Table of Contents
He’s flown on STS-59, STS-68, STS-80, and later on STS-98.. but today he’s flying on TSAU! Astronaut Tom Jones joined me for an interview covering topics such as the utility of stopwatches, travel advice, pranks on John Young and more!
Episode Audio #
More on Tom Jones #
For more information about Dr. Jones, check out his website AstronautTomJones.com where you can learn more about his excellent books!
NOTE: This transcript was created by using OpenAI’s tool Whisper which is pretty good but is still artificial intelligence transcription, so expect errors. Also, it can’t identify who’s speaking, so the entire interview is just sort of mooshed together, but it’s better than nothing. I could go through this line by line and fix it but I figure I’ll just wait until the AI transcription gets better. That said, if you notice any mistakes, feel free to shoot me a message and I’ll fix it.
Hello, and welcome to The Space Above Us, Episode 160: Interview with Astronaut Tom Jones.
Last time, we settled in for the long haul on Space Shuttle Columbia and set a new endurance record that would remain unbroken for the rest of the shuttle program. At nearly 18 days long, STS-80 provided plenty of opportunities for cutting-edge science as well as some dramatic moments. The flight should best be remembered for the successful deployment and recovery of both the Orpheus Spas Telescope as well as the Wake Shield Facility, not to mention the science done in the back of the payload bay or down on the mid-deck, but there was one notable activity that did not go as planned. On Flight Day 10, EV1 Tammy Jernigan and EV2 Tom Jones donned their bulky extravehicular mobility units, climbed into the airlock, and started final preparations for the first of two spacewalks. As we learned on the last episode, the duo was ultimately foiled by the presence of a small metal screw that had worked its way into the gears of the hatch, making it impossible to turn the handle past the 30-degree point. The spacewalks had to be cancelled. This was all recounted in vivid detail in the book Skywalking, which is the memoir of one of those unfortunate EV crew members, Mission Specialist 2 Tom Jones. In the book, Jones mentioned that he had his half of the screw framed and hanging on his office wall, which got me curious. I reached out to Dr. Jones, who was kind enough to send me a photo of the offending screw, which I included with the show announcement for the previous episode. Pressing my luck, I then asked Jones if he would be willing to speak with me for the podcast, and he agreed, and that’s what you’ll be hearing today. In retrospect, I probably should have asked more questions that directly tied into STS-80, you know, the mission we just talked about, but what can I say, I’m unpredictable. Besides, then we wouldn’t have learned about the importance of a stopwatch on the middeck, how to scout for future travel destinations, or how to pull a prank on John Young and live to tell the tale. And just since if I don’t mention it, I’m sure that somebody will email me to ask, I specifically didn’t bother bringing up the STS-80 airlock hatch incident, because in my mind, the failure was pretty straightforward, and the only reason to discuss it would be to essentially go, boy that stinks, huh? That’s no fun, and I had other questions on my mind anyway. Okay, that’s enough preamble, let’s go talk to planetary scientist, four-time shuttle flyer and hairball for life, Tom Jones.
Let’s start out here with kind of the classic, give us a summary of how it was that you came to be an astronaut.
I grew up in the 60s during the space race, and I was growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, so I don’t have any real memories of Mercury, but I was living about a mile and a half from the Titan II rocket factory that Martin Marietta ran in Middle River, Maryland, right next to the eastern suburbs of Baltimore.
So that’s where I was growing up, I was about a mile and a half from the factory as a kid, and there was lots of news about the Gemini program going on, because the boosters were being built right there in Baltimore.
So as a Cub Scout, I went down to a field trip with my Cub Pack, and we went to the rocket factory in Middle River, and there’s two Titan II rockets sitting on the test stand inside the factory there, and I knew that the Gemini astronauts were going to be flying these.
In fact, I saw the vehicles for Gemini 7 and Gemini 8, the boosters.
Spacecraft came from McDonnell Douglas out in St. Louis, but after Martin Marietta checked out the rockets there in Middle River, they were then packaged up and flown down in the Super Guppy aircraft down to the Cape, and that’s where the spacecraft was married up and off they went.
So in school, we would stop all of our classroom activities on the day of a Gemini launch or splashdown, and so we went through all 10 of those Gemini flights with the first spacewalk and the first rendezvous in space, and I’m sitting there drawing doodles on the back of my homework papers of what’s going on in space and really getting into the space race, and then Apollo was even better.
So it was just that following my heroes into space month after month during Gemini and Apollo that got me hooked on this idea of a career.
And as I learned more about the astronaut’s job, it just became more and more appealing to me.
And then in 1968, we had, even before the moon landing, we had 2001 A Space Odyssey come out.
Star Trek was out in 1966.
So all of these TV shows and movies were pushing me towards a career in space exploration.
So then it was just a question of how do I learn more about this job and how do I get into that path?
So for me to become an astronaut back in the late 60s when NASA was hiring mainly military test pilots, it was obvious I’d have to learn to be a pilot, and that suited me fine because I was reading all kinds of flying stories as a kid growing up.
So I got an appointment to the Air Force Academy so I could learn how to fly and get a college degree in the right field, and then I was an Air Force officer flying in the Air Force.
And so by then, it was the late 70s after I got my science degree at the Air Force Academy and became a pilot, and by then, the space shuttle was on the horizon, and then the career field of astronaut opened up to scientists and engineers.
So after I got my planetary science degree and my flying done, I was able to apply to the astronaut program, and after getting turned down a couple of times, which is not too uncommon, I got selected in 1990.
