Q: You have a job that millions of people dream about having, Jeff. Is being an astronaut, flying in space, what you always wanted to do with your life?
Preflight Interview: Jeff Williams
A: Well, I think growing up in a small town in northern Wisconsin, I can’t say that I wanted to do it then; in fact, I thought in those days the possibility wouldn’t be there. I never considered the possibility. It wasn’t until later on, after high school when I went to the military academy at West Point, and I got introduced to Army aviation and read Tom Wolfe’s book, The Right Stuff, that I realized it could be possible and set it as a goal.
Image at right: Expedition 13 Flight Engineer Jeffrey Williams. Credit: NASA
So it was, something that, like being a big league ballplayer or something.
That’s right. You grow up and maybe you’re on the Little League team and maybe you’re pretty good, but you never dream about being in the pros one day.
Well, tell me the story of your life so I can learn how, along the way, you happened to become somebody who was qualified to be an astronaut.
I grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin, a great place to grow up—in fact, one of my regrets in life is not giving a similar opportunity to my kids. They grew up under different circumstances—but it is a great place to be. It was the roots of my family: I grew up in the house my grandfather built after he immigrated to this country in the early part of the 1900s. I left there in the mid-’70s and went off to the military academy at West Point, did my four years at the academy and was commissioned in the Army and, have served in the Army ever since. I started out in the infantry, but soon after going to the infantry basic course I went on to flight school; I've been in Army aviation ever since. Along the way I picked up a graduate degree which, of course, helps to be competitive, for this position. After that I worked as an experimental test pilot in developmental flight test of a new Army aircraft and new aircraft systems.
Just how did actually applying to be an astronaut come about, then?
Well, I set the goal as a cadet at West Point to become an astronaut, went through my first operational assignment and then began putting my applications together. It was 1985, when I wrote the first application. I interviewed in 1987; but wasn’t selected. I kept applying, and interviewed again in ’92. I wasn’t selected; kept applying, and finally, interviewed again in ’96 and I finally wore ’em down.
Well, and there are a lot of astronauts who, who end up getting the job on the second or third or fourth time around.
That’s right. And, one of the, the, pieces of advice that I give folks that aspire for the job is to be persistent. In fact, any major goal that somebody has in life—I, I encourage them to be persistent. Don’t give up; take the disappointments, learn from them, drive on, and continue working, toward that goal.
When you were a kid growing up in Wisconsin, who was your hero or your inspiration?
Well, my parents certainly, inspired me, as most good parents inspire their children, but I would include, along with my parents, my grandfather, who immigrated, as I said, in the early part of the 1900s. When I was a small child we moved into the homestead that he had built. He was somebody that I just adored through my childhood and looked up to and respected. When I was old enough to swing a hammer, I was out there with him—he worked as a carpenter—and, and my entire childhood, all the way until, departing for the Army, I spent summers and weekends working as a carpenter with him. It was one of my great memories.
It sounds like you probably still get a, you get a chance to go back there?
I go back to Wisconsin, not as often as I, as I would like; perhaps once a year or once every couple of years. I was just back there in October visiting my parents for a weekend. It was our last time to visit face-to-face before the flight. I will certainly get back there after the flight.
You’ve flown in space before; what does that part of the world look like from 220 miles up?
Well, it, it is a small town—Winter, Wis., in the northern part of the state. There are no major cities up there. Of course, Lake Superior’s on the north side of the state and that is spectacular from space. The area I grew up is a, is a mass of woods and lakes. It’s very difficult to pick out any towns, of course. At night when you fly over it you pick out some lights, but even the lights are few.
As someone who’s flown in space before, Jeff, you’re more aware than most people are of the dangers that come with doing that; and yet, here you sit, ready to go do it again. So I would like to know why you think, or what is it that you think that we’re getting or learning from flying in space, that makes it worth taking that risk?
