Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you ended up a professional space traveler. What was it that motivated you, or inspired you, to become an astronaut?
Preflight Interview: Michael Fincke
A: When I was 2 and 3 years old, I remember watching people walk on the moon, and that was enough to inspire me so that for my entire life. All I wanted to do was, was to become an astronaut. And when I was 29 years old it happened, and when I was 38 years old I got my first taste of flying in space, and I’m very lucky right now, at 41 years old, to have a chance to fly again. And if NASA lets me, I’d like to ask for another mission even after this one. It is something so amazing. What we’re doing is part of a team, a team of human beings from across the planet working together, doing something constructive, making not just this world a better place but opening up the rest of the universe for us to go visit and explore, to provide more resources for human beings so that we’re, so that we can use the resources we have here on our own planet in a smarter way.
Less specific but in more in the abstract, what was it as a little boy that made you want to be an astronaut? What was it about what you were, were seeing that, that got you so excited?
It’s very hard to describe. It’s just something that you know. You just see it and you say, "That’s it!" And some people refer to it as a, a calling, a vocation. And that was it. As soon as I saw astronauts, my senior colleagues walking on the moon, flying aboard Skylab, the early shuttle missions, I just knew that that’s what I wanted to do, and I was very fortunate to have that opportunity. I was very fortunate in, in the United States to have a chance to go to some excellent educational places, excellent schools and to learn a lot of things; fortunate that the Air Force sent me off to Test Pilot School and they gave me a lot of exposure to, to testing new aerospace vehicles just like we’re, we’re doing today aboard the International Space Station.
You got to do that as a kid in western Pennsylvania. Tell me about Emsworth, Pa. What was that place like and what was it like to grow up there?
Emsworth, Pa., is a small suburb -- and really, it’s small -- of the, of the greater Pittsburgh area. Pittsburgh, of course, in most people’s minds, is the home of some wonderful sports teams like the mighty Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates and Penguins; they did great this year also. But it’s more than that. Pittsburgh was known as an industrial center. Now it’s a major corporate headquarters. There’s also a lot of science and technology focus in Pittsburgh. I used to go to the Carnegie museum all the time, the [Carnegie] Museum of Natural History. There was a huge, wonderful planetarium where it opened up my mind to leave my little village of Emsworth and to think about the, the whole universe. Pittsburgh is also known for hard work and to get to become an astronaut it wasn’t easy for me. I had a lot of challenges along the way but because I knew how to work hard and not to give up, I was able to reach my goals. I’m thankful to the Pittsburgh working culture that allowed me to go where I was supposed to go, where I wanted to go, where my calling was.
Sounds like you have a sense of how the people and the place formed you, that helped make you the person that you are.
Absolutely, and every time I get a chance to go back home and, and to spend time with my friends there, my family there, or even just Pittsburghers on the street, I just feel that, yes, this is my home, this is who I am. And I’m just one of the lucky Pittsburghers to have a chance to go explore and to do something great, and hopefully make this planet a better place while opening up paths to new planets.
Do you have a good chance to, to see it from orbit?
Oh, it’s amazing. I spent a lot of time trying to find those three rivers as they magically come together, and there was one day, right after Hurricane Charley, that I think the hurricane came through, flooded the whole, the whole area, the greater Pittsburgh area, western Ohio, and even up to Erie, and it just came right through. But they also took away all the clouds and we floated right over and it was just so amazing to see all the rivers and how full they were and how they were bringing all that floodwater away from people’s houses and draining all the flood.
Tell me a bit about how you went from wide-eyed astronaut wannabe to becoming an astronaut. Give me a thumbnail sketch of your education and professional career that got you here.