So that’s the short story.
Yeah, it’s kind of fascinating seeing like, you know, these kids who are bombarded by space from every direction in the 60s, you know, finally, you know, it’s like, okay, well, here we are in the 90s, and they’ve learned all they need to learn, and you’ve done all the, you know, checked all the boxes, and you’re ready to go and finally actually flying for yourself.
Well, we live in a wonderful country still, and back then, and still today, it offers the opportunity for people from any walk of life, if they want to pursue this career as a government astronaut, if you will, or professional astronaut with NASA, you can do that.
You can apply, you don’t have to know anybody at NASA, or it helps to have good references, but they don’t have to be within NASA.
So I really, you know, think it’s great that we grew up in a place where a kid can be a 10-year-old Cub Scout, and then a couple of decades later, they can work on applying themselves to getting the qualifications to meet the astronaut standards and then get your foot in the door.
So I was very lucky to take advantage of that system and get to work at NASA in the 1990s into the early 2000s.
So yeah, so actually drawing on your science background, one question I had from a listener was if you had the time and resources, what experiment would you have liked to perform while in space? It certainly involves going to another planet.
So if I had the time and resources, I would go to the moon or Mars and do some geology there, just like the Apollo guys did, but on a much larger scale.
So I think it would have been fascinating to actually get to do planetary science on the surface of another world.
And whether it was geology and rockhounding and looking for, you know, the critical lunar or Mars samples that would solve some specific problem, like the history of volcanism on the moon, or for example, where are the best environments for life to hang on on Mars? Those would be two experiments I’d like to participate in.
But even on the moon, you could set up a radio telescope or set up some optical telescopes in a protected region of the moon where Earth’s brightness and radio noise doesn’t interfere.
So that would be part of an experiment I’d like to be in, participate in, do astronomy from another world.
And then finally, on the asteroids, it would be really cool to rendezvous with and explore the surface of an asteroid with an eye towards taking advantage of the resources there, like water locked up in the surface rocks, or looking for valuable resources like the platinum group metals that are in some of the asteroidal materials we see as meteorites.
It may be that not only water would be valuable on asteroids, but some of the platinum group metals are so rare on Earth that they could be economically attractive to bring back to Earth to help our economy back here.
Yeah, it was interesting.
I’d read about that.
And, you know, obviously water is interesting to find because, hey, it’s already out of the gravity well, but some of the minerals you could find up there are so rare and valuable that they’re actually worth bringing all the way back down to the surface.
Yeah, as a byproduct of water mining, you might be able to extract platinum group metals like rhodium and osmium and platinum and rhenium.
And these are very valuable industrial catalysts, you know, some uses in jewelry, but mostly as industrial catalysts, like all the catalytic converters that we use on cars today.
The price of platinum is not as dear as gold, but it’s usually up there in the $1,000 to $2,000 an ounce range.
And so that could be very attractive if you could get access to the much more enriched minerals on asteroids, especially the iron and nickel up there are infused with these iron loving siderophile elements like platinum and rhenium and osmium and so on.
And you could you could find a much more rich ore body on the asteroids than you can on Earth where most of that stuff is sunk to the core of the Earth.
Yeah, it’s fascinating.
It’s been really cool seeing, you know, the various, you know, some of them haven’t really gone anywhere, but seeing some companies spin up to say, hey, we’re going to go after this stuff.
And, you know, there was the asteroid redirect mission.
And, you know, I think if there’s one thing I’ve learned from doing this podcast is that, like, you got to be a little patient.
These things can take a couple of attempts to kind of wind up sometimes, but several iterations of entrepreneurship probably before we get to mine asteroids.
But, you know, you’re seeing now talk of space based solar power being demonstrated by certainly the Chinese have expressed the public interest in it, the Japanese as well, NASA’s tinkering with a little bit, and the military is interested in it because you can power remote sites on Earth from space with space based solar power.
And if you can not only have lower launch costs, as we see with the commercial sector today, but if you can also use native materials rather than have have to haul everything up from the ground, it would be nice to use lunar or asteroid materials to provide some of the just basic beams, wires, struts, and things like that for those satellites.
So, yeah, that’s kind of a broad question.
So I got a couple of really, you know, in the weeds questions for you here.
So I will say that in reading Skywalking, reading the build up to STS-59, you’d mentioned that your one duty during ascent was starting a stopwatch, and I just never heard anything about that.
So I’m curious, what was that for? If you’re flying on a shuttle and you’re on the mid deck, you don’t have any piloting duties or checklist duties to do with the four people on the flight deck, you know, the two pilots, and then there’s the flight engineer right behind them.
And then just to the side of the flight engineer is mission specialist one.
And so they all have checklist duties and they have to deal with emergencies as a team up there.
But if you’re on the mid deck, your duties are mostly associated with emergency egress, how to get the hatch open, how do you extend the escape poles so people could bail out in that situation.
And then you’ve got to know what phase of flight you are during the ascent.
So hitting the stopwatch at liftoff is very important.
There’s no automatic system to do that on the mid deck.
So you just have a watch on your wrist, or you can put it on your clipboard and you can hit a timer on your clipboard.
And then you know that you’ve got about eight and a half minutes of powered ascent ahead of you.
And depending on where you are in that ascent, you do different things if you have to get out of that cabin and bail out.
So for example, if it’s still under, if you’re still under the solid rocket booster thrust, you’re not going to do much of anything because you can’t get out of the ship until those peel away.
