An evening with an astronaut

Michael Foale


My notes from the talk (if they don’t make sense then it is entirely my fault)

Introduction to the talk by Martin Archer and Julie Keeble

Dr Martin Archer (Space Physicist, Queen Mary University of London)


He studies Earth’s space environment and how seemingly empty space is in fact an incredibly complex and dynamic place, with his work being shared widely by NASA and NOAA. For over a decade he has been a prominent science presenter and broadcaster for national and international television as well as online. He is also leader in developing award-winning innovative and impactful research-based outreach and public engagement activities, sharing the excitement and importance of physics in accessible ways.


ISSET chief scientist & lecturer of pharmacology

Julie is a lecturer in the Institute of Pharmaceutical Science at King’s and is a jointly affiliated with of the Centre for Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences. Her research focuses on the role of sensory nerves, pain, inflammation and thermoregulation. Julie is also ISSET’s Chief Scientist and is responsible for ensuring that all winning Mission Discovery experiments are launched to the International Space Station.

In partnership with ISSET

International Space School Trust (ISSET)


Space starts at 100km above the surface of the Earth. This isn’t a great distance. Portsmouth is further away. The ISS is between 400km and 600km above the surface of the Earth.—london

Dr Foale’s talk was carried out partly on behalf of ISSET.

One of the aims of ISSET is to inspire children to take up STEM subjects. It is responsible for overseeing 30 experiments on the ISS by children

Part 1 – Becoming an astronaut

Dr Foale has been to space six times and spent 27 years with NASA. He retired from NASA in 2013 to set up his own company.

STS-45 (March 24 to April 2, 1992) was the first of the ATLAS series of missions to study the atmosphere and solar interactions.

STS-56 (April 9 to April 17, 1993) carried ATLAS-2 and the SPARTAN retrievable satellite that made observations of the solar corona.

STS-63 (February 2 to February 11, 1995) was the first rendezvous with the Russian Space Station Mir.

STS-84 on May 15, 1997 to join the Mir 23 crew (returned to Earth on STS-86).

From December 19 to December 27, 1999 he flew on STS-103, an 8-day mission, to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.

On October 18, 2003, Foale launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan on Soyuz TMA-3 and docked with the station on October 20, 2003.

Dr. Foale was born on the 6th January 1957 in Louth, Lincolnshire. His father is British and an RAF pilot and his mother is American. His parents met when his mother was on holiday in the UK.

When he was six his parents took him to the World State Fair in Minnesota where the space capsule used by John Glenn was present.

John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth (Yuri Gagarin was actually the first person to orbit the Earth)


John Glenn and Mercury 7

Foale’s parents asked him if he would like to be an astronaut and he said no when he saw how tiny the capsule was. It looked like a dustbin that had a fire in it.

His parents encouraged him in his maths and science studies by giving him books.

Initially Dr Foale wanted to be a pilot like his father but he messed up the sight test.

He concentrated on his studies especially physics (yay) and maths and obtained a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University (he was able to gain a pilot’s licence and was a member of the Air Training Corps during his time at university). He then went on to obtain an astrophysics PhD at Cambridge.

While a postgraduate student at Cambridge University, Foale participated in the organisation and execution of scientific scuba diving projects. He also continued with gliding and flying.

Pursuing a career in the US Space Program, Foale moved to Houston, Texas, to work on Space Shuttle navigation problems for McDonnell Douglas. In June 1983, he joined NASA Johnson Space Center in the payload operations area of the Mission Operations Directorate. In his capacity as payload officer in the Mission Control Center, he was responsible for payload operations on Space Shuttle missions STS-51G, 51-I, 61-B and 61-C.

Even though Dr Foale was born in the UK, because his mother was American, he has US citizenship (as well as British). He is married with two children.

Foale applied and was turned down twice as an astronaut candidate. His third attempt was successful because he wrote in an essay that he wanted to focus on the realities of leadership faced by NASA, and was selected in 1987 (now 30 years old). NASA was also looking for scientist astronauts with at least 3 years of post-graduate experience. He was one of 15 selected. His job was to conduct experiments on the space shuttle.

