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July 1, 2011

Adrift in Space

From his earliest days, Leroy Chiao wanted to be an astronaut. Now, retired after a 15-year spacefaring career, Chiao struggles for traction in the new industry of commercialized spaceflight. Will he succeed once again?

Leroy Chiao's business card is unusually definitive and more than a little startling. It says:

Leroy Chiao, Ph. D.
Astronaut

Yet Chiao is an astronaut these days in the same way that your next-door-neighbor likes to be called “Major.” Because after four missions in space—three on the space shuttle and one as commander of the International Space Station—after 229 days of spaceflight and 36 hours of spacewalks, Leroy Chiao is retired. There will be no more missions to low Earth orbit, no miraculous journeys to the moon. At age 50, Leroy Chiao is, amazingly, on the shelf.

Chiao's story—one of great triumph, tenacity and dedication to spacefaring—is increasingly common as the United States retires its last space shuttles this summer. There will be no more manned spaceflights by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for many years to come, and that means there will be little need for highly trained, exquisitely skilled astronauts with ice in their veins to ride fiery rockets into space, to show the world what “intrepid” really means.

Since the first seven Mercury astronauts were selected in 1959, there have been about 330 people, men and women, military and civilian, selected to fly on U.S. spacecraft. Of those, Leroy Chiao is in many ways typical. He is not famous, as is Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, or John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit Earth. He is no strutting test pilot or macho military fighter jock. In his own brilliant yet unassuming way, he was a workaday spaceman—scientist, sometime construction worker, photographer, educator, crewmate and, ultimately, commander of a space station. Today, he stays firmly tied to the space community, still doing his part to keep human beings involved within the solar system.

Spaceflight is not going away just yet. Other nations, such as China and Russia, maintain programs. NASA may not be able to fly, but the agency has devoted cash and expertise to spur along the entirely new industry of commercial spaceflight. Officially known as the Commercial Crew Development program, or CCDev, the initiative now supports research and development by companies that want to create space ferries for cargo, astronauts on their way to the International Space Station, nations and outfits that want to launch satellites, at least one entrepreneur who envisions an inflatable space hotel and, of course, very rich tourists.

“It's one of the most interesting, exciting and most controversial parts of the new space policy,” says Chiao, who among other things is now executive vice president and director of a commercial space startup, called Excalibur Almaz, based on the Isle of Man (a self-governed island between Ireland and the United Kingdom). “NASA is seeding the new commercial businesses with grant money to get them going. It's an evolutionary way of using proven technologies to create spaceflight that is more efficient.”

How much more efficient? Ed Mango, program manager for CCDev, says that by the time the program is completed, it will have stoked development of an entirely new manned spaceflight capability for a little more than $1.1 billion, or “20% to 40% of what a normal NASA program would cost.”

It promises, as well, to permit manned spaceflight at bargain rates, says Mango. A seat on a Russian Soyuz flight to the space station runs about $50 million, but the four companies with development programs that NASA supports may eventually offer low Earth orbit seats for as little as $20 million. No weekend getaway rate, perhaps, but a deal nonetheless.

“NASA would like to send astronauts to low Earth orbit (defined as the region between 80 and 2,000 kilometers above the ground, or about 50 to 1,250 miles up) by buying a ticket, like you would buy an airplane ticket now,” says Mango. “That's where we want to be in a couple of generations. The strategy is to develop low Earth orbit solutions in partnership with industry so that NASA folks can focus on exploration.”

The strategy was developed, in part, by a NASA committee that was formed in 2009 to evaluate NASA's prospects and best long-term strategies. Among the members was Chiao, and the chairman was a true spaceflight seer, Norman R. Augustine. Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., is also a former under secretary of the U.S. Army, one-time chairman of the National Academy of Engineers, holder of at least 27 honorary degrees, and a former member of the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for 16 years.

“If NASA continues spending all of its money flying to low Earth orbit, there will be no money for anything else,” says Augustine. “Why not let the commercial guys do the trucking, and let NASA do the long-term exciting missions,” such as landing on asteroids, returning to the moon and eventually traveling to Mars.

