Devon Island Expedition

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

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Farewell, 2008

Well, it's that time of year again, the end of it, that is! Did you have a good 2008, despite the financial crisis and other world events?

Of course, one of the most significant events was the election of a new US President, who will take office in just a few weeks. He will face challenges for sure, but the general mood of the country, indeed the world, seems to be one of cautious optimism. Even Russian President Medvedev is on record as being positive about improved relations with the United States.

In the narrow area of space exploration, which greatly interests me, what will happen? The biggest question is who will lead NASA? It seems highly unlikely that Mike Griffin will be asked to stay on, but will the new Administration have NASA high enough on its priority list to make a decision quickly? One of my astronaut colleagues actually made a bet with me that Griffin will be asked to stay on. I understand that another of my colleagues started a keep Mike petition online, and it appears that Mrs. Griffin has also sent out emails urging support for her husband (please see

All very interesting and surreal. I personally doubt that Mike will be asked to stay. But, I've been wrong before!

What is going to happen to NASA? I don't know, nor do I have any insider information. I do think that whatever happens, NASA will be dramatically changed. This is more of a feeling than anything else.

I am worried that NASA will lose its place as the world leader in manned space flight. Russia will, by default, become the leader after the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010. China is coming up fast.

What do you think?

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What's Going On At NASA?

The Orlando Sentinal and other publications reported recently that NASA, at the very highest levels, is not cooperating with President-Elect Obama's NASA Transition Team. There was reportedly a very public, unfriendly exchange at a book publication event at NASA HQ between Administrator Mike Griffin and Transition Team Leader Lori Garver.

There seems to have been enough eyewitnesses to this and other incidents, that it would be fair to conclude that something bad is happening. What's going on at NASA? It's hard to know for sure, but it sure smells like a combination of desperation and frustration. No matter what one's opinion happens to be, the fact is that there will be a new President in just a few weeks and his transition team for space is going to be advising him on everything that should be done with NASA.

If Mike is afraid that the Constellation Program is about to be canceled or radically altered, the best course of action would be to calmly make his arguments to the Transition Team, to try to persuade them that his course is best. They are the ones who will be calling the shots. There are rumors that Ms. Garver herself may be in line to become the next NASA Administrator.

It may be a losing strategy for Mike to simply try to persuade, but it's going to be a lot better than confrontation.

And, who is Ms. Garver? She was the NASA Associate Administrator for Policy and Plans when Dan Goldin was NASA Administrator. Not many of us in the space business had really heard of her until after she had left NASA in 2001, when she publicly campaigned for contributions in an unsuccessful attempt to become what she called the "First Soccer Mom" to fly in space. She had hoped to use the money to buy a seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

She may not have technical credentials, but she doesn't necessarily need any, so long as she takes the advice of qualified specialists. What she does have, is political clout and savvy, especially with the incoming Administration.

One thing is for sure. Change is coming to NASA. Best for everyone if all play nicely.

Leroy Chiao

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On Cooperation with China

The Case for Cooperation

Leroy Chiao, Ph.D.

November 25, 2008

In October 2003, Yang Liwei became the first Chinese National astronaut to launch into space. He flew aboard the Chinese Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, atop a Long March 2F rocket, launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in central China. This historic event marked China’s entrance into the manned space game, only the third nation in the world to have that capability. China recently completed their third manned space mission, Shenzhou 7. During that flight, Chinese National astronaut Zhai Zhigang performed an eighteen-minute spacewalk, using a Chinese-built spacesuit.

As the first American to be allowed to visit the Astronaut Center of China in September 2006, I saw firsthand, the program’s high-level sophistication and technology. I met with Yang Liwei and Fei Junlong, the commander of China’s second space mission, Shenzhou 6. After a day of tours and meetings, it became apparent to me that the Chinese didn’t lack technology or sophistication, what they had not yet accrued was operational experience. This is something that will come with time.

Having said that, I am impressed with the deliberate, steady pace of their manned space program. Some might say that they have been conservative (their first spacewalk was a short one, and the astronauts never disconnected their electrical umbilicals), but I see it as a series of well-planned quantum steps.

China has, on at least two occasions, publicly announced desires to join the International Space Station (ISS) program. They have thus far, been rebuffed. In 2003, the reason given by the United States was that the Chinese program was too far behind technically and lacked sophistication. In 2007, they were simply ignored. Indeed, I was the lone American astronaut at the International Academy of Astronautics meeting that year in Beijing, China’s first international manned space conference. Except for a few individuals who were able to sign their own travel orders, NASA completely ignored the international assembly of Russian, European, Japanese, Canadian and Chinese astronauts, cosmonauts and space specialists.

Today, the U.S. space program is facing enormous challenges. The Constellation moon program has continuing technical and budget difficulties, and it is not at all clear what course the new administration will chart when it takes over early next year. The Space Shuttle, arguably a beautiful, magnificent, yet complex vehicle, will be retired in late 2010, barring major budget and political commitments. The United States will have no capability of its own to launch astronauts into space. We will be totally dependent on foreign partners with manned capability. Currently, only Russia is such a partner. China could be the second.

