Preflight Interview with STS-107 Crew member Ilan Ramon
This interview has been reproduced from the NASA web site.
Ilan, let's start off, get right to talking about the mission. Can you give me a brief overview of what the mission is about, and the goals of the mission?
Of course. STS-107 is a research mission. It's a 16-day mission, a long duration for the shuttle. We have on board over 140 experiments from all kinds of science disciplines. Seven crew members - six Americans and one Israeli.
And I know each experiment has a certain objective or maybe a hope of something coming from it. But, is there an overall goal of what should come out of the mission? Is there just an overall viewpoint of what the mission should be?
You know what, it's very difficult to put [into] one sentence because we have so much variety of science disciplines. Physics, chemistry, biology, human life science. So, from whichever science discipline you choose, you get other stuff that you come with later. But, in all, everything is toward the better world on ground. Not in space; on ground. Mostly on ground. There are some experiments that implicated towards life or space flight, long-duration spaceflight. But most of the science is aimed towards a better life here on ground. Better medicine. Better medication. Better usage or efficiency of fuel. And all sort of things.
So, improving life on Earth basically.
You've briefly touched on the different areas or disciplines of research on the mission. Can you touch on those again? And maybe give some insight into why those particular areas are being flown on this mission? And why they are so important?
Yes, of course. Take, for example, Earth observation, or planet science. Our planet. We have to go to space in order to monitor our planet. We have [a] few experiments in this discipline. For example SOLSE, which is an experiment [that] deals with ozone. The shuttle has to look to the limb of Earth and monitor the changes of ozone in the atmosphere. We, you have to be up in space to monitor these kind of things because the atmosphere is actually disturbance for looking up to space. So, if you are up there, you can monitor it much easier. Another example is the MEIDEX, the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment which actually tries to monitor dust particles in the atmosphere from space together with an airplane that will take samples of the dust particles flying underneath the shuttle, same footprint, same time in the atmosphere. That's one example. The other example is all kinds of micro-g experiments that we are going to conduct. Mostly these experiments, especially physics and chemistry, are dealing with the basic of the science. The basics of nature. And in order to explore the basic rules, you have to get rid of gravity to better understand the basic processes. And that's the reason we need so much the microgravity which is up in space.
Some people might be thinking that the experiments on this mission should yield immediate results to problems or proof or disproof of theories. But that's not necessarily the case. Can you explain for the person who may not have a sense of what scientific research [is] what the process is? Just where scientific research lies in the problem-solving or theory-proving process? What's the reason for doing it, I guess?
The science is a long process of understanding things, nature, and trying to take advantage of understanding them and improve our life, improve our ability to cure, for instance, cancer. This kind of thing. Every time you make an investigation, an experiment, you are trying, as a scientist, to prove hypothesis. Something that you think that nature is going like. So, you put your hypothesis and you plan an experiment that will prove or disprove this hypothesis. It takes a long time to plan this experiment. It takes even more time to plan all the hardware to use in the experiment. It takes, of course, time to do the experiment. And then, it takes the longest time maybe to analyze the results and get to the conclusion. Let's take, for instance, cancer. We have one experiment that is trying to figure out why and when exactly some cells turn from simple regular cells to cancer cells. And if this experiment [is] successful, we might be able to understand exactly what medication we can use in order to fight this cancer. So, science is a long way to understand, first understand and then try to figure out what to do with your results.
As part of being assigned to this mission, you and some of your crewmates have agreed to be research subjects yourselves. What's that been like, training to get ready for that? And how do you feel about being a research experiment, basically?
Yeah... I volunteered to make any effort to use and again, it's not exactly use, but to make use of my staying in space for science. We get to get some blood draws, some urine collections. It's not very difficult and not very invasive. Very simple to do. And very beneficial to understand again, a lot of stuff about our human life processes and basics [of] nature which you can get into when you're flying in space. The training, well, I got trained to make some blood draws. I've never been able to do that. And it's very fascinating to do such things. Especially because it's new for me. And again, I'm very delight[ed] to be able to help human life and maybe some science and medicine in order to take care of a lot of diseases that we have on [the] ground.
Are there some experiments that require you and some of the crew to take part in a process before the [flight] and then after the flight? And if so, what are they? Just a couple of them, and kind of briefly explain what that's all about.
