If you’re fascinated by the idea of humans traveling through space and curious about how that all works, you’ve come to the right place.
“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center from Houston, Texas, home for NASA’s astronauts and Mission Control Center. Listen to the brightest minds of America’s space agency – astronauts, engineers, scientists and program leaders – discuss exciting topics in engineering, science and technology, sharing their personal stories and expertise on every aspect of human spaceflight. Learn more about how the work being done will help send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars in the Artemis program.
On Episode 168, Bill Shepherd, former NASA astronaut and commander of Expedition 1, recounts the historic mission that started the International Space Station’s unbroken streak of continuous human presence in space. This episode was recorded on August 14, 2020.
Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 168, “Expedition 1.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast, we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. Twenty years ago, on November 2nd, 2000, a crew of three spacefarers arrived at the International Space Station with a mission to bring the new orbital complex to life. We call these missions Expeditions, and the crew was Expedition 1. The trio was NASA’s William Shepherd commander of Expedition 1, and Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko. Both seasoned veterans of long duration missions aboard the Russian Space Station Mir that was in orbit. These three spent 136 days aboard the space station and set the course for what would be an unbroken streak of human presence in space. We like to tout often that if you’re, I guess, at this point, younger than 20, you’ve never lived in a world where there haven’t been humans in space at any given point in your life. To get to that point where humans started inhabiting the space station was not an easy thing. So, to tell the full story of Expedition 1, we have William Shepherd, goes by Shep. He was a manager of the space station program, a seasoned veteran in space, and the commander of Expedition 1 to the station. We talk about what it took to get to Expedition 1, the mission itself, and how the space station has grown into what it is today. So, here we go. Expedition 1 with Bill Shepherd. Enjoy.
Host: Shep, thanks for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast today. Appreciate your time.
Bill Shepherd: Yeah, happy to be with you, all my friends at NASA there.
Host: And I wanted to start with this, we’re taking a snapshot here. Look where we are 20 years past when you first arrived on the International Space Station and set the course for continuous human presence. What are your initial thoughts right off the bat of achieving this milestone?
Bill Shepherd: Well, I’m kind of amazed that between NASA and all the international partners that we — frankly, that we’ve got it done. Many, many people at the outset of the International Space Station Program decided it was mission impossible, and it was never going to happen, but the team has proved them wrong.
Host: Well, that’s perfect. Well, let’s take a deep dive then. I feel like you’re the perfect person to talk to about this, just diving into exactly that. What were those obstacles that made it seem like mission impossible? So, let’s start with the landscape of NASA and the international partnerships in the early ’90s, when we were just kind of getting the International Space Station Program and the thought of what would be the International Space Station up and running.
Bill Shepherd: Well, the idea for a space station is not at all new. Certainly, even before World War II, people were talking about humans traveling in space and what we would do there. You know, I think von Braun had many sketches. There are Walt Disney shows on rockets going to space stations, but really it got off the ground, if you will, both in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union with manned laboratories. We had Skylab, and then the Russians had a number of Salyut space stations and then eventually one that they called Mir. President Reagan started Space Station Freedom, and this was in the early — in the middle of ’80s. And by 1992, the administrations had changed, and the problem was that NASA had spent almost $11 billion on Space Station Freedom, and it taken eight years. And not one pound of flight hardware was to show for it. And so, Congress was really upset with the space agency and was getting ready to cancel the program. And so, really ISS, the International Space Station Program was a big change that pulled the iron out of the fire and reorganized things. And that’s kind of the path that we started on 20 years ago, and that’s where we are today.
Host: Well, let’s talk about some of those original plans. You mentioned Space Station Freedom. There were a number of other space stations that were actually flying at that time, Mir included. Let’s take a dive into the Shuttle program and the original plans for shuttle as a vehicle to construct things like space stations.
Bill Shepherd: Well, NASA Space shuttle was actually something that NASA was promoting even before the end of the Apollo missions. I think John Young was on the Moon talking about what a great thing a space shuttle would be and encouraging the politicians to support it. But one of the purposes of the shuttle was to be able to build large things in Earth orbit. So, besides carrying astronauts to space and doing experiments and EVAs and robotics and whatnot, one of the main reasons why we needed a space shuttle was so we could build big stuff in orbit. And it was kind of in competition with the Russians. We didn’t know what the Russians were going to do. They eventually built their own space shuttle and flew it one time. But that was the landscape. And I think, you know, to me, there was a lot of celebration and ceremony around the retiring of the shuttles and the ones that got transported to the museums. But for me, that was a really sad series of days because this was the end of at least United States astronauts launching, flying into space, and coming back in a vehicle that had wings on it that could land like an airplane. And I still think that’s a tremendous capability, and we’ve pretty much given that up.
Host: Yeah and think about what it accomplished. You know, even before the International Space Station launched its first element, we did have cooperation with this space station that you’re talking about, Mir, the Russian space station, where we had an opportunity to work together with Russia doing the shuttle Mir program. And not only, you know, using the shuttle, but also understanding the operations, I guess, behind long-duration spaceflight on Mir.
Bill Shepherd: Absolutely, if you look back to even President Kennedy in the earliest days of our human spaceflight effort, talked about the political and diplomatic benefits of working with the Soviets on space. And Apollo/Soyuz in 1975, was a result of that. And it took us a while after that, another two decades, to really get close to the Russian Federation and work together on space station. But I think it’s a very healthy thing for NASA and for the country to be doing.
