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Season 5, Episode 4: Always an Astronaut, with Ken Bowersox

Season 5Episode 4May 14, 2021

In some ways, spaceflight changes you forever,” says Ken Bowersox. Since he was 7 years old, Ken knew he wanted to become an astronaut. In his astronaut career, he participated in many exciting missions, including an extended stay on the International Space Station.

Gravity Assist: Season 5 Trailer – What’s Your Gravity Assist?

Ken Bowersox preparing for the launch of Expedition 6 on Space Shuttle Endeavour in 2003.

In some ways, spaceflight changes you forever,” says Ken Bowersox. Since he was 7 years old, Ken knew he wanted to become an astronaut. In his astronaut career, he participated in many exciting missions, including an extended stay on the International Space Station. What did he eat? How did he feel when he came home? Now a leader in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, Ken currently works on plans for sending astronauts to the Moon through the Artemis program, with an eventual goal of Mars.

Jim Green: What’s it like for humans in space? What do they encounter? And how do they get ready to go? Let’s find out from an astronaut.

Jim Green:Hi, I’m Jim Green. And this is a new season of Gravity Assist. We’re going to explore the inside workings of NASA in making these fabulous missions happen.

Jim Green:I’m here with Ken Bowersox. Ken is the Deputy Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Ken is also United States Navy captain and a former astronaut. He is a veteran of five space shuttle missions, and an extended stay aboard the International Space Station. Ken, welcome to Gravity Assist.

Ken Bowersox:Thanks, Jim. It’s great to be here with you today. And, and a couple corrections. I got on my last mission, I got to come home on a Soyuz so I take credit for that too.

Jim Green:Oh, great!

Ken Bowersox:And whenever we say “former astronaut” people give us a hard time. So I usually say “retired,” because you never know, with the way things are going in commercial space, I might get a chance to fly again.

Jim Green:(laughs)

Ken Bowersox:So there’s always that chance. There’s never the last flight right. It’s always your your most recent flight. And you’re never a former, even though you can be retired.

Jim Green:I understand completely.

Jim Green:Did you always know you wanted to be an astronaut?

Ken Bowersox: Well, I wouldn’t say always, but I started on the path to becoming an astronaut at a very young age. You know, when I look back on it, I think there was a lot of things that made me think about it, right? I, I can remember going to air shows when I was, you know, just a few years old. But the thing that really got me was when I was about 7, I was riding in the family car with my father. And on the radio, we heard about John Glenn orbiting the Earth. And I remember asking my Dad, what’s that mean? And he explained it to me. And I thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to be an astronaut someday.’ And, and so that was kind of the start.

Jim Green:Wow, that’s unbelievable. Well, you know, you flew as a pilot on the space shuttle missions STS 50, which was Columbia, and then STS 61, which was Endeavour. And for each of these missions, of course, there’s always a commander and a pilot. What, what’s the roles, because you were a pilot on those missions?

Ken Bowersox: Well, if it was on a commercial airliner, the pilot would be called a copilot. But, but we wanted to have fancy titles in the in the space shuttle world. So instead of being pilot and co-pilot, we made it commander and pilot.

Ken Bowersox: But, but the way things usually work, the commander, in addition to running the mission would do a lot of the critical flying tasks, and the pilot would back up the commander. You’d made sure that the vehicle was going the direction it should be going that all the systems were functioning properly. And then the most important thing that you did on the whole mission was making sure that the landing gear went down. The commander would be flying, you’d get down to a few hundred feet and hit the button to put down the landing here. And if you didn’t do that it was going to be really ugly. So that was that was, we used to say that was the most important thing the pilot had to do.

Jim Green:(laughs) Okay, that’s pretty fantastic. Well, on that STS 61, now was the first Hubble repair mission. Now, what was your role on that mission?

Ken Bowersox:Well, I was the pilot for that mission. So Dick Covey and Steve Hawley were back at the flight station when we did the initial rendezvous. And I got to sit up in the commander’s seat, watching all the systems. I remember Dick Covey, he told me when I’m flying the vehicle, getting up close to the Hubble Space Telescope, my brain is going to be shrunk to the size of a pea. And he says, “I’m going to need you, kind of, looking at all the different systems in the vehicle to make sure things are going well, because I won’t have the bandwidth to do that. And I’ll be counting on you to watch that for me.”

Ken Bowersox:And I remember being so impressed with the way he trusted me, right, and the way he explained what his limitations would be, and I can remember telling my pilot on STS 61, when I got to fly the rendezvous to Hubble, the same thing. And it was really true. I mean, you’re so excited you’re concentrated on, on making sure you don’t do something that might damage the telescope, you’re not thinking as much as you’d like to about all the other things that have to work on the vehicle. And it’s great to have somebody else on the team taking that big picture and looking out for you.

