Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.42: Writing Excuses Talks to an Astronaut, with Special Guest Kjell Lindgren

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Dan, and Howard, with special space-guest Kjell Lindgren

Kjell Lindgren, flight surgeon, Expedition 44/45, joined us for an episode that perhaps should have been called “we ask the space-man all of the things.” We asked him stuff that we wanted to know more about, and came away richer for the experience.

If there’s just one technical term worth bringing home from this episode, it’s “expeditionary behavior.” It’s the sort of thing that can make us all richer for the experience.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Benjamin Hewett at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and mastered by Alex Jackson at Writing Excuses Mission Control in Chicago.

BONUS: NASA invited us back to be on THEIR show, Houston We Have a Podcast, and that episode went live about three days before this did. More Kjell Lindgren!

Homework: I’m doing the Zero Gravity Giraffe” — Howard Tayler (Howard would like to point out that this is not the technical term you should bring home from this episode.)

Thing of the week: R is for Rocket, by Ray Bradbury.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Vertigo in space, and vertigo on landing. Depends on the individual, but keep your head very still, avoid any type of acceleration. Beware the fluid shift. What about giraffes in space, doing the zero-gravity giraffe? Why play bagpipes in space? Consider expeditionary behavior. Get yourself squared away, then help your crewmates. “In that environment, we don’t have the luxury of not getting along.” Be aware that movement and the physics of space are different — no hard right turns without touching anything, okay? Also, there are plenty of real risks about living in space, you don’t need to inject drama. To make it real, do your research and add little details, like the right menu.

Giraffes in space? Whare? )

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing Excuses Talks to an Astronaut, with Kjell Lindgren.

[Howard] 15 minutes long.

[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Dan] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Brandon] We’re all out of order.

[Dan] We’re not sitting in the right order.

[Brandon] We’re all kind of mixed up.

[Dan] Our brains only work in a very specific order.


[Dan] We’re outside of mission parameters.

[Brandon] And, once again, I’m warning you guys. I’m sick. So…


[Brandon] But I didn’t want to miss out on this.

[Mary] But there’s an astronaut.

[Brandon] Astronaut. Right. We once again have our friend, Kjell Lindgren.

[Kjell] And thank you so much for having me. I’m a big fan of Writing Excuses, and so it is amazing to be a part of the conversation.

[Howard] We got that on tape!


[Howard] [inaudible, garbled]

[Dan] Going on the end of every episode now.


[Mary] So, I have a ton of astronaut questions I’ve been wanting to ask you. So I’m afraid that this is going to be just a please tell us all the things, Kjell.


[Kjell] I’m happy to share.

[Mary] Okay. So. You’ve talked about the vertigo in space. People… Like, that’s all over the NASA website, people talk about that. But when you come back to earth, and you have vertigo again. How much is that like benign positional vertigo or is it completely in its own class of…

[Kjell] Yeah. So, when we say vertigo, I think that people have different interpretations of what that means. Dizziness, lightheadedness, actual spinning. I have a colleague that upon arriving in space, so right at the main engine cut off, after that third stage cut off, and now you are officially in weightlessness, felt like they were basically doing backflips.

[Mary] Wow.

[Kjell] So their… And just had this sensation… And I’m motioning with my hands, and I realize that the listeners can’t…


[Kjell] See that, but… Essentially, felt like they were flipping backwards just constantly. They were able to get over that. I did not feel vertiginous, I did not have dizziness at all when I… Once I arrived on orbit. So after landing, there again, it really depends on the individual. Some people will feel vertiginous, things will be spinning. For me, if I kept my head very still, I actually felt fine. It is any type of acceleration. So tilting my head forward, pitching my head forward, or turning my head side to side very quickly, the sensation I would receive was far out of proportion to the movement that my head would make. So I could really get my kind of gyros spinning with very quick head movements. In particular, if I pitched my head forward, I would have fallen over. So you will see, if you look very closely at the astronauts that have just landed, so… What we’re doing now, of course, is landing in the Soyuz space capsule. They carry them… They’ll pull them out of the capsule, they’ll put them on a lawn chair, put them on the ground. If you watch very closely, they’ll keep their head… Most will keep their heads very still. So if somebody talks to them, they’ll kind of look over at them…


[Kjell] And smile, but they keep their head very still. We know this. So if you were feeling pretty good, you will actually move your head around a lot, because that gets you credit from your buddies, that your colleagues are like, “Man, he’s doing great. Look at how he’s moving his head around.”


