Q: This is the STS-116 crew interview with Mission Specialist Christer Fuglesang. One of the obvious questions, I guess, that you may get a lot is: When did you decide to embark on this journey of becoming an astronaut, and why?
Image to right: Astronaut Christer Fuglesang, mission specialist representing the European Space Agency. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Christer Fuglesang
A: I can put this exact date when I decided to at least try to become an astronaut. That was in the summer of 1990 when ESA showed a national agency, in my case the Swedish Space, National Space Board, they were announcing that they were looking for astronauts. It was kind of like a classified ad in the newspaper. A friend of mine found it and he told me, “Hey, I’ve found a new job for you.” And I thought he was joking. I was just a researcher at the research lab CERN in Geneva at that time. But I’d always kind of had in my back of the mind I would like to go to space if I ever get a chance. I didn’t really have a clear picture of becoming an astronaut, but I wanted to go to space if I could. So I made a pretty quick decision, “Ja, of course I’m going to apply.” And that was then in the summer of 1990.
What does it mean to you on a personal level to become the first Swedish astronaut to go to space?
Of course, it’s fun to be the first. I think and I hope that it will kind of mean a lot to Sweden, and that they will see the joy with space, the adventure, the future of space, raise interest of space. Not only space but raise interest by young people to study for engineering, technical sciences, science in general. So being a part, if I can help doing that I’m very happy. It’s not primarily that kind of being the first Swede, I mean, it’s primarily that I get a chance to go to space, and that’s all I really think is great.
Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of the academic and professional path that you took to become an astronaut?
I went through high school which we can gymnasium in Sweden studying the kind of direction there on natural sciences. And then I went to a Royal Institute of Technology, KTH in Swedish. There I studied engineering, physics. During the time there, that was a four-year study, I became more and more interested in physics, or in more basic physics, fundamental physics. So at the end I decide I wanted to continue for a Ph.D., and by the way also because I also loved the life as a student, so I could continue that! So I eventually got a Ph.D. in particle physics. And then I got a fellowship, a kind of post-doc at the CERN Research Lab out of Geneva. That’s where I was when I saw that ESA looked for astronauts.
And professionally, one of the big events that I read about was your involvement with Euromir 95. Tell us about that. What was that like?
That was quite an experience. When I applied to become an astronaut for ESA, there was just thought that, “Yeah, you go to NASA eventually. It may be you stay in Europe first, then go to NASA.” There was not a word about Russia. And then, I got selected; and one of the first things they said was, “Hey, be prepared to go to Russia in a year.” I was not so popular in my family at that time. But eventually that was really an experience which I really value. We went there in ’93 to start training, with a launch in September of ’95. The toughest part was to learn the Russian language. At that time, we didn’t have any interpreters. There was no material in English. We really had to do everything in Russian. When people ask me, “What is the hardest you, kind of, pre-NASA?” Well, to learn Russian, that was the hardest ever for me! And then, I worked in the control center at TsUP during the whole half-year mission when Thomas was in space. And I was also very excited to kind of follow a mission as close as you can. I was one of the two guys, kind of Capcom as we say here at NASA, talking to Thomas in space and kind of directing him through in the ESA’s program for him up there.
You mentioned Thomas Reiter. He was, of course, one of the crew members on that mission in space. Probably you’ve thought about what it’s going to be like to finally spend some time in space with him. What’s that going to be like, you think?
That will be very exciting. We never thought that we ever would fly together in space. I was the backup, he was the prime; so there would be other times when I would fly and he would not fly. I guess it will be like suddenly meeting an old friend on some foreign island somewhere, you know, being together. It will be really great to see Thomas up there. I’m looking forward to that very much.
I read that you are one of the few non-Russians to be qualified as a Soyuz return commander. What exactly is that? Tell us a little about why you decided to even go and get qualification for that.
The Soyuz is, and will probably continue to be, the rescue vehicle on the space station. So they need people who can take this one down to the ground. Normally you will have a Russian who does that. But, of course there’s always the risk that the prime commander is incapacitated somehow. So you also need a backup guy. To kind of prepare some of the European astronauts to be ready to go to space station, ESA came up with this idea that, “Yeah, let’s train some more guys, to get this capability and capacity.” This was actually started before I came here. It was after Euromir 95 had finished, and thought it would be some continuation on that program. And then started that training waiting for what hopefully would be another flight with the Russians over there. But that didn’t happen. It was certainly very valuable knowledge, you know, in spacecraft and things that operate, that’s kind of general skills which is good for every flight later.
