NEW YORK — Clearly, being an astronaut requires courage, but astronauts' spouses must have a different kind of strength to watch their loved ones leave planet Earth – and families – behind.
In her new book, Lena De Winne, wife of European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium, chronicles her husband's six-month trip to the International Space Station last year from the perspective of those left on the ground.
The book, called "My Countdown," was published in late October by Apogee Prime. The title refers to Lena De Winne's countdown toward her husband's return, begun after the rocket's liftoff.
"I think the book is about the human story," Frank De Winne said during a book launch event Oct. 29 at New York's Flanders House. "There is a whole human story behind human spaceflight and I think it's not sufficiently told, and I'm really grateful that it has been told, because human spaceflight is really a human endeavor. We go out there for humanity and for the future." [Graphic: The International Space Station Inside and Out]
Born and educated in Moscow, Lena De Winne has a master's degree in engineering and a doctorate in psychology. She has worked in support of both the Russian Mir space station and the International Space Station.
Astronauts are people, too
Frank De Winne launched into space May 27, 2009 aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. When he took the helm of the outpost's Expedition 21 mission, he became the space station's first European commander.
Lena De Winne said she wanted to showcase the side of astronauts' lives that often gets left out of the picture.
"People see astronauts like Hollywood actors – as celebrities first," she told SPACE.com. "And the truth is they are not celebrities first — they are technical people and scientific people first. They happen to be humans who contribute to the advancement of science and technology."
But while having a spaceflying husband is certainly difficult, it's the life she's chosen.
"I don’t consider it a sacrifice in terms of supporting his work," Lena said. "I have a very peculiar life but I'm not complaining. I'm enjoying it."
The astronaut's wife
In "My Countdown," Lena De Winne chronicles some of the most difficult aspects of her husband's mission, such as the trouble she had with the Russian space agency officials trying to persuade her not to attend her husband's launch and landing in person. Traditionally, the Russian system has been very male-dominated, with some believing that women bring back luck to spaceflight.
"The original Russian mentality does not have a lot of room for family," De Winne said. "I have heard it seriously told to me that 'You should not go to the launch because it would then bring bad luck to any vehicles, so do you want your husband to die if you insist to go to the launch?'"
De Winne wasn't dissuaded by these remarks, and insisted on seeing her husband's launch and landing – no matter how peculiar most of the Russian officials and even the Russian astronauts and their families thought it.
Ultimately, she grew very close with the wives of Frank's crewmates – Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, who launched together on the Soyuz rocket. Romanenko's wife Yulia and Thirsk's wife Brenda became Lena De Winne's confidants and friends over the course of their husbands' space mission.
"We truly feel that we must all have done something right in our lives to deserve each other, because even though we live in different continents — and Yulia and Brenda, they don't even have the same language between them — but somehow all three of us get on very well," De Winne said.
The other two wives contributed stories to the book, as did each of the Expedition 21 crewmembers.
Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who served as the commander of the previous Expedition 20 mission ( and overlapped with Frank De Winne on the space station during the first half of his mission), said the book showcases a new side of spaceflight.
"Through the prism of Lena's story, I saw a totally new side of life of all our wives; their worries, their concerns, but most importantly their infinite love and care for us," Padalka wrote in a foreword to the book.
- Graphic: The International Space Station Inside and Out, ISS: By The Numbers
- Video – Frank De Winne: Belgian Astronaut Leads Space Crew, ISS Show
- Living on Space Stations: Q&A With NASA's Chief Astronaut Peggy Whitson