Interview

Text Size

Preflight Interview: Mike Fossum
05.10.11
 
JSC2010-E-180065 -- NASA astronaut Mike Fossum

Attired in a training version of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit, Expedition 28 Flight Engineer and Expedition 29 Commander Mike Fossum awaits the start of a spacewalk training session in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA or National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: I was born two months after Sputnik launched, so I was really kind of a child of the Space Age. I, and my dad thought that the space business and America’s space program was an important thing and he’d get us up in the middle of the night to watch the missions, and I remember as a kid having the models and having the maps and I’d be plotting where they were as they went from the Earth to the moon in their orbit, where are they landing and I’d have the moon map and a pin for the next flight and those kind of things, and I just, like every other, just red-blooded kid in the whole world, I think, I dreamed about flying in space. Maybe one thing that is different is I never completely gave up on that dream, for me it comes with so many different angles to it, I mean. My ancestors were pioneers primarily in South Dakota, that came across, came from Europe, and were looking for new opportunity and they endured hardships and lived in very cramped conditions and had suffered through some awful harsh winters as they tried to figure out how to carve out their own place and create a way to live and to prosper. I think part of that pioneering spirit’s still alive, it’s still alive in all of us and I feel like it is in me.

I’m going to get you to tell us about the Mike Fossum Story. Let’s start in your hometown. Tell me about McAllen, Texas, and what it was like to grow up there.

McAllen, Texas, is located down in the south tip of Texas, right on the Rio Grande River, and it was a great place to grow up. It was kind of the edge of the United States in ways, there was a lot of open land down there and great folks. Some of my best friends in the world are still down there. It was kind of an odd mix of Hispanic culture with a strong influence from Mexico, but interestingly enough a lot of people from up in the northern United States, a lot of people would come down for the winters and then some would say, it was kind of an odd mix of cultures where you had a lot of the Scandinavians and Germans and stuff from up north mixed in with the Hispanic culture down south. And my family actually came from South Dakota to move to McAllen for job opportunities. But what I liked down there was the great friends and, we lived on the edge of town and my brothers and friends and I would just get on our bikes and head out of town whenever we had the opportunity just to go explore, to go camping, to go hunting, to do all those kinds of things and for me it was a big part of my childhood to have the chance to get outdoors and do stuff on my own and also was hugely active in the Boy Scouting program down in the Valley and working with the Boy Scout troop and scout camp and summer camp staff and all those kind of things and, had the opportunity to get outdoors and learn skills and put them to the test, and that was just a really big part of my growing up.

Get a chance to see McAllen from orbit?

Oh, indeed. We a map program that helps alert us when we’re coming up on certain places that we have, you know, kind of a saved place, and so you could see, and what surprised me was the Rio Grande River from space is a really tiny ribbon. You could spot the lakes along it easier than you could spot the river itself; it’s kind of a green belt along there. McAllen, as I suspected, growing up it was a discrete town, through time a lot of the towns right along the border have kind of grown together and you could certainly see that. But it’s great to see though.

You have a good sense of how that place and people there helped contribute to make you the person that you are?

Oh, yeah. It was the whole community. My family lived there for many, well, through my early years and growing up. So many teachers that were instrumental in keeping me, encouraging me, inspiring me, telling me that they believed in me. The math teachers and science teachers in particular. I remember that all the way back to the second grade when a teacher challenged me in the library ’cause I was getting one of the books that weren’t in the second grade section of the library, and it was a science book about the sea and I wanted to read this book, and she said, well, you need to read these. “Well, Miss Bradshaw, I read ’em all.” So she looked at me and said, OK, Mike, I want you to come back next week and tell me about this book. “OK, I’ll do that.” And I did, and she said to me, it’s kind of stunning words for a second grader to remember ’cause it was so important to me, she said, “Mike, this library is yours. You can have any book you want out of here ’cause you can handle it. Enjoy.” And I did, so that, that was a big part of it, especially when I get into high school and some of the science teachers and math teachers that, when you’re in the hard stuff and they would encourage me and push me. Interestingly enough, band teachers, too, ’cause I was active in the band and they took that stuff seriously and we had a lot of fun with that.

What did you play in the band?

I played trombone. I had a lot of fun doing that.

You going to take one with you to station?

