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Cady Coleman - Spacial Connection: An astronaut's insights on staying connected from any realm

Cady Coleman blog

After spending 159 days in orbit around Earth, Cady Coleman returned from her mission to the International Space Station with fresh perspectives on the human condition.

Cady Coleman has spent more than 170 days in outer space on various missions and truly knows what it means to be isolated. Despite our differences, she says we are all on a mission together during these times of change and uncertainty. In this episode, Cady explains the importance of diversity within teams and how seeing other people’s perspectives can help us work better together and get through difficult times.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Cady Coleman, hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio.

Tom:                          This is Tom Martin. Welcome to Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Join us as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the global food supply chain and speak with experts working to support a Planet of Plenty.


Mark:                          Hello and welcome to the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience. My name is Dr. Mark Lyons and I’m the president and CEO of Alltech. It's my great pleasure to welcome you to the first session of this event. For 35 years, ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference has been encouraging our attendees to think differently, to innovate in the face of disruption, and that's what we've done with our program this year: creating, for the first time, a virtual offering — something that we've been hoping to do for a number of years. At this time more than any other, these world-changing ideas, big-picture thinking and, more importantly, inspiration are perhaps what we all need a little bit of. So, we hope that these sessions are very useful for you, and we look forward to the interaction that we're going to have in our Q&A sessions. Fitting that this is our launch day, it seems most appropriate that our first keynote (speaker) has been to space and back.


Tom:                          Cady Coleman, chemist, two-time space shuttle astronaut and a pretty good flute player — we'll have more on that later — was aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule as part of a crew of three headed for the orbiting International Space Station on December 15, 2010.


Cady:                          It's an amazing ride. It's 8 and a half minutes to get to space. To me, as a person that just believes there's always more to define and explore in terms of ideas, in terms of horizons, in some ways, you know, even though I loved this ride, it's actually like the taxi to the place that we're really exploring, which was space.


Tom:                          In a virtual conversation with Alltech president and CEO Mark Lyons, Cady Coleman lifts us, in a time of so much turmoil, illness and uncertainty on our planet, to the unique and profound perspective of a perch looking down on Earth from 220 miles above.


Cady:                          To me, I used to think that space was someplace different — like, “I'm on Earth. I'm gonna go to space.” But actually arriving up there, it just made me realize that Earth and the place that we live is just bigger than we thought, and yet, it's home.


Tom:                          This is Cady’s story about experiencing half a year of living in weightlessness with five other people from very different countries and cultures.


Cady:                          People always feel kind of bad for us that it's small and terrible up in space. And I think they have this kind of image in mind. This is what the taxi ride looks like on the way up to space in the Russian Soyuz. So, I launched in and actually came back home to Russia for my stint up on the Space Station. And it is actually quite, quite tight. And even though it's only physically 8 and a half minutes to get there, to get to orbit, we actually spent, you know, hours and hours and hours practicing and getting ready and making sure we understand how to operate all the equipment in the Soyuz. So, it is small, but the Space Station itself is giant and huge.


Tom:                          How huge?


Cady:                          It's like 10 train cars all put together, but not just in a row; some are up, and then some are down, and some are sideways. And so, we have, really, these 10 train cars without the seats in them to be living in in that Space Station. We have really just a lot of room up there — privacy. And actually, we need all that room to keep all the equipment, to keep the experiments. I mean, storage is actually the biggest problem up there.


Tom:                          Okay. Let's back up just a bit. Cady mentioned practice. You don't just one day drop what you're doing and you board a rocket ship and escape Earth's gravity for almost a half-year aboard the Space Station.


Cady:                          So, I had some pretty exciting practice missions, so to speak. I got to live for 11 days underwater off the coast of Florida in the Aquarius Habitat. It's usually used for research, and it's also lent out to NASA for us to practice. Well, the other place that I got to do that is Antarctica, where I had a last-minute opportunity. I was the backup for this mission, and I had a last-minute opportunity to spend two and a half months in Antarctica. Six weeks of that was in a tent. There were four of us, two in each tent. And we were 200 miles from the South Pole. And I am not a camping girl. But where I wasn't camping girl, I sure am now. And that's the nice thing about these kind of jobs is they actually teach you all these things and how to stay safe — although I'm actually reminded of some of my lessons from Antarctica in terms of, you know, equipment and safety and, you know, for us to take your gloves off when you're outside as much as you want to.


                                    I mean, you’re wearing, you know, three layers of everything, and let’s say you have to go to the bathroom during the day, which is going to happen. You know, you’re just so tempted to take those gloves off, because it’d be so much easier — your zipper is Velcro, all those things — and (it was all about) learning that patience of just, “Slow is fast and I have more time than I think.”


