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Preflight Interview: Leroy Chiao
S98-01237 -- Leroy Chiao

Expedition 10 Commander Leroy Chiao. Photo credit: NASA

Q: The International Space Station Crew Interviews with Leroy Chiao, Commander of the tenth Expedition to ISS. Leroy, if you can, summarize what are the goals of this mission to the International Space Station?

A: Well, the main goal of our flight is to continue to maintain the International Space Station. As you know, since the Columbia tragedy, we have been flying two-person crews to the Station, and the primary goals of those crews has been to keep the Station going by doing repairs, on-orbit maintenance, and also in the meantime performing different experiments as well as performing some assembly tasks as well. So, we'll be continuing in that vein of work, primarily to maintain the Station but in the meantime also performing science experiments, and we'll also be doing a couple of spacewalks to add some antennas to the Russian segment to kind of continue the assembly.

You raise a couple of interesting points, I might as well touch on them now; the first being Columbia. The loss of Columbia and its crew last year has made it pretty clear to everybody just how dangerous space travel can be.


Well, you've done this before and, here you are, ready to go do it again. Why? What is it that you see that's so valuable out of doing this that you're willing to take this risk?

Well, I think, you know, by our nature, human beings are explorers. We're curious, and starting from the days way back when the first primitive people decided to go over the hill and to see what was on the other side, to the voyages of Columbus, and, you know, our first forays into aviation and into spaceflight, people are just curious and we need to go see what's on the other side of that mountain and because we do these things we have all kinds of benefits that come out of that. And the Space Station is exactly right along those lines. You know, we are out there doing scientific experiments, and we're performing research that can't be done on the ground; in addition, I mean, we are learning on how to build and maintain a spacecraft for a long duration. If we're going to go to the moon and Mars, we're going to have to know how, you know, the weak points of a spacecraft and what we need to kind of improve and how we need to plan to do maintenance and things like that, and the Space Station is an ideal platform for those kind, that kind of work.

You also noted that your mission has a crew of two as the Station has been crewed for the last year and a half now. And at the time, you remember, there was some concern that a crew of only two people might not be enough to do all the things that would need to be done. What is it that we've learned from these past few Expeditions about helping to balance out all the demands so that a crew of just two people can do what's necessary?

Well, you're right: it is a very demanding timeline for a crew of two, and the past two-person crews have shown that they can accomplish those timelines and remain healthy and well-rested and things like that. And our flight will be the same. We just had a timeline review yesterday, as a matter of fact, and we have a very full schedule; we'll be doing a lot of work. But at the same time, we'll be having scheduled time off, where we can kind of re-energize and recharge, and so I really don't see a problem with that. Now, of course, the thing that suffers sometimes when we are scheduled in like this, is we don't get as much science done as we'd like. The purpose of the International Space Station, of course, is to do all kinds of cutting-edge science that can't be done on the ground, but our goal right now is to kind of keep that laboratory going, kind of do a little bit of assembly, until we can get the Shuttle flying again and resume construction, until we get the laboratory finished.

You've been training for this flight in one way or another for quite a while right now, and you've flown to this Space Station before. Has that experience given you an edge as you've gone through the preparation now?

Well, it helps having been there before; of course when my last mission flew, STS-92, we were the last crew to go to the Space Station before the first crew, Expedition 1, launched. In fact, Expedition 1 launched about two weeks after we came home from that flight. So, having been to the Station before gives me a little bit of an advantage that I have an idea what it's like, although it was only a, we only had a two-week mission, so it's not like the long-duration experience I'm about to have. However, just having been there, even though the Station was a lot smaller then, gives me kind of a mental idea of what to expect. So, it does help a little.

The flip side of the experience coin is that Expedition 10 is the first Station crew in which none of its members has ever flown a long-duration flight before. But, given what you, we've learned through the first nine crews, and all the help you got on the ground, is that really a concern? Does it matter?

