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2010 Interview: Bill Shepherd
ISS01-328-015 -- Expedition 1 crew

The Expedition 1 crew members - Commander Bill Shepherd (center), Soyuz Commander Yuri Gidzenko (left) and Flight Engineer Sergei Krikalev - are about to eat fresh oranges aboard the Zvezda service module of the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Q: We’re talking today with the first commander of the International Space Station Expedition 1, Commander Bill Shepherd. Shep, it hardly seems that 10 years have passed since you launched on the Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to begin that first expeditionary mission to the International Space Station. Oct. 31, 2000, think back for a second, to that cold day, very foggy. What were your thoughts as you and your crewmates were about to embark on what amounted to a new era in human spaceflight?

A: The day went by really fast. We got up early in the morning, kind of the same process that we use to do a shuttle flight. It was foggy, a kind of dew on all the windows. I waved goodbye to my wife, got on the bus, went down to the Launch Assembly Area, and we got our spacesuits on. Then, out of nowhere, my wife came up when we were suited up and gave me a bit hug which was something you just don’t do that in our program. We went out to the launch pad. We had probably 400 people; I think you were in the crowd, at the base of the vehicle. This is a couple of million pounds of rocket all ready to go fly in space, all sitting there steaming and smoking and we got 400 people right there. It was very, very exciting. We got in the vehicle and after that, everything was on automatic. It was probably a day that a U.S. vehicle wouldn’t have flown just because of the weather but the launch countdown was flawless and the ascent was good.

As you lifted off the onboard cameras inside the Soyuz capsule showed you pumping your fist in celebration as you and your crewmates were heading uphill. Once you reached orbit, it’s always fascinating to me what this two day transit in the Soyuz is like to go to its destination. Were your thoughts squarely on the procedures, the two day trip to the station or what would life be as you entered what at that time was a very new flight vehicle?

Well, it was kind of a strange day for me because Sergei and Yuri were very experienced. I was pumping my fist mostly because as a crew we had waited a long time to get to that point in life where this was actually happening and I was very keen to, emphasize, you know, “Let’s, let’s go get this done.” When we’re up on orbit we were pretty relieved all of the risk of launch was behind us. The process to get the pressure integrity checked out is very lengthy. The Russians are very keen on really low leak rates and so you, you have a lot of sitting while they sort that out. Then after that it was just sort of contemplating what the docking would be like and when you got on board the station, was it going to be as expected or was it something really different. That was most of what I thought about.

Forward two days, Nov. 2, a very historic day. You dock and you and Sergei and Yuri open the hatch to the station for first day. You float in and you clasped hands in jubilation. Was there a sense of history for you and them at that time that you had basically opened up a new frontier, set a new stage for a new way of living and working in space?

I don’t think at that time we had that perspective. My focus was, I had some things I had to do pre-hatch opening to get ready to sample the atmosphere and bring gas samples back the next time a, shuttle went back to Earth so I had a bunch of stuff to do to get ready for the hatch opening. I really wanted either Sergei or Yuri to open the hatch and go in first. I think Sergei was the first guy in, but then there was kind of a (chuckle) a very busy scramble to do the initial things that we had to do and particularly to find the TV hookup and the TV cable so we could give you that downlink. We were really close to the wire getting that all rigged and happy and we almost missed it. And after the downlink was done, we just kind of all sat back and said, “OK, we’ll call it a day” because it was, it was very hectic.

The station was a primitive complex 10 years ago -- just a few modules, no significant infrastructure in there. How was day-to-day life? It’s not the complex we see today which is sort of like a city in the sky. It was primitive. How did you go about your business day to day?

Well, it was kind of like camping out. We didn’t have the CO2 scrubbing. We didn’t have the air conditioning and the scrubbing up the way that we needed to. There was some concern about that. Our O2 production wasn’t on line. There were a lot of things that were very limited in terms of their robustness, a lot of really single string, or almost just make-do, life support systems that we had to bring up to more capability. So the first week was really living in a sleeping bag and running around with a checklist and a bunch of tools trying to get this stuff to get cranking. We did have some issues, I think, with both the electron and the CO2 scrubber, but we got by them.

Did you feel like pioneers … ?

I think at the end of the expedition, when it was clear that the time in space was finite and we had to come home and how did we do and what would people think of our time on orbit, I think we had that sense, but not up-front. We were just really busy.

