Q: You have a job that millions of people dream about having. Has it always been your dream to grow up to be an astronaut and explore space?
2006 Preflight Interview: Thomas Reiter
A: Yes, indeed. When I was a boy I was very closely following all the space activities. I well remember the first flights into Earth orbit, the Gemini missions, and when I was 11, I very well remember the first moment when Neil Armstrong put his feet on the moon. That was actually the point in time when I thought, hey, this would be a good profession.
Image at right: European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter. Credit: NASA
But all the people who were doing that were Americans, and were flying for the Soviet Union. As a boy growing up in Germany, how did you see yourself getting into that same group with them?
It was clear that the chances to become an astronaut being in Europe are very remote. I have to admit that I did not pursue that very consequently. Of course I decided to study aerospace technology and get into aviation and then when the opportunity actually came, I didn't have to think for a second about what to answer.
Tell me about how the opportunity came.
One day I was coming back from a mission—I was flying at this time in a military squadron, a fighter-bomber wing—and in the evening I was called to report to the ops group commander. I couldn’t imagine what the issue was. I thought maybe something with the flight today…who knows. And he actually asked me if I would be interested in taking part in a selection for an astronaut program.
Why did they pick you? Do you know?
Well, at this time a lot of candidates were asked and I was one of them, fortunately. It was because of the background, coming from military aviation, having a master degree in aerospace technology—I think those were the prerequisites—being in the right age frame at this time; this all contributed.
When you were growing up, who was your hero? Who, who was, who’d you look up to?
Well, as I mentioned before, when I was 11 and followed this first flight to the moon, Neil Armstrong was this kind of person. I thought this must be magnificent, if you could stand on a surface of another planet or of the moon. So actually, Neil Armstrong was that person.
You’ve flown once before, on a mission to the Mir space station. What does Germany and the area where you grew up in look like when you get a chance to see it from that vantage point?
You know, it’s actually not so easy to pinpoint this area. In the center of Germany are rural areas and huge urban areas, so when I was flying over Germany I really had to try to find my home town, Neu Isenberg, close to Frankfurt, by following the river Rhine and then the river Main and then I usually could identify the Rhine-Main Airport and close to the Rhine-Main Airport is my hometown. This is really a very, very nice feeling if you see that from almost 400 kilometers in space and you just move your eyes a little bit and you can see the north coast and the North Sea. It’s magnificent.
As someone who’s flown in space before, you’re more aware than most people of the dangers that are inherent as part of spaceflight. But here you sit ready to go do it again.
So I want to know why you think that what we’re learning is so important that you’re willing to take this risk.
I think the benefits from spaceflight definitely outweigh the risks we are taking—the benefits not only in terms of scientific results we can get, but also looking at it from a cultural point of view. I think it’s inherent to people that they are curious and they want to explore the areas that are not very well known yet. And this is something I very much feel and follow, and I think that it is worth to take this risk.
How does your family deal with the risks that come with the job that you do?
My wife is a little bit familiar with the situation. Being in a military squadron doing military flying is also a little bit risky. I think she’s used to the situation. And of course I explain to my wife and my children what I am doing every day—how we are trained, so as my own confidence grows in this undertaking, it’s also that they are getting very confident. Also, they understand that all the people that are involved in preparing such a mission are making really all efforts to make it as secure as possible.
Your arrival on the space station marks a milestone, that’s a return to operations with a crew of three people after more than three years. What is the significance of that for the station and for its partners and for its future operation?
I think this moment signifies that we are getting back on track, if I may say so. There has been an interruption of three years where only two people were working on board the station, and now we are actually back in a state that we can continue with the assembly. And this also signifies for the international partners, who are waiting that their modules get attached to the station, that this whole program, the assembly sequence, is now continuing.
It’s not, in fact, only that we’re getting back to a crew of three people, but it’s which three—you’re the first long-duration crewmember who’s not an American or a Russian, which is a milestone for the partners and for the European Space Agency.
Yes, even though a lot of my colleagues have been to the station in the last years, only for short time of course, this a moment that signifies that the station maybe gets a little bit more international. In future there will be more of my colleagues from the European Space Agency, from the Japanese Space Agency, and also from the Canadian Space Agency, which will be part of long-term crews. I think all of the agencies that are involved in the ISS program are looking forward to the moment when we really can utilize the station for its originally designed purpose to act as a multifunctional research laboratory.
Not only are you going to be the first European Space Agency astronaut to be a long-duration crewmember, you’re the first astronaut from Germany to ever go to the space station. I take it that’s a matter of some importance to the German people, to have one of their own finally on board the station.
