Q: Ken, you're getting set to begin a nearly four-month-long mission in space; tell me, what is the goal of this expedition to ISS?
Preflight Interview: Ken Bowersox
A: Our number one goal is to have a positive experience for the crew and for the people on the ground. There's a lot of things that come under that sub-goal: The … number one being come back alive, for it to be a safe flight; number two, to show people that Americans and Russians can work together in space and accomplish something meaningful; and then, the last thing is to accomplish some of our science objectives for the mission.
For you, this will be your fifth trip to space. How has the experience of having been through training before helped you prepare to fly this mission?
Almost none at all, if you want to know the truth. Training for the long-duration flight, every time I tried to build off of my past experience, people told me, well you've never flown long-duration flight before so you just need to do it our way. So, in fact, it was probably a hindrance more than anything else.
But you have trained for a long-duration flight, as the backup for the first Expedition.
Yeah, but I've never flown long-duration flights so, the, nobody wanted to take me very seriously about anything when I would make a comment about training. At least, that's the way it felt. But I think as far as knowing what to expect when I get on orbit, I know what the first two weeks is going to feel like; what month one, month two, month three, month four are going to feel like, I don't know yet.
Well, as you say, this will be a brand-new experience for you as an astronaut. Tell me why it is you wanted to be an astronaut in the first place?
Well, when I was about seven years old I was driving around in a car with my father, listening to the radio, and on the radio was a broadcast, describing John Glenn orbiting the Earth. And I talked to my father about that, that sounded like a pretty neat thing to do and back then I decided that maybe someday to be…[I] need to be an astronaut. And from that point on I've just wanted to be an astronaut.
Tell me how you accomplished it then-what was the path that you traveled that ended up with bringing you to NASA?
Well as I got older and started studying, I remember in junior high school they had these little reading assignment sheets, that had every single career you could think of, and one of them was astronaut, and it would list the salary and the education requirements and all those sort of things. So the one that was written up for astronaut said you need to go to a military academy or a school with a strong engineering specialty, it would really help to become a military pilot and to become a test pilot, and then apply to NASA. And so I said, well, that's what I'm going to do, and I took that path. Of course, there's a lot of other paths now open to people; you can become a science astronaut, a medical astronaut. A lot of other options.
So, it wasn't the attraction of the money?
One of the things that some, my friends pointed out to me was, it was not the highest-paying job in the list that we had to study from.
And … as you did all of those things and went to university and through your career in the Navy, who would you say have been the people who were, or maybe still are, the ones who had the biggest influences on your life?
Well, my parents were a huge influence, because growing up, they always told me, well, if that's what you want to do, you should give it a try. I, there are probably a lot of people that could've said, well, gosh, do you know how many people apply to be astronauts and how few get selected -- why don't you lower your sights a little bit to something more realistic. They never said that. They said, well, give it a shot; maybe you'll get it. I think they were a little surprised when I got selected, like I was, but they were a tremendous encouragement. My teachers in school were the same way, they had a huge influence on me … sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes it was the example they'd set, sometimes it was me trying to not be like them, but they had great influence over how I lived my life growing up. And then, I think the early astronauts were a big influence, too, seeing what they did and how the country responded to their actions was important for me growing up.
Have you had a chance to meet many of those early astronauts since you've been here?
I've met a lot of them, and what's impressed me about each one of them is how human they are. They're not perfect. When I was young, they seemed like superheroes, and then when I met them they were just regular people.
You've been around the Johnson Space Center for about 15 years now. You've trained with astronauts from the ISS partner nations. You have your own experiences in the International Space Station Program as backup on the first crew. From your point of view, how have the partner nations done in trying to achieve the goal of learning how to work together?
I think we're making progress every day. If we're learning anything it's how to work together. The little changes that we have here and there, the big changes, the disagreements, are just as important as the tremendous successes that we've got. If we're learning how to do anything it's work together with a disparate group of nations and people.
You talked about your training a couple of minutes ago, and how the people that you were working with had a certain attitude toward it. Tell me about the, your, just your training overall: Have you enjoyed the experience of traveling around the world and preparing for this flight?
It's been very rewarding in certain aspects. Some, you know, you probably detected some frustration early on, in the fact that I felt like we did some things we didn't really need to be doing in training, and that I think some of the, especially early on, the people who were in the training weren't really given credit for having any knowledge of what the long-duration experience might be like. But the tremendously rewarding part has been to learn a different language, to try to learn the Russian language, to be able to read Russian literature in the language that it was written to be able to converse with different people, in different countries, and, I guess to me one of the most exciting moments in the last five years was when I was sitting in a class and a teacher was speaking to me in Russian, and I wasn't thinking about what they were saying in English, I was just taking the words in in Russian and understanding and getting a picture in my mind. It was a wonderful feeling something I think everybody should get a chance to experience.
