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Home » Features » Interviews » “Mars Interviews” Interview: Leroy Chiao, ISS Commander and Co-Founder of OneOrbit
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“Mars Interviews” Interview: Leroy Chiao, ISS Commander and Co-Founder of OneOrbit

HH: Hi, we are here today with Leroy Chiao, former astronaut and CEO of Oneorbit. Thanks for joining us.

Leroy Chiao: Pleasure to be here with you.

HH: So what would make some good elevator pitches for OneOrbit’s corporate and education programs?

Leroy Chiao: So OneOrbit is the company that my co-founder, Jamie Semple, and I started about a year and a half ago. And basically what we do is we offer training solutions both on the corporate as well as the student side, the educator side and student side. And basically what we do is we take lessons learned from space life, leadership lessons, things like that and we apply them to operational decision making and bring that all together into a corporate setting to kind of reinforce the fundamentals from a different viewpoint to kind of get people thinking about these ideas afresh. We also have follow-on workshops and corporate workshops for these things too. On the education side, that’s kind of our passion. Jamie and I both have young children and so it’s kind of an important thing for us. We’d like to go into schools and talk to kids and message them, not only about STEM and STEAM, but also about character and the importance of doing the right thing. We talked about a plan on how they can go after their dreams, figure out what they’d like to do, figure out a plan and then having the courage to go on after it. And so we’ve got kind of a different twist on going in and talking to kids. We also offer educator workshops, we’ve done these educator workshops, both STEM workshops as well as these leadership workshops that we’ve adapted for administrators and teachers as well. So we kind of put it all together taking that space flight experience using my experiences, my personal experience in space and of course the backdrop of just the excitement of space exploration to bring these programs to both the corporate world and the education and student world.

HH: So what inspired the creation of OneOrbit?

Leroy: Well I’ve been speaking professionally since I left NASA almost 11 years ago, so I’ve been doing it for quite a while on both the corporate side and then informally on the education side as well. And so I met Jamie, we were both working together for another organization doing these school programs, we had some ideas and basically the folks that we had been working with weren’t really interested in trying new things and so I said to Jamie “Why don’t we go do this ourselves?” So we formed OneOrbit and we kind of brought everything together and we fold it in the corporate piece too and so now we’re just making a go of it here with our own little company and kind of focusing our message a little bit. We’ve gone through and revamped a lot of the things that we do, we’re always evolving, trying to make things better and so we’re pretty excited.


HH: What are some of the ways that OneOrbit translates the experiences of being an astronaut into the corporate environment and educational environment?


Leroy Chiao: What I do is I take some of my personal experiences, stories from training for space flight or actually being in space, including in space emergencies and things like that, I talk about the fundamentals of leadership and operational decision making. We talk about the importance of keeping up with technology and innovation and the fact that innovation doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve invented something new or you have to take advantage of some new technology that’s come along. It may be just a way of a different way of solving a problem that will give you the edge. And so we talk about all the stuff in the corporate setting, we talk about the importance of communication and how every leader’s the most important most important skill set is to be a great communicator. And so we talk about the need to understand your audience, the different cultures, the different make up of people, different personality types and how you can harness and read people and kind of adapt your strategies to be most effective. Similarly on the education side we go in and we inspire these kids of course with the excitement of space life, but as I mentioned earlier it’s all about the character it’s all about teaching them to do the right thing, think about what the right thing to do is and stay motivated. Be proactive in your life, don’t just kind of let life kind of take you where it takes you, but take it by the horns and figure out what you want to do and figure out a plan to get there. And on the teacher side we talk about these same leadership principles I talk about for the corporate side, but it’s kind of tuned a little bit more for the classroom or for the administrators, or the school and education environment. And of course Jamie having a master’s degree on the administrative side of education as well as a master’s degree on the STEM side and being a certified NASA STEM teacher so she’s very well equipped to put that together especially on the educator side. So we feel like we’ve got some great programs and that we are helping to make a difference.


