This is the STS-128 interview with Christer Fuglesang, astronaut for the European Space Agency and a mission specialist on this flight. You were born in Stockholm, Sweden…
Preflight Interview: Christer Fuglesang, Mission Specialist
That is home for you. Take us back to your early years there growing up. What were you interested in and what kind of things did you like to do?
I was interested in a lot of things. I mean, I liked to play outdoors, sports with my friends there on the same street. I also liked to play games like chess, for example, and I liked travel, I was kind of dreaming of various travels; and with my parents we did some road trips early on. I was only ten actually when we did a road trip all across America from west, east coast, west coast and back again. And also I was interested in scientific stuff, I mean, to understand things and so there was an interest in nature, in physics and mathematics.
So you actually came here to the States here when you were ten to…
Well, that was just a visit. My dad had a business trip and he managed to arranged to get the whole family with him and so we were touring the country. We went to a lot of nice places like Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Park and things like that.
Wow! So it was pretty cool then, huh?
That was cool, cool, yeah.
What was it, is there something about growing up in Stockholm that you can pinpoint that made you the person that you are, that influenced what you’ve become?
Well, sure, I mean, I think that’s true for everyone wherever you grew up, the environment you are in, the friends you have, they influence and I had very good friends who liked to play and we were democratic I think also and we had the same interest. We also became interested in sailing so I did some sailing and more and more sailing and that was my first real big trip, so to say; that was sailing. I sailed with a couple of friends with my dad’s boat across the Atlantic in 1979.
What it is it about sailing that really, that you really like?
It’s partly very relaxing to the extent that you cannot do much else and it’s a relaxing feeling just to have the wind that blows you. And not only – you do have something to work on, to do. The way you live when you – as we three guys – for a year we were traveling on this boat and that was a very relaxing way of living. Can’t do that forever, maybe (chuckle) but the way of living while you’re kind of on the boat and to go when you feel for it and then you stay in the new harbor. You discover that new place. You meet a lot of new friends traveling on other boats, very, sometimes a very social because you’re with them, other times you’re just a few on the boat going on the sea.
At what point in your life do you recall getting the notion that ‘hey, you know, it might be cool to go to space some day’?
I was always fascinated by space and I remember clearly the Apollo flights and followed that. I cannot pinpoint when I first thought to myself that I’m going to go to space but I think sometime in my, at least my mid-twenties, I started to get this idea, you know, if there is a chance to go to space I at least had to try to take it. At that time it wasn’t really, you know, ‘I’m going to become an astronaut.’ I think I rather first had the thoughts that, ‘okay, I’ll work as a scientist to design an experiment which has to be performed in space.’ And, of course, I would have to be the one to go there and do it. It was only when in 1990 a friend of mine pointed out that, ‘Hey, ESA is looking for astronauts. Maybe you want to, you know, apply for a new job.’ And I was surprised. I didn’t even know that Europe had astronauts. But then quickly decided, ‘Well, of course, I have to now try to become an astronaut. That’s what I’ve always been thinking of, if there is the chance to go to space, I have to try to get it.’
So obviously education has been a big part in your life and played a big role in your progression. Talk to us a little bit about your educational background what you, what you’ve done and where it’s led you.
So after what’s your kind of high school we call ‘gymnasium’ in Sweden, I applied for a, kind of similar, like to MIT, our Royal Institute of Technology and but I was more studying physics than engineering and I became more and more interested in physics so, once I got my Master, I decided to continue for a Ph.D. and I was in high energy physics or experimental particle physics. I got my Ph.D. in 1987 and the next year I got a kind of research grant, fellowship it’s called, at CERN. CERN is place where we had these huge accelerators where we collide particles in them and it was actually when I was there I heard about this opportunity to become an ESA astronaut. So I wasn’t doing this education to become an astronaut but, it turned out, I think, to be a good asset when I applied. Although when I first thought about I think, wow, I’ve been doing things in micro-cosmos. Here we have big universe cosmos. That’s a, I mean, (I wondered) if I’m a person they can be interested in and I asked them first before I even applied and they said, ‘Sounds like it (you’re) interesting.’ And there were actually interesting connections to understand how the universe works. It’s based on how the smallest particles interact so the scientific study we do at LHC, it’s very closely connected to the universe. For example, you have this dark matter universe with missing mass, you can measure. It must be mass but you don’t see it through light. And that’s probably very, very small particles which we hope to find in the next experiments at CERN starting this summer in something called the LHC, Large Hadron Collider. And it could be called Neutrolenos. It’s a nice connection. I might actually fly in my official flight kit, a little softy Neutroleno, to show the connection between CERN and ESA in space.
