Interview

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Preflight Interview: Andre Kuipers
11.01.11
 
Andre Kuipers

European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, Expedition 30/31 flight engineer. Credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: Yeah. It started all for me with my grandmother coming home with three science fiction booklets, and she bought it for one guilder which is, maybe a dollar or so by now, and these science fiction booklets were numbers 10, 11 and 12 in a series, but that was the trigger for me because I got into this world of astronauts and spaceships and alien life forms and that was in the time that I also saw cars on the moon in the Apollo flights and...

How old were you and what were the books about?

Yeah. I, I think I was about 11, 12 when the spark happened. These were, novels, and it still going on—it’s a science fiction, originally German, I think, it was translated in Dutch, it also has been in America as well, and it’s called Perry Rhodan and it’s science fiction series about the Earth, actually, about the future history, of the planet and all the contacts with alien, civilizations and things like that. And, together with popular science magazines in which you could see a complete technical drawing of Skylab, the pictures of the moon landings and the movies, that was the time that I dreamt about it because it was adventurous, it was exciting. Then the space shuttle came and that was already in another era—I was studying medicine—, and then I saw how beautiful it was. I saw this, this footage of floating astronauts and through the view on the Earth through the window, IMAX movies. And then I thought, oh, this is all so beautiful; so it was exciting and adventurous, and then it was so intriguing and beautiful. And then the third thing came because during my medical studies I started to be more interested in the science part of it and what happens with humans in weightlessness. So, and then I, I felt, oh, hey, this is useful. So it was a combination of adventure, beauty, and usefulness that made me decide, OK, I, I want to go this direction and, if I can I’d like to go there myself and experience this view on the planet and the weightlessness. So that’s how it all started.

Set the scene for where all this was happening. Tell me about your home town. Tell us what it was like for you to grow up there.

Yeah. I’m born and raised in Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands and I like it, it’s a very international city. Actually it’s the most international city on the planet, even more than New York, I understand, if you look at residents from different countries. So it’s a lot of international, people there, and it’s a very lively city, a very old city, and, I really had a great time. I mean, I spent my youth there and all my friends are there, family, so, yeah, that’s absolutely my hometown, and every time, I’m not much at home, I’m not much in Holland and, every time I come and I fly in I see my country from the air, gives a good feeling. I feel like, I’m a world citizen. I mean, I’m everywhere, but seeing your own country and the green meadows and all the, there’s a lot of water all the small, the rivers and, and the lakes there, gives me absolutely a feeling of home, so wherever I go I always have the feeling that I have my home base in the Netherlands and my favorite town is then Amsterdam. And I like to go to Amsterdam to bike; with a car it’s a disaster, like a lot of cities, but to go through Amsterdam and see all the old houses, it’s so much history. I mention it, OK, this where the houses where the people lived during our golden century, the 17th century, when Dutch ships were all over the planet trading and discovering new things and that is something I compare it a lot with how the exploration of those days: I see spaceflight as the next step of exploration and, it’s, yeah, I feel that also in my town that, Amsterdam is built, say, on, on this tradition of exploration and trade with, in strange areas with different countries.

What’s it look like from space?

Uh, yeah, Amsterdam has a, a nice feature and that’s because they have all these canals in a semicircle so this is something you can see. And there’s one big advantage of Holland: it’s so small that you can see it in one view, taking one picture. And it’s a very densely populated area but nice and small and from space you, you can recognize a lot, because like with flying the edge between water and land is very, very clear, very visible, and also from space you can see this very clearly. I mean, I recognize a lot of small details when I see it from space. You have to be fast, though, because if you’re a little bit too late you already see Denmark and beyond. So, yeah, it’s a pleasure, to see your own country but, you know, the whole planet is so beautiful. There’s so many spots that you want to see and, like I said I feel like a citizen of the world so, you know, I have a home in Star City for years already, I have a home here in Houston for some time, I go to Montreal, we go to Japan, and, of course the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, so this, all these places—Munich, where we have our flight control center—and all this areas are part of the space dream that I’m living. It’s different than I thought because I thought always I would fly on the space shuttle because, you know, Russian spaceflight, it was behind the Iron Curtain anyway so, and things totally changed. I would never have imagined that I, me being a medical doctor, would fly as a board engineer, as a copilot, on a Russian spacecraft, a Russian spacecraft. That would be very strange. So things develop in a different way than you think.