No. They’re not quite as portable as flutes are [laughs]. Other people that helped contribute were the Scout leaders. I mentioned being active in Scouts and I at one point I dropped out of Scouts and one of my Scout leaders there would not let me drop. He came looking for me and I owe a lot to Mickey Alleyn for not letting me slip away.

From McAllen you go off to college and start your professional career. Take us through the high points of that, your education and then your professional career that led you to here.

A, kind of a circuitous route. From high school I went to Texas A&M. I knew I wanted to be an Aggie as soon as I visited the campus and I just loved it. I ended up joining the Corps of Cadets primarily to get a dorm room ’cause the dorms were full on campus. I had no intention of going in the military. Why would I want to go in the military? Well, I got in the cadet corps and my eyes were really opened and I saw a lot of opportunities there and I wanted to be an engineer, it’s what I wanted to be. In the back of my mind I dreamt about flying in space but I didn’t really think those kind of things could happen to real people, but I wanted to be an Aggie, I wanted to be an engineer, and so I’m up there, I’m in the Corps of Cadets and had a great time. It’s like in, a lot of situations, including crew situations; it’s your buddies that help you get through it. I learned that in the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M. I found the lessons that I learned there on just looking after each other and looking out for your buddy and leading, so very valuable to me through the Air Force and through my time here at NASA. After A&M I was commissioned into the Air Force and the Air Force immediately sent me to graduate school in Dayton, Ohio, where I earned a master’s degree in systems engineering. From there, I worked a special duty assignment, a great opportunity to be loaned over from the Air Force to Johnson Space Center, and that’s how I happened to be here in the first early days of the shuttle program. I was loaned over from the Air Force. There was a cadre of people that were in that kind of situation, and I spent just three wonderful years here in the early days, saw Columbia and then Challenger and then was here to actually work the first flight of Discovery before I left at the end of ’84 to go off to Test Pilot School and other challenges in the Air Force.

Tell the story about why you left and went back, went to fly in the Air Force.

Well, this was a limited time here and I knew that and so I was reaching a decision point: do I want to get out of the Air Force and stay here, or is there something in the Air Force that would be worth doing to leave here? Texas is home, I love the space business, and I was ready to get out and stay here. It was really two of the guys—my office was just down the hall from the Astronaut Office, and I was always the junior Air Force guy on the Center for three straight years and so I’m the guy that gets stuck with doing some of those Air Force administrative things. I would be the guy that’s doing the voter assistance —“You want to register to vote? Here’s your card. Here’s what you do with it.”—those kind of things, and so I got to know the guys as well as working with them as, working shuttle crew procedures with ’em, and two in particular were, had gone through, two of the astronauts in the early days, from the ’78 and ’80 class, had been through Air Force Test Pilot School as a flight test engineer, and it was Jerry Ross and Ellison Onizuka, and they kind of thought it was amusing to have an engineer, Air Force, you know, lieutenant around the halls, but they kind of took me under their wing and encouraged me to actually leave here, to apply to Test Pilot School and go do some other stuff. They said, you can always come back and work here, but this would be really good for you. It was very challenging, it was exciting, it was fun, and they said, go learn some other stuff and when you come back here you’ll have more to contribute. And, they were right, and I did apply, I got accepted, and I went off and did that, and, what a great opportunity that was.

So why then did you leave the Air Force to come back here?

Well, I did the flight test for, probably about eight years, I did flight test and I loved it, I enjoyed it, and then kind of reached another one of those times in my career, I’m at the twelve-and-a-half years or so and am I going to go all the way to 20, NASA’s calling, I’d really like to go work down there, that’s Texas, it’s home; my mom was having some health issues about that time and that was kind of the call, maybe it’s time to go home. I had still stayed in touch with folks back here and Jerry and El were right, there were opportunities and I came back and then immediately, it wasn’t easy getting a job, when I moved back here from the Air Force initially I did not have a job, but was hired by NASA and soon working, NASA at the time was going to buy Soyuz spacecraft from the Russians, modified with English displays and controls, were going to fly them up in the cargo bay of the shuttle and attach them to the space station to use as a lifeboat. This was the idea back in ’92, ’93; very odd idea today, but that was what we were working toward and I got in with that team. A few months later the space station program was kind of kicked into a big redesign and I was working for the crew office as an engineer and they had me jump into that and help look out for their interest through this redesign process. There was some strange, very long days as we sorted through a lot of different things to try to reduce the complexity and cost of the station, and at the end of that the Russians were partners in the space station program. Now we didn’t need to launch Soyuz spacecraft in the back of shuttles, the Russians began with the concept of putting them on the station to use as the transportation and lifeboat.

