Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Lia Chang: Leroy Chiao – 1st Asian American Commander of the International Space Station

NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, left, and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov served on Expedition 10 (2004-2005) in the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA

NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, left, and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov served on Expedition 10 (2004-2005) in the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA

Just weeks away from becoming the 1st Asian American commander of the International Space Station (ISS), NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao, 44, is in training in Star City, Russia.

Dr. Chiao, Russian Salizhan Sharipov and Yuri Shargin, a lieutenant-colonel in Russia’s space forces, are scheduled to blast off in the Soyuz TMA-5 from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Oct. 13 (11:06pm E.D.T.). The Expedition 10 crew will relieve Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka and NASA’s Michael Fincke who have been manning the ISS, the joint endeavor of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European nations, since mid-April.

Due to the grounding of the U.S. shuttle fleet after Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry on February 1, 2003, killing the seven astronauts on board, all manned and cargo ships have launched from Russia.

Along with Dr. Ed Lu and Dan Tani, Chiao is one of three Asian Americans who are in the elite ranks of 160 American astronauts. They follow in the footsteps of career astronauts Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz and Ellison Onizuka, who paved the way for Asian Americans in the space program. Onizuka lost his life in the January 28, 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident, along with six other crewmembers.

Chiao’s fascination with spaceflight began in 1969, when at the age of eight, he watched the Apollo spacecraft land on the moon on an old black and white television in his parents’ backyard in Danville, Calif. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong made history when they took the first steps on the moon, fueling the young boy’s passion for flying.

His dream to become an astronaut stayed with him while he studied chemical engineering at U.C. Berkeley, and through graduate school at U.C. Santa Barbara. Chiao’s parents were both chemical engineers who immigrated to Milwaukee from Taiwan in the late 1950s for graduate school. They wanted their children to retain their Asian values, but also chose to assimilate their son and his two sisters into the American culture, urging them to be more assertive in society. Stressing a science education, his parents encouraged him to follow their lead and become an engineer.

When Chiao applied to NASA, he was told he needed to finish his doctorate and gain work experience. Getting his master’s and doctoral degrees in chemical engineering from U.C. Santa Barbara, he worked as an engineer for almost two years, first at Hexel and then, at age 28, as a research scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The stars were in perfect alignment for Chiao the second time around. NASA was in the process of selecting a new class when he reapplied for the space program in 1989. Interviewing at NASA in January 1990, he was called to report in July and became an astronaut a year later. Chiao has flown three shuttle missions: his first in 1994, his second in 1996 where he became the first Asian American to perform a space walk, and his last was aboard the Discovery in October 2000.

AsianConnections’ editor Lia Chang talked with Leroy by telephone who is in Star City, Russia, his home away from home, to discuss the space program and what it’s like to be an American in Russia.

Astronaut Dr. Leroy Chiao

Astronaut Dr. Leroy Chiao

Lia: Can you tell me more about Star City?

Leroy: I’m in Star City, it’s a military base. It’s a very historic place where the first cosmonauts were based. And cosmonauts til today are still based. It’s a very old place. This is where the Soviet space program began and the Russian program continues.

Lia: Can you elaborate about your mission?

Leroy: I’m training first for our flight in October. I’ll be launching with Salizhan Sharipov, by the way the first all Asian Crew. Salizhan being an Uzbek. We’ll be launching on Oct. 14th. Aboard a Soyuz. Salizhan will be commander of the Soyuz and once we get on the station, I’ll be commander of the station. We’ll spend six months. We have a multifaceted mission. Primarily we’ll be maintaining the station and keeping it going. We’ll be doing a couple of spacewalks and continue construction of the Station by installing some antennas for a docking vehicle in the future, a European docking vehicle called ATV. We’ll research new AIDS vaccines. We’ll also do other scientific experiments, mostly on ourselves. Physiological experiments to measure how well we’ll adapt to zero gravity and what kind of countermeasures like exercise we can use to counteract the negative effects of zero gravity. These experiments will help us to realize the President’s space vision of going back to the moon and on to Mars. It’s going to be very interesting for me personally because I’ll be launching and returning on a Soyuz. I’ll get to do a couple of space walks in the Russian space suits, the Orlan. Having done four space walks in the American suits, it will be an interesting compare and contrast opportunity.

Lia: How long have you been training?

Leroy: Well, I’ve been training for a space station mission for three years now. I started out training as the back commander for Expedition 8 and the prime commander for Expedition 12. Then, I was assigned to the prime crew for Expedition 10, after one of our astronauts experienced a temporary medical disqualification. After some time, that mission became Expedition 9. After the Columbia accident, everything changed again. I was again the prime commander of Expedition 12 and backup commander for Expedition 9. After another one of our astronauts experienced a temporary medical disqualification, I suddenly became prime for 9. Three weeks later, I became prime for 10 and again backup for 9. This is where the dust finally settled!