It makes sense politically and programmatically to cooperate with China, in all areas. Space would be a good place to symbolically signal such a shift in policy. The United States did this with Russia in the early 1990’s. At the time, as a skeptic, I didn’t see the point of cooperating with our former enemy and I objected to using our nation’s space program as a foreign policy tool. I thought that the Russians were technically backward. Having grown up during the Cold War, I “knew” these things to be true. It was not until I started training for Expedition 10, that I came to respect the Russians, their technology and their culture. I began to understand the benefits of using U.S. assets and programs to further political friendship through cooperation.

There have been arguments that cooperation in space with China would benefit their missile and weapon capability. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is nothing in manned space cooperation that would make a ballistic missile more accurate, or a nuclear warhead more powerful. In fact, trying to isolate China might motivate them to further develop their own technology.

Having been rebuffed by the United States on the International Space Station program, China announced plans for a space station of their own. In order to loft this station into orbit, China is developing the Long March 5 rocket, a true heavy lift launcher. This is the most advanced rocket that they have undertaken to create. It features a sophisticated cryogenic core with liquid strap-on boosters. If the U.S. had cooperated with China earlier on ISS, would they have committed their resources to make this 800 metric ton rocket, which by the way, could also lift a huge warhead?

China is emerging as a true world power, economically and technically. Does it make more sense for the United States to engage China, or to try to keep China at arm’s length? I believe that the answer is obvious. It is important to take the global view. Isolationism has been long obsolete. One good way to deal with an adversary is to find common and mutually beneficial areas of cooperation, and turn that adversary into a friend.

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. Dr. Chiao was the first Chinese-American professional astronaut, spacewalker and mission commander.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Chinese Space Suit

On November 7th, I was privileged to be shown the Chinese EVA suit before it was put on display at the Beijing Military museum. I believe that no Americans had seen this suit before. It was a functional suit, though obviously not the one that was worn on the actual EVA in September. That suit was thrown away and destroyed during reentry, except for the gloves that were worn by Zhai Zhigang.

I was impressed with the suit. It has obvious Russian Orlan heritage, with some differences. The Display and Control Module looked similar, as did the pressure regulators and the oxygen injector switch. The hatch latching mechanism also looked similar. So did the umbilical interfaces. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that the spacecraft interfaces are identical to the Russian system, since the second suit worn my Liu Boming was in fact an Orlan.

There is nothing wrong with this approach. It is arguably optimal to take an existing design and improve upon it, while retaining critical systems that are proven. In my view, China is taking a very logical course in developing their manned space capability.

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What a Difference a Year Makes!

Wow, I am blogging to you from China! Only a year ago, I was having dinner with the President of Google China. He told me then, that Google blogs were not turned on here.

Now, they are working just fine. I am glad to see that things are improving. I am encouraged that things seem to be going in the direction of more openness.

China cannot and should not be ignored. We are on the edge of a new era in the United States and the world. Cooperation is the best way to move forward.

Leroy Chiao

Friday, October 24, 2008

Taking a Global View

India has launched a Lunar probe in recent days. Another Soyuz TMA spacecraft has safely landed on Earth (this time with no down-moding of the entry profile). The US is poised to launch a Shuttle in a few weeks. Together with many countries, we operate an International Space Station.

World economies are inextricably linked. Financial crisis spread instantly worldwide. The crash of 1929 affected really only the US. Not this time. Asian stock markets were down 10% overnight. Russia's stock market is down 70% from it's high in May. The US market is down around 40% from a year ago.

Technology has made instant communication possible, to almost any major population center around the globe. How many people do you know who don't have an iPhone or Blackberry? Or at least a cell phone?

Is there any doubt that we live in a time when one must take the global view? Along with that global view, we should look to engage rather than confront. Understanding of other cultures is critical. Learning to put yourself in the other's shoes. When I was in Russia right after their invasion of Georgia, it was interesting to see their point of view. In no way do I endorse or defend their military actions, but my experiences in Russia allowed me to understand.

Through understanding, my hope is that we can all make the world a better place. I'm not naive, if anything, I am a hardened realist. But, everyone should have hope and should strive to help make positive contributions.

Leroy Chiao

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lowell Thomas Award

Just last week, I was honored by the Explorers Club with a Lowell Thomas award. I was one of six honorees, including a hero from my childhood, Chuck Yeager. Chuck is 85 years old, but he is sharp and gets around easily. I found him a nice man during the few minutes that we spoke on stage. It really was neat to finally meet him.

Leroy Chiao

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Congratulations Space X!

A few days ago, Space X successfully launched a Falcon 1 rocket, boosting a dummy payload into Low Earth Orbit. Congratulations to the Space X team!

