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Preflight Interview: Michel Tognini

A couple of weeks prior to scheduled launch, STS-93 Mission Specialist Michel Tognini took some time out from training to answer questions about the mission.

Click on the image to hear Michel's greeting.

Click here for French version.

Michel, you were named to the crew for STS-93 in late 1997. What was your reaction when you learned that you were going to get the chance to fly on a space shuttle?

I was very happy because I had been waiting for such a long time to get this assignment. At one point, I was expecting to have a flight on Shuttle/Mir because I spoke Russian and I flew previously on Mir and Soyuz. Instead of flying to Mir, they asked me not only to fly on STS-93, but to also be in charge of the deployment of Chandra with Cady Coleman. I was very surprised and proud to have such a challenge and such responsibility.

Why did you want to become an astronaut? Is this something that goes back to when you were a boy in France, or did it come later?

When I was a boy, I wanted to be a pilot because my family was in the Air France company and they were dealing with planes and aircraft. We used to fly old planes like the Super-G Constellation. It took us like two days to fly from South America to Paris. It was a long time ago. I wanted to be a military pilot on a transport aircraft. After that, I went to the French Air Force Academy and became a fighter pilot and eventually a test pilot. I was very happy with my job. Back in 1985 in Europe, we had a space program called HERMES, which is like a space shuttle but only big enough for three astronauts. I decided to go to this program to be a test pilot. In order to do that, I had to fly in space to get experience. Flying and testing spacecraft has driven my career.

It was after you became a pilot that you first became interested in flying in space. What is it that caused the change? What turned your attention toward this new challenge of flying in space?

When I applied in 1985, the selection process was oriented more towards piloting. They needed pilots, and I knew that I had better chances to apply to be an astronaut at that time. If the HERMES program had not been going on at that time, they would not have paid any attention to the pilots that applied. That is the reason why I applied. I wanted to be sure. I did not want to apply for nothing. The only reason I applied is because HERMES was there.

Were there any influences in your early life like teachers in school or certain subjects that you studied made you want to pursue this career?

No. I was always playing with mathematics and physics. It was surprising to a lot of people. They would tell me that I worked too much and I would say "I'm not working, I'm playing." My teachers were good influences too. I had excellent mathematics teachers in school and they helped throughout my studies to be an engineer and pilot. I use mathematics even today to study Chandra and prepare my flight.

Do you recall particular teachers that invested in you the idea that the study of mathematics was important?

They didn't necessarily emphasize that the study of mathematics was important, but they taught the topics very well. If you have a teacher with a very good sense of communication, you can pay attention all day long. You don't pay too much attention to the weaker teachers. My math teacher when I was ten was the best teacher I had.

What can you tell us about that teacher?

His name was Mr. Petit, and he's still living in the same town he taught me in. He knows that I liked him a lot and he knows that I did very well after I left that school because he gave me good start.

Were there other people in your life then at the time that you looked up to?

People like Gagarin and John Glenn were my heroes, and I wanted to follow their examples, but it was difficult to do that living in France because there are not as many opportunities to fly in space. I also had heroes that were test pilots from Dassault Company and people who flew Mirage.

STS-93 is your first shuttle flight, but it is not your first trip to space. Tell me about your two-week mission to the space station Mir back in 1992. What did you do while you were on board the station?

I was working mostly like a Payload Specialist. We took ten French experiments that had to do with medicine, technology, and physics. During my flight on Mir, I was taking care of the experiments. For the medical experiment, we made some measurements on two people, one Russian, and one French, which happened to be me. It was a very exciting experience. As soon as I landed, I was ready to fly again.

As much fun as you had while you were there, I understand the conclusion of that flight had a little of its own excitement. Can you tell me about the Soyuz landing with cosmonauts Viktorenko and Kaleri?