And at this period of time then I guess is when you’re also applying to become an astronaut yourself?

Oh, I did apply a few times, yeah. I submitted my first application to the Air Force, actually it was 1985, and I had my first interview with NASA in ’87, and, several times through the years, finally it was on my fifth interview over 13 years that I was selected, in ’98, to begin training as an astronaut.

You’ve gotten the job which has the component of flying in space, that is something that has its dangers. All jobs do, but this one certainly does. Mike, what is it that you think we get or learn as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking the risk?

Well, some things are worth taking the risk. There’s a risk associated with it and that’s something that you have to face. But the kind of science that we get back in return is huge, and there’s no other way to do this stuff, and that’s why we do it. This kind of material science, life science, biologic, basic physics, those kind of things are worth doing and I think it’s really part of our destiny and, to be reaching out, to be exploring wherever that unknown is located. Some people explore the depths of the ocean; some people explore the heavens. Some people explore with their mind through telescopes, as they peer out and they try to unlock the secrets and the majesty of what’s out there, but there’s a place for some of us to be reaching out in a personal way.

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 28 and 29 crews, so, Mike, give me a summary of your six-month flight and what the main responsibilities you will have will be?

Well, Expedition 28/29’s an exciting time to be going up to the space station. I’ve been involved with the space station program since the beginning when it was announced by the president a little bit, and then through the redesign in the mid-’90s, and then to help construct it on a couple of shuttle assembly missions. Now we’re moving out of that phase as this construction assembly’s complete, and more into the science phase that it was really built to do, so it’s exciting as we’re bringing online all of these, the payloads, the different equipment to begin moving it forward with that research capability.

Now as you mentioned you’ve been to the station twice before on shuttle missions, but what are you looking forward to about getting to go and stay there for six months?

I’m looking forward to living in space, not just visiting. On a shuttle mission it’s two weeks and you’re going full out the whole time ’cause it’s very busy. Every minute is really scripted very tightly because you only have a few days at the station, like eight or nine days, to get your whole job done, and then you’ve got to prepare the shuttle to come home again. Now, instead of that kind of a quick race, we’re up there for a long run, and you could think of it like a sprint versus a marathon. And you get more time to really adapt to living in space, not just coping, but really adapting and learning how to live there and work there, and, really become more of a space-dwelling creature for that six months.

Let’s talk about the place that you’re going to. Describe the International Space Station for us as it exists today with all the different laboratories and airlocks and other modules that you’ll be inhabiting.

The volume of the space station today is roughly equivalent to six Greyhound buses. That’s kind of the way I think of it. There is a lot of twists and turns, it’s actually grown a little bit since I was there last a few years ago, in ’08, but all of the pieces have been designed for specific purposes, all of the U.S. segment, the non-Russian parts, were built and, well, delivered in the space shuttle, and so they’re sized to fit in the cargo bay of the space shuttle as we go up, dock, or attach the shuttle to the station, and then use the robotic arms to move these elements into place as we grew the station. It looks like a bunch of Tinker Toys on the outside, but really it’s very complicated and they’re not easily movable to other locations. But that’s kind of what gives us the distinctive diameters and lengths of the different pieces of the space station, they had to fit in the cargo bay of the shuttle. The Russians launched theirs differently: they came up on independent boosters and kind of automatically performed the rendezvous and docking of those pieces, and, as they’ve built, they’re still adding on a couple of small elements on their side.

Six Greyhound buses; they’re not all being used for passenger compartment. What are the, what is all this space in the station set aside for?