This was the fourth attempt. The first three ended in explosions with loss of vehicle and actual payloads. Space X has been learning that spaceflight is neither easy nor inexpensive. If Elon Musk is willing to continue to spend a lot of money, I am sure he will have more successes in the future with follow on rockets. But, he should expect more problems and more expenses.

This raises into question on how much cheaper he might be able to offer launch services. He also needs to build up a record of demonstrated reliability.

I wish Space X luck. We need more launchers out there to drive down costs!

Leroy Chiao

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Congratulations China on EVA and 3rd Mission!

Congratulations to Chinese astronauts Zhai Zhigong, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng for the completion of China's third manned space mission, and for Zhai and Liu's successful first EVA for their space program! This was a huge step for the Chinese program towards building and operating long-duration spacecraft.

The EVA lasted only about eighteen minutes, but it accomplished the goals of demonstrating EVA capability, testing of the suit, and stoking national pride. Zhai left the airlock, while Liu waited inside, poking his head out to take a look around.

Zhai's spacesuit was designed and made in China, while Liu wore a Russian Orlan suit. The two systems are clearly compatible, since they were used together. Indeed, the Chinese suit looks a lot like the Orlan, except that it is white in color and there is no "moon roof" window on the top of the helmet.

One interesting thing that I observed, is that what appears to be Zhai's electrical umbilical remained attached to his suit during the entire EVA. I'm not sure why the Chinese specialists would have done it that way. I would have thought that they would have wanted to test the suit's battery and the function of the systems on battery power. Perhaps they were just being ultra conservative. Zhai had clearly disconnected his water/oxygen umbilical. The Orlan suit features an emergency oxygen connector, but I didn't see one on Zhai's suit. It may have been tucked away in a pocket.

There is talk that China's next mission will feature rendezvous and docking, probably with the upper living module from this Shenzhou 7 spacecraft. The plan appears to be to conncect two or more of these modules together to form a mn-tended lab or hab, as a precursor to a full up space station. Although they've backed off publicly on a manned moon mission, you can bet that's in work. The moon is important culturally to China and it would be historic and a public-relations coup if they become the first to be back to the moon with astronauts since the Apollo program.

Leroy Chiao

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Shenzhou 7, and Hurricane Recovery!

Finally back at home after hurricane Ike! Fortunately for us, damage was minimal. Trying to get caught up and get things back on track.

I'm getting ready to do a bunch of TV interviews for the Shenzhou 7 launch and the first spacewalk by a Chinese national! This will be very interesting and quite a step for the Chinese program.

Also interesting, is that NASA has reopened talks with the Chinese about space. They swear that it has nothing to do with Russia's invasion of Georgia, but please, it is insulting to think that we believe that. Will this work? Probably not. I don't think this administration is serious about space cooperation with China and that this is a feeble attempt to strike fear into the Russians. The Russians know better. Even if NASA were to cooperate with China in the ISS program, there would have to be Russian buy-in. Besides, the Shenzhou could only dock with the Russian segment, so Russian buy-in would be a hard requirement.

The first Chinese EVA is supposed to feature an all-Chinese spacesuit. The second suit is said to be a Russian Orlan, like the one I wore on my two ISS EVA's. This is significant. It means that the Chinese suit is totally compatible, support system wise, with the Russian Orlan. It is reasonable to assume that the suits are very similar. Kind of like the way the Chinese pressure suit looks like the Russian Sokol.

Nothing wrong with making an advanced version of a tried and true system. This only makes sense, especially for a program that is leap-frogging it's way to catch up with the US and Russia.

Leroy Chiao

Sunday, August 31, 2008

US-Russian Relations

I'm back in Moscow for a few meetings this week. It's always nice to come back, having lived a second life here during the years of training for Expedition 10.

It's interesting to see the Russian news coverage of the continuing events in Georgia. Not surprisingly, it paints a different picture than western news coverage.

In thinking about this, it seems to me obvious in hindsight that this conflict was not about South Ossetia or Abkhazia. The West, led by the US has been working to bring Georgia and other former Soviet Satellite countries into NATO for some time now. It is easy to see how this would make Russian leaders uncomfortable. The Russians were sending the US and Europe a message with the invasion. Even though the invasion appears to have had a negative effect for Russia (driving countries like Poland and Ukraine into the arms of the US), the message was clear. I doubt the Russian leaders expected anything else.

The Soviet Union lost the cold war and the resulting Russian Federation had a difficult time getting on it's feet through the Yeltsin years. There is a national sense of resentment and Putin reestablished Russian pride in the population. Now, Russia is striving to again be seen as a superpower.

It is important to consider all sides in any situation. If we can understand how the other guy feels, we should be able to more effectively engage them and come to a solution. However, It is difficult to see how the current crisis might end well. Russia is a significant part of the world economy (the Russian stock market felt the pain of the invasion) and our space programs are inextricably linked for at least the next few years. The US Presidential candidates have to come across as being forceful and strong against Russia at least before the election.