I’m going to get you to tell us how they developed for you. You grew up in Amsterdam. Pick up the story there from your, through your education…

Yeah.

…and your professional career that led you to becoming an astronaut.

Yeah. So, the dream started as a kid but then I thought, OK, spaceflight: something for American test pilots, and they do something in the Soviet Union as well, so that was not very, very realistic. until end of the ’70s when the shuttle was being prepared and the Spacelab, ESA was building, and then all of a sudden there were European astronauts, and a Dutch one, and he was a scientist, Wubbo Ockels. Anyway, and he was wearing glasses in a picture and I, I had contacts, and I thought, well, you can never become an astronaut if you have glasses. But then all of a sudden I saw him as a normal person, and then I saw John Young in the cockpit of the sp, of the first space shuttle with glasses on. I thought, hey, wait a minute, these are normal people. and then I started to think, OK, this is interesting. I started to work on it, so OK, what is required, what do astronauts, what, what kind of background do they have? In the meantime I started to study medicine in Amsterdam and during that study I got into contact with a, professor, Professor [W.J.] Oosterveld, and he worked, he was a specialist on, what is it, vestibular organ, ears nose throat, ENT, specialist, and he worked for a while for NASA on some of the Apollo flights as well, and I read an article in the newspaper, so I approached him and then I could work in his lab, and this is how the whole thing started a bit, building up my career, because through him I could get, into the Dutch air force and I did research on spatial disorientation in fighter pilots. It was very interesting and, you know, before you know it you’re the expert and they want to, would like to keep you there, but I thought, OK, Dutch air force, great stuff, backseat flights in the jets, but they don’t do anything with spaceflight. So then I changed and I started to work for the Aerospace Medical Institute that we had in Soesterberg in Holland, where I did, I trained, for, I monitored centrifuge runs for NATO pilots, for example, I did research in the centrifuge and hyperbaric chamber, flight physicals for pilots, lecturing, and I got into contact with the Institute of TNO, Institute for Applied Physics, and I started with, then I really got into the space business because they started with parabolic flights and then research on all kind of different topics, space motion sickness, vestibular organ. So I, then I experienced the first weightlessness as well, and that was very interesting with parabolic flights. and then, I was constantly investigating, OK, how can I work for a space agency, ’cause that was the ultimate dream. The astronaut thing was, OK, that was very difficult to get in, we had three astronauts and the new selections were still, well, in the future somewhere, but there was several life science congresses where I went to and then I start to talk with people from, from ESA and, OK, how can I work in this field, they said, well, we always work with initial agencies, for, with, agencies, initial institutes. But then I got a telegram, actually it was sent to the air force, the telegram, but I already left the air force so a friend of the air force came to me, he said, yeah, we got this telegram for you, and I was in the meantime working in the civil institute, and I looked at it: yeah, do you want to come for your application? I thought, I didn’t apply for anything, yeah, and the date was the next day so, totally blank, I went, to ESTEC [European Space Research and Technology Center], the ESA technological center in Noordwijk in the Netherlands. And so I came in there, I thought, I have a good job so nothing can happen to me anyway. And then I saw some familiar face that I met on the life sciences congresses, and the last one was in Italy, and then the