Interview: André Kuipers |
International Space Station Expedition 9 crew interview with Flight
The International Space Station Crew Interviews with André
Kuipers of the European Space Agency, the Flight Engineer on the
eighth Soyuz flight to the International Space Station. André,
you are near the end of the training for a 10-day trip to the International
Space Station -- what are you looking forward to the most about
your first trip to space?
A: Well, I
have to say, of course, the view. I trained all the different aspects
of the flight. I have been a bit weightless in the parabolic flight;
you trained for launch, you train what you have to do, so all the
different parts you're trained, even, hypergravity in centrifuges.
But seeing the planet, this blue sphere in the black nothing, that’s
what I look forward to most.
You are going to be the sixth European Space Agency astronaut
to go to the ISS, and the first from the Netherlands. Can you give
me a sense of what it will mean to ESA, and to the Dutch people,
to have another one of their astronauts on board the Station that
they’re helping to build and run in orbit?
Yes. For ESA
it’s very important that we have a continuation of the program.
ESA’s participation in the Space Station, means also certain
crew time. We don’t yet have the amount of people that we
would like to have, so that means that we cannot do our experiments,
and the European astronauts cannot fly so much. Now we have the
opportunity to fly to the Station and do our experiments, so for
ESA it’s good. Several countries contributed to this additional
flight, making use of the Soyuz spacecraft. For Holland this is
very special, of course, because it’s a long time ago, in
1985, since the first Dutch astronaut flew on a Space Shuttle, and
so this is new. Also, because we do a lot, with the Russian system,
since I launch with a Soyuz rocket, so it’s a new ballgame
for Holland -- a new generation. A lot of people don’t
know all the details of what happened so many years ago. It’s
new, it’s intriguing, and most of all it’s stimulating
the students, kids in school, and other people.
You’ve touched on several points that I want to come
back to, but I can’t go any further on without getting you
to talk about the fact that you’re launching at this time
-- you’re going to be flying only a little bit more than
one year after the loss of Columbia and its crew. That event made
the danger of spaceflight as clear as it’s ever been, and
yet here you sit, ready to go and launch in spite of that danger.
In your mind, what reward is it that we’re getting from flying
people in space that makes it worth the risk you’re taking?
of all, I was, like everybody, hurt by the accident. I worked with
the crew --I was Project Scientist for one of the payloads.
I showed them around in Amsterdam -- so for me it was also
a very personal thing. The danger involved is something that you
already thought about before. When I became an astronaut I knew
that I was going to do something which some risk involved. It's
calculated risk -- astronauts are not people who just take risks.
We know that a lot of people, good people, look at all the aspects,
and you have trust in the system and in the people. As with any
transport system, things can go wrong, and astronauts know this.
They are willing to make that offer because they believe in the
program. They believe in progress for mankind. It's very philosophical
whether that’s actually what astronauts already think before,
so it’s not as if something like that happens and you didn’t
know that it could happen. You know that it can happen. It didn’t
stop me and I, with all the colleagues I talked to, nobody reconsidered
following the career he had chosen and to make the dream true. So
I think it’s very important for mankind to continue with it,
and even if there is risk involved in it.
Why is it important for mankind to continue? What is it
that we’re going to gain?
That’s the first thing. Man is and always been looking to
go beyond the hills, to go on the ocean, to go in the desert or
to the poles -- all places where we don’t belong. Man is made
for, say, one G, one atmosphere, five kilometers an hour on his
own legs, and, say, 25° Celsius. If you go beyond those specifications,
you have to adapt. People have had to build boats to go on the ocean
-- we call it planet Earth but they should call it "planet
ocean," because most of it is water. To go underwater, you
need equipment; to go into the mountains, high in the mountains,
you need oxygen. When we started flying sometimes we went so fast
that you need g-trousers -- with special equipment so as not to
lose consciousness. So that means that because of our intelligence,
we are adapting to our environment, and space is just the next step.
It’s just, OK, we can go farther. What is beyond? What can
we gain there? Mankind has all kind of reasons to go to dangerous
places: it could be power, it could be gold, it could be religion,
all kinds of things, including scientific knowledge. So the main
thing that you gain from spaceflight is new knowledge, new technological
development, new scientific knowledge. Also people are curious,
just continue and find out what is beyond, what is behind the mountain.
