Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?
Preflight Interview: Dan Burbank
A: Yeah. It’s actually a little bit harder than you might think. If you were to ask a lot of the other astronauts in our office or if you’d ask cosmonauts, a lot of them could tell you that since they were children they knew they wanted to do this. For myself, anyways, I’ve been interested in space and astronomy and in science in general since just before my eighth birthday when Neil [Armstrong] and Buzz [Aldrin] landed on the moon in Apollo 11. So that made a huge impression on me but, to be honest, it didn’t make me want to be an astronaut and I think that has more to do with the way that I looked at myself back then. I didn’t necessarily think that I was smart enough, capable enough; astronauts from my viewpoint as a young seven, almost eight year old back then, were sort of on another plane entirely. About that same time I saw kind of a silly Walt Disney movie called “The Boatniks” which nobody would even know how to find or look up right now, and, probably, I think it might have been the next year, but that also made a bit impression on me and it was my first exposure to an organization called the Coast Guard. And it was this silly story about this fellow who graduates from the Coast Guard Academy and goes to a ship and, and has this whole series of misadventures, but from that point on, as long as I can remember, I wanted to be in the Coast Guard, I wanted to do search and rescue. And now I pursued that, finally, ultimately made it to the Coast Guard Academy, I became a pilot, and I had a wonderful career in the Coast Guard, but all through, throughout my entire life I was always interested in space and I, and built telescopes and, and followed the space program and, and it wasn’t until I was already in the Coast Guard flying helicopters that another Coast Guard pilot named Bruce Melnick got picked up for the astronaut program, and it was sort of this conjunction of two interests that I’d always had, and I thought, well, geez, you know, maybe, maybe I should try and see if I can, if I can become an astronaut. And after six years and three attempts, I, I managed to make the transition and, and have had a wonderful career here as well. I did take a couple years off after my last mission and go back to the Coast Guard Academy and got a chance to be an educator and teach there, and it was kind of an opportunity for me to return to my roots, to be around, you know, young Coast Guard folks that are trying to figure out what they want to do in their future brush up on science and engineering again and basically give back a little bit from an organization that gave me such great opportunities to do the things I’ve been able to do.
I want to learn some more about the details of the background. We’ll start with your hometown. Tell me about what it was like for you growing up in Tolland, Connecticut.
Right. Tolland, Connecticut’s a, it’s a small town, it’s probably one of the, I guess, bedroom communities of the urban area of Hartford and so forth and lots of woods, a great place to for kids that want to just go out and have adventures and go exploring and so forth. The school that I went to, high school, fairly small, couple hundred kids graduating class, and everybody pretty much knew everybody else; was very fortunate to have some great teachers that inspired me, one of which was my physics teacher and who taught me how to build telescopes. His name was Jim Harvey, and that was sort of, it probably reinforced my interest in science that I’d always had, you know, before that point and it was a good place to grow up. It was a safe town, lots of great friends, and lots of very good experiences. Difficult to see from space…if, you know, it’s very easy to pick out Houston, it’s very easy to pick out Hawaii, Alaska, Cape Cod where my new hometown is, I guess if you will, and Connecticut’s quite a ways from the Long Island Sound area but, if you know roughly where it is, or Tolland, Connecticut is, you can, you can pick it out but it’s a great place. My folks still live there.
So you grew up there and you went to high school there. From that point on give us the, the thumbnail sketch of your career in your education and your profession which, for the most part, is the Coast Guard then.
