KU alumna describes life as an astronaut aboard the International Space Station during Q&A

photo by: University of Kansas screenshot

Astronaut Loral O'Hara watches as her Jayhawk plush floats in midair during a Q&A Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. O'Hara, a University of Kansas alumna, answered questions from KU students from aboard the International Space Station.

Most question-and-answer sessions don’t involve the person answering the questions casually flipping upside down and floating in midair — but then again, a Q&A Friday afternoon with University of Kansas alumna Loral O’Hara was far from ordinary.

That’s because O’Hara, a 2006 graduate of KU’s School of Engineering, was answering those questions via satellite link from the International Space Station. O’Hara is part of the ISS Expedition 70 crew and traveled to the space station in September 2023; she’s due to return in mid-March.

O’Hara answered a list of questions from students currently studying aerospace engineering at KU, all while floating in “microgravity” — commonly referred to as zero gravity. That, of course, was the topic of more than one question, as O’Hara has been living and working in such an environment for nearly five months.

Flipping around and speaking from the ceiling for a moment served as a live example of one point O’Hara mentioned: that she now doesn’t even have to think about orienting herself in a three-dimensional space.

photo by: University of Kansas screenshot

Astronaut Loral O’Hara casually flips upside down while answering a question during a Q&A Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. O’Hara, a University of Kansas alumna, is currently aboard the International Space Station.

“It’s pretty amazing being in extended microgravity,” O’Hara said. “… I almost don’t remember what gravity feels like. I think the coolest thing about just being up here and getting to live in microgravity for six months is seeing how my brain has adapted and how quickly we learn to live in a 3D environment versus a 2D environment.”

Preparing for the experience took many long days — and years — of training, O’Hara said. She described spacewalk training in NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, for example, as “some of the most challenging but also some of the most rewarding” training she’s taken part in. Those training days each involved about six hours of physically and mentally taxing underwater training across seven years.

It all culminated in a rocket launch and an eight-minute ride into space, which O’Hara called “one of my favorite days of my life.” She floated her pencil in front of her face once reaching orbit, and O’Hara said it was initially hard to grasp the fact that she and her crew were there and looking at Earth from space for the first time.

Luckily, O’Hara said, the intense training mirrors what each day on the ISS is like. Astronauts are often jumping from maintenance and scientific tasks to outreach events as part of 12-hour work days, and O’Hara said the extensive training helps to prepare for space. That’s allowed her to go from feeling like she was fighting against microgravity — watching as items bounce out of a bag right after being placed there, or as tools float away — to learning how to work with it.

“But then as time goes on, you start to learn how to use it to your advantage,” O’Hara said. “So now, if I let go of something and it’s drifting away from me, I can kind of look at it and judge if it’s just going to hit the wall and come back and I don’t have to move to go pick it up, and just little things like that.”

Training to be an astronaut doesn’t just take adequate preparation for microgravity, though. O’Hara said it also includes learning about systems on the ISS, robotics, Russian language and flights in NASA’s T-38 jets to teach quick decision-making during space missions.

All of those “Astronaut 101” trainings return when astronauts are assigned to a mission, O’Hara said, along with mission-specific instruction and medical officer training.

photo by: University of Kansas screenshot

University of Kansas students wait for a Q&A event with astronaut and alumna Loral O’Hara to begin on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024.

O’Hara said each day of activities is an “extremely complex puzzle” scheduled by staff on the ground. Outside of a few hours for exercise and a meal, she said a typical day could include any array of science experiments or maintenance tasks. Prior to the Q&A, for example, O’Hara was working on one experiment manufacturing fiberoptics in space and another involving cell cultures.

“… It’s really interesting for me because as astronauts, we’re the eyes and ears and hands of scientists and researchers on the ground,” O’Hara said. “The experts are on the ground; we’re not the experts in any of this, so they are trying to talk us through, over the radio, what they think might be going on, and we’re sharing our observations and what we think might be going on.”

Life science and biological experiments involving cell cultures are one type of research that O’Hara said she has especially enjoyed working with while aboard the ISS. Cells age faster in microgravity, she said, which allows researchers to conduct studies at a faster rate than they could on the ground.

O’Hara said it’s hard to pick just one experience as her favorite so far — “I’m having the time of my life up here,” she said — but one of them was going on her first real spacewalk and looking down at Earth.

There are things O’Hara misses about life on the ground, though, like her friends and family. She said she also misses the natural sounds and sensations of nature, like rain, snow, jumping in the ocean and hearing wind blow through the trees. O’Hara said she also misses chips and guacamole — fresh food is a rarity on the ISS, except when cargo vehicles visit the station — and the scent of coffee, which in space is served in a bag with a straw.

O’Hara will return from space next month with plenty of lessons to impart, like the importance of mindfulness. She said the crew on the ISS abides by the saying “Nothing is as important as what you’re doing right now,” and it can be easy to get caught up in the motions of day-to-day life on the ground. Going on the mission has also reinforced the importance of good communication in relationships, she said.

But perhaps the most important thing O’Hara said she’s realized on the ISS is perspective, stemming from her view of the planet she’ll soon return home to.

“For me, it’s not really changed my perspective so much as reinforced what an incredibly beautiful and complex and diverse planet we have, seeing it against the blackness of space,” O’Hara said. “And it really gives me a sense of urgency to come back down to Earth and play a part in making it better. I would just love for everybody to get to enjoy that view and recognize what a special place we have to call home.”


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