Well, I don't think so. In our case, it's true: Neither Salizhan nor I have flown a long-duration flight; however, between us, we have four Shuttle flights, and so we have a wealth of experience being in space and how to, and operating in space. The only part we haven't experienced is how do you do an entire long-duration flight, but given our experience I don't anticipate that that'll be a problem. We work very well together; our personalities complement each other, and we both kind of have the same views on how things ought to be done. And so I think that everything will be just fine.

I would guess there probably have been at least a few people around here who have given you some advice, too.

Oh sure, yeah. Of course we talk to the returning crewmembers to find out what their impressions are of the Space Station and kind of get the nuggets of what they found was valuable or were surprised by. So, yeah, I've done a lot of talking with Mike Foale and Ed Lu and the other folks that have come back. I continue to talk to Mike Fincke - he calls every now and then from the IP phone and surprises me, and we'll chat for a few minutes about what he's experiencing and what he's finding that's important that he didn't think about before.

Change the subject on you for a second; I want to talk more about you than the mission. Do you remember why you wanted to become an astronaut?

Well, I've been interested in being an astronaut since I was pretty young. I was 8 years old when the first Apollo moon landing happened, and I still remember very vividly watching that, and then even before that I was following the earlier flights of Gemini, and so, it was, but it was really the Apollo moon landing that solidified in my mind, as an eight-year-old, that this is something I'd like to do. And it's something I always kind of kept with me; I know a lot of kids say that, but you know, but when I was in the university, I was studying chemical engineering, I was thinking, well, what is it that I'd really like to do, and I always came back to NASA. And so I always knew that one day I would fill out an application and try to do this.

There are people in the Astronaut Office with a lot of different kinds of backgrounds. What's your example - how did you, in the course of your education and then in your career, what did you do to become a person that NASA wanted for an astronaut?

Well, the thing I tell people who ask me how do you become an astronaut, I say, well, there really is no one way to do it. Of course, we have the military folks that come up through their side, and we have the civilians like me who come up through university. And my advice to them always is to study and work in an area that interests you and also qualifies you to apply to be an astronaut. In my case, I was studying chemical engineering, and NASA recruits people in the science and engineering fields. And after I got my degrees, I started to work, and at that time I filled out an application. So, it's the kind of thing where you can't count on becoming an astronaut because there are so many qualified applicants and just a limited number of slots. But if you're a person who puts all your eggs in one basket and say, well, I'm going to study something I'm not really interested in and hope to become an astronaut, and if you don't make it, you're in for a lot of disappointment. So, my advice to people always is to study something that you're interested in and work in a field that interests you, and you're getting some rewarding work out of, and then apply. And that's basically the path that I followed.

So, chemical engineering was something that interested you as a kid? Or, not as a kid, a little kid, but…

Yeah. It was something that I was interested in, mechanical things and electrical things and chemical things and all that, as a kid growing up. My favorite subjects were science and math and so it was kind of a natural that I go and study engineering. And when I was at Berkeley, studying for my undergraduate degree, I actually started thinking more towards electrical engineering. But really when I started getting into all these different classes, I really started turning my focus more towards mechanical and chemical and finally settled on chemical engineering.

Members of any flight crew have got to have a whole range of interests and talents in order to do all the jobs that have to be done, and you and Salizhan Sharipov have to do all of that just among, between the two of you.

That's true.

What are your main responsibilities as the commander of this Expedition?

Well, as the commander my responsibility is to keep the overall big picture of the flight, the state of the vehicle, and the mission, and make sure that we don't get sidetracked or go down, you know, some branch and, you know, kind of keep everything in focus. Also during emergency procedures, of course, it's very important that there be a commander, and that's me, and I'll be running the checklist and keeping the big picture and making sure we're doing everything that we're supposed to be doing during an emergency procedure. But basically, I'll be concentrating on daily operations: I'll be concentrating on the American segment, and Salizhan will be concentrating on operations in the Russian segment. Of course, there, we will [work] together in both segments as well, but primarily I'll be looking over his shoulder in a big picture way, but he's kind of the specialist in the Russian segment and I'm the specialist in the U.S. segment. But in a crew of two we'll be checking each other, and we'll be working together as a team as much as possible.

