Nick Hague said it was surreal for him when he returned to his former elementary school in Peabody to speak to students about his adventures in space.
Hague said he was speaking from the stage, and all the students were sitting on the same floor where he sat when a guest speaker came to school back in the day. Not much had changed in the intervening decades. He said it was fun to catch up with former classmates and see the families of those who stayed in the area.
“It warms the heart to see small-town Kansas doing what it does best: growing strong families and strong communities,” he said.
Hague, who is a colonel in the U.S. Space Force, spent 203 days in space aboard the International Space Station in 2019. The son of two educators, Hague left Peabody in middle school when his father, Don, accepted the position of superintendent in Hoxie. He was born in 1975 in Belleville, which had the closest hospital to his parents’ home in Mankato.
Hague said one thing he always tried to relate about his small-town roots was that one could look at the lack of opportunities available for those who lived in similar communities. He said he didn’t have to specialize in certain activities that were offered at much larger high schools. He instead played multiple sports and participated in activities like forensics and band, which he said gave him a pretty rich experience.
“I think coming from a small town is a huge advantage because you get to try a lot of things and find out what excites you and what you’re passionate about,” he said.
When Hague was in elementary school, he used to look up at the night sky in wonderment, which excited his imagination and got him going.
“Kansas is awesome because there’s a gorgeous night sky, and there’s not a lot of light pollution,” he said.
Hague entered the U.S. Air Force after high school and earned a bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering. He then earned a master’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institution of Technology. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, he was assigned to Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he worked on advanced spacecraft technologies. In 2003, he became a test pilot and flew F-15s, F-16s and T-38s at Edwards Air Force Base. He said the experience of pushing complicated machines to their limits as part of a team that was doing something dangerous but still successfully achieving its goals served as an impetus for him sending an application to NASA.
“I just loved it, and I realized that’s the same thing they do at NASA every day,” he said.
Hague said it took him 10 years and three applications before he was finally accepted. He said how one got selected was a “million-dollar question.” He said he liked to tell people that he got selected for what he was passionate about.
“Just invest yourself in that and chase your dream,” he said. “It’s going to be different for everybody, but understand that when we explore space and when we do these really complicated things, we do it together,” he said. “And that’s the type of person we’re looking for.”
Hague offered an example of the amount of teamwork and effort that went into making space exploration a reality. He went back to Hoxie after his trip to space and ran into classmate Ronnie Shipley, who is in the telecommunications industry. Hague said Shipley answered a last-minute service call to maintain connectivity with mission control before his first space walk, which prevented NASA from scrubbing it.
“We were able to get together a couple of years later, and I was able to find out the details and find out how one of my classmates enabled me to get out of the hatch and do my first space walk,” he said.
Hague said people were more connected with one another than they realized. He said some people had a perception about his experiences in Kansas, which can feel isolated with all of the open space.
“Modern-day life can connect people on the planet and off the planet in ways you couldn’t imagine,” he said.
Hague’s first comment about what it felt like being back on solid ground after spending more than 200 days in space was “heavy.”
“You float around for almost seven months, and you forget how heavy you are,” he said. “And then you get back on the ground and everything weighs more than you remember. Gravity is definitely everywhere.”
Hague related his experience to a job or attending school. He said time seemed to move slowly during stretches of his mission. Then there were times he wondered how he and his fellow astronauts would get all of their work done, but they found a way. During other times, weeks seemed to fly by.
“The best thing is participating as part of this massive team and knowing the reason you’re able to float and watch the world as it goes by is because of the effort of so many people across the globe,” he said.
Hague said he had full confidence in the Russian space program during both times he awaited liftoff. He and his crewmate were forced to abort a mission in October 2018. His second mission launched from Kazakhstan. He said one of the unexpected gifts associated with astronaut training was that he got to travel the globe to different training centers in Russia, Germany and Japan. He said he got to meet the people who were vested in making sure he was prepared and that everything went smoothly.
