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Preflight Interview: Robert Thirsk
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Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, Expedition 20/21 flight engineer, participates in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Of all the careers in all the world that somebody could aspire to, you have ended up as a professional space traveler, so Bob, tell me what it was that motivated you or inspired you to become an astronaut?

A: Well, without a doubt I was inspired by the early American space program, in particular the American Apollo missions. I was in awe of the missions as well as the astronauts. In particular I can remember Apollo missions 8, 11 and 13. I would go to the school library and I’d flip through those National Geographic [magazines], through the Life magazines, and get up early in the morning to watch the launches on TV. A Canadian typically knows an awful lot about the hockey teams and the hockey players, but I was unusual in that I knew just as much about the early astronauts and cosmonauts. Of course, I was also inspired by my parents as well. They inspired me to get a good education and to attempt to do difficult things, so the early American space program and also my parents were inspirations for the way that my education path and career went.

Well, I want to get you to take us on that path with you. Let’s start with your childhood and growing up in western Canada. Tell me about the places that you lived and what it was like in those times.

Well, I grew up in western Canada. I was born in Vancouver and lived in several towns and cities from British Columbia to Manitoba. Western Canada is a wonderful place. It’s a nice blend of cosmopolitan cities and also of wide open spaces, so cities like Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg play significant roles on the world’s stage, and yet we have this awesome landscape that includes oceans, temporal rain forests, mountains and prairies.

You get a sense of how that place and those people there contributed to making you the person that you are?

You know, in western Canada the people still have this spirit of exploration, the pioneering spirit, the “can do” attitude. You know, if someone comes up to me or another Western Canadian and says that something can’t be done, we’re pretty skeptical of that. We think things can be done. And I suppose the reason for that is there’s still a strong sense of community. We get things done not as individuals, we get things done because we come together as a group of people, as a community center or as a sports team or as a small town and it’s a wonderful atmosphere that exists.

Help fill in some of the blanks for us. You’re growing up across western Canada; give me the highlights into your education and your professional career that led you to becoming an astronaut.

I attended grade school in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba. I did my first university degree at the University of Calgary in mechanical engineering. When I was in my third or fourth year of engineering one of my professors took me aside and he noticed that I had this dream of doing something different, something challenging in my life, so he gave me some good advice to consider further engineering degrees and even a medical degree. That’s what I did. I went, then, and pursued a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology near Boston, and then a medical degree at McGill University in Montreal, and then several years after that I went and got an MBA, or a management degree, at the MIT Sloan School of Management. I did work as a medical doctor for several years prior to becoming a Canadian astronaut and even after I became an astronaut, I dabbled or worked part time in clinical medicine.

So how does an engineer/doctor/MBA end up becoming an astronaut?

Well, this is going to sound funny but I simply answered an ad in the newspaper. Canada, during the first recruitment of astronauts, placed an ad in all the major newspapers across Canada saying that they were now starting an astronaut program, they were looking for people with these kind of qualifications, and I looked at the qualifications that they were looking for. I realized that I had a lot of that, and these dreams that I had of being an astronaut when I followed the careers of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong came flooding back to me. So my application was in the next day. Of course, it was a long period of time, a lot of cuts or a lot of selection steps, before I was finally accepted, but I was very honored and very fortunate to be part of Canada’s first astronaut corps.

You’ve ended up now in a career as a space flyer that we know has its risks, part of the job. But Bob, what is it that you feel we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking those risks?

