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Preflight Interview: William Shepherd
William Shepherd

Commander William Shepherd. Photo credit: NASA

Shep, before we talk about the specifics of your mission, let me take you further back in time first. Talk a little bit about why you wanted to become an astronaut and the course that led you to this point.

Well, it's really kind of a strange circumstance that I find myself working this mission, even being at NASA, being an astronaut. I was a Navy diver…, still active duty Navy. I've served for twenty-eight years as a Seal, and I went through college. I went to the Naval Academy, and wanted to be a pilot, but fortunately couldn't, unfortunately could not pass my eye exam, so I became a diver. And I always thought, kind of in the back of my mind, there was a lot of correlation between being in a spacesuit and some of the activities that you do when you're diving. But until about 1978, when the shuttle program really got going, I didn't really think about it. I applied to be an astronaut in 1980 [and] didn't make it; I applied again in '84 and was selected and the rest has just been fifteen years here working at Houston. And that's why I'm here.

Do you remember what it was that pointed you in the direction of the Navy in the first place?

I guess I was one of those kids that, …you know, you kind of take a direction when you're really young and sometimes you stay with it, sometimes you leave it and go back to it, but ever since I was really small I always liked boats, being around the water. I lived very close to the water growing up as a kid. And I always thought that the Navy would be a pretty cool thing to do, and I kind of left that idea for awhile, but as I finished high school I decided that's what I was [going to] do so that's how I went that way.

Do you remember any specific people-singular or plural-that you think may have been instrumental in pointing you in that direction, in making you interested in the Navy?

Well, my dad was a Navy veteran; he was a flyer in World War II and I think he was probably the strongest influence in my doing what I'm doing today and also joining the Navy.

After a number of years now, you're closing in on a long-anticipated mission as a member of the first crew to the International Space Station. Can you give us a sense of what you think it will mean, symbolically, to finally put a crew onboard that outpost?

Well, we've been waiting since the early '80's, when President Reagan proposed the space station program to get this thing done. Even putting a crew on is really just the first step in finishing the construction of this really huge station in space. To me, I think it shows that our country has the commitment and the leadership to carry out a very complex enormous scientific and research project, and get it done. So I'm glad to see that we're finally making it happen.

Let's talk about space stations for a moment: why do you think it's important that this country, or any country, build orbiting space stations?

Well…space stations have been an idea that's been around since the turn of the century. We've had serious planning in the States since the mid-'50's to look at the technology of how to do it. But what it means is a space station is a place where people can live, essentially, off the planet on a nearly permanent basis, and that's what this space station [will] be about. It gives us unique access to the space environment where we hope we can do very interesting and productive research, but it really means we [will] develop a lot of the capabilities and technology that'll allow humans to go elsewhere away from the planet. So, if we don't have this progress with this space station, it means that humans in space are pretty much destined to stay close to the Earth, and I don't think that's what humans are about.

Explore that for a moment; it sounds as though you're supposing that without a space station to begin with that we won't go back to the moon, or to Mars, or to anywhere else.

Well, I think…if you looked at the space station and said, OK, its primary focus is on research but what's the technical fallout, what are the byproducts of this? Let's take a mission to Mars: it [will] be a very large vehicle, probably bigger than space station, maybe by several factors. It [will] have a construction that's so complex that it can't be fully built and checked out on the ground. It [will] have to be launched in pieces, assembled in low Earth orbit like the space station; it'll have to have probably much higher levels of electrical power, certainly certain resources like closed loop life cycles, and for environmental control. All these things are characteristics that'll either be part of this space station or will be tested on this station. So I think if you're serious about having an expedition that [will] go a ways away from the Earth it [will] take a fair amount of time; the character of that will be shown in part by what's developed on space station.

It sounds as though part of what's important, or maybe what's most important, is the maybe longevity, is the question-is that what makes space station tougher than, say just flying shuttles up and down?

