Devon Island Expedition

Devon Island Expedition
This blog features educational updates on my Devon Island Expedition of July 14-20, 2007. Other sites:,

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Human Spaceflight, The World and You TEDx Presentation at Alva Park, Henry Ford Innovation Institute on November 2, 2011
Originally Published in Air and Space Smithsonian Online Magazine in September 2011 China and Human Spaceflight: One Look Back and Another Forward Leroy Chiao 9/30/11 On September 29, 2011, a Long March 2F rocket roared to life, and lifted Tiangong-1 (TG-1, “Heavenly Palace”) into orbit. TG-1 was designed for a two-year life, and will be used as a docking target and as a small human-tended space station. This launch marked the beginning of China’s next phase in human spaceflight (HSF). China’s foray into human spaceflight began in the late 1960’s, with Chairman Mao’s selection of the first group of Chinese National Astronauts. Economic and technologic realities prevented China from then achieving human spaceflight, but the legacy was born. Fast-forward twenty-five years, to the beginning of Project 920. This program sought initially to place China’s first astronaut into orbit in 1999, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of The People’s Republic of China. Project 920 did achieve the dream, albeit four years late. But, it was a significant achievement nonetheless. In October 2003, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese national astronaut, and China became only the third nation in the world capable of launching her own astronauts into space. Now, nearly eight years later, China’s HSF program is on a steady course. One could argue that the pace of achievement has been slow, but we should consider the landscape to understand why. First: The main reason that any country gets into the HSF business is national prestige. The former Soviet Union struck first with the flight of Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. They wished to demonstrate their technological prowess, against the backdrop of the Cold War. The United States countered several weeks later, with Alan Shepard’s suborbital Mercury flight, followed by Gus Grissom, and then by John Glenn’s orbital mission. The Space Race was born, and the United States had not looked back, until now. Second: The United States has terminated the Space Shuttle program, and now has no ability to launch astronauts into space. Russia has become the only launch service for crews to the International Space Station (ISS), and their program recently suffered a launch failure of a Soyuz rocket, thus temporarily grounding their fleet. True, the United States has called for, and is funding, commercial ventures that seek to take over the crew and cargo transportation services to the ISS. But these efforts are realistically still at least five years away from Initial Operational Capability (IOC), and the jury is still out on whether or not they will be successful at all. Taking these facts into account, it is easy to understand why China has acted slowly and deliberately. The three flights that they have flown to date have all been demonstrations in advancing capability. Yang Liwei’s mission showed their initial HSF ability. Shenzhou-7 demonstrated that their spacecraft and crews were capable of mounting missions of several days in duration. Shenzhou-8 demonstrated their first EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity, or spacewalk), even if it only lasted about seventeen minutes (as opposed to American and Russian EVA’s, which typically are planned for six-and-a-half hours). They have maximized public exposure of their missions, and limited their exposure to risk of failure, by flying only once every few years. This is not the most efficient path for growth, but one could argue that they have been successful. What does China have planned for the future? They have made no secret of their desire to build a space station. Indeed, China had, in their early days of HSF, talked openly about joining the ISS program. Their overtures were rebuffed by the United States. First, on the grounds that China’s technology was not mature. This is simply not true. In 2006, I became the first American to visit the Astronaut Center of China (ACC). There, I met the Center Director, and several of their first astronauts, including Yang Liwei. I toured firsthand, their center and saw examples of their advanced technological state [REFERENCE A&S ARTICLE THAT I WROTE IN JANUARY 2007?]. The control panel of the Shenzhou spacecraft simulator was modern, featuring multiple display screens which appeared to be re-configurable. The Center itself was up-to-date and clean. What they lack is operational experience. The second reason given for not working with China had to do with the fear of military technology theft. This is illogical, since our partnership with Russia has not resulted in any such technology transfer, in either direction. Why then, would it occur with China? In any event, China’s actions have made it clear that they will continue with HSF. Each successive mission has built on the experience of the previous, and has represented a step forward in capability. Yang’s one-day flight aboard Shenzhou-5 achieved HSF for China. Shenzhou-6 demonstrated China’s ability to fly a crew of two for several days. Shenzhou-7 featured a crew of three, and demonstrated China’s first spacewalk, using their own spacesuit. Now that Tiangong-1 has been placed into orbit, two subsequent un-crewed Shenzhou missions will test Automated Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (ARPO) and docking technologies. These flights will be followed next year with crewed demonstrations of ARPO and docking capabilities. If successful, these missions would give China the same operational rendezvous and docking capabilities as the Russian have with their Progress and Soyuz vehicles. Going forward, China has announced plans to use TG-1 as a human-tended station, where visiting crews would live and work aboard the laboratory for periods of around two weeks. China is continuing with the development of the Long March 5 (LM-5) rocket, a heavy-lift vehicle, which features a cryogenic core stage. The development of cryogenic engines is another indicator of advanced technical capability. China’s launch site on Hainan island, which is currently being developed, will give China the ability to easily launch into a five-degree inclination, which is ideal for lunar trajectories. China has announced that in 2020, once the LM-5 and the Hainan launch facility are completed, they will launch their first space station core module, which is approximately the size and shape of the core module of the ISS. However, this will be no mere copy. They are working on an advanced closed-loop life support system, and other capabilities, and have released drawings show multiple modules that would be added as their program progresses. What should the United States do? I believe that we have an opportunity right now to again seize the leadership role in HSF, by