The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster had changed NASA’s priorities but funnily enough the disaster didn’t put people off from applying to be an astronaut.

In 1987 there were very few women astronauts but today NASA (and ESA and other agencies) tried to make sure that 50% of applicants are women. The background of modern astronauts is varied. In 1987 astronauts tended to be in the military.

Dr Foale’s training regime included flights in T-38 jets and spending time wearing space suits in swimming pools. The swimming pool training could last 6 hours.

The Atlas mission was Foale’s first trip into space.

ATLAS-1, the first of the ATLAS series of Shuttle flights, was an important part of the long-term, coordinated research that made up NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth. The ATLAS-1 solar science instruments and several of the atmospheric science instruments (MAS, ATMOS and SSBUV) flew on future ATLAS missions. Beyond its own science mission, a key goal of the ATLAS series was to provide calibration for NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS), launched from the Space Shuttle in September 1991. Two ATLAS-1 instruments, ACR and SUSIM, have direct counterparts aboard UARS, while other instruments aboard each mission were closely related. Repeated flights of the ATLAS instruments, which can be carefully calibrated before and after each flight, will allow for long-term calibration of UARS instruments.

This was the first of a series studying the Earth’s atmosphere and the Sun’s influence upon it over an entire 11-year solar cycle. ATLAS-1 experiments focused on four scientific disciplines: atmospheric science, solar science, space plasma physics and astronomy. By making simultaneous solar and atmospheric measurements on a global scale, scientists hope to unravel the complicated web of man’s impact on the environment.



ATLAS-1 payload package:

NASA’s Atmospheric Trace Molecule Spectroscopy instrument and the Grille Spectrometer from Belgium, mapped trace molecules in the middle atmosphere during orbital “sunrises” and “sunsets,”.

Atmospheric Lyman-Alpha Emmissions instrument, developed by scientists in France and Belgium, measured common hydrogen and deuterium, or heavy hydrogen.

The Millimeter-Wave Atmospheric Sounder (MAS) was a collaborative effort of Germany, Switzerland and the United States, and measured ozone, chlorine monoxide, water vapor, temperature and pressure in the middle atmosphere.

The Shuttle Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet Experiment, whose measurements were used to calibrate ozone-measuring instruments.

Participants: Other countries participating in experiments on the ATLAS-1 payload are; Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

The European Space Agency provided operational support for the European investigations.

The mission lasted 10 days and the shuttle orbited the Earth 16 times a day. The crew were looking at global warming, the hole in the ozone layer and the effects of the sun upon the Earth. One of Foale’s jobs was to look at the atmosphere using a spectrometer.

A spectrometer is a scientific instrument used to separate and measure spectral components of a physical phenomenon. Spectrometer is a broad term often used to describe instruments that measure a continuous variable of a phenomenon where the spectral components are somehow mixed. In visible light a spectrometer can separate white light and measure individual narrow bands of colour, called a spectrum. A mass spectrometer measures the spectrum of the masses of the atoms or molecules present in a gas. The first spectrometers were used to split light into an array of separate colours. Spectrometers were developed in early studies of physics, astronomy, and chemistry. The capability of spectroscopy to determine chemical composition drove its advancement and continues to be one of its primary uses. Spectrometers are used in astronomy to analyse the chemical composition of stars and planets, and spectrometers gather data on the origin of the universe.

Examples of spectrometers are devices that separate particles, atoms, and molecules by their mass, momentum, or energy. These types of spectrometers are used in chemical analysis and particle physics.

One of the high-lights of the mission was the generation of an artificial aurora. Artificial electron beams from the Space Experiments with Particle Accelerators (SEPAC) on the ATLAS 1 Spacelab payload were used to stimulate auroral emissions at southern auroral latitudes.


The astronauts had a good idea where they were. Apparently if the visible area of Earth is red, they are over Australia. If it is turquoise then they are over the Bahamas

Dr Foale’s second mission was the Atlas-2 mission, which had similar goals to ATLAS-1.

The ATLAS 2 instruments were mounted on Spacelab pallets (provided by ESA) in the Shuttle payload bay. The ATLAS 2 instrument power supply, command and data handling system and temperature control systems were housed in a pressurized container called an igloo located in front of the pallet. The Shuttle’s changing orientation to Earth placed the experiments in advantageous orbiting locations to observe the atmosphere and the Sun.

