Feature

Text Size

Preflight Interview: Mike Foale
10.28.10
 
S87-45890 -- Mike Foale

Expedition 8 Commander Michael Foale. Photo credit: NASA

Q: The International Space Station Crew Interviews with Mike Foale, Commander of the eighth expedition to the International Space Station. Mike, you're set to begin a spaceflight that's going to last for several months, and while you're there, you will celebrate the third anniversary of the arrival on ISS of the first expedition crew. Tell me, what are the goals of this expedition to the International Space Station?

A: Well, the biggest goal for us as a crew, and it's a two-person crew-myself and Alexander Kaleri-is to maintain a human presence on board this international project, the International Space Station. Beyond that, we have goals that would maintain the Space Station, keep it in a, an operational condition, and carry out experiments that we are not only carrying with us-and that's pretty few, actually-and continue those that are on board already, and there are many of those.

Now you, of course, have experience training for a long-duration space mission, the mission that you flew to Mir several years ago. Has that helped you, having that experience, as you prepare for this long-duration mission?

Certainly any long-duration flight helps an astronaut prepare for another one, and the most anxiety I had before my Mir flight was just wondering about how I, Michael Foale, will manage to live in a small place for four or five months with two other people; I had no idea what the result would be. Now I am faced with a, possibly a six-, seven-month mission with one other person, but I am absolutely sure that Michael Foale anyway can handle it, if nothing really changes compared to the last mission, which was quite hard actually on, on Mir. So, it's prepared me greatly in confidence, in self-confidence. I know that there's nothing out there that is really unsurmountable. I know that there may be difficulties, but, in a kind of step-by-step, get up the morning, look at what's to be done that day, and go to bed and get some rest, and do it again the next day-with that kind of approach you can get through any long mission, and certainly that's how I'm applying myself to this new experience.

In preparing for this earlier this year, in February, you and Alexander Kaleri were in fact assigned to different crews when you were training halfway around the world from one another at the time that the Columbia and her crew were lost. Tell me about the reactions and the responses that you experienced in Star City at the time of that accident.

Well, it was a very, very emotional time. I actually was yes, as you say, in Russia and Sasha was here in the United States. Because I lived in a, in an identifiable house in Star City, to Russians we became the source of or we became the recipients of condolences from all the Russians that we knew or did not know in Star City, and we had a continuous train of visitors, myself and Bill McArthur, with whom I was training at the time, and living. And, they showed an enormous outpouring of sympathy and grief for our national tragedy because they accepted it as a tragedy not only for us but for all people who want to go into space and explore beyond the Earth's orbit. And that sympathy, that outpouring was shown to us over two or three days, and we also conducted memorial services in Russia, in Moscow, at the control center there, and they were very emotional events, attended by both Russians and Americans who were present in Moscow. After a few days went by of course we were aware that there was a crew getting ready to be launched, Expedition 7: that was Sasha-Alexander-and Ed Lu, who now is actually on orbit with Yuri Malenchenko. And Ed called us very soon after the accident-maybe four or five hours-to make sure that we were doing OK, and he was worried about the fact that we Americans there in Star City might feel cut off, isolated, whatever. But in fact I also got a telephone call from Ken Bowersox, who was on board the International Space Station at that time, so everybody-and it's strange in an odd way-was worrying about us in, in Russia, thinking that we might be too cut off from, from information, and that was not the case. So it was, in a way it was a very, very sad event, but of course it showed the resilience and the strength and the support of all our friends and partners, and in some ways made us stronger.

The loss of Columbia not only led to the reassignment of crews it also let a lot of people realize that the danger of spaceflight was never more real than it was right then. Well, you've flown before; you understand that danger. You even chose to make another spaceflight after you experienced a collision while you were on board the Mir. And yet, here you sit, preparing to go and do it again. Tell me why you think the rewards that we gain from flying people in space are worth those risks.