Every astronaut needs to weigh in their mind whether or not the benefits of exploring space or developing space, representing one’s country, outweighs the small risk of injury or death during a spaceflight, and in my mind, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. However, I’m not one to take foolish steps; I analyze things very carefully. The benefits to me include economic benefits. In Canada’s case, for example, the amount of revenue that our space companies receive compared to the small taxpayer investment is huge, and most of our revenues come from the export market so that’s very good. Also there’s a lot of technological spinoffs. A classic example is a device called neuroArm which is a robot at the University of Calgary Foothills Hospital which performs neurosurgery, brain surgery, using the control systems and algorithms that are used in Canadarm2; a classic example of how space technology benefits people on Earth. Next, scientific experimentation: a lot of the issues that happen to astronaut physiology in space have analogies or have similarities to illnesses on Earth. A classic example would be osteoporosis and bone mineral loss in astronauts. So a lot of the research that we’re doing on the ground has benefits to astronauts in space and a lot of the research that we’re doing in space has benefits to post-menopausal women on the ground. Another thing would be patriotism. You know, every time I see the Canadarm on the space shuttle or the Canadarm2 or Dextre on board the space station perform its function as it was scripted to do, in this harsh environment of space, I feel some national pride; it’s great. Another reason is inspiration to the public as well. You know, space is not on the top of the priority list for most Canadians. You know, we have other social issues that are more important, the health care crisis, the national debt, the current recession. But you know, by being able to venture out into space, by being able to contribute to an international partnership, we’ve demonstrated to the world, we’ve demonstrated to other Canadians, that we can take on tough problems and solve them, and it gives us the resolve to address these things such as the health care crisis that we’re currently having in Canada. And then I guess, lastly, education. You know, if there’s a couple of topics that I observe capture the interest of young students, it’s dinosaurs and it’s space. And, you know, once you capture the attention of young children, it’s amazing how much science and technology and math you can teach them. I was one of those children. You know, when I was in grade school I was captivated by the early American and Russian space programs, and it definitely played a role in the way that my education path went and my enthusiasm for science and math. The benefits greatly outweigh the small risk.

You are going to be a Flight Engineer on Expedition 20 and 21 to the International Space Station. Bob, summarize the goals of your flight and what your main responsibilities are going to be on orbit.

There’s several goals but I guess maybe the two most important ones are, first of all, to establish the ISS as a station that’s capable of supporting six crew members, and then also to help transition the space station program from a phase where, that has been dominated by assembly, to one of utilization to help the station fulfill its new responsibility as a world-class facility for doing research and development. With few exceptions, my responsibilities will be similar to that of the other five crewmates and that will include, of course, housekeeping and maintenance, operation and troubleshooting of the station systems and payloads. But in particular, I’ll be a robotic specialist on board Expedition 20 and 21, and I’ll also be the caretaker for the Japanese element, the Japanese laboratory.

You’re going to living in there for the first part of the flight, is that right?

Yes, until shuttle assembly mission 17A arrives I’ll be living in an empty rack space in the, the Japanese module. After 17A my bedroom, or my crew quarter, will arrive and I’ll have a little bit less rustic accommodations.

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Astronaut Robert Thirsk (left), Expedition 20/21 flight engineer representing the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), participates in a training session in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Maybe they can nickname it for you. That would be good.

Something Japanese.

This would be your first long-duration trip to space. What are you looking forward to about getting to spend six months off of the planet?

You know, this is going to sound like motherhood but just to contribute to achieving the goals and objectives of the expedition with my team on the ground and my team on orbit. You know, there’s really actually no greater thrill for an astronaut to come home from a mission knowing that we fulfilled all of our responsibilities adequately, working as a team, and bringing home all of the expected results. You know, but I guess also my previous shuttle flight, we flew in an orbit that was inclined 39° to the equator. The border between Canada and the United States is at 49°, so I didn’t fly over Canada on my first flight. This next flight I’ll be flying in an orbit that’s inclined 52° to the equator so I will be able to see many parts of Canada, and I’m looking forward to seeing the change of the seasons from May through to November as I overfly this beautiful country.

Not only is it the first long-duration flight for you but it is the first long-duration flight for any Canadian astronaut. Talk about the significance of your flight for Canada’s space exploration effort.

In 25 years of spaceflight in Canada, we have flown eight astronauts on 13 different shuttle missions, and with each flight we’ve tried to enlarge our sphere of experience to take on new roles with greater responsibility and to take on new tasks like EVA skills or robotic tasks, to enlarge our, our experience. I view the first Canadian long-duration flight as just a progression in that step so that in the coming years Canada will be regarded as a credible partner to participate in other long-duration international spaceflights to the moon or to Mars. You know, being the first Canadian astronaut on a long-duration mission is an honor, but even more important than that is to do a good job and to pave the way for the future Canadian astronauts to participate on these even more exciting missions.