So take us from the point where you joined ESA. What did you [do] from that point until your first flight? Take us, tell us that story.
So I joined ESA in summer of 1992 and then I came to European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany, and there got basic training for one year and then I was sent to Russia, to Star City, and I trained there as the backup for a long duration flight to the Mir space station. And that flight was from September ’95 to January, February ’96. And during the mission I worked as a, I was called a Crew Interface Coordinator, was kind of an ESA Cap Com at the Mission Control Center in Moscow. And after that I joined the NASA class here in JSC in August ’96 so I’ve been here since.
Okay. And your training with, over in Russia you also trained to be a Soyuz was it a Capsule Commander or…
That’s right actually so it was a kind of gap there after the Euromir Mission and before I came here and, indeed, it was a hope that would be another mission to MIR for (inaudible) so in the meantime I started with the Soyuz return capsule commander training which I didn’t have the time to finish in ’96 but I came back after finishing mission specialist training here and spent some more months in Russia in ’98 to finish that.
You then were selected to fly on STS-116 and made that flight. Tell us, if you can pick a few things that really stand out in your mind about that flight. It was a pretty eventful flight, I know.
That was a extremely well, I mean, I don’t think we could have designed a more interesting flight because we had problems which we have resolved but the first event comes to my mind, of course, the launch. At that time I had been an astronaut for fourteen-and-a-half years and it was amazing to finally leave the Earth and get into space and all the way up and then hitting MECO and immediately in weightlessness and we were five rookies actually. We were just laughing there for a long time. Then for me highlights were on the spacewalks. I was planned to do two spacewalks, very extraordinary experience to be outside the space station, float along the side of the truss and the Earth’s floating below you. And then we got some problems with the solar array which didn’t want to retract properly which eventually led us to get a fourth spacewalk for the flight and third for me which was completely unplanned. So we had to, really we didn’t know how to solve it when we went out the door and it was a very special feeling how we were working, everybody together, it was Robert Curbeam, “Beamer”, and me outside on the EVA. We had another eight people inside the space station, everybody participating in some way and then we had the whole ground crew and everybody was talking with each other all the time, you know, and coming up with ideas what to do and, and, you know, we have all these tethers, everything we handle in space had tethers and it almost felt that we had tethers down to mission control center and we can work with that and sometimes I could just enjoy the view because we were kind of on the top of the space station. So I had the space station below me and then had Earth below that. It was beautiful.
How did that view compare to how you imagined it would before you went up to space? Was there any comparison to what you thought it would be?
You have an idea, of course, what you’re going to see because you’ve seen quite a lot of photos but to experience it first hand is so much bigger and, and you’re not limited, you can look around wherever and that’s so fascinating, being able to, during this spacewalk, you know, you’re not limited to a window, you can see everything.
What do you think this space, the professional space community should do to get more young people interested in space exploration?
Well, I think there’s a lot of young people who are interested and they can continue to talk about it and show the fascination, try to explain more how it’s not only the people who have the great opportunity to go to space but the thousands of other people who work in the space program, I mean, it’s all of the good jobs and they all seem to love it and maybe it should be not only the astronauts going up to talk but also all, many other people who work and show how fun it is to work with this and setting bold goals, challenging goals, what to do, like going back to the moon and things like that, that will attract a lot of people, I’m convinced about that, so I think it’s very important that we could set those challenging goals because that will stimulate people (to think), ‘Wow, I want to work with that.’
