Space Stations

ISS Astronaut Suni Williams Talks With SpaceRef

By Keith Cowing
November 18, 2012
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ISS Astronaut Suni Williams Talks With SpaceRef
Astronaut Suni Williams Aboard the International Space Station

On 11 September 2012 SpaceRef Editor Keith Cowing had a chance to talk with Astronaut Suni Williams aboard the International Space Station.

Mission Control: this is Houston please call station for a voice check.

Cowing: Station this is how do you hear me?

Williams: I’ve got you loud and clear how me?

Cowing: Perfect. Well, for my first question, when I do these interviews I usually get to the word “expedition”, since that is how all of your trips up thee have been described. Usually that word means ‘going somewhere’. But in the case of the station its more like an ocean-going expedition – you go in circles and then you come back to where you started. I guess [the station] has some attributes of being like a base camp. So … your take on this whole thing of being on an ‘expedition’- what are you accomplishing in a grander sense – how does this enable future expeditions where we go to places such as the asteroids – or to Mars?

Williams: Hey Keith that’s a great question – and you are right, a lot of people ask me where is the space station and where is it going. It is orbiting the planet 16 times a day. We are living up here in microgravity. This allow us to do all sorts of science experiments that we cannot do on the ground. On the ground we can have a couple of seconds – maybe 30 seconds of microgravity in a drop tower. But here you can test out all sorts of systems in their completeness and their complexity. For example, we are doing a lot of experiments on ourselves that are going to help to understand what happens to humans when they are in space for a long time. We’re doing materials science combustion experiments, capillary flow experiments. All of that type of stuff helps us build better spacecraft. We have engineering things that are going on.

Obviously we’re living up here in a ‘hotel’ or a ‘house’ so it has its own parts and pieces that we’re testing out for the very first time. Like how to process urine back into water. And there are other types of engineering experiments that are going on up here as well as AMS which is outside doing experiments on the universe. There is also robotics and EVA. All of that stuff is needed and ewe need to test it out, understand it, and figure it out before we can ever venture to an asteroid or on to Mars.

‘Cowing: A related question with regard to exploration. In the cupola there is a little plaque. It has 4 little Moon rocks that were picked up by Neil Armstrong – and a piece of the summit of Mt. Everest, picked up by another astronaut, Scott Parazynski. In the National Cathedral there will be a service on Thursday for Neil Armstrong – theres also a little moon rock in the window. How often do y’all float by that plaque – do you have any thoughts when you look down at the Earth and out at the Moon – and also, given that Neil Armstrong and Sir Edmund Hillary were good friends later in life, what would you have to say if you were virtually participating in the memorial service on Thursday?

‘Williams: Wow, that would be an amazing honor. I think I’d be a little bit speechless, first and foremost. You are right – every time we go up to the cupola, you see that plaque there and you think of all the great things that humans can do when they work together in doing expeditions and exploring. I think is just in our human nature. I think Neil Armstrong really epitomized that as well as Scott. For that matter, in his quest for Everest. So, I don’t know what I would say – expect that exploration is in our hearts, and both of those people definitely are our role models.

Cowing: Again, speaking of expeditions, try as I might when I have gone off on expeditions, I have a really hard time finding things. And after 2 or 3 weeks, my tent is a mess. I was just listened to air-to-ground just a few minutes ago where you were looking for something. I look at the photos that come down, and some of the bags have bar codes on them, some of them have hand written labels in 2 or 3 different languages, and you can’t see inside the bags. Is it my exaggeration or do you guys spend a little bit too much time looking for stuff? And do you have one example of the most frustrating thing that you’ve never found or you found later?

Williams: Its funny that you mention this. One of the kids on the Ham radio pass just asked me that the other day – what’s the best thing and the worst thing about being in space. And of course the best thing is floating – that’s pretty awesome. But the worst thing about space is also stuff floating. And you are right – you can’t just put something down because a couple of second slater it is going to float away – sort of like this microphone. Just yesterday I lost a bag of coffee – if you can believe it. I just thought I velcroed it down and it was gone. What typically happens is that you find it not too long afterwards. You get to know the airflow patterns in the space station because the air is flowing in and out of the vents and through the vestibules. So you sort of get an idea of where something is.

But there are times when things are velcroed on and somebody comes by and kicks it with their foot – so of course it is going to float away. So, you do spend a little bit of time looking for stuff- but we do have a really good inventory management system – it has gotten better and better – and garbage in, garbage out. All of us have been conscientious about it and have tried to keep it up to date and up to speed. It is really good. I was actually sort of surprised. This space station is huge and since I have been up here I have really had a lot of luck finding anything that I am looking for – including all that stuff we made all those tools from the other day.

Cowing: OK, I gotta ask about Gorbie. How’s he doing? Is he vacationing up at the Cape again? Do you have any Gorbie avatars up there with you? I should also pass on that I just learned today that two Gorbie avatars are going to Antarctica – one is going to Lake Untersee with Dale Andersen and the other is going on a grand tour with Scott Parazynski down to the South Pole. So … are we going to see Gorbie?

‘Williams: Oh yea, Gorbie is all around here. I also have something that has gone on a couple of those expeditions almost like that rock from Mt. Everest. You might recognize this little picture that actually went to Mt. Everest as well. You might also recognize this little guy right here. (Gorbie plushie) he hangs out with me. Speaking of getting lost – one time he flew out of my sleep station and he was lost for a little bit. But luckily he’s light enough that he got sucked into a fan and I found him not too long after.

Cowing: Yes: I recognize the dog picture. (Note this photo is of Astronaut Scott Parazynski holding photos of Gorbie – and myself, duct taped together, on the Summit of Mt. Everest in May 2009 That duct tape is still on the picture Suni has with her in space.)

Another question with regard to just finding stuff, what’s with the toothbrush contraption? Its going to join the space hacker hall of fame along with the “flyswatter” and the “Hockey stick”. Did this just occur to somebody or is this one of those things where a bunch of people at NASA had a meeting. Or did you just get the duct tape and McGuiver it together?

Williams: No, that’s our big team at NASA – not just us guys up here. We do have supplies for people who come up for a while and so that they can live up here for a while. So we do have a little bit of a stash of toothbrushes and other things like that. But that’s just typical garage stuff when you’re trying to clean out a bolt or trying to re-tap a bolt. You don’t want to damage anything so you find something that’s just a little bit soft but has a little bit of structure to it so that it can get inside those grooves. I think the typical “motorheads” and guys who work in the garage got together thinking about how we’re going to fix this bolt and this housing. This just seemed to be a natural and typical thing. My husband has all these tools from Craftsman in his garage. We do the same thing at home that we did out here on the space station. When there’s something broken we’ve got to fix it. Sometimes you do not have the absolutely correct took because you didn’t plan on it. So you make do and you try to figure out how the thing works. That is typical of explorations. Sometimes you can’t always carry all of the things that you want to carry so you’ve got to make do with what you have.

Cowing. One last question: I noticed that you had a can of authentic Bar Harbor Maine Lobster and that you did not use the little bib. Was that can just up there or did you have to special order that?

Williams: That was special ordered. It was a gift from home. I think you know I am a New Englander. ‘Lobstuh’ is one of my favorite foods in the world. My parents and my sister know that it would be hard for me to go months without having lobster. So they made sure that there was some up here for me. And it was a nice celebration with the six of us last week and it is probably our last free weekend with not a lot of things going on. So we had a nice little party together and I got to share my “lobstuh”.

Cowing: OK, thanks t you and Gorbie for the interview. Have a nice one.

Williams. All right Keith, thanks again. Great talking to you.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.