Host: We’ll talk about those years. I think around this time, you were the International Space Station Program manager. You had a lot of oversight into, you know, this cooperation, U.S. and Russia, to go from this idea of freedom, International Space Station — or Space Station Freedom to this cooperative International Space Station. Can you talk about some of those years?
Bill Shepherd: Well, my original assignment from the NASA administrator was to be on a — basically a study team that would look at what is the, what’s the executability, if you will, the Freedom Program? And if it needed to look like something else, what would that be? And I had — I was a member of about a 10-men team, and we studied that for about a month and made recommendations. This was all being driven by directives from the Clinton Administration to figure out what was NASA’s future with the Freedom Program and what were they going to do? After the study was over, then I was the program manager, basically handling several changes to what NASA was doing. One was, we were bringing the Russian Federation into the International Space Station partnership, which is a big deal. The partnership had been formed about six years earlier by international agreements with the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and the — there were other involvements with — there is some involvement with the Italian Aerospace Industry. But that group was already up and running, and was initially very opposed to bringing yet another partner in because, in part, this would diminish everybody’s availability for astronauts and research time on space, electrical power, and, you know, all those things that you’ve got to do to have a collaborative Expedition or environment up in orbit. So, there was a lot of negativity among the established partners to bring the Russians in. The Russians themselves were very difficult to deal with. And not because they are or were bad people, but you have to look at space from a Russian standpoint. They launched the first satellite into space. They had the first man to fly in space. They had the first woman to fly in space. They did the first spacewalk. They were the first to look at the backside of the Moon. There’re quite a number of technological firsts that the Russians claim. And they — to their — from their point of view, they looked at the United States, us Americans, as coming in behind their successes and trying to take some of the credit for it. And I think there’s some merit to that. I mean, we certainly approached doing space from different directions, technically, but Russians are very proud. They’ve got a very strong legacy in the early days of humans in space. And I think initially, we did not — the Americans in particular, we did not respect that or appreciate that maybe as strongly as we might have. And that was — you know, getting that — getting behind that — passed that was a big deal. In addition, there’s several other things that were happening. One was the budget for the space station, whatever it was going to be called at that time, was quite constrained. The design of Freedom had to be changed for a number of reasons. It was too expensive. The assembly of the components had a lot of risk in it that we wanted to take out. We had Russian components that we had to integrate. We had this partnership that we had to manage. And we had a complete restructuring of the Space Station Program on the U.S. side altogether. NASA had written four prime contracts to various companies in the United States to carry out Freedom. And this was in the process of being condensed to a single prime contract. Some of the contractors were not going to maintain the work contents that they had originally won in the previous contract. They were unhappy about that. And in addition, the Space Station Program was going to be headquartered at one particular place in the country. And there was a lot of arm wrestling about where and which center or entity was going to be in charge of that and it ended up being Houston. I was very happy about that because I was living in Houston. But these were some of the dynamics that were going on at the time. Very respected Japanese partner who was in a lot of these discussions of the initial International Space Station partnership came up to me one day, and he said, Shep, since 1990, early 1993, he said, “Shep, you guys are doing your six redesign of the space station. You’re changing the contract around. You’re chopping pieces of the hardware off. You’re running short on money. And you’re changing the contract all around, and you’re moving the headquarters to Houston. I don’t think you’re going to make it.” And that was — he was a pretty seasoned guy. And that was his expert opinion in the middle of 1993. And so, I didn’t say anything to him. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but I thought to myself, I thought, you know, we’ve got a real legacy of how to do hard things at NASA. They’ve got a great team working on this and just standby. We’re going to show you that this can get done.
Host: Shep, there seemed to be just insurmountable odds against actually making this thing work. So, how did you navigate through all of these obstacles? What — how did you integrate with the international partners, with Russia to actually make the International Space Station become a thing?
Bill Shepherd: Well, I don’t think it’s a simple answer, and I think a lot of people own parts of that story. I do think that one of the things that was really important was I stepped down from being a program manager because I — the program manager has a lot of responsibilities to do. A lot of the Congressional liaison kept the funding for the program headed in the right direction, handholding for a lot of higher-level forums. And I wanted to do the — more focused on the technical work. So, I was like what — took on the role as a deputy program manager to do that. But that said, we started having pretty aggressive exchanges, groups of people in Moscow, talking to our Russian counterparts and having Russians in Houston. And I think that was really the thing that made the International Space Station Program go. The Russians came and certainly did things differently than what we did. But in the end, the design and how it was implemented added a lot of capability to the station. And I’m probably jumping ahead, we can talk about this later in the podcast, but nobody at the time realized that how important having multiple countries and multiple launch assets that could support the station in orbit. And after we’ve had, particularly the Columbia disaster, we would not have a space station if the Russians were not able to fly crews and material up to the ISS. And I don’t think we specifically foresaw that in 1993. But the fact that many countries, the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Russians, in particular, could have an opportunity to launch to the station on their own, that was a big part of our design. So, the station has, even as a program, that had a lot of moving parts. It’s hard to cover it all. In a short discussion.
Host: Well, we can zoom in on hardware because I think one of the things you mentioned with some of the early years is, we were doing a lot of studies on designing what would be a space station but never had any hardware to show for it. So, during the space station, there were that — there was that development process of the initial hardware of the International Space Station. I know there’s components like Mir-2 and Soyuz, and I know Zarya was a joint effort. How about some of those early space station hardware designs and processes?
