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Preflight Interview: Kevin Ford
JSC2012-E-106469 -- Kevin Ford

NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, Expedition 33 flight engineer and Expedition 34 commander, responds to a question from a reporter during an Expedition 33/34 preflight press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: My first inclination was toward flying and being a pilot. I had older brothers who were interested in aviation. My oldest brother, David, gave me a ride when I was about fourteen years old for the very first time in a small plane. About the same time I stumbled onto a book called “Carrying the Fire,” written by Michael Collins, it was the first book I ever read and I turned right back to the first page and just started reading it again because I just enjoyed it so much. I was fascinated by the things he talked about. And at that point as a boy in small-town Indiana, I just thought, boy, I’d just really love to be a pilot as a career. I started working in a grocery store; I happened to have a grocer in my town that had his own airplane and he was really willing to give me a job and give me all the hours I needed to pay for flying lessons and that worked out well for me. I got my license early and went on to study aerospace engineering and to become an Air Force pilot. Some of it is just luck, kind of the way it works out, but I was able to fulfill that dream of being an Air Force pilot and a fighter pilot, and then after some years of that a test pilot. I was able to combine the academics of the engineering with the operational skills of flying, going to Test Pilot School, and just kind of found myself in a position where NASA was actually willing to look at the application one day. They looked at it a few times and put it away before they finally looked at it one time and said, well, we’ve already hired all the guys that were better than him, they’re already here. I was lucky enough to get into the corps at that point. So it just started out with the fascination with flying, really, and I was just lucky to get into the astronaut business.

You mentioned you grew up in a small town in Indiana. Tell us about your hometown, what it was like for you growing up there.

It was a small town of about 2,000 people just that typical small town. It was mostly agricultural. I lived on a farm literally until I was about five, and then we moved into the city, into the center of town. My dad worked in the automotive business and in farming both. The friends there were all people who had kind of the same economic status and kind of ideas and stuff as I did. It was just a nice little town. I went to kindergarten with the same kids that I graduated from high school, those years later, so it was a very close-knit community, hard-working, and kind of knew how to take care of themselves, I would say.

Were you able to pick it out as you flew over it on your first flight?

I was not, and the reason for that is because we launched at about midnight from Florida. One of the interesting things about orbital dynamics is we had an orbit that took us into the darkness as we crossed the equator northbound and into the daylight as we cross the equator southbound for the whole two weeks. Even though the Earth’s rotating underneath, everything we saw in the northern hemisphere was dark and lit in the southern. So I’ll be able to improve on that with the five-month stay on the space station. I could see for example, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Lake Michigan, Chicago, and tell roughly where it was, but I wasn’t able to pick out the town itself. I’m hoping to be able to do that on my long trip.

What is it about that place and the people that were there that you think helped make you the person that you are?

I think they all thought, you could carry your weight and you are capable. Everybody gave you the benefit of the doubt. If I wanted to work in the grocery store and go take flying lessons, there was somebody willing to give me a job doing that. Everybody is pretty hard-working academically and everything, the school was a good example for me academically, and just kind of was willing to boost me out of the nest when the time comes to send me off to college. It was good to have role models that I knew a lot of the other parents because I was there with them. All my adolescent life there I got to know a lot of the parents of the kids and brothers and sisters. I think all those influences and that stability was a good thing for me.

You touched on a couple of the high points; let me ask you to fill in some of the, the meat on the bones of your education and then your professional career as you left. You left small-town Indiana that led you to ultimately become an astronaut?

