Interview

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Preflight Interview: Tom Marshburn
10.17.12
 
jsc2012e103643: Tom Marshburn

NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Expedition 34/35 flight engineer, participates in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article (SSATA) in the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: When I was little I didn’t know I wanted to be an astronaut. I just knew I loved spaceflight. I was inspired by the Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. I remember where I was, sitting in the living room in a robe and slippers, because I was supposed to be in bed but I was watching the landing and watching him walk. Never forgot that. I didn’t think of myself as being able to do that but I was a big fan of adventure stories, I read a lot of Jules Verne and I began to think, I could do something like that, and I was very curious what would happen to me, so I picked up backpacking and mountain climbing and it became my, one of my favorite sports. I backpacked across the United States, through the mountains from Canada to Mexico just to see what would happen to me, what kind of challenges somebody faced when they do that. When I decided to become an engineer and decided to become a doctor, my interest in the space program surged quite a bit. I was following the shuttle at that time, the shuttle was not in its infancy but it was maturing. It was a lot of exciting things going on, I wanted to be a part of that, but I just wanted to work for NASA someday, had no idea I could actually fly on the space shuttle. When I then got the opportunity to work at NASA as a flight surgeon, began to work with astronauts and began to see what they were doing, I loved to fly already, I was a private pilot with a lot of hours, and so I just thought, maybe I could do this, and, even though I would have loved to have done it at any time in my life I think it was that point when I realized that maybe I could apply and actually do this.

Let me get you to tell us The Tom Marshburn Story. Just go back to the beginning, tell me about your hometown and what it was like for you growing up.

I was born in Statesville, North Carolina, a little town, a wonderful place to grow up, and a very tight community. My father was a preacher so we knew, I should say everyone in the community knew us, and as a small child up to the age of eight or nine, I didn’t know all the people but I remembered there were always friendly faces around. It was a place where you could run off into the woods and spend hours there and not get back until dinner it was a lot of great memories there. We then moved to Atlanta, my father’s work called us to Atlanta, Georgia, so I was raised there near the big city, got to enjoy that. All along the way though we had some family property, a farm in north Georgia, spent a lot of time there, fixing fences, fixing stuff, and spending, a lot of time outdoors, getting lost in the woods or going off on hikes and even spent a lot of nights outside. So the outdoors and the countryside, small town, were very informative for me.

Sounds like you have a feeling that all those places and those people there were important in making you the person that you turned out to be.

Absolutely. There’s a lot of individuals that come to mind but some of the most important people, obviously my siblings—I’m the last of seven children—and I was already surrounded by a lot of people just inside the house, and they, my six brothers and sisters, three of each, definitely had the most influence on me of anyone, besides my parents, obviously. But the ones I remember most, the contacts I remember the most, are with my siblings.

When you flew, did you get a chance to see these places from orbit?

Yes, you sure do. You have to plan it out ahead of time, you hope there are no clouds and then if there’s a break in the work you go over to the window and take a look. Everybody does that, see if they can find their hometown, and while I can’t say that I could see Statesville itself because one of the nice things about it, it’s covered with trees, and trees that are overarching all the streets, but I knew where it was and I could see it and I got a picture. It looks like a big forest, but that’s what Statesville looks like, it’s beautiful.

Easier to find Atlanta, right?

Yes, it’s much easier to find Atlanta.

You touched on it, let me ask you to fill in a little bit for us on your, education and then your professional background because you had a lot of different things that you did before you ended up at NASA, and not even an astronaut when you did that.