[Mary] And you’re like, “I am in a lawn chair.”


[Kjell] Exactly. So. Again, it really is up to the individual, their individual response. One of the… I mean, just very surreal experience that I had prior to launch, we had a… Before we leave Star City to [Bikaner?], we have a departure breakfast. Kind of a ceremonial toast to the crew that’s departing for their launch. So all of the cosmonauts that live there in Star City will come to wish the crew farewell. So this… Let’s see, it’s Leonov, the first person ever to do a spacewalk. He is at the departure breakfast, and he gathers our crew together to just give us some tips and tricks as we’re getting ready to fly. He said, “If you start to feel sick when you get onto orbit, just keep your head very still. Just don’t move your head around.” I just kind of took this picture in my brain of I’m getting flight advice from Alexey Leonov.


[Kjell] I mean, this is…

[Mary] That’s amazing.

[Kjell] Very, very surreal.

[Brandon] You were telling us earlier, at lunch you were talking about the fact that when you first get up there, you get flu-like symptoms, because your blood, which is used to being pulled down by gravity, just kind of floods your whole body.

[Kjell] Yeah. Yeah, so we call this a fluid shift. So when you stand up on Earth, your blood… Gravity pulls it down into your legs, and we have physiologic mechanisms that are constantly working to keep the blood up at your brain, perfusing your brain. So your muscles are squeezing on the veins to push the blood up, your heart might beat a little bit faster when you first stand up, and all those mechanisms continue to work in weightlessness, but there’s no gravity pulling that blood. It’s not counteracting anything. So what that results in is this net shift of fluid up into your head and chest. So your face… Your head feels very full, you feel congested. If you look at your legs, they look incredibly skinny, and we call those bird legs. That’s a part of, I think, this space adaptation syndrome of space motion sickness. But that fluid shift persists, really, kind of persists throughout the mission.

[Howard] That’s why there are no giraffes in space. Because their heads would just explode.


[Kjell] You know what… So I worked in a cardio… The space physiology laboratory. It used to be at NASA Ames Research Center. The giraffe is one of the animals that we looked… Giraffes and snakes that climb trees are animals that we looked at to try and understand how, like in a giraffe, that changes that hydrostatic column. When it bends down to drink, I mean…

[Howard] That’s what I’m talking about, the amount of heart… pressure…

[Kjell] Absolutely.

[Howard] You gotta do to get blood up into that head. You put a giraffe in orbit, he hits freefall, and just [explosion sound].


[Mary] Yeah, but the thing he was saying is when the giraffe puts their head down, that that shifts.

[Kjell] That almost gets you to the point where… Yeah. Now you’re only dealing with the giraffe’s innate blood pressure, but the fact now the hydrostatic column is actually increasing pressure down. So what mechanisms, intrinsic mechanisms, are there to prevent the giraffe’s head from exploding when it bends down to take a drink?


[Dan] So Howard’s [telling a dumb joke]

[Kjell] I didn’t think I’d be talking about… 

[Dan] About a giraffe exploding, and you saying, “No, that’s actually a real thing.”


[Dan] That’s my favorite thing that’s happened today.

[Howard] Can you give me a little more credit than that? Because… 

[Mary] No. No, we cannot.

[Howard] All right. Fine.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.

[Howard] Yes, please.

[Brandon] I’m going to do our book of the week. I think it’s a very appropriate one. We’re going to do R is for Rocket, by Ray Bradbury.

[Mary] Oh, yeah.

[Brandon] Which we haven’t ever done, and it’s my favorite Ray Bradbury collection. If you haven’t read any Ray Bradbury, you’re missing out. R Is for Rocket has my single favorite Ray Bradbury story of all time, Frost and Fire, in it. Which is about a planet where people live seven days. But it’s also got A Sound of Thunder, which is his most… Second most famous probably short story. It’s got The Long Rain, which is… It’s got so many great things. It’s just awesome. And it’s fun, because, I mean, it was written in the 60s, right? In the 50s and 60s, and looking at space travel through the eyes of someone living back then and comparing it to now, I think it’s just fine. I actually recently read a bunch of Bradbury stories. It’s just delightful. I absolutely love reading that period.

