Devon Island Expedition

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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What is going to happen (for Space) in 2010?

The Augustine Committee briefed the White House on August 14th, released a summary report at the end of August, and released a full report at the end of October. We are well into the holiday season, and the President has many other issues to deal with. What this means, is that no decision on space is likely before the New Year.

So, what will happen in 2010? Decisions will need to be made as to the future direction of US human spaceflight. I have my own predictions, but we Committee members agreed to not make our personal views known until after the White House sets the direction.

But, what do you think?

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On the Future of US Human Spaceflight

There was a historic event the other day. For the first time since 1981, a new rocket was fired from one of Launch Complex 39’s launch pads at Cape Canaveral. This was a flight test of a part of a rocket under development, called Ares-1.

The flight appeared to be flawless. After battling weather constraints, Ares-1x leaped off of Pad 39B and accelerated into the Florida sky. Reaching an apogee of just a bit over 20 nautical miles, the single stage burned out and separated from the dummy second stage, and descended by parachute to the recovery area in the Atlantic.

What is the future of US Human Spaceflight? Will it include the Ares family of rockets?

This summer, I served as a member of the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by respected aerospace veteran, Norm Augustine. Our charter was to review the current NASA programs, and to present options for the US to move forward. President Obama, through his Science Advisor, wanted a reality check. Our job was not to provide recommendations, but rather to come up with options.

The Augustine Committee, which is how we quickly came to be known, was formed in late May. We presented our options to the White House on August 14, 2009. Later that month, we issued a summary report, and just a week ago (October 22nd), issued our final report.

Since August, the Committee and our reports have come under public attack by the former NASA Administrator, and several members of Congress. Lobbying efforts on behalf of some of the big aerospace companies supporting the program of record have produced videos and other products, vociferously supporting said program. Some members of the “New Space” movement have been loudly complaining that they should get a large piece of the space budget, although most of them haven’t produced anything of significance to date. All of this tells me that the Committee did it about right.

What is surprising to me is that most media and other folk appear confused by what is written in the report. There are headlines and accusations that the Committee called for the end of Ares, the end of Constellation, the throwing of human access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to the unproven commercial space arena, and other incorrect assertions. Let me try to set the record straight.

Program of Record (Constellation): The Constellation program was a reasonable way to implement the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), which was announced by President Bush in 2004. However, it never received anticipated funding, and has suffered several technical and programmatic problems. As a result, estimates show that substantial funding would be required to correct these problems. These high levels of funding would be unreasonable to expect at this time. Moreover, the designs would require large recurring costs to operate, a problem, which plagues NASA. The current program evolved from the original VSE and became almost an exclusively Moon-focused program, and then, presumably in the face of budget shortfalls, almost exclusively an Ares/Orion focused program. The baseline option fits the program of record to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2010 budget, by moving the milestone dates significantly into the future. No matter how we got to where we are today, it is a valid question to ask, whether America should continue down this path, or whether a different option would be more reasonable. Frankly, public opinion seems ho-hum on a return to the Moon, with a common theme that we have already been there, forty years ago. Even scientists are for the most part, much more interested in Mars, than the Moon.

Space Shuttle: The Space Shuttle is a magnificent flying machine. Although it fell well short of many of its advertised promises, it is a technological marvel. However, its operating costs are very high, and it has had two fatal accidents in almost one hundred thirty flights. In most options, the Committee stated that the current manifest should be flown out, at a reasonable rate. This is estimated to be executable by mid-2011. In one option, the Shuttle would be operated at a minimum flight rate (one to two flights per year) through 2015.

International Space Station (ISS): The ISS is the largest space structure ever assembled. It is a premier microgravity research platform, but also has high costs. One of the most remarkable aspects of the ISS program is the highly successful international framework that has evolved. This framework can and should be expanded, and serve as a basis for future space cooperation. Most options call for operation of the ISS through at least 2020. In the two options, which include the Ares family of rockets, ISS is de-orbited at the end of 2015, because the funds to continue ISS would need to be transferred to the Constellation program. This would have a negative effect on the relationships between the United States and the international partners. In this case, significant doubt would exist, on whether international partners would want to cooperate with the US in future programs. This would also affect other areas of cooperation between the US and these countries.

Heavy Lift Vehicle (HLV): An HLV is needed for exploration beyond LEO. The program of record uses the Ares V vehicle (160 metric tons to LEO), which would require a five and a half segment solid rocket booster, plus a six engine cluster of advanced RS-68 engines, and a ten meter external tank, all three of which have not yet been developed. Shuttle derived options (approx. 85 metric tons to LEO) would use existing Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters, existing 8.3 m external tank and existing Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME). Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) options (approx. 75 metric tons to LEO) would use variants of the Delta IV and possibly Atlas V. A simplified version of Ares V, which the Committee called Ares V Lite (140 metric tons to LEO) would use five segment solid rocket boosters (already tested), a five engine cluster of existing RS-68 engines and a ten meter external tank, which has yet to be developed.