That’s indeed true. People in Germany are very enthusiastic, as people in other European countries are enthusiastic, about human spaceflight, and especially maybe one aspect contributes to this fact that is that the Columbus module is built in the north of Germany at EADS [European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co.], so the people are very closely following all these endeavors. I think it’s understandable that if one of their fellows is part of the space station crew that this is really something very significant and very interesting for them.
Since you bring it up, let me ask you about some of the European contributions to the space station, two of which are moving closer to their flight. Tell me about the status of the Automated Transfer Vehicle, and the Columbus laboratory module, and how they’re going to change the station’s operations.
Columbus is currently undergoing some final testing in Bremen, in the north of Germany. It’s supposed to be shipped to the KSC in May this year and then will stay there until it’s launched to the station. ATV is currently planned to launch in January next year, and of course the European Space Agency is desperately waiting for this moments. ATV will improve the capabilities to supply the station with all the needed goods: with consumables, with scientific equipment, with needed spare parts, with food and so forth. It has a pretty good payload capability of 7 1/2 metric tons, so that’s more than a Progress spacecraft. And of course, Columbus will expand the scientific capabilities of the space station and we are all desperately waiting for the moment when Columbus will be docked to the station.
I mentioned a few minutes ago that you had spent six months on board the Mir space station back in 1995-96. What are the similarities or differences that are important as you see in comparison to that flight and, and this flight to this space station?
The similarity in general is the daily routine, I think. It is just the way how daily work is organized in general. Life on orbit is, I think, very similar. From a technical point of view the interior of the Russian segment looks very similar to the interior of the Mir station. The differences are that everything is much more advanced aboard the station, much more modern. There are more advanced technologies on board the station. Inside we have quite a bit more space than we had on the Mir station. We have now two Mission Control Centers we can talk to, and we can talk to them almost 24 hours a day. That was not the case on the Mir station where we could talk to the Russian control center only at certain times. Last but not least, the food has become a little bit more international. We have more items we can choose from and that is also, I think, quite an important point if you have to stay for a long time.
Are you able to bring a selection of German foods to share with your crewmates?
I will definitely try to have for some specific moments something typically German on board.
Let’s talk about your mission. You’re going to arrive at the space station on space shuttle mission STS-121, some time after your Expedition crewmates arrive on the Soyuz. On that shuttle flight, what are your responsibilities? And how do you transfer from being a shuttle crewmember to being a space station crewmember?
Image at right: ESA Astronaut Thomas Reiter during training at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX. Credit: NASA
My task on board the shuttle will be immediately after the orbit insertion to help the crew to reconfigure the shuttle for the orbital operations. I will help them to set up the video system, the computer on board LAN, and we will even perform a scientific experiment. Once we have docked to the station, which is currently planned on Flight Day 3, one of my first activities will be actually to carry over the seat liner and install them in the Soyuz spacecraft. As soon as my seat liner is in there, I will be an official member of the station crew.
And then you’ve got about another week’s worth of joint activities with your former crewmates and your, your current crewmates on board. Tell me what you’re going to do during that time along with the supplies transfers and the spacewalks that are scheduled.
As we have the MPLM [Multi-Purpose Logistics Module] with us, a huge logistics module with a lot in it for resupplying the station, so my main task during this phase is actually transferring all these payloads over to the station and putting the parts that are no longer needed on the station back into the MPLM. It’s not only the transfer but we will directly install some of these systems on the station. I think this is a very compressed phase because there are a lot of other activities going on at the same time as you just mentioned. Three EVAs that are carried out by my colleagues from the STS-121 crew.
Do you and Pavel and Jeff watch the spacewalks, or do you have roles to play during that first shuttle mission’s EVAs as well?
At the moment we are scheduled really for this transfer and installation task, so I’m afraid I will not have a lot of time to watch them while they are doing their EVAs.
They get done, go home, take the MPLM with them and, and leave the three of you about your business. What are the main goals of Expedition 13?
I think first of all we want to increase the scientific output of the station. That is one of the advantages of having three persons on board the station, that there is more time available to perform the scientific program. We will expand the capabilities of the station by installing new scientific hardware once Flight 12A comes up. Even the operational capabilities of the station will be expanded and of course it is always the objective of each crew on board to maintain the station in a very good state so that it can run as smoothly as possible.
You are a flight engineer on the expedition crew. What does that mean? What are the main responsibilities that you will have during your time on board with those two crewmates?