Well, you have to take two positions here. One is the explorer, the adventurer. And that's certainly my position today-it's what's driven me since I was a child. I want to, I want to explore, I want to see something new. Well, I've been in space, as you say, five times before, this is my sixth flight; I have seen many, many things from space, and they were wonderful; I want to see more, I'm hooked. So, I am a little bit of an addict for spaceflight, and I have seen so many interesting things that haven't repeated, and I want to somehow touch them again. And so that's what's driving me personally. But, on the other side of it you have to say, what does my wife think? What does the manager who's responsible for our lives think? What does the President of the United States think about sending, you know, our people into space? And those are different decisions; different, different comments and values. And to that extent, you have to balance risk versus what you think you're getting back from this adventure. In my mind, I, because I'm the prime recipient of the adventure, I certainly think it outweighs the risk. In other people's minds it may not and that's a, that, as I say, the reason why I'm putting myself forward isn't, shouldn't be, is not surprising to me; however, if I was putting other people forward, I would be much more worried.

You said that you, as, since you were a child were looking for that adventure. How did that desire for adventure turn toward astronaut-why did you want to be an astronaut?

Well, you know, Lewis and Clark, we're celebrating the anniversary of their long, long journey, so that anniversary goes on and on and on. We, I read books about explorers, great British explorers, also. I learned a lot about expeditions in the early part of the last century for example, going to Antarctica and to the Arctic - Shackleton and Amundsen, they are certainly heroes for me…Peary. And as such, the idea of some hardship, some exposure to environment, some exposure to just new vistas, without all that many people there telling you what you're going to see around the next corner, that has always enthralled me. It was like a good storybook. And to be quite honest- I'm not going to hide behind it-that is the, that's what drives my interest. Of course, I've become much more sophisticated as I've grown up and learned why we do things, etc., and so we clothe this emotional, childish curiosity with all kinds of reasons to go and find new places and explore new things. But what it comes back to, it's an innate instinct, I think, within us. And of course we know historically that those countries that have actually valued exploration, have encouraged it, or at least not suppressed it-often it's been done grudgingly, I believe; the mavericks of a society will go out and explore, and they'll be given just enough money so that we can be rid of them. They would actually bring back riches untold, and over, again, the development of the trails that those explorers led, then, behind them and in the memory of them, were developed incredible routes, highways, trade routes, and eventually civilizations. So, it's a very romantic view of exploration, but that is the case in human history.

Was there some incident in your life that led that desire to participate in that exploration into the path that you've ended up on?

Well, I don't know…I certainly grew up all over Europe; my father was a Royal Air Force pilot, my mother is American; I was born American at birth, also I had the rights of British citizenship because I was born in Britain. And we lived, within two years of my birth we moved to Cyprus, and then after that we came back to the UK, then we went to Germany, and then we came back and then we went to Malta, and then we went back, and then back to Malta again. So I, and then when we were living in Europe we moved all over. So I was a typical, what we call Air Force brat, and it meant that I got a taste of different cultures, I got a taste of just different, traveling all the time, getting tired in the car, you know, we'd complain of course to our parents, "When do we get there?" but that background, I think, made it, accepted in me, anyway, that one should see new places on a regular basis and constantly. My only, you know, regret is that oh, I never got to grow up in one place for, you know, twenty years; that, that's something that didn't happen to me. And I look at people who have done that and I think, wow, there's some, there's some neat things in that, too. Although I realize that they're probably dying to get out of that town and go explore like I did.

Tell me about then your path of education and into your career then that has led you to be a NASA astronaut.