Well, a large part of it's laboratories. The U.S. Laboratory forms kind of the backbone of the forward part of the space station. Coming forward off of that, we have on each end of it there’s an attaching node, and then on the very front of the space station you have the European-built laboratory, the European nations came together to build one, on the opposite side up front is a Japanese laboratory, it’s the largest single element on the U.S. part of the station, it was built and funded completely by Japan. And as you move further aft we have the airlock for performing the EVAs, if you look down there’s kind of a permanent logistics module down there now, kind of a big closet or storeroom that was just recently added to the bottom of the station, and then out the other side is another one of these nodes but it’s really kind of our exercise room. The treadmill’s in there, our resistance exercise equipment is located in there as well as the bathroom and, one of the real gems of the space station now is the Cupola, a cluster of windows that hangs off the bottom of that element to give us just a fantastic view of the outside of the station, the world below, and really most importantly the robotic arm as we’re doing work outside, to get eyeballs on the arm. Moving back from there we move into the Russian part of the space station, the FGB [Zarya]. It’s a, today it’s predominantly stowage, in the FGB itself, and then back to the Service Module [Zvezda] where the main command center for the Russian part of the space station, their living quarters, they dock vehicles to the back of the Service Module, there’s docking ports and other laboratory, smaller laboratory units that are kind of on the top and bottom of the FGB and Service Module.

And with all that…

It’s huge.

…laboratory space and six crew members on board…

Right.

…all the time now, there’s a lot science research that’s being done these days. A lot of experiments are designed to find out how people can better live and work in space. So tell me about some, give me a few examples…

Sure.

…of the kinds of life sciences experiments that you and your crewmates will be a part of during this, this mission.

Well, with the crew of six we actually are, one of our job descriptions is guinea pig, where we are the subject of the investigations, we talk about it a lot, in zero g, when your bones are not supporting your body, you begin losing bone mass, through natural processes and it accelerates the process that predominantly affects elderly women, where the bones get more fragile and you’re losing and changing the structure of the bone itself. And so we are good test subjects then for different kinds of exercise and medications to minimize that bone loss or reduce or stop the bone loss itself. So that’s a big one. Changes in the muscle mass, I’m the guinea pig for a new exercise protocol called Sprint, which uses higher-intensity workouts, shorter duration, higher-intensity, and thinking that that might be able to just push it up. I’m obviously not Superman, but using that kind of an exercise protocol rather than one that stretches out over a longer period of time, lower-intensity, which is kind of the standard, I mean, everything from MRIs to muscle biopsies before and after flight to look at the change of my muscles because you lose a lot of muscle when you’re floating around all of the time, it really changes things. Another big one is changes to the cardiovascular system, the whole heart, heart valves, and I’m an operator for, actually doing the Doppler cardiogram, and using, a remote controller teleoperator—a doctor on the ground, a very skilled operator on the ground, is helping guide me through it while I’ll be doing measurements on crewmates and getting the ultrasound in and taking just live images of their heart while it’s pumping, while they’re at rest and then they’ll exercise, get the heart rate up and then I’ll get ‘em wired up and then start probing again.

And see how they’re different, how the heart behaves differently in this environment than it does on Earth?

JSC2010-E-102444 -- Mike Fossum and Satoshi Furukawa

Expedition 28 Flight Engineer and Expedition 29 Commander Mike Fossum (left) and Expedition 28/29 Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa (center) pose for a photo during an exercise in a Cupola trainer in the systems engineering simulator in the Avionics Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA or National Aeronautics and Space Administration

All of those three things, the bone health, muscle health and cardiovascular health, are really important just for long-term health of astronauts and very important to maintain that health as some day we venture beyond low Earth orbit and go to Mars. I still think some day we’re going to Mars; humans are going to go to Mars and when they get there they need to be healthy enough to get some work done, in addition to, we want to keep people healthy and so they’re not crippled at the end of a spaceflight in some life-threatening way.

So you’re, just your being there is an experiment?

That’s absolutely right. Just being there we are an experiment. We also measure the overall aerobic health or cardiovascular health through exercise bikes and getting all wired up, getting all the heart monitors on and breathing through the hoses so they measure how much oxygen we take up, and we get these periodic assessments, those kinds of things, too, so they can watch it and monitor it. They’re going to be watching me closely to see if the new exercise protocol gives different results from the baseline that a number of people have already done and are continuing to do. We’re doing similar things with nutrition, different kinds of food, high protein, low protein, high salt, low salt, those kind of things.

Now, you’ve got a lot of laboratory space for a lot of other experiments of other kinds, in other scientific disciplines, I guess, if you will, and for these you guys are operators not, not guinea pigs so much.

You bet.

Tell me about some of these other kinds of science work that you guys will be doing.

