They were a normal Air Force family — until Dad became an astronaut.
Nick and Catie Hague, and their two sons, ages 11 and 7, are gearing up for the ultimate military move as Nick prepares to blast off into space. In October, Colonel Nick Hague, an astronautical engineer in Houston, will depart for the cosmos inside a Russian rocket launched from Kazakhstan, to live for six months aboard the International Space Station.
“It is a bit different,” Lieutenant Colonel Catie Hague wryly tells PEOPLE, acknowledging that her husband’s forthcoming adventure sounds a little, well, out there. Even for a couple whose careers have sent them to far-flung locales such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey.
Nevertheless, the entire family is on board for the journey, packing goodie boxes to send to Nick in orbit, and strategizing the best way to eat a Thin Mint cookie while weightless.
“We’ve got this whole list of things we’re doing,” says Nick, who graduated in 2015 in the 21st class of astronauts for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
The Hagues began their pre-launch mode nearly three years ago when Nick was assigned his first mission as the Flight Engineer for the space station’s Expedition 57/58, to join a small and staggered international crew.
For Nick, that meant training not only for space walks and remote landings, but also in the workings of group dynamics, and Russian language. Nick’s launch partner is a Russian cosmonaut, Aleksey Ovchinin.
For the entire Hague family, the train-up has blended education and traditional home front activities.
At ground level, Nick has focused on teaching his family about space travel and rocket launches.
“We built this ridiculously big rocket out of Legos,” says Catie, who commands an ROTC detachment at the University of Houston in Texas.
The Lego model was more than a toy for the boys.
“They’re building it and seeing see all the levels of protection” in a rocket, Nick tells PEOPLE, and that “there’s a huge team watching every little sensor on the vehicle that’s working. If things go wrong, there’s things we can do.”
The family also has studiously watched takeoffs.
“We’ve watched every launch for the past two years,” Catie says, learning every stage of the process. “The boys know it’s eight minutes until space.”
“Removing the surprises is giving them stability,” Nick says.
Catie and the boys, meanwhile, are doing the opposite, using surprise to offer a different type of stability – that of homefront support – to Nick.
“We’ve been collecting different things to send up” via delivery rockets, and already have packed several boxes, Catie says. Although some items must remain secret so as to preserve the surprise, Catie revealed to PEOPLE some of the mini-payloads in store for Nick.
“Our youngest son was born on Halloween,” Catie says, making that a major family holiday, wherein the Hagues become characters from Star Wars. “We have some things for Nick and the crew to get dressed up for Halloween.”
The Earthbound Hagues also are sending Tabasco sauce and other condiments to spice up freeze-dried space food. Frequently during space travel, astronauts’ taste buds change, so the sauces may be vital to the mission.
Catie does not, however, expect Nick to change his sweet tooth, so she has packed chocolate and peanut butter treats – plus his favorite Thin Mint cookies.
Which leads to the question of how to handle a Thin Mint in outer space.
“You don’t want crumbs” aboard the space station, Nick says. The solution? “You have to eat it in one bite.”
There also are thoughts of how to address a concern raised by PEOPLE, regarding possible cookie-envy by other crew members. The Hagues already have thought of that, earmarking favorite treats for Alexey and others aboard the flight.
Only weeks remain in the countdown until Nick waves goodbye through the porthole to his sons and his former Air Force Academy classmate, Catie.
The final stage at home includes setting up the candy jar filled with Hershey’s Kisses. Each boy takes one candy out of the container per day until Nick comes home.
“It’s just like any military family getting ready for deployment,” Catie says. Only, the deployment is to outer space.
Nick, for one, can’t wait to make his first giant leap to the stars and get started on experiencing weightlessness and doing experiments.
During the mission, the station crew members will conduct about 250 research investigations and technology demonstrations not possible on Earth in order to advance scientific knowledge of Earth, space, physical, and biological sciences, according to a statement from NASA.
The astronaut tells PEOPLE: “What we’re doing up there is pretty miraculous.”