You’ve touched on the team concept of space exploration a couple times here and as you and your crew train for this mission, you travel around to different centers to work with hardware and talk to the people. What’s it like to visit with those people who were actually the ones who are the experts and may they teach you about the things and they’re the ones who ensure the safety of the crew and the mission’s success? What’s it like when you get a chance to visit with them?
Oh, it’s great. It’s so nice to be able to talk to these people, as you say, those who design the hardware or train us or verifies the safety and all those things and I think it’s very important for both sides, for us to get to know them and you can, I think, first hand ask people who designed it, for example, and I think it’s interesting for them to see how their, what they’ve manufactured, done, how it’s going to be used, by who it will be used to, why, and so I think that’s very important and I enjoy it very much and so great every time you get a chance to go somewhere and visit.
On STS-116 the European Space Agency’s Columbus module had not yet been installed. It will be there when you get there this time to the International Space Station. How much are you looking forward to actually being in that module, I mean, getting the chance to experience it in space?
I very much look forward to do that. I mean, it’s a great opportunity to get back to space station. It was kind of half built when we were there in December 2006, and now it’s almost complete and in particular, we have the European Module also the Japanese Module there and of course, going into the European Module will be a little bit like coming home in space and see it, I’ve been doing some radiation studies work, particularly geared towards Columbus, so kind of able to see that and also have a European astronaut on board when I get there, Frank De Winne, so great to see him and I’m sure we will get some great PR photos of each other in, (chuckle), altogether in the Columbus.
This present time on space station it’s taken on an international flavor like no other time before with all the major partners represented. What’s that going to be like, just being there for that?
It will be even more than the last time, 116. We were also people from many countries. Now we’ll be even more and what kind of came to my mind was that here we are people, at that time we were ten, now we’ll be thirteen, different countries, different cultural backgrounds also and we all are working together, one common goal and it’s kind of almost completely frictionless. I don’t, I didn’t see then, I don’t expect this time either to see any, you know, people getting angry at each other, kind of work together and then, at the same time, you watch down on Earth there passing by under you and below you and you don’t really see any borders, you just see one kind of smaller Earth and definitely comes to your mind, you know, why can’t all the people on the Earth (who) also come from different countries, different cultures, work together as friendly all the time as we do on the space station. I think the space station’s really a, a prime example of how people from all the world can work together, friendly towards one bigger goal and eventually we’re now learning to work there and what we need to know to go back to the moon, hopefully together, together build a base there and eventually to Mars.
STS-128, tell us what it’s about. Give us a brief overview of the things you’re going to do.
So it’s kind of more logistics flight to the space station. We are not bringing up any new module to the space station except temporarily. We’re actually bringing up what’s called the Multipurpose Logistics Module, European built module which goes up in the payload bay of the shuttle and then once we dock at the station, we’ll move it out to the payload bay and dock it to the station, but only temporary for the time we are at the station, and it carries some six tons of stuff which we are going to move into the space station. We also have a huge tank for ammonia, called the ATA, Ammonia Tank Assembly which is kind of a spare part for the space station or we’re refilling the ammonia on the space station’s thermal control system, it’s on the outside of the space station to cool all the equipment there – kind of ammonia fluid going on and this huge tank, it’s kind of like a cubic meter and weighs 1700 pounds, 800 kilograms will be changed out in two EVAs, take the old one from the truss and then we take the new one from the shuttle’s payload bay and we change them. So those are the kind of big points, well, I guess I should also mention that we bring up a new member to the station crew, Nicole Stott, and we bring her up and we will exchange her with Tim Kopra who has been at the space station since the 127 flight.
Tell us what your primary roles and responsibilities are for the mission.
My prime roles are I will participate in two of the three EVAs; EVA 2 and 3, and I’m the so called Load Master which particularly has to do with MPLM so I’m kind of the organizing chief to make sure that everything gets out of the MPLM in an orderly, nice manner and what are we going to bring back gets in there properly and then I’m prime for docking both the shuttle docking mechanism and dock to station and the so-called CBM, that’s the docking mechanism to the station on the MPLM.
