The space mom discusses her career path and how she balances work and family life.

NASA Astronaut Karen Nyberg
Credit: Courtesy of NASA

Every child spends time gazing at the dark sky filled with twinkling stars, wondering about what a trip to space might be like. But if kids are serious about space exploration, astronaut Karen Nyberg encourages parents to let them choose what they want to do at an early age. Nyberg was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in July 2000; her first trip to space, in 2008, was aboard the STS-124 Discovery, the 123rd space shuttle flight launched from Kennedy Space Center. Her experience helped prepare her for a second five-and-a-half month mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS) as part of Expedition 36/37. She launched from Kazakhstan on May 28, 2013, and boarded the ISS less than six hours later; during the 166 days, the crew completed five space walks and 2,656 orbits around the Earth.

She returned to Earth in November 2013. At NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., at a #NASASocial event, Nyberg spoke about her childhood interest in space, saying, "Something about [space] fascinated me when I was little." Born during the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s that sought equality for women in the workplace through better jobs and salary equality, Nyberg found that her early desire wasn't taken seriously. "When I first said I wanted to go to space, people thought it was cute," she says. But instead of dissuading their young daughter, Nyberg's parents often told her that she could do anything. They encouraged her extracurricular activities, such as band, choir, and sports, and fostered her diverse interests. "They let me do whatever I wanted," she remembers. "They never tried to talk me out of doing those things." Her parents' unwillingness to hold her back provided her with a wide base of knowledge. She believes that no matter what a child's dream may be, it's important to "always do your best, and all these opportunities will start to open up."

Nyberg applies similar parenting philosophies as a mom, and she talks about being a working mother who parents even while off the planet. A native Minnesotan, she still lives in her hometown with her husband, Doug Hurley, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel and astronaut, and their 3-year old-son, Jack. Nyberg and Hurley trained for their separate recent missions simultaneously, which meant they relied on a nanny to provide consistency for Jack. Having an individual who knew their family and their routines was also helpful while Nyberg got ready for Expedition 36/37. To prepare Jack for her time away, Nyberg talked with him about where she was going and what she would do aboard the ISS. She worked to build his understanding and knowledge by talking about gravity and what it does on earth and in space. Together they would gaze at the sky and she'd tell him, "That's the space station. Mommy is going to live there. I'm going to ride a rocket." Nyberg described NASA as being "incredibly supportive" of her need to be with her son, and she was able to take him and his nanny to Russia for the launch. Hurley was ending a mission, so he was able to join the family there before going home with Jack.

Jack has witnessed his parents' shuttle and spacecraft launches and has a desire for speed, too. Nyberg says that he wants to grow up to drive race cars, a dream fueled by a desire to "fly faster" than Hurley, who flew fighter planes as a Marine and tries to attend as many NASCAR races as possible. Becoming a race car driver has a certain amount of danger associated with it, and Nyberg describes her son's current obsession with a high-risk future in terms of "risk trade," the balance between encouraging a child's interests despite the emotional discomfort parents feel as they try to protect their children. A career driving race cars is a long way off, so Nyberg is more focused on the immediate need to provide stability for Jack as she and Hurley juggle their careers and parenting responsibilities.

As a space flight veteran, Nyberg described the view from the ISS as "stunningly beautiful. The stars don't twinkle like they do from Earth. They've very bright. You see the different colors -- shades of blue, yellow, and orange that tell us the age of the stars. The moon also looks bigger from Earth!" While she was in space, Nyberg stayed connected with her family through weekly video chats that showed Jack what she was experiencing. Nyberg and two crewmates also documented their time in space by sharing photos of daily life, such as space food and the stunning views outside the window, on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. When talking about using social media from space, Nyberg says, "Tweeting from space is complicated. You have to take the photo, take the card out, put the card in the computer, connect to the local area network (LAN) that connects the computer to the one on the ground, save it as a JPEG, save it to a personal account and hope that it logs in, save it to the computer, and then tweet it out!"

Despite the complications, Nyberg helped provide everyone on Earth with an inside look at her time aboard the ISS. She was even able to show Jack a new toy: a stuffed dinosaur that she had made for him. A crafter and quilter, Nyberg had brought some supplies to sew and make toys by upcycling materials found in space; the dinosaur was fashioned from a T-shirt and food tray liners. "Other than missing family, I could stay there forever," Nyberg said of her time aboard the ISS. And when asked if it was worth it, she responds with a resounding "Yes."

Apps and Resources for Kids

For parents who are interested in fostering their child's interest in space, the following apps and websites (recommended by NASA) can help encourage a love of space science for the whole family.

NASA Kids' Club - Fun, educational websites are excellent hooks to foster a young child's interest while building knowledge about subject areas. The NASA Kids' Club site allows kids to explore with favorite characters like Elmo, who shares his visit to NASA through fun videos, and to play a game with Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear (who just returned from space). The Exploration Design Challenge is designed for elementary-aged kids with the goal to have them design a spacecraft that will carry astronauts beyond Earth to an asteroid or to Mars.

Google Sky Map - Through a simple interface, Google Sky Map app allows the camera in a mobile device to be used to map constellations and identify other objects in the sky. The app is a great tool for young kids to use with parents. (Free; Android)

Astronomy Picture of the Day - Visual learners who enjoy pictures to spark imagination and conversation will enjoy a daily photo (with accompanying facts) from NASA in this app. Archived images are also accessible -- and it's amazing to view the solar system in the palm of your hand. (Free; Android, iPhone, iPad)

Be a Martian - What would it take to survive on Mars? This app allows kids to learn more about the Mars exploration through videos and images. The Ask feature allows kids to ask a computerized scientist named Dr. C any Mars-related questions, and by submitting questions, kids are testing out this beta feature. This app is best for upper elementary ages and older. (Free; Android, iPhone, iPad)

Planets - Use this app to explore the sky through your mobile device's camera -- locate planets and find out when they're visible from Earth. The 3-D feature turns your device into a planetarium. This app is free and good for all ages, though younger kids may need an adult's help navigating it. (Free; iPhone, iPad)

Apps and Resources for Parents

NASA App - This app, designed for parents, showcases the latest NASA content, such as images, video on demand, mission information, news and features, tweets, International Space Station sighting opportunities, and satellite tracking. (Free; Android, iPhone, iPad)

NASA Education Opportunities for Students - This site helps parents find age-appropriate listings separated by grades K through 4, 5 to 8, 9 to 12, and higher education; there's also a general list of for all ages. If you're a teacher, the Current Opportunities for Educators site has opportunities for teachers listed in the same grade bands as education opportunities for students.

NASA Chats - NASA holds routine Web chats that are open to the public. Anyone can get involved and interact virtually with experts by using the hashtag #NASASocial to submit questions via Twitter

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