Crew to LEO: The program of record uses Ares-I to launch the Orion crew capsule to LEO. The recurring Ares-I cost has been estimated to be around $300 M per rocket. Indeed, the Ares-Ix test cost was estimated to be approximately $445 M. In alternative options, the Committee put forward the proposition that commercial companies should be given incentives to create a commercial capability to launch astronauts to LEO. The technology has existed for almost fifty years, and several startup companies are working towards that goal. The Committee proposes that the commercial option be created such that it would be attractive, not only for startup aerospace companies, but also for traditional aerospace companies to participate. There is skepticism in the community on whether the startups will be able to deliver, but there should be no doubt that the traditional aerospace companies, who’s predecessors created all US crew vehicles and rockets in the past, could be successful in this effort, if the proper environment was created. The hope in promoting a commercial crew to LEO access would be the saving of funds for NASA in this arena, as well as freeing up NASA resources to concentrate on beyond LEO exploration.

The Committee put forward three classes of options: Options constrained to the FY 2010 budget, Moon first options, and flexible path options. The Committee agreed that the overall goal should be a crewed mission to Mars. Moreover, there should be a balance between human and robotic exploration missions. Scientific research funding should have firewalls, to prevent their funding from being transferred to exploration programs. The Committee also agreed that international partnerships should be expanded, strengthened and applied to future exploration programs. There should be a technology development program to enable efficient, future crewed exploration, beyond LEO. The table below contains a summary of these options.

The Constrained Options fit the FY 2010 budget, but illustrate that the funding would be insufficient to allow significant exploration progress.

The other options call for a funding increase of $3 B per year. The difference within both the Moon First and Flexible Path options, are the choice of HLV, which also affects Crew to LEO choices.

The Moon First options call for concentrated efforts towards Lunar exploration, with an eye towards Mars sometime later. A variation of the program of record is included in this option set. The Moon First options build infrastructure that could be used for future Mars exploration, but the emphasis is on the establishment of infrastructure for Lunar research and exploration.

The Flexible Path options call for building infrastructure for beyond LEO exploration, by traveling to near Earth objects (NEO), Lagrange points, and other interesting flight profiles. The Moon would be included as a destination, but primarily to test hardware and operations. The intention of the Flexible Path options, is to build infrastructure and capability, to enable sustainable Mars exploration in the future.

All options, except for options one and three, include a technology development program. The Committee felt that it was important to develop new capabilities for exploration. The ISS could be used as a test bed for these efforts. As an example, space refueling of cryogenic propellants would be an enabling technology.

This is a simplified, high level, explanation of the results that the Committee has submitted to the White House and NASA. I hope that this helps to make the full report easier to understand. I hope that it is at least clear that the charter of the review committee was to present options to the Administration, not recommendations. I, like everyone else in the business, look forward to the decisions that will be made by the Administration.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An Inspirational Place: NASM

Yesterday, I did something that I haven't done in many, many years. I went over to the National Air and Space Museum and simply wandered around for several hours. It is one of my favorite places, and I was there as recently as July, for the 40th anniversary celebration of Apollo 11. But, during official events, there is no time to simply wander and enjoy the displays.

It was a nice time to relax, dream and remind myself of the magic of flight!

Leroy Chiao

Monday, September 7, 2009

Augustine Committee Work Update

Sorry for the long hiatus, it's been a busy summer!

For those of you who have been following along, you know that the Augustine Committee presented options to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA on August 14, 2009. Since then, we have been busy writing our report.

You can see detailed transcripts of our meetings under the Human Space Flight Plans Review section on We hope to have our report out soon!

Leroy Chiao

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The 40th Anniversary of Apollo 11: Reflections of a Professional Astronaut

A Spam and peanut butter (chunky) sandwich: That was what I had for lunch, forty years ago, today. After that, I watched along with the rest of the world, as Eagle touched down on the surface of the Moon.

It was a hot summer day in Danville, California. My family lived in a nice house, in a nice neighborhood. Nevertheless our home, like many built in that era, didn’t have air conditioning. So, my father moved the family TV set (19” black and white, rabbit ear antennae) out onto the partially shaded back patio. He sprayed water onto the concrete, which helped make it surprisingly cooler.

My friends, two brothers Mike and Russ, were visiting. We had been friends for a long time (two years was long time to an eight year old). So, they had become accustomed to being served odd concoctions at my house, invented by my Dad. Spam and peanut butter sandwiches was one of those. It was surprisingly, not too bad. I had experimented once with a plain Spam sandwich. I quikly went back to including the chunky peanut butter.

I can remember like it was yesterday, watching that grainy black and white TV and listening in as Eagle approached the surface of the Moon and landed. Even as a young boy, I knew that the world had just changed. I also knew that I wanted to be like those guys on the Moon. I wanted to be an astronaut!

Twenty years later, I found myself in Houston, interviewing at NASA to be a member of the thirteenth astronaut group. What a heady time to become an astronaut! President Bush (41) had just announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), calling for a return to the Moon to stay, followed by a crewed mission to Mars. And, we had astronauts in key NASA management positions, including that of the Administrator.

SEI fell flat, soon after the President failed to win reelection. The $400 billion price tag quoted by NASA might also have had something to do with it. Fifteen years after the SEI announcement, I found myself standing with a small group of fellow astronauts at NASA Headquarters, as President Bush (43) announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. The Vision called for, among other things, a crewed return to the Moon by 2020, and a crewed mission to Mars, on an indefinite schedule.