So you want me to kind of head through…


…my college career…

After high school…

…after high school and all the way back to there, that was a few years back. I kind of came out of there, I had a pilot’s license actually when I graduated from high school just because that was my thing, that was kind of my little dream, and I applied for ROTC scholarships and was able to get an ROTC agreement to go to the university and then right into an Air Force commission after that. I went to Notre Dame and majored in aerospace engineering there. There was a lot of things to learn about flying in the engineering field too that weren’t included in just getting let’s say a private pilot’s license, so I had to just continue that track. After that I went to Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi and became an Air Force pilot. I went through the T-37 and T-38 curriculum, it’s about a year, and after the pilot training I got assigned to an F-15 in Germany. Between the time you graduate and you actually get there is more fighter lead-in training and then there’s some F-15…


…what we call the specific training, just learning about the airplane. In Arizona, I did some survival training, water and POW training. About a year later, I finally got to Germany and flew F-15s for three years. The height of it was ’84 to ’87 so the height of the Cold War kind of time. Never saw myself in the future flying in a Soyuz at that point I’ll tell you that. After I went to Iceland and flew in the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron for a couple years. Several times joining up on the wings of Soviet Bears, Bear bombers, as they crossed and worked in the North Atlantic; that was interesting. After that I went on to Test Pilot School in California, at Edwards Air Force Base. After Test Pilot School, a one year program, in 1990 went back to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, back out to the East, and did weapons development testing for about three and a half years. The weapons testing are never boring, we had a lot of really early-morning takeoffs out over the sea and doing a lot of tests on the things that didn’t work right. About maybe 25% of the time that was our job, to see if we could make them work right so that was a very interesting job. I took a kind of a strange turn after that. I was made aware of the possibility of going to get a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at the Air Force Institute of Technology. I had to make a tough decision there about whether I wanted to go do that or not. After giving it some thought I decided to go ahead and do that. I went to the Air Force Institute of Technology, spent three years there doing a Ph.D. in astronautical engineering, and then following went to the Air Force Test Pilot School as an instructor. I stayed as an instructor, it was a really great job but I was coming up on the end of it anyway when I came to NASA, so the timing worked out well. At the time I was flying gliders with students up in Tehachapi on usually one day a week and the other days I was flying the F-15 and the F-16 teaching the students flight test techniques at Edwards Air Force Base. That was the last job I had just before coming to NASA.

To fly in space, as you’re doing now, is to take on a job that has risks associated with it that most people don’t ever have to face. Some people would ask you why you do it; I’m going to be one of them. Tell me, what it is that you think that we—all of us—what do we get or learn as a result of flying people in space that you think makes it worth taking that risk?

I think ultimately people want to go to space and to get out there somebody’s just got to head that way and put it to the test at some point. Just like when we expanded across the country and really went to all corners of the Earth. I think it’s in our human nature to want to do it yourself as a person. No matter how many times you go to somebody else’s slide presentation about their trip to Paris, it’s not the same as getting your family, making a big investment in airfare and time off, and really going out there and experiencing that because we really are all about the human experience. That’s what takes us there. I think an interesting piece of information is that one. If you ask somebody about the first time we went to the moon, few people think about the robotic missions to the moon that preceded Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins going to the moon. They usually just jump right to the point where we finally got to the moon, when in reality we had several robotics missions. The U.S. wasn’t even the first one to the moon robotically; they don’t really think about those. Now those robotic missions are super important to us and they teach us how to get there, but I think that the human, the emotional connection, comes about because we see ourselves out there. We project ourselves out there and we really want to go explore on our own, have a look with our own eyes.

You’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station for Expeditions 33 and 34. Kevin, what are the goals of your flight and what are your jobs going to be in space?

The goal of the flight is to fly a safe and productive flight and carry out the plan that the increment managers put out there for us. We have a lot of visiting vehicles that will come and go. It could be up to, including our arrival and departure, maybe 13 traffic movements and 15 in a hundred and fifty days. One every 12 days and that adds a lot of overhead to the flight. We have the robotics involved in some of the track and captures of the new vehicles to look forward to, that’s kind of something we’re anticipating. Of course the Progresses coming, going and taking care of the space station. The purpose of that is really to get the science going; now we’re in the utilization phase and getting the science rolling at full speed, so we’ve done a lot of preparation in anticipation of the science we’re going to be doing. I’ll fly up on October 15th, departing from Kazakhstan with Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin, and we’ll go up and join Suni Williams and Aki Hoshide and Yuri Malenchenko, who have been on board already as part of Expedition 33. Unfortunately, some delays in some previous flights have made it so that the overlap with them is only about three and a half weeks. We’ll have a pretty intense period of handover with 33, and then we’ll be Expedition 34, a three-man crew, for about three and a half weeks. Then welcome aboard Chris Hadfield, Tom Marshburn and Roman Romanenko for Expedition 34 six-man phase, which sometimes we call 34-6, nowadays the new lingo. We’ll stay until March. We’ve got some space station maintenance activities planned, some kind of periodic maintenance that we’ve trained for, but really the emphasis will be on getting the science rolling and getting as much utilization out of the flight as we can.

