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Preflight Interview: Suni Williams
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NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 32 flight engineer and Expedition 33 commander. Credit: NASA

Why did you want to be an astronaut?

Oh, becoming an astronaut for me was a little bit of happenstance. You know, it’s interesting, some people have since they were a little, little kid, that’s all they wanted to do was be an astronaut; well, I never thought it was possible. I mean, I grew up in a family with a, a dad who immigrated from a, India, and my mother who was an X-ray technician in a hospital, they, they met each other when he was going through residency and there was nothing in my past that had lended itself to anything, that had to do with space except for watching “The Jetsons” and “Star Trek” and stuff when I was little. So I never thought it was possible. I mean, it just wasn’t a topic in our, in our household, it was more about, you know, medicine—I loved animals, I wanted to be a vet, veterinarian—and then my brother went to the Naval Academy, my sister went to Smith College, and I’m lookin’—I’m the youngest one—I’m looking after that, what would, what would I want to do? And my brother was, of course, pursuing engineering, my sister was biochemistry, and I was thinking, biochemistry seems way too hard for me, so, so the plans of being a veterinarian were sort of put on the side as my brother, talked me into going to the Naval Academy, and he did because I like outdoorsy things and he knew he could hook me with that. He said, Suni, you get to jump out of airplanes and do parachuting and go camping and stuff like that, and I was like, oh, OK. And so I sort of, of fell into that and I think I’m just as stubborn as my parents and my brother and sister where when we start something we really don’t like to, quit in the middle of it. So there I was at the Naval Academy with a lot shorter hair and learning how to march, it was a little bit of a surprise for me, but I blended in pretty quickly, and I really had fun and I learned about leadership and followership going through the ranks there, and teamwork. I was on the swim team there, I was on the cross country team, on the bike club, so a lot about sports, a lot of, like my brother suggested, I went to jump school and stuff like that, just a lot of good outdoorsy stuff. I ended up being a helicopter pilot and had the opportunity to go to Test Pilot School, and that was the, the very first time it even dawned on me that, that, you know, this was a pathway to be an astronaut ’cause we are able to come down to Johnson Space Center for a tour as our Test Pilot School class did every, once a year, and here I met John Young for the first time who talked about landing on the moon and talked about used a vertical landing system to land on the moon—oh, that sounds like helicopters so, so I thought, wow, maybe I have what it takes to be an astronaut if I, if I get my master’s degree. So that was the very first time, I wasn’t until my mid-20s before I thought seriously about it, and I learned about it—I think that’s probably the key, I really just didn’t know anything about becoming an astronaut or really too much about what the program was pursuing. And I saw that it, we do the same thing that you do as a test pilot: you have a vehicle, and not only just a physical vehicle but also experiments, biomedical experiments, it’s all the same type of thing where there’s a test plan, a program which has a review, you do the tests, you come back, feed results to make the programs better and better. And so it just actually seemed like it was the perfect fit after I figured it out.

You were born in Ohio but grew up outside of Boston. Tell me about your, your hometown, what it was like growing up there.

Yeah, Ohio, is where all my mom’s relatives are, so there’s a huge Slovenian contingent there that we all went back to every year to go visit with everybody and have our Slovenian sausages and good old potica from, in Cleveland. It was, it was, it’s a great place to have been born and have relatives from. But like it says on my bio, I consider Needham, Massachusetts, my hometown. It’s really where I grew up, went through elementary school, middle school and high school, and it, that was great. Of course, I grew up pretty immediately being a Red Sox fan, Patriots fans, Bruin and Celtics fan. When I was young they weren’t doing all that well so it took some, some gumption to be the, one of those fans but it’s obviously paid off in the 2000s here as we’ve done pretty well in, in baseball and, and all, all four of those sports, for example, for baseball, football, basketball and hockey. It’s been pretty cool in the last 10 years but, anyway, I loved growing up there. It was close enough to downtown Boston, which is a small enough city for me—like, something like New York scares me a little bit—when I was growing up, I, we used to even ride our bikes into Boston for Fourth of July celebration on the Charles River at the Hatch Shell; Arthur Fiedler was the conductor at the time. I was a swimmer, my brother and sister and I were swimmers, we swam at Harvard University on a club team there, so every day, twice a day, drove into town for swimming practice in the morning and in the afternoon. So I knew Boston pretty much like the back of my hand when I was growing up there. I love the town, I love the people, I love the accent, I love [that] people are a little bit rough around the edges. People say, that we’re not always very nice up there but you just have to get to know us, and we drive like crazy so, it’s a great town, my hometown of Needham. I didn’t even realize it when I was a child, but we were like the Needham Rockets—go figure; that was our, our mascot. There’s some history there. It was a great town to grow up. I grew up, I graduated with about 500 people in my graduating class so not too small, not too big, enough that you pretty much knew all the families in the town that were your, that had kids of your age. We were the Indian family, people all knew us as the Indian swimmers so, so people knew the Pandyas. It was not such a common name back then. It was a great place to grow up, great friends.

Did you get a chance to see it from orbit? Can you make it out?

