[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next] - [Date Index][Thread Index][Author Index]

The R&C Mir interview

G'Day and greetings from Downunder.

Okay, I delayed it a bit, but a lot of people who read this reflector don't
get to see my magazine. I apologise for the bandwith to those who may not
be interested in this material, but I trust the rest of you will find it of
interest. Please note that the wntire article is Copyright © 1998 to RADIO
AND COMMUNICATIONS magazine, and permission should be sought from the
author Chris Edmondson before using any part of it.

The following material has a little introduction for our non
satellite-literate readers, then interviews with Andy Thomas and Adrian
Thomas (Andy's Dad).

Warm regards from Chris Edmondson, VK3CE,
Publisher and Editor,
Radio and Communications magazine,
Melbourne, Australia

We talk to Mir!

Editor Chris Edmondson interviews Australian astronaut Dr Andy Thomas,
VK5MIR, aboard the Mir Space Station

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: amateur radio is a wonderful
thing. Connecting via packet radio to an orbiting spacecraft, or using one
to bounce a voice signal back to somebody else on earth is wonderful -- but
actually talking to an astronaut (an Australian-born one at that) is
another thing altogether!

Such was my very great thrill and privilege in late April and early May,
just as the May issue was hitting the news-stands. 46-year old Australian
Dr Andrew (Andy) Thomas, a US astronaut serving aboard the Russian Space
Station Mir, was talking to all comers on the two metre VHF band -- in
plain voice, via a stock standard Kenwood amateur radio transceiver. And
the very first time I called him, he heard me and called back...

Andy is a NASA-traned astronaut who follows in the footsteps of two
previous Australian astronauts, Phil Chapman and Paul Scully-Power,
although only Scully-Power had flown into space (the ill-fated Challenger,
1984) before Thomas joined the elite club. Andy first flew as payload
commander in the 10-day US Space Shuttle mission STS-77 in May, 1996,
before heading over to Star City, Russia, for training in the Soyuz and Mir
programs. During that year, everything he did was in Russian... quite a
steep learning curve for a very complex language and another feather in an
already accomplished man's cap.

Our first conversation, on April 21, lasted about five minutes or so, which
was the very first time I heard him active using voice. I called Andy after
he had been chatting for some time with Ian, VK5QX. Okay, it was just after
1:15 in the morning at the time, and most folk are well and truly asleep by
then, but I'd been wanting a voice contact with Mir for a long time, and
I'd been listening on the channel for a long time in what I expected would
be a forlorn hope. I was using the quiet time of the day when the phones
generally don't ring to get some work done, and I dropped everything in a
big hurry when I heard Andy as clear as a bell in contact with some VK6s,
followed by his contact with Ian.

The biggest surprise of all, though, was that he was still there on his
next orbit an hour and a half later, still happily chatting to all comers.
He had travelled more than 43,000 km in the time it had taken me to sort
out the order the stories would appear in this issue! This time I was ready
with a tape recorder, so I asked him a few questions. I repeated the
exercise on the next orbit, too, and followed it up several times more over
the next few days to complete the interview which follows. So I should
explain at the outset that what you read below was recorded over a period
of several days, in bits and pieces.

Look, this chat we had didn't happen because I'm the editor of this
publication. I doubt Andy had ever heard of me. He's been living in outer
space for the last few months, and before that spent a year in Russia. I
was just lucky, but it proves a point...

Any radio amateur with a two metre FM transceiver can work the cosmonauts
aboard Mir or the astronauts on the US Space Shuttles when they're carrying
SAREX equipment. Any of us. And anybody with no more than a hand-held
scanner radio would be able to hear them too, as clear as a bell. Dial up
145.985MHz and wait. Be patient.

Each Mir orbit takes 92 minutes, and only about half of the orbits bring
Mir within visual range of Australia. But do wait, because you will hear
something, either packet radio noises or voice -- at least until June 1
when Andy is scheduled to return to Earth.

Privately, I reckon Andy may be a bit home-sick. I certainly would be after
such a long time away. But whichever, we've been the clear winners, because
he's recently been very active on the radio during his free time. Very
active indeed. Over the four-day period between our first contact and my
writing this article, I have spoken to him on no fewer than nine occasions
-- really quite a highlight to my amateur radio career!

