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Karen Nyberg

View from the Top

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—iconnearly 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.

Karen Nyberg
icon Nyberg sews a quilt square aboard the Space Station. Courtesy NASA/Johnson Space Center

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.”

Sun over Earth from NASA International Space Station | Image courtesy NASA


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There are times I wish I was a poet. In fact, maybe sending a poet there would be a good idea.

Nyberg was born Oct. 7, 1969, just three months after the Apollo 11 moon landing captivated the nation. By 1983, when Sally Ride became the first woman in space, Nyberg was 13 and already planning her future. “I can’t remember a time when being an astronaut wasn’t my goal,” she says. “People always ask me where that desire came from, and I honestly have no idea. It was just there.”

Plenty of kids dream of being an astronaut the same way they dream of being Batman or Indiana Jones—but Nyberg was serious from the start. In high school, she researched astronauts’ backgrounds and learned they all had either military training or science and engineering degrees. So after graduating as valedictorian of Henning High School, she enrolled at the University of North Dakota to study mechanical engineering. There, she landed a coveted engineering internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston—and promptly patented a new type of probe and socket assembly she engineered for robotic arms in space.

But patenting an invention at age 22 was just the beginning. Each year, 4,000-8,000 people apply for as few as eight spots as NASA astronaut candidates. That means Nyberg had a roughly 0.1 percent chance of being selected. And even then, not all astronaut candidates make the cut. Space travel is an exclusive club: since cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted into history in 1961, fewer than 600 people, 12 of them Longhorns, have followed him into orbit.

You could say she beat the odds—but that would give short shrift to the decades of hard work that got her there.

Astronauts see a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes as the space station hurtles around the Earth at roughly 17,000 miles per hour. The view is indescribable, and it’s not uncommon for first-timers to drop what they’re doing and simply gape open-mouthed for a while. But on as the sun rose on that fateful day in July, Nyberg and her colleagues barely noticed it. All their focus was on Parmitano and his waterlogged helmet.

Miraculously, Parmitano was able to quickly find his way back to the airlock by feel, blinded by two pints of water clinging to his face. But his ordeal wasn’t over. Like scuba divers gradually ascending to the surface, astronauts must slowly repressurize after a spacewalk. Nyberg’s job was to manage the process and get her crewmate safely back inside. That normally routine role got a lot riskier when Parmitano’s audio system suddenly went dead.

“I looked through the window into the airlock,” Nyberg remembers, “and I saw Luca wasn’t moving. We had lost all communication with him.”

Now Nyberg had to make a tough call—should she press an emergency button to repressurize Parmitano’s suit, preventing him from drowning but also likely rupturing his eardrums in the process? Or would it be better to wait a little longer, spare his ears and his suit, and hope he was still breathing?

It was one of those crucial moments for which astronauts spend years training. They learn to escape while blindfolded from an underwater helicopter crash, rehearse detailed crisis scenarios inside a full-scale model of the space station, and much more. But nothing can fully prepare them for unpredictability and the emotions that come with the real thing. That’s why to make it as an astronaut, you have to be rock-solid psychologically, with the composure of a Zen master.

“I wouldn’t say I was scared,” Nyberg says carefully, remembering the moment. “I did notice that my heart rate was going up. It was a little tense, sure.”

Her gut told her to take the risk and wait a little longer. The minutes ticked by, and then Parmitano squeezed Cassidy’s hand. Everyone watching, in Houston and in orbit, breathed a collective sigh of relief. He was going to be fine. NASA would later call the event “probably the most serious [spacewalk incident] we’ve ever encountered.”

Together with two Russian cosmonauts, Nyberg pulled Parmitano in from the airlock, took off his helmet, and calmly wiped the water from his head with a towel. Then she radioed into Mission Control: “We’ll continue on.”

