Social-media savvy astronaut Karen Nyberg is an engineer, an inventor, an athlete, a science communicator, a crafter, and a mom. A look inside her otherworldly career—and the grit that got her there. By Rose Cahalan
On July 16, 2013, American astronaut Karen Nyberg, MS ’96, PhD ’98, waited inside the International Space Station—in orbit 220 miles over the Earth—as her colleagues Luca Parmitano and Chris Cassidy went on a spacewalk, floating in pitch darkness. White cords tethered the men to the outside of the football field-sized space station. For an hour and a half, they did routine maintenance tasks, such as installing a pair of data cables.
Then Parmitano felt something wet on the back of his neck. At first he hoped it was just sweat—weighing in at 280 pounds (on Earth) of nylon, mylar, and steel, spacesuits aren’t exactly comfortable—but it felt cold, and it was increasing steadily. His suit’s cooling system was leaking. A slick coat of water blanketed his eyes, ears, and nose as his helmet flooded completely. He would later describe the sensation as “being a goldfish in a fishbowl.” As Mission Control aborted the spacewalk and Parmitano headed back, he could barely see or hear. He was drowning in space.
After 14 years in the astronaut corps, Nyberg had built a reputation for being cool under pressure, as well as creative and media-savvy. Her skillful use of social media—nearly 100,000 people watch on Twitter as she posts breathtaking photos from space—had helped refresh NASA’s time-worn public image. But now she’d arrived at a moment where all of that faded away. All that mattered was getting her crewmate safely back inside.
Nyberg could only wait and hope Parmitano was somehow able to find his way back to the airlock by muscle memory alone. If he could make it that far, she could help him. But as he fumbled and struggled to keep his breathing steady in the darkness outside the space station, time was running out. She had a decision to make, one she’d been preparing for since she was a little girl.
The population of Vining, Minn., Karen Nyberg’s hometown, was 78 at the 2010 census. Vining has a gas station, a post office, a Lutheran cemetery, a lilac restaurant called the Vining Purple Palace, and not much else. Passing drivers often pull over to marvel at the giant roadside sculptures scattered around town, like the 12-foot-tall, 1,200-pound human foot made from steel and the life-sized elephant crafted entirely from lawnmower blades. They are the work of Karen’s father, Ken Nyberg, a retired construction worker who started welding with leftover materials from job sites. Karen’s mother, Phyllis, who stayed home to raise Karen and her four siblings, now works as the town postmaster.
The lack of light pollution in Vining affords an excellent view of the night sky, which Karen spent ample time admiring as a child. “She was a quiet kid,” remembers Ken, “and she was never a quitter. She played volleyball and basketball, and when other kids would get discouraged if they didn’t win, she just kept right on going.”