people apparently noted down my name and they looked for an assistant project scientist, and since I showed interest they approach me. I didn’t know what it was about but then they said, you can work, on the shuttle mission, on the Spacelab mission, we need somebody, , to support us for the life science experiments, and that was a great opportunity. It was only for a year, I had to give up the other job so it was a risk, but if you don’t take risks you never get anywhere, so I thought, OK, I do this because this is what I want: I want to work in the space environment and coordinate experiments for space shuttle flight. This is great, and it was STS-55. So it was a great experience and was supposed to be a year, then the flight was postponed, in the end it was two and a half years as a research fellow, and then I became a contractor after that for ESA, so they couldn’t get rid of me any more because it was too nice to work there. It is a choice you make. I’m a medical doctor, I like the clinical work, I liked also, so you have to decide, OK, which way am I going? And, and I thought that spaceflight is too tempting and I want to work in this field. we also got a situation that ESA wanted to have more astronauts, and then I was, OK, this is my chance. So I was in the meantime working for ESA and then the astronaut selection came, and it was the beginning of the 90s. It was actually the first letter, application letter ever that I wrote was to become an astronaut andso there was an interesting, challenge, OK, how do I write application letter especially. But to my surprise, I got invited for the first round and the second round, and if you are getting in the selection process you think, OK, I tried it and it’s good because I never, why, should regret it, if you don’t try it you’ll regret it. But I didn’t expect to get on and on because the people around you are so good, you know. You have these people with different degrees and there are also pilots and they’re nice as well and, you know, you think, OK, I don’t have a chance. So with every time a surprise that you, that you’re still in, you know, and so, then the final, we had five candidates from the Netherlands, every country was supposed to put in five, three or five candidates, and then in the end, ESA’s plan was a bit reduced because they had big plans with the Hermes spaceplane and the free flyer and part of the Freedom space station that changed a bit so the team was reduced and I didn’t make it. I was in the last group and I didn’t make it. But then they said, well, stay, hang on because you never know what happens. And, indeed, several years later, I, I kept on working for ESA, and several years later they unified the teams because we had a strange situation in Europe that we had an ESA team and we had a French team and a German team and even some Italians and so it was some kind of competition between French astronauts that worked for CNES [French space agency] and some worked for ESA, so they unified the teams. Well, then for the small countries who don’t have their own teams there was, of course, yeah, it was not so good so they said, OK, we also take some people from the finalists of the last round, and that’s how Frank De Winne and me came in. And, yeah, that’s the route that I took, was a long route, it could have been a lot of distractions and I am glad I hang on, and I took the risk of not going into clinical work which I liked, and luckily it paid off and still, I mean, I was very lucky that I flew because Europeans don’t fly so much. Once you’re selected can take a long time before you fly. I mean, people like Claude Nicollier, Christer Fuglesang, they waited more than 10 years, 11, 12, 13 years, but it’s all worthwhile to go through this whole ordeal, maybe that’s a heavy word, but it’s a long process and you have to be very motivated and determined, and I think that’s one of the most important things, patience and motivation. Hang on.

Andre Kuipers

European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, Expedition 30/31 flight engineer, participates in an EVA operations training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

You mentioned risk. You were talking in that case about the risk of giving up…

Yeah.

…one kind of job to take another. Well, now you have a job that has some physical risks to it…

Yeah.

…that most of the rest of us don’t ever have to face. So the question becomes why do it? Why do you, what is it that we’re getting out of flying people in space that you think makes it worth doing?

Yeah. I think the reason is very, very fundamental. I think it’s the exploration, the urge to explore that people have. Humans went into deserts, into mountainous regions, onto the poles, on the water. I mean, we don’t belong there; we are not fish or ducks, but we have our intelligence and we’re curious and we want to know what’s there. Is it better there? Can we get something from there? People have been going to places that are not very favorable but they got a lot out of it because they found fertile grounds or, they found freedom, and they try to escape from a bad life, they found oil or minerals. So, it’s part of our nature to, to explore, and after the deserts and the oceans and underwater and then the air, space is just the next one. And, people will always be curious and go there themselves to look themselves. Now we have, of course, very good technology now to put our eyes forward and put our hands forward in a form of robots, but the species itself also wants to. Maybe it’s even a, I say, biological necessity. I mean, if we spread humankind it’s a, it’s better way from a biological point of view to survive, and, so I think it’s a natural process and we, of course, we don’t want to take unnecessary risks so safety is a very important part of the whole thing because we want to live to tell the story and to see what we found there. But it’s, it’s a, say, it’s a calculated risk. You, know there is a lot of good people looking at all the aspects, safety-wise, but also for experiments there is ethical committees and there is safety committees and whatever, to scientific peer groups, so that what you do is tested by a lot of good people on the ground and, OK, it’s worthwhile, not so much risk, let’s try this. It’s not the only profession, I mean, that has a risk, of course. I mean, if you were a fireman or you worked for the police force or military, you know that there’s a risk and you think about that before. It’s not that you’re sitting on a rock and think, oh, this might be dangerous. You know that, you know the statistics and you decide it a long time before that, OK, I’m willing to take this risk, to, to be part of this, to experience something very special. And also, like I said, the three things that made me do this, the adventure, the beauty and the usefulness of the whole thing, and that makes it worthwhile for me.

You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station to be part of Expeditions 30 and 31. André, uh, in summary, what are the mission goals for your time in space, and what are you going to be doing this time around?

Yeah, it’s a different than my first flight where I was a science and piloting, co-piloting the Soyuz. This time I still do the same but there’s a lot more extra tasks, like operational tasks. And so one of the most interesting things is visiting vehicles that we’re responsible for, but I’m also trained to work with the robotic arm, potential EVAs, so more operational tasks as well. It’s a long mission, half a year, meaning that, now things are important like maintenance and repair, and so being really an astronaut who lives on board and takes care of the whole space station, and not only visiting, doing a lot of science, and return. We still do a lot of science, though.

Well, what is, you mentioned it’s, your first trip was a short one compared to this. What are you looking forward to now. Is it all those things you just mentioned?

Absolutely, yeah. The space station is twice as big, we have the Columbus module now for ESA [European Space Agency], we have the JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] module, a lot of extra nodes, have the Cupola. Also on the Russian side there are extensions so that means that it’s, it’s more or less a new station for me, twice as big. That’s one of the things I look forward to, to see how it looks now. And during my first flight which was very, very full, there were a lot of hard work; um, after 11 days, I was returning, I thought I want to have more of this, I want to experience, I really want to live in space, and so that’s why I absolutely wanted to go a second time. So I look forward to adapt totally to the space environment, to live there and to enjoy the planet even more than on the first flight.

As a doctor you’ve studied how people respond to that environment. You had a short experience for it. How did you respond to…

Well, it was very interesting for me as a medical doctor and also because I gave lectures on the topic, etc., and then if you experience things yourself it’s very, this is what I thought all the time, now I feel it. What if the, some things are just, surprising, oh, surprising, you think, hey, this is it, you know: if you see a flash, for example, from, that you know from radiation, and that’s something interesting because you talk about it and then you see it, this is it; you recognize it then. Another thing is fluid shift, for example, that really the fluids in the lower body move up and you get a full face as if you have a cold, and you recognize these things. Space motion sickness: very short, I had a, same thing, that is, OK, then this is what I always talk about. So that is very interesting to experience these things yourself. Now for a long-duration flight, uh, I would think some more, become more important, like muscle atrophy, bone loss. These things you don’t notice straight away. You can measure them very well, but you don’t notice them. So these are things that come up for long-duration flights, and, from, say, from a medical point of view I’m very interested in those effects, and how to counteract them, of course.

You’re gong to be the fifth European Space Agency astronaut to do a long-duration mission on the International Space Station. What’s the significance, do you think, of, of this flight and the continuing presence of European astronauts on board this station as part of this mission?

