Starting a Skype interview with NASA astronauts while they are in outer space goes something like this:
NASA: InStyle magazine, this is mission control Houston. Please call station for a voice check.
INSTYLE: Station, this is InStyle magazine. Do you hear me?
ANNE MCCLAIN: We hear ya just fine. Welcome aboard the Space Station.
At the time of our video call in April, McClain and fellow flight engineer Christina Koch are in the midst of an overlapping four-month stint on the International Space Station. Their collective mission includes studying the effects of microgravity on the human body and space-grown plants. Though it’s all in a day’s work for the astronauts, for those of us back on Earth who have grown up on films that provide endless intergalactic wonder, it’s ... beyond. Both McClain and Koch share that sense of amazement. “Being here with Christina and the rest of our crew is like having the coolest job and getting to do it with your best friends,” says McClain.
They have been pals since they were selected for the same astronaut class in 2013 but ended up taking very different paths to the stars: McClain is a West Point military academy graduate and veteran Army pilot who studied mechanical and aeronautical engineering; Koch worked as an electrical engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and in high-energy astrophysics. On March 29 all eyes were on them as they were scheduled to become the first-ever female space-walk duo, but McClain (who’d already completed her first space walk a week earlier, with U.S. astronaut Nick Hague) decided not to take part in the historic mission due to safety concerns about wearing a spacesuit that was, unfortunately, a size too big. It may have been a major WTF moment on the ground — and even prompted a Saturday Night Live skit — but the astronauts weren’t fazed. By the time this article goes to print, McClain will have returned to terra firma, while Koch’s residency has been extended to February 2020. This puts her in prime position to break the record for longest continuous space flight by a woman (now 288 days, held by NASA’s Peggy Whitson). And from there, not even the sky is the limit.
How does it feel to be on the International Space Station together?
ANNE MCCLAIN: We’ve grown up together professionally. We still remember talking on Day 1 about what it’s going to be like [in space]. Holy cow, fast-forward a couple of years and I’m opening a hatch for all the astronauts to come through. Knowing what they’re about to experience and getting to share that with them — it’s awesome.
What have you learned from each other?
CHRISTINA KOCH: Anne taught me the value of leadership. It’s different when you come from a science and engineering background [as opposed to the military]. We don’t have the same hierarchy. And it’s quite fitting because Anne is now the lead of the U.S. side of the Space Station.
AM: Christina is someone who challenges me to be better. She’s one of the most technically proficient people I’ve ever met. I call her “the MacGyver” because she can fix anything with any tool you hand her.
What is your day-to-day like?
CK: We do maintenance around the station or conduct science experiments like someone in a laboratory might do. I was lucky enough to be the official gardener [for one experiment], learning about growing food in space so that, hopefully, one day astronauts can grow their own food on long missions. I kept the little guys alive long enough to harvest them, and we had a nice dinner together as a crew to celebrate. Obviously, preparing for space walks can be very exciting. One neat thing about the Space Station program right now is that since we have so few astronauts aboard — currently six — each of us has to be qualified to do everything.
What do you do in your downtime?
AM: There isn’t a lot of that since we work 12-hour days [five days a week]. But we do movie nights in a little theater that we set up. And by far everyone’s favorite thing to do is look back at Earth. It’s hard to register that you’re seeing it with your bare eyes.
How do you stay connected to the ground?
AM: We have a great NASA support team that uplinks the nightly news. And if we have favorite TV shows or movies or sporting events, they can uplink those too. We also have access to the Internet just like we would on the ground. We have email. And we video-conference with our families about once a week. We feel pretty connected up here.
You didn’t get to do the space walk together as planned, but you did separate walks. Can you describe the experience?
AM: Surreal. You’re putting yourself in an environment that humans were never designed to operate in and relying on sophisticated equipment just to keep yourself alive. Right before I went out I stared down, and all I could see were my visor and Earth. I couldn’t see any of the space station. I couldn’t see any handrails. I just watched the earth go by. You fall back on your training and say, “OK, well, if the handrail is supposed to be here, I hope that’s where it is!” You just do it. And then, at the end of the day, you look back and it’s hard to comprehend what you just did.
CK: It’s a consolidation of everything you’ve learned up to that point in your life, technically and mentally. It’s your moment — both for the teams on the ground who trained you, who are counting on you, and for yourself.
What has been the most frustrating part about living in zero gravity?
AM: It’s actually awesome. Everything is better when you’re floating. Every task you do is fun. You get up in the morning, get coffee, look around, and think, “Wow, I’m floating!” The most surprising thing is how normal it feels after a little while. It’s amazing how quickly the human body adapts. The most frustrating part is how quickly you can lose something. Things could be gone for days. [laughs]
What do you think is the toughest part about being an astronaut right now?
CK: In some ways I feel like the toughest parts are behind us. In the last five years of our training, we underwent an entire transformation. I learned how to pilot high-speed aircrafts. We all learned how to do space walks, how to operate the robotic arm, and how to speak Russian [to communicate with the Russian cosmonauts on the station]. Getting through that felt like an uphill battle, and now we’re putting it all to use.
Is this the general uniform you wear every day? Or do you get to switch it up?
AM: Up in space we don’t have a huge wardrobe. What you see is pretty typical of what we wear. It’s functional and somewhat professional. We have Velcro on our cargo pants to carry things around because you need your hands to walk with. We end up sticking to things a lot. But, yes, this is the fashion. We call it “space high fashion.” [laughs]
Have you thought about what you want to do next?
CK: I want to stay with NASA for many years. I love this organization, and I feel like I’m just getting started. I also want to begin a nonprofit down the road. It intimidates me, but I’m always looking for things that feel like they’re just outside my reach.
AM: This is an amazing time to be an astronaut. We’re flying two new commercial vehicles over the next couple years. NASA just announced its goal of putting boots on the moon in the next five years. And eventually I’d like to give back too. I think I’ve just decided I’m going to go work for Christina’s nonprofit! [laughs]
Do you have advice for young women looking to get into science?
CK: Don’t live your life according to a checklist of what you should do to achieve X, Y, or Z. Follow the path you love. Do what scares you. When you do achieve those things, it will have the most impact for you personally and for the world around you. And support people. I think when we pay attention to elevating everyone, the outcome is far better than it could ever be if we were all doing it on our own.
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 19.