After the two minutes, they’re gone.
And now you’re in the acceleration phase on the main engines where the acceleration loads aren’t very great at the beginning.
So if the shuttle had to get off the tank and you had to bail out at that point, you would do a sequence of events that varies by the time.
So for example, if we had the challenger accident scenario and the crew cabin, God forbid, is flying free through the air, depending on how high or how long into the mission you are, you have to do things like wait until you get the deceleration back into the atmosphere.
Then you get out of your seat and blow the hatch, extend the pole, and then you bail out.
But if you are lower in the atmosphere, you’re going to decelerate right away and you almost immediately get out of your seat and do the same steps.
But if you’re out of your seat later on and you’re free falling in a ballistic trajectory, and then you fall back into the atmosphere, you could be slammed into the walls.
You’re not restrained in any way.
You have to wait until that deceleration pulse occurs.
So the stopwatch tells you what sequence you do these egress steps in to get the hatch open and give people a chance to get out.
I had no idea.
I never really considered just how much your plan is going to change based on what region of the atmosphere you’re in.
There’s also an altimeter there in front of you that if the cabin depressurizes, you can immediately see how high you are.
And if you depressurize the cabin in preparation for bailout, you’ll see the altimeter immediately go to the ambient altitude outside.
And that, again, tells you you can start getting ready to bail out at around 40,000 feet and descending in a glide.
And that tells you when you might start to prep the hatch, the pole, and have people start to come down and hook up and bail out.
And just to emphasize, the shuttle had never had a really good escape system, even after Challenger.
And all this bailout system was to be used probably in 10% of the situations that you might encounter in an emergency.
Basically, in the space shuttle system, you were going to come home if the orbiter was in one piece.
If the orbiter wasn’t in one piece, you had a very small chance of getting out.
I definitely heard some skepticism about like, yeah, OK, yeah, maybe we’ll have a chance to use this pole.
But I guess if there’s a chance, you’ve got to prepare for it.
So another nitpicky STS-59 question, I noticed that you were MS-4, and you swapped with MS-1 for the reentry.
And that caught my eye because normally it’s MS-3.
So I’m curious, first of all, why does that swap happen? Is it just to give everyone a chance to enjoy the views from the flight deck? And second, how is it that you got it? Did Linda Godwin do you a favor? OK.
So we had a crew of six on STS-59.
So you have four people on the flight deck, two people downstairs.
So the way that we ran the mission, we looked around at the people on the flight and who had flown before.
I was the only rookie.
So I launched on the mid-deck.
And so since I couldn’t see anything of the view outside during the ascent, Sid Guterres, the commander, said, OK, let’s throw a bone to Jones and let him sit upstairs on the flight deck for entry.
So the seat swap usually takes place between the right rear seat on the flight deck, MS-1, and whoever’s on the mid-deck.
And so it’s just, then it would be, as you say, either Linda or me going upstairs for reentry.
And she had seen that on her first mission.
So she was kind enough to step aside, and with Sid’s agreement, they let me go up there for the reentry.
So during the simulations and training that we did in the year or two, a year and a half before launch with the whole crew, I trained for the reentry part of the mission by sitting upstairs in the simulator and going through all the emergency procedures with Rich Clifford to my left and Kevin Chilton, the pilot, and Sid Guterres, the commander.
And so I was ready for that role, and it was nice to actually watch the entry.
We came in in darkness, so we got to see all of the plasma glowing outside the windows and the trail of fire behind us through the overhead windows.
And we had a bulky, you know, 1994 video camera that we could use to film outside the windows, and I got some good footage of that, too.
And so it was really a great experience visually, and to be part of the 45-minute process of going down to landing, it’s actually much more rewarding and there’s a lot more to see than being on the flight deck for launch, which only is eight and a half minutes.
Most of the time, all you can see is just black outside.
So it’s a different way to experience, give the most people on the crew a way to experience the different facets of flight.
I was curious if your astronaut training and if living in space had changed any of your habits on Earth.
Just to kind of give you an example I made up as a hypothetical, I could see if I had to deal with stuff constantly floating away from me, perhaps having a tidier desk or something like that.
So I’m curious if any of those habits kind of rubbed off.
That’s a good question.
Well, you know, we have so much experience living on this planet.
It’s a strange experience and a short experience for most of us to be in space.
And so any of the habits that might help you up there, they don’t have a lot of application to back here, except perhaps in the attention to detail, to know how to concentrate and finish a job with accuracy.
So I think it’s more mental preparation and the habits you form during training.
And to be honest, you know, most of the astronauts I worked with were so far up the learning curve in terms of being successful, driven, ambitious and persistent and determined people that they just had to apply those skills in a different way, in a different combination to be successful in space.
So I don’t think a lot of the space experience I had translates to the ground.
I would say it’s more of an emotional benefit.
When you’ve been in space and you’ve seen the Earth as a planet, you can’t help but be moved by that beauty, and then also you can’t help but be more knowledgeable about the Earth as a system, as an ecosystem, as a physical system.
So I think you just come back with a greater appreciation of our environment and you come back with a lifelong curiosity about learning more about our planet, both in the sense of how can I help out the planet, how can I help preserve our environment and pass that on to younger generations like your own kids and grandkids, but for society in general too.
You know, you want to be a part of the big picture, the solution for helping us break through our energy challenges, our environmental challenges, and I think that’s what people come back with in many cases.
So that’s probably a way that spaceflight has changed my life.
I can only imagine.