HH: What’s your reaction to SpaceX’s recent announcement that it plans to send two private citizens around the moon in 2018?


Leroy Chiao: I think it’s fantastic, that’s great. The Dragon spacecraft of course was designed to be evolvable into a deeper space vessel or spacecraft and so Elon Musk of course plans to one day put Dragon on Mars, a version of Dragon, the future version of Dragon. Falcon Heavy of course is designed to be part of that architecture, and so going to the moon to me makes a lot of sense to kind of test that hardware and get some data, get some experience. And the fact that he’s got a couple of folks willing to pay for the expense to put that mission together and doing it, it is very exciting, I think it’s great.

HH: What do you think of SpaceX’s plans to send people to Mars and how those plans compare to NASA’s Journey to Mars?

Leroy Chiao: So that’s very interesting because Elon Musk of course very recently talked about his plan to develop a very large spacecraft that can carry 100 or more people at a time to Mars and colonize Mars. Boy, that’s a pretty tall order, but the one thing that we’ve all seen throughout the recent years is, you know what, that he kind of get things done that he says he’s going to do. He got Falcon flying, he got Dragon flying, he’s delivered cargo to the ISS several times now, he’s working on the crew Dragon to send astronauts there. And he’s got his car company going.

People were naysayers on all of these things and he gets them going. He might be a little later than he initially promised, just like Mars and this lunar flight might be a little bit later than he projects. But at the end of the day he usually gets there. So I wouldn’t put anything past him, I’d be very curious to see how the Mars piece evolves. I think that the part of it that has me a little bit scratching my head is, and I’m trying to figure out the business case if you will of sending colonists to Mars.

I mean theoretically you can go and find water and you can have enough power, you could crack that into oxygen, breathable oxygen, I have drinking water and all of those kinds of things, and then maybe there’s a way to have food. I don’t know how long you’re going to have to depend on a supply chain from the earth to bring all your consumables including oxygen or some compounds to make oxygen. But it’s still a little bit puzzling to me how that colony is going to be self-sustaining if you will, without somebody paying for all of this to happen. But like I said, I’m very interested to see how this evolves.

HH: What are your thoughts on using the time on the International Space Station to prepare for long duration and deep space missions like their journey to Mars?

Expedition 10 crew poster featuring Leroy Chiao (left) and Salizhan Sharipov. Image credit NASA
Expedition 10 crew poster featuring Leroy Chiao (left) and Salizhan Sharipov. Image credit NASA

Leroy Chiao: Well, ISS, people often think of ISS as a separate thing, but really it’s part of the whole exploration architecture. And NASA is looking at it that way, we need the ISS to help us solve some of the biomedical problems that we have seen. And so we need to test these operational countermeasures to kind of figure out how to keep astronauts healthy from the adverse effects of long duration spaceflight, especially when we’re talking about space flight that is far away from the earth beyond the magnetosphere which protects us from most of the sun’s radiation. So once we get beyond the magnetosphere, astronauts are going to be exposed to higher levels of radiation. You’ve heard about the ocular issues, the vision changes that we think is from a fluid shift, the fluid shift that occurs, we’ve got to figure that out.

Also the ISS serves as a great test bed for other pieces of equipment that we would use for spacecraft both going to Mars as well as habitats and rovers and things like that on the surface. Things like life support, it turns out building a robust life support system is way more difficult than we thought. We haven’t really been able to do it yet. The life support systems we’ve been using on ISS break down periodically, they need replacement parts, sometimes whole units need to be switched out. And so on the way to Mars you can carry some spares, but what if all your spares break? And so we’ve got to really figure out how to make very robust systems before we try to send someone to Mars.

HH: If you were in charge of NASA’s journey to Mars, is there anything you would do differently?


