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Jim Van Laak: From Orange Juice Cans to the ISS
From flying fighter jets for the United States Air Force during the Cold War to managing operations for the International Space Station (ISS), Jim Van Laak has had a long and storied career.

He's currently serving a one-year detail at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), where he's working with the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry.

Jim Van Laak

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Jim Van Laak talked about some of his experiences with human spaceflight April 17 during a lecture at the NIA. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

Van Laak talked about some of his experiences with human spaceflight April 17 during a lecture at the NIA.

His fascination with space and rockets started when he was still young. He remembers being in second grade, watching Alan Shepard go to space.

"Inspired by Alan Shepard," he said, "I became part of a group of 10-year-olds who decided to launch mice in large model rockets."

A slide featured a picture of one of the launch capsules, which was made from an orange juice can, a trumpet mute and the lid from a canning jar.

His early interest in spaceflight really came to fruition in 1988 when Van Laak joined NASA, where he traded orange juice cans for something a bit bigger.

He started out in the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) working the recertification of the Space Shuttle system.

"It was the greatest job in the world," he said. "I don't like Washington D.C. I don't like big cities. But this allowed me to just dive in to the technical minutiae of the systems."

After cutting his teeth in OSMA, Van Laak joined the Maintenance Operations Directorate as the Maintenance Operations Manager. There, he oversaw several shuttle Extravehicular Activity (EVA) missions, including the rescue of the Intelsat 603. During launch, Intelsat 603's motors failed, preventing it from boosting to its proper orbit.

The rescue mission required a tricky EVA during which the shuttle commander had to maneuver the shuttle so that three astronauts were able to manipulate the orbiting satellite by hand and mount it into a cradle in the shuttle's cargo bay for repairs.

"It was the most masterful demonstration of capability for humans flying the shuttle — which was a very nice flying machine — and operating EVA," he said. "It was absolutely spectacular."

In 1993, Van Laak was part of a group that teamed up with the Russians to develop Space Station Alpha, which ultimately became the International Space Station (ISS).

"As a former ‘Cold Warrior’ it was quite an interesting experience to sit down with these people and work with them," he said.

That experience with the Russians proved useful when Van Laak became deputy director of the Shuttle-Mir program. Seven American astronauts spent time on Mir as part of the program. One of the problems they dealt with was depression.

Shuttle astronaut John Blaha was particularly troubled by it.

"It was the change from being the center of the universe as a crew member training to fly and everybody's running around getting you what you need," Van Laak said, "to being one of three guys and the only English speaker on this tin can in space."

He showed a "typical picture from in the Mir" that featured a highly cluttered module with exposed cables running through a hatch. "This is the kind of cluttered environment people have to deal with in space," he said. "And Mir had been up there 10 years at this point and it was definitely having a lived-in look to it."

Following the completion of the Shuttle-Mir program, Van Laak became manager of operations for the ISS and worked on some of the earliest missions to put the station in orbit. During that time, he oversaw 36 American EVA missions.

Because ISS astronauts can't use jetpacks and the station is so big, ISS EVAs can be difficult.

"If you need to do maintenance out there, you have a very long, torturous path to get there," Van Laak said. "You have to be safely tethered to multiple points as you go. So it's easily a half-hour, 45 minutes to get to a location like that."

All of Van Laak's time working on the station must've seemed worth it on a trip he and his wife took last summer. They were out west and had the opportunity to see the ISS pass over twice one night. It was exceptionally bright.

"Oh, look," his wife said. "You built a star."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman