Status Report

Preflight Interview with NASA Astronaut and ISS Expedition 9 Flight Engineer Mike Fincke

By SpaceRef Editor
April 7, 2004
Filed under , , ,
Preflight Interview with NASA Astronaut and ISS Expedition 9 Flight Engineer Mike Fincke

Q: Mike,
you were assigned to Expedition 9 less than three months before
it was scheduled to launch; what was your reaction to the news that
you were suddenly next in line to fly in space?

A: I’ve been a backup and been in Space Station training for
so long that it was very much a surprise. But on the other hand,
I knew that… Gennady Padalka, the commander, and I were ready
to go. And, that just shows the strength of our international relationship,
it shows the wisdom of Space Station planning that we have backup
crews, and that we have a pool of astronauts and cosmonauts who
are ready to fly, because space has shown us over the past years
that things aren’t always what we expect, and that we need
to be ready. And so it was a feeling of excitement, to get a chance
to finally fly in space, and even more exciting to… have
to be ready in just a few months.

Well, as you mentioned, you and Gennady Padalka have been training
for ISS missions for a number of years. At one point, the two of
you were even assigned to this crew before circumstances changed
and assignments changed. How do the two of you go about using this
short lead time to get yourself ready to actually go this time?

Well, one of the things that we’ve learned in working with
… our international partners, is the strength of relationships,
and Gennady and I have been working together, like you said, for
a long time. We know our strengths, each other’s strengths,
each other’s weaknesses. We know… how to motivate each
other, and we’re both really excited. It’s been a long
time in training. We have the confidence from our instructors that
we’re ready to go. We have our own confidence, and we definitely
have confidence and faith in NASA and the Russian space agency to
know that we’re going to have a good mission.

Q:It sounds like you have every confidence in being able to
work together. It may be more a question of the details of what
you’re going to do in this six months of the year 2004. For
you, it’s also going to be the first time you’ve ever
flown in space. And although you’ve spent a lot of time in
Russia working in the ISS program and helping in the coordination
between the two partners, how do you think that kind of experience
is going to come into play for you yourself as you get ready to
do something that you’ve never done before?

Well, there is a lot of growing and goodness for me in having been
a backup crewmember for two Space Station expeditions. I learned
exactly my technical duties… I had a chance to train with
Gennady before. Those were the strengths that I bring to the team.
On the other hand, I never made it this far, to right before flight,
so everything is brand new for me right now, all the final, last-minute
details that we need to get ready to launch. And then, that we’re
changing the equation a little bit in that we’re actually
launching on a different vehicle than we originally planned for.
We’ll be launching on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The Soyuz
has always been our lifeboat, and I was very well trained to help
bring the lifeboat back home if necessary. But now we’re launching
on the Soyuz, and… that just adds to the excitement for these
last three months — to get everything ready, and I’m sure
we will be ready.

Q:The details of the mission aside, it must be pretty exciting
to be taking those last steps down the path to actually flying in

In life, I don’t think we always get a chance for our dreams
to come true. But I can tell you, right here and right now, that
I’m living my dream. I’ve always dreamed of being an
astronaut, and now I’m getting a chance. And not only that,
but I’ve always really had an affinity for the Russian space
program and was always very much interested. It’s such an
honor to get a chance to fly aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
During training I always felt that I was doing well with the Soyuz,
and the Soyuz and I got along really well. I understood…
which buttons to push at the right time. You’re just in a
special connection. Now that we’re getting an actual chance
to fly in it it’s a dream come true. We are taking our… last
steps, and every day it just gets even more incredible.

Q:The news of your and Gennady’s assignment to this
flight came right around the anniversary of the loss of Columbia
and its astronauts, and three of those astronauts were astronaut
classmates of yours. That accident made the danger of spaceflight
as evident as it’s ever been. You’re well aware of all
of the dangers that are involved… and here you are, ready
to go do it yourself. In your mind, what reward is it that we are
getting from flying in space that makes the risk that you’re
about to take worthwhile?

