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Crew Interviews
IMAGE: Flight Engineer Andre Kuipers
Click on the image to hear Flight Engineer and ESA Astronaut André Kuipers' greeting (172 Kb). Also, listen to Kuipers' greeting in Dutch (225 Kb).
Preflight Interview: André Kuipers

The International Space Station Expedition 9 crew interview with Flight Engineer André Kuipers.

Q: 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?

Well, first 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?

Knowledge. 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 an astronaut?

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?

Well, the 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.

What 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.

Well, that 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?

Well, it’s 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?

That’s 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, of course.

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.

Before the 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.

Yes, luckily 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 and preparation?

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.

Well, the 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.

Absolutely. 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.

Yes. That’s 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.

I’m 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.

Well, luckily 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.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 03/22/2004
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