Text Size

Preflight Interview: John Phillips
The International Space Station Expedition 11 crew interview with NASA ISS Science Officer and Flight Engineer John Phillips.

Expedition 11 Flight Engineer John PhillipsImage to right: NASA ISS Science Officer and Flight Engineer John Phillips. Credit: NASA

Q: You have a job that a lot of kids dream of having someday. Is being an astronaut what you always wanted to be when you grew up?

A: Well, not quite always. There weren't any astronauts until I was about 10. Yuri Gagarin went into space right around my tenth birthday. But as a boy I'd always read books about travel and adventure, and even a little sci-fi involving travel and adventure, and so when he launched into space around my tenth birthday I thought, "Hey, this could be real -- I could maybe really do this -- and I might, if I apply myself, get there someday."

You have a vivid memory of when Gagarin first flew, and Alan Shepard and John Glenn flew?

Actually, strangely enough, I have a more of a vivid memory of Sputnik. I remember it making the papers when I was a little boy. It was all over the papers and, and people were impressed, maybe a little horrified, and the space race was on., I do remember the Gagarin flight years later, and then the whole nation got caught up in the spirit of the Mercury Program, once we had our own astronauts.

With those things in mind then, tell me what you did in terms of applying yourself to an education and then to a career that, that led you to the day when you became qualified to be an astronaut.

Well, it took me a long time to get selected as an astronaut. In fact, I applied for 20 years before I was selected. But I never made a career decision based solely on my desire to be an astronaut. I attended the Naval Academy because I wanted to be a Navy pilot. I majored in math because math had always come pretty easily to me and I liked it. And then I flew in the Navy for 10 years. And at the time I did, in fact, apply to be an astronaut. That's what I wanted to do, but I was also a Navy pilot and that was one of my goals, too. It so happened that my goals kind of matched my career progression toward becoming an astronaut. And then I got out of the Navy after 10 years and I went to grad school and became a physicist. That was once again not so much that I wanted to be an astronaut but because at that point in my life I wanted to be a scientist. I got a degree in physics and I worked as a scientist for nine years. All that time I was continuing to apply to be an astronaut and after many, many years I finally got their attention.



Is there a person -- it may be more than one -- person you can look back at and say that they were most important in your achieving all that you have? Your inspiration, if you will.

Well, there are some; more than one. First off I'd point to my dad who served in two wars has been flying airplanes for 60 years now. He was certainly quite an inspiration. And then beyond my dad there were hundreds of years of world explorers -- people like Nansen and Shackleton and Franklin, polar explorers in particular, and Captain Cook, for example -- people who went out and discovered things that no one had seen before or no one had mapped or no one understood fully. That whole, maybe 200 years of world explorers were kind of my idols, and still are.

Those people took big risks in their lives. Astronauts, we know today, especially since Columbia, are aware of the risks of spaceflight and are willing to take those risks. I want to know why you think the job you're doing now is worth the risk you're willing to take?

To me it's very definitely worth the risk, and it is a risky business. We sometimes are guilty of making it look a little too easy, maybe. But it's not easy, what we do. I liken it sort of to polar exploration during say the 19th Century when people were looking for the Northwest Passage. Ships were lost and brave people were killed, but that doesn't mean we never went back to that part of the world again, and I consider it the same in space exploration. A civilization that only looks inward will stagnate. We have to keep looking outward; we have to keep finding new avenues for human endeavor and human expression. If I wasn't doing this kind of exploration, I'd like to be doing some other kind of exploration. It might be more risky, or less risky, but, in the business of exploration, risk is part of the territory.

You've flown to the International Space Station before; has that experience given you an advantage in training and preparing for this mission?

Oh, it sure has. I went to ISS during Expedition 2 in, in 2001. And first off I found that it was a wonderful place to be. The crew was doing a great job, they were having a good time, and I thought, I'd really like to come up here. But of course during a Shuttle mission you're there on board the Station for maybe eight days and it's really, really busy. Every day there's some major event going on: an MPLM installation, a spacewalk, or even a docking or undocking, and we had very little time to look out the window, for example. We, we were really busy. What it drove home to me was how well prepared you have to be, and how well you have to know the routine and know the plan to function effectively in that environment when there are say, eight to ten people on board the Station and every step is choreographed and the Station and Shuttle crews have to work together.

Talk about preparation, the fact is you began preparing for this mission anticipating that you were going up and down on a Space Shuttle, but that's no longer the case. Did the change have a big effect on your, your training or on the flight itself?

