The Last Space Shuttle Commander

Christopher J Ferguson reveals his regret at the retirement of NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle in 2011, but tells us how he’s now looking forward to working on the next generation of spacecraft at Boeing.

Interviewed by Jonathan O’Callaghan

INTERVIEW BIO

Christopher J Ferguson

Age: 51

First mission: STS-115

No. of missions: 3

Time in space: 40 days

Born on 1 September 1961, Ferguson is a retired US Navy Captain and NASA astronaut. He was the pilot on STS-115 in September 2006 and commander for STS-126 in November 2008, before serving as the final Space Shuttle commander aboard Atlantis for the STS-135 mission in July 2011. He now works at Boeing, helping the company build a new generation of space vehicle with its CST-100 capsule under contract from NASA.

Why did you decide to become an astronaut?

I’ve always had this fascination with things I didn’t completely understand. I spent a lot of time in the Navy only because I could never really understand how an aircraft carrier worked – I thought it was just one of the most intriguing places on Earth. So I was in the Navy for a good 15 years and then the next logical step, the next thing I really couldn’t understand, was what it’s like to operate in space. As I matured in my Navy career I realised I had been through most of the steps the early astronauts had done, and I thought I’d give it a go. I started applying as early as 1991 and I endured a couple of rejections, but as with most good things in life persistence certainly pays off and I finally got picked to join NASA in 1998.

Was it an exciting time to be involved in NASA’s space programme?

What a ride it was. It was kind of the heyday of the Space Shuttle programme. The ISS [International Space Station] was just coming online and we knew that we had an incredible amount of Space Shuttle flights, 35 in total, dedicated to the space station’s construction. I don’t think the public could truly appreciate the magnitude of the effort, but when you think there were 35 Space Shuttle missions, each of them carrying about 50,000 pounds [22,500 kilograms] of cargo into space, and not to mention the many Soyuz flights, Progress cargo flights and Proton flights with the Russian segments, it was truly a global construction effort and I look back at my time and think I was just so lucky to be a part of the whole thing.

How did it feel to be selected for your first flight as the pilot on STS-115 in September 2006?

There are few things in life that are comparable to getting selected to go on a spaceflight. I was just thrilled. Of course our training for that flight was delayed for over two and a half years because of what happened with Columbia [in February 2003], but like anything good it’s worth waiting for in life. I flew in pretty quick succession, 2006, 2008 and then in 2011, so I was very, very fortunate. It’s one of those moments in life you’ll never forget, getting picked and realising ‘boy, you know, you’re really going to do this’. So it was a great joy.

What was it like on your first flight?

I really didn’t know what to expect. You hang around the office long enough and you begin to hear everybody’s stories about what their experiences were like, but while you can simulate most things [on the ground] you can never simulate what it’s like to be in zero-g. I remember a moment probably two or three minutes after launch when I looked out the window off to my right and saw the east coast of the United States just kind of disappear beneath us. And I looked outside, then inside, and outside again and I thought, you know, this is amazing. We are flying into space. From that moment I was very aware how magnificent this was. Here I am in a spaceship that looks an awful lot like an aeroplane and we are literally flying this thing into space.

Having been a test pilot, how did it feel to pilot the Space Shuttle?

You’re so prepared, especially for what we call the dynamic phases of flight, ascent and re-entry, but between all that it’s completely different. It’s a different world. You fly backwards, you fly upside down, and after a while you forget you’re even in an aeroplane because it doesn’t behave like one in orbit. You usually are upside down and backwards going tail first looking at the Earth, and what a surreal experience that is. I can recall a moment we actually flew over a couple of hurricanes that were in the Atlantic Ocean and to be able to look out the overhead windows straight into the eye of a hurricane is one of those ‘pinch me’ moments in space, when you can’t believe you’re actually doing what you’re doing.

What was it like to be chosen as the commander for the final Space Shuttle flight, STS-135?

It was sort of a mixed blessing for me. I knew that my name was up in the rotation [for the last mission] but it was a flight that might not happen, it was kind of like being a part of Apollo 18 [laughs]. Then the Space Act of 2010 kind of baselined the Congressional funding for this additional flight [so it went ahead]. But what I realised not too far into training was that I was not just a crewmember on a Space Shuttle flight, but it was sort of my job to say goodbye to everybody, folks that had worked an entire career on this vehicle. They knew they were going to head into retirement at best and perhaps at worst they were going to lose their job in the middle of their career. So it became a very delicate balancing act to kind of sing the praises of the Shuttle programme as a whole, and at the same time respect and acknowledge the people who were soon going to lose their jobs who had been a part of it for so many decades.

Do you think it was the right decision to retire the Space Shuttle?

If you had asked me back in 2003, which is when the decision was made to retire the Space Shuttle, I would have said of course this is right after losing Columbia. Losing two out of the five Space Shuttles is not great odds, and if we continued to fly this thing for another 20 years, chances were we were going to lose another one. So at the time I would have said, knowing that something else [the Constellation programme] was on the horizon, it’s probably not a bad idea for us to move on. But as the days got closer and then the Obama administration cancelled the Constellation programme [in 2010] we realised there was going to be a substantial gap between the Space Shuttle and whatever followed it. At those moments I gave pause and regretted feeling the way I did back in 2003 – that it was a good idea to shut the Space Shuttle programme down. I think looking at all the events that had transpired between 2003 and 2010 the wise thing would have been to preserve America’s access to low-Earth orbit [LEO] and to continue flying the Space Shuttle until we had clear direction and an approved plan by Congress to get back to LEO at a defined date. We’re in that gap now, which is what I’m a part of with Boeing, but after realising the impact of it I would have said we should keep flying it perhaps just twice a year to know that we can get [to LEO] and we’re not reliant exclusively on the Russians.