The Constellation program, which grew out of the VSE, was described by then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin as “Apollo on Steroids.” Indeed, it called for the creation of a capsule spacecraft (albeit, much larger). Five years into Constellation, the Nation stands at a crossroads. The program has had its share of challenges and controversy and the budget is universally agreed to be inadequate. Newly inaugurated President Obama has ordered a review and a report, outlining a set of options for NASA and the agency’s new Administrator (I am a member of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Committee).

Today, on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, our return to the Moon is tenuous, at best. Who, in 1969, could have imagined that we would not have regular travel to and from Moon bases by the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11? The announcement of the SEI in 1989 gave us hope that we would be back on the Moon to stay, within another twenty years. Those twenty years have now passed.

Tonight, I was an invited guest at the 40th Apollo anniversary celebration at the National Air and Space Museum. Everything was perfect: The Apollo 11 crew - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were elegant and stately against the backdrop of historic air and spacecraft. Other Apollo-era astronauts, like my friend Walt Cunningham, were also shining honorees. They were all a part of it!

It was a reminder of old times, of the past grandeur and wonder of the Apollo era. The time when we, as a nation, felt like nothing was impossible! A time, when Spam and peanut butter (chunky), tasted better than almost anything.

Should we look back at the last forty years and be disappointed? I believe that would be a mistake. Skylab was a resounding success. Despite the challenges, the Space Shuttle and ISS are marvelous flying machines. We started down the road of international cooperation with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, and led the formation and maturation of the current, highly successful international partnership. We have not had the big home run since Apollo, but we have made steady progress.

Where will the next twenty years take us? Against all odds, Spam is still going strong. Let’s keep moving forward too.

Leroy Chiao

This post appeared yesterday on

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Augustine Committee Work Continues

Thank you to everyone who has provided input to the Committee through this blog, direct emails and other means. Our work continues, and I can assure you that I have read everything that has come in.

We will consider all options and points of view. We have and will continue to ask a lot of questions, and have analyses done by NASA and independent outfits. We plan to issue our report by the end of August.

One thing to emphasize: Our charter is not to make recommendations, but to present options to the Administration. We have a good group of folks, with different backgrounds. We are all dedicated to this work, and promise a careful and thoughtful report with several well-explained options.

Thank you for your continuing support!

Leroy Chiao

Monday, June 1, 2009

Augustine Human Space Flight Review Commission

Today, I was named as a member to the Augustine Commission. We have been tasked to develop options for the next NASA Administrator (Congratulations on your nomination, Charlie Bolden!) and the White House.

I have my ideas, some of which have been expressed in this blog. But, I have an open mind and have never thought that i knew it all, about anything. So, let me know what you think! Where should America's manned space program go? How can we do it within the proscribed budget?

Leroy Chiao

North Korean Miscalculation?

Last week, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, barely fifty miles from the Chinese border. They also are currently gearing up for a long range missile test. The threat is clear. True, their last missile test was less than successful, and by most accounts, their nuclear test was crude (experts appear unanimous in their belief that the North Koreans do not yet have the ability to make a small warhead, that could be fitted onto one of their missiles). However, it is a matter of time and will.

But, have the North Koreans miscalculated? China is, for the first time in my memory, publicly angry with North Korea for their hijinks, especially the bomb test. Especially so close to the border. North Korea is TOTALLY dependent on China for raw materials and supplies as basic as food, fuel and electrical power. Does it really pay to bite the hand that feeds you, especially when you've burned your bridges with almost the rest of the world (I suppose Venezuela might come to the rescue)?

Has Kim Jong Il totally lost it, or are these the death throes of a nation destroyed from the inside?

Leroy Chiao

Monday, May 25, 2009

Life in Space – The Rest of the Story

Last time, I asked if any of you could imagine how you might clip your nails in space. Anyone thought this through? Here’s how I did it.

First, get a strip of duct tape, and make a loop out of it, with the sticky side out. Find a place to do the clipping, next to an air intake filter. This way, any errant nails should be caught in the air filter, for later removal. Find a good place on the wall to stick your tape loop, and then carefully clip each nail, trying to keep the pieces big, so that you have a chance of holding onto them, instead of having them fly off into the cabin somewhere. Fix each piece of nail onto the sticky tape loop.

When you are finished, remove the tape loop, and fold it onto itself, to contain the nail clippings. Then, use the resulting tape double loop to clean off the air filter, of any nail debris, which got caught there. Wad up the tape ball, and discard it into a dry trash receptacle.

Yes, there are wet trash receptacles too, mostly to contain food package trash. Wet trash bags differ from the ones for dry trash, in that they are rubberized and tightly sealed, in order to keep the odors in the bag.

Simple, right?

So, what do you really want to know about life in space? What else might be difficult (or fun) in that environment? What do your enquiring minds want to know? Let me guess: Using the potty, and sex. Even the audiences who don’t ask, I can tell they really want to know.