I mean, you look at something like you go hiking in the woods or something and you see the complexity of all these different systems kind of, you know, interplaying between each other.
I can only imagine after seeing just the straight up void out the window or seeing the fragility of the entire planet right below you, you know, it gives you a whole new perspective for looking at those, you know, hey, look at that chipmunk.
Well, the Apollo people had that in spades where they saw the Earth as this unique oasis, you know, Christmas ornament hanging there in the void.
It’s the only livable place they can see anywhere.
You know, when you’re a shuttle astronaut or a space station astronaut, you’re seeing the Earth fill half the sky, so you’re not really separate from the Earth, but it fills your consciousness every time you look out the window.
So you have an immersion in the mental image you build up of the Earth that you don’t get perhaps as an Apollo astronaut or an Artemis astronaut will in the future.
So you do get that appreciation for the Earth as a system and you see it from the macro with your own eyes and you internalize that big picture of this planet.
And then you come back to the ground and you not only appreciate better what you are hiking through or driving through or flying over, but you’re also driven, I think, the rest of your life to go and travel and to go to these hundreds, if not thousands of places you saw from orbit and get there to see what it’s really like on the ground, whether it’s to see a different culture or the geography of the world and the variety of terrains and experiences that you can have as an explorer of the planet.
So I’ve been trying to work off that challenge for the last 25 years, and I’m still working on it and I’ll keep doing that till the day I leave this planet.
Yeah, that’s interesting.
Yeah, I imagine just the idea of going to visit some faraway place and be like, oh yeah, I remember seeing this from just about 200 kilometers up.
I think it was, who is it, Scott Parazynski first saw Mount Everest from orbit and then went on to become the first astronaut to actually climb it.
Yeah, I don’t know what sparked that ambition in him, but yeah, you certainly can see Everest.
I think the best way to see Everest is from your shirt sleeves 200 miles up, personally, but he had a different opinion.
But I do like the idea that I could go to the other side of the planet in space.
Certainly in my life, I had not been over there yet.
And so to go to Australia, for example, or the Southwest Pacific later on and touch on the island battlefields of World War II or see the great Australian outback, the shores of New Guinea, places I’d never dreamed of going before I got into space.
They all became part of my mental map of the planet and they certainly became possible destinations for me.
So Iceland is another good example that I got to go to later on after seeing it from space.
And of course, you spend perhaps most of your schooling in terms of culture and geography and history focusing on Western civilization and Europe in particular.
And so you get to see those places like the English Channel and the Normandy invasion beaches and the boot of Italy, where so much history has unfolded from Rome all the way up to World War II and up to the present in the Middle East, certainly creates an appetite to go and touch those places and visit them.
So this question might be impossible to answer, but it just occurred to me with these, in the commercial sector, you’re starting to see these suborbital hops like with Blue Origin on New Shepard.
And SpaceX has talked about the idea, then we’ll see if it ever happens, of point-to-point suborbital flights.
The idea you could fly halfway around the world in 45 minutes.
So that’s really interesting because, for one thing, it’d be great to travel that fast, but also the people who do this end up with a few minutes above the atmosphere.
And I’m curious, do you think that that short of a period can have kind of a similar effect? Or do you think it’s going to be more important, like, you know, it won’t make as much of a difference till you start seeing these people flying in orbit? Well, I certainly think the orbital experience is much more worthwhile and worth waiting for.
You know, to truly adapt to space and be comfortable there after a few days, I think is much more rewarding.
And of course, you have more time to study the Earth below you and appreciate its variety and amazing dynamics.
But I’m not going to sell anybody short on the value of a short ballistic flight above the atmosphere.
You know, I think it’s going to be a spectacular visual experience, and I’ve talked to a few people who’ve done the cannonball shot so far on Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin.
So I think that that ambition to fly even on those short suborbital hops is pretty neat following the footsteps of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, for example.
So you’re repeating a historic exploration feat, but you’re also giving yourself the treat of seeing the curvature of the Earth for the first time.
Maybe you saw that from the Concorde, you know, if you were very wealthy.
And maybe we’ll see that again in the future with hypersonic or ballistic travel outside the atmosphere halfway around the planet.
So that’s not to be minimized, to see the perspective of the world as a planet by seeing that curvature.
You know, I couldn’t tell you firsthand whether I could get excited about looking down on West Texas.
I don’t really know, because, you know, when I passed over West Texas, I never really paid much attention to it because we were going by so fast.
But you know, I think that you’ll certainly get a chance in your training for one of these ballistic hops to know what the ground is below you in study beforehand.
And you’ll know what to look for from 60 miles up to, you know, be impressed and to be amazed, whether it’s volcanic lava flows or the Rio Grande or, you know, the oil fields of West Texas.
You might even see an impact crater, you know, in West Texas.
So there’s definitely some things to look for.
As more spaceports come into operation around the world, people have different visual feels to enjoy.
So great first step.
But like I said, I would save my money for the orbital trip.
So to bring it in for another like really specific question on STS-80, you got to tell me what’s up with this story and his standing reentry, because that is, how is that not completely crazy?
It strikes me as crazy, although I guess he wasn’t the first person to come back through reentry, not in his seat, but still like, it kind of surprised me that everyone’s kind of like, all right, sure.
Like, can you tell me how that came to be? Or did he just kind of decide in the moment, do you think? Oh, I had no inkling that he was going to stand up during entry, but it makes sense to me looking back on it because Stroy was on his sixth mission with us on STS-80. And he knew in advance because he talked to management that he was not going to probably get another chance to fly.
