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"I brushed my teeth in space"

July 21, 2011

Catherine Coleman says the space program has become more diverse, to include more women, like her. She adds that temporary Russian stewardship of manned space flight is "in the hands of the right people."

Catherine Coleman went on two shuttle missions in 1995 and 1999
Cady Coleman served on shuttle missions in 1995 and 1999Image: DW/Christina Bergmann

On Thursday, the space shuttle Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, marking the completion of the final shuttle mission. To learn more about where the American space program is going, Deutsche Welle turned to Col. Catherine "Cady" Coleman (Ret., USAF), a NASA astronaut, and served on the 1995 and 1999 missions aboard the shuttle Columbia. She also lived aboard on the International Space Station from December 2010 to May 2011.

Deutsche Welle: Ms. Coleman, as an astronaut, what are your thoughts about the last shuttle mission?

Catherine Coleman: Well, I'm a little sad because you know something that has served us so well. The space shuttle fleet has helped us build the international space station (ISS). I just got back from there about a month ago, lived there for six months and it's like a little-known secret, that we have this world up there and this world is a space station - it's as big as a giant airplane, there is lots of room, we have six people on board, we have power, we have data, we have experiments, we have everything but time.

Atlantis took off on July 7, 2011 for its final mission.
Atlantis took off on July 7, 2011 for its final mission.Image: AP

Actually, I found myself challenged by just literally not enough hours in the day to do all the work that we would really love to do up there. So when I think about the space shuttle, and you know this being the last flight of the last space shuttle, I'm sad and at the same time, this is the time. They have done their work, and I think about the present which is the space station and I think about the future which is other places. We'll be going there.

Is there a danger that the United States will be losing their leadership role in spaceflight?

I don't think so, in that we have our place in spaceflight and right now, what we need to look at is how to go further. And I think, you know, being really mired in the details of going up and down to the space station which we now know how to do and certainly the Russians know how to do, you know we have basically contracted that out and so we have a way for people to get up and down and use the resources that we have right now by working on the space station. And it leaves the US free to be using all that brainpower for new vehicles and new exploration.

So it is time now to be going to an asteroid and then to Mars and then even further…

It is time to do that now. Do we wish we were already doing it, that we already had a new vehicle that we weren't going to lose the expertise of some of the people that will retire or leave their jobs? Yes, at least I personally wish for those things, but it's not our present situation and I think in terms of making the best of things we are actually in a pretty good place to be looking at new things.

Space shuttle Atlantis landed safely on Thursday morning
Space shuttle Atlantis landed safely on Thursday morningImage: dapd

What was the most remarkable thing you have experienced during you time aboard ISS?

I loved the fact that I woke up every day and I was still in space. I mean, I lived in space, I brushed my teeth in space. You know, I worked every day and so I would wake up and open the door of my cabin and float into the lab for the morning conference. And everyday would remind me that I was living in a pretty special place and I had some exciting work to do.

You have flown with the Russian Soyuz rocket to ISS as well as with the space shuttle. American astronauts have to take the Soyuz for the next several years to get up to ISS – do you think that is ok?

I think it's more than ok to be going on the Soyuz. I loved going on the Soyuz. I mean this is a vehicle, the Russians know how to launch this, they know how to land this, they know how to build them. I think that we have put ourselves in the hands of the right people. And for me personally it was a wonderful experience, in that the space shuttle is marvelous but you are, you know, six or seven people inside a big airplane ship structure and I was one of three people in a tiny capsule and that's a pretty special way to orbit the planet.

You're one of the few women actually in space. So what has the space shuttle done for women in spaceflight?

The space shuttle, because the crews are larger, has made it possible for real people of all sorts to go to space and I know that for me personally it took meeting a woman astronaut who looked a little bit like me and had some of the same qualifications, for me to realize that: hey this could be me. Just looking at the, you know, the Mercury Seven [the first American astronauts] I didn't relate to that. I like the fact that we've got role models in orbit now. You know, of all sizes, shapes, colors, genders, everything. People are going to space and I think that that really inspires the younger generation.

And that's the legacy of the space shuttle, that people can go to space?

I think it is. The fact that a lot of people don't realize that. They don't think it is a big deal that a space shuttle takes off. That is truly remarkable and amazing and it means that we've made space travel part of normal life and that's I think a pretty good step.

Do you think it will stay that way, whatever comes next?

I think the first time we do something and, look at today, the last time we do something it just causes people to reflect on how special it is. Whenever there is some kind of anniversary, or first or last and so the first flight of new vehicles is gonna be really special.

Atlantis logo
Atlantis will now be decommissioned and displayed at the Kennedy Space CenterImage: NASA

And I think we'll see all these crowds of news people out there for that as well. And you know the last flight of the shuttle is special but you know for somebody who works in the business, I'll tell you every flight is special, every flight is significant. It is still a big deal for people to leave the planet.

You've said that the shuttle was the beginning of normal people in spaceflight, of female astronauts. Will women keep participating in spaceflight even after the shuttle era has ended?

I can't think that we would leave behind some of our most qualified citizens of the planet. It's not even comprehensible to me, you know it takes a team to go to space. Women stereotypically bring some things to that team, as do men and you need everything and everybody.

Interview: Christina Bergmann, Kennedy Space Center
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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