The in-flight portion of this mission begins for you in a way that none of your previous flights have. What do you do as the flight engineer in a Soyuz, and tell me about how you're thinking that's going to really, how that's going to be different for you from flying in a Shuttle?

Well, like you said, besides flying for a long-duration flight, launching and landing on a Soyuz is going to be a whole new experience for me, one that I'm really looking forward to. My last three flights have been on the Shuttle, of course, and in the Soyuz my responsibility as the flight engineer is, basically, I'm the copilot of the vehicle. So, Salizhan is the commander of the vehicle, and we trained together, side-by-side, in the simulators in Russia. I'm trained in all aspects of the flight - be it ascent, entry rendezvous, docking emergency entry, things like that. So, we spent many, many hours in the simulator training together and it's really been an interesting thing for me. As a Mission Specialist here, I don't train as much on the flight deck with the commander and the pilot of the Shuttle, and so this is, kind of gives me a glimpse into what they do - actually, more than a glimpse; I'm actually participating heavily in it. And so this is probably the big adventure for me is to get the chance to fly on a Russian rocket.

ISS010-E-05598 -- Leroy Chiao

Expedition 10 Commander Leroy Chiao, NASA International Space Station science officer, floats in the Destiny laboratory. Photo credit: NASA

And, for somebody who is a pilot himself that must really have piqued your interest.

Oh, absolutely! I've been interested in flying as long as I've been interested in space, and like you touched upon, I am a pilot and I have my own airplane, and enjoy flying quite a bit. So the Soyuz is really an interesting thing for me to learn about.

After Soyuz docks, you're going to spend a week, give or take, on board the Station the two of you with Gennady Padalka and Mike Fincke before they head home. Does that handover period really help you guys get, you know, hit the ground running, as it were?

I think it's absolutely essential. Of course I haven't experienced it firsthand, but everything that I've heard and just my perception of it is that it's absolutely essential because no matter how good the training is on the ground it's never the same as being on the actual vehicle. Also, those guys, they've been up there for six months, and they know the ins and outs of the Station, they know the little surprises, the "gotchas," and things like that, and they will spend that week handing over to us all their knowledge. And that'll really give us an edge on, you know, hitting the ground, hitting the ground running.

By the way, just weeks after you get there is Election Day here in the United States. What's the process for you to vote, or, do you vote before you go, or what?

Well, that's being worked right now. The question is whether I would fill out an absentee ballot before, or whether we can arrange some way for me to vote from space. Now, I think back in the Mir days, one of our astronauts was on board Mir during the election and he was able to electronically somehow to cast his ballot from space, and so I'm hoping to be able to do that 'cause I think it'd be an interesting thing for all of us. But failing that, of course, then I would figure out some way to do some kind of early voting. But it's a very important question, and one that we're working to figure out the best way to solve.

There's another example of the fact that life on the planet you're leaving behind won't have stopped: you're flying on a mission that is going to have you away during the holiday season at the end of the year. Do you and Salizhan have plans, or are you bringing some supplies along with you to allow you to celebrate those holidays, too?

Sure. We actually will have some time off during the holidays, during Thanksgiving and Christmas and then New Year's and also the Orthodox Russian Christmas Day, which is Jan. 7th, and, on board we understand, we do have some things from previous crews. And also I understand some surprises are being packed in some of our supplies that are going to come up, and so I'm not sure exactly what they are, but I think we're going to be getting something.

Let's talk about science on board the Station. The primary focus of science on board these days is turning to research into how people can live and work safely in weightlessness. Tell me about some of these human life sciences experiments on the flight that you, in fact are going to be the test subject for.