You’re absolutely right — space is a risky business.
It’s a very expensive business. To fly in space, to make a
space program, is something that nations undertake. It’s not
just for the glory and nationalism, but it’s also for all
of humanity. And that’s why we’re working on the International
Space Station. It shows what human beings can do when we work together
constructively and not destructively. It’s a symbol for what
the 21st Century can be compared to what we experienced as a society
as a whole in the 20th Century. And to be part of that, and to be
at the leading edge, at the point of the spear, and fly aboard the
Space Station, in a very international sense… it’s
a big honor, and it’s a big responsibility.

Q: You’re willing to take the risk in order to help achieve
those goals that you just talked about. And you mentioned a moment
ago that you’ve always wanted to fly in space–when did you
first decide you wanted to become an astronaut?

I was 3 years old, and I can remember wanting to be an astronaut.
And it was really this, and it wasn’t just pure coincidence.
This was the time when NASA first went to the moon, and I remember
watching not just Apollo 11 but all of the Apollo missions. My father
was very encouraging; he showed me what things that we could be
doing, what I could be doing if I grew up and studied hard and did
the right things. The pride I felt just being an American during
that time, and the pride of watching people walk on the moon, that
inspired me. I had to work very hard… I admit I’m a
very lucky guy, and to actually get a chance to realize the dream
is a credit to the United States.

Q: Well, tell me how you did it. What is your background, in terms
of your education and your career, that got you qualified to be

There was a lot of luck involved, but there were also things that
I did consciously, and things that were in my heart. For example,
I always had an affinity for math and science, and I studied hard
in math and science. My parents worked very hard so that all their
kids could go to school. They expected the most out of us. We worked
very hard in school, and I got a scholarship to MIT from the Air
Force. I knew that I wanted to join the Air Force for a lot of reasons:
the mission of the Air Force is very exciting, and it may be —
and for me it was — a stepping-stone to work at NASA. I always
wanted to serve my country, so it was very much a win-win situation.
The Air Force would pay for my college, because I couldn’t
afford it otherwise, and I got a career out of it, and it turned
out to be along the career lines that I was hoping in my dreams
to achieve. But, again, it all came down to a lot of hard work;
and a credit, again, to the United States for giving me this opportunity
— the land of opportunity…and spirit — and to
give us a chance to go to the schools, give me a chance to show
myself, and to grow so that by the time I was ready for it, NASA
was ready for me.

Q: Tell me about college and then your Air Force career; what
sort of assignments did you have?

Well, in college, the Air Force paid so that I would get a bachelor’s
degree in aeronautics and astronautics. But I really enjoyed my
time at university, and I thought it was an all-you-can-eat buffet,
so I was able, thanks to a lot of kind professors, to get a major
in something that was equally interesting, and that was in planetary
astronomy. I spent some time at graduate school at Stanford, and
it was in aeronautics and astronautics, and I even had time during
my early astronaut training to get an education here at the University
of Houston at Clear Lake. There’s always something out there
to learn, and what I really like about my job is that every day
I’m learning something new. In the Air Force I helped pay
back my college, pay back my tuition, by testing new airplanes.
I was an F-16 flight test engineer. I had a chance to attend the
Air Force Test Pilot School as an engineer, and I can’t tell
you thrilling it was and how much hard work, but how much joy there
was during the year of test pilot school, for example, in flying
over 30 different aircraft. For example, I’ve flown the Goodyear
blimp, and F-14s, F-15s, F-16s, and getting a chance to see how
we humans put aerospace vehicles together, and how to make them
better. I think that’s one of the things that I can bring to NASA.
The International Space Station was brand new just when I was starting,
and since then in my career as an astronaut, I’ve worked over
in Russia and also here in the States getting the new modules for
the International Space Station ready to go. And, having that background,
I think, enhances my ability to be a good flight engineer for Expedition

Q: As you think back to that work that you’ve done and
your postings in the Air Force, and college, and back to when you
were 3 years old, can you say who are the people who had the most
influence on your becoming an astronaut?