Russia is flexing it's newfound muscles. There are calls in the US Congress to punish Russia. An effect of this might be the end of US astronauts flying aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. As soon as the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010, the US would then have no way to get astronauts into space. Members of Congress are now calling for an extension of the Space Shuttle, but this would be very expensive at this point, since the system has been going through a systematic dismantling since 2005.

The US has backed itself into a corner on this one. How do we get out of it? I don't think anyone really wants a return to the cold war. But, stay tuned, that may be the result.

Leroy Chiao

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Georgia on My Mind

Recent Georgian and Russian military action have me thinking about the region. Strategically vital (oil pipeline), a convenient friend for the US (good way to poke Russia, having Georgia threaten to join NATO) and a historically volatile ethnic region (the Caucasus) all added up to create the situation for the current conflict in the region.

Russia will no doubt withdraw, having taught the Georgians a "lesson." I don't think they are foolish enough to want to occupy Georgia (do you remember Afghanistan?).

Was Southern Ossetia really worth going to war over? Remember that World War One started in tiny Serbia, when Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assasinated there. When tensions are high, it just takes one final spark to ignite the fire.

Unfortunately, I think the Caucasus and Russia will continue to have a stormy relationship, as they always have. Not unlike other regions in the world. It's just so sad and such a waste for people who are already in bad conditions to become further victimized by war.

Will the US and other Western powers apply sanctions to Russia? I doubt it. Russia is much more important to the US than Georgia. The US will probably make some kind of symbolic protest and then move on. After all, this war didn't stop President Bush from sitting and smiling with Vladimir Putin at the Olympics.

My thoughts go out to the victims in this war, the innocent civilians caught in the middle.

Leroy Chiao

Friday, August 8, 2008

Astronauts, the Olympics and Politics

8/08/2008, the lucky numbers that mark the start of this year's Olympic games in Beijing! Several space explorers participated in the opening event and/or the run up to it. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova and the first Malaysian in space, plus the first three Chinese National astronauts all played parts.

Conspicuously absent were US, European and Japanese astronauts. Although the Olympics were created to be a purely sporting event, the games, for the past several decades have become political arenas and a way to make political statements. This, for better or for worse.

I for one, hope that relations between the Western countries (especially the US) and China will improve soon. It doesn't make any sense to ignore or to try to isolate China. I don't defend China for much of what the country's leadership has done in the last century and the beginning of this one, but it seems more effective to engage rather than not.

Call me naive or idealistic, but my hope is that through engagement, we can improve life for everyone on the planet.

Leroy Chiao

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Space X Launch Failure

Just hours ago, Space X lost it's third Falcon 1 launch vehicle. This is a shame, but it highlights the fact that rockets and spaceflight are complex, difficult endeavors. One of the puzzling facts of this launch, is that it was called Space X's first operational launch. The company had suffered two launch failures in a row, yet felt confident enough to actually put three satellites onto the third and declare the vehicle operational. That doesn't make sense to me. It reminds me of the maiden launch of the Ariane V, which also carried satellites. That rocket too was destroyed early into the flight, with the loss of all payload.

Despite all of this, I do applaud their efforts. Space X was founded in 2004 with the noble idea that there had to be a better and more efficient way to get to orbit. At the time, one major stated goal of the company was to create operational launchers by 2006 which were so efficient that the cost per pound of payload would be reduced by a factor of ten, from $10,000 per pound to $1000 per pound.

Now we are in the second half of 2008 and Space X has not yet successfully launched a rocket to orbit, let alone successfully launch payload for $1000 per pound.

All of the nations which developed successful rocket programs had spectacular failures before getting it right, including Germany, the US, Soviet Union, China, Japan and France. Currently, several countries including India, Iran and North Korea have naescent rocket programs.

If Space X stays at it, I am sure that they too, will be successful. I remain a big believer in the potential for commercial space, including commercial manned spaceflight. But, it's not going to be an easy or quick journey to success.

Leroy Chiao

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Pilots, astronauts and their wristwatches, right? There is something about a nice wristwatch. From the beauty of its design to the beauty of it's engineering to the combination of elegance and functionality, a wristwatch to many of us is more than a practical tool.

I recently did a detailed interview and podcast with Jake Ehrlich, who is a Rolex afficianado. You can check out his blog and my interview/podcast at:

I've worn a few different watches in space, including Rolex, Omega and Breitling. But, it is a Rolex GMT Master that I own. That watch flew with me on every space mission. I acutally bought the watch in Davos, Switzerland, before I was selected as a NASA astronaut.

After leaving NASA at the end of 2005, a friend of mine at Rolex had it inscribed for me with my name and space mission designations.

Do you have a favorite timepiece?

Leroy Chiao

Saturday, July 26, 2008

UFO's, Aliens, Coverups?

This week, I read a news article, where Ed Mitchell, an Apollo moonwalker, claimed that the US Government has known about and covered up alien encounters for the last sixty years. This is astounding and one's first thought is whether or not this person is thinking clearly.