Lia: When did you fly to Russia?

Leroy: I arrived on Aug. 30th. I’ll stay here til I launch on Oct. 14th.

Lia: What kind of training are you doing now?

Leroy: We’re training for the tasks that we will be doing on board the station as well as for the flight up and back in the Soyuz. We’re spending a lot of time in the Soyuz simulators and the station simulator. Yesterday I was in the Soyuz simulator where we practiced emergency exits from the station. We were in our space suits. It was hot and we were sweating. We were going through all of the procedures. Next week we go through our exams. Tomorrow morning I’ll be practicing for that by getting in the centerfuge, practicing manual entry in the Soyuz, actually flying the Soyuz during entry, assuming that the automatics have failed. All of this is going to be interesting. I’ve gone through most of it before when I was backup for Expedition 9 in April. This is a little more intense because it is the real thing.

Lia: When I visited with you in Houston in March 2000, you were studying Russian.

Leroy: Learning the Russian language was the hardest part of this training and also the most rewarding and important. We need to be able to understand each other. That means the Americans need to be able to speak Russian. The Russians need to be able to speak English. The Russians that we trust in Houston are the ones that can speak to us well in English. To become technically competent, as a successful cosmonaut candidate or astronaut candidate, we can attain a high level of competence. We can learn the systems of the other country well enough to become technically competent. But the people that we trust are the Russians that can speak English. In the same way, the ones the Russians trust are the Americans that can speak Russians. It’s very important to learn the language. I feel very confident with the language now.

Lia: Your home base is the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, but during the past three years, you’ve spent a lot of time training in Russia. What is it like as an American in Russia?

Leroy: It’s been interesting. One on one, in small groups, Russians are really great. They’re very passionate people. They’re very nice, friendly, outgoing. As an institution, as a group, they can be really stubborn and sometimes rude. This whole proposal about me flying for a year has been kind of difficult. They have their own reasons for wanting it, but they are presenting it like it is in the international interest.

Lia: The last year has been very different for you as well because you just got married.

Leroy: Karen and I just celebrated our first wedding anniversary on Aug. 11th. We got married the year before in Singapore. We spent our honeymoon in Singapore, Hawaii and California.

Lia: How did you decide on Singapore?

Leroy: It was interesting how it all came together. We decided to kind of run off. We chose Singapore because I thought it would be kind of neat to get married where there were a lot of Chinese. I have relatives in both Mainland China and Taiwan, so it would have been difficult to choose one place over the other. The majority of the population of Singapore is Chinese, so that worked out well. Karen’s father is Dutch and Singapore has a very rich history with Dutch. So for both of us, it was a good place to go. Folks there were so friendly, everything was very clean and spotless. It was very enjoyable.

Lia: How long a period of time did you have?

Leroy: I had a whole month of vacation. We spent a week in Singapore, a week in Hawaii, a week in California and a week back in Houston. It was nice. It was a huge treat.

Lia: How did you meet your wife?

Leroy: That’s an interesting story. Astronaut Dave Wolf, a good friend and classmate of mine, his wife works as a nurse. Karen came in for an appointment one day and the nurse that she normally worked with was not available and she ended up working with Tammy. They got to talking. They hit it off and Tammy said, “I’ve got this guy you need to meet.” She introduced us and so that was that.

Lia: Has Karen spent a lot of time in Russia with you?

Leroy: She’s made four trips over the past three years and she loves it.

Lia: Does she like flying just as much as you do?

Leroy: Yes. In fact, our first date was flying to Austin for lunch!

Lia: What does Karen do?

Leroy: Up until recently, she had her own photography business. She primarily shot two different kinds of photos, country music and oil. Her company had contracts with country music magazines and also had the North American contract with British Petroleum. They were shooting country musicians and then on the other hand, they were shooting oilrigs and hanging out of helicopters shooting oil tankers.

Lia: Is she flying to Russia for the launch?

Leroy: We talked about it and we decided that she’s not going to come over. The Russian way of doing things is that you don’t have your family come to launch, it’s bad luck. You just say goodbye before you leave to go to the launch site. You go to the launch site and get you head into the game and go do it. We’re following the Russian tradition that way.

Lia: Did you talk to fellow astronaut Ed Lu about his time up on the Space Station?

Leroy: I talked to Ed a lot about flying on the Soyuz and about life on the station. I talked to Mike Foale, who came after Ed. Every now and then Mike Fincke who is on board on the station now will give me a phone call and give me some tips and pointers of things that I may never have thought of. I appreciate the input from all of these guys. It will help us have a more successful mission.

Lia: What are some of things that you might not have thought of?