Well, the, my mother was extraordinarily powerful in that, not I don't think in any intentional way-she didn't want to force me towards a career. My father's this glamorous jet pilot, my mother was a thoughtful, intelligent woman who studied liberal arts in Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota, and what they did was they basically took myself, my brother, when my sister was born, to science museums, museums of all kinds, all kinds of large exhibitions and events, and the one that really focused in my life was the, in terms of space, was when we went to the World Fair, as it was called, in Minnesota, in Minneapolis. And, I was about six years old there, and we saw John Glenn's capsule, all charred and black. And then there were other exhibitions of rocket flying vehicles, for example the X-15 Test Program, that was shown well. And I asked my father questions-I always knew he took off in fast, screaming jets and would fly overhead, so I was aware of Air Force life-and I said, you know, is that, I kind of put that together, the glamorous dad, together with the capsule and the rockets, and it all kind of started to gel in me. And then I read one of von Braun's books, First Man On the Moon, I think it was called, at a pretty early age, about seven-again, my mother got the books out of the library for me. And then my grandma, U.S. grandma, would, started buying me books on astronomy. And so my knowledge of spaceflight, my knowledge of the U.S. space effort in particular, really grew from an early age and never left me.

You studied that in college as well, didn't you?

Well, then, once you, once you've been fired up with interest, then you kind of pick your path. And…it, I tried to anticipate what an astronaut, who he, who he or she should be to be selected as an astronaut, and I started plotting that career path when I was about twelve or thirteen. I think that was the first time I really thought about it, you know: what should I do? But, it really didn't matter- I would basically fit my, you know, round interests into the square hole of NASA selection, NASA astronaut selection, which was, you know, do what you like doing and do it well, and then convince NASA they want it. And so, I was a physicist, a scientist, I'm interested in various things. I knew at that time they wanted geo, either geologists or, we heard, for moon landings, or test pilots. Well, I tried the test pilot route, and for a number of reasons, I couldn't make it. And so then I thought, well, I'll try and be a scientist, 'cause I knew that's [who] they were potentially selecting for Shuttles. But again, I didn't, luckily I didn't fall into the trap of trying to do everything to chase this forever-receding-and-changing requirement to be an astronaut. In the end I followed my own advice that I give to other people now, which is do what you like to do as well as you possibly can, and then convince NASA that they need it.

ISS007-E-17982 -- Mike Foale

Expedition 8 Commander Michael Foale, NASA International Space Station science officer, holds a camera in the Zvezda service module. Photo credit: NASA

Well, you're getting ready to go to a Space Station for a number of months with, as you mentioned, just one crewmember; just two people to cover all the jobs that need to be done. What are going to be your responsibilities as a member of this crew?

My responsibility as a member of this crew is to work well with Sasha. Clearly Sasha is a highly-experienced cosmonaut: he's flown three times on the Mir space station, he has almost a year and a half in space, total time. He is the Commander of our Soyuz spacecraft, so he's the Commander during launch, and I'm sure that when we come home in the Soyuz he'll be the Commander when we land. Once we are on board I am the Commander of the Space Station, and Sasha and I have a joint responsibility to conduct our missions as, to the best of our ability, and the way we do that is by working well together. So, that is my number one priority is work well with Sasha; Sasha, I believe, has the same priority, to work well with me. And we're very comfortable with our friendship and our professional relationship that's developed since the Columbia tragedy. That said, we now have technical things to accomplish on board the Station and that is, first of all, to make sure that our U.S., my job, especially now as a U.S. crewmember and a, now we're going to the parochial interest, is, not only as the Commander but as a U.S. crewmember, I represent the U.S. investment in the International Space Station. So my job, as I see it, is to make sure the United States gets as much as possible out of its investment in that fantastic structure that's orbiting the Earth right now. Sasha has the same responsibility to the Russian side, to look after their investment in the International Space Station, and so to some extent we've got two different jobs to do. But we're both looking over and looking after each other to make sure we both achieve our needs. And sometimes the U.S. will have specific interests that we, that I need to accomplish for the United States. And if Sasha can help, we'll ask Sasha and we'll pull him in to do that. And the same goes for Sasha. And I, and my job as Commander is just a little bit broader, I believe, than Sasha's in that I have to make sure not only that the United States gets its interests, you know, satisfied on the International Space Station, but I also have to make sure that Sasha accomplishes that for the Russian side. So that's where my responsibility goes just a little bit further.