Dr Foale’s third trip to space was a joint mission with Russia and featured just the second Russian to ever travel on the space shuttle. Part of the mission was a flyby of Mir to test communications between US and Russian mission control – especially important as Russia used metric measurements and the US used imperial. At the time, a Russian cosmonaut had been on Mir for a year and a quarter and the space shuttle crew could only contact him via an old ham radio. Foale’s main function on the mission was science operator. SPARTAN-204 was used for extravehicular activity (EVA) near end of the flight. Foale began his EVA suspended at the end of the robot arm, away from the payload bay, to test modifications to his spacesuit to keep spacewalkers warmer in the extreme cold of space. He was one of two astronauts scheduled to practice handling the approximately 1,100 kilograms SPARTAN to rehearse space station assembly techniques, but both astronauts reported they were becoming very cold (-6oC) —this portion of the spacewalk being performed during a night pass—and mass handling was curtailed. This 29th Shuttle spacewalk, the first for both a UK-born astronaut and an African-American astronaut, lasted 4 hours, 38 minutes. During EVA they went around the Earth every 1.5 hours.


The US crew weren’t terribly happy about having a Russian on board, but working with the “enemy” is good. At the same time of the mission Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin were agreeing to the formation of the ISS.

The information about mission 4 will make up part 2 – How to save a space station

Dr Foale’s fifth trip involved another spacewalk, this time in order to fix the Hubble space telescope. A 386-computer processor was replaced with a 486-computer processor (still in use, but less powerful than the processor in your smartphone). He was involved with fine tuning the guidance centre and getting the telescope pointing in the right direction.

The Hubble space telescope has given us a lot of information. Its orbital speed is 28 000 kilometres per hour, meaning that it completes an entire orbit in just under 97 minutes. In other words, Hubble circles the Earth almost 15 times every day! Jet packs were too big to use when Dr Foale and colleagues went to repair it. They had to tether themselves to the shuttle.


The Hubble Space Telescope (often referred to as HST or Hubble) is a space telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990 and remains in operation. It was not the first space telescope, but it is one of the largest and most versatile and is well known as both a vital research tool and a public relations boon for astronomy. The Hubble telescope is named after astronomer Edwin Hubble and is one of NASA’s Great Observatories, along with the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Foale’s final mission saw him spend 195 days aboard the International Space Station. This was after the Columbia disaster so he had to undergo some intensive training on the Russian Soyuz. It was an hour-long bus ride to the launch pad but it only too Soyuz 8.5 minutes to get into orbit. Soyuz is actually more comfortable to travel in than the shuttle. On this mission there were 70 different experiments involving gels, bacteria and other biological items. Physics experiment involved investigating gases in pipes.


View of Soyuz with Earth view in the background taken on the ISS


On the ISS the crew can watch DVDs. A Russian with Dr Foale was obsessed with Stalin and having watched a film about Elizabeth I thought she was like Stalin.


NASA Image: ISS008E20622 – Expedition 8 Commander and Science Officer Michael Foale conducts an inspection of the Microgravity Science Glovebox.


Michael Foale (foreground) exercising on the ISS

One little experiment that Dr Foale showed on the ISS was that the Earth’s magnetic field reaches the ISS.

The following video does not show Dr Foale

The ISS involves 17 countries and cost 150 billion dollars. Daytime lass 45minuites.

Some of Dr Foale’s surprising experiments were on fluid behaviour, surface tension and the artificial aurora.

Part 2 – How to save a space station

Dr Foale’s fourth mission was to the Mir space station. As mentioned previously the US crew were not happy working with the soviets.

The main reason why the US government wanted to start cooperating with the Soviet Union was because the US didn’t want to pay for all of a space station themselves. The soviets were keen as soviet scientists had no money.

Of course, the American president, Bill Clinton and the Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin said the real reason was that cooperation was very important, more important than the pyramids.

The period between 1945 and 1990 was known as the cold war when the US and the USSR did not “talk” and built up piles of nuclear warheads.

