Leroy Chiao’s four visits to space were very different, from his virgin flight to returning finally as a Russian-speaking mission commander.
Question: What was your first trip to space like?
Leroy Chiao: That was in 1994, July, 1994, and I can remember that like it was yesterday too because it was the culmination of a childhood dream to finally be laying on the launch pad inside a space shuttle and getting ready to be launched into space. The impression of going into a space shuttle is that it looks like a brand new simulator. We spend so many hours inside a simulator that everything is very familiar. Every switch, the seats, the way things work, but the vehicle, the actual spacecraft looks brand new because it hasn't been used nearly as much as the simulators.
So, even though I knew I was inside the space shuttle getting ready to go fly, something about it wasn't completely real up until we got the call at about one minute to go, to close and lock our visors and start our oxygen flow. And at that moment it suddenly became very real and I felt a little bit of the adrenaline rush and then that minute went by quickly and at ignition; people often ask me, "Well, what did you feel the very first time you launched? What did it feel like right at the moment of launch?" And they're surprised when I tell them actually what I felt was relief. It wasn't like being anxious or scared or anything. It was relief because this is something I had wanted to do my whole life and now that the boosters had lit, we were on our way to go do it and nothing was going to stop us.
You know, the thing that you worry about your first flight or any flight is some kind of a problem coming up that is going to keep you from doing it. Whether it's being hit by a car, or getting in a bad accident, or coming down with some other medical disqualification. But once the boosters light, you're going.
Question: How were your space flights different?
Leroy Chiao: Sure, I actually had four space flights altogether, three times on shuttles. My second flight was really unique for me because I was going back into space, first of all. The first one was like an appetizer at a nice dinner. You know, you want to go up and you want more. So, the second time I got into space, it was neat because I got to actually do two space walks.
What we were doing, I was leading two space walks to test tools and construction techniques that we would later use to build the international space station. That wasn't the main purpose of the mission, the main purpose was to retrieve a Japanese satellite and a science satellite that had been launched three months prior by the Japanese and we used the robotic arm and my good friend Koichi Wakata, a Japanese National Astronaut, retrieved that satellite. Then after all that was done, I got to go out and lead these two space walks and that was a whole different thing. Getting into a space suit and going outside, to me, getting your peripheral vision involved and looking at the Earth was a whole different experience than looking through the window. And it's kind of the same on earth. If you're driving in a car and you see like a beautiful sunset or landscape, it looks so much better if you stop and get out and kind of take it all in and that's kind of what it's like doing a spacewalk.
Question: How was being Commander of the Space Station unique?
Leroy Chiao: Oh yes, that was, you know the space station mission was kind of the culmination of all of my experience of being a NASA Astronaut, so it had brought all of my previous experience into play. It was neat because I had to learn Russian. I had to learn the Russian language to a fluent level so that I could function as the co-pilot of the Soyuz Spacecraft that we flew up and back from the space station. And then the challenge of being the Commander of the whole expedition, a six and a-half month flight aboard the international space station. That meant that I was personally responsible for all aspects of the mission from making sure that everything was going to go well, for the ultimate success. Even though other people were in charge of different areas of the whole mission, you know, I felt the burden of the whole mission on my shoulders, which was fine, and fortunately everything did go well.
We were one of the mission's that flew just about over a year after the Columbia accident. So, back then the shuttle was grounded and so we were only flying two-person crews. What we were doing, we were trying to do as much science as we could because that was the main purpose of the international space station. But without the shuttle to bring up heavy laboratory equipment and bring back samples, we were limited by what we could do, but I was proud that we actually accomplished more science that was planned for the flight. So, overall, it was a good mission and I got a chance to do two Russian spacewalks on that flight, I had become an expert in U.S. spacewalks and using U.S. suits and techniques, and this was a chance to put on a Russian Orlan suit and do two construction space flights outside of the space station.
Question: What role did language play in your work?
Leroy Chiao: Sure, I think it's -- I grew up bilingual, I grew up speaking Chinese in the home, Mandarin Chinese with my parents, and then, of course, I learned English because I was born and raised in the U.S., and actually I have two young twins right now, three-year-old twins and they are growing up bilingual as well. I think that really gave me an edge. I understand that, from the experts, that if you grew up bilingual, your brain kind of gets wired to accept a new language. And so, I think maybe learning Russian for me was easier than for some of my colleagues. But it certainly wasn't easy. It was probably the most, well definitively was the most challenging thing I had to do since I was at the university. And it was – but it was also the most fun. I really enjoyed learning the language. It was a big challenge, a lot of studying repetition and practice involved, but it was fun to watch myself make progress, a little frustrating at times, but I had to learn it to. And I knew it was a very serious deal because not only did I have to learn it to a high degree in order to function as a necessary member of the crew, but also I knew that the Russians that came over that made an effort and had some success in learning English, those were the folks we trusted. All the Astronauts and the Cosmonauts, we've all achieved technical things. We all have technical degrees, and you can learn the systems and all that, but really if you can communicate with the other side, you are the one that they're going to trust. So, I knew it was going to be the most important thing. And it was already taken as a given that I would learn the systems.
Recorded on December 16, 2009