October 30, 2015

Fifteen years of astronauts living together on the ISS

When astronaut William Shepherd left Earth on 31 October 2000 aboard Space Shuttle Discovery, he made his way to a very special residence. At an altitude of approximately 400 kilometres, it offered an unobstructed view of Earth and no risk of meeting unfriendly neighbours. The US citizen was Commander of Expedition One, the first long-term crew on the International Space Station (ISS), who arrived on 2 November 2000. In this interview, the former US Navy SEALs officer reveals how the team brought the ISS into operation, introduced the first traditions and began the research programme.

Interview by Manuela Braun.

You, together with Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, were the first residents of the newly-built International Space Station (ISS)? What were your first tasks on board when you arrived?

Our mission was to make the Space Station operational, and this involved configuring many systems that had been taken into space, but that were not in an operational state when we arrived. When you lift things from the ground and take them into orbit, there are substantial loads and vibrations. So things that have to be free to move in space had to be packed and restrained into various fittings. And a lot of this stuff was still arranged that way when we went to orbit. And so a big part of our mission was to do some unpacking.

All the astronauts flying to the Space Station today are quite sure of being able to live and work in a fully functioning laboratory. But you were the residents of a Space Station that could also offer you some surprises…

The Space Station today is about six times bigger in terms of internal volume in comparison to what we enjoyed. It is a much more capable and also more complex station now. As you add the different modules, you expand the various systems – particularly the power system. This becomes quite a lot for three to six people on board to manage. They can’t do it by themselves; they have to depend on the ground to tell them what to do and when to do it. We had a lot more latitude during our flight because no one really knew how the whole was going to perform, and we of course did have a number of technical surprises that were not anticipated.

Were there also difficult moments or difficult decisions that had to be made during this first long-term stay on board the ISS?

We did have some technical things that didn't work; several devices had broken pins and connectors. For example, there was an air-conditioning system we had some trouble with, and there were at least three things not working that we were told were inoperable. We would say: "OK" when we talked to Houston and ask "what's the plan to fix this?" Or Moscow would say: "We come back to you tomorrow." And then we waited until the next day. And then Moscow would say: "Oh, we have a plan to fix that." So, we replied "great, tell us what it is?" And they would respond: "Well, the spare parts and tools are coming up and will be there six months after you guys leave. So, just sit on your hands." We didn't consider this as a very satisfactory answer. In at least three cases that I can remember we attempted to fix what was broken on our own, sometimes in our 'stealth' time. And two or three days later the systems were back online. We got queries from Houston and Moscow: "We see that this is running again – what happened to it?" And we said: "We tore it apart last night and we figured out what we could do to make it work. We put it together again and – well – it’s working." And they said: “How did you do this without the procedures?" There was a big hubbub on the ground. Our response: "We could go back and break it…" to which they replied "no,no… let it run!"

How did you work as a team?

Our training period was very stressful. Not so much because of the physical demands or even the academic ones, but because our flight was originally scheduled for launch in 1998 and was delayed more than two years. And so we spent over four years in training mode, which in itself is a little bit arduous. Even the trainers got a little bit tired of training us. We started out as a crew that was not particularly close, but early on in our training flow we found that we were very compatible and that we got along extremely well. And some of our backgrounds, our knowledge and our experiences didn’t overlap as much as they complemented each other. One thing that did surprise me when we flew in space was that our sense of being able to work together as a team only grew stronger the whole time we were in orbit. And we really had a great expedition. When we finished, we were not quite sure that there wasn't anything that was going on in space that we couldn't do. I am not sure if that is reality, but it is a good feeling.

Today there are several traditions established on board the ISS. How did you begin your daily routine, being the first expedition?

Part of the traditions tie back to the roles of the crew versus the ground. I thought: 'So what will be the role of the crew and the commander with regard to the ground?' And it was agreed to and made part of the process that any time the commander felt that he or she had to make a decision to do something in a time period where there was no opportunity to discuss it with the ground, the crew was empowered to take any action that was needed to ensure they were safe, make sure that the vehicle would stay intact and to keep the mission going. And they would do this without consulting 'mission control' if they had to – and this was the rule. In my opinion, this is an essential part of how these expeditions should be carried out.