Well it had a huge effect on the training. I was a backup for Expedition 7 which, before the Columbia accident, was supposed to go on Shuttle, and I was expecting to go on Expedition 9 or 10, also on Shuttle. In those days of course we had three-person crews and I was scheduled to be in the right seat, that's sort of the tourist seat. In the Soyuz vehicle. Well, since then, now that I'm launching in the Soyuz, I've had to qualify as a Flight Engineer, who sits in the left seat, and that's probably a factor of five greater in terms of knowledge required of that vehicle, and number of training sessions, number of, number of simulators, number of exams you have to take. So it's added a lot of, a lot of challenge to me, learning how to fly somebody else's vehicle in a different language, and even though the Soyuz is a, is a small vehicle, it's surprisingly complex and there's a surprising amount of crew interaction.

Is it fun?

It is fun. It's small, but it's fun. I'm really looking forward to this great adventure of going to a place halfway around the world and launching on a Russian rocket.

Is there something you've got in mind that you're most looking forward to seeing once you get back to the ISS?

Yeah, there is, actually, and it's the Earth. As I mentioned I was up on the Shuttle for eight days or so on board the Space Station. On an assembly mission like we do they are so jam-packed with activity that you don't have that much time to look out the window. Well, looking out the window is wonderful in space. It's the thing I like to do most, and I wish I had more time to do it. I've always liked maps. I've always liked sight-seeing, and to stare out the window and watch this beautiful Earth go by, and to see places that either I will never set foot on in my life, the strange exotic places, or places that I'm very familiar with -- those are both great pleasures. I'm looking forward to having a little time to do that this time.

Let's talk about Expedition 11. What are the goals of this increment on ISS?

For me the first goal is to keep the Station in good shape. That is, basically routine maintenance and contingencies -- if something comes up that we have to fix, we need to be able to keep it in good shape. We want to leave it in at least as good shape as we found it. Second is to carry out a program of scientific research. Even with only two people on board, where maintenance is a large piece of our working day, we still have time to do scientific research. But third, and maybe the most dramatic part of all this, is that we're going to have the privilege and the challenge of being there when the American Space Shuttles return to flight, hopefully in May of this year. This is going to be a pivotal moment not only for NASA, but for the whole ISS partnership. We're going to be on the spot. A lot of people are going to be looking at us and we have to be ready to support those Shuttle visits in a lot of different ways. That's going to be maybe the mark of our success or failure as a, as an increment, as an Expedition.

Overall then, as the Flight Engineer and the NASA ISS Science Officer, what are your primary responsibilities as a member of this crew?

A few years from now, after assembly complete, when we have a larger crew on orbit, a more complex vehicle, more laboratories and more robot arms, maybe we'll have room for specialists. But right now we don't. There are only going to be two of us up there, or hopefully three later in the mission, and we're all generalists. I've got to be able to operate and maintain the equipment in the Russian segment and the U.S. segment. I've got to be able to do spacewalks in a Russian suit or an American suit. I've got to be able to operate the robot arm. I'm a crew medical officer. I've got to be able to do scientific experiments on both sides. I've got to be able to go up and down on a Soyuz rocket, and to support the, the Space Shuttle when it's there. So we're, we're both generalists. I can't tell you that I have a special role on this mission. Special role is to do everything that needs doing.

Your commander, when once asked what does the flight engineer do, he said, "Take care of everything, including crew."

[Laughs] That's right. Well fortunately with Sergei Krikalev as my commander of the ISS and of the Soyuz vehicle, he can take care of most everything himself. But I'll be there too and together we'll hopefully get everything done.

On the subject of the science agenda, focus of U.S. science on the ISS is turning more and more to research on how people can live and work for long times, safely, while in weightlessness. Tell me about some of the human life sciences experiments that you have on this flight, that in fact you will be one of the subjects for?