Absolutely. I know exactly where it is from orbit. It’s actually on Route 128 so you could pick out, of course, the highways around Boston and you could fol, follow the Charles River, which actually winds it way, winds its way up through Needham and other towns before it goes out toward the Boston Harbor.

Do you have a sense of how that place and those people there helped make you the person that you are?

Oh, absolutely. You know, I remember teachers that I had from elementary school all the way up through high school, and I remember them more so than I do my university professors just because there was so many resources and people were so innovative, it seemed to me an inventive, and allowed us to, you know, as students to do quite a bit while I was there. My elementary school teachers, Mrs. DiNapoli, Mr. Perkins, they still stick out in my mind. My, you know, Miss Piotrowski, my middle school science teacher—I think my science teachers really stick out—Mr. Tomkowitz, from, from high school, these guys, these, all these teachers not only taught us in the classroom but let us do other interesting things. Elementary school, went to Thompson Island and did like a whole week of adventure and exploration including confidence courses. I was only like in fifth grade when that happened. Miss Piotrowski had us growing a garden, um. Mr. Tomkowitz, I think he took us to, if I remember correctly, some place on Cape Cod where we were doing marine biology research. This is just, you know, in high school and below, I mean, this is amazing, people with amazing ideas way back when. So I, definitely they all left an impression on me.

Take us from there forward and as you go through high school and to the Naval Academy and into your career, tell me what the, what the big stops were there that led you to become an astronaut.

Yeah, interesting, so when I graduated from high school I was in the top five percent of my graduating class—I wasn’t number one or number two but I was in the, I think I was around number 10 or something like that, I don’t remember exactly— so I had pretty good grades what, is what that meant and I had a bunch of schools I was going to go to and I was thinking about some schools in the Boston area. So, you know, when you’re, when you’re graduating from high school do you want to stick close to your family or do you want to go away? It’s, I think it’s one of the big questions kids have. Going away seemed fun, seemed interesting. My brother introduced me to the Naval Academy, which had a lot of opportunities. I thought that would be pretty interesting. Another selection for me was going to Columbia in New York City; I’m, didn’t really love that idea just because it was New York, not just because of the sports teams, but just because New York is big for me, it’s, it was a little intimidating trying to go to school, just college there, so, through that, through all those universities out there and looked at it and decided that the Naval Academy was probably the right fit. When I went to the Naval Academy I was a com, competitive swimmer, I was on the swim team there, became the swim team captain when I was a senior. Like I mentioned before, the Academy taught me so much about leadership and followership, more so I think than even engineering, though engineering, of course, is the, the academic, backbone of the school and you learn that as but I think just having a group of people who go through a little bit of a hard time with plebe year all together, stick together, and then that sense of camaraderie really stuck with me. It’s probably one of the most important things coming out of that university. And then, from there on to the fleet, to flight school and, and, and seeing what type of airplane would be good for me. Helicopters was a great fit for me. There wasn’t a, of course, everybody wants to fly jets, saw “Top Gun” and I thought, wow, that would be cool, but there weren’t a lot of women in combat aircraft at the time so the opportunities really limited. So I went into helicopters and I thought, wow, this is, this is fun, I’ve never done anything like this before. I flew on a, in a squadron in Norfolk, Virginia, HC8; we deployed to Europe and then the Persian Gulf during the first Persian Gulf War, and then, right after that I went to Test Pilot School and so it was sort of like one thing after another. It wasn’t, never a dull moment, as they say, right from college on to Test Pilot School, and then coming here to NASA.

So now you are an astronaut and you’ve got a job that has some risks associated with it that aren’t common for most people in their jobs. But people would want to know why you do that. What is it that you think we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking the risks to do this job?

It’s an interesting question. I have a couple different parts of an answer for that question. The risks are there, for sure. You know, you’re sittin’ on a rocket launchin’ into space and, you’re out on a spacewalk in a spacesuit that’s your only life support system; you’re not really connected to anything, you know, for, for life support. So, yeah, there are some risks in, in what we do. You know, we’re grabbing vehicles that are orbiting right next to our space station at 17,000 miles an hour and we’re not, we’re trying, making sure those pieces don’t hit each other inadvertently. So, yeah, there are some risks, but, you know, they’re calculated risks. We’re trained pretty thoroughly for all of that risk, just as astronauts and professionals. We spend a number of years trying to mitigate those risks as much as possible with a team, a myriad of people here, the flight control team, the training team, the program, trying to understand those risks and calculate those risks. And we all come to the conclusion it’s worth it, and why is it worth it is because we’re helping develop the next generation of space explorers. And I don’t just mean people, I mean the people who are engineering and making the vehicles, just like we talked about. We have commercial, commercial vehicles coming to the space station for the first time. What does that mean? That means they’ll understand their technology, they’ll be able to make maybe a human-rated capsule in the near future, and, and provide access to space for more common people who can just pay for, who can pay for a ride to space. And also what does that mean? That means competition, understanding new, systems, proximity systems, robotic systems, launch vehicle systems, and understanding that, so that’s the, the next step. On the International Space Station itself, why are we doing the things we’re doing? We’re living in a laboratory. The laboratory’s allowing us to do science experiments that we cannot do here on ground. You cannot simulate microgravity on the ground for any significant amount of time; you can’t get away from gravity, it’s here, and so the space station allows us to do that, be it our, for humans ourselves so that we understand what happens to the human body in space over a long period of time so we can pass that information, knowledge, experience on to the next generation of explorers who are going to go someplace else that, farther than low Earth orbit, or maybe it’s materials and propulsion systems that are going get us to the next place out, you know, outside of low Earth orbit. So the International Space Station is a test bed, you know, internally, externally, associated with the rockets that go up to it, the vehicles that come in the close proximity of it, and it’s a myriad of things that are going to allow us to put people in space, going back to the moon, on to Mars, or just learning more about our environment for that matter, too, learning about our planet by going to other planets and looking do, back at our planet with science experiments. So the International Space Station is a, is a stepping-stone. It’s a test bed. It’s not an end to itself, it’s just a pathway to the next, next step.