Augustine, Chiao and the fuller committee counseled NASA and the White House to establish goals for “a human spaceflight program worthy of a great nation.” These would include intangible goals, such as generating pride in space achievements, and inspiring new generations to achieve great things in the sciences. “There is a romance to it,” says Augustine. “Just look at the crowds drawn to Cape Kennedy for launches. Great nations explore new things, and it costs each American only about a dime a day.” Says Chiao, “We are a species that yearns to explore.”

So far, NASA has narrowed its support to four companies that it wants to move from commercial spaceflight concepts to preliminary integrated designs that include the spacecraft, rocket, ground infrastructure, operation centers and other facilities they intend to use. The four include:

  • Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, co-founder of the PayPal electronic payment system, CEO of Tesla Motors and a rocket engineer. In December, SpaceX became the first commercial company to launch, fly, land and recover a spacecraft from Earth orbit when its Falcon 9 rocket boosted its Dragon spacecraft into orbital space from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The capsule was recovered after a Pacific Ocean splashdown.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. of Louisville, Colorado, which is developing an orbital space system called Dream Chaser. Like the space shuttle, Dream Chaser is a piloted, flying spacecraft. Plans call for it to launch on an Atlas V rocket, and then use its own motors to carry a crew of seven and cargo to the space stations. Sierra Nevada has successfully fired the Dream Chaser rocket motors and remotely flown a scale model of the vehicle, from 14,000 feet, to start the atmospheric flight-test program.
  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, a company established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. It is developing the New Shepard, a vertical take-off, vertical-landing vehicle.
  • The Boeing Co. and its St. Louis-based Defense, Space & Security business, which is developing a Crew Space Transportation-100 (or CST-100) spacecraft. Boeing, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, has built or helped build every manned spacecraft launched by the United States. “We've always been involved in the space transportation segment, and we want to continue in it,” says John Elbon, vice president and program manager, Boeing Commercial Crew Programs.

    Boeing works closely with a number of partners to develop its approach to crew transportation. It plans to use an existing rocket to launch its spacecraft, and has so far developed a pressure vessel to be the cabin, a cockpit simulator and ideas for parachutes for landing on solid ground. It hopes to be in flight tests by 2014 and operational in 2015.

    “There's definitely a market for commercial business beyond NASA for a low Earth orbit transportation system,” says Elbon. “Seven private citizens have flown on Soyuz to the space station; one has flown twice. They paid their own money for flights. The question is how deep that market is, and it's very difficult to get your arms around.”

 

Which is why commercial space ventures hope to land NASA as a foundation client while slowly building a presence with space tourists, scientific organizations and even small nations that want a presence in space but that can't afford the complete repertoire. For example, the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology has signed a memorandum of understanding with Bigelow Aerospace LLC of North Las Vegas, Nevada, to develop a space program for Dubai and the United Arab Emirates.

Chiao's private venture, Excalibur Almaz, had hoped to win a NASA development contract. Absent that, the group still hopes to win a share of the space tourism business using as spacecraft completely refurbished capsules originally developed for military reconnaissance by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In their military form, the Almaz capsules carried a machine gun to ward off attacking U.S. Apollo space capsules. As private space vehicles, Almaz spacecraft will be reusable and will be joined to and supported by attached living and working modules.

“We want to take technology that has worked, modernize it, keep the parts that makes sense, such as the heat shield, install Western avionics and electronics to make our own little space program,” says Chiao. “The going price right now is $35 million a seat if you go up with the Russians. Market studies show that there are 20 to 30 people a year with the means and desire to do that.”

Chiao had the desire to travel to space from the age of 8, when he watched the Apollo 11 mission to the moon “and even then, as a little kid, I knew that the world had just changed, and I wanted to be a part of it.” He was technically minded from the start. His parents, refugees from China who made it to the United States by way of Taiwan, were both Ph.D. chemical engineers. Chiao, who was born in Milwaukee and raised in California, liked to tinker with things to see how they worked. He built electronic kits, little radios and rockets. Eventually, he, too, earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

“But I never forgot my dream of becoming an astronaut,” he says. “The path I chose was one way to do it.” NASA preferred civilian candidates with advanced degrees and solid working experience. “They were looking for people who have a technical mind, so you will understand how the systems work, and have the right attitude to work together in a team.”