With our new emphasis as announced by the president [last] year, we're going to be focusing our science on things that will take us farther and longer into space. For many of those experiments, the crewmembers are human guinea pigs, which is fine; that's part of my job. I don't mind being a human guinea pig. One experiment is called FOOT, which is Foot/Ground Reactions. It's well known that astronauts and cosmonauts have suffered bone and muscle loss during long-duration spaceflight, and we have an aggressive program of exercise to deal with that. We do aerobic exercise on a bike, for example, and we do resistive exercises on a machine that's a bit like a machine that you would find in your, in your neighborhood gym, a, weight-lifting kind of exercises. There's also a possibility that to keep bones and muscle you need impact, and that's one of the reasons we have a treadmill on board well as a bike. By impact, I mean the kind of impact you get every day walking around or running. And the experiment called FOOT is very interesting to me. In practice for it, baseline data collection, I get to walk around the center here with this cool looking spandex suit on. Basically they wire up one of my legs with sensors that measure the angles of my hip, knee and ankle. I've also got pressure measuring devices in the soles of my shoes, and I've got EKG-type leads on my legs and arms. The idea is that you wear this for a normal day, including exercise, and the researchers can measure what kind of angles your legs take up during the day when you might think you're just, they're just trailing around behind you in weightless conditions, and what kind of impacts you feel during your exercise. They're going to compare that with what we do on the ground. I think it's going to be a very important, kind of unique data set in terms of measuring the behavior of your lower body in space and trying to figure out what, maybe, we can do to preserve bone and muscle density. So that's one. And then I'd like to mention another that's completely different but is maybe going to be very, very important when we start going to Mars or having a lunar base, and that's the ADUM experiment. That is Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity. Basically it consists of a, a modern ultrasound set on orbit and a couple people, the Space Station crewmen, who are not trained ultrasound specialists but have had some hours of training, and we basically ultrasound each other with guidance from the ground. Now, there's a specialist on the ground, a medical doctor, an expert on it, who's seeing a, a high bandwidth data link of our ultrasound images and guiding us through the ultrasound diagnostic procedure. The diagnostics involved, thoracic and abdominal, skeletal and facial regions, and these could be really, really important in determining and diagnosing an illness or an injury on board. We've got to demonstrate that it's practical to get quality ultrasound or other kind of diagnostic images back to the Earth with a not, a non-expert operator. That's the, the point of ADUM. Other crews have done it quite successfully and we're looking forward to doing it as well.

Expedition 11 Flight Engineer John PhillipsImage to right: Astronaut John L. Phillips, Expedition 11 flight engineer and NASA ISS science officer, participates in Human Research Facility Primary Flight Software training. Credit: NASA

The research into how the body responds to being in space is a focus of science, but ISS is a laboratory for other kinds of science too. Give me a, a taste, a sense for what other kinds of research are under, going to be under way during Expedition 11.

We do have physical science experiments. For example, we have something called SpaceDRUMS, which uses a unique acoustic suspension system and studies processes like combustion in space. But a much bigger emphasis for our mission is going to be the internal build-up of the Space Station as a world-class scientific laboratory. We are going to have the privilege and challenge to do some initial setup and commissioning experiments for some facilities class experimental devices that come up during the Shuttle flights. The first thing we're going to get, of the three major new scientific devices, is the HRF, or Human Research Facilities rack No. 2. There's already one on board. This one is going to have a body mass measuring device and a pulmonary function device with a gas sample setup. We are going to be the people who install it. In fact, we have to move some devices between the two HRF racks and basically make sure it works right. On the second Shuttle flight, on STS-121, we're going to get two other facilities. One is called MELFI, the Minus Eighty-Degree Laboratory Freezer for the International Space Station. This is a big rack-sized freezer with a bunch of different chambers that as the name would tell you, goes down to -80 degrees Celsius. We're going to do the on board commissioning experiment. This will be a vital facility for sample preservation, for many future experiments. And then we're also going to get the European Modular Cultivation System, which actually has an initial experiment that comes with it, too, called TROPI. The European Modular Cultivation System, or EMCS, is basically a heavily-instrumented centrifuge with photo recording inside. Researchers from around the world will write proposals for and get accepted for experiments. They will put small samples in the centrifuge and spin it at varying rates to create synthetic gravity, like the gravity of Mars or the gravity of the moon, and measure how their specimens respond within the centrifuge. We're really looking forward to continuing the internal buildup of the laboratory.

You've also been training for a couple of spacewalks, as you mentioned earlier. Now, recognizing that things may change by the time you get there, what's the current plan for spacewalks during your increment?

We're scheduled as of right now to do two spacewalks. The first one will be in the Russian Orlan suit, coming out of the Russian airlock. In this one Sergei and I will retrieve three different sets of experimental target kind of devices that are out, that have been put there out on the Russian segment by earlier spacewalk crews. And we'll go out and bring back these samples for, in some cases analysis on board, in some cases return to Earth. And we're also going to move a device called the Strela adapter. Strela is the Russian crane, and we need to set up a new base for it for some future operations. So we'll do that in the Russian suit. I'm really looking forward to working in that suit and going out of the Russian airlock. We're also scheduled for one American EVA. The American EVA will be in the EMU American EVA suit, and we'll go out of the U.S. Joint Airlock. On this one our tasks are to install a large stanchion that has a device on board that measures the electrical electrostatic potential of the vehicle. As we continue the buildup of the solar arrays this will be a very important safety device so that the engineers will know to what level the spacecraft is charging in interplanetary space. And so we're putting up this big, 12-foot-tall pole up on the, up on one of the trusses. We're also going to install some hydraulic safety devices at various places around the Station, we're going to change out a small computer on board and we're going to retrieve some experimental targets.