Hubble peers at the heart of a spiral galaxy | Image courtesy NASA

With that characteristic mix of daring and pragmatism, Nyberg wasn’t daunted by that 0.1 percent chance of becoming an astronaut candidate. “Being an astronaut was always my primary goal,” she says, “but it was also a distant one. I would have enjoyed just being an engineer. At the same time, I made choices that moved me closer to the astronaut corps.”

"She's a very, very talented engineer and astronaut, but she embraces this whole other side of herself, too. I hope that young girls can look at her and say, 'I can do those things, too.'"

One of the most important of those choices, she says, was coming to the University of Texas.

“I knew I wanted to get down to Texas,” Nyberg says, “because I wanted to work at Johnson [Space Center]. And Austin seemed like a really fun place to live.”

Arriving on the Forty Acres in 1994, Nyberg joined the lab of biomechanical engineering professor Ken Diller, one of the world’s top experts on thermodynamics and heat transfer. Together, Nyberg and Diller won a NASA grant to study the temperature regulation of spacesuits. Protecting astronauts from extreme heat and cold is one of NASA’s biggest challenges (as Parmitano experienced firsthand when his cooling system leaked into his helmet). During spacewalks, it’s not uncommon for one side of an astronaut’s suit to be a frigid minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit, while the side facing the sun can simultaneously soar to 250 degrees.

Extremes like those make it difficult merely to keep the person inside the suit alive, and that’s a problem that will get even more difficult on possible long-duration trips to come, like a mission to Mars. At UT, Nyberg designed an automated cooling system for the kind of futuristic suit that could one day take humans farther from Earth than ever before. Her work was published in four academic journals. “Twenty years later, I still teach Karen’s research in my undergraduate classes,” Diller says.

Science and engineering graduate students aren’t exactly known for having the healthiest work-life balance—but Nyberg was. Her labmate John Walsh, PhD ’98, remembers her as calm and cheerful, with a competitive streak. “She’d invite everyone to go play darts at Posse East,” Walsh remembers. “But then you get up to play against her and you’re like, OK, I guess I’ll just sit back down.”

An avid marathoner, Nyberg was often spotted as a blonde-ponytailed blur speeding past on the sidewalk. “I encountered her as a runner almost as often as a researcher,” Diller remembers. “It was, ‘Oh, there goes Karen again!’”

She also insisted on taking the stairs all six stories up to Diller’s lab in the Engineering Sciences Building and, in the name of fitness, encouraged others to do the same. “I still think of her whenever I’m tempted to take the elevator,” Walsh laughs.

After finishing her PhD in 1998, it was a natural transition for Nyberg to go from part-time work at NASA to a staff position as a systems engineer. Each new astronaut class gets a nickname (“The Penguins,” “The Chumps,” even “The Flying Escargot”), and in 2000, Nyberg was chosen to join “The Bugs,” named to poke fun at Y2K fears. She was one of three women in a class of 17, and one of very few applicants who make the cut on their first try. You could say she beat the odds—but that would give short shrift to the decades of hard work that got her there.

“She earned it,” says Ken Nyberg. “I don’t deserve any credit for it, as her dad. None of us do. It was all Karen.”

Next came years of intensive training, including a week spent living and working underwater as an aquanaut with the NEEMO-10 mission, a deep-sea research lab that simulates conditions in space. “That was awesome,” Nyberg says. “It was terrific. We were in this habitat under the water in the Florida Keys. It’s similar to spaceflight in that when you have an emergency, you can’t just ascend. You have to depressurize. That mission was a lot of fun.”

Finally, in 2008 Nyberg achieved her lifelong dream: she launched into space aboard the space shuttle’s 123rd flight. She emailed her former UT mentor, Ken Diller: “What a ride! I am having a blast here. It feels very natural. It’s hard to describe the experience. Hopefully someday I’ll find the right words.”

icon Video by John Fitch

She still gets misty-eyed when recalling the icon first moment she saw Earth from space: all of human existence held in a pale blue dot outside her window.

“There just are no words,” Nyberg says. “And you can’t get it in a photo or a video. It doesn’t even come close.”