Well "tough" is a hard word to evaluate. I think any time you put humans into orbit because of the energies involved, it's very, very risky. It's a very serious business, so getting anything up into space is not simple. …certainly a vehicle that [will] be up in space for months or years at a time [will] have to be pretty self-sufficient; you [will] have to be able to make do with what you [have] and fix what's broken. I think this is what separates it in large part from shuttle operations, which are more like long airplane flights. And the station's much more a ship at sea that's away from its base and it [has to] take care of itself.

That's a good comparison for how a space station project would differ from a space shuttle project; are there any specifics about this space station project that make it a tough project, make it, give it unique challenges?

Yes, I think the biggest one is that I like to think of the space station as kind of a federated technical project. We have seventeen different countries involved in building and supporting what's going on. Each of them have a different approach to doing things; most notably are differences between Russian technology and U.S. or Western gear. Making that all run as a harmonious unit, I think, is a huge challenge.

You've been involved in this project since, what, since early 1993?

Right, right.

Certainly it's been a learning experience for all of the international partners that have been involved. From your point of view, can you talk about how those international relationships have changed, how they've evolved, during that time?

Well, I think that our relationships in the space station partnership are good. Some are great, some are not so great but on the whole we're getting the job done. To me, the biggest thing that I think I've learned personally is [that] we can find means to understand each other technically. We can exchange drawings, have various tools and things that we use to understand one another in a technical sense-but the hardest thing that we have got to do is to appreciate the other person's, the other country's, technical culture and why they've approached a problem a certain way. It may not be the way that we'd do it, we may initially not like what their approach is, but we have to learn how to evaluate it and if it's beneficial, adapt and use it. And I think that's been the biggest challenge in my mind in making space station a functional whole.

I've heard it said that it would be easier for the United States to go about this project all by itself, cost issues notwithstanding. Do you think that in the long run it's more valuable for NASA to be doing this in partnership with other countries?

I think without a doubt. Another aspect of a large expedition away from the Earth, I think will be a multinational character. Space station is somewhat a model for that; I wouldn't say it's a perfect blueprint, but it's working. I think it's essential that we carry on with space station and make it really productive if we're [going to] do follow-on things that are more expansive and more complicated.

On your mission, specifically, that trip away from the planet begins with a two-day ride on a Soyuz spaceship with Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev. What do you do during that two-day ride?

Well, my main job on ascent-it's kind of funny-as the Expedition Commander, it's kind of interesting, I try and stay out [of] the way. We're in a very cramped capsule; I run the radios and some of the life support equipment in the Soyuz. Yuri does all the flying and Sergei runs all the rest of the Soyuz capsule hardware.

And at the end of that two-day ride, Yuri Gidzenko will dock to the International Space Station and the three of you will go onboard. Do you know now what'll be the very first thing that you do when you go onboard that station?

Well, the very first thing we're [going to] do is turn the lights on. It's kind of like getting into your house: the first day we're [going to] try and we have a backup computer panel that we're [going to] fire up and make that sure we can talk to the computer. Then we're [going to] go around the house and turn the utilities on, and we're [going to] want to get at the fresh water [to] be able to heat it and make food; turn the toilet on-it's got some assembly that goes with it-configure some radios. And if we get all that done the first day, we'll count it as a success.

The tasks you described, is that something that takes a matter of a couple of hours, or is that a full week's work?

…no, I think it's something that we can do in the first day. But you [have to] remember that our timeline will be such that by the time we get onboard we'll be toward the end of a fairly long day, with getting up, configuring the Soyuz, getting in our spacesuits, doing the rendezvous, getting out of our suits, equalizing the hatches, making sure everything is right environmentally, and then getting inside, so that process will probably take at least four hours…four to six hours by itself.

ISS01-330-013 -- William Shepherd

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

After a well earned night's sleep onboard the station, you will turn to activating its systems and getting it set up, making it ready to be your home. Describe for us what those tasks are for the first couple of weeks. You've mentioned some systems; tell us about others, and in the different modules of the station, what sort of work still will await you?