[Howard] I remember reading A Sound of Thunder in high school, and really, really liking it, while at the same time being very, very disturbed by it.

[Brandon] Oh, it’s… 

[Howard] It’s a fun story.

[Brandon] Point of… 

[Howard] That’s what it’s for.

[Brandon] Let’s go back to questions for an astronaut.

[Mary] Yeah. Okay. So I ask this question anytime someone says, “I would like to learn how to play bagpipes.”


[Mary] Why? Why would you like to learn to play bagpipes? Specifically, why did you think, “You know what, I’m going into space. I think I’ll learn to play bagpipes in space.”

[Kjell] Well, I grew up in England, from… I spent from my third grade until my freshman year in England, for the first four years near London, and then three years in Cambridge. I just… I fell in love with the bagpipes while living over there. I remember my parents taking us to a military tattoo, essentially a parade, and the pipes ushering in this parade.

[Mary] They’re good outdoors.

[Kjell] Yes. Yes, they are good for the outdoors. I have always wanted to learn how to play the bagpipes. I thought… I’m not sure what I was thinking.


[Kjell] But I thought it would be fun to play the bagpipes on the International Space Station. So we get a small personal allotment [garbled]

[Dan] Did any of the other people on the space station agree with [garbled]

[Kjell] None of them got to weigh in on this decision. The commander did not know I was going to have them up there until I was like, “Hey, Scott? Do you mind if I play the bagpipes?” I don’t know if I even asked him. I think I started playing and…

[Dan] The commander’s like, “Everyone, meet the new guy. His name is Kjell. And he brought bagpipes.”


[Mary] To an enclosed space that you cannot leave without a rocketship.

[Kjell] Yes. You cannot leave. Although you might be forced to leave.


[Kjell] So, to… I’m going to take a little bit of credit here. I found the absolute furthest place away from crew quarters to practice. So that was in one of our storage modules, and started practicing.

[Howard] Is that the one where the lighting is on the wrong side?

[Kjell] No, different one, different one.

[Howard] Oh, okay.

[Kjell] But I would poke my head out to see if anybody was like…


[Kjell] Reacting. And then started to normalize a little bit, and just was playing in various modules. Then, later on, asked Scott and Kimiya both, very pointedly, “Hey, does this bother you? Is this okay?” Scott said… You know what, actually, he grew up in New Jersey, it reminded him of firefighters playing when he was growing up. So it was a little… Probably not as well played, but a picture of home for him, during the one year mission. So… Then, Kimiya, honestly, is such a great guy. So easy to get along with, that even if it was the worst thing ever for him to listen to me playing the bagpipes, he would not admit to it, and he would just say, “Oh, no, it’s fine.”


[Howard] There is something to be…

[Kjell] So I have very supportive roommates.

[Howard] There is something to be said for being so willing to get along with other people that if those bagpipes make you happy, they make me happy. That is, there’s something to that.

[Kjell] There absolutely is, and I think it’s one of… Especially for long-duration spaceflight, it is one of the most important things that we bring with us as a crew member, and that is what we describe as expeditionary behavior. That is, first step, get yourself squared away. To be competent at doing the things that you need to do to be successful. To start working on time, to be efficient. So that then, you have enough bandwidth to help your crewmates. So you’re squared away, and now the focus of your day is what can I do make his life better today? Scott’s life, and Kimiya’s life better today? What can I do? If we are all thinking that way, you just get along. Part of that is also what things do I do that irritate other people? I want to retract those friction points. What are the things that maybe he does that irritate me? I just I figure out ways to remove myself from that situation or do something differently, or, if we absolutely have to, have the conversation about hey, when I am practicing robotic arm operations, I’d really appreciate it if you weren’t playing the bagpipes.


[Howard] On the end of the robotic arm.