On STS-126 in 2008 there were items brought up in the MPLM that were needed to prepare station for the eventual jump to a six-person crew. Talk about the significance of your flight now and the benefit of the things you’re going to bring up now that a six-person crew is a reality.
Most of the things, I think, which we bring up is to kind of both, keep the six crew alive there and also to make it a little more comfortable life for them so we have a lot of food, for example. But we bring up several big facilities. We have another crew station, I mean, a kind of sleep station for the crew. We have a treadmill for the crew, this famous C.O.L.B.E.R.T. treadmill which is very important because people living in space a long time, they have to exercise several, a couple times a day actually, so they don’t get too weak. It’s okay as long as you’re in the weightlessness but if you don’t keep in shape while in space you will be a wreck when you get back after six months. We have a rack which is there to kind of keep the air clean, ARS, which is Atmosphere Revitalization System, or something like that which is also important to give them a good living environment up there. So that’s some examples comes to my mind.
And I don’t recall if you, did you touch on how much weight-wise that you’re going to be bringing up?
We are bringing up closer to 15,000 pounds which is almost seven tons and most of it is in the MPLM. There are some things we bring up also in the middeck on the shuttle.
Okay. Also in the payload bay is going to be a carrier, something called an LMC or a Lightweight Multipurpose Carrier. What’s its purpose?
It’s kind of just a platform which is securely attached to the payload bay in the shuttle and to that one we can secure various payloads and you can provide it with power also if you need to and in our case it’s used to carry this ammonia tank I mentioned, both the new one up and then the old one down. We will also put a scientific platform which is right now (inaudible) on the Columbus, outside the Columbus. It will be moved from Columbus to this platform, LMC, and then brought back to Earth with us.
The crew is also scheduled to replace something called the Rate Gyro Assembly. What is that? Where’s it located, and what does it do?
So the Rate Gyro Assembly, there are several on the space station and one needs to be, kind of, it’s not working properly and it’s on the truss, it’s kind of build, thing which goes across the space station and carries the solar arrays and its purpose is to measure the rate of rotation on the space station, how its attitude is towards the Earth so it kind of helps with the navigation for the space station, you could say.
Okay. You mentioned the experiments outside on Columbus. One of them is the European Technology Exposure Facility. Tell us about that experiment.
It’s actually a platform which carries a lot of smaller experiments. It’s not one experiment. I think it’s about nine different and it’s outside and it does various science in how things, for example, behaving in the environment of space, in the vacuum and the radiation, through some radiation experiment there for example. There’s some which study how what kind of micro debris, micro meteorites, how all these little flakes are hitting things on the outside, how does it degrade material and some are actually studying how friction is also affected by the vacuum there. So it’s been up there since Columbus came up and now it’s, you know, time to bring it down, some of them has been sending data down all the time but some needs to get down and be analyzed on the ground.
So the application for the experiments on that platform are to build better spacecraft or how does, what are the applications there?
So some of, will be that, to kind of learn how material is affected in space environments, you can build better spacecrafts. Another like radiation is also to understand the maybe also for human beings you measure the radiation in the space environment which is an important factor when we go further in space.
You’ll launch. You get into orbit, configure the orbiter, eventually dock to the station and then the work starts of getting the transfers, the MPLM out of the payload bay and getting it attached so you can transfer. Walk us through how again, how you’ll get Leonardo out of Discovery’s payload bay and where exactly it will be attached.
