Jerry Linenger: 'One of the frustrating things for an astronaut is trying to give a good description of how awesome the earth really is'

Jerry Linenger: 'one of the frustrating things for an astronaut is trying to give a good description of how awesome the earth really is'

National Geographic's new documentary series One Strange Rock gives an astronaut's perspective on Planet Earth

National Geographic are launching a major new documentary series One Strange Rock. Over ten episodes, the new show will explore the world, life on earth and our place in the cosmos from an unusual perspective, based around interviews with astronauts who have had the unique privilege of observing the planet from outer space. Narrated by Will Smith and produced by Darren Aronofsky's Protozoa Pictures, One Strange Rock is visually stunning but it's the astronauts first hand accounts that are truly fascinating.

Contributors include Chris Hadfield (famed for his rendition of David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'), Mae Jemison (the first African-American woman in space), Peggy Whitson (the first woman to command the International Space Station twice) and Jerry Linenger, who spent five months aboard the Mir space station in 1997.

We caught up with Linenger to find out more about his amazing experiences and this captivating new series.

What was your background before being an astronaut?
I'm a US Naval officer, I'm also a physician and I'm a PHD level epidemiologist. So I was doing medical research, I've done aviation and then a couple of PhDs and Masters degrees thrown in there.

And how did you get involved with the NASA space programme?
It was a boyhood dream: 14-years-old looking up at the moon and saying 'I want to do that some day'. Eventually the resume gets to the point where you have a shot at becoming an astronaut. It takes that resume and a lot of luck. I think the last astronaut group had 35,000 applicants for about 10 spots, so it's against all odds. Up in space looking down at the earth I thought, 'This is incredible, I'm floating above the planet. How privileged I am to exist in this point in time and have this incredible opportunity to represent mankind?'

Was there any trepidation? Obviously things can and do go wrong.
I think every astronaut goes though that calculation in their mind and the ultimate question is: 'is this worth my life?' I think every astronaut I've ever known, including my friends on Columbia, make that decision before walking out to the launch pad – 'We are moving mankind forward this is worth my life.' And when you walk out to the rocket, you have total confidence in that decision. I didn't feel any trepidation whatsoever, I didn't feel any fear. I think my heart rate was at probably 60 beats per minute, feeling pretty good, ready to take seven million pounds of thrust to launch me at 17,500 miles per hour. Any anxiety or fear has already been resolved and you are ready to go.

What is it like getting that first glimpse of earth?
It's funny you are so busy during launch, concentrating on switches and monitoring everything, making sure that the spacecraft gets to space, that you are kind of a robot during those seven or eight minutes. Then the engines cut off and you have time to let your emotions catch up and it's a rush. On the Mir space station, I took 90 minutes, which is one orbit of the earth, to block everything out, levitate over to a window and watch the sun rise, the sun set and watch the stars come out and have this moment of awe looking at our place in the universe.

Has that experience affected how you think about the world?
I'm a different person. I say my life is in three phases: I had about 40 years on the planet, then I had five months off the planet and the third phase is after I got back. I see things differently. I always have a tendency to step back when I see conflict and look at the bigger picture and if I don't understand it I step back further. Coupled with the other extreme, I was stuck with myself and two Russians – they spoke no English – for five months. I learned a lot about myself and human nature and how we can rise to the occasion. Those are both extremes; it made me feel bigger and the other extreme made me feel like a speck in the universe.

You also survived one of the worst ever fires in space...
It was a backup oxygen generator, a mix of oxygen and fuel, a three foot flame at blow torch like intensity. I just told myself, 'Jerry, you are going to get that fire out and stay calm and do everything right.' My next thought was about my boy, I had a one year old son at home and my wife was pregnant, so another one on the way. You tuck it away, you have to be 100% rational, you need to be 100% action, you don't have time for emotion. After that fire, probably a day later when we'd recovered, the smoke had cleared out and you are relatively back to normal, you can let go of your mind and let that emotion catch up.

What did it feel like when you returned to earth?
It's a glorious moment, you get on your knees and kiss the earth. A joyous appreciation to be back home. You have some physiological challenges; you feel very heavy, like someone is on your shoulders. If you turn your head too quickly it feels like you are doing back flips because your inner ear is maladjusted. I had about 65% of my pre-flight strength level, I lost a lot of muscle mass and had about 14% bone loss. There's about a year and a half of rehab and a lot of replaying those tense moments in my head. It was very cathartic, you could suppress things only so long.

How did you get involved with One Strange Rock?
It's phenomenal and it's epic. I've been involved with a lot of documentaries but this one is really world class. I was asked if I was interested and I looked at the other astronauts, I respect them all and they had some top notch people [and] these guys can actually talk. I talked to the producers and they all had great reputations so it was a privilege to be involved. And the thing I really like is I'm able to share some of that awe of Planet Earth with the world. That's one of the frustrating things for an astronaut, trying to give a good description of how awesome the earth really is, and this series does just that from micro-organisms up into outer space and great galactic events.

One Strange Rock starts on National Geographic Channel (UK), Tue 27 Mar, 8pm.

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