Leroy Chiao: Right now it’s pretty exciting because with the new administration we’ve got kind of a direction to go now. You’ve probably heard of plans for the Deep Space Gateway, the DSG and the Deep Space Transport, the DST. And the idea is to put this DSG, this gateway, in orbit around the moon and to serve as exactly what its name says; the gateway. So the Orion spacecraft would fly to the gateway, dock, and then from there operations can be conducted either robotically, manipulating rovers on the moon, or if you’ve got a lander you can send the lander down to the surface of the Moon, conduct operations. And deep space transport will have dock to the gateway and the crew would transfer into that to go on a mission to farther out, maybe possibly to Mars. And so it’s a pretty neat architecture, and it’s pretty neat to see that we’ve got some direction now on how we’re going to get there.

HH: If you had the opportunity to join a colony on Mars or anywhere else on the solar system, would you accept that opportunity? Why or why not? And what would your ideal colony look like?


Leroy: Well I’ve really enjoyed my time in space. I’ve flown four times including a six and a half months search for serving as the commander on the ISS. It’s all been fantastic, but I’ve always enjoyed coming back to the earth and staying here and living here. And so I would love to visit and explore Mars, but I wouldn’t want to colonize and live there. I would like to visit it and come back, but ultimately I always want to come back here at home.


HH: How is the working atmosphere different when there were only two people on board the space station as compared to the six that’s the normal amount?


Leroy Chiao: So group dynamics change depending on if you have two people, three people, six people or even more. And so with two people it’s a certain dynamic. With Salizhan and me, he represents our cosmonaut, a Russian cosmonaut. So he spent most of his days in the Russian segment working with the Russian Mission Control, I spent most of my days in the American segment working with the Houston. And so we’d come together at mealtimes and everything worked great, we got along very well, we train together for a long time, we knew each other very well so it was not a problem at all.

Once you introduce a third person, so now you’re automatically going to have kind of a two are paired together with one. Like if you put three friends together you kind of have two that are closer than the other relationships, and so that’s a whole different dynamic, not the best, but doable, we’ve certainly done it many times in past expeditions.

And then once you get to six you start getting more into this kind of small community where you’re starting to turn into more of a very small little village or something, and so you have much more interaction with different people. And so I think they’re all okay, you just have to understand that the dynamics are going to be different when you set that up or when you go into it and have those expectations. So as you’ve seen, everything works well on board with crews of two, three and six, as long as you are good about selecting your crews and then everyone is going to get along and everything is going to get done.


HH: Do you recall any constraints when an EVA could be conducted on the space station beyond the scheduled sleep periods?


Leroy Chiao: Well sometimes we would consider taking the consideration things like whether we were going to be passing through the South Atlantic anomaly which is higher radiation levels. Or if like during the certain meteor showers where there might be a smaller increase in the chance of getting hit by something, we might delay an EVA for issues like that. But otherwise there might be constraints on the orbits and the angle with the sun and whether there are any thermal constraints o it’s expected to get too hot or something like that. But by and large we don’t have too many constraints on when we can do EVA, and so especially when there is kind of a situation where we need to prepare something quickly or sooner rather than later, we can usually get that planned and get outside fairly quickly.

HH: So do you know if future commercial crew vehicles will be required to be agnostic to the station’s beta angle? Or will there still be blackout dates?

Leroy Chiao: Well I think there are still going to be some blackout dates. Some beta angles are pretty severe on the thermal conditions and so in order to design a spacecraft to be agnostic to all beta angles that would be not impossible, but it would just add a lot to the weight and the expense and then your lift capability has to be more to get it into orbit. And so I would expect, I’m not real familiar with the requirements, but I would be surprised if there weren’t still some beta angle constraints on the current vehicles being designed and built.


HH: So what you see as some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding astronauts, NASA and the aerospace community?


Leroy Chiao: I think some of the biggest misconceptions that people have, lay people have, is they think that astronauts are treated like rock stars, and we’re not. In fact, we’re very much not treated like rock stars, we’re part of a whole team just like everyone else. Of course, we’re in a very visible position on the team and we get to go do the really cool stuff flying up there, but as far as any advantages that might be had, they’re certainly not given to astronauts, there’s certainly nothing like that. No special perks per se at NASA especially.