We had a hard landing, which is normal when you land in a capsule like Soyuz hanging below a parachute and landing on a hard surface. We landed during summer and the ground was very hard. We had a little bit of wind and we landed hard, but nobody was hurt. After we landed, the capsule started to turn around. Everything became very unorganized because we did not pack it up very well. The craft ended up on its side. I was on the highest part, Viktorenko was in the middle, and Kaleri was on the bottom. We had some trouble getting Kaleri out of the capsule. It took close to forty-five minutes. I hope landing on the shuttle is easier.

You've trained in the Russian space program and also at the Johnson Space Center. You are one of the very few people who are familiar with the training systems in both countries. What are the big differences in preparing astronauts and cosmonauts for spaceflight here as compared to the way they do it in Star City?

There are many differences, but the main difference is that in Russia, we train twice as long. There is lot of training, but it is mostly in a classroom with a teacher explaining. There are a lot of tests that you have to take. Before you fly, you have to go through anywhere from fifty to seventy different exams. If you don't go through them all, you can't fly. The last simulation you do is also an exam. You get either a good mark or a bad mark. If you get a bad mark, you have to do your exam again. It's very much like a school program. Russian training is more skill oriented and American training is more task oriented. That is due to the fact that the flights are very short in America, and the astronauts need to be ready to do a task very quickly and correctly in a short amount of time. Russian flights usually last around six months. Although the cosmonauts are not prepared to do a particular task, they posses the skills to fulfill a task from instructions given to them while on the mission.

Do you think that having both of those types of training will be useful in going to the International Space Station?

I think the International Space Station will be a very good opportunity to combine the two kinds of training and ways of thinking. Both types complement each other very well and it's good to have a complete understanding of each aspect.

The assembly of the International Space Station is already underway and there will be many space missions delivering pieces of the station, as well as crews. How will the French Space Agency be participating in the assembly missions and the long-duration expeditions?

The European Space Agency will be launching a European module called Columbus. We mainly use it to conduct experiments for the European scientists. NASA formed the ESA, so Columbus can also be used to do assembly missions if needed. We are also designing a Crew Transfer Vehicle or Crew Return Vehicle which could be launched by Ariane. This will keep us from being dependent on the Russians for Soyuz or on the shuttle to take people into space.

On your first shuttle mission, STS-93, you have a Commander who has been the focus of a great deal of public attention as the first woman ever to command a space shuttle mission. How has Eileen Collins been doing dealing with the attention she is getting while trying to keep you and your crewmates on track to be ready to do your job?

Eileen Collins is a very nice person and has excellent human qualities. She has a great heart and a very nice way of communicating with people. She could ask a crewmember to do anything and we wouldn't waste any time doing it. It was like a relationship with a friend. You would do anything for a friend. Our relationship with Eileen was very much like that. We had a long training and we were upset that the flight was delayed so many times, but Eileen handled the situation very well. It's hard to train for a flight that is delayed as often as ours has been. She's a great person.

You're going to be part of history as a member of this crew. What do you think is the historical significance of having a woman as commander of a space mission for the very first time?

Eileen will be the first woman Commander, and you have to think that ten or fifteen years ago we had the first woman commander of a commercial flight between two cities. That woman was responsible for almost 250 lives while Eileen is only responsible for 5. I remember when I started to fly in the Air Force in 1968, we would ask the superiors "Do you think that there could be women pilots one day?" They said "That will never happen because women aren't as responsible and as strong as men are." Just recently I saw in the French Air Force newspaper that we have the first female French fighter pilot, even though we said thirty years ago that it would never happen. Never say never. Women are also very hard workers and we get along well with them. A woman must be very strong to put all of her time into her work and not be able to spend as much time with her family.

The launch date on this mission has been postponed a few times. How have you and the rest of the crew been able to put the extra training time to use?

We really concentrated on the orbital training on the IUS and AXAF for the deploy. We did more training on ascent and entry, and we did more training on the EVA at the NBL to prepare for contingencies. On the simulator we went over about 90-95% of all the malfunctions that have happened throughout the history of the IUS. Therefore we are much more prepared than we would have been had the mission been on time.

