There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What made you want to try to become an astronaut and be one of those people who flies in space?
Image to right: Astronaut Michael E. Lopez-Alegria, Expedition 14 commander. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Michael E. Lopez-Alegria
Two things, I think. Sort of less romantically, I would say that as a military pilot, it’s sort of a logical path to follow. I think everybody wants to do the best they can, and if you work in the mail room, you want to be CEO one day. If you are a pilot in the Navy, one of the things you might want to be is an astronaut. And that’s not the only one, but that’s sort of the thing that appealed to me. And so, I’m trying to get the blocks checked that you sort of need: Test Pilot School, a graduate degree, were all things that kind of fell into place after the first part of the answer to the question, which is I think we all, at least, when I was a young child I wanted to be an astronaut, like I wanted to be a fireman and a lot of other things. That dream kind of went away for a while. I think I mostly was intrigued with it again when I got a little bit older because it seemed like it was somewhere that I could use my sort of, I’d say, modest combination of talents. I wasn’t smart enough to invent a cure for cancer, I couldn’t play the piano like a concert pianist, I couldn’t do a lot of things, or anything really, really well, but I could do sort of a handful of things reasonably well. And when I looked at what the astronaut profile was—at that time they’d just started hiring shuttle astronauts—and so it seemed like they were looking for people with a broad skill base and I kind of thought that I might be able to fit into that.
Tell me about Mission Viejo. Tell me about the place where you’re from.
I moved there in early 1967. There were just over 400 people there. I won’t say how much my parents paid for their house, but it wasn’t very much. And, when I left to go to the Naval Academy in 1976, there were over 100,000 people there. Literally that part of California between L.A. and San Diego has almost merged into one megalopolis; you know, there are some breaks there, but I thought it was a really nice place to grow up. It was quiet, safe. Southern California is a beautiful place. I mean, what’s not to like? I wish I could afford to live there now. I have nothing but good memories.
Do you have [a] real sense of the place and the people there, how they contributed to making you the person you are today?
Well, like everybody, we’re all influenced by that more than probably we remember. I certainly remember getting some guidance in high school from my guidance counselor, from my teachers, encouraging me to do the math and science thing, fitting well with what I liked anyway. Going to the Naval Academy was obviously a bit step, because that sort of led to being a pilot which led to being a test pilot, etc., etc. I sort of got that idea from the people in my high school. I remember those days, pretty fondly. I just missed my 30th high school reunion last weekend, which is a shame. It would have been nice to see some of those people again.
You mentioned also the Naval Academy. Give me the short course on Michael Lopez-Alegria’s education and professional background.
Mission Viejo High School; I went to the Naval Academy and graduated in 1980; I studied systems engineering. I then went to flight school, became a Navy pilot, and I was stationed first of all, as an instructor, flying the T-34 in Pensacola, which is a single-engine, turboprop. And then I went on to be stationed in VQ2, which is an electronic reconnaissance squadron, based in Rota, Spain. We did a lot of deployments, a lot of work, in the sort of eastern Mediterranean area; had the very tough duty of having to fly from Athens for about a month at a time. I was then accepted to a cooperative program between the Naval Postgraduate School, where I spent a year, studying aeronautical engineering, and then Naval Test Pilot School, where I spent a year, becoming a test pilot. Then I was a test pilot for three years, ending up being a program manager for both the EP-3, which is an airplane that I flew in VQ2, and the ES-3, which was a new airplane test program. And then I was selected to be an astronaut in 1992, and I’ve been here ever since.
This part of your job, not the interview part but the “flying in space” part of your job, has shown that it can be pretty dangerous. What is it that you think we get as a result of flying people in space, that makes it worth the risk you’re taking?
I think that’s a pretty easy question to answer. I think the benefits are definitely worth the risk, particularly since it’s not sort of a willy-nilly risk. I mean, we look at the risks pretty hard, and we understand them, and I don’t think anybody straps in the vehicle, thinking, this is the last time I’m ever going to see planet Earth. I think most people are very confident in the system, the safety system that NASA has in place, and that the Russian space agency has in place. And, if the work that we’re doing in space to further human exploration, I think, stand on its own merits.
You’re the Commander of Expedition 14 to the International Space Station. Give me a summary of the goals of this Expedition and your main responsibilities.
