In all honesty, I originally wrote this blog post back in 2017 or 2018 during my internships at NASA.
Yep, your math is correct – this blog post has been sitting in my drafts for over 4 years. I don’t know why I never posted it. Maybe because it’s kind of cheesy and awkward and represents how I felt at the time (re: Just an awkward NASA intern in college trying to make the best of her experiences and opportunities). But I think that it offers unique insight into something that many people might not get to experience in their lives: the opportunity to meet an astronaut.
Without further ado – here was, in my personal experience as a very young professional, what it’s like to meet an astronaut.
Astronauts are a unique type of people in a class entirely their own. They have reached the ends of humanity’s exploration of space and have seen and experienced things that billions of people on Earth will never experience. Currently, there are only around 48 active NASA astronauts, and NASA has trained about 350 astronauts since the 1960’s. The European and Canadian Space Agencies and Roscosmos (Russian space agency) also have their own astronaut classes, and meeting those astronauts are even more rare.
I am lucky enough to have been able to dozens of astronauts early in my career. Truth be told, I have actually lost count of how many astronauts I have met — but let me explain.
My first internship was with NASA at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, aka the home of the astronaut corps. There are astronauts everywhere, in nearly every office and every building you enter. When they’re not training for a mission or they’ve retired their wings (meaning that they aren’t planning on going into space anymore), then they’re in a regular NASA office job. Because of this, I have quite an embarrassing story from my first internship. For nearly 8 weeks of my summer internship, I had been unknowingly working and interacting with an astronaut. For the sake of privacy, I will refrain from naming individuals. I was so embarrassed when I finally did find out that they were an astronaut and my officemates made fun of me for it. (Great job, Emmalee.)
Besides this first embarrassing experience I had at Johnson Space Center, here is what it’s like to meet an astronaut for the first time —
The first thing that happens is pure excitement. It’s “OMG, it’s an astronaut! A person who actually flew in space! They’re so cool!”
The second is “Wow, they’re an astronaut — I want to go meet him/her!” Now, this takes some mental preparation. You have to muster up the courage to physically walk up to them and not freak out. *Remember: 20 seconds of courage. That’s all it takes.
The third thing happens as you’ve finally mustered up courage and began to walk towards astronaut. It’s “Holy cow, what do I say to this person?!” Obviously, you don’t want to just spew some nonsense and actually have a real conversation with them, but it takes some time to figure out what you want to say or ask. Ask about what their favorite science experiment was if they recently got back to Earth, or what they’re most looking forward to on their next mission, or what about them inspires you or why this is a big moment for you.
Despite all that mental preparation, the fourth thing that happens is… word vomit. Seriously. After the initial introduction, it’s just word vomit. Most of the time I can hardly remember what I wanted to ask and can’t think of anything else to say. It’s painful. But luckily, astronauts are used to it and handle it all with grace.
Next it’s, “Can I take a picture with you?!” Astronauts are used to getting asked for pictures as well, but it’s still nerve-wracking and a little awkward to ask. Just ask and get the picture — you will cherish this photo forever.
And finally, always be sure to say “Thank you so much! I won’t take up too much of your time, but it was nice meeting you!” Then you just awkwardly shuffle away, not really wanting to leave but knowing that you should. Their time is extremely valuable so them spending just a few minutes chatting with you is a privilege.
Meeting an astronaut is usually only a few minutes long experience but it will stick with you forever. I love and cherish all my photos with astronauts (although I don’t have pictures with all of them).
If you haven’t gotten to meet an astronaut yet, I hope that one day you will!
NASA astronauts Victor Glover + John Grunsfeld
Fun fact(s): Victor will probably be one of the first astronauts going back to the Moon with the Artemis program, and John is also known as the “Hubble Guy” because he’s an astrophysicist and completed lots of Hubble repair spacewalks.
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet, Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy
These images were actually taken during their “Welcome Home” ceremony and celebrations because they had recently returned from space!
NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt
(Chris Cassidy + Victor Glover are two of my favorite astronauts, ever. Also, apparently Harrison Schmitt doesn’t believe in climate change.)
NASA astronauts Scott “Scoot” Altman and Rex Walheim
Fun fact(s): In the hit movie “Top Gun,” starring Tom Cruise, remember when Maverick and Goose invert (go upside down) and flip off the rival pilots? Scott Altman was the pilot who played Goose in that scene and flipped off the rivals! Rex Walheim flew on the very last shuttle mission in 2011, STS-135.
This image above was from the press conference announcing the new class of astronauts in 2017!
This was merely my funny take on what it’s like to meet an astronaut and doesn’t reflect everyone’s experience, of course. I’ve met many astronauts throughout my career, and I still occasionally experience this cycle of thoughts and emotions. But all it takes is 20 seconds of courage for an experience that will last you a lifetime.
Also remember – NASA chose them for a reason. They can handle literally anything that you throw at them, so don’t worry about sounding silly. And also, they’re just humans! Humans trying to do their best, just like the rest of us.