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Astronaut Candidate Interviews - Thomas Marshburn
10.21.04
Q: I would like to get, uh, initially some reaction, uh, I think I know what your reaction was when you found out that you'd been selected. But, I'd like to learn a bit about what your family's reaction was. I don't know if your daughter's really old enough to know what's going on. But, your, your wife and your, your, certainly, I think you're the youngest of a number of siblings, right? So, what was their reaction?

A: The, uh, well, my wife was actually the first to find out. Uh, besides myself; I'd left my office. She had another office at JSC at the time. And, walked over. And, you could see on her face she was wondering what I was doing there. I hadn't visited her very often in her office. And then, she realized what had happened. Because we knew an announcement was coming out fairly soon. So, I did tell her I'd, I'd been selected, but I almost didn't have to. She, uh, uh, cried a little bit and we gave each other hugs. And, she was very excited.

That's great.

The, uh, I've got six brothers and sisters. Called each one of them individually. Each one's a, a different story. Some of them are doctors. I called them when they were right in the middle of, of practice or in the emergency department, something like that. And, uh, all very excited. One brother in Canada, uh, he was on vacation; it took me a couple of days to hunt him down. But, uh, everyone was very, very excited for me. They knew I'd been, uh, hoping to do this for a long time. So, it was good to share their excitement.

That's great. So, you've been a student yourself for a number of years--

Yup.

--in school and graduate school then med school, I guess, right?

Yeah, it seems like it never stopped. I did graduate school after college, worked for a year before I started medical school. Uh, I, when I started to work for NASA, the first thing to do was put me back in school, uh, to learn Russian. And so, it's, it's, uh, the education is nonstop when you're interested in this sort of thing.

So, are you, is there any one individual you can put your finger on or maybe it's not one individual, maybe it's a group or something like that, that you can recall that served as a specific inspiration to you -- an educator specifically?

The, uh, in college, I had two physics professors that I talk about often. And, they, they asked a lot of their students. They were tough. They were very good. They were very interested in making sure that we really understood, uh, the principles that we were studying; this was physics. They were both physics professors. Uh, I always think about them. Uh, that was one of the most challenging times in my academic career, and, uh, uh, I've been back to, to visit them a number of times. There's one, one of them has since passed away. But, uh, those were some of the biggest motivators.

So, that motivation, it sounds like, came out [break in tape] it wasn't that they were, uh, it wasn't so much the pat-on-the-back, "You can do it, Tom," as much as it was the continuing, "You'll, we really want you to learn this stuff because you're going to need it someday."

That's true. Now, they were unique in that they were very personal. They, they were very engaged with their students. And, I think the, the very fact that they were that interested in making sure that myself and my classmates understood things was, uh, motivation. It was a pat, pat on the back in the sense that they thought I could do it. And, they thought I could, uh, rise to the, rise to the task.

So, you've done some exploring yourself in odd places. Tell me a little bit about the, the, uh, most extreme environment you've gone to and, and what surprised you about that. Perhaps how that, uh, in its, in its, it has been a discovery process for you, much like you're now about to embark on again.

The adaptive is mentioned two times. One was more of a, uh, psychological extreme, backpacking in the Pacific Crest Trail. I was alone for four months. It took six months to do the, the hike. There was one time in there when I was completely isolated. I'd hiked off of the map. Uh, off of the USGS topographical maps that I had with me. I had hiked off of the map, in snow, didn't have a trail, just trying to work my way through the mountains. I was following deer tracks actually. Uh, I'd been alone for, for quite a while at that time. And, there was an, an intense feeling of, of being alone, but not feeling lonely, if you know what I mean. It was a very fascinating feeling. Uh, the, uh, all my work since then has been with people obviously. Uh, space flight is, uh, very much a team effort. But, uh, that was a, a fascinating experience! The other time was, from a physical standpoint, I climbed a mountain, uh, Mount Aconcagua in the Andes in South America. Uh, the mountain's just shy of 23,000 feet. Uh, not much oxygen; it's about half an atmosphere up there. It took about three hours (I think) to climb the last five hundred feet, because you're moving pretty slowly at that point. And, it was, I've always loved testing my limits, just to see what it would feel like to come against that limit. And, uh, the hypoxia and the fatigue were, were fascinating actually.

So, did you, were you on oxygen for any of that climb?

No.

Was that--?

No.

Without oxygen. So, you--

Without.

--were truly feeling hypoxic.

Oh, yeah. You look at the fingernails, the fingernail's a little bit blue. I talked to my climbing buddies, and their lips looked just a little bit blue. Uh, we were all taking a few steps, stopping to catch our breath. Uh, and the, the teamwork was, was great. There was always a moment where one of us was helping the other two along. So, being both a leader and a follower was, was critical.

So, you've just touched on a few things that provide a glimpse of space travel.

Perhaps so.

Physiologically, the hypoxia and the, the risks associated with space travel; but also the psychological aspects of, of being removed from society, removed from the, the planet as it were. And so, I, I suppose, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but that sounds like that intrigues you, those sorts of things intrigue you.

It really does. I've, as a doctor working for NASA, I think it's very exciting to work on expanding the boundaries of, of a healthy person and their performance in an extreme environment. And, in the same way, working with a small team on a climbing trip, making the most of that team where every individual has something to bring to the table, sometimes that individual is having to lead, uh, and, and the team is reliant on them. But, that's never the case for the whole, for the whole mission. Uh, that individual steps back and someone else brings their talents up when the time's appropriate.

Your daughter, 18 months old?

Yeah. Uh, nineteen.

Nineteen months old?

Nineteen months old, yeah.

So, tell me about, as you observe your daughter discover the world around her. I'm sure that's been a huge time of change between zero--

Yes.

So, I'd like you to talk about your, your kids and, and watching them grow and learn. And, I know the youngest is, what you said, 18 months.

Oh yeah.

--and 19 months. I've got a 13-month-old, so I know what that's like.

Yeah.

That time of change and seeing times when, okay, five minutes ago, they did not get it and now they do. The light bulb went off.

Yeah.

Describe a situation like that as you observed her and how that might mimic what we're doing as a human race in exploration.

The, uh, I've got a, a daughter, Grace Elizabeth. Uh, she's 19 months old. I think what she is, is going through right now with her innate desire to learn things, her, uh, joy in doing that, her natural propensity to do it is, uh, something that's with us all of our lives. I've never lost the joy in learning things, and consider that one of the, the, the best journeys that, uh, the most fun thing we can do in our life is the journey of discovery, learning things new every day. Uh, although it's very obvious to, to watch her growing up every day going through that.

End tape.