There’s a lot of different, and we call it in terms of racks. The modules or elements inside the station have these, roughly about eight foot by three foot wide racks, and a science facility can be contained in one of these volumes, these small racks you see on the wall and there, of course there’s back behind there, and there are things like furnaces and, that have very specific heating and cooling control capabilities, and so the ground sends up the test chambers that we get in there and then we set it up and run it through its cycle, and those are then brought to the ground. And why is that interesting? Well, in zero g, in gravity when you melt different kinds of metals they tend to form layers because the heavy ones sink. You can have them all mixed up as a powder but then the heavy ones sink. In zero g they form a different kind of crystal structure and a different kind of mixing. We’ve got plant growth facilities where they’ll be growing seeds and some of them will be grown at 1 g, or zero g, and they’re in rotating canisters where we can spin them up at different levels, all the way up to 2 gs and then compare at the same time. This, all these seeds started at the same time; what do they look like in zero g and what is one-quarter or one-tenth of a g? What does that do to the plant? Zero g plants are kind of weak, actually, ’cause they don’t know where to grow, they just grow toward the light, and that’s another variable in that experiment. Lots of great stuff. Another one that I really enjoy, it’s probably my favorite experiment, it’s a flame physics experiment where, in zero g the flame doesn’t look like it does on Earth. You light a candle here and everybody knows what it looks like. The cool air, the hot air, well, the air that’s heated by the flame is buoyant, it’s lighter and it rises and it pulls in cool air from the bottom, and so that’s what gives you that kind of tapered shape to the flame. In zero g the flame is round without air flow, and it actually snuffs itself out fairly quickly because it uses up the oxygen right around the flame front, as they call it, and the carbon dioxide accumulates in a sphere around the flame and it puts itself out. And so we have, in this particular test equipment the air flow, low rate air flow, and we’re controlling, it’s a very small flame, very controlled—fires are dangerous in space—but we can control different variables, they can measure this flame and gain insights the physics, the fundamental physics of that flame. This is just, just doing some basic research. If they could find a way to make burners, industrial burners, you know, one-half percent more efficient, it would save millions of dollars a year and lots of energy. That’s why we do these kinds of things, hoping, you know, not sure but hoping to gain insights that, that make for a better tomorrow.

You’ve got science in a lot of different kinds of disciplines as, as you’ve described it, too, and it’s your job, you and your crewmates, your job to take care of all that equipment as well as the rest of the station’s equipment…

That’s right.

...too. Give me a sense of what kind of maintenance men you guys are up there. What kind of work do you have to do?

Well you can be called on to fix just about anything inside or outside of the space station, and we have to be trained and prepared to do that kind of thing. It’s just as simple as cleaning up after yourself, putting things away, and then every week going through and cleaning house, just like you do at home. You’ve got to go through and vacuum things up. Now in space the vacuum and other dust and things, don’t settle on the floor, they really settle everywhere, particularly things like air vents and that’s where you find the pencil that you lost yesterday, eventually you’ll find it in an air vent and in an air filter some place. You’ve got to go through and clean those things up. We have to keep track of inventories of the things that we use and periodically we’ve got to go in just like you do at home, or you’re supposed to do at home go in and do that preventative maintenance on different things to check it out to make sure that the belts are all tight and its operating properly, maybe give it a little drop of oil when it’s time, and those kind of things, as well as safety things. We go around, we have fire extinguishers, we go put our eyes on the fire extinguishers and the gas masks, oxygen masks, and make sure that they’re all in good shape. We check the seals on the hatches, clean those, make sure there’s nothing on them that would prevent a good seal in the case that we needed to use all that kind of stuff.

That’s, and I’m thinking listening to you describe the variety of stuff that you’ve got to do and thinkin’, the training to be ready for all of those different things is probably why it takes so long to get ready for this mission.

This is a long flow for us now we’ve shortened it down to two-and-a-half years and that’s a really intense two-and-a-half years, traveling literally around the globe. About 60% of the training’s here in the United States and the rest is primarily in Russia, but also Japan and Germany, for the European lab and payloads, and Canada to learn the space station’s robot arm.

One of the first big events that happens on your schedule after you arrive is the final visit of the space shuttle mission. And STS-135 includes a spacewalk that’s going to be conducted by you and Ron Garan. Now usually shuttle crew members do spacewalks when shuttles visit; why is this time a different way?

