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: Frank De Winne
A: Well, I was always very interested in combining operational tasks and engineering tasks. That’s why I became an engineer but also a pilot and a test pilot. And when I was still in school learning for engineering but also already in the military as a pilot, I saw for the first time the space shuttle fly to space, and then is when it really said, one day I also want to do that, and that’s where the dream started.
Do you have a good sense of what was it about having seen the shuttle fly that got you interested in that, as opposed to, to what you were in the process of studying at the time?
Well, I think it was just a natural step into that direction. If you were interested in engineering, of course, the top of engineering, still today I think is in large-scale, somewhere in space; it’s, the frontier, it’s where we do new things, it’s where we discover new things, and also in flying, you can only fly so high as going to space, so it was a little bit the, the sum of everything that I wanted to do so I was very much looking forward to trying to go there.
Help us understand how you got there. Tell me about your, your educational and professional career that led you to become an astronaut.
Well, I studied first of all as an engineer in the Royal Military Academy in Belgium where I got a master’s degree, and then I became a pilot, a military pilot after that. I went on to becoming a test pilot like many of my colleagues—astronauts are as well—and from there in ’92 ESA [European Space Agency] did a selection for astronaut candidates and I just applied to the, selection and from there the process started rolling.
The job of astronaut, like the job of pilot and test pilot, is a job that has its dangers, in just the course of, of doing the job. Tell me, Frank, what is it that you feel that we are getting as a result of flying people to space that makes the risk you take worth taking?
I think the, the results of what we are finding in space are not known today. That is the whole idea about exploration—you don’t know what you are going to find, you don’t know what it is going to bring. But, however, if you look to the past—and that’s also important to know your history—if you look to the past what we see is whenever people have explored, whenever have, they have gone beyond the current frontiers, it has always brought great advancements to humanity. And where we are today, you can see me here sitting, we can take the video, we can watch on television today because people one day have explored and have gone beyond certain frontiers, and I’m sure if we continue to do that we will find things that will shape the, the world of tomorrow, and I’m happy to be part of that.
You are going to be commander and a flight engineer on this upcoming mission to the International Space Station. Frank, would you summarize the goals of the flight and what your main responsibilities are going to be?
Well, the main goals of the flight is to augment the International Space Station from a three crew person operations to six crew on board of the International Space Station. It’s a big challenge on, on a number of occasions; first of all, the planning issues, all the upload mass issues, learning to live and how to work with six persons on board this International Space Station, this is going to be the biggest challenge in our mission. Of course, we also have other goals. We will continue to build the space station with, a new external platform for the Japanese segment, new cargo vehicles that will fly for the first time, a new part on the Russian segment that will be, installed on the space station, and of course, we will also do with those six people on board a very comprehensive utilization program to the benefit of the scientists of all the international partners.
For you it’s going to be your first long-duration spaceflight. What are you looking forward to about getting to spend six months off of the planet?
Well, I’m, of course, looking forward to work with my colleagues in space for such a long period, to enjoy weightlessness for such a long period, to be able to look at our beautiful planet, but especially to be able to fulfill the goals and the objectives of our missions, because we have to understand that, many people here on the ground are working and are dependent also on our work, to be successful for this mission, so working with the team and being able to accomplish all our goals is really what I’m looking forward to most.
When you arrive at the station along with Roman [Romanenko] and Bob [Thirsk], you will join Gennady Padalka and Mike Barratt and Koichi Wakata and that is going to mark an historic moment, the expansion to six-person crew operations for the International Space Station. Are you excited about us finally reaching this milestone and expanding the crew?
I’m very excited about finally getting to six-person crew on board the International Space Station. It has been a goal as from the beginning, for a long time, and finally we’re getting there; it’s also remarkable that the first time that we will have six-person crew on board we will have people from all the participating nations and agencies on board the ISS. We will have Russian and U.S. crew members, but also Japanese, European and Canadian crew members, all together in one single crew, and this is really what the intent is of the International Space Station is an international endeavor for our future.