I think one of the most important things of the space station is international cooperation. I mean, all these nations work together \on the biggest technological project there is in a, a very, very nice way, solving all these technical issues between the different countries, and I think it’s a, it’s a nice, yeah, to show the people on Earth this is how we can do it all together, and do things positively. And Europe is part of this partnership, and so we participate, meaning that we have every year more or less an astronaut aboard for half a year, and that is, of course, very important for the people in Europe, for the European industries, and I think this is, it’s good that we continue this way and that we are full partners in this program.

Andre Kuipers

European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, Expedition 30/31 flight engineer, participates in an EVA operations training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

You made reference to the fact that the station is a lot different now than it was the first time you were there; it was still being built, and the assembly is almost done now. So describe for us all the modules and the facilities and whatnot that are going to be there for you and your crewmates to, to live in and take advantage of during your time in space.

Yes, space station is pretty big by now and, from all the different partners we have, we have a part. From Canada we have this beautiful robotic arm, of course. Then, of course, we have the American segment and the Russian segment, or the USOS [U.S. operating segment] segment, meaning that on that part we also the, the European module, Columbus, we have the, the JAXA modules, um, and then we have the different nodes, additional nodes. We have now also, when I was there it was only Node 1, now we have Node 2 where the sleeping cabins, for example, we have Node 3 which is the area with the, the Cupola, where we have our training equipment and so this is the part I am, say, partly responsible for as well, and then, of course, the Russian parts where our Russian colleagues work most of the time, and where we have dinners together and things like that. And also important for Europe, where the ATV, the Automated Transfer Vehicle, is docking during my increment, for which I am then also responsible. So it’s, I will be busy in all parts of the, of the space station. That’s, that’s nice.

I’ve heard some people say that it’s so big that it’s almost like they get lost, and I think they’re kidding but are they? Is it really that big and, and do you get confused about where you are?

Oh, absolutely I had that already in my first flight and then it was only half as, as big, because when you don’t have up and down and, you don’t feel it with your vestibular, with your equilibrium system, so there was a moment that I floated into a module and I thought, I’ve not been here before, and why do they have lights on the floor? Turned out that I came in upside down, but you don’t notice it, so everything looks different then. It’s nice. In the beginning it’s confusing but in the end you have, the space station’s four times as big ’cause every time you can make a wall or the floor or the other wall, you can make that the floor and the ceiling, so that you have every time a different view. So in the end you can play with it, with the fact that you don’t have up and down.

Let’s talk about what you’re going to do while you’re there. The whole point of the International Space Station is to do a lot of science research. Now you’ve got six crew members, several laboratories including Columbus, more research is being conducted, and one major area, one concentration, is to find out how people can live in this environment for long periods of time. Give me a, a sense with some of the experiments that you and your crewmates are going to be doing in this area during your mission.

Yeah, the life science experiments, life science experiments are always very interesting for me personally but also because they cover a lot of territory. I’m going to follow a diet with salt, for example, the SOLO [Sodium Loading in Microgravity] experiment, to see what effect is on bone loss. But we also do psychological experiments to check your reaction time. We, we look at, which I like very much, we look at our organs with ultrasound, for example. We take ultrasound pictures, movies of the heart, of blood vessels, even of the eye bulb, so that, that’s a nice skill to learn especially for me. I like these experiments. We have strength measurements; we have experiments to see how your endurance changes in flight. So on a lot of different fields we have these kind of experiments. We even have experiments, to check, say, , the metabolism of the body with hairs, so it’s a Japanese experiment, it’s called Hair. We check for flora and fauna on board and to see how things are developing in that field. So it’s a lot of different aspects of life sciences that we cover. So that’s interesting.

We hear people talk a lot about the exercise that crew members do as a, as a way to try to maintain their fitness, but the life sciences experiments are more than just the workout that you do.