There are some key activities on the horizon for ESA related to the ISS, the Jules Verne automatic transfer vehicle flight and delivery of the Columbus module. A lot of things are really happening for ESA. What kind of impact will these activities have on ESA’s presence in human spaceflight?
I think it will allow a big impact. First of all, finally we get the fruits of all the work which has been done for many, many years—you know, planned Columbus and ATV, and planning all these experiments—and finally we get to use it. Now, it will also raise the interest and the awareness in all of Europe of what’s going on in space. ESA does a lot of things like communication satellites or scientific satellites to other planets. But it’s often human involved that is going to generate more interest. So now when we will have several astronauts going in the next couple of years, as you said, they will be working in Columbus. That will be seen more in Europe, and I hope this will create the interest and the base for us for future programs. It’s time now to think of what we’re going to do after the space station. We’re finally going to complete the building of our parts of the space station. Of course, we’re going to use it for 10, 15 years at least. But like NASA here, you’re already have started your plans for the moon and eventually Mars. I think, hopefully, our real moment now that starts on ISS will kind of create interest for, “Okay, yeah, we need to kind of go further also.” We can have some focus, some plans, our plans, for how to contribute to the moon program.
Tell us a little bit about how you found out you had been selected to make your first spaceflight, and what your reaction was.
I was called by my boss in Europe at that time. He had heard it from the NASA astronaut chief here, Charlie Precourt at that time. This was actually in February 2002, so some time ago. Of course, I was very glad. It wasn’t a complete surprise. I knew I was apt to be assigned. I’d been left in our class actually. So it was not a surprise; but still, it was a great kind of relief actually to know finally, “Okay, now I have my flight,” and which flight it is. And I was very happy for it being this flight, 12A.1, 116, because it’s a very challenging flight. It’s nice to be involved in something challenging.
Tell me a little bit about your hometown and what it was like to grow up there.
Stockholm is definitely my hometown. I like it very much. I enjoyed growing up there, how it was. I played a lot, the good friends. I also studied at the university in Stockholm and that was also a lot of fun. It’s a pretty city. I can recommend people to come to Stockholm to visit.
What’s so fun about it?
It’s a city on the water, sometimes called the Venice of the North. There are a lot of islands. Some of us did a lot of sailing there. In the wintertime you have snow; you can go skiing. You can even do ice skating on a lake there. It’s kind of in between big and small, with the suburbs around one million inhabitants -- not too big but you have everything you want to do there.
What was your favorite sport or hobby that you really got into when you were growing up, and what did you really like about it?
I liked sports, many things. Some I played more were soccer, what we call football, and sailing. I did a lot of Frisbee actually. Maybe the only sport I was somewhat seriously involved in. I was also involved in getting to organize it as a sport in Sweden. And I also played chess. That was kind of another activity.
We were talking earlier about the image behind you. That’s a beautiful Earth view. You’re going to be making your first spacewalk in addition to making your first spaceflight. Just seeing that and thinking about seeing that with your own eyes up there, what’s that like for you?
I’m sure it will probably be fantastic. I can’t predict how I will react. But everyone that’s done it says it’s just completely mind-boggling. You’re in the spaceship and you look out and it’s great view. But really, going out, you cannot be more in space than doing a spacewalk. It’s only you and space. Okay, you have your spacesuit, which is like a mini-spaceship by itself. But the view is not limited at all.
Let’s talk a little bit about the mission now. If you would give us a summary of the key goals of 12A.1 and describe what your primary responsibility is as a mission specialist.
Image to left: Mission Specialist Christer Fuglesang participates in an underwater simulation of extravehicular activity scheduled for the STS-116 shuttle mission to the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA
The primary goal is to deliver the P5 truss segment to the space station and mount it there, and do the electrical power reconfiguration for the temporary system to the final. We also have a crew exchange. We’re bringing up Suni Williams and we’re bringing back Thomas Reiter, who’s been up there since July. These are really the big goals. My main responsibility is actually as a EV 2, that is to say that one of the EVA crew members. I’ll be doing the EVA-1 and then EVA-2 together with EV 1 Curbeam. I also am partly responsible for the computers on board. And at the very end of the mission we have another payload with us called STP-H2, which is DoD. Actually it’s three satellite experiments. Some small satellites which will be shot off the space shuttle. I’m kind of responsible for those. And there's one more big job. I’m responsible for how we reconfigure the shuttle, from rocket going up to a flying orbiter. That’s a lot of work to take down the seats and getting everything out and taking off our spacesuits, get into more comfortable clothing and organizing the whole ship kind of from start to the living quarters. And then undo it again just before landing. That’s another thing which I’m responsible for.