I found these asserions interesting, because another early astronaut, Gordo Cooper (whose first name was Leroy, I being the only other astronaut with that name) made the same assertions years ago. Gordo and Ed both claimed to have chased UFO's in their interceptor jets while on active duty in the US military. Ed claims to have received top secret briefings on the existence of aliens. He also claims that the Roswell incident was a real UFO encounter and that the aliens who have allegedly visited are small in stature with large heads and eyes.

During my four missions in space, I saw a few strange things, but these were probably explainable as either natural phenomena or man-made hardware. I never thought for a minute that any of my sightings were alien spacecraft with living creatures aboard.

Ed's assertions, along with those earlier from Gordo give me reason to pause for a moment. I absolutely believe that there is life elsewhere in the universe, I am however, skeptical that that other life has found and visited us. I do maintain an open mind though.

What do you think?

Leroy Chiao

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mobile Me and Other Improvements?

Mac users who used dot Mac got "upgraded" to Mobile Me a few days ago. To date, the dot Mac page, which was supposed to seamlessly connect one to the Mobile Me page, doesn't work and hasn't for almost three days now. I can get to my email, since I figured out that I can go directly to the "me" page. However, the mail is SO SLOW that it is almost unusable. Also, there are issues with trying to print. This and the site was quite unstable today, locking up and crashing several times. I finally reverted to doing Email on my iPhone, which was a LOT faster and worked. That's quite a statement.

What happened to Apple? Usually, their releases are relatively well-tested and stable. This is strange. Couple this with the fact that a friend of mine bought one of the very first iPhone 3G's, lining up outside the local Apple Store. As employees tried to port over her phone number from her old iPhone to the new, the process froze. She was caught in transition. Now, neither phone works and the Apple Store had no answer. The same happened to several customers and the store suspended sales of the new iPhone.

When is better the enemy of good enough? What is the right balance of moving forward and staying with the tried and true? Some time ago, I wrote about getting Microsoft Word 2008 for the Mac. It is terrible and I make all efforts not to use it. I only use it when I receive a file that requires 2008 to open. It is much slower and cumbersome, in addition to being A LOT slower to start and to do other operations.

This is why software on spacecraft are only upgraded after extensive testing. Also, modifications are only made when really necessary. This is prudent because lives are literally on the line. The same standards should not be applied to commercial software, but I can't help but observe that Apple dropped the ball on this one. Clearly, the product was not adequately tested and/or is simply too cumbersome. I hope they get their act together, as I am a long-time Apple supporter.

Leroy Chiao

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Life in the Universe

Congratulations to the Phoenix team! It is exciting to read about the apparent discovery of ice on Mars. This has vast implications of course, with one being the possibility that life once existed there.

I firmly believe that there is life elsewhere in the Universe. I believe that we will discover other Earth-like planets in addition to discovering life in remote, hostile areas like Mars.

Now, the question on whether or not Earth has been visited by aliens is different topic. Although an intriguing idea, I am skeptical that we have been visited by other intelligent beings. I myself have seen odd things, including in space, but they have all turned out to be explainable events.

What do you think? Are we alone in this Universe? Will someone invent the warp drive soon and allow us to explore farther with probes and astronauts?

Leroy Chiao

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Congratulations, Japan

The Japanese Experiment Module Kibo is now on orbit and installed onto the ISS and activated. Congratulations Japan and their newest astronaut, Aki Hoshide! My good friend Koichi Wakata will be flying the first Japanese long duration flight early next year. Enthusiasm there is very high.

What is the future of government space? China will launch the Shenzhou 7 mission later this year (probably October), after the Olympics. The US will retire the Shuttle in 2010. What will become of the Constellation program and Orion after the elections in November? Countries like Japan and the members of ESA are totally dependent on US and Russian assets for manned access to space. After 2010, the Russians will be the only government game in town, except for China, which has so far been rebuffed in their desire to be an ISS partner.

What does the future hold?

Leroy Chiao

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Phoenix on Mars!

Wonderful news! The Phoenix spacecraft has safely touched down on Mars. Phoenix was launched in August 2007 and has finally arrived at its destination, at 6:53 PM Houston time. The main purpose of the mission is to search under the surface for water ice to determine if conditions may have supported life.

Congratulations and continued good luck to the Phoenix team!

Leroy Chiao

Friday, April 25, 2008

Soyuz Entry

On April 19th, a Soyuz TMA spacecraft returned to Earth in the backup ballistic mode. This was the second Soyuz in a row to return in that mode. What does it all mean?

I flew on Soyuz TMA-5 to and from the International Space Station for Expedition 10. I was trained as the copilot, so I was intimately familiar with the spacecraft, it's operation, the backup modes and emergency procedures. Normally, the Soyuz descent module returns to Earth in an automatic mode, which flies a determined flight profile with closed-loop guidance. That is, the spacecraft is maneuvering to hit a defined point in the sky, where the parachute is deployed. In this maneuvering, the spacecraft profile is also designed to minimize the G-loading of the crew, usually to less than five G's. This was the case for TMA-5.