Now, late in your training flow for this flight, you had the unusual situation of having a change in your crew roster that occurred back in July. How did everyone respond to this, to this new challenge?
Well, we're still in the process of responding but I think the consensus is the program is bigger than any one of us, that what we're doing is important, and because of that, we just need to keep pressing ahead, one foot in front of the other, and make things work. And that's what we're going to do with the challenge that's been handed to us with the late crew swap.
It would seem that this is a pretty good example of the value of training backup crews.
Yeah, I think that's true. Every backup should train as if they might fly. But I think, truthfully, most backups train thinking that they're never going to fly 'cause if they spent every minute worrying that they were going to fly, they'd go nuts. But, it's worth the money that we spend because it gives us a lot of flexibility if things go wrong at the last minute. And the other good thing about the way we do backups is our backups don't just train in their individual crew, they also spend time with us. So, when Don Thomas was removed from our crew and Don Pettit took his place, I already knew a lot about Don Pettit because he lived in the cottage next door to me, we walked to class every day, we spent some time in classes together, we had meals together; it wasn't just a complete, cold switch to a new person on the crew. And on a long-duration flight, that's really important because we're going to be spending a lot of time together in very close quarters on orbit.
Members of any flight crew have to possess a range of talents in order to do all the things that need to get done during a mission. Tell me what are your responsibilities as commander of the International Space Station?
Well, I mean on paper it says I'm supposed to make sure that the mission is safe from a local perspective. But as far as determining what our day-to-day goals and tasks are, the ground does most of that. The other big thing that a commander does besides ensuring overall safety is trying to make sure that there's a good working environment and a good working relationship amongst the crew. That's one of the things that, it's hard to get formal preparation for-you have to learn, I think, through the "school of hard knocks," but it's something that I've tried to study from other crew Commanders, and take some of the best and learn from some of the mistakes that have been made, and, hopefully, people after me will be able to learn from my mistakes and from what I've done right.
You are also going to have the opportunity, or responsibility, of operating the space station's robot arm.
Right. Each American member of the crew is going to spend some time operating the robot arm, Don Pettit and I both are, and we're looking forward to that. The Canadian arm is a unique piece of gear; it's a lot different than the shuttle robot arm, which I've had a chance to operate on a previous flight. And, it's going to be very rewarding technically to see how it performs in comparison with our simulators and all the devices we've trained with.
Well, your space flight begins when Jim Wetherbee and his shuttle crew deliver you to the International Space Station, and during the first full day of docked operations the combined crews are going to install the P1 Truss onto the space station, using both of the Canadian robot arms. Tell me about the role you're going to play and if you would, talk me through the process of installing that new truss segment.
Sure. Well, I'm sort of the resident backup for all the tasks. My job is going to be to monitor the displays and controls and help Jim Wetherbee use the shuttle arm to reach into the payload bay and pull the P1 Truss out and position it so that Peggy Whitson will be able to reach out with the station arm, grapple, and then maneuver it into position. At the point where Peggy is grappling the P1, I'll switch positions from the space shuttle flight deck, move over to the U.S. Laboratory and move in beside Peggy, and help her with moving TV displays and setting up all of the data devices that we have onboard so that she can do a successful berthing of the truss.
Once that, the two truss segments are attached, two shuttle crewmembers are going out for a spacewalk. The robot arm's still involved with that activity.
Yes, but on EVA 1 there's not that much we'll be doing. The, Mike L.A. [Lopez-Alegria] and John Herrington will come out of the Airlock, and they'll translate over to the truss and start making all the critical connections, releasing the launch locks that have to be released and attaching all the cables so that the truss could stay alive if they had to leave the next day. And we'll mostly be setting up the arm so that it will be in the right position to work the next EVA.
Before that second EVA comes up, the schedule calls for a … the, the schedule calls for you to be transferred onto the space station. Tell me what has to happen to finalize that exchange and make you and Nikolai and Don the station crew.
Well, it just depends on who you talk to. On paper we're supposed to go across, we're supposed to put our seat liners in the Soyuz, we're supposed to put on our Russian entry suits, the Sokol entry suit, try them on, make sure that they're leak-free, and then we're supposed to do a test, all three of us together, to make sure that we're ready to take over the Soyuz. Once we've done that, then officially we can be left on orbit. But if you talk to the guys who are there now, as soon as we show up, they're going home … and our job is to figure out how we're going to get back.
There's a number of days from that point on, though, where they will still be there along with the three of you, a time that is referred to as handover. What is it, not having been there or done it before, but what is it that you're going to do and talk about during this period? Is it really necessary to get you off to a good start?