We'll talk about a couple of the, hit on some of the high points of the mission, and start at the beginning- despite your five previous flights you're going to start this mission in a way that you haven't started missions before, and that's in a Soyuz spacecraft. Tell me about what you've trained for and what you anticipate is going to happen inside that vehicle as you and Alexander Kaleri and Pedro Duque make your way to the Space Station.

Well, I've had a lot of experience, compared to other U.S. astronauts, anyway, training for Soyuz flight. First of all, on Mir we had to train for Soyuz emergency descent, and that was basically as a passenger cosmonaut-astronaut in the right seat. On this last training flow before Columbia I was training for the left seat emergency descent with a cosmonaut in the center seat. After Columbia, Sasha and I were named to be the backups to Ed Lu and Yuri Malenchenko that are on orbit right now, and there I had to train both for launch in the left seat, rendezvous, and then descent. And then at the same time I had to take the same classes that Sasha, the Commander, was taking and do those in the center seat. So I have seen the whole smorgasbord of crew roles and responsibilities on board the Soyuz. On launch, because Spain is specifically putting its own country's money into a launch, into this Soyuz launch, and Pedro Duque needs to satisfy his mission objectives visiting the Space Station and at the same time delivering Sasha and myself and the vehicle to the Space Station, Pedro is launching in the left seat and fulfilling the roles that I trained for in my last training flow, and I will be riding in the right seat with not much to actually operate, but with a lot of experience and I guess I will have performed the duties of a Flight Engineer in any, in any American cockpit terms…rather like the Mission Specialist #2 does on board the Space Shuttle, between the Commander and the Pilot, I see myself doing the same thing on board this Soyuz, launching on October the 18th. From the point of view of personal sensation it won't be any different from that of Sasha or Pedro. We will feel a launch acceleration not so different from the Space Shuttle. I expect the vibrations to be much less than the Space Shuttle because we don't have boosters that are asymmetrically positioned opposite the center of thrust; instead, the Soyuz vehicle has most of its thrust straight through the centerline and it's all liquid fuel so it's a bit smoother. On the other hand there will be three stages as opposed to two stages on the Shuttle, so we'll get one extra kick in the pants before we actually finally get to orbit. The time to orbit takes about the same time as on board the Space Shuttle. So I don't expect to see anything very different from my previous flights on board the Space Shuttle, except that the ride will be smoother, the vibration less, and one extra staging.

You're going to spend about your first week on board the Station with all five of you there before Yuri Malenchenko and Ed Lu come home with Pedro Duque. What do you guys spend that week of handover talking about? How does it help you get off to a better start?

Well, the, there are a number of goals to be achieved during the joint operations of the visiting, of the oncoming crew and the off-going crew. First and foremost, as I said, Spain, through ESA, the European Space Agency, are paying the lion's share of this Soyuz flight, and they have serious science objectives to accomplish during the five days that Pedro is planned to be on board the Station with us. And so, to be honest, I feel even as, even though I am not the Commander at that time-Yuri Malenchenko is-I feel obliged, just as Sasha does, to help Pedro get kicked off to a running start as soon as we arrive. There is nothing more important than getting Pedro running. The remaining four days I will spend my time with Ed Lu, and hoping, and I hope with Ed to learn everything he has learned about the United States' space segment. That's the Lab, the Destiny module, learn about the Airlock, the Node, and all of our stowage there and all of our equipment there, and its operations with the control center here in Houston. However, I must not ignore what's going on in the Russian segment, where Sasha Kaleri will be spending a lot of time with Malenchenko and learning about Russian operations, work in the Service Module and in the FGB, and in their docking module. So these two, again, we're going to kind of split off a little bit-Americans are going to go to the right, Russians are going to go to the left, we'll work but then we'll come back together, tag up, say, at midday for lunch, whatever, and then go off our separate ways to continue what we call handover. By the time four days have gone by, I will know just the bare minimum to be able to find my clothes, wash my body, do my exercise, and work the radio. Of course, I'll have some theoretical training in the background that I'll have been doing for the last year or so, but the practical knowledge will be there after four days. And at that point, we will be ready to say, Pedro, you're going to that spacecraft; your seat liner's in that spacecraft-the old one, the returning one-with Ed Lu and Yuri Malenchenko, and then we'll close the hatch and breathe a sigh of relief, because joint ops is a very hard time because everybody has a lot to do in a short time. Once the hatch is closed I will ask the ground, and I've already started that process, to give us a bit of a break and give us…to be tolerant of us being slow in coming up to speed and starting any new tasks that they may have for us. And then we'll build up steadily over a month or so to a decent working pitch as we continue the International Space Station mission.