Must be nice to be going out to do that with one of the most experienced spacewalkers in history as your partner.

That's true. Ever since I've been an astronaut I knew I wanted to do a spacewalk, and it's really comforting to go out with a guy who's done it a lot of times.

In your opinion, before you've even gotten there, by the time you leave the ISS what will have had to occur for you to think that the time there was successful?

For our mission to be successful we've got to leave the ISS in at least as good shape as we found it. We want the next crew to come aboard and find a clean ship with everything functioning well, or functioning as well as we can make it function. We would like to carry out 100 percent, or maybe more, of our scientific program; I would like to devote some of my spare time toward extra scientific work. And finally we've got to support these Space Shuttle return-to-flight missions, STS-114 and 121. That, I think, is maybe the most unique part of our mission - that we're going to be the guys on the spot when those beautiful Shuttles come back up.

The last four Expedition crews spent six months on orbit with no visitors, but if they hold to the schedule, you're going to be on board in the spring when Eileen Collins and her crew arrive on board Discovery. What are your thoughts about being there to be part of the Shuttle's return to flight?

First, it's going to be really exciting. It's going to be really busy and a challenge, but I'm glad we're going to get a couple visiting vehicles there. The whole hunker-down-for-six-month thing is probably not quite as rewarding as hosting these visitors and working with them on a lot of inter-complex operations. But what we're expecting is that in May, the Space Shuttle Discovery will lift off from the Cape and come up and see us, and we'll see it appearing below us as it comes up to rendezvous. They're going to do a very unique thing. It's one of the criteria established for return to flight, and that is an inspection of the Thermal Protection System on the outside of the Shuttle. The Space Shuttle will stop directly below the Space Station and Sergei and I will be looking out two different windows looking straight down at the Space Shuttle. Then Eileen will command a 360-degree pitch maneuver which will point the leading edge of the wing and the belly of the orbiter straight up at the Space Station. Sergei and I will have electronic still cameras, and we will do a detailed photo survey of the outside of the Shuttle and then we'll quickly downlink the photos back to the ground and let the experts on the ground analyze in detail the condition of the Thermal Protection System of the Shuttle.

Looking to make sure that there is no damage.


You've already been to the Station and you've seen it on a docking, but from the other end. You are one of the few people who now get both perspectives.

That's right. And you know, some of the best pictures I've seen from space were pictures that Jim Voss, Susan Helms and Yury Usachev took of us rendezvousing on STS-100. There are some beautiful pictures posted on the wall in Building 8 here at Johnson Space Center that I can recognize -- it's our vehicle. I think this is going to be really wonderful to be looking down and seeing that. Unfortunately, it's not just a sight-seeing kind of thing. We can't say, "Well there's the Shuttle silhouetted against the Great Barrier Reef." We're going to be busy taking exactly the pictures that we're programmed to take.

As you said there is a very busy schedule for STS-114 at the Station including spacewalks to test the Shuttle inspection and repair techniques as well as to install some new components. Briefly talk me through the spacewalks and talk about what role you play as this group of nine people goes through your paces.

In all three spacewalks, Sergei and I are to set up the robot arm of the Station in advance, and then I assist the spacewalkers in setting up the airlock and getting the spacewalkers dressed and out the door. After that the Shuttle crew pretty much takes over. The spacewalkers are Soichi Noguchi of, of Japan and Steve Robinson, an American astronaut. They are scheduled to do three spacewalks, each spaced two days apart. The first one is what we call a test objective kind of spacewalk where they are going to attempt to repair shuttle thermal protective tile back in the payload bay of the Shuttle. No one has ever done that before and it's going to be unique. I think at the time of this interview they're still not quite sure exactly how they're going to do it, but that's the goal of the first one. The second spacewalk is one they've had planned for several years now. It's to replace a Control Moment Gyroscope, which is a huge gyroscope -- there are four on board. They control the momentum and the attitude of the Station, and one of them failed a few years ago. On the third spacewalk they install ESP2, External Spares Platform 2, a big platform that sits on the side of the American segment of the Space Station and houses great big pumps and, and electrical modules which are never inside the vehicle but are carried up outside in the payload bay and put on this external platform.

Getting food and supplies and other material up to the Station has been limited to just Soyuz and Progress ships the last couple of years. Well, the next Shuttle flight will carry a cargo module in the payload bay as well as a middeck full of supplies. Give me a sense of how reopening that supply line is going to change life for the crew on board the Station, as well as change the Station itself.

