Big Think Interview With Leroy Chiao
Astronaut Leroy Chiao is a veteran of four space missions, recently acting as Commander of Expedition 10 aboard the International Space Station. He has logged over 229 days in space - over 36 hours of which were spent in Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or spacewalks). He served as a member of the White House appointed Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee.
Dr. Chiao left NASA in 2005 and is involved in entrepreneurial business ventures and works in the US, China, Japan and Russia. He is a director of Excalibur Almaz, a private manned spaceflight company. In addition, he is a director of InNexus, a biotechnology/pharmaceutical development company. Active as a consultant and public speaker, he also serves as the Chairman of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute User Panel, which is attached to the Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Chiao is a director of Challenger Center and of the Committee of 100. He is also an advisor and spokesman for the Heinlein Prize Trust.
Question: What made you want to be an astronaut?
Leroy Chiao: Well, I was an eight-year-old kid when I watched the first Apollo Moon Landing way back in 1969 and there was something about that moment that really stuck in my head. I'd always been interested in space and flying and I was building model rockets and model airplanes, but something about that moment, I can remember like it was yesterday watching the Apollo Lunar Lander approach the surface of the Moon and then later watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take the first steps on the Moon, and something that day started the dream for me that, hey, I want to be like those guys.
Question: Did your teachers and parents encourage your dream?
Leroy Chiao: Well, you know, all my friends wanted to be astronauts, we all played astronaut outside, you know, and so I'm sure my parents and teachers all though, oh, that's cute. But even for me, it was something I never forgot. It was in the back of my mind, even while I was going to school, but it wasn't until I was at university studying engineering that I thought, well what do I really want to do? And I kind of came back to that and I said, well the degrees I'm trying to get are going to qualify me to apply. And so, that's what I did after I finished my, or after I was getting my doctorates. That's when I first applied to NASA.
Question: What did you have to do to be an astronaut?
Leroy Chiao: Well, the minimum requirements to apply to be a NASA Astronaut are: at least a bachelor's degree in science or engineering, so I was getting that covered; and also, you have to be in good health, which I was in great health, so I didn't have trouble passing the medical. But that's the basic requirements, so it's pretty broad. NASA selects from a broad range of people, in my class alone, there were 23 of us, and there were several folks from the military. The test pilots, flight test engineers. But there are also medical doctors, research engineers, like myself. We even had a physicist and you know, people like that.
So, really it's just – the recommendation that I give people who are interested is study something you are interested in, that you have a passion for because then you're going to do your best and that also qualifies you to apply to be an astronaut.
Question: What was your first trip to space like?
Leroy Chiao: That was in 1994, July, 1994, and I can remember that like it was yesterday too because it was the culmination of a childhood dream to finally be laying on the launch pad inside a space shuttle and getting ready to be launched into space. The impression of going into a space shuttle is that it looks like a brand new simulator. We spend so many hours inside a simulator that everything is very familiar. Every switch, the seats, the way things work, but the vehicle, the actual spacecraft looks brand new because it hasn't been used nearly as much as the simulators.
So, even though I knew I was inside the space shuttle getting ready to go fly, something about it wasn't completely real up until we got the call at about one minute to go, to close and lock our visors and start our oxygen flow. And at that moment it suddenly became very real and I felt a little bit of the adrenaline rush and then that minute went by quickly and at ignition; people often ask me, "Well, what did you feel the very first time you launched? What did it feel like right at the moment of launch?" And they're surprised when I tell them actually what I felt was relief. It wasn't like being anxious or scared or anything. It was relief because this is something I had wanted to do my whole life and now that the boosters had lit, we were on our way to go do it and nothing was going to stop us.
You know, the thing that you worry about your first flight or any flight is some kind of a problem coming up that is going to keep you from doing it. Whether it's being hit by a car, or getting in a bad accident, or coming down with some other medical disqualification. But once the boosters light, you're going.
Question: How were your space flights different?
Leroy Chiao: Sure, I actually had four space flights altogether, three times on shuttles. My second flight was really unique for me because I was going back into space, first of all. The first one was like an appetizer at a nice dinner. You know, you want to go up and you want more. So, the second time I got into space, it was neat because I got to actually do two space walks.
What we were doing, I was leading two space walks to test tools and construction techniques that we would later use to build the international space station. That wasn't the main purpose of the mission, the main purpose was to retrieve a Japanese satellite and a science satellite that had been launched three months prior by the Japanese and we used the robotic arm and my good friend Koichi Wakata, a Japanese National Astronaut, retrieved that satellite. Then after all that was done, I got to go out and lead these two space walks and that was a whole different thing. Getting into a space suit and going outside, to me, getting your peripheral vision involved and looking at the Earth was a whole different experience than looking through the window. And it's kind of the same on earth. If you're driving in a car and you see like a beautiful sunset or landscape, it looks so much better if you stop and get out and kind of take it all in and that's kind of what it's like doing a spacewalk.
Question: How was being Commander of the Space Station unique?