From the perspective of day to day operations on board the station, do you imagine that having six people on board is going to make for some new issues for folks to work through, over, well, communications between everybody on [board] and all the different control centers on the ground, for example, or, or the schedules for six people on board. What kind of work has gone into trying to figure out how that’s going to go?
Well, we will face, a large number of challenges, learning how to work and operate with six people on board. One of the challenges, for example, is how to exercise during the day with six people on a permanent basis, inside the ISS, or how to use to the best of our abilities the air to space communications links that we have on board the space station so that we are not continuously talking on the loops and that everybody still get the messages, across. All these challenges are, are out there; we still don’t understand them fully, a lot of things we will learn while we are going into this six-person crew operations, and this is one of the objectives of our flight is to learn how we can better use the space station, how we can better operate the space station, with the six-person crew. Of course, a lot of people have looked on to it on the ground, we are pretty sure that we can do everything. We are pretty sure that we have a good system out there, but still we will have a lot of lessons learned after this first flight.
You have a good perspective on this from your first trip to the International Space Station, for the ten days or so that you were there, there were five people on board. How did…
[De Winne gestures to indicate there were six people on board at that time]
Six people on board? I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten somebody, but I, you’re right, there were six people on board for a week or ten days. How was it like, what was it like to, to have that many people there?
Of course when we flew for the first time to the International Space Station, we were also six people on board, but the space station was a lot smaller. On the other hand, as well, we were only there for about eight days so it was a little bit cramped, we had to sleep in small places; it was a little bit like camping and, of course, for eight days on board the ISS you can for sure do that, and people can get a little bit out of each other’s way. It’s a total different game when you are up there for six months with six persons where you also need to exercise permanently with the six people. For example, during my first flight we didn’t have to exercise because it was a short-duration mission, so a lot of the challenges that we will see come from the fact that we have to live and work for a long time with six persons on board of the International Space Station. It’s going to be very exciting for us.
While you’re just starting to learn that, you’re going to get a visit from a space shuttle that’s going to bring another seven people to add to the six that you’ve already got there. Tell, talk about the goals of that first joint shuttle mission, assembly mission 2J/A.
The goals of the first assembly mission that will arrive during our expedition, 2J/A, is to install another external platform to the Japanese segment, of the International Space Station. This external platform will be used, for example, to do science outside of the International Space Station, so it’s a very exciting mission. Of course, this shuttle will also bring to us a new crew member, Tim Kopra, which will become part of the Expedition 20 crew and it will mark the end of Koichi Wakata, who will then go down on the space shuttle 2J/A back, to the Earth. So we have a crew exchange which is always very exciting, of course, for the crew because we’ve got some new dynamics, you have some new people you can talk to, on the crew, and also living and working then with 13 people on board of the space station will be interesting because it will be the first time that there will be 13 people on board of the ISS as well.
You mentioned the, the new hardware that’s coming, the new Exposed Facility for the Japanese laboratory complex. Talk a little bit about how that is expanding the science that’s going to be done on board the station, how, how science outside will be conducted by crew members who are inside.
With the expansion of the Japanese experimental module, with also the external platform, we can indeed do science outside of the space station. It’s very important to be able to do that and, in the Japanese segment, we even have a robot arm with which we can operate these scientific experiments outside. We also have a small airlock so we can bring these experiments back into the Japanese module, so we can exchange, actually, on a very easy basis, experiments outside and inside in the International Space Station, and it’s opening up a total new world for scientists which can now also start using the ISS, for example, astronomy.
There is a lot of research that, science research that is going to be done on the station and a great deal of it is research into how people can live and work safely in that environment. Tell me about the kinds of experiments that you’ll be doing and that you’ll be a subject of during your time on board the station.
