Interview with Kjell Lindgren

Katherine Wilson, Guest Writer

Kjell Lindgren is a 1991 Robinson graduate and a current NASA astronaut. In September 2015, Lindgren will launch and travel to the International Space Station on Expedition 45.  Instead of reiterating his entire Wikipedia page, a high school wrestling teammate, Bryan Hazard, depicts Lindgren’s high school career and accomplishments.

“From high school, Kjell was valedictorian of the class and probably the most brilliant person I’ve ever met. He thought of things on a completely different plain than anyone else did.

As an athlete, he was great. He was a great football player and a very good wrestler. He had a knack to know how to win. Some people just have that gift in life of determination. He was like the model citizen, and all he’d ever wanted to do was be an astronaut.

He went to the Air Force Academy as valedictorian.  He finished his second or third year at the air force academy and they went up on this really high flight- higher than an airplane would go, and he coughed. They told him he had asthma and said he was out of the astronaut program. So, around about 18-21 years old, he gets booted out of the program, becomes a doctor for NASA, says, “I’m going to put my name back in at 37 years old,” and he becomes an astronaut out of 30,000 people. He was one of 15 picked.

It’s an amazing story of dealing with adversity and having resilience in your life. I have the utmost respect for him. I use him as an example for my own children and for our athletes. If you put your mind to something, it might not happen exactly how you want, but if you do all the right things, and you continue to work hard, then eventually, somehow, your dreams can all be met.”

Kjell Lindgren is now training in Star City, Russia and took the time to call Valor Dictus for an exclusive interview.

Katherine Wilson: What was your experience like at Robinson?

Kjell Lindgren: I had a great experience! I started at Robinson as a sophomore after returning to the US from England. I had done almost all of my prior schooling in the much smaller Department of Defense schools overseas while my father served in the US Air Force. It was a significant change to be in such a huge school system. Being a teenager is tough, and it would have been very easy to get lost in the crowd, but I’m thankful to have found a niche in both the classroom and in sports (football and wrestling). I think that is one of Robinson’s strengths – the wide availability of quality sports, clubs, and activities that provide a venue for community outside of the classroom.

KW: What was it like adapting to the new environment at Robinson?

KL: Well, it was hard. I think especially in your high school years, you kind of develop a network of friends. To have had a bunch of friends over in England my freshman year and then to move away from that to a brand new school- and not just a brand new school, but a massive school- can be a little daunting. So I am thankful for sports to have provided a network of folks that became my friends, but it was challenging. I think it’s challenging just to be in high school, period. To do that as a new student adds an extra level of difficulty, but it all worked out.

KW: You played an active part on the wrestling team- how was it?

KL: I got to join that team when I was a sophomore. It was an incredible team, and I got to be a part of it. It was a lot of fun. And to watch Bryan (Hazard) come back and be the head coach and see all the success that he’s had is just amazing.

KW: How do you feel the school prepared you for success?

KL: I am extremely proud of my Robinson heritage! High school serves as an important foundation for the stuff that goes on later in life and I feel like I received excellent preparation through both academics and sports. As far as academics goes, I took all the standard stuff – biology, chemistry, history, calculus, etc. What stands out in my mind though, are the teachers I had at Robinson. Teachers are vastly underrated. I am deeply grateful for the time and effort that teachers have invested in me over the years. When I found out that I had been selected as an astronaut, I tried to go back and thank as many of my prior teachers as I could. Go thank your teachers! Sports were also a big part of my life at Robinson. I had played football and wrestled during my freshman year overseas and I was lucky that Robinson had particularly strong teams in both disciplines. I wasn’t particularly great at either sport, but my size and stubbornness kept me on the teams. Three years wrestling for Robinson was character building.

KW: Did you take part in the IB or AP program?

KL: There weren’t any IB programs while I was at Robinson, but I took several AP courses as a junior and senior. I remember being introduced to “critical thinking” in AP English/History and I think that was the most important skill I took from high school. The ability to evaluate the validity of information, its source, its context, etc. is an invaluable skill that served me well in postgraduate research and medicine – and is invaluable in today’s information-saturated world.

KW: What was your journey like after graduating?