[Kjell] So, it’s really interesting. Right before my mission, I was thinking I’m going to spend six months in an enclosed space with the same-ish five people. We did have a small crew change out… In the middle of the mission, but… The same people. For that entire time. I thought I really wonder how this is going to go? I mean, is this… Are we going to… Are there going to be any issues? It was three months into the mission before I even thought about it again. Everybody just… Particularly in our crew, and I know other crews are like this, just work really hard to take care of each other to get along. So that ultimately, we can have a successful mission, and a productive mission.

[Howard] One of the ways I’ve heard it described, a guy I met on an Air Force Base who had been on submarines, was in that environment, we don’t have the luxury of not getting along.

[Kjell] That’s true. I mean, if you want to be successful…

[Mary] [garbled] the Internet.


[Kjell] You have to get along, you have to figure out what is it that we need to do? Otherwise, the mission will not be successful. That is, as professionals up there, with the investment that our respective nations have made…

[Dan] Oh, God.

[Kjell] We cannot afford to not be successful.

[Howard] I’m being paid way too much to be a jerk.


[Dan] Okay. I have a question for you. This is a question we typically ask on our What Do Writers Get Wrong episodes, but I’m curious, so I’m going to ask it anyway. What have you seen in media, in a book or a movie, a depiction of astronauts that you just think is… Just bugs you to death, and what else have you seen that you really loved, that they got something really right.

[Kjell] Wow. So, books are difficult, because a lot of… I think what really strikes me is movement in space and the physics of space. That really isn’t depicted in a book. They talk about getting from one place to another. What’s very jarring for me is seeing people floating through a capsule or through a space station… And it’s not that I’m thinking about hey, Newton’s third law of gravity. It’s that just did not look right. It’s somebody that’s floating straight, and then all of a sudden, takes a hard right turn floating…

[Dan] Without touching anything.

[Kjell] Without grabbing anything or holding onto anything. Just immediately, it’s like, “Okay, that was very weird.” So it’s things like that. Just the physics that I think become very second nature on orbit that you really have to think about if you have never been in that environment. I think that is viscerally what strikes me. I think from a storyline, the generation of drama from things that really don’t need to be dramatic, when there are other things about living in space and operating in that environment. I mean, there are any number of things that can kill us at any time…


[Kjell] And to come up with something goofy when…


[Kjell] It’s vacuum. It’s cold.


[Kjell] Vacuum out there, people. I mean…

[Mary] There’s plenty there.

[Kjell] I mean, yeah. There’s plenty of risk there. So I think that those are things that kind of…

[Howard] Please don’t add death to my job in new ways.


[Kjell] Exactly.

[Howard] I already have a very long list of deaths.

[Dan] So, can you give us some examples of people who, or artists, that you feel have done a really good job?

[Kjell] You know what, I really enjoyed reading Andy Weir’s The Martian. As a crew, it was really cool. We got to watch that movie before it was released to the public. We got to watch it on the space station.


[Kjell] We got to watch this movie, and I really enjoyed the book. We got to watch it in space. So…

[Mary] I’m sure that some place, Andy Weir is going, “They watched my movie in space!”


[Mary] That’s what I would do.

[Howard] My head is doing the zero gravity giraffe right now.


[Dan] We have a good writing prompt.


[Kjell] There was… There were things about that that showed clearly they had done their research. There were things that nobody else would have caught that just resonated with us during that movie. One of them was when the main character, when Mark Watney is looking through everybody’s stuff to look for food. So as he is pulling out the food and going through the menus, he’s listing like beef stroganoff and chicken teriyaki and rice pilaf. So I’m watching him do that, and then I look at our food pantry right over here, and that’s our… Those are… That’s stuff from our menu.


[Kjell] I’m like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s our menu.” So just little details that really nobody else would have noticed that just make a story like that more real.

[Mary] That’s fantastic.

[Brandon] Well, I think we are out of time. Do you really want to do that as our writing prompt, Dan?


[Mary] Zero gravity giraffe.

[Dan] The zero gravity giraffe? So Howard said a phrase, “I’m doing the zero gravity giraffe.” Find your own interpretation of what that means, and write a story about it.

[Brandon] Kjell, thank you very much for your time.

[Kjell] Well, thank you for having me.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.