You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 32 and 33. Tell me about the goals of this flight and what your jobs are going to be on this mission.

Yeah, it’s going to be a pretty exciting time. I think most people know our increment got a little decreased in time and we’ll probably talk about that a little bit later, but what that means is it’s going to be fast and furious, hot and heavy, right from the very beginning. As soon as we get there we’ll be preparing for an HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], which is a Japanese cargo vehicle, to come up; we’ll be grabbing that and docking it to the International Space Station, and it has some time-critical payloads up that we’ll be operating with. Right after that we may have one of the commercial vehicles, Orbital [Sciences Corporation] or SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corporation]. We may do a spacewalk. So it’s going to be really busy right from the get go, and then it will settle down a little bit and, and we’ll do like the main thing that we’re, up there for, is science on the International Space Station.

Of course, you’ve been to this space station once before on your previous flight. What are you looking forward to about this trip back?

Well, you know, people talk about flights and, what they say is always the best thing about the flights are the people, and I have a hard time thinkin’ that this flight will be better than my last flight ’cause I flew with such wonderful people last time but, as I’ve trained for the last two years, I, I love the crews that will be before me, my crew, and then the crew that’s coming afterwards. I mean, the people are just incredible. We’ve got a mix of internationals, of course, experienced people and rookies, so it’s, it’s going to be really dynamic, so I, I’m really looking forward to the fact that they’ll be, this combination of people. Last time it was just three people on board, this time we’ll have the pleasure of having six people on board, and like I said, it will be changing so will be really dynamic.

The station itself is different. You’ve been there before but it’s different. Set the stage for me: tell me about what’s there on the International Space Station now, the, what different modules and laboratories and other equipment is there?

Well, I’ve told other people that the station is, is two times, and I’m almost thinking it’s more than two times, as big as it was last time, as I start to count the modules. Last time when I was there, the front of the space station ended at the U.S. Laboratory. Since we left, we, of course, we’ve added on Node 2, the Japanese laboratory, the JLP [Japan Experiment Logistics Module-Pressurized Section], and the, and the porch, as well as Columbus on the right hand side of the space station. Then the Russians have had, added two more modules as well as then, Node 3, which is our gym and our bathroom, and NP, PMM [Permanent Multipurpose Module], which is our, our closet, so I’m counting the modules and I’m thinking it’s even more than double the size that it was last time, so, it, not only is it going to be a straight-line space station but there’s pieces and parts that go on different axes, and that’s going to be really interesting and really fun, and, one part that I, I didn’t talk about ’cause I sort of include in Node 3 is going to be the crowning jewel of the space station is the Cupola, so I can’t wait to look out the Cupola.

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NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 32 flight engineer and Expedition 33 commander. Credit: NASA

The, it’s a crowning jewel because…

It’s a crowning jewel because, my gosh, the view from the Cupola is, is better than anything else that, that’s been up there. People even say it’s better than doing an EVA ’cause you have really no restriction and, when you’re doing a spacewalk you’re in the suit and you have to turn the suit to move; of course, your view is spectacular, you know, you only have the visor between you and outer space, but the Cupola, you’re in just in T-shirt and shorts and you can turn 360°, look down, look out to the horizon. It’s just spectacular. People say it’s like being on a spacewalk but it’s a little bit more comfortable.

You mentioned that, the schedule for this trip has been changed a bit, including the fact that your time on orbit has been shortened by a few weeks. This is all due to an issue in preparing another crew’s Soyuz spacecraft. How does this change, how’s it affecting your training, and how is it going to affect the work that you do once you get there?

Well, I’ll just tell you personally it was a, a little bit of a disappointment, just because, I think, our crew was really psyched to go in the month of May, but it, it doesn’t really matter. Any spaceflight is a great spaceflight. Four months versus six months, it, it doesn’t really matter. I think the one change it’s going to bring for us is it’s going to be really busy, and we are lucky ’cause we have a pretty experienced crew. Joe Acaba will be up there with Gennady Padalka, who’s flown a number of times, and then Sergey Revin, and they’ll have a chance to, to get acclimated to the space station, and as soon as me and Yuri [Malenchenko], who’s flown a number of times, and then Aki [Hoshide], who of course has flown to put up the JEM [Japanese Experiment Module], we get up there it’s going to be busy. But I think we’re up for the challenge. I mean, we’ve got an experienced crew, we, we’ll be ready to take on any challenges that are given to us right away. I don’t think Mission Control is going to let us have a lot of time to acclimatize to, to space, but I think we’re OK with that and we’ll be ready.