So, why did you want to do it? Why did you want to become
Well, it started
-- the way a lot of astronauts started -- as a real dream,
a boy’s dream. I was 12, and my grandmother came home with
some science fiction novels. I was hooked. There was the "Thunderbirds"
television series, and of course, in those days, we had the moon
buggies. So we had these very sharp pictures of the astronauts driving
on the moon, and that all fitted with magazines in which you had
nice drawings of Skylab. But it was all America -- American test
pilots and nothing. You didn’t even think about the Russians
in those days. So it was all a dream. But then it came closer because
Europe started to participate with Spacelab, and all of a sudden
there was a Dutch scientist who became an astronaut. And I saw him
in one of the pictures with spectacles on and I thought, "Oh,
it’s not only perfect American test pilots but also other
human beings can become astronauts." Then the Space Shuttle
came, I saw John Young in the cockpit with spectacles on, reading his procedures, so I thought, "OK, this is possible."
So, from a chance it became a hope, from a dream it became a hope.
Later on, because of television series from Carl Sagan, Cosmos (which
was very stimulating for me), it started to become closer and closer,
and I started to work on it. So, in the beginning it’s a kid’s
dream. You have your spacesuit and spaceships…and later on
it becomes something like, "Oh, this is beautiful." We
saw the pictures from space, and I thought, "This is really
something special, really something beautiful. I’d like to
go there as well." And then, even further along, is the philosophical
thought of, "OK, what am I doing with my life: I’m a
medical doctor", I thought, "OK, I can go in a lot of
directions; I wanted to do something useful for mankind. It can
be in every direction." I was interested in DNA or microtechnology,
all kinds of different things that I thought, "OK, where can
I go" for exploration, and expanding mankind in the universe.
So I made more or less this combination between medicine and biochemistry
and spaceflight, that link. So, also the philosophical idea of helping
mankind a little bit farther into the universe was playing a role.
Did you become a doctor so you could become an astronaut,
or was it the other way around, or were they even related?
relation was that it was both stimulated by these science fiction
novels from my grandmother. And as I said in the beginning, spaceflight
was something for Americans. I thought it would be nice but not
very realistic. But in these novels – it was a whole series
-- some of these novels were about planets where they had very advanced
medical technology in creating beings and things like that. The
whole idea of medical science fiction was born as well in my mind.
That’s why I started to do medicine, and I liked it. I love
the profession, its teamwork. It's action. It’s science, and
so it’s very nice. You’re in contact with people; you’re
helping people. It’s a very nice mix. So it was not related
from the beginning, but I started to make the combination between
spaceflight and medicine. I got in contact with a Dutch professor
who worked for NASA for some time. He was into space medicine and
I thought, "Well, this is something; this is very interesting;
what happens with the human body in weightlessness?" And so
that’s how I started to go in that direction, aviation and
space medicine. There were some links but it had nothing to do with
becoming an astronaut.
then was the path of … you went to school, how did you end
up as an ESA astronaut?
When I saw
the Shuttle going, when I saw the ESA Spacelab and European astronauts,
then I thought, "OK, I have to be ready within, say, 13 years,"
because the first Dutch astronaut, Wubbo Ockels, was something like
13 years older than I am. I thought, I have to be ready; if there’s
a selection coming I want to try it. I probably won’t make
it because there were a lot of people wanting this, and there was
a lot of competition, but at least I wanted to try it and I want
to be ready for it. So, I started to get involved in aviation and
space medicine, I started to work for the Dutch Air Force, and I
got into contact with institutes in Holland who started to do research
in microgravity and parabolic flights. So I went to congresses and
talked with people from ESA, from NASA on how I could get into this
area of space medicine. So that’s what happened -- I got all
of a sudden an invitation to work as a project scientist for a Spacelab
mission, on STS-55, where we had European payloads on board of the
Space Shuttle. And that was getting closer and closer to the real
thing. Besides that, studied a lot: OK, astronauts -- what is expected
from them? What kind of people are these? So, I got my flying license;
I got all these things, so I worked on it. I mean, these were great
things to do anyway, I wanted to do them anyway, but it helps. So,
you build up a career, you build up a CV, a curriculum, so, to be
ready for whenever a selection would come. So I was really trying
to get into the right position for a new selection.
I think you may have already answered the question, a question
I like to ask about who influenced you to become an astronaut --
it sounds like the answer’s some combination of John Young, Wubbo Ockels and your grandmother.
sounds pretty good. And of course, the whole route, the way to become
an astronaut, is of course only possible if you have support from
your parents. They were thinking, "OK, we have to get him to
the right school." I remember that I was walking with my parents
in dark Amsterdam, and they showed me a very dark building, and
said, maybe you should go to that school, when I was 10 or 11. I
thought, "I don’t want to go there, it’s a dark
building." But it was the high school I went to, and there
I had a very good biology teacher and science teacher, and they
stimulated me, for example, to an interest for DNA, an interest
in astronomy. It came from these people. They stimulated me very
much. And then in the context with this professor who worked with
NASA, and he also knew the way. "You want to go into this,
we can, we need somebody with the Air Force to do this research,
and this is, these people helped you from all sides, to get to the
place where you want to be."