Tom:                          Learning to survive in such unusual and uncomfortable conditions may have been the immediate goal, but for Cady, there was another benefit that would serve her well aboard the Space Station.


Cady:                          I’d say most of the lessons I learned were about people, about being a crew.


Tom:                          And that perspective about people learning to get along and cooperate, collaborate.


Cady:                          Forty different nations (are) working all together every day — it's an International Space Station — on work that can't be done anywhere else.


Tom:                          So, what's it like, day to day, living and working in zero gravity, where just the touch of a finger can send you literally flying across the entire Space Station?


Cady:                          It's like living the life of Peter Pan, and everything is different, and everything is a discovery, but we're still human. You know, we bring our own, you know, things that we love to do. We each have our own way of bringing that experience back home. And we each, as humans, look out at the Earth and get to think about what it means that we're in space and people are down on the Earth.


Tom:                          And Cady, displaying a photo of herself with her Space Station crewmates, tells us that this situation — six people from the U.S., Russia and Italy together in this fragile habitat, circling Earth — offers a lesson that can be lost in the demands, the routines and the realities of life.


Cady:                          Every single person in this picture, I guarantee you, feels like there's something about them that is theirs that they bring that other people either don't know, don't understand or aren't open to. And so, I think it's really important to think about that — especially now that we don't get to connect with each other as much as we used to, now that we're isolated to phone calls and Zoom meetings and things like that.


Tom:                          And here's where Cady’s story gets really interesting, bringing together the experience of a long-duration space mission with present-day conditions down below — a pandemic, racial injustice and the challenges of overcoming differences to work in collaboration.


Cady:                          (Here’s) a little bit about getting along as a crew, and I say this because I think all of us are, you know, in unusual circumstances right now in terms of isolation and it being, you know, smart to stay separated from friends and family sometimes, but also at work, at school. I mean, I think that all of us work in groups where we don't get to pick who we are working with.


Tom:                          During her presentation, Cady mentions a recent hit movie.


[Movie clip]


Tom:                          An important eye-opener for many, an affirmation of injustice for many others.


Cady:                          I show you this picture from the movie “Hidden Figures” because I think, first of all, if I was talking to you in person, I would ask who's seen this movie, and then I would implore those of you that didn't raise your hands to go and see it. I mean, first of all, it's a fabulous movie. It's fun; it's interesting. I think it's just really charming. And at the same time, it makes this really big point. I mean, this is Katherine Johnson. She has a doctorate in mathematics, and she did the calculations that figured out how we get people from the Earth to space and safely back home again to their families, and (she) did this for Gemini, for Mercury, for Apollo and for the space shuttle, and yet her work was not celebrated until very late in her life. I mean, look at this picture. Our movie is called “Hidden Figures”. And in every picture that I've seen of her in in real life, Katherine is wearing — she’s a woman of color wearing a dress of color and (is) typically in a work picture in a sea of white guys in skinny black ties. And so, there's — I mean, you can't miss her. Right? But we didn't see her. And it comes back to my point that all of us bring something that needs to come out on the table if we're going to solve the problems that are in front of us today as a nation, as a world, as a planet.


Tom:                          Cady herself has encountered discrimination as an obstacle to realizing her dream of space walking. The women of “Hidden Figures” encountered (this) and persevered despite the dual blows of racism and misogyny. Cady, who is white, never experienced the pain of being underestimated because of the color of her skin. For her, it had to do with stature and gender.


Cady:                          Myself, I was the smallest person to be part of the space-walking team up on the Space Station. And it was kind of a big thing because, for the space shuttle, we had small space suits and mediums and larges and extra larges. But for the Space Station, they couldn't afford to have all those sizes, for various reasons. And what that meant was the smaller people, like me — actually, all of them women — then did not fit into the suits that we had on the Space Station. And I was on that edge. I mean, I looked at the space suit and I knew that I had a job that I could do in that space suit. I knew that I brought things to that team that others didn't. And I cheerfully showed up to meetings that I wasn't invited to, not because people said, “Oh, I don't think we're going to ask Cady, we don’t like her,” or anything else. It was just that they looked at me and they just couldn't imagine that I should be part of that team — but I knew. And when it’s something as important as exploring space, it gives you that extra, like, you know, that extra courage to just say, “I know. I am showing up.”


Tom:                          Cady, now herself a role model for many young women, had one of her own: the first American woman to fly in space, astronaut Sally Ride.