Yes, I wanted to be an artist to start with. I always loved to draw and to paint. It was in high school that I thought the space program is interesting to me and it was specifically the space program that got me into a technical field and I just switched completely. I concentrated on math, science and fell in love with the physics classes, to the point where in college, at Davidson College, I was a physics major there. I decided to go into engineering, I was at the University of Virginia getting my master’s degree in engineering, when I realized I really like working with people and I felt like maybe that’s more where my talents lay. I actually came down to the Johnson Space Center and started knocking on doors asking for a job after I received my master’s degree. Someone said, one of the doctors that worked here said, you ought to get a medical degree because NASA’s going to need doctors someday, so I did. I went to medical school, found out I fell in love with medicine and I had forgotten the NASA dream for a while just because medicine’s so engrossing and working with patients is so incredible, but then it came back and they opened up a space medicine fellowship, hiring on practicing physicians to begin to train to be flight surgeons at NASA, so I was in the first class of that back in 1993, and then became a flight surgeon here.

And the flight surgeon, you did a lot of different things here, too, right?

Yes, as soon as I came on board I began to train for a shuttle mission, to support it, but at the same time they started putting me in Russian class and sent me over to Russia; it was a real privilege to go over to Russia as one of the first people to support our missions to the MIR space station, when we were flying U.S. astronauts there. I got to live and work in Russia and I couldn’t imagine a more exciting job at the time.

Now as you said, you got some closeup experience seeing the astronauts work and…

Right.

…and that had its influence on you, too.

Even better, everybody had to figure out this Russian system, in Russian, I was able to pull out; they call them the comspecs, the original Russian documents on how the stuff worked, and got to help them out in deciphering that, so I learned a lot and it was great.

To take the job to fly in space is to assume some risks that most of the rest of us don’t have, risks that you didn’t have when you were an, an emergency room doctor.

Yes.

But I think the question is why—what is it that you think we are getting or learning as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking those risks?

jsc2012e034266: Tom Marshburn

NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Expedition 34/35 flight engineer, prepares for a flight in a NASA T-38 trainer jet at Ellington Field near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

It’s certainly worth taking the risks. As an aviator, as an astronaut, we love to travel up and we want to fly in space. It’s been a lifelong dream. When you fly humans in space, though, that is so incredibly hard to do, you have to figure out things that you’ve never would have been inspired to do before. It’s not a matter of a market, will people buy this thing, it’s a matter how do you keep people alive. So when you build these complex machines, all kinds of benefits fall out of it. Just as an example, I mean there’s thousands of examples like this, but the high flow oxygen systems. We were trained to get ready for the space station by the people who figured out that high flow oxygen systems; these are NASA people working out at White Sands, that you don’t necessarily need an ignition source to cause an explosion. It’s just a little tiny piece of metal hitting another piece of metal, it can increase the temperature in a little area just enough to be the ignition source. They found out that this is probably one of the causes of home oxygen systems that went awry on the ground, causing some deaths every year, spontaneous fires that were occurring in like neo-native, neonatal intensive care units, and now that group has gone on outside of NASA and is going around the world giving talks about oxygen safety to hospitals and other areas that use compressed high flow oxygen systems. They’re going to be publishing on that. That’s just one example. They figured out how to do that and look at all the things that they can do with it, but that applies to just about every system that had not existed before, required a lot of motivated people. There’s no better motivation than exploring the stars, so highly motivated to solve a very difficult problem.

You’re about to launch to the International Space Station for Expedition 34 and 35. Tom, tell me what is the goal of your mission overall and what are your jobs going to be when you get there.

This is Expedition 35, we’ve done this 34 times by the time I get there and my crewmate becomes commander on Expedition 35. We’ve built the space station, I had the privilege of helping do that on STS-127, but now it’s a laboratory, U.S. national laboratory, as well as an international partner laboratory, and we’re going to be doing science. We’re going to be doing a whole series of experiments. Our job is also to maintain the space station, we need to keep it going, and be able to fix anything that breaks on it. Our goal is to fulfill that mission as best we can. We’re building a lot of accomplishments and successes of astronauts that have gone up there before us, and they’ve been able to build efficiencies and get more science done. We want to do that and, if we can, do it even better. The ground’s been learning a lot as well, we want to implement what they’ve learned as well, so we’re going to be the eyes, the ears and the hands of the ground and we’re going to be working in the laboratory the entire time.