Wow, let’s see. The goals, first of all, are to continue the assembly of the space station, which has sort of been on hold for a while since the Columbia accident, so in general our mission is going to be to receive a couple of shuttle flights, do some construction while they’re there. After they’ve gone, we’re going to be receiving three Progress vehicles, which means a lot of cargo, loading, unloading. And, in general, the focus is going to be construction and assembly.
Is that high traffic volume one of the most challenging aspects of your increment?
Absolutely, from a couple of standpoints. One, every time something comes, you’ve got to unpack it, and that takes time. And time is going to be a significant challenge for us. The second thing is, when we unpack that stuff there’s got to be some place to put it, and the station is already pretty full of stowage. The challenge is going to be to find where to stow the stuff that’s brought up.
You’ve got all of that on top of what I guess you’d call “routine” station operations?
Right. Certainly, there is some, overhead, if you will, required to maintain the station from a life support standpoint. With three people we’re going to have a little bit more breathing room than we did with just two, but it’ll still be pretty challenging just to keep up with those chores, and of course we’ve got some payloads that we’d really like to get to as well.
We’re going to talk about some in detail, but first I’ll take the opportunity to point [out] that, of course, you’ve been to the International Space Station before—not as an increment crew member, but you’ve been there. Does that experience help you in preparing for this flight?
I think it does in a lot of ways. I mean, certainly there’s a comfort level. I know sort of which way to turn when I get to a certain intersection and that kind of thing. I have also been lucky enough to be outside, a couple of times during those flights, and that helps me prepare during our EVA training. I feel pretty comfortable with where I am outside. And, I think just a sense of having some idea of what it’s like up there.
What are you most looking forward to seeing when you get back?
Well, it’ll be interesting to be there and not be a visitor, but have it be my home. So, I really don’t know what to expect in that regard, but I know it’ll be different.
The mission for you this time starts in a Soyuz spacecraft; it’ll be your first experience to fly in that. Tell me about that portion of your flight.
Well, the Soyuz is a very reliable, not particularly comfortable vehicle that will bring us to the station after about 48 hours after we launch. So, those first 48 hours, the Soyuz Commander, Mikhail Tyurin, and our spaceflight participant, Daisuke Enomoto, and I will be in that relatively small volume, the sort of two modules, a living compartment, which we don’t get into until, obviously, after we’re in orbit, and then the descent module, which is sort of the layout of an Apollo capsule but probably a little bit smaller. It’s a very simple machine but very reliable; interesting interface with the crew. I get to have a…participation in that, sort of like a copilot, so I’m very much looking forward to that.
When you arrive at the International Space Station, the third member, Thomas Reiter, of Expedition 14 will be there waiting for you. Will it help you to have one member of the crew who’s already been there and has got his feet on the ground, so to speak?
I’m almost sure that it’ll be a very big help, because normally you’ve got a complete handover and so once the hatch is closed, that, Oh-by-the-way-I-forgot-to-ask-you question, it’s too late. With him there, I think it’ll be a huge, sort of, burden eased from us during the handover period because we know that the kind of routine stuff we don’t have to focus on too much. We can focus on some of the nuances and then if we ever have a question that comes up about something more mundane, he’ll be there to ask. So I think it’ll be a great help.
Now, the plan calls for about halfway through your six months on orbit for Reiter to rotate with Suni Williams, who comes up on a subsequent shuttle flight. What is the reasoning behind rotating a partial crew like that?
Well, I think it all stems from the notion that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, would like to have the third seat in the Soyuz available for a paying passenger. And, as a result, that third seat will be, usually someone will go up and down, and so the third person can’t rotate there and he or she will rotate on shuttle. So, that’s sort of the scheme that we have evolved to.
Does the training for having crews in parts, if you will, does that make anything particularly harder or easier?
Well, I think there are certain disadvantages, certainly. If you were to build a true Expedition crew, you’d like them to be sort of lockstep with each other all the time. I think this is a little bit different because we do have a fair amount of access to the ground, talking to people, e-mailing friends and family, using the IP [internet protocol] phone to be able to converse with people. That probably eases the difficulty in being isolated somewhat that is so specific to certain types of Expeditions. And, I think that the result is that the need to bond really as a single unit is not as stringent as it might be if we were going to live that kind of an experience. However, it does bring up some interesting challenges. I think there’s also some advantages because six months with the same two faces all the time, if you don’t like one of those two faces it could get old. At least, in this fashion, we will have the opportunity to change those faces once in a while.