There are a number of failures that can cause a ballistic entry. In these cases, the spacecraft descent module spins and a rate of between thirteen and eighteen degrees per second, depending on the specific mode. There is no closed-loop guidance, the capsule is descending in a stable, but uncontrolled mode, to land where it is pointed. Thus, the footprint on possible landing sites is much larger. The crew is also subjected to higher G-loading, since the autopilot is not flying to minimize this loading. The maximum reported G on the last Soyuz was 8.2 G. This is a high level, but it is certainly tolerable. Anyone who flies on a Soyuz is run through the centrifuge to this level as a medical evaluation.

The real question is why did two Soyuz TMA's enter in ballistic mode? In the case of the first one, there appeared to be at least two failures, with a frayed wire causing a short being officially blamed for the downmoding of the spacecraft. We will have to wait for the incident report to find out what caused the latest downmode.

Is the Soyuz safe? I think so. I have met the people who work on the vehicles, I have seen for myself the environment in which they are created and processed. These are a dedicated group of specialists and they are very serious about what they do. The Soyuz design has been around for decades. It is the single most reliable spacecraft (with the largest number of flights) in history, to date.

I will be following this story closely.

Leroy Chiao

Saturday, April 12, 2008

47th Anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's Flight!

Do you remember Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin's flight? Gagarin became the first human to be launched into space in April 12, 1961. I was only about eight months old at the time, so I don't remember the actual event. But, I grew up during the space race and followed all of the missions once I was old enough to understand.

Gagarin's flight set off the chain of events that led to the Apollo program and the landing of Americans on the moon. Nobody has been back there since 1972. When will we be there again? Will the Constellation program survive under the new US Administration (no matter who wins the election)?

Leroy Chiao

Sunday, April 6, 2008


Do you believe in COTS? By COTS, I mean the commercial program competition that NASA has committed about $500M towards. The idea is to stimulate commercial outfits to develop an unmanned resupply system for the International Space Station. Sounds good, but let's take a short look.

Two competitors won big NASA COTS awards in late 2006. One of them consequently missed funding milestones and had their award taken away. This award has now been given to a third company. Inside conversations with NASA folks usually involve rolling of the eyes and comments such as "we've been told to believe in COTS." At least one company (not selected for an award) has publicly accused NASA of "not being serious" about it.

I think it is a good idea, but I must admit to being skeptical. NASA is going to make any commercial outfit go through the same safety, testing and review process that a government vehicle must pass. This process is not simple, quick nor inexpensive. How will a commercial company be able to do all of that and still expect to make a profit?

As a reference point, the French ATV recently successfully docked to ISS. It was many, many years in development and in the end, the published program cost was 1.3 billion euros, or about $1.9 B!

What do you think?

Leroy Chiao

PS: The photo above is of Progress 17P as it approached to dock with ISS during Expedition 10. I snapped this photo of it at a range of about 50 meters.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Have Spacesuit Will Travel

I am the new Heinlein Prize Trust spokesperson and leader of the Have Spacesuit Will Travel program (HSSWT). The idea is to inspire young people to be interested in space exploration. Robert Heinlein wrote a series of stories for young people. The quintessential story is called Have Spacesuit Will Travel. It is about a young man who enters a contest and wins an old spacesuit. He fixes it up and embarks on an accidental series of adventures. It is a wonderful story and remarkable, because Heinlein got most of the spacesuit technical features essentially correct many years before the first spacesuit was made!

We plan to create a lesson plan of sorts for school kids and have them read the book. Following a learning activity, they will be rewarded with a Sokol pressure suit in their school for two weeks. They will be allowed to touch the suit and try on the gloves.

What do you think? Please let me know your suggestions on how to make this program a success!


Leroy Chiao

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Does Anyone Else Wonder About Microsoft?

Reluctantly, because it was offered to me free (since I am a professor at LSU), I "upgraded" my MS Office Suite to 2008. Then the fun began.

First, every time I hit a return in MS Word 2008, it double spaces for me. I could not for the life of me figure out how to make it stop. Finally, after searching on the internet, I found the solution was to edit the normal style settings. Why was something that was default Ok, "improved" for this version? Frustrating and silly. How about a little consistency?

Similarly, I am now stymied about the automatic link creation. In Office 2004, MS Word would create a hyperlink when one typed ".com" or similar ending. Now, I can't figure out how to make MS Word do it for it's 2008 version. Maddening. This time, an internet search was fruitless.

Does anyone have an answer for me? Oh, how I long for the days of MacWrite. I wrote my doctoral thesis using it and a Mac 1MB back in 1987!

Oh, and Office 2008 takes noticeably much longer to launch.

Leroy Chiao

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Back in Japan

I am back in Japan doing some work with my good friends at Japan Manned Space Systems. They are a supporting contractor for the Japanese Space Agency, doing work on operations, planning and commercialization. I've known these folks for fifteen years now, since they supported my first Space Shuttle Mission, STS-65 the Second International Microgravity Laboratory.