Last night as I write, at about 2am local time, I was coming back from a
quick late night dash to the shops. As usual, I'd forgotten the milk...
While I was still on the road, Andy finished a contact and nobody else
called him, so I had a crack at it from the car. We spoke for another two
or three minutes until I arrived at home, then I jumped out of the car and
ran into the middle of the road. You see, I also had a five-watt two metre
hand-held radio with a quarter-wave whip with me. Andy had clearly heard me
from the 50 watt radio in the car, and could just, pretty weakly, make out
the signals from the HT. Remarkable. According to the computer tracking
program I use here, at the time Mir was just on 1500km from this location.
On a hand-held radio!!!

Let's just go through a few details. It's useful and rather eye-opening to
understand the speed the Mir station is travelling at. According to my
computer tracking program, Mir's present speed is 27,657 km/h. According to
the computer, that's a rather handy 7.681 kilometres per second. Crumbs.
That would make a mockery of the daily grind to the office, eh? Let's put
this speed in perspective:

It's time for a holiday. Let's say you live on the east coast of Australia,
and decide to travel to the USA. We take the flight which goes via New
Zealand. Having packed, you drive to the airport (an hour and a half in my
case), park the car in the long-term parking area (fingers crossed, some
parts of it might still be there when you get back!), then check in, go
through Customs and sit nervously in the departure lounge waiting for your
boarding call. Finally your call comes and you sit in the aircraft with
that delicious sense of anticipation and maybe just a little bit of
anxiety. Three hours after you left home, your 747 is pushed back from its
parking bay and makes its ponderous way to the end of the runway.

Thankfully, the flight is uneventful. It takes a smidgin over three hours
to reach Auckland then, after a wait of a little more than two hours,
you're winging your excited way to LA. That leg takes an exhausting 13
hours, and you thank your lucky stars you decided to go there rather than
take the 22-hour long haul to Europe.

Okay, let's do the same trip in Mir, shall we? Better tighten those seat
belts first...

Mir covers the distance from my place to the airport in about five seconds,
but doesn't stop at a single red light on the way. The leg from Melbourne
to Auckland is dispatched in under six minutes, and the long haul to the
continental USA takes a silly 21 minutes. It doesn't stop there, of course,
not even to refuel.

It cruises serenely across the USA in eight minutes or so (a five-hour
commercial flight if you're lucky) and crosses the UK another 10 minutes
later. No time to stop here, though. Let's do the whole globe! The charge
across Europe and Russia continues over China before dispatching the
islands to our north in a fleeting moment.

In just over 92 minutes, Mir has seen the world and returned to Australia,
a couple of thousand kilometres west of its starting point.

From the viewpoint of an earth-based observer, an overhead
horizon-to-horizon pass takes a smidgin under 15 minutes, during which time
the station has covered several thousand kilometres. The reason you 'see'
Mir for so long is that it's quite high up in normal terms, at just under
380km above the Earth's surface. (In orbital terms, in fact, that's
actually quite a low orbit, and it requires frequent correction to
compensate for the minuscule amount of drag imposed by the upper reaches of
the atmosphere.)

The Andy Thomas interview...

I'd have to say that Dr Andrew Thomas is an amazing gentleman and a
wonderful ambassador for both Australia and the amateur service. What
follows is a condensed selection of our conversations:

"Firstly, on behalf of the amateurs and radio hobbyists of Australia,
thanks once again for taking time out to talk to us all. The tapes are
rolling... I don't want to waste any time, so I'll get right into it.

Q. What makes up a normal day for cosmonaut Andy Thomas? What sort of work
do you do?

A. Well, I'm doing research up here, conducting some science experiments,
so I get up in the morning, brush my teeth like anybody else, shave, have
breakfast, start the day doing these experiments -- they're biological
experiments, and some material science experiments. We're also doing some
studies on the effects of weightlessness on the human body, so we're using
ourselves as test subjects, and as the day progresses I usually take a
break at one o'clock and exercise. I do 30 or so minutes on a treadmill, to
help counteract the effects of weightlessness. Lunch is usually late in the
afternoon, about four, then back to work. I usually work through to about
seven, and then dinner and relax a little bit... watch a video, maybe read,
then go to bed around 11 or 12. How copy? Over...