The very beginning of ISS was 1995. There was still stress between East and West but space is not part of the stress. The fact that the US worked in imperial units and the Russians worked in metric was not a problem.

The first ISS component was launched in 1998, with the first long-term residents arriving on 2 November 2000.

Before the ISS was up and running US astronauts were working with the Russians on the Mir space station.

Mir was a space station that operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001, operated by the Soviet Union and later by Russia. Mir was the first modular space station and was assembled in orbit from 1986 to 1996.

It was the first continuously inhabited long-term research station in orbit and held the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days, until it was surpassed by the ISS on 23 October 2010.


The seven NASA astronauts who carried out long-duration missions on Mir.

From left to right, Norman Thagard, Andrew Thomas, John Blaha, Shannon Lucid, Jerry Linenger, Michael Foale and David Wolf.


STS-84 Mission Specialist Jerry Linenger and Mir-23 crewmember Michael Foale conduct transfer ops in the Mir Space Station Priroda module.


Mir-23 flight engineer Aleksandr Lazutkin and Michael Foale in the Base Block module.

The Russians were not terribly keen on having Americans on board Mir. Dr Foale spent a year and a half training in Russia for his Mir visit and the Russians around him considered him a spy. His training occurred in Star City, where the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin trained. He was segregated from the cosmonauts when training.,_Russia

Part of Foale’s training included learning to speak Russian fluently. He found he wasn’t allowed to ask questions because the Russians were so suspicious.

Foale launched to Mir onboard Atlantis (STS-84) on May 15, 1997 and he was considered the main cargo. He was replacing another American astronaut and when he arrived his new Russian colleagues gave him hot food and the customary black bread and salt.

One of the experiments on Mir that did not seem to be working was the cultivation of brassica. The plants were not healthy and it was found that there was a leak of ethylene glycol, which causes the suppression of plant growth.

Within a short period of time Dr Foale fitted in with the Russian crew.

The Russian government were trying to save money and they decided not to spend $2million on Ukrainians radars for the supply ships. Instead they asked the Mir crew to pilot a cargo ship, measuring speed and distance by eye. Now this might have worked if the craft had been less than 100m away from the Mir as the craft can be seen to travel in straight lines.

On June 25, 1997, Commander Tsibliev took remote control of a supply ship and fired its rockets to propel the craft toward the space station. He had to virtually “fly” the Progress from onboard Mir while he watched a video screen that showed an image from a camera onboard the supply ship.

The supply ship left its parking orbit and began moving rapidly toward Mir. But, on the video screen it was difficult to make out the station.


The docking test seems to have been operated differently than the proper method so that you can see that you are “mistaken” just by looking at it from the monitor.

Tsibliev’s deficient perspective had a further limitation. What he was seeing on his screen was an image that didn’t change in size very fast. That’s the nature of using a TV screen to judge your speed and your distance. He couldn’t determine accurately from the image that the speed was too high. By the time he could judge the speed, the ship was already traveling too fast. He fired the braking rockets, but it was too late.

The supply ship ended up coming in at 90 degrees to the direction it should have been on and there was a collision with Mir. It hit Spektr, a module on Mir for Earth observation, punched a hole in a solar panel, buckled a radiator, and breached the integrity of Spektr’s hull.

The crewmembers all realized how bad the situation was, air was escaping into space, and it looked like they would have to abandon the station because there wasn’t enough power for air ventilation or the radio. It was so bad that they didn’t want to use their torches for fear of burning out the bulbs. Instead they waited for the orbit to bring them back into sunlight so that they could inspect the damage. The station went dark for 30 hours.


Since the spectral module was closed at the time of a collision, the power cable was disconnected and the inside of the ship was out of power.

The crew first worked to seal off the Spektr from the rest of the station. In their way lay masses of tubes and cables that had been routed through the hatch and into the node since the day Spektr had been docked to the station. They worked as fast as they could. “We started pulling the cables, 30 in all to get the hatch in place,” Foale related later. “There was a cable that burned in spots, so we had to find a way of disconnecting that one.”