I think we got lucky. No, seriously they want to bring as much cargo uphill as possible. That’s a big part of it for the 135 mission, and so they went with minimum crew of four, just to minimize the number of people. Ron Garan and I, we’re really lucky to be here, in this place at this time. We flew together on STS-124 in 2008 we have about 21 hours of spacewalk time together and two to three hundred hours of spacewalk training together, and so we’re already a very experienced spacewalk team, and I think as they were looking at the crew mix and the best way to use people and weight, they just decided to toss Ronnie and I into the EVA, back into the EVA arena we’re happy to do that, we’ll do whatever we need to do, but it’s like the EVA work. It’s very challenging and, it’s very physically and mentally challenging, but at the end of the day you feel good what you’ve accomplished.

Well, while we’re on the subject tell me what’s on the agenda for this EVA on STS-135. What are you guys going to do outside?

Several big things one is literally big. A pump module failed some months ago on the space station, and this is part of the cooling system that pumps ammonia through the radiators to dump the heat to space and to keep all of the computers and people at a comfortable operating environment inside. Those pump modules were made to operate longer than they’ve ended up operating; it failed early, basically, and if, there’s a really a high priority put on getting that pump module back to the ground so we can really analyze it and figure out why did it fail early, how can we improve space systems to operate for longer, good redundancy or systems that you can trust to operate for years at a time; very important learning how to continue to live and work in space. So we’re going to the pump module right now is sitting on a stowage platform very close to the space station’s airlock and Ron’s going to be getting onto the space station’s robot arm and we’re going to get this pump module ready to go. It weighs about 1400 pounds on Earth—of course, it’s weightless up there but it still has 1400 pounds worth of mass—so you’ve got to move it very slowly. It’s like a small car and we’ll both pick it up together and then we’ll kind of get him started with me helping guide a little bit and then he’ll ride the robot arm down to the payload bay of the shuttle. And I will scurry down there using handrails and go down and meet him in the back of the space shuttle’s cargo bay and then we’ll put it down on a stowage platform in the back of that bay and attach it so that Atlantis can bring it home. After that we’re going to, actually swap places. I’ll jump on the arm, Ronnie will take the pedestrian route and then we’re going to pick up the RRM [Robotics Refueling Mission]. It’s a new kind of science payload that the shuttle’s bringing up, and we’ll put that onto a temporary stowage location on the station for a later install out at its permanent location. Then we’re going to jump over, and one of the cameras has been acting up, and it looks like some of this may change but I think we’re going to get to do some other maintenance tasks, swap out a space station external camera and perhaps install another smaller payload at one of the test locations on the truss.

What’s the RRM do?

It’s a Goddard Space Flight Center payload that’s intended to show that you can do robotic refueling and so it has a lot of external interfaces on it and I’m not completely sure, once we get it up there, how they’re going to do it. I think it’s using the SPDM, Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, to go and actually move some of these devices around and show that you can transfer fluids.

So it’s a, it’s for, as you say, for a later demonstration of technology?

Right.

Now all of that is just in the spacewalk. That’s only taken up one day.

That’s one day.

What else is on the timeline for STS-135?

A big part of the 135 crew and Atlantis are going to be bringing up tons of actual supplies. I saw some numbers yesterday they’re bringing up, I think, a year’s worth of food, and other things, clothing, food, resupply items, spare parts, all those kinds of things. This is the last shuttle flight. The shuttle is a cargo hauling machine; it can haul so much uphill and bring it, and bring things back to the Earth, so this is our last chance to get those spares on board and anything that’s used up, all of the science experiments that are completed, we’ve got those samples out of the furnaces and cooled off ready to ship home, we’ll be sending home frozen samples of, biologic samples from us and getting all those things home, too, so it will be a lot of cargo transfer time to get everything over that we can.

As you’ve noted, this flight of Atlantis is the last mission in the whole Space Shuttle Program. Mike, what are your thoughts about the shuttle’s place in the history of human spaceflight and the role that it played in building the space station?

I’m proud to have been a part of the space shuttle’s mission. I was actually working at Johnson Space Center, the first flight I worked was STS-3 working in Mission Control, and so I’ve been here since almost the very beginning, back in the STS-single-digit days. I left NASA for eight years to go back to the Air Force and do flight test but then, came back and got involved as an engineer and then eventually a flyer. It’s been an amazing adventure. I remember so clearly the first launch; I was in Florida for the second launch, and working at Johnson Space Center for the third one. It’s a bittersweet a lot of people have called it that. I’m really proud to have been part of it. I think the shuttle is finally doing what she was built to do, hauling up big pieces of space station and building it. I mean we were working the space station program back in ’82 when I first got here and the early plans were already rolling and they were already looking at the space shuttle’s cargo bay as the way to get it built. And so it’s really an awesome thing to see the space station, to see the space shuttle up there. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to be there, to take part in that last mission and closing a magnificent chapter of human spaceflight and the American space program.