Well, then I think that you mentioned a second ago, too, that one of the things that’s going to happen and will be as a result of this change is that almost right after you get there the next Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle is due to arrive. Is that going to impact how you guys get settled in and, and your preparations for the arrival of that space ship?

Oh, yeah, I, definitely it’s going to impact how we get settled in. We had some of these discussions a little earlier, though, with our flight control team and our flight directors, and, we, we’ve made some trade-offs ’cause initially there’s a, usually there’s some time in the beginning for a little more handover, a little more just get acclimated to the space station, but we know that we have a pretty big task at hand as soon as we get there, and so we’re going to have to start doing our onboard training for that, just getting the spacecraft itself, the International Space Station, prepped and ready to go. And so we know that we have some things ready to go as soon as we get there, and we’ve tried to accommodate that in some of our training here on Earth before we get there, to make sure we’re ready to go. We’ll be doing some more additional, video conferences with the crew on orbit just to make sure we know where everything is, what, as soon as we get there so we, we’ll be ready to hit the ground running as soon as we arrive.

Now, HTVs have been to the station before so it’s not something that’s brand new, but give us the layman’s version of, of the robotics task that faces your crewmates as you, that HTV arrives and you want to get it attached to the station.

Since the second HTV, we’ve had the ability to use the Cupola, which is really a great place to manipulate the robotic arm, so we’ll be able to have a pretty much heads-on view of the HTV. We’ve done training extensively in rendezvous to monitor the vehicle’s rendezvous up, its path toward the International Space Station as it parks itself slightly below the station, right behind, essentially, the Japanese module. Joe and Aki will be driving the robotic arm which will go and, grab, essentially, the HTV out of space, and I say “grab” because the HTV will be sent, will be commanded for a while, it’s under its own control, but right before they go in with the robotic arm to grab it it’s sent into free drift, which means it’s just sitting there. It can move however it, any forces are upon it, and so they actually really do need to go in and grab it, and once they grab it we’ll have a little celebration ’cause it will be a wonderful thing—it’s a little bit nerve-racking to, to actually do this, we call it free flyer track and capture and grapple, just because it’s another vehicle that’s, you know, orbiting 17,500 miles an hour in parallel with a space station and you don’t want anything to go wrong—but we’ll have our little celebration but then that day’s not over. We’ve got to get that vehicle docked to the International Space Station so we’ll use the robotic arm to dock it to the bottom of Node 2, and we’ll start vestibule outfitting which means getting the vestibule pressurized so we can open the hatch and get some of the, the payloads out of it.

This HTV is carrying some unpressurized cargo on its outside on its exterior. What is the robotics work then that’s required for the crew in order to get the cargo that’s on that pallet delivered out to the platform out on the Japanese lab?

Yeah, so the, the second part of the HTV is the unpressurized cargo, which we’ll be using the space station robotic arm to grab the pallet out to, and pull, extract it out from the HTV. Of course, there’s some mechanisms there which we need to manipulate to ensure that we can get the pallet out. We’ll be driving the pallet closer to the JEF, the Japanese Exposed Facility, and there we’ll be using the Japanese robotic arm to intercept and grab the external pallet, and then using that arm to dock it to the, to the JEF, and that arm will then also be taking, payloads and putting them wherever they need to be from, from the, from the pallet.

Now this kind of work will continue for a while. The HTV stays at the station for a bit. When it’s time for it to leave, though, is the, the robotics work essentially the reverse of the arrival and the berthing?

As planned, yes, but we, we’ll see what really happens. That’s, as we’ve come up with procedures and trajectories for the robotic arm to manipulate so that, you know, it’s in a pretty close proximity to the rest of the spacecraft and you, you know, we have to plan and, and figure these trajectories out pretty precisely so we don’t end up moving the elbow in some way we didn’t plan on it. So as planned, yeah, it’s essentially backing out of everything that we did to make sure we get the external pallet disconnected from the JEF and move it back into the HTV and get ready to, let go of the HTV so it can come back into the atmosphere. However, you know on the books, on the schedule right now we may have one of our commercial vehicles, Orbital or SpaceX, in close proximity to when the HTV will be there. We are able to be do this, we’ve proved it before, we’ve had multiple spacecraft dock to the space station, but in order to do that we’d have to take the HTV and move it to the top of Node 2 and to the zenith port, so, like I said, as per the plan right now, we’re going to do everything as the normal backout but we might at some point in time, depending on the schedule for our commercial vehicles, might, we might have to move the HTV to the top of Node 2, which’ll be different and exciting.