You’ve seen this space station before. You were there on your first flight. What are you looking forward to about this space station this time around?

When I was there before Node 3 was not there yet and of course the Cupola was not there, so I’m really looking forward to seeing that. I think, though, that I’ll also look at the space station in a whole new way this time. I was a pilot on Discovery on my first flight and as a space shuttle crew member you have a lot of emphasis on the shuttle aspects of the flight, the very high tempo of the shuttle visit and you don’t really get to appreciate all that the space station has to offer. In fact, while you’re visiting there they bring things down to a level so that they can accommodate you as a visiting crew and you don’t really get to see what it’s like to live there and work there day to day, so I’m really looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to the extended stay there as well. As a shuttle visitor you have very little spare time; you can measure it literally in hours, a small fraction of a whole day of free time while you’re docked. I’m also looking forward to some Sunday afternoons seeing the whole planet and doing some things I didn’t get to do before. And I should mention also that this flight will be in a Soyuz which for me is a very exciting thing. I was a pilot and test pilot as a profession before coming to NASA, and it was fantastic to get to experience the space shuttle, but I have to tell you, too, that I’m really looking forward to seeing the way a Soyuz operates. It is a whole different way to skin the cat, to get you to space station, and get you home. The rendezvous, the flight en route, and the trip home is very different, as you can imagine. I’ve really loved learning about the Soyuz and I’m looking forward to that aspect of the flight as well.

The flight, not just the Soyuz aspect, but a lot of it is, going, an excitement to be involved in a project that’s making use of the expertise and assets from people all over the world.

The space station it’s this great point. The space station is really a huge, very unique cooperative effort between all these countries. We do a lot, and then we got the Olympics coming up, for example, which is an international thing but it’s more, it’s a competitive event between nations. The space station really represents to me the very first big cooperative effort between the most affluent nations on this planet; coming together to do something all toward one goal and the space station, because it’s made up of components from ESA [European Space Agency] and from JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] and the Canadian Space Agency, Roscosmos and NASA, everybody has a piece of this puzzle. For example, United States provides power, almost all the power for the space station, and we provide this very awesome S-band and Ku-band comm[unication] assets which all the partners use; by the same token, when we want to reboost, the Russian segment provides us with a reboost to space, they provide Progress and crew transportation at the moment to get us there; the Canadians have built the Canadarm2 which allows us to accept these visiting vehicles now, this new generation of commercial visiting vehicles that we have coming on board, and the science in the Japanese Kibo and Columbus is absolutely world class science. If you can call it that since it’s off the world, but it’s absolutely a very classy space station. I’m really proud to be a part of that with all these partners.

You mentioned a couple of the pieces; Fill us in on the rest of what is there right now, the scene, if you will, that you’re going to arrive at.