HH: Do you ever get any emails from haters or pseudo science types? And how do you normally respond to that?


Leroy Chiao: Oh yes, I do. When I write an op-ed pieces, which I frequently do for cnn.com and other outlets, sometimes space.com and Discovery, so the comments section or sometimes people will contact me directly through my website and send me hate mail, and I just kind of laugh about it because it’s pretty funny. Very recently I did an op-ed talking about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, intelligent life, and I got a piece of hate mail through my website that called NASA a bunch of liars and that I’m part of the conspiracy and he called me all sorts of names. And it was just kind of humorous, I mean I say that just to laugh about it, but I don’t respond to them.

In another case I wrote about one of the exoplanets that was found recently that looked like it might be in that Goldilocks zone to maybe have liquid water on the surface and could possibly be somewhere that might have some life. And I talked about one of the differences which is that it doesn’t in a local vertical, local horizontal reference frame it doesn’t rotate on its axis just like our moon, we always see the same face of our moon while it orbits the Earth. And I got this hate comment from a science teacher of all people saying that I was wrong and how could I be so stupid, that of course it rotates on its axis even if it faces the same way. I said “Well, yes, in an inertial reference frame you’re correct. But I’m talking about local vertical, local horizontal frame it doesn’t.” And so I would expect the science teacher to understand the reference frame.

I didn’t put that part in there, but it’s just funny to get these haters that they come after you. This is like a version of cyber bullying which I didn’t have growing up, we didn’t have social media. But it shows you what kids are up against these days. As young people on social media you know you can’t be pretty devastating to a young person that really may not have that much confidence inside. So it kind of illustrates that nobody is immune, not even astronauts.


HH: So I understand you’ve released a limited edition, the English version of OneOrbit, the book. What would an elevator pitch for this book sounds like?

Leroy Chiao and Jami Sunkel with OneOrbit Book. Image credit CollectSpace
Leroy Chiao and Jami Sunkel with OneOrbit Book. Image credit CollectSpace

Leroy Chiao: Right. So actually I’ve got it right here, I can show this to you. [Holds up copy of OneOrbit] This is the author’s limited edition of OneOrbit. It’s got me on the back and on the front here. And in it I’ve got a lot of pictures that I shot from space. Most of these pictures by and large, all of them, except for a few, were shot by me while I was on the space station or on the space shuttle missions. And so what I do is I picked out my favourite pictures, just some of my favorites, and I go through it and I have comments on it. On each picture I talk about what was shot and how it made me feel at the time, what I was thinking, what thoughts and feelings it evoked.

And then it kind of goes through some of my life as well. There are some writings in there about I became an astronaut, I have some pictures of my family at the end, my parents. And it talks about kind of growing up and what things were like. And so I think it’s a nice book, I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from it. And if you’re interested you can certainly see it, there are links to it on my website, on either OneOrbit’s website which is oneorbitcdr.com, or on my personal website which is just leroychiao.com, and you can find links to the book. It describes it a little more and you can order it as well. So it is an author’s limited edition, we are very, very excited about it and it’s doing well.

HH: Awesome. Well that’s all the questions I have. Is there anything else you’d like to add?


Leroy Chiao: No. Just that this is exciting, I’m happy to be out there like this. Social media is not brand new to me; I was actually the first astronaut on Twitter and on Facebook a long, long time ago, about 10 years ago. So I’m participating more and more in these kinds of things and it’s fun, it’s interesting to see just how powerful it is and getting the message out, especially something as passionate as I am about like space flight and what I think is important to our country and to the world at large. So thank you for hosting this and having me as a guest.


HH: Thank you.

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About Heidi Hecht

Heidi Hecht is a space geek, freelance content writer and owner of the Nothing in Particular Blog. She is also a published author with a new book, "Blockchain Space: How And Why Cryptocurrencies Fit Into The Space Age", now available on Amazon and Google Play.

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