Bill Shepherd: But I think you have to back up one step and think about, is there a culture or a philosophy that says not only what you design, but why you design it the way you do. And that was really the most interesting thing to me. Our previous Freedom design was dependent on some early assembly flights, where we didn’t have a lot of cooling, communications, electric power, other capability. And gradually the station got built out, and those utilities, if you will, became more robust. But several of the aspects of this support to keep the station alive, had, if you will, a lot of technical risks that they were going to survive the period before we had redundancy. The Russians, on the other hand, designed smaller modules. They were, in essence, all up vehicles, and when they launched it. It had life support. It had environmental control. It had fire suppression. It had computers. It had radios. It had solar power. It had thermal control, had docking mechanisms, all that stuff. So, the analogy would be to having a house that you’re building in the United States or the U.S. side of the partnership. We lay the foundation, and we get the studs in and frame everything out, put the roof on, and months into the construction, you might have a place you can roll out a cot and sleep. And the Russian approach was clear the driveway, and pull the Winnebago up and, you know, open the door. And those are two really different approaches to doing, you know, human-capable facilities in orbit. And I think there’s a lot of merit to the Russian approach, frankly.
Host: Yeah, it’s maybe a bit simpler. So, I guess around this time, you talked about stepping down from ISS program manager. At what point did you start gearing up for training for what would be the first Expedition?
Bill Shepherd: Summer of 1996. The first crew — it was determined by the program management talking to the space agencies in the various countries that, at that time, this is summer of ’96, the launch was supposed to be 1998, somewhere. And everybody was assuming that the training was going to be a year and a half or so, maybe a little bit longer. And that was historical reference from what it would take to train shuttle crews and what the Russians normally would do for their Soyuz training. So, mid-1986, it was decided that naming a crew to go to the station would basically start driving the training folks to get their training, mature and, you know, get started with crew training. So, we got named, trying to think when it was. I believe it was sometime in the fall of 1996, and we had started our training, essentially that winter. And it turned out that due to delays in hardware and launch schedules, the crew did not end up flying until almost the end of 2000. So, our training flow was about four years, plus a little bit, about twice what we had originally intended. It was very tedious. If you’re training but you don’t know when you’re going to fly, it’s somewhat akin to crawling over broken glass once in a while. But we all understood that this was a developmental thing, and nothing was going to be perfect. And if I can say, patience had to be somewhat of a virtue.
Host: I did have the pleasure of having Kathy Bolt on this podcast to talk about training and how it’s evolved over time. And she did mention training the Expedition 1 crew, and one of the things she mentioned — when you talked about it being tedious, one of the things she mentioned was there was this idea to train you to the system level, to train you to know that the whole International Space Station inside and out, how to switch all the buttons and how everything worked. And that training evolved over time to a more general approach, since the space station, for the most part, could be controlled from the ground. Did you know — did you find that some of those — some of that tedious training was just knowing like every system on the space station inside and out?
Bill Shepherd: Well, I want to commend Kathy and all the people who worked on Expedition 1 in particular. They did a great job training us. But I think the reality of it was, we were not the easiest crew to train, and that was true for a couple of reasons. One was, particularly Sergei Krikalev, who was an Energia engineer, and he was basically our flight engineer onboard. Both he and I had been intimately involved in Mir-2, and all the nuts and bolts of the U.S. side of the ISS program. So, we knew a lot about the hardware. And so, the other thing was, we knew when we flew that, although the ideal case was that the ground could do everything, the reality was that they were not going to be able to. Because particularly early in our flight, we only had direct communications, line of sight, from orbit to the ground, and we had to have a ground station relay all the comm to Houston or Moscow. So, this meant that our coverage was not going to be anything like what we have now on ISS or what we were used to on a space shuttle with the TDRSS relay satellite. So, we had periods — we were going to have periods on orbit, sometimes four to six hours long, where we weren’t talking anybody and nobody on the ground could see what was happening on ISS. So, with that in mind, you got to step back and say, well, am I going to wait for the ground to tell me what to do when something big is up? Or am I going to figure out what I have to do in the interim and try and, you know, prevent it from getting worse or fix it or make it better? So, we were pretty hard over that the right way for us to train as the first crew and probably the early crews up there was to know as much as we could about everything. Because the chances were good that in a big crunch up there, we were going to be on our own. That’s why we did it.
Host: Very, very critical thing to be able to do for sure. I want to take a step back and zoom in on the fact that this is the first expedition, which means you are going to be up in space for much longer than some of your previous shuttle missions. So, Expedition 1 was 136 days. What — let’s take a step back to your shuttle missions and talk about what they were like and then how that compared to Expedition 1. You — I have three listed for you STS-27, 41, and 52. Your experiences on those?
Bill Shepherd: Well, they’re all different flights, 27 and 41 were pretty short, up and down flights. Twenty-Seven was a high inclination Department of Defense mission. The idea was to launch, swing the orbit around to a 57-degree inclination — yeah, 57 degrees. And then as soon as we’re ready, put an object out into orbit and check it out and come back home. So, it was a great mission. But almost by the time you were really accustomed to where to look to see the ground and what the food was going to be like you were getting ready to land and come home. Sort of the same thing on STS-41. Our big mission there was a planetary probe built by the Europeans called Ulysses. That was a launch. Ulysses was a pretty interesting object that carried inertial upper stages and went to a trajectory that sent it over the back of Jupiter. And they did that to give it an adjustment to its orbital inclination where it would fly down in the, if you will, of the southern hemisphere of the solar system and fly over the South Pole of the sun. But again, short mission up and down in a couple of days. STS-52, well, launch day, a laser reflector satellite but did about a week and a half of materials experiments, but that was pretty much it. So, in contrast, my two Russian crewmates, Sergei in particular, had spent a year in orbit on the Mir. He was the Soviet cosmonaut who launched and came down a year later without a country because, in the meantime, the Soviet Union had gone away, and the Russian Federation had been set up. So — and Yuri had experience on the Mir as well. So, my position as a low time flyer was not something that the Russians were particularly happy with.