I’m trained as an operator for most on board systems, so I will assist Jeff and Pavel in the daily routine work in maintaining all on board systems on the Russian side and on the U.S. side, in doing “if needed” repair work, and of course to carry out the scientific program. And one of the highlights will be performing a spacewalk together with Jeff.
Well let’s talk about that. Three spacewalks are being planned for Expedition 13, and while what actually may happen by that time could change. Give us an outline of what the current plans are for the three spacewalks that all three of you are going to participate in.
There is some maintenance work to do outside the station: some computers have to be replaced, some valves have to be exchanged, some maintenance on the external cooling loops of the station; then there will be some scientific hardware to be installed outside. There's also kind of an interesting…I wouldn't call it experiment but a little project that is something Pavel and Jeff will have to do – namely take a golf club out and play a golf ball into space. So that will be quite interesting to watch them doing that.
Of these spacewalks, you are going to get to make one; that’s the one out of the U.S. segment, right?
Tell me about the, the plan for that activity for you and Jeff Williams.
We will install two platforms which contain some specific materials that will then be exposed to the conditions of low Earth orbit. These platforms then will be retrieved a long time after that, and then they can be examined to see how this environment affects these materials. The experiment is called MISSE [Materials ISS Experiment]. Furthermore, we will install a so-called floating point measurement unit. That is a scientific device that will be installed on the S1 Truss. We will have to do some maintenance on the external thermal loop and finally we do a kind of technology experiment, an infrared camera, which is supposed to be used on future shuttle flights to hopefully determine defects on the exterior of the shuttle.
Two spacewalks planned for Pavel and Jeff in Russian spacesuits out of the Russian section of the space station. What’ll be your job on, on those spacewalking days?
I will mainly help them to prepare for these spacewalks to get up the airlock, to help them get into the suits, to do the checks once they are in the suits, check that all the hatches are hermetically tight, and once they return I will have basically the same tasks, opening the hatches and help them getting out of the suits and maintaining the Russian Orlan suits.
Pavel, you and Jeff will be looking forward to some space shuttle visits, one of which will bring up a, the next component of the Integrated Truss Structure for the ISS. Tell me about this piece of hardware known as P3/P4. I know physically it will enlarge the station, but how does it enlarge the station's capabilities as to, as well.
It basically enlarges the capabilities of the station in terms of electrical energy and also in terms of cooling. These solar arrays which are on P3/P4 will approximately double the capabilities of the station to generate electric power which means it’s roughly 30 kilowatts that these solar panels will generate. We also will have additional thermal radiators so the heat that is generated inside the station then can be radiated into space via these, via these thermal radiators.
The addition of this hardware isn’t something that’s needed for the operation of the station as it, configured today, is it?
It will definitely be necessary for the future expansion of the station, especially if new modules get up, because with the addition of additional modules—the Columbus Module, the JEM [Japanese Experiment Module]—the demand for electrical power will rise as well.
When that space shuttle is arriving to deliver the P3/P4, you and your station crewmates will have a special role to play during the docking of documenting the state of the underside of the orbiter. Describe what you will be doing when the, that shuttle arrives.
This is kind of critical phase because it can be done only once and the time that the crew has available to take these very detailed shots of the surface of the shuttle is very limited—it’s roughly a minute. So all the cameras need to be ready. It needs to be perfectly timed. Two of us will be actually handling the cameras with two different lenses: one a little bit more overview with 400mm focal length, one with 800mm focal length so you can really see the details of the shuttle tiles. In case there's a problem with a camera, then it’s really important that within seconds the operator can swap them. So that’s what we three will do. Mainly my task is to support Jeff and Pavel in the timing and in case something goes wrong with a camera, to help them swap cameras quickly.
Let’s talk about another aspect of the mission which you raised a few moments ago, the science work on board and the fact that getting back to a crew of three people allows you to increase the amount of time that’s being spent on that kind of research. Give me the short course, if you will, on the European Space Agency’s science program planned for your time on board ISS.
We have a, a little more than 20 scientific experiments, mainly from the area of life sciences, biology, physics, astrophysics and technology. So we cover a pretty wide band of science.
Give me a few examples of, of some of those things that you’re going to be working on.
In the area of physics, we have a so-called plasma crystallization experiment, where a plasma is generated, dust particles are injected, and it is very interesting that these particles inside plasma are behaving like molecules in a crystal. So this is a very new area of research that can be helpful for all different area of fluid physics, for solid state of physics, and other areas. We will run this experiment not only once but repeat it during the mission. In the area of life sciences we have investigations that are related to our vestibular system, to our cardiopulmonary system, to the bones, and in biology we have actually an experiment that is related to the generation of protein crystals.
