Cady Coleman, who wrote her name in history by leaving earth and boarding the International Space Station in 1995 – her first of several space flights – is one of the standout figures in new documentary film The Wonderful: Stories From The Space Station. She recalled her experiences to Carl Marsh.
I like how the film doesn’t just portray the Space Station and all its marvels – each astronaut’s personal stories take equal precedent. Are you happy with how this came across, regarding your own family story?
As a mom, I can only see it through my own eyes. But I think every mother and – I believe – every father is always worrying: did I do enough? Was it okay that I did that? – right? Our son is 21, and a really lovely person that we’re very, very proud of. We [now] have two sons we’re very proud of – but Jamie was younger when I went to space.
We all parent in our own ways, and my husband [Josh Simpson] and I commuted for 26 years. It would be different for many people, but was certainly something that worked for us. Our son grew up thinking it was normal to have two schools, two daycares, two sets of friends – and now he is a pretty adaptable person. So we never did those things casually.
[Josh] read stories, which became a tradition for us – the other parent did a lot of story reading. I did that from the Space Station, and it created a little platform for my son and me to be together without having to go, “how was your day?” We read a series of books called Peter And The Starcatchers. That was enthralling for him and for me. So a long answer to a short question!
Well, it’s not every day I ask people questions about what it’s like living in space and being apart from their families!
But a shorter answer for you, Carl, is that I did love seeing this portrayed in this way in the film. Every time I speak in public, I say something about family or I show my family – because I think it’s still so important for people to realise that our families are parts of our lives, especially women, and that you can do the thing you feel like you’re meant to do. And you can have a family – so often, I think there’s an impression you can’t do that. So having part of the film tell the story through my husband’s and my son’s eyes made such a difference for me; I got to hear those stories, some of them for the very first time.
How, then, did you deal with any stigma – like you just said – about preconceived ideas that a woman is going to be the mother of a child, and must always be there?
People often ask the women, “don’t you mind leaving your family back on Earth?” Of course I do. Going off to training in Russia, Europe, Canada, or Japan for a couple of years before the [Space Station] flight, I would bravely say goodbye at the kerb – it doesn’t help anybody if you’re all weepy when you say goodbye. Then I’d get to the airport, and the ladies who work at the counter are like, “oh yeah, that’s our astronaut, she cries at the airport!”
So it’s really hard, but I try to emphasise that it’s an injustice not to ask the guys the same question, because all of us mind! That sharing of family is actually the secret glue, I think, that glues us together up in space. How we feel about it, showing some pictures that were sent up to space. Talking about what your kids did this week, or your parents.
It would be crazy for me not to ask you about your time in space: what do you miss the most about your time not on planet Earth?
I miss just plain old living there. Knowing that I lived there, I would wake up every morning and think, “I’m still here” – which you would know immediately when you woke up, because you’d be floating around. Maybe I slept curled up in a ball and would be bouncing around my little cabin.
It’s not that every day was a wonderful day – you have bad days, days when you wish you did better, all those things – but I just loved living up there. I love that vantage point of looking back at the Earth and out at the stars. There’s a certain grief in leaving. When I came back, I didn’t want to sit next to the window in a plane for a long time because it evokes the same feeling of having a vantage point that’s different from everybody on the ground – you can see more, you can see differently. I can’t go back there [Coleman retired in 2016] but I get to have those memories.
It also encourages me to try to change my perspective when I’m looking at a problem, or a situation or opportunity: to think, how could I think about that differently? How could I look at it from a different direction, learn more or contribute more?
The Wonderful: Stories From The Space Station is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and digital formats. Info: www.thewonderfulfilm.com
words CARL MARSH