We have one experiment, which is called ARMS, which actually is eight experiments, and during the training, we had a lot of training. It's a lot of breathing while you're in rest and while you're cycling. And, of course, if scientists want to understand the microgravity effects on the body, on the processes, they have to take some measurements preflight and while we are flying, and, of course, postflight. So actually in this experiment, we are doing a lot of the same preflight, during flight, and postflight, the same method of experiment and then measurements.
Another one is PhAB4, which is a human life experiment. We have again four, the "4" stands for four experiments. And it involves blood draws, urine collections. And again, we're doing it preflight, we're doing it during flight, and we will do it postflight as well.
Let's talk a little bit about the daily work schedule. It's being split up into dual shifts. There's a red team and a blue team. Can you talk briefly about why a dual shift is necessary for this kind of mission?
Yeah, of course. Since we're dealing with science and science processes, processes are not limited to eight hours a day. They are continuous processes that occur during several days continuously. So, we have to monitor and make the experiments 24 hour[s] a day. And that's the reason we are dual shift. Of course we can't just work 24 hours a day, 16 days. So, we are dual shift. Also, since we are for a long time, there wasn't a research mission up in space. So they are trying to take advantage of us being there and [help us] be as efficient as we can. And if you are in dual shift, you can, of course, make a lot more experiments than if you would have been one shift.
So, that's actually the two reasons to be in dual shift.
The research on this mission originates from various parts of the world. And a lot of those places, you as a crew have visited to learn about the experiments and get used to it. Personally, what kind of feeling does it give you to be part of some research that not only fosters understanding about different parts of the world, but also could reap some benefits for the world as a global community and [for] those parts of the world?
And again, it's exactly what you're saying. It's a global community. We are today more and more in the 21st century; we are a global community. And when you get to science and especially space science, that's the best tool and way of living like a global community. So, I think it is great to have this opportunity of having experiments out of the whole world, first of all, as scientists from out of the whole world. Students out of the whole world. And, of course, the benefits are going to be shared by the whole human in the world, whole science community in the world. So, I think it's a great opportunity to express our way of life today in the 21st century.
Can you give me a just a couple of examples of research on this mission, if any, that's also being done on the International Space Station? And maybe give some insight into why it's necessary to even conduct the same experiments at the same time on two different spacecraft.
The space station is a long duration and long period of time of experiments. We are a long duration in the shuttle world; but we are short duration compared to space station. Some science and some experiments are better in short-duration time and some are in long-duration time. Of course, the mixture of both short duration and long duration is the best. Let's take, for instance, protein crystal growth. That's one of the experiments we have and space station has. We can get up in space and produce protein crystals in a very short time and get it back, and they can analyze it for the structure. And again, it is being used to produce medications. But, since we are in short duration, the crystals are small and sometimes it's not enough time to make the best [crystals]. Space station it's a long duration. They can produce bigger crystals, maybe purer crystals. But, it takes a long time to get them back. So, time-wise, it's better to be on the short time; but sometime the scientists get more benefits from space station experiments.
So, the best of both worlds, so to speak?
Obviously there's no rendezvous and docking or undocking on this mission. You go up and you do your work there. But, you still have to get to space and then return to Earth. Can you give me a brief rundown of what will happen, what the duties are of the different crewmembers for the ascent and for coming back to Earth? What's going to happen inside Columbia during those two times?
Well, in ascent, actually it starts [with] pre-launch. The pre-launch is the same. You get dressed, you get into the shuttle, and get ready for the launch. The launch itself, actually the Columbia is going to be like a missile when it launches. After about eight or 10 minutes of the launch, Columbia has ended its part of being a missile. And now we as a crew have to transfer it from missile to a space laboratory. So we are going to configure this kind of a missile to a laboratory during the post-insertion timeframe. For example, Laurel and myself are responsible for Spacehab activation. The lab that we carry with us in the payload bay has to be turned on, opened, and all the experiments [have] to be turned on and start working. That's the kind of stuff that we are going to do after we are launched. Of course, we have to take care of [our] way of life up in space- [the] WCS galley, a little kitchenette, all the convenience[s] that we are going to use and again we have to get prepared for the 2 and a half weeks of staying in space.
When we go back, we do the opposite. We turn the laboratory, the camp if I can say so, to an aircraft. An aircraft which has to penetrate the atmosphere first and then land like an aircraft. So again, we have to kind of configure this laboratory to an aircraft.
Let's talk now about some of the particular experiments you're going to be working with on the mission. First of all, MEIDEX. You've touched on it briefly. Can you just give me a brief synopsis of what the objective of the experiment is? And the operation? And what you'll be doing? What your duties are for that experiment.