Many of the NASA science investigations are also aimed at human life sciences research. Give us a good sense of why that area of investigation is so important to all of the science and to all the work that’s being done on the station?
One can say that the research in life science serves two purposes. First, to better understand certain diseases that are present here on Earth, and help to find cure for them. And secondly, in view of further exploration of space, to prepare us for these long-term missions in some decades, maybe to our neighbor planet Mars. Before we can go there we very well need to understand how we can counteract the effects of weightlessness. So, all these life science experiments are dedicated to these two main areas.
For those of us who watch it, it seems that the effects of weightlessness are fun, fun, fun. But what are, what are the not-so-fun effects of weightlessness that we’re concerned about?
It’s indeed true that when you get into space the perception of weightlessness is just very, very nice. It’s a very unique feeling not to perceive the weight of your own body, and to float around, and to use the whole space inside the station. You can work on the floor or on the ceiling without any difference. However, the drawback is you don’t use your muscles as you use them here on ground—even if we are sitting here, we are still exercising some of our muscles; if we are walking or standing, even more. This is not the case in weightlessness, so our muscles are getting smaller. Weightlessness has an effect on our bones. Our bones immediately start to lose calcium once we get into orbit, and this is an effect that makes the bones more brittle. And also there are effects on our central nervous system, on our immune system that is caused by the cosmic radiation and also directly by the weightlessness, and this all needs to be very well understood. The scientists here on Earth that are doing investigations in certain areas where they want to fight diseases. They take this specific environment as a kind of test environment to understand better how certain mechanisms that play a role in these diseases work in order to find a cure.
Your flight begins with your crew arriving in shifts, and it may end that way, too. Talk about the plan for how first Pavel and Jeff and then you will be handing over to the next crew.
One of the advantages of this shift is that not all of us will leave the station at the same time. In previous years this handover period was always a kind of critical time because there is a lot to do in these few days when both crews are still on station. The crew that has been on station needs to explain to the newcomers how all the on board systems are configured, where things are stowed and so forth. Once they are gone the only, only place they can ask is the control center. So in our scenario this will be a little bit relaxed because even when Jeff and Pavel will have left I will be still on the station and I can then help to the next crew with how the systems are configured and how the things are stored. Likewise, when I get on the station, I already have an experienced crew with me. If I, during the first few days, don’t know where some things is located, I always can ask them.
In your opinion, then, if you imagine into the future, for your six months or so on the station, what will you have to accomplish during the flight for you to consider that your mission was a success?
I think if we, at the end see that we have increased the scientific output again to this kind of level that we had before we went to a crew of two, then we have achieved one of our main object, objectives. And we want to maintain the station in a good state and if we can acknowledge that afterwards we have expanded with the installation of the new scientific equipment, that we have expanded the scientific capabilities of the station, then we have achieved our goals.
Your mission to the space station gets started as the space shuttle is returning to flight but, ironically, as the space shuttle is entering its last few years of operations. Tell me how you see the space shuttle’s contribution to the life of the space station.
The space shuttle is indispensable for the assembly of, of the station. There’s no way that we can come to configuration without the shuttle doing its task. So now returning to flight is kind of signifying that we are back on track in the assembly sequence of the station and we will come to a configuration that will allow us to do what we originally planned to do with the space station.
And in light of course, we realize that the space station and its enhanced operation is not really the final goal, but a step on the way to a goal. From your perspective, how is it that the space station is going to make a contribution to the future of human exploration of space?
I think there are basically three areas where the space station can help in these next steps. First, and I already touched that a little bit earlier, we need to prepare ourselves for long-term space missions. Once we get back to the moon and will probably stay there for a long time, or if we go to long missions to Mars, we need to be prepared, physically prepared to withstand the conditions of weightlessness and of the conditions that we encounter there. So part of this life science research helps to prepare us for this, for these undertakings. Secondly I think the space station can serve as a kind of technological test bed for those systems that still need to be improved. For example, in the area of life support systems, once we get to the moon or to Mars we need life support systems that are almost completely regenerative. So we have now an excellent platform in Earth orbit where we can refine these technologies. And the third area is more in an operational context: most likely the spaceship that will someday go to Mars will be assembled in Earth orbit, or maybe in lunar orbit, so the operational experience of the ISS assembly will help us in doing this future task.