Leroy Chiao: Oh yes, that was, you know the space station mission was kind of the culmination of all of my experience of being a NASA Astronaut, so it had brought all of my previous experience into play. It was neat because I had to learn Russian. I had to learn the Russian language to a fluent level so that I could function as the co-pilot of the Soyuz Spacecraft that we flew up and back from the space station. And then the challenge of being the Commander of the whole expedition, a six and a-half month flight aboard the international space station. That meant that I was personally responsible for all aspects of the mission from making sure that everything was going to go well, for the ultimate success. Even though other people were in charge of different areas of the whole mission, you know, I felt the burden of the whole mission on my shoulders, which was fine, and fortunately everything did go well.
We were one of the mission's that flew just about over a year after the Columbia accident. So, back then the shuttle was grounded and so we were only flying two-person crews. What we were doing, we were trying to do as much science as we could because that was the main purpose of the international space station. But without the shuttle to bring up heavy laboratory equipment and bring back samples, we were limited by what we could do, but I was proud that we actually accomplished more science that was planned for the flight. So, overall, it was a good mission and I got a chance to do two Russian spacewalks on that flight, I had become an expert in U.S. spacewalks and using U.S. suits and techniques, and this was a chance to put on a Russian Orlan suit and do two construction space flights outside of the space station.
Question: What role did language play in your work?
Leroy Chiao: Sure, I think it's -- I grew up bilingual, I grew up speaking Chinese in the home, Mandarin Chinese with my parents, and then, of course, I learned English because I was born and raised in the U.S., and actually I have two young twins right now, three-year-old twins and they are growing up bilingual as well. I think that really gave me an edge. I understand that, from the experts, that if you grew up bilingual, your brain kind of gets wired to accept a new language. And so, I think maybe learning Russian for me was easier than for some of my colleagues. But it certainly wasn't easy. It was probably the most, well definitively was the most challenging thing I had to do since I was at the university. And it was – but it was also the most fun. I really enjoyed learning the language. It was a big challenge, a lot of studying repetition and practice involved, but it was fun to watch myself make progress, a little frustrating at times, but I had to learn it to. And I knew it was a very serious deal because not only did I have to learn it to a high degree in order to function as a necessary member of the crew, but also I knew that the Russians that came over that made an effort and had some success in learning English, those were the folks we trusted. All the Astronauts and the Cosmonauts, we've all achieved technical things. We all have technical degrees, and you can learn the systems and all that, but really if you can communicate with the other side, you are the one that they're going to trust. So, I knew it was going to be the most important thing. And it was already taken as a given that I would learn the systems.
Question: What was it like when former Soviet cosmonauts began training with NASA?
Leroy Chiao: Sure, you're right, in the early days, and in the Apollo days, it was a space race. We were battling against the Soviet Union in space trying to see who could get up into space and who could get to the Moon first. Ultimately the Apollo missions we accomplished that first.
In the '90's then, I came into NASA in 1990, so it was perfect timing and the Berlin wall was falling, or had just fallen, and pretty soon, in '92 or '93, we started working with the Russians. Then this was a weird thing. We had two Cosmonauts come over, two folks that I actually got to know pretty well later on, but at the time, we were kind of looking at them in the Astronaut office as curiosities. This was the first time we had these ex-Soviet Cosmonauts in Houston, they were going to train with us, and one of them was going to fly on the space shuttle. We were going to send a couple of Americans over to fly on Soyuz and go fly to the Mir Space Station, and it was a whole new thing.
A lot of us, including me, viewed it with some skepticism, because I grew up during the Cold War, so to me, I had been hit with all this propaganda all along that their stuff wasn't that good, it wasn't that safe and we were so much better. And of course, what I found out later was that their space stuff was very good and good enough that I was certainly comfortable flying on their equipment. So, it was kind of a revelation of sorts as the years went by and I think it underscores the importance right now of international cooperation.
I just completed an assignment as a member of a ten-member committee called, The Augustine Committee, that the White House Commissioned to study what NASA is doing and then to put forward options to the new administration for going forward. In fact, the NASA Administrators are meeting today with President Obama to discuss those matters. So, one of the conclusions that we came up with, one of the findings was the importance of the international relationships that has come out of the international space station and how we should enhance that kind of thing and actually more forward and expand that framework to move forward into what we call exploration and going beyond lower Earth orbit.
Question: What are relations like now between NASA and other country’’ space programs?
Leroy Chiao: You bet, sure. You know as far as Russia goes, they've been our partner for a long time now, since the early '90's. So you know, what's that, that's more than 15 years. And there have been times where things were a little tense, a little testy, but by and large, the partnership has been very successful. To give you two examples of that, when the Columbia accident occurred, the Russians supported us with their spacecraft faring our astronauts, including me, to the space station and also supplies.
Previous to that, when they were having troubles, the Space Shuttle supported the Space Station Mir bringing up much needed supplies and replacements, critical spares, really. That they were able to keep their space station going for much longer than they would have without us. So, I think that shows, just quickly in two examples, the value of international cooperation.
I think that cooperating in something as visible as space exploration and space flight can only improve relations between the two countries because what happens is, you're working on a common project in a very visible light and so, you're motivated to not have conflicts with each other in other areas. And bringing up China is a good example. In the early '90's, China got serious about wanting to launch astronauts into space and they were actually quite successful in launching many communication satellites. And in the mid-'90's, there was something called the ITAR laws that the U.S. passed and basically shut down western countries, most western countries from launching on Chinese launchers. But they went ahead and developed their incapability, and in 2003, they launched their first astronaut into space.