As you mentioned, you’ve been to the space station once before. What is it that you’re looking forward to about seeing it the second time?

A few additions; The Cupola: can’t wait to see that. That’s the big view of the Earth, people feel like they’re looking down when the look into the Cupola although there’s no up or down in space, and then looking down at the Earth. Can’t wait to see the overall size of it, it’s grown in size, new modules, more space, but that’s really the main thing. Again I’ve experienced 11 days docked at the space station, 16 days in space on my last flight, so getting back to life in zero gravity, that is never boring, everything from putting on your clothes to brushing your teeth to working to transfer of hardware, all of its fun in zero g. I can’t wait to do that again.

When you were there the last time one of the station crew members who was there was Roman Romanenko…

Yes.

…with whom you’re flying now. You also “flew” underwater with Chris Hadfield, your other Soyuz crewmate.

Right.

Has that previous mission experience with those guys helped you get prepared for this flight?

Yes, the previous mission experience helps a lot. As you mentioned, Chris Hadfield and I spent two weeks on the bottom of the ocean in a laboratory there, just by chance—it just so happened I had just been assigned to this spaceflight, just days before we took off to join a few others working on the bottom of the ocean. I got to see his style. He was the commander of that mission, he’s going to be commander on the space station when I’m there, I got to see how he likes things to work, he got to see how I work, and I think it’s immensely beneficial. Now we’ve had two and a half years since then, but working underwater is a great analog for spaceflight. The outside is a little bit dangerous you can’t come up, once you’re down there after about 18 hours because you’ll get the bends and you could die, it’s a somewhat harsh environment. There’s a little bit of time pressure, not like in space, but somewhat similar. It’s a great analog of spaceflight. So we got to see how we work together. Seeing Roman Romanenko, in the space station, I didn’t get a chance to work with him much but interacted with him a little bit, but that allowed us, when we get into our Soyuz flow and we’re really spending a lot of time together, usually speaking Russian, working on the Russian spacecraft, getting ready for launch and landing, that just kind of segued right in to knowing he’s got a great sense of humor, he’s technically very good, and that helped in allowing us to start off work very well in the Soyuz.

Anytime you’re going to make a spaceflight you’re going to miss some things on Earth, and in this particular case you’re going to be in space for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Right.

What are your thoughts about that?

We planned for it a long time ago and so we’re ready for it. I have a nine, or ten year old daughter—she’ll be ten at the time—and that’ll be tough, thinking about her waking up in the morning, enjoying things, but the fact is we’ve got some technology that’ll allow me, hopefully through an Internet, or I guess an Internet protocol session, to be able to join in with them and see their faces and they can see me. It’ll be a little bit tough for me, as it would be for anybody, but I think the price is certainly well worth it, to be up there.

Well, let’s talk about the “there” in this case…

Yes.

...the International Space Station. Tell me about the place as it’s going to exist when you arrive. What modules and facilities are there to help support the mission that you guys have?

Overall it’s, one-third of it’s a Russian spacecraft and—one-third in volume—and two-thirds is international partner and U.S.; about the size of a five bedroom house, that doesn’t take into account the height of the ceilings or anything. When you’re in a module, if it’s well-packed, which many of them are now, it’s kind of like being inside of a school bus. You can use the space a lot better there because you can use the ceiling, you can float up and get in the nooks and crannies. I’ve heard that it’s big enough to where you could lose somebody. You could have to go off and find them if they’re not answering on an intercom and wonder where someone is for a while. Generally, very livable. When I was there, some of modules such as the Japanese Experiment Module are quite big, and you can float through there, fly through and really enjoy the zero gravity. Humans, I find out, are part hamster, perhaps; there’re also lots of places where things are packed and you can get in there and, and get snug into a tight place. So it’s big; as you probably know, it’s about two acres in size including the solar arrays so it’s really a big power station in orbit that we happen to be living attached to. Because of the water processing facilities, it’s now a water processing facility and has to keep us going. We’re learning all the time about water reclamation up there and how to do that, so we’re a completely closed-loop, we only use the water that we make with just a little bit of supplementation beyond that. Then, of course, it’s a U.S. national laboratory, it’s an international partner laboratory, there’s science going on, experiments going on the Russian side, so that part’s going to be really active. We’re going to be very busy with the timeline as well.

