Veteran astronaut Steve Lindsey was recently chosen to command the final flight to the International Space Station before the space shuttle fleet is retired in late 2010. In a telephone interview from Johnson Space Center in Houston, he reflected on his career.
How does it feel to be selected to command the last flight?
I feel pretty privileged and honored. I last flew on the shuttle in July 2006, which was the second return to flight mission after the loss of Columbia [which broke up in 2003 while attempting to land at Cape Canaveral in Florida]. When they asked if I wanted to do the last flight, I thought about it for a while. I said three years ago that I was done flying. But I finally decided to do it. This will be my fifth flight.
Looking back on your career as an astronaut, what things stand out?
Oh, so many things. On my first two flights, I was the pilot. I remember being struck by the wonder of working in zero gravity. But you get used to that after a while. On later flights, I was the commander. When you're the commander, you get to land the shuttle. It's a difficult spacecraft to fly.
But there's one thing you never get tired of. That's looking down at the Earth. It is so beautiful.
What is it like to command the shuttle?
Your perspective is different. Somebody once said it must be wonderful to land the shuttle. I realized as commander you don't think like that. The rewards aren't personal. I loved watching my shuttle crew come together with the crew on the International Space Station when we flew there. It was a different experience.
What is the goal for the last flight?
Our objective is to leave the space station in the best possible condition that we can. We're going to carry up spare parts and supplies. We're going to deliver a logistics module and install shielding to protect the station from micro-meteorite damage. It will be an eight-day mission.
So you're not doing any major construction work? Will the space station be mostly done by the time you arrive?
We are practically done now. The Russians have a couple of modules left to bring up. The Node 3 living quarters is still to be installed. But we're pretty much done building it.
You are also chief of the astronaut office. How do you keep the astronaut corps interested after the shuttle fleet is retired? It's going to be several years before the replacement Ares spacecraft is ready to fly.
We are going to be flying in the interim. Every Russian Soyuz flight will have a U.S. astronaut aboard. We will be shifting to long-duration missions on the space station. Transportation will be provided on Soyuz spacecraft. The number of astronauts will be decreasing, however.
By how much?
Right now we have about 80 astronauts. In the out years it will be more like 60 or so.
How do you feel about the future of NASA? You know the Obama administration is rethinking the plan to return to the moon. Can I assume you would be in favor of going back there and eventually going on to Mars?
Everybody at NASA feels the same way. We're in favor of taking the next step and getting out of low Earth orbit. We think the next step needs to be exploring the solar system, whether it's visiting an asteroid or going to Mars. But we need to go back to the moon for practice. It will allow us to learn how to build habitats and use rovers. The moon is a good steppingstone.