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NASA's Astronaut Mom Opens Up Before Six-Month Stint in Space

Courtesy of NASA

With Mother's Day right around the corner, there is a lot of talk about "super moms." Meet the real deal: Karen Nyberg can fly through the air as if there weren't any gravity. That's because where she works, there isn't any. She takes a break from training in Star City, Russia to chat with Parenting about preparing to leave her husband and 3-year-old son behind to spend six months at the International Space Station. 

The number one thing that our Parenting readers will probably want to know is: what is it like to be in space?
It is absolutely incredible. I was there in 2008 on a shuttle flight. Unfortunately, that was a very short mission of only fourteen days. I remember the first day we opened the big door of the space shuttle and I was able to look out at the back windows of the flight deck. It's pretty much indescribable, how beautiful it is. The feeling of floating like a superhero is amazing. I'm so excited to do it again.

How do you feel like becoming a mom has changed the way you approach your job?
That's a good question. I think I've always been somebody who has worked very hard to excel at absolutely everything I do and I never accepted “good enough.” Since I've become a mother, I've realized that in order to balance my life with my family and my job, I need to accept “good enough” on some things and that's okay. I think I've learned to do that. 

Have you told Jack where you're going? Does he understand or get upset?
The longest I've been away from him at this point is about five weeks. He's 3 years old, so it's really hard to tell exactly what he understands. But we do tell him that mommy is going to live on the space station. When he sees a picture of the space station, he knows what it is. He knows what a rocket is. He knows that the space station travels around the Earth. He knows that in the space station there's no gravity and things float. It's really hard to tell if 3-year-olds understand it at a deeper level than that. But I'm looking forward to being there and sending down videos for him, showing him simple things like what I'm eating and when I'm playing around and sharing that with him.

What does a normal day for you look like now as you're training for your upcoming mission and being a mom to your son?
I'm in Star City Russia right now. I've been here for a couple of weeks and we're pretty much done with the final preparations. We've had final examinations, which are simulations in the Russian segment of the space station and in the Soyuz, which is the rocket that is taking us up to the space station. It's pretty intense!

I did bring my son here with me and I was able to spend time with him on the weekends and in the evenings. We had our final ceremonial events at the Red Square yesterday, after we passed all of our exams. I now have some free time that I can spend with my husband and my son.

That sounds lovely! Do you feel that it's difficult to manage training and being a mom? Do you have any tips for other working moms?
It's almost like when you bring the brand new baby home—nobody really gives you instructions. We go through all this training, everything from driving a car to the training we go through in college. When it comes to being a parent, you kind of learn by doing. One of the main things that I try to do is not make it negative that I'm leaving. I never insinuate that there's anything negative about what's going on and I keep him a part of the life that we're leading. It's a normal thing.

How did your own mother encourage you in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)? 
My mother was awesome in that she let me do anything I wanted. I grew up in a very small town in Minnesota. My mother was unable to go to college and she just wanted me to be able to do anything I wanted. She taught me to sew and to do a lot of the stuff I need to do at home. Anytime I wanted to join a sport or do anything academic, it was always encouraged. I think that for parents of other little girls—just let them dream, let their imagination roll and do whatever it is that they want to do.

Do you have any plans for Mother's Day while you're in Russia?
My plan for Mother's Day is just to relax with my family.

Does the distance from your loved ones and family feel more tangible in space than when you are away from them on Earth?
That's hard to say. I know that when I'm on Earth I can have a video conference with my son and husband every single day. When I'm in space, we have an internet protocol phone that I can call them on every day. However, video conferences will only be once a week and I think that's going to be a little unusual. But I hope to video tape some of the things that I'm doing and send it down as frequently as possible, so that they can see what I'm doing on a daily basis.

Your son is probably still setting lots of milestones. Have you agreed that your husband should capture some of Jack's firsts or big moments while you are in space?
I think there will be a lot of pictures taken and a lot of video taken. My son will be starting preschool in September, so I will miss his first day of school. Which makes me sad, but there will be a lot of pictures and my husband is going do a great job of getting him out the door to his first day of school.

Do you hope that he'll will follow in your footsteps? Is he displaying an aptitude for science?
He actually is displaying an aptitude for science! He loves to understand things. He loves to look things up. We'll go to Google and he'll say he wants to look up an animal and probably look up about 20 different animals in a fifteen-minute period. He loves the planets. He loves to talk about the planets. He loves dinosaurs. He loves to look down at the wheels of his cars and trucks and say, “we need to fix this!” So I definitely think he has an aptitude and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up in some sort of technical field when he's an adult.

Aside from your family, what creature comforts will you miss most when you are away from Earth?
My bed is an important one. I was only in space for two weeks on my shuttle flight, so I'm not sure I ever became very comfortable with sleeping without gravity. But from what I heard from other people, it becomes extremely comfortable. So maybe in a couple of months, that won't seem so important to me anymore. Another thing is coffee in a cup; we drink our coffee in bags. 

What is the biggest misconception regular people have about astronauts?
Oh gosh. We are just normal people. All of us have very normal lives with normal families. We just happen to be in a job that is an extraordinary job. We're so lucky to do it, but we are just ordinary people.

What do you think is your biggest struggle as a parent?
You always wonder if you're doing the right things for your children. I have struggled with whether it is a good thing for me to leave my three-year-old for six months. But after going through it in my head for a long time, this is a dream I had since I was a young child, myself. I don't think I would be setting a very good example for my son if I were to give up on my dream. So I think that's one of the biggest things and it is going to be very hard to say goodbye to him next week. 

How does the International Space Station help us on Earth? Karen Nyberg shares a short message about the lab in space in this new video:

To learn more about Karen, follow her on Twitter at @AstroKarenN.