Right, right. So I, so I graduated in 1979 and I applied to the Coast Guard Academy when I, in my junior year, and actually I didn’t get in the first time and that was probably an important lesson and it probably carried through in my future, you know, decade or, or 15 years or so later applying for to the NASA program. But I didn’t get in so I went for two years as a physics major to Fairfield University but still really wanted to get into the Coast Guard and reapplied and got in and, and went there for four years, graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Um, when I, when I decided years ago that, that the Coast Guard was something I was interested in I, I had this vision in my mind of being on the Coast Guard’s, you know, small boats and charging out in the stur, in the surf, in the storms and rescuing people. And it’s kind of an interesting thing because when I finally did ultimately get to the Coast Guard Academy and, and like all military academies you show up and you have a very grueling tough first summer as you learn the military way—it’s like boot camp—and you learn a little bit about the service and so forth. Probably that first or second night I was there, there’s a, a small book you’ll, you’ll get called “The Running Light” that tells you about all the things you need to be able to respond if an upper classman approaches you, you know, as a, as a freshman or, or a fourth class or a swab. Also in that book it talked about the various Coast Guard ships, small boats, and it turns out airplanes and so forth, and I remember flipping through this after doing a couple hundred push-ups one night and I was studying it and I remember looking and realizing to my shock and dismay that the only people that can’t be on Coast Guard small boats charging out in the surf and storms are Coast Guard officers, you know. The enlisted force does that, petty officers are the ones that do that job. And I remember thinking to myself, “What am I going to do now? This is, you know, this is…”
Why am I here?
…exactly, why am I here. And then it was a couple of pages later in that same book and it had ships, larger ships and so forth in the Coast Guard, but as an officer you probably won’t get a chance to do hands-on search and rescue and actually be the person who’s, you know, directly saving somebody. You’ll be in charge of a ship of a hundred or more people that are doing that. Then after that they had Coast Guard airplanes, you know, C-130s, and then ultimately there was a section about Coast Guard helicopters, and until that point, I have to admit, I didn’t know that the Coast Guard even had an aviation component, and as I read about it and learned about it I realized that if you wanted to be the person to actually, to be directly involved in search and rescue, the best way to do that, as a officer anyways, is to be a Coast Guard helicopter pilot, so I never thought about aviation until that moment and I never thought about anything but that after. So I graduated in 1985 and went to a ship, spent two, or a year and a half on one of those large Coast Guard ships doing drug interdiction and fisheries patrols and little bit of search and rescue and a couple of military patrols in the North Atlantic, and as soon as I could I went to flight school and the Coast Guard sends their people, their future pilots to Pensacola with the Navy, and learned how to fly airplanes, learned how to fly helicopters there, and then the Coast Guard taught me how to fly H-3s and I had a series of different assignments—Elizabeth City, North Carolina, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Sitka, Alaska. After my first tour, I went ahead and pursued, within aviation we also have an aviation engineering subspecialty, so if you want to be the engineering officer and help basically oversee the maintenance of the airplanes that you’re flying and work directly with the great folks that turn wrenches on those planes and to run the hangars and the facilities and the engine checkout stands and all that, the best way to do those kinds of things is to get into aviation engineering and I was an assistant engineer in Cape Cod and I was the engineering officer in Alaska, and then I came to NASA from that tour.
Now you’re here flying in space, and that’s a job that’s got some risks associated with [it] that are different than the Coast Guard…
…and certainly different than what most people run into in their daily lives. The question becomes, or seems to be, why does it?
What is it that you think we’re getting as a result of flying people in space that, in your mind, makes it worth that risk?
Well, that’s an interesting thing. If you look at it the way we, if you consider a search and rescue mission, for example, in the Coast Guard, and you think about it this way: sometimes the weather’s really bad, sometimes it’ll be a big storm and that’s why the people that are in distress are in distress, and so there’s some times when Coast Guard airplanes and Coast Guard crews fly out in conditions that would not be what you’d ever experience in an airline or anything else, and, and you do that with the mind-set that you’re going to do whatever you can to manage the risk, that you’re going to be, that number one, the crew’s going to be very well trained, the airplane or helicopter’s going, or ship, is going to be very well maintained, and that the crew, real-time during the course of the, of the mission’s going to be very careful about what they do and make sure they don’t put themselves in, in harm’s way any more than necessary. But the, the, the trade there is there’s a strong probability that when you’re done that night there’ll be, you know, one or several people that are alive that otherwise would not be. So it’s a, it’s a very concrete, stark calculus that you’re able to do and if you’re talking about climbing on a rocket, and a space shuttle or a, or a Soyuz or living on board station for six months, it’s a different kind of a thing. But you’re not, it, it, to me it sort of depends on your long-term view of what’s right for the human species. You’re not going and doing a mission with the idea that you’re going to save a life, you’re going to do a mission with the idea that you’re going to save the future of a species and that this is where humans belong. So, but it’s got to be something that you seriously consider, it’s got to be something that your family and you collectively agree to. It’s not for everyone, but I hope for the long term it’s at least for someone, because it’s an important thing for us to do.