So I think at the end of this mission, he said, I’m just going to take this experience for everything that I can and milk every last memory from it.
And so Stroy, he had the sole seat on the mid deck for reentry.
And I was sitting up there on the flight deck as the flight engineer.
And next to me, I had Tammy Jernigan, my crewmate.
So we were all busy with the tasks that keep the crew very busy and focused on checklists and completing all the reentry steps in sequence.
And so you also know that after you fire the OMS engines for reentry, that burn is two and a half minutes or so.
And then you’re now going to be on an orbital trajectory that’s going to bring you into the atmosphere.
But it takes about 20 minutes to fall from the end of the burn to actually hit the atmosphere.
So 20 more minutes of weightlessness, just falling towards the earth.
Not much is going on.
You’re just observing the guidance system and its operation, making sure everything looks good.
So Stroy had, you know, no real duties downstairs except to get himself ready to strap in.
And a lot of us, after the OMS burn, but before any Gs came onto the airplane, you have the freedom of movement to float around and to hop, skip it around on the floor.
Even when there’s a quarter of a G, you can just hop around very easily.
You know, you can look out the window that way and see the reentry plasma from different windows.
And a lot of us enjoyed not strapping in until we reached the upper reaches of the atmosphere and started to decelerate more seriously.
So we just thought he was doing that sort of thing up on the flight deck, helping us film the plasma outside the windows and the reentry plume streaking out hundreds of miles behind us.
He was getting some great video shots of that because of his ability to move around.
So that’s all I thought of.
It was that he was just taking advantage of that, but then he never went away.
He never went back downstairs.
And so then I just didn’t pay attention to him because I’m looking forward at the instruments on the dashboard and helping the pilots monitor the spacecraft.
And I’ve got a checklist open, ticking off all the milestones that we have to hit, checking all the subsystem data that you can see on the instrument panel.
Tammy Jernigan is next to me doing the same thing, helping out with the checklist and so on.
So we’re just focused on the reentry task.
And then I looked over and there he’s still there.
And you know, he didn’t have to be on intercom because he’s right next to us.
He could hear us talking.
It’s not noisy in the cabin during reentry at all.
So really, yeah, there was not any kind of a safety detriment.
Because of where he was.
The main worry I would have had if I had time to think about it was, you know, the G load coming on about 1.5, 1.6 Gs for a sustained amount of time during entry.
After you’ve been deconditioned for 18 days, you know, that’s going to have a serious effect on you.
So it did on STROI too, but he was in good shape and he was braced to hold himself up.
I saw the sweat streaming down his face because of this deceleration that he was experiencing.
And he didn’t have suit cooling, which all of us had.
So he was an iron man, you know, he just stood up to this thrashing of deceleration and heating.
And he just stood there in his pressure suit, just drinking it all in and watching over the pilots.
He didn’t bother anybody, didn’t distract anybody.
So he was totally, completely a non-event in terms of us getting our jobs done.
But it was just, it just tickled me when I actually realized he was going to stay up there for the whole time.
I just laughed.
You know, hand it to STROI, he’s going to do it.
You know, he just has come up with another way to experience another dimension of space travel that none of us had seen yet.
I did have to laugh when I heard an interview with him where he talked a little bit about that.
He talked about standing there with no suit cooling and his full gear at 1.6, 1.7 G’s.
And as he put it, he goes, I didn’t feel too great.
It’s like, yeah, I bet you didn’t, buddy.
Because I will tell you that 1.6 G’s after being in space 18 days, it feels like 4 G’s.
And I had my helmet on.
He did not.
I had my helmet on and it was sagging down to my shoulders and it tends to drag your head forward onto your chest.
So it takes a lot of muscle effort to keep your head up straight and not just lean over and collapse.
So you have to focus on working your muscles that way.
You’re holding up checklists that are now very heavy.
Same with the camera.
So fortunately, again, Story did not have any duties to do except in the egress case.
If we had to do a bailout, he would have had to go down there obliquity split and operate the systems down there for a bailout.
But we would have had lots of time to see that coming and he could have gotten downstairs.
So again, not the recommended steps for a brand new first time astronaut.
But if it’s on your sixth flight, what can they do? Can’t fire you.
So you’re done.
So I think he knew exactly what he was doing and I think he got the most out of those few moments.
And there were no repercussions from management about that at all.
I mean, it seems like I think it makes total sense, especially when you kind of explain more of the context there.
So if nothing else, I’m glad to hear that he’s getting, like you said, a whole new experience on a new angle on the space flight that no one’s seen before.
And it was wonderfully appropriate because of the way our team had operated for the entire mission.
And it was nice to have him right there with us on the flight deck with the other four people.
We were that much closer a team because he was there present to watch the whole entry take place.
So I think that was very good.
So I’ll admit that I haven’t quite finished reading Skywalking yet, just because I’ve been focusing on the parts directly related to the missions you’ve done so far.
But I’ve been skimming ahead through some of the stuff with the start of the ISS era.
And it’s interesting in the book, you sounded pretty skeptical of the value of Shuttle Mir and I just come off the episode covering Blaha on Mir and he sounded pretty skeptical, too.
You said something to the effect of, you know, the only people that learned anything about long duration spaceflight and NASA were the seven astronauts who stayed on Mir.
So I’m curious that now with a little more time that’s passed, you know, do you feel any different towards it?
Do you think we ended up learning more from it than, you know, you thought at the time or even when you wrote the book?
