HOUSTON — Astronaut Raja Chari says “spacewalking” outside the International Space Station was one of the most exciting feats from his first time beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, but not exactly fun because of the toll it takes on the body.
That was one takeaway Chari — a Cedar Falls native and 1995 graduate of Columbus Catholic High School in Waterloo — shared after spending nearly six months at the station and safely returning to Earth on May 5.
Since landing, the SpaceX Crew-3 commander and his four-person team are getting accustomed to gravity again. He personally has sights set on returning to space, possibly the moon, in a few years.
“It was like going to any new job,” he said about his experience in an interview with The Courier on Wednesday from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “It takes you a month or two to figure out what’s going on, and then you really hit your stride during months two and three, and I felt like months two through five, we were just really cranking out science, and we then start switching the focus to transitioning to a new crew.”
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The “dynamic” parts caught his attention — the launch, landing, reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, and the spacewalks, especially the second one.
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During the spacewalks, Chari and another astronaut made repairs to the exterior of the space station. Wearing a space suit, he was able to withstand triple digit cold and hot temperatures as the ISS orbited the Earth.
He focused on the task at hand the first time, he said, “but the second one was a lot easier to look around and take in the fact, that ‘man, we’re over the Earth,’ and get the camera out and actually appreciate some of the views. That, for me, was the highlight of the mission.”
Chari also took time to address a misconception: “We’re not doing them for fun.”
“They are amazing – but they are actually painful in terms of physically on your body,” he said. “Metabolically, it’s the equivalent of running a marathon. You’re physically in the suit for over seven hours … the pressure on your body – it’s only four pounds per square inch, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when that’s on all the parts of your body, it’s quite a bit and you are having to move against that to actually actuate things.”
Back on Earth
Chari cited an analogy that the first hours after splashdown are “almost like you’re a concussion patient.” But nearly a week later he’s “pretty much feeling back to normal.”
“Your brain is very (affected) by the readjustment to gravity, but what’s really cool is within a day, I was able to start walking again. The first few hours, probably the biggest physical thing is your body is trying to figure out your blood pressure again,” he said. “Anytime you sit up or stand up, the blood wants to drain to your feet and you get light headed. Any motion of your head, your ears — your vestibular system was adapted to space — so when that fluid moves in your ears and you’re moving your head forward, when you first get back to Earth you feel like you’re going to fall over or when turning, you just tip over.”
After some time spent vomiting and falling over, Chari said, that the dizziness is gone, his balance is back and his strength is returning to normal.
He doesn’t have a complete answer to what the future holds for him. One thing is certain; he has aspirations to return to space.
“The Artemis program is definitely taking us back to the Moon to stay, and all of the folks in our office are all part of that team working to get humanity back there,” he said. “I fully hope to go back to space, whether it’s back to the station, whether it’s to the moon, to Mars, whatever is in store. That’s definitely the plan.”
In the meantime, a “big chunk of his time” will be spent at the NASA Johnson Space Center, following up on about 300 different experiments his team worked on while at the International Space Station.
Asked which experiment he feels will make the most significant impact, he pinpointed work having to do with concrete hardening.
“When I first heard about it, I was like, “That doesn’t sound very exciting,’” he said. “But it turns out the process of concrete hardening is a huge source of carbon emissions, and it’s not something we understand very well. … We were actually looking at it more for the reason of when you have to build concrete or some kind of building structure on the moon or Mars, and how you do that best in a zero gravity environment, but the secondary effect is that it gives us better models for how it hardens and what the carbon emissions are.”
“If we could just figure out a better way to mix concrete and get reduced carbon emissions with the same strength, that would be a really easy change to make and with some really great implications,” he added.
His “normal day job” will be focused on the Artemis program, helping develop, build, and test what’s needed in order to return to the moon for the first time since 1972.
Chari also will maintain his training in hopes of continuing with tasks like spacewalks in the future.
Message to home
“First off, thank you. It’s the teachers and the community there in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area that got me and my wife here (his wife also is a Cedar Falls native). We look very fondly upon the people there in Cedar Falls and Waterloo, and are ever thankful that we got to grow up in such a nurturing community, but also one where education is important, family’s important and hard work was important,” Chari said. “That’s, I think, why we are where we are at.”
He noted his appreciation for the community support through things like parties to watch the launch and landing, and how his mother and her friends have been keeping him in mind during his adventure.
“She’s been taking a cardboard cutout of me around the Cedar Falls area. And I think it’s been decorated for all the holidays by her friends,” he said.