Host: Well, then let’s talk about Expedition 1 then. Let’s zoom in on the training there. I think what’s one of the major differences is the vehicle that’s going to take you to and from orbit. All of your previous flights were on the space shuttle. Now you were getting ready to learn everything about the Russian Soyuz.
Bill Shepherd: So, the Russians have had the Soyuz spacecraft since the mid-60s. And they had a legacy of training quite a number of foreign cosmonauts or astronauts from different countries as guests to ride on the Soyuz. So, the mode of their training was that the Americans that showed up to work on the space station were trained as — or they were started on a training flow that basically saw them as guest cosmonauts. And we had a big problem with that because we said, look, we’re going to be up there. We’re not going to be in contact with the ground all the time. We’re going to have a limited number of crew, and we’ve got to know not only what happens when this button doesn’t work, but maybe why something is impeding it, or what’s behind the panel, or what’s going on that this thing needs to know or do to make it work. And this is not really how Russians trained their cosmonauts. But we said, hey, this is a new ballgame, and this is the way we want to do it. And after many, many battles with the training staff and the program managers, we made that happen. And so, you know, the big thing about training in Russia and for the Soyuz in particular was all the Russian training was in Russian. We had lesson plans that were translated to English. We initially started down the road saying, OK, we can sit there and with an interpreter looking at the translated script for the training, we can get what we need to get, but soon became obvious that we would need to be really proficient in Russian. So, everybody from the U.S. side that was training for ISS in Russia learned Russian. And it has some other benefit, and the big one was many of the people who were in the training flow as instructors had had some involvement in the Russian space program that went back ten, 20, 30 years, there were people there who had worked on Sputnik and who had trained Yuri Gagarin. And so, these people were walking encyclopedias for how the Russians did things. And I thought, you know, I could talk to these people with interpreters, but I really want to know what they’re thinking about and why they’re doing something a certain way. I have to be able to talk to them in Russian. So, that’s what we did. And it was not an easy part of the training, but it was necessary. And I think, in hindsight, I think everybody is really glad that we were able to do that because it gave us the necessary insight into how this other space entity works and thinks.
Host: And it’s very interesting because all the astronauts I talked to today, right before their launches, and I’m talking in the past couple years, they always talk about, you know, Russian training, we’re still doing it. A lot of them say it is one of the harder parts about training, a lot of them with technical backgrounds able to understand that a little bit easier than maybe the Russian language but still a very valuable part of what it is to be an expedition astronaut, even today.
Bill Shepherd: One of the things that came out of that, before we leave the language issue was it made me think of how would I approach this if I was Japanese or if I was an Italian or, you know, the many other countries that want to be involved with helping to crew the station. And I’m going, you know, for somebody who doesn’t have English or Russian as a first language, it’s doubly hard. And I’m going, there’s got to be a way that we can bridge that with controls and displays and training material and diagrams that explain, if you will, what the crew has to deal with in such a way that the need for complete textual understanding of what you’re doing is reduced. And so, we created a graphic environment that’s used on the ground, used in training, used on the displays on the space station. Today, it’s really part of how the station is operated. And it was designed at the time to be somewhat universal. So, people ask me — once in a while, they say, “hey, Shep, well, 100 years from now, what do you think people will remember about the International Space Station?” I say, well, if we’re really lucky, they will remember having heard the name but not much else about it. But I think one thing that will endure is this approach to having multinational crews who have to travel in space and do pretty complex things. This kind of human interface is something that I think we started that I think it’s going to last for a long time.
Host: Very cool. I want to jump over to your Expedition and talk about the journey there. Because now we’re here 20 years later from when you were getting ready to launch. Talk about your experience, I guess, after training in Baikonur, preparing for launch.
Bill Shepherd: Well, I would say it’s not too different than what the U.S. and American astronauts do between Houston, the Cape, and the shuttle launches. You go down to Baikonur about three weeks before your launch for a practice countdown. And then about five days before you fly, you show up again. You have final checks in the vehicle. The capsule gets made into the booster rocket; that goes out to the pad. And then the launch countdown starts, and morning of October 31st, we get up early, early in the morning, get a bite to eat, jump in the bus go down to the assembly area where we get in our spacesuits and get those checked out. Take the bus out to the pad and get on the rocket. So, that whole process was — I wouldn’t say it’s familiar, but the sequence and the steps involved were very understandable to the Americans there. I’d say the only difference really was the Russians had set the launch date and the liftoff time about four months in advance — three or four months in advance. And that did not change, so we got out. Baikonur is out kind of on the high desert, very flat terrain, almost no vegetation. This was the middle of the fall. You get up early in the morning, and it’s kind of misty and foggy. And then the fog kind of lifts a little bit. But at 10:30 in the morning, there was still about a 200-foot ceiling, which means you go 200 feet up, and you’re up in the clouds. Nobody can see what’s going on. The Russians pushed the button, lit the fuse, we launched, boom, up into the clouds away we went. The shuttle never would have flown in those conditions. And so, you know, that — I think that says a lot about the differences in how the two space cultures operate.