Once they had cleared the hatch, they needed to seal it with a cover. The node had six hatches, but all the covers had been tied out of the way. First, the crew tried to free a big hatch cover that had a valve they could use later to equalize air pressures. Stubbornly, however, this one proved too difficult to untie. According to Foale, they “wasted about a minute” trying to untie that hatch. “And, the pressure’s falling. The pressure’s falling.” Foale began thinking, “Things are getting pretty tense now.”

The two crewmates had to give up on the big hatch. They found a thinner hatch cover. They untied it, and that one “popped” into place. The air pressure in the node forcefully pushed the hatch against the hatchway. “Truly,” Foale thought, “there is a leak on the other side of this.”

As his ears stopped popping, Foale knew they had isolated the leak and the immediate crisis had passed.

But a bigger problem had been created. Some of the cables the crew had disconnected had served to provide electrical power from the Spektr’s solar arrays to the rest of the station. Their disconnection, along with the station’s tumbling, now caused a power loss on Mir and the shutdown of the central computer. This was why the station fell dark and silent.

The power outage lasted about a day-and-a-half. Because of the orientation of Mir’s orbit at that time, the station was more often in Earth’s shadow than in the Sun’s light. Only when a panel happened to catch some solar energy did they have enough power to contact ground controllers in Moscow.

The collision had knocked Mir into a spin; and the power outage had shut down the gyrodynes so that the spin now went uncontrolled. To stop the spin and face the arrays toward the Sun, the crew needed to know the spin rate of Mir. However, the computer and other instruments were out of operation. So, in the dark and in the silence, Foale went to the windows in the airlock and held his thumb up to the field of stars. Combining a sailor’s technique with a scientist’s knowledge of physics, Foale estimated the spin rate of the space station. Then, he and Lazutkin radioed the estimates down to the Moscow Control Center. The ground controllers fired Mir’s engines, and that stopped the spin—certainly not perfectly, and in no way permanently; but it showed that it could be done.


Six hours after the collision, the crew succeeded in stopping the station from rotating using the injection system.

For future corrections, the crew would sometimes use the rocket engines on the Soyuz capsule. However, these engines pointed at a 45-degree angle to the axis of the main station. This and other factors created another problem in physics, as well as in onboard communications. Foale found an older, 18-inch scale model of Mir to which flashlights had been taped to approximate the newer Spektr and Priroda modules. In the microgravity of Mir, Foale set the Mir model to slowly spinning. Then he shone another flashlight onto the model, thus simulating the Sun. In this way, he determined how Tsibliev—who sat at the Soyuz capsule controls—should apply pulses with the Soyuz jets to set up a stable rotation and orient the solar arrays to the Sun. Over the next hours, Foale kept a star watch at his window and shouted instructions to Tsibliev in the Soyuz, many metres away.

On July 17, during one of the training exercises, one of the crew mistakenly disconnected an important power cable. The station fell into another period of tumbling without power, in which it was discovered that the Soyuz escape capsule’s power could not be switched on unless the main station’s power was also working. This fact had serious implications for the availability of the Soyuz during a crisis. Because of this and all the problems of the Mir-23 crew, Moscow ground controllers delayed an internal spacewalk in the Spektr module until the Mir-24 crew arrived in early August.

About three weeks into the Mir-24 mission, Foale and Solovyev (commander of Mir-24) performed their six-hour extravehicular activity. For most of this spacewalk, Foale was positioned at the base of the 60-foot Strela crane from which he moved Solovyev, at the other end, to the places Solovyev needed to work. Once or twice, Foale himself moved to the end of the Strela to hold Solovyev’s feet while the Russian worked, digging with a raisin [sic: “razor”] knife under Spektr’s insulation and searching for holes. Although they observed a lot of damage to Spektr and its attachments, the two spacewalkers could find no actual hull breaches.

The crew worked on solving the condensation problem and getting Mir powered up. Unfortunately, the loss of power ruined some of Foale’s experiments.

Foale couldn’t exercise on Mir after the collision as two modules were lost and there was no power for the treadmills. So, when he got back to Earth and normal gravity, he was feeling especially weak.


When you look outside from the window, you can see that the station is torn.


Damaged Spektr solar array.

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