I don’t think flying in space is a whole lot different than any example of human exploration that you consider in history. Exploration on the planet over the past several centuries had a lot of risk. There was loss of life and loss of mission, if you will, in the endeavor, to explore new worlds and to look over the horizon and to, to see beyond what we know. The same thing is true with space, and everybody recognizes that. But history shows, and I think that, that our current program shows, that, that some risk is, is worth it, for the return. If you look at the history of, of mankind on Earth, we have benefited from all exploration, and will continue to benefit from human exploration of space. We can go through the myriad of, of examples of, of spin-offs and whatnot, of technology and capability and operational expertise that has been applied to life on Earth.
How is it for your family, then? How do they deal with the risk involved in your job?
Being in the military for going on 26 years, my family, I think, has always been exposed to the reality that there’s some risk associated with the job. My wife in particularly, in particular, has done, has done a wonderful job of supporting me and enduring that. She’s the real hero in our household.
The members of any flight crew have to possess all of the talents that are needed to complete a mission. What are your main responsibilities on this flight?
The main responsibilities, of course, are running and operating and maintaining the United States segment. Pavel and I will, of course, do plenty of work together, but just by virtue of the complexity of the station and the two main, sections of it—the U.S. segment and the Russian segment—we will, by default, be in the respective segments running, those segments, operating them and maintaining them. We also have several spacewalks in the plan, two of which Pavel and I will do later in the increment. We also have several, visiting vehicles coming to us. We will have one or two space shuttles coming while we’re there, and there’ll be plenty of time dedicated to the preparation of their arrival, as well as, of course, the work that goes on during the docked time, then the recovery, if you will, after their departure. We also have a couple of Russian Progress supply ships coming during our expedition. And we have a, a slate of science and research projects and, and payloads that we will be dedicating time to.
That’s a lot of stuff. What’s the most challenging aspect of all of those things, in your mind?
I think that any single item is not necessarily challenging, but the big challenge comes in integrating all of them and keeping up, staying up on the step, if you will, day by day, and covering a broad spectrum of work and tasks and responsibilities as we go through the six months.
You’ve flown to the International Space Station once before; a much different-looking station than it is today. Has that experience helped you in any way as you got prepared for this mission?
Oh, yes. I think having the privilege of going to the space station early in its assembly just increases the, the motivation to go back. I know a little bit, I have a taste of, what to expect when I get there, having ingressed the, the station when it was only two modules, the Node, Unity, and the FGB, Zarya. Now it’s a whole lot bigger; it’s a home of a crew right now—it’s been a home for, going on 5½ years—and I anticipate it becoming our home for six months. So I’m very much looking forward to that.
Any particular thing there that you’re most looking forward to seeing, either inside or outside?
I look forward to going outside again and, climbing around not only the Unity module, which I spent a lot of time on the last flight. It’s a whole lot bigger now with the truss segments and the additional modules, and the Russian segment has grown. I’m really looking forward to doing that.
Your last trip to space was in a space shuttle. This mission starts in a Soyuz spacecraft from Baikonur. Tell me about the Soyuz portion of your mission.
The Soyuz portion of the mission is obviously much different than my previous experience, not only a different vehicle but in, in a different language, controlled by a different country, launching from a different hemisphere. Three of us sit inside a very small capsule, literally in the fetal position, flying autonomously for about two days prior to docking; not having the room that we did to spread out in the shuttle, but having, just the Descent Module and then a, a little bit more volume in the Habitation Module of the Soyuz. I’m very much looking forward to the experience, to be able to compare and contrast, with the shuttle. I look forward to coming back and talking about it.
Image at left: Jeffrey Williams performs a spacewalk outside the station during the STS-101 shuttle mission in May of 2000. Credit: NASA
What have you been told about the difference in what that ride is like, that, that ride to orbit?
On the shuttle I was the flight engineer, so I had a great view out the front windows on the flight deck. We won’t have quite a view like that. We do have, two small windows, one on the left side, one on the right side. They’re covered during the first half of the ascent, and then we’ll get a little bit of a view during the second half. That will be a big difference. I mentioned earlier the position that you’re sitting is much different. You’re literally in the fetal position, and cramped shoulder to shoulder, the three crewmembers. The acceleration is similar, maybe a little bit more in the Soyuz than it was on shuttle. The time to orbit is almost identical, maybe within a few seconds.