Host: Now, how about that ride in the Soyuz? That was your first launch on a Soyuz vehicle. How did that compare to shuttle?
Bill Shepherd: Yeah, nothing really bad to say about it. I think there’s a lot of goodness in the vehicle and the capsule itself. Their abort regimes, where you can stop doing what you’re doing and get to a safe place, they’re really pretty good. The rocket itself — I think, when we flew the Soyuz, which is also called the booster rocket, the Soyuz launcher had been to the pad that we flew on. And they had 461 successful launches without a failure, or at least a failure that would threaten the crew. And those are pretty good numbers, and so despite the fact that the inside of the vehicle is extremely cramped, the couches are quite uncomfortable, the suits are a pain in the butt, [inaudible], you know, absolutely. But you got to ask yourself, do you want comfort? Or do you want robustness and reliability? And I think for most people, that’s an easy choice.
Host: That’s right. Now it was a longer journey, I guess, compared to what we’re seeing nowadays with a six-hour rendezvous. You were you were orbiting the Earth for two days before actually rendezvousing with the International Space Station, and finally getting ready to enter. Can you describe that journey?
Bill Shepherd: Yeah, that was historically how the Russians planned their launch dynamics, if you will. We were launching in the plane of the station, but well behind it and below it in every route that we go around. Because we’re circling the Earth somewhat faster. We’re gradually catching up, and when we get within striking distance the last day, we do a little burn, zip up to the station, and dock. I think that was a consequence of the ability of the Russians to have really good knowledge of where the Soyuz vehicle was and where the target vehicle was and what the potential errors could be. And so, driving around in orbit to do docking burns up a fair amount of fuel. You only have so much, so I think they were initially very conservative about how they plan their flights. Up until about maybe six, eight years ago, that was the way they did it. But then they started doing rapid rendezvous within four to six hours to catch up. It’s just a little different flight. It takes more precision, but somehow the Russians were able to change that.
Host: Now when you actually docked to the International Space Station, this was going to be the first, I guess, long-term crew. You had STS-88 before that — the International Space Station. But what were some of those things you had to do to get the space station ready for continuous human habitation?
Bill Shepherd: Well, the docking was automatic. It was controlled by Mission Control Moscow. I’m sure that people have seen the video tapes of the downlink and all that. We drive into a docking cone. And once we get the hooks of the probe in the right spot in the cone, a couple of switches get flipped, and the two rings of the spacecraft get mated together and sealed. So, we open the hatch. We check the pressure. Everything’s good, open the hatch. One of my first jobs was to sample the composition of the atmosphere, make sure nothing toxic was in there. Yuri and Sergei were running around with checklists. There was stuff that they had to do, but I guess the biggest panic, if you will, that we had on our first day docked was we had a live press event that was scheduled for about three or — at the end of our day, but three or four hours after we had docked. And it required getting a television camera out, getting some lights, wiring everything up, turning everything on, assembling in the service module, looking at the camera, and then doing a live downlink to Moscow. And we could not find the cord that we needed to hook the camera up to the port where it was going to be on the radio system. Just frantic for about an hour looking for the dang thing, we finally got it.
Host: Very cool.
Bill Shepherd: But that was pressure.
Host: Well, you know, you talked about going through the hatch and getting everything prepared. But what was going through my mind is, is actually entering through the hatch. Now, I know today, we see crews being welcomed by crew members that are already onboard station, since we do have a continuous presence. But you being the first ones onboard to start this continuous presence, did you do anything special, any sort of ceremony, any words, even just between each other to really recognize that moment of entering the station for the first time?
Bill Shepherd: Not really. We did task — we were on the phone with Mr. Koptev, who was the head of the Russian Space Agency and Mr. Goldin, who was then NASA administrator. They were both in mission control in Moscow. And each Russian crew that flew on this space station had their own call sign. And it was generally one that stayed with various astronauts — cosmonauts rather, during their career. So, one astronaut would — they’re usually astronomical names, you know, like Mars or Mercury or something like that. And Yuri Gidzenko, who was the commander, if you will, for the Soyuz capsule, his Russian call sign was Uran. And one of the choices was going to be that during the mission, our Expedition was going to be referred to as Uran. And Yuri would be Uran-1. And Sergei would be Uran-2, and I was probably going to be Uran-3. And I did not like that for a couple reasons. So, we kind of jumped the gun and asked if we could use the radio call sign Alpha, Space Station Alpha. And the ground was kind of apoplectic, but they said, OK, for — as a radio call sign, we’ll call you that. And there was a little bit of hubbub about that, and I think that finally went away six or eight missions later, but people don’t realize that not all words, in English, translate well into Russian. And the same thing is true of the Russian words to English, and Uran is the name of the planet Uranus. And so, I saw that as probably a public relations minefield that we didn’t want to go in.
Host: Well, let’s talk about the — you’re the first Expedition. So, I keep relating to the space station, as I know it today, we’re in a period of utilization. The mission is research. But I’m sure in the early years, your mission was getting the station ready for research and getting it — there’s assembly efforts, especially in the beginning years. And of course, you had to activate the space station and get it ready for future crews. Can you talk about some of your mission objectives in your multi-month stay?