The scene right now is space station, is really all put together. The Russians are getting ready to launch I think, Nauka [Multipurpose Laboratory Module], maybe in a year’s time or so and we’ll add one more research module, but we’ve got essentially 13 or 14 components, depending on exactly which ones you count up there right now. We have, on the U.S. side the major laboratories conducting the research; Destiny and Kibo on the Japanese side and Columbus on the European side. Those are the internal modules where we conduct experiments. On the Russian side, they do a lot of their research in the Service Module, Zvezda, and they also do some in Rassvet and Poisk as well, they have a few smaller research modules to sprinkle their science around. So that’s where we’re getting all the bulk of the research done interior to the space station. Of course, we have some habitation available to us now, Node 1 is where we do a lot of that habitation functions. We exercise now and use the restroom in Node 3, that’s where the regenerative ECLSS [Environmental Control and Life Support System] mostly is living nowadays for our environment control. We have the exterior of the space station, now we have a lot of platforms that have science on them. We have the JEM [Japan Experiment Module; Kibo] Exposed Facility that has NASA payloads outside. For example, MAXI [Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image], an X-ray, an all-sky X-ray detector, on the outside. We’re getting ready to take up SCAN [Space Communications and Navigation] Testbed on HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle] which will go on an external log, logistics platform out there and of course, Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer sitting out on the starboard side as well. So the whole thing is a big conglomeration of these plans that have come together for the last couple decades now and all out there really getting good science done. I guess we got that airlock sitting over there, too…

JSC2012-E-105474 -- Kevin Ford

NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, Expedition 33 flight engineer and Expedition 34 commander, attired in a training version of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit, awaits the start of a spacewalk training session in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA


…Quest, just in case we need that serves a special function for us; we do maintenance and keep the suits ready to go so that we can go outside if we want to and I think that kind of is the big picture of the modules. You point out that the pretty broad variety of apparatus that are there for science. How do you explain to people the potential for what new things might be able to be learned in all of those various places?

Well just being outside the atmosphere, for example, is one step toward getting science done with the X-ray observatory, with Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, looking at the space environment in terms of plasma. We’re learning a lot just being out there. We’re learning a lot just from the fact that we’ve built this thing. It’s an engineering test-bed, if you will, for a vehicle that operates and exists in space. The types of materials we’ve used to build the space station are important to us for when we build a vehicle that actually departs Earth and goes far away, because it’s nice to be here just outside our atmosphere, we can make changes if we want, take things up, bring them down. We can send MISSE [Materials International Space Station Experiment] also as an experiment which is a material for ISS experiment that sits outside and we can put these things outside and look at how materials degrade or how they weather the space environment, so we can learn a lot about being out there. The biggest component in my mind still is the microgravity environment. The microgravity is just so much different than what we experience here on Earth. From the time you get up in the morning you cannot even open your eyes and you know where the gravity vector is and the things you do in your daily life, things like the reason you shake orange juice is because it settles out into layers and that sort of thing, and that doesn’t happen in space. It’s just very many unique things, the way convection works and those things that allow us to be in an environment where sometimes we can see effects that we don’t otherwise see down here on the planet and they’re really stumbling onto some really interesting things out there. Sometimes even in experiments where they don’t think they will, they might see a phenomenon happen, go after it, investigate and learn a lot so it’s that really unique environment that is just completely different than down here on the planet.

One of the important areas of concentration in science is figuring out how that environment affects the human body and finding out what the bad effects are and how you respond to them. Give me two or three examples of the kinds of human life sciences research that you’re going to be doing on this trip.

In addition to being working crew members, a lot of times we are asked to be subjects for experiments and they’ll take a really hard look at us before we go, after we come home, see how we’ve changed, and then, in some cases, actually can look at us during the expedition as well. I’ve had probably tens of hours in MRI machines and characterize my musculoskeletal system bone structure spacing between vertebrae and those sorts of things. Then we’ll look at those again when we come back. You can’t have an MRI machine in space but we do have ultrasound up there. We have a spinal ultrasound experiment we’re doing where we can look at those distances and send the data back to the ground so that they can see how things change—does it change early in the flight, does it change constantly throughout the flight and that sort of thing. Another interesting thing is that as humans we’re kind of programmed to the length of our solar day. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, therefore, your circadian rhythm is forced to stay in tune with that, and one of the things they can look at in space where we don’t have that normal solar day in orbit, then they can look at how our circadian rhythm would like to flow in some cases with sleep shifting if we didn’t have that. Several times in flight I’ll wear a holter monitor for a test just to look at heart rhythms and also my activity, an Actiwatch to monitor my activity in space, and then they can look and see how my circadian rhythm was impacted by sleep shifting and get some really good data out of that. One more I might mention is it’s not on humans but it’s for humans as an experiment I’ve been trained to do for JAXA, which is looking at some medaka fish who happen to have a bone similar to mammals, the way their bone is created and lost, and we’ll be looking at these fish in the microgravity environment, and it’ll be really great information for osteoporosis research. So that’s kind of human science but it’s going to be done on fish in this case.

