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Preflight Interview: Doug Wheelock
06.01.10
JSC2010-E-032840 -- Doug Wheelock

NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, Expedition 24 flight engineer and Expedition 25 commander, responds to a question from a reporter during an Expedition 24/25 preflight press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: I get asked that a lot. Did I want to be an astronaut when I was a kid - and the answer is actually no, because I thought that was something that was reserved for someone else. Some sort of extraordinary human being. I was nine years old when we landed Apollo 11 on the moon, and I thought, wow, that is really awesome. That dream was like way too big for me because I was just like an ordinary kid in a tiny little town; small school, very rural community, and that world was something that I knew nothing about. So I think I limited myself. This is another thing that I try to tell children is, don’t limit your dreams, because I, of course, I wanted to be an astronaut—I think in 1969 any nine-year-old boy at that time wanted to be an astronaut—but it was like something that was only a dream. So I never really thought about it until I got up into my teenage years. I thought, man, I’d really love to fly; I just want to fly. I don’t care what, I just want to fly something. So when I went to the military academy I came out and went into aviation and just developed a love for flying. Then as I progressed in my flying career, I started thinking about this astronaut thing, and I thought that might be something that’s kind of cool. In those years, we had just started at the space shuttle program, and, of course, all eyes were on that program, the beginning years. I thought that’d be kind of a neat adventure to be a part of. It wasn’t until I, with my engineering background and a few years of flying, that I became interested; I was flying helicopters at the time. I was so interested in what was happening up there where that rotor was turning, that I became fascinated with the mechanics of flight and I wanted to be a test pilot at the time, and being an astronaut wasn’t really on my radar screen at the time. Again, I think it was probably something that I thought was reserved for somebody much smarter than me or from a different background than I had. So then when I was able to go through test pilot training and get exposed to and meet different test pilots from various services, and I got to meet some of the astronauts that had formerly been test pilots, I thought, that’s something that I could do as well. I think I might try to do that. So it was a process for me to really, and I think it was primarily that I just really limited what I was able to dream about for myself. Of course, it always seemed like a kind of a cool thing to do, be an astronaut. That would be a really awesome job. I think I really kind of kept that barrier up where that’s not really something I could achieve. Now looking back on that process and understanding how much I limited myself, my thinking, I’ve sort of taken it upon myself that whenever I’m around children or students of any age, I make sure that I get them thinking about things that they want to do. It might not be being an astronaut—it might be being a teacher or being a doctor or something like that, whatever it is, their dream, but they may be limiting themselves as well, much like I did. So I try to encourage them to tear those barriers away because, let me tell you something, dreams really do come true even for ordinary kids, from kind of a small town. That really can happen for you as well.

Wanted to ask you about the small town, about The Doug Wheelock Story, in pieces. Let’s start with Windsor, New York, your hometown. Tell me about that place.

Windsor is a very small town and actually it’s a very pastoral place. It’s like a Norman Rockwell kind of setting up there, in upstate New York. It’s a small town with a town square. I don’t know as Windsor’s much bigger than when I left or when I was in school, but it’s a very tight-knit community. We actually lived in a little town called West Windsor which was even outside of Windsor by maybe eight or ten miles from the center part of town where the high school is that I went to. I took a bus to school from a rural community. West Windsor’s very tiny; I don’t think it’s on many maps even, but the benefits that I, now that I look back, what that sense of community gave to me. It was a sense of value, of the importance of hard work, pride in your work, service to others. Those things have really become my bedrock of my values that carried me into my years in the military. I never really realized what that little town and that community and our community of people there, that I knew through being raised in that small town. What values it gave to me until years later, and so now I have just such a warm spot in my heart for Windsor. My mom and dad still live up there, so I get a chance to go back and visit quite often. It draws me back more and more, as I get older, realizing the things that I’ve learned in my life and how the fundamental values that were instilled in me in that town really have come to play in my adult life.

Did you get to see it from space?