The most recent postponement of the launch date was due to the failure of an Inertial Upper Stage rocket during an unrelated satellite deployment in April. You are using an IUS to deploy the primary payload on this mission. What was the cause of the problem with the April satellite launch, and why are you so confident that the IUS on your mission is going to work properly?

We know that the [problem] on the IUS in April was that the two stages did not separate. The people from Boeing have been working on trying to figure out what the cause of the failure was and why it happened. They think that it [was] due to a bad connection in one part of the IUS. Therefore, they fixed this problem on our IUS, and last week we went to KSC and conducted tests on IUS/Chandra from one end to the other and everything was OK. The final test of the payload is also OK. We are sure that we will fly in July. We think we're lucky that this failure occurred before our flight, because if that had occurred during our flight, we would have lost Chandra. We are sure that the IUS will work properly and that Chandra will reach its orbit.

The deployment of the Chandra X-ray Observatory is the primary objective of this mission. The telescope is described as "a highly sensitive x-ray telescope, which offers scientists a greater understanding of the forces that created the universe and continue to shape it." Give us an idea of what an x-ray telescope is. What are astronomers hoping to learn by observing x-rays?

By observing x-rays, we will be able to look at a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We will get information from stars, black holes, quasars, and other bodies of matter in space. The problem we have with x-rays is that they can't be observed from the ground because Earth's atmosphere absorbs them. An observatory outside of the atmosphere is needed in order to observe them. With Chandra in orbit, three parts of the spectrum will be visible to us. In two or three more years, the fourth and final part of the spectrum, infrared rays, will be visible to us and we will have an even better knowledge of what is coming from space.

How is Chandra designed to gather and record information from x-rays and then get that data back to the researchers on the ground?

The telescope is like a long cylinder with a door at one end. The x-rays will enter through that door and bounce on the mirror inside the telescope up to the scientific part where the information is recorded. Once they are recorded, they are sent to OCC in Massachusetts and are analyzed by the scientists on the ground. They will target different planets and parts of the sky regularly for the duration of Chandra's life.

The space shuttle is only going up to about two hundred miles. At that point, you're going to launch Chandra toward an ultimate orbital altitude that ranges from a low point of 6,000 miles to a high point of 87,000 miles. Why does this telescope need to be in that kind of an elliptical orbit?

You want to get the x-rays with the best quality and no distortion or pollution from the Earth. Therefore, the farther it is from the Earth, the better the quality you will get. Also, the distance will allow Chandra to focus on one object for about 48 hours.

In order to get Chandra to that orbit it will be launched out of Columbia's payload bay using an Inertial Upper Stage rocket. The preparations will begin very shortly after you and your crewmates reach orbit on launch day. Talk us through the events leading up to the deployment.

My job will be to open the payload bay doors. Once they are open, we have to power-up AXAF and Chandra. We start a checklist of Chandra no longer than twenty minutes after the payload bay door is opened. After that, we have no more than seven hours and twenty minutes to do all of the different checklists, to raise the IUS and Chandra to 58 degrees, and to deploy them.

What is it going to look like when this immense telescope and its rocket leave the fifty-foot long payload bay?

From the images we've seen on the simulator, it is going to be very big and very close to the orbiter. We have to make sure that the separation runs smoothly. After that, we need to turn the belly of the orbiter towards IUS and Chandra to be in a safe protection attitude at the time of the burn of the first stage of IUS.

Once it floats out of the payload bay, it's going to light its own rocket to get to its high orbit, right?

It will be pushed out of the orbiter by a set of springs, so that separation should be very slow and smooth. After about forty-five [minutes], there will be a burn of [the] IUS. Unfortunately, we will not see the burn because we need to [protect] Columbia by facing its belly toward the IUS and Chandra.

How long will it be before the telescope reaches the orbit it's aiming for?

Everything should be in orbit within two or three days.

I'm sure that you've practiced for when things don't go according to plan. Tell us about some of the failure scenarios in the deployment of Chandra. How have you and your crewmates trained to respond?