The list is long and glorious of everyone along the way who’s
encouraged me, who’s given me a break when I needed it, and
who’s instructed me and who’s just given me love; but
of all those people, my parents — my mother and father. I’m
the oldest of nine children, and my parents had to spend time equally
with all of us. And yet, still I was able to get the sense of love,
a sense of encouragement from my father and mother that has helped
me — it’s gotten me through some of the tough times
that it takes on such a long journey, and it’s really helped
me to get here today. And I’ll be taking them with me in my
heart when I fly aboard the International Space Station when my
dream does come true.

Q: Your mission to the International Space Station is seen
in a slightly different light than some of the previous ones. President
Bush has just recently announced a new vision for the American space
exploration effort that uses the International Space Station as,
in essence, a stepping-stone to go back to the moon and then on
to Mars. Tell me about how your mission on board ISS is going to
contribute to that future vision.

Going back to the moon, going off to Mars — how exciting!
And the International Space Station is a perfect stepping-stone
for us to perfect the technology, to perfect the operational tempo,
operational parameters, that we need to, in order to make those
long-duration missions successful. We’ve had, as the United
States, great experience with shorter-term missions with the Space
Shuttle and its amazing capabilities. But the International Space
Station, and our mission in particular, is more for the long term,
and how do we actually really live in space — not just for
a couple of weeks, but for months at a time. Gennady and I will
be on board for six months, and our food will be shipped up to us,
and some water and some air, and the rest of it is up to the systems
on board to take care of us and so that we can live in space away
from the comforts of Earth for such a long time. The Russian life
support systems are absolutely amazing; we need those kind of life
support systems ito live on the moon for months at a time. To have
a base on the moon requires that kind of experience. We’re
working on these things today. The American electrical power system
on the Station is absolutely amazing. We get so much energy, and
it’s all pure solar energy, and we are power-rich, much more
than we ever have been on previous space missions. That’s
the kind of experience that we need and those kind of materials
in order so that we can have bases on the moon and beyond.

Q: Those are long-range goals of the program; let me talk about
the shorter-range goals of Expedition 9. What are the goals of your
expedition on board ISS?

Well, we start out with three crewmembers. We launch off on a Soyuz
with a European astronaut, AndrÈ Kuipers, and we are going
to then quickly say good-bye to him and have a two-person mission,
be on a two-person mission, for six months. During that time, there’s
a lot of scientific experiments, scientific efforts that we will
be working on, and a lot of them are to see how human beings live
in space, how the human organism reacts in space. In addition, we
will have day-to-day activities maintaining the Space Station, as
well as two spacewalks to prepare the Russian part of the Space
Station so that it can dock with a new European transfer vehicle.
Six months is going to go by really fast.

Q: On any space mission, the crew, as a group, has got to have
all the talents to do all the jobs that there are to get done. In
your case, “everybody” is just two people. What are
your major responsibilities as a member of the Expedition 9 crew?

Well, that’s what I really enjoy about being on a Space Station
crew. I’m not really a mission specialist; I’m a mission
generalist… like you said, Gennady and I need to know how
to do everything. On a Space Shuttle mission, there’s a mission
specialist who’s in charge of the EVAs, and another one in
charge of the robotic arm, and a payload specialist or payload commander.
I get to have my fingers in all of that. My duties are to be a flight
engineer, which means I’m responsible to see that the American
systems and the Russian systems are operating correctly, and if
something goes wrong, I’m the guy there to help fix it. I’m
also a specialist for the Canadian robotic arm, so that I’m
the lead of the team in case we move things around; when we move
things around, with the arm, I’m responsible for flying that.
I am the NASA Science Officer so for all of the experiments that
we’re doing, I am to lead those experiments and to make sure
everything gets done right. That’s a lot of work.

Q: Let’s, if we can, look at Expedition 9 chronologically,
from beginning to end. You mentioned that you start launching with
Gennady Padalka and AndrÈ Kuipers in a Soyuz spacecraft;
describe what happens in that capsule during the launch, and then
the trip to the Station, and what your responsibilities will be
during that time.