Q. I've got you Q5, Andy, and the beam's coming around a bit to follow you.
Okay, so tell me: what's it really feel like, taking off in a capsule on
the top of a rocket or, as you did, aboard the Space Shuttle? Is it scary,
and is the sensation of acceleration much like take-off in a commercial jet
aeroplane, only more so? Over...

A. To start with, I didn't have time to feel scared. I was very busy and
well prepared for the experience. The take-off itself starts off quite
gently, at about 1.2 Gs [G being the force of gravity. Ed.] or something,
and it builds up over the course of the burn to about three Gs, so it is
pretty much like what you'd get in a high-speed aircraft, except it's more
sustained, it's longer lasting. It just keeps going and going for about the
just over eight or so minutes it takes to get you up to about 30,000
kilometres per hour. It just keeps going and burning up continuously for
that period of time, and that's how you accumulate such a high velocity. So
the main thing is that the push just keeps on and doesn't go away. It's
sustained for the whole eight-and-a-half minutes until you get to the
orbital speed. Over...

Q. Roger. I guess that must have been a real thrill. But after all that
pushing you arrived at what must surely be a view to kill for up there. I
guess you'd never get bored looking out the window... or do you? What sort
of things do you see from such an exclusive lofty vantage point? Can you
see the lights of individual cities as you fly by, and do you use
binoculars to make things sharper and clearer? Over...

A. Oh, you can see individual cities very easily. Right now I can see the
lights of Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, plus lots of
other places -- all in one view, of course, at the same time. The view is
always magnificent. You can see thunder storms, you can see dust storms
over the Sahara, you can see the Aurora Australis down over the Southern
Pole. You can make out major land formations, river plains and cities. It's
really very clear. Over...

Q. You're up there for quite a while. I'd like to ask a few questions about
how you live. What about, say, shaving? In the pictures I've seen you're
clean-shaven. It would be awful to live in a fog of floating human hair!
How do you keep things like that under control? Over...

A. Oh, it takes a bit of getting used to, I guess, but I shave by holding
an electric razor in one hand and a vacuum cleaner in the other! It sounds
silly, but it works! Over...

Q. Andy, what kind of food do you eat? Is the diet varied, nutritional,
interesting? How do you cook or, for that matter, do you cook meals at all?
And how is food stored up on Mir? Over...

A. Ah, copy that. A good question. We use freeze-dried packaged food and
some canned foods, kind of like the foods you might have on a camping trip.
We rehydrate things with hot water, and that's how we get hot foods. We
have a very good selection of food, American food and Russian food, a wide
variety of foods. I'm very impressed with the quality of the Russian food.
I really enjoy it, too. There's some wonderful soups and juices. I have
more than enough food up here -- perhaps a little too much. More than I can
eat in one hit, that's for sure! There's no problem about nutrition up
here. It's, ah, I've probably got a better diet up here than I have on the
ground. Over...

Q. Gee, that sounds fascinating. You poor blighter, with all that choice!
What about water? How do you go for such a long period up there for
drinking water? Is it recycled, or do they bring a water tanker up to you?
What do you do? Over...

A. Copy that. When the Shuttle comes every few months it usually brings
1000 pounds or so of water [about 450 litres. Ed.], but we do recycle. We
recycle condensate water, and use that to rehydrate food. It's pasteurised,
sterilised and cleaned, and we use some of that to rehydrate food. We also
recycle waste water and urine, and that's actually used in electrolysis, to
break it down to hydrogen and oxygen. We breathe the oxygen, of course,
it's used in the breathing air, and the hydrogen is dumped overboard. We
have a sort-of closed system, but it does come up a little bit short so
it's replenished by the Shuttle flights. Over...

Q. Now, you mentioned a treadmill when we got started, and the next
question relates to exercise. It must be very difficult to keep fit. How do
you do that?

A. Yes, that's right. You've got to work at it. The treadmill's a regular
treadmill, but we use a harness over our shoulders with bungies down to the
framework so it sort-of pulls us down to give us a load onto the pad. That
way we get our exercise. The main thing is to get a cardio-vascular
workout, as your heart's not working nearly as hard up here, and also to
exercise the leg muscles, because you're not using the leg muscles at all,
basically. You need to keep them reasonably healthy for the return trip.

