Interview: Leroy Chiao
International Space Station Expedition 10 crew interview with Commander
Q: The International
Space Station Crew Interviews with Leroy Chiao, Commander of the
tenth Expedition to ISS. Leroy, if you can, summarize what are the
goals of this mission to the International Space Station?
A: Well, the
main goal of our flight is to continue to maintain the International
Space Station. As you know, since the Columbia tragedy, we have
been flying two-person crews to the Station, and the primary goals
of those crews has been to keep the Station going by doing repairs,
on-orbit maintenance, and also in the meantime performing different
experiments as well as performing some assembly tasks as well. So,
we'll be continuing in that vein of work, primarily to maintain
the Station but in the meantime also performing science experiments,
and we'll also be doing a couple of spacewalks to add some antennas
to the Russian segment to kind of continue the assembly.
a couple of interesting points, I might as well touch on them now;
the first being Columbia. The loss of Columbia and its crew last
year has made it pretty clear to everybody just how dangerous space
travel can be.
done this before and, here you are, ready to go do it again. Why?
What is it that you see that's so valuable out of doing this that
you're willing to take this risk?
Well, I think,
you know, by our nature, human beings are explorers. We're curious,
and starting from the days way back when the first primitive people
decided to go over the hill and to see what was on the other side,
to the voyages of Columbus, and, you know, our first forays into
aviation and into spaceflight, people are just curious and we need
to go see what's on the other side of that mountain and because
we do these things we have all kinds of benefits that come out of
that. And the Space Station is exactly right along those lines.
You know, we are out there doing scientific experiments, and we're
performing research that can't be done on the ground; in addition,
I mean, we are learning on how to build and maintain a spacecraft
for a long duration. If we're going to go to the moon and Mars,
we're going to have to know how, you know, the weak points of a
spacecraft and what we need to kind of improve and how we need to
plan to do maintenance and things like that, and the Space Station
is an ideal platform for those kind, that kind of work.
noted that your mission has a crew of two as the Station has been
crewed for the last year and a half now. And at the time, you remember,
there was some concern that a crew of only two people might not
be enough to do all the things that would need to be done. What
is it that we've learned from these past few Expeditions about helping
to balance out all the demands so that a crew of just two people
can do what's necessary?
right: it is a very demanding timeline for a crew of two, and the
past two-person crews have shown that they can accomplish those
timelines and remain healthy and well-rested and things like that.
And our flight will be the same. We just had a timeline review yesterday,
as a matter of fact, and we have a very full schedule; we'll be
doing a lot of work. But at the same time, we'll be having scheduled
time off, where we can kind of re-energize and recharge, and so
I really don't see a problem with that. Now, of course, the thing
that suffers sometimes when we are scheduled in like this, is we
don't get as much science done as we'd like. The purpose of the
International Space Station, of course, is to do all kinds of cutting-edge
science that can't be done on the ground, but our goal right now
is to kind of keep that laboratory going, kind of do a little bit
of assembly, until we can get the Shuttle flying again and resume
construction, until we get the laboratory finished.
training for this flight in one way or another for quite a while
right now, and you've flown to this Space Station before. Has that
experience given you an edge as you've gone through the preparation
Well, it helps
having been there before; of course when my last mission flew, STS-92,
we were the last crew to go to the Space Station before the first
crew, Expedition 1, launched. In fact, Expedition 1 launched about
two weeks after we came home from that flight. So, having been to
the Station before gives me a little bit of an advantage that I
have an idea what it's like, although it was only a, we only had
a two-week mission, so it's not like the long-duration experience
I'm about to have. However, just having been there, even though
the Station was a lot smaller then, gives me kind of a mental idea
of what to expect. So, it does help a little.
side of the experience coin is that Expedition 10 is the first Station
crew in which none of its members has ever flown a long-duration
flight before. But, given what you, we've learned through the first
nine crews, and all the help you got on the ground, is that really
a concern? Does it matter?