You commented on your first space shuttle flight in 1988 when you were orbiting over a land mass near the Arctic, that was desolate, that you felt like you might be viewing the surface of another planet. Did you have any similar emotion on your expedition?

In a sense. In 1988 we were on Atlantis, early in the morning upside down, on the second flight day. We were over Siberia in winter. You could look out and see the surface of a large body. You could look a thousand miles in any direction. There was no contrail, no railroad track, no road, no smokestack plume. I look and I’m thinking, “You know, there isn’t a good reason why I’m not looking at some foreign body, some, some other planet.” I felt something similar when I, when I got back from Expedition 1. Shortly after landing we got back to the crew quarters. I talked our flight surgeon into letting me into a vehicle and just driving around the parking lot. I was feeling really good. I was able to walk around, stand up. I didn’t have any problems with getting around and I said, “You know, If I could get in a vehicle and drive it without hazarding myself or anybody else, we could probably go to Mars, months away, land and be productive.” I very strongly had that sense. I drove the van around the parking lot a little bit, got out shut the door and I said to myself, “We can do this.”

And you’ve talked to other interviews and forums about the technical culture of how we do spaceflight. What, what does all that mean? Is this something that you experienced yourself during Expedition 1, during the time you were up there?

Yes, very much. I think that’s personally one of the biggest takeaways for me from having worked on ISS and with the Russians and the other partners. Here at Johnson we have a lot of legacy from Mercury, Apollo, Gemini, the shuttle program and we do things a certain way because that’s how we know how to do them. I think one of the biggest things that I learned having lived and worked and trained in Russia was there are other approaches to the same problem. It’s a great strength to see somebody else attack an operational issue a certain way. The difficulty is when you sit back and say, “You know, maybe the Russians have a better way to do this”, you would get a lot of pushback on the American side and vice versa. When we tried to instill some operational technique or procedure on the Russians, it was the same rebound. I’m going, “Really, the strength of a program like ISS is we should take the best of both of these cultures, but we’re, we are somewhat locked in the past about how we did things 10, 20, 30 years go. We’ve got to get out of that mindset.”

In that vein, almost two decades have passed since the ISS program as we know it today was conceived back in 1993 through cooperative agreements but there were questions and in some camps some controversy about how well the cooperative effort with the Russians would unfold, how all this was going to work -- different languages, different cultures, different ways of doing business from a technical standpoint. As of today, how well did the United States and Russian space engineers, officials, managers, get along back then in the formulative days to get this program under way and how did you and your crewmates get along?

ISS01-330-013 -- Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd

Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd is pictured in a docking compartment aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Well, you probably have to talk about how well we got along on different levels. Initially, programmatically, there was wild enthusiasm. this simmered down a little bit when it got to really how hard it was to integrate all the procedures, specification tolerances, standards, literally thousands of things that have to be meshed between what the U.S. does and what Russia and the other partners bring to the table. That got to be very difficult. But from and engineer/manager standpoint, people worked their way through that. Sure, we had disagreements. I often was asked by media, “Shep, we understand that you guys are having some difficulties negotiating this with Russians?” and I would say, “We have huge difficulties” and everybody’d get really excited about that but I said, “At the end of the day, we draw the line. We make some compromise or somebody puts their foot down and say, ‘We’re going to do it this way’ and we move on” and the program got to the launch pad by those means. I can’t say enough about the crew, Sergei, Yuri and I. We were extremely tight. I’m a little bit biased, but I don’t think I’ve seen a better crew, at least in the modern era on station, than what we had. We had some significant challenges but our synergy, our cooperation was really exceptional. The thing that did surprise me about the crew and how we got along was that we knew we were very compatible people on the ground but our experiences and our sense of being a team on orbit just got stronger the whole time we flew. Everybody’s glad to have a mission conclude and go home to friends and family but I was really kind of sad to see that that was over. I think that most astronauts and cosmonauts look back to the day where they can get back in that kind of a team.

You guys were very much hands-on. As a crew, you helped develop many elements of station operations, something as germane as the formats for computer interfaces onboard, those types of things, technical reference materials that the ground would use to help you out. Talk a little bit about the impact of, of what that meant to have sort of technical hands-on capability to develop this new child called the ISS.