There is quite a string of, visiting vehicles that could be arriving here in the early part of your time on board the station, not only the HTV but a Progress ship, the ATV’s [Automated Transfer Vehicle’s] departure, one or both commercial cargo ships, as well as a Soyuz departure. Is that all new and exciting stuff that you look forward to?

Oh, yeah. We have multiple docking ports and so why not bring up everything, I guess, it, the kitchen sink, but, we’ve had some other increments in the past that have had multiple vehicles, and it is exciting. I think the one thing about it is it’s a little tiring depending upon how the vehicles line up. Of course, we’re subject, subjected to orbital mechanics and so it’s going to depend on when these vehicles can launch and make it to the space station, and our schedule as the, the guys on board who potentially will manipulate these vehicles, be it with the robotic arm or remotely flying in the case of ATV or Progress in the, in a backup case, we have to be awake and ready to do this, and so that’s, that is going to be interesting to see how that all works out. Right now the schedule’s not set in stone. We have some things that will happen, more than likely, knock on wood, which is the HTV and the Progress vehicles, and so we’re going to have to really look closely at our sleep schedule to make sure everyone’s adequately rested and adequate, adequately ready to manipulate these vehicles.

Is the schedule ever set in stone?

Oh, heck, no. What am I, I’m kidding myself. But, at least as it gets closer and closer, you know, the probability is, is increasing or decreasing, so we’ll see how it all works out. But I think that’s the beauty of, you know, our crew, I mentioned before: we’ve got a lot of experience but that’s not always a prerequisite, but we’ve got people with great attitudes and who are ready to accommodate whatever vehicle’s coming up there.

Another thing that is on the plan for early in your, in your time on orbit is a spacewalk out of the Russian section of the space station. Tell me who’s doing a spacewalk and what they’re going outside to do.

Yes, so the Russian spacewalk is going to be Gennady Padalka and Yuri Malenchenko. Both of them are Soyuz commanders so I’ve told them already, be careful, ’cause they’re the, the guys who bring us home in the Soyuz. But they’re, they’re ready to go. Both of ’em are, have plenty experience. They are pretty, knowledgeable of the whole space station, so really have no, no serious worries with them. But they’re going out and they’re going to move a Strela, which is a crane, from the Pirs module which is, has been the airlock in the past. The Pirs module we’re, we’re eventually preparing to, actually take off of the space station and in its place in the future will be the MLM [Multipurpose Laboratory Module], the Russian laboratory which will be coming up probably next year.

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NASA astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 32 flight engineer and Expedition 33 commander. Credit: NASA

There’s also training that you’ve been involved with for another spacewalk. This will be a U.S. spacewalk out of the Quest airlock. Fill us in on what the plan, again the plan, here is for going outside and, and what you’re going to do on this EVA, and this all gets, starts with, whether or not you’re going to do the spacewalk at all.

Yeah, yeah. The, the spacewalk has, is sort of a place setter. We have to eventually do it. There’s a couple of things that are really critical on the spacewalk. One of them is replacing an MBSU, Main Bus Switching Unit. We have four of them on the space station, one of them is not working, hasn’t been working quite a hundred percent for probably the last eight months, eight or nine months, and so we’ve been talking about trying to get this guy replaced. It’s nothing critical at the moment in time, it just decreases some of our redundancy, and, of course, with a humungous space station that we have and all the laboratories that are running and all the power that’s coming from the solar arrays, we like to have as much flexibility as possible, so we’d like to replace that MBSU. So that’s the main goal of the, of the spacewalk. A secondary goal is we have made some cables which will transfer U.S. power to the Russian segment for the MLM that will come up next year. This is all preparation work for that MLM. Those cables will come up on 48P, the Progress that’s coming up this summer, and so they’d be ready for us to lay down. So the spacewalk is a little bit split, it’s actually, two spacewalks which we combined into one, so we’ll, right now as we have it planned, one spacewalker will be doing, primarily doing the MBSU and there’s a couple critical places where they need to probably have two people when it’s, when the spare is getting disconnected from its platform and when the prime MBSU is going to be, get installed into its, its final home, so that’s when the two crew members will work together, and then the other crew member will be laying the cables from the S0 [Truss] all the way back toward the FGB [Zarya]. So it’s a, it’ll be great if we can get all that work done. We’ve trained it a number of times here at the NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory]. I think we’re ready to go with it. If it has to be passed off to the next guys in the next increment, they’re ready for it as well but we’ve crossed the t’s, dotted the i’s, tied all the bows for that spacewalk for the most part, and so we’re ready to do it if, if we have the time to do that.

And this would be you…

Yeah, this, that spacewalk would probably, more than likely, be me as we’re planned right now as EV1 and Aki as EV2. We have some extensive robotic work with that, too, because the MBSU is a pretty big box and you’re, it’s a little bit hard to translate with that just on your BRT [body restraint tether] or if you’re trying to hold it, and so Joe Acaba, as we planned right now, will be the robotic operator, will drive Aki carrying the MBSU from the ESP2 [External Stowage Platform 2] which is the, the cargo platform where the spare is held, up to the spot where he’ll install it on top of the truss.

And that’s all, we’ve been talking about what’s just on the plan for the first few weeks that you’re there.