You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station to be part of Expeditions 29 and 30. Dan, give me a summary of, what are the goals for the mission for your time on orbit and what your main responsibilities are going to be when you get there?
Well, I think the primary goals for our Expedition 29/30, in contrast to maybe some of the preceding ones, are the space station assembly is now complete, the bulk of the assembly is complete, so we’re essentially transitioning from a period of assembly being the primary objective and, and the primary operational constraint, to utilization now. So the idea is to, is to let the space station do what it was intended and what it was built to do and that is to do cutting edge research.
And your job?
And my job as a member of the Expedition 29 crew, I’m flight engineer on that crew, and as commander of Expedition 30, first and foremost I think is to make sure that we’re safe, that everybody on the, on the crew is safe and that the space station is operated safely. And then beyond that is to be a technician, to be a lab technician, to be a collaborator with the scientists on the ground doing the science and, and to do that utilization and that’s in a bit of a contrast from the kinds of missions I’ve done before in the shuttle, but I’m really looking forward to it.
That’s, not only have you been there before but now the station that you’re going to get to is different than the one that you, you last saw.
It’s been a pretty dramatic change.
And I’m really looking forward to the first view from the Soyuz as we approach the space station and my first mission, it was before we had a permanent expedition on board and space station consisted of three modules, the Service Module [Zvezda], the Functional Cargo Block, FGB [Zarya], and the Node 1, the first U.S. element, and it was still impressive even at that stage. But, then my second mission in STS-115, to me, it was absolutely huge, expansive in comparison. But now it has grown probably another third at least beyond that, probably more than that, I guess, when you consider all the solar arrays and truss elements have been added to it so I’m looking forward to the view. I understand by all reports, the folks that have been there, that there is some really spectacular areas on space station from the perspective of just humans living there, the Cupola being one of them and to be able to live and work in this, the huge volume of the space station for six people I think it’s almost lonely sometimes, it’s so big.
Well, give us a sense of what it’s like now—some of the comparisons are that the habitable volume is like a four-bedroom house or more. What, what’s there at the station that you’re going to arrive at?
Well, space station’s it’s a laboratory, it’s a house where the crew lives and works, it’s got its own electrical power system, command and data handling system it’s got a wastewater processing system and a full-up environmental control system, thermal control system and it’s also a research laboratory. So, all in all, if you were to take the entire space station and gently set it on planet Earth, it would cover about two football fields in area. So it’s absolutely expansive, very, very large, and much larger than the last time that I saw it during STS-115. It’s manned permanently by six crew members and we’ve got, although the laboratory is so big you would, you might be tempted to say that six people aren’t enough to operate all of it, in truth a lot of the science that goes on on board space station is actually operated 24/7/365 by teams of scientists all around the world, hundreds of them in laboratories and institutions and a lot of that work is done independent of the crew. We’re there to help if needed, we’re here, there to in some cases help iterate with the science and collaborate with the scientists, and in some cases just operate as a, a laboratory technician changing out samples. But it’s, in addition to those kinds of things it’s got a gym so that we can keep healthy in space and it’s got some rather small what we call crew quarters or bedrooms, if you will, and so it’s got all the accommodations that you need to keep a crew healthy and productive in space and do the science that the station was intended for.
Let’s talk about the science—as you say, it was the reason the station is there is to, to do science research; now there are six crew members and there are more laboratories so you can do more science. A big part of the science is to find out how people are affected by being in that environment and you guys are the subjects for that research.
Give me a sense of what you do in some of this research as we find out how the microgravity environment impacts human function.
