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Preflight Interview: Jeffrey Williams
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NASA astronaut Jeffrey Williams, Expedition 21 flight engineer and Expedition 22 commander, attired in a Russian Sokol launch and entry suit, takes a break from training in Star City, Russia to pose for a portrait. Photo credit: Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center

Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you’ve ended up as a professional space traveler. So what was it that motivated you, or inspired you, to become an astronaut?

A: Well, I think it was a series of events and opportunities that kind of fell before me as I grew up. Growing up through high school even, I never even dreamed of the possibility. I thought it was all really neat, I watched the moon landing and watched the space program as it unfolded in those days, but I never considered that there was a potential for me to be part of it. It wasn’t until my days at West Point, when I became introduced to Army aviation specifically, that I started getting an interest in realizing the potential that I could be part of that world, the aviation world. And then I read Tom Wolfe’s book, “The Right Stuff,” and that really opened my eyes to the whole technical part of aviation and the test pilot world and the frontiers of aviation and then, of course, seeing the natural extension, the natural tie from that world to the space program. And it was at that time, as a cadet at West Point, that I realized the potential and made it a personal objective to become part of, of this program.

I want to take you back to the beginning of the story, before West Point. Tell me about Winter, Wisconsin, place where you grew up.

Winter, Wisconsin; a, a great small town in northern Wisconsin mostly woods and lakes and rivers around it, just what I would call a near ideal place for a, for a kid to grow up. I grew up on a farm, in a farm environment. In that environment, you learn how to work because everybody is part of the team and a farm never goes on vacation so the work was there every day. Hopefully, I developed some level of a work ethic there and a value towards those kinds of things. It was a great home environment, it’s a great community where everybody knows each other and takes care of each other and, of course, the community is, I’m still very close to and still in regular contact with.

Did you get to see it from space?

I did.

The first time I asked you that question, before your second flight, you hadn’t.

No, during STS-101 I did not get the opportunity to see it. We did fly over it a couple times, they were covered with clouds; of course during a 10-day mission, your opportunities are limited. And, as best I could tell prior to Expedition 13 nobody had ever got a good picture of Winter, or the area of Winter, Wisconsin. So that was on my target list, of course, and I got some great shots. In fact, some of the shots I took through the 800 millimeter camera, you could see the buildings on the farm that I grew up on.

Give me the thumbnail sketch, if you will, of your education and your professional career that took you from Winter, Wisconsin to NASA astronaut?

Well, I spent from the third grade (we moved to Winter) and I went all the way through high school, graduated from Winter High School; during that time developed interest in math and science. My father was a guidance counselor in the school during my high school years and through those duties he became exposed to the military in general and the military academies, specifically, and that’s how I became aware of them, so I gained, what I would call a, at least a small interest in high school, for that, enough to apply, and then one step led to another and I ended up at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I spent my four years there. During the time there I eventually migrated to a very strong interest in engineering, specifically aeronautical engineering, and aviation, and came out of there, with orders to go to flight school and become an army aviator, first in helicopters, later years also in airplanes, and eventually got the opportunity to go to graduate school. I got a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, and a few years later got the opportunity to go the Naval Test Pilot School and worked as a test pilot for a couple years, and all of that gave me the experience and qualifications necessary to be considered for this job.

Were you applying for it all along?

I was. One of the things I tell kids of all ages is if you have a goal in life not to give up and to learn from disappointments, suffer through disappointments, continue working ahead at whatever you’re doing, whatever responsibilities you’re given, but don’t give up. Persevere, and there’s a lot to be said for perseverance. In my case, I applied six times over ten years, interviewed three times here, until I finally wore them down.

Well, you’ve ended up now with a career as an astronaut, flying in space, a job that we know can be dangerous. So, Jeff, what is it that you think we are getting as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk you’re taking?

