Interview: Renita Fincke
With astronaut husband Mike Fincke in the second month of a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station, Renita Fincke has given birth to the couple's second child, a healthy girl.
This interview took place shortly before the birth of Tarali Paulina.
Image at right: Renita Fincke and son Chandra visit the Russian Mission Control Center in Moscow. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
How do you feel knowing that this is the first child born to an astronaut living aboard the Space Station?
Well, I think it's wonderful. It's such an amazing adventure that we want to share it with everybody.
What do you do at Johnson Space Center?
I'm an engineer. I work for Wyle Laboratories, and I've been here since 1990. I started as a quality engineer. I moved on to work as an integration engineer for the Medical Sciences Division at JSC. I worked on the Crew Health Care System for many years, and then after that I've been working on the biotechnology facility, which is part of the Bioastronautics contract.
What kind of work do you do in your day-to-day job?
Recently I've been working part-time, to be able to balance my family and everything, so I've been mainly supporting the project managers, doing project management-type activities. So looking at things from a high level, trying to figure out programmatics, or trying to do, whatever the hot task is for the day.
How long have you known that you wanted to be an engineer?
When I was in high school, I was really interested in math and science and that's what I was doing really well at. My father's an engineer and so that kind of got me in the right field. I think that's about when I decided to become an engineer.
What inspired you, though, even as a child -- was it your father?
I think my father the most. He was the person that I saw every day, doing interesting things. A lot of people around us were engineers, because I did grow up in Huntsville, Ala. With Marshall Space Flight Center there that was a good way for me to get exposed to a lot of the engineering background. So when I went to college I decided, "Well, I'll either go into engineering or possibly medicine, something in that area." I actually found something right in between -- I went into biomedical engineering. My degree is actually in electrical and biomedical engineering.
Tell me a little bit about your family's background.
My parents were both born in India. We're from a small state called Assam, on the very east coast. And it's very, very rich in culture. It's a beautiful, beautiful state. They grow tea there, they've got beautiful mountains, and it really is a wonderful place. Mike got a chance to visit there, last year. He got to meet a lot of my family and that was a lot of fun because they just loved him ... of course! I really enjoy having part of another culture that's part of me, because that, I think, makes me a more well-rounded person.
Growing up, did your family make sure that you celebrated your heritage?
Oh, definitely. It was part of our everyday activities. We learned a lot from my parents on different things. Everything from religion to ... I learned dance growing up, and so we learned the traditional folk dances of the state that I'm from, and also some classical Indian dances that are more the traditional-type dances. I did a lot of that. I had a lot of friends that were from the same culture, a lot of Indian friends, and so that was a lot of fun for us. We would enjoy going to different functions and different parties and, and enjoying the culture.
It must have been exciting for you, to be in America, but still really in tune with your other culture. Is that something you instill in your son and will with your baby?
Yes, definitely. We've already taken Chandra to India, and he's only 3 years old so he's been well traveled. We've been trying to make sure that he stays in the whole culture, and trying to teach him a little bit of the language. Hopefully he'll be able to understand and be able to communicate also with our, all of our relatives back in India -- and make sure that it's a big part of him as he's growing up.
How many languages do you speak?
I really only speak a couple of languages. Mike's the language person in our family.
How has Mike embraced your culture?
He has been wonderful. He soaks in everything, and since he is good at languages, he's already picked up quite a bit of the language. He entertains everybody with his limited knowledge of the language. But he's very good and he loved the whole experience of going to Assam and to India. He was really great about being patient, about learning things and being very interested in everything. We always joke with him. You know, he's going to have to do this first Bihu dance in space -- Bihu dance is from our state in India.
How did you meet Mike?
I met Mike at a crawfish boil. It was sponsored by a bunch of people that work out here at NASA.
And so, tell me that first impression of him.
It was really good. One of the things that I knew right away was that he was very intelligent. He graduated from MIT and so it was like, "Well, he must be smart." That was already a winner right there. And then I knew that he was from a really big family -- the oldest of nine children -- that was really interesting. So I found him very interesting at first.
And so, what do you think it was about you that attracted him to you?
Probably a little bit of the same. I think I was interesting for him just because I'm from, a mixed cultural background and because I was an engineer here at NASA.
So, do you think that your culture differences were ever an issue? He seems very open to it ...
With him, it was not an issue. His family has been wonderful; his family embraced the culture also. We've been very, very blessed.
When did you get married? Tell me about the wedding.
We got married in 1999. We did two ceremonies; we did the Catholic ceremony, to honor his family, and then, the same day, we did a Hindu ceremony. I have to say it was Mike's idea to do two ceremonies in one day. Now that I look back at it, that was a big challenge. And we had lots of people come in from all over the world -- England and India and just everywhere. It was a lot of fun. We did the Catholic ceremony in the morning, and then we went down to Galveston in the afternoon and did the Hindu ceremony. Mike came riding in on a white horse. That was really neat. We went to Hawaii for our honeymoon and spent a couple of weeks just relaxing after the big wedding.