In 2006, I became the fist American to be allowed to go visit their astronaut center in China in Beijing, and that was really an interesting trip and I got to meet the first few astronauts that they launched into space and I got to know the Director pretty well.
But I think that it makes sense for the U.S. to work with China in the future and I hope to see, if the political atmosphere between the United States and China allow for us to do more cooperation together, especially in the area of human space flight. I think in the same way that it's help improve the relations between the U.S. and Russia; it would help to improve the relations between the U.S. and China.
One example I'll give is, two years ago, China tested a anti-satellite weapon that actually caused quite a bit of controversy and one of the controversies is that by blowing up a satellite, you are creating more space debris which is a hazard to satellites and spacecraft in lower Earth orbit and if they had been a partner, you'd have to do an experiment, and if they had been a partner in the international space station, would they have really done that test? Again, they would have really thought twice, I think, about creating that tension between the countries and also endangering a project, or potentially endangering a project that they were a part of.
Question: Did anyone ever question your patriotism as a second-generation Chinese American?
Leroy Chiao: Well, that never came up and what I was trying to do on that mission that was my first mission where I brought all those things. I brought a flag from China, I brought the stone sculpture from Hong Kong, and I brought a scroll from Taiwan. And what I wanted to do is, because as I was going up and I am this Chinese-American, I wanted to represent Chinese people from the major population centers around the world where there are a lot of Chinese people. And so, I picked Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. And so, I wanted to bring something from each of those places and so it really wasn't a political thing and I hope people saw it that way because I'm certainly not going to try to – you know, I'm an American. I was born her, I was raised in the U.S., and I'm an American first, but also very proud of my heritage.
Question: Does NASA currently have good relations with the Chinese?
Leroy Chiao: No. Right now, there is very little cooperation between the U.S. and China in space. In fact, it's limited to a couple of exchanges, not exchanges, but a couple of meetings that the Chinese have been invited to and that NASA has been invited to, so there really is no cooperation to speak of in human space flight. There have been no astronauts coming over and training with us and vice versa. The only contact has been in formal and probably mostly through me, as far as contacts with astronauts because once I left NASA, of course, I was no longer affiliated any more and I could go off and do these things. So, these are strictly, you know, when I went over the astronaut center in China, that was strictly as an individual; I wasn't representing NASA. And then a couple of years ago, I attended a big human space flight conference in Beijing and again, I was going as myself. And really, there weren't any NASA astronauts there, I was the only so-called American Astronaut there. We had astronauts from most of the other countries, certainly from Russia, from France, from Japan, several other countries, but it was a little bit odd because here we are at an international gathering of a lot of astronauts and I'm talking about somewhere upwards of 30 or so astronauts, and I'm the only American. And I wasn't even there in an official capacity.
Question: What does the U.S. space program risk by having poor relations with the Chinese?
Leroy Chiao: Well, you know, if you don't think too deeply into it, you could say, wow, well China, they're our potential enemy and why would we want to cooperate with them. They're going to steal our technology and all that. Well, the other way to look at it is, well because we didn't cooperate with them, we gave them motivation to develop their own capability. You know, they developed a very capable rocket system, very capable spacecraft. And if we don't cooperate with them in the future, they're going to develop more capable systems.
And as far as stealing our technology, working in the human space flight, there's nothing in the human space flight realm that is applicable to defense. You know, we're not going -- by working together and maybe sending one of their astronauts to the space station and one of our astronauts on their spacecraft, it's not going to make their missiles more accurate. They're not going to have access to our missile guidance technology and things like that.
So, once you think about it a bit more deeply, It makes sense to cooperate with countries like China. And even in the defense establishment these days, I've talked to individuals during my work on this Augustine Committee who tell me, well now the thinking in the defense arenas is exactly the same thing. They would like to see cooperation in civil space with countries like China because of what I mentioned earlier. If we're working together on a highly visible project, there is going to be much less, or there is going to be motivation for each country to not get into a conflict or any kind of tension in the military sense.
And so, they feel that by working together on civil projects, visible civil projects, they can help accomplish their goals in the defense arena.
Question: Which country is leading in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well, right now, the Americans, I think, I feel the Americans are still the leaders in human space flight. But I have to say that I feel we have a danger here of kind of stagnating. We're kind of resting on our laurels and there's a danger going forward if we don't take bold steps to really support human space flight in this country that we could fall behind.
After the space shuttle is retired, probably in about a year and a-half, or so, the Americans will – we’re going to have a big gap, five to seven years, at least where we're not going to have the ability to send our own astronauts into space, we'll have to buy rides on the Russian Soyuz, and so that will be a pretty big step down for us. The only two countries at that time who will be able to launch people into space will be Russia and China. I've seen the Russian technology up close and I've had a chance to look at some of the Chinese technology. And I have to say, it's a very high level. The have good hardware and what China lacks is operational experience. That is, they haven't flown many missions. But as they gain more experience, as they fly more missions, they'll catch up quickly. They've made some impressive strides.