Right. Well, since the accident, the Columbia accident, we have not been able to get payloads and experimental equipment, you know, in general, big pieces of equipment, up and down, and so we've been a little limited on the kinds of science we can do. However, we can still do medical studies and biological studies on our, using ourselves as test, you know, test subjects. So that's basically what we're going to be doing. We have a number of different experiments that we'll be performing one of which I can tell you about is called Foot. And I'll be instrumented and they'll be able to measure my leg muscles and my leg joints and to see how the, how I differently use those joints, muscles on the Earth and in space. And through those correlations we'll better understand what kind of exercise we'll be needing to do to keep a crew healthy during a long-duration voyage to Mars, things like that. Some of the other things we'll be doing, we'll be measuring, pre- and post-flight, different levels of you know, different compounds they're looking for in the blood, different physiology, muscle groups, things like that. And all this is geared towards the president's vision of exploration. And so we'll be continuing, in our way, you know, the science that will be needed to continue with the vision of a voyage towards Mars.

I would guess, then, to that extent you are continuing to be a part of the experiment after you come home.

Absolutely. After we come home we have a whole battery of tests and things to go through in support of these experiments so that they can do, can get the "before" and "after" data, as well as the in-flight data, and help to, help the scientists to draw conclusions on our experience to apply to future long-duration crews.

The International Space Station is a laboratory for experiments in other areas of science as well. Tell me what those areas are - what other kinds of things will you be working on during your flight?

Well, we have ability to work on some of the science experiments you just mentioned. Some of them are basic science research experiments; one that's very interesting that we'll be working on is forming what's called liquid crystals and suspensions near the critical point. And without getting too much into the technical details, these are experiments that really are ideally suited for space because these suspensions can grow in microgravity and not settle down because of gravity, and so things like that are very unique where we can answer some fundamental physics questions and help further the science along in that direction.

Those must be of particular interest to somebody who's got a background as a chemical engineer and has worked on these kinds of things before.

That's true.

You mentioned earlier that there was spacewalk plans and, we understand that plans can change -- just ask Padalka and Fincke.

That's right.

Right now, what are the plans for spacewalks for Expedition 10?

Well, for our mission we have two planned spacewalks in Russian spacesuits, and we'll be working on the Russian segment installing antennas and other equipment in support of the European ATV, the cargo transfer vehicle. And so we'll be, in our small way, kind of continuing the construction of the Space Station. But we have two EVAs planned and as you said, you know, things can happen where we might be called upon to do some other maintenance work.

You've already done two spacewalks on this Space Station, albeit the smaller version of it when you delivered the Z1 truss some years ago. Is there, beyond the obvious difference in the size of the Station, are there important differences that you see in preparing for these spacewalks as opposed to the ones you've already done?

Well, they will be a little different. Number one, of course, we'll be going out in Russian suits, and that'll be a whole new experience for me, and I'm very excited about getting the chance to do that and have that experience and compare the differences between the U.S. suits and the Russian suits. The other factor that will be a little different is that we won't have a Shuttle there. We won't have a Shuttle docked, and we won't be basing out of there. So, we'll be basing completely out of the Station, of course, with no Shuttle, and that'll be a new thing for me. But, everything will be fine; I'm sure that it will all go well. It's just kind of a little mental adjustment.

Your first spacewalks, back on STS-72 were testing some Station-building tools and techniques. Are you aware of some of the things that you proved that have been put into practice?

Oh, yes. There are several of the tools that we tested during STS-72 that are now a part of our baseline tool set for U.S. EVAs. And we've used some of those tools on the Russian suit in this last time when Expedition 9 went out and did the replacement of that RPCM [remote power controller module] they used the American tools that we helped develop. And so, that was really exciting. And in the future I know that there will be some pieces of the Station that we helped test the prototypes of on STS-72 as well that have been incorporated in the design, so it's very rewarding to kind of get to, you know, get in on the ground floor, so to speak, of testing these tools and techniques, getting to put some of those into practice on STS-92, and now kind of continuing that with this Expedition.

