Transcript of a NASAWatch.com Interview with NASA Astronauts Fincke and Chiao aboard the International Space Station

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Editor's note: The following is a transcript of an interview I conducted on 19 October 2004 with Expedition 10 Commander and NASA ISS Science Officer Leroy Chiao and Expedition 9 NASA ISS Science Officer Mike Fincke aboard the International Space Station.

Start 8:35 am EDT

Mission Control: Alpha this is Houston. We are now on board with you and would like to know if you are ready for the event?

Alpha: (Fincke) Houston this is Alpha. Expedition 9 Flight Engineer; Expedition 10 Commander. We are ready.

Mission Control: Reston Communications this is Houston. Please call Alpha for a voice check.

Cowing: Alpha this is Keith Cowing with NASA Watch.com How do you hear me?

Alpha: (Fincke) Glad to hear your voice. Hear you loud and clear. How us?

Cowing: Great, Thank you. OK Mike. I've got a question for you. Now that you're nearing the end of your stay, I am sure you are passing on a lot of lessons learned to Leroy floating next to you. How much of what you've been passing on came to you via Mike Foale and the crews previous to him, and how much has been passed on to Leroy that is of your experience - and what is the mix? And can you give me some examples.

Fincke: OK Keith - that's a great question, because that's what we've been doing for the past couple of days and its right on the top of our minds. The daily living activities and how we do things on board - how to download photographs, and where all the food containers are located, and how we manage water, where the wash station is - all these things I learned from Mike Foale - and I remembered that Mike Foale had gotten that information and added his few cents to it, if you will - and then passed it on to us. Everything I learned for Mike I pass on to Leroy -and I pass on "hey Mike told us this" and "we learned that this way works a little differently" or "hey that was right on". So he is getting about as much of a full body of corporate knowledge as we can.

Some of the things that Mike didn't do, we definitely need to pass on to Leroy. During Expedition 9 we did a few things that other crews hadn't done yet. One of them is fixing the American spacesuits. Leroy and I this afternoon will fix the last one that was broken and hopefully by the end of today - and maybe tomorrow - we'll have another good one and we'll have three up and running. He'll still need to get certified - but technically they should be in good shape. So that 's something we're sharing.

Also, we did four EVAs - three long ones and really teeny tiny one EVAs in the Orlan suit. Salizhan and Leroy are planning to have two during their Expedition. Gennady and I got to be pretty good at it in terms of being able to get out the door efficiently. There's a lot of little tricks of the trade that I am looking forward to sharing with Leroy. Which is quite a turn about of fair play because I always looked at Leroy as being more experienced than I was. I was always listening to him for advice. Now I get a chance to pay him back a little bit.

Cowing: Next question. Obviously with the shuttle grounded, and using Soyuz and Progress, your logistics train is somewhat constrained. Eventually you are going to star running short on stuff. Consumables aside, what are some of the smaller things you are starting to run short on? I understand that light bulbs are in short supply.

Fincke: Keith, there's another trademark - again with the help of Expedition 8's Mike Foale and Sasha Kaleri. We started to really focus on the logistics supply. The Russians are kind enough to give us a certain amount of volume and mass on each Progress. What we are trying to do - what we did with our Expedition, and are passing on to Leroy, is to try to maximize the use of the volume we get so that they send up the stuff that we really need as opposed to the stuff that we don't need.

It turns out that our expedition did not use as much paper, for example, so we can reduce the amount of paper we send up - and send up more light bulbs. We were successful with the last Progress with that. And again, this is just to provide information to the ground about our current state of affairs so that they can make smart choices and send us up the stuff we really need. Light bulbs is definitely one of them. We're in good shape now because just about every burn out light has been replaced. We probably should still send some up on the next Progress for some spares.

Cowing: Next question. I recently had some problems with my Powerbook. It was broken, it had something to do with the way it was built - and I am frustrated. But I can go down and get some manufacturer's representative to fix it. You guys don't have that luxury up there. I guess Don Pettit set the standard for being "Mr. Tinker". How much did both of you do ahead of time in terms of just playing with toys and gear to get yourself ready for this - and did that help? Are there things that you wished that you'd played with on Earth before you came up there that you've had to fix?

Fincke: I will speak quickly for myself and then pass you on to Leroy because he has all that to look forward to. Don Pettit and I are good friends and in fact we were both backing up Expedition 6 together at one time and that was really great. He definitely did set the standard - and I paid attention. However, I was on Expedition 9 for a while then we switched around and I ended up back on Expedition 9. During the time off I had - when I wasn't on the crew - I definitely did pay attention. In fact I justified some home computer purchases to my wife - because I built them myself.

I just bought the parts and built them to tinker - but I justified the purchase to my wife as, you know "that's spaceflight training" including a satellite dish that I installed myself and all these other cool gadgets. They are also really helpful - honestly - it turns out that it was kind of for spaceflight training. I didn't realize it completely at the time.

