Dr. Anna Fisher is a NASA astronaut who has worked on three ground breaking programs so far in her amazing career. She was one of the first women in Space (and was the first mother in Space!) working on a satellite mission, and would then go on to play a key role in the creation and operations of the International Space Station. She holds multiple accolades for her achievements and continues to push the boundaries and explore new frontiers in her current role within the Orion Program, which is going deeper into Space than we’ve been before, and laying the groundwork for a future manned mission to Mars! I was captivated by her incredible journey so far and wanted to know more. Very kindly, Dr. Fisher took time out of her busy schedule to sit down and chat freely about her life and her work to date. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did…
Hi Anna, thanks a million for taking the time to speak with me, I know you are very busy. I really appreciate that.
Oh, no problem.
Actually, just to start off with, a bit of coincidence, we actually share the same birthday, August 24th!
Oh you’re kidding! There’s another astronaut, Dick Richards, who was in the 80’s class, it’s his birthday too. It’s funny because in the area right here beside the Space Center, there was a car wash that gave away free car washes on your birthday. We would always run into each other on our birthday getting our free car washes (laughing).
Ha, that’s funny.
That’s neat. Interesting.
Yeah, curious! So yeah, I was reading through your story really, and I was fascinated by your work and your achievements, so just thought to reach out and ask you a few questions about work and Space and that kind of thing.
Where are you based?
Well, I’m Irish, but living in Brazil for the past five years.
So you’re calling from Brazil right now?
Yeah, I’m in Sao Paulo.
Wow, how neat.
It’s great. Have you been down here?
I have not been to South America. I’ve flown over it a lot (laughing). We fly over that on the twenty-eight and half degree inclination a lot, but I have not been there. It’s on my to-do list.
Cool. It’s a great place, I recommend it.
I thought to ask you a little bit about your work if that’s okay?
One of the things I found really interested was that it seems right from when you were working in emergency medicine, and then on to your work with NASA, it seems all the work you were doing carries a lot of responsibility, is time sensitive and carries a lot of pressure. I was wondering if you were always very capable and competent in this sense, as it would be quite overwhelming for a lot of other people, I think?
Ah, well, you know the thing is, in medicine, you get that responsibility incrementally. It doesn’t just all come at once. You sort of ease into that role. And the same is true of being an astronaut, it’s the same thing. You come here to the Space Center and you start out really from scratch with whatever your professional background is. And, you know, you’re not flown into the Shuttle or the Space Station on your first day, it’s usually a couple of years process. So, I guess it’s something… I guess when I was younger I never would have imagined that I could do that. But it’s the kind of thing that happens so gradually and then you look back and go “oh, okay I am ready to do this”.
Sure. And in regards to the astronauts selection process, I was curious about your experience going through that and then also being on the other side of it, being a member of the actual selection committee. I was wondering if you had any insights into the qualities they are looking for, even red flags, you know? Maybe more than the technical competencies, but personality traits and that sort of thing?
Well you know, when I went through the selection process it was brand new. Of course, they had selected previous astronaut classes, but with the exception… I think it’s class of ‘69, where they hired some scientist astronauts, but they were sent straight to flight training. And if they didn’t make it through flight training they washed out. Not only washed out of flight training but of becoming an astronaut. So it was really the first selection process where they were not going to be pilots and they were not going to be trained to be pilots. What was interesting, just recently, the person who… the technical assistant who gathered all the applications, just sort of herded that whole process through, just retired recently at the age of seventy. And he had done fourteen different selections. It was just interesting looking into his stories of how things changed. But in some ways it was all somewhat very similar. But it was a very intimidating process, when you first come here to go through that.
You come here and you first see the Space Center, you really really want that. Once I came here, and it’s true of everyone I’ve ever seen who comes through here… You know, once you come here and see it, you really want it badly. And you’re being interviewed usually with approximately two-hundred other people, for a very limited number of spots. So, it’s a very intimidating process, but for me I didn’t know what to expect. There was no way to kind of prepare for it. This was before the internet and before… The pilot astronaut had probably a little better idea, because in the military they are constantly being evaluated, selected to go to pilot training, or whether you are going to be a navy seal, or you know, whatever… And so for those of us who came from an academic background, you are pretty much used to your selection being based on your grades and your performance in an academic environment. So, anyway that whole process was pretty intimidating. I was telling you about the retirement, in preparation for when I was asked to say a few words at his retirement, I actually went back and did some research about the ‘78 selection, and it was really interesting to me. I mean, they had decided that they were going to select people since ‘72. So from ‘72 to when we were selected in ‘77, they had been talking about this whole process, and they had this numbering system… I was really glad that I didn’t know about all that (laughing). That when I came it was just as an uninformed but someone with the right academic background.