That sounds like a lot of work.
It’s a lot of work.
Explain briefly why the ISS’s electrical power system is going to be reconfigured. What’s the goal behind that?
It’s kind of [an] interesting history. I guess you need to know a little bit there. When it was decided to combine the next Russian space station with the next International Space Station, they figured out the way to kind of get people there quickly. That was to take the solar arrays, which were supposed to come up much later, and put them there quickly in a temporary position, on the top of the space station. That’s where they’ve been since. Now the flight before us, 115, or 12A, they brought up the next set of solar arrays and put them where they should be on this huge truss. It’s 100 meters, I guess, 300 feet wide. But it’s still not giving power to the station. So we will actually physically unplug a lot of the cables and reconnect them such that the power can now come from these new solar arrays. Just to do that, you have to turn off the power to unplug these things and plug them again. And you cannot turn off the whole power to the station at once, so you do it twice, half and half. It’s really a unique thing. Every flight is unique in some sense, but this flight is definitely unique because it’s only once that we’re going to power down the station and reconnect the power system.
Powering down of significant portions of the station, there’s a lot of risk involved in that. What kind of measures have been taken to mitigate those risks?
First of all, you just power down half at a time. And every critical element on the station has a backup. In particular the station is controlled by a lot of computers and every computer has kind of a prime and a backup. So you can turn off one, but you still have the other one. That’s rare that for a while you have an increased risk, because you don’t have a one-fault tolerance, as you say -- a critical element goes down, another one can take over. Some pieces will kind of change that they will still initially use another power source so they can keep those alive. Inside the station, we will actually put in a few cables to kind of get from a port which still has power and put it over to another place that we can keep some things alive. Now, there’s another risk, and that is that when we power this up, there’s a lot of boxes there which have never been used before. Although most of them have been maybe tested briefly, there is a concern that one of them will not work as they should. I think it’s probably 10, 15 boxes total, or 12. And to mitigate that risk, we have spare parts there on the outside of the station. It might be even that during the EVA when we do the power down, when we then power it up again, they say, “Oops! This one doesn’t work.” And they will redo the time during the EVA to kind of change our plans, “Hey, guys, now you need to go and switch out this box.” So that’s another thing.
And those boxes, is that the power modules that you’re talking about?
This power module, the biggest ones are called MBSUs, main bus switching units. There are four of them. There’s also something called the pump module which is by itself not kind of doing any power things, but it’s pumping the cooling fluid which needs to cool down all these units. So if that doesn’t work, you cannot use any of these other boxes because they would overheat quickly. That’s a big thing to change out the pump module. But we are prepared to do it.
The primary piece of hardware on this flight is something called the P5 short spacer truss segment. And it’s relatively small. But it’s a huge part of the ISS’s truss system and what’s going to happen subsequently. Why is it so important? Why is such a relatively small piece of hardware so important?
It’s needed to kind of be able to connect the next piece. We have P4 which came up here with 12A. And then, on the outside of P4, we will put P6 which is all on the space station but it’s kind of on the top temporary position. And then, now we disconnected power from there, and it will eventually be put on the outside of P4. However, if you don’t have this P5 there in between, they cannot connect. So this is really the spacer, as you say, to put P6 there. But without it, well, we cannot put P6 in place, we cannot use that, power, in the future. So that’s the importance of P5.
Good things come in small packages.
An interesting thing with the P5 is how it’s put in place. Most of the pieces are just put in place with a robotic arm and then you drive bolts from inside. However, with P5, it will still be the arm which puts in place, but the bolts have to be driven manually. And the P4 solar arrays cannot stick out beyond the end of the main frame of P4. It’s really almost like threading a needle to get this P5 in place. Normally the robotics people have good cameras, and they can do everything inside. Well, in this case, there’s no good cameras out there, so it will be the EVA people—in this case, Beamer and me—who have to guide the robotic people so that it doesn’t hit anything. In some places the margin is only, I think it’s seven centimeters, the minimum. But there’s a box that has electrical powers; you don’t want to hit that. It will be an interesting exercise.
After you make it to orbit, you’re going to dock to the ISS and shortly thereafter start the process of getting P5 out of the payload bay and ready to be installed. Tell me about the robotics involved with that and the process of getting it out of the payload bay and into the hands of ISS.