Let’s talk about some of the different areas. First of all, you mentioned how this environment affects a human body; that’s one of the main areas of the research that’s being done, to find out what those effects are and what you can do about it. Give me some examples of these experiments in this area that you’re going to be working on.

About a quarter of the experiments going on are human life sciences, I’m, actually a guinea pig, if you will, in most of those experiments. They’re being done on my body. First of all, if you just think about just flying humans in space, trying to do it as safely as you can that in itself has a lot of things that fallout from it. I’m going to be exposed to a lot of radiation, about 400 times what we experience just sitting here in Houston, Texas, right now. It’s going to affect my blood vessels, it’s going to affect my heart, my immune system, and NASA’s tracking that all very closely, for my health and for the purpose of exploration, but also from what we learn from that, for radiation workers, for people that live near radiation, bad events that have happened on the ground, but also its accelerated aging because radiation does affect all of us as we spend our lives on the Earth. It’s an accelerated aging process. The zero gravity reduces our muscle tone, our muscles atrophy including our heart, and the cardiovascular system atrophies, the bone, bones atrophy, decrease in bone mineral density. So all of this accelerated aging process and the means by which we figure out exactly what’s going down, going on, even in the cellular level, how to fix it—exercise, diet, medications, other things—all of those things stand to benefit us on the Earth simply because we know more about how this process occurs even at a cellular level, and how we can fix it. So if people that are in the ICU for a long period of time, as we all get older, all of these processes occur in those people. Very specifically, providing medical care in space, we are doing things that you never would have thought of on the ground: using an ultrasound to detect a fracture, using an ultrasound to look at the discs between your vertebrae, ultrasound to look at a lung. These are things that x-rays and MRIs are for, but we don’t have those in space, and by the way they don’t have those in underserved areas around the world; they don’t even have them in the waiting room of an inner city ER, where people wait eight hours to get their medical care. In using these techniques that are well known in the medical world but in a very novel way, because we have to in space, has opened up enormous number of possibilities for how we can bring medical care much more quickly—particularly diagnostic imaging— to people who otherwise wouldn’t get it. Very specifically, the American College of Surgeons now uses NASA-funded and NASA-accelerated techniques for using ultrasound in the diagnosis of trauma, and that’s taught all around the country. One of the principal investigators that used ultrasound to teach astronauts on orbit has been implementing that across the country, and that’s just one little tiny example. They’ve even, implemented using the ultrasound to detect collapsed lungs, which had never been used before but we did it for spaceflight and said, it’s a great idea, works really well. Totally different category, turns out astronauts have problems with their vision. I didn’t even know there’s this many things you could do to the human eye without hurting it—to find out what’s going on the outside, on the inside, the nerve behind it, the optic nerve, and in the brain behind that. We’re trying to figure out, why do astronauts have vision changes. Turns out the techniques have been used on the ground but in a novel way, that they’ve been using some of these techniques on patients and have found causes for intracranial hypertension that it had heretofore been seen before, so increased pressure in the brain. A lot of patients have this, they don’t know the reasons for it, they’re starting to find out the reasons for some of these patients by using these techniques, and no one had just, hadn’t even thought to use these techniques before but NASA needed it and we found out it works pretty well.

In the area of human life sciences research, you not only have been to space yourself and experienced that, but as a doctor and a former flight surgeon, you’ve helped crew members recover from that. What do you think we need to look at, to concentrate on, in order to maximize the chances that people who are going to leave Earth for long periods of time for future missions of exploration are going to be able to do their work when they get there, they’re going to be strong and healthy when they arrive?