Well, if this guy who used to be a little boy in Pittsburgh can become an astronaut, to reach his vocation, then anyone can. The opportunities are there. The hard work is all that it takes, and some luck. I had the great fortune to attend a private high school. I had to work to work my way through. I was on scholarship and I had to take summer jobs and even jobs after school to help pay for the big expense, but it was a great educational opportunity. It opened the doors to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where I double-majored in aeronautics and astronautics, which is what the Air Force ROTC program was sponsoring me for. But I also followed my heart and studied planetary astronomy, so I was able to take a double major. The summer after I graduated there was a unique opportunity -- again, luck, fortune rolled the dice -- and I was able to attend an exchange program at Moscow Aviation Institute and study cosmonautics in the former Soviet Union. And, boy, did I never guess at that time that I would be spending most of my career over in Moscow working with our Russian partners, flying as a flight engineer in the Soyuz and, and getting to do spacewalks in the Russian Orlan [spacesuit]. I think a lot of it was because what I learned that summer at Moscow Aviation Institute. After a couple graduate degrees, one at Stanford, one here in Houston, I was qualified to become an astronaut for NASA.
You mentioned that you were at MIT in the ROTC with the Air Force, so you have an Air Force career in there as well?
Yes. The Air Force was a, a great choice for me. Of course, joining the military is not for everyone but for me it was the right choice. The Air Force offered me the high-tech opportunities that I was looking for, flying airplanes, maybe even becoming an astronaut, flying in rockets. It gave me the money so I could go to college. The ROTC program provided me a scholarship. They made sure I worked for it, but I think that the, the things that I learned while as an ROTC cadet, combined with the technical things I learned in my double major at MIT prepared me to be a pretty decent Air Force officer -- prepared me to be that. We’ll see if it actually succeeded. But the thing of it is that I had a great opportunity and I made the most of it. In my Air Force career I got to fly in F-16s and F-15s and work as a satellite test engineer and all these wonderful things. I was responsible for a lot of money. I was responsible for other people, and it really matured me so that I could grow up to be an astronaut and to lead a space mission on Expedition 18.
Now we know that flying in space is something than can be dangerous. What is it, Mike, that you think we’re getting as a result of flying people in space that makes that risk one you’re willing to take?
Well, we can say, glibly “no guts, no glory.” But it’s more than that. We work hard so that we do make it safe. Even so, no matter how hard we work and how many smart people we have and how many times we review our processes and procedures and our designs and our building and our engineering, it’s still a dangerous business. Going 17,500 mph isn’t easy. The NASCAR drivers, they go pretty fast, 200, 300; well, we beat ’em at 17,500, so that’s dangerous, inherently and in and of itself. But it’s worth the risk, I believe, because we are learning new things. We’re expanding our scope as human beings, we’re doing something constructive and not destructive, and we’re paving the way for future exploration, and I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do, anything more exciting.
You’re commander on Expedition 18 to the International Space Station. Mike, summarize the goals of this flight and what your main responsibilities are going to be.
Well, it’s exciting to be on the 18th expedition to our beautiful space station, and we are right at the cusp of going from a three-person crew to a six-person crew. Our crew, Expedition 18, we are ready to make that transition. It’s going to require several space shuttles to come up and give us the missing pieces. Once we put those pieces together and test them all out, at the end of it all we should be able to say that we are ready for, to send six people up aboard the space station so we can get even more science done and realize the dream of all of our international partners.
Of course, you’ve done six months on board the International Space Station already. Why do you want to go back for a second tour?
Well, it was so much fun the first time. It was my fondest wish when we came back at the end of Expedition 9 to get a chance to fly again aboard the International Space Station, and so we’re going to work really hard for another six months launching again on the Soyuz and landing again on the Soyuz, to make the space station a better place.
What was it about it that was that interesting, exciting, whatever, that, that makes you want to go back?
Well, in our lives, and when I talk to school kids and, and anyone else, in our lives when you find a place where you’re supposed to be, you know it. And when I was aboard the International Space Station from April to October in 2004, I was where I was supposed to be, and I really was looking forward to getting a chance to go back. This time it’s much bigger than when I left it, and we’ll leave it even in better shape ready for the next crew.
You spent more than a year working, training for this mission, and just a few months before launch the crew assignment got changed. How did that impact the last months of your preparation for this flight?