In the early days, there were no restroom facilities onboard spacecraft. The first flights were only supposed to last minutes, so it was thought that there was no need. The story of Allen Shepard having to relieve himself in his suit became common knowledge, after the event was dramatized in the movie, “The Right Stuff.” Later spacecraft, including the Apollo spacecraft, also had no toilet facilities. The crews of these vehicles used modified piddle packs (used by the military), which utilized a condom, attached to a hose and bag, for collecting urine. What about women? Back in those days, there weren’t any in the space programs (except for Valentina Tereshkova, who probably used a diaper), so it wasn’t an issue.

For collection of number two, modified sealable bags were used. There was no privacy aboard the Gemini and Apollo capsules, so imagine doing all of this in close quarters with your buddies! To make matters worse, these bags were (are) clear. They are still carried aboard US spacecraft, for use in the event of irreparable toilet failure.

Fortunately, things got a lot more civilized in the Shuttle program. As I mentioned before, the Shuttle is a business class affair. It contains a relatively large toilet area, which features a privacy screen.

The Soyuz capsule also has a toilet in the upper living module. When someone has to use it for number two, the other two crewmembers can retreat to the descent module, to give the third guy a little privacy. Usually, that toilet is not used for that purpose, though. Crews go through a preflight enema, which usually is enough to clean you out for the two days of flight it takes for the Soyuz to phase, rendezvous and dock with a space station.

The toilet aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is the same as the one that flew on the MIR station. This is also a civilized affair, in a relatively large area, with a privacy screen.

So, how do these toilets work? They all basically work the same way. In the absence of gravity to help you, airflow is used to try to collect everything and point it in the proper direction. To urinate, it is pretty simple. Use the long hose, which has a funnel attached to the end. Turn on the system, and make sure there is good airflow before relieving yourself. Make sure not to actually contact the funnel with your valuable parts; it’s a disgusting thought first of all, and second of all, you wouldn’t be able to shut the system down before you really regretted getting the life sucked out of you, so to speak! By the way, this system works for women too. The suction is adequate to make sure that the liquids go to the right place.

For number two, the seat lifts up, revealing a small hole. You’ve really got to get to know yourself, and get good at lining things up for this operation! The system again uses airflow to collect and hold things down where they’re supposed to go. After you’re finished, the bag is tied off and pushed down into the replaceable silver can.

Accidents do happen, and by international agreement, you clean up your own mess!

Is it worth it? One of my crewmates on Space Shuttle once told me that he wished that we could land every morning, so that he could take care of business there, before launching back into orbit. Yeah, it’s not pleasant, but you get used to the hassle of doing these hygiene tasks. It’s not so bad.

Besides, the view of the Earth from space is way worth it! Here are just a few examples of what I saw from the ISS.

This is the southern tip of Florida.

Here is the Salamat Basin.

We do have DVD’s and E-books onboard. Sometimes we use them, but who needs them? The greatest show is right outside the window!

Ok, so onto the question burning in your mind: Has anyone had sex in space? To date, I can tell you emphatically, no. Why am I so sure? It’s simple. Guys are guys. If a guy had sex in space, he would not be able to stand not bragging about it. Am I right, or am I right? Sorry to disappoint you, but there it is. We would ALL know about it. Or, I should say, we WILL all know about it when it happens.

So, what’s the deal? Do we have blow up dolls or robots to take care of business?

No, and not that we’d really want such a thing! The human looks a lot better.

Besides, would sex in space, bragging rights aside, really be so great? This week, I’ve given you a look at the difficulties of doing things in microgravity, and the potential for making some pretty disgusting messes. So, apply all you’ve learned, and honestly assess whether or not sex would be better up there. You’d have to anchor yourselves, somehow (in all six degrees of freedom), otherwise it would be more than the headboard you might bang up against. And, some objects, while not sharp (we are careful about that), might really hurt to run into during a moment of passion!

So what do we have? What do you think? There is a rule that even alcohol (for drinking) is not allowed onboard, because NASA is worried about bad PR. Can you imagine NASA wanting to address the issue of sex? Ha!

What about the future, as we fly longer and farther into space? That’s easy. Crews are already mixed, and crews will become larger. As this happens, there will be a gradual transition from crew to colony (for example, a permanent moon base). Just like in your office now, romances will sprout (which the participants will think are secret) and things will take their natural course.

And, people back on Earth (the guys friends) will know about it, almost instantly after it happens. The news will quickly spread from there. And then, you’ll know.

People are people, even in space!

Leroy Chiao

Leroy Chiao is a professional astronaut. He served for fifteen years at NASA, flying on four space missions. Dr. Chiao is available for speaking engagements, through the Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau:

Originally posted on Gizmodo, during the week of 5/3/09

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Life in Space –Onboard Basics

Ok, so someone wanted to know what the International Space Station smells like. After we opened the hatch, I noticed a moderate smell of plastics, not unlike that new car smell. That’s from the various synthetic materials onboard, outgassing. It’s not too bad, and after an hour, I stopped noticing it.

We do scrub the atmosphere, though. We have carbon dioxide removal systems,

as well as a micro-impurities removal device. Oxygen is added of course, as it is consumed. We use an electrolysis device to crack water, dumping the hydrogen overboard.