Yeah. MEIDEX is the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment. And, it is actually a research of the impact or impacts of little dust particles that you and I can't see [with] our eyes. Sometimes if it's [a] real tough dust storm, we can. But, usually we cannot detect them. But, these particles, it was proven the last 15 years, have amazing impact on things like global warming and precipitation. So, this experiment is trying to figure out and monitor, first of all, the sources, the transfer, and the sinks of the dust. And secondly, all the characteristics of the dust particles in order to try to understand how it effects the global warming and precipitation. The hardware itself is a very sophisticated camera, which can take photos - TV photos - which are very, very precise photos. We call it radiometric data, off the dust particles from space, looking on Earth, especially above the Mediterranean and also above the West Coast of Africa. Taking these measurements together with a measurement that we'll be taking from an airplane flying on the same footprint that we are looking at (within the atmosphere, of course) taking real examples, samples of these dust particles. And also together with a lot of ground station measurements, the scientists are going to analyze this data after flight, postflight, and try to better understand the impact of the dust on our global climate. The actual procedures that we are going to do, we are going to operate the payload, the camera out from the aft flight deck using a PGC (a computer laptop). The camera itself is in a canister back in the payload bay. And we are going to open the door of this canister, activate the camera, activate the videotapes and also activate some in-cabin videotapes to back up the tapes in the canister. Take measurements whenever we are above the right spot. We need also to be in the right Sun angle in order to get the measurements. Actually, what we get is the return from the Sun of the dust particles. So that's kind of the operations we are going to conduct. Of course, we'll be in contact, voice contact, with the ground. And they will try to integrate in the same time the airplane measurements.
Has there ever been anything like this experiment? Or, is this basically a new concept?
This is basically a very new concept, and the first time it's being done. Especially because we are integrating not only space observation, but airplane observation and ground observation. We also have in this experiment another experiment, which is called sprites, which are kind of ghostie lightnings that are going from above thunderstorms up to the atmosphere up to about 100 kilometers. These phenomena [are] pretty new for the scientists. And they are trying to figure out what is all about. And our camera is actually the best way to monitor and try to catch these sprites, these ghostie lightnings, going up to space. So that is another experiment we are going to do.
What causes sprites? How do they happen?
Well, that's a good question. And that's actually the question they are trying to figure out by taking these measurements. They think that the electricity polar difference between the top of the thunderstorms and the top of the atmosphere is the cause. But, they really don't know yet. And that's part of the experiment, trying to understand what causes these kind of lightnings.
And just a little bit more on that... Will they happen just by chance? You just happen to catch it? Or, is there something that's going to be done to make it happen?
No. These sprites statistically happen every second around the globe.
Once a second, there is a sprite. Of course, you have to be in the right time and the right place to catch it. But, since the camera is there and we are flying, we're just going to open the camera and start taping. And of course, the sprites are a phenomenon that happen above thunderstorms. So, we will be aiming the camera above thunderstorms, and I'm sure we'll get a lot of data out of it.
Let's talk just briefly about CM-2, the Combustion Module-2. There's three experiments being conducted with that piece of hardware. Just maybe pick one or two. Or if all three are really exciting for you, which one or two are really exciting for you?
I'm excited from all three of them.
Let's talk about all three then.
The first one we can talk about the LSP, the soot experiment, which actually tries to again understand the basics of the soot sources and process in order to try and eliminate the soot of every burn that we are doing down here on Earth. And you and I of course, know that we deal a lot with the ecology of our globe today. So, if they will understand the processes of producing soot, they will, of course, be able to reduce the soot produced by cars, by industries, which we are breathing (unfortunately) every day. So, this is a one of the experiments. The second one is amazing. It's SOFBALL, which is really interesting, especially to watch. This phenomena of balls of fire. And again, it tries to understand the basics of chemical reactions that produce the fire. And by understanding the basics, even if they will be able to make the fuel mixture lean by one percent for all the cars and industries machines in the world, they're going to save billions of dollars. The phenomena itself of fireballs is, I think, really amazing. And I'm really excited to be able to watch it!
Yeah. And what impact does... making the fuel mixture leaner- does it have an impact on the atmosphere with maybe less pollution and whatnot?
