Space Curious: The questions we ask (and forget to ask) astronauts

Former NASA astronaut Terry Virts describes creating a rainstorm of sound in space and why kids ask the best questions

NASA astronaut Terry Virts in the International Space Station on Earth sunrise Nov. 26, 2014 looks through the cupola window. (Image: NASA) (WKMG 2020)

This summer marked the first time astronauts launched from Florida since 2011, before, during and after the mission, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley -- affectionately known as the “SpaceX Dads” -- answered questions about their journey but also personal inquires about their families and ---their spacecraft bathroom.

On this week’s episode of Space Curious, we’re talking about our fascination with space explorers, an elite class of humans who have trained many years for spaceflight.

Astronauts are also ambassadors of spaceflight and NASA. As such, the “SpaceX dads” fielded a variety of questions about their journey from what they had for breakfast before launch to what they were feeling about leaving their families to become the first to launch with a private company to space.

Their journey was also a reminder of the human side of space exploration, both of the veteran astronauts are married to fellow astronauts and have young sons. Behnken’s wife, Megan McArthur, will actually fly on the same spacecraft next year to the International Space Station.

“At the end of the day, it’s Doug and Bob, two dads, two husbands, just two residents of the world getting on top of a rocket and doing something really brave,” The Atlantic space reporter Marina Koren said.

To ask the question about why we want to know about the little oddities of space life, Space Curious host Emilee Speck spoke to Koren and WMFE space reporter Brendan Byrne, along with retired NASA astronaut Terry Virts.

Virts, who spent a total of over seven months on the space station, offered his perspective on what it’s like to be in the public eye. All NASA astronauts go through public engagement and media training. It’s part of the job.

“Having space is a pretty interesting subject to talk about. Somebody comes and knocks on your door, ‘hey, you have to go speak at the school on next Wednesday,’ and you do it and then you go back to your normal day job,” Virts said.

With social media, it has also become easier to get to know them.

“It also helps that we just have more access to them... they’re online, they’re tweeting, they’re posting on Instagram. It’s easier to get a glimpse into their lives. And I think that’s, that really can make a difference for people who you know, are like, ‘Why does the space program matter?’” Koren said.

Since retiring, Virts continues to be an advocate of space exploration. In his new book, “How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth,” Virts wrote is a compilation of essays about his time in space, including some stories you might not expect such as giving his crewmate’s pixie cut a trim while in low-gravity.

Prior to his 2014 launch, Virts went to his crewmate Samantha Cristoforetti’s hairdresser to learn how to do a proper woman’s haircut. Cristoforetti is Italian and a European Space Agency astronaut.

“When I signed up to be an F-16 pilot, I did not expect that I would have to do that,” Virts quipped. “She sat there and for two and a half hours, I worked on her hair. This lady taught me how to do her hair. So it was, it was interesting. It was definitely a life-experience bucket list item.”

Virts also described the Earth-sounds astronauts crave in the vacuum of space and the noises that take him back.

“When I got back to Earth, I was worried that I would be missing space and I would be one of the guys that all I want to do is go back to space again. And that hasn’t been my case at all. I enjoy Earth. It’s pretty awesome,” Virts said. “But every once in a while I’ll hear a story or I’ll see a video of me or something will trigger it and like it’ll then all of a sudden I’m back in space, I can close my eyes and I am on the space station.”

During his expedition, Virts took a note from his Russian crewmate and started listening to sounds of nature. He would fall asleep listening rain sounds. One weekend, Virts and his crewmates created a fake rainstorm using the laptops on the station.

“We took all the laptops on the station, there’s probably 50 laptops, and I would just hit play on the rain and so like it was raining on the ISS,” he said. “It was like, just that rain, the sound of a nice gentle rainstorm that kind you love to fall asleep too.”

As for the weird stuff astronauts get asked about such as “How is the Crew Dragon bathroom?” It comes down to the relatable notion, we’re all human, says Byrne.

“It’s like the one thing that makes us all human, right? We all have to, everybody poops,” Byrne said. “That’s the one commonality that we can have right off the bat with these, you know, heroes, and these folks that are put in such high regard for their skills and their smarts. But they all have to deal with the same basic human needs, like going to the bathroom, or showering or eating.”

But a space toilet is also a fascinating story of technology and engineering, says Byrne. In fact, NASA just spent $23 million developing a new waste management system for the space station.

“Coming up with the right technology that’s reliable and can deal with waste is just a fascinating, fascinating story, which is why I think I was so interested. It started with a childish question I had and led into this, you know, incredible engineering challenge that, you know, engineers have been working on since you know, the first humans went into suborbital and an orbital flight.”

A kid-like curiosity can often inspire the best questions, said Virts, but also some of the toughest.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley say goodbye to their families before heading to the launch pad on May 27, 2020. The astronauts rode in a Tesla to the pad. (WKMG 2020)

“Sometimes they ask, like detailed astrophysics questions about dark matter and strong and weak Nuclear Forces. I mean, these little 10-year-olds will get in the super complicated stuff they learned in class,” the veteran astronaut said.

People who have been to space see the world from a perspective that most will never experience. They are some of the most gifted and interesting people on the planet but when it comes down to it, they’re just everyday people.

“While astronauts are celebrities, national treasures, they’re regular people just like us,” Koren said.

One of the deepest connections people have to astronauts is for their families.

“They are dads, they were the SpaceX dads is what we call them in the (press) core, you know, they were the SpaceX dads. And I think that’s important to remember that these are human beings,” Byrne said. “They’re real people that have real problems and families here on earth and he can never forget that.”

Space Curious is a podcast from WKMG and Graham Media that answers your intergalactic questions. Hosted by WKMG space reporter Emilee Speck, each episode is designed to inspire everyone, from the space curious to the space fanatics. Questions for the podcast can be submitted here.

Subscribe or follow wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Google Play. New episodes drop every other Wednesday.

Subscribe to a weekly newsletter to receive the latest in space news directly to your inbox here.

About the Author:

Emilee is a digital journalist for News 6 and, where she writes about space and Central Florida news. Previously, Emilee was a space writer and web editor for the Orlando Sentinel and a producer at the Naples Daily News.