Hilary: Karen, if you wouldn’t mind sharing the story you told me…You don’t have to, but I find it really fascinating.
Karen: Yeah, I don’t mind sharing it because there was a lot of emotion with it. After my first space shuttle flight, in 2008, I was really eager to go again. Extremely eager. But Doug and I were trying to have a child when I was assigned to the spacial mission STS-132. I was assigned to the flight and going to do spacewalks…and then I got pregnant. The frustrating part was that my baby was due well before the mission. I had gone to my commander, and we thought I could continue training, have the baby, and then do this mission. We had a plan—we had a backup in case something happened, and I couldn’t continue training.
And then, I was taken off the flight. It was disappointing. But, like most things, it all worked out fine in the end. Peggy Whitson was the chief of the astronaut office at the time, and as soon as I came off maternity leave she assigned me to a long-duration mission. She took care of me.
Hilary: Didn’t they call it a health crisis or something?
Karen: The official word that went out from NASA was that I was removed from the flight for a temporary medical condition. My son wasn’t quite so temporary. [Laughs]
Glamour: One thing that struck me was watching Emma, a mother, trying to parent from space. Karen, you can actually speak to that unique experience.
Karen: I had to travel a lot for training. It was hard, but I had to learn to give up control. Doug was training when we first had my son Jack—for the first 18 months he was training for a space flight, so he was very busy. I was in control of Jack’s schedule, what he ate, and any activities he did. So when I was training, I would try to micromanage what was happening in Jack’s life. I had to let go of that. By the time I flew in space, I had worked through it.
The key is to have support and people you trust. My husband was home, but he was working. We had an amazing nanny, Lucy, who we just adored, and my mother-in-law helping. When I was in space, my husband and I had very good communication. I could talk to him on the phone every single day. But for a three year old, it was a little difficult. I made a video for him every single day on my iPad that I sent home. I had 166 videos saying, “Goodnight, I love you.”
I did prepared myself for something, and I’m glad I did: coming home and him not wanting to come to me as the primary caregiver. And it happened. Jack had spent a lot of time with my mother-in-law. So the first night I was home, he wanted her to put him to bed—not me. Luckily, I prepared myself for that. I told myself, “I haven’t been here. I haven’t been the motherly figure to him for six months.” It only took a few days, and he was back to coming to me.
Jessica: Now that your son is 10, would it feel harder to go to space?
Karen: I think so. I think it would be a lot harder to go right now than when he was three. I think he was fine with my husband going [a few months ago], but it probably was a little stressful for him. I anticipate it might have been more so if it had been me going this time.