A part of the training for this flight has included your work with the shuttle crews that will be on the missions bringing new components for the station’s Integrated Truss Structure to the station while you’re there. Tell me a bit about the hardware, the P5 Truss and the S3/S4 Truss, and how those two things are going to improve the capabilities of the International Space Station.
Well, right now we have one power module, which is the P6 Truss. Between now and when we launch, hopefully, we’ll have the P3/P4 Truss up there. That’ll be a second power module with its two solar arrays. One of the solar arrays on P6 will be retracted, so it’ll be basically working on three where it’s now, we’re working on two. S3/S4 is the mirror image of P3/P4; it will bring up two more solar arrays. For the same reasons, we’ll have to retract the second on P6; we’ll be working on four. So, basically, we’re increasing the power output of the station. The P5 segment is basically just a structural member. It’s an extension, if you will, of P3/P4 in order to accept the P6 Truss, to keep the solar array wings separated from each other.
Does the additional power capacity, is that something that ISS needs now?
We don’t need it now, but we will need it when we add the future partner elements, for example, the Columbus Orbital Facility and the Japanese Experiment Module. They will be big power consumers, and definitely we’ll need them to have more power than we do today.
Tell me about the operations for adding the S3/S4 and the P5 Truss, and the spacewalks that are involved. What is the Expedition 14 crew going to be doing during those times?
We will largely not be participating in the spacewalks. We usually have the shuttle crews that are coming up, because they will have been more recently trained on particular details of those spacewalks, so they perform the spacewalks in general. There is an exception to that, where Suni will hopefully perform the third spacewalk with the, STS-116, the 12A.1, crew while they’re docked. In general, the way the installation works is, of course, the shuttle is docked to the station; it has its element in the payload bay. We usually can’t reach the element with the station’s robotic arm so it’s handed off—taken out of the bay with the shuttle’s arm, moved into a position sort of stretched out, the shuttle’s arm, or the station’s arm will then grapple it, the shuttle arm releases it, and then it puts it in place. The final attachment can be either robotic, meaning people on the inside of the station would control some large motorized bolts, or it could be done via EVA, where spacewalkers will actually, with power tools, drive a similar kind of mechanism.
As you’ve done yourself.
Right. Actually, my last mission, we installed the P1 Truss, which is a very, very similar operation to what I just described.
Is it really complicated inside and connecting all the things together, or, is it like a big, they just snap together?
Image to left: Expedition 14 Commander Michael E. Lopez-Alegria participates in a training session in the International Space Station Destiny laboratory mockup/trainer at Johnson Space Center's Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. Image credit: NASA
Well, what I described a little while ago was the actual sort of mechanical structural attachment. Of course, that doesn’t really make the element come alive. Then we have to connect the power, the data, usually the fluids, because, at the very least, we have to cool a lot of these avionics. So, the cooling fluid is ammonia, and that travels through some pretty big lines. That is probably some of the most challenging EVA work that we do is manipulating these fluid quick disconnects, which are actually rather large and stiff and are hazardous if they were to leak. So that’s part of the difficulty. The other thing is what we do to sort of prepare an element is maybe deploy antennas or rotate launch locks out of the way so the solar arrays or the radiator beams can rotate. A lot of these things are launched in the payload bay, ready to take pretty significant vibrations and loads during ascent. Of course, once they’re up there, those same mechanisms have to be free to move. So we’ve got to remove some of the safeguards that are put in place, and we usually do that manually.
You referred to the fact that one of the solar arrays on the P6 Truss is going to be retracted while you’re on orbit. Tell me why and how you pull in those giant solar array wings.
The why is because, P6 is located in a place right now, it’s sort of a temporary home, kind of on top of the station with its solar wings pointed out to the sides. As we start building the truss—if you think of the truss as being numbered, “P” for port or left, “S” for starboard or right, from zero in the middle all the way out to the end “6,” you can figure out quickly that P6 is going to go on the end on the left, port side. Before it gets there, the P3/P4 truss will be inboard of that; when its solar array wings are deployed, they would actually interfere with where the P6 array is right now. So once P3/P4 gets up there, we’ve got to retract that array on P6 to get it out of the way. And how is, from a crew standpoint, it’s actually very simple: it’s just the sending of the command. Most everything on the station, even the lights, well, not all the lights but in general you can think of it, at home, you go home, you turn your lights on when it’s dark by flipping a switch; we would turn on our computer and find a certain page and press a command that says, “Turn the lights on.” And so, attract, retracting the solar array wing is much like that; we would send a command. The ground could also send the command. Of course, there are lots of possible malfunctions there, so we have backups planned, not the least of which is that the guys can [go] outside and actually retract the array with a power tool.