You mentioned that there will be three of you on this Soyuz trip to the space station, and one of your crewmates, Marcos Pontes, will return to Earth a week later with the prior crew. But, you and Pavel Vinogradov are expecting a third long-duration crewmate, Thomas Reiter, who’s going to arrive on a space shuttle flight some weeks after you do. What do you see as the significance of this, of getting the International Space Station back to operating with a crew of three?
We’re really looking forward to the shuttle arriving, and Thomas joining us as a crew of three. It’s obviously very significant. Since Expedition 7 we’ve been flying and sustaining the space station with a crew of two. Those who track that sort of thing say that it takes more than two people just to run the station, so it leaves no excess crew time for the other things. Getting back to a crew of three will help us accomplish more. It’s also significant in that we will be continuing with the assembly of the space station, to get it up to its full capability with the resuming of regular space shuttle flights, which is important, of course, to meet the vision of space exploration.
Another, milestone, if you will, is that with the addition of Thomas Reiter, you’ll have for the first time a long-duration crewmember who’s not American or Russian.
That’s right. When you look, at the history of the last century, I’m overwhelmed, personally, with the irony of, of, of being able to do this, with, crewmates from Russia and Germany. It’s a whole different world now than it was, say, 50, 60 years ago, and, I think we would all agree it’s for the better.
When Reiter arrives, you and, and Pavel Vinogradov have a special role to play during that shuttle docking; that is, taking pictures of the underside of the orbiter, to look for damage. Would you describe for us what it is that you two will be doing that day to help examine the shuttle for possible damage?
Well, part of the aftermath of the Columbia accident was the realization that we need to understand that if damage occurs to the shuttle during ascent, it might endanger the vehicle during the subsequent part of the mission, and in particular, entry. We don’t have sensors or cameras on the ground during the ascent that can detect all of the potential things that may happen, particularly to the underside of the orbiter. So as they approach for docking, they will, they will pause in the approach and literally do a somersault, a 360°, somersault, end over end, and during that time we will take, on the order of 150 or more high-resolution photographs, which will then be immediately downlinked to the ground so the engineers can, can analyze the photography for any potential damage.
This is not just random point and snap and shoot, is it?
No, it’s not just, pictures for the album, pretty pictures. It’s a very methodical, specific, mapping of the surface of the orbiter.
Once Discovery gets docked and Thomas Reiter gets transferred, there’s about eight days’ worth of joint operations between your crew and, and the space shuttle crew in terms of supplies transfers and spacewalks that, that they’ve got planned. Tell me what Expedition 13 be doing during those days?
We'll really be a crew of 10 during that time, with both the station and the shuttle crew working together. Almost immediately, of course, we will, as you mentioned, transfer Thomas over to the station, transfer his seat liner and other equipment to the Soyuz, and he will become part of the space station crew. The shuttle crew will berth the MPLM [Multi-Purpose Logistics Module], on that first day to the space station so that we can gain access to it, because it’s full of supplies and equipment and spare parts to transfer to the space station. It’s very important that, that we get that berthed and get it opened up so that we can begin that transfer, over the eight days. It’s also important to get a lot of the equipment that is no longer required on station off and packed into that empty MPLM so it can come home. The station’s getting pretty crowded here in recent months and years. Additionally during that docked time, there are three spacewalks that the shuttle crew will perform, and we will be supporting them and helping them get ready to get out the door, and recovering them at the end of the days, as well as supporting the, the shuttle crew with the robotic arm operations, for both the berthing of the MPLM and the spacewalks.
The supplies transfers, as, as you mentioned, they get, get to be very important in terms of what is, taken off the station as well as what’s delivered. But you don’t have a lot of extra room to move around up there. How, how do you make sure you get everything ending up on the right side of the hatches?
It's going to be important for both crews to be very disciplined in the transfer of equipment, both to the station and returning to the shuttle. To do that we have a flight plan on board. Part of that flight plan is a transfer plan. It's a detailed choreography of, of all of the transfers, everything that goes across the hatches between the shuttle and the station, developed by the folks on the ground and, and trained by both crews.