Russia, of course, has a lot of experience; they've been at this as long as we have technically, even a little bit longer. So, I think the U.S. does face the possibility of losing the lead in human space flight during this period of what we call the gap.
Question: Is American decline in space primarily an economic concern?
Leroy Chiao: I think in a big picture sense, it's more national prestige that we're risking. You know, we are proud of our space program, but as we were talking earlier, the average American doesn't think that much about it right now. So, it may seem like something we could just give up and not really worry about it, but I think it starts creeping into the national psyche. If American astronauts have to hitch rides with the Russians or other nations in the future. If we're not able to launch our own people and operate our own spacecraft anymore then, you know, space -- whether it should be or not, it's seen as like a harbinger of technology. If you can fly people into space, if you can operate into space, then you've got high technology and if you're the leader of that, then you're the leader in technology, or at least that's the way that people think, I believe.
So, if we lose that on a more or less permanent basis, or for a long period of time, my fear is that it will creep into the national psyche in all areas and we as a nation as a whole will kind of be diminished. You saw a little bit of that with Britain back in the early days of sailing ships. They were the sea power, the controlled the seas and they had colonies all over the world and then you can look at history and watch the way that their empire kind of crumbled. I certainly don't want that to happen to the United States.
Question: Why did you leave NASA?
Leroy Chiao: Oh, I left NASA about four years ago. I was there for fifteen years. I had flown four missions, three times on shuttles and as we were discussing, I was the Commander of the International Space Station having flown up and down on the Russian Soyuz. I'd done six space walks, four in the American suit, two in the Russian suit. Helped build the International Space Station, and so in a flying career, I couldn't have asked for more. It was a very fulfilling career. And you know, when I started, I never thought I would leave. It was something I had wanted to do since I was a kid and why wouldn't I stay there and be an astronaut as long as I could, as long as they kept letting me fly.
But an interesting thing happens. After my long mission especially, I felt very fulfilled flight wise and I guess an analogy would be that if you go out and have a big night's dinner, you're kind of full for awhile. So, I don't miss it yet, but I'm sure some day I will. But I wanted to do other things in my life. I thought, well I was about to turn 45 at the time and I thought if I was going to go do something else, now is the time to do it and so I decided to jump out and try different things.
One of the things, and the most exciting, actually definitely the most exciting thing is, having children. You know, I didn't have children before. I had been married only a year before my space station mission, so having three-year-olds is a whole new experience and that's the new adventure. It may sound funny because people have kids every day, but having your own kids, having my own kids, was as fundamentally, or maybe even more fundamentally life changing then even flying in space.
Question: How much does a recreational trip to space cost?
Leroy Chiao: Well, the capsule is designed for three people and so, our first flights would be two paying customers and one professional in the center seat, a professional commander. So, we'd be selling two spots. As far as timetable goes, we are hoping to have our first flight sometime in 2013, so that's coming up pretty quickly, and we're marching along trying to make that deadline, or goal, I should say.
The cost? The current market cost for a space flight, about a week in space and about six people have gone with the Russians so far to the International Space Station; it costs about $30 to $35 million. So, it's not for the faint of heart. But our own market studies that we've commissioned as well as some public market studies all indicate that there are somewhere around 20 or so individuals every year who have both the means and the interest to do this. So, the market is definitely out there. [00:26:47.00]
Question: What is Richard Branson offering in space?
Leroy Chiao: Richard Branson is probably the most visible of the private commercial space guys, and what is venture, Virgin Galactic is about is sub orbital flight. That is, you'll see a spacecraft that looks more or less like an airplane and it will fly into space, but only spend about 15 minutes. It'll go up in a parabolic arc and then fall back down, and so the customers on that flight will only get about five minutes of weightlessness. They'll get to glimpse the horizon of the Earth, take a look at it before just before they start coming back down into the atmosphere.
The cost of the ride on that, I think he's advertising right now is about $200,000. And so, it's a neat thing to do, but it's not orbital flight.
Orbital flight takes much more energy to get into Earth orbit. Let's see, he probably needs to get up to Mach 3 for speed to get up to that altitude. To get into orbit, you've got to go to Mach 25. So, it's a factor of a little more than eight more speed wise. So, if you calculate the amount of energy, it's quite a bit more energy to get into space, in to orbit.
So, that's where we're operating, is orbital adventures. We would offer five to seven days in low Earth orbit aboard our own spacecraft where customers would have the view of the Earth; get to experience really living in space, probably conducting some scientific investigations that we would piggyback onto those flights. So, they would have the whole experience, kind of a mini-experience of what professional astronauts have.
Question: What does it take to become a space tourist?
Leroy Chiao: Right. The Russians right now require a customer coming in and spending about six months or so in Russia and they have to learn some Russian. They have to learn some critical words so they can, you know, in an emergency they can at least have minimum communication with the Russian commander of the Soyuz, or something like that. They also have to learn systems and I think this just evolved that way. I think they just thought, what is the minimum set of things we think we can train someone to be more or less competent in our systems? And so that's what these guys go through. So, it's not just like buying a ticket and getting on an airliner. Not at all.