Leroy: Mostly seemingly little things-like think about the food that you order. It doesn’t seem important on earth, but food is going to be a very important thing to keep morale up. That makes sense when you think about it. If you are in a strange environment, it really helps to have food that you really like, that’s comforting.

Lia What did you order?

Leroy: Basic stuff, pastas, shrimp cocktails, beefsteaks, Chinese dishes. We even have a dried tofu dish.

Lia: How big is the space station?

Leroy: It’s actually quite big. The standard size module is maybe approximately a cylinder-60 foot or so long and about 20 feet in diameter. Between the Russian modules and the US modules, I would say we have the equivalent volume of about 4 of them. It should be quite comfortable for two us.

Lia: What is your crewmate like?

Leroy: He’s a great guy. He’s a Russian airforce pilot. He was the youngest colonel in the Russian airforce. He flew with us -the Americans on STS 89-the shuttle several years ago. He has had one spaceflight. He’s a real easy going guy, very considerate, very nice. He and I are going to get along great. He just turned 40.

Lia: Have you learned much about his culture?

Leroy: A little bit. He’s shared a little bit. I’ve met his family.

Lia: The Soyuz is a lot smaller. What is the difference in training to fly for a Shuttle mission versus the Soyuz?

Leroy: The difference is pretty huge. On the shuttle, my responsibilities for flying the shuttle were fairly small. My main purpose was to get into space and execute experiments and spacewalks. On the Soyuz, my responsibility is as a copilot. I am right in there with Salizhan. He is the commander of the Soyuz, and I’ll be his co-pilot. We’ll be doing everything together through every phase of flight-from launch to rendezvous, approach, docking. We’ll do a fly around of the station. We’re going to be doing a lot of different things on the flight together.

Lia: So this is really a dream come for you?

Leroy: Absolutely. This is a completely new experience because I’ve flown on shuttle three times. This is a chance to fly on a Russian rocket, go fly on the station on a six-month flight as opposed to a two-week flight. Everything is very new. It’s pretty exciting.

Lia: How does your family feel?

Leroy: My family has been very supportive. They support me in what I like to do.

Lia: What will your days up to launch be like?

Leroy: Right now we’re training really hard. We have practical exams in the trainer. Then we have several exams. Then we’ll get a little bit of time off. We’ll have the traditional visit to Red Square. Every space crew since Yuri Gagarin has done that. In our case, we’ll go there and lay flowers at the graves of Gagarin and Korolyev, who was the father of the Soviet space program. And also at the graves of the other cosmonauts who perished in space accidents. They’re all buried in the Kremlin Wall. We’ll go there and have a ceremony and lay some flowers at their graves. It will be very special. It is a tradition for all crews that are going to fly into space on a Russian Soyuz.

Lia: What are you most looking forward to about this spaceflight?

Leroy: This is my chance to become the commander of the space station. And do some meaningful work on board the space station to further our goals towards exploration towards returning to the moon and on to Mars. In a small way, I will be part of that whole effort. My measure of success will be how happy the ground teams are of our work on board. My hope is executing all of our tasks, to execute them well, and to accomplish all of the tasks that are set up for us.

Lia: Fast forward to 8 months from now. As commander of the International Space Station for 6 months, you accomplish your tasks, then return to Earth safe and sound. What are you considering for the next phase of your life?

Leroy: I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. There will be several different opportunities. I may stay at NASA, although I probably won’t fly again. We have so many unflown astronauts that it wouldn’t be fair to them for me to go and have another mission when some of them many never get one. For that reason and a few others, this is probably my last flight. Something I am interested in doing is finding out more about the Chinese space program.

Lia: What would like to say to all the future Asian American astronauts?

Leroy: I’d like to say to them if you’d like to be an astronaut, don’t give up on that dream. WE need more Asians to be in the astronaut corps. There’s me, Ed Lu, and Dan Tani. That’s about it. There are Japanese nationals in the program from Japan, but only three Asian Americans. There are only three of us in the program and there are about 160 astronauts. WE really need to be better represented. Too often, the Asian tendency is to be the engineer in the background, the unsung hero. It’s important that we start getting more in the limelight and getting more visible. Even though it is against our culture.

Lia: What are communications like from Space?

Leroy: Communication is quite good. In terms of air to ground radio between the control center and the station. We have two Internet protocol phones. I can call people. I can give you a call. WE have email three times a day, which is quite instantaneous. I can even have video conferences with people on the ground.

The next crew of the International Space Station takes off from Kazakhstan on Oct. 13.

Oct. 13: Expedition 10 crew launches at 11:06pm EDT (0306 Oct. 14 GMT).

Oct. 15: Expedition 10’s Soyuz spaceship docks about 12:30 a.m.

Once Leroy gets settled at the International Space Station, he will be sharing his adventures in space during periodic calls and emails with AC’s New York Bureau chief Lia Chang. Stay tuned….

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