I was very skeptical in the mid-1990s of the value of Shuttle Mir because of the safety deficits or the safety shortcomings of the Mir itself.
So there were, you know, we had a fire on Mir that nearly forced a crew to evacuate and filled the space station up there with a choking cloud of smoke.
That’s going to be the next episode after you, actually, is Leningrad’s stay on Mir.
And then when Mike Full was up there, we had a collision, you know, where a botched manual docking attempt with a Progress freighter caused a collision that depressurized the Mir space station.
And so the crew had to rapidly close hatches to close off the Spectre module and keep it from depressurizing.
It depressurized, but they had the hatch closed in time to prevent the whole station from losing air.
So that was a near-death experience for Mike Full and his crewmates up there.
So we knew that there were just safety problems with the Mir and, yeah, the Russians have a lifeboat and you can get away from it if worse comes to worse.
But because of the prestige that Russia attached to the Mir station, they were not going to leave until it was the last extremity and probably well beyond the comfort limits of a NASA astronaut or the NASA management.
So I was very leery of sending our people up into that environment, particularly given the psychological isolation that occurs as well.
So you only got a few minutes a day to talk to ground stations if you were a cosmonaut up there.
If you’re an American astronaut as a guest on the Mir, you got even less time to talk to your support staff in Moscow through the direct radio links and your chances to talk with family or exchange email with them were very limited too.
So it was a psychological challenge, a marathon to undertake if you’re going to stay up there for six months.
And my friends did that.
So I salute their bravery and their dedication to help us learn.
Now, putting all that in perspective today, I would say that we learned a lot of valuable lessons about how the Russians do business.
And it was a nice stepping stone into the construction of the space station.
We got a lot of insight into how the Russians perceive and handle risk and how they conduct long duration operations.
And we came up the learning curve that much more quickly with space station because of what we learned there.
And it gave us a lot of common experience where we both solved problems together in those shuttle Mir years that put us way up on an elevated level of trust and technical engagement with the Russian spaceflight establishment that was needed for the success of the construction of the space station.
And fortunately, even today, we’re still benefiting from all that cumulative experience when we’re operating the space station jointly today with our partners, including the Russians.
So looking back on it, I think it was a necessary bridge to the construction of the space station, but it was sure harrowing when it was going on.
I think it was especially striking the, like you said, the isolation, the mental aspect of it.
I, you know, it caught me off guard and I wonder if it caught people at the time off guard.
It just kind of seemed like, like, wow, you know, especially the early days.
I think it seems like it’s getting a little better as I continue through each stay, but especially like, you know, Norm Thaggard, like, you know, he barely got, you know, he’d go a week without talking to anybody and that’s just, you know, it made me wonder if like they must have learned a lot about like, okay, like long duration ISS crews have got to be able to have like easy communication with the ground if nothing else.
And, you know, the Russians were limited because they didn’t have a TDRS satellite network.
So they were just using their ground stations to contact the Moscow Control Center.
And that was only when they were over the, you know, the continental confines of Russia pretty much.
They had tracking stations across their country, but those were almost direct line of sight.
So you had, you only got 10 or 15 minutes of, of calm on most orbits.
And sometimes your orbit was way down south when you’re on that side of the earth and you got no calm at all for, for several hours in a row.
So they had to make sure that they got their priority communications across very quickly, you know, prioritize what you had to get across from the ground up to the spacecraft and back down.
And that left very little time for chats with your family, you know, just, and the bandwidth for sending emails back and forth on a routine basis.
So it was really a challenge for Norm and Shannon and John Blaha at the beginning.
And it got better with time because we started to use a ham radio to help us out.
And the Russians became, became more comfortable with the NASA personnel at Star City and at the Control Center in Moscow to let them on the horn and talk directly to their American crew member up there.
You know, you had the flight doctor could do that.
Their support engineer in Star City could talk to them directly.
And so they gave them, they gave the Americans more share of the calm time as they got more comfortable with us as guests and partners up there.
And it did move from a guest situation where you got almost no priority to being a crew member up there who deserved more resources from the Russians because we were hauling up tons of cargo on the shuttle to Mir and they were really benefiting from that relationship.
So just two more questions here.
So one, I think I’m just going to ask every time I get an opportunity to talk to an astronaut, I’m going to ask, do you have any good John Young stories? John Young’s a hero of mine, certainly.
You know, I was aware of him during Apollo, of course, and even in Gemini, I flew the first Gemini mission.
I knew his name in 1965 when he first flew Gemini three.
I laughed in your book when you talked about coming in for the interview, you’re like looking at the interview board and it’s like, Oh my God, that’s John Young.
He walked on the moon.
It’s like, Hey man, got to play it cool.
Yeah, John Young, moonwalker, first guy to command the space shuttle.
So the most experienced flyer that we had up until in the 1990s.
So John Young was still the technical advisor to the center director down in Houston.
And so he could do anything he wanted to do.
His portfolio was to go and look up problems and recommend solutions anywhere on the shuttle or human space flight program.
And the way he kept up the necessary technical skills to do that was he went and flew the simulator and he flew the T-38 training jets regularly.
So here I am a brand new astronaut candidate in my year of training to become an astronaut there in Houston.
And we’re in the simulator.
There’ll be three of us rookies in the box with John Young in the commander’s seat.
He’d volunteer for these sessions with us.
He didn’t have to do that, yet he enjoyed getting in with the newbies like us, watching us learn and helping give us some tips about how you flew the shuttle safely and gave us some background knowledge that we would have taken a lot longer to acquire.