Q. So much for the exercise sessions. You also said earlier that you work
about nine or ten hours per day. So what -- apart from amateur radio, of
course -- what do you do with your free time? Over...

A. We do a fair bit of reading, and there's also the video. Of course, we
don't watch TV up here -- we can't get TV stations -- but I like to relax
sometimes watching a favourite movie or things like that. I have quite a
few first-run movies, lots of books, CDs, cassettes -- and amateur radio,
of course. Over...

Q. Pictures I've seen of Mir show something that appears to be quite large
-- I dunno, like a semi-trailer or a bus -- although it must feel small and
cramped to you. How big is it really?

A. We have four modules on this space station. I'm in one of them now,
called Piroda, which is Russian for Nature. The four modules... each one of
them's about the same size as a bus, although there's a lot of equipment in
them which reduces the amount of available room for us. Those are joined
together at a common node, so we actually have a pretty decent amount of
space when you get right down to it -- certainly a lot more than the
Shuttle. You do feel the confinement a bit, though, I have to admit. I
wouldn't mind going for a walk along the beach right now, I must say!

Q. Yes roger, I can understand that. So what are your living accommodations
like in Piroda? For those who don't know the layout of Mir, do you have
much room to yourself?

A. Oh yes, I've got a work area set up in the middle of Piroda where I've
got a computer. I lay my sleeping bag on the floor when I want to sleep,
I've got personal effects around there... and yes, it's really very
comfortable. I've got my CDs, I've got cassettes, the computer provides me
with a video screen to watch my videos on when I want to watch movies --
I've got a lot of first-release movies. I also use it for E-mail... of
sorts. It's not regular E-mail. I don't have a direct E-mail link, but I
can send messages out through the Mir's communications system, so I have a
lot of creature comforts. It's not too bad, actually! Over...

Q. When you're finished up there, will you be coming back to Australia for
a holiday, or returning here for good, or what? You're coming down very
soon, on June 1, I understand, so what will you be doing then?

A. Well, I've got to go through a rehabilitation period. I do hope to get
to Australia perhaps in September -- something like that -- or October, and
hopefully have a nice holiday. I'm ready for a break, I can tell you that!

Q. Roger. I bet you are, and it'll be richly deserved too. Can we talk a
bit now about equipment? I understand you're using a Kenwood TM-733A
dual-band FM transceiver and a Kantronics KPC-9612 packet radio TNC. What
sort of antenna have you got up there? I read somewhere that you have a
stock standard dual-band car mobile magnetic-base antenna... but I reckon
you could experience a few problems getting the coax through the door! Any
ideas there? That signal is big! Over...

A. Copy that. You got the equipment right, but I can't actually tell you
what the antenna is, because it's outside and I haven't actually seen it. I
really have no idea, but it's nothing elaborate, I can tell you that. It's
not a big multiple array antenna, but I'm at a loss to tell you its exact
geometry, I'm afraid. Over...

(Dr Dave Larsen, President of MIREX, which organised the radio equipment in
the first place, later confirmed the mag base antenna in a phone
conversation. The coaxial lead goes through a special hatch for cables. The
antenna was installed during a space walk several years ago. Ed.)

Q. Right, that makes sense. What other sorts of radio gear do you have
access to up there? Obviously you can talk to the ground on your special
communications channels, but what bands do you do that on, and do you use
geostationary satellites to give you communications whenever you need them?

A. We've got the on-board communications system that Mir uses to talk to
Moscow. That's ultra-high frequency -- there's two channels on that one --
and it's for line-of-sight comms to Moscow for our formal communications to
the Mission Control Centre. That's audio. There's also a telemetry signal
which goes down with that, which downloads parameters of the Mir Space
Station operational conditions, and parameters of performance and so on. We
can also go through a satellite hookup, a Russian satellite, for video in
addition to those when windows of opportunity permit. It's a geosynchronous
satellite, and that gives up video up and video down capability. But that's
usually only for 25 to 30 minutes at a time. Over...

Q. Quite a lot of electricity must be needed by such a large station, with
so many power-hungry requirements. Where does your energy come from? Is it
all from the Sun or are you riding in an orbiting Chernobyl? Over...