Well, I guess first and foremost, I would say that to me, on a personal level, it’s kind of interesting to see just how adaptable human beings are. So compared to, you know, the fact that we were evolved and developed to, to, to, to basically exist in a 1 g, or one force of gravity, terrestrial environment in an oxygen and nitrogen atmosphere down here with a very narrow thermal band that’s comfortable for us, keeps us healthy and, and so forth, and the fact that we can go from those kind of conditions and then live in space and microgravity environment and in a place that’s absolutely inhospitable absent the protection of the, of the spacecraft, to human beings, that we can live there for a long period of time is a very interesting and a very, kind of an uplifting sort of thing. Our inner ears are designed to, to basically keep ourselves oriented here on planet Earth; some of those mechanisms, for example the, the otoliths, or the linear accelerometers in the inner ear, in space do not work at all like they do on planet Earth: here they help us orient ourselves and know where down is, if you will, and they have a function that allows them to basically detect tilt; in space, absent the permanent 1 g acceleration vector of, of the grav, of gravity, which in space is counteracted by centripetal force, absent that those become exquisitively sensitive but they no longer sense tilt. What they sense is just the tiny little bumps and jostles that we experience as we move around space station and the semicircular canals which are rotational accelerometers which allow, that basically have a feedback loop that allow our visual field to be stable when we turn our head, for example, in space those operate exactly the same. Just how that mechanism works, how those things play into our ability to maintain spatial awareness in a microgravity environment’s kind of an interesting thing. For the first couple of days in space, typically, it’s a little bit difficult for some crews; you don’t necessarily feel all that well, as gradually your balance system kind of gets recalibrated and adapted to the space environment. But there’s a lot of other things that go on, too. Our bones are just as strong as they need to be to support us without injuring ourselves here on planet Earth. Our muscles are just as strong as they need to be to do the things that we do here, as well. In space we don’t need very strong bones to protect ourselves and we don’t need to have strong muscles to do the things we, we do up there and we don’t need to have very capable cardiovascular systems. So what happens is, your body will do what it needs to to optimize the resources it has, and what it means for us in space is we become deconditioned from a cardiovascular stand standpoint. We get a case of potentially a very debilitating case of space osteoporosis, if you will, and those kinds of things would be very problematic if we were to leave low Earth orbit and go the moon long-term or go to Mars, for example. So one of the primary goals of the NASA research is to understand and mitigate those kinds of effects. You know, we go to space with the expectation that some time we’re going to come back to planet Earth, for example, so we’d like our bones to be strong and our muscles to be strong so a lot of what we do is geared towards that. You can help some of those things, it turns out, by exercising a lot, so on. On space station, typically a crew member will exercise about an hour for cardiovascular every single day and about an hour of strength conditioning every day and we can also help mitigate some of the effects pharmacologically, too, and there’s a lot of studies ongoing to look at that. The various other mechanisms, some of them more subtle than that, change during the time that we spend on space station. We collect samples—urine, blood, things like that—and those get returned to laboratories on the ground and they help the scientists there with much more sophisticated laboratory resources to be able to figure out how to further mitigate those kinds of effects. So in short, NASA’s primary goal for the human research on space station is basically to make it safer for us to go further.
And since we want to go further that’s why we do this research now.
That’s right. Exactly.
Now you’re doing a lot of other kind of research. If the first kind, the human research, you’re the subject for, in the other kind you’re the, the researcher or at least the researcher’s assistant…
…for scientists on the ground, and they’re doing research in a lot of different scientific fields. What, what other kind of, of science work are you going to be involved with during your time?
Well, there’s a lot of work that’s done on space station that, that falls in the category of, I guess, what I would characterize as more as basic science, so fluid physics, combustion physics, we’ve got a facility up there that basically will look at the processes of combustion and, with the goal being to figure out how to make combustion more efficient, to reduce pollutants here on planet Earth, to understand better how fire propagates in a spacecraft in a microgravity environment so that we can make spacecrafts safer in the future as well. On the fluid physics side there’s been some interesting things that have come out recently and in space, in general, the inertial forces involved in liquids, for example, and the, in the action of surface tension and capillary flows, those are all in a very, very different balance relative to how liquids operate and how they behave here on planet Earth, again with the 1 g acceleration vector force be, you know, being, being a, a key component here on planet Earth. If you remove that you get a chance to look in a much more pure sense at how fluids behave, so there’s one experiment that was looking at capillary flow and trying, and these would have implication for designing cooling systems for, for microgravity environment, for fueling system, things like that, and there was a very strange anomalous behavior, there was actually a bubble that ended up in one of these lines and the crew on board noticed that this bubble was moving when it shouldn’t and what that caused is the researchers on the ground basically saw this and it kind of put in question our fundamental understanding of the models and how these liquids behave.