Jim Green: Yeah, so during those times, you have to be laser-focused on what you’re doing. Well, you had an opportunity to watch these guys do spacewalks at the time and, and, and the start that process of taking the telescope apart and putting new pieces back and forth. Did you want at that time to get out there to help them with that repair?

Ken Bowersox:Oh, yeah, I desperately wanted to go outside. I used to joke that I’ve probably seen, watched more more spacewalks than just about anybody because I saw a five on the first HST servicing mission and then another five on, on the second servicing mission. And I had trained for a spacewalk on my first flight as a sort of a contingency crew member. But, but you know, of course, never got to do it.

Ken Bowersox was the commander of Expedition 6. He is shown on the International Space Station on Dec. 17, 2003.

Ken Bowersox:But the, on my, on the first Hubble servicing mission, though, the, the EVA team was so kind to me, they actually let me get into one of the suits and see what it felt like to be pressurized in the suit inside the cabin, they needed to check out a suit. So they figured, hey, well, we might as well put a person in it while we’re checking it out. And so they let me do that, which was a wonderful experience. But yeah, I would have, I would have loved to have gone outside and actually work on this done the telescope. Instead, I just got to take pictures and watch them and help them get in and out of their suits.

Jim Green:And Hubble of course, has just been the premier scientific instrument for NASA. It’s generated more data and more scientific papers and any other mission. So the repair of Hubble has just been spectacular. And the fact that that you were on two of the repair missions is pretty special.

Ken Bowersox: Well,I feel really lucky to have been on those missions, you know, it was so amazing to be up there near Hubble and get up in the morning and look out the window and see it back there in the payload bay, it really was exciting. I remember one of the neatest things that the crew got to do was on my first Hubble servicing mission. We needed to build some little covers, right? That that would go over the magnetometers up on top, because some of the insulation was degrading and, and we spent, I don’t know, a few hours building these covers, the folks inside the vehicle. And then we took those covers and the EVA crew went outside and just in a few minutes in an EVA they put those covers on the telescope, right.

Ken Bowersox:But I remember when I got home thinking, ‘My covers are up there flying on the Hubble Space Telescope.’ And, and it was so it was just so neat thinking I touched those there on the telescope, they’re still in orbit. And, and I think about all the people that that touched all the different pieces of Hubble making it and, and how they must feel with that telescope up there, now, still today and all the data that’s come back from it and, and the way it’s changed how we think about our universe.

Jim Green:Well, STS 82 was a Discovery shuttle. So you’ve been in a Columbia, Endeavour, and Discovery. How different are they? Well, you know, are they different, in terms of how they fly or maneuver? Or what, what it what is it like? Or are they all identical?

Ken Bowersox: Well, you know, there are little differences. And if you’ve, if you’ve been in them enough, you could notice the little differences, but each one of them whether it was the oldest or the newest, it they all felt like brand new cars, you know, they, they, they didn’t really have quite the new car smell, but almost right there. Everything that’s done, people wear bunny suits, they’re just really, really clean. At least from my point of view, they were really clean. When we’d come back, sometimes folks would complain about dust or other things that come up because you you just can’t get everything but but I always thought they were amazingly, amazingly clean and felt new every, every time I flew one. You know, you you’d expect little scratches on the panels and things like that.

Ken Bowersox:We had those in the simulator, the simulator spelt like us cars, right? They, they felt well worn, but the actual vehicles just, you know, they were they were sparkling inside. And, and as far as the way they flew, I think they all sort of flew the same, the bigger influence was what you were carrying in the payload bay, you know, on a spacelab mission, the vehicle would fly a little bit different on the landing than on a Hubble mission. When you come back with a with a lot less cargo in the payload. The vehicle’s response was just a little bit differently. They both flew fine, but it was enough that it was worth training on the difference. And, and we had some great simulators, airborne and, and and, and ground simulators that could get you a feel for what the vehicle was like, so that when you’d roll out at whatever runway you were landing on, you felt really comfortable and at home, you know. You’re well prepared for whatever vehicle you were flying.

Jim Green:So after you came back from STS 82, you became, you changed positions, you became a mission specialist, you know, getting ready to go to space station. So, how did that go? Well, what was the big change in your training?

Ken Bowersox:Well, you know, there was a lot of differences, training for an international space station mission as a mission specialist over training as a commander or a pilot for shuttle mission. You know, commanders, pilots, we trained to do the simpler science experiments.