Well, one of the biggest challenges we've got is finding everything. Right now, we have the FGB, the Functional Cargo Block, basically filled to the gills with bags of gear. We also have a fair amount of equipment in the Node. Much of this stuff is to be installed in Service Module, so one of the first jobs that we'll have is locating the parts and equipment and tools that we need in the FGB and the Node, bringing them into Service Module and starting to set things up. We want to get right away, want to get the life support system up and running so that we have a means to absorb carbon dioxide that we make through metabolism, and also to produce oxygen by breaking down water. We have a Russian device called Elektron. It's [going to] take probably a whole day just to set that up and make sure that it's functional. Our CO2 system is called Vozdukh and if we get Elektron and Vozdukh running it'll probably take a whole day, maybe two days, to make sure those units are happy. Then we're [going to] go around to various systems in Service Module-we have computers to install, radios to put in-just probably several days' to a week's worth of bolting things down, wiring things up, and punching buttons to make sure that they run right.

The location that you're doing this work is anything but ordinary, but I would guess that because you're going to be in space for a number of months rather than just a number of days that you've got to develop what might be called a more regular routine of life. Can you give us a sense of, at this point, what you think a "regular" day onboard the International Space Station would be like?

Well, hopefully it's not [going to] be as compact as the days we have on shuttle. On shuttle everything is fairly carefully orchestrated because we don't have a lot of time during the mission, so the planning is very precise about what you're doing almost every minute; we won't have that on station. We'll get up every morning, look at the message traffic from the ground, try and figure out what the last minute changes have been to the day's plans. We'll have a short conference with Mission Control to discuss this with the flight directors, then we'll get into the day's work. Part of that will be assembly and checkout of various pieces of station, maybe some tests on some gear that has been installed previously that we want to look at. It is a very serious requirement onboard to get some exercise every day. Everybody's got two hours each day to run on the treadmill and do some other stuff because it's very important to stay healthy because when you're weightless the effects on your body can be pretty negative if you don't work out. Between that doing some Earth observations and we've got a couple science experiments onboard. We have a space walk planned, and we have shuttles coming and going all the time, Progress vehicles to load and unload, and we'll stay busy.

Is the template for life fairly similar, is it evolved from that which the crews on Mir used?

I think the tenor of life on space station will be very much like what we had on Mir; I think Mir's a pretty good model. I think living on station is much more like being on a ship, or maybe a submarine, than flying in an airplane.

You made reference to the fact that…as the first ones up there Expedition 1 might be looked at as kind of a shakedown cruise for the new station. How well do you think it's [going to] work? Are you going to spend a lot of time fixing things?

Well, I think the station, as far as I know, in the development and testing, will work well. But…and this is kind of a test program and the first that you do in a test program is go into some nooks and crannies of the hardware and software that you haven't been able to look at before and make sure that it's functional. For instance, the photovoltaic system and the thermal control system, these are two key parts of space station that you really can't test exactly the way they're [going to] be operated in space with any facility on the ground. We have over forty computers just in the U.S. side of the station complex. There's a lot of software in there. There's a lot of things that people have put together in code that we think are [going to] work a certain way and I think it's up to us, working with the folks on the ground, to go look and make sure that the day that we need to do some attitude adjustment for some emergency or we have some automatic response to some problem, that that software is [going to] run the way that we want it to before we need it. So I think that's part of our job up there.

You alluded to the fact that there is at least a space walk planned, if not more, for the station crew. Who's doing space walks, and what are they for?

We have one EVA, or extravehicular activity, planned which is to move a docking cone from the front of the Service Module and put it in the nadir docking port. Right now my thinking is to have Sergei and Yuri do that; they've both had this experience before on Mir, so I think they're the right two guys to send outside and do it. We have other contingencies that could come up, other things that might be added to our flight; we'll just have to see. I think the chances are good that we'll find something else that we [want to] go outside and do, and all three of us have pretty equivalent training in tools, techniques and capabilities, and we'll make that call in real time about who the right two folks are to go out outside and do something else.

You hoping that you're [going to] get the call on one of those?

[Yes], I'd really like to do it; it would be kind of a highlight to my career to do a walk, but we'll just have to see.

You also referred to the fact that you're [going to] have some number of shuttle visits to the station during your time onboard. They're bringing new pieces to add on to that station. Talk about what some of the significant tasks you anticipate going on during shuttle visits [during] your time there.

Well, the biggest job that we've got…we've got some key assembly flights: flight 4A is [going to] bring up our first solar array. Brent Jett and his crew [have] a very complex task with the robot arm to manipulate that and lock it down and it's a lot of EVA work outside to hook everything up to make sure that's [going to] run right. Inside the station, we're [going to] be watching all the station systems to make sure the station doesn't do anything strange in that period, and that we're there ready to backup the shuttle crew on anything they need to have help with. I think it's just a pretty critical assembly. The follow-on shuttle flight after that, 5A, will bring the Lab up, and that's in the same category, too-it's the cornerstone of the U.S. part of space station. It's a very complex, hugely expensive piece of gear. We have to treat it right and make sure that it works.

I think you said that while they're doing this, you're watching station's systems. Can you go in to that a little bit more -- the work that you and Yuri and Sergei will be doing onboard while strangers and visitors are crawling around the outside of your house.

Well, the photovoltaic array is a good example. It has it's own data requirements. It connects to our electrical system, it has its own thermal conditioning, but all these things interact in some way with space station. And certainly while people are outside doing space walks or doing anything with the RMS, the shuttle's robot arm, we've got to be very careful that we're in the right attitude and that we're not moving around. So, that's mostly our job on space station, to control how the station's reacting and as these systems are hooked up making sure that the space station part of the electrical system, for example, is in the right configuration while we do this.

It is my understanding that during docked operations with shuttles, the hatches between the shuttle and the station are [going to] be closed much of the time.


First, can you tell us why that is, and second, how you think you'll feel about having somebody so close and yet so far?

[Yes]. Well, again it's almost a technical culture question. It kind of rolls back to different designs for spacesuits. The Russians have a suit that runs at a little higher pressure than ours does. With that higher pressure and the protocol the Russians use to get ready to get in it and go outside, they don't have a requirement to spend any significant time at a pressure less than standard sea level atmosphere. So the whole Russian hardware is set up to be at 14.7 p.s.i., or 760 millimeters of mercury. The shuttle, on the other hand, has a suit that's geared to run at the lowest possible pressure which is just around 4 p.s.i. In order for astronauts to get in that suit and go outside with low risk of the bends, they have to spend some time at cabin altitude about like Denver, which is about ten, [a] little over 10 p.s.i. So, in this period where we're [going to] have EVA activity outside of the station for folks coming from the shuttle, the shuttle will be at 10 p.s.i., and the station will be at 14.7, so for that reason, we've [got to] have the hatches closed off.

Will it seem odd to have somebody brand new show up that you can't shake hands with?

Well, it will. We'll be able to talk to [them]. We'll have a brief period where we can exchange things that we need-some goodies will go back and forth across the hatch-and we'll close the hatches off and get down to business. …I think after we do it once or twice that we'll get used to it, so it won't be a big deal.

Along with visits from space shuttles, you're going to have a number of Progress cargo ships come to the station during your Expedition. Talk a little bit about how you manage those ships in terms of arriving cargo and the departing garbage. Does it help or hurt when it comes to trying to cut down on clutter inside the station?

Well, it's a challenge. I'd say it hurts, and the reason is because it's kind of like what you might have in your house around Christmas time. You know, you've got all this stuff under your Christmas tree, and it's somewhat tidy, it's all been packed up and put in a certain configuration, and about two or three hours after you start going through it all, it's a significantly bigger pile of stuff. And that's kind of how Progress is: as we unload this thing, things kind of expand out of their containers and get put where they are most useful. Progress is a long, narrow cylinder, and we're hopeful that it's packed up in such a way that what we need is not at the bottom of it when it shows up, but unloading that thing, distributing everything, and then filling it back up again-it's a big logistical challenge.