Well, now, from the point of view of somebody who has spent time off of the planet, one of the few hundred people who have done that, give me a sense of what you think it is we need to learn about how people live in that environment to maximize our chances for being successful when we go out there, when we go further away.

Certainly we really need to understand the environment, the radiation environment, all the things about space weather and those kinds of things that we can learn. I think a really big one, too, is still the human health. If you’re going to go to Mars and come home with the current thruster technology and kind of fuels we have, it’s going to take a long time to get there and a long time to come back. I don’t really think we’re ready yet to go to Mars, land and get out there and really go to work yet. There’s some recovery time involved. We’ve made some huge steps forward. We have an exercise machine on board now, on space station, that has made a huge difference in the health of astronauts coming home in terms of bone loss and muscle density, but we still have a lot of things to learn, I think, about the neurovestibular and just kind of sensory functions, how to handle those. I’m doing an experiment too, it’s an early one called Manual Control where I’ll fly just before the flight; I’ll have a chance in a motion-based simulator, to land aircraft, maneuver a rover on a planet, in a low-gravity planet, do dockings on the planet and also driving a car. Then I’ll do that the day I come home and they’ll compare performance and recovery time, get some idea of what kind of hits we’re taking in terms of, hey, you’ve been in microgravity now for six months, what kind of tasks can you actually accomplish safely. So all these things are taking us towards humans being able to make this journey, when you get to your destination be very functional, get a lot of work done be happy enough to get back on a spacecraft and, of course, come back to Earth at the end having completed the mission. Maybe, one more thing too, we’re looking right now at fuel transfer capabilities on the space station. Those will be important if from an engineering point of view to making those kinds of big leaps out to the other places, so almost everything we do on the space station you could point to and say, that is going to help us get to Mars, if that’s the next step or beyond, some day.

You touched on a point that I wanted to get you to. There are a lot of modules on the space station that are packed with specialized gear that supports scientific research in disciplines other than human life sciences.


Tell me about a few of those kinds of experiments that you’ve been preparing to work on this flight.

Well, we have a really broad spectrum. I think I was an aerospace, kind of a fluids engineer, so we have a lot of engineering fluid experiments. One problem we might have now on Earth is if you have a tank that’s got fluid and air mixed in it and you’re lucky in your car because your fuel is always on the bottom of the tank; we’re not that lucky in space, we have to design a tank so that fuel is always ready by the pump there to be pulled down the line and sent to the engine or to whatever kind of device that’s going to drive. So the fluids research they’re doing I think is very interesting. We have some experiments set up to do that. Combustion experiments, we all love fire, I think all humans are fascinated by it, and things burn differently in space than they do down here on the planet with the lack of convection and the different mechanism for feeding oxygen to the flame, so that will continue. In the Japanese rack also, one of the things that will continue is a Marangoni experiment which they can build a column of fluid, very close, very similar to water, between a couple plates that just makes a bridge in space, something you can’t possibly do on Earth. You can see the bubbles that we float sometimes in the cabin just in a glob and we like to take our pictures with them, but they actually do it in the rack. Then by changing temperatures at the ends of the plates they get flow patterns inside of this water bridge. There are theories about why it happens but it’s still being investigated, and it could make a big difference if it can be applied to spacecraft of the future and stuff like feeding pumps and that sorts of things. You just never know what you’re going to find.

Sounds like quite a variety…

There is. There’s a wide variety. Every rack is different.

And the scientists who developed these, all these different experiments they come from all over the world, too. What’s it like for you to get to work with that kind of variety of researcher?