I did. I did get a chance to see it. A lot of times it’s cloudy up there—sorry, folks in Windsor but, sometimes it’s cloudy, but summers and the spring are beautiful. Of course, the fall is just breathtaking up there with the changing of the colors of the leaves. I’m excited about seeing my home during that fall explosion of color. I’m hoping during those early weeks of October of this year that I’ll be able to see that from the vantage point of space. I think that’s going to be a tremendous moment as well. And through the cupola maybe even more enhanced, so I’m looking forward to seeing Windsor and that southern tier of the upstate part of New York. I’m really looking forward to seeing that from space.

You’ve touched on it, but forgive me if I make you do it again. Tell us about your educational and professional backgrounds, from Windsor on, that led you to becoming an astronaut.

When I left Windsor I went to West Point, and I’m often asked, what was that like those first couple years at West Point. My parents were fairly strict disciplinarians to us, and I remember making my bed and cleaning up after myself, and taking care of my things. So I’m often asked, was that like a cultural shock when you got to West Point. I said, it was kind of like my childhood with a few more pushups. So making that transition was easier for me I think because not only of these values I talked about earlier that my home, hometown and my community instilled in me, and my parents and my family, that I knew the value of hard work. We’re each given different gifts and to find that gift and that passion and just be the best that you can be, whatever that is. One of the reasons I went to West Point is I knew that it was, and again my apologies to my Air Force Academy and my Annapolis brethren, but I knew that West Point was the top of the list of leadership schools. I really wanted to experience what it’s like to be trained as a leader, so that’s where I went to school. I’m also asked, if you wanted to fly, why did you go to West Point, but I always remind my fellow service members that the Army has more aircraft than the Air Force, and it has more boats than the Navy. So anyway—of course ours are smaller boats and most of our aircraft are helicopters — but it gave me the opportunity to come out and really start right into aviation. I was actually commissioned in the infantry, so I spent a little bit of time learning what it’s like to be a soldier on the ground, and a soldier on the ground in a leadership. How to lead soldiers on the ground which is a little more daunting than what you learn in the classroom. Again having to draw off of things that I’d learned, just kind of bedrock foundational values I learned when I was a child. Being able to expand on those things and develop myself as a leader, and then going into aviation and flying these machines and then the progression through leadership roles. Flying helicopters and flying fixed-wing aircraft and then going to test pilot school, and then eventually coming here to NASA. Now that I look back, it’s a very logical progression for my type of profession, but something that is still unique. It’s not lost on me that I was able to experience this road because there are thousands of others out there that are just as qualified as I am to be here. To get the opportunity to experience service to my country and service to my community in this way has been a real blessing for me.

What was the mechanism? How did you get from being an Army officer to astronaut?

My parent unit is the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the same unit that way back in the 1950s, Werner Von Braun, with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, was an Army agency that developed our first satellite. So in those years when Sputnik launched in October of 1957 - I wasn’t born then but I hear stories that it was that experience that sort of got our attention as a nation, as a planet. We thought, wow, there’s a different era coming on board now, and we had Werner Von Braun and his engineers working with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency developing Explorer I and launching it in the January time frame of 1958. Then the ensuing space race, so we always say that the Army is first in space. I think it’s befitting that since the Army was first in space that we have a soldier that will eventually one day be the commander of the space station. So, the journey has been unusual, not unique, but unusual, in the way of my pathway to this very spot. It’s been a journey of really treasured moments.

The flying in space part of the job that you have now is a part that we know does have its potential dangers, so, Doug, I want to ask you what is it that you feel we are getting or learning from flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?

Well, scientifically, not only in the way of any kind of science experiment you’re doing, you take various parameters that weigh on that experiment, you hold some constant and you vary others just to see what’s going to happen. It’s that way with any kind of experiment that you’re trying to discover something new. A new way of treating a disease, a way to cure a disease, a way to develop new materials to make things stronger and sleeker and lighter. A new way of refining to build more purified fuels or pharmaceuticals or whatever it might be. One little point in all those equations that those scientists work with, there’s a little g in there. Gravity plays a part in that because we’re sitting in our chairs because gravity’s pulling down on us. If you’re trying to grow something or look at the transportation of something, it’s really living in a two-dimensional world because it can go this way or that way; it can’t really go [gestures up] this way because it’s being pulled down with gravity. So you can only really truly optimize these things if you remove gravity from the equation, and when you do that, we see things that you can’t see here on Earth in the way of research. When you’re able to do that, of course, our objective of doing these things is to discover something new. When we look at these things, for instance, from recent research on the space station these little microballoons that [are] a way to encapsulize a pharmaceutical that could actually be transported to attack, let’s say, we’ll use an example, a cancer cell. When you can develop that transportation system in a three-dimensional world, it becomes more perfect, more uniform, it can be possibly transported in a different way. In the process of looking at that, it could also pinpoint specific areas or genes or whatever it might be that we need to target. So by removing gravity from the equation and being able to develop these things there’s breakthroughs that I feel are just waiting for us to discover. They’re out there, and we know they are. We’ve already returned some of these processes to Earth, not only in the building of new materials but the refining of different materials, the refining of pharmaceuticals, and I think we’re just going to see more and more breakthroughs as we take a look at these mechanisms and these chemicals and substances without gravity in the equation.

JSC2009-E-226216 -- Doug Wheelock

Astronaut Doug Wheelock, Expedition 24 flight engineer and Expedition 25 commander, makes final touches on a training version of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit in preparation for a spacewalk training session in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 24 and 25 crews. Doug, summarize what your main responsibilities are going to be and the overall plans for your time in space here.

When we first arrive on the station we’re part of the Expedition 24 crew, and I’m actually slated to be the commander of Expedition 25, so it gives me a bit of time to get spooled up, to get ready to take command of the space station from our Russian commander for Expedition 24, which is Alexander Skvortsov. I’ll work together with Alexander as we approach the Expedition 25 time frame to do my workups to be ready to take command of the station, so that’s my primary focus, of course. Developing my leadership style to be able to run and operate the station as a commander, delineate tasks to the various crew members, and to keep the ship flying. So that’s my primary task, and I’m very much looking forward to flying aboard this marvelous machine.

Over the course of six months you’re going to be doing some assembly and some maintenance, and science, all of it.

Yes. It’s a wonderful laboratory. The last time I was there, I was on STS-120. We actually took up the Node 2 which was the hub for the international partners’ laboratories. It’s a much larger place now and a fully-functioning international laboratory. [I’m] very excited about the science part of it and, of course, now it’s much larger, and we’ve got many different subsystems that are integrated together. So the maintenance and the upkeep and keeping the machine flying has got increased challenges, of course. I see my role as, with my background as a test pilot and an engineer is to keep the laboratories operating, empower the crew, all of us, to do great science and bring it back to our scientists here on Earth to make life better here and make our flying machines even better so we can go beyond Earth orbit.

You bring up a couple of interesting points. The station has changed since you were there in 2007; what is it you’re most looking forward to seeing when you go back?

Interestingly enough, I’m very much looking forward, as we come into the rendezvous phase, when we come up on docking day. I’m really excited to see the presentation of the space station in our approach scope, our crosshairs, if you will, as we approach the station. I remember how much I was in awe when we docked with the shuttle Discovery back in 2007, and we were bringing the Node 2 up. I was just awestruck at the size of the station just hanging there against the emptiness and vastness of space. It was just absolutely breathtaking. I’m looking forward to the vehicle, pressurized module size is nearly twice the size as when I left and so, really excited to see just the enormity of how it presents itself once we begin the approach. Then the other thing, maybe sort of nostalgically that I’m looking forward to is, on STS-120 we repaired the solar array on one of our EVAs, sort of a contingency EVA where we went out and repaired the P6 solar array. We put in some “cufflinks,” five “cufflinks” on the array and spent a lot of time out there and got kind of cold out there. It was a very challenging task, and I’m actually kind of excited to look out and see those “cufflinks” doing their job out there on that solar array, too.

Let me get you to fill in some of the detail. For all the changes that have gone on since you’ve been there, describe the International Space Station, the place that it is today with its various laboratories and other airlocks and modules.

It’s just a fantastic place, and I’ve heard it described as the equivalent of like a 1800-square-foot ranch-style home, three bedroom, two bath, about that much volume. With six people around, it’s actually a pretty big place. I was really pretty awestruck when we opened the hatch from the shuttle to go inside the station, how spacious it was and now it’s going to be even more so. When you approach it from the outside and when you’re outside on the EVA looking at the station, it’s sort of sterile looking; it’s got white and metallic colors and, of course, gold and some silver metallic colors. When you have as a backdrop the beautiful colors of the Earth, or even the stark vastness of the backdrop of deep space, it’s stands out. It’s almost like a piece of art, that really takes your breath away. Now with these laboratories fully functioning we’re very excited about the science, and we’ve already seen some of that science return to Earth in enhanced processes both in the medical field and the field of crystalline growth and things like this. We’re seeing these things returning now, and we’re excited about continuing this research so we can bring back and make this a better place where we live and also prepare us to go beyond.

Let’s talk about some of those. You are going to have six crew members, for the most part, so there’s more time going to be spent on science in more laboratories. One of the focuses of station science has been about finding how people respond to being in that weightless environment and how they respond then to returning to gravity. Talk a little bit about being one of the research subjects for those kinds of experiments: what experiments will you be involved in, and what kind of things do you and your crewmates have to do to gather the data for that?

It’s actually sort of a nice little collateral plus that we have when we’re doing the science for the scientists here on Earth. We also, by flying in space for six months, or right around six months, we’re sort of replicating what it would take for the effects on the human body of someone flying to Mars or making a long journey to some sort of a planetary body or maybe even a near-Earth asteroid or something like this. So in the process of doing that we can actually have science performed on us as well. Of course, it runs the gamut of anything from the specific control of our diet at any given time, taking, measuring. Of course, we draw both blood and urine, and we do tests on each other as far as echocardiograms and things like this, to look at countermeasures, to look at how we can better perform on a long-duration mission. Of course, if you are the first one to step foot on Mars, when you get there after a long journey, you want to be able to stand up on the planet, so a lot of our research that we’re doing is helping us understand not only how to keep these machines flying that take us there, but also how to keep [points to himself] these machines flying, so that when we get there we can do these bold and wonderful things that we’ve planned to do. So each day we’re either involved in some sort of exercise countermeasure and taking that data; we send a lot of that data to the ground. Based on performance during a particular exercise, we take measurements of blood, we take urine samples and things and send those to the ground. We also have the capability on board to analyze these things or help scientists analyze these things, to really determine what’s happening to the human body in zero g or near-zero g, micro g, and how we’re going to build these spaceships of the future that are going to take us to other planetary bodies. It’s actually very exciting, and I’m not a scientist by trade, so for me, as an engineer and a sort of a “left brain” kind of person, it’s really kind of fun to see the art and science of this type of research come together and to really spend some time with these principal investigators for these science experiments, and some of this research and be a part of it to really not only make life better here on Earth, but help those future astronauts coming behind us in the next generation. Hopefully in my lifetime we’ll watch somebody walking on the surface of Mars. It won’t be me, I’ll be in a rocking chair with a glass of tea somewhere probably, but I hope to watch some of this research that we’ve done aboard the station really propel us as a human race, and as a nation deeper into space.

JSC2010-E-042683 -- Doug Wheelock

NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock, Expedition 24 flight engineer and Expedition 25 commander, participates in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

During the time that you’re going to be a research subject, you and your crewmates will also be research operators—you’ll be working on science in other disciplines. Tell me about the other kinds of science research that are going to be under way in the several laboratories on board.

It’s actually a wonderful setup up there. We do a lot of our training in Japan and over in Cologne, Germany for our ESA partners over there, and we have scientists from all over the world that are doing science on board the station. Now I hear it’s going to be in the hundreds of types of experiments that will be operating, and fortunately for us the training that we’ve done, we’ve trained together with the scientists. They’ve briefly described what data they’re trying to return and by virtue of operating these machines and taking this data, analyzing this data, sending the data to the ground, photographing what’s occurring with some of these experiments, then we can get real time information. Back in the early days we had to wait several months to get information back and then if we had to reset parameters and control other parameters and retest, it maybe was months or even years before we can do that retesting. Now as a fully-functional laboratory, we can pretty much do it real time, and not only real time we can almost like a telemedicine type of thing, we can have the principal investigator directly involved real time as we’re performing these experiments. And just a myriad of experiments that we have on board, ranging from medical experiments to how better to use pharmaceuticals for instance, to attack cancer cells in our body. How can we, and in the process of, when you take gravity out of the equation, magical things happen; things grow, crystals grow more uniformly, and the process of transporting these, be it pharmaceutical or refining process or something like that, the transportation can lead to breakthrough. We can learn about what things in the human body are, what’s the reaction mechanism, and so if that’s all we discover, then that’s useful to scientists here on Earth and we return that information to them, and that’s what we’re all about here at NASA is to develop these things, discover these things and then get them into the hands of the experts that can really make a difference. In the world of medicine, new processes, material science, building new stronger, lighter materials, and it’s just a wonderful laboratory setting. We’re very anxious to return this to the planet as well.

Along with the work you do inside the station, there’s plans currently for work to be done outside the station…

Yes.

…and, spacewalks on the schedule for July and again, I guess, maybe later in the year, when it comes to Russian spacewalks. Tell me about the current plan: who’s going to be doing what and what [they’ve] got scheduled outside?

Our first EVA, spacewalk, will be in early July, scheduled early-to-mid-July. It’ll be Tracy Caldwell [Dyson] and myself going outside, and I have to say that I’m very much looking forward to that as well. On my first mission I got the chance to do three EVAs and it was such a whirlwind mission that I don’t know if I really got the full effect of how profound a moment it was for me. Of course, I kid with Scott Parazynski, who was my spacewalking buddy at the time, that I wanted to say something profound when I first came out of the airlock hatch and about the only thing I could think of was [a gasp], so I’m very much looking forward to that and coming outside. Again, I had mentioned, over the past couple weeks, I’m flying up on the Soyuz with Shannon Walker. It’s Shannon’s first flight, and I’m really excited to see her reaction when we get to space because I remember mine. It was just an incredible experience and just a unique experience on the human body and your mind and your eyes. You get the full senses there so I’m looking forward to witnessing that. I’m also looking forward to Tracy coming out of that hatch for the first time and just experiencing again the thrill of being able to get to do a spacewalk. We’re going to attach another payload, a power data grapple fixture, that’s used for the robotic arm, and it could be used as a base for the robotic arm. We’re going to actually attach it on the forward part of the FGB [Russian acronym for functional cargo block; Zarya], on the Russian segment, and so we can increase the essentially the working envelope of our robotic structures on board. And that’s our primary task on that EVA. There’s also some routing of cables, and power cables and video cables and data cables and things that take up the majority of that EVA, but we have some get-ahead tasks on there as well. We also have a really kind of neat experiment that we’re doing for a scientist that’s more of a Renaissance man, I would think of, but it’s called Message in a Bottle. It’s a really neat payload that sort of draws on the human spirit and what’s in our nature to want to discover and learn about the environment around us, and we’re going to take this canister out and we’re going to evacuate it and fill this glass bottle with space. Then we’re going to return it to the Earth and the message in the bottle will be what everyone that comes to witness this glass vial of space, what message they would put in there if they could send a message to space, not only our planet, but to the entire universe. What they would want people to know, what they would put down as a message, and that’s kind of a neat little payload we’re taking along with us. That’ll be fun; that’ll actually go outside with us on our EVA. Then, in the later part of the summer, early part of the fall, we’ll have two Russian EVAs as well, and so we’ll look forward to supporting our Russian teammates on those EVAs as well.

You folks are also expecting to see a couple of space shuttle visits; the first is now targeted in the summer, that’s STS-134, delivering another External Logistics Carrier and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Tell me a little bit about those components and what’s the work flow from the station crew’s point of view when you’re working with a visiting shuttle crew.

Right. Our job is to really support them. They’ve got a very compressed timeline and they’ll have several EVAs on that mission to attach the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which will give us incredible science for looking deeper at dark matter and things like this. I’m glad I have Shannon Walker on board because she has her Ph.D. in this type of study, so it’s just fascinating for me. Our role in that mission will be more of a support role, just getting the station ready to accommodate them, getting the airlock ready for their very important spacewalks, making sure the robotic systems are up, checked out, ready to roll, so when they come aboard, we can help them press through this very important mission. A really nice piece of science that’s going on the space station platform, and we hope to discover wonderful things from this AMS payload. And then, you had mentioned the last two space shuttles. It’s kind of a defining moment, our mission of bridging from Expedition 24 to 25.

Well, I was going to say that because the way the schedule lays out now, after that first shuttle visits, half of the Expedition 24 crew leaves and you become Expedition 25 commander. How does that change life on board for you?

I’d like to say, there’s a new sheriff in town, but, no, we’ve got a great crew and there will be a period where [there are] just three of us on board as we wait for the arrival of the other component of our Expedition 25 crew which will be coming up and that’ll be, scheduled to be Scott Kelly, Oleg Skripochka and also Sasha Kaleri. We’ll be welcoming them aboard as we press through the Expedition 25 time frame and, of course then the mantle of command will be resting on my shoulders and so I know that, the spool-up time prior to that during Expedition 24, I’ll be ready for that and we’ll have, the delineation of tasks at hand. We’ve already trained together as a six-person crew and we’ve got our tasks down as we face particular off-nominal situations or emergency situations on the station. We’ve already practiced and practiced and practiced those things, and one of the unique milestones of our mission, of the E25 part of our mission, our six-month mission, the latter half, is that sort of a bittersweet note that we’ll actually get to witness the last flight of the space shuttle. We’ll watch it as it approaches and will dock, and we’ll have the crew aboard for a period of time and then we’ll watch as it returns to the planet and we watch sort of the end of one era and the ushering in of a new era in our nation’s space program. We’ll bid farewell to the space shuttle and then we’ll [have] essentially full completion of the station, full utilization as an orbiting laboratory, and then we’ll set our sights on the wonderful things that will come after this program as we look deeper and deeper into space.

Let me ask you about a couple of different components of that. The last space shuttle mission, which is due to arrive in mid-September, talk about what the particular mission is; what are they bringing up?

That last mission will [bring] lots and lots of supplies, and, of course, the space shuttle has been the workhorse of this assembly of this station—could have never happened without the space shuttle—and some of these larger components like spare parts and various supplies, science racks and experiments and things, both upmass and downmass. What the shuttle can bring home for us is just unbelievable as compared to, maybe bringing it home in a Soyuz or some other type of vehicle that we’re developing. We’re able to get these larger objects up there, so that mission is going to bring us essentially what we need, the last little bit that we need a heavy-lift vehicle for. Those will be any kind of spare parts and supplies for the station to keep us going and they’ll leave an MPLM [multipurpose logistics module] that probably most of the community is familiar with. It’s essentially a storage module that usually we berth to the station. We unload those things, and we load it back up with things that need to come home. We’ll put it back in the shuttle payload bay and return to Earth. Well, this one they’re going to leave there for us, so we’re going to try to be good stewards of that extra space. It’ll be probably pretty full of supplies and things, so we’re anxious. I think the sight of the last space shuttle as it does its flyaround, and maybe especially through the cupola, the new windows there, it’s going to be a fantastic sight. All of my life, pretty much, when I was a kid, we had the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo era, and so my adult life has, our entire nation’s space program has been the space shuttle and then the development later on of the space station. So it’s going to be a very nostalgic moment I think to say good-bye to the shuttle, but a little bit of feeling of excitement as well. Change is not always bad, change is good. Just as we come through these transitions from vehicle to vehicle, and from pretty much era to era, we’re never lacking for surprise and wonder at what’s next. So I think for our children and our grandchildren, the next 50 years of NASA’s exploration and development of engineering feats in space, it’s going to be wondrous when we look back. So it’s a great feeling to be a part of that transition, and it’s bittersweet because we spent a lot time, spent a lot of my formative years, just in awe and wonder of the space shuttle. Now when we look ahead, it’s like, wow, I can only imagine what’s next for NASA.

Well, before we let it go, as it nears its end of mission really, where do you think the space shuttle, what’s its place going to be in the history of human space exploration?

Wow. It’ll remain unique. I think that the challenges of having a winged vehicle that starts out as a rocket and then you turn it into spaceship and then you turn it into essentially a glider, and it lands on a runway much like an airplane or sort of a glider. When we first saw this machine it was like, wow; what a breakthrough, but with that came the challenges of flying a winged vehicle with its heat shield exposed during ascent—we’d never seen that before—and, of course, we all know the challenges that that’s posed to us in keeping that area clean from debris and things. It gave us some pretty good challenges, so the leap in technology that the space shuttle brought us was almost a feeling of, nothing is impossible for NASA, nothing for engineers that work here, and work in and around the space program. The development of these incredible flying machines. It took our breath away, and it still does. When we watch a space shuttle and you watch it with your own eyes and feel the vibration and all the way that it affects all of your senses, it still takes your breath away. I think it will forever do that, and maybe we’ll be looking at the space shuttle in the Smithsonian or something. I look forward to holding my grandkids by the hand and say, yeah, Pawpaw flew on one of those one day. So I think we’ve learned so much from this machine, and it’s helped us develop the space station, it’s helped us learn more about ourselves as engineers and as scientists. It’s continually helped us to press those limits of what we know about materials and propulsion and shielding and things like this. It’s helped us really expand the envelope of our knowledge.

With that thought about the past in mind, let me ask you to look into the future—where do you see human space exploration in 20 or 50 years from now, and how will the International Space Station have played a part in getting us wherever that is?

I mentioned already [that] to get back to the moon or even [go] to Mars or a near-Earth object like an asteroid or something like that, it’s going to take a fairly long journey. I know that a lot of the technology now and research is being poured into different propulsion systems that will perhaps get us there sooner, a little bit quicker, but it will be a long journey. I think primarily, the space station’s mission [is] returning science and discovery to the Earth to make life better here. I think we’re only scratching the surface right now and we’re going to see some incredible science coming in the next couple years. Also one of the things that we’re going to see is how to build a machine that’s going to last, and we’re going to be able to maintain it, and we all hope that one day we’ll see a human face on the surface of Mars. It’s kind of funny to think about, but when you get there you want to be able to stand up, like we talked earlier, and you want to be able to do things and move around and do science and discover new things. That’s part of what the space station is giving us now is how do we prepare [points to himself] these machines and also our actual spaceship machines and subsystems and life support systems to take us there, sustain us there, and bring us home safely. So that’s how I see the space station playing in on this. Now I, of course, certainly, I would love to be one of those early explorers to maybe [go] back to the moon or to Mars, but I think that may be a mission for our kids and our grandkids. But it’s very exciting when I go to schools and I talk to kids and I look at these young faces and even from, like kids, kindergarten on up through high school, and you look at the wonder in their eyes and to think that probably the first human that we’re going to see on Mars is somewhere in our school system. That’s pretty exciting; probably a young child that’s maybe three, four, five years old, and that person is sitting somewhere in our schools. That’s pretty exciting to me to think about that. When I get a chance to talk to schools and to kids, that’s exactly what I think about, that I may be looking one day 30 years from now, 20 years from now, 40 years from now, I may come back to this place and one of the kids that’s sitting in here will come up to me and say, I remember when you talked to me, years ago. But I think that we as astronauts, we look at that as part of our mission is to kind of pass that torch, keep that dream alive, the same dream that was handed to me so many years ago when I watched the first Apollo moon landings and things, and thinking like, man, that’s just awesome. And to be a part of that would be just incredible, and passing that dream to our kids. So I see us going beyond Earth orbit, and I don’t know what the machine will look like, but I know it’s going to be incredible and most of the engineering that’s in that machinery will have been derived from what we’ve learned from the space shuttle, the space station, the science that we’re doing on the space station. That’s what’s going to take us out of the grip of Earth orbit to some world beyond.