Astronaut Mom Karen Nyberg Shares Her Perspective Changer
A Life of Exploration: NASA Astronaut, Mother, and Artist, Dr. Karen Nyberg
When Karen Nyberg was only eight years old she sewed her first shirt. It was around this time that the budding seamstress and artist looked up at the night sky and decided she wanted to be an astronaut. “My entire life,” she says, “I’ve had two main passions: space of course, the other being art and creating things.”
For Karen the stars and the moon remain “distant, magical things,” but in 2008 her childhood aspirations turned reality, as she became the 50th woman in space, making her first trip to space aboard Space Shuttle Discovery.
On Karen’s second spaceflight in 2013, during which she launched on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and lived and worked at ISS for 166 days, her son Jack was only three years old. Though she had a supportive partner, lots of help from home, and was able to call her husband Doug Hurley every night, interacting with a three-year-old on the phone was never going to work. As a workaround, she ended up recording short iPad videos every night. “Hi Jack, I made it to space. See my hair floats like I told you it would. I miss you already and I LOVE YOU,” she recorded from the spacecraft’s cupola, which is the Earth facing window that provides a 360 degree view. Karen ended up recording videos daily, showing Jack everything from the joys of zero gravity to the fun oddities of space food, views out the window, or she says sometimes, she’d just sit quietly and sing to him. The result is an amazing archive; 166 videos of a mom saying, “Hello, I love you and I miss you.”
During that 2013 spaceflight, Karen’s days were filled with a variety of important technical and operational tasks, maintenance, science and data collection, but as a lifelong lover of art and sewing, Karen took quilting materials to space. From space, she says, the simple act of laying fabric down, cutting pieces straight, or getting the correct seam allowance were complicated by zero gravity. Undeterred, she became the first person to quilt from space, crafting a star-themed block, and inviting others to sew their own. In response, NASA received over 2400 quilt squares from around the world, many of which were accompanied by letters and personal stories of how space travel impacted their lives. Those blocks formed a quilt shown at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, 2014.
Now in home in Houston with Doug, a still active astronaut, and son Jack, Karen says there are so many things she misses about space. “I miss the freedom of floating, I miss the camaraderie with our international crew… we would talk, we would tell stories. What I miss the most though, is the ability to go to our cupola, and just watch the Earth go by. It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Seeing the Earth from that vantage point is truly a perspective changer.”
“I’ve had an amazing career as an astronaut,” she adds, “but now that I’ve decided to move on, I’m very excited to be able to spend the time and the energy on textile artworks.” She uses her time in space, pictures she took, and experiences in her personal life to inform and inspire her newest venture.