There's a lot of things that we just can't cover in training because the actual configuration of the station is too fluid and too complex to track on the ground and to reflect in our ground simulators. So there's a lot that we'll pick up during the docked time frame that will help us early in the mission. It's things that we just can't train for: where the cameras really are, where items are located, where cables have been arranged, where people are sleeping, a lot of small things that you just don't have time to cover in training, and we'll cover in the first week either by working together with the Increment 5 crew, or by them giving us little lectures and training sessions.
And, show you how things really work …
… in space.
We call it "on-the-job training."
Valery and Peggy and Sergei will go home with the shuttle crew and leave you three to settle in on orbit. Is it possible to say what a normal day in space is going to be like?
Is there such a thing as a normal day in space?
It just depends on who you talk to how normal a day would be. But, the typical days without a Soyuz visit or without [an] EVA on board, or without a Progress arrival, you wake up, you have an hour-and-a-half or so to do your morning cleanup and have some breakfast. Then there's a half-hour conference, or fifteen-minute conference, with the ground, the daily planning conference. Then you start into the work time. There's about eight hours booked for work but part of that is also booked for exercise, so we only consider about six-and-a-half hours as work time. And then in the end of the day it's the same sort of wind down-we have another conference, then a couple of hours to put things away and get ready for bed, relax a little bit. And then an eight-and-a-half-hour sleep period, and the whole day starts again.
During that six-and-a-half hours or whatever … ends up being the real work time, a lot of time is dedicated to a variety of science that goes on on board the station. At this point, looking ahead, how do you see that the station's scientific mission is going to be advanced during Expedition Six?
Well…probably in two ways. We're going to be doing some new science and we're going to be trying to exploit the glovebox more. That's a major step in the interactive science, where humans actually make a difference. In addition to just turning things on, we're setting up experiments and there's an opportunity to possibly make some observations about what's going on. That's one place where we're moving forward. The experiments are small, but there's a lot of time required with them. The second area is with life science. Each new mission allows us an opportunity to do new types of long-duration life science experiments, where we study the crew before they launch, we study them on orbit to see what changes are going on in their bodies, and then we study them again when they come back to see how quickly they recuperate and how the body changes as it readapts to gravity. And we have two investigations that we'll be doing, that do a lot of that. One is the Biopsy experiment, where we will, we're studying the muscles in the leg and a small piece of our leg muscle will actually be extracted right before we launch and right after we land. The other experiment is the Foot experiment where we, I'll be wearing a special suit that monitors the activity of my lower body, the positions of my joints, and, hopefully there will be some correlation with how much bone loss there is in my legs, and the guys who study that will learn something new.
Is, is … for this Foot experiment you've just referred to, is this over like the course of a whole day or, are you, you said that they were monitoring the position of your body, but, if, you must be staying still?
No. The way it works is there's a suit that the subject wears, and it's got sensors on it that measure the angles of the ankle and the knee and the hip, in addition to electrodes on different muscles on the leg and some on the arm. And that senses the electrical activity in the muscles and all that's being recorded as you'd do, sort of, normal daily tasks. There's also some sensors that are on the bottom of shoes so that if you're running on a treadmill or standing on the platform doing resistive exercise, those pads will measure the amount of force on your feet. And we'll do, collect seven or eight hours of data in that suit three, four times during the mission, about one month apart, are the intervals that we'll be doing data collections.
A couple of experiments that you've used as examples there, the Human Life Sciences area … can you explain why it's important to know those things? Why do we need to see how your muscles react? Why do we need to see how you, how that, the measurements that that suit will give them?
Well, I sort of lump it into two categories. One is just pure knowledge. Whenever we take a known system, or a relatively known system like the human body, and move it into a new environment, we learn new things. So when we take somebody from Earth and into space, their body changes, and we learn a lot about the body based on the changes that occur. Sometimes we can't predict what those changes will be, and we learn a lot when we try to go back and explain why they happen. But there's also a, for me, a more important aspect, and that is if we ever want to go outside of low-Earth orbit and go on to live in, living on the moon, sending people to Mars, or on to the stars someday, we're going to have to understand more about how the body adapts to the conditions in microgravity. There's a lot of cost with creating, what might be called artificial gravity, environments aboard ships and right now it's, I think, cheaper to study what we might, what the response of the body would be if we had long-term microgravity than it is to design complicated ships that would spin and create synthetic gravity fields for people. But what we may find out of all this is that we have to do that, that we have to build these types of ships when we go on. But the only way to find out for sure is to do the research, and we do that close to Earth so that people are close to home if something doesn't go right.
There are a handful of investigations during your increment under the category of Space Product Development. In these cases, what are the products that are being researched, and what advantage do you see that there is in trying to develop them in space?