Well, I don't
think so. In our case, it's true: Neither Salizhan nor I have flown
a long-duration flight; however, between us, we have four Shuttle
flights, and so we have a wealth of experience being in space and
how to, and operating in space. The only part we haven't experienced
is how do you do an entire long-duration flight, but given our experience
I don't anticipate that that'll be a problem. We work very well
together; our personalities complement each other, and we both kind
of have the same views on how things ought to be done. And so I
think that everything will be just fine.
guess there probably have been at least a few people around here
who have given you some advice, too.
Oh sure, yeah.
Of course we talk to the returning crewmembers to find out what
their impressions are of the Space Station and kind of get the nuggets
of what they found was valuable or were surprised by. So, yeah,
I've done a lot of talking with Mike Foale and Ed Lu and the other
folks that have come back. I continue to talk to Mike Fincke - he
calls every now and then from the IP phone and surprises me, and
we'll chat for a few minutes about what he's experiencing and what
he's finding that's important that he didn't think about before.
subject on you for a second; I want to talk more about you than
the mission. Do you remember why you wanted to become an astronaut?
been interested in being an astronaut since I was pretty young.
I was 8 years old when the first Apollo moon landing happened, and
I still remember very vividly watching that, and then even before
that I was following the earlier flights of Gemini, and so, it was,
but it was really the Apollo moon landing that solidified in my
mind, as an eight-year-old, that this is something I'd like to do.
And it's something I always kind of kept with me; I know a lot of
kids say that, but you know, but when I was in the university, I
was studying chemical engineering, I was thinking, well, what is
it that I'd really like to do, and I always came back to NASA. And
so I always knew that one day I would fill out an application and
try to do this.
people in the Astronaut Office with a lot of different kinds of
backgrounds. What's your example - how did you, in the course of
your education and then in your career, what did you do to become
a person that NASA wanted for an astronaut?
Well, the thing
I tell people who ask me how do you become an astronaut, I say,
well, there really is no one way to do it. Of course, we have the
military folks that come up through their side, and we have the
civilians like me who come up through university. And my advice
to them always is to study and work in an area that interests you
and also qualifies you to apply to be an astronaut. In my case,
I was studying chemical engineering, and NASA recruits people in
the science and engineering fields. And after I got my degrees,
I started to work, and at that time I filled out an application.
So, it's the kind of thing where you can't count on becoming an
astronaut because there are so many qualified applicants and just
a limited number of slots. But if you're a person who puts all your
eggs in one basket and say, well, I'm going to study something I'm
not really interested in and hope to become an astronaut, and if
you don't make it, you're in for a lot of disappointment. So, my
advice to people always is to study something that you're interested
in and work in a field that interests you, and you're getting some
rewarding work out of, and then apply. And that's basically the
path that I followed.
engineering was something that interested you as a kid? Or, not
as a kid, a little kid, butů
Yeah. It was
something that I was interested in, mechanical things and electrical
things and chemical things and all that, as a kid growing up. My
favorite subjects were science and math and so it was kind of a
natural that I go and study engineering. And when I was at Berkeley,
studying for my undergraduate degree, I actually started thinking
more towards electrical engineering. But really when I started getting
into all these different classes, I really started turning my focus
more towards mechanical and chemical and finally settled on chemical
of any flight crew have got to have a whole range of interests and
talents in order to do all the jobs that have to be done, and you
and Salizhan Sharipov have to do all of that just among, between
the two of you.
your main responsibilities as the commander of this Expedition?