Ken Bowersox:And on ISS, we were going to be training for experiments that would take a higher level of preparation, and we would train in a lot more detail for the science. So that was one area where it was a little bit different. The other area was in the area of international cooperation, training on systems from another country, and living and working in another country. Before I flew in expedition six, you know, in, in short periods, I accumulated about two years living in Russia, and I think the longest period was a little over three months. And it, but, but, you know, four to six weeks over in Russia, back to the US over to Russia, back to the US, working in, in Russian, trying to learn Russian systems, and, and getting to know the Russian people and, and that was again, very rewarding; a different kind of reward, then I remember from the Hubble missions, but, but, but still very satisfying.Ken Bowersox:But often it’s the relationships that we’re building that really last and, and change the world around us. And I think that was probably the other bigger, the big change of ISS is that we weren’t just building a science platform, we were actually doing something to try and change the world a little bit. And I think that’s true. Honestly, when you look back about every mission, right, every mission that we fly, whether it’s a robotic mission, or a mission with a human in it, those are exploration missions, and we’re trying to change the world by what we learn, by, by the way our teams work together, by, by the way, we show people how we work.

Jim Green: Yeah, I personally think that the International Space Station is just been such a wonderful venue for improving our international relationships, understanding different cultures and, and, and teams of people working together from different backgrounds. It’s just so important for us to do. That diversity really makes us stronger.

Jim Green:While you’re up in space, you have all kinds of things to eat, I’m sure. So what was your favorite food? Was it the ice cream or not?

Ken Bowersox:I never ate the astronaut ice cream in space. The closest thing I had to a dairy product that I really liked was instant breakfast, and I hated it on the ground. But when I got in space, I loved it. And I don’t know why. But it was like having a great milkshake at a fancy diner. It was just really, really good. I loved that stuff when I was up in space. But that wasn’t my favorite food. My favorite food was this this stew. It was a Russian stew called takana. And, and then on Saturday mornings, I’d have a, an American cinnamon roll, and a bag of Russian tea because the Russian tea was made with real tea bags, and real sugar. And it was a great treat to sit there read my email on Saturday morning with a with a bagged cinnamon roll and, and a fresh bag of tea.

Jim Green:So, while you’re on the International Space Station, we have the Columbia disaster, which was so sad, I remember those days, quite vividly in my career. But then you end up coming home on a Soyuz, how different was that?

Ken Bowersox:The chance to fly home on the Soyuz was a big surprise for us. We were supposed to come home on a shuttle.

Ken Bowersox:But when the Columbia accident happened, the, the team decided that we should take a closer look at the shuttles before we fly anymore to, to station to deliver or pickup crews and the international team came up with a plan to bring us home on a Soyuz.

Ken Bowersox:But the actual flight home was just fantastic. It’s so different on a Soyuz than a shuttle, I mean, a shuttle is kind of, like flying in an airliner and you, you if you were leaving station, it would take a couple days after you left station before you finally came back down at a runway and, and were met by the ground team and, and went off for all your post flight medical testing.

Ken Bowersox:On the Soyuz it’s, first of all, it’s just a lot shorter. It’s hours, instead of days after you leave station before you’re on the ground. The G loads are a lot higher. And then on our flight, we had the extra excitement of a ballistic entry, But the big difference is you land about 300 miles or so away from the normal landing site.

Ken Bowersox:When we landed there was nobody there to meet us, which was a lot different than landing at a runway with a with a big bus there to meet you and, and haul you back to, to the crew quarters.

Ken Bowersox:Well, that the day we landed on Expedition 6 was in May, early May, the steppes of Kazakhstan. So it’s, it’s a little bit like the high deserts in the US. It’s, there’s a lot of, I think of it as reddish brown loamy soil. It’s desert soil, it’s really pretty dry.

Ken Bowersox:So we spent a few hours out in the wilds of Kazakhstan waiting for the, the ground forces to come pick us up and that was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, just at peace, there, on the opposite side of the world from, from my house in Houston, Texas, but just feeling at home because I’d returned along with Don Pettit and, and Nikolai Budarin to our to our home, to our home planet. And I still get that feeling when I go to Kazakhstan today. And it’s a long way away, but I still feel like, like I’m returning home. It’s neat.

Jim Green: Well, did you have to mentally readjust every time you return to Earth’s gravity? What was that like?

Ken Bowersox:Yeah, it, coming back to Earth gravity is as big an adventure is going into microgravity. Your body has to go through certain changes whenever you come back. And the longer you’re in space, the bigger the transition is. It helps to be mentally prepared. The first thing you feel is that you’re just really, really heavy, and your body tells you that you’re so heavy, you may not even be able to move.

Ken Bowersox:It’s kind of like getting out of a swimming pool. You know, if you’ve been in a swimming pool for a long time and then you climb out you’ll feel really heavy on the ladder, or the opposite of taking off a pair of skates. Sometimes you’ll take a pair of skates off your, off your feet and your feet will feel really, really light where it’s it’s the opposite of that you just feel heavy. Now your body is plenty strong and it’s capable of moving. But your brain is telling you, “I don’t know if this is gonna work.” But if you just concentrate really hard, everything works fine, right? That’s the first thing.

Ken Bowersox:The second thing is something we call orthostatic intolerance. It just means if you if you stand up too quickly, you’re, you’ll get a little bit lightheaded. So that can last for a few hours where you just need to be careful if you, if you stand up, and a few hours to a few days; it varies with different people.

Ken Bowersox:And then the third thing is the way your vestibular system reacts. There are organs in your inner ear that kind of detect the gravity and the tilt of your body. Up in microgravity, you don’t really use them the same way. You use those sensors to sort of sense your lateral acceleration. Right. So when you, when you come back, you can get this odd sensation that when you’re tilting your head, you’re moving sideways, right? And, and it’s really strong when you get back, initially, but then it starts to fade away after a few days.

Ken Bowersox:So, so those are the kind of things and you know, over the next month or two, you gradually rebuild your, your postural muscles, the ones that you don’t use a lot up in space, the, the muscles that back up and your neck up, and, and you get back pretty close to normal in that area after about a month.

Ken Bowersox:And then, and then in some ways, spaceflight changes you forever.

Ken Bowersox:When you’re up in space, you’ll hear it from every astronaut, you don’t really see borders, although there are some borders, you can see, honestly. You know, borders, cut by rivers, and there are some places where you can actually see changes in the way land is managed from one country to the next.

Ken Bowersox:But for the most part, you don’t, you don’t see evidence that the different countries exist, you just see this big landmass and you see how connected we are. I remember on one flight I saw a dust storm over in Mongolia and that dust spread all the way around the world. You know, it touched other countries. It spread all the way around the northern hemisphere, and then the, the rains came and and washed that dust out of the air, and you could see the rain just moving around around the hemisphere.

Ken Bowersox:And seeing how the planet is connected, how it responds to things in different parts of the world, you realize that, that we all are connected, and that even though we have different countries, we’re all related to our planet. And that is, is to me very profound.

Ken Bowersox:And I think it makes you less judgmental it, at least for me, it made me less judgmental, and, and more just wanting to understand how other people live and, and realizing how important it is that we all work together to protect our planet.

Ken Bowersox:And you start to think of our planet as a spacecraft. You know, after you’ve been away from it. And looking back, you start to think of as our spacecraft straight through the solar system.

Jim Green:Yeah, no, that’s very important. Yeah. It’s called the overview effect, how that really changes your perspective.

Jim Green:Well, so now you’re the Deputy Associate Administrator for Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate, and you’re working towards getting astronauts to the Moon. How excited are you about our current plans and activities?

Ken Bowersox:Well, I, you know, I am so excited about our Artemis program and moving to get humans to the Moon. And, and, and beyond, right, the thing that that gets me most is we’re not just talking about going to the Moon, we’re talking about going out into our solar system, and we’re going to the Moon to learn what we need to get further into the solar system. And there’s a lot we have to learn, right and, and, and I’m, I’m excited about the, the missions that we’re going to undertake, to gather that knowledge.

Ken Bowersox:And it’s it, it’s knowledge about how humans are going to work in a different radiation environment, how we’re going to work on even longer duration stays out in, in deep space. And for the human spaceflight community, we have some thinking to do about trajectories, and gravity assists, that our our robotic explorer teams have been working for a long, long time. Ballistic trajectories. And that’s, that’s what’s the I think the coolest thing about Artemis, to me is, is we’re not just talking about the Moon, we’re not just talking about Mars, we’re talking about both and further. And I love that.

Jim Green:Well, Ken, I always like to ask my guests to tell me what was the event or person, place, or thing that got them so excited about being the person in the space program that they are today. I call that event a gravity assist. So Ken, what was your gravity assist?

Ken Bowersox:For me it was that, that that time in the car with my father listening to the radio, and hearing about the, the mission of John Glenn, and the first US astronaut to orbit Earth, that that was the assist for me, that was what got the fire going. And then and then many, many places along the way. I got support and, and additional help from other mentors. I was just thinking about that the other day, how many different people in you know, maybe 10 minutes session while we were sitting waiting for something, they gave me some critical piece of advice or just encouraged me along the way. You know, so I’ve had lots of little gravity assist besides that big one.

Jim Green:Well, Ken, thanks so much for joining me and discussing this fascinating topic of what it’s like behind the scenes to make a human exploration mission happen.

Ken Bowersox:It’s been a lot of fun. It brought back a lot of great memories.

Jim Green:So join me next time as we continue our journey to look behind the scenes at making NASA work. I’m Jim Green, and this is your Gravity Assist.


Lead producer: Elizabeth Landau

Audio engineer: Manny Cooper