One of the important aspects of the science done in the International Space Station is medical science and science on ourselves as astronauts as subjects, in the intent to fly for longer times and also to fly further away from our Earth, to continue solar space exploration. And of course, we also going to participate in some of these experiments, for example, look how we can better exercise and better maintain our health of astronauts during long-term, long-duration spaceflight. We’re also going to look to radiation effects on crew members, for example, which will be absolutely crucial if you want to fly for longer durations, two or three years, for example, in the future for a long-term mission to Mars.
There’ll be science research conducted in a lot of other disciplines during the time that you’re in space, in the Columbus module and elsewhere on board the station. Tell me about some of those other kinds of experiments that you’ll be working with.
In some of our scientific modules that we have on board of the International Space Station, in our labs like the Columbus lab or like the Kibo lab, we have, a lot of capabilities to do science, both in fluid science, material science, biology, and we going to have a full complement of international scientific experiments in all of these disciplines that should help us better understand how certain things work here on Earth but that can also help us in exploring further the solar system.
Along with being science experiment operators, you and your crewmates’ll also be taking care of the station and, in your case, you’ve got a little rearrangement of modules that’s coming up. Tell me why it is that you folks are going to move pressured mating adapter #3 from one of its ports on Node 1 to another, and what is it going to take for you to have to, to accomplish that?
In the future we’re going to launch a new module, the Node 3, which is going to become the living module of the American segment, the American part of the, International Space Station, and in order to prepare the Node 1 to be able to accept this new module, Node 3, we need to do a lot of outfitting inside the module, and in order to be able to do that we need to replace this pressurized mating adapter from one of the ports of the Node 1 to another port, and we’re going to do that using robotic operations, also using the ground. So the ground controllers are actually going to do part of the task together with the crew, and this is also a first for our increment.
Can you tell me a little bit about how that is accomplished and that cooperation between the crew and the ground?
The way this operation of PMA-3 relocation is going to work is that the crew is going to be primarily responsible for operating the mechanisms on the Node 1 to release the PMA-3 on the Node 1, and then for separating the PMA-3 from the Node 1. Then the whole operations of relocating the PMA-3 close to the other docking port of the Node 1 is going to be done by the ground, and then the crew is going to step in again to do the final part of the berthing and the docking of PMA-3 to the other port of the Node 1.
Sounds like that’ll be, that’ll be interesting to watch happen.
It’s interesting to watch; it’s interesting also from a crew perspective to see how we will do the coordination, the close coordination, with the ground for this task, which is not very complex but it’s interesting to start with this easy task to see how ground and crew, indeed, can interact also in the robotics world.
During the summertime you and your crewmates are scheduled to see another space shuttle visit the International Space Station. Tell me about what the goals are for the joint operations with assembly mission 17A and what new equipment’s going to be delivered to the station on that flight.
The 17A mission is essentially a logistics flight, so it’s going to give us all the equipment and all the resources and consumables we need to be able to sustain six-person crew, because the goal of our mission is, indeed, to start with six-persons crew on board the International Space Station but then we also need to be able to sustain it, and this is, basically the main objective of 17A. In addition we bring new sleeping crew quarters, because there are not enough crew quarters now on board of the ISS for six-person crew; they bring a new crew quarter for us. They also bring new exercise equipment which is absolutely necessary for the health of the astronauts that are living for a long term on board the International Space Station. 17A will also bring Nicole Stott to the International Space Station, relieving Tim Kopra who will return to Earth, and Nicole will be then our crewmate till the end of our increment. She will be returning later on on ULF-3 but she will also be instrumental in the track-and-capture of the HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle] module that will come later during our increment.
Before we get away from the question of, I want to talk about HTV, but you mentioned that there’s a new crew quarters coming on 17A in order for there to be a room for everybody. What do you do before that—where, where, where does everybody get stowed?
Before we have the new crew quarter that’s coming up with 17A, we will have a temporary crew quarter installed in the Japanese Experimental Module, and it’s a little bit like camping that we will do out there, and one of my crewmates, Bob Thirsk, has kindly offered to, to sleep in that temporary crew, crew quarters that we will install for him in the JEM module.