Well, as the
commander my responsibility is to keep the overall big picture of
the flight, the state of the vehicle, and the mission, and make
sure that we don't get sidetracked or go down, you know, some branch
and, you know, kind of keep everything in focus. Also during emergency
procedures, of course, it's very important that there be a commander,
and that's me, and I'll be running the checklist and keeping the
big picture and making sure we're doing everything that we're supposed
to be doing during an emergency procedure. But basically, I'll be
concentrating on daily operations: I'll be concentrating on the
American segment, and Salizhan will be concentrating on operations
in the Russian segment. Of course, there, we will [work] together
in both segments as well, but primarily I'll be looking over his
shoulder in a big picture way, but he's kind of the specialist in
the Russian segment and I'm the specialist in the U.S. segment.
But in a crew of two we'll be checking each other, and we'll be
working together as a team as much as possible.
portion of this mission begins for you in a way that none of your
previous flights have. What do you do as the flight engineer in
a Soyuz, and tell me about how you're thinking that's going to really,
how that's going to be different for you from flying in a Shuttle?
you said, besides flying for a long-duration flight, launching and
landing on a Soyuz is going to be a whole new experience for me,
one that I'm really looking forward to. My last three flights have
been on the Shuttle, of course, and in the Soyuz my responsibility
as the flight engineer is, basically, I'm the copilot of the vehicle.
So, Salizhan is the commander of the vehicle, and we trained together,
side-by-side, in the simulators in Russia. I'm trained in all aspects
of the flight - be it ascent, entry rendezvous, docking emergency
entry, things like that. So, we spent many, many hours in the simulator
training together and it's really been an interesting thing for
me. As a Mission Specialist here, I don't train as much on the flight
deck with the commander and the pilot of the Shuttle, and so this
is, kind of gives me a glimpse into what they do - actually, more
than a glimpse; I'm actually participating heavily in it. And so
this is probably the big adventure for me is to get the chance to
fly on a Russian rocket.
somebody who is a pilot himself that must really have piqued your
I've been interested in flying as long as I've been interested in
space, and like you touched upon, I am a pilot and I have my own
airplane, and enjoy flying quite a bit. So the Soyuz is really an
interesting thing for me to learn about.
docks, you're going to spend a week, give or take, on board the
Station the two of you with Gennady Padalka and Mike Fincke before
they head home. Does that handover period really help you guys get,
you know, hit the ground running, as it were?
I think it's
absolutely essential. Of course I haven't experienced it firsthand,
but everything that I've heard and just my perception of it is that
it's absolutely essential because no matter how good the training
is on the ground it's never the same as being on the actual vehicle.
Also, those guys, they've been up there for six months, and they
know the ins and outs of the Station, they know the little surprises,
the "gotchas," and things like that, and they will spend
that week handing over to us all their knowledge. And that'll really
give us an edge on, you know, hitting the ground, hitting the ground
By the way,
just weeks after you get there is Election Day here in the United
States. What's the process for you to vote, or, do you vote before
you go, or what?
being worked right now. The question is whether I would fill out
an absentee ballot before, or whether we can arrange some way for
me to vote from space. Now, I think back in the Mir days, one of
our astronauts was on board Mir during the election and he was able
to electronically somehow to cast his ballot from space, and so
I'm hoping to be able to do that 'cause I think it'd be an interesting
thing for all of us. But failing that, of course, then I would figure
out some way to do some kind of early voting. But it's a very important
question, and one that we're working to figure out the best way
another example of the fact that life on the planet you're leaving
behind won't have stopped: you're flying on a mission that is going
to have you away during the holiday season at the end of the year.
Do you and Salizhan have plans, or are you bringing some supplies
along with you to allow you to celebrate those holidays, too?