A. No, not quite, thank goodness. The Sun provides all the power we need.
Each of the modules has two large solar arrays on them, which are gimballed
to keep facing towards the Sun, and each module carries an array of NiCd
batteries below the floor. These get charged up during the daylight passes
then we bleed that power off during the night passes -- like we are right
now. I can't quote you the total storage capacity or maximum current from
the cells, but it's tens and tens of kilowatts. I'm not quite sure what the
number is. Sometimes we do have to be a little bit cautious with power, and
not to overload the system, particularly if we're at a very oblique angle
to the Sun, and we're not able to capture a lot of sunlight. Over...

Q. Andy, on the subject of the Keplerian elements [these are the
mathematical figures used by computer programs to follow the progress of
objects in orbit], I get updated elements twice a day, and they seem to be
just a little bit different every time. How often do you need to make
attitude adjustments to the spacecraft, to keep it in the correct orbit,
and are you involved personally in that side of things or do your Russian
colleagues "drive" Mir? Over...

A. The cosmonauts pretty much do that. We make attitude adjustments on a
pretty much continuous basis, to keep an orientation that's favourable for
collecting electricity from the Sun, hence the ever-changing elements.
Every now and again you feel the whole station shudder as the engines fire
to make a tiny adjustment. We also have a gyrodyne stabilisation system --
basically an array of big gyroscopes in one of the modules, which are spun
up at high speed, and they also use the gyroscopic effect to maintain an
inertial platform. It works very effectively because it doesn't consume
propellant. Changes to orbit... well, the orbit does decay due to the very
slight atmospheric drag, but it is very slow. We only do those every few
weeks, or sometimes when the Shuttle comes up we drop down the orbit to go
down to meet the Shuttle. Over...

Q. As a matter of interest, how do you navigate? Andy, how do you know
where on Earth -- well, above it -- you are? Do you have a screen I guess
like what I'm looking at here, showing you where you are in space? Over...

A. Copy that. Yes, that's exactly what we've got. We use the very same
Keplerian elements you do to tell us where our ground track is. Of course,
we're moving under the effects of orbital mechanics, so it's a very stable
piece of physics which keeps us spinning around the Earth. We use sensors
to orient ourselves towards the horizon, to determine where the horizon is,
and we use infrared sensors for that. So we can orient ourselves relative
to the Earth any way we want. We also have Sun sensors for tracking the
position of the Sun, and star sensors so that we can orient relative to
selected star systems. So that way can keep a desired attitude. Over...

Q. Roger, well I guess that would have to give you any number of tracking
options, and failsafes in case you fly into cloud or something... hmmm
sorry! On our first chat, I asked you what you could see out the window.
But do you use binoculars or a telescope to look at objects on the ground,
to make them sharper and clearer, and is it true that the only man-made
object visible from orbit is the Great Wall of China? Over...

A. Occasionally I use binoculars if I want get in close and see something
in detail; we've got some very big binoculars up here. You can actually see
from our orbit signs of human habitation. You can see occasional roads,
too. You can see, for example, a straight line scratched across the
Nullarbor Plain which is, of course, the railway line. If the Sun is at the
right angle, you get shiny glints from the rails, as well as from rivers
and dams. You certainly can see the Great Wall of China, though, plus you
can see the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal. You can see quite a few roads
networks, and dams and things like that. It's quite a view, I can tell you
that! At the moment, by the way, we're just heading up between Adelaide and
Melbourne. Adelaide is very distinctive with the land jutting out into the
ocean, and it's very well lit up. I can see quite a few roads I know -- the
Main South Road is one I can see, and the city centre is very bright.
Melbourne is very clear, too, and I can see a lot of roads and very bright
lights there too.

Q. I wonder if, in concluding, you might have a message for our younger
readers? You have accomplished something which so many of us, including me,
could only ever dream of, and most certainly did in my younger days. But we
have so many bright and inquiring young minds facing an exciting future
with boundless opportunity. What would you say to them?

