The 400-kilometre trip from the Earth’s surface to space, on a rocket travelling at a speed of over 28,100km per hour, lasts nine minutes. Molecular biologist and Nasa astronaut Dr Kate Rubins has made the journey twice. Ahead of her touchdown in New Zealand for an educational tour around the North Island, Rubins tells reporter Maryana Garcia how her childhood dreams came true.
The one thing Dr Kate Rubins misses most about being in space is the view.
“The first time I went to space, I just couldn’t believe it,” Rubins said.
“Your brain is trying to process what it feels like to float, and then you look out the window and you can see the Earth.
“It is this glowing, beautiful blue marble. It is so bright. We don’t capture that in pictures.”
Rubins will be doing her best to tell New Zealanders of all ages about what she saw in four free-admission presentations across Palmerston North, Taupō, Rotorua and Tauranga from January 8 - 10.
Rubins’ visit to the country was organised by Stem Wana Trust as part of a community initiative aimed at connecting young people with real-life heroes in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
“I just want them to think about how interesting space is - how cool it is to look out at the universe.”
Rubins knows first-hand how “cool” that view can be. The astronaut said she often spent her breaks on the International Space Station “lost” in wonder.
“There’s an area on the space station called the ‘cupola’ where we have a lot of windows.
“You can go in there and you can curl up into a ball and fit yourself in these windows. You see all around you.”
From her perch, Rubins could trace the flow of the Amazon River and count “thunderstorm fireworks” over Africa.
“It takes 90 minutes to go around the earth, usually about 45 minutes in darkness and 45 minutes in light.”
As she listened to music on her headphones and looked out at the “brightness of the earth in the very cold vacuum of space”, Rubins would sometimes ask herself:
“How did I get here?”
Five-year-old Rubins wanted to be an astronaut, a biologist and a geologist.
“That was my plan. It was a childhood dream.”
For Rubins’ 12th birthday, she asked for her own subscription to Sky and Telescope magazine.
“Mostly, I would do things like cut out the really pretty pictures of nebulas and galaxies, and I’d paste them on my wall.
“I had this big mural of all these astronomy pictures and shuttle launches and that kind of thing.”
Years later, working as a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s world-renowned Whitehead Institute, Rubins had fulfilled one of her original childhood dreams.
The road to fulfilling Rubins’ second dream, a job at Nasa, began with a joke.
“I was 28. One of my friends and I were writing a grant and trying to waste a little bit of time.”
Rubins’ friend spotted an online job advertisment calling for astronauts. They joked about filling in applications.
“She intended it as a joke and didn’t actually apply, but I missed that, so I applied.”
Rubins said she went through the whole year-long selection process thinking there was no way Nasa would hire her.
Then Rubins found herself in a class of astronauts-in-training that included fighter pilots, physicists and engineers.
“It was a very diverse group from all over the United States, and abroad as well.”
The group spent the first two years of training studying “the basics” of spaceflight, which included space station systems, how to do experiments in space and survival skills.
“We need to do wilderness survival and sea survival because if we have an emergency, we could need to undock at any time. Then we could land anywhere on the globe, essentially.
“So, we want to make sure the crews are prepared for any kind of contingency.”
Scientists in the programme, like Rubins, also learnt to fly T-6 and T-38 aircraft.
“I taught [the pilots] how to do molecular biology and they taught me how to fly. I think I got the better end of the deal.”
On top of their two years’ basic training, astronauts assigned to a mission typically complete another two-and-a-half years of mission training before going to space, usually for a period of six months.
Sitting on top of a rocket ready to launch, Rubins said she was grateful for the years of hard work.
“You have a minute or two of questioning your life’s decisions. But there’s no way to back out at that point.
“You’re not focused on feelings, because your brain is so laser-focused on everything you need to do to make sure that the launch goes absolutely perfectly.
“You go from being on Earth to being accelerated at [over 28,100km/ph] to orbiting the Earth, 400km up. That happens in nine minutes.”
Rubins only thought about where she was when she unbuckled her seatbelt and noticed things floating.
“That’s the time that you really have the opportunity to think, ‘Wow, I’m still alive, that’s great’.”
Rubins made two spaceflight missions, logging a total of 300 days outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.
During her time on the International Space Station, Rubins became the first person to successfully sequence samples of mouse, bacteria and virus DNA in microgravity.
She also conducted four spacewalks.
Today, back on Earth, Rubins runs the Nasa spacewalk and robotics branch. Part of her job is to work on new space suits for the next astronauts to set foot on the moon.
But in January, Rubins will be taking a break to visit New Zealand, inspire young people to pursue Stem careers and, hopefully, fit in a hike or two.
“I’m just going to try and see as much of New Zealand as I can.”
Beating the shortage: The reasons behind Stem Wana Trust’s community initiative
STEMFest founder Tia Lush said there was going to be a global shortage of people entering the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“We want to change that by connecting tamariki and rangatahi with real-life Stem heroes so they can see themselves becoming role models.
“What could be more aspirational than meeting with a record-breaking scientist and astronaut?”
Lush said Stem Wana Trust, the organisers of Tauranga STEMFest, believed that education in the sector was not equal across Aotearoa.
“This is due to many factors [such as] funding and support available within the school, lack of access to internet, remote and rural locations preventing connecting with extracurricular groups and opportunities, intergenerational and cultural barriers in small communities and young people thinking Stem is ‘not for them’.
“Because of these reasons, we see a lot of groups fall behind through no fault of their own, and want to work to change mindsets.”
Lush said Dr Kate Rubin’s tour brought a unique opportunity to a few of the places that may not get the same options as large urban cities.
“We’ve made an effort to invite attendees from neighbouring small towns and communities, so that we can make as much of an impact as possible for the next generation of Stem superstars.”
Lush said keeping Rubins’ presentation events free to attend was key to accessible learning.
“We hope that by attending our events, participants will gain and foster a new love and passion for Stem, so that they can see themselves being the next Dr Kate Rubins.”
Meet Dr Kate Rubins
Where and when: January 9 at 12.30pm at Taupō Library, 4pm at Rotorua Library and 6pm at 122 The Strand, Tauranga
What: A public presentation by Dr Kate Rubins followed by a question-and-answer session. The Tauranga event will include activities like a gravity visualiser, interactive astronomy displays, star viewing with telescopes, water rocket launching and face painting. There will also be popcorn and candy-floss available.
Tickets: Free, but you need to register via the STEM Wana Trust’s website