Sure. We actually
will have some time off during the holidays, during Thanksgiving
and Christmas and then New Year's and also the Orthodox Russian
Christmas Day, which is Jan. 7th, and, on board we understand, we
do have some things from previous crews. And also I understand some
surprises are being packed in some of our supplies that are going
to come up, and so I'm not sure exactly what they are, but I think
we're going to be getting something.
about science on board the Station. The primary focus of science
on board these days is turning to research into how people can live
and work safely in weightlessness. Tell me about some of these human
life sciences experiments on the flight that you, in fact are going
to be the test subject for.
since the accident, the Columbia accident, we have not been able
to get payloads and experimental equipment, you know, in general,
big pieces of equipment, up and down, and so we've been a little
limited on the kinds of science we can do. However, we can still
do medical studies and biological studies on our, using ourselves
as test, you know, test subjects. So that's basically what we're
going to be doing. We have a number of different experiments that
we'll be performing one of which I can tell you about is called
Foot. And I'll be instrumented and they'll be able to measure my
leg muscles and my leg joints and to see how the, how I differently
use those joints, muscles on the Earth and in space. And through
those correlations we'll better understand what kind of exercise
we'll be needing to do to keep a crew healthy during a long-duration
voyage to Mars, things like that. Some of the other things we'll
be doing, we'll be measuring, pre- and post-flight, different levels
of you know, different compounds they're looking for in the blood,
different physiology, muscle groups, things like that. And all this
is geared towards the president's vision of exploration. And so
we'll be continuing, in our way, you know, the science that will
be needed to continue with the vision of a voyage towards Mars.
guess, then, to that extent you are continuing to be a part of the
experiment after you come home.
After we come home we have a whole battery of tests and things to
go through in support of these experiments so that they can do,
can get the "before" and "after" data, as well
as the in-flight data, and help to, help the scientists to draw
conclusions on our experience to apply to future long-duration crews.
Space Station is a laboratory for experiments in other areas of
science as well. Tell me what those areas are - what other kinds
of things will you be working on during your flight?
Well, we have
ability to work on some of the science experiments you just mentioned.
Some of them are basic science research experiments; one that's
very interesting that we'll be working on is forming what's called
liquid crystals and suspensions near the critical point. And without
getting too much into the technical details, these are experiments
that really are ideally suited for space because these suspensions
can grow in microgravity and not settle down because of gravity,
and so things like that are very unique where we can answer some
fundamental physics questions and help further the science along
in that direction.
be of particular interest to somebody who's got a background as
a chemical engineer and has worked on these kinds of things before.
earlier that there was spacewalk plans and, we understand that plans
can change -- just ask Padalka and Fincke.
what are the plans for spacewalks for Expedition 10?
Well, for our
mission we have two planned spacewalks in Russian spacesuits, and
we'll be working on the Russian segment installing antennas and
other equipment in support of the European ATV, the cargo transfer
vehicle. And so we'll be, in our small way, kind of continuing the
construction of the Space Station. But we have two EVAs planned
and as you said, you know, things can happen where we might be called
upon to do some other maintenance work.
done two spacewalks on this Space Station, albeit the smaller version
of it when you delivered the Z1 truss some years ago. Is there,
beyond the obvious difference in the size of the Station, are there
important differences that you see in preparing for these spacewalks
as opposed to the ones you've already done?
will be a little different. Number one, of course, we'll be going
out in Russian suits, and that'll be a whole new experience for
me, and I'm very excited about getting the chance to do that and
have that experience and compare the differences between the U.S.
suits and the Russian suits. The other factor that will be a little
different is that we won't have a Shuttle there. We won't have a
Shuttle docked, and we won't be basing out of there. So, we'll be
basing completely out of the Station, of course, with no Shuttle,
and that'll be a new thing for me. But, everything will be fine;
I'm sure that it will all go well. It's just kind of a little mental
spacewalks, back on STS-72 were testing some Station-building tools
and techniques. Are you aware of some of the things that you proved
that have been put into practice?
Oh, yes. There
are several of the tools that we tested during STS-72 that are now
a part of our baseline tool set for U.S. EVAs. And we've used some
of those tools on the Russian suit in this last time when Expedition
9 went out and did the replacement of that RPCM [remote power controller
module] they used the American tools that we helped develop. And
so, that was really exciting. And in the future I know that there
will be some pieces of the Station that we helped test the prototypes
of on STS-72 as well that have been incorporated in the design,
so it's very rewarding to kind of get to, you know, get in on the
ground floor, so to speak, of testing these tools and techniques,
getting to put some of those into practice on STS-92, and now kind
of continuing that with this Expedition.
three Expedition crews spent six months each on orbit with no visitors.