Any time you switch a batting order, any time you switch your crew around, it’s a big impact. There’s all the emotional investment, there’s the time investment in building the team, there’s the training investment we had to switch around this time, unfortunately, and fortunately. Unfortunately, Salizhan Sharipov, who was supposed to go with us, couldn’t make it on this trip, so we got Yury Lonchakov. Yury’s a great guy. He’s going to command our Soyuz on the way up and down and that’s critical. We’re ready together. We rebuilt ourselves as a team and we’re ready to go do what we need to do for Expedition 18.
This isn’t about Expedition 18 so much, but as you’re settling in and getting reacquainted with the place it’ll be time for you to vote in the presidential and the local elections in the Houston area. Why is it important for you to do that?
Well, first I’d like to say thank you to the state of Texas. In Texas law they’ve made a special provision so that people who are up in space can vote, and with the home of the Johnson Space Center, of course, this is a necessary thing and it’s certainly helpful. It’s everyone’s duty as citizens to have a chance to vote. It’s our chance to make our government better, and that’s something that’s not unique to United States but we certainly started here, modern democracy and United States, so we need to do that aboard the International Space Station, to take the time to vote and to vote our conscience, and to vote for the candidates that we think will do best for our country. So it’s a privilege and thanks again to state of Texas that I’m allowed to exercise my privilege, my right, my duty to vote.
What’s the procedure? How is it accomplished?
Well, we don’t have a voting booth up in space, of course, so what they do for us is we have a special encrypted computer program in which we make our votes, not just for the presidential candidate but for all the other candidates, all privileged, confidential information. It’s a private vote, and that information gets sent to the ground to the local Texas voting authority and they will then take our votes and put them into the system.
So it’s not too much different from the way I’ll vote on the ground in Houston?
Exactly. The voting booth is a little different and we have a better window view but other than that it’s a great privilege and opportunity to have a chance to vote from space.
It won’t be very long after you arrive on board that you’re going to, you’re due to get a shuttle full of guests, which is something that didn’t happen the first time you were up there. What are you looking forward to about having that take place on this mission?
During Expedition 9, four years ago, we were not lonely but there were only two of us. We didn’t see any other human beings for six months, and fortunately the commander, Gennady Padalka, and myself, we got along great. But this time around there’s going to be three of us on board at any one time and two shuttles are going to come to visit. I haven’t seen this before and I’m looking forward to it because on those shuttles are friends and there’s going to be a lot of work done. It’s going to be, not chaos; it’s going to be very orderly. But it’s going to be really, really busy for the two weeks while they’re up there. When they leave the space station is going to be so much different, so much better and more supplies on board, too, food and water, all the wonderful things that they bring up. So I think it’s going to be really bittersweet to say goodbye to the space shuttle. It’s going to be really happy to see them, and sad to say goodbye.
Let’s talk about some of the details. Let’s start with STS-126; that’s the first shuttle that visits. What are the goals of that time of joint operations?
STS-126, led by Chris Ferguson, is a really neat mission. It has a Multipurpose Logistics Module inside, and it’s going to bring a whole bunch of things that we need to outfit for a six-person crew. It’s going to bring new what we call racks, facilities so that we can reprocess our water, so we can save water aboard space station, so we don’t need to send up so much from the ground. It will bring new crew quarters -- that means our beds, our sleeping cabins. It will bring up a new kitchen and a new toilet, all these things that we need for human habitability aboard the space station. We have those things on board now but there’s only enough for three people. By bringing up this extra set we have redundancy but we also have room now for six people. That’s the main focus of the mission. Of course personally and to our crew, during ULF-2, STS-126, they’re going to bring up Dr. Sandy Magnus and take down Greg Chamitoff. Greg’s on board right now and we’re going to switch with Sandy. Sandy will be on board for three months and she’ll be a welcome addition to our crew.
The different kinds of hardware that are required to expand the crew, as you mentioned, those things are all on board right now. They exist in the Russian segment of the station, primarily. The new ones are going to be installed in other portions of the station, correct?