You will need to actually both the station robotic arm and shuttle robotic arm. We have Nick Patrick who’s kind of from the shuttle arm guy. He’s going to operate it with help from Mark Polansky. He grabs P5 and slowly pulls it out of the payload bay. And then, he presents it to the station arm which is operated by Joanie Higginbotham and Suni Williams. They move it over to an overnight position which kind of waits for the next day when we do the EVA and we’re ready to help them guide it and bolt it into place.
Having handed off P5 that day, you’ll be ready to prepare for EVA-1 the next day. What kind of preparations are in store for you for EVA-1?
We will have a busy time after the docking. We have our spacesuits and a lot of the tools and things which we need for EVA-1 on the shuttle. We have, I think, five hours to get all these things into the airlock on the space station. Then eventually we’re going to sleep in the airlock, that’s Beamer and I, the EVA guys. We will sleep closed off at the lower pressure. The reason is that we want to prepare the bodies for going down to very low pressure during EVA. The EVA suit has just 4.3 psi, that’s kind of low pressure, I think it’s 10,000 meters or something like that, breathing pure oxygen, though. There’s something called the decompression sickness which sometimes happens when you’re diving and you come up too quickly. To prevent this you need to try to get the nitrogen out of the body. The first part is we spend a whole night at this lower pressure in the airlock. And that’s 10.1 psi, I think, which is probably 3,000 meters or something like that. And we will then be closed off. So I mean, once we’re in there, we’re kind of preparing the spacesuits. We are preparing the tools. And a lot of them are stored in the airlock. But on one of the previous flights, they found that it was hard work to find everything. “You have a list. You need this,” but kind of exactly where they are you don’t always know.
Talk briefly, if you would, about the key goals for EVA-1.
EVA-1 has two prime goals. One is to get P5 in place. It’s kind of moved into place by a robotic arm, but the two EVA people need to watch it and guide it and make sure it doesn’t hit anything. We have just a few centimeters margin in some places. Then we drive the bolts manually with the special tool we have, PGT. Then there’s some cabling work to do down there. There’s also the kind of a structure with which the robotic arm can hold onto P5. That one has to come off and be another put in another place. Otherwise it will be blocking solar arrays when they rotate. All this, the P5, is the first goal. The second goal is to repair a camera, which is on other side of the truss. The camera doesn’t work very well. And we will change it out.
On flight day 5, even though there’s no EVA that day, there’s a pretty important activity that’s going to happen: retraction of one side of the P6 solar array. Tell me about how that’s going to happen and the crew’s involvement with that.
This is a big goal of the flight, to change the power system config. Over four days, all this activity is falling in place. From a ground control point of view, this is probably more a nightmare than for us as a crew. It’s the toughest, I think, of any flight from the ground point control of view. The first thing is that one of the solar arrays of the two solar arrays which has been there for a long time on P6 has to be retracted. And the reason it [is] to be retracted is so the two new ones can start to rotate fully. Ground control will first do some power reconfiguration so that the power which used to come from the one we’re retracting will come from somewhere else. They will do most of the commanding. We, the crew, watch that it goes well. Those solar arrays have been there since 2000, I think; six years. People are definitely concerned that they will not fold up properly. And you want to know as soon as possible if something goes wrong so you can stop it. So we will be several of many pairs of eyes watching these very carefully and being ready to hit the button to stop the retract if it doesn’t look good.
Okay. And what is the plan if that side of the solar array doesn’t retract nominally?
If they cannot fix it by ground commands or commands we could give from inside the station, the next step is that during an EVA we will try to do something. There are several possibilities, depending on the problem. We retract it manually outside. This actually with this same tool we use to drive bolts. It’s one bolt, and it needs to be driven for about 30 minutes. You can actually drive it by going up to the solar array and drive this bolt. If we really can’t do anything else, there’s the possibility you can jettison the whole solar array. That’ll definitely be the last step, and I don’t know when the ground is willing to take that decision. But that could be done. We are preparing for all these eventualities.
Tell us about the key goals of EVA-2.
The first goal is to do the first half of the power reconfiguration we talked about. The second goal is to move what’s called CETA cars. On this huge truss, there’s first kind of a wagon, on which this you can put the robotic arm. This goes on rails. There’s also two small carts, manually driven. You couple them to this cart which is electrically driven from inside. Now, these two carts, unfortunately, they are sometimes not where you want them. So right now when we come out they're on the starboard side of this big wagon. But later they have to be on the other side for a flight, two flights later. Otherwise, the big wagon cannot go where it needs to go. We will also need at least, one of them on the other side, the portside, for possible contingencies during this power reconfiguration. We'll need it as a tool if we need to change out some of these boxes I mentioned earlier. So the second goal is to move these carts. Another goal is to put on a thermal cover around two places on the robotic arm, the station arm. Finally we will put some tool boxes outside, tool boxes with the tools for “Q.D.” operation. Q.D. – quick disconnect, that’s kind of the plumbing connections.
