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

13.52: Working Dad is a Spaceman

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary, and Dan, with NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn.

Last week’s episode may have sounded like the last one for 2018, but that’s an artifact of December having five Sundays rather than four. Fifth Sundays are our “wildcards,” and something wild seems like a nice way to round out the year.

Tom Marshburn, who is both spaceman and parent, talks to us about what it’s like to be both.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Ben Hewett, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: The 3D sense of space’s blackness meets Type I, Type II, and Type III fun.

Thing of the week: A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronautsby Andrew Chaikin.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How does being a dad and an astronaut change your relationship with your family? Take the time, or the expense, to keep in touch. Even as a disembodied head on a screen. “Spaceflight gives you opportunities to fail that you wouldn’t have otherwise.” Standing at the bottom of the rocket you are going to launch on, a certain reality hits you. Getting ready for your first spacewalk, when all the sound goes away with the air, you feel very alone. It’s not a spectacular star view, stars don’t twinkle. But the blackness of space is “a three-dimensional kind of almost palpable dark blackness.” Does the schedule include five minutes for sense of wonder? No, just translational adaptation time. The Soyuz landing, the parachute release, is the wildest ride in space. It’s type II fun, fun after you have done it. Advice? Value every second, it’s incredibly precious.

[Mary] Season 13, Episode 46.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Working Dad is… A Spaceman.

[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.

[Dan] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary] I’m Mary.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And we are joined by Tom Marshburn. Tom, this is your second episode recording with us. I think that’s the order these will air in, but we can’t promise that.


[Howard] But a couple of words about yourself.

[Tom] I am an astronaut, selected in 2004. I was a flight surgeon part of that time. I was an ER doc and ended up working… Taking care of astronauts at NASA. Then had a chance to become an astronaut. Had a chance to fly in space a couple of times.

[Howard] And, if I understand this correctly, you’re also a parent.

[Tom] That’s right. I’ve now… Now a 14-year-old daughter. Hard to believe. And… Yeah. That’s been the most amazing adventure, I would say, of all by far.

[Mary] How old was she when you went into space?

[Tom] The first time, she was eight years old.

[Mary] Oh, wow.

[Tom] Which she barely remembers. The rocket launch from that time. Partly because we had six scrubs of our launch before climbing into the space shuttle. On the morning of the launch, I think, she might even have asked, “What time is the scrub today?”


[Tom] Then, just minutes before the main engines were to start, both she and my wife went, “Oh, this is really going to happen now.” They ran outside onto the balcony.

[Dan] It’s like a Philip K. Dick story, where it’s like, “Yeah, sure, dad’s in space. You’ve told me this before.”

[Tom] Exactly.

[Mary] One of the things that I was excited about when we were talking about possible topics was the idea of talking about how being a dad in this job has changed your relationship with your family. I’m going to briefly tell a funny story that I think will highlight kind of some of the things. A friend of mine’s a runner. One of the people in his running group that he’d, she was trying to date something, and she’s like, “Yeah. That was right after my dad came back from the moon.” He just stopped. He’s like… Which they never do when they’re running. He’s like, “Wait, wait. Wha… Wha… What?” She realized that she had never told him that her dad was one of the Apollo astronauts. Because she was so used to masking it. She just said, “My dad’s a pilot.” Because she got tired of the fact that the moment she said her dad was an astronaut, and in Apollo astronaut, that was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about.


[Mary] What has being on astronaut done for… Like, as that put additional pressures on your daughter?

[Tom] I think so, but I think she has embraced it. It’s difficult being away from the family, but there are a lot of benefits that come to the family being away. At least in our experience. So, similar thing in school, today even, my daughter’s in high school. If it’s space day, they’re talking about space, the teacher will ask a question, and my daughter usually just has the answer right away in much greater detail than the teacher ever intended.


[Tom] So, often times, “How do you know that?” So she would say, “My father’s an astronaut.”


[Tom] I think she kind of enjoys that, a little bit.

[Dan] She loves it.

[Tom] She’ll get tired of it later.

[Howard] Miss So-and-so, you’re asking the question wrong.

[Tom] Exactly.

[Howard] Because, technically,…

[Dan] No. I can understand that, coming from a different kind of celebrity. My children… I’ve got six, and they have this strange relationship with a father who is an author. My daughter, my oldest, she’s 16, and I don’t think she will ever read a Brandon Sanderson book, because she loves being able to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been to Brandon’s house, I know him really well, but I’ve never read his books,” because it drives her friends nuts. That kind of oh, just casual relationship with this famous person.

[Tom] Oh, yeah. She loves doing that.


[Dan] So, your daughter kind of drops that whenever she can? “Oh, yeah, my dad is the astronaut.”