What we hope to do is kind of bring that down little bit to where it is a little bit more like that, but you're still really not just a customer. It'll take about a month, we think, to train for our system and we'll teach the customer the minimum set of things that he or she needs to keep themselves safe. How to operate your pressure suit, what to do in an emergency, which is mostly listen to the Commander, where the critical items are, and were the fire extinguisher is located and things like that. But we think about a month is a reasonable amount of time that people with this kind of schedule that they probably have will be able to take you to be able to do this if they really wanted to.
I think you cut your customer pull down quite a bit if you say, "Okay, you gotta spend six months with us." You know, these folks are busy; they've got businesses to run and other things. So, I hope that we will actually help to expand the market.
Question: What makes space travel expensive?
Leroy Chiao: Well, really, the expense of getting into space is the rocket launch, the rocket itself. Rocket's right now, commercial rockets cost probably somewhere between $50, or $120, or $150 million per launch. And those are all expendable. That is, you've got to buy a new rocket for each launch. So, that really is the critical part. If we could bring the price of rockets down somehow, that would help to bring space travel more to – bring the price of an experience in space down from the $35 million it is today, the market price of $35 million, down to something less.
If there was some kind of really, a revolutionary breakthrough and the price of rockets fell by an order of magnitude, I mean, just imagine what that would do as far as getting access to more ordinary people.
The problems though is that rockets, although conceptually simple, you know, fire come out one end and it launches a payload into space on the other end, is simple. But really they're very complicated. If you think about the energy that a rocket engine has to put out and all the fuel and you're sitting on top of like a bomb. And on the Space Shuttle, that big orange tank is filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, the white cell rocket boosters on the sides are filled with solid propellant. So, there's a lot of energy in all those chemicals there and you've got to control it in a way so it doesn't explode, but actually expend that energy to get you up into space. So, there's a lot of plumbing, a lot of valving, a lot of control systems, and it's a very complicated thing. So, how do you bring the price of that down
Well, some companies are trying to develop their own rockets and they think they've got a better way, and I hope they're successful because we at Excalibur Almaz are not building rockets. We would be a customer, and if there would become a less expensive rocket that was reliable, we would certainly want to buy that rocket and fly our spacecraft on it.
Other companies are looking at other innovative things to do, Excalibur Almaz, we're looking at possibly using rockets that currently aren't being used for manned launches. There's a rocket called the Zenit, and a company called Sea Launch, which is currently in bankruptcy that we've been in talked with and there's some possibilities there, maybe using some of that infrastructure later on. And so, we are very acutely aware of the problem of the cost of launching people into space and the fact is, it's focused on the rocket and we're trying to be innovative and look at all markets and all possibilities to find a way to bring that price down
Question: Are most space programs government-funded?
Leroy Chiao: Well, by at large, they are all government. And the big players right now are the United States, Russia, and China. We're the only three countries in the world that can launch astronauts into space. Now, around the world, mostly in the U.S. you see some companies like Excalibur Almaz and a few others who are trying to launch private commercial people into space, but nobody's done it yet. The only private vehicle that’s made it into space so far is Spaceship 1 in 2004, and that was an effort that was funded by one of the Microsoft founders, and he spent, I think it was published that he spent about $20 million to develop this spacecraft to do a sub-orbital flight. And like I said earlier, it's not the same as going into orbit, but it was a huge first step.
It showed that a private commercial venture could actually build a spacecraft and get someone into space. And so, I think that was a big milestone, a big boost psychologically for everyone working in this field and it sure got me excited. It was right before I went to the space station and it got me thinking about possibilities in private commercial space.
Question: Where do you envision private commercial space travel in 2020?
Leroy Chiao: 2020, let's see, I hope by then we'll have regular access to space commercially. My hope is that we will find someway to bring the price of rockets down. You know, another thing that I didn't mention about the rockets is that if you increase the number of rockets you build and you buy, then it's the scale of the economy, the price is going to come down. It may not come down in order of magnitude, but if several commercial ventures start being successful and there becomes a bigger market for these rockets, the price will naturally come down a bit.
And that's why I think Excalibur Almaz, we're a little bit unique in that we don't look at our so-called competition with disdain, we want them to succeed because this market needs to succeed and for that to happen, it needs to have more than one player and certainly the market is big enough that even if we are successful beyond our wildest dreams, we couldn't handle the entire market ourselves.
Question: Are you still involved with NASA at all?
Leroy Chiao: Yes, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute was created about, let's see, I think it was about 12 years ago by NASA, and it was looking for a way to funnel research dollars through this institute to go out and collaborate with universities and other research institutes in a way that NASA would have more difficulty doing because NASA is a government agency. And so, it was created and run by the Baylor of College of Medicine and I was hired on, probably about, let's see, I guess it's been about three years. And I am the Chairman of the User Panel, and what we are, we're a panel composed of current and former astronauts as well as current and former flight surgeons. And what we do is we advise the Chairman, we're an Advisory Panel, and we advise the chairman on the research projects that we think are operationally relevant. That is, what do we need to learn about and what do we need to develop a protocol for to deal with a medical problem in space?