You mentioned your work with previous Space Shuttle missions,
and you spent a lot of your time with the European Space Agency
doing research into how people respond to being in weightlessness.
What do you think of the International Space Station as a laboratory
for conducting that research?
the only place where you can do research without weight. Only scientists
who work in the Space Station can do -- I mean, they have their
research on the ground and in their institutes and universities.
They want to get rid of a factor -- that is what you often do in
scientific research. So you want to exclude something and see what
happens. You can make something very dark, for example. The human
body, for example, the vestibular organ, is always influenced by
gravity, so if you want the place where you can get rid of gravity,
or at least, and don’t have the effects of gravity, you can
go to a plane, 20 seconds [of weightlessness in] parabolic flight.
But if you want it longer you need a laboratory in orbit around
the Earth. So, I think the Space Station’s very good for that.
Unfortunately, now we only have two people on board. We should have
more people because we have a lot of facilities there, and we will
even get more -- we get the European, the ESA, Columbus module,
we get the Japanese module, so a lot of places to do research. Now
we need the people up there, so we can even make more use of it.
But, absolutely, we need this platform to do this kind of research.
Have you given some thought to what it will be like to be
crossing the line, so to speak, from being the experimenter to being
one of the subjects?
a very interesting topic because, as a medical doctor I was involved
in research. Then as the Project Scientist I was coordinating all
these kinds of things. I followed the projects from the development
of the payload to the training of the astronauts -- all the tests
and the baseline data collection, so I could follow it all and perform
the experiments. And now I’m in another role. I’m the
one who has to give his blood. I’m the test subject and I
don’t control it anymore. So now I have to trust my former
colleagues, OK -- they have to set up the plan and procedures
and do all this right. It’s interesting. On the other hand,
I think for medical research it's pleasant because I know what is
coming. I don’t have any problems with this kind of research,
You’ll get your first experiment, experience being
weightless on board the Soyuz TMA when you launch from Baikonur,
later in April. You’ve been training to fulfill the role as
the Flight Engineer on that trip. Tell me about what takes place
on a Soyuz during a launch, and what the Flight Engineer does during
the launch and the two-day trip to the Station.
launch we will be in the Soyuz capsule for some time, for hours,
in our spacesuits; it’s pretty tight; there's not much room
to move. We check all the systems, we have to make sure that the
computers and everything is working. During the launch the most
important thing from my seat is that I have to get rid of the third
stage of the rocket, maybe manually. So I have to be ready at a
certain time when the engines stop. Within a few seconds, if it
doesn’t go automatically, we have to push some buttons and
flip a switch in order to get separated from the third stage. Once
in orbit, first thing is to check if there are any leaks. You are
in your spacesuit so you’re covered. We have pressure in the
capsule, but you have to check if there’s a leak in the landing
part or in the living part which is above us. If you have done that,
you want to get power. You have your batteries but the Soyuz has
some solar panels so you have to get the solar panels nicely pointed
to the sun. This is one of the operations. Another is to get into
a stable orbit. You get into the first orbit pretty low still, so
you want it to a bit higher where you have less problems with air
resistance and things like that. From there you can relax a bit.
If there are no leaks you can get out of your suit. You have power
and then you can prepare for the rendezvous.
And I understand that at least a part of the reason that
it’s a two-day-long trip is to allow the crewmembers to become
accustomed to the weightless environment.
we have two days to get to the Station; with a good margin. We launch
in the orbit of the Station when the Earth is turning just below
the Station, or Space Station could be on the other side of the
planet, that doesn’t matter. You have time to catch up; if
you’re in a lower orbit you go faster. You have time to check
all the systems. Actually, I already start experiments. So, a few
hours after launch I go up to the living module and I start two
of the biological experiments. So we’re making good use of
the time, and indeed after two days we are adapted and everything
is set for the rendezvous and docking.