bringing China into the ISS program, and to include them, with our other international partners, in future exploration missions. The US has the unique ability to integrate the world’s space programs. China sent the Chang’e-1 space probe to the Moon in 2007, which returned striking high-definition images. It’s sister spacecraft Chang’e-2 was launched to the Moon in October 2010. Although there have been no official announcements, I believe that China has lunar HSF ambitions. The Moon is an important part of Chinese culture, and landing on the Moon would demonstrate technological and operational expertise. This of course, would return enormous national prestige. Doesn’t it make sense for the United States to lead these explorations? After all, we are the only people who have been there. Leroy Chiao served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005. During his 15-year career, he flew four missions into space, three times on Space Shuttles and once as the copilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. On that flight, he served as the commander of Expedition-X, a six and a half month mission. Dr. Chiao has performed six spacewalks, in both US and Russian spacesuits, and has logged nearly 230 days in space. He has performed scientific investigations in orbit, and helped to construct the International Space Station. Dr. Chiao was the first Chinese-American professional astronaut, spacewalker and mission commander.
Spacy Halloween Leroy Chiao October 5, 2011 July 20, 1969. I will remember that day forever. I was an eight-year-old kid, living in Danville, California. Although Danville is now a thriving small city, back in the late sixties it was just a small town located about thirty miles east of Berkeley, with maybe two stoplights. When my family moved there in 1967 from Wichita, Kansas, my sisters and I were amazed at what we thought were mountains (they were actually hills). These exciting forms were lush and green. We were thrilled about our new home. Although I was born in Milwaukee, Danville is my hometown. It was a great place to live and grow up. My friends and I used to slip through the barbed wire fences and go exploring in the hills. There was a small pond, where we would bring our model boats to float, and catch tadpoles and frogs. My family frequently went hiking in Rock City on Mount Diablo, a trail of sandstone formations that leads to a peak, which offers a great view of the valley. I had my first Mexican food in Danville, in a wonderful little restaurant called El Dorado. Although it is long gone, I remember the bean dip they served that had little bits of blue cheese mixed in. I always ate so much of the chips and dip that I was never hungry when my meal arrived. Two of my best friends, Russ and Mike Miller were over at my house that day. It was a warm Sunday, and our house didn’t have an air conditioner. So, my father had sprayed water on the back patio, which was partially shaded, and moved our black and white TV outside (complete with rabbit ear antennae). We were eating Spam and peanut butter sandwiches (one of my Dad’s specialties), which is surprisingly not bad. Shortly after lunch we all watched the scene in the Mission Control Center, and listened in awe to Neil Armstrong’s radio transmission coming from the Moon announcing that Eagle had landed. Wow! Walter Cronkite threw his glasses on the table and was almost speechless. Even as a kid, I knew the world had just changed. And, I knew that I wanted to be one of those guys. So, it was natural that for Halloween that year, I went as an astronaut! I had already built a command module underneath the workbench in our garage. This left the workbench still functional (it was the site of many model airplane and rocket constructions, not to mention wooden projects of all kinds, including an almost-working hang glider, but that’s another story). So, I set about making my costume. A cardboard box made up the hard upper torso (HUT, in space parlance) of my spacesuit. I cut head and arm holes in it, cut the bottom out for my legs, and glued a wooden display and control module (in NASA-speak, a DCM) in the front. I did have gloves, but no helmet. I’ve always been a pragmatic guy, and suffocating for an authentic look just didn’t resonate with me. Even the candy bag fit, since astronauts do carry bags to hold tools and equipment on real spacewalks. While wearing my spacesuit on that Halloween, I didn’t see too many creepy or eerie things. But, thirty-five years later while wearing a Russian Orlan spacesuit, I did see something that raised the hairs on the back of my neck! Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov and I were conducting a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station (ISS). In between installing navigation antennas, I looked to my right. We were just in twilight, so I couldn’t discern the Earth. Everything was lighting up as the sun started to rise. Suddenly, I saw five lights, flying in formation go past! “Salizhan, do you see that?!” Do you see the lights flying past us?” I asked. He didn’t, and the lights were gone. While I do believe that there is life elsewhere in the universe, I don’t think we’ve yet been visited. So, these lights were perplexing. Enthusiasts heard my transmissions, and quickly there were stories posted that I had seen UFO’s. Could this be proof that NASA and the Air Force really had been covering up Roswell and Area 51 for decades? Thanks to other enthusiasts and the Internet, the answer was quickly found. These folks worked out the position of the ISS at the time of my radio calls, and determined that we were flying over the coast of South America at the time, and that it was twilight. What I actually saw, were squid fishing boats along the coast, strung out in formation. These fishermen use very bright lamps to attract the squid, and the rotation of the Earth, which I could not discern in the twilight, made it appear that the lights “flew” past us! Living now in Houston, my Halloweens are filled with new excitement. The current talk at the dinner table is what our four-year-old twins want to dress up as this year. I’m thrilled to say that astronaut is one of the candidates. Maybe we will make the spacesuits together. And when my wife isn’t looking, maybe I’ll introduce the twins to Spam and peanut butter sandwiches. Leroy Chiao served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005. During his 15-year career, he flew four missions into space, three times on Space Shuttles and once as the copilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. On that flight, he served as the commander of Expedition 10, a six and a half month mission. Dr. Chiao has performed six spacewalks, in both US and Russian spacesuits, and has logged nearly 230 days in space. He has performed scientific investigations in orbit, and helped to construct the International Space Station. He remains a big Halloween enthusiast, but has gone only once dressed as an astronaut.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Space Exploration, Radiation and Monkeys!