Very busy.


The station now has got more laboratories and more crew members than it did when you were there the first time, all the better to do more of the science work that will continue throughout the time that, that you’re on the space station. One of the main areas of concentration here is figuring out how people respond to being in that environment for an extended period of time. Tell me about, give me some examples of the kinds of human life sciences experiments and, and protocols that you and your crewmates are going to be involved in during this increment.

Yeah, there’s going to be a myriad of experiments that have to do with researching the human body in space. We have all sorts of things going on from Integrated Cardiovascular experiment, which is a multiple different experiments, or pieces and parts of experiments, to look at your cardiovascular response up in space. of course, that includes exercise and includes ultrasound. We’re doing some new exercise protocols as well to see whether or not we could potentially decrease the amount of time with more intensive exercises. With that also comes some ultrasound of, of the bones and muscles, or the muscles, rather, primarily in your, in your legs and the areas which we typically find some decreases, so hopefully that will, will change a little bit. We’ll be doing max, maximum VO2, exercise also, which is again on the bicycle with an electrocardiogram and seeing what the, if your maximum VO2 has changed while you’re up in space, and we’ve never really done that before. This is relatively new, we’ve only had an idea of your VO, max VO2 was before but now we’re able to actually use the equipment and get a maximum VO2. So we’re also looking at eyes with ultrasound: there’s been some suggestion that your intracranial pressure changes when you’re up in space with fluid shift and that might, might have some effect on your vision, So we’re doing extensive look at the eyes through ultrasound and PanOptic—we’re actually looking at our, our optic nerve through the front of your eye, which is pretty, a little bit intense when it comes to training and, we’ll, we’ll be working on that pretty intensely. It’s going to be really interesting while we’re up there. Of course, we doing the same things, some of the same things that we’ve done before, a little bit of a, a secondary study of nutrition. There’s a, an experiment called Pro K. We’re looking at the differences in diet, high animal protein, low animal protein, salt in the diet, to see how all of that affects the human body in space so, I mean, I’m, I, I think I could go on and on and on. There’s, we are essentially guinea pigs. You’re going to see a lot of video of us with things all over us, EKGs, different type of experiments on our head. There’s another one called [Thermolab] which is an, actually, really neat technology taking a look at your thermal signature and that has a lot of other implications that you, that can be used in hospitals here on Earth for remote medical, and maybe preventing people from having some ex, extensive, operations or other type of insight into what’s going on, just taking a look at your thermal signature. So there’s, there’s a myriad of things that are going on, you know, not only U.S. but European, Japanese experiments—Bio[logical] Rhythms is another one, for example, that’s Japanese—so there’s, there’s experiments from all over the world that we’ll be doing and hoping, help some of the human research that’s going on.

What’s the anecdotal report on your own six-month experiment; I mean, not to get too personal about it, but…


…how did the, how do you, did you respond after being in space for six months?

I, I did pretty good. You know, we’ve, the ex, the space station has changed and with that has changed some of the exercise equipment. When I was up there before we had an older treadmill, TVIS [Treadmill with Vibration and Isolation Stabilization System], which we still have on board; it’s actually in the, of course, in the Russian segment and it’s a backup up to our, our T2, our COLBERT [Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill]. We had IRED which was the Interim Resistive Exercise Device, now we have ARED [Advanced Resistive Exercise Device] which is just an amazing machine that uses vacuum to allow us to do resistive exercise, and, of course, we still have the bike. And I, I bring those pieces of equipment up because they are key to maintaining bone density and muscle mass. We’ve heard from the pa, past is people have lost some bone density and muscle mass, I being, I was one of those people, and now people are coming back with the new exercise equipment with actually having lost nothing in some cases, so I’m really looking forward to using that equipment for the experiment I mentioned before, Sprint, to try and decrease the amount of time we’re, we’re, we are having to exercise. However, the intensity is a little bit more and so we’re seeing whether or not that would buy us back a little time or just be a more efficient exercise protocol, that we could, we could have people be doing, and coming back with actually less bone loss would be great and I think, I think that’s the path we’re heading on. But I came back, just to answer your question a little bit more, I came back fine enough to go again, so [laughs], so I think I’m in pretty good health.

The U.S. segment of the space station is actually designated a National Laboratory now. This is designed to increase its use by other government entities other than NASA, as well as the private sector, and to pursue national priorities in things like science and technology and, and engineering and mathematics. How’s it doing so far? What new ways is the space station being used in this, in this way?

So, at the end of the shuttle era which was just last year, we just started this Pathfinder program and that’s just coming to an end with some really quick return on investment. We’ve been able to use International Space Station to do, a bunch of different experiments, some of it on viruses, for example, and that investigations from not only government entities but private sector companies or agencies or universities have a, have been able to submit science experiments and have them flown to the inner, to the International Space Station and get results and, and come back down. So that, that program’s just winding up. We’ve got a, another program, NanoRacks, which is out looking for different customers to put all sorts of science experiments into the racks that are up on the space station, particularly in this, this type of rack called the NanoRack. That’s even filtering down to education to, universities and even lesser, elementary and junior high and high school ideas that will be put into these NanoRacks, so the feelers are out there. We’re using the International Space Station for all sorts of experiments from all sorts of, different agencies.