Now, on the subject of working with space shuttle crews, part of your training has also been for the subsequent shuttle mission, which is to deliver the next piece of the station’s Integrated Truss Structure to ISS. Tell me about the P3/P4 Truss and how that’s going to enlarge the station’s capabilities.
Well, the P3/P4 Truss will essentially double the power-generation capability on the space station. It will go on the port side of the space station and extend the truss segment. Then of course, we’ll be adding truss segments to the starboard side and additional solar arrays. Adding that power generation is important because additional power is required for the subsequent modules that will be coming up, principally the, the Node 2 module, which will also provide berthing places for the Japanese module and the European Space Agency module.
Now, it’s sort of a complex procedure to get that new truss segment in place. Then there are spacewalks involved in getting it all hooked up. Can you talk us through what’s involved in installing this new piece of hardware?
The truss will be picked up out of the payload bay by the shuttle robotic arm and then handed off to the station robotic arm and berthed to the port end of the existing truss segment, P1, is what we call it. The attachment, and that robotic operation to support the attachment, will take place simultaneous with one of the spacewalks, performed by the shuttle crew, so that it can be attached. Almost immediately, connectors can be mated to give it power as well as cooling, with the ammonia system so that the, the hardware is not damaged by the thermal environment of space.
You’re going to be involved in running the arm or arms during part of these operations, right?
Yeah, that’s right. One of the shuttle crewmembers, Steve MacLean in one case and, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper in another case, will be working with me on different days as we complete the operation. After the attachment, on subsequent days, they’ll be deploying the solar arrays, to provide that power-generation capability that I mentioned.
That was a pretty dramatic video when we saw the first set of solar arrays deployed on the, on the P6 Truss, some years ago. I imagine it’s going to be even more so if you’re, if you’re right there next to it.
I look forward to seeing the deployment of those solar arrays. They are massive in area; they make the station a whole lot bigger in appearance. It’s going to be a pretty, pretty spectacular day to watch them being deployed.
While we’re on the subject of spacewalks, we were talking about spacewalks during shuttle visits—but there are spacewalks planned for the time when the Expedition 13 crew is there without shuttle visitors. Tell me about the current spacewalk plan for Expedition 13 during your six month stay.
The current plan includes one U.S. spacewalk and two Russian spacewalks. Shortly after ULF-1.1 leaves, undocks, and returns to Earth, within a week or two, according to the current plan, Thomas Reiter and I will go outside and perform one spacewalk, out of the Joint Airlock in NASA EMUs, and do a variety of tasks, primarily maintaining the station and replacing some components, installing a couple of components, and then installing some other equipment, required to prevent, or to deal with, potential failures in the future. Then later in the expedition planned in August, Pavel and I will do two Russian segment EVAs, deploying and retrieving various payloads outside the Russian segment.
Similar to the U.S. spacewalk, where it’s maintenance and exchange of things there?
Right. It’s maintenance outside, we’re going to be installing an Elektron nozzle; we’re going to be deploying some payloads; we’re going to be retrieving a couple of payloads; and it will be out of the Russian segment in Russian Orlan spacesuits.
As someone who has done a spacewalk in an American spacesuit before, tell me a little about the differences between the operation in a U.S. spacesuit versus a Russian spacesuit.
The suits are designed differently. They operate at different pressures; the Russian suit operates at a slightly higher pressure than the, than the U.S. suit. The U.S. suit is a little more tailor-made, if you will. We have custom gloves as opposed to a-couple-of-sizes fit-all. The Orlan suit, on the other hand, is a little easier to get in and out of. It doesn’t take very long. Because it operates at a higher pressure the EVA preparation time is not quite as long. Two spacesuits are deployed out of two separate airlocks from the space station. The NASA EMUs go out of the Joint Airlock and the Orlans go out of the, the docking compartment.
It’s certainly going to expand your experience on airlocks, as well.
It will expand. It will be one of the examples that expand my experience. I’m looking forward to being able to compare and contrast.
Let’s talk a bit about science for a couple of minutes. The primary focus of U.S. science on the International Space Station is research on how people can live and work safely in weightlessness. Tell me about the experiments that you’ve got on your flight in this area, including ones in which you’re going to be the test subject.
Well, as you mentioned, it is important that we dedicate time and effort to understanding the impacts of a weightless environment on the human body, because the space station’s primary purpose, of course, is to enable us, to understand those problems so that we can then send crews to, back to the moon for a long duration and, of course, on, on to Mars. We’ll be doing several experiments that do just that: that will study the effects of a weightless environment so that we can understand how to continue to develop countermeasures. There’s one experiment that will, that has been ongoing, that will, for example, study a method to prevent renal stones from occurring, which of course are, is a very important thing to do because the, the body in a weightless environment jettisons the calcium in the bones. The chance of renal stones increases in a weightless environment. Another experiment, as an example, is called ALTEA [Anomalous Long Term Effects in Astronauts’ Central Nervous System], which will study the effects of charged particles impacting the brain. It sounds worse than it is—but, because we’re in a higher radiation environment, in space, it’s important to understand that environment and its impacts on the human body.
Tell me a bit about how the science in the very beginning part of your mission is going to differ than the part that comes after the arrival of Thomas Reiter and some hardware that’s going to be delivered on that shuttle mission.
Well, I mentioned a couple of examples of some of the research that we’re going to be doing. When the shuttle arrives, the next shuttle, ULF-1.1, and Thomas comes on board, we’re also going to be transferring several new facilities, to enable future research. And, of course that will continue to be the case in future shuttle missions as we not only increase the size and the capability of the space station but also increase the, the, the breadth and the scope of the facilities on board to do that research.
You look like you would probably, after you get back to a three-person crew, have more time scheduled to spend on science experiments.
Right. We will have, in terms of the crew, much more time scheduled on experiments and that will be both on the U.S. and the Russian segment.
Your flight begins with your crew arriving in shifts, if you will, and it may end that way, too. Talk about the plan for Expedition 13 handing over to Expedition 14, and the reasoning behind that setup.
The plan in the future is to rotate two out of three crewmembers on Soyuz every six months, as we have been doing for the last few years. The third crewmember will rotate on shuttle; and by default that means that there’s a phased rotation. So Thomas gets there after we’ve been there a little while, and when we get ready to depart, with the next Soyuz, and its crew arrival in the fall, when we depart Thomas will stay on board. He’ll be the experience and help with the handover of the beginning of what will be known as Expedition 14.
In your opinion, Jeff, as you imagine looking back on it, what will you have to accomplish during your six months in space for you to believe that Expedition 13 has been a success?
Well, I think, to be a success, Expedition 13 will accomplish the mission as we’re given it, and it will change, because that’s part of the nature of the business. But to accomplish that mission safely and successfully; continue to expand the capabilities of the space station; keep the space station in good shape for the arrival of the next crew to enable continuing the program and space exploration.
Your mission to the space station starts as the space shuttle returns to flight and begins to resume station assembly, but ironically as the shuttle moves into its final few years of operation. Tell me about the space shuttle’s contribution to the next stage of the space station’s life.
The space station is only half built, or a little over half built, depending upon how you define it. And the space shuttle, of course, is critical to being able to complete the assembly of the space station and get it up to the full operational capability with the full, cooperation and components contributed by our international partners. Doing so will enable it to be the platform it needs to be and was intended to be, to be that stepping-stone for future exploration.
So I want you to ask you to, what happens after that: how, in your perspective, how does the space station contribute to the future of human exploration of space?
Well, the future exploration, of course, includes leaving low Earth orbit, and there are a lot of unknowns associated with that, going back to the moon and staying, and eventually going on to Mars. We don’t exactly know how to do that yet. We don’t know how to support a crew that is going to be away for a long time, whether it’s on to Mars in a long duration, weightless environment and then being able to work on the surface, or a shorter trip to the moon but staying there a long time and working on the surface there. So the space station gives us the platform, and the laboratory, if you will, to study those things so that we can understand and develop countermeasures, to enable people to do that.
And what do you think about Jeff Williams being right in the middle of all that?
Well, it’s a privilege and an honor, to be a part of it. I take it very seriously. I hope to be able to make a, a small contribution if you will, to answering those questions. The steps are sometimes slower than we would like, but every step, I believe, and hope, is important.