Have to rethink the hypothesis.
Exactly. So it’s a, it’s a kind of exciting thing. So what that did is now we’ve reiterated and there’s a, a new experiment on board to kind of push on that just a little bit more and see if we can refine our understanding. Now, it’s maybe a little bit difficult to predict with things like that, basic science, that things are maybe not, aren’t, aren’t, aren’t in the category of applied science where you’re trying to refine a technology, trying to de, design a vaccine or something like that. Um, you don’t know quite where those kinds of things are going to lead, but some of, sometimes those end up being the most exciting things you do and so that’s one example. There’s, we have on board the space station the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer mounted on the outside of space station that I think as of July had already discovered two billion, or captured two billion particles, and its primary goal is to look at, to detect antimatter, antihelium, anticarbon and galactic cosmic rays, and these are particles that are originating, you know, millions and millions of light-years away from sources that are, you know, outside of the Milky Way galaxy and even beyond our local group, our cluster of galaxies. And the goal there, one of the goals, anyways, is just to basically get a better understanding of the structure of the universe and to figure out, for example, the nature of dark matter. So it turns out that the things that we see if we look up at a night sky at night, the stars that we see represent probably on the order of a quarter or a third of the actual matter that has to be there. So if you look at how stars behave in a galaxy, the galaxy should all fly apart; if you look at how galaxies behave in a galaxy cluster, those should all fly apart. So if you look at the things, the matter that you can see that’s bright, that stars, or that emits in any part of the electromagnetic spectrum, there’s not enough there to make those things behave the way they do, so one of the goals of AMS is to try to figure out the nature of this and it’s pretty exciting. It’s, it’s a question that’s been an open question for astronomy for a long, long time.
Those are some wonderful examples. There are other fields of study there, too. Name off a few.
Well, we do Earth observation. We do a lot of, lot of work from the space station both with handheld cameras and we’ve also got an agricultural camera that’s mounted in the, the laboratory Window Ob, Observation Research Facility, the WORF we call it, and we’ve got another camera that is not really necessarily targeted for, for cutting edge science but it’s more geared towards educational kinds of efforts and that’s called EarthKAM [Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students], and it’s an opportunity for kids on the ground, middle school-age kids, to basically plan and take imagery of various spots on the Earth, and it’s more, again, it’s not high resolution per se but it involves kids, young kids, in the process of space station operations and it hopefully inspires them to do science and, and math and pursue those kinds of careers ’cause we need their energy and we need their help down the road. Um, so the, the Earth observation piece, if there’s a, if there’s a, a major storm, for example, or a volcano, the space station is at a kind of a unique vantage point to take pretty high resolution imagery of dynamic real-time events around the world. We’ve got lots of Earth observation satellites that are many, many tens of thousands of miles away from the surface of the Earth, and they can do imaging in fairly high resolution, they can do global imaging and so forth, but, but the space station gives us a chance as we fly over the eye of a hurricane, for example, to take images right down the center of the eye and to give, you know, get some information about the processes that go on inside of, you know, these incredibly dynamic, incredibly, you know, dangerous storms, and maybe help advance our understanding of those a little bit.
That’s a lot of science work and, as you say, you spend time exercising for science…
…as well. What do you do with the rest of your time, with all the rest of your free time? What other work is there for crew members on board?