That device is a bit cantankerous, so we also have oxygen candles, which we “burn” periodically. These are the same kinds of systems that are onboard nuclear submarines, which face similar technical requirements.

One interesting fact, is that nitrogen is not replaced, except to compensate for leakage. The human body does not really utilize the inhaled nitrogen, so it is recycled.

What else? What is the temperature onboard? The temperature was set by the Mission Commander (me). I live in Houston, so I like air conditioning. The cabin was set to about 70 degrees F.

You have all read about how to brush your teeth in space. Anyone want to take a stab at how to clip your nails? I’ll write about answer in the next installment.

And, I’ll address what you really want to know, on Friday.

Leroy Chiao

Originally posted on Gizmodo, during the week of 5/3/09

Friday, May 22, 2009

Life in Space – The Beginning (Soyuz)

Last time, I wrote about what launching aboard a Space Shuttle is like. This time, let’s consider the Russian Soyuz rocket and spacecraft. Why? Isn’t a rocket a rocket? Is it really that different? Yes and no, no and yes. They both get astronauts into space in around nine minutes. But, they are very different.

First, consider the two spacecraft. They look pretty different from each other. One is a part of a missile, the other a winged vehicle, attached to a rocket assembly.

If the living space inside of the Space Shuttle is Business Class,

then the Soyuz is decidedly economy.

However, I must say that the Soyuz has a very special place in my heart. It is a robust, capable spacecraft and launcher. It has the best-demonstrated safety record of any manned spacecraft. And, it just feels hearty.

But, how does it feel to launch on a Soyuz?

Well first, you almost wear the Soyuz rather than strap into it. Squeezing down the hatchway into my seat, I got an idea of what claustrophobia must feel like. If anyone is the least bit claustrophobic, this would bring it out. Your legs are bent up into your chest. It’s not very comfortable. Like with the Shuttle, you strap in about two and a half hours before launch. But, it gets worse. The Soyuz requires two orbits to get enough telemetry to the ground, for the Mission Control Center to verify that the spacecraft is healthy. During that time, you must remain strapped into your seat, in case you have to perform an emergency deorbit. Total time in that position? About six hours.

So, there’s no dozing off in the Soyuz, you’re too uncomfortable. You wait. And follow along in the checklist, of course. T-Zero is totally different - there is no kick, since there are no solid rocket strap-on boosters. The liquid engines are very smooth. The thrust builds up gently until the rocket simply rises off of the pad. You have to go by your watch, and the announcement from the launch control bunker to know that you are flying!

There is a deceleration just prior to staging, and then a muffled “bang!” as the four liquid strap on boosters separate. Same for the third stage. What surprised me (startled the Hell out of me, actually), was the very loud “BANG!!” followed by an instant flash of bright light. Just for a split second, I thought we were exploding, but it was just the shroud and escape tower separation! I could now see through the porthole, and look down at the familiar view of the Earth, and the bright, fluorescent blue line of the atmosphere on the Earth limb.

You know the rest.

Leroy Chiao

Originally posted on Gizmodo during the week of 5/3/09

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Life in Space – The Beginning (Space Shuttle)

Today, I was going to write about how to do something else in space. But, I changed my mind. Let’s back up to the beginning of a mission. What’s it like to go through a launch? How does it feel? Are you able to sleep the night before? Do you get scared? What do you eat before?

Steak and eggs. Medium rare, and over easy. This is what the first astronauts ate before launch and why not? I remember during one of my launch counts, the ladies were taking our prelaunch breakfast orders, going around the table. I was hearing things like, dry toast. A little yogurt. Cereal. You gotta be kidding me, what kind of panty-waists am I flying with? They got to me and I replied firmly and evenly, “steak and eggs, medium rare, and over easy.” Everyone looked at me funny. I stated the obvious. “Hey, we might go out tomorrow and get blown up. I’m going to have steak and eggs!” Immediately, three guys changed their orders to steak and eggs. I was doing all of us a favor, really. You need a hearty breakfast before launch, you’re going to be really busy. Yogurt? Come on.

Sleep wasn’t really a problem either, although I tended to wake up a few times at night in anticipation, just like when I have other important morning appointments. We usually wake up about four hours before launch, and hit the ground running.

After breakfast and cleanup, it’s time to get suited up. Walk down the hall and meet up with the suit technicians. Seasoned professionals, your suit tech has been with you all through training. He or she makes sure that everything is just right, and after the pressure checks are complete, sends you on your way.

From that point, it’s a bit of a blur, as you walk out of the Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center, to the applause of the employees who have gathered at the entrance. You climb onto the Astrovan, which is a converted Airstream RV from the Apollo days. Crews typically joke and banter a bit, the atmosphere is light hearted, during the short drive to the launch pad. Everyone falls silent, as the bird comes into view. She is beautiful. She is ready, as are we.

At the pad, we climb out and ride the elevator to the 195 foot level, where we are greeted by the ingress crew. Time for one more quick pee. Maybe for good luck, but more, so that I won’t have to use the adult diaper that I’m wearing! After all, we strap into the Space Shuttle about two and a half hours before launch.

Is this when the jitters hit? Actually, no. This is kind of a time to relax a bit. The environment is totally familiar, thanks to the hours upon hours spent in the simulators. For once, nobody is talking to you. Nobody is asking you for something. It’s not unusual to doze off.