Well, that goes back to what I referred to before: if you study history and the expansion of civilization, and the development of technology and discovery and exploration in human history, people were willing to take risks, and life is full of risks and tradeoffs in risks—what’s the benefit, what, you know, versus the risk? We, in this program, all believe that there’s great benefit. We don’t know all of the specifics of that benefit, but we believe that there’s great benefit to humankind in what we do, and that the risks are worth the benefit. We also believe in the team here, uh, that develops and executes the program, uh, that they mitigate those risks to minimize them and, and, and make it so that we can conduct this program as safely as possible.

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At the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, Expedition 21 flight engineer, conducts a fit check in the Soyuz TMA-16 spacecraft September 18, 2009 as he prepares for his launch September 30 to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 21 and Expedition 22 crews. Jeff, can you summarize what your main responsibilities are and the goals of the flight?

Well, with Expedition 20, of course, we transitioned to a crew of six, and that’s, changing operations on board significantly, and I will be part of that as part of Expedition 21 and 22, part of those early crews as we transition to full utilization, finish up the assembly of the space station. By the time we get done, according to the current plan, we hope to have the U.S. orbiting segment complete with the addition of Node 3, the final module; there’ll still be some assembly on the Russian side to go, but most of the assembly will be done and we’ll be in the transition to full utilization.

And we’ll note here that we’re going to talk about all the things that are going to happen, in the order that we think they’re going to happen.

Yes, yes.

Things may change...

Yes, absolutely.

…you think?

Yeah, things will always change. Well, that’s part of our business here. We put together a plan, and the team puts together a very good plan, it’s always an optimistic plan, we’re always pushing hard forward to get it done as efficiently [as] we can, but this is a pioneering business that we’re in, space exploration, so things come up routinely that we don’t expect. Things don’t work exactly right, everything is a prototype, a lot of things we’re doing for the first time, so when we come across problems, we deal with it. We suffer a little bit of schedule consequence, perhaps, but we work through it and press on.

You made a short visit to the International Space Station on a shuttle flight in 2000 and you spent six months there as a flight engineer on Expedition 13, in 2006. So what are you looking forward to about going back for a third time?

Yeah, well, I’ve asked myself that question several times: why do I want to go back and spend another six months off the planet and away from the family? But this mission will be quite a bit different than the last mission. The last mission I was on, Expedition 13, of course, started out with a crew of two, and during that, the time that Pavel Vinogradov and I were on board we went to a crew of three with the addition of Thomas Reiter from Germany and the European Space Agency, as well as we were part of the Return to Flight of the space shuttle after the Columbia accident and the resumption of assembly of the space station. This time we’re going to a crew of six; we’re getting close to the end of the assembly, the space station will be almost twice as big as it was, volume-wise, and outside the, dimension-wise, as it was when we were there in 2006, so I’m very excited to be part of that phase of this chapter of space exploration.

How important is it that we’ve now gotten to a larger permanent crew?

Well, of course, the space station was always designed to, occupied with a crew of six for full utilization, so it’s very important because now we can dedicate a greater majority of the crew time, the overall crew time toward executing the purpose of the space station, which is this fantastic orbiting international laboratory.

Your arrival to the station this time, in and of itself, is going to be a, a first of its kind: first time there will be three Soyuz vehicles there all at one time.

That’s right.

Tell me about what’s going to happen during the time between when you arrive and Gennady Padalka and Mike Barratt go home.

Well, we will have three Soyuz vehicles docked to the space station, as you mentioned; that’ll be a first in the history of the program, and the reason is obvious: we’re now at a crew of six. Something new in the six-crew time frame is that we will not rotate the entire crew simultaneously. We’ll rotate two or three members of the crew, depending upon the, the transition, at a time, and that means that when there’s a crew change, part of the crew will have already been on orbit, say two to four months, depending upon the Expedition, so it’s less of a handover from one crew to another to a reintegration of a new crew combination, and we will always have experience on board, which is going to bring some significant advantages.

During the period of the handover, uh, the schedule calls for the crew—all of you—uh, to take part of the disposal of the first of the, uh, H-II Transfer Vehicles. Uh, tell us what the HTV is and then what you guys are, are going to do to complete its service.

Well, the HTV is a very unique cargo vehicle: unmanned; it was produced by the Japanese space agency planned to launch in September, and as you say it, according to the current plan it will be berthed to Node 2 when we arrive, and shortly after we get there, within a couple of weeks or so, it is planned that we’ll unberth it and send it back into the atmosphere, to burn up in the atmosphere. So it’s a one-way cargo vehicle. It brings significant cargo capability, not only internal cargo that we will transfer through the hatch, but also external cargo in the form of experiments, for example, that will stay outside the space station and be exposed to the environment of space.

You talked, you used the word “berth” in this case, uh, because this vehicle doesn’t arrive and depart all on its own. It, the crew’s involved, right?

And that’s another significant difference, or element, that’s different for me in preparing for this flight from the last flight. As you know, most vehicles that we deal with, whether it be the space shuttle, Soyuzes, Russian Progresses, the European ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], which another cargo vehicle, they all are, actively approach and dock [to] the space station, and, to a docking port. HTV, the Japanese cargo vehicle, is unique in that it just approaches the space station and gets to about 30 feet away or so, and then we go, and then it maintains its position there, and we go in with the robotic arm and grapple to it. And once we grapple to it, then we can use the arm to maneuver it to a berthing port.

And then when its mission is done, the reverse is the case?

When its mission is done, the reverse is what is done. We’ll take the robotic arm, grapple to the HTV, and then release it from the port that is, that it is berthed to, move it away from the space station, basically let go of it, and then send a command to it where it becomes active and it will fire its thrusters to separate away from the space station and later enter the atmosphere.

When, as we were mentioning a moment ago, when Gennady Padalka and Mike Barratt depart, when they head home, uh, Frank De Winne will become commander of the International Space Station, of Expedition 21. Talk about the significance of this space station having a European Space Agency astronaut as its commander for the first time.

Well, this program being the, the broad international program that it is, has had many milestones, and some of those milestones have to do with hardware, with launches of different kinds of vehicles, some of ’em have to do with the partners and the crew. And this is a significant milestone for the European Space Agency. It will be the first time that we will have a station commander that is not either a Russian cosmonaut or a NASA astronaut, so its significance I think is obvious. I’m sure that sometime in the future, the Japanese space agency and the Canadian Space Agency will also have that opportunity.

The plans are calling for a new station component to be added to the Russian segment of the station late in the year. Tell me about the Russian Mini Research Module 2 and what kind of capability it’s going to add to the station.

The MRM 2, as it is known, will be very similar to the current Docking Compartment. The Docking Compartment right now that has been up there for several years is used as an airlock and also a docking port for Soyuzes and Progresses. It is berthed to the nadir side of the Service Module. This new module will look almost identical, and it will be docked to the zenith, port of the Service Module, and will perform the same functions. It will be used both as a docking port for future vehicles, which we, by the way, we need, in this crew-of-six time frame, so we can juggle all of the Soyuzes that come and go and the Progresses that come and go. It will also be used as an additional module that can be used for experiments. It has some enhancements over the previous module that it looks like, for example, some resources that are available for experiments.

Late in the year the agenda also calls for the first shuttle mission to visit the station during your increment. Uh, talk about what’s on the agenda for those joint operations with shuttle mission STS-129.

Well, 129’ll be primarily a cargo mission. They, they will be bringing up cargo for resupply, spare parts, provisions for the crew, a mission typical some of the other missions that we’ve had periodically.

As opposed to one that’s bringing big new equipment to be…

Right, as opposed to what we would call a major assembly mission, which would bring up a module or a truss piece or, or something like that.

And that activity is scheduled to take place in pretty close proximity to the departure of Frank De Winne, Roman Romanenko and Bob Thirsk. Uh, can you, again talk about how this indirect crew rotation happens, and, and how that impacts the staffing that’s left on board?