[Tom] So we… When I was training for my long-duration spaceflight, so that was two and a half years about, about half the time spent away from the family, I said, “All right, break the bank. I’m just going to bring my family with me.” NASA didn’t pay for it. But I brought the family with me, a lot of my training trips. We pulled her out of school, withdrew her. So we sort of homeschooled, but the places we did it were very unique, and she loves to talk about it still. She… In the basement of a little cottage in Star City, which is where we train outside of Moscow for the Russian flights to fly in the Soyuz, is where she learned to play piano.

[Mary] Oh, wow.

[Tom] She was bored, she downloaded it on her iPad, and she learned to play piano. She learned long division in a Japanese restaurant. She actually… We all wrote down little problems for her while we were eating dinner, and she solved them and brought them back. But we wrote them on beer coasters. So she turned in this big stack of beer coasters to her teacher with all of the problems…


[Tom] Solved on there. That’s one thing maybe we shouldn’t have done. But she’s done fine in school, but so we have all these great stories of the family traveling with me during training.

[Mary] So you said two and a half years of training. Is that… And that you took them with you for much of it? But there were times that you couldn’t take them?

[Tom] Yeah. I wouldn’t even say much of it. For each country, one trip there. Most of the time, I was away. Just gone.

[Mary] How did you manage staying in touch with the family? Like, was that… Now we have email and Skype and things like that. Were you doing lots of that, or…

[Tom] Yeah. That was still available then, so we had iPads and we would Skype. I think the lesson learned from that is how often do you have a set time where your family members… Where you’re sitting across the table, staring in their face, and just talking? You don’t do that very often. That could even be kind of painful. So, we figured, number one, it was important to do it. So every single day, maybe twice a day, we would either talk from Russia and back, back and forth, or even do a video. And sometimes, they would set up the iPad and I would just watch them as they made breakfast or make dinner or just did their normal daily thing, and I was just… My daughter remembers me as being this disembodied head on a screen.


[Tom] For much of the time. But that was important, because then we got into the habits, so when I was in space, it became much easier to have this regular conversation. It wasn’t tedious or difficult, but I kind of knew what was going on, so I wouldn’t come back from space having to catch up.

[Howard] There is a parenting principle there that can be generalized well outside of traveling. That is, if you get in the habit of communicating, openly and honestly and regularly with your young children, when they are teenagers and they have teenager problems, they want to talk to you about it. Which is… Was completely alien to me, because as a teenager, I did not want to talk to my parents, because we didn’t have the right kind of relationship. But my teenagers have talked to me, and, well, mostly talked to Sandra, because she’s better at this than I am…


[Tom] Same here.

[Howard] But it is because we developed good habits early on.

[Dan] Be careful with that, though, because I found that now I spend a lot of time talking to teenagers, and that’s just kind of driving me nuts.

[Laughter] No. I love what you’re talking about with the Skype. Two years ago, I was at a book festival in Washington, DC, when my wife went into early labor with kid number six. So all the pictures from the hospital are the wonderful mother with the brand-new baby, and then someone holding an iPhone with my face.


[Dan] Because I participated via FaceTime with that particular birth.

[Howard] Working dad is a deadbeat author.


[Mary] Not quite as sexy.

[Tom] But, spaceflight gives you opportunities to fail that you wouldn’t have otherwise. In space, you’re floating, so if you’re really tired… while you’re sitting down talking with someone, you can always just stand up and wake your brain up. In space, you can’t do that. You can’t use gravity to help you stay alert. We would have sometimes… an hour and a half family conference happens every two weeks in space. End of a hard work week, and I’m tired, sitting there looking at my wife, and she said, “Are you falling asleep on me?”


[Tom] Because my eyes would start to droop. Because I’m just… You’re floating, it’s like you’re resting and I would just get really tired sometimes. So those kinds of things can happen. Or my daughter’s on the other end, and I’m trying to entertain her with a floating object or something, and she gets distracted and just walks away.


[Tom] That would happen. There’s a bowl of candy somewhere, and she went, “Oh!” And walked off screen.

[Howard] You actually don’t have to be an astronaut to have that experience.


[Mary] It is good to know that… I think it’s kind of reassuring that anything can become old hat. It’s like it does not actually matter how cool your job is, you’re still dad, you’re still mom. In my case, I’m still aunt. So it doesn’t matter, to some degree… Which is reassuring and dismaying, all at the same time.

[Howard] Let’s take a break for a book. Mary? I think you were going to pitch one to us.

[Mary] Yeah. This is one that I am completely fascinated by. It’s called A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts. It’s by Andrew Chaikin. Tom, you’re actually the one who turned me on to this book. So, you can do a better summary of it than I will.