In recognition of the fact that there was some difficulty when the P6 solar array wings were initially deployed, what sort of plans are there in case there’s a difficulty with the automatic retraction?
Well, just that. I think we’d have to look at what sort of indications we had, if there were a failure in the retraction. But one of the options is to put a Pistol Grip Tool, which is just a very glorified cordless screwdriver, and, apply it to a fitting that would actually, wind up the array and bring it back in.
You referred earlier to the P5 component of the truss as, pretty much of a spacer for the P6 to go out on the end of it. But after P5’s installed, you’re looking at having some significant periods when the station’s regular high-data rate communication system won’t be operating. Can you tell us why that’s happening and, and how long that’s going to last, and what impact does it have?
I’ll try to explain it. As I understand it, right now, we can fly in a number of different what we call attitudes, or orientations, of the station. After that mission, some of those orientations that we fly in today when we have certain conditions of the angle between the sun and the orbital plane, called beta angles, when they get to certain positions. Today we fly in a different attitude that will not be available to us after the 12A.1 mission. Because we won’t be able to fly in those attitudes, the Ku-band antenna, which is actually on the Z1 truss, will be exposed to higher than normal and lower than normal, depending on which beta angle we’re looking at, temperatures. And in order to avoid it, from either overheating or freezing, they will have to park the antenna, which means it won’t be able to look at the satellite, which means basically it’s unusable. What that means to us onboard is we use that an awful lot: we use that for our daily message traffic, so every day there’s something called an execute package that comes on board, which is a series of messages that details our plan for the day. It’s basically our work instruction. It says what activities we’re supposed to do at what time, any special notes about those things. We also get information on stowage. We get information on what Earth observation sites we’ll be flying over. Any other details about the work day will come up during that. We also use that communication system to send e-mail back and forth, both work-related and personal. We use it for any type of IP phone communication, any type of video conferencing that we can do. So it’s a pretty big disadvantage to not have that working. We think that the program is going to be able to do a couple of things. One is put a thermal cover over a certain part of the antenna, which will help the hot case; and another, which is to be able to fly in a certain, not the preferred orientation but a different orientation, which may help the cold case. So, we hope that those outages will be shorter than they’re predicted to be right now. But we’ll just have to see.
You’ve been training for spacewalks of your own during Expedition 14. Tell me about the current spacewalk plan, both U.S. and Russian, during the time that you’ll be onboard.
Right now we have one in the Russian Orlan suit, which is scheduled for the end of November. The details of that are yet to be worked out, but the spacewalk is essentially dedicated to payload activity, to science activity. There are three U.S. EMU, extravehicular mobility unit, spacewalks that are planned, right now, in a very short period in January. They have to happen after the 12A.1 mission, which is now scheduled for December. The primary goal of those three spacewalks is to reconfigure the external cooling system to go from radiators—that are on P6, that are being used today—to the larger, more capable, and ultimately permanent radiator system, which are installed on S1 and P1 Truss. And that in view, involves a lot of manipulation of these fluid quick disconnects that I was mentioning before. A couple of other ancillary tasks are in that: we’re going to be retracting the radiators that I just mentioned, that are on P6, putting a shroud over one of them. Those will then become spares for the power module, heat rejection radiators. We’ll be in, laying some cabling for a power system that will enable all this newly-installed power generation capability to actually power the shuttle while it’s docked, so the shuttle will be able to stay for longer periods of time in the not-too-distant future.
The advantage of that would be?
Well, if you accept the notion that a shuttle-trained crew, who has been training for, let’s say, a complicated assembly task like EVA right before a mission is going to be more effective than a shuttle, a station-based crew, who might not have done this, practiced this EVA for, let’s say, three or four months beforehand, then it’s desirable, maybe, to have the shuttle crew do those things during the docked time frame. Because of physiological constraints and fatigue being one of them, we can’t do an EVA every day. And so, the length of the docked time frame, which is driven, generally, by cryogenic, oxygen and hydrogen consumption, which just really means electricity, drives how many EVAs we can do during a docked time frame. And if we had the ability to power the shuttle, it could stay for a much longer time. Not to mention any kind of situation where the, the station had to be used as a refuge for a little while.