The two men that you’ll make that two-day trip with
are Gennady Padalka and Mike Fincke. They became members of this
crew rather late in the training process. How has that change, late
in the game, affected the last couple of months of your training
Not so much,
really. We had some additional training, some extra training, but
not much more than I already had planned. Padalka is a very good
commander. He’s experienced -- he flew already --
and the interaction goes very well with him. I did not have the
feeling that I had to start all over again. Of course, you have
to see how you interact with commands and how the reaction is, the
reaction times and things like that. But that went very well. There
are some things that I did before and now the commander does, and
the other way around, things that the commander did before and now
would be my task. So there are some changes. But, overall, it went
very well. It’s very pleasant to start with Mike Fincke. He’s
very cooperative, very helpful. He offers his help to me all the
time. It's most important that the long-duration crew train a lot
together, and for me that I work very well with my commander and
that goes excellent.
Let’s spend a couple of minutes talking about the
work that you’re going to do on the way up and when you get
there. Your science program is known by the name of DELTA, and as
you mentioned you’re going to actually start some of that
work during the Soyuz trip up. Tell me if, in general, you can do
that, about the plan for research overall during your time in space.
name DELTA, is of course because Holland is a river delta. "Delta”
is the Greek symbol of change. It also stands for Dutch Expedition
for Life Science Technology and Atmospheric Research. That covers
the contents. A lot of the research is life sciences, for example.
We have several biology experiments. Biology is pretty big for Holland,
and for ESA. There’s a lot of biology. Payloads have been
built, so it fits well with the history of research. There is human
physiology research, which is interesting for me, although actually,
I’m more interested in the other fields because there’s
more “new,” and because it's nice to do experiments
in a field other than your own. You learn a lot from that. In biology
we have human physiology -- blood pressure, for example, and orientation
experiments. Besides that we have some technology experiments --
special lamps or heat transport -- so it’s all spread out.
We even have an experiment to look at special light effects above
thunderclouds, our atmospheric research. We have besides that a
lot of education, which is in my eyes very important.
Give me an example or two of those educational experiments
or activities that you’ve got in mind.
One is a series
of experiments; we call it Video 1, 2, and 3. My colleagues did
all kind of tests with fluids, to see how fluids behave in microgravity.
That was Frank DeWinne, my Belgian colleague. Pedro Duque, my Spanish
colleague, did experiments with the laws of Newton, so more physics.
I will do the Video 3 experiment which are more medical experiment,
so physiological changes to microgravity. Sometimes I envy my Spanish
colleague because it’s much easier to demonstrate the laws
of physics than to demonstrate fluid shifts in the body and things
like that, but we have a nice program for that. Another educational
experiment is Seeds in Space. I like that very much. In Holland
I sent every school a package with seeds of lettuce. It’s
called, “rocket lettuce;” it’s rucola, so the
name is very nice. It’s built with two chambers. One will
get light and the other one will stay in the dark. At the schools
they will put water in their containers together with me in space,
so during a few days all the schools will develop the same seeds
as I will do in space. That brings the kids very close in contact
with experimenting and with spaceflight. There has been a lot of
reaction on that. They have to guess what the roots will do, and
how the plant will develop, and things like that. I think that’s
a very nice experiment.
It sounds like you’re trying to do one of those things
that NASA likes to talk about, to encourage the next generation.
I think actually that in the long run that’s the most important
thing that will come out of this mission. We’re now focusing
on scientific experiments and that is for individual groups and
universities very important. But on the long run it will be the
kids that are now stimulated in school because of these kinds of
experiments, because of all the coverage -- because it’s very
special in Holland--those kids, they will be the scientists, the
engineers from the future, and that is what a country, what the
world needs, so I think that, on the long run, that is the best
result coming out of this mission.
Whether it’s this particular experiment or some others,
you’re also going to get the opportunity to use some hardware
on board the Station that was developed and delivered by the European
Space Agency too.
very nice to do. Actually, that’s the Microgravity Science
Glovebox. It’s one of the big facilities in the U.S. Lab.
It was developed by ESA, under the leadership of a Dutch company.
The first training I had when I was assigned was on this Microgravity
Science Glovebox. I thought, "Oh, this is nice." That’s
just another thing I’m working with, a Dutch ESA payload.
It’s a very nice piece of work and a lot of experiments are
being performed in there. It offers a lot of space to work in a
closed area so it’s a safe area if you want to work with maybe
some fluids that can be corrosive or something, or very little pieces
of equipment that you don’t want to escape and float away.
You can do a lot of experiments in that glovebox. I’m very
pleased to work with that.
Tell me if there are a couple of the human life sciences
experiments that you’re very eager to try out.
eager but it might also disturb me because one of those experiments
is, for example, 24-hour blood pressure measurement. You have a
cuff around your arm and then at night, every half hour, it will
feel like somebody is grabbing your arm to measure the blood pressure.