NASA also preferred pilots, since the space shuttle, which glides in for a landing, would require that skill. So Chiao not only learned to fly, he eventually bought his own airplane, a Grumman AA-5B four-seat, single-engine craft that he keeps parked in his backyard hangar. The “alley” that runs behind his house in greater Houston is actually a landing strip shared by all the homes that abut it, and he and many of his neighbors are regular aerial commuters.

Chiao became an astronaut in July 1991 and flew as a mission specialist on shuttle flights in 1994, 1996 and 2000. He was mission commander and NASA science officer for Expedition-10 to the International Space Station, which lasted from October 2004 to April 2005. That mission originated from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and involved 20 science experiments and two construction and installation spacewalks.

Forward talked with Dr. Chiao at his office in Houston.

 

Do you still have a strong childhood memory of the lunar landing?

I remember it like yesterday. We had a black-and-white TV set. We're listening, because there's no image, just looking at a picture of mission control and hearing the radio transmissions as the lander came down. You hear it come down, then the transmissions and dialogue of the communications, and then 'contact light,' engine off. And it's like, wow! Man on the moon. Walter Cronkite threw his glasses down, man on the moon.

I realized that there were people walking on the moon. It was a very emotional thing of awe and pride in our country for having accomplished that, then in me, personally, imagining myself on the moon. Then later, of course, we actually watched them walk on the moon. I felt the desire to experience that, to be up in space.

I never made it to the moon, but I had a very rich flying career, and I couldn't ask for more.

 

Was it difficult to be accepted as an astronaut?

The first time I applied was when I was still in graduate school, in 1986. I received the application just a month or so before the Challenger accident. But that didn't deter me at all or blunt my enthusiasm for being a part of it. There is a great deal of competition for a very few spots. They measure how many degrees you have, and how much work experience. They told me, 'Thank you, but you don't qualify.'

A few years later, I had finished my doctorate, worked for a year-and-a-half at Hexcel Corp. (an aerospace carbon fiber company) and had started at Lawrence Livermore National Lab (in Livermore, California). It was February 1989, and I applied again. In September, they asked me to come for an interview, which was a week of mostly medical evaluation. You are poked, prodded. There was a full day of psychological evaluations, the whole wringer. The actual interview was only an hour long with a board of 12 senior managers and astronauts. In January 1990, they called to say I got in. I started in July. I came to Houston, was sworn in as a civil servant, and started training. I was 29.

 

How difficult was the training?

It was a magical time. Training lasts one year. We learned how NASA works. All of us in our class of 23 were from different backgrounds. We had fighter pilots, test pilots, research engineers like me, a couple of physicists, a couple of M.D.s. We learned the history of the (space shuttle) vehicle, and we began learning vehicle systems. This was in the days before we had the International Space Station.

After a year, we graduated from astronaut candidate training and received silver pins. You receive a gold pin after your first space flight. The emblem was designed by the original seven astronauts, and the pin flies with you on your shuttle flight.

 

What was your first assignment?

I was the astronaut representative on the boards for selection of everything the crew is going to use in space. Sweaters, shirts, food items, tools. Here I am with a Ph.D. in engineering and my big triumph in the crew equipment world was getting cotton sweaters approved for use. The safety people were concerned about flammability issues and wanted synthetic materials. The crews said those weren't comfortable. They wanted cotton.

The point is that when you're not flying you're supporting all other aspects of space flight, things that are going to affect the flight crew.

By late 1992, I was assigned my first mission on Columbia, a 15-day flight to conduct scientific investigations in a space lab module in the back of the payload bay. We flew in July 1994. For me, that was a huge deal.

 

What were your impressions from that first flight?

By the time you first crawl into the real vehicle, you've been in the simulator hundreds of times. The real vehicle looks just like a new simulator because the panels aren't scuffed. Everything looks new. The real vehicle doesn't get used as much as the simulator.

It didn't become real for me until just about a minute and a half before launch. We got the call to, 'Close and lock your visors, initiate O2 flow and have a good flight.' Whoa! That's when I got the adrenaline spike, because we were going to go.