On the Expedition 14 spacewalks, who’s doing which one? Ones?
Image to right: Expedition 14 Commander Michael E. Lopez-Alegria gives a “thumbs-up” signal while being submerged in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
The plan right now is for Suni and me to do all three of them.
The three U.S. EVAs.
The three U.S. EVAs, of course. I did mention, Misha Tyurin and I will be doing the Russian EVA in the Orlan suit. Of course, since the EVAs, the American EVAs, are dependent on the 12A.1 mission, should that slip into the next increment then it will be Suni and one of the two Russian cosmonauts that’ll be there with her.
Are you looking forward to getting to go out in an Orlan suit?
Yes, I am. I’ve done a little bit of training over there. There are definitely some differences, some advantages and some disadvantages. But it’ll be interesting to actually do an EVA and see how they compare.
You’re not only Commander for Expedition 14, but you’re the NASA ISS Science Officer. The primary focus of U.S. science on ISS these days is research into how people can live and work safely in weightlessness. Tell me about some of those human life science experiments that you’re going to be involved with on this flight, including ones for which you’re the test subject.
Well, as you mentioned, we’re trying to understand better the effects of long-duration spaceflight on humans, because our goal is to extend our presence not just in low Earth orbit but to go back to the moon with some kind of a longer-term presence, and hopefully on to Mars someday. So, a lot of the science is dedicated to physiology, human physiology. We are studying, everything is on a very small level. There’s an experiment called SWAB, which measures bacteria levels on surface, water, and air; it’s sort of an environmental thing—what actually grows up there and how do we have to worry about reacting with it. Another sort of related idea is something called Epstein-Barr virus. We see how our immune system reacts over time while we’re up there. We have a nutrition experiment that will, through taking blood and urine samples, track our intake and, I guess, how we metabolize the food that we’re eating up there, because, in general, people tend to lose weight in space. In other words, in space they lose all their weight, but when they come back they’re usually a little bit lighter and over a lot of time, that obviously can be debilitating. You know, certainly muscle function, bone loss are very important. We’re doing an experiment called TRAC [Test of Reaction and Adaptation Capabilities], which is pretty interesting neuron-reaction time—it’s an experiment we’ve got to have a tracking task in one hand where you’re trying to get a pipper to stay over a target, and in the other hand you’re reacting with a keyboard, trying to do things as quickly as possible. And, so it’s a pretty complete, unfortunately because of the assembly and because of the stowage, time challenges, we don’t have as much science as we’d like. I guess it’s an investment.
We’re investing the time now to build the space station, so that we can have a lot more science time available in the future.
With Expedition 14, for the first time since before the loss of Columbia, you’re going to have an increment with a crew of three people from start to finish; you’ve got multiple shuttle visits coming, major station assembly tasks in the plan. With that in mind, is it going too far to say the ISS program is back on track now for completion and full utilization?
Well, I think we have the plans and programs well positioned to do just that. A lot of it is going to be luck. I mean, thunderstorms in Florida, we can’t control that. The technical challenges, it’s something that we continually battle, and I think we are making ground. It looks like the foam-shedding issue on the shuttle is on its way toward satisfactory resolution, if not there already. So far, station assembly I think has gone remarkably well. When you look at the task-by-task challenges, we’ve had very few surprises and, I think, I’d say none that we either couldn’t work around pretty well or overcome in some other way. And so if you look at all that, I think we have a very good shot at completing the station, on or near the sort of timetable that’s been laid out.
Of course, the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond this space station that we’ve been talking about. What’s your philosophy about the future human exploration of space, and the contribution that ISS is making to that future?
Well, I think, philosophically, we are all explorers, and we need to go back to the moon and on to Mars. It’s almost a rhetorical question for me. I think that it should be a foregone conclusion in most people’s minds, and certainly most people at NASA, I think, would agree with that. The contribution of ISS is an important one because, really from a long-duration standpoint, we need to understand again that what the human physiology reaction to those kinds of things is, and what kind of countermeasures we can invoke in order to mitigate the deleterious effects of those long-duration stays in orbit. A second by-product, and I’m not sure we really thought about but it’s been very useful, is that the station has provided an opportunity to learn to work with international partners. And, if you accept the postulation, which I think is fairly likely, that we’re probably going to do this with some sort of international team, we are really learning an awful lot that, admittedly, has been difficult at times. It’s good to have those things kind of ironed out, or at least understood, before you enter an even grander international project.