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, February 14, 2008

US to Shoot Down Derelict Satellite

Wow. I read the news today about the decision by the US to shoot down a derelict reconaissance satellite, sometime in the next week. This strikes me as very odd. The story is that this satellite is going to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere soon and we cannot predict with sufficient accuracy where the large pieces will fall. Included in the expected debris, might be hydrazine fuel tanks which could land with hydrazine still in them.

While this is a legitimate concern, I must wonder about the decision to shoot it down. This action could actually make the situation worse, since we can't predict the trajectories of the pieces once the satellite is broken up. We might actually send debris back up into orbit which could threaten other objects. Or, we may cause pieces to hit areas of the Earth that they would not have, if we had done nothing. That is, we might divert debris onto populated areas that otherwise would not have been affected.

Could it be a political statement? Last year about this time, the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) and successfully shot down one of their own aging satellites. This caused international outrage and complaints about the creation of more orbital debris. Why did China do it? Maybe it was a response to the US space policy which had just been released. In this policy, the US stated that we would deny access to space to powers that we deemed a threat. Could the Chinese test been a nose-thumb at us?

Enter today's decision. Could our derelict satellite be a target of opportunity to send a message back to the Chinese?

I hope for better relations between the two countries in the future. It is only through cooperation that we can achieve better understanding.

What do you think?

Leroy Chiao

Monday, February 11, 2008

Why I Love Teaching

I just finished giving my first lecture of the semester here at LSU! I love the interaction with the students and having to prepare lectures (which makes one really learn or re-learn the topic).

I suppose that I always wanted to be a Professor. It was my second career choice after being an astronaut. I remember in graduate school how rewarding it was to give presentations that students understood and appreciated. I guess I also remembered the awful professors and teaching assistants that I sometimes endured. This experience made me dedicated to presenting quality products to my students.

It's important to keep perspective on what's important and to remember what bothered you.

Leroy Chiao

Monday, January 14, 2008

USA Weekend Magazine

Wow! I was just honored with a cover story in last Sunday's USA Weekend Magazine!

21st-century pioneer

Astronaut Leroy Chiao achieved his ambition for adventures in space. Now he's trying to open the skies to his fellow dreamers back on Earth.

By Mike Hammer

"I was 8 when I knew what I wanted to do with my life."

The wind whipped 7-year-old Sandy Chiao's hair as she stood nervously atop an imposing pile of sand, strapped into an elaborate hang glider designed by her 12-year-old brother, Leroy.

He had slaved over the homemade flying machine and had high hopes for the mission. When he commanded his little sister to run and leap into the air, they both were confident she would soar into the heavens. After all, Leroy was so good at constructing model planes.

Then came the crash.

"It was OK," Sandy recalls, four decades later. "I didn't get hurt. Besides, it was an adventure."

It was the first of many -- and one of the few failures -- for Sandy's exceptional big brother. Since then, Leroy Chiao's preoccupation with the heavens has led to his becoming a leading member of two of the most elite and exclusive groups on Earth: NASA astronauts and, now, one of many pioneers in the frontier of commercial space flight. If he has his way, flying to the moon will be as common for our kids as hopping a flight to Grandma's.


The tug to explore beyond our physical boundaries seems intrinsic, a race to space that transcends nations and is rooted deep in our DNA. This new quest to bring space travel down to earth, so to speak, so that anyone can book a flight to the stars has captured the imagination of a new generation of private entrepreneurs.

In many ways, the ambitious Chiao exemplifies this handful of dreamers determined to commercialize space. The most famous is British billionaire Richard Branson, who is selling $200,000 seats to space in 2009 (see box, next page).

At the same time, Chiao is unique. As a first-generation American whose parents fled China for Taiwan in 1949 on the roofs of speeding trains and in fishing boats, he may not seem the obvious modern-day version of the legendary Wright brothers. But as a highly experienced former astronaut, he has one of the most impressive rŽsumŽs in the history of space travel -- as well as a populist notion of space travel.

"We are on the edge of the barn-storming era of space flight," says Chiao, 47, who lives in Houston with his wife, Karen, and their 13-month-old twins. "There are several companies racing to make commercial space travel a reality sooner than most people think."

Chiao's fantastic voyage really dates back to the mid-1950s, a few years before he was born, when his parents came to the United States to study. When he was 7, the family settled in Danville, Calif., a mostly white community where the Chiaos wanted their children to be fully American in their day-to-day lives but culturally Chinese at home. "I always told them, 'We want to have the best blend of American and Chinese,' " says Chiao's father, Tsu Tao.

The young Chiao found a model for his lofty aspirations in 1969, when he watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon. "I was 8, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life," Chiao says. Soon after, "he made his own rocket," says his mother, Cherry Chu. "It had wheels, so it was really more of a go-cart. He always gave the neighborhood kids rides on it."

