NASA astronaut Mike Fossum shared stories about his two space shuttle missions and five months aboard the International Space Station with Dryden employees. (NASA Photo / Tony Landis) › View Larger Image
NASA's Mike Fossum spoke to Dryden employees Feb. 21 about his experiences as a NASA astronaut and life aboard the International Space Station. His most recent missions were as a crewmember of Expedition 28 and as commander of Expedition 29.
Fossum attended the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base about three decades ago and after graduation remained at Edwards for eight years. He worked at the Air Force Flight Test Center with an F-16 squadron and then as a Flight Test Manager for Detachment 3. NASA selected him as an astronaut candidate in 1998.
"Coming back here is like coming home. There are a lot of old friends here, some that go way back," he said.
Dryden Deputy Director Pat Stoliker introduced Fossum. Stoliker worked with Fossum on a project for the F-16 before either man joined NASA. Fossum later was a flight test engineer on the X-38. The X-38 was a prototype for a crew return vehicle developed at Johnson Space Center, Houston, and flight tested at Dryden. Stoliker chaired the flight readiness review team for that flight test.
Fossum flew on two Discovery missions including STS-121, which was the return-to-flight mission following the Columbia tragedy, and STS-124. The missions focused on completing the ISS and concluded with landings at Edwards. The completed station, which he assisted with building during his shuttle missions, is big, he said adding, "and the space station has about one and a half times the volume of the NASA 747."
After flying aboard space shuttles on his first two missions in space, Fossum traveled to the ISS for the Expedition 28 and Expedition 29 missions in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft - not something he expected growing up.
"I was a Cold Warrior in a city that was not even on the maps when I became an astronaut. They (the Russians) have different technology, a different way of doing business, but the same passion," he said.
Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa launched to the ISS on June 7, 2011, from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The trio arrived at the station on June 9. NASA and its international partners celebrated the 11th anniversary of continuous residence and work aboard the station during that mission. Expedition 28 Commander Andrey Borisenko handed over station command duties to Fossum on Sept. 14, 2011.
Training for travel in the Soyuz and working on the ISS was intense and included about eight months of training in Russia, Japan and Canada to learn all the intricacies of working on the space station for a six-month mission.
Tutors, textbooks and other language products are used to help the astronauts learn Russian because everyone learns it differently, he said. The hardest part is the five to six week immersion in Moscow and work with tutors, he said. "The Soyuz controls are all in Russian - you have to know it," Fossum added.
Other preparation was required, such as when the Soyuz crew was fitted for flight. Fossum explained that a plaster mold would be used to create a seat pan for each occupant. From that point, the crew could not gain or lose more than a few pounds, he said. When the day came to put the training in use as he traveled in the Soyuz, his knees were near his chin 2.5 hours before liftoff. Straps over the knees also added to the tight fit.
"You orbit for four hours before you get out of the seat and even in zero gravity there is not much room to stretch your knees. It is five hours total until you are docked with the ISS," he said.
Fossum was familiar with the Soyuz and the ISS. In January 1993, Fossum, then a NASA systems engineer, evaluated the Soyuz for use as an emergency escape vehicle for the new space station. Later in 1993, Fossum was selected to represent the Flight Crew Operations Directorate in an extensive redesign of the ISS. Following those assignments, he continued assembly operations work for the crew office and Mission Operations Directorate. In addition, Fossum served as the Astronaut Office lead for ISS flight software development.
A personal mission for Fossum was to gain images of the Aurora Borealis. He knew time-lapse photography was possible, so he studied how to do it.
"I had not seen it [the Aurora Borealis] until Atlantis was docked. It looked like a green smudge on the horizon, he said. "You see these things and you do not know how to describe it. Now, I don't have to," he said of his imagery that has wowed those who have seen it.
When Atlantis made the final mission of the Space Shuttle program on STS-135, the crew delivered the food and supplies expected to last for years. It was a busy time. Fossum, already aboard the ISS, engaged in a spacewalk that gave him a career total of seven walks totaling 48 hours, 32 minutes and elevating him to seventh on the all-time list for cumulative space walks time.
"If not a little bit scared, you don't belong out there because it's a dangerous place," he said of spacewalks.
Life aboard the ISS is busy and work hours are essentially from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and bedtime at 9 p.m. Mealtime had an international flare with Russian, Japanese and American cuisine. The large number of experiments leaves little time for mundane tasks like haircuts and there is an additional list of tasks to be completed if an astronaut has any spare time, Fossum explained.
Returning to Earth in a shuttle is different than in a Soyuz capsule, he noted. The descent of Soyuz is steeper and astronauts feel more than twice the gravity in the Soyuz.
"Out the window of the Soyuz you see an orange plasma ball when you are coming in. You watch the orange glow. Incandescent sparks started behind me - it was really cool. You are then falling at 1 g, pyrotechnic devices are going off and hatches are blown for the chutes. You whip around like a ball on the end of a string," he said.
Soft landing rockets right behind the Soyuz occupants help reduce the acceleration, but landing in a Soyuz is, "Definitely like a car crash. It's like getting rear ended - your head is spinning," he said.
Mission controllers were concerned about the frigid conditions at the landing site, but it wasn't a problem for the Soyuz crew. "We rode home in a meteor, we weren't cold.
From there, it was a short chopper ride to the airport for a ceremony and a climb aboard a NASA aircraft for the ride home. "We were home in Houston 24 hours after landing at Kazakhstan," he said.
Fossum also did his part during his visit to Edwards by inspiring the next generation with a visit to students at Irving L. Branch Elementary School.