So, I’m sitting here at the sixteenth conference on Solid State Dosimetry (SSD16), thinking about monkeys, radiation and space exploration. The conference is only held every three years, so it’s been going on now for nearly fifty! That’s how hard it is to measure radiation, and come up with meaningful interpretations of the results.

The main purpose of the conference involves neither monkeys nor space exploration. Most of the dosimeter work is focused on medical applications, to advance the state of the art for more precise radiation treatment of cancer patients. But the part in which I am involved, specifically deals with space exploration applications.

Radiation is the single biggest threat to astronaut health in long duration flight. This is especially true for flights that would occur away from the Van Allen Radiation Belts, which offer significant protection to all of us, who are safely cocooned in it’s warm embrace. Even in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), astronauts are still protected to a large degree from charged particles. The heavy artillery still gets through (gamma rays, neutrons, some protons), but the electrons and other charged ions are caught in the electromagnetic field lines. Astronauts who ventured to the Moon were outside of the belts, as would be astronauts who travel to Near Earth Objects (NEO’s), Lagrange Points or any other far destination (Mars, anyone?). A solar flare (or event, in the parlance of the field) could be fatal. NASA worried quite a bit about that possibility during the Apollo program.

It was announced in this morning’s conference session, that last night we had a solar event. I immediately thought of my friends aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Misha and his crew are due to return to Earth tomorrow. They were a day late, and could be exposed to elevated radiation levels.