I was the mission specialist and second flight engineer. The main flight engineer sits right behind the commander, and the pilot and I were next to him on the flight deck. If we had malfunctions, with our integrated flight crew, we help with emergency procedures.

Right before launch you hear the main engine start. You're wearing a suit with a helmet and a com (communications) cap, so it's all muffled. You feel the rumble of the main engines when they start, about six-and-a-half seconds before liftoff. Then the computer checks them out to make sure that you have three good engines, all healthy. And at T-0, the computer ignites the two solid rocket boosters. Once you light the solids, you're going. You can't shut those down.

It's like a kick in the back of your chair, a big punch, because almost instantly, you have 5 million additional pounds of thrust. You have a lot of vibration during the first stage because, by their very nature, solid rockets burn unevenly. Liquid engines are very smooth. So, there's so much vibration that it's difficult to read the computer screens. For the first two minutes, you're almost along for the ride. Once that time goes by, you're at an altitude of around 180,000 feet.

As you accelerate, the shuttle kind of rolls over onto its back as it goes up. Because I was on the flight deck, and there are overhead windows, with a mirror on my knee I could look through the window and watch the ground rush away and see the flames behind us.

Once those solids come off, it's glass smooth. It's like sitting in this room and the main engines keep burning for a little over six-and-a-half more minutes. When you have main engine cutoff, you're instantly weightless. You go from 3-Gs (gravities) of acceleration, pressed back in your seat, like someone is sitting on your chest. And then, suddenly, everybody springs forward, and things start floating.

Instantly, there are things to do. I had to get my helmet off, get it into a bag, tie the bag up so that it didn't float away and get some cameras out. I was in charge of video footage of the orange external tank as it fell away for inspection. You don't really have time to enjoy the moment. Instantly to work.

 

It wasn't an emotional moment?

It was a very emotional moment when I looked out the window. Even though I was working, I could see the Earth, the horizon and I could see the sunlight coming through. Just that thin line of atmosphere is glowing, fluorescent, different shades of fluorescent blue. It was the realization of my boyhood dream.

The colors are more vivid than you might imagine. They surprised me how vivid they are. Even though I'd seen the movies and looked at photographs, it's nothing quite like being there. It's just so striking.

 

So, then you have two weeks in space ahead of you.

That's right. We're working around the clock, in two shifts, conducting mostly life science and material science experiments. Our mission was the second international microgravity lab. We worked in the Space Lab module, kind of a mini-space station. We had experiments from Europe, Japan and Canada, and we were well-trained in the experiments.

The scientists work for years to get these experiments done. Flight opportunities for a researcher are difficult to come by. It was very rewarding when we came back and met those scientists again.

The thing about weightlessness or microgravity is that some things are easier, like moving large masses around, but you've got to move them slowly because it still has inertia. It's easy to lose things. You have to secure them with Velcro or an elastic band or something. If somebody goes by and bumps into it, it's gone. You have to think about everything you do. Think about how you would clip your fingernails; how do you keep them from flying all over? You clip them in a bag, and stick each clipping to tape, and you do this next to an air filter so that if it gets loose, it goes into the filter. Hygiene takes a lot of effort. The first thing you want when you get back is a nice, hot shower.

 

How did your space station mission come about?

On shuttle flights I helped to build the space station. We used the shuttle's robotic arm to position new modules, and then on spacewalks we actually tightened bolts and made electrical connections. After my third shuttle mission, I had been at NASA for 10 years. As astronauts, we always evaluate what might come next. The chief astronaut asked me to become part of the expedition corps (spacefarers who work in the space station). They wanted guys like me who were very experienced on the shuttle. It would mean that I would train for three-and-a-half years because I had to train on Russian systems as well as U.S. systems. I had to learn their spacecraft, the Soyuz, and I had to learn the Russian language to the level of fluency where I could comfortably operate as part of the required flight crew. I had intensive language training, three days a week, two hours each day, one-on-one with the instructor. She was old school, tough as nails, and she didn't believe in what she called the fluffy methods of using a computer to fill in the blank. There was no escape.

