NASA astronaut and University of Bristol alum Colonel Anne McClain (MSc 2005, Honorary DEng 2023) returned to the University recently to accept her Honorary doctorate, and talk about her space experience, her journey to becoming an astronaut, and the next decade of space exploration. Colonel McClain’s incredible career has seen her fly 20 different aircraft as a Senior Army Aviator, train as a US Navy test pilot, and serve as a Flight Engineer on the International Space Station (ISS), where she spent 204 days and led two spacewalks. In 2020, she became part of the Artemis programme, a NASA-led mission to put astronauts back on the moon by 2024 – with this mission, Colonel McClain could become the first woman to step on the moon.
On her journey to NASA
My journey went through Bristol, importantly! I grew up in Spokane, Washington, in the USA. I went to the US Military Academy at West Point for my undergraduate in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering – I knew I wanted to be in the military and fly helicopters. I got a Marshall Scholarship out of West Point which unexpectedly brought me over to the UK for a few years. I was ready to go to flight school, but then I got the scholarship which turned out to be one of the best things to ever happen to me. I did a master’s degree in Aerospace Engineering in Bath, and then I came to Bristol and did a second master’s degree in International Security – it was fantastic. I definitely credit living in England with upping my rugby game! After leaving Bristol I went to flight school and qualified as a pilot. In 2011 applied to become a test pilot, and from there was picked up to become a NASA astronaut in 2013 – I can’t believe it’s been ten years already!
On being an army officer and a NASA astronaut
I am an army officer and a NASA astronaut, and those are two different skill sets, really. They’re two ways of looking at the world. I really enjoy what I’m doing at NASA. I think that the power of human beings, when we are united in something as positive as exploration, can and should be more motivating than trying to tear down our differences. As a military officer I am also very realistic about what’s going on in the world today. I believe that the space programme can be a catalyst to peaceful cooperation between a lot of different countries.
On launch and landing
Launch and landing are really interesting. It’s surreal – you have to remind yourself that it’s actually happening, because it feels a lot like the simulator. If they sold tickets to a rollercoaster ride, and there was one that simulated launch and one that simulated landing, landing would sell way more tickets – it’s a lot of fun! The only bad part about it is that then your space flight is over! Landing is surreal – you haven’t felt gravity for six months, and as you come into the atmosphere you know you’re going to hit 4.2 times the force of gravity. It hurts – the feeling of gravity coming back onto you is strong.
On taking part in a space walk
There is nothing like it! It’s a surreal experience. We’ve all seen some really big things with our own eyes – looking across gorges or down rivers or at giant buildings – but when we’re talking about the scale of seeing the whole of Earth and the solar system, it’s something else. We see it on film, but I remember coming out of the space station and looking down, and was completely unprepared for it. You see the entire world, and it’s so weird to be that far away from it. You realise that within your own field of vision, you’re seeing everything that you’ve ever known – every person you’ve ever known, every experience you’ve ever had, every place you want to go visit, it’s all right there. We go at 17,000 miles an hour, 16 orbits every day, which means that every 45 minutes there’s a sunrise and a sunset, and the moon looks like it jumps off the Earth. It’s really special, and you feel very connected to the Earth – it gave me a sense of belonging that I haven’t felt before and made me feel very protective of our planet.
On being part of a lunar landing
We are looking at landing on the lunar South Pole, an area of the moon that we’ve never landed on. If we can successfully set down at the South Pole, there’s a couple of really cool things to see – giant craters, the potential for lunar ice, and something that is really exciting to me is the dark side of the moon. When you look out at the moon, you always seen the same side. If we can land on the lunar South Pole, we can be the first people to lay eyes on the dark side of the moon – just to be able to look at that untouched space would be amazing. I would love to look back at the Earth and see what it looks like looking over a moon horizon.
On advice for someone wishing to become an astronaut
My path to becoming an astronaut was very different to anyone else’s – every path to becoming an astronaut is totally different. The one thing that we have in common is that we all took a path that we are passionate about. The only thing that really carries us in whatever we decide to do in life is our passion for it. At some point our parents stop egging us on, or the job gets so hard that it doesn’t matter who’s egging us on, if we’re not internally motivated for it, we’re not going to do it. When we’re passionate, we’re much more likely to go above and beyond, and we’re better at it. There are many different paths to becoming an astronaut, so I would say look at what the different requirements are, pay attention to what you’re passionate about, and try to marry something up.
To hear more from Colonel McClain on life as an astronaut and gain fascinating insights into space exploration and innovation, watch the full recording of the event online here.