So, as an example, one of the biggest concerns about going out beyond lower Earth orbit is the radiation. We find that exercise seems to counteract a lot of the negative effects of space flight, like bone loss and muscle atrophy and cardiovascular systems issues, but really, the radiation is something you worry about. If you start going on a trip to Mars, you're going to get away from the Van Allen Belts, you're going to be susceptible to solar flares, and what do you do. So, that's one of our big areas of concerns and so we see us advising the Director for the NSBRI, but we should fund more research on developing better detectors, or pharmaceutical counter measures maybe, to help protect astronauts from radiation, or even looking at shielding. What kind of lightweight shielding would be effective to create a safe haven in a spacecraft going to Mars.
Other areas, as I mentioned, were bone loss and muscle loss and cardiovascular atrophy. Those are always significant areas that we are worried about. You know, exercise, as I said, seems to counteract a lot of that, but right now, we exercise two hours a day on the station, which is a huge hit out of your day. I mean, it's great for staying in shape, but you know, it cuts into the productivity of the crew and if you look at how expensive it is to get a crew into space, if we can keep them healthy and have them exercise, but spend less time doing it, we can get more done.
Question: What sort of exercise regime do astronauts perform in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well, it's very important, first of all if you think about it, especially in a long flight like a six month space flight and on the ISS. If you didn't exercise and used the analogy on earth, it would be like laying in bed. So, just imagine laying in bed for several months, and even just trying to get up and walk, you probably wouldn't be able to. But if you got up and you exercised two hours a day, you'd probably be okay, and that's the same in space.
The exercises we do, we do cardiovascular and resistance exercises, and so we have a treadmill, but of course, we have harnesses and rubber Bungies to hold us down to the track so that we don't float away. We have exercise bicycles and we also have a resistive exercise device that uses loaded cords that we can vary the resistance on and you can attach a bar or a harness to these cords and do weight lifting type exercises. So, that helps keep your bones and your muscles in shape.
Question: What has been done to address bone loss from space travel?
Leroy Chiao: Well, one of the ultrasound experiments that we did onboard was very interesting. We were doing something called telemedicine, where we were using the ultrasound. I'm not an M.D., and neither was my crew mate onboard, but we were able to, with very little training, show that we could produce diagnostic quality images of bones, eyes, internal organs, and things like that. And so, one interesting application of this ultrasound is the possibility that you could possibly use it to measure critical bone areas, areas where we know historically have seen a lot of loss, and you could actually track during a long space mission do measurements and track if you're losing bone in these areas. So, that's something that's very exciting because on Earth, when they check you for bone loss, you get in this big machine, I mean it's huge. It's the size of a room and it's got a platform with an x-ray that scans your whole body and in critical areas and it takes a while and it just wouldn't be practical to have a machine like that in space. So, if you could show that using a portable diagnostic quality ultrasound, which basically is the size of a laptop with some extensions to it, if you could actually measure reliably, bone loss with that, that would be a great tool to have.
Question: What about blood tests in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well, there's some very exciting work in that area and one of the researches is funded by NSBRI, is working on exactly that. And that has real application because when you're monitoring an astronaut, and we're not always monitored, but during certain times when we're having a physical exam, you know, we have to take blood samples, or we have to give other samples, and it's not easy to do, especially in zero gravity. So, if you can imagine trying to squeeze blood out of a finger prick and then getting it into a capillary tube and getting that into a machine to be analyzed. It all can be done, and we do it, but it's – then you might have some droplets of blood floating around. So, if you can find a non-invasive way to do it that would certainly make life easier for us onboard. Also, when you're in a spacesuit, we do some very rudimentary monitoring right now in both the Russian and U.S. spacesuits. We load up a simple electrocardiogram and the flight surgeons can look at your heartbeat while you are doing the space walk. They can also – well, they don't have it right now, but they can also theoretically look at maybe with this device the oxygenation of your blood and other parameters just to determine the health of the astronaut who is doing the space walk.
So, this kind of technology is very exciting and has real application in space. And the neat thing about a lot of the NSBRI projects, or that are funded by NSBRI, is they also have application for patients on the ground. The ultrasound that I mentioned has application not only in space for a long mission or for a mission to the Moon or Mars, but also in remote areas on the Earth. Not even just – I’m not even talking about expeditions like to the Antarctic, but just a remote area, a small town somewhere. The local doctor is not going to know everything, and so if that person can link in with a diagnostic ultrasound to the hospital in New York City through the internet, then they can do a very quick diagnosis of something that's wrong with someone that's in this remote area.
Question: How is fatigue an issue in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well if you ask the astronauts, will tell you there is no issue, you know. But of course, fatigue is a problem. I mean, it's as big a problem in outer space as it is on the ground and you could make an argument that it is even more critical in space because a mistake up there could be literally, life threatening, or could cause big problems in the mission. So, fatigue is an issue that we are concerned about. We are definitely scheduled for a full eight hours of sleep every night, but just like on Earth, you're often busy and you don't – you usually don't use all that eight hours to sleep, you're usually staying up and catching up on things, or doing something you want to do, looking at your photographs, or watching a movie, or something.