The pollution side of CM-2 is more of the soot the LSP experiment. But, of course, if you make the mixture leaner, you make it more pure and you produce less pollution. And the last experiment, the MIST, is also a very, very interesting experiment. You know that we use today toxins and pollution or stuff for fire extinguishing. And the MIST actually tries to use water - mist water - to put out fire. And if they get to the right mixture and right size of droplets, it will be great because we then won't need to use all the CO2 or all the other toxic materials that we use today to extinguish a fire.
How about a brief overview of the S*T*A*R*S suite of experiments. It's a student experiment project. Just maybe a quick overview of what that's about.
Okay, the S*T*A*R*S experiment is really exciting because it deals with students, kids. And space, for kids, is a great tool to attract them to study, to learn, and to contribute. On our S*T*A*R*S experiment, we have six experiments out of the whole world. We have [an] experiment from China, [an] experiment from Japan, [an] experiment from Israel, [an] experiment from the United States. Some of them are, again, very basic questions; like the experiment [with] silkworm[s]. They're trying to figure out the life cycle of silkworm[s] in space. And again, what is exciting about S*T*A*R*S is that the students are the one[s] who had the idea, planned the experiment, planned how it worked, participate in putting the hardware together, and of course analyze it postflight. So, it's really exciting.
I'm really excited [about] this experiment.
Other than coming up with a result from the experiments, what benefit for the students is having these experiments on a shuttle mission going to give them? Just maybe an internal benefit for them.
As I said, I think that for kids, space is inspiring. And whenever you talk about space, everybody, not only kids, even [we] are thrilled. So it's a great tool to attract students to study science, study technology, and be involved in all this planning, and operation of science of a space mission. Know the astronauts. Know all the crew that support such a mission. And be part of it. So, I think, that's great for them and I'm sure most of them will be attracted to stay in space science.
We mentioned CM-2 and you're going to be working with some experiments that have some potentially dangerous elements or operation to them. What safety precautions are in place to kind of offset that? What kind of things are there for you guys to have to be safe?
Well we all know that NASA is taking care of safety first. So we have a lot of layers to protect us. Nothing in, for instance, CM-2: you light fire. But, you light fire in a very small portion within a closed combustion chamber, which is closed about three times in three layers. So, safety is great. I think that there's no even small risk [in] all these experiments. Everything is contained and controlled. And the way we conduct the experiments is: we don't take a match and light. We do it gradually. We have a lot of ways to identify if and when we have any leakage or problem [a] long time before there's any risk. So, I think that safety is taken care of very good.
Just a little bit about the Spacehab Research Double module and FREESTAR. Or, both of them. Just a brief explanation of what those are and why they're going to be beneficial to this mission.
Spacehab Research Double Module is a new module of Spacehab, which is especially, the new thing about the RDM is that it has its own power suppliers, it has its own avionics, it has its own environmental control. So, it can support by its own sources a lot of experiments, which is kind of new. Until today, Spacehab was actually leaning on the Orbiter power supply, environmental supply, and control. So actually Spacehab RDM is kind of a small space station, within the Orbiter payload bay.
And that's, I think that's great. FREESTAR is a kind of a structural supporter to several experiments. And the best thing about FREESTAR is that it react[s] very, very fast. You know that it takes a long time to manifest and fly an experiment on the shuttle. FREESTAR is one of the fastest way[s] to conduct an experiment. Hitchhiker, which is actually the group of NASA that support FREESTAR, are known by their fast reaction. And you can put up an experiment on a shuttle flight very fast by Hitchhiker.
That's the great thing about FREESTAR.
This is your first spaceflight. And I'm sure you've talked to some of the veteran space fliers. And you've no doubt had some ideas about what it's going to be like. But what do you think it's going to be like? And based on that, has there been anything else that you've experienced in your life that's been like what you think it's going to be like? If that makes sense.
Yeah. First of all, I'm sure it's going to be a very special experience. An exciting experience. And you know, in my life, I've experienced all kinds of exciting experiences. But every one of them is special by its own. And I'm sure the spaceflight is probably special by its own. I believe that to be in space, to look at Earth from space, and to be able to contribute to human life so much, must be great. Must be great! And of course, you hear from our friends that are flying on the other missions how great it is. And also how busy it is. So, my expectations right now are that, although we're going to have fun there, we are going to have a lot of work. And I'm not sure how much time will be left there to have fun and look at Earth. But, it must be an exciting experience.
What personal significance does it have for you for being the first Israeli astronaut?