It’s very interesting. I just had a briefing yesterday where the scientist taught me here in the U.S. but flew over from Germany just for the express purposes of teaching me about a certain rack. It’s a materials science lab and I’m going to be doing some cleaning functions in there to get it ready for a follow-on experiment, so he came all the way over from Germany, he’s a German national, to teach me and Japan. When we’re there, the weeks that we’re training, they will come from all the corners of the country to present us their vision for their experiment and for many of them this is their life effort, the particular research field. The opportunity for them to get to see it happen on the space station really excites them and we get to be their hands, you can see it in their eyes and their enthusiasms. It’s a great thing to get to meet them, to really understand what it is that they’d like to do, and we know that they would love to do it themselves; maybe someday down the road we’ll be able to get up there and back quickly and more citizens and scientists can get up there and do their own projects.

Station crew members have got other work to do apart from the science. You’re the people who are there and so you’re responsible to take care of the station itself. What’s a day like for a crew member? What other kind of things do you have to take care of?

Well, a typical day we go in a schedule. If it’s just a typical kind of science day, we don’t have a vehicle docking, that’s all driven by orbital dynamics, when it’s going to arrive and when it needs to depart, so a lot of that stuff takes you out of the normal day. But if everything has quieted down a bit and you’re just on a normal work week, we’re going to get up at 6 a.m. Greenwich Mean Time somewhere around midnight or 1 a.m. Houston time, and start our day. We work a long morning shift and then an afternoon shift. We spend a good deal of time, they give us, of course, some time for post-sleep activities and hygiene and that sort of thing, just to get ready for the day, and a chance to have a bite to eat. Then you have a conference with the ground, have them take a good look at the schedule for the day making sure that, if you have anything time-critical, perhaps a ham radio call with a school at an instant you fly over, then you need to be there at that point in time or it’s not going to happen, so you want to look at time-critical events, things that are coordinated with the ground, make sure you fully understand the day. And gather up tools, say goodbye to your crew members because the space station is so big we can go to all the corners now, sometimes I’ve heard that you don’t even see other crew members the entire day until dinner time again, so you get out there and you start turning the wrench in whichever particular rack you have and keep an eye on the day. On a typical day they’ll try to assign six and a half hours of real, no kidding, this is not preparation stuff, this is actually you’re at the rack getting the work done. Somewhere in there a break for lunch. Also, usually morning or afternoon the crew members will have an exercise session which is two and a half hours of exercise now, that’s what we’re up to in terms of keeping our health and fitness. That’s worked into the day. At the end of the day you have another planning, we call it a daily planning conference, in the evening with mission controls all across the world and talk about the way the day went, maybe a little word about tomorrow, and then some evening quiet time to catch up, maybe make some notes, do a few of the things that you didn’t get a chance to do during the day and then turn in at 9:30 lights out.

You’re the ones who are responsible to hop to any time something breaks?


And it does happen.

Yes, it does happen. Things do break. Absolutely and it’s impossible to anticipate that, so I’m sure there’ll be a surprise or two in our expedition. Some things that have needed some work in history then, if something breaks on board you might need to fly it up on a Progress, get a component up there. There are a few things up there that will meet me when I get there that I’ve been trained to work on. One of them is the high data rate, High Rate Comm System, a new comm system that will multiply by ten the rate that we can push data to the ground, so that’s a big thing, more video channels, more audio channels and it allows some commanding through the Ku-band system from the ground up; the state of the art in electronics is changing rapidly so it’s changed a lot since we first designed the space station, and this’ll be a really big upgrade to get going. I’ve had some training on changing out heat exchangers in the airlock, there’s, one of those is kind of like six, seven years that needs to be done every once in a while and that’s a couple days work, so you go around and pick up those kinds of cats and dogs and make sure you keep the space station in working order.

You mentioned that the, the time that you’re up there, part of it is called Expedition 33 and the rest of it’s Expedition 34, and when it becomes Expedition 34 you become the station commander. Does that make your life different than when you were a flight engineer?