Well I think for me one of the things I’m looking forward to is on board space station, you know, with nearly a million pounds of space station hardware up there, even though assembly is complete and it’s new and very shiny and very impressive to look at, there are still times when the hardware does break down and still times when we have to roll up our sleeves and break out the tools and do some work on it, and coming from my experience before I joined NASA as a Coast Guard aeronautical engineer and airplane maintainer, basically, to me that’s going to be a lot of fun and a very neat thing to do in cooperation with the people on the ground. Space station’s different than space shuttle in that respect. The space shuttle is a vehicle that as we would fly it for the two weeks or so that each mission would last. Should something come up and some issue hardware-wise would come up with the space shuttle, the crew was basically equipped and expected to be able to do some limited repair to stabilize the system, to make it safe to return to Earth, and then we’d give it back to these incredibly talented professionals who have spent their careers taking care of these things. So the professionals would do the actual repairs, they would remove the duct tape or whatever we used to fix things and do the real repairs. Now with space station you’re not going to bring it back to the shop, you’re not going to bring it back to the people who built it, so what we have to be able to do is the crew has to be able to do repairs typical in complexity, typical in difficulty to what people that have done it all their lives here on planet Earth have done, and to expect that we could just roll into that with very limited opportunity to train with specific kinds of repairs, is a little bit tough. So thankfully we’ve got a lot of help, we have the ability for the ground to literally look over our shoulder and watch what we’re doing. We train crews differently. It’s impractical to train the crew in what we would call a task-based sense, to teach ’em all the things that they would be expected to do on a two-week shuttle mission, we can’t do that same approach on space station. So we basically teach a set of skills. We teach the crew how to operate all the various tools that we have and we trust in luck a little bit that things will behave well and when they don’t we trust in the skills of the crew and the help of the ground to be able to do some potentially very sophisticated kinds of repairs. Personally, I look forward to that. Not that I look forward to the space station hardware breaking, but I think, I think doing that and learning how to keep hardware operating well in space is a key skill. It’s something that once we leave low Earth orbit is going to be absolutely crucial to making ourselves a successful spacefaring people.
Yeah, ’cause then you can’t bring it back to the shop, either.
Exactly right. You know, we’re always, even right now, if it’s something small that breaks and there’s no real way we can, we can fix it, we probably, if it’s not too big, probably can get it up on, on a cargo vehicle in a matter of a month or two after, after the issue. If instead you’re on your way to Mars and you’re, you know, nine months out, you have to be able to potentially even fabricate parts and not just do repairs so there’s no you know, calling home and getting a part in the mail. It just doesn’t work so…
You mentioned a few minutes ago that you’re going to be a flight engineer during the Expedition 29 portion of this mission…
…but you’re going to be the commander of the International Space Station during Expedition 30, after Mike Fossum and Sergei Volkov, Satoshi Furukawa go home. How does that change daily life for you, being the commander instead of a flight engineer?
I think at a fundamental level it probably doesn’t at all. I think everybody on station has got to be thinking about the safety of themselves and their crewmates and the safe operation of the station first and foremost, and then the other things that we do up there. So everybody that’s up there is really well trained and very talented folks. I’m very fortunate the people I’m flying with are among the best I’ve ever worked with. I guess, perhaps at least at one personal level, I will probably look at what I’m doing on station and how we do things and the more critical kinds of operations with maybe a little bit of of a different mind-set than I would before. When we first show up, when Anton [Shkaplerov] and Anatoly [Ivanishin] and I show up on September 24th, we’ll have some experienced folks in the form of Mike Fossum, Sergei and Satoshi, that’ll kind of take us under their wings and we will be for the immediate near term anyway, we’ll be a little bit clumsy. We’ll be finding our way around and we’ll have folks to kind of teach us the ropes and that’s a very convenient, very important way I think that we’ve right now set up the staging of the crews on board space station. We always have an overlap with the experienced crew, and that will give me an opportunity to learn from them on, you know, the things that are most important, the gotchas, if you will, how to do certain tasks more efficiently, things like that. And then when we say goodbye to them, we’ll have a short period of time when there’s just the three of us, and then after that we’ll be joined with Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers, that’ll be up here, and we’ll take them under our wings and I guess in that time frame all three of us and maybe to a larger degree myself certainly for the U.S. segment, will be a little bit more of an instructor, maybe, we’ll be essentially teaching them how to live on board station in its current configuration, although all three of them have been there before.