Yes, yes. We have two different parts. One is what happens with, people in the weightless condition, and the other part is how do we keep them healthy so they can come to Earth and walk out of the spacecraft again. And, to do that you need to have your exercise every day. We have different pieces of equipment for that, for cardiovascular, to stay in a good condition, but very important is also what I mentioned before, bone loss, and we have great device now, the ARED [Advanced Resistive Exercise Device] device. We are actually weight lifting: we don’t have weight so we do it against vacuum cylinders, but we can create the force that is needed to put stress on the bones, and that seems to work very well. We still have the treadmill, we have two, actually for your condition, but especially this weight lifting is very promising to try to stop the bone loss that happens in weightless conditions. So every day there’s a big block of time dedicated to staying in shape.

In, doing all this study about how the human body is impacted in this environment, and studying countermeasures, are you coming up with things that are applicable for those of us who are stuck on Earth and suffer from similar problems?

Yeah, well, one of the things, of course, is that astronauts are healthy people, but still they suffer, for example, from bone loss, which is a condition that a lot of people have on Earth. The population is getting older and older so bone loss is really a serious problem, but there you also have all kind of other hormonal changes and, and other problems that might mask the, the situation. Therefore, the astronaut group is a nice group to study because you have, say, more pure situation to study this and to see what you can do against it.

So we’re coming up with things that are helping us on Earth as well as learning about how to go somewhere else?

Yes, absolutely. That, we have experiments who look at fundamental things, just to know what happens when you don’t have the influence of weight, but then you also have applicable experiments that are really, that you can say, OK, with this equipment we can also say, use it, this knowledge that we gain, we use it in hospitals, for example, or if you have a protein crystallization experiments that is also on our flight, one of the Japanese experiments, for example, , to look at the exact structure of proteins and then it might help very well to, to develop medication for something. So we have fundamental experiments and experiments that you can, really applicable to situations on Earth.

Well, we’ve been talking about experiments that have to do with the human body, but as you made reference to there are lots of other kind of experiments where you’re not the subject but you’re the lab assistant, I guess….

Yes.

…for, for researchers who are on the ground. Give us a sense of the range of the other kinds of science that’s underway on the International Space Station.

Yes, very interesting. In, during my flight, all the things that I was interested in, OK, what can you do in, in weightless conditions, I have to, more or less on board. We have the Marangoni experiment where you look at fluids and convection. We have a protein crystallization experiment. We have an experiment with, in material science with solidification of materials, and these are things that are not on the human body. It’s, physics and some of the things you cannot see because it’s inside of the equipment but other ones you can like a fluid bridge, building a fluid bridge, for example, , and that, this is very interesting. So in all these different fields, I have experiments of that kind, and we even have experiments in the field of technology like, robotics, so that’s also nice.

The European Space Agency has one of the, has provided one of the laboratories that’s on board. Uh, specifically to Columbus, what kind of research is going on there?

Yeah, in Columbus we have experiments, in the field of fluid physics, biology, material science, human physiology. We’ve got the MARES [Muscle Atrophy Research and Exercise System] machine there now. So this, and there are the HRF [Human Research Facility] racks are also in Columbus, so it’s not only European racks there, we have a mix, and a lot of the, the life sciences research equipment is placed in Columbus, so meaning that when we do an American experiment, for example with ultrasound, we do it in the Columbus lab and that’s a nice thing. So we mix the equipment and we mix the people and we mix the experiments all over the segment.

Andre Kuipers

European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, Expedition 30/31 flight engineer, is pictured during an EVA tool training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

It is an international space station after all.

Absolutely. That’s also how I feel it, and we fly up in a Russian spacecraft and we do experiments in a Japanese module, we work with a Canadian robotic arm, and, , we havethen we have lunch in the American segment and then we, dinner in the Russian segment. It’s, it’s really an international space station.

Along with the science work that you guys will be doing up there, uh, you’re also responsible for keeping the laboratory and the whole building, if you will, functioning. Outside of specifically science work, what other kinds of work do International Space Station crew members have to occupy their time?