Well, personally I think it's very, very peculiar to be the first Israeli up in space. Especially because of my background. But my background is kind of a symbol of a lot of other Israelis' background. My mother is a Holocaust survivor. She was in Auschwitz. My father fought for the independence of Israel, not so long ago. I was born in Israel and I'm kind of the proof for them, and for the whole Israeli people, that whatever we fought for and we've been going through in the last century (or maybe in the last two thousand years), is becoming true. And I was talking to a lot of, for instance, Holocaust survivors. And when you talk to these people who are pretty old today, and you tell them that you're going to be in space as an Israeli astronaut, they look at you as a dream that they could have never dreamed of. So, it's very exciting for me to be able to fulfill their dream that they wouldn't dare to dream. So, it is very exciting. Very exciting.
Is it something that may be beyond what your wildest imaginations may have been? And what were maybe the interests that you had growing up that maybe got you to this point?
Well, when I was a kid, and not only a kid growing up, nobody in Israel ever dreamed, well, I wouldn't say nobody. But, most of the people wouldn't dream of being an astronaut because it wasn't on the agenda. So I never thought I would've been an astronaut. I'm a pilot, a fighter pilot, in my background. And I love to fly! Flying aircrafts, fighter aircraft, is great. And I was very happy. I've never dreamed to be an astronaut. When I was selected, I really jumped almost to space. I was very excited. And again, I didn't do anything to be an astronaut. When I was selected, there were actually two requirements to be selected or to be in the group that might have been selected. One of them was to be educated in a technology or science. A degree. And the other was to be involved within the Air Force in experiments. And I was involved, deeply, in experiments in the Air Force. So, I answered the two requirements. And out of several people, they selected me. So personally, I didn't do anything to get here. I just, I think I was in the right place in the right time. That's all.
Can you briefly talk about what academic and professional steps you took along the way to where you are now?
Well, I'm an electrical and computer engineer. I studied very late in the game, when I was 30 years old. Because in Israel, you get drafted at the age of 18, and I went to the Flying School. I started flying airplanes. I had a lot of fun. So, I didn't care too much about studying. But later in the game, I studied in the university. And also I was managing a lot of the experiments - flying experiments - that were done in the Israeli Air Force. So, this is the way I've done that actually took me to where I am today.
So, the flying experiments. Was that like being a test pilot? Or--
I wasn't, I'm not a test pilot in my profession. But I was responsible [for] all the experiments that were done by the test pilots and the test group. And that's my connection to experiments.
Outside of your time so far being an astronaut with NASA, can you give us a little insight into what's been the most enjoyable and memorable experience in your life, outside of the NASA experience?
Yeah, I can give you an example. For instance, while I was studying in the university and after the first year and the break, I went to Nepal with one of my friends. And we were trekking in the Himalayas for three weeks. And this is one of the, I think one of the best periods of time that I've ever had. Another very exciting and peculiar experience was to participate or take part, a small part, in all my four [children's] births. I was supporting my wife during the births of all my four kids. And this is amazing to see a child born. This is the kind of exciting experience that I was in.
What did the experience in the Himalayas teach you about yourself? Or what kind of outlook did it give you, just on life or perspective, did it give you?
The Himalayas are, first of all you get to know very interesting people that are walking by you. Although you may walk there by your own days not meeting anyone. But it's really interesting. And I don't think it has to be the Himalayas. Whenever and wherever you take yourself and hike in nature, or even not hike, but you may bike or wherever you are yourself with the nature, you get to think a lot about: what are we, as a human being are doing here? What is important? What is not important? And you change. You change in your way of thinking and your way of life also.
We've talked about what you're going to do. But are there primary duties for the Payload Specialist title? And can you give us some insight into how a Payload Specialist differs from a Mission Specialist or maybe a Payload Commander for that matter?
Payload Specialist is a title that was used a long time ago. And it's almost passed from NASA agenda. I might be the last one, I think. And since I was here very early in the game, not as other Payload Specialists, I was educated very much more like a Mission Specialist. So, although I have the title of being a Payload Specialist, I think that (and again you can ask Rick the same question) I think that I'm in real life, I'm more like a Mission Specialist involved in a lot of activities and experiments in flight. The original Payload Specialist was actually a specialist with his experiment. For instance, in my case, MEIDEX is the experiment I'm coming with. And I'm a specialist for MEIDEX. And if I was a kind of a pure Payload Specialist, that experiment would be the only thing that I would have done. But, since I'm here a longer time, and I had the opportunity to study a lot of shuttle systems, today I'm part of the crew as any other Mission Specialist.