Well, yeah, what we call indirect crew rotation is where we have a crew of six and three of those crew members depart prior to the folks that are going to replace them arriving. So that means that, and there will be about a period of three weeks, roughly, between a departing crew departing and the next Soyuz crew arriving. So in this case we will go down just due to another crew member departing on the space shuttle, STS-129, and the three departing on the Soyuz, Frank and his Soyuz crew, there will only be two of us left on the space station for about three weeks, as I say, and then there will be another Soyuz, uh, TMA-17, arriving with Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi and T.J. Creamer.

Now De Winne’s departure will signify the start of Expedition 22 and at that point you move from being a flight engineer to being station commander. How is your day-to-day routine changed when you, when you change job titles in that way?

Well, it’s, in many cases from the day-to-day routine, it’s merely a title. Everybody still is part of the team and everybody’s doing all of the things that we need to do on the space station. The, the ground team plans our activities. But certainly the station commander has a responsibility unlike the rest of the crew members: you are responsible for the entire crew all of the successes and failures of the crew kind of rest on your shoulders, and, of course, in an emergency situation, or a situation that requires some decision-making, somebody has to bear the responsibility for those decisions.

Must, it must help to have a commander who’s got experience of a, of a previous flight on board the station.

Well, experience always helps. As we struggle with how to transition into a crew of six, that’s one of the reasons we ended up with the commander rotation that we did. We, as a community, decided that the commander should have experience, whether it’s his first long-duration flight or second, so by virtue of being on board and then, what we call using the Navy term “fleeting up” from a flight engineer position to commander, every commander will have experience, even if it’s a two or three months prior to becoming commander or whether that person has a previous long-duration flight. Experience is important.

There’s no Army term that you could use for that?

Well, “promoted,” I guess. (laughs)

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Astronaut Jeffrey Williams, Expedition 21 flight engineer and Expedition 22 commander, attired in a training version of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit, awaits the start of a spacewalk training session in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

You mentioned that there’s going to be a couple of weeks then where you and Max Suraev are on board the station as, as the entire crew before the arrival of, of the next Soyuz vehicle, and shortly after they arrive there’s a plan for a spacewalk, by Max and Oleg Kotov. Uh, talk about what that spacewalk plan entails; what, what, what, what’s that EVA going to involve?

The primary objective of that EVA is to do all the things necessary to integrate that new Russian module we talked about, the MRM 2, uh, into the space station, so that’s going to require the deployment and connection of some cabling on the outside, primarily, and they will have some secondary tasks as well, most likely in the form of deployment or retrieval of experiments, maybe some photo surveys, or anything else that may come up between now and then.

So you get to stay inside and provide guidance?

I get to stay inside and for me, this’ll be the first time I’ve had to stay inside for a spacewalk that I’ve been part of.

The EVA is on the schedule just shortly before you and Max are supposed to fly your Soyuz around and dock to this new MRM. It will be the first, uh, the first docking using that piece of hardware. Talk about that event.

Well, we periodically move Soyuzes during the flight from one docking port to another because of what we call the traffic model, the coming and going of cargo vehicles and Soyuzes necessitates the requirement to do as you said. Max and I will move our Soyuz from the Service Module aft docking port to this new port after the integration of MRM 2. I’m really looking forward to that, was one thing that I was not able to participate in during Expedition 13 so that also will be new for me.

Of course you’ve flown on the Soyuz all the way up and down before, just not around the neighborhood?

We just didn’t get out for the neighborhood ride around the block.

Early next year, your Expedition 22 crew is slated to do some rearranging of external components, albeit work that you guys will do from the inside. Talk about the reasons behind the relocation of PMA-3 and the External Stowage Platform 3. Where are they going and why are you moving them?