We need to keep doing what we’ve been doing that’s been successful. We’ve been very successful with maintaining bone and muscle health. We’ve been very good at maintaining cardiovascular health. I feel like we’ve solved those problems. From a behavioral health and performance standpoint, we’ve been very successful there with keeping people in contact with their families and giving them lots of very important, interesting work to do with the laboratory there. People, my colleagues, that have come back from space station talk about what a wonderful place it is to live and work and they’re sad to go. If it weren’t for being away from their families, if they could bring their families up with them they would just stay indefinitely, because it’s critical work and they feel very good about being a part of that. Radiation is still a problem we haven’t solved. The neurovestibular aspects, if we get to another planetary body or coming back to Earth, if we have to pilot a vehicle coming back to Earth, that’s still a problem to solve, and the radiation, it could be a showstopper for us. A solar flare could affect a crew so we need to figure that one out as well. The other thing we need to do is keep looking. I mentioned the vision problems in astronauts, that came up rather, relatively late in our station flow, and you’d think with our long history of spaceflight this would have come up before, but it’s important to us too. While I feel like we’ll solve that eventually, figure out what’s going on there, I think it’s important to keep looking because we might unearth other problems that we’d like to solve before we actually send a crew one way, or at least a trip that’s going to take us out there and it’s going to take about a year, two or three years to get back, we need to have those problems solved so they don’t crop up on that trip.

Figuring out how the environment affects people is just one of the areas of research on the station. The station now is packed with all kinds of specialized gear in the different laboratories in a number of other scientific disciplines, too. Give me a couple of examples of the other kinds of science research that you’re going to be working on.

There is Earth obs[servation] that’s going on all the time, not just crews looking out of windows and taking pictures, which is an exciting part I’m looking forward to, but the outside of the space station is covered with sensors that are both looking at things that are going on the Earth or are being tested to see how good they are at looking at things. The space station is a wonderful platform for quickly bringing thin sensors, techniques and systems up into space, see how well they work, and then bringing them back down again. So you can, with the space station you can look at a whole generation’s worth of spaceflight hardware and figure out what works best in Earth obs. There’s going to be a device up there that’s going to be looking at the maritime, situation on the Earth. Right now all we can do is check what ships are close to shore; that’s the limit of the extent of radar and the techniques they use to find out what ships are going where. We’re going to have a whole global view so they’re; it’s going to be just like air traffic control: you look out over the entire ocean, look at every ship, and you can identify each one, know what its purpose is and know what it’s doing. That seems to be for, when it comes to natural disasters and big climate events, knowing what ships are where, you could save lives, increase efficiency of tracking, and decrease the risk of maritime, ocean travel. That’s just one little example. I’ve been reading about all different kinds of sensors and materials that are on the outside of the space station that are going to be used in future satellites. Some of them don’t work so well so they’re not going to use them, but they know that, they don’t have to, send up a separate satellite to go figure that out. So that’s the Earth obs section. I can keep talking about that, but the fluid physics and the material science I’ve also, just happened to find very exciting, and just to talk about one, I was talking to the principal investigator about a capillary fluid flow experiment. This was, it’s original intent was to look at how fuels flow in space when you’ve taken away gravity and turns out you can develop a system for spacecraft that’ll deliver fuel to an engine without having to use a pump so you have something less that’ll break on you. Turns out that the physics behind that works out very well, for microliter fluid flow in these little channels and little microchips that are used in medical devices, and they’ve been able to increase the efficiency, and there are patents out now, where they’ve increased the efficiency of these microchips and they can incorporate them into little tiny laboratories that you can hold, about the size of a DVD player, and they intend to begin building these again to go to underserved areas. The one company I was talking to in particular was looking at an AIDS detection, rapid AIDS detection, HIV detection device. So the capillary fluid flow I found to be particularly exciting, but that’s just one of about a hundred and twenty, a hundred and, going on up there.