Yes. Right now the, the heart of the space station in terms of life support is the Russian service module, Zvezda. After STS-126, ULF-2 mission, we will have most of that equipment in the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny, and it’s going to be temporarily there. The plan, I think, for long term is to put it into the third node, Node 3, which we don’t have a name for yet. We’ll put it into Node 3 but for the next couple years we will have these, all these new racks, all the new equipment for habitability and environmental control and life support systems inside the lab.
Anybody who’s watched shuttle missions deliver hardware to the station has seen giant racks come out and float through the hatches, but there’s a lot more to getting it set up and actually making it work. Give us a sense of the kind of work that you and Sandy and Yury will have in front of you over the course of weeks and months to get the new galley and the new toilet and the new water treatment and all those things set up to actually to work, to get the station ready for a larger crew.
Well, the thing I love about being a space station crewmember is that we get to do everything ourselves. We have to be an electrician, a plumber, a computer repair man. All these things we get to, we, we have the responsibility and the fun of putting everything together. Sometimes if you’re at home and you have to put together a piece of furniture or something, you get the pieces and the instructions and you go to it. This is what it is aboard the space station when we’re putting our pieces of our house together. Of course, we have teams on the ground that work so hard to make it just right. The procedures are written beautifully and it should be easy to put together. But, now and then in the space program, Murphy’s Law takes hold and you run across the unexpected. Then we need all of our training and all the help we can get from the ground and the communication skills to get through. That’s what I like about the, flying in space is, is working together to solve any problems that we come across and, and leaving it, at the end of each day, with something better aboard the space station.
If things go according to the plan, to the procedure, is it a matter of just plugging it in and calling down to the ground and saying it’s ready, or what kind of work do you have to do?
Some assembly is required. We have to make a lot of plumbing connections, because we are putting in an entire new water system. That water system, of course, is not just connected in and of itself but the water system is connected to the oxygen generation system and it’s also connected into a toilet, so we’re going to be master plumbers, I think, when we’re finished. A lot of work has been done, as much as we can ahead of time on the ground, but there’s just some things that can’t be done on the ground and that’s where we come in. The electricity -- some wires are there but we have to reconnect some cables, and then the computer system needs to be activated so that these things can be monitored and run from the ground. But until then, until we make those connections, they can't. So there’s a lot to do. The time’s going to go by quickly.
With a larger crew on board you’ll be able to do more science, and a good bit of science on the International Space Station is designed to find out how people can spend longer periods of time in that environment. Tell me about what life sciences experiments we’ll be seeing in Expedition 18.
One of the problems we have when we first get to space is how do we adapt to space. The Russians have a, a really ingenious system called Braslet, which means bracelet. It restricts the flow of blood in our legs just a little bit, not enough to hurt. During Expedition 18 we’re going to get out the ultrasound equipment, which we used a lot in Expedition 9 and, and other Expeditions, and we’re going to see how Braslet works, how that helps us to adapt to space. Hopefully, in the future we can make the transition from Earth gravity to zero gravity up in space more comfortable and easier for future crews.
And that’s, all that’s just on top of your just being there and keeping track of how you live during a, a six-month stretch on orbit.
Absolutely. We’ll have the ultrasound images to show how it all really works.
Life sciences experiments are just one kind of science that’s done on board the station. Tell me about the other kinds of research in other scientific disciplines that you guys are going to be involved in.
In addition to having the pleasure of working with the new laboratory modules brought up by Europe, which is the Columbus module, and the Japanese Kibo laboratory, we’re going to be bringing up on STS-126, the ULF-2 mission, two new facilities, two new racks that are going to really look into how fundamental physics works in space, including how combustion works and how fluids behave without gravity pulling on them all the time. It’s going to be an exciting time. We’ll have almost our full complement of, of scientific facilities and plenty of time to, to run them, to work them and work out any bugs so we can pave the way for a six-person crew.
Let’s talk a little bit about the station maintenance. Since late last year, the station program has been working on an issue with the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint out on the starboard end of the station’s truss. Describe what that joint is and why it’s so important that it work properly.