Bill Shepherd: Yeah, it was exactly that. We had initial work to get the oxygen generation system. But the bigger tissue was the carbon dioxide removal system. That had some hiccups getting started. We had a number of systems that did not power up correctly. Some of them had components that were inoperable, or one in particular had a multipin connector and some of the pins were bent. But the work that we had for Expedition 1 was troubleshooting all that and inserting tab A into slot B, if you will, and we were all very hands-on guys. And that’s what we thought we were going to be doing up on orbit. We were very happy to be in orbit doing all that because that’s what we trained for. So, that was a really rewarding part of the first — certainly the first half of our Expedition. And I got to say one thing about that. We were told at least three times that I can remember where we had come in that a particular piece of hardware was not functional, or something was broken or wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. And we would say, “OK, fine, what’s the grounds plan to fix this?” And the capcom would say, “OK, space station, we’ll get back to you on that.” And about a day later, we get to read from the ground, and they would say, “well, we’ve got that, we’ve got the plan to fix whatever that thing is that’s broken.” And we said, “OK, great. What is it?” And they said, “well, we’re sending up spares.” I said, we said, “great, OK, when are they going to get here?” The answer was six months after you guys leave, and we said, woah. So, in all those cases that I can remember, after a couple days, we would have a discussion with Moscow or Houston, and the discussion would be, “hey, we see that console or that component, it’s up and running now. Can you give us any words on what’s going on?” And we would say, “look, now we spent the last three days tearing that thing apart at night and trying to figure out why it wouldn’t work and fixing it.” And the ground would say, “well, where did you get the procedure to do that? Or where did you get the spare parts? Or where did you get the tools? Or, you know, who told you, you could do that?” And we said, “hey, well, we figured we couldn’t make it any worse. So, we tried to fix it, and we did. And we could break it, again, if you guys want to break it?” And the ground, say, “no, no, just keep it running, keep it running.” And the thing about that was, was we were constantly going back and forth with the ground on essentially what the capability of the crew was. And it kind of got down to try not to be too restrictive. You know, let us do some thinking about what we can and can’t do. Try not to get ahead of us on this. And I really think that’s probably not something they do a lot of today on station because it’s so mature. But when we go back to the Moon, guaranteed, astronauts are going to be doing an awful lot of that. And the question is, how do we learn where and how to be able to do that without making things worse? And that’s one of the big questions for the future. We’ve got to have people who have that mindset.
Host: Yeah, that mindset of autonomy. I know it’s definitely talked about, not only for the Moon, which I’m sure it will be implemented, but for Mars, whenever. Just like you had experienced on Expedition 1 where you had several hours of communication gaps, there’s going to be significant communication delays for a Mars mission. And so, that level of autonomy and the crew being able to solve problems real time without the help of the of the ground is absolutely something to consider.
Bill Shepherd: Yeah, I think if there’s one comment that I would have, I have not seen enough of that thinking, if you will, on how NASA is planning to go back to the Moon. I think maybe you don’t need it for the Moon, for the outset to do lunar exploration, but we certainly need to be good at it when we start talking about going to Mars. And practicing that on a Moon mission is the way to go.
Host: Zooming back to Expedition 1 for just a second. You talked about some of your mission objectives, but I’m curious about life. You know, as I mentioned before the station as I know it today, very big, lots of space, lots of food, lots of things to do, exercise equipment, and they’ve been doing it for 20 years. So, it’s very much routine. But what was lifelike for the first long duration crew aboard this spacecraft?
Bill Shepherd: Well, it had a routine to it, which we liked. Initially, we were really constrained because we could only get in the service module. But gradually, as we were able to add more power and open the node up, and we got the lab brought onboard, it got to be really expensive. And life got pretty good because, you know, we had a routine. We marched through the day, and things were really good. I’ve got to say that one of the things that — couple things really surprised me though. One was, I was in the middle of the service module. We got the node opened up. We were running around doing some things, middle of the day, late morning. And I’m gliding over the viewport in the service module, which is facing Nadir, looking down to the Earth. And we’re going over the mouth of the Mediterranean Straits of Gibraltar, and this is the third time maybe that morning that we had been in that neck of the Earth since we woke up. And I looked over to Yuri who was over by the galley where all the food is. And I said, Yuri, “do we have any more coffee over there?” And he was rifling through the coffee packs to see what was there. And I thought about, and I said, you know, I’m looking at the most fantastic view probably anybody ever has at this moment on the planet. And all I can think about is, you know, is there another cup of coffee in the galley? And it struck me that how normal being in this really abnormal situation had become, and I go, wow, this is really surprising. And I saw that a lot on our flight, and I’ve seen many crews after us in their on-orbit discussions and their debrief say exactly the same thing. It’s incredible how adaptive humans are and how quickly these completely bizarre circumstances become routine.
Host: No, I hear that all the time. Just how this life onboard becomes routine. And just, you know, this view, you see it because you’re circling the Earth 16 times a day. So, it does become a very regular thing still, you know, amazing to think about from here on the ground, especially for those of us who have not had that view but just an appreciation for the ability to adapt, as you’re saying. You know, the station now, as I said, you just — not only get used to it, but you have — you have so many amenities, I guess, on the station, now. You have you have your own place to sleep. You have a sort of a dinner table where everybody can get together and eat off of the same dinner table. What was — what were some of those elements of life on station with only three modules? You know, where were you sleeping? Where were you — where were you eating together? It didn’t seem like you had a lot of room to spare.