A. Oh yes indeed. When I was younger I looked up in the sky too, and
wondered what one might find. I watched in awe as a young university
student as man walked on the moon for the first time, and I do believe that
you can achieve almost anything you set out to do if you are really
determined to get somewhere. There will be many very fascinating
opportunities for people in the future. You just have to decide what it is
you want to do. You've got to set your sights on something and stick with
it -- have the motivation and determination to see it through. To get what
you want, you cannot rely on chance to make things happen. You must make
things happen yourself. Over...

Andy, once again, on behalf of all of the people who will read this
account, I am most grateful to you for giving me so much of your time. I
hope you don't charge by the kilometre or I'll go broke!! At your current
rate of 461 kilometres per minute, our just on sixty minutes together in
total comes to... almost 28,000 km. You'll be a well-travelled fellow by
the time you get back -- just over 88 million kilometres by my reckoning!
Your passport would look pretty bulky if you needed a stamp each time you
crossed an international frontier. Again, thank you very much, and we all
wish you continued good luck for the rest of your journey. Cheers, mate,
and a very warm G'Day from Downunder.

In concluding this report, I must mention my special thanks to a number of
people. First, of course, is Dr Andrew Thomas himself, an Australian of
whom we should all be justifiably proud. As well, Andy's Dad, Adrian
Thomas, Dr Lave Larsen, N6CO, CEO of MIREX, his wife Fran Caiafa for
producing the certificates, QSL cards and awards, and Claudio Ariotti,
IK1SLD, who runs the official MIREX Internet Web site at

Adrian Thomas talks about his son...

We also rang Andy's dad Adrian at home in Hackham, SA. It would be fair to
say he's pretty proud of his son's accomplishments.

"You know, I said right at the very start that, if pride's a sin, I'm
pretty sinful! My pride is justified. Andrew is a rather special person. I
had great hopes for him and he really has done well. The day he rang me to
say he has been accepted for training as an astronaut, it came like a kick
in the solar plexus. I think it all started when I gave him a Redstone
Rocket when he was nine. You know, he still has that rocket!

"Andrew is an aeronautical engineer. As soon as he finished university in
the late 1970s he went to the USA and worked with Lockheed for 20 years,
finally becoming their Head Scientist. But they weren't getting much NASA
work, and he'd set his heart on space research, so he went to JPL [the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory] in Pasadena, and from there he applied for astronaut
training. Now up in Mir he's doing biological science, growing cancer cells
and so on.

"He's coping pretty well with it. Saturday, May 2, was his 100th day in
orbit, and he was due to come back at the beginning of June, but there's
currently a delay of an extra five days in the launch of Discovery, and
that could go longer. Challenger, which is up now, was a fortnight late
lifting off!

"You know, living on Mir is not something that everybody could cope with.
He looks well, he's pretty happy, but I feel he really is getting to the
stage that he'd like to come home.

"Actually, I'll be asking him that soon. We're having a two-way TV hookup
tonight courtesy of the NASA. It's our second family chat together, and
this time we'll talk for an hour, in honour of it being Maggie's birthday.
Maggie is his lady friend -- he's not married yet...

"He'll be ready for things like that eventually. As I said, I think he's
really ready to come home now. But, you know, he's well adjusted, happy,
and doing what he wants to. But even so i feel he's ready to return to
something approaching normality.

"Yes, Andrew will be glad to settle down after this. When he came back from
STS-77 in 1996 his sole ambition was to get another flight. Then he became
MIR-7. It certainly gives a new meaning to the term 'get some hours in'!

"He has now regained his Australian citizenship, and he intends to return
to Australia as soon as he can, and he'll want a good rest on the ground
before he goes again.

"The next program is the International Space Station (ISS). This thing is
so big that it will take 45 launches to get all the parts together. They've
already planned the first 10 or 11 of them, and he may well be on one of
those. He would do about 10 days then come back. Another long stint would
be a bit difficult.

"Having said that, you know, if they decided to go back to the moon...
well, that's his ambition. If the Mars trip comes off down the track a few
years he would certainly put his name forward for that too.

"Mars would be completely different. The trip would take seven months
getting there, then they'd spend 550 days there, then take another seven
months to get back. The reason for the long stay is that they'd have to
wait so the configuration of the planets is right. Frankly I don't know if
I'll see it, and neither may he.

"But of course John Glenn is going up in October -- and he's 76! It really
makes you think, doesn't it?"