While as you’ve already alluded to, when you and Roman Romanenko and Frank De Winne arrive at the station and join Gennady Padalka, Mike Barratt and Koichi Wakata, that marks the expansion to a six-person crew operations on the International Space Station. Are you excited about achieving this milestone for expanding the size of the permanent crew?

Yes, of course I’m excited. You know, the International Space Station is a world-class facility for doing microgravity research and development. There’s a number of prerequisites, or a number of factors that need to be put in place before the station can fulfill this very worthwhile goal, one of which is to enlarge the crew to six people. So I’m excited about that. But you know, I’m also grateful or we feel indebted to all of the preceding shuttle assembly flights and to the previous station expedition crew members as well who have worked so hard over the last year to get the station ready for the six of us. It’s an honor to be part of the first six-person crew, but we feel very indebted to everyone who has worked so hard over the previous year to get the station ready for us.

It’s, in fact not just a, the milestone of expanding to six, it’s going to be historic in the sense that among the six of you, you’ll represent all of the partner agencies in this project.

You know, in my opinion, the best thing about the International Space Station program is that it’s international. We have got a collection of five groups of countries, all who are like-minded, who regard exploration and innovation as high national priorities. We’ve come together to do something that is not easy. Building a space station with as much capability as we currently have in the harsh working environment of space is something very difficult, so it makes me very proud to be with five other crewmates who represent all of the space station partners. It’s going to be a rare event when all five space agencies are represented but it’s quite an honor, and I admire all the countries that have participated.

As you think about day to day operations with that larger crew, is having six people up there at a time going to make for, for new issues to work through in terms of scheduling or communications or, or whatnot to, to have everything run smoothly?

Yes. Everyone knows what it’s like to host your in-laws or other family members and friends over to your home during the holiday season for several days. Everyone loses some personal space; there are some inconveniences; there’s line-ups at the phone; there’s line-ups at the computer; there’s line-ups at the bathroom; and even the preparation of, and the serving of, meals is something that needs to be tightly coordinated. We’re going to experience the same types of things on board the space station. In particular, we’ll have to be very conscious about scheduling each of the six crew members for exercise time. Meal preparation will be something that will have to be tightly coordinated. The use of the two space-to-ground communication channels will have to be carefully managed as well. And I think that the station program’s ability to up-mass cargo and to return samples to the Earth, as well as the operation of the enhanced life support system, is going to be at their limits, so we’re going to have to do everything we can to be cooperative and make sure that everything continues to flow smoothly in spite of the fact there’s now six of us.

Well, let’s talk about what’s going to happen when you arrive, ’cause there are a number of different activities and highlights along the way. Shortly after you arrive, the plan calls for a couple of spacewalks by Gennady Padalka and Mike Barratt. Tell me about what they’re going to do and what you folks who are staying inside are going to do to support that.

There is still some assembly work taking place on the space station, and a little bit later this year toward the end of the year, a new Russian module called MRM 2, or Mini Research Module 2, will arrive at the station. It’s going to dock at the zenith docking port on the service module, and that docking port currently is not ready to accept a new vehicle, so these two EVAs that Gennady and Mike perform will get that docking port ready as some of the accessory radar tracking devices as well.

Inside do you guys participate or just watch the cameras to see what they’re doing?

I think we’re just going to watch the cameras and wish them luck.

OK. It’s on the schedule very shortly after those spacewalks are completed that you’re all due to see the arrival of the first space shuttle assembly mission in the, after you become Expedition 20. Talk about the goals of that joint mission with the STS-127 crew and, and operations with 13 people on board the space station at one time.

When Mark Polansky and his Endeavour crew arrive on the station, things are going to be very busy. There’s currently five EVAs or spacewalks planned for that flight. One of the important tasks they’re going to do, for example, is to change out six of the batteries that are associated with the very first solar array. But perhaps the most important task that will get accomplished is the installation of the new Japanese exposure facility to the back end of the Japanese lab. The Canadarm will reach into the payload bay of the shuttle and then attach it to the port end of the Japanese lab. This is going to be a wonderful addition to the station. The Japanese have very ingeniously arranged that outside type of experiments will be placed here, experiments that need to look up to space for astronomical reasons or to look down to the, to the Earth. And then, of course, one of the crew members on board STS-127 is my Canadian astronaut colleague and friend, Julie Payette. This’ll be the first time that two Canadian astronauts have been on orbit. It’ll be very good to see Julie and her crewmates during the Endeavour mission.