Yeah. It’s important to keep the station in good shape so that means that you have to clean things, you have to do maintenance, and, if needed, to repair things. So that means that you spend time on cleaning filters for the ventilation system. Sometimes you have to replace a pump that failed so we have to get into the racks and replace that. So these are tasks that are important for keeping the system, but also monitoring the environment, we make regular measurements of the, the water quality, the, the sound in the space station, the air quality. All these kind of things have to be done to have a working, space station, so that we can do the science. So part of the time on board has to be cleaning, maintenance and repair in order to get all the science done that we want.

A lot of work to do when only a few people to handle it.

Absolutely. It’s good that we have six people now on board, and we are very busy with, with all kind of activities like the science, the sports like we talked before, and then the operational tasks, like the visiting vehicles, or potential spacewalks, and if there’s a visiting vehicle, there’s a lot of time spent, , of course, getting the vehicle docked to the space station, but then we have a lot of cargo. The space station is full with equipment and we have to be very careful that we remind everybody what, where it is, so everybody on ground and in space knows where to find a certain piece of equipment or a certain tool. So the loading and unloading of visiting vehicles is very important. So we have, this system where everything is, taken care of, it’s all in databases, where is what, and we have to be very careful that everything we move is registered so we know where to find it, or the next crew knows where to find it, and that takes a lot of time.

Let’s spend a minute or two here talking about visiting vehicles. These days the International Space Station is getting supplies on ships that are launched by Europe and by Russia and by Japan, and there are two new cargo ships being developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that are now scheduled to have their initial flights coming up while you’re on board the station. Fill us in on these two new vehicles. Tell me how they mix in with these current ships in order to keep the station supplied.

Yeah. That’s, very interesting what we are going to see during the flight. We have the Dragon from SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corporation] in California and the Cygnus from Orbital [Sciences Corporation] and, that, indeed, is a new thing from commercial companies. I look forward to that very much. They will, like the HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], like the Japanese cargo vehicle, they will come up to the station and have to be grappled with the robotic arm and then docked to the station and I think it’s very important to have all this diversity of ships that can bring up cargo, supplies to the space station. The Dragon, has an interesting capacity in that it has a heat shield so we can bring things back, and that’s very important, of course, because the only vehicle at the moment that can bring things back to the Earth is the Soyuz and that’s pretty cramped, so it’s very limited what you, can bring back for science. So that will be a great capacity to have additionally from, from the Dragon.

How do they, uh, compare with the other vehicles, say, in terms of size or, or pressurized or unpressurized cargos?

Yeah, they’re, a bit smaller than the, the ATV from Europe and HTV from, from Japan, , but you can enter them. Some, of them have also going to have payloads outside, but it’s an unmanned vehicle that we grapple and then when it’s docked we open it and we can get all the cargo out. I’ve seen the, the Dragon, in, Los Angeles and it was very impressive to see how it was all built and how it looks inside, and I look, really look forward to see, to see the real thing coming to the station and, have it grappled and bring it to, and dock it to the station. Very nice.

Tell me about that. What work does your crew have to do before these ships arrive in order to get ready, and then what’s your participation in their arrival? I mean, I guess in contrast to a Russian Progress ship that people are most familiar with, which docks automatically, in the case of these vehicles the crew members are very much involved.

Yes. Well, don’t underestimate the, Progress arrival because they are the cosmonauts are also at the, at the console and can fly the Soyuz if needed. This is another concept so it’s not flying in but it’s coming up to the station and it hangs close to the station, very stable, and then it’s up to the crew to come, with the robotic arm, and grapple it. So it’s a free flyer and that is, of course, a skill. We do this with the three of us, so one is flying the arm, the other checks the system, and the third one is having the overview and making sure that, because we have three vehicles here, we have the space station, we have the robotic arm which you can see as a vehicle, and we have the free flyer to be captured. And of course it’s pretty massive so we have to be very careful that everything is stable and everything is grappled within time and, and that’s an interesting task. We, practice this a lot. It’s, it’s a skill and we have to, we have a control board also for the vehicle so when everything is set we can put the vehicle in free drift so it’s hanging there and quietly with this, hopefully with no speed at all and then, the robotic operator can fly the arm in, grapple it, and then we have it and then it’s like a normal payload and we can dock it to the space station.

