Nicole Stott: I'd high expectations of what space would feel like and they exceeded them all
From how she kept herself clean to lessons in global diplomacy, Nicole Stott - one of only 59 women to visit space - talks to Abi Jackson about completing two NASA missions
It's nearly seven years since Nicole Stott was last in space, but her face still fills with awe when she thinks about it.
"Awesome and surreal... those are the two words that mostly come to mind when I look back at my time in space," says Stott, who completed two spaceflights during her NASA career - aboard Discovery STS-128 in 2009, for a three-month stint working on the International Space Station before returning to Earth in the Atlantis space shuttle, and again in 2011 as part of space shuttle Discovery's 39th and final mission.
Only a tiny fraction of people can say they've been to space, and as one of just 59 women in history to do so, American Stott, now 55, knows what a privilege it is. But she's also hugely passionate about the work and legacy of the International Space Station programme and since retiring from NASA in 2015, she's on a mission to inspire the next generation of youngsters.
"People often ask me what the key things are they'll need to do to become an astronaut. But it doesn't work like that - people from all sorts of backgrounds can get selected for astronaut candidate training," she says.
But sparking kids' curiosity and confidence to pursue their own dreams, whatever they might be, is essential, which is why her current role as an ambassador for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida is close to her heart.
"I worked at Kennedy Space Center for 10 years before going to Houston and what I love about that place is it allows people to get up close and personal with space hardware, and experience what it's like to train to go into space. Atlantis is on the display there - it's so cool that people can go and do all of that."
Visitors can choose from a number of Astronaut Training Experiences at the centre, which has recently undergone a string of updates, ranging from 30-minutes to a few hours, and even five-day camp programmes for groups, to really get a taste of what spaceflight training entails. Other highlights include the Rocket Garden, Shuttle Launch Experience and the chance to have lunch with an astronaut.
Here, Stott reflects on seven of the best things about going into space...
1. Take off is way more awesome than you could ever imagine
Stott was "completely surprised by what launch feels like", even though she'd watched it a number of times and spoken to people about it. "I had really high expectations for what it would feel like and they exceeded all of them," she recalls.
"You know it's going be this really dynamic, wild ride, but the overall experience is just so much more than you ever imagine it to be. You're kicked off the launch pad, and you're shaking like Jell-O (jelly) and suddenly wondering, 'Was I ever even on the launch pad?', because you've travelled so fast (five miles a second, to be exact). The fact you can get to space and be orbiting the planet in eight-and-a-half minutes is a really impressive thing."
2. The International Space Station is proof that harmony can exist
One of the most meaningful things Stott has gained from her space jaunts is seeing "just how beautifully we work together on the space station programme with all of our partner countries".
"That to me will be the legacy of the programme. We figured out how to work peacefully, successfully, doing really complex things, with 15 different countries involved. And that's not just the crews working together in space; that's the thousands of people on Earth making it happen. And if we can do that for our space station, we can do that for our whole planet. I am convinced, I really am."
3. Floating is awesome
"I knew floating would be awesome, and it's even more awesome than you imagine. It's just this liberating, graceful way to move. Nothing about it requires you to really force anything; a gentle push off the wall, having no sense of up or down and moving in three-dimensions - and how cool it is that our brains and bodies just figure that out!?"
4. Space has its own distinct smell
"The smell of space was one of the things I found really interesting," says Stott. "Of course, you can't go outside the space station and smell it up there, but when crew members would come back in from a space walk, or when a new vehicle would dock at the station and you'd access the hatch that had just been exposed to space, all these things had this same kind of sweet metallic smell that no one ever told me about.
"I don't know whether it's down to the way atomic oxygen works, or interaction between the materials, the temperature difference or what it is, but everything ends up having this smell."
5. All the training really does pay off
Astronaut training is notoriously intense, but the pay-off, says Stott, is having absolute trust and confidence once you're up there, that you and your crew are prepared for anything.
"As a crew, we trained on the ground for a couple of years together; how to work as a crew, all the emergency scenarios onboard the station, that kind of thing. You know you've done all that on the ground, but when you're up there - and an alarm goes off in the middle of the night and everybody goes and does what they're trained to do - to see that go from training to reality was one of the best feelings, to know that you've done this training and it works."
6. Spacewalking is really surreal
"Everything about living and working in space is very surreal, but doing a spacewalk is absolutely the most surreal thing. And just the ability to do something like that and not be afraid - again, that's how the training kicks in."
(Stott's spacewalk training, which she says was "the most physically challenging thing" she's ever done, included 15 six-hour sessions in a pool learning how to move and complete intricate tasks wearing a spacesuit which, although weightless in space, actually weigh around 110lb).
"You have total respect for where you are, total attention to putting the tethers on and the way you manage yourself out there, but just - wow - I was able to go out there and do this six-and-a-half hour spacewalk and not be worried about it."
7. Not having 'normal' food and running water is part of the adventure
"Things are different up there, but I looked at all of that as part of the adventure," says Stott. "Not having running water - I could still stay clean - in fact I stayed as clean up there as I do down here, but it was more fun. You squirt some water out, you stick your arm through it, it makes this glob of water and you moosh the soap around. And I'm very much a minimalist, I don't wear make-up on a normal basis when I'm on the ground, so that wasn't a problem. And every day is a bad hair day in space."
Having just one pair of trousers for three months? Not a problem: "Your clothes float on you, so they don't have all the oils from your skin making them dirty in the same way as down here, so you can wear things for longer."
Only 45 minutes from Orlando, Florida, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex opens daily at 9am with closing times varying throughout the year. Admission is $50 (£35.50) for adults and $40 (£28.50) for children aged 3-11 (plus tax). For more information, visit www.Kennedy SpaceCenter.com