And all of these experiments are coming from places all over the world, from principal investigators in not only the United States but elsewhere, and you get to work with all of those people as you learn about the experiment and then when you execute it on orbit.

jsc2012e035606: Tom Marshburn

NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Expedition 34/35 flight engineer, participates in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Yes, I do. It’s exciting. They are able to train us very well. There’s enough similarity in every country: Canada, in Europe, for all the international partners in the European Space Agency, and Japan and in Russia, and we’re able to communicate very well and they’re excellent teachers. It’s fun when we all get excited about what their experiment’s doing, and it kind of knocks down international barriers. It’s really cool.

The station crew members are also responsible for keeping the station functioning, not just the laboratory work but keeping the whole thing operating. Outside of that science lab work, what other kinds of things does a station crew member do on a daily or weekly basis?

We have to keep it running. First of all, we have to take care of ourselves. We’ll spend two hours a day exercising, six days a week. Beyond that, we’re going to be, as I mentioned, it’s a power station, we’re going to be maintaining all of the devices on the inside, answering the ground if anything comes up that the power’s not being delivered appropriately. It is a water-processing station, we’re going to be recycling water quite a bit. There’s household chores and cleaning that has to be done. One of our tasks, as well, is going to be to figure out stowage, and a lot of the smart people have been working on this, we’ve made a lot of advances; it doesn’t sound too technical but the fact is when you’ve got people living up there continuously, and we have been living off the Earth now continuously for well over a decade, how do you keep resupplying those people with what they need to live and what’s the best way to stow it? You can’t just continue to fly up years and years’ worth of supplies because there’s no place to put it. How do you increase crew efficiency? So in everything we’re going to be doing we’ll be making comments to the ground and what we think, and just adding our little bit to the knowledge that hopefully will make work up there more efficient.

Any plan for a mission like this has got to, be, have enough flexibility to respond to, when things break, and they do. Sometimes it even calls for people to go outside to do some work. As we talk today, what’s the plan for any spacewalks during your time on board?

Currently there’s none planned. However there was a trip in a direct current switching unit out on the space station caused by something, they’re not quite sure what. But everything that’s the most likely candidate to have caused it, we found out about that, just in the last week, we’ve been training on those items, three or four actual boxes and cable connections that would need to be removed and replaced. And so we’ve spent a lot of time in the pool, we’ve had a chance to see hi-fi mockups of these; that is things that look almost exactly like they do in space. I had a chance in the POGO lab [Partial Gravity Simulator], which is a laboratory where you can suspend a large, heavy object and, at least in one dimension, up and down, make it act as if it were in zero gravity and work with it and see how it works. We had some problems with some bolts on the last EVA, and it turns out when a large, heavy mass like that is attached by one bolt, little tiny movements of that mass make a big difference on how easy it is to bolt in and bolt out, so we’ve gotten all that training as well. So we’re prepared to go out if this is something we need to fix, we’re prepared to do that, but we also have gotten the training that everyone else gets. There’s about 12 big tasks that we all train on and every little skill the sockets, the little tools you use, the positions you need to be in, we’ve gone through that whole training flow so we’re ready to go outside if we need to.

Would you like to…

I’d love to.

…have another chance at that?

It’s a two-edged sword. You don’t want something to break that would necessitate getting out there but going outside is almost like another space mission. You’re literally in your own little spaceship. That’s what a spacesuit is. It’s got everything a spaceship does. The only thing different is that it’s tethered to the space station with your safety tether. The view is incredible. The feeling in the temperature differences, which is very profound between the daylight and the night side of Earth, a 300° difference, that, you can feel that very much. I think every astronaut feels like they’re having a whole new space experience when they have the chance to go outside.