At the time it's time for the three of you to pack up your own stuff and look at coming home, what critical tasks will you look at and say, we had to do this, this, and this to make Expedition 1 a success?

Well, our job is to get the station where it can provide significant amounts of its own electrical power where it has a laboratory for folks to go and do some research. That's the guts of our mission, and we'll just have to see how those assembly flights go in concert with the shuttle folks to make that all work. Beyond that, I think it's very important for the first crew to have a good handover to the follow-on crew that's [going to] show up. The process of signing over the station to the next rotating crew I think is [going to] be an important difference in how we operate on station that we haven't really seen before on shuttle.

Being first can often be a challenge, to do something that's never been done before. In Phase 1 of the International Space Station program, Frank Culbertson said that Norm Thagard probably had a harder time because he was first, and things that hadn't been considered suddenly were there and were real. What do you foresee as being the unique challenges of being the first crew on ISS?

ISS01-E-5129 -- William Shepherd

Expedition 1 Commander William Shepherd works on the Ward Room table in the Zvezda service module aboard the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

Well, I think we've already seen much of what that significant difficulty is and that is that the first crew is the first, in almost all the spheres of crew and management activity, to see a problem and say, hey you know, the Russians are planning to do this, and the U.S. is doing this. And, you know, Europe's over here and we can't work this way, we've got to pull this together. And often we are way in front of this problem and we're talking to folks on the ground that just can't appreciate why that's a concern to us, and why we want to go fix it, and this has just been the legacy of how we've been working for our several years of training. I think it'll continue and the first part of our mission [will] influence our operations onboard, too, and to me this is the hardest part, to try and share that concept, that vision, that problem point of view with people on the ground and try and get some meaningful resolution.

Let me ask you to share a bit of your philosophical insight. You are preparing to lead the first Expedition to a brand new space station, in a brand new millennium; what are your thoughts about the impact of having human beings in space? Why do you think that it's important that we're there, and that we continue to be there?

Well, it's a pretty wide question; I could give you lots of answers.


One of the more interesting things I've been involved in is looking at computer displays, and how you represent something to somebody that may be from a different country, may not speak your language, may have a different cultural approach…we always look at switches on the wall and if the switch is up it means it's on; if it's down, it's off. But there are places where that's different, you know, they have switches that twist. So how do you, you know, does "up" mean "on" to somebody from one of these, living in one of the circumstances? Maybe not. …I think fifty, a hundred years from now, some of the things that we're developing with these displays, the terminology, the symbology, the way we're doing drawings, the way we're representing things, will be embedded a part of any manned space program, and they are things that we're developing and deciding now on space station. You know, long-term, I think that's what's important. You could say, well, it's very difficult to do something with humans in space; come back with a product, produce something, that really pays the freight. There's very little that comes back from space that you could definitively say today pays the mail…you know, at least directly. About the only thing in that category, we're starting to make some headway on pharmaceuticals, and certainly communications satellites are very beneficial. But the thing is that these technical demands that we have-flying in space, keeping humans healthy and able to do work up there-have huge side benefit to the way that we live and the style of life that we enjoy. I think it's critically important that we have a space program if only to fulfill this need for a technical society to face challenges, surmount them, and move on. I think that's why humans belong in space; I think that's why having a space station is somewhat an evolutionary step in where we're going in this next millennium.

And what do you think about the role that Bill Shepherd gets to play in all of that?

I…it's really hard to, you know, to see that in any kind of long-term context. Let me put that this way. I always thought, you know, the most exciting part of a space flight was [going to] be the liftoff and certainly on shuttle you're kind of slammed back in your seat for eight-and-a-half minutes. It's kind of like a big afterburner climb, and it's a very exciting and enjoyable ride. But, I think on subsequent missions the thing that most people, at least in my group, look at is having a good landing, a successful wheel stop; the orbiter comes back home safe and sound, with a good mission behind you, and that's what I'm thinking about now. What I want out of this flight is for people to say that the first crew did a good job, and they came home safe, and they left, you know, a good ship in orbit.