As the launch count proceeds, there is a point at which things get serious. Certainly as we come out of the T-20 minute hold. After we come out of the T-9 minute hold, the cockpit is sterile. No unnecessary chatter on the intercom. Is this when it becomes real? Not just yet. For me, it is not until the T-90 second point, when the Launch Director says something like “Columbia, close and lock your visors, initiate O2 flow, have a good flight.” That it becomes very suddenly, very real.

What did I feel at T-Zero? The answer might surprise you. I felt relief.

Certainly, I was keyed up. After all, we were sitting on top of a bomb, being accelerated to orbital velocity of 17,500 mph in less than nine minutes. Pretty heady stuff! But the thing of which astronauts are most afraid, is not getting the chance to launch into space. What if I get hit by a car? What if the doctors find something wrong with me at the last minute? What happens if…..All of those worries go away, the instant the boosters light!

First stage on the Space Shuttle is shaky. You can’t really read the instruments and screens very well. At T-Zero it feels like someone kicks the back of your seat really hard, the Shuttle seems to leap off of the pad. You hear the wind noise build into a high-pitched whine. You see the blue sky start to get dark, fairly quickly. You don’t so much hear the rumble of the engines, as feel them. Everything is oddly orderly, even quiet. That’s because we are accustomed to the simulators, when all the warning and emergency lights and klaxons are going off, as we deal with the failure scenario presented to us by the training team. On launch day, pretty much everything usually works!

On my first flight, I was up on the flight deck for launch. I had a small mirror, through which I could look out of the overhead windows, which were pointed more or less towards the Earth (The Shuttle rolls into launch azimuth and heels over as the ascent proceeds). I saw the ground rushing away, through the flames of the engines.

After about two minutes, the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) tail off as the last bits of fuel in them are consumed. You feel the deceleration, and then see the flash of bright light as the separation motors fire, peeling them away from the stack. It is suddenly very smooth and quiet. My heart leapt into my throat when this happened to me the first time. My first thought was that the main engines had also stopped and we were about to go down! But, that was not the case, I just hadn’t expected second stage to be so smooth.

During the last few minutes of launch, the vehicle accelerates to orbital velocity. You are under three G’s of loading, so it feels like a small gorilla is sitting on your chest. It takes a little effort to breath, but it’s ok.

Suddenly, right on cue (you’re always watching the clock), the main engines cut off, and you are instantly weightless! As I looked out the windows and for the first time beheld the awesome beauty of the Earth from space, I was almost overcome with emotion. I had made it, I had realized my childhood dream. I allowed myself to revel in this moment for just a few seconds. Yes, I was in space, but it was also time to get to work!

Maybe tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the Soyuz.

Leroy Chiao

Originally posted on Gizmodo, during the week of May 3, 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Life in Space – A Day (or at least, the beginning of one)

On a Space Shuttle, music is piped up from the Mission Control Center. On the Space Station, you set your watch alarm. Or, as is sometimes the case on Earth, you awake early, all on your own, wondering “What the H..?!”

A typical day in space (is there such a thing?) starts a lot like a day on the ground, except that you are floating. Turn off the alarm. Unzip yourself out of your sleeping bag. Open the doors to the sleep station, haul yourself out.

You can do it however you like, but on the International Space Station, I fell into a routine of cleaning up in the evening before bed, and then wearing a clean T-shirt and underwear for sleep. In the morning, I was already half dressed. I would pull on a pair of Nomex shorts and white cotton gym socks, ready to get going. This was the typical uniform onboard, except for when the cameras were going to be on.

When we had a scheduled video interview, we would wear a polo-type crew shirt, or in the case of a serious event, don a flight suit.

What’s the first thing you do in the morning on Earth? Well, it’s not so different onboard a spacecraft. Why should it be? However, I will dedicate another entry to the issue of space toilets and leave it alone for now.

How about something like brushing your teeth? In zero gravity (or more accurately, microgravity, if you’re a stickler for such things), some things are easier, like moving medium or large mass items around, but many things are more difficult. It is unbelievably easy to lose things. Get distracted for a moment, and that toothpaste cap is gone! Even if you are good about anchoring such things behind a rubber bungee, some rookie going by could knock it loose for you.

So, how do you brush your teeth in space? Long ago, NASA started buying only toothpaste without detachable caps, thus solving the lost cap problem. So, start by filling a drink bag with water and bring it with you to the hygiene area. Tuck it behind a rubber bungee. Remove your hygiene kit from behind its bungee and unzip it. Find your toothbrush inside of your hygiene kit, safely tucked away inside of a fabric pouch with a Velcro top. But first, take out your toothpaste tube, and stick it to the wall, using the Velcro dot on it. Secure your hygiene kit behind a rubber bungee, after partially zipping it up, so that things don’t accidentally float out.

Still have your toothbrush between a couple of your fingers? Hopefully yes. Remove your drink bag, and with one thumb, flip open the straw clamp (which keeps liquid from seeping out of the bag), and gently squeeze out a bead of water onto your toothbrush, watch it get sucked into the bristles. Hold the straw of the drink bag in your teeth, and with one hand, fix the straw clamp in place, and replace the bag behind the bungee.

