NASA Astronaut Says Floating In Space Is Like Being a Superhero: 'It Is That Cool'

Imagine having a job so good that you never wanted to come home from work.

For Mike Fincke, this is a reality. Fincke, 54, is a NASA astronaut who has spent over a year in space—at one time holding the national record.

Since reaching space for the first time in 2004, Fincke has travelled aboard Russian Soyuz capsules and NASA's Space Shuttle Endeavour orbiter. He is also due to fly on the first crewed flight of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule at the end of this year or the start of 2022.

Today is National Astronaut Day in the U.S., a date created by the UniPhi space agency to promote the work that astronauts do.

To mark the occasion, Fincke told Newsweek about the highs and lows of spending months at a time aboard the International Space Station (ISS); his experiences with the Space Shuttle Program; the existential fear of a space walk gone wrong; and how, in the future, becoming an astronaut could be the reality for many more of us. Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

Mike Fincke
Mike Fincke, pictured with his Russian Orlan spacesuit in the Pirs Docking Compartment of the International Space Station on June 10, 2004. NASA Johnson/Flickr

Astronauts have talked about experiencing a change in their perspective when they view Earth from space. Have you experienced this?

Mike Fincke: "One day, I flew over the entire Amazon river, and it took eight minutes. I got to see it from the beginning, all the way to the ocean. We have an incredibly beautiful planet, we can see so many things from the ISS. But what we don't see are the borders, the boundaries.

"My kids, sometimes when they were younger, they would sit and fight in the back of the minivan. And of course you want to, as a dad, turn around and say, 'Hey, stop fighting! You're brothers and sisters, you should love each other. You shouldn't be fighting. And don't make me come back there.' Right? I have almost that exact same feeling. When I'm looking at planet Earth, and looking at the whole universe, it's like, 'hey, kids, stop fighting down there.'

"So yes, I had a perspective change and I can maybe characterize it as a motivation to stop being destructive as humans, but to be constructive, and to go on these great space adventures that are just out there."

You have flown in both a Soyuz capsule and also the Space Shuttle Endeavour. What was it like to go between the two?

Fincke: "I was one of the first Americans to fly on a Soyuz. And it was amazing, because when I was younger it was the Cold War and the Soviet Union, at the time, they were kind of an enemy. And so in 2004 we found ourselves on a beautiful April day launching off of Yuri Gagarin's launch pad. And it was absolutely incredible and amazing."

"For me, it was a very strange move from a very closed environment of the Soyuz, which I flew twice, and then flew on the American Space Shuttle. It was from a cramped, utilitarian spacecraft that had one mission—and it does this mission well—of taking people to the Space Station and safely back home and serving as a lifeboat.

"The Space Shuttle was a multipurpose use vehicle, like a big pickup truck that we like to drive in the U.S. And so it was amazing to fly to go from a small utilitarian thing to something that's very general and multipurpose with plenty of room."

With that in mind, what do you think about the more modern spacecraft like SpaceX's Dragon capsule, NASA's Orion, or the Boeing Starliner?

Fincke: "We did so many wonderful things with the Space Shuttle, but now everything is directed to a single purpose, and you can see that SpaceX's Dragon for example, or Boeing's Starliner. They're both for one mission pretty much, which is to get into low Earth orbit—maybe go to the space station or a space station. But they won't do much more in their current design. So you can make them look very cool.

"I think Elon Musk from SpaceX has a certain aesthetic, and Boeing put their corporate flavour onto the Starliner. You can see that they're not quite as utilitarian as a 1960s-era spacecraft like Soyuz or Apollo, we're trying to make them cooler with much more integrated cockpits, better sensors, and we can put more people on them."

Mike Fincke
Mike Fincke pictured speaking to Newsweek via videocall. Zoom screenshot / Ed Browne

What's your favorite thing about being in space?

Fincke: "I'm hoping my next mission is a long mission, and what I like about being up there, is being up there! No two days are the same. One day you're working on cutting-edge science with recombinant DNA and genomics, the next day you're fixing the toilet. One day, you're moving around a multibillion dollar experiment, such as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer with the robot arm. And the third day, you're going to be talking to some schoolkids in an underrepresented part of Africa, for example, that I would never have a chance to do otherwise.