And then, didn't you all take a train ride?
That was well after we were married. Mike was out on a training trip. We went from Moscow all the way to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian railroad. It was wonderful. We had a really great time. I think it was actually maybe nine days to get all the way across. It was so interesting to see the countryside and to meet all the different people along the way. It really was a great experience.
It seems like you've gotten to do a lot of neat things together as a couple, with his training and, and going to Russia. What have been some of your favorite times with him?
Definitely the times that I've spent in Star City with him have been great. Star City is a wonderful, quiet place outside of the big city. Our accommodations were wonderful and we've been able to relax and just enjoy the time there. The adventures that we've taken to India and around the United States have been wonderful. We've been, again, very blessed to be able to do all that.
What were your thoughts in the beginning about marrying an astronaut?
I always thought that it was going to be exciting. I knew it was going to be busy. I probably didn't imagine it was going to be quite so busy as it is right now, but I was always very interested in the space program. So I think it's been good for me to be part of JSC and working here, because that's helped me to understand what he's going through, it's helped me to understand what he's doing, and it's helped me to make sure I know what's going on. I've also been very lucky to have a lot of really good friends in the community that have been helpful, especially during the mission.
Tell me about your son; how old is he?
He's almost 3.
What has he added to your lives?
We probably couldn't even tell you in words. It has just been absolutely amazing. I think from the day he was born, he's a wonderful child. Mike and I both just adore him. He's just been great, and added so much to our lives. I can't imagine what it would be like without him. He's very active, very intelligent, a lot of fun -- a lot of work, too, but I think that all goes along with the territory. So we're really, really excited about having a second one.
Image at right: Expedition 9 NASA ISS Science Officer Mike Fincke works aboard the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA
You've told me that he interacts really well with adults, with the fellow astronauts.
Yes he does. One of the first things that he said to his daddy when Mike called -- I guess it was the day after Mike's launch -- he called and said, "How are you doing, Chandra?" Chandra said, "Great." And Mike said, "Well, what are you doing?" He said, "Well, I'm playing with my friends." His "friends" happened to be an astronaut and a flight surgeon.
Mike has talked about his big adventure. How has this mission been an adventure for you?
Just this mission? Well, I think everything has been pretty new. I mean being able to launch on a Soyuz -- obviously there haven't been that many astronauts that have been doing that, and so that's all been new and exciting. We've been treated very well by everybody involved. Mike has a great ground team that supports him, and so we've been very, very blessed with that. Every day has been an adventure.
How did you prepare yourself mentally for him to leave?
The main thing was just knowing that he'll be back in a few months and everything will be back to somewhat normal, and knowing that he was going to have communication with us. I didn't realize how good the communication was going to be, but I did know that we would be able to keep track of each other, whether it's by phone calls or e-mails or whatever. I've been very impressed with how much communication we are getting.
How do you communicate with your husband in space?
Mainly by the satellite telephone. We've been able to talk pretty much every day. We've also been doing video conferences set up by JSC teams. A lot of people are involved in making sure that I get video of Mike straight to my house, and we do that once a week. That helps Chandra out a lot because he's very excited to see his daddy, flipping around, floating and things like that. I think that's been really helpful in keeping in touch with each other. And then we do have e-mail, so if there's anything important I need to send up I just put it in an attachment. We do that with pictures and video too.
Do you try to photograph things to send to him, like family events?
Definitely. Both Mike and I, even before this, were really big on photo-documenting everything. Our computer is full of digital pictures and little video clips. We've got a couple of video cameras so we've been trying to do as much as possible. Of course, it sometimes gets time-consuming but we are getting as much as possible, and I've been sending things up to him and I think that really, that he really enjoys it. So, it's been a lot of fun.
How did you prepare your son for this? How do you prepare a toddler?
It's probably been the most difficult thing to do, just telling him that his daddy's going to be gone for a little while, but that he loves him very much, and that he's going to be able to talk to him and to see him on the -- Chandra calls it the "puter." I think he's still a little too young to really understand what's going on, but he definitely knows that his daddy loves him and that he's going to be back, and then, we've kind of promised Chandra that when he gets back Chandra's going to get to see Buzz Lightyear. That's something he's looking forward to.
When you saw Mike launch, how did you feel to see your husband go to space?
I was very elated. This is something that Mike's been wanting to do since he was 3 years old. I've always known that it's part of him and that's what he wants to do. I just think I felt the happiness that he felt. You saw his smile, from ear to ear, as he's launching. I could feel everything that he was feeling, that it was a very exciting, happy moment. I was very, very excited for him.
Did you feel connected to him at that, at that moment when you saw that smile, and could you just feel the connection?
Oh, definitely. I think everybody felt the connection! He was so excited about the whole situation. It was even more exciting being able to launch from Kazakhstan. I think that he was definitely exuding his happiness to everyone.