[Tom] Well, it’s a step-by-step history of all of the Apollo flights, not just… Apollo 11 or 13 obviously get a lot of attention. In my mind, spaceflight… I think it’s certainly true, spaceflight is not easy, there’s a lot that happens behind the scene. This tells you what happened behind the scenes to the crew and what mission control had to solve. So you get an appreciation for just how dangerous and difficult it is all of the time. That’s what I like about it.

[Mary] It sounds amazing. So, it’s A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin.

[Mary] Speaking of dangerous, was that a concern when you were deciding to sign up for this? It’s like, “Hum, I’m gonna… And I have family… Am I really going to let them strap me to this bomb and ship me into airless space?”

[Tom] For a lot of astronauts, it’s a life dream. So, no.


[Tom] Having said that, when you’re standing at the bottom of your rocket that you’re going to launch on, there’s a certain reality that hits you that has never hit you in any simulator before. Because the rocket… It might have condensation laying outside, if they are hypergolic fluids. So ice sheets falling off, there’s a kind of creaking and rumbling, before… So it seems like a living animal the size of a building that you’re getting in. The thrill of the launch wipes all of that away. For me. Also, in the airlock, getting ready to do my first spacewalk, when the realization that this is a dangerous real thing hits you because you’re in the airlock with your buddy, you’re in your spacesuit, you’ve got these tools that weigh… Metal tools, that weigh 5 to 15 pounds, they’re banging around, you can hear them all clanging around with you. Then you… My job was to turn on the valve that pumps all the air out. When the air goes away, also the sound goes away.

[Mary] Ooo…

[Tom] So all you hear is your fan inside your spacesuit, and your own voice talking. So you feel very alone. It’s very eerie. All this other noise going away. Other than that, just some dull thumps as your suit is moving around. In my mind, I… The biggest fear is I don’t want to mess up. But then you realize I’m getting ready to put my little pink body out there in the vacuum of space, and there’s only 250 miles between me and the Earth or… What is actually more riveting is the infinite space around you, and you could just let go and go flying off, if you wanted to. All those things kind of all come in a way. Very quickly, you get to work, though, and your training takes over, and you kind of forget all that. The training is really good in that regard.

[Howard] I have to ask, because… Well, because I have to ask. Our eyes are able to compensate for rapid changes in light. Cameras aren’t. So many of the pictures we see of Earth’s limb taken from the space station don’t have any stars in it. When you are doing that, and turning, and you see the earth, and you are seeing space, do you get to see the stars? Do your eyes adjust quickly enough that all that blackness and all those millions of little pinpoints of light are there?

[Tom] So, you can see the stars, you can see planets, but it’s not a spectacular star view. Like, the whole Milky Way, for the very reason you just mentioned, your eyes haven’t adjusted. You only get about 45 or less than 45 minutes of dark for every orbit, you’re going around the world every 90 minutes. So bright blazing sunlight, then boom… Into darkness. What’s striking about the… About space is stars don’t twinkle. Planets look like little disks. But even on the bright side… Since you can’t see the stars or planets on the bright side, the sun is just flattening out… All out. The blackness of space, it’s not a two-dimensional blackness, it’s not like a painted wall or something. It’s a three dimensional kind of almost liquid palpable dark blackness that I’ve… I still am downloading that view and trying to figure it out. I dreamed about it a lot during my flight and after my flight.

[Mary] So I’m sitting here… I am taking notes. I’m like, “All of the palpable…”

[Howard] This is one of those questions that, as I’m asking it, I’m thinking, “This might be a dumb question.” Nope!



[Dan] No, it’s an awesome one.

[Mary] Do they… Does mission control… Because I know that the schedules are really… Do they actually build in time for… You’ve stepped out of the airlock. We know that they’re going to need a couple of seconds to just go, “Oh! Holy…”

[Tom] Yeah, they do. Actually. Mostly, it’s to allow you to get used to how to move your body. Because that’s something we have not been able to do in training. We train underwater. The viscosity of the water makes it hard to get moving and easy to slow down. Space is just the opposite. A little flick of your wrist and you could start to turn. Then you have to stop yourself in space. So it’s considered translational adaptation. We’re given a few minutes to do that every time.

[Mary] Translational adaptation.


[Dan] There’s nothing in the schedule that says five minutes of sense of wonder…


[Tom] No. There’s not.

[Dan] Then move on.

[Tom] There is not.

[Dan] Come to terms with the smallness of our…


[Dan] Human existence…

[Tom] As a matter of fact, that’s…

[Dan] 5:05 to 5:08?

[Tom] I’ve done three spacewalks on the Shuttle flight. Coming in on my last one, I was the last one in the hatch on that third one. I didn’t want to come inside. Capcom, the voice of NASA from the ground, said, “All right, Tom. Time to come in.” I just kept looking at the view between my feet. They said, “Tom. Time to come in.” I wanted a career afterwards, so I…


[Mary] Came…

[Tom] Came inside, yeah.

[Mary] I had forgotten that you have done both the Shuttle and Soyuz.

[Tom] Yes. Launches. Yeah.

[Mary] And landing.

[Tom] Yes. Yes. Highly recommend the Soyuz landing.

[Mary] It has been described to me is like driving off a cliff in a Volvo that’s on fire?

[Tom] Yeah. Or two explosions followed by a car crash.


[Tom] I’ve heard that as well.

[Mary] That’s fairly accurate?

[Tom] For the Soyuz, yeah. Not the Shuttle. The Shuttle is a very soft landing. I wasn’t even sure when we had touched ground.

[Mary] While.

[Tom] Because we came… It’s a glider. You glide in on this long stripe in Florida, whereas the Soyuz is very literally a 20 mile-per-hour car crash, when the Earth rises up to hit you. You’re under the parachute. But it’s the parachutes, when they release, coming out from the atmosphere, that is the wildest right in space I’ve ever had. Because they come out… You’re twisting, you’re spending, the impact of the shoot opening, you’re feeling a lot of G’s all at the same time. It’s just a riot.

[Howard] I get uncomfortable during turbulence on an airplane. I suspect that that… The Soyuz parachute deployment moment would just end me.

[Tom] It’s what we call type II fun.


[Tom] You’ve heard the…

[Mary] No, I don’t know.

[Howard] I’m writing that down.

[Mary] Type II fun means what?

[Tom] Type I fun, it’s fun while you’re doing it. Type II is find after you’ve done it.

[Howard] Oh. Oh, dear.

[Tom] Type III is fun when it’s happening to someone else.


[Mary] Yeah. Okay, I can see that.

[Howard] I have experienced all of those.

[Mary] Yes. I’m like… Type II is much of my theater career, actually.


[Howard] Are there… Back to the topic, technically, of the episode. We could talk about astronaut stuff all day…

[Mary] Oh, right. I’m sorry.

[Howard] As far as I’m concerned. Are there things that you have learned to do as a parent that you think you probably only learned by virtue of being an astronaut?

[Tom] Value every second. With my child. And with my wife, too. I mean, it’s incredibly precious. It seems to go by faster, obviously, when you’re gone and come back after having just even trained with it a little. You’ve been training for two months, and come back home, and it seems like almost another new person.

[Howard] I had that happen. I traveled a bit for work when I was in the IT industry, and I would come home and realize my children have changed. I couldn’t tell what… But I could tell that I was missing things. I think that was one of the best things about quitting the day job and working from home all the time is that I didn’t miss any more. But you missed huge chunks.

[Tom] Yup. The… One of my colleagues, who’s a single guy, interestingly, made one of the best comments for me, when I started training as an astronaut. My whole class and I would go into the simulators, they’d go out somewhere to celebrate a little bit, and I would get called out of… My wife… My daughter was in daycare at the space center, and I get called out of the simulator to come get diapers, for instance. Because they were out at the daycare. NASA supports families, and they were like, “Yeah, Tom, you gotta go do it. So take off.” So I felt like I’m not spending all the time in the simulators that I want to, I’m not going out with my classmates after work, I’m going straight home. This colleague of mine, he doesn’t have any children, he said, “Who cares? What you’re doing is… You’re going to value that so much more.” He was absolutely right. For me.

[Mary] Well, I mean, I don’t have… As I say, I have no children. I just have nieces and a nephew. The… When they asked me to do something, I’m like, “I don’t want to do that thing.” But I will often do that thing. Although one of them at least is listening to it and saying, “You didn’t play that game with me.” But it is… One of the things I find interesting is the snapshots that you wind up getting, the big jumps in growth. Because I only see them a couple of times a year. I remember when my niece went from… My niece, who’s a teenager, a young adult, to “Oh. She’s an adult now.” It was just, for me, just like that. I suspect that her family may not have actually recognized that that transition has happened yet, because they see her all the time.

[Mary] So, I think, we should probably…

[Howard] We are, again, low on time. Gosh, I just want to keep…

[Mary] I know. I thought of like five different questions I wanted to ask.

[Dan] Yet another episode of we don’t have enough time to talk to this astronaut.


[Howard] Writing prompt? We have had some really fun descriptions from Tom, and I want you to take a couple of those and come up with something. The two things I want you to take our this 3D sense of space, and the three types of fun. I don’t know where you’re going to go with it. But I hope that it ends up being type I fun for you. All right.

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