And, just so we can get a sense of the timeline and some of the steps that are going to happen during the EVA, walk us through what you’re going to do during that EVA, again hitting on the key points.
Image to right: STS-116 Mission Specialist Christer Fuglesang participates in a fixed-base
shuttle mission simulator training session in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston.
Image credit: NASA
We exit the airlock and set things up there getting ready; that’s about 15 minutes, and head off. I go to one place and Beamer goes to another place. There we can work, in parallel, changing connectors. That takes about an hour. I think it takes me maybe an hour. Beamer has more to do, so it may be an hour and a half. When I’m done with my connectors, I go back and then come up on the truss and walk over to where these CETA carts are. That’s kind of out on the starboard side of the truss. And there I will start prepare for these, this CETA cart motion. I’ll put a foot restraint on the arm, such that I will actually be in the arm, just connected to it by my feet. And then, I will hold the CETA cart in my arms. So I get this ready. And, typically, when I’m ready with all the setup, Beamer has done his job and he comes over. He will undo the clamps which hold the CETA cart to the rail. Then I’ll take it and, from inside the station, Joanie and Suni, they will fly the arm over to the other side of the wagon I talked about. Then we’ll repeat that with the other one. And, by the way, that’ll be a great view, particularly when they fly me back to get the other one because I don’t hold this thing in front of me. I’ll be out there and have a great view and everything. That’s another maybe three hours down, three, four hours; it’s hard to tell. But something like that when we’ve done all this carts thing. And then we put on these thermal covers. And that’s not a lot of work; that takes maybe another half hour with all the preparation and stuff. Then Beamer has some few more connectors to do, and I probably will go and start putting these bags with tools on the outside of the airlock. So that’s not much to do. Then we go back inside if no additional tasks come up. There are often what they call “get-aheads” during EVAs. The ground has got a long list of things. “Well, if these guys are fast, we can have them do this and that,” and it’s expensive, it’s complicated to prepare an EVA. It takes time, so you better use all the time you can. And the resources are of this for six and a half hours, so, you know, you try to do good work for six and a half hours on these.
Have you had a chance during the NBL runs to gauge how difficult these connections are to unplug and plug with the pressurized gloves on?
The electrical connectors we have in the pool are very low fidelity. But we have high-fidelity connectors, real ones, which we can try. I don’t think I’ve ever tried a high-fidelity with a glove, under pressure. I have just to do kind of un-pressurized glove. You try to do as much as you can, of course, as realistically as you can, but often you can just do pieces here and there. The whole thing only comes together once you really do it in space.
You mentioned the payloads after undocking. What are those about again? When are those going to be deployed?
It’s a set of three experiments. The whole thing is called STP-H2; I must learn to remember what that stands for. But the three experiments are called ANDE, MEPSI and the RAFT. The biggest one is called ANDE, and it’s two spherical satellites about this size. They are going to get shot out of something that looks like a cannon at the aft end of the payload bay. This is the most critical when it comes to temperature and stuff. So that will be done not undocking day but the day after undocking. The goal for this experiment is to get better characteristics of the very high-altitude atmosphere. Even up there in space, we are around four, three, four hundred kilometers altitude, there’s still at least atoms, the molecules around. This experiment will kind of determine how much and what kind of them, down to 100 kilometers. The real experiment will be done later. Ours is more a test of the kind of catapult mechanism in this cannon-like thing. The other two, MEPSI and RAFT, they are what they call pico-satellites because they’re so small. They are also pair of satellites in a cube kind of this size, I think, just around two kilograms each. And MEPSI is a demonstration of how a very, very small satellite could actually kind of be used to check out the big satellite, a small link to kind of fly around the big one and check it. These two, one of them has many, many, engines, propulsion systems that run on gas. You push out and they have cameras. One will fly around the other one and send pictures down to the ground. RAFT is a student experiment from the Navajo Academy, I think, to check the radar defense system, how well you can observe small objects in space. These two will be shot away; that’s controlled from the inside, with some buttons you have to push. It's important we have this shot in the right attitude, facing the right direction; that’s the experiment for this one. And then we need to have cameras and video ready because they actually want to have video shots of it.