How did your son react?
My son was excited also. He actually was doing the three-two-one-liftoff. I'm not sure how much of it he really understood, except his daddy was in the rocket and that he was going to be going up into space. But he was very happy.
When did you first get to talk with Mike after the launch?
I talked to him the day after he launched. We were able, thanks to a lot of people on the ground, to patch his call onto a cell phone in Star City. I was able to talk to him probably less than 24 hours after he launched. I just wanted to hear that he was OK and hear his voice, and it was just really wonderful to be able to do that.
Did you feel everything that you thought you would feel, or did you have any emotions that surprised you?
I don't think so; I definitely feel like I missed him more than I thought I was going to. Just right away, you're like, "Wow, he's really gone now." No matter how much you prepare for that, I don't think it really hits you until it's happened.
What was it like coming back to America from Russia and he's gone, he's not with you?
Some of it we had gotten prepared for just because he'd been traveling to Russia so much. We were used to him being gone. But to know that he was all the way up on the Space Station was a little bit different. I think that the main thing was for Chandra and I to get adjusted into a normal routine. That took a couple of weeks to do.
What is a normal routine for you?
The hard part is the running around with a toddler and at this stage of my pregnancy; it's been very challenging to be able to juggle everything. And again, I'm working part-time, which is, I think, great because it keeps me busy. I don't think I'd leave the house if I wasn't working, sometimes. It's nice to be able to work and to be around the space program, and to hear what's going on with everything. It is a challenge, though ...
What has been the biggest challenge since coming back?
Probably taking care of a 3-year-old while I'm eight or nine months pregnant. No matter what I do I'm going to have to pick him up and take care of him. Now that his father's not actually here to play with him I'm having to play both roles and spend a lot of time with him and give him a lot of attention.
I know when you planned your pregnancy you all were thinking Mike was going much later to the Space Station. So how did you feel when you learned he was going to be gone when the baby's born?
There's only so much planning you can do for a pregnancy. It's going to happen when it's going to happen. One of the other astronaut spouses once told me, "Don't ever plan anything around launches." And you know what? That's so true. We can never plan around launches. I'm glad that it happened when it did. We're so blessed to be having a second child. It didn't scare me that he was going to be gone. We just had to prepare the right way to make sure everything was set up before he left. I think that, everything will be just fine.
Once he got word that he was going to go, did time go by pretty fast?
Very, very fast, because it was a late crew swap. We didn't have much time to prepare. We were thinking we were going to have seven, eight months to prepare for an October flight. Instead, when he flew in April, we had to do a lot of juggling around. I think the hardest part was the fact that he had no time to do anything: It was all busy trying to do all his testing and do all his training and to do everything he needed to do, so we really only had about a month where he was in the United States before he had to go over to Russia. It was another month before I saw him again. We spent a few weeks in Russia, and then it was time to launch. It was a pretty crazy few weeks there.
Who has been your support team through all that craziness and now through the final stages of the pregnancy?
Definitely my parents. I'm very blessed to have my parents. They moved here from Huntsville, Ala. It's been almost a year now. They live close by. They're always there for me, and Chandra has his grandparents to take care of him so that's wonderful. We've got a lot of really good friends, too, the JSC team. Everybody's been really wonderful.
What plans are there to keep Mike involved in the birth of the baby?
We are working with the hospital to make sure that we have some communication pretty soon after I deliver the baby. We'll be able to send him video of the, of the birth -- as much of it that we want to send -- and have that sent up to him as soon as it's available. I think within a few hours we'll probably be able to send something to him, and then I'll also be able to talk to him on the phone. We're planning on doing a video conference with the newborn, and so we'll make sure that he is in the loop.
Has the hospital been very accommodating to it?
Yes, definitely. Everybody's been wonderful.
How do you plan to keep Mike involved in the baby's life in the months after the birth, before he returns?
I think we'll be doing a lot of video because that's easy for him to be able to see how the baby's growing. In the first four months the baby changes a lot. We'll be able to make sure, between pictures, video and the video conferences, that we keep him in the loop.
As she gets older, what are you going to want her to know about this time in her life, and what are you going to always tell her about?
I think the main thing is that her daddy was doing an important job during her birth, but that he really loves her and that he is always going to have her as part of him, and that, she's loved by everybody.
What are you looking most forward to when Mike gets back?
Spending family time together, definitely. It'll be nice to have some quiet time where we get to just enjoy life.
Mike has repeatedly said he owes you big time for this for going it alone. What does he owe you? What are you going to collect on?
You mean, besides a car and a house? No, I'm just kidding! He's not going to owe me anything big -- probably just being able to spend time together. This is a wonderful, exciting adventure for both of us, and I've supported him all the way -- I support him every day. I hope that everything is successful for his mission, that he comes home safely, and that we get to enjoy many more adventures together for the rest of our lives.