Okay. So let’s start with the shuttle itself. The space station is kind of flying like this over Earth and then the shuttle is slowly, almost, they’re flying almost the same speed but the shuttle is slowly coming from the, on to the space station on its front side, and we dock there. And then there’s the kind of, we’re docking to an adaptor which is on the Node 2 which is the very front and the MPLM will go to this Node 2 so we just need to move it a little bit from here and dock it over there. And that is actually done with the space station arm. It’s not done by our shuttle arm so it will, the day after we docked, it will grab the MPLM and once [we] have a rigid grip on it we will loosen the latches which keep the MPLM securely in the payload bay and then, by, it’s Kevin Ford is operating the arm here and we will just move it not very far and just out and then up to the docking port for the Node 2 – it’s the docking port facing down towards the nadir docking port. My part kind of starts when they start to get close to the docking port and Kevin gets close to the docking port. Then I’m looking at the, all the information from the docking mechanism on the node nadir port that gets it to the right position, that you see its latches kind of ready to grip it, so when it’s a few inches out, some centimeters out, you should be hitting some kind of sensor which tells us that, ‘Yep’, it’s in the envelope where these kind of hooks, latches can come up and grab it and so then I’ll [tell] him, ‘Okay, you’re in a good position’ and I’ll take over and I push my buttons and you’ll get, the latches will grab it and pull it in and then there’s some important choreography that needs to be happening between the arm operator and the operator of the docking mechanism so the arm doesn’t break and nothing breaks. But that’s basically it. And the, these hooks, latches, pull it in and once it’s kind of really close together then we start to drive bolts and those sixteen bolts which are kind of driven to make sure they’re really hard mounted together on the MPLM and the Node 2 and that’s a couple of hours’ process, everything.
Once the MPLM is attached to Node 2, there’s still some steps you have to take before you can actually go in and start transferring stuff. Tell us about that.
So the first, most important thing is to make sure it’s leak tight -- you don’t lose air. So that’s a quite cumbersome procedure actually. You first check the little, what we call the vestibule, the kind of space between the hatch, into the MPLM and the hatch going to the node, so check that it’s okay and then you can open one hatch and then we have to make sure the atmosphere is fine inside the MPLM and just kind of those things that you have to remove there in between and when you finally open the hatch another thing is you have to be careful that nothing has come loose inside the MPLM, things which, since it’s in its weightlessness can float around so when we open the hatch for some we have to goggles, you don’t get something into your eyes. Takes quite some time actually.
Three EVAs scheduled on the mission. On EVA 1 Nicole Stott, who will be a station crew member by the time of that spacewalk, is going to perform that spacewalk with Danny Olivas. Talk about the rationale and the benefit of Nicole doing that spacewalk as a new station crew member.
It’s just sort of experience of performing a spacewalk in case she needs to do a spacewalk maybe unplanned during her stay on the space station. There’s always a lot of contingency plans ready if something breaks on outside on the space station and the space station crew can, in a few days’ time, prepare a spacewalk and go out and fix that and now she will get a chance to, for some experience how it really is to perform a spacewalk so that’s a great experience for her to have.
On the first spacewalk Danny and Nicole will have some work to do. Can you tell us what work sites they’ll visit and what they’ll do there?
Yes, so the first thing they will have to do is to start with this ammonia tank replacement which I mentioned earlier, we will bring up a new one. Well, the first thing is to, you know, to move the old one which is on the P1 truss on the aft side. So they will move up to this truss work site and they will remove this ATA and it will actually be held by the station arm. Then Nicole will jump onto the arm and they will move over to Columbus and that’s actually a couple of experiments. First of all there is EuTEF, the European Technological Platform, which has been up there since Columbus came up. They will remove it and now Nicole will be on the foot restraint on the arm, the station arm, and she will hold it while Danny’s going to be removing the bolts and then she will hold it while Kevin is flying the arm down into the shuttle payload bay, in the very aft area we will have this LMC carrier. And it will actually be then stowed on the underside belly of this platform. Danny will, while Nicole is flying on this arm, he will remove two smaller experiments called the MISSE, which is also on Columbus but they are NASA experiments and he will carry them on his so-called BRT, it’s kind of a metallic arm with a grip on it which you have here on your hip. So we carry them with him down to the shuttle payload bay and along one face, I would guess, with him and that’s it for that day, the first spacewalk.