You and Alexander will, of course, have responsibility to maintain the Station in good working order throughout, but I don't know if we've mentioned this specifically, but you're not only the Expedition Commander but you're the NASA ISS Science Officer for Expedition 8 as well. So, tell me, in general, how do you see that the Station's scientific mission is going to get advanced during your increment?

Well, I think it's going to be advanced quite significantly; no less than before Columbia. And that's a, you know, a bold statement but it's supported by the fact that I have many investigations to carry out on board the Station. Not only before flight and after flight, looking at me as a guinea pig, but specifically during the flight…we have…one experiment that looks at the melting and then the re-solidification of metal analogues in the large facility, the glovebox facility, on, in the Destiny Laboratory module. We have a very interesting experiment that looks like it's straight out of Star Wars called SPHERES. In fact, it's supported by, as far as I could tell, they look very young, young university students, led maybe by post-docs but from MIT and other universities; supported by DARPA, our defense research agency. And this experiment is, the set of spheres-actually polyhedrons-that basically maneuver themselves in relation to each other and fly in formation to each other. We do this inside the volume of the Node, and I'll be doing that at different times during the mission; I'm quite excited about that. They're kind of like automated robots, but they're very, very sophisticated in their ability to know their attitude, orientation, and their positions. And then we have a, experiments that are life science-oriented. There's an experiment that measures how I move in space…for a number of days I'll be wearing some pretty fancy, expensive tights that are fully instrumented with instrumentation that measure where my, how my muscles are moving, how the nerves that are triggering my muscles are firing, and indeed, the actual resulting position of my leg. It's called Foot. Although, actually it's not only the foot that it's studying, it's studying the whole leg. And so that will then bring data back on basically how a human being adjusts, or just naturally assumes, a sort of neutral position in space during a normal workday. We have a, other investigations in different areas of science, and I will try and talk about those, probably every week or so. I've always been a fan of Bill Nye the Science Guy, and I respect him greatly-I think he would be a wonderful person to have on board the International Space Station with us. But since he can't be with us, I would like to show the same enthusiasm for what I'm learning and seeing up there as he does in his very famous show to children here on, in the United States.

At this point in your preparations for your mission, what are the plans for spacewalks? I realize that might change by the time you get there, but what are you and Alexander training for right now?

Well, both Sasha and I have done spacewalks before, Sasha three times on the Mir, I one time on the Mir, in the Russian spacesuit, and then once on STS-63, and then the space, Hubble STS-103 mission. And so we're experienced in EVA; we're not, you know, rookies desperate to go outside; however, that's not to knock it! And I love spacewalking: the view is extraordinary, the sensation of being out there, you're in your own little spacesuit, like a spaceship, sort of free from the Space Station, is an extraordinary experience. Very exhilarating…so, I would like to repeat that. On the books today, the Russians plan to have Sasha and I go out and complete a number of experiments, both Russian, European, and Japanese, that have been deployed outside the Service Module. And we will accomplish that Orlan-we call it the Orlan spacesuit-that Orlan, Russian EVA will take place in the March time frame. There are other tasks that, depending on how what crew comes to replace us-and I think it will be Bill McArthur and Valery Tokarev- depending on when that happens and how it happens, with Shuttle or with Soyuz, we may or may not do an additional, or be asked to do an additional task, additional EVA, in the Orlan suit. U.S. suit, Sasha and I are both trained in, but we've trained in it only for contingencies, in case some big piece of American equipment broke or failed and we really had to go outside to repair it. And in those cases, we'd use the American airlock, Quest.