You have two blood pressure cuffs around your finger during the
day. There’s another experiment in which I’m wearing
a vest with vibrating elements. That’s a vest to see if it
can help with orientating in microgravity. So I will do a lot of
tests with eyes closed, eyes open, all with these vibrating elements
on. You have gyroscopes in the suit, so if you decide, "OK,
this is up, this is down," you would move forward, you’d
feel the sense of the elements here, you’d sense them, or
on the sides, so you can feel where you are, more or less. The Station
commander will turn me around and put me in certain positions, and
I have to say, I’m this way, that way, or where the floor
is. I will use it daily. One of the ideas is that this vest could
help not only for orientation but maybe to help prevent Space Adaptation
Syndrome, the space sickness a lot of astronauts experience in the
beginning. It could also be useful for pilots or for firemen in
a very smoky environment to know where the exit is or where is ground
is. So, I think it’s an interesting technology experiment.
You talked about research in human life science and you’ve
talked about experiments that you have in other areas. What about
just the experience of being inside that Station?
I cannot say
anything about that because I still have to go, but I have to be
careful. My colleagues warned me that I have to set time apart for
that experience, because you have the tendency to just work, work,
work. You are trained all the time, you have to do your experiments,
and you know what’s behind it. You want to do a good job.
Several astronauts said if you’re not careful you come back
and you think, “Oh, yeah, I was in space,” but you didn’t
experience it because you were working all the time. So it’s
important that time is built in for the astronauts, important for
the experiments themselves. If people get overworked they start
to make mistakes. The astronauts need to take time to cool down
and relax and be social with colleagues, to experience where you
are, and of course to look out the window -- because if you’re
not careful you’re on the last day and think, "Ah --
I didn’t look out the window yet." For me, it will be
a success if I made one orbit and if I saw the Earth from the window,
and then the work.
You start your flight in the Soyuz with Gennady Padalka
and Mike Fincke, but you come home with Sasha Kaleri and Mike Foale.
Based on all the training that you’ve done, tell us about
what happens inside a Soyuz on the trip back to Earth and what the
Flight Engineer does.
I was a backup for Pedro Duque, the Spanish astronaut. His commander
was Kaleri going up, so I already trained with Kaleri, also for
landing. That was very useful, so I know already how we interact
and that went very well. The return is a very interesting part of
the flight because everything goes fast and it has to be prepared
-- you can, halfway out of the atmosphere you cannot do much anymore
so you have to be prepared and have everything ready. At a certain
time you have to start, because you want to land in the right area.
You get your spacesuits on. You have to pay attention to the undocking
-- you don’t want to leak in the Station or in the Soyuz,
so there are very strict, pressure tests. You test every part, that
there’s no leak. And then you are free of the Station. At
the right time the spacecraft is turned. You have the engines in
the direction of the flight and you brake. It has to be at a certain
time, and the engines have to work at a certain time, so you have
to check during these procedures you have to be sure the engine
works so much; so the deceleration is correct, the amount of fuel
that we’ve burned is correct. We have the right angle. If
the smaller engines take over you need to change the angle, so you
check all these parameters. Once you have the deceleration, you
get a moment that the spacecraft falls apart, in three parts. The
living area and the engine area aren't needed anymore. We have the
landing part, where the three cosmonauts, oxygen supplies and things
like that are. Then you enter the atmosphere. That is normally automatic
but you can do it by hand, so if you are, say, between 30 seconds
and 50 seconds, too late for the entry, you can do it manually.
There are a lot of backup systems on the Soyuz. Then you have the
period that you go through the atmosphere, the parachutes deploy,
but even then you have all kind of things you can still do, deploy
antennas and things like that. So it’s an interesting phase.
The ISS is a project that has aims at making advances in
engineering and science, and in relationships between different
countries, all as well as advancing the future of space exploration
itself. André, what do you think is the most valuable contribution
that can possibly come out of the International Space Station program?
I think it’s
international cooperation. What you see now with the Station is
that countries that not long ago were enemies in hot or cold wars
work together now, very visually. They built something up very positive
and they work together. It’s America, it’s Russia, Japan,
France, Germany, all kind of countries that didn’t like each
other not so long ago. I think that is a very good sign for the
planet: the world sees that this is possible -- these people are
together, the astronauts and cosmonauts of these countries work
together and do positive things. I think that’s a very interesting
signal to give to the planet, international cooperation.