And so, over time, over a long mission, fatigue can really build up and that's something that we are trained as astronauts to be self-aware of. We have to kind of monitor it ourselves, but we also have tools and some of which are also funded by NSBRI. We have self-assessment tools, computer-based tools to see how we are performing mentally and there's some also very interesting technology and work that's being funded by NRSBI to look at facial recognition to look at your patterns to see if you're experiencing stress or fatigue.
I find that interesting and I have to tell you, as an astronaut, it makes me a little bit concerned because as an operator I can see getting up there and thinking, well now I've got to control my facial muscles to make sure they don't think I'm stressed out. But really, it's a kind of thing that I think will gain acceptance with gradually. But it probably has more to immediate application in things like homeland security, and looking at facial recognition of people going through airports and things like that to see who's under stress.
Question: Did you ever have a crisis moment in space?
Leroy Chiao: Yes. The biggest thing that went wrong during one of my missions was when we were coming into dock to the International Space Station in our Soyuz spacecraft. We were inside of 1,000 meters and suddenly all of the alarms started going off and we had lights going and alarms, and the next thing you know we actually started rotating away from the space station. We started losing the visual sighting of the space station through the periscope. So, this was a real emergency, and the first thing that hit me was disbelief. You know, usually this is what happens during the training in the simulator. Usually on the actual flight, everything works perfectly.
So, the training kicked in and we quickly went through our emergency procedures, I took manual control and I got the spacecraft under control and stopped about 50 meters from the space station. So, the net effect of the failure was that we were actually turning and speeding up towards the space station when we should have been slowing down, so it was quite a dangerous situation. But we got manual control, performed the first manual docking to the station at night.
It was one of those situations where afterwards, you know, after we were safe and we were all docked and everything that we kind of took a breath and thought, wow, that was pretty dangerous situation. But it shows you that the training pays off. You know, it was just automatic. We just went right to it and got out – we had our books out already, we went right to the right procedures and executed them and everything went well.
Question: What scientific breakthrough needs to take place to revolutionize travel?
Leroy Chiao: Well, it's always been – the big breakthroughs in transportation have always been in propulsion. However you're going to get the vehicle going. From the ground transportation side, you know horse and buggies gave way to steam engines and locomotives to the first practical small gasoline engine and the cars, the first cars, steam ships, sailing ships gave way to steam ships, which gave way to diesel and nuclear powered vessels. The airplane started out as these tiny little engines turning propellers to turbo props and modern propeller airplanes to the jet engine, the advent of the jet engine, turbo jets, and then to turbo fans, which were efficient enough to allow the air transportation system as it is today to develop.
Same with rockets. Rockets have remained fundamentally unchanged, except for a few exceptions for the last almost 50 years. So, for there to be a fundamental shift in rocketry and getting into space, there almost has to be a breakthrough in propulsion. Either in how to bring the price down, or how to more efficiently get people up into space and that's, as we talked about earlier, the key barrier is the expense of a rocket.
Question: What innovation is needed in terms of harnessing energy?
Leroy Chiao: Well, it's physics. It's a matter of getting enough energy to get off the planet and into lower Earth orbit. It takes a fixed amount of energy to do that per mass of payload. And so, that part is fixed, but how you do that, how do you get the energy, how do you extract it from a chemical propulsion you are using, or if you're coming up with a whole new way of doing it.
The neatest thing about research and science is we don't necessarily know what's going to come down the pike. We think we know what we're working on. Oftentimes, discoveries are made when you're trying to discover something else. You end up accidentally discovering a different thing. So, one of those things might happen that enable us to have more efficient rockets. It’s hard for me to kind of guess what that might be.
Question: What qualities make a good astronaut?
Leroy Chiao: I think the most important thing about an astronaut is you have to take, first of all you have to take for a given a person's done pretty well in school, has the intelligence and all of that to learn new systems and new things. But after that, the most important thing I think is being able to get along with others. Flexibility and teamwork, those issues because as we fly longer and longer in space, those are really important factors, even on short shuttle missions, those are important factors, to put a crew together that can work together effectively as a team, that can get along. So, I think for an individual, I think the most important thing is being able to work with others.
Question: Is conflict among astronauts an issue in space?
Leroy Chiao: Well, you know, NASA interestingly hadn't done that much until fairly recently because we'd always flown short missions and we are all professionals and the thinking is, well, everyone can get along for a two-week mission, right? So, and everyone can. So, it hasn't really been a problem. The Russians have been flying long duration crews since the early '70's. And in the early days, they've ended at least two missions early because of conflicts within the crew. So, they learned early on the importance of studying this and making sure you put the right crew together.
Since we began our work together on the International Space station with the Russians in the early 2000's, NASA has started to learn the importance of this kind of work, and so, NASA is looking much more into it and funding more work into this through both NASA as well as through the NSBRI. And so, I think it's important work and we are not fully onboard and recognize it as important.
Question: Who are your heroes?
Leroy Chiao: My heroes? Well, you know, the early astronauts, certainly. I remember as a kid following their missions and being so impressed by what they were doing. But my parents too, they were both immigrants, both originally from China. They both individually left the mainland during the communist takeover in 1949, there in the late '40's, early '50's, and they met each other in Taiwan, they worked hard. They weren't from wealthy families. They worked hard and got degrees in school and immigrated to the United States to go to graduate school and they built a life here.