We talked a lot about the different kinds of science work that you do, but that doesn’t take up all your time. Give me a sense of what else a space station crewmember does to, during, during a typical day or a typical week.

Well, you have to remember the space station is, is just like a, a building. It has its own things that have to happen so we have, we have maintenance that has to happen on a pretty regular basis as well, just to keep the place up and running. I know there’s, we, we’re all, we are our own electricians and plumbers as well and so, you know, any time the lights go out or there’s a, you know, a light bulb that needs to be changed, we’re the ones who are doing it. Any time the toilet stops workin’, we’re the ones who have to, to work on that, and then like I said, all that, all of this stuff has a little bit of a, a, like a regular maintenance cycles, so as we get ready to go up onto the space station we actually do talk to our, our folks who do the inflight maintenance and they give us a little bit of a schedule. Just like for your car you know that at like 3000 miles you’re going to have to do an oil change, for example, well, you know, at 180 days on, on the space station it’s going to have to have some filters changed out, it’s going to have to be vacuumed, it’s going to have to have some electrical parts checked, it’s going to have to have its emergency equipment checked, and so there’s a number of things that are just daily, I wouldn’t say daily but routine maintenance things that we have to do to keep the station up and running. And we’ll find those on our timeline periodically. We’ll have sort of a plan of when we’re going to get those done, and along with those also is, it is an enclosed vehicle so, you know, we don’t have the water guy coming delivering the water, we’re, we’re taking care of tho, the amount of water that we have is, we call the water balance, trying to under, make sure we have enough water that’s used technically to make oxygen, for example, in the, in our Oxygen Generation System and in the Elektron. We also have to have enough water that we’ll be able to use for drinking. We’ll also have to check the condensate as we, and also the urine processor as it’s turning those things, condensate and urine, back into water, so there’s a lot of, just cyclic maintenance that has to go on to make sure the station is up and running and we actually can live in there happily.

You’re going to be in space when the Olympic Games take place in London this summer. Is there any analogy to be made between the International Space Station’s program’s goal of, of fostering international cooperation and the spirit of the Olympics?

Well, of course. It’s, I mean, the Olympics, what is it, it’s an international competition, to foster friendship and, and competition across, across the planet, and I think that’s exactly what the International Space Station is. You know, we’ve got a myriad of countries up there working together not only as crewmates who are up there, and we’ll have with us a Japanese astronaut while we’re up there, we’ve trained with a Dutch astronaut, we were the backup and our backup will be a Canadian astronaut, as well as American and Russian, so, yeah, just even in the training cycle going from one country to another as you’re learning about the different parts of the International Space Station, I think we’re, we’re doing the same thing, type of thing that the Olympics, Olympics is doing. It’s fostering international competition because, of course, you know, everybody wants to make their part of the space station pretty good, and it makes us all a little bit better that way, and it’s, as well as friendship and understanding different cultures, so I think there are parallel entities and, you know, the sa, they have the same spirit behind them.

You going to have any Olympic Games on board?

Well, we probably will. I think, we’re, we’re going to go beyond the, or not cross over country boundaries, though, because, you know, we are already an international crew, so I think we might do something Soyuz crew versus Soyuz crew. I’m, I’m looking at some type of relay maybe or something like that. So I think we’re going to have some competitions up there. We’ll see what happens.

You’re going to be in space for a big event near the end of the year. The general election here in the United States is held in November just about a week before you’re supposed to land. Do you have to vote before you leave to go to Russia?

Actually not. We’ll, there’s a program called Voting from Space, we’re workin’ through it right now. I’m a, actually a Florida voter so it, we had to have a little bit more work involved—Texas has already, worked through the process—and I, I will actually be voting from space.

You’re going to become commander of the International Space Station when Expedition 33 begins. How’s that going to change life for you on board?

Well, you know, I have such a great crew. I, I, really, it’s not going to physically change anything. Everybody up there is so experienced and so knowledgeable, I mean, I just can’t say enough about Yuri and Aki, they’re just great crew members to have and, you know, I, I’m falling back on them all the time for them to take the lead on stuff. They’re great, they’re just, they’re just perfect. But I think the one thing that it, it will change is, you know, just the roles and responsibilities, so, and that’s in regards to emergencies or something like that, if we have any problems with the space station. We’ve practiced all this on the ground already beforehand for fires, depresses or a toxic type of spill and what, and what we’re going to do, so once Gennady’s crew leaves we’ll become the prime crew and so we’re the prime crew to work with any of those, if we have any of those problems, to work at, out any of those problems. Soon thereafter we’ll also be getting the crew with Kevin Ford, Oleg Novitsky and Evgeny Tarelkin, and on that crew we have Kevin, who’s flown on the shuttle, and two Russian rookies, and so I think it will be our crew’s chance to show them, show them the ways and how, how to live and work on the International Space Station. So I think our responsibility at that time is to be, first, good hosts, secondly good, good role models and get them ready as essentially rookies on the space station to, to run the space station. So I think we had that, we have that added responsibility. As, like I said, as commander myself, I, my, my, a friend of mine asked me, are you nervous about this, and I said, no, I’m not nervous at all. I’ve got a, a team that we’ve worked for the last two and a half years together, and I think that is, that’s where you really foster that leadership-followership thing is actually the, the two years beforehand. When you get up on the space station, you know what to do, so I’m not nervous about it all. I’m psyched.