And in fact, Oleg and Don have both had long-duration missions…
So maybe there won’t be quite as much teaching on my part, you know, for them. But, I think when I look at all the things that we do on board space station I think some of the things like spacewalks, like having visiting vehicles come to space station, those are some of the most critical things, and those, I think, are really important for us as a crew to have good situational awareness to be, you know, tightly in sync with the ground so that should there be problems everybody’s ready to respond as they should. So,you know, I guess for myself that’s something I think about a little bit at this stage.
The plan as it exists right now calls for one Russian segment spacewalk late in your increment.
What are the, what’s known at this point about who’s going outside and what work they’re going to do?
Right, I believe at this, this stage it’s going to be Oleg Kononenko and Anton Shkaplerov so Anton would be EV1, and he and Oleg are going to go out, as I understand it, there is quite a bit of time yet before the EVA so there’s the luxury, if you will, of making changes to that, but one of the primary goals is to install some extra shielding on the outside of the Service Module to help protect from micrometeoroid orbital debris and that’s something that the entire space station, it’s an important thing for all of the station to have, to have good protection from that. They’ll also have an experiment that they’ll be installing on the outside of the Service Module and I’m sure there’ll be some other, you know, smaller tasks, minor tasks that are in there, one of which potentially could be helping to put in place some provisions for a future Russian research module.
And the rest of you get to press your nose against the windows and watch them?
That’s right, exactly right.
You made reference earlier to different kinds of cargo ships that come up. Right now the station is getting supplied by ships launched from Russia, from Europe and Japan. But there are some new cargo ships being developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that have test flights that are scheduled for later on this year…
…while you are there. Fill me in on these new vehicles and how they mix in with the current fleet.
You bet. Well, this is a critical capability because with the retiring of the space shuttle we have now lost the ability to carry very big, you know, loads of cargo to the station and to return cargo from the station, so what we’ve done is we phased into a, basically a new chapter here where NASA is going to solicit and contract with commercial providers to do exactly that. And so we’ve got two companies right now that have vehicles that are planned to visit during the stage of our expedition, one of which is SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corporation]—their vehicle’s called Dragon—and other is Orbital Sciences [Corporation], and their vehicle is called Cygnus. The Dragon vehicle will have the capability of bringing cargo to space station and also returning samples, for example, returning logistics and perhaps failed equipment or things like that, back from station to planet Earth. The Cygnus is just resupply to the space station. So the way those two vehicles work is they will essentially fly up to the space station and stationkeep or fly formation essentially with the space station, and then we’ll use the station’s robotic manipulator system, the big arm, to basically track, capture and then berth those to Node 2, one of the forward elements of station. Currently the plan I believe is for Dragon to come to station, or to launch I believe in early December, and Cygnus, I’m not entirely sure but it’ll happen probably towards the latter part of expedition, my stay on station, Expedition 30. We also hope to have an HTV, a Japanese transfer vehicle #3, and have that third vehicle also come up. It, like Dragon, like Cygnus, we track and capture and berth it to one of the forward elements, the Node 2, and the Europeans have an Automated Transfer Vehicle, we hope to see that as well, probably late in Expedition 30. Again the resupply chain to space station is crucial. Now we did benefit from STS-135 bringing up nearly five tons of logistics so we have got a lot of margin right now to absorb perhaps some delays should they, should they come up on those other vehicles, but I really hope to see ‘em and hope we get a chance to catch ’em and put ’em on Node 2.
Are you going to be controlling the arm to go out and catch them?
I think so. Don Pettit and I will be working together, Andre Kuipers will be working with us as well and that’s the current plan right now.
Commercial cargo ships coming into the station is, I guess, a pretty clear example of how human spaceflight has changed from one man in a capsule 50 years ago to, to what you’re doing right now. You and your crewmates are going to be the first people to launch from Earth since the completion of the space shuttle program. What are your thoughts about the contribution the space shuttle has made to human spaceflight?