And if you look at what they've done, gosh, I would say I was lucky that there was a large amount of luck to be selected to be an astronaut, and they did all they did through hard work. I mean, I worked hard too, but I look at what they did and it was really an accomplishment
Question: What’s the worst career advice you ever received?
Leroy Chiao: The worst career advice I've ever gotten? The worst career advise I've ever gotten that I've never followed, and I can' tell you who – more than one person has said this to me, and I can't tell you who they are because I can't remember. But I remember getting advice like, "Oh, do what interests you. Don't worry about tomorrow, live for today," kind of thing. And to a degree, you've got to do that, you've got to follow your passions. You've got to follow your dreams, but you also have to have a plan. You can't just say I'm going to do what interests me today and I'm not going to worry about tomorrow, that doesn't work. And anyone who's tried that I think quickly finds that out, or hopefully quickly finds that out. You've got to follow your passions. And now that's what I tell people, especially young kids. Think about what turns you on, what do you dream about? What you'd like to accomplish? But along with that, make a plan and work hard to make it happen
Question: What's the biggest career mistake you've ever made?
Leroy Chiao: The biggest career mistake I ever made. Wow, you've got me on that. Let's see, well you know, probably some mistakes I made that I was glad happened in the context that it did was, when I was studying engineering, I did an engineering co-op job, which basically means that you go out while you're still a student and you spend several months working with a company and things like that. And I did that with IBM and I ended up going up to Burlington, Vermont and had a great experience doing it, but I learned my mistakes there and fortunately for me, I made my mistakes there in my co-op jobs instead of while I was out as a profession and working in the workforce. And to me, my mistakes made were learning how to work with different groups of people. I mean, I went to school at Berkeley, which is a pretty diverse group, but working in a professional setting, I hadn't really done that before and learning about office politics, learning about interactions between different people and I made a lot of mistakes there during my time as a young person. I was 19 or 20 at the time. So, I would say those were my biggest career mistakes, but fortunately they were made in the context of an engineering co-op program and not in a professional field.
Question: If you could go to dinner with anyone, who would it be?
Leroy Chiao: Anyone living or alive, who would I go with? You know, I would love to go to dinner with Sergei Korolyov who is the father of Soviet Space program. I would also love to go to dinner with someone who was recent passed, just a month ago, his name was Qian Xuesen, and he was the father of the Chinese Space Program. And Korolyov because he started the whole thing. You know, he was acknowledged as the guy who made the first practical rocket to go into space; he's the one who launched Euricka Garen into space and Qian because he has an interesting history. He was actually in the United States, he studied in the United States at MIT and Cal Tech, and he was a protégé of Theodore Von Carmen's at Cal Tech and helped start the jet propulsion laboratory there, and then he got caught up in the anti-communism wave and was accused of being a spy and was actually deported back to China where he built from nothing, their entire missile and space program.
So, in a way, in a very real way, the United States in trying to protect so-called protect our secrets and throwing this guy out of the country, we helped seed and start the Chinese missile program. Both of those guys would be very interesting to meet and talk to.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Leroy Chiao: What keeps me up at night? Probably most, thinking about the future for my kids. It sounds kind of funny, but not so much what they're going to do, but how as a parent, how my wife and I as parents, how best we should prepare them for the world. And I know everybody does this, I think everybody stays up at night thinking about the best thing for their kids, and astronauts are no different.
Question: What's the biggest obstacle you ever had to overcome?
Leroy Chiao: The biggest obstacle I've had to overcome. You know, I will say, I'm an American, I was born in the United States, I'm proud to be an American, I'm an American first. But obviously, I'm a Chinese-American. And growing up, my family, my parents, and I think rightly so didn't put us in Chinatown, didn't put us with our other ethnic group, but put us in mainstream America and that helped us to -- they're thinking was that will help us assimilate into the mainstream and be a part of it. And it did. But as a young person in a predominately white area, I was picked on quite a bit, and I was the smallest kid in the class because my birthday is in August, so I started school early. So, I was always the smallest kid. So, I had some real challenges growing up, especially in middle school. But I overcame all of that, but that was probably the biggest challenges was just getting through that time and getting a perspective.
You know, and to take something positive out of that, you know, it did give me perspective. It certainly gave me tolerance of other people, of other races, of other ethnicities and I think that's helped make me a better person.
Question: What's your advice for an aspiring astronaut?
Leroy Chiao: Well, my advice is to really follow your passion. I mean, study something that interests you, but also qualifies you to apply. As I said, NASA recruits from a wide variety of backgrounds, you have to have a Bachelor's degree, at least in science or engineering, but pick the field that you like. I know people who have applied to be an astronaut who ask me, well should I do this or should I do that. And I said, you know, it doesn't matter. The basic requirements are you have to be in good health, and you have to have a good heart, I mean in a technical way, not to be a kind person, well that helps. But, study something that you like and do well in it.
A conversation with Chinese-American astronaut and director of Excalibur Almaz, a recreational space travel firm.
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