Were you proud to be chosen as the last commander of the Space Shuttle?

Yeah, absolutely, but again it was sort of bittersweet putting the Shuttle programme to bed. In four years when we [Boeing] are ready to fly I’m going to look back and think we’ve spent a long time to get back to something that we used to do at will for three decades in the Shuttle programme.

What was the most notable moment from that final flight?

One in particular was the night before re-entry. The last flight control team had come into the flight control centre and I had the opportunity to expound a little bit on my thoughts with them, and tell them all to just enjoy the moment and to thank them profusely on behalf of all the astronauts for what they have done throughout the years. Those one-on-one discussions with the flight control teams as they left was probably the most noteworthy memory from that last flight.

Following the retirement of the Shuttle, why did you decide to join Boeing?

I’d been talking to Boeing a little bit on and off before the flight, and then afterwards I knew that Boeing was one of the potential providers for what we call [NASA’s] Commercial Crew service along with SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corporation. And I knew Sierra Nevada had their astronaut, SpaceX had theirs, but Boeing didn’t have one. When I say ‘their astronaut’, it’s just nice to have somebody on board helping guide the development of the interior of the spacecraft from a crew’s perspective and to make sure it satisfies the intent of the mission. We have a lot of experience, 50 years of flying in space, and the astronauts really are the ones who know how well a craft operates in space. I knew I didn’t want to spend six months on the space station [as an ISS astronaut] as the training templates for the ISS missions are very rigorous and long and I kind of thought it was time for me to turn that over to some of the younger astronauts, so here was an opportunity to join a company who was potentially working on the next craft [the CST-100 capsule] that will launch from American soil and take astronauts up, and I thought how can I possibly turn something like this down. And I haven’t looked back, it’s been a joy ever since I got to Boeing about a year and a half ago.

Is it exciting to be working on the next generation of space vehicles with Boeing’s CST-

100 capsule?

Yeah, and I tell everybody working with me and for me that to build a spacecraft is not just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it’s a once-in-a-multi-generation opportunity. I mean the last time we did this was in the mid-Seventies as we were designing the Space Shuttle, and a lot of the people associated with that work have retired or are no longer with us, and that was a long time ago. So a lot of this we’re having to re-learn, but I’m amazed at the depth and breadth that Boeing has and their ability to resurrect this latent talent that it had within, because you know Boeing’s been involved in just about every human spacecraft since the Mercury days. I look at this team I’m working with and I’m humbled in their presence because I thought I knew it all, but in reality I knew very little. I’m very proud in our effort and I look forward to seeing us back in orbit again very soon.

Would you like to fly on the CST-100?

You know I would love to, but I get back to my original comment of this being a business for the younger astronauts. But if Boeing asks me to do it I’ll have to have a very long conversation with my lovely wife and ask her if she’s ready to actually go through with something like this again. It’s hard to let go, the question is will I be able to or not. That day is still a way off, we’re not scheduled to fly a human spaceflight until the end of 2016, so there’s a lot of open ocean between now and that date. But if they ask me I’ll seriously consider it, let’s leave it that way.

What are you guys working on at the moment?

Well now we’re working on finding our landing sites. We’re planning on the craft coming down on land, so we’ll come down under parachutes to a landing site. Finding that perfect landing site in the US, even though the US is a big country, is difficult because there are just so many constraints that drive you to just a few select areas. We want a large enough area about eight kilometres (five miles) in diameter to provide for wind variations and de-orbit entry variations, so we want to give ourselves a real big target, and finding a big target like that even in the desolate areas of the western US is not exactly easy to do. So we’re looking for up to four different landing sites to give us many opportunities to return. We are also actively developing our mock-up. The interior geometry of the spacecraft has largely been defined and the exterior geometry has been defined, so we’re just now in the stages of making a mock-up to make sure that it works and that the crew has enough room to manoeuvre and function within this very limited environment, which is much smaller than the Space Shuttle. And also the aerodynamics team are working very hard on ascent aerodynamics, and that’s done in collaboration with the United Launch Alliance [ULA], who’s the provider of the Atlas V launch vehicle [that the CST-100 will use].

Is Boeing co-operating with its competitors, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX?

No, I would have to say it’s an all-out competition. I do maintain some back channel communication with my fellow former [NASA] colleagues at those two companies, but just to the extent that we make sure we understand NASA’s requirements. As far as the design is concerned everything is considered proprietary. We want to make sure we keep our design and the way we intend to do business as under wraps as possible. We [Boeing] have got a lot of experience doing this and we like that advantage. We think that we have a solid lead in terms of human space travel.

Is the privatisation of spaceflight important for the future of space travel?

I think about it in terms of what the possibilities are. I sort of envision a Boeing, or Sierra Nevada or SpaceX, astronaut heading to their vehicle outfitted in Boeing regalia. Now you’ve got really the first vestiges of a commercial space line where anybody with a lot of money, at least in the early stages of the programme, could do something like this. Air travel was the same way initially back in the Twenties when it started to take-off – only the wealthy did it. Rocket travel to LEO will be just the same way initially, but the more you do it the more confidence that the public has in your ability to do it safely and the more customers you fly you begin to get into economies of scale and suddenly it’s within the grasp of people who would never have been able to consider something like this even ten years ago. So from that perspective I think it’s very exciting. A commercial pilot taking a commercial paying crew into space is just kind of mind-boggling if you think about it, but I can see in ten years it being a distinct reality.

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