Well, theoretically, someday if we found that there were substances that could be made only on orbit, we might have huge, floating factories, up, going around the Earth, building these products and sending them back home. Now, that all depends on the value of the products, but at this point, we have a couple that are good candidates. One is zeolites, which are used in the petroleum industry as catalysts. They have a lot of different uses in the chemical processing industries. Another type might be protein crystals, where we grow protein crystals, bring them back to study, or even better, would be to study them on orbit. Now, what we're actually getting right now by growing protein crystals and growing zeolites in space is we're becoming smarter about the processes that are important in the growth of those crystals and zeolites and that helps us do a better job of making them on the ground, which might be cheaper. And so that might be the most important thing that we get, commercially, out of the space station -- not that someday we'd be building and building these large factories in space but that by making these substances in a different environment we learn more about them and are better able to control the processes here on Earth. And we'll get that in the next few years from space station -- five, 10 years-without having to build huge new, orbiting structures that have to stay up in space.
There's another category of research for your mission that's known as Microgravity science. Tell me about the research in this area.
Well, the two things I just mentioned are microgravity science, really … everything we do, from a science point of view up there, is…science in microgravity. But if you take out the life science studies that are done in microgravity, there's also, materials-type science that we do in microgravity: protein crystal growth, studying material changes, and biological changes with different, different small payloads. But we have so many on the flight it's hard to keep track of them all.
Can you give me a sense of what it is that you do in, you and your crewmates, all of you, will do for these experiments? They sound like, a lot of them, things that run almost by themselves.
Well, they do. Our biggest job is to keep the platform running, keep the humans in good shape, and then do the things that can't be done from the ground. The ground doesn't have equipment to take payloads from their rack and move them to another rack, they don't have equipment to take switches and turn them from the O-F-F position to the O-N position, which we do. But as I alluded to for the glovebox, the best thing humans can do is be very flexible in how they assemble components, find problems that maybe weren't considered preflight, and increase the probability of success of experiments. And that's the biggest thing we'll be doing. Our job, in addition to being test subjects, is to go up there and just try to make sure that the science that's on our mission is carried through successfully.
There's also a plan for one spacewalk for your crew during your time onboard. Can you tell me what's in the plan that's being developed for the EVA?
Well, what we're discussing right now is, it's, proof of concept as much as anything. We're trying to show that a station crew, with just three people, really can get suited up, go outside, and do simultaneous EVA-arm ops with the Canadian robot arm, and a mixed-nationality EVA. It's a lot to take on, if you think about it, and there's only three of us there when we do these things during the docked time frame, with a shuttle crew there, there's a whole, whole lot more support, there's more cameras from the orbiter, there's an extra airlock, an extra door to go in and out and a lot more people to help you get things done. It's quite the challenge to do it with just three people, and so what we're going to be doing mostly is proving that it is possible.
So, is this an EVA that would be done out of the American segment or the Russian segment?
This would be an American segment EVA.
And, as the commander, you'd actually get to go outside.
Yes. I think I'll be going outside, with Nikolai Budarin, and Don Pettit will be inside running the robot arm for us; Nikolai will probably be on the end of the robot arm.
Nikolai Budarin has got more time spent spacewalking than almost anybody in the world.
He has quite a few EVAs under his belt.
Any tips for you?
His biggest tip is just to relax, don't worry [laughs]. I'm sure I'll be listening to that a lot when we first go outside.
In your opinion, by the time your four-plus-month mission onboard ISS is over, it's time for you three to come home, what will have had to have happened for you to have considered the expedition to have been a success?
I guess the most important thing will have been the unity of the crew at the end of the flight. To be successful we have to come back as a crew that was able to support each other, able to forgive each other when we made mistakes or when we accidentally offended someone, when we didn't mean to, that we were able to get past all those, human frailties, and stay united as a supportive crew. And that's not just the three of us on board but also with our team on the ground, because there will be tons of frustrations that will come down upon us as we're going through our mission. We'll be in a high-stress environment, and typically when people are stressed and they have more stress being dumped on them, their teams can break down. And what we want to do instead is to support each other so that we become stronger with that stress. And if we can do that, we'll be successful; everything else will work out and take care of itself.
Ken, you're scheduled to arrive onboard the space station a short time after the second anniversary of the start of its continuous habitation. Finally, tell me in your opinion, what's the best thing that's come out of the International Space Station program during these two years of human habitation in orbit?
The best thing is we've got Americans and Russians and international crews, they're not just working together they're actually getting along, making friends, building relationships. That's the visible part. The part that's much more important and not visible is the relationships being built on the ground. I tell people that 95 percent of what's important about space station happens on the ground: when American engineers and Russian engineers get together; when a Canadian meets a Russian and they talk about what life is like in their countries; when we send somebody from Houston over to Japan, and he talks to somebody at dinner. The relationships that we're building are building a stronger world, and that's just as important as building our space station.