“That gives you a huge sense of confidence when you get ready to go on a trip like that,” he said.
Hague said the training was so extensive that everything felt normal for his debut space walk. Astronauts train in neutral buoyancy labs to practice being weightless. He said one of the first things that went through his mind was that he didn’t see the bubbles coming from the safety divers in the lab, which is where he felt like he was.
“We talked to one person on the ground, and they’re at the top of a massive pyramid of a team below them,” he said. “You can feel the churn of them thinking through every possibility in supporting you along the way and making it possible. And you can’t beat the view.”
Hague said he could look down and see snow-capped mountains, the gorgeous turquoise of the oceans or the Great Plains.
“It’s pretty spectacular,” he said.
Hague described the sleeping arrangements as sleeping in a telephone booth. For the younger generations who can’t relate to a phone booth, he described it as Harry Potter living under the stairs at his parents’ home. He said everyone had his or her own quarters, which were just wider than his shoulders. He said he preferred to zip up in his sleeping bag and slowly float around. He said he was moving slowly enough that bumping off the walls didn’t bother him. He said others chose to anchor their sleeping bag to the wall. He said he got some of the best sleep he’d ever had because his body went into its natural position. He didn’t toss and turn or wake up sore.
Hague said NASA and other space agencies were continuously learning new things about the effects of space travel on astronauts’ bodies. Bones lose about 10 percent of their density during a six-month mission, for example. He said he lifted weights and did a lot of aerobic activity as countermeasures to mitigate the adverse effects of floating around in microgravity all the time. He said a body naturally wanted to regenerate its bone density upon returning to Earth. He took a strength test seven days after he returned, and he was stronger than when he left.
Hague said it took him several days to regain his balance and even longer for his mind to adjust. He said going down a road seeing all of the moving vehicles was overwhelming after being stuck in a tin can without a lot of stimuli. He spent 45 days in rehabilitation and said it was like he never left within six months to a year. He said he and other astronauts were part of NASA’s “lifetime surveillance program” to see what adverse side-effects there might be over time.
Hague said there was a chance he could return to space as a member of one of the Artemis missions, which will return humans to the surface of the moon. NASA just announced the crew members for Artemis II, which will fly around the moon.
“Subsequent missions will culminate in us having a sustained presence on the moon to figure out how to work on another planetary surface,” he said.
In other words, the missions to the moon will serve as a prelude to sending people to Mars, and he said he would love to be part of it. The Artemis II crew has received a lot of attention for the makeup of its crew. The mission will be the first to send a woman, a Canadian and an African-American to the moon.
“I think that crew is actually a reflection of who’s in the astronaut corps now,” Hague said. “It’s a diverse group of people that we have in our astronaut corps. That’s how we build strength and teams is we bring together diversity in experiences and diversity of background and how we bring that team together. They make that team strong.”
Hague said what he was currently doing was what an astronaut did when he or she wasn’t in space: training for the next mission. Even if he is not tabbed to return to space, he spends time in the neutral buoyancy lab getting others ready. He recently worked on a new rollout of solar rays for the space station, which he said needed upgrades due to its age of 23 years.
Hague said his perspective on life couldn’t help but change when he was looking down at Earth. He said he had to squint to see some of the biggest cities and the presence of humans. He thought about everybody he knew and loved down below. Then he could look a little bit to the left or right and stare into the depths of space.
“It makes you realize how precious what we have down here on Earth,” he said.
Hague said he got the sense that there was a lot more about humans, regardless of where they’re from, that made them similar than different. He said he was a big sci-fi movies and the ways they portray living and working in space. He said invariably movies got things wrong, but some of them depict what it was like accurately. Compared to two decades ago, he said exploring and living in space was much more pervasive in society.
“I like to see that excitement,” he said. “It’s a really positive endeavor. We’re trying to build knowledge for all of humanity, and it brings us together in a very positive way, so I like to see the focus on that.”