One of the revolutionary concepts that we’ve employed in the International Space Station that we didn’t have in previous space stations like Skylab or the Russian space station Mir was we have this huge big truss on the outside and it holds our, our solar arrays, and that solar power is what the American side brings to the international partnership. We know how to make these huge solar arrays that are so lightweight and can provide so much power, but one of our tricks is to be able to always point towards the sun. On the end of our big truss we have our solar arrays and they have to be able to rotate. And that’s what that means when we talk about the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint -- sometimes we call it SARJ -- and the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint really helps us point towards the sun. Well, it turns out that one of them, on the starboard, right-hand, side, isn’t working so well -- it seems to be grinding a little bit. So we’ve used some spacewalks on, on previous missions to take a look what, what could have been wrong. We think we have a, a few ways to fix it and so the ULF-2 crew, STS-126, they’re going to start with a few EVAs to help mitigate the problem. They’re also going to start to lubricate the joint so it doesn’t grind so much. On Expedition 18 we are ready to go outside and help with any of those things as we need to. The port SARJ is working fine right now but we think it may be a good idea, to prevent any problems in the future, to put some lubrication, some grease, if you will, on that rotary joint also. So there’s going to be plenty of work, plenty of EVAs for the STS-126 crew and our crew to do to make sure that we can be ready for the next mission, 15A, STS-119, so they can in, install the last part on the, on the right-hand side, the last big solar array system that we have.
That’s the S6 Truss with another big set of solar arrays as you say, that’s due to come up near the end of Expedition 18. Is the delivery of that in some way contingent on getting the SARJ back to operating properly?
We’re studying that right now. We, we think that we can still send up the 15A, the STS-119 mission, to bring up the new solar arrays without having the SARJ completely fixed. However, we’re going to work very hard to make sure that we are ready for that, for that solar array to come up and fix the SARJ if it’s humanly possible.
So at this point, as you mentioned, there’ve been a number of spacewalks, up to and including the most recent shuttle mission earlier this year, where they’ve been out and taken a look inside that joint. At this point you’re, you’re preparing for, I guess, an as-yet-unspecified spacewalk that the station crew may do as well?
On Expedition 18 we’re not planning on going outside but our spacewalking training team and the operators have really spent a lot of extra time to make sure that we are ready to go out the door if needed. The Solar Alpha Rotary Joint problem is something that we didn’t expect to have and we’re all just learning together on how we can fix it. So our crew is standing by to be able to help if necessary and if we’re not doing it ourselves we’re able to be there with our experience base to help the crews that are outside fixing it, working together. That’s, that’s NASA teamwork for you.
There are plans for a Russian spacewalk on your flight. What’s the plan for what will be done during that EVA?
As a professional astronaut I’ve been very privileged to have four spacewalks in the Russian Orlan suit. It’s a, a suit that’s very capable, it’s very well constructed and it usually has very few problems with it. It’s of slightly higher pressure and it’s a little less mobile than the American spacesuit but it certainly gets the job done and it’s been very reliable and helpful for us on board. On our Expedition 18 we’re planning for Yury and myself to go outside but we’ll be going outside of the Pirs docking compartment and stepping outside in our Orlan spacesuits to add and to take away some scientific experiments that are outside the service module, outside the Zvezda module. So it’s going to be familiar territory for me, having done it before, and it’s going to be fun for Yury as he hasn’t done a spacewalk yet. So together we’ll be able to get the new scientific experiments outside. We’re going to expose them to space and bring back some of the exposed facilities that we already had outside. We’ll bring ’em back inside.
That’ll be a nice perspective for you, too, from near the aft of your ship to look forward and be able to see from all the way from one side to the other.
It’s a huge space station that we’ve built and I know a lot of people are terribly proud of it. I’m certainly one of them. It’s going to be just amazing, awe-inspiring and breathtaking to, to see our space, space station from such a view.