Bill Shepherd: Well, Sergei and I were in the service module sleep quarters, little rooms in the back end of the service module. Yuri had — Yuri, he chose to bunk out first in the Soyuz. He slept on his Soyuz couch, which was kind of his command chair. When you’re in zero gravity, as long as you’re not banging into stuff, it really doesn’t matter where you sleep because your body position is just kind of this slightly contracted relaxed position. And both Sergei and I had these little sleeping bags, you kind of zip yourself up in it so you’re not banging around but quite comfortable. Yuri had a seat belt. He’d put that on and away we went. We did not have a kitchen table, and this was a big issue with the ground because we thought, we were told, we had trained, and we had thought we’d come up, and we’d find a kitchen table in a bag or a box or something. We talked to the ground after we — about a couple days after we got on orbit, we said, hey, TsUP, the Russian center, we said, “where’s our kitchen table?” They said, “well, we left that off the flight because we had stowage and weight problems, and we’ll send it up to you.” And we said, “OK, fine. When’s it going to show up?” Again, it was, “yeah, six months after you guys get there.” So, for about three weeks, we had a stealth project, and we took parts off of, if you will, shipping containers that came up in the Progress cargo ship. They were these aluminum racks and bars, and we built our own kitchen table out of scrap. And again, the ground went nuts, but it turned out to be a very workable arrangement. Second Expedition used it and liked it a lot. And I thought, actually, from a design standpoint, because it was a little bit smaller than the big kitchen table that was originally designed, that it was a little more workable. It wasn’t in a way as much, but that got de-manifested when the big table came up. And I think that that piece of hardware is in a museum somewhere. But again, it’s a question of letting the crews to kind of adapt to their own space, to build on that a little bit more. Every crew I’ve seen on station, they get to the point where they see themselves in an environment that’s really not part of the Earth anymore, at least for, you know, a couple months. And that’s a really important kind of mental construct as to how astronauts see themselves in relation to Earth.
Host: Now, you mentioned you — when you were talking to the ground, you said, “that’s not going to come for another six months.” Was that the arrival of the 102 crew, the space shuttle that arrived? And what else did they bring?
Bill Shepherd: Well, actually, the table came after the 102 crew. So, I think the six months might — the table showing up might have been the — at the end of their Expedition. But 102 brought up the [Multipurpose Logistics Module] MPLM, the Italian logistics module that the Italian Space Agency was providing. And that was also Susan Helms, Jim Voss, and Commander Yuri Usachev, and we spent the week with them on orbit. People outside hooking stuff up, and then Jim and Susan, I guess, did a spacewalk or two, I guess. And then when we do these docked events with a shuttle because of the reduced pressure that the shuttle has to be at for the EVAs, we generally have the hatches closed. So, it’s the shuttle docks, you have some initial meet and greet, then it’s a couple days of hatches closed. And we open the hatches up when the EVAs are done. So, you know, very hectic time, a lot of running around moving bags and cargo, get any the MPLM attached to the station. But it was great to see all these people that we had worked and trained with for years, and now they’re up on orbit, and we’re going to get on Discovery, close the hatch and go home.
Host: Now, one thing before you went home that I believe it was you who instituted this was, it’s a tradition that’s still carried on today, handing over command of the International Space Station. You as the first commander, that change of command ceremony with a bell and handing over of I think it was a key that was started by you. And that was inspired by your time in the Navy. Is that right?
Bill Shepherd: Yes. And it was something that we had talked about, both with the Russian cosmonauts and the other astronauts in Houston, that we wanted to do. Simply because we had two control centers at that point. We have four now, at least. I think we might have five, I’m not sure. But the — who was in charge of the space station in later years in the modern era definitely gets passed around from country to country and even, you know, nationality or nationality as far the station commander. So, anticipating that we thought, you know, the Navy has a long tradition of doing this, and it’s the Royal Navy in the UK, the Russian Navy does it, the U.S. Navy does it. Then you have this little ceremony where you say, OK, fine, here’s the crew, and we’re going to tell you something, and here’s the new guy who’s in charge. And this is what he’s going to do, and so it’s a change of command. And we thought that was a really important cultural thing to introduce to the space station. I think at first the Russians were going — they’re scratching their head saying, you know, what are these Americans doing now? But I think today, they and the Canadians, the Japanese and the Europeans really like it because it really sets the tone for the next phase of station operations and how it’s going to be run.
Host: Now, when you came home, you came home on the space shuttle. And this was a little bit different for you in that — the time you spent in space was much longer than you had previously on your other shuttle missions. How were you feeling when you came back now that you had spent so much time in your space, your body adjusting to 1 g after a long Expedition?
Bill Shepherd: I had a really good experience. I don’t really know why. I know we spent a lot of time on our days on orbit getting what exercise we could. We had a little jungle gym that we worked on. It was new. That really seemed to be beneficial. My experience coming back after the ISS flight was probably as good as my shorter shuttle flights. And I felt really good. I did not have any particular uneasiness, you know, neurovestibular issues or anything like that. As a little experiment, the day after we got back, the morning after the day we had landed, we were going to pile into a van out of the parking lot at the Kennedy Space Center, and we’re going to go somewhere for some kind of test. And when you’re walking around to do these things, you have a flight surgeon right with you and maybe one or two other handlers just in case you start going wobbly, you know, they’ll catch you. And I felt pretty good, and so, we’re out in the parking lot. I talked to my flight doc, and I said, now, Terry — and he was going to drive the van. I said, “Terry, let me try driving the van.” And Terry, he’s holding his hand on his head. It’s Sunday morning. And it’s like 6:00 o’clock in the lobby, in the lot outside the [Operations and Checkout] O&C building at KSC. There’s nobody in the parking lot. There’s no cars in the parking lot. And he says, OK, but just take it really — so I got in the car, and I’m driving around really slowly, and I could turn really slowly. Didn’t like braking abruptly, but, you know, as long as I was easy on the controls, it was OK. And I did that for about three or four minutes. I stopped, got out, and I thought to myself, this is the kind of thing that we’re going to be doing. When we go to Mars, and we have a long journey, we’re going to be weightless, we have a landing, we’re all going to pile out, and we’re going to be in rovers and things like that. And I thought about that, and I said to myself, we can do this.