Well, we’ve even started now during Expedition 20 and the preparations for the Node 3 integration. It will find its home on the port berthing port, or the port side of Node 1, if you will, and there’s some unique preparations that need to happen before the arrival of Node 3. In order to be able to conduct those preparations, we had to move PMA-3 to the port side of Node 1, so that we could pressurize it and get access to what otherwise would be the outside of that berthing port to do preparations for all the plumbing and all of the, the electrical connections, the fluid connections, the air connections. So after that work is done in Node 1 then, of course, we have to move PMA-3 out of the way to make room for Node 3 and that will fall on our plate and then, of course, Node 3 will come and we’ll finish out that integration.

So that’s, this is a Canadarm2 job?

That’s right. We’ll, we will use the space station robotic arm to do that and it will be operations, very similar to the operations that we’ve conducted in the past moving modules around.

Throughout the six months that you’re there a lot of science research is going to get done, more so now that there is a, a crew of six on board, and a lot of the research on the station is aimed at finding out how people can live and work safely for long periods of time in a, in a microgravity environment. Tell me about some of the human life sciences kinds of experiments that you guys will be working on during Expeditions 21 and 22.

Well, we don’t fully understand what happens to the human body in the environment of space, weightlessness and the other elements of that environment. And it’s important for us to grow in our understanding of that, to find out the negative effects and to develop techniques to mitigate those effects. So, many of the experiments that we will be doing, and that have been going on, are designed to attack those problems, to understand the effects, and come up with ways to mitigate them. So we will be doing some studies that are related to, for example, the cardiovascular system, how the heart and the circulatory system and the lungs adapt to weightlessness, and if there are negative effects how we can mitigate that. There are other studies with atrophy of muscles, for example, atrophy of bones that have been on-going and continue during our flight coming up here, very important for obvious reasons. If we’re going to send people to, eventually to Mars, for example, and spend the time to get there in a weightless environment and then land on the ground and wear heavy suits and walk outside and, and survey the, and explore the Martian surface, uh, the crews will have to be able to function in that environment. So muscle and bone loss, for example, are, are very important in that respect. And then, of course, there’ll be a variety of, of other experiments in basically all categories of biology and related science.

For, for the experiments into, uh, looking at people, are you, is it just being there that’s important, that, so the specialists can study you later, or, or important things that you have to do while you’re there to, to further that research?

Well, certainly we are in part guinea pigs there. If you are going to understand the, the problems, identify them, the problems and develop mitigation, you need to have somebody go there and be there and, and suffer the consequences, if you will, and whatnot. But also, there, we find out things that we didn’t predict while we are there, or things, the equipment doesn’t work right or, uh, the plan, um, needs to be adjusted and some, if you don’t have people there to do that, to put that human element into the investigation, you don’t have the flexibility to make those changes. Having the crews there on orbit not only as guinea pigs, as the subjects studying themselves, but also to be the lab technicians, if you will, and the hands and the, the eyes and the ears of the scientists on the ground doing these, uh, investigations, we wouldn’t be able to do those adjustments. And, and like any laboratory in any scientific discovery, many of them come by accident: you intend to go search out to find a, an answer to a certain question, and find out that you had the wrong question all along, and an answer pops up in front of you to a different question and one that, you know, could be more important. So it’s important to have people there doing it for that reason.

For you, not only will there be twice as many people as there were, it’s almost three times as many people as there were the last time, there’s also a lot more places to work than there were the last time you were there. Talk about that, the new facilities.

I’ve enjoyed hearing from the, uh, the crew that’s up there right now about the environment of working inside, primarily because of that. Of course, when I was there we only had, in the U.S. segment, the U.S. laboratory and Node 1 and the airlock. But now we’ve got Node 2 and we’ve got the Japanese facility, which is about to be complete, um, and we’ve got the European, uh, laboratory module as well. So the station is huge, the facilities are, are vast, if you will, and the activities, of course, are spread across all those modules, so I really look forward to getting up there and participating in those new environments.

There’s a new part of the station’s science capability that should get kicked off during your time on orbit. Your crew’s supposed to complete the checkout of the payload airlock in the Japanese lab as well as Kibo’s small fine arm. Tell me about how that hardware expands the science operations.