Cady:                          She actually made all the difference in the world in that — my dad was an explorer. He lived under the ocean. He was in charge of the building one of those capsules where men lived under the ocean. He was a deep-sea diver, and exploration was really real to me growing up. I was born in 1960, and yet the fact that I could be one of those explorers never occurred to me until Sally Ride came to my college and gave a talk. And I just thought — you know, you see somebody that you can relate to — and I just thought, “Wow. Maybe I could try to do that.”


Tom:                          And try, she did. More than try. Cady Coleman has logged more than 4,300 hours in space. The mission to the International Space Station, where she supervised more than 100 experiments, was her last before retiring from the Astronaut Corps in 2016. She has since been an advocate of expanding the role of private companies within NASA. And the recent SpaceX Dragon launch, carrying a crew of two to the Space Station, is the most dramatic example yet of the success of those efforts.



[SpaceX launch]


Tom:                          After her own 159 days in Earth orbit, Cady Coleman returned from the Space Station with fresh perspectives on the human condition, gained from weeks on end cooped up with five other human beings. The only thing between them and the deadly vacuum of space? A one-tenth of 1-inch aluminum pressure hull of the orbiting Space Station. Under these conditions, you really gain a more complex understanding of your crewmates.


Cady:                          And so, realizing that everyone has those different perspectives, it’s another way to think about, you know, how we relate to each other. The fact that when we look down at the Earth — I mean, our Space Station is pretty close there. Because we’re upside down and right side up, we learned to think about things and see things differently.


Tom:                          Cady Coleman’s advice has particular resonance in these times of division and increasing difficulty to communicate with people who view life differently.


Cady:                          Try to bring that to the conversations that you have at work, at home. When you're trying to convince someone of something new that is unfamiliar to them, try to look at them from a different direction, and find out something for yourself about them that allows you to work more closely together.


Tom:                          Recently, as the spread of the coronavirus mushroomed into a pandemic, Cady reached back to her experiences as a member of a team on a mission to suggest that we're now all on a mission.


Cady:                          We have this advantage as space explorers that, you know, we're part of a mission. I mean, we have jackets, you know; we’re wearing space suits. And it's really clear to you that, you know, you've got a job to do, and a lot of people are helping you do it. And so, it's easy to think, “It's important for me to be ready, and all these actions, they're important.” But I think with COVID-19, the mission can be less tangible. And just the fact that you can stay in your house with your family and stay safe and not do some of the things you'd like to do, it doesn't feel like this like step forward, mastering the engine systems — and yet it is. It's a step toward the mission. I think what can help people is just identifying. Give it a name. You know, this is the mission: staying safe. And these are the things we're doing today. And by focusing on that mission — I mean, to me, it’s interesting that I think the whole world understands this word “mission” in a different way because of this pandemic.


Tom:                          There was a Q&A portion during Cady’s virtual presentation, and COVID-19 was on the mind of Alltech’s Mark Lyons.


Mark:                          I think, through COVID-19, we're all hoping that there's some positive, there's some kind of silver lining, something that we're going to gain in terms of perspective. But I think there's also a sense that maybe we picked things up, we learned something, but then we maybe lose it. So, I wonder, you know, through your experiences, you know, having that new perspective, how do you make sure that what you learn, you can retain, and what do you think you did learn from that time in space?


Cady:                          Wow. You know, I was going to say that, you know, I see a lot positive happening. You know, there's sort of this, I call it, “activation energy” or some barrier to change, to doing something differently, and yet, you know, something helps you over that barrier, and in this case, the need during COVID-19 for people to solve all sorts of problems together, it's just there — and I see this. I see it on the internet. I see it in the news. Different people coming together, seeing something that they can do together and doing it. You know, asking each other, helping each other. Competitors making things together. I mean, it's so hopeful. You know, in the case of Alltech, I know you think so much about the planet and how your work is, you know, good for sustainability, for the planet, and people realize that's even more imperative now that, suddenly, the food chain is more real to all of us.


Tom:                          Now, about that flute…


[Music playing]


Tom:                          Cady is a member of the astronaut group, Bandella, performing here at the Folk Alliance Conference in 2015. At one event, the band had been invited onstage with Ireland's legendary Chieftains.