Host: That’s big. That’s very big. That means that, you know, as we’re shaping what that’s going to look like, that little experiment you did in the parking lot might actually prove useful as to how humans can perform on another surface. You know, we’ve learned so–
Bill Shepherd: Like, it’s not well documented, but I think that’s the kind of stuff we’ll be looking.
Host: [Laughter] That’s right. You know, we learned so much just from the International Space Station just past yours. I know you retired from NASA in 2001 but taking a look at the whole Space Station Program after your mission going from — starting in 2000. Now, here we are 2020. You know, what do you take away from the experience of what you’ve seen maybe from the outside of what we have — or what value the International Space Station throughout these past 20 years has brought us?
Bill Shepherd: I think people maybe have not experienced or don’t remember what a technical and programmatic and possibly just diplomatic challenge the space station really was. And the fact that we’re able to do it, I don’t think the space station’s had a major technical casualty that I’m aware of, since we launched. We’ve had, what, 63 Expeditions on there that have all been very successful. We have multiple ways to get to the station now. So, you got to step back and say, well, what does this really mean, in terms of the future? What, you know, what does it say about what’s next? And I say, well, if we’re going to go past the Moon, out to Mars, and maybe other places, asteroids and things like that, the character of how we will do this, it’s going to have several aspects. One is the vehicles that we send, and they’re probably going to be more than one of them, are going to be very big. They’re going to be such a size that they can’t be assembled on the ground and launched in a single lift. We don’t have the boosters that are going to have enough power. So, they’re going to have to be assembled in orbit with EVA and robotics. And they’re going to have to combine the resources of more than just one country because the expanse of a Mars mission is not something any single country is going to be able to afford, nor would they have all the technology and capability that will be required. And so, if you look at International Space Station, it’s really a blueprint for how to do this. And so, I think all those questions, they’re behind us.
Host: That’s just an incredible thing to think about, you know, the space station, not only for informing exploration plans. We’re talking about the Moon. We’re talking about Mars. And having a foundation of international cooperation is really, thanks to the space station program. I know one thing we’re looking forward to in the near future, you talked about multiple ways to get to the space station now. That’s an era of commercialization with commercial crew. And I know there’s efforts to commercialize low-Earth orbit and thinking about what else is going to be in low-Earth orbit in the future, and it’ll be thanks to the space station that’s informing some of those commercial enterprises. Do you think there’s value there to the space station as a platform to help build an economy in low-Earth orbit?
Bill Shepherd: Well, I think it’s a big question that hinges on what do commercial operations really who — or commercial enterprises, what do they look like? I think it’s hard to have a commercial market when NASA’s the only customer. It kind of stretches to the question of is it really a commercial event? If we were able to find some material, invent or develop something that could only be done in space that both had tremendous value, either in the space-based economy or back here on Earth, then I think you’d see commercial space really take off. Everybody’s very optimistic that we are going to find something like that. I know that if we don’t look for it, then we’re not going to find it.
Host: That’s right. Now thinking about that, you know, you got to make sure that NASA is not just the only customer, that we’re one of many customers. And we’re also looking at exploration. We got this Artemis Program, and that’s going to inform our exploration plans for Mars. How do you see NASA’s role for the future?
Bill Shepherd: Well, I think it’s an open question right now. I would like to see NASA take a strong role in leading the technology development and organizing the architecture for how we’re going to do lunar exploration and certainly Mars expeditions. I think that’s the right place for NASA. The one negative comment that I would have is that we’re — NASA is a political animal, if you will. And we tend to have great periods of very robust development and operations and then a stand down for a decade or two before we do the next big thing. We did that in the Moon program. We did that in shuttle. We’re probably going to do that when space station’s past its peak and getting ready for some sort of disposition. I don’t think it’s a very healthy way to have a robust, space capable organization. If we could change that for the better, I think it’d be a tremendous thing.
Host: I absolutely believe that too. Bill Shepherd, thank you so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast and sharing the history of what it took to get to Expedition 1, your experience there, and then what you helped shape for 20 continuous years onboard the International Space Station. I very much appreciate your time.
Bill Shepherd: I’m happy to be with you and your audience. Thank you.
Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Shep as much as I did. We’ve been putting together a collection of episodes about the International Space Station in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of continuous human presence. Go check us at NASA.gov/podcast. You can click on us, Houston We Have a Podcast, and off to the side we have a collection of space station episodes. You can listen to them in no particular order. This has been a very dynamic time for the International Space Station this month. And we got a lot more coming up. Check out NASA.gov for the latest launch and landing schedule of crews going up and down, to and from the International Space Station. You can talk to us at Houston We Have a Podcast at the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Use the hashtag #AskNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea for the show. Just make sure to mention it’s for us at Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on August 14th, 2020. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Norah Moran, Belinda Pulido, and Jennifer Hernandez. Thanks again to Bill Shepherd for taking the time to come on the show. We’ll be back next week.