Just a couple weeks after Atlantis does depart, a couple of your crewmates are scheduled to do a spacewalk out of the Russian segment of the station. That’ll be Sergey Volkov and Alexander Samokutyaev. You told me that your job is going to be to help them get ready for the spacewalk, and this is in the Russian segment of the station so the procedure is different than what you do in the U.S. segment of the station.

Yeah, it’s very different. I’ll be helping them as their inside helper. Their suits are very different than ours. Literally, we put our pants on and then we have to climb into the upper part of the suit and then it has to get attached and then we add the gloves and the helmet. The Russian suits are quite different and it’s designed so they can get in themselves. The gloves already installed, they’re permanently installed on the arms; I think, they can swap them out but when they get in the gloves are already installed, and the pants don’t come off. The suit is built as one piece and they actually climb in, they put on a liquid cooling garment very similar to ours; the back opens up, there’s a hatch in the back of the suit, and they get in, kind of get their legs in and they’re sitting with their legs started down in and hook up the electrical connections for communication and the cooling water connections and all that kind of stuff and then they slide the rest of the way in, get their arms out into the suit and then they pull a lever to pull the back hatch closed and then another one to actually lock it. I’ll be assisting with part of the process, perhaps checking their seals and stuff before they do the final closures, and then I’ll be helping with the hatches. Their airlock system is a little different and there’s some more redundancy and different options for getting them back inside—if there’s a leak in one of the outer hatches we’ll have an internal volume prepared to serve as a secondary airlock, and I’ll be going through and closing those hatches. The other Russian on board, Andrey Borisenko, will be configured he and Ron Garan will be isolated in the MRM [Mini Research Module][2] element with their Soyuz located on, which is kind of opposite where the airlock’s, the Russian airlock’s located, and so they’ll be isolated for the day, they’ll probably spend six, seven hours up there getting some work done in a smaller volume and maybe taking a nap, I’m not completely sure what they’ll be doing, but I’ll be working the hatches down below and working with the crew, Sergey and Alexander and the Russian control center, to do the pressure checks and verifications and stuff.

And then during the spacewalk, you and Satoshi Furukawa have the run of the station?

Yeah, we’ll have the run of the U.S. part of the station because we’ll have that kind of an isolated block right in the middle so there won’t be anybody in the FGB and Service Module. That’ll be kind of an isolated volume. The Service Module will be an isolated volume, rather—we’ll have the FGB and the U.S. part of the station, USOS [United States Operating Segment], as we call it. We’ll get other work done that day. It’ll be tempting to hang out and watch them out the window, and we might do a little bit of that, too.

The next major event that comes along will be when Samokutyaev, Borisenko and Garan leave. They’re going to get in the Soyuz and go home. That’ll be the start of Expedition 29 and you will become the commander of the station at that point. How does daily life on orbit change when you become commander of the International Space Station?

JSC2011-E-026345 -- NASA astronaut Mike Fossum

Expedition 28 Flight Engineer and Expedition 29 Commander Mike Fossum participates in a docking timeline simulation training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA or National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Well, it always gets a little more serious when you’re in charge. I’m looking forward to it. This is a great opportunity for me. I’m fortunate to have been asked to take on this role and I look forward to it. We’re going to be learning from the guys ahead of us, learning from Ron Garan and Andrey the commander that I’ll be relieving, and Sasha, we’ll be learning all the ropes from them. There’s only so much you can train, even in two-and-a-half years of training. But it really gets down to how do you live here, how do you keep track of things, what’s the process we have for all of these different various aspects of just living and working in space. We’ll be learning from those guys, so I’m not too worried about figuring out exactly how we’re going to do things because the first thing I’m going to do is say, how did they do it, how did we learn to do it from them…why do we want to reinvent the wheel, maybe make some tweaks, of course, I’ll put my own mark on things, but look forward to it. The beautiful thing here, I mean, my crew’s just awesome. I’ve know Sergey Volkov for 11 years; he’s one of my best friends in the cosmonaut corps, probably best friend in the cosmonaut corps. I’ve known and worked with Satoshi since he showed up here to begin training. We’re three guys from three different countries and three different corners of the globe, but we get along great, we have a lot of fun working together. We know how to work hard but we enjoy each other’s company, too, and so I’m really looking forward to that. The guys that are joining us, coming up Dan Burbank, Anton Shkaplerov and Anatoly Ivanishin I’ve worked with those guys a lot, too, they’re great friends and I look forward to doing good work and having a good time and coming home friends when everything’s said and done.

Now another thing that you’re planning for, that you’ve been training for, is the arrival of new cargo ships. These have been developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program and they have test flights that are on the schedule for, coming up late this year. Tell me about the vehicles themselves and what it is that you guys, the crew members, do to get the station ready for these upcoming test flights.

Well, first I just got to say I heard about this concept a number of years ago. The concept is we’re going to launch a rocket, a cargo ship, from Earth, and it’s going to come up and it’s going to rendezvous with the space station then it’s going to come up really close, like 10 meters away, and it’s going to fly formation on the space station and it’s not going to move. How in the world are we going to do that? I know a lot about this flying in space and technology stuff and I was really I could not conceive of how we would do that. And it works beautifully: Japan has launched two of their cargo ships up there and that thing comes up through a series of stages, moving in and getting tighter and tighter, and very solid. It’s amazing. It’s a very important part of the program as we move forward. We won’t have shuttles to bring up cargo bays full of spare parts and supplies, so we need other cargo ships. The Russians have a Progress ship which is very and a workhorse; we use them a lot. Europe has another cargo ship which actually docks to the back end of the space station, it comes in and does more of a classic Russian-style rendezvous and docking where it comes in and you can do manual control if you need to, but it’s designed to do it fully automatic, where it comes in and it plugs in. These are different the Japanese HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle] is the first one. The second one, which looks like it’s going to get up there is built by SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies], called the Dragon, and it should come up toward the end of our increment this will be the first test flight as we bring it in close and there’s objectives to come in, call a hover, call a stop, tell it to back away and it’ll back out a hundred meters to a holding location and we’ll tell it to come back in, and through a series of steps like that to verify different functions ’cause we do have a radio control of the ship to make not manual steering but we can send it commands— “go away,” that kind of thing, or “stop where you are.” And an important one is as it comes in nominally the normal process as it’ll, comes in close, and then I’ll fly the space station’s robot arm and that’s the way we get them on board is we use the space station robot arm to go out and there’s a grapple fixture on the ship and we use that robot arm to go out and grab that as it’s hovering there. That’s a challenging task, potentially very challenging task. It’s one we train a lot for. I’ve trained hundreds of hours for that task of reaching out and grabbing the free drifting, you send it, you tell it to go free drift, you don’t want any thrusters firing at the last moment as you’re coming in close to it we really get the robot arm about two-and-a-half meters away, tell it to go free drift and it just starts drifting and then it’s my job to reach out, grab it and then we will maneuver it around and attach it to the bottom of the space station where we can open up hatches and get to the supplies.

Now we got commercial cargo ships getting ready to fly, and that’s just one way that spaceflight has changed dramatically in its first 50 years gone from one man in a tiny capsule to this giant space station. Where do you think human space exploration’s going to be 50 years from now and how’s this space station going to get us ready for that?

Wow, what a great question, because there’s been so many changes and we’re thrilled, I mean, to be part of the second half century of human spaceflight as we’ll be recognizing Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight and Alan Shepard’s flight just before we get there. It’s an exciting time to be a part of this. The next 50 years? I mean, who could have imagined 50 years ago when we were struggling to get the first single-person, spacecraft to make a single orbit, and now we have six people living continuously 220 miles above the Earth in a facility like this. It’s just unbelievable. What we’re doing today, though, is we’re learning how to build those systems to last longer, we’re learning how to keep the people healthy so that we can last longer, be effective and get the job done and I think we’ll see a ship like this but not in Earth orbit. I think when we eventually try to reach out mankind’s, it’ll be with a bigger ship. You can’t make a long trip to Mars in a little tiny capsule. You’re going to have to have room to live and to work and do productive work along the way. It’s kind of mind boggling.