Chris Cassidy is a former Navy SEAL who was selected to become a NASA astronaut in 2004. During his career, Cassidy has spent 378 days in space, completed 10 spacewalks and worked on three missions. to the International Space Station. On his last trip to space last year, he served as the commander of the ISS on Expedition 63. Below, the only American participating in this mission tells his story; it appears as told to Charles Thorp, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I wasn’t the kid with pictures of rockets on my wall and stars glowing in the dark on my wall. I grew up playing sports before going to the Naval Academy and then joining the SEAL teams. I didn’t think about a career at NASA until I met Bill Shepherd, who was the first SEAL to go to space.
I was drawn to the real adventure of it. I remember looking at what the spacewalks were and thinking, “Sounds really cool. I didn’t know much else about the job. I had seen a few live rocket launches before, but never imagined myself being in there. But I’m also a very curious person, and I like to know how things work. So I started to go through the application process.
During my selection at NASA, I learned that launches are only a small fraction of an astronaut’s career. There is a lot of time when you work as an engineer, doing very technical work. It can even be annoying sometimes, when you are supporting other ongoing missions. I was fortunate enough to learn to love these operational elements of the concert during my time in the SEALs. I had no idea I was going to be spending a lot of time in space.
My first time on the International Space Station, or ISS, was on my first shuttle mission. It was also my first launch, and it was dropped five times before we finally took off. Each astronaut receives 250 tickets to give to friends and family to attend the launch. On the last attempt, there were probably only a handful of my guests who were still there.
There are a lot of things the simulator can prepare you for, but there are a few that it cannot get close to. Like the roar you feel when the engines go out or the incredible shake you feel when a rocket stops and another leaves. There’s these little boards on my knees in front of us, where I was writing little notes to myself about what to prepare for, like exactly what time I should prepare for a huge explosion.
I remember being on the ISS the first time, and all the nations that make up the partnership were there. Our shuttle had six Americans and one Canadian. On the space station there were already European, Russian and Japanese astronauts. So, during those first dinners at the resort, it was this incredible feeling of community.
Being a visitor to the ISS and being stationed there for six months, like on my last mission, is a completely different experience. On my first trip it was like visiting a rental house where I didn’t know how to turn on the air conditioner or the TV remote. Once you’ve lived there for a while, you start to know where all the controls are.
My last mission, I was on the ISS for six months, and due to the pandemic it was a profoundly different experience due to the few crew we had. There were only three people. The front part of the station consists of all American, European and Japanese modules. The rear part is the Russian part. Everyone lives together on Greenwich Mean Time. There is maintenance and science that needs to be done on both sides, and the respective crews take care of that.
I was the only American up there, joined by two Russian cosmonauts, which meant there were big chunks of the day when I was completely alone. Since there were only three of us, we were trying to float to each other’s sections for coffee to say hello, but beyond that I was alone in our half of the craft.
I have to admit, waking up in a space station when you’re alone can be a little weird. Earlier in the mission or in your career, you may forget that you are even waking up in space. I remember floating out of my dorms when the craft was completely dark. Seeing outside, it was hard not to remember that I was floating 250 miles above the Earth’s surface, traveling at five miles per second.
Fortunately, we still have an invisible crew member around and that’s Mission Control in Houston. They are constantly monitoring everything for us and they will wake us up if action needs to be taken immediately. There is a laptop that is placed right next to where I sleep, so the first thing I would do when I wake up is pull it out to check NASA messages or emails.
Before I had a cup of coffee, I would usually go for a pee, which was actually used to make the next day’s coffee. I know it might sound a little weird, but the recycling machines we have on board are amazing. There is no sense that the water we drink comes from this garbage or the sweat squeezed out of our T-shirts. It is in fact essential for the future of space travel that we do not have to store every drop of water necessary for a mission.
I will then eat a little something while I drink my coffee, while checking the schedule for the day. The first thing I like to do is exercise. On the ISS, there is a weight machine that is used by the entire crew. Each person has a 1.5 hour workout routine that they should do each day. Since there were only three of us there was a bit more flexibility, but generally it’s very tightly scheduled.
Once the training is complete, it’s time to get started with the tasks defined by Mission Control. There is a computer program managed by people at the head office where all my tasks are defined. There are laptops and tablets spread throughout the station, all of which are connected to an intranet. Some tasks can be accomplished at any time, and others are scheduled very strictly, as if they require a satellite in a certain position or are coordinated with a scientist on the ground.
On Friday, we had dinner together as a team, disconnecting the part of the station that would host. When it was my turn to host on the American side, I would prepare all the food and all the cosmonauts had to do was show up with a spoon. The following week, the roles would be reversed. But most evenings I ate alone. My favorite dishes aboard the ISS would be chicken strips and seafood salsa or okra, accompanied by lots of good veggies. I had an after dinner tea and floated to the Russian side just for a little one-on-one moment and to see how their day went.
The days are usually quite busy, but there is some free time to decompress at the end. Saturdays are generally partial working days, where we clean the ship, and Sundays are reserved for recovery. This time is absolutely necessary – having every moment of your day counted can be mentally draining. There is a computer that has ordinary internet access, but I admit it is not at all as fast as we are used to on Earth. I don’t find myself spending a lot of time on it. There is the television where you can watch recorded shows, and I watched the series Yellowstone.
However, most of the time when I’m in space, I try to do things that I can’t do on Earth, like looking at Earth out the window. I would look at the stars sometimes, they are beautiful up there, but I always found my eyes moving up to Earth. I would call my family or friends whenever I could, usually after dinner on the space station, since it was around noon at home.
It takes a little getting used to lying down in space. I never use a sleep mask on Earth, but on the space station I have to. You forget the number of small LED lights on all the electronic devices that we have in the station. They can make the dorms brighter. But honestly, you are so tired at the end of the day that you are ready to close your eyes. I try to remember how lucky I am to fall asleep in space and to be able to put on this costume.
Among the Stars, a new docuseries starring Cassidy, will air October 6 on Disney +.
This series is produced in partnership with the The Great Adventures Podcast hosted by Charles Thorp. Check out new and past episodes on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Past guests include Bear Grylls, Andrew Zimmern, Chris Burkard, NASA astronauts, Navy SEALs and many more.
For more travel news, tips and inspiration, subscribe to Internal hookThe Journey’s weekly travel newsletter.