Almost all of the rest is fairly straightforward. Flip open the cap of the toothpaste tube, squeeze some out on your toothbrush, go to work on your teeth. Ok, you’re done. Now what? Where are you going to spit? There’s no sink……..So, into a tissue? Then you’ve got a wet tissue, and what are you going to do with that?? So, I swallowed. Filled my mouth with water and swallowed again. Drew some water onto the toothbrush and sucked the water out. Dried the toothbrush onto a towel and replaced it, and the toothpaste, into the kit.

What’s left? Any idea? Yep, the drink bag. That, I would bring to bed with me, so that I would have something to sip on in the middle of the night, should I wake. Just like back home on Earth, except a bit more complicated. And, brushing your teeth is one of the simpler tasks that you’ll perform in space.

Leroy Chiao

Originally posted on Gizmodo during the week of May 4, 2009

Life in Space – The Basics

“So, what’s it like?” Living in space is all at once wonderful, and a royal pain. During my first mission aboard Space Shuttle Columbia, I marveled at the sensation of freedom that came right after Main Engine Cut Off (MECO). I watched as tethered checklists floated gently back and forth, and it quickly became normal to release a camera lens in midair, as I removed the old one off of the camera to be replaced.

There was also a sense of dizziness, since the inner ear balance system wasn’t working so well. My head felt a little full, as if I were laying down on an incline, since there was no longer any gravity to pull fluids down to my extremities. In fact, the human body carries about two liters less water in space, than on the Earth.

But, it was amazing how quickly it became normal, just to fly head first down a hatchway, or to spin myself with a push off using just a few fingers. With a little practice, most astronauts get pretty graceful at flying through the spacecraft. Just don’t try it at home, back in gravity!

Large masses are easily moved around slowly, and it becomes second nature, to orient yourself using only your vision. However, what about all that other stuff?

For example, imagine how easy it is to lose something! Where did that pen go? Where is my thumb drive? Where is that photograph of my family? First place to check is the air filters. But, there are plenty of dead zones of air inside, and things can be lost for a few minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or forever. If it’s critical, you had better keep it inside of a sealed bag, safely contained inside of a second, large mesh bag, tied off to a handrail.

What about eating in space? Hygiene? What is the coolest thing about being in space? What is the most difficult? Stay tuned, I’ll be writing about all of it.

Originally posted on Gizmodo, during the week of May 4, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Who's seen a UFO? I have, on two of my space missions. However, I figured out what the first one was, and I have a pretty good idea what was the second.

On another mission, Houston called to inform us that an expendable launch was about to take place from Cape Canaveral. After the third stage burned out, we watched a wonderfully beautiful rainbow in space that expanded into a huge oval, as the excess fuel was vented into space and caught the sunlight just right. If Houston had not warned us, I would not have been able to explain this, and would have found it very eery!

I firmly believe that there is other life in the universe. What I am more skeptical of, is whether we have been visited by extraterrestrials.

I must admit to being a bit intrigued when well-known colleagues come out and publicly accuse the US Government of covering up UFO evidence. Edgar Mitchell and the only other Leroy in the history of the program (Gordo Cooper) have both claimed that this is the case.

If we have been visited by aliens, I don't have a problem believing that the US Government would try to cover it up. However, would they really be able to do it? Have they done a very good job of covering up other things in the past?

What do you think? Have you seen one?

Leroy Chiao

Sunday, April 5, 2009

North Korea Missile Test - So What?

North Korea has launched a Taepodong 2 missile, in what appears to be at least a partially successful test. The world, led by U.S. President Barak Obama, has condemned the test. Analysts and media pundits warned of a destabilization of the area, and indicated that it signaled a threat to U.S. Homeland Security.

Was the flight a success? In an earlier test (2006), the first TP-2 missile exploded about 40 seconds into flight. The North Koreans seem to have fixed that problem, but the U.S. and South Korean military have both stated that the current rocket failed to put anything into orbit. That seems to indicate at least a third stage failure.

In theory, the test shows that the North Koreans could fire a missile and possibly hit Japan, the United States and any number of other countries. Of course this is cause for concern, but how concerned should we really be?

First, the test was not completely successful. One could argue that the North Koreans were lucky to get as far as they did. What would happen if they launched another missile today? They are maybe 2/3-1 for a record so far.

Second, as in the Iranian tests, what can they hit? Their guidance systems, by all accounts, are not very sophisticated.

Third, how many could they build and launch? The North Korean infrastructure is pretty thin. Does anyone think that they could not be stopped at any time militarily, should the need arise? Even if left alone, when could they launch another missile? Do they even have one ready to go? It took them almost three years to launch their second test.

Fourth, we all know why they did this. It's just to get attention and try to squeeze more money out of the West.

I must admit to feeling that this is a "So What" moment.