When Julie leaves, she’s leaving one of her shuttle crewmates behind with you, too, correct?

Yes. Tim Kopra will be the sixth crew member for that period of time after her flight. There are going to be three crew members who rotate on the shuttle during our Expedition 20/21 timeframe. First of all Koichi Wakata, and then Tim Kopra, and later on Nicole Stott.

After that shuttle leaves, you folks on board are going to be in for a little rearrangement of station modules. Talk about the movement of PMA #3 from one port to another and why you’re doing that and what it takes to accomplish it?

The Canadarm2 will grapple the PMA-3, which is currently installed on the nadir point on Node 1, and move it over to the port docking port, and the reason for that is that later in the year, Node 3 with the cupola will arrive. So by moving the PMA-3 docking port to the port, we will re-pressurize and check out the PMA-3, and then add some of the hardware and reconfigure that port CBM [common berthing mechanism] so it will be ready to accept the Node 3 and the cupola late in the year. When that’s all done Canadarm2 will move the PMA-3 back down to its nadir location so that the Node 3 will later be able to dock there. What’s really interesting though is that for the first time ever, this operation, this robotic operation I just described, is going to be controlled entirely by the ground: flight controllers on the ground will operate the Canadarm[2]. It’s a relatively simple task but you can bet that the on-board crew members are going to be watching the monitors to make sure everything goes smoothly.

It’s not the first time the ground has commanded Canadarm2…

No, it’s not the first time but, it’s the first time where a relatively large motion of the arm has been made, especially when the arm is so close to station structure.

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Canadian Space Agency astronaut Robert Thirsk, Expedition 20/21 flight engineer, participates in a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

At some point after that, there’s another important piece of Canadian hardware that’s going to be involved: the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator is going to be put to use to do some work on the outside of the station. Describe what’s going to happen.

SPDM, also known as Dextre, is Canada’s most recent contribution to the space station robotics systems. It’s a two-armed robot that can do a lot more fine manipulations than the larger Canadarm2. There is an RPCM [remote power controller module] box, or a circuit box, on the station truss which has failed. Now that SPDM has been fully checked out and is now deemed operational, the first task for it, Dextre, will occur during our expedition: it will go up to the station truss work, remove this circuit box and replace it with a functional one. Now this is important because it illustrates or demonstrates to the world that robotics such as Dextre are actually a safety enhancement to the space station. A task such as doing an R&R, remove and replace, of an RPCM is a relatively simple EVA task, but if Dextre can perform some of these tasks that otherwise would be performed by spacewalking astronauts, it enhances the safety of the station program.

In this particular case then, I take it Dextre will be the hand on the end of Canadarm2?


Who’s going to be driving?

Again, we’re trying to turn over more and more robotic control to flight controllers on the ground. I have been trained for this RPCM R&R task and I can do it manually, but we’re going to try to see if the flight controllers can do this relatively sophisticated operation with Dextre. I’m confident that they can, but if they run into any problems I’ll be quick to up in there and provide the manual control that they might need.

Let’s talk a little bit about science research. Now, a great deal of the research that is done on the station is looking at how people can live and work safely in the environment of, of low Earth orbit for a long period of time. Tell me about some of the experiments that you’re going to be involved in during Expeditions 20 and 21 in, in looking at the, in han life sciences.