It was a very interesting area of work. I started out going to Russia. I started my formal training over there in 1996 and was there for almost five years. I thought initially, because the United States was carrying most of the financial load for putting the station together and making it happen, that we could create a standard where we would have English as a unified language. The reality of working in Russia -- I was with, engineers and technicians who built stuff for Sputnik and Gagarin’s capsule. I decided that the only way I was going to understand how these guys thought and why they did what they did a certain way was if I could talk to them. It was clear to me that we weren’t going to change the Russian approach to how they thought about doing space and that the way to work with them was to get more involved with their language and their culture, which we did. But it made me appreciate how difficult it was to deal with space and space operations as a second language. We said, right there, that we’ve got to have a highly graphical operation. We understand the space station. We operate it with so that people from all the different partner countries who come to station not having English as a primary language or a first language can deal with the operational environment. So you’ll find on ISS today a lot of this graphical basis and that’s why it got put in there.

Where we are today with a multinational capability and responsibility, many centers around the world, a global village, if you will; it really was your Expedition was it not that helped set an international tone for ISS operations in the sense that you sort of defined the command role for ISS and how that would work between those on orbit and those supporting you on the ground?

We tried to make a couple big steps in that direction. Again it goes back to the technical culture and the legacy that we have in both programs. Flight control and spaceflight were very dependent on the ground to assist us and tell us what to do, particularly in emergencies. But the station, in its early life, had long periods of time where we did not have any ground communications because we didn’t have our satellite links up. So the question became, “Were the authorities and the Commander and what the crew was responsible for, was that the same as the way that we would operate the space shuttle?” And our sense of it was, “No”. The Commander and the crew had to have the authority onboard to make the calls in real time when they thought it was necessary and that’s still a little bit of the thinking today. We had several instances in our expedition where we’d fly over Houston first thing in the morning and Houston would say, “OK you guys, in the flight plan for the day, we have a quick change. 1400 we want to do something else.” Then 25 minutes later we’d be over Europe and we’d be talking to Moscow and Moscow would undo that and then insert something else in that block of time. I got on the horn one day and I said, “Look, we are the International Space Station and you two have to get together on the ground and get your act together and then call us because we’re going to execute one plan, not one for Moscow and one for Houston. That’s another aspect of this that we helped to push. The most important point is if we look at what we’ve got to do in voyages a long way from planet Earth, certainly to the moon but, but beyond that as well, we’re going to have com outages that’ll be substantial. So our relationship of what the crews are doing on board and what the people on the ground are trying to make happen, this is all part of the command structure that’s has to be worked out. That’s why station’s so important.

ISS crews have commented that living on the station, astronauts and cosmonauts feel as if they’re in a place that’s well away from the Earth even though they’re fairly close to the Earth mileage wise. Did your crew have the sense, especially in such a rudimentary vehicle as it was at that time?

We did, particularly when Destiny, the U.S. lab [arrived] and we started having big optical windows. Sergei, Yuri, and I would look at the window and watch the planet go by. It was really funny because you were able to point to the places where he [Yuri] was a MIG-21 fighter pilot on strip alert, ready for the Cold War and I would talk about places I had been in the Navy. We realized in that moment that not only were we part of something way bigger than what’s happening on the surface of the Earth, but the Earth was there and we were here. When you’re a couple hundred miles up in space, there are no convenient paths home. You are there, with some pretty strong constraints about where you can go and what you can do. You really have to act and live as though you are in a separate world. This is a big step, I think, philosophically in terms of how astronauts and cosmonauts see themselves in space. We haven’t really had that before.

Traditions, it wasn’t all just work, but you as the path finding crew for this new vehicle, this new way of doing business in space, you set traditions for yourself. Tell us a little bit about the ceremony, the pomp and circumstance, the traditions.