Leroy Chiao

Tuesday, March 17, 2009 Launch Coverage

I just returned from the Cape. I was covering the STS-119 launch, with Miles O'Brien and David Waters. We were trying something completely new, streaming in real time from the Kennedy Space Center, through the web site:

What a neat experiment this was! With a few technical difficulties (which we hope to have worked out for the next time), we had an amazingly successful test of the system. We were receiving real time twitter and chat messages, which enabled us to respond to viewer questions and to get feedback. All of the feedback was very positive, it was clear that we were reaching people who were thirsting for this kind of coverage! We were reaching people all over the world, including places like Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Finland, Nigeria, just to mention a few.

This is clearly the future. We had a blast, our overhead was minimal (just a fraction of what a network would spend for television coverage) and we had real time interaction with our audience. We reached tens of thousands of people and hope to reach even more as this matures!

Leroy Chiao

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Launch Delays

I'm at the Orlando airport, after the latest Space Shuttle launch attempt. I am covering this with Miles O'Brien and David Waters, for We are streaming video over the web site, which also features instant updates and chat.

Launch delays are inevitable. While disappointing, everything must be operating correctly before the engines light. This time, it was a bit frustrating, because the weather was perfect, the bird was ready to fly, but we had a problem with a piece of ground support equipment. Anyway, NASA will try again, possibly as early as March 15.

Join us at for live streaming coverage, starting about four hours before launch!

Leroy Chiao

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I am laughing out loud! There is a thing going around the internet these days (a Powerpoint presentation, actually), which purports to show that the Chinese faked their spacewalk last September. I received it from people who work for NASA!!

There are many technical inaccuracies in the presentation, the folks who put it together know nothing about EVA, or about how to train for an EVA. This reminds me of the people who claim that the moon landings were all faked.

It's a good way to generate some controversy among the uninformed, and perhaps, make a few dollars. But, other than that, it is just wonderful to watch. You've got to enjoy a con that has even professionals in the business asking questions.

Really, it has to do with not wanting to believe that the Chinese did a spacewalk. But, as I wrote in my last post, the winds are shifting. Secretary of State Clinton is in Asia at this moment. Things are going to change. Who knows? Maybe China will become a partner in the ISS after all?

The bottom line, is that moonwalk or spacewalk, it would be more difficult to fake. Just think of the army of people who would have to be in on the conspiracy, who would have to keep their mouths shut.

Don't believe it!

Leroy Chiao

Friday, February 13, 2009

New Winds Blowing, North and South.

Wow, Secretary of State Clinton spoke today to the Asia Society. She is leaving on Sunday for a big Asia tour, and emphasized the importance of Asia to the US and the world at large. She particularly mentioned that a positive and cooperative relationship with China was key to peace and prosperity. What a difference an administration makes!

I think that space exploration would be a good place to find common ground between the US and Asia, just as it has been for the US and Russia. True, that relationship has been rocky, but overall, I'd say that it's worked out a whole lot better than the US or world economies of late!

Speaking of which, what do you think of the Obama stimulus package? I am generally against big government and big government spending, but I'm not at all certain that tax cuts would do it either. I really don't know what to think about all of this.

Where did all of the value in the markets go? Right up into thin air. Think about it and you will realize that perception IS everything. If one thinks something is real, then it is. Once a few no longer believe, it can quickly domino into what we have today.....A big, fat recession, which is worldwide. It's even being felt in Dubai! I just read a story about foreigners dumping their nice cars in the airport parking lots, to flee the country. Just amazing.

I do think things will get better, these things go in cycles. It's just that this is the biggest one yet.

Buckle up!

Leroy Chiao

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Let's Get to Work!

Ok, maybe I'm the only one, but I've never been one to love a parade. Sure, I understand them, I've been in them, I've even had to watch a few. But, I don't really enjoy them so much. I certainly understand the hoopla surrounding the inauguration today, especially with the historic significance of President Obama's ascendency. BUT, I cringe when I think about how much money is spent on these kinds of events. Of course, businesses profit a great deal, which is good for everyone, to a point.

While the celebrations were going on, bank stocks took a huge tumble. Big players like Bank of America (down 29% today) and Royal Bank of Scotland (down 69% today) were hard hit. President Obama has rightly made the economy his number one priority. I look forward to an aggressive and coordinated set of actions to bring on the recovery.

Did I mention that I'm working on my tax return? I suppose that at least I won't have much capital gains to report (I've never considered that good news!). Always good to try to keep a sense of humor. Reminds me of the food shortage during Expedition 10, when E9 ate our stuff. Salizhan and I joked about it, as a way to cope. Maybe it will be funny one day, but not yet!


Leroy Chiao

PS: Oh, and it looks like Mike Griffin is officially retired from NASA, as of today. Piers owes me a dollar!

Monday, January 12, 2009

New Year, New Directions

2009 is firmly underway! In the next few days, the new US President will take power, government officials, including the current NASA Administrator, will resign, and everything will change.

How will 2009 be different for you? Many of the people I know felt that 2008 was a pretty lousy year. For me, it was mixed, but I can't complain. I am however, like everyone, looking forward to a better year. Prognosticators have been saying that the world economic situation will not improve much during 2009, although there is hope that the absolutely huge bailout/stimulus packages will help to keep things from getting much worse.

So why is there optimism in the air? Maybe just because there is certainty that change will happen in 2009. Many folks just want to put last year behind them. Who knows? Maybe this will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Leroy Chiao