Grounded through Strong Family RootsPublished 10:22am Wednesday, November 13, 2013
“She was always just one of the kids.”
The mother of six, Phyllis Nyberg, of Vining, Minn., is proud of all her children, including astronaut daughter, Karen. “She’s no more special than the others,” Phyllis maintained. “They’re all smart and good kids. Karen got good grades. . . was involved in everything in school. She didn’t need much discipline, as I remember. She always just did what she was told.”
Karen Nyberg is an American mechanical engineer and NASA astronaut currently in Expedition 36 on the International Space Station. However, being the mother of the 50th woman in space, Phyllis’s modesty when it comes to her role in the lives of her children is real. She does not believe she really has much to do with any of her children’s successes. As a child Karen may have had aspirations to become an astronaut, but as far as Phyllis knew, they were just the silly dreams of childhood. “I think she may have told her sister that she wanted to be an astronaut,” said Phyllis, “but I didn’t really know about it. I just thought, Oh, how cute.”
It was not until Karen was in the eleventh or twelfth grade that Phyllis realized Karen was serious about becoming an astronaut. “When she was figuring out what to take in college, a classmate suggested mechanical engineering,” explained Phyllis. “[Karen] was never really into that sort of thing growing up.” But Karen quickly found out her knack for the subject. “It was like the first time she had to change a tire,” continued Phyllis. “She could have easily done it in high school, but the opportunity never came.”
When Karen enrolled at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, the opportunities came in force. Although very few women enter her field, Karen did it anyway. “She found out about a co-op job at Johnson Space Center in Houston. She got it, and she just kind of fell into it,” Phyllis said.
Because of her mother’s love and support, Karen was able to do what she set out to do. She graduated UND with her Bachelor’s degree and achieved her Master’s and PhD when she was in Austin, Texas. “They hired her right when she finished school,” said Phyllis. “They must have thought she was okay.”
That humble attitude resonates throughout. As far as Phyllis is concerned, she really did not have much to do with it. With six children, 13 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and one more on the way, Phyllis’s focus is, as it always has been, family. She blatantly denies Karen’s determination as a trait inherited from her. “She doesn’t get her drive from me,” laughed Phyllis. “I was just so busy taking care of the kids – motherly stuff.”
An example of her “motherly stuff” is the fact that she knits blankets for all of her babies and grandbabies, and taught Karen how to sew – a skill she is currently using at the space station. “Karen is making a dinosaur for Jack so he’ll have something from space,” Phyllis said with a twinkle of pride. Karen’s son, Jack, is three and a half. He’s waiting for his mother’s return from her six-month venture with his dad, astronaut Doug Hurley, in Texas.
While Karen is literally thousands of miles away, Phyllis does not feel like her daughter is unreachable. “Her being up there is really no different than her being in Texas,” said Phyllis. “She calls us from space every Sunday.” Karen’s worldwide recognition also helps keep Phyllis feel Karen is still close to home. “She’s on Twitter and Facebook,” said Phyllis, not to mention the news coverage of Karen giving the commencement address at UND’s summer graduation ceremony, announcing Carrie Underwood at WeFest, an appearance in Cosmopolitan magazine, and all the other “scientific things” she does.
Karen was also video-conferenced in for her 25th class reunion from Henning High School, not to mention a surprise video-conferenced tour of the International Space Center to honor her parents this summer. “The kids always try to surprise us for our anniversary,” said Phyllis. “Our oldest daughter Kathy lives in Washington, and this summer when she came to visit, the kids surprised us with the tour of the space station.” Four of the Nyberg children live in the surrounding area, so when Kathy and Karen can make it to town, this family makes it a point to gather together. “We are all very proud of Karen,” said Phyllis, “just as I am proud of all my children. We all support each other.
“I used to get nervous about her going up into space,” continued Phyllis, “but now it doesn’t bother me so much. As long as
it goes okay, it’s fine. We all gathered to watch her go up, and we will all gather to watch her come home. The time has gone by quickly.”
Karen is scheduled to come “home” in mid-November. Members of the crew replacing her unit are scheduled to arrive at the International Space Station in October. An additional
honor is that they will be bringing the Olympic Torch for a space-walk, and Karen’s crew will bring the torch back to earth with them. As amazing and surreal Karen’s life may seem, Phyllis is confident her daughter holds true to her hometown values. Although she is literally reaching for the stars, Karen is grounded through the deep roots of her family tree. “It’s just remarkable to think, That’s my child up there,” said Phyllis.