Another example: In the military we have what's called a 'change of command' and this is an ancient tradition. It certainly goes back to the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom, hundreds of years ago; so at the end of our expedition, which was over in March 2001, we had a change of command ceremony and I gave the command of the Space Station over to Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Usachev, who was the commander of the second expedition.

Change of Command is a big part of the tradition on board ships. They have a bell that is used to bring the crew to attention and now the Space Station has a bell on it, and they ring the bell when crews do the change of command, and also for other ceremonies. They ring the bell, for example, when people arrive or depart – it's a nautical tradition. There are many other traditions we copied. When notable things happen on board, we write it down in a book we call a 'log' – and that’s where a record is kept of the important events that take place during a ship’s voyage. So now the Space Station has a log.

Having a Space Station programme with its own culture is especially important. It is important that people recognise they are doing something exceptional, that they are making a lot of sacrifices professionally and personally, but it all has value. This value is distinguished in part by its uniqueness. This culture brings that to the front.

Your expedition did a lot of jobs like installations or fixing problems. Was there also time for scientific experiments?

We were basically a construction crew, but also operated scientific experiments that involved scientists from Germany and Russia during our expedition. The primary experiment was called 'Plasma Crystal' – that was some of the first real science that was done on the Space Station. This was a small container where plasma – a special gas, was created and photographed. One of the elements of the Space Station's scientific purpose is to do basic scientific research and this is the first time this was done. Before our flight, we had several meetings – some in Russia, some in Germany, with the technical and scientific groups that were responsible for the experiment, to learn how it was to be operated and how to take care of it. My two Russian colleagues were the principal operators on board the ISS and I was trained to do it as a backup. I basically watched Sergei and Yuri run the experiment.

It was not your first trip to space and you were also the Program Manager of the Space Station project for some years. Was this mission, nevertheless, something special to you?

In 1993, NASA decided to change the details of the Space Station program, which had started seven years before, back in 1986 with Space Station Freedom. This was the inception of today's large international partnership – with the European Space Agency, the Canadians, and the Japanese. I worked as the first Program Manager at the outset, and then stayed with the program in a technical capacity. I took a role as the Deputy Program Manager in charge of all the engineering and technical aspects of the Station. I did that until 1996 – that was over three years – and then started training in 1996 as the commander of the first expedition. So I wouldn’t say that this involved building the Space Station from the ground up, but I had very good insight for several years into the operational and technical arrangements of the Station and many of the parts that would keep it together.

Did you already know, as Program Manager, that you would also be the first commander of the ISS?

That decision was made in in 1996. United States Vice President Gore and Viktor Chernomyrdin, the Prime Minister of Russia, made an agreement on how the first expedition was going to be formed and carried out. And it was agreed that the US would have the first commander – so that's how I got the job.

I was with two very experienced astronauts: Sergei Krikalev, a Russian engineer, and Yuri Gidzenko, who was a Colonel and pilot in the Russian Air Force. They were both experienced space travellers. Sergei had been on the Russian space station Mir for over a year. My previous experience was three Space Shuttle flights – and the longest was for about 10 days. So my position as the first commander was very contentious with the Russians because they looked at the American side and they said: 'We have a huge amount of experience in doing this and you bring a guy up here who has been in space for only two weeks. So what's the deal?' And there is some truth in that. So I kept my head down because of the controversy surrounding that. I really wanted the opportunity to bring a new culture to the Space Station and I worked very hard at it. I think today some of the aspects of how the Space Station is flown reflects this.

What was your role as a commander in bringing together the different partners and cultures?

I thought about it well before we had the first crew. I don’t claim credit for this, it’s nothing that’s really that new. The model for what is to happen is present in big expeditions and long sea voyages; there is a huge history for this, particularly in the early ship voyages on explorations where people were at sea for months, and sometime for years. The precedent for this is there. Being ‘Expedition One’ on board the ISS, our communications with the ground were very limited. The Space Station enjoys full time coverage now because we have radios on board that go through satellite links and they can see a satellite just about anywhere around the globe. But that was not the case in our mission; we did not have global ground coverage because, like in the days of early space travel with Mercury and Gemini, the ground network was pretty spotty. We had periods of work – maybe four hours long – when we couldn’t talk to anybody. So then the question became: “What’s the responsibility of the crew during these four hours where no ground stations are visible?” The crew is on their own and their organization had to be set up with a culture – to take responsibility when it was necessary to protect the well-being of the crew and the vehicle and get the mission done.

How was it to find a way of working together with so many different international partners, their wishes and ideas?

It was extremely hard. But if you put responsible people in a room and you lock the door and say: 'Look, we either have to get this thing figured out and move it to the launch pad or we don't have a program,' then people come up with answers and agree on them. I think that’s the strength of the partnership now; they have been able to function that way for what's approaching 30 years. Looking at another country, whether it's someone in the European Space Agency, or Japan, Canada, Russia, how they approach a technical problem and how they solve it has tremendous value and I think that's one of the real jewels of the ISS program; it applies to computers, mechanisms, life support, all kinds of space systems. Russians have a totally different approach to how they build their equipment. And understanding why that is done a certain way is incredibly important.

Do you still follow the news about the Space Station and its future?

I don't follow the day-to-day-activities on the Space Station very closely, but I still have a lot of friends working at NASA who are involved either in training or in controlling the Space Station from the ground, as well as crew members who might still fly to the ISS.

Even back when we were trying to organize the Space Station in the 1990s as a partnership, I thought: 'What is the distance that this effort would really go?' Maybe not physically, but also philosophically. If we are going to go beyond Earth orbit with an expedition to the Moon and probably to Mars, maybe elsewhere, there will be certain characteristics for how this is done. One of these is the vehicles – they are going to be very large – hundreds of tons. They are going to be too big to be lifted into Earth orbit by even the largest boosters. They are going to have to be launched with multiple launches. They will have to be assembled by humans and robots in orbit. And they are going to be extremely robust. They are going to be built using the technologies and capabilities of not just the United States or just Russia, but of many countries. And if you look at the Space Station today, the vehicle and the program – if you ask how we will do this, and what it will look like, these questions are all behind us.

What would your ideas for space exploration in the future be if you could wish anything?

In 1988, I was in the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis; we launched in December and the flight was highly inclined to the Equator. Such a flight goes very far north and then south of the Equator, you see a lot of Earth’s surface. The morning of the second day I was the first person up, I looked out and we were flying over Siberia in the winter, I could look for well over a thousand kilometres in every direction. I couldn’t see an airplane trail, or a railroad track, or a highway – anything that I could recognize telling me that there were humans down there. Nothing. And I had this strange feeling that I was not looking at the surface of my home planet. I asked myself 'Why couldn’t this be someplace else in the Solar System?' I felt something very similar when I got done with the ISS flight in 2001. We had a very good return from space and landed in Florida at the space center – and the next day after we had our medical exams etc., I was outside, preparing to go to a debriefing with my crew and several medical staff. After being weightless from a spaceflight, people are normally a little bit wobbly; they are not fully functional. So I was with my flight doctor in a parking lot, and I asked him if I could drive the van around the parking lot a bit before we went to our meeting. So I was driving around very slowly, and everything was feeling manageable. I got out of the van and thought to myself: 'If we can come back from weightlessness and drive vehicles around on Earth, it would be possible to land and pilot a vehicle on Mars. The sensations would be similar. We can do this! These goals are within our reach –and we should grasp them.'

Would you like to be part of a crew going to Mars, for example?

I think I am too old. That's the point. Very definitely. For me, my spaceflight years have ended. I am happy that I know several younger people who are having a great time in the NASA program. I am sure that one of them could, and should, be the first person back to the Moon and maybe elsewhere. I would like to think that the first person going to Mars is alive today – we just have to figure out what his or her name is.


Manuela Braun

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