I’m looking forward to that time when Suni is the commander and I’m a flight engineer, I’m learning from her and seeing how everything is run. I know her very well and I’m hoping that everything she does I’m going to be so happy to do it the same way and continue. So I don’t think we’ll change station operations one little bit when Suni leaves. As you know, my crewmates could be commanders themselves. They’re all, self-starters and very motivated and excellent technically. We’re very friendly to each other and everything so I don’t really have a big job to do in terms of running the shop. My idea, or my primary goal would just be to monitor the crew, make sure everybody’s happy with the tasks that they have, things run smoothly with the ground, make sure, if the ground’s concerned about something try to help them come up with a plan to kind of get things in the normal again and make things run smoothly on board. I am tasked with keeping an eye out for the safety of the crew and the safety of the vehicle first of all and making sure we have no compromises on board. We’ll do that and if anybody has any issues with anything, hopefully they’ll bring them to me and we’ll find a good resolution and get back to having the fun that we’re really anticipating having.

JSC2012-E-106546 -- Kevin Ford

JSC2012-E-106546 (20 July 2012) --- NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, Expedition 33 flight engineer and Expedition 34 commander, participates in a routine operations 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

It turns out almost the exact middle of your time on orbit on this mission is going to come right around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. What are your thoughts about being in space on those occasions?

It is not too big a deal for me. I’ve been in Mission Control actually on Christmas Day and had a chance to talk with the crews on the holidays and they love being up there. Probably the biggest thing is asking forgiveness from our families, but they know how special it is, how long we’ve waited to do this kind of thing, and they’ll forgive us this one time around. We hope to have a little bit of festivities on board; I’ve tried to plan ahead to have some things up there to make it seem like the holidays, and when New Year’s rolls around I’m going to do my best to be well rested and try to see some fireworks as we pass through those midnight time zones around the planet and see if we can pick up any of that from space.


Yes, I think it’ll be fun. It’ll be a nice little break for the 32S crew, my two cosmonaut buddies and I. It’ll be kind of about halfway between October and our coming home in March so it’ll be a nice gap in there and we’ll enjoy it.

The plan for any station increment has to be flexible to accommodate unusual circumstances; you’ve made a reference to that earlier. That includes the need for crew members to have to go work outside. Tell me, as of now…


…what’s the spacewalk plan for your increment? Who would go outside and for what purpose?

It’s a great question, still shaping up at this point. We are fortunate with Suni and Aki right now during the [Expedition] 32 time frame are planning to go outside and do EVA 18. They’ve been trained to do that, Joe Acaba will still be on board at that point and if that all goes well and they’ve taken care of that, then we don’t have a scheduled EVA in the [Expedition] 33/34 time frame at this point. Chris Hadfield and Tom Marshburn have been training to do EVA 18 tasks as well, just in case a visiting vehicle or some other. Maybe Suni and Aki will have to go out and do some other EVA for something urgent outside, so if those tasks that they’re planning to do have been done yet, then we’ll do those in probably late January or February time frame with Chris Hadfield and Tom Marshburn. There’s some robotics involved and my duties would be the suit-up IV [intravehicular crew member] and work in the robotics for those two guys. At one time we had an EVA 19 in there; I’m hoping it comes back, at this point it hasn’t. Chris Hadfield and I trained for EVA 19 and we’ve been all the way through the EVA assessment and we’re ready to go do that. It’s dependent on SpaceX 2 taking up a pair of picnic-size table radiator grapple bars that come up on the outside of SpaceX 2 and they probably will arrive when we’re there, but with numbers of visiting vehicles they’ve decided to go ahead and push that EVA 19 downstream to another expedition further out. It would be taking those grapple bars off and stowing them on the back of the truss using robotics and just putting those away so that one left out of our increment. We are all happy to go out, we are doing NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory] runs and training in the Virtual Reality Lab for all contingencies, and if the need is there we’ll all be happy to step outside and have a day with a spacewalk.

I think everybody…

Yes, yes.

…expresses that opinion: well, I’m ready to go, all you have to do is ask.


The space station these days is getting supplies delivered by a small fleet of unmanned cargo ships and, as you made reference, there’s maybe a half a dozen or so that could be showing up during that time you’re going to be there. Tell me about those different ships that supplied, not only the ships that come from the station partners themselves but from commercial companies, including a new one, the Cygnus ship that might make its first demonstration flight while you’re there.