KL: A lot more school! As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be an astronaut. I had it all planned out, starting with 4 years at the Air Force Academy and then on. I knew the odds of becoming an astronaut were slim, so I pursued educational paths and a career that I had a passion for – but always keeping the dream of working for NASA in the back of my mind. After finishing medical school and then residency in emergency medicine, I acted on that dream and moved down to Texas to complete a second residency in aerospace medicine with the hope of getting a job as a flight surgeon at NASA afterwards. After finishing residency, I was hired to work at NASA, spending time in both Houston and Star City, Russia. It was during this time that NASA announced that it was planning to hire a new class of astronauts. I submitted my application and in 2009 my dream came true!

KW: Do you ever visit the school?

KL: I do. I graduated in 1991 and I had a great time catching up with friends at our 20 year reunion a few years ago. Many of my high school friends and teammates continue to contribute to Robinson’s legacy of excellence. Bryan Hazard, is, of course, the coach of our renowned wrestling team. I came back to the school to watch as Robinson hosted and won the state championship last year! Another old friend and football teammate, Matt Curran, coached the lacrosse team to a state title as well. These guys make me proud to be a Ram.

KW: What are your feelings about going into space for the first time?

KL: I’m excited! I feel incredibly blessed to have this opportunity. It has been an amazing journey and I’m looking forward to the adventure ahead. I am particularly excited to share my experience with my family and friends, teachers and mentors. I think it is incredibly important to note that this whole endeavor has been a team effort – not just preparing for the mission, but the path to becoming an astronaut as well. I can’t even begin to enumerate the number of people that have mentored me, poured into me, and invested time in my education and training. It is very humbling to be the beneficiary of an opportunity like this. I hope they will be proud of what we have achieved together

KW: Do you work on the same program as other countries’ astronauts?

KL: I do. Kimya Yui who is a Japanese astronaut- he and I actually started at the same time. We have an international partnership that includes the Russians, Canadians, Japanese, and the European space agency. The Japanese and Canadian astronauts train very closely with us. We all went into training together. So, I’ve known Kimya as long as I’ve been an astronaut. He and I both started in 2009 and I feel very fortunate to have gotten assigned to a mission with him since we’re in the same astronaut class.

KW: Have you been able to communicate with each other without language barriers?

KL: Kimya speaks great English, and now great Russian as well.

KW: So, you had to learn Russian before you went there too?

KL: Yes. I’ve been studying Russian for about five years now.

KW: How many uniforms and personal items do you get to take with you when you go into space?

KL: Well, that’s equipment (the launch and entry suit) that we’ll wear when we are launching and landing. So, that’s an emergency suit for if some reason the capsule that we’re in depressurized. That suit would inflate and maintain a livable pressure inside of it. We wear that to and from the space station, and then we have spacesuits in the space station that all the international partner astronauts would use when we do a spacewalk. That’s the big puffy white suit that you’ve probably seen. Those are up on the space station. Then we have cargo ships that are delivering our clothes, our food, and we even have a small allotment of personal items that we can have up there: pictures of family and friends and that sort of thing. Since we’re essentially living up there for 6 months, it’s nice to have some personal mementos up there with us as well.

KW: It looks like you’re having a lot of fun in all the photos. Is this something that you really enjoy doing?

KL: Oh, absolutely. I pinch myself every day. I can’t believe that I get to do this. It’s a dream come true. Ever since I can remember, this is what I wanted to do. When I first arrived in Virginia, I started at Robinson my sophomore year and I remember there was a USA Today article on how hard it was to become an astronaut. I cut that out and put it on my bulletin board at home. It’s funny to go home now and still see that sitting there. I feel very blessed.

“He’s a neat guy. He’s also a guy who is super humble. His name is on the wall in the wrestling room. He was the district champ here and a state place winner. He was an All-District linebacker. He did everything well. Last year at our state tournament, he showed up in his full gear and presented the awards to everyone who won the state tournament. He presented us with the award, which was super inspiring to our kids. It was selfless. He’s really an inspiring figure. He’s going to fly some stuff from Robinson on his flight. He’s an incredible guy,” Hazard said.