In these cases who are the three of you that are going to be working this?

What we, let’s see, what the planning is now we have Dan Burbank Don Pettit and me. Then for Cygnus and HTV we have a shift in the, in the, because then Dan is then back already and then Joe Acaba will be, in the team, so we shift that a bit and so then we’ll grapple the Dragon, Don will be M2 [Mobile Servicing System 2] for the Dragon, I will be VV3 [visiting vehicle 3] and we have all this acronyms for that, and so, and 2 and 1, and 2 is also VV1 and, etc., etc. We have a similar to thing for when we dock it, we have also a CBM [common berthing mechanism] operator then for the docking mechanism, so we mix the roles for, depending on the part of the task.

Mixing in commercial cargo ships for the first time, uh, do you get the feeling like your flight is marking an historic transition into a new era?

Yes, I think this indeed is the start of a new era where we have industry, commercial companies getting into the game and into space business and, I think this is also the whole idea of ESA, of NASA: new things should be developed by these kind of agencies because we have to invest, , it’s risky, you have to find out what is possible, what’s not possible. Once things work, once, you also see in rockets, you develop a rocket, you test it, and then commercial companies take over, and I think the same thing is now happening with the space station. The role of ESA and NASA is to look forward, to explore and go into new things, while space station in low Earth orbit slowly becomes normal so commercial companies can, can get involved and, and take over while the agencies look, look further out and, and do new things.

OK, if we’re starting that new era now let me get you to…speculating is bad—dream for me for a minute: where are we going to be in 20 or 50 years, and how is this project, the International Space Station, getting us ready to go there?

Yeah. Yeah, this is, is always an interesting question because I always say, people will be on Mars in 25 years, but I realize that I said that 25 years ago already. So things go slow but that’s only in our perception. If you look a hundred, 200 years from now and look back then people don’t see all the dips, you know. You see only a steady line. You see Sputnik, Gagarin, Armstrong, and then probably only Mars. Probably the space station is so normal by then, or other space station, and work in low Earth orbit, that is part of our lives, like all the satellites that we are using every day already. So I expect that, say, low Earth orbit becomes more and more the terrain of industry and commercial companies, tourism, things like that will happen like it happened with shipping, with aviation, same thing. And then I think it will be very interesting to see what’s going on later on the moon, and I’m sure that people will go to near Earth asteroids. That’s, a great interesting plan, or, and go to Mars. It’ll happen and I guess, I expect that it will be international effort. Doesn’t have to be but it’s a challenging thing, and we know a lot about Mars, we have all the details. In the past people boarded wooden ships, didn’t know if they would come back or fall off the Earth halfway. They got all kind of diseases and half the crew didn’t return. Now we know where we would land on Mars. I mean, every detail is more or less known, but it’s still a challenge. Radiation-wise, it’s long and you cannot just return, but that is the challenge that agencies like ESA and NASA will take, and this will happen. People go back to the moon, the moon will be used for all kind of reasons, for science, for, say, mining, things that are still science fiction now but they will happen in the future. The world we live in is also science fiction for the people from not so long ago, all the things we do. So I expect that space exploration continues, with robots, with people, and, and I’m very confident in that humankind will spread in our solar system and even beyond, with new technologies that we can’t even think of today.

And the International Space Station is the next step?

International Space Station is a base for all these things. In the International Space Station you do the research, you do the preparation for this, for the future steps. I like the expression from, that we’re standing with our toes in an ocean that’s still to be discovered. We’re only with our toes in the water at the moment and there’s so much to discover and it will continue in ways that, that we cannot ever imagine now.