You know, if there’s going to be one thing that people remember from the Expedition 20/21 crew, and I think they’re going to think about the fact that we did an awful lot of science during our increment. With six people on board the station now, for increment 20 only, we have over one thousand crew hours of time available to devote to science. And if you include all the experiments from the various partners in the space station program, we have over 100 experiments that are going to get performed. This is unprecedented. But yes, we do use the space station to try to do research that will enable humans to survive and live and be productive in space for longer and longer periods of time. A good example would be an issue that we’re currently wrestling with called bone demineralization. Astronauts who are on long-duration missions lose calci from their, their bones. This loss of calci occurs at an alarming rate, one to two percent bone loss from the weight-bearing bones such as those in the lower vertebrae and in the hips and the pelvis and the shins and in the heel. And so over a six-month period of time, this could be between eight-to-12 percent loss of bone calci; this is not very good. We have in the past tried nutritional supplements to try to maintain the bone calci; this doesn’t work. We have a brand new exercise device on board the space station called the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device, which is principally designed to load these bones that I just mentioned to you; we’ll see if that works. But for the first time ever, during Expedition 20/21, we have a new experiment called bisphosphonates. Myself and some of my crewmates will be taking this medication which post-menopausal women commonly take to treat osteoporosis, and we’re hoping that this combination of nutrition, exercise and, and medication can minimize or at least, perhaps even stop the loss of bone calci. We need to do this before we send future astronauts further out into the solar system on longer duration flights.

I suspect—you tell me if I’m wrong—that as a medical doctor you’ve a particular interest in this field of research?

Yes. You know, I have a heart for exploration of the inner solar system; that’s something I’d like to see within my lifetime. But, you know, most of showstoppers that prevent us from doing so today are not just budgetary, they’re also medical. We need to address problems such as the bone demineralization problem, the muscle atrophy, the radiation exposure, the psychological affects of isolation and confinement, before we can confidently send these people off to the moon or to Mars.

There are going to be experiments, research in other areas of science at the, at the same time. Talk about a couple of the other different disciplines that are going to be getting some exploration during your time.

You know, in addition to preparing future astronauts to live for longer periods of time and to venture further out into the solar system, the space station is also a wonderful platform performing fundamental science. There’s a Japanese experiment called Marangoni, it uses a wonderful research facility called the Fluid Physics Exposure Facility in the Japanese lab to study fluid flow based on differences in surface tension. There’s a European experiment called SODI, Selectable Optical Diagnostics Instrent, which will try to determine coefficients for diffusion and thermal diffusion in a weightless environment. Of course there’s some clinical medicine experiments as well, looking at the cardiovascular system’s ability to maintain blood vole and blood pressure to the brain after astronauts return from space. We’re covering every single possible scientific discipline to do some good fundamental science and also to help future astronauts be able to venture out further into the solar system.

That’s a lot of things to train for and to be ready to work on, and then come summertime you’re expecting another visit from a space shuttle with another replacement crew member. Talk about the goals of the joint mission with STS-128.

The primary goal of STS-128, also known as assembly mission 17A, is to resupply the station. In its cargo bay it will contain the MPLM, the multipurpose logistics module, that will be crammed full of resupplies for the crew; food and clothing are really good examples. It will also bring up some research facilities to enhance the capability of the space station including the Fluids Integration Rack, the Material Science Research Rack. It will also bring up some components of the enhanced life support system, including a, a new and better treadmill called Treadmill T2, and the atmosphere, revitalization system that’s planned for Node 3 as well. The 17A crew are also going to perform a couple of EVAs as well, and one of their tasks will be to remove an empty ammonia tank assembly and replace it with a full one. It’s going to be another busy time.

That mission, of course, is the mission that, as you referred to earlier, will deliver Nicole Stott to join your crew. And within a few weeks, at least according to the current schedule, you’ve got more supplies arriving on a new cargo vehicle, the H-II Transfer Vehicle. Tell us about this first of its kind Japanese spacecraft and, and what it’s going to be able to add to station operations.

HTV stands for H-II Transfer Vehicle. This is a large cargo vehicle that will complement the cargo capabilities already in the station program, including the shuttle, the Progress vehicle and the European ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] vehicle. It will launch from southern Japan on an H-II rocket and then rendezvous with the station using a differential GPS navigation system, and then approach the station, using a rendezvous laser radar. It doesn’t dock itself to the station; instead what it’ll do, it’ll come up and approach within ten meters below the Japanese laboratory and station keep there. And then Nicole Stott and Frank De Winne will use the Canadarm2 to reach down below and capture the HTV. Now that sounds easy, but it’s not. It’s a very difficult task because just before grasping this free flyer, we turn off the attitude thrusters on the space station and we send the HTV vehicle to free drift. So it starts to slowly tble, so it’s sort of a little bit like lassoing a, a bronco, so this is a task that I’ll actually be assisting Nicole and, and Frank with, but it’s going to take quite a bit of concentration from all of us on orbit and the, the people on the ground. I’ll then have the opportunity to take over controls of the Canadarm2 and then berth HTV to the nadir docking port of the Node 2 module.