On EVA 2 the work on the ammonia tank assembly continues. This time you’ll be outside with Danny. Walk us through the work that you’ll both do outside for EVA 2.
So EVA 2 is completely dedicated to the ammonia tank assembly replacement. So after the first EVA, the old tank has been put on the station arm. That’s kind of where we [are] starting out now. So EVA 2 we both go down to the payload bay, the aft where on this LMC the new tank is situated. I will jump into the foot restraint in the arm and then get ready to grab this new tank with my arms and Danny will undo the last bolt and then, while I’m holding this tank, some seventeen hundred pounds, Kevin Ford will fly me with the arm up to the P1 where the old tank was and then I will install the new tank there. So I’m flying up and Danny’s walking on the structure of the, climbing rather than walking, I guess. And then we put the new tank in place and then we do a little dancing up there such that the old tank, which was held by the arm, it will be now given to Danny in another foot restraint on the truss. He grabs it and then Kevin swings around the arm again such that I can grab the ATA with my arms, the old one now, and Danny lets go. And then we fly back to the payload bay again and, well, Danny again climbs down there and we put the old tank on the place where the new one was on this LMC in the payload bay and that’s it.
For EVAs 1 and 2 kind of a unique situation for the station robot arm. You could say that it’s going to have its hands full. Talk about that a little bit.
Not only the robotic arm will have its hands full, I will also have my hands full with, so it will be, I think, pretty spectacular when we’re flying from the payload bay up to P1 because you have the old tank sticking out in one angle held by the arm grip and then I’m on the foot restraint in, now sticking up in another direction and I’m holding the other tank with my arms and these are big tanks, both of them. So I think there can be some good photos. (chuckle)
You and Danny are outside again for EVA 3 for a variety of jobs one of which involves making preparations for the delivery of Node 3 which is also named Tranquility. Tell me about what you will do on EVA 3.
So the first thing is to prepare for Node 3 “Tranquility” as you said. We will have two big cable bundles which we will route from the base of the truss called S0, that’s where the truss connects on the lab and it will be routed on two sides of Node 1 to the docking port on Node 1 which is the port side docking port, that’s where Node 3 will come up some flights later. And these are power cables, data cables, which can eventually give all the data and power to Node 3 once it gets there. So that’s, and then handling big cables in weightlessness is a little bit tricky. I really think we’ve found a good way to do it. We’ve kind of practiced this quite a lot in the pool. And then we’re doing some R&R, as you mentioned, on the Rate Gyro Assembly which we’ll change out.
Okay. At some time late in the mission you’ll have completed all your transfers from MPLM and it’ll be time to put Leonardo back into Discovery’s payload bay. It is just the reverse of putting it on?
It’s pretty much a reversal. It’s close the hatch and make sure again it, everything is leak tight and carefully grab the MPLM, Leonardo, with the station arm and back out and do all the unbolting and then it puts it in the payload door payload bay.
You’ll then say farewell to the station crew, close the hatches between the two spacecraft and then the next day you’ll return to Earth, you’ll undock. Tell us about what you’re scheduled to do for undocking.
So to some extent my job is very important or not very important. I just have to do one thing. I have to push the button undocking. Well, I’m in charge of the prime together with Pat Forrester of the docking mechanism on the shuttle and when you undock it’s not so much to do. I mean, you power it up and check it out and all that and then it’s the right time you push the button so you can get out.
Sounds pretty important to me. How do you imagine space station’s importance will be characterized in human history by those who, maybe centuries from now make routine trips back and forth between Earth and other worlds, primarily or even just in part based on some of the work that’s being done on space station right now?
I think it will be seen as the first truly huge outpost in space and it, also that it’s so international and those will be big oh, milestones for space history and it will always be recognized, I’m convinced about that, and I think we’ll say that’s where we learned to really live in space and work together. I mean, there’ve been space stations before and I think the Russians had the series of space stations including MIR was up for fifteen years. But the International Space Station has a much, much, much more capacity and it’s bigger and it’s international, particularly the international aspect I think is important.