But if the Shuttle returns to flight in the spring, as is still
planned, you'll be there when Eileen Collins and her crew arrive
on board Discovery. Have you had any thoughts about what it'll be
like to be part of that historic moment, historic not only for the
Station, but for all of spaceflight?
For the whole
program, yeah; absolutely. That's something we're hoping for-we'd
love to have STS-114 come up and visit us during our flight. And
we'd welcome them and well, we're keeping our fingers crossed. It'll
be a really neat event having the Space Shuttle return to flight
and come up during our increment and do some construction work while
we're there, and our two crews will work together, and we sure hope
Let me ask
you about that. The plans for all the activity on STS-114, the list
actually seems to keep growing. They've got inspections that they
have to do, there are spacewalks to inspect and test out repair
techniques as well as the assembly of the Station as well as an
MPLM that they're bringing along. Are these things that you and
Salizhan are now training for, for your role in them, or do you
wait until you get on orbit and are sure that they're coming and
then, and do the training remotely?
No, we have
been doing the training for these events. Salizhan and I have both
received MPLM training, and we also received a lot of photography
lessons on how to take pictures of the Shuttle tile and leading
edges to, you know, inspect the heat shielding. We also have been
trained to be the EVA, do their EVA tasks in case there's, something
happens, and he and I need to go out and perform the EVA tasks;
we're ready to go do all that stuff. So you know, we've been training
all along that they're going to arrive, and of course, before they
arrive, we'll have some on-board training to do some refresher to
kind of get those thoughts going again. And so we're just keeping
our fingers crossed it'll work out for 114 to come up.
If you think
about it, you've got, you're looking at the possibility of, in just
six months, a Shuttle visit; two spacewalks, maybe more science
work, maintenance of the Station all the time. In your opinion,
as you approach this as the Commander, what constitutes success?
What will have had to have happened for you to come home knowing
Expedition 10 worked?
tell you what the biggest reward for me and the biggest measure
of success, is if we can get accomplished the goals of the flight,
which is to maintain the Station and keep it healthy while also
performing some of these assembly tasks and experiments. And the
biggest measure of that, for me, is how happy the ground teams are
with our work. And so our goal is to execute all the tasks that
we're assigned in the best manner possible, and try to keep everyone
happy on the ground. Because that's, to me, that's the biggest measure
If you stop
and think about it, the International Space Station is a project
that is looking to make advances in engineering and in science and
in global relations, as well as space exploration.
what do you think is the most valuable contribution that is coming
from the International Space Station program?
Well, I think
the biggest contribution that will come in later years, when we
get the laboratory fully assembled and operational, is the science
that will come out of the Station. That was the main goal of designing
the Space Station and building the Space Station, is to do science
that we can't do here on the ground. And especially to learn how
we can better adapt vehicles, equipment, and exercise and all that
to keep people healthy on a long-duration voyage to Mars. So that,
I think, is the main goal of the Station. Now, for my specific flight
one of the big goals, or big things that will come out of my mission,
is that we will continue to learn how to operate and build a vehicle
that could go to Mars, because if you think about it, if we build
a Mars vehicle, it's going to be more like a Space Station than
a rocket, because we're going to be sending something, you know,
a vehicle off with a crew in it, and they are going to have to be
able to maintain that thing and keep it running, keep themselves
healthy, and get to Mars, explore Mars, and return. And so, we need
to make sure that we build a vehicle that is robust, that is maintainable,
and you know, I think that one of the big things that people don't
think as much about is, we are learning every day how to build,
design, and operate a long-duration autonomous space vehicle.