Cady:                          When I was at NASA, Paddy Moloney, who's the leader of the Chieftains, his son was an intern at NASA. And he actually stayed with a family that was kind of just a — they were just the people that were so good at gathering. I mean, (they) gathered people like me: all these people that love to play (music) but don't really play together. And it was a group of like 18 of us that would play some form of Celtic music, and then we ended up in small groups. And so, I knew Padraig, Paddy’s son, from my days there playing music. And when it came to going to the Space Station, one of the things I thought about was, you know, how do I bring people with me, and what's important to me, if I get to bring a few things, what's important to bring? And I really loved the spirit of Irish music. And I actually had decided I would learn how to play the Irish flute. Now, this doesn't mean that I knew how to play the Irish flute or that I, even though I carried it around with me on the road, that I learned enough. But I was inspired to go through Padraig to Paddy and to ask if I could bring some flutes with me to space. And by that time, actually, I knew the whole band. When they would come to town, we would go. And our astronaut band would get to be their guests, coming out on stage at the end, or they would kindly play along quite a bit.


                                    Anyway. So, I knew them, and Matt Malloy sent this flute that is like, I think, a treasure of Ireland. It’s an E flat Irish flute and just this beautiful instrument. A little bit smaller, for somebody like me, with small hands. And Paddy sent a tin whistle, and I brought them up to space. I brought a couple flutes. Every flute has its own little T-shirt that it was wrapped in so the pieces wouldn’t float away. And it just gave me really great pleasure to be up in that cupula looking out over the world and playing music. It kind of brings me into a little place that’s just mine. And it’s the same place where I come when I’m down here on the Earth, but then I got to go that place in space and look out at the world and just kind of, I don’t know, just feel a little more settled.


Tom:                          It would not be Cady’s only orbit-to-Earth performance with a legendary artist; there was another duet with the flute of the legendary Jethro Tull.


Cady:                          Tonight, Ian Anderson and I would like to honor Yuri Gagarin for his brave journey 50 years ago, and we would like to celebrate the role that humans play in the exploration of our universe, past, present and future, by sharing some music between Earth and space.


[Music playing]


Tom:                          Again, Mark Lyons.


Mark:                          You know, one of the questions we keep getting, obviously, given your background and our present time of social distancing and isolation is: Given the experience you had, of course, in the tent in Antarctica, under the ocean and in the Space Station, how do people respond? You know, what ways should we think about this isolation? You had, you know, professional, obviously, the best training in the world preparing for that. For a lot of us, we've been shutting doors all of a sudden. So, are there any tips that you might share with the audience?


Cady:                          You know, some of them are, you know, kind of like family tips where, you know, I look at — and you say, “Well, you got professional help.” It's surprisingly not as much as you might think, you know. We kind of have to put those things together for ourselves. But you know, when there's some behavior that is causing strife or some situation, (the best thing to do) is to think, sort of, further than the situation. It's almost like — I think back to when our kid was little and there'd be some, you know, bad behavior after picking up from school in the first few weeks of school. And you know, what I learned about — and I actually had somebody, you know, to help me talk through some of these things, because we commuted, but anyways. But you know, picking him up from school — I mean, this is a kid that’s, like, worked really hard all day long to hold it together, and then there he is with the people that he loves and you just lose it, right? And don't behave as well. And so, do you deal with the behavior, or do you think about what the reason is? And I think it has some applications to our time now.


                                    You know, I found, in our family, we're all kind of a little grumpy when it got to, like, dinner. First of all, we're hungry. And second, you know, we have three adults who are all working full-time from the same house, and suddenly it’s 6 o’clock, and who was in charge of figuring out what to eat? And so, you know, we ended up, you know, coming up with a little bit more of a system and actually acknowledging like, “Hey, everybody, you know, I thought I —” You just feel like you're the only one working, when actually, all of us are working really hard. So, recognizing the behaviors and then realizing that there's probably some, you know, there's some things behind them.


                                    And the hardest thing that we don't actually have to wrestle with much in space, I don't think, is that we know (that), eventually, we're coming home. I mean, it's pretty finite. I mean, I was up there for 6 months, and you know, the mission was extended by 2 weeks, which I was incredibly thrilled about, but I mean, it's still finite. Whereas with COVID-19, there's a lot of uncertainties — and uncertainties about finances, about dreams, about what you're going to be able to do next. And I guess really just owning that uncertainty, I think, is really helpful — realizing that it's hard, and don't expect it to be easy, and just acknowledge you're working through hard things.


[Music playing]


Tom:                          Astronaut Cady Coleman with Alltech president and CEO Mark Lyons, launching the 2020 Alltech ONE Virtual Experience. If you're interested in seeing Cady’s view from space, and to watch more video content from other thought leaders from around the world, register at I'm Tom Martin, and this has been Ag Future, presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us, and be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts — and leave a review if you’ve enjoyed this episode.


Click here to register for the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience