It also sounds as if some pretty gnarly stuff can happen to your body up there, like extreme bone density loss. What was your experience?
It did take away 8 percent of my bone density. It’s more bone density loss for me than most people. My last flight, I lost 7 percent. The good news is I didn’t lose twice as much of my bone density in twice as much time. I got it all back after my last flight so I’m pretty confident I’ll get it all back again. I’m expecting it to be more than a yearlong process.
I’m not sure how many discomforts I’m experiencing now are associated with returning from a long space flight versus being a 55-year-old human being. My lower back is bothering me a little more. If I’m doing a lot of pushups and then jump up quickly, my body still hasn’t adapted quickly to shoving the blood rapidly to the right places.
How do you get yourself adapted back to Earth?
Right now, every part of my work day is two hours of physical therapy. For example, one of my glutes, it kind of shut down and so they’re trying to do an exercise to get that to activate again. I suspect that might have been shut down before the space flight.
It’s really nice when you get three highly trained professionals watching everything you do to try to figure out the right thing to do the next day. After 30 minutes of mobility work, today I was doing agility drills. They had me doing some circuit training, pull ups. It varies a lot and it’s very much geared for what issues you have. For me, I felt pretty comfortable walking around after 48 hours. There’s some people that can still feel quite nauseous just by walking around still.
It sounds like while you were up there, you had a pretty structured fitness routine and could develop good habits because you didn’t have anywhere else to go. Is there anything you picked up in space that you think you’ll continue?
When I was doing the high intensity interval training, that can get pretty repetitive. You barely pulled it off on your previous workout and then you start in the next workout and you feel like, “I just don’t want to do this right now.” But what I realized was recognizing that I can do more if I focus on the gain versus the lack. So, if I’m focused on, “Oh my gosh, this hurts so bad right now. And, I still have eight more repetitions of this, eight more cycles to go through,”can get you to say “Stop.”
Human beings are really good at planning, but because we’re so good at planning, our brain is going to try to make sure you survive this. If you’re trying to go all out on every single one of those repetitions, then the best thing to do is not pay any attention to the next thing. Sometimes I was successful because I would almost have an out of body experience where I would be focused so much on just how I felt. I would imagine myself observing somebody else and somehow that let me keep going. Just focusing on the present seemed to help my performance and motivation a lot.
You said you didn’t have any astronaut ice cream … but did you have any cheat meals?
Oh gosh, yes. We have these containers called BOBs. I don’t know what the acronym is, but there was one that was desserts and snacks. There was cherry cobbler and there were brownies. The consumption rate of that container varied a lot with the crew. A favorite of mine was popsicles. On transportation spacecraft we would get kind of a special delivery treat of these frozen food items. So, being able to take something out of the freezer that was really cold, just seemed so refreshing. I could have eaten three popsicles in one sitting.
This interview has been edited and condensed.