Yes we’ll just start out with the Progress is the one that comes and goes the most often. When we arrive, 48P [Progress 48] will be there and 49P will get there just after we’ve arrived and dock to the aft side of the Russian segment. During our increment 50P will come and go and 51P will arrive, so several movements of Progresses on the Progress docking points, ports on the Russian segment. The ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] the European ATV is scheduled to have departed before we get there. It’s there at this point and HTV will have come and gone as well. The Japanese vehicle that goes on the nadir, Node 2 port on the Russian, or on the U.S. segment Node 2. So that’ll be gone and then at the back end of our flight there will be another launch of an European ATV and it will be in space when we depart to come home, but it won’t have docked yet, so it will be loitering at just a few thousand kilometers behind space station waiting for us to get out of the way so it can come in and dock. That’s just luck of the draw, we won’t see HTVs or ATVs with the current plan, of course, that could always change and we’ve had some pretty extensive training on those just in case. Then the other commercial vehicles that are just getting up and running right now are the Dragon, which has made one visit already, and there should be a Dragon on board space station when we dock with our Soyuz. We should get the chance to see that on board and be there when it’s released and comes back to Earth. Further downstream, right now we’re bookkeeping the possibility for another Dragon or Orbital [Sciences Corporation] to come at a later date about the November/December time frame, possibility of seeing either one of those vehicles again. Those are both again grappled; they fly up underneath the space station just within reach of our Canadarm2 robotic arm. We’ll fly over top of the pin and grapple that vehicle and berth it to the bottom port on Node 2, right under the U.S. segment, and have access to the cargo. So we’d love to see any of those. Of course, the Dragon had a great flight last time and one of these days the Cygnus will get up there as well, too, and it’d be great to see both of those vehicles during our flight.

And, and you’ve trained for that to be the arm operator for…


…for those arrivals, right?

Yes. Yes. We’ve all get a big smattering of training not only in the grapple itself but the arrival procedures. We do have a panel to command the vehicle from on board so we can send it away if we want or make it hold and those sorts of things. We get a lot of extensive training on its rendezvous, its grapple and berthing. With any luck we’ll get the hands on the controllers at some point and bring one of those aboard.

The landscape of spaceflight has changed an awful lot in just the last few years. You’ve got commercial companies flying, not just governments and you got sovereign nations working together in cooperation rather than competing with one another. Is that a kind of an arrangement, a model, that you see continuing off into the future?

I think absolutely. I see no end to that. I think it’s been really kind of an evolution that we won’t go back on. Some of those functions like taking cargo to and from low Earth orbit, NASA has really developed well in the last few decades. NASA’s about sharing those technologies and making it so that we can do it cheaper and we can spread out the tasking a little bit and allow NASA to go on and do a few other things that are really, more cutting edge. Something a commercial company wouldn’t dare to invest in at this point. We could do that with our NASA research and then the joint, the international cooperation. I don’t see that stopping either. We’ve made just so many advances and being able to work it out. This is something most people don’t appreciate how hard it is, in different languages, different cultures with different budgets and different national objectives, and different national perspectives even to bring countries together to make one thing like the space station happen. I think now that we’ve seen it, our other big goals, our other big steps out into the cosmos, will be as a planet and not just as a nation.

What is it that we’re learning on these missions to the International Space Station that’s going to prepare us humans for the exploration of space well beyond Earth?

Yes, every single thing we do up there. Whether it’s the material science for spacecraft development, whether its communications systems, we have on the HTV, we have a very large payload going up called SCAN Testbed. It’s going to look at a new way to make radios work in space, Software Defined Radio technology; we may be looking at kind of even a different concept in how we operate communications in the future. The ability of the humans to not only function in space but be very functional when they arrive at their destination, those are the kinds of things we’re learning from the science. Fuel transfer technologies and all the things we can learn about the space environment, are all valuable to us for pressing on out.