NASA Astronaut Mike Foale Talks about ‘Expeditions’ in space

By Keith Cowing
April 24, 2004
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NASA Astronaut Mike Foale Talks about ‘Expeditions’ in space

Editor’s note: Astronaut Mike Foale left Earth on 18 October 2003 for his stay aboard the International Space Station as part of the Expedition 8 crew. I had the opportunity to ask him about use of the term “expedition” to describe these stays aboard the International Space Station twice – once several months before he left Earth, and recently, as he was in the final days of his stay in space. Transcripts of both conversations appear below.

You can look back at Expedition 8 and those Expeditions that preceeded it by reading through the daily ISS On-orbit status reports or NASA’s weekly Space Station status reports. You can also look at back at various Soyuz and Progress missions as well.

Transcript: 23 April 2004

COWING: Just before you left Earth I asked you about use of the term “expedition” to describe a trip that never gets more than a few hundred miles away from Earth. Now, after traveling for nearly 200 days and covering more than 80 million miles, I wonder if you could tell us how your views have evolved about these space station tours of duty being an actual ‘expedition”. Specifically, when you left Earth, NASA had no clear goal or vision. As you return, it now has one. As such, how would you like to see NASA’s human spaceflight program evolve to meet these new challenges?”

FOALE: “Well Keith – you’re quite right. We’ve gone an awful long way – but around the Earth – and not out of Earth orbit – which is something all of us here have our hearts and dreams set upon. Certainly, we’re enthused by the new direction we’ve received from the President. We’re looking forward to see the program develop.

Sasha Kaleri and myself have discussed very much how the program might evolve over the next few years and we see the International Space Station as a ‘base camp’ in some ways, to mount ‘expeditions’ – and I use that word – out of Earth orbit to the Moon and initially test the techniques and hardware that we might need to go to Mars and then eventually from (probably) Earth orbit from a base camp at space station to Mars.

I know there are other ideas – to go direct to Mars, for example, without going to Earth orbit – without going to lunar orbit. We don’t know how we are going to do that. I think those plans are exciting but we need to work out how we are going to do that. The work we are doing on the International Space station is not irrelevant to that goal.

It is a base camp, it is a frontier. You only have to be to realize that you are without immediate human help other than the people around you to know that you are on a base camp. I think the techniques we are learning here in terms of servicing, keeping ourselves occupied, resupply, logistics, they are all critical to the goals that we are all agreed upon – to explore further away from the Earth into outer space.”

Transcript: 14 August 2003

COWING: “I have question for you regarding the use of the word “expedition” – a word that is used to describe each crew that goes to the ISS. You have a background which includes a lot of wild things – including diving on ancient sea wrecks – something that would fit the traditional use of the word “expedition”. Right now many people are questioning the need for a space station. Having spent time on Mir, and soon, aboard the ISS, in what ways is living and working on the ISS similar to what is traditionally called an “expedition” – and in what ways is it different? Specifically, an “expedition” often involves going somewhere. How do square the use of these terms to describe the ISS which simply orbits the Earth and doesn’t actually go anywhere? Or are you actually preparing to go somewhere?”

FOALE: “Well Keith, I should tell you first of all the reason why we call our flights expeditions is that we actually borrowed the word from the Russians. We realized that they were referring to their Mir missions as “expeditions”. As we Americans tried to understand what that meant in terms of spaceflight, we realized that there were huge parallels between staying in a small place, far, far away and very remote from any kind of human support or help and that it was very much akin to Antarctica or Devon Island where I know you have been recently, or indeed, on Everest or any other kind of expeditionary circumstances.”

So, I am not going to quibble with the use of the word, but it certainly means that if we want to go onboard the ISS and spend 6 or 7 months working, as you say, in an environment that doesn’t make you “go anywhere”, in that I am just floating from this side of the room to that side, and I get to know that small space very well. Am I exploring? No. But I am certainly exploring when I look out of the window and look down at the Earth and see the Himalayas go by, and I see Tierra del Fuego go by, and I see Spain, and Britain, and the United States. And I can see an awful amount that makes me feel like I am the greatest tourist – the greatest wanderer. Indeed, I am seeing a panorama that will beat any other view seen in any other circumstance when you are exploring on Earth. So, the sensations for a human being are extraordinary and I would never say that I was not an explorer in this context.

You touch on a point – and I think your point is that we need to go somewhere beyond Earth orbit. And indeed, that is what the space station should be about – and I think, is about. And as we get over our tragedy this year with the Space Shuttle, as we work and build a stronger partnership for the International Space Station, we will – as a partnership I believe – plan to leave Earth orbit and go somewhere.”

Certainly the work we’re doing today is a step in that direction. If we step back from it we wouldn’t be going anywhere that quickly. I do love expeditions on Earth. I would love to go to Devon Island where you’ve been – or Antarctica – and I still feel that what we are doing on the Space Station is right in that category.”

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