Michael Fossum: Astronaut

  • Name: Michael Fossum
  • Job Title: Astronaut
  • Age: 58
  • Location: Houston, TX

When did you know you wanted to be an astronaut?

It was during the Apollo moon landings timeframe. I was a young boy growing up in South Texas right on the Mexican border. I was actually camping with my boy scout troop laying on my back looking up at the stars as the camp fire died down — I felt like I was swimming in them. That’s when I knew.

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I recently read the book The Right Stuff, which details the first astronauts’ transition from the Air Force to NASA. Tell me about your experience with the Air Force and the NASA recruitment process.

My childhood dream of becoming an astronaut had faded to almost nonexistent. My father didn’t go to college. We were definitely a middle class family, and those sort of aspirations didn’t seem possible. But I still strived to pursue engineering in college and actually ended up in the Air Force by accident.

I wanted to go to Texas A&M University but the dorms were full and apartments in the area were too expensive. My only option was to join their ROTC program, which has cadet corps with dorms on campus. That was my only motivation for having any introduction to the military. I got into the ROTC program and found that there were a lot of exciting technical opportunities in the Air Force. Then they offered me an ROTC scholarship — they were really singing my song. But even in the Air Force, the dream of being an astronaut was barely in the back of my mind.

Upon graduating, the Air Force sent me to graduate school to get a masters in engineering. From there, I managed to get a job with the Johnson Space Center — the Air Force loaned me over. This was the early days of the space shuttle program. I actually worked as a shuttle flight controller during my first mission on STS-3. I got to know the astronauts who worked down the hall and realized they weren’t that different from me or you. They were pretty normal people with outrageous jobs. Several of them encouraged me along the way, which completely reignited that childhood dream. Ironically, it was right around the time the movie The Right Stuff came out.

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How long did it take to become an astronaut from there?

Well I worked for 12 years as a flight test engineer in the Air Force before I came to work full-time for Johnson Space Center as a civilian engineer. I did that for 5 years before I was selected as an astronaut. I actually applied to be an astronaut while I was in the Air Force but wasn’t selected. I continued to apply while working as an engineer at NASA. In total, it took 13 years from the time I submitted my first application until I was accepted, and then another 8 years until I got my first flight.

When was that first flight?

2006.

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I read that you logged more than 194 days and traveled more than 77 million miles in space. What’s been your most memorable mission and why?

The first one, of course. That was the realization of childhood dreams combined with many years of working hard to be the best that I could be. The first time I looked out the window was about a minute after the engines cut off on the space shuttle. My job was to grab cameras and jump up to an overhead window to get pictures of the external fuel tank as it fell away from the shuttle to document any insulation damage. I got up there so quickly that the tank was not yet in view but there I am, looking at the North Atlantic. I’m struck with the blue ocean and dappling of white clouds and an impossible black sky above plus a thin band of atmosphere on a curved horizon. It was really a shocking moment. I had to remind myself that it wasn’t a video or a photo, but rather my eyes looking through layers of glass at the earth from space.

The other incredibly striking moment is when I stepped outside for my first spacewalk. Today I’ve had 7 spacewalks for over 48 hours. But sliding out that airlock for the first time was a sensory overload. I had worked in the spacewalk business and helped design a lot of the tools and techniques that we were using, but nothing could prepare me for that visceral experience of seeing the planet rolling by below us at 5 miles per second. Now, not through layers of glass, but through a bubble helmet. It’s hard to describe what it was like to see the space station suspended seemingly motionless with the space shuttle hanging off one end.

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Is it a feeling of pure excitement or is fear mixed in? 

There’s definitely fear mixed in. I’m sure my eyes were as big as saucers when I stepped out. I remember looking over at Piers Sellers, who was an experienced astronaut, and he had a big grin on his face. I knew if Piers was smiling then it was all going to be okay. We have a few minutes to adjust to what it’s like to move in a weightless vacuum, which is very different from the training we do in the water. You then need to try to get to work and forget where you are because it’s almost overwhelming to think about.

What kind of work were you doing?

While we are outside we have very aggressive timelines. Our flight was one of the returning missions after the Columbia Space Shuttle accident so we were working on different test repair techniques. And on one of the three spacewalks, we were doing repairs to the space station itself.

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Tell me about the different tools and techniques you use to work in space. 

The spacesuit itself is inflated to 4.3 pounds per square inch so you’re working against the inflated suit. I joke that it’s like working in a Michelin Man suit. We call it spacewalking but you don’t use your legs much — it’s all upper body and forearms as you’re moving around. A lot of the tools we use are similar to what you’d see on Earth. We have a power drill for instance. It’s not unlike a cordless drill you might use on Earth. The same goes for simple things like ratchet wrenches, screwdrivers and even putty knives. They are just designed with different handles and we have to tether them because everything has to be tied down or you’re going to lose it. And that tethering includes us. As we are moving around outside the space station, we have safety tethers that we have to set and lock down to make sure we won’t go floating away.