Well, as you said, since the Columbia accident the Russian space agency, or the Russian space program, has been literally carrying the load and, and bringing us all the supplies we need on the, mostly on the Progress vehicle, smaller amounts on the Soyuz vehicles. One impact of that is that we've only had a crew of two instead of a crew of three, which, of course, reduces the amount of science we can do. Another impact is that we've frankly been operating on pretty thin margins of certain consumables -- food, water and oxygen. Once the Space Shuttles start flying, they carry a, a, a huge amount of mass to orbit, so they can bring our reserves of food, oxygen, and water back up to where they should be. The Shuttle makes water with its electrical power generation system. We should get well with water, food and oxygen as well as spare parts that we haven't been able to bring back. Another thing that people don't often think of is the Shuttle also carries a tremendous amount of downmass. We've been accumulating a lot of equipment -- some of which is equipment that needs to be returned to Earth and some of which is just plain trash, and there are limited amounts we can get rid of on the Progress vehicles. We should be able to load some of that stuff on the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module that'll be in the payload bay of the Shuttle, and help clean out the Station a little bit.

Not only the first Shuttle mission that returns, but part of your mission is for a second Shuttle mission during your time on orbit. Tell me about the plans for STS-121 and what you're going to be doing during their visit.

STS-121 is of great interest to us. I failed to mention in the previous question that one of the changes as a result of the Shuttles flying is that we should be able to go back to a third crewman. We're hoping that third crewman will come up on STS-121. Right now the international partners and our own agency and the Space Station program are trying to decide when is the right time to bring a third person up, but it may very well be on STS-121. Well, STS-121, like 114, carries a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. It also involves two spacewalks with the possibility of a third, but I believe it's, it's two right now. They're going to bring us up two experiment racks that I've mentioned, the MELFI and the modular cultivation system. They're going to do two spacewalks as of right now. The first one is another test objective-type spacewalk -- in this case evaluate the performance of an astronaut using the new boom system which will be carried by the Space Shuttle robot arm, and eventually could be used to take an astronaut under the belly of the orbiter to do repair and inspection of the Thermal Protection System. We'll be using that boom to evaluate work positions and accessibility. So that's a test spacewalk -- these will be carried out by Mike Fossum and Piers Sellers, by the way. The second spacewalk is designed to outfit the external spares platform that I mentioned earlier with some pump devices and other kind of hardware that goes on the outside of the Station.

As you mentioned, there's a chance that you're going to get a third Expedition 11 crewmember when STS-121 arrives. What's the significance in your mind to the return to a crew of three on board ISS?

It means that we're out of the "hunker down and maintain the Space Station" mode. The third crewman, which, of course, takes us back to where, where we were a couple of years ago, is a huge multiplier in the amount of scientific work we can do. The maintenance work required when you have three people on board is basically the same as when you have two people on board, and you've got one whole extra person to do the scientific work. That's going to be wonderful. It also probably will be more fun to have three people up there. I think of it as kind of symbolic. It gets us back on the road to recovery. Eventually we want to have six or seven people up there, and the two people -- and I don't mean to downplay what the crews of two have done because they have done some good scientific work up there, and they get portrayed sometimes in the newspaper as caretaker Expeditions; they've been more than that -- but as soon as we get a third person up there we can multiply the amount of science and, and kind of symbolically start moving ahead toward six or seven.

Building a Space Station just a few hundred miles above the Earth isn't the ultimate goal of the International Space Station's partners. From the perspective of somebody who is preparing to leave this planet to go to that Space Station, tell me how you see the International Space Station helping achieve the Vision for Space Exploration and paving our path for future exploration.

Thirty-some, some years ago when we were walking on the moon I had this idea that by about this time we would have had a permanent lunar base for 10 years or so, and we'd be getting ready to go to Mars and maybe we'd already be there. Well, that hasn't happened and there are a lot of reasons for that. Mainly, it's just really hard. It's technically hard, it's physiologically hard. It's hard from on organizational and budgetary standpoint to do those long duration missions out of low Earth orbit to the, Mars or the moon. They are very, very difficult, but every day we go around in low Earth orbit we're learning a new lesson. Every day we're learning something about our hardware, or our computer software, or our bodies, or our organization. And every day, or every Expedition, we get a little bit closer to the kind of expertise and the kind of experience we're going to need to go there. I'd love to be the guy walking on Mars. I'm afraid it's going to happen a little too late for me. But I'm happy to do my part in low Earth orbit because I know that we're making a contribution toward extending the reach of mankind out into space.

+ Back to Expedition 11