If letting it go into free drift causes it to tble, then why do that? Why not let the, let it maintain its attitude so it’d easier to grasp?

Oh, good question. When the arm grabs a free flyer you want to make sure that the arm doesn’t get too strained. If the space station on one end of the arm is in a certain attitude control which doesn’t exactly mesh with the attitude control reference on the target vehicle, there could be some strains that are induced in the arm that are beyond the design limits. So it’s better to let the station end of the arm relax somewhat and let the free, the other end of the arm relax somewhat as well when that grapple is made.

So you don’t have the two forces fighting each other and tearing the arm apart?


There is another first of its kind operation for the International Space Station that’s slated, after HTV’s arrival, and that’s the arrival of a third Soyuz to be at the station simultaneously. Talk about what’s in store when Jeff Williams and Max Suraev arrive and Gennady Padalka and Mike Barratt get set to go home.

We’re going to welcome the arrival of Jeff and Max but it’s, we’re going to be a little bit sad to see Gennady and Mike depart. At the moment of the undocking of the Soyuz vehicle with Gennady and Mike we transition to Expedition 21, and Expedition 21 will last about a month and a half and be characterized by a number of activities. We’re going to be getting the station ready to accept the new Russian vehicle called MRM 2. We’ll be getting it ready to accept the new Node 3 module as well, and then we’ll also be preparing for the departure of Soyuz 19S with Roman, Frank and myself.

Well, and the one other thing that happens as you become Expedition 21 is the fact that Frank De Winne will become the commander of the station and he’ll be the first European Space Agency astronaut to have that role. Talk about the significance of this program getting to the point now where European astronauts are serving as commanders as well.

I’m so proud of the space station program for making this gesture. You know, this is going to be the first time that a non-Russian, non-American assess the commander position on board the station, and it really shows the quality of the partnership that we have in this program where a small partner can assess a very important role. Also I’m just so pleased that someone of Frank De Winne’s capability will function as commander. Frank is a person who’s got incredible astronaut skills, tremendous knowledge of the space station and Soyuz systems, and also has a very humanistic side. He’s always watching out for the crew members, making sure that the best interests of the crew members are met while still pursuing the objectives of the expeditions. So it’s great for the international partners to have Frank as a commander, and it’s great for my crewmates that someone with Frank’s capability will take on that role.

Throughout all of this time that we’ve been talking about it in some detail, You and your, in being there, are going to be part of a major milestone in human space exploration in getting this planet’s space station ready to expand its role with a larger crew and a more multinational crew than it’s had. Bob, tell me how you see human space exploration proceeding in the future and how what you’re doing on the space station today is helping to prepare for that future.

I think that the model of the partnership that we have on International Space Station is probably going to be duplicated for the next international human spaceflight endeavor, likely to the moon and someday on to Mars. Now when I say that, I’m not saying that the ISS partnership has gone perfectly, but it works very, very well. We have learned many lessons as a partner in the space station program that Canada will hopefully apply to our next participation, perhaps with the moon base. We know how to behave now as a partner such that we’re not trouble to other partners and such that we recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the partnership and the objectives of the various countries—it might be a little bit different than in Canada’s. But we all have this drive to explore the inner solar system and also to provide back scientific and technological spinoffs to Canadian society. And all the partners have that same belief. From a scientific point of view, we’re not quite ready to build this partnership for the next venture; there are a lot of managerial, technological, scientific hurdles that need to be crossed, and I think that the International Space Station is a great platform, a great test bed, to prove some of these concepts, before we’re ready, for example, for a closed-loop life support system or before we’re ready to implement, perhaps, plants in a life support system on, on the moon or Mars. It’s a great test bed.