We’ve referred to the second shuttle flight that’s going to come up during Expedition 18. Tell me about the main goals of the joint mission with STS-119.
Well, we’ll be very excited to see that STS-119 in our windows as they come up and dock because they’re going to be bringing up a new truss, a new element for our space station that can give us more solar power. We’re going to take our robot arms and grab it and put it onto the outside of our space station, unfurl the solar wings as we’ve done before, and that hasn’t always gone smoothly, we think we have some ways to trick it to be completely problem-free but we’re, we’re ready for any contingency. And that crew, led by [Lee] Bru Archambault, is ready to give us more power, and after they leave, after the completion of 15A, we’ll have a new crewmember on board, Koichi Wakata, the first long-duration Japanese crewmember in history, and this is really exciting. We’re fully realizing ourselves as the International Space Station. With Koichi’s help we’ll be able to get a lot of work done and then pretty soon afterwards myself and Yury will bid good-bye, a do svidanya, and leave on our, on our Soyuz spacecraft, leaving Koichi up there along with Mike Barratt and Gennady Padalka, my former commander in charge of the space station getting ready for a six-person crew.
You sort of have an end-of-mission exam with your former boss to see how you’ve done while you were in charge?
Well, I was very fortunate to have served with Gennady Padalka on my first mission. He was an excellent commander. He taught me how to lead, he taught me how to run the space station, he taught me how to enjoy it, too. My desire as a commander is to share that way of thinking, that way of teaching with crewmembers that I’ll be flying with this time, with Greg Chamitoff and, and Sandy Magnus and, and Koichi Wakata. It’s going to be really interesting. And of course Yury Lonchakov and I will be together throughout this whole six months and we’ll be counting on his great expertise, not just in the Russian segment and the Russian modules, but also in the Soyuz.
The conclusion of your mission’s going to get a little more attention than might otherwise, since the last couple of station crews have had rougher than usual landings in their Soyuz spacecrafts. What’s been learned about what may be the cause of those ballistic landings?
The tricks with capsule-based spacecraft -- the Soyuz or Apollo that went to the moon, or our new NASA spacecraft, the crew exploration vehicle, the Constellation [project], that we’re working on -- is that you have to separate the capsule from the rest of the spacecraft that was with you in space. The last two Soyuzes, we believe, had problems separating the two parts that we don’t need from the return module, the capsule in which we land. We’ve, we think we’ve identified the problem. But our spacecraft, it’s still on the ground, they’ve tested it very extensively, and we think that whatever the problem is we won’t see it on, on our spacecraft. So I have a lot of faith in our Russian teammates, a lot of faith in the Russian engineers who’ve been working with this wonderful design for a long time and I think that, that, that any problems that we had in the past are definitely not going to be repeated on our mission.
So, bottom line, you’re confident that the Soyuz is going to carry you to a safe landing at the end of your flight?
I love the Soyuz and I have complete faith and trust in our Russian partners. They’ve been flying this space vehicle for a long time, they understand it very well, and I trust my life to their judgment and to the hard work that their team puts together to launch and land Soyuz spacecraft.
The nations that are building and operating this station, of course, have exploration plans that go beyond this particular vehicle. Mike, what’s your philosophy about the future of human exploration of space and the role that this space station will play in enabling that future?
I first got here in 1996 and we didn’t have our space station in orbit yet. At that time we had very little experience for flying long-duration missions, for a long time up in space. With the International Space Station now we understand a lot better what it takes to keep our oxygen systems running. We have to make things that don’t fail, and if they do fail people need to be able to fix them. All these lessons that we’re learning here in low Earth orbit, in our own neighborhood, are really going to apply and really help us when we go to the moon and have our moon bases and on to Mars. Mars, the nearest depot for fixing anything, is going to be at least six months away and more like a year, year and a half, before anything gets up there. So all the lessons that we’re learning really close on the board the space station is really, they’re paving the way for our future in space, and I’m really excited to be part of that. Those are the things that I wake up in the morning aboard space station wondering what are we going to learn today so that we can set the pace -- we can build the road to the future.