The last three Expedition crews spent six months each on orbit with no visitors. But if the Shuttle returns to flight in the spring, as is still planned, you'll be there when Eileen Collins and her crew arrive on board Discovery. Have you had any thoughts about what it'll be like to be part of that historic moment, historic not only for the Station, but for all of spaceflight?

For the whole program, yeah; absolutely. That's something we're hoping for-we'd love to have STS-114 come up and visit us during our flight. And we'd welcome them and well, we're keeping our fingers crossed. It'll be a really neat event having the Space Shuttle return to flight and come up during our increment and do some construction work while we're there, and our two crews will work together, and we sure hope that'll happen.

ISS010-E-11144 -- Leroy Chiao

Expedition 10 Commander Leroy Chiao, NASA International Space Station science officer, uses a microphone/keypad for the ARISS ham radio in the Zvezda service module. Photo credit: NASA

Let me ask you about that. The plans for all the activity on STS-114, the list actually seems to keep growing. They've got inspections that they have to do, there are spacewalks to inspect and test out repair techniques as well as the assembly of the Station as well as an MPLM that they're bringing along. Are these things that you and Salizhan are now training for, for your role in them, or do you wait until you get on orbit and are sure that they're coming and then, and do the training remotely?

No, we have been doing the training for these events. Salizhan and I have both received MPLM training, and we also received a lot of photography lessons on how to take pictures of the Shuttle tile and leading edges to, you know, inspect the heat shielding. We also have been trained to be the EVA, do their EVA tasks in case there's, something happens, and he and I need to go out and perform the EVA tasks; we're ready to go do all that stuff. So you know, we've been training all along that they're going to arrive, and of course, before they arrive, we'll have some on-board training to do some refresher to kind of get those thoughts going again. And so we're just keeping our fingers crossed it'll work out for 114 to come up.

If you think about it, you've got, you're looking at the possibility of, in just six months, a Shuttle visit; two spacewalks, maybe more science work, maintenance of the Station all the time. In your opinion, as you approach this as the Commander, what constitutes success? What will have had to have happened for you to come home knowing Expedition 10 worked?

Well, I'll tell you what the biggest reward for me and the biggest measure of success, is if we can get accomplished the goals of the flight, which is to maintain the Station and keep it healthy while also performing some of these assembly tasks and experiments. And the biggest measure of that, for me, is how happy the ground teams are with our work. And so our goal is to execute all the tasks that we're assigned in the best manner possible, and try to keep everyone happy on the ground. Because that's, to me, that's the biggest measure of success.

If you stop and think about it, the International Space Station is a project that is looking to make advances in engineering and in science and in global relations, as well as space exploration.


Leroy, finally, what do you think is the most valuable contribution that is coming from the International Space Station program?

Well, I think the biggest contribution that will come in later years, when we get the laboratory fully assembled and operational, is the science that will come out of the Station. That was the main goal of designing the Space Station and building the Space Station, is to do science that we can't do here on the ground. And especially to learn how we can better adapt vehicles, equipment, and exercise and all that to keep people healthy on a long-duration voyage to Mars. So that, I think, is the main goal of the Station. Now, for my specific flight one of the big goals, or big things that will come out of my mission, is that we will continue to learn how to operate and build a vehicle that could go to Mars, because if you think about it, if we build a Mars vehicle, it's going to be more like a Space Station than a rocket, because we're going to be sending something, you know, a vehicle off with a crew in it, and they are going to have to be able to maintain that thing and keep it running, keep themselves healthy, and get to Mars, explore Mars, and return. And so, we need to make sure that we build a vehicle that is robust, that is maintainable, and you know, I think that one of the big things that people don't think as much about is, we are learning every day how to build, design, and operate a long-duration autonomous space vehicle.