These days the International Space Station is getting supplies delivered by a small fleet of unmanned cargo ships. A few of them are coming and going during the time that you are going to be up there. Tell me about the different ships that will be bringing supplies, including the new American commercial cargo ships that could be showing up while you’re there, too.

Those are the things that stand out the most. We have a lot of experience with the Progress vehicle, that’s the Russian vehicle, for starters, and we’ll see about three of those either coming or going or with us during our stay there, and those’ll be docking to the Russian side so that means there’s going to be a hatch about that big [holds hands at shoulder width] so we can get a fair amount of supplies through that. We’ll be helping to unpack that and will be very happy when it arrives; it has some of our things in there. We’re very excited about commercial vehicles that will be coming up. We’re not quite sure when that’s going to happen yet, everybody’s got their time constraints for getting something up there, but the Cygnus we hope to see during our expedition. We’ll be reaching out, it’ll get into an orbit right next to us, in its own orbit but very close to us, both traveling at 17,500 miles an hour, but our relative velocity hopefully will be about zero, and then we’ll reach a robotic arm out, grab it, pull it in and dock it to the United States’ side, and that vehicle has a huge hatch—we can put, pull experiment racks through it. Likewise the SpaceX Dragon, we hope to get another one of those up to see us as well. We’ve had a chance to see that on the ground, their mockups, and looking forward very much to opening that up, again a huge hatch, a lot of capability for getting things on the space station and getting things off, in that case, getting them back to return to the ground, so that’s a very exciting capability. Beyond that we might have a chance to see an ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], the European version of the cargo vehicle; we hope so. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, they have a great capability there, but it’s going to come right close to the end of our increment, so we’ll see.

With private companies flying spaceships now, not just nations that are helping to explore space, is that kind of the way you see things going in the future, where there’s cooperation among countries with one another and private companies involved, too, all together instead of being a competition?

It seems to be, although competition can be a good thing. Certainly for low Earth orbit it seems to make sense to have commercial companies. NASA’s provided all of the, much of the knowledge and the expertise to get us into low Earth orbit. Private companies have done a wonderful job of building on that technology, and then NASA’s helped to fund them so they can build up an actual business model for getting things and people into space. That’s very exciting, it’s the way every major transportation step in evolution occurs, whether it’s an airplane or the big steamships going across the ocean or automobiles, it’s the private companies, it may be expensive at first but they, get the ball rolling, and I certainly hope that in a few days or in a few years, five to ten years, anybody would be able to buy a ticket to come up into space. That level of competition is very good. Working with international partners, we found that everybody brings something to the table and the whole is so much better than the parts. We’re docked to the Russian space station, they have a completely different method of generating oxygen, of getting rid of carbon dioxide and multiple other life support technologies, propulsion technologies, and that’s good because if ours fails, theirs probably is not going to and vice versa. If they have a failure, ours is probably not going to because the failure path would be different and they have a totally different technology. So we’ve been able to stay up in space for this long, we’ve been able to feed off of each other quite a bit and learn a lot. I anticipate that the international partnership would always be with us but a lot of smart people paid to figure that out.

The missions, this mission, this cooperation, what is it that we’re learning from it now that you can see that is going to help prepare us for human exploration beyond Earth in the future?

Well, like I mentioned, our partnership with the Russians has taught us a lot about long-duration spaceflight, about keeping humans permanently in space, because they’ve did it for quite a bit on the Mir and the Salyut space stations. They lost a lot of hardware and they almost lost lives; they did in the Soyuz, they did lose lives, as they learned how to do these things. No one knew how to do it, how to keep people up in space for a long time and build hardware that’ll last for a long time, critical hardware to keep you alive. You would never want to build a brand new spaceship, put in a crew and send them to Mars right away or send them to an asteroid right away because something could fail; you’d have to build something and then test it out over a long period of time. That’s what the space station is and with the Russian technology, with a lot of technology the international partners have come up with, we’re able to find out how we can maintain these things we call “people” for a long period of time in space.