So when the computers up here aren't working quite right we have some older models that are just beyond their normal lifetime. We're able to put some together pretty quickly, flash the BIOS and that kind of stuff, because I had practice at home. So tinkering is definitely a good thing and having a good set of skills with electronics as well as computers is vital for the space station - and for exploration.

Chiao: Well, you're right Keith. Tinkering is something we need to know how to do in order to keep something like the space station running. I am a tinkerer by nature. I think most of us are, but I think we all have to say that Don Pettit set the standard as "King Tinkerer". I didn't do anything special to prepare for this flight (tinkering around) I really did not have much time - so I have really been gleaning lessons learned from Mike and from other folks I have talked to like Mike Foale, Ed Lu, and of course Mike Fincke. I am just trying to soak up as many of the lessons learned as I can. We have a whole treasure trove of tools up here and we'll be ready to deal with any kind of contingencies and repairs we need to make.

Cowing: OK, switching gears a bit, a couple weeks ago there was a symposium in Monterey, California - a risk symposium ["Risk and Exploration: Earth, Sea and the Stars"]- where folks from a wide variety of exploration "venues", I guess you could say, mountaineers, divers, submarine drivers, and astronauts got together. Everybody talked about what it is they did and the risks that they encountered. I have kind of a two part question here. One - how would you two compare the risks that you are taking (as we speak) as you fly to the station, as you come home - and how would you compare them (if you can) to other feats of exploration such as going down in submarines. Do you see an equivalence? Have you learned personally from any one else- such as mountaineers or Antarctic explorers? Are there any lessons that you have learned from them?

Chiao: Personally I haven't talked to any mountaineers or any other kinds of explorers like that. I am sure there are a lot of lessons to be learned. The similarities, I think, would be planning. There is a lot of planning involved, getting the right gear, doing the right kind of research to determine what kind of equipment you are going to need, thinking through the whole plan, and then executing it. I think there are a lot of similarities between other types of exploration and the kinds of things we are doing.

Some of the other things that are very similar - if you are out in the middle of nowhere - and you've got your team and your equipment, you've got to be able to deal with any contingency that comes up - any kind of repairs that need to be made so that you can get back to where you need to go. So I agree, there are a lot of parallels.

Fincke: I would like to add that I was commander of the second NEEMO mission - NEEMO stands for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations. That's the one with the National Underwater Research Laboratory - part of NOAA. This is the Aquarius habitat which is underwater. We have the seventh NEEMO mission happening right now. I think there are some aquanauts underwater right now. So I had a chance to live under the water. Its not quite a submarine, but I was underwater for a space analog mission. There are definitely a lot of similarities - whether we were in an extreme environment living in an underwater habitat or on a space station. This definitely got me ready for my first space mission which was a long one. I had a lot of the tools you need - both emotionally and as well as training to be able to handle a space station mission. So there is a lot of similarity. NASA is trying to exploit some of those similarities through our partnership with the National Undersea Research Center.

Cowing: Yes, I understand on an earlier comm pass that you were talking with the NEEMO crew. Do you expect that this program will be expanded to include more people for longer periods at a time? This was sort of an echo of what Scott Carpenter did with Sealab - way back when we were little kids - talking to a Gemini mission. Do you see any utility in actually having more interactions between a station crew and a crew on the ocean floor - kind of as an analog for what you might do on another planetary surface?

Fincke: Exactly, Keith. We definitely learned from the Sealab experience. There is a dedicated group of people who are thinking how to use analogs - the commonality between undersea research and space research - because here's a lot of similarities. And then, to take that to the next step so that when we explore the moon and Mars that we can take a lot of the lessons learned. Again, its all about experience. I personally support it. I definitely think I am a better astronaut because I was on the NEEMO mission - it was definitely very helpful for me - and think it is 'great bang for the buck'. Again, it all depends on NASA's budget and, as you well know there in the Washington area, it all depends on funding and how the funding gets done. So, we'll see if NASA is going to take NEEMO to its logical conclusion or, as it happened with Sealab, we run out of funding.

Cowing: Back to the issue of risk - and the meeting we all had out in Monterey. One of the other things that came up was sort of like "my risk is different than your risk" and how some people perceive what I do as risky, other people view as being fun or as being nuts. Its always a matter of your perception of risk. The public readily accepts some risks such as race car driving where, if you turn on the TV, it is quite possible that you'll see someone get into a horrible accident - yet they let the kids watch - and they tune in the next week. Yet when we have a horrible accident in space travel, for some reason, people have a reaction that is totally different. I'd like both of you, if you could, to expound on that. Do you have any personal idea why it is that people react differently? Is it because one is something you see every day or is something you view as being special? What is it that caused so much of a national remorse with the Columbia accident that is different from things that happen every day?