Well, when we launch, I will be sitting in the right seat of the
Soyuz. Gennady as the Commander of the vehicle will be sitting in
the center seat, and AndrÈ will be the flight engineer for
the launch portion, and he will be sitting in the left seat. It’s
a very small capsule, but on the other hand, the launch itself,
once the engines start, is only about nine minutes from when we
start the engines till when we reach orbit. But the time leading
up to that we’ll, of course, be in the capsule for several
hours. But I think once we reach the main engine cutoff and that
we are floating freely in space, we’ll be taking off our spacesuits
and getting ready for two days of communal living, for three people
in a small spacecraft to get ready to dock with the International
Space Station. Once we dock with the International Space Station,
we will meet our friends… the Expedition 8 crew; they will
give us time to show us around, to show us the nuances of day-to-day
life, and then they’ll quickly go home and return along with
AndrÈ, back to planet Earth. And I know that Mike [Foale]
and Sasha [Kaleri]’s families miss them very much. Then, Gennady
and I are by ourselves. We have a lot of things to accomplish and
we’ll work hard to see that the whole mission is done. We
won’t have anybody to come visit us until the next crew, the
Expedition 10 crew, comes up. And on some hand it might seem that
we’ll be very lonely, but on the other hand, we’ll have
e-mail, we’ll have phones, we’ll be able to keep in
touch with our families. And that’s really important.

Q: Like the current and previous expedition, you’re expecting
that there won’t be any visitors during the time. Is there
a little disappointment that you won’t be on hand when Eileen
Collins and her crewmates return the Shuttle to flight?

Oh boy, Eileen’s crew is such an amazing crew! And, they’re
all really close friends. And some are my classmates for when, you
know, we all became astronauts together, and, in fact, one of Eileen’s
crew is Steve Robinson, who trained with Gennady and I as a backup
to Expedition 4. And boy, I was just hoping that they could come
up and visit us and just see the expressions on their face when
they could see the International Space Station for the first time
and just see what a nice Space Station we’ve put together.
We’ll miss them, but it’s important that we wait until
it’s the right time to fly that mission.

Q: You mentioned one of your jobs–of many–is as the NASA
ISS science officer, so let’s talk a little bit about the
science mission of ISS during Expedition 9. In general, how do you
see the Station’s scientific mission making progress, being
advanced, during your time on orbit?

It’s been absolutely amazing and I’d like to tip my
hat to the scientific community who had to reorganize how we do
science aboard the International Space Station since the Columbia
tragedy. With the Space Shuttle launching, the scientists were able
to send up a lot of different experiments and we had a lot of mass
… weight and equipment that we could send up aboard the Space
Shuttle. With the Space Shuttle temporarily grounded, we actually
have to send a lot of our cargo up on the Russian Progress vehicle,
which is a great vehicle, very reliable, but it doesn’t hold
as much, of course, as a big truck like the Space Shuttle. So, with
less equipment and less mass, we’re still doing a lot of science.
When I received this assignment, I immediately went and asked what
the science program was going to be, and I was amazed how many experiments
we have on both the American side and the Russian side and the European
side. I mean, there is a lot of science happening with as small
of a cargo mass that we can send up, and it’s amazing. We’ll
be doing a lot of life sciences, to see how humans react and live
in space and the effects of long-term exposure to space on [humans],
and some proposed countermeasures. We’re looking into materials
science and looking into how materials react and change in space.
There are fundamental fluid mechanics problems that we’re
solving with ingenious contraptions that are easy to operate and
give real-time data back to the scientists on the ground. It’s
very impressive, the complement that we’re being able to put
together, given the short amount of time and the small amount of
cargo that we actually have.

Q: At
the time the decision was made to reduce the crew size from three
people to two, there was concern that there wouldn’t be enough
time left for just those two people to do any meaningful science.
It sounds as though you think that, up to this point, there has
been, and you will continue… to be able to make some progress.