You bring up the, the arrival of yet another piece of hardware. It’s only about a month or so after Nicole Stott is due to arrive that the station is due to receive the H-II Transfer Vehicle from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Talk about this first of its kind Japanese spacecraft and what it will add to the station.
This first of its kind Japanese spacecraft is really a remarkable vehicle. It will bring a lot of logistics, goods, to the International Space Station, not only internal cargo but also external cargo, and this is, a unique capability that this vehicle brings to the international cooperation of the ISS. Another unique future of this, feature of this vehicle is that it does not dock to the International Space Station, but it will fly in the close vicinity of the International Space Station and then we will grab it with the SSRMS [space station remote manipulator system], the Canadian robot arm, of the ISS, and later on we will berth it to the ISS. It’s a very complex operation and we have had a lot of training to be, to prepare for this, operation on orbit.
Give me a sense of what’s going to be required to, to grapple that HTV and to, to put it in place on the Node 2.
First of all, in order to be able to do this, there has to be a lot of coordination between the ground, because there are different con, control centers involved—the JAXA control center, the Houston control center, also we need Moscow because we will be flying on the Russian thrusters to be able to do this; we’re using the Canadian robot arm so they are doing a lot of analysis, and the crew that will do it will be a U.S. and a Belgian ESA crew member, so you see also there we have the whole international flavor of these, operations. The operations itself will involve, first of all, monitoring the HTV coming close to the station and being in a good configuration and stable flying close to the ISS, and after that we will command the vehicle into free drift so it will be floating gently next to the space station, and then Nicole will have 99 seconds to go out there with the robot arm and to grapple the vehicle and to make it secure and part of the International Space Station. So I think we will have a lot of Japanese but also international partner eyes watching on the crew while we are doing this operations for the first time on orbit.
Why 99 seconds? Why the time limit?
The time limit is there because the HTV, during the time that we are trying to grapple it, is in free drift. Free drift means that the engines will not be working on the vehicle, so it’s not stabilized in space. This is necessary because, of course, at the time that we grapple it we don’t want one of the engines to fire so that it would just fly out of our grapple envelope. But that also means that the vehicle is not controlled, and so the longer it’s not controlled the more it will develop flying away from the space station, and that’s why we have a limited time to try to grab this vehicle.
It sounds similar to what they did way back on the first station assembly mission when they grabbed Zarya out of the sky.
It’s a little bit similar to what they did on the first missions. Also, the shuttle missions, we have also done this with other satellites: the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, we will also grapple out of the sky. This is a first because we are doing it from the International Space Station, which is, of course, a little bit bigger than the shuttle and it’s not so easy to maneuver to the shuttle, so there are other constraints that come into place.
In terms of the quantity of materials that will be delivered, how does the HTV compare to Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle and the Progress, the Russian vehicle?
The HTV in terms of quantity is somewhere between the Russian Progress vehicles and the European ATV that is also supplying goods to the International Space Station. But the unique feature of the HTV is that it can deliver external cargo to the International Space Station, and actually, during this first flight the HTV will deliver two experiments that we will then transfer from the HTV on the outside towards the external platform on the Japanese segment.
Lots of new things are happening; another new thing is going to happen in October with the arrival of a third Soyuz spacecraft at the station. Talk about what’s going to be in store as you and your crewmates welcome Jeff Williams and Max Suraev on board as Gennady and Mike Barratt get ready to go home.
Well, of course it’s going to be again interesting that we are exchanging crew members and there is a whole new dynamic that’s just going to get installed with the three new persons arriving. We’re going to have a lot of things to talk about and hopefully we’re going to have a lot of fun up there as well, but one of the important things, of course, with this handover is as well that for the first time, you will see an, commander of the International Space Station from the international partners. This is the first for Europe that there will be an ESA astronaut commanding the International Space Station, and that’s of course very important for ESA, our European agency, which has invested a lot in the International Space Station and which now also in the operational work has become full part of the ISS.