ISS01-E-5128 -- Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd

Expedition 1 Commander Bill Shepherd floats in the microgravity, shirt-sleeve environment of the International Space Station's Zvezda service module. Shepherd was taking a brief break from work to install various furnishings for the service module. Photo credit: NASA

The Russians have a lot of space tradition. It’s mostly on the ground. Pre-launch, they are very, adamant about many of the things they do as ceremony to get to the launch pad. On orbit it’s not the same and I wanted to extract a couple of pieces of tradition, mostly from ships because I wanted to do two things. One is to give the crew a sense that our expedition had a time to it and when we were done I wanted to make it clear to the crews on board and the control centers on the ground that our Expedition 1 had finished and we were handing over. So part of what we did was to institute a change of command which they still do today. This was something the Russians really didn’t understand this but, and it’s certainly part of the Russian Navy and this is something that’s done in Russia, just not in the space program. But I believe today they really embrace this and they like it because it’s a clear distinction of, OK, Expedition 1’s time is done and now it’s Expedition 2 on deck they understand and to give it a little bit of emphasis. On ships we have a little bell and it’s a ceremonial thing when crews come aboard or depart from another ship. We had a little bell up there and the ISS still rings the bell. So I thought those were important markers for how ISS and expeditions paced themselves.

As you’ve watched this decade unfold and the, the assembly missions and some of this work that is considered by many to be some of the most complex stuff that’s ever been done in human spaceflight history including Apollo, have you been impressed at how well together the station has come together, has been formulated? When you look on a day to day basis, the technical problems that have been incurred by this mammoth structure are pretty few and far between.

I think by any parameter, and I can’t take much credit for this, but by any parameter the station’s performance in terms of how it’s flown and how it’s been built have exceptional. I think far better than the designers could have hoped for. I think it’s a great sign for what our capabilities are for the future. I’m thinking about when we were first getting into what ISS was going to look like, how big it was going to be, how much work it was going to take to assemble it, I always had in the back of my mind that if we’re going to do things that are really expansive in space, leaving the, the planet and going somewhere else in the solar system, the vehicles that we’re going to build are going to have several characteristics. One is that they’re going to be very big. They’re going to be too big to be launched on a single lift being a large booster. They’re going to have to be assembled in orbit. They’re going to have to draw on the capacities of several different countries and space station is all of that. And so I think today that those questions are behind us. I mean, this is all a blueprint for how we need to do things in the future.

Last year for the first time, all of the partner agencies were represented on board at, at a single time. It really was a testament to what this complex was designed to be in an international sense. Are you impressed by the how the station has been able to operate through linguistic, cultural and technical differences of the way people around the globe operate?

It’s been exceptional in terms of the cooperation on the ground and how tight the crews are when they fly. I can think of any number of foreign astronauts who have joined us at JSC and had training here who’ve become very Americanized and this is maybe part of what happens. I can also say myself, when I lived in Russia, Sergei came up to me one day not too far from our launch and he said, “You know, Shep, you came here and you had certain kind of angles to how you saw things but you’ve changed.” I looked at him and I said, “Wow, you’re right. I have changed.” I think that’s one of the real strengths of this program, that we have shown that humans can do really substantial endeavors, that we are flexible and adaptable in the space station. How this has proceeded is an example of this.

From those first baby steps a decade ago, to today with six people living and working on board and all of the incredible technical achievement that the station has drawn to this point, what do you think the space station represents today and what ultimately will its legacy be?

It has to have some short-term and long-term results. In the short term, we have a fantastic orbital laboratory to do research in six or eight basic areas that we’ve never really had before. I’m hoping that the crews now and subsequent will make great use of that and that’s its fundamental value to the nation and to the partnership. Beyond that, space station has really laid the foundation for how and where we may go further in space. I think its legacy will be that this was an episode where we got our act together and figured out how to do this.

You and Sergei and Yuri launched from the same launch pad that Yuri Gagarin launched from on April 12, 1961, that every Soyuz has launched from. Next April 12, the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s launch, this is a pretty epic moment. It’s also the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight and it came just weeks before the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard launching as the first American in space. You stood on that launch pad Yuri Gagarin left the planet from as the first human in space. What did Gagarin achieve in a big picture sense when he took off in Vostok 1 and what did leaving the planet mean at that time and today for us as a species?

Well, that’s a big question. I think clearly Yuri had just tremendous courage to do that. Very few people have the ability or the willingness to take a risk like that and then to have it be successful. Yuri’s a world icon because of that, but he showed that humans had a place other than on the surface of the planet. I think part of his legacy and what the space station’s about. We have six people now in the crew who, as you said, see themselves living apart from Earth. Space station is really about having humans see themselves with a place in the solar system not on the Earth and the question is really how far can that go. You know, where else can we live and work be productive. Space station has, has asked that question. It’s up to us to figure out in the future what’s the answer.

Bill Shepherd, Expedition 1 Commander, 10 years later, thanks very much.