Bob flew on the Shuttle Columbia STS-78 mission in 1996 (17 days) and on the Russian Soyuz Expedition 20/21 in 2009 (six months). Throughout most of his astronaut career, I focused my life work on raising our three children. I am definitely more at home on terra firma, so this suited me. But being married to an astronaut brought unique elements to our otherwise normal lives. Training is ongoing, varied and lasts for years. For Bob, going to work could be for six months and off the planet. I have had married couples joke about how lucky I was with regard to the latter!
The lead-up to a space mission involves intense periods of heavy training, last minute to-do lists and logistical ventures for all involved. The agencies have plans, protocol and experienced staff who spend time coordinating these events.
But there are always unexpected glitches that increase the complexities of attending a launch and landing. In our case, the launch for Expedition 20/21 occurred during the H1N1 virus outbreak in 2009, and the immediate family members were required to monitor their temperatures for a week prior to travel. No one was "allowed" to get sick, especially the crew who we hadn't seen in two months. We were anxious to see Bob before another six months of separation, which kept the fear of contracting anything in our minds. In the end, all went well.
Always be Prepared
Preparing for a space mission is a long, goal-oriented process that resembles preparing for a marathon, but is interspersed with sprints when deadlines approach. Training intensifies and changes occur, which can cause a chain reaction of modifications. Adaptability is required. It's not always easy, but life isn't. Help can require effort or it can be a spontaneous reaction to an unspoken pact that we are in this together. It could be as simple as a hug or taking on additional family and domestic responsibilities. Sometimes it means taking a back seat as the mission rears its head and takes on a life of its own.
I had many years to prepare for Bob's missions, and mostly, it was just life happening. It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the work of an astronaut from the rest of his or her life. In the same way, the family of an astronaut is never too far removed from the job. It is a reference point, but the challenge is to balance it with other focal points in our life, such as family, relationships and other worthy pursuits.
The fun parts of the job can sometimes feel trivial and indulgent. For instance, trying to decide what mementos to send with Bob to space. The items had to conform to agency regulations, of course, but they also were very symbolic of what we value in life. Both times, I sent a ring into space with Bob. Historically, rings bear meaning. They are also small, easy to pack and stow, and later, cherish for a lifetime. They can also be passed on for generations. I am always about the small things in life that matter the most.
Communications from space
I love to share stories about how Bob communicated with our family while he was in space. I would be cooking dinner or standing in a Home Depot parking lot when I got the phone calls. One time, I passed my phone to my son's friend so Bob could say "Hi" from space.
At other times we communicated through scheduled weekly family conferences via video monitor in our home. Care packages that contained cards, chocolate and even a Tim Horton's mug (minus the coffee) were sent up in cargo rockets. Many times, I stood outside in the dark to watch the station go by. Bob claims they turned on the lights for us as they passed over our home. I believed him! Hearing Bob's voice over the hum of the station is imprinted in my memory and still brings tears to my eyes. Some memories hit a chord.
Returning to Earth after a mission is bittersweet. We long to hug, to reunite and to resume a normal life, but in many ways, the landing is not the end of the mission. In addition to debriefs, readaptation and data collection, the psychological and emotional experience lives on. Our spouse may have changed, but so have we. The mission has touched us all and it is our privilege, but also our responsibility, to share it with others who can analyze it scientifically, as well as those who are interested in hearing our stories.
Reconnection at landing is very personal, private and emotional. It is about gratitude and appreciation that we were fortunate enough to be brought together again. Those of us in the space world can never forget the losses and great tragedies of Challenger and Columbia and also the training accidents over the years.
The physical post-space recovery is amazingly quick, especially given the physiological changes that occur in microgravity. Psychologically, the shift goes from building up to the mission to returning to a pre-mission level of functioning. It is a process that takes time – there is no reset button. It is part of the journey and it mimics any other major life event.
Bob's career as an astronaut is part of the fabric of our relationship. It is woven in our experience as a couple, as parents and as extended members of our family. It has brought us dear friends and has given us opportunities and experiences that are both humbling and extraordinary.
It would be pretentious for me to think that I can give advice to Canadian astronauts and their families. I am always open to discussion however and will share my viewpoint if asked. My reflection on my own experience is metaphorical and would apply to anyone seeking a compass: fly high, but always know what grounds you. Take the time to tether yourself to those people and things that sustain you along the way. Remember that it's a journey you can't take alone.