We had a solar event during my stint as the Commander of ISS Expedition 10. It was eerie. We got the call from Mission Control, and were advised during which specific times we were to retreat to the “more heavily shielded” portions of the station. More heavily shielded? Uh huh…..For me, that meant the sleep station in the US Segment, which had plastic shielding inserted into the fabric walls. They are supposed to catch a few heavy particles, but they seemed awfully thin to me. Salizhan was directed to the middle of the Zvezda core module, which was where there was more machinery around the middle. Great. After the event had passed, the radiation detectors were still registering levels about ten times normal. Great again. Well, what could we do? This was one of the prices we had to pay, for the privilege of spaceflight. At least we had detectors, which allowed estimates of the cumulative doses that we received (we were told “all good!” post-flight, by the NASA folks. Uh huh……).

There are three things we need to figure out radiation wise, in order to explore in a sustained fashion, beyond LEO: (1) Detection; (2) Shielding; (3) Treatment. This conference deals with the first, detection. There is ongoing work in the other two fields as well. Shielding is a tricky deal. It would seem that one simply would need to find a pile of lead and hide inside of it. Not so simple. Gamma rays and protons punch into high-Z materials and cause secondary emissions, which could actually be much more harmful to biologics like us. As for treatment, there are researchers working on drugs and nano-materials, which would scoop up free radicals in our blood, caused by radiation exposure. Good work in all three, but plenty more to do.

So, where then do the monkeys come in? Monkeys have played an important role in space exploration, since the beginning. The first “American” in space was Ham the monkey, who flew inside of a Mercury capsule before Alan Shepard. You may have heard about planned monkey radiation experiments, and the recent protests against them. I understand the necessity of animal experiments in developing drugs and treatments, but I must admit that this one has me scratching my head a bit.

I have no doubt that some advances in scientific knowledge would be realized through these planned experiments, but I’m an operational guy (despite my Ph.D.). How would these experiments help us to survive in deep space? I don’t see it. The bottom line, is that exposure to high levels of radiation is bad. We need to figure out how to detect for, and protect against exposure, as well as to treat for exposure, if it occurs.

I’m a big fan of Curious George. Let’s leave him alone this time.

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Trinity Test Site

I had the opportunity to visit the Trinity Test Site today, courtesy of General Regan, of the White Sands Missile Range. It was almost sixty five years ago, when the United States tested the world's first atomic bomb.

It made me think of what that time must have been like, as I was standing there at ground zero. The dedicated teams working fiercely to develop this weapon, which was intellectually interesting, and critical to the United States war effort. It undeniably shortened the war, and saved many lives, on both sides.

However, what went through the minds of the people doing it? Oppenheimer had somewhat of a crisis of conscience. Who wouldn't? At least to some degree? Even Edward Teller must have wondered sometimes, about what he had helped to develop. Yet, it would be naive to believe that had the United States not developed nuclear weapons, that no other country would have. The Germans were working on atomic weapons research during the last days of the war. Does anyone doubt that Hitler, with his V2 rockets to deliver these weapons, would not have used them?

It is not only about war and weapons. What advances came out of this time of crisis and conflict? It is interesting to consider all of this.

Leroy Chiao

Sunday, March 7, 2010

End of an Era

A few weeks ago, I was at the Kennedy Space Center, reporting on the last scheduled night launch of the Space Shuttle program. Endeavour lifted off into the false dawn that she herself created, and rose majestically into the sky, lighting up the wispy cloud layer that was creeping onshore. It was one of the most beautiful space launches I have ever experienced. There are only four more Shuttle launches, before the end of Her Era.

Space Shuttle was born out of this nation, coming off of the highs of Apollo, Skylab, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Her proponents promised inexpensive, regular access to space, aboard this then modern-day “space truck.” These were lofty goals to be sure, that we never got close to reaching. Instead of fifty-odd flights a year, the best we did was just south of ten. Instead of inexpensive flights, each costs somewhere north of five hundred million dollars.

Nevertheless, Space Shuttle is a magnificent flying machine, unparalleled in the history of human spaceflight. The Soviet Union tried to copy her, and failed; their program consisted of exactly one unmanned flight, which ended after one orbit. No other program featured an operational vehicle, which launched into orbit on her own power, loitered in space for two-plus weeks, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere, and landed on a conventional runway like an airplane. No other manned vehicle could even come close to carrying her nearly-sixty-thousand-pound payload capacity. There has never been another operational reusable space system, ever.