Too small to excel in many sports, he focused on academics and his goal of becoming an astronaut. The hard work paid off when he was accepted at the University at California, Berkeley. "I had to hit the books hard and took abuse from the other guys for not partying enough," he says. "I told one friend that I wanted to be an astronaut, and he teased me by joking about wanting to be a policeman, firefighter or Indian chief."

Years later, after he applied at NASA and landed an interview in 1989, Chiao waited four months for a decision, only to learn he had not been accepted. "I was disappointed," he recalls. "I had a couple of drinks. The next morning, NASA called again and indicated there had been some kind of mix-up and invited me to join the 1990 astronaut class. That woke me up in a hurry. I almost didn't believe it!"

In his astronaut class, at age 29, he exuded confidence, a colleague recalls. "He walked in the door and announced that he wanted to do a space walk," says former astronaut Don Thomas, a crewmate on Chiao's first shuttle mission, the 1994 Columbia shuttle. Two shuttle missions later, he had distinguished himself so greatly that NASA asked him to fly with Russian cosmonauts and command a six-month mission on the International Space Station in 2004.


The Space Station flight was his last mission. After President Bush signed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act in December 2004, intended to promote the development of U.S. commercial space flight, Chiao felt the challenge: He decided to move from astronaut to space entrepreneur.

"I had done all I could do in a flying career," he says of his decision to leave the space agency. For Chiao, "the real future of space travel and exploration was in the private sector."

Chiao's Russian experience helped lead him to Excalibur Almaz space company, a private, international space venture planning to operate its own spacecraft and space stations commercially. "We hope people will be able to travel as easily on a spacecraft in the same way they do on an airline," says Chiao, who's in charge of Excalibur Almaz's space operations, which include training potential passengers.

The private sector has long had access to space, however, communication satellites piggybacking on government rockets is a long way from what's hoped for. To date, only five "tourists" have flown to the International Space Station, and they were on Russian, not American, capsules.

Now you can buy a ticket to ride -- for a price
Chiao claims that "in the next few years," Excalibur Almaz will offer week-long flights that deposit tourists at modernized, Russian-designed space stations. His mission is to make sure such journeys are safe and economically efficient. The price of a seat is still up the air.

"We're going to take things further and faster by using proven technology and spacecraft, which will ultimately bring down costs and make space flight available to more people," Chiao insists. "This [is] a chance to enter a new, exciting and growing area that [allows] me to share my amazing experiences with other people."

Fifty years after the first U.S.-launched rocket, commercial space travel takes off.

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 31, America launched its first satellite, Explorer 1. That historic moment in the annals of space travel spurred fantasies that, some day, everyone might have the chance to blast off from Earth.

Now, that opportunity is available -- if you have $40 million to spare. That's the price of a ride to theInternational Space Station in a Russian Soyuz space capsule. (Only a handful of very wealthy people have taken the trip, becoming the world's first "space tourists.")

The rest of us are still dreaming, but affordable space travel is getting closer. In 2004, SpaceShipOne, built by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, claimed the$10 million Ansari X Prize for innovation. It is the first commercially built manned craft to reach space.

Now, Virgin Galactic, the company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson that's behind SpaceShipOne, is selling tickets. For only $200,000, you can experience weightlessness, get a view of the Earth from space and, we hope, enjoy one heck of an in-flight meal. Possible departure date: as early as 2009.

Several other companies also are planning spaceship flights, with the cost for passengers expected to be roughly in the same price range.

Of course, a trip that costs as much as a starter home is still far from making space travel available to the masses. More affordable space voyages may be as little as 10 years away, when prices could fall to $30,000, Virgin Galactic's Rutan has estimated. That's about the price of a well-outfitted Toyota Camry. Start saving today.

Mike Hammer is the former editor of "Shock" and "Stuff" magazines. His longest flight involved a layover in Pittsburgh. Cover and cover story photographs of Leroy Chiao by Robert Seale for USA WEEKEND

Leroy Chiao

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

China's Space Activities

China is planning to launch their third manned space mission near the end of this year. They have announced a three-man crew and the mission will feature their first spacewalk. This should be interesting to watch.

In addition, China announced a robust launch schedule for 2008. Research and development continues too. Particularly intriguing is a spaceplane project. Some details were published recently, including this photo.

What do you suppose they are planning for a spaceplane? It's called Shenlong, which means Divine Dragon.

Leroy Chiao

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

NASA Aviation Safety Data Release

NASA has released a redacted version of a database of an anonymous survey of commercial airline pilots and mechanics. There has been controversy over these data, since they were collected three years ago and were not released until now. The original Freedom of Information Act request made by the Associated Press was denied, with the strange justification that release might cause concern among the flying public. Administrator Griffin has publicly stated that "the data are not credible" because it paints a far riskier picture than he feels is realistic.

I am perplexed by all of this. First, any scientist or engineer should know better than to dismiss data based on a personal opinion that they are not realistic. Second, if the data might cause concern, then they should be released and analyzed. Third, I believe that any agency or company should operate in a transparent manner.

I don't think NASA has handled this one very well. Read more about this at:

Leroy Chiao