Well, that the Japanese airlock, which is contained inside the Japanese laboratory module brings a very unique capability to the space station: the ability to take a payload that you can prepare or do things with, whatever you’re going to do, study or whatnot, inside the space station, and put it in this airlock and then using the small fine arm as well as the Japanese bigger arm, move it outside and deploy it for a period of time, and then after a period, that period of time move, bring it back in to reconfigure it or to check out the results or whatnot, and that’s a very unique capability.

You’re scheduled to see a second shuttle flight come Endeavour’s supposed to arrive in February with some new modules this time around. Talk about the new station components that are coming up next year.

Well, we will have Node 3 come up, which will complete the major assembly of the U.S. orbiting segment. Node 3 will expand the habitability capability for the crew in that in Node 3 we will be able to have exercise equipment, we’re going to move the systems that will recycle urine into drinking water, again, we’ll move those into there, we’ll have our resistive exercise device in there, we’ll have the new treadmill in there, we’ll have a toilet in there. So all of those kinds of things will be moved in there to make more room in the U.S. laboratory for science and experiments. We will also have attached to Node 3 another great new capability. That is it will have berthed to its nadir port, a cupola which will have seven windows in it, and basically give you a hemispherical view outside, pointing to the ground, so be able to look in all directions at one time, and as much as I enjoyed Earth observation the last time I’m really looking forward to being able to view the earth through the Cupola.

The reorganization that you were, described a bit there, that seems like that may go on for quite a while, moving all, things around, into and out of other modules and into Node 3.

The team working on that mission, the Node 3 mission, is working very hard right now to try to make the docked time while the shuttle is there as efficient as possible, and a big part of the objectives for that period of time is moving all of that equipment and integrating it into Node 3. Of course we won’t finish the integration, we won’t get everything moved in there, but we will get the vast majority of it done during the docked time of the space station, and it will be important to do that because we want to get everything reintegrated, re-checked out, we want to know if we have problems with the equipments before the shuttle leaves. For example, they can take a broken part down if we identify it before they leave but that, getting it done will also allow us to get on the with business of research.

Then you’re scheduled to come home in March and that’s just as another shuttle mission is getting ready to launch. Can you talk a little bit about what the plan is for the, the traffic part, the traffic plan for the station at that period of time?

Max and I are scheduled to return on our Soyuz in the middle of March and there will be about three weeks or so before the next Soyuz that is replacing us launches, and during that time when it will, there will be a crew of three on board the space station. 19A is scheduled to arrive, so that will be happening while the station crew is a crew of three. I think what this illustrates, and what kind of theme of what we’ve been talking about is the traffic to and from the space station with all these different kinds of vehicles from all these different parts of the world makes it a very busy place, a lot of things going on, a lot of changes going on, a lot of complications, if you will, for the ground team to manage as they respond to delays or changes or things that don’t go right, but it’s a tribute, I think, to the international partnership and the teams that make it all happen.

Our planet’s human space exploration effort has reached a new level with all that new equipment and a crew of six on board the station full time. Jeff, how do you see the human space exploration effort proceeding in the years to come, and, and how is the International Space Station helping, helping provide the groundwork for that?

I like to study history and I’ve grown in that in recent years, primarily because of what you’re probing at there in that question, and that is if you look at the history of humankind it’s the history of exploration and discovery, and what we’re doing today sometimes we think is very unique—and it is in a way—but in another way it’s not unique. It is, we can go back in the history of humankind and find examples just like this based on what they had, what was unknown to them and the technology that they had at the time. So if we look at it in that light, the space station is just a current chapter of human exploration, and of course we envision going beyond this. This is not an end, it’s a means to an end or a stepping-stone toward other achievements, and that will be sending people back to the moon to establish at least a semi-permanent presence there, and to do the exploration on the moon that we want to do, and then go on to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system with human beings, sending them there to do the exploration and discovery to find out answers to questions we don’t even maybe know yet.