When she is put out to pasture, we will have nothing new with which to replace her; after she is decommissioned, the United States will have no independent means to launch astronauts into space. It is unclear when we will have a new crew vehicle, the only thing certain is that we will have a capability gap that will last at least five years, and probably longer.

I was a member of the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by aerospace veteran, Norm Augustine. Appointed by the White House, we worked last summer to evaluate plans and formulate options for the new Administration. It was a difficult conclusion to accept, but we found nothing, not even practically unlimited funding, would minimize the gap between the Space Shuttle and the next US crewed space vehicle, except for extending Shuttle operational life. So then, why is the Space Shuttle going away? Three reasons: She is too expensive to operate, there is a higher risk involved in Shuttle flights than we originally calculated, and because of the last reason, it is politically untenable.

The Augustine Committee, as we came to be known, put forward the option to spur development of commercial, crewed Low Earth Orbit (LEO) access. Why does this make any sense? Commercial may not reduce the gap, but it may offer a better long-term solution for LEO access, since by definition, commercial solutions need to be cost effective, and government systems do not. The technology to get astronauts to LEO has existed for nearly fifty years. The trick is to find a safe, yet commercially viable structure. I didn’t foresee the recent announcement of the cancellation of the NASA Orion crew exploration vehicle (CEV); the commercial option was for LEO access, not exploration. I expected that CEV, along with either a heavy lift vehicle, or a man-rated expendable launcher would serve as a complimentary system to commercial LEO efforts. Details of the US plans for the future of NASA human spaceflight remain to be revealed, but I remain cautiously optimistic. Sometimes it takes dramatic change, even temporary chaos, to affect the possibility of a quantum jump in improvement.

I flew on three Space Shuttles: Columbia, Endeavour and Discovery. This is a bold, new world, but Shuttle will always have a special place in my heart. I will remember them fondly, and I will miss them.

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, February 4, 2010

We are Ready for Commercial Human Spaceflight

US Policy on access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is on the edge of a dramatic shift. Currently, only three governments have the independent capability of launching astronauts into LEO: The United States, Russia and China. After the US Space Shuttle is decommissioned from service, there will be only two. The Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, headed by the highly respected former aerospace executive, Norm Augustine, included in their report, the option of stimulating commercial efforts to provide access to LEO. It makes sense: We have been flying to LEO for almost fifty years, so the technology is quite mature and available. The challenge is to make this a commercial practicality.

The idea of private, commercial space access has been around for decades. It is not a new one, and it is not one that has yet found success. The advent of SpaceShip One winning the Ansari X-prize in 2004, was an important milestone. Although the privately built vehicle was only designed for suborbital flight, it proved that a non-government spacecraft was possible. Commercial orbital flight will be much more difficult, but I believe it is possible.

Many of my colleagues and peers have written articles and pieces, deriding the idea of commercial LEO access. Indeed, the track record of the self-described “New Space” companies has thus far, been marked generally with failure and arrogance. Not all, but many of these folks, before they run their companies into the ground, seem to spend the bulk of their time attending self-serving, self-aggrandizing conferences where openly slinging mud at NASA is sport. This is hardly constructive, and it brings discredit to others who have serious aspirations for the future of commercial spaceflight.

However, I respectfully disagree with my colleagues who believe that only governments can and should engage in human spaceflight. We members of the Augustine Commission (as the review committee came to be known) fully intended for the commercial LEO efforts to include contributions from the traditional aerospace companies. These companies, or their predecessors, built every US crewed spacecraft to date. They have much to offer. To exclude them entirely would be foolish and valuable knowledge wasted.

The time is right for commercial human spaceflight. Private companies should learn the lessons from NASA and traditional aerospace, and then try to apply them in a more efficient manner. It is understandable how and why the processes for government/contractor space programs have evolved into what they are today: Bureaucratic and inefficient, but safe. The key is to work in a smart manner to provide efficiency, without sacrificing safety, perhaps in partnership with traditional aerospace companies.

Anytime there is significant change in the air, the establishment gets nervous. This is to be expected. Sometimes dramatic change is necessary to achieve fresh results. Time will tell if the private companies will achieve LEO access, but I for one, remain optimistic. Americans have always been innovative, flexible and doggedly determined. If it can be done, the citizens of the US still embody the creativity and courage to find the way.

Leroy Chiao