Well, that’s a combination of a lot of things, but I think
that Ed [Lu] and Yuri [Malenchenko] on Expedition 7, as well as
Mike and Sasha on Expedition 8, have shown that, yes, we would like
to have more people aboard the International Space Station, but
the two people can do a good job, and there are a lot of people
on the ground at the Mission Control Center and also in our Payload
Operations Center. They’re working very diligently on the
schedules to make sure that we have time to not just eat and breathe
and work aboard the International Space Station, but also to do
our primary mission and that’s to look forward to the next
step of going to the moon and Mars. And that means we need to do
our science and do our payloads and make sure it’s done right.

Q: The primary focus these days on ISS science is becoming
more research into how people can live and work safely for long
periods of time in weightlessness. Tell me about some — two, three,
or four — of the human life sciences experiments that you’re
going to be working on during Expedition 9.

Well, one of the experiments that comes to mind right away is the
effect of radiation that we experience in space, and it’s
not something that’s terribly scary — it’s something
that’s well understood, how much, you know, we’re exposed
to — but we don’t have the Earth’s blanket of
atmosphere to comfort us and protect us, and so we experience a
slightly higher dose of radiation. But, what is the effect on the
human cells and our basic fundamental genetic material? It sounds
scary, but actually it’s something that we’re looking
into to see… the effects of long-duration spaceflight on
people. So we will be actually… taking blood from each other
and comparing what we’ve learned, before flight and what we
have after flight, and seeing the effects of long-term spaceflight
on the human organism. We are also participating in experiments
that we think we have a countermeasure to bone loss. I think most
people by now understand that when we fly in space for long durations – crewmembers
experience a phenomenon very similar to osteoporosis, where we lose
a little bit of our bone mass. And we think we have countermeasures,
not just exercise, but we’re looking, there’s an experiment
that’s trying to see if we have a medicine that can help us
counteract any of this bone loss. This is important for people who
are going to be flying to Mars, and, if it takes three years, to
understand the phenomenon and how to counteract it.

Q: Along with human life sciences experiments, there are experiments
in other scientific disciplines as well. Tell me about a few of
those other experiments and activities that you’ll be overseeing
in the Destiny Laboratory.

Well, there’s a materials science experiment, which is absolutely
… amazing. I mentioned it a little bit before. We send a lot
of fluids into space, and without gravity fluids… behave,
from the Earth perspective, strangely. This is important because
we have a lot of rockets and satellites that carry fluids, in terms
of fuel, and we’re not quite sure… exactly how the
fluids behave inside of the fuel tanks. We have a couple of experiments
that we’re looking at that will actually… give us an
idea of all the phenomenon of surface tension and heat transfer
through these fluids that would actually give us a way to make rockets
more efficient and understand what’s going on with fuel tanks
that aren’t completely full or completely empty.

Q: You mentioned a few minutes ago that part of the plan, at
least at this point, is that there are going to be a couple of spacewalks
for you and Gennady to accomplish. Tell me what the plans are for
those two EVAs.

I spent a lot of time here in Houston studying the American spacesuit
and learning how to work on the American part of the Space Station
in the American spacesuit. That was my first EVA suit. Well, also
in my training I got to learn and love the Russian Orlan spacesuit,
which is similar and yet very different in design and how it operates.
Gennady’s going to be leading us out the door twice on two
spacewalks in this Russian spacesuit. We’re actually retrofitting
the Space Station, modernizing it, so that it can be ready to handle
a newer, bigger cargo ship that the Europeans are building, the
Automated Transfer Vehicle, the ATV. In order for such a larger
cargo ship to be able to dock safely with the Space Station, we
need to put in some new laser reflectors, some new antennas, and
a new TV monitor. So Gennady… and I are going to step out
the door and work on setting it up, setting up the Space Station
— actual real assembly and disassembly — in the Russian
Orlan spacesuit so that when the European Automated Transfer Vehicle
cargo ship is ready to launch, the Space Station will be ready to

Q: It must be pretty exciting to think about the prospect of
crawling around on the outside of that Space Station, too.