I got to know the Russian culture, and for a while I was one month in Houston, one month in Star City (the Russian cosmonaut training center), then back to Houston again. In Russia, in meetings, they are very passionate, yelling at each other across a table. But after you've worked it all out, you're still friends. You go out and have a drink. Whereas at NASA, if someone gets up and screams at another person, that guy's crazy. He needs an anger management class. So it takes Americans aback, to have Russians yelling at them. As I shuttled back and forth, I had to keep [asking] myself, “What world am I in?”

At the peak of the shuttle program, we were launching eight or nine missions a year. It became accepted; we became a victim of our own success. But for the Russians, the average guy on the street still has an immense amount of pride in their program. They have more traditions associated with their program. For example, two weeks before launch, the crew goes to Red Square to lay flowers at the graves of Sergei Korolev, the father of their program, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. They are entombed in the Kremlin Wall. We also lay flowers at the graves of the crew of their first space station that died when there was a leak. Inside the Kremlin wall, there's a tree that was planted in Gagarin's honor. Every crew that goes down to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome touches the tree for good luck. After the flight, you return to Star City, and a military band plays at a big ceremony. The generals make speeches, and you get medals presented to you, hung around your neck. Unfortunately we don't have a lot of that at NASA.

 

Do the differences extend to hardware?

They approach technology differently. In the West, we tend to optimize everything. We put in computers to control everything. Even the power tool that we had when we did spacewalk assembly to drive bolts had a microprocessor. That made the shuttle a very capable vehicle.

The Soyuz, on the other hand, is a very simple vehicle. That's the Russian philosophy, the whole 'keep-it-simple, stupid' principle. And so it is very simple, and very reliable. It's also less capable. It's the same with their space suit. It's a simple system; you can do more with our suit. We build Cadillacs; they build that old, reliable pickup truck. No air-conditioning, AM radio, but it starts every time. It gets you there.

 

What were some of the conclusions from your space station experience?

There are a lot of negative effects from being in space. No. 1, your heart doesn't have to work very hard. It's like lying in bed. So every day, you have to exercise vigorously for two hours.

The one thing that we still have a big problem with, especially as we talk about going either long-term on the moon or to Mars, is radiation. Even in low Earth orbit, we're relatively protected by the Van Allen radiation belts that trap the charged particles. Once you go to the moon, outside of those belts, you get hit with everything. Even when we were protected by the Van Allen belts, we had a solar flare, and we were exposed to elevated levels of radiation. There's nothing you can do about it. You wear a dosimeter, and you work under OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) guidelines for radiation workers. You're allowed to take enough radiation over a lifetime to elevate your estimated cancer risk by 1%. About a year in space gets you to that limit.

 

Why did you leave the astronaut program?

With every flight, you can't help but think a little more about the risk. The first flight, you are willing to look at almost any level of risk. I mean, this is my boyhood dream, I've got to get up there. By the third flight, you start thinking a little bit about the risk. If I'm going to go back up, I want to do something I haven't done before.

Some people think that astronauts are a bunch of daredevils. But we're not. The risk we take in flying a shuttle mission is one that's calculated. I know there's risk, but I understand the system, I've met the people that work on it, I know the emergency procedures. With all that in mind, I'm going up to do this thing that I feel is worthy.

Now, if they were to tell me that they want me to fly to the moon, then yeah, OK, let's go.

 

You were a member of the committee that reviewed our plans for spaceflight. What did you conclude?

We are the leaders in human spaceflight. But we spent time evaluating the NASA program and formulating options. If NASA programs are not fully funded, you tend to fall farther and farther behind; you become less efficient and it actually takes more money to catch up. We said that if you want to be serious about space exploration, you need to add $3 billion a year to NASA's budget. It sounds like a lot of money until you look at how much we're spending each day on these wars (Afghanistan and Iraq). The administration gave the program half as much.

It's a time of great uncertainty and transition. We don't say that the goal is the moon or Mars. We say the goal is deep space exploration. We have to develop the technologies and infrastructure so that we can sustainably explore Mars. We don't want to spend a bunch of money, send one crew to Mars, take pictures, come back and never go back again. We need to learn how to keep people healthy for six months at a time. We need to test landers, habitats, space suits, tools and operating concepts. But there's a lot of uncertainty and, unfortunately, space exploration is not a high priority.