ISS007-E-17762 -- Mike Foale

Expedition 8 Commander Michael Foale, NASA International Space Station science officer, arrives aboard the station. Photo credit: NASA

As you referred to at this point there is a, still an open question as to whether or not you will come home in the Soyuz that you rode up on or whether or not you'll come home on the Space Shuttle. Tell me, what are your thoughts today about the process that NASA's going through to return the Space Shuttle to flight, and do you have any preference as to which ride home you get?

I think, to be quite honest, I'd like to come home in the Soyuz. And that's mostly because it's well understood right now. Its ballistic entry was demonstrated by Ken Bowersox and Don Pettit and Nikolai Budarin on the last entry. People called that off-nominal-it certainly was not an expected entry-but it demonstrated yet another aspect of the Soyuz, which is its robustness. Also it would be a new experience for me, and again, as I say, I'm a curious individual, I'm quite adventurous, and so I'd like to try it. I was quite thrilled to chase after Ken Bowersox and Don and Nikolai out there in Kazakhstan in May. It was a very exciting adventure for me, also, in the helicopters, looking out, trying to find them. And I'd like to go to the same place-no, maybe not quite so far away from the landing site like they did, but it would be a lot of fun for me. …however, I do want the Shuttle to succeed. I want it, I want this return to flight to take place, and the, I do believe when the Shuttle starts flying again, if we can ever make the Shuttle really safe, it will be those first few flights. But I don't believe, in my opinion, that the Shuttle's architecture will allow it to be significantly safer without adding crew escape to it. And, I just think that's a function of the huge and enormous energies a spacecraft has to either attain to get into orbit-this is twenty-five times the speed of sound, twelve times faster than a Mach 16 automatic weapons bullet, and then you're moving a hundred tons at that speed: that's how fast a Shuttle has to go to get into orbit-and then when it comes back from orbit it has to get rid of that speed, just as the Soyuz does, also. So how, so just the very, the magnitudes of the energies that we're dealing with make space vehicles risky. And, I think to change the risk for human beings in the Space Shuttle, you really need to allow the human beings to get away from those huge energies in the event of malfunctions. So, I think the Space Shuttle needs to fly again, and it needs to be flown as safe as it possibly can. But we need to look very, very hard at how we reduce the risk to human lives on board it.

We talked about your mission-beginning, on orbit, coming home. As you come home from Expedition 8, what in your mind do you think will have had to have happened for you to consider that your mission was a success?

Only that we didn't cause any permanent damage to the Space Station, and that we did not cause any permanent rift in our own relationship, both between the two of us-Sasha and myself-and our control centers. So, as, if I can say we…we basically spent our time there we were productive, and we are still friends, and the centers, the two control centers are still happy with our performance, then I'm very, very happy. And, that's a lot to ask, to be honest, although it sounds simple.

Well, the International Space Station is a very ambitious project. There are designs on achievements in engineering and science and global relations, as well as space exploration. Mike, in your opinion, what do you think is the most valuable contribution that will come out of the International Space Station program?

Oh, I think, historically, if, when we look back fifty years to this time, we won't remember the experiments that were performed, we won't remember the assembly that was done, we may barely remember any individuals. What we will know was that countries came together to do the first joint international project, and we will know that that was the seed that started us off to the moon and Mars. Because then, I know, when we're looking back from Mars, for example, it won't be just the United States, or it won't just be China or Russia: it will be an international mission. And it will have come out of the very fact that we're doing the International Space Station today.