And then we got to watch the master as he dealt with emergency after emergency after emergency.
So one of my favorite John Young stories is in the simulator where he’s the commander and Eileen Collins is my classmate and she’s in the pilot seat and I’m in the number one seat and my flight engineer buddy is Jim Newman.
And Newman had been a shuttle simulator instructor before he became an astronaut.
So he knows how the whole simulator works inside and out.
So on the way uphill, we’re doing some launch abort scenario and John is talking about the normal ascent and we’re dealing with small problems like coolant temperature, red lines and maybe some electrical issues and things like that.
And then all of a sudden Newman by himself reaches up and punches off one of the engines with his fingertip out of the view of John.
John couldn’t see him do this.
And so he hits the engine cutoff button.
All of a sudden we lose one of our three engines and now you can feel the lurch as the acceleration drops off and the alarms go off and Young goes, hey, we have an engine down.
So then he and the pilot Eileen go through all the steps to recover from that.
And then we have to do a transatlantic abort to go to North Africa.
And so we’re doing all this and Newman’s just cackling to himself the fact that he’s sneaked in an engine failure on Young.
And finally, we land in North Africa and we stop and Young says to the instructor team, hey, I didn’t think we had an engine failure in the syllabus tonight.
And they go, oh, we didn’t put that in.
Then Newman just bursts out laughing.
He goes, I gotcha.
I put that in.
And so Young had flown with him as a simulator instructor many times before.
So he just looked around at him and said, good one.
He got me.
But I was appalled.
I was sitting there thinking, I’m never going to fly in space because Newman just torpedoed my chances to do that by putting one over on John Young, not a practical joke I would ever dream of doing.
It’s a bold move.
But Young has a sense of humor.
And he just said, yeah.
You surprised me.
And then the best part of my John Young experiences was always flying with him in the T-38.
So he had to do regular flights in the jet just to keep up his currency.
So did I.
So he would call me up once every few weeks and I’d be in my office.
I get a phone call.
It’s John Young on the other end and he’d say, hey, I want to go down to the Cape and look at an orbiter, kick the tires down there.
You want to come tomorrow afternoon? Sure, John.
You know, I’ve got nothing on my schedule except studying.
And so he and I would jump in a T-38 at Ellington Field in Houston.
And an hour and a half later, we’d be landing at the shuttle landing strip in Florida.
You go get in one of the vans there and drive the 15 minutes over to the orbiter hangars.
And next thing you know, we’re looking inside and outside a space shuttle for a couple of hours.
And he liked to talk to the workers, the people who were installing the new tiles, for example, or repairing problems in the cabin or in the engine department.
And I learned a lot about the orbiter as a system by going on those visits.
And he showed me how you interact with these people who have your life in their hands.
If they don’t do 100% or 102% of their job down there, you’re going to be in real trouble.
And so he was up there, down there, not only hearing about what chronic problems were besetting the orbiter teams down there at the Cape, but he was also showing those people that he valued their contributions and that the astronauts were down there cheering them on and saying, hey, keep doing a good job and we really appreciate it.
So being a regular part of that flying routine that John had was just awesome.
Plus, there was just the sheer physical fun of flying with a Moonwalker.
I’m in the night sky across West Texas, coming back from El Paso, where he’d been doing shuttle approaches and we’re at 39,000 feet and it’s eight o’clock at night.
You’re looking up at the stars above us, well above most of the atmosphere, and you could see a zillion stars.
And you get to say, hey John, what was it like up on the Moon and how did that lunar rover drive? And could you see the stars from the Moon’s surface? So you could ask him all these real space questions in a way that you couldn’t do in a classroom or in the simulator down in Houston.
So that flying with John was a privilege I’ll always remember.
That’s pretty incredible.
So just one last question here.
I thought this might actually lead into your new book, which is I noticed that you’ve taken a lot of detailed notes and recordings while you were training and during your flights even.
I’m curious if that was just a habit that you’ve had your whole life or did you specifically start that because you wanted to remember better your time as an astronaut or did you already have an idea for a book in mind even? No, I didn’t have an idea for a book in mind until well into my astronaut career.
But I did want to learn from everything that was going on around me.
So if I took notes in meetings, if I wrote down jokes and funny punchlines, that was just a way to look back and review things, problems that the orbiters were facing.
We would get regular reports on the machinery and we were getting reports on management issues too.
So how was the shuttle program management handling different technical problems? So I took notes in the meetings.
I took notes when I was on a crew as we went through the stepping stones towards flight.
So just so I could help remember things that were more important to me.
And I boiled a lot of that stuff down and put it in my crew flight notebook, for example, and took it with me into space.
And then I just didn’t want to forget the experience in any way I could preserve that I tried to do.
So I took advantage of taking notes in space with a pen.
It’s very hard to write in free fall.
You got to really brace yourself and you got to hold the book firmly and writing is never very efficient.
So, and it’s not, it’s even harder to type.
So the best way to take notes in space is to just have a tape recorder and just go into a corner and just blab for five minutes at the end of every day.
And I did that to try to capture the big moments of every day and things I’d learned, things I’d screwed up, things that I wanted to remember to do the next time I was up there.
So that’s how I use the tape recorder.
And so that gave me the benefit when I came back of, you know, a 45 minute recording maybe that covered the entire mission.
I get that transcribed by my helpful NASA secretary.
She was nice enough to do that each time.
And so that was my permanent record.
And so that just, of course, helped out when I was doing the book, I had all those records to take care of.