"I enjoy being weightless. I like looking at the stars. I like looking at the Earth go by. And it's fun, fun as heck. Every Marvel superhero movie, or any of the other superhero movies where you're watching people fly, and you said 'that could be so cool.' I will assure you that it is that cool. It is that much fun. And you're super strong. You can pick up very heavy things, 1000 pounds, no problem."

What's your least favorite thing about being in space?

Fincke: "I'm very blessed. I really liked my family. I very much like my wife and my children. And when I'm away from them, and I'm not helping them as a father and a husband, then I feel a bit bad.

"In 2004, because of the Space Shuttle disaster, we moved crews around and I ended up flying sooner than I thought we would, and my wife was expecting our second child. So I had a daughter born while I was in space on my first mission. That's a little bit tough, for a dad to miss a child coming into the world. And so those kinds of things, when you're not home, you're not there to help with the math homework, that part is tough.

"But if I could bring my family members with me to space, I don't think I'd ever come home."

nasa astronaut Mike Fincke spacewalk
Astronaut Mike Fincke pictured performing a space walk in 2004, with the Earth in the background. NASA

During your time in space you have logged a total of nine spacewalks, in which you have exited your spacecraft while in orbit. Was there ever a time you felt scared?

Fincke: "Very few astronauts get a chance to do spacewalks. I've been lucky. But I will say this. Even the most courageous, steely-eyed astronaut… with your first few steps and handrail movements, and you're on the outside of the space station, there is that existential feeling, right? You look down and you see its a 250-mile drop. Your hands just don't want to move because you're afraid that you will fall.

"I mean, I don't have a fear of heights at all. But my very first couple of spacewalks, I look down and say, 'Wow, that could be very scary… but I know what I'm doing. This is not a problem.' I convinced myself, and then I had to actually look at my hands and tell them to start moving and do the job.

"On my first spacewalk, it was in a Russian spacesuit. I got outside and I looked down at my control panel. And we have an analog oxygen gauge, which tells me how much oxygen I have in the tanks for my suit. It was supposed to go from full to about half throughout the six-hour spacewalk—but it was actually moving. And it's like, well, this is not right.

"We have an electronic system that tells us if things are wrong with your spacesuit and gives you warning lights and everything. I had no warning lights, but I knew something was wrong. And just at the point where I started to say this, our ground controllers in Russian, they said, 'Hey, what's going on with your spacesuit?'

"I said 'the oxygen gauge's moving. I don't know what's going on, there's no caution warning lights. I'm not comfortable with this, I think I might need to go inside.' And they said 'Yeah, we don't know what's going on either. You better come inside.'

"And so I went back inside and brought in all my tethers and closed the hatch. Turns out that there was a manual valve that was showing that it was closed, but it still had a little bit of open to it. And it was leaking that extra oxygen into my suit, which it didn't need to do. Had we stayed outside it would have become a problem.

"Fortunately, we had that analog gauge that told us something the electronics did not. The following week, we went back outside and accomplished our mission. When I talk to my new astronaut friends, and people who are just doing it for the first time, it's like: 'Listen to your suit, look at your suit, pay attention to things. Because you just can't count on the electronics always.'"

Lastly, what do you think lies ahead for future astronauts? Will it become a more popular career, an easier experience to have?

Fincke: "What is it to be an astronaut? Are there different flavors or different types of astronauts? For me, I consider myself a professional astronaut who works for the government. So this is my profession. I've flown with people—Charles Simonyi, Richard Garriott—and they were space adventurers, and I think they can claim the title of astronaut. But they're not professional government astronauts; they did this for fun. So what is an astronaut? That's a good question.

"Names aside and titles aside, if you're a person interested in going to space to fly around the Earth, the chances are much higher now. Part of it is because we're bringing down the cost. But we have companies out there, Blue Origin for example, Virgin Galactic, that are really starting to expand, where you can touch the edge of space. And for a few minutes, you can be weightless.

"If we look even farther to the future, we will have people that are just specialized in one thing, like a manufacturing specialist. So you won't necessarily need aerospace degrees or the military experience, but you'll need some kind of specialty to do the job.

"I'm hoping, 15 to 20 years from now, we have 50,000 people [in space], we have a continued presence in Low Earth Orbit of non-government entities, we have private companies, we have hotels, we have manufacturing… this is all within our near future, and it's so exciting to be part of it."