Well, only recently did I actually start to think how really exciting
that is, to be alone in the cosmos without a spacecraft around me
except for this suit that was put together by human hands. It’s
made out of material and a little bit of metal and a lot of plastic,
and yet we’ll be able to look out there on our planet below
and the stars in the sky and really experience a true spaceflight.
And it’s an honor as a rookie to get a chance to perform two
spacewalks, and it’s an honor at all to be able to fly on
a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and to work in a Russian spacesuit.
My instructors spent a lot of time with me, and I’m glad I’ve
earned their confidence in the U.S. and Russia to get a chance to
do that.

Q: You get your second chance to ride in the Soyuz spacecraft
come October, when you and Gennady are scheduled to be coming home.
Can you describe the sequence of events there when… it’s
time to leave the Station and you get in the Soyuz and turn it on,
unhook, and head home?

Yes, the Soyuz is… a marvel of engineering design and a credit
to the Soviet and Russian builders. It’s really well-designed
and easy to fly, but there’s still, like any spacecraft, any
airplane or any boat… it can always get you if you’re
not paying attention. Where it took us several days to launch and
then dock with the International Space Station, coming home is actually
a lot faster — it’s just a matter of hours after we
say our goodbyes to the next crew and shut the hatch… we’re
home roughly in about five or six hours. For the return, I’ll
be the flight engineer, sitting in the left seat, pushing all the
buttons, and Gennady will have his command panel in front of him
also. And, we’ll work together as a team to bring…
the ship safely home. We do all of our systems checks, and if everything
looks good and we have concurrence from the ground, we undock from
the Space Station — some springs push us off, and we’re
on our way home. It’s going to be a very bittersweet moment,
I think: I’ll be so excited to go home and see my family —
I’ll have a new baby girl waiting for me, my little boy who’s
3 years old is going to have missed me, and of course I want to
see my wife’s beautiful smile –so, that’ll be
the sweet part. The bitter part is leaving our home for six months.
And, it’ll all happen in just a few hours. We make sure we
have a successful undocking from the Space Station, we wait one
orbit to upload our commands from the Mission Control Center in
Moscow, who gives us all of our vectors so that we can come in and
land right on target. And once we get the “go,” we start
our deorbit burn; it slows us down by several hundred meters per
second. Then… we, so to speak, enjoy the ride. I think it’s
going to be very… exciting just watching to see if anything
goes wrong and to be there ready to solve any malfunction. And once
we start to get close to the atmosphere, we’ll separate all
three modules — the life compartment and the equipment module,
and we’ll be sitting in the center module that’s left,
and that’s the part that actually returns back to Earth. Then
the real fun begins. The other Americans that have flown in the
Soyuz… have called it an incredible ride because we tumble
end-over-end until we stabilize in the atmosphere. And I’ll
be sitting right next to a window, and I’m just looking forward
to seeing what that would look like. Once we stabilize in the atmosphere,
the automatic re-entry system engages and brings us close to our
point, and then we have a set of primary parachutes that will open
up and slow us down. And then right before we land… a series
of retrorockets ignite and soften our blow as we return home to
the planet. We open up the door and, hopefully, the helicopters
will be outside waiting for us.

Q: And so will end a six-month trip into space that will advance
the mission of the International Space Station, which is really
pretty complicated — they’re trying to do engineering, trying
to do science, there’s an effort to improve global relations,
as well as to explore space, which is our future. Mike, what do
you think is the most valuable contribution that can come from the
International Space Station program?

There are, as you said, a lot of valuable contributions from the
International Space Station program; just extending human foothold
into space is extremely valuable. But from my perspective, there’s
something almost even more valuable and it goes back to what the
NASA mission is. One of our goals at NASA is to inspire the next
generation of explorers. The people who landed on the moon inspired
me, and have shaped my life in a way that I… could have never
expected, and here I am. And we’re hoping that we show on
our mission the value of working together, the value of teamwork,
the value of knowing one’s job, and a good work ethic, so
that when other people watch us, the next generation of explorers
who are going to be the ones that are walking on Mars, that we’ve
shown them… how to do it and how they can somehow, in their
lives, achieve that dream.

SpaceRef staff editor.