The station gets supplies currently on uncrewed ships that are launched by Russia, Europe and Japan. We’ve referred to the fact that there are two new cargo ships being developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that should be flying during your mission. Fill us in on these new vehicles and, and how they mix in with the current fleet.

Yeah, so we have two new vehicles, the SpaceX Dragon vehicle that’s coming up, and Orbital’s Cygnus which, hopefully, will be coming up as well. We’ve trained, it’s sort of interesting. When we’re doing what we call track and capture training, sometimes we’ll have a class that has HTV, then the next run will be a SpaceX, and the next run will be an Orbital, Cygnus vehicle, so it’s, it’s a little confusing. Luckily they all look a little different so it’s easy to tell the difference because they all have a little bit, slightly different characteristics. They all have the same goal, you know. They launch from Earth and they want to get to the International Space Station, so they got to get to a place where they’re hovering. There’s a couple different configurations, where they’ll be and what they’ll look like in regards to how we look at it from the Cupola, and how actually the robotic arm will be lined up to grab it. And so, each are obviously designed by different companies, they have their own ways and thoughts of how to do it, different types of equipment that’s going to, proximity equipment that will bring the vehicle close to the space station, and that’s all great because we want to test all that stuff out, and we can see then which one is easier, which one is harder from a maintenance point of view, from an operational point of view, and so it gives us a sampling of all these different types of ways to solve a problem and we can, we can, we can be the guys who give some feedback, I think, about how easy or how hard it is. But we’re ready. Like I said, all three of ’em provide a little bit different challenge. HTV is, has been done before so we have a pretty good idea how that’s going to look. Dragon with SpaceX should be launching this spring so we’ll have had some feedback of how that’s going to go and luckily with Cygnus, or hopefully with Cygnus, rather, we’ll be getting that first vehicle, which would be pretty neat for us so we’re looking forward to that.

All of these are, as you said, these are ones where the robotic arm will have to, to grapple them and berth them to, to the station. In terms of their, in other ways, how are they similar and different, I mean, maybe what, what they can bring, their capacities or whatnot?

Oh, yeah, OK. So HTV, of course, it has internal cargo and then it has external cargo, an external pallet, and it can stay up to, on the space station for a, over a month or so, around a month timeframe. Space X, it’s internal cargo only right now; it’s probably going to be up on the space station, runs about ten days or something like that, around ten days, two weeks, for that, for that vehicle, but it has an interesting capability which we can put stuff back in it and then it’s going to be returned to Earth. HTV, it, that vehicle will burn up on the entry into the atmosphere so nothing can be returned. Orbital will have internal cargo and I think the plan is eventually to have external cargo on that. I’m not sure if the first one has that, but it will not bring stuff back to Earth, so each of ’em have a slightly different capability, each of them are shaped different, they have slightly different proximity systems, they have different lighting patterns on them and so it’s, it’s a lot of fun training for them and getting to know a little bit about each vehicle.

Adding commercial cargo ships to, to this whole program is a sign that human space exploration is evolving beyond the, the province of governments. Where do you think human space exploration is going to be, I don’t know, 20, 50 years into the future? How’s this space station getting us ready for that?

Yeah, well, I, I hope that we’ll be a little bit farther than low, low Earth orbit in 20 years; I have a good feeling we will be. I think a lot of people are interested in space exploration just because things are changing a little bit in the last five to 10, and will be in the next 10 to 15 years, with the International Space Station. One of them, like you mentioned, is commercial vehicles. Other companies beside the government are able to actually launch cargo and hopefully, in the near future, launch people, into space, into low Earth orbit. So what that means for NASA is we can use the International Space Station as a laboratory, a test bed, for new technologies that will hopefully allow us, as NASA, to go beyond low Earth orbit in the next 10, 15 years. I think that this, what we need, what we needed was a little bit of a jump start, getting other companies involved and other id, people and ideas out there involved. I mean that, that’s where new innovative inventions come from is more and more people having an interest, having the feeling that they can participate. It’s not only a government organization, it’s commercial companies as well and so far as not only spacecraft but science experiments that they want to put up there, new types of fuels, propulsion systems, what, whatever, and the International Space Station has the ability to be a test bed not only internally but also externally. We have the capability of testing out new type of orbiting satellites around the International Space Station, for example; [Robonaut] which is a piece that we have up there that we, he can do some activities inside, but in the future we’d like to put him outside so we don’t have to do spacewalks, we could maybe use him to, to solve some problems, change out some boxes for us outside. So there’s an amazing amount of capability with International Space Station. It’s going to let us maybe go back to the moon or on to Mars.