Right. Speaking from the perspective of somebody who’s had the opportunity, twice anyways to launch on the shuttle; to see the shuttles retired it’s certainly bittersweet. I would love to have them continue to fly long-term. The space shuttle is exquisitely designed to do the things that it just got complete, you know, just finished doing. That is, to build the space station and to haul up very, very large modules, in the order of tens of thousands of pounds, and to support EVAs, spacewalks, from the space shuttle as needed, and to use a robotic arm to attach these elements and so forth and to lose that capability from the perspective of a pilot, somebody, you know, or flight engineer or mission specialist, who got a chance to fly in them, you know, I’m sad to see that go. But the reality is I think this is a good thing because we’re transitioning. Finally, we’re looking beyond low Earth orbit. The space shuttle for all its majesty and capability, was never designed to go beyond just a couple hundred miles from planet Earth, so if we want to go to the moon, if we want to go to asteroids and Mars, we need a new vehicle and so that’s what we’re looking at right now. So I think we’ve probably got to the point where low Earth orbit access is safe enough—I would never call it routine, at least not for my lifetime, I think anyways—but it’s practical that commercial companies can do this and NASA can now contract out that, you know, that service from commercial companies, I think that’s appropriate. But I think it’s NASA’s job then to take the next step, to leave, you know, from low Earth orbit and go into deep space for the true exploration kinds of missions and so I think the retirement of the shuttle, where, you know, it’s a little bit of a sad time on a personal level, but it’s the right thing to do if you want to be able to set the stage to go beyond that and we need to direct those monies, direct our efforts to the next step, and I think we’re about to do that.
Well, tell me where the next step is; in your mind, where is human space exploration going to be in 20 or 50 years, and how’s the International Space Station going to help us get there?
OK. Yeah. Personally, you know, if I were to look at the long, the long duration 50 year time frame, I believe that in 50 years we will have at least one and probably several bases on the moon, and humans will be living and working there all the time. It’ll be a routine thing. We’ll do that for research purposes, we’ll do it for resource utilization and we’ll use that as a staging ground to learn the next lessons to go beyond. I think asteroids have an awful lot of promise. There’s a strong argument to go there, to understand the nature and characteristics of asteroids. Planet Earth, in its long history, has had a few run-ins with more than one of those and it’s certainly going to happen again and for us to be able to characterize it and understand, you know, the nature of asteroids is important. There’s a lot of good science to do there. Asteroids are probably also a very good resource potentially for raw materials to make things in space. So asteroids, the moon, there are some what we call the Lagrangian points, they’re points around the Earth’s orbit and they’re places where there’s essentially a balance of the gravitational force of the Earth and the moon for example, or the Earth, the moon and the sun, and there are points where you can basically stage a spacecraft in deep space and be essentially at a place that’s very remote from planet Earth that may be in a very good place, for example, to do astronomical research like the James Webb telescope would for example be. I think it would be good to be able to do that, to visit those places. Those things those kinds of missions, are probably in order of magnitude easier than I think the ultimate goal which is to go to Mars, and I think in 50 years, humans will, you know, I certainly hope will have been there, and hopefully we’ll be there on a permanent basis as well. Planet Earth is a wonderful place and it’s spectacular to view from the space station. I think it’s too small for the human species—maybe not from the perspective of the number of humans but for our imagination. I think humans by their very nature, you know, are outward-looking and I think it’s in our destiny to leave this planet ultimately and to go other places and Mars is a really great place to go. The space station is going to help us figure out how to go to the moon and do that safely. It’s going to help us learn how to keep the hardware safe and functional for long periods of time, so that we know how to design it to go to the moon. The moon is probably, you know, a couple of orders of magnitude, on the order of a thousand times, closer than Mars. The moon’s going to be a great place, I believe, to be able to test hardware so that we can then launch crews beyond to go to Mars, asteroids, things like that. So all of these are stepping-stones. Space station, we have a toehold or a foothold in space right now, but it’s not deep space, it’s still largely shielded by Earth’s magnetic field and we still have great, great things we can do in low Earth orbit to figure how to keep humans and hardware functioning well so that we can do those next missions, you know, safer.