Chiao: That's an interesting point you bring up - and I really haven't thought that much about it. Something like the space shuttle is a national treasure. It is something that is symbolic of the nation - of the country. And the folks that fly upon it - we're specially selected of course - and we have to go through a lot of training and we're a part of that whole collective symbol of the U.S. You bring up a good point with race car driving, and things like that. There are much more accidents and it is no less horrific than what happened on the Columbia. But I think the national psyche just gives a little bit different response because the space shuttle - and NASA - is a symbol of America.

Fincke: I agree with Leroy. As human beings with such good eyeballs we like to watch everything. The miracle of television has really enhanced that. But it always goes back to the beauty that forms in our hearts as we watch sport. "Sport" meaning human beings going higher and faster and stronger and better. And there is a beauty to watching the human form and all the wondrous things that we can do. That's why everyone likes to watch sports, I think - including race car driving and space flying. But there's something different. Just as Leroy was saying, the U.S. isn't used to making mistakes and when we do it really hurts.

Cowing: I am going to ask you a question I asked Mike Foale - as a matter of fact, Mike, I think you were floating around when I asked him this during the handover. There is this term 'expedition' that you guys affix to each one of your stays on the station. Now, the word "expedition" is usually associated - at least on Earth - with going somewhere - to a destination. Not to denigrate what you are doing, but you guys are going in circles. And eventually you come back more or less to where you started from. How do you reconcile the use of this term "expedition" with what you are doing? If you are not going to a place, are you going to a level of knowledge? How do you justify the use of that term?

Fincke: Well Keith, we are 225 miles closer to the stars. We are humanity's only outpost at this time. That is something very special. I made a few remarks the other day in a teleconference to an astronaut reunion. I had this question a little bit in mind saying "people - critics - say that we're not going anywhere." Well sure we are. We're building up a lot of experience - and we can't get this experience anywhere else - experience so that we can really go to places - to the moon and to Mars. And on this expedition we showed it. Mike Foale's expedition showed that you can do a two person EVA and leave the station untended without a human being on board - but being watched over by the mission control centers. We showed that we can take that [two person] EVA even further and we had four of them. We showed that we could take the best parts of American suits and Russian suits and go anywhere on the space station with the Russian suits. We showed that we can fix spacesuits on board. We showed that we can fix our Oxygen generator.

So all this kind of experience - everything that we are gaining from it, is really going to be applicable so when we go farther away than just our back yard (as we are now) to the moon and to Mars that we'll really have things going. So we really are explorers up here. We are building up that corporate knowledge - that knowledge of how to do these things. And we're doing it together in an international sense, we're doing it symbolically. We're the farthest up that anyone else is and so this is definitely an expedition - and I am very proud to have been a part of Expedition 9. Wow. What a trip!

Chiao: Keith, I agree with Mike. Physically, we are going around in circles, but in a very real sense we are going forward. Not only are we learning more about science and the effects of microgravity on the human body , we're also learning about spacecraft. If you are going to go to Mars, we need to build better, more reliable spacecraft - more maintainable spacecraft. We've got to get smart enough to know what spare parts we need to bring with us so that we can repair [that spacecraft]. Because when were way out there beyond Earth orbit we're not necessarily going to have the ground to depend on - we're going to have to be able to do everything ourselves. So, we are learning, we are pioneering - Mike and Gennady did some amazing things with the Oxygen generators - and they're now back on line. This is the kind of thing we're building up. So, you're right, we're not literally going somewhere right now, but we are adding bit by bit, one step at a time, towards [going] back to the moon and then on to Mars.

Cowing: One last question for Mike. If, upon landing, Sean O'Keefe shook your hand out there in Kazakhstan and said "guess what: your next job is going to be to do outreach - and it is going to be to one of the more neglected portions of our society. And you had to pick what you felt was one of the most neglected portions of our society - groups of people, kids, etc. who don't normally get the full breadth of experience as to what space is, what is about, and how they can be involved. What group would you pick - and (in 30 seconds) what would you say to them?

Fincke: Boy, what a question! One of NASA's missions and goals is to inspire the next generation of explorers. I think that I would like to pick a school environment - maybe some under-represented place or state - and spend some time with the kids and tell them what a beautiful future they have - especially in our country. It doesn't matter who you are or who your parents were you have opportunity. Using that opportunity, you can really follow your dreams in the United States of America. Maybe I can work with the kids and show them that I achieved my dream and that they can achieve their dreams. And its not just space exploration - but in general. But more specifically I can tell them a lot about what I have learned in the past 6 months aboard the space station and share the joy of our planet - and the joy of exploration - the exploration of space.

Cowing: Thank you gentlemen very much. Leroy I hope you have a wonderful stay. And Mike, I hope you have an exciting, but safe ride home.

Chiao: Thanks a lot Keith. It was a real pleasure.

[pause]

Mission Control: Alpha this is Houston ACR that concludes the event.

Mission Control: Thank you Reston Communications. We are now resuming operational space to ground communications.

End 8:50 am EDT


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