If everything is nominal, and we hope it will be, the deployment should be very easy. There aren't a lot of actions that need to be done, we just need to be in control. There is a possibility that Chandra's communications system could have problems. The electrical system could malfunction, in which case we would have to do a spacewalk to bypass the trouble area. We could have a mechanical problem where the tilt table doesn't raise to the level it is supposed to. We have a secondary part that we will use if the primary doesn't work. If neither work, then we will crank it up manually. We could also have safety problems. We also practiced an emergency deploy scenario. We are confident that we can handle any given situation.

You and Cady Coleman are the ones who would do the spacewalks to make any repairs, right?

We did one run at the NBL every month. We went through all of the different tasks that may have to be done in case anything goes wrong and repeated doing them many times until we had it precise.

What might some of those spacewalk tasks be?

If there is an electrical problem on IUS, we have three cables that we would use to bypass any of the malfunctioning electrical boxes that are on the back of IUS. If we know that one of the boxes is not working correctly, then we need to do a spacewalk to fix it. That is a very simple EVA task. If we are unable to raise the tilt table to the right angle by the primary side or by the secondary side, we will need to go outside and manually raise the tilt table to the right angle.

Chandra is the third of four telescopes envisioned in NASA's Great Observatories Program. How will Chandra's observations complement the observations and research that have been already done by the other Great Observatories?

We can say that Chandra will see what was invisible for Hubble and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Every star has a very high temperature that emits x-rays. All of these x-rays will be collected by AXAF. Some places, like black holes, are not visible by Hubble or by Gamma. We think that there is a black hole at a certain spot because we see that there is an orbitography in that area, and we want to have a signature of what's going on there. X-rays might be the solution to getting information on black holes and other places that we don't know.

There is another telescope that is flying on your mission and will be used throughout the mission. It is called the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System, known as SWUIS. What is an ultraviolet telescope and what kind of observations do you plan to make with this instrument during your mission?

SWUIS is a small telescope that will be mounted in the middeck against the hatch window. It's a very small window, but it's the only window that has no protection from ultraviolet rays. We will point the telescope out of that window and send the information we get to the ground. SWUIS will be used to gain a better knowledge of what the surface of some of the planets looks like, and to see if we can find what we call Vulcanoids. We will be able to get images from parts of the sky that are close to the sun. No other telescope is able to do that. We expect to get some good results with SWUIS.

There is another experiment flying on the mission, known by the acronym GOSAMR. It involves advanced ceramic materials and something that we've seen fly on previous shuttle missions known as aerogel. Give us a little lesson on what the goals of this experiment are, and what will occur on orbit.

This experiment is relatively simple. It's a kind of a box with a switch that [is] to be turned on and off within twenty seconds once during the flight. Below the box is a syringe that contains a mixture of the two components needed to make the gel. This gel has been made on the ground already and has flown in space. It is excellent to use for insulation. It's extremely light and is mostly empty space. We want to have this product made in space in order to learn how to reproduce this product on the ground with better results.

Your mission will be carrying quite a few other experiments in a number of different disciplines. Tell me about one or two of the other payloads that are going along on the flight.

We are going to study a hinge, which is a memory shape alloy. This experiment could be used as a support for the solar panels of the next satellites. We have a French experiment on board that we want to bring back from space at the end of the flight. It is called ICMS. It's a doppler that you wear during re-entry under your spacesuit. It measures in real time how your blood flows down from your head to your legs when you go from zero gravity status to one-g status. This experiment will show us exactly what kind of adjustments we need to perform on the anti-gravity suits to have the right amount of pressure in our legs. It's also a neat experiment.

When you talk to people outside of NASA who don't have any particular knowledge about what's going to be done on STS-93, how do you explain the role this flight plays in the future of space exploration?

This flight goes like any other flight. To strive to learn how we can perform a flight better, how we can effectively train the people on the ground, and how to build good spacecraft and satellites. Even with the year 2000 approaching, it is still challenging to build a spacecraft, a space engine, or a space telescope. All of the engineers and scientists on the ground are learning to work with this technology. After Chandra and the IUS have been deployed, we will collect all of the data in order to learn more and do more in the future.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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