Flights on the space shuttle, which was famously retired in 2011, were short: Nyberg’s 2008 trip lasted only 15 days. That tight schedule left little time for anything other than work and sleep. But in May 2013, she launched from Kazahkstan for a six-month stint at the International Space Station.

Nyberg is the first astronaut on Pinterest, and certainly the first to sew a Texas flag while floating high above the Lone Star State.

The space station weighs about 900,000 pounds and is worth an estimated $150 billion. It’s a giant flying laboratory that hosts hundreds of scientific experiments. Sometimes the astronauts themselves are lab rats, as Nyberg was for a study on how weightlessness affects vision; more often they act as lab techs for others’ experiments. The basic principle is that zero gravity toys with the laws of science as we usually experience them, and that weirdness has a lot to teach us about life on Earth. For example, one recent study found that certain cancer cells spread more slowly in space; figuring out why could help in the development of better drugs. “We don’t know yet what all the benefits [of space station research] will be,” Nyberg says. “But they will be big.”

Karen Nyberg
icon Nyberg achieved a lifelong dream when she launched into space in 2008. Courtesy NASA/Johnson Space Center

When they aren’t doing science, astronauts are promoting it. They’re the face of NASA, an especially vital task considering that the agency’s budget has plummeted from 5 percent of the federal budget in the 1960s to .5 percent today. Nyberg admits she was reluctant to embrace that part of the job. “I hesitated to get on Twitter,” she says. “I wasn’t sure I had interesting things to say.”

Now nearly 100,000 followers have convinced her otherwise. The cool factor surrounding media-savvy astronauts like Nyberg is a big deal for a government agency that’s gone from captivating—500 million people watched the first moon landing—to confusing: in a 2011 survey, only 38 percent of Americans said they believe the government should keep funding space programs.

Smoke and fires from Sumatra | Image courtesy NASA


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For some reason when you see it from that vantage point, it kind of all comes together.

Like postcards from the most amazing trip humanity has ever been on, Nyberg’s awe-inspiring photos of the planet from above, complete with poetic captions (“Seeing nature in nature—feather clouds over the South Pacific”), do more to freshen up NASA’s tired public image than any PR campaign could. iconA YouTube video showing how she washes her hair in space racked up more than 2 million views, and she even chatted live with Martha Stewart about sewing and quilting in orbit. An avid crafter, Nyberg is the first astronaut on Pinterest, and certainly the first to icon hand-stitch a Texas flag while floating high above the Lone Star State.

icon Video by John Fitch

She’s also one of the first mothers to go on a long-duration spaceflight—Nyberg and her husband Doug Hurley, also an astronaut, have a 4-year-old son, Jack. “When the Space Station would fly over Texas,” Nyberg says, “Jack would look up and wave and say, ‘Hi, Mommy.’”

The media tends to zero in on the fact that Nyberg is a parent. One particularly tone-deaf Reuters article described her and two colleagues as “a veteran Russian cosmonaut, a rookie Italian astronaut and an American mother.” She takes it in stride. “Being a mom is different, and family is the most important thing in my life,” she says. “Sometimes people ask a few too many questions about my hair, but it’s not a big deal.”

“The thing about Karen,” says her friend and fellow astronaut Megan McArthur Behnken, “is that she’s a very, very talented engineer and astronaut, but she embraces this whole other side of her, too. She paints and sews and plays with her son. I hope that young girls can look at her and say, ‘I can do those things, too.’”

Since returning to Earth last November, Nyberg has been busy recovering—six months without gravity wreaks havoc on an astronaut’s body—and spending time at home in Houston, most recently sewing curtains for Jack’s bedroom: “We’re switching from Classic Pooh to dinosaurs.” When she’s not in space, she works other positions at NASA, from helping with astronaut training to serving in Mission Control.

After logging more than 70 million miles in orbit, what’s next? “I’m pretty happy where I am,” she says, “but I’d love to go to the moon.”


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