Comings and Goings in the NASA Family

An emotional sendoff for a space station crew

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Laughing to keep from crying, Peggy Whitson says goodbye to crewmates Thomas Pesquet (back left) and Oleg Novitskiy (back right), with Jack “2Fish” Fisher and Fyodor Yurchikhin by her side.

I’ve never liked it when people appropriate the term “family” to include everything from co-workers to customers. I’ve got my own family, thanks, and filling my tank with gas doesn’t quite warrant a “welcome to the Exxon family.”

Still, some jobs really do go beyond just being another place to work, and astronaut has to be one of them. Over the decades, human spaceflight has developed a distinct culture, with its own particular customs and rituals that make NASA more like a family than a typical government agency.

I was thinking about this recently, watching Peggy Whitson’s change-of-command ceremony on the space station. In case you don’t know her, Whitson is one of the most accomplished astronauts of all time. She’s spent more time in space than any other American. She was the first woman to head NASA’s astronaut office, and this was her third time commanding the space station.

Whitson is known for her work ethic and her intelligence, and listening to her air-to-ground exchanges with Mission Control, she’s usually pretty business-like. So I wasn’t prepared for this very emotional send-off of her crewmates, Thomas Pesquet of France and Oleg Novitskiy, who were returning to Earth the next day on a Soyuz transport.

I like everything about this clip, including Whitson’s muting her own mike when she starts to get choked up. A space station astronaut once told me that he found his emotions to be stronger in orbit—the highs were higher, and the lows were lower. Whether or not that’s been true for Whitson, it’s clear that her bond with her fellow astronauts is very real.

Maybe it’s because—as she points out to Fyodor Yurchikhin, the cosmonaut relieving her of command—some of them have been working together for a long time. Many astronauts, even famous ones, spend just a short time in the spaceflight business.  John Glenn, for example, was an astronaut for only five years, Sally Ride for just nine. Whitson has worked in and around NASA for more than 30 years, virtually her entire career, including serving, before she became an astronaut, as the project scientist for the shuttle-Mir program in the 1990s.  She’s married to a NASA biomedical researcher. If anyone’s entitled to call it the “NASA family,” Whitson is.

Speaking of families, another time-honored Russian spaceflight tradition is the phone call to the ground after a Soyuz docks with the station, so the families and friends of the astronauts and cosmonauts can check in with their loved ones at the start of their long stay in orbit. Here’s the scene from last Friday, right after Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA’s Randy Bresnik, and veteran Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli (at 60, the oldest station crew member yet) arrived on board:

We may not see many more of these family calls to Moscow, once ferry flights on U.S. commercial spaceships begin in the next year or two. I’ll miss them.

At least we’ll be watching the dockings in HD, though. Friday’s docking to the station was captured with new, high-quality cameras on the station, and the detail, as you can see, is noticeably better than it used to be.