On that note, what’s been the most challenging part of your job?

I had two shuttle missions, one in 2006 and one in 2008, that were a two-week long pushes. For every hour we spent outside spacewalking, we spent 8 to 10 hours training in the water, practicing all of our moves and the choreography of the spacewalk. And then in 2011, I launched on the Russian spacecraft, the Soyuz. That was a six-month mission.

I grew up during the Cold War with nuclear bomb drills in elementary school. So here I am working and living in Star City, Russia for a long period of time. It was almost surreal to be doing that. But the hardest part wasn’t the rocket science, but rather, trying to become competent in the Russian language. All of our training, the displays and the control in the Soyuz were in Russian. That was a significant challenge for me.

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Now you are fluent in Russian?

I would never say I’m fluent in Russian.

Fluent in Russian rocket science vernacular?

Maybe. And for me, that’s a great joy because my early days were so different and now I really enjoy going to Russia. I have friends there with whom I trust my life. My Soyuz commander, Sergei Volkov, I call him my space brother. He was the first second generation space flyer. His father was a cosmonaut. They are both great guys.

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What is the biggest misconception about space travel?

The biggest misconception is that there is no artificial gravity. And there’s no antigravity room on Earth to train. Working up there is challenging because it’s really hard to handle tools when you can’t just put it down.

I like to tinker in my garage. I work on my car and I set out tools so when I remove piece, I can put it back together efficiently. Well, in space you can’t do that. You have to put them all in a Ziploc bag where they’re swimming around like goldfish and you’re trying to reach in while the nuts and bolts are bumping off your fingers. It just takes so much longer to do everything. When you drop something on Earth, you look down. But when you drop something in space, it can really go anywhere.

Do you have any upcoming missions planned?

Not at the moment. I’d love to go on another mission but most of our job is not in space. I’m ready and willing but in the meantime, I have a support job on the ground.

But if NASA told you tomorrow that you could visit any planet, where would you go?

Mars. Again the thought of going to space started to come to me during the Apollo landings. I knew we were going to the moon then, but that the next step was Mars. As a child during the Apollo landings, I started my Mars notebook.

There will be human foot prints on Mars one day. I may not be the one to plant those historic footsteps, but when it does happen, when humankind touches Mars for the first time, I sure hope there’s an American flag on at least one of their shoulders.

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What excites you most about the future of space exploration?

In the near term, NASA is working with two contractors to build new spacecraft so that we are not relying solely on the Soyuz spacecraft to get to and from the station. I was actually serving on the space station during that last American space shuttle mission. It was bittersweet for me to have been part of the shuttle program in the very early days, and then be there to watch that last shuttle leave the station and head toward home knowing we would no longer have American launch capability.

But within two to three years we are going to be launching Americans and our partners from Florida on two new American built spacecraft, which is very exciting. We’re also working on the Orion spacecraft, which will take us beyond low Earth orbit — that 200-300 mile range above the Earth. The Orion spacecraft is intended to take us much farther. Some of its early missions will take us at least around the moon. We don’t have the lander yet but that distance will prove the spacecraft’s capabilities. We are laying the ground work for going to Mars many years in the future. We’re using the space station as a test bed for the kind technologies that we need to improve upon. Technologies to recycle our water, to clean and scrub the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — things like that. We have those kind of systems on the space station but they’re not mature or reliable enough to embark on a 3-year journey to Mars and back.

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What do you think about SpaceX and Elon Musk’s vision of colonizing Mars?

I’m all for it. And Elon is on contract with NASA to provide one of those commercial vehicles to launch from Florida in a few years. The fact that he wants to meet our needs and has a commercial vision means more rocket launches and reliability. There are a number of other companies also making strides as well. It’s an amazing time.

Question from the last interviewee: Is this what you grew up thinking you would do?

 It’s what I grew up dreaming I might do. I didn’t always have enough faith to think it was possible but I never completely gave up. I used that dream to inspire me to work harder and put in even more late nights as I faced rejection multiple times. I was careful not to go down a path that I knew I didn’t want to be on because I knew the odds were low. I pursued a career that was rewarding for me whether I made the cut or not. In order to turn dreams into a reality, you need to research it, work hard and most importantly, go all in. My son left for the Peace Corps yesterday. He is going to spend 27 months in West Africa. My parting words to him were, “Sometimes small steps toward your goal won’t get you there. Sometimes you have to take a big leap of faith.” For my son, he’s taking a big leap of faith. He’s doing things that even his old man considers a little outrageous.

What one question do you want to ask the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs?

 At what point did you go all in and take a major leap toward achieving your goal?

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