And just so that this doesn’t get lost, that means you are going to be the commander of the International Space Station, not just some ESA astronaut. What’s it going to be like to shift from being flight engineer to commander?
I think that in the day to day operations, for me, not a lot is going to change, from being a flight engineer to being a commander. The biggest responsibilities you have as a commander is, first of all, building the crew here already on the ground, and then, of course, also on orbit making sure that you have a good spirit within the team and that towards the ground you can perform the objectives to the best of your abilities on orbit. The work itself, I will be working with six people which are, five people which are very highly-trained, which know what they need to do, which know their tasks extremely well, so my biggest job is basically to keep the good spirit, to keep a good spirit between the in-flight team, the on-orbit team in the ISS, and the ground team, and to make sure that we can accomplish all the ex, objectives that have been set out for us.
In your career you’ve been a commander of, of large operations; you looking forward to this command?
Absolutely, I’m very much looking forward to being the commander of the International Space Station. I like to do technical work, I like to do operational work, but I also like to work with people, and this as being a commander allows me to work with my crew, to work with all the ground teams to make sure that we can accomplish the mission and it’s giving me a lot of satisfaction.
And during that, that period in the last six weeks or so of your time on orbit, when you’ll be known as Expedition 21, you’ll also be getting another visit from a space shuttle. Talk about the, the goals of the operations with that, that logistics flight that’s going to visit you.
The ULF-3 is another logistics flight that is absolutely necessary for us, again, to be able to sustain six-persons operations on board of the ISS. It is also the flight which marks the return of Nicole Stott; she will come back on the ULF-3, and for the rest, of course, we are looking forward to all the goodies that we will receive as well during this, logistics mission.
You mentioned that Nicole is now scheduled to go home on this shuttle flight. That was a change that was made in the lineup early in the year, in 2009. Does having her go home on the shuttle and Bob Thirsk coming home on the Soyuz, does that present any, any real difficulties for, for you folks?
The change in the, the crew change-out from Nicole to, to Bob coming home on the shuttle, on the Soyuz, was not really a problem for us as a crew because, I trained with Nicole before, being coming home with us, and with Roman Romanenko as the commander of the, the Soyuz, of our Soyuz vehicle, as well as with Bob because also in emergency situations it was planned that Nicole would have to come down, with us, so it’s only a small change. Also, ULF-3 and the Soyuz return are very close to each other so, from a crew perspective, this was not a very big change for us.
Because on your, your first trip to space was in a Soyuz vehicle; you looking forward to the, the excitement of getting to land in a Soyuz once again?
I’m very much looking forward to, to fly again in, in the Soyuz. The Soyuz is a very small but very fun vehicle to fly in. It’s also a very safe vehicle to fly in, and also as my role as a flight engineer #1 in the Soyuz, I also feel that I’m part of operating the vehicle which is, for me, as a pilot and as a test pilot, in an important factor of my flight.
You’re going to be part of the major milestone for human space exploration on this mission, getting the planet’s space station operating with a larger crew. Frank, tell me how do you see human exploration of space proceeding in the years to come, and how is the International Space Station playing a role in that future?
I think that in the years to come we will certainly in an international cooperation of some kind, trying to leave low Earth orbit and go further away from our planet, be it to the moon, be it to Mars; moon probably being the first step and then, going on to Mars. I’m pretty sure that this will happen in an international cooperation with partners that maybe today we don’t know yet—maybe India, maybe China might join later, maybe it will be the same partners as, as today. But one thing is sure: we will need to learn how to work together in space, how to live together in space, with a larger number of people further away from our planet. And I think what we are now showing with the International Space Station with six people on board from five different partner agencies, with all these agencies involved in the planning process, in the execution of the mission, is going to be a tremendous learning lesson for us and is going to be a great step, for future exploration of humankind.