Quilting astronaut brings home a star from outer space
Astronaut Karen Nyberg is about to throw the biggest, down-to-earth block party in the history of quilting.
She’s already burnished her reputation as an out-of-this-world quilter. Earlier this year, Nyberg took four fat quarters (pieces of fabric that measure 18 inches by 22 inches) with her to the International Space Station, where she spent 5½ months as part of a six-person expedition. The other five astronauts were men.
With needles, thread and a sketchbook packed in her personal gear, she became the first person to stitch together a quilt block while floating in the weightlessness of zero gravity. All this while orbiting a couple hundred miles above terra firma.
Now, she’s asking quilters everywhere to join her in an Astronomical Quilts Block Challenge, in which the star-themed block she completed in space is to be joined with star blocks made by others in a global community quilt for display at the 2014 International Quilt Festival in Houston.
Before her Nov. 20 return from the space station, Nyberg, 44, filmed a video of herself — long blonde hair waving high above her head — sewing the red, white and blue block and what it looks like finished.
“This is what I made. It’s far from being a masterpiece, but it was made in space,” she says. “I can’t wait to see what we make together.”
Nyberg plans to make an appearance at next year’s festival, which is the 40th anniversary of the largest annual show in the world. More than 60,000 people attended this fall.
As a NASA astronaut, Nyberg has a doctorate degree in mechanical engineering and was the 50th woman to fly in space. This was her second trip, and her work included scientific experiments and operating the space station’s robotic arm.
In her off time, she gave the term “spacecraft” an entire new meaning by sewing a stuffed dinosaur toy for her 3-year-old son, Jack, and a Texas banner for her husband, fellow astronaut Douglas Hurley, 47. He piloted the final space shuttle flight in 2011. They live in Houston, the location of the Johnson Space Center.
When at home, Nyberg enjoys running, painting, playing piano, and sewing and quilting.
She says her mother taught her to sew at age 5.
“I like making quilts, using a thread and needle, in my free time. I would sew all day if I could; I love it that much,” Nyberg says. “It’s relaxing to me. I like the creating part of it.”
The astronaut also wants people to know they can have a flight engineer’s job like hers and still have hobbies that are not so high-tech.
Sewing in space was tricky, though, she admits. She adhered her few tools to a Velcro mat, which floated around her as she worked. It was difficult to cut the fabric because it wouldn’t lie down on a flat surface, Nyberg says, and she wishes she had had pins and an iron for pressing.
The dinosaur for Jack was created from Velcro-like fabric that lines Russian food containers found on the space station, Nyberg explains. “It’s lightly stuffed with scraps from a used T-shirt.”
Another food-container liner served as background for the Texas flag memento for her husband. She hand-stitched it from more T-shirts she wore while on the space station.
Although she’s a native Minnesotan, Nyberg says, “We met in Texas, got married in Texas and had our son in Texas … a special place!”
Since returning to Earth, she’s been hailed as a super- hero, but Nyberg says she doesn’t feel like one at all.
“I’m just an average person, I think,” she said in a Dec. 4 interview on CBS’ “This Morning.” Although most would say she’s about as average as the aurora borealis, Nyberg’s modesty helps her keep that celebrity status in check.
Readjusting to life on Earth, Nyberg says “gravity is not as much fun” as living in weightlessness. At first, it was difficult to walk without feeling nauseous, but that’s typical for returning astronauts, she says.
While on board the space station, Nyberg posted photos of her daily chores and fascinating cloud formations to Facebook and Twitter, saying “everybody should get a chance to see what we do.” And communicating frequently with her son by video, she pushed 21st century social media to its zenith.
Because space travel is so exciting and important to Nyberg, she wants to ignite that interest in more people. What better way to do that than to appeal to the 30 million quilters around the world to sew stars for her Astronomical Quilts Block Challenge?