On May 3rd I had a unique chance to speak with the Expedition 15 crew aboard the International Space Station. I conducted this interview from NASA Ames Research Center in California. As has been the case in the past, the interview started with me calling up to the ISS:
"Station this is Keith Cowing with Reston Communications, how do you hear me?"
Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin replied "Loud and clear Keith. How do you hear us?"
"Very clear, Thank you." I said.
I started off with a question for Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and Flight Engineer Oleg Kotov: "I am speaking to you from Ames Research Center in California. Recently, Yuri's Night was held here on Cosmonautics Day. Many of us here thought that it was pleasantly ironic to see 21st Century American youth cheering a former Soviet cosmonaut. Have you seen any similar ironies as America and Russia have joined forces in space?"
Yurchikhin replied [Paraphrased from translation] "I remember back in 1975 when we had the first joint flight program - a very nice program - the Soyuz/Apollo program. [Back then] we began thinking about our future programs. Now, of course, the space program is too expensive for one country. Now, we work together. This is very good for both sides - and for our partners too because the ISS program has 16 partners. [The ISS] is a big school. We are pupils in this school and we are teaching in this school. For me it is a very great program. We understand each other, [and how we use] different technology - and how we operate the systems - etc. etc. etc. And we study each other."
My next question was for Flight Engineer Sunita Williams: "You recently ran the Boston Marathon in space. That's something that requires legs to do - even in outer space. However, last week, Professor Stephen Hawking experienced weightlessness aboard a Zero Gravity Corporation jet - and he does not have the use of his legs - or his arms. A question for you - and you must have thought about this: have you ever given any thought as to how much of what you do in space right now could be done without the use of your legs? Are there ways that people who have [mobility] problems on Earth could function better - or more efficiently - in space?"
Williams replied "Keith that is a very interesting question. I answered a question about spacewalking to a bunch of kids the other day. They were trying to understand why we even had pants on while we were out there doing a spacewalk. We don't really need our legs that much. There are some devices that we use to hold ourselves steady without legs - but that's really about it. You know, I find myself using my legs - rather my feet - a little bit more like my hands - where I am sort of holding on to something with my toe to keep me stabilized while I am doing other activities with my hands. But getting back to the meat of your question, legs are not necessarily used that much up here. The only thing that I think we need to remember [about our legs] is to make sure that we exercise them and do weightlifting so that when we come back we can still use them."
I followed up by asking Sunita about comments made regarding Professor Hawking's flight by Alan Stern, who is the Associate Administrator for Space Science at NASA. "Stern noted the similarities between space research and the research that is done on Earth - such as the arctic and the Antarctic. Right now, while there are a lot of scientists that go to the polar regions, we do not see pure, 100% professional scientists on the space station - and yet that's what we've all been told will happen. When is that going to happen? At what point in the assembly - on what mission will that happen?"
Williams replied: "We are looking forward to having a 6 person crew up here before long. At that point in time hopefully we will be able to dedicate a few people to doing science the entire time - or at least higher than 50% of their time while they are up here. The space station is pretty big - and it is an engineering project. It needs maintenance just like a ship at sea. So, those types of things have to go on too. There's a little bit of give and take between the science activities and the maintenance and construction of the space station. Hopefully, within the next couple of years, once we have our other partners' laboratories on board, and we have 6 people up here working, we will be able to get some more time dedicated for science."
My last question is one I have asked ISS crews before: "When people go to live aboard the International Space Station, they refer to their stay as being an "Expedition". That word is used constantly. Normally, on Earth, when we use the word "expedition", [it implies that] you are going somewhere - and then you come back. With all due respect, on the space station, you just go in circles - you orbit the Earth. Can you tell me what aspects of what you are doing up there right now is similar to a real expedition - or, are you really preparing (now) to do expeditions elsewhere? Where's the balance between those two?"
Williams replied "Another great question. I think part of this is like an expedition because it is sort of like a camping trip where you are away from home, you do not have all of the comforts of home, and you are in sort of a dangerous place. And to get back takes a little bit of, uh, overarching, extraordinary ability to get into a Soyuz to get back home in an emergency-type of situation. We are in a remote area and I think that is probably why we like to call this an "expedition". In particular, there are a few people - three of us - living here together for the entire time without much interaction with other people. So that is another aspect of being on an expedition. But I think your point is absolutely great - we are practicing and we are doing research to go elsewhere. Hopefully, we are going to be going back to the moon, going on to Mars. We need a laboratory like this, which is in close contact with the folks on Earth to help us when we are doing experiments to try and figure out how to leave Low Earth Orbit. So, I think your question is great because it has two answers: we are on an expedition because we are learning and secondly we are preparing for a much bigger expedition which I hope that the next generation of kids will be on - and are excited about."