And I’ve told my other astronaut colleagues, hey, if you’re going to go up and live on the space station, you should be keeping a diary and a journal of some sort, whatever way you want to do it.
But you’re going to want to remember that stuff in a way that is concrete rather than just relying on memory alone.
I often tell people, like people will see me, I take a lot of photographs and then people have told me like, why are you taking a picture of this like totally normal thing? Like, ah, because these pictures are boring today, boring in a week.
And in 10 years, they’re going to be gold because you forget the little details of like, oh, right.
Like, I remember like this is how we did that, you know, so I could totally kind of relate to wanting to capture all those little details.
And we were lucky enough, you know, the technology puts a timestamp on everything.
And so, you know, and GPS puts a geographical marker on where your photos are taken.
So that really helps us out.
But we didn’t have that in the 1990s, typically, and at least on the shuttle side, you know, we had sophisticated enough cameras that they had the time and date stamped on there.
And you could then go back and find out where the orbiter was when you took a picture.
We had an ephemeris that was published after the mission, so we could reconstruct that.
But we’re lucky today that we have those tools to help us remember decades down the road.
And you know, I think, of course, most space station astronauts, they keep a blog going or they publish a journal when they get back, and it sometimes turns into a very rewarding book as well.
So I’m glad people are doing that, and they should, because that’s going to be the experience of a lifetime.
Their career professional peak, certainly, and they’ll want to treasure that memory and that collection of things they bring back.
So speaking of rewarding books, what’s the new one? Space Shuttle Voices (edit: now known as Space Shuttle Stories).
So it is an oral history of the space shuttle’s 30-year career, told by the flyers.
So there were 135 shuttle missions, and hundreds of shuttle astronauts flew during that 30 years.
I can’t talk to them all.
I’m not capable of doing that kind of research, but I can talk to one flyer from every one of the 135 missions.
So what I’ve done over the last two years is I’ve interviewed nearly everybody from all 135, nearly one crewman from every one of the 135 missions.
And I’ve got an interview that I then transcribe, and an extract of that interview will be on every mission spread that I do in the book.
So you’ll get a short story, a short tale told in the astronaut’s voice, himself or herself, about what they experienced on a given mission.
So there’ll be some photographs to go with each mission, some factoids that sort of orient you to what was going on.
But then the heart of each mission spread is going to be a page of somebody’s flown experience, lived experience in space.
And it’s my job as the editor of that book and the interviewer to get to those really interesting stories and to get them down on paper.
And I think it’s going to be not only fun to read about, hey, what was it like in space for each of these people, but it’s a record that is payback for all the people who put their careers into operating the shuttle for 30 years.
So they’ll get perhaps a perspective on what was going on on a mission that they didn’t get in the official histories, or maybe listening to a few comments in a debriefing by an astronaut.
You’ll really get some, I think, unique experiences.
So I hope it will be as much fun to read as it has been compiling these interviews.
I mean, honestly, it sounds incredible because, you know, I think my favorite resource I’ve stumbled across when I started making, you know, I started making this podcast, I didn’t know anything about research and I discovered the oral histories.
And at this point I’ve read, you know, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages of them.
And, you know, even the stuff that doesn’t make it into the episode, you know, it just adds so much context, you know, like you read like the mission report, you’re going to get some like, okay, here’s the mission elapsed time that, you know, we took out the RMS.
But like, you know, really hearing those little details from the folks who were there, it fleshes it out so much more.
So that sounds like an amazing project.
I’m really looking forward to that.
I’ve been trying to choose a different person.
So almost 135 different people will be telling these stories.
And perhaps in some cases we’ll have two permission that will be contributing.
So I think you’ll hear a lot of different voices and it’s my job to sort of spread the experiences out and give you the full spectrum of the experience, not just a repetition of the same thing on every flight.
And so that’s my job as an editor is to spread those experiences far and wide and give you a really in-depth look at all the dimensions of what it’s like to fly on the shuttle in those three years.
Because that machine, you know, is the iconic American spaceship and it really gave us the operational experience, not only to go back to the moon now, but also to construct, you know, the long lasting international space station.
So it truly taught us how to work in space.
And we’ve matured as a spacefaring nation because of the contributions of the space shuttle and its crews and all the people who put those machines and the astronauts into space.
So it’s a gift back to them so they can really hear that inside story of what the space shuttle was all about.
Well, I’m looking forward to it.
And I want to thank you again for talking to me today.
And I’m sure everyone’s been enjoying this interview and I’m looking forward to learning more about your missions to come.
Smithsonian Books 2023, Space Shuttle Voices (edit: now known as Space Shuttle Stories).
Look forward to that.
I don’t know about you guys, but I am very much looking forward to digging into Space Shuttle Voices (edit: now known as Space Shuttle Stories) next year. As I mentioned in the interview, the oral histories have rapidly become my favorite source when reading about these missions. So the fact that there will soon be at least one for every shuttle mission is really exciting news. I want to once again thank Tom Jones for taking his time to speak with me. I had an absolute blast. Hopefully we can have him back on the show for STS-98 a little bit down the road. I guess we’ll find out what destiny has in store for us. Go check out his website, AstronautTomJones.com.
Next time.. I know I said this last time, but this time I mean it. Next time we’ll hop aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis for STS-81 and take a nonstop flight to the Russian space station Mir. John Blaha is ready to head home, and Jerry Linninger still has a burning desire to begin his long duration flight.
Ad Astra, catch you on the next pass.