the smells even, the way it looks – I felt like I had been there before. The place seemed familiar. The operation felt familiar. The things we did all had this familiarity to them already. It’s a really effective way to get people prepared.

How did you earn the title of ‘aquanaut’?

Stott: Part of the training [for space] was to go live under water in an under sea habitat for a little over three weeks. It was absolutely the closest analogue to flying in space. You earn the title ‘aquanaut’ once you lived at that depth for over twenty-four hours. That’s what we did. We lived at sixty-feet under the water in a habitat for eighteen days. It was as close to any mission I’ve had in space as anything you can do down here on Earth.

It seems like the world is fairly divisive now. Has living in space affected your outlook on how you perceive the world?

Stott: One of my main missions in life is to try to share my experience in a way that people get a sense of what it’s like to live there with this global community. The space station and the way we put that program together with our international partners is the best example of how we can peacefully and successfully do complicated things. The more people who are aware of what we do in space, the better off we’ll be. There will be that sense of interconnectivity, the sense that the other person on the other side of the planet isn’t that far away. That’s what’s so great about this show too: One Strange Rock. After you watch one episode, you’ll want to watch more and you’ll walk away as an Earthling, feeling like this is our planet, our home and we need to take care of it to survive. That involves taking care of each other too. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get everyone to space to see our home from that perspective? Maybe our politicians should be first on that list…

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Image via NASA

What was it like to paint in space?

Stott: I’m so grateful to my ground support team for reminding me before I flew and was up there for three months, that I wasn’t just going to be working there but I was also going to be living there. We are human beings living in space and we need to consider that when we’re packing this little bag that they give us for personal items. For me: that became this little watercolor kit. I’m so grateful I brought that with me. I only painted one time over a few days and as you can imagine, you can’t float in front of a window to paint what you’re seeing. After a second, it’s already gone. But the experience was life changing for me because when I started considering retiring from NASA, which was really a difficult decision to make, I kept coming back to the art and how I could incorporate that into my post NASA life and try to uniquely share the experience with an audience that doesn’t even know we have a space station and all the wonderful work we do up there.

Did you have to use special watercolor paint in space?

Stott: It’s like what kids paint with – the solid water colors that you rub water onto to get color. In hindsight – it was really the best choice. My two choices would have been watercolor or acrylic. It would have to be a watercolor paint just for the environment up there. In hindsight: it was the best choice because acrylic would have been really messy, cleaning brushes and all of that. Whereas watercolors can soak the water out of the brush and it cleans up very easily. The experience was one that I wish I could have been videotaped. In and of itself – it’s this really interesting combination of science and art. It would have been one of the coolest ways to show how the environment up there works for us. How taking gravity out of the equation allows us to look at things in a whole new way. It starts with squirting a little ball of water out of a drinking bag and then touching brush to it and watching how surface tension works. This ball of water floats around the end of the brush and wants to just get sucked over to the paint. There were so many things about it that were just really interesting to me.

What was the most challenging thing about transitioning from an engineer to the space flight team?

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Image via National Geographic

Stott: The most challenging thing for me was learning to speak Russian. I blame my mom for this because somehow I made my way all the way through university without taking a first year Spanish or German class. Nothing. No other language training at all. So when you wait until your 40ish to learn your first second language, that’s difficult. I just had to mentally rethink things when I was learning the language. I was so afraid of not speaking properly or conjugating the verbs the right way and all of that. My brain really wasn’t wired the right way to do all that.

Physically – the space walk training is difficult. It’s the most physically challenging thing I’ve done. You’re in a suit that weighs a few hundred pounds. You’re in a pool. You’re always fighting against the drag in the water. You’re always fighting against the air in the suit that’s pushing you around in different ways. When you’re doing that for six and a half hours in the pool, you have to have a smile on your face. You really do. You just have to high road, Namaste it, the whole way. In order to get qualified to do a space walk, you’re going to have to go through hours of that pain to get there, but it’s one of those ‘pleasure in pain’ things because you feel so accomplished when you get out of the pool. You’re exhausted, but all you’re thinking is, ‘I just did this really intense thing in this pool and one of these days I may actually get to do this in space’.

How uncomfortable is living in space?

Stott: What’s funny is that before you fly in space, you get the impression that everything is going to be really difficult. What it ends up being – a lot of the ways we train on Earth is more difficult than it will ever be in space. Part of the beauty of space is that it’s different than how we do things here on Earth. It makes it all the more of an adventure. Everything from how you go to the bathroom, floating with this vacuum and funnel tube, to how you eat and how you keep track of your things and the way you move in this really liberating three dimensional space – it becomes like there’s nothing difficult about it. It just becomes a new way of doing things and really the way you feel as you move and live up there is the most comfortable I’ve ever been.

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Image via NASA

I really wish everyone could experience just the ability to fly, to float from one place to another and do what I only ever dreamed of. I remember – I would have those dreams of trying to fly. Running and jumping and flying. Sometimes I could and sometimes I couldn’t in my dreams, but I don’t have those dreams anymore because I think my body now knows how that feels.

How did you first get involved in One Strange Rock?

Stott: I first got involved when the folks at Nat Geo reached out to me with the initial idea for the show. It sounded very different than anything I’d seen before about our planet. It was a really unique presentation of this astronaut backstory with the story of our Earth. I hope that people feel like they’ve been reintroduced to our planet and that in the end, you look at this strange rock that we live on and walk away with an appreciation of how special it is…

What is the strangest thing about Earth that you’ve discovered?

Stott: It was that immediate reality check that we live on a planet. In our day-to-day life, I don’t think we acknowledge that at all. We just go about our daily lives without even thinking about the fact that we’re on a planet. In terms of strangeness – and it comes out in the show too – how perfectly placed we really are. What a… I will honestly say Act of God that this planet is so beautifully set up to take care of us – the perfect distance from the Sun. A little closer, a little further away – not so good for us. That kind of thing is impressive and significant and we just don’t think about it every day, if at all.

One Strange Rock premieres on Nat Geo March 26th.

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