But then when I was on the selection committee in ‘87 it was really an interesting process to be on the other side. And what I found out was that by the time… you know, there are a lot of people in the office who go through various applications into groups. We divide them into groups and of course the pilots are separated, and first of all they get weeded out by their own military branch. Because their names get forwarded there. And then our military guys in the office go through each of those. And many of them know some of the applicants because they may have flown with them, or been in a squadron with them. And then, of course, as a doctor I would review the people in life sciences and other doctors. So, by the time you pick the two-hundred or so that you are going to interview, they are all qualified on paper or you wouldn’t be being interviewed. So, the time you’re being interviewed, what you are looking for are the intangibles, which are kind of hard to say. You know, how is this person going to fit in? The questions I often ask myself are, would I want to fly with this person, would I want to be in the shuttle for two weeks with them, would I want to up on the Space Station with them for six months? Are they a good leader and are they a good follower? Because in the office, at various points you might be in charge of a branch in the office but then you might have a commander for your flight who you have to listen to. So it’s the intangible things that you are looking for, because all of the people, at least on paper, are already qualified by the time they come to interview. That’s kind of a long answer to your question!
No, that’s great. It’s really interesting to get the inside track. It’s interesting you brought up the leadership qualities, because I was going to ask you about your own time as Chief of the Space Station Branch of the Astronaut Office. It seemed like a role that had a great amount of responsibility and that you were really overseeing everything in that capacity?
Well I was overseeing not the engineering and development of the Space Station, I was overseeing how we were going to operate the Space Station. For me it was really interesting because when I was first selected, we were selected before the first Shuttle flew. So, and as I came here just as a physician, it was kind of intimidating because we got asked to go evaluate all sorts of things, for example, everybody was really worried about the heat shale tiles falling off the Shuttle on the first flight. And so, we wound up trying to devise that if they got in orbit and many of the tiles were found on the ground or something that we could repair the surface. So we spent a lot of time developing hardware, procedures, and the material. That was not anything I was trained to do as a doctor (laughing). You know, that’s a much more engineering kind of task. And so it was really interesting, I got to watch a lot of my colleagues who were engineers and see how that process went, and then got to participate.
Then fast forward years later when I came back after being on a seven year leave of absence, most of the people on my level, of my class, having seen a vehicle before it ever flew, had all left the office! And most of the people who are in the office now are used to the vehicle being a very operational machine. It pretty much flew on schedule, the procedures were all very defined and well developed and certified and all that sort of stuff. But the beginning of a program is very very different. You are just guessing how to do all this. Anyway, I came back, and there were very few people in the office who had the experience I had, so it was really fun to see that I had really learned from everything I had seen and watched the Shuttle program develop.
I wound up having about fifty astronauts and support engineers… they launched the first elements of the Space Station, the FGB which is the propulsion module in November of 1998. And then they launched the Node 1. And there there was a two year period where nothing else was done, because everything wasn’t ready. And we had to really work with our international partners and figure things out like how are we going to do our procedure? Were they going to be electronic procedures or were we going to have books like on the Shuttle, you know, paper! How were our displays? The international treaty, from which the Space Station was built, said that each partner could do whatever they wanted within their own module. And so you can imagine that would be like Europe in the old days, every time you went into a different country the monetary system was different and so forth.
Well, here you are on the Space Station you know if your computer has one operating system and then you go to another office and there is another operating system that’s really hard! But by the letter of the laws that’s what they could do. So I kind of used the experience and I guess the clout of the Astronaut Office to engage the partners and say, “Yes, technically we can do whatever we want in each module, but that doesn’t make sense. So, let’s have common standards for our procedures, let’s have common standards for our displays”. So those are the kinds of things we worked on for those two years, like how are we going to operate the Station.
We really tried very hard to make English the language of the Station. That was one area where we were not successful (laughing). Every astronaut at this stage, at least because of where we are, we’re launching on the Soyuz, we have our Russian colleagues, all of our new astronauts have to become proficient in Russian. But anyway, those were the kinds of things we did in those early days. And now it’s interesting to see the Station because we are up to our forty-third and forty-fourth expeditions coming up, so it’s really fun for me to see how far we’ve come and what we thought would work and so forth.
Yeah! That’s really cool and interesting. And it kind of relates a little to the Orion program right?
Well that’s my third major program, which I guess I really love the beginnings of a program where you’re trying to figure out how to make it work. I just came from our dry run of our evaluations of the Orion displays in our mock-up. Sitting on your back and trying to figure out where exactly is… there’s a device when you’re launching where you can’t reach up and reach the edge keys for the displays so you have a device that allows you to navigate around your displays during the ascent and entry when you can’t really reach them. And so we just finished doing that for example… I just really enjoy that kind of work.
It must be exciting to be at those starting stages! And in fact, the Orion program is kind of setting the basis for eventually getting to Mars, is that right? Along with Deep Space Habitat and the other modules needed.
Right, well the plan is kind of… you look back and a lot of people say there is no focus on the Space program, but actually if you look back there really was. The Space Shuttle was designed to carry big pieces into orbit. Without the Space Shuttle you wouldn’t have been able to build a Space Station like this. Of course, the Russians built the Mir Space Station, but they built on an expendable… they took the pieces up unmanned, and then basically blocked them together. To build something like this you need the Shuttle. And so we built the Station and now with the Station we’re learning how to live in near-Earth orbit. And Scott Kelly’s getting ready to launch next month and he’ll be one of the first US astronauts to be up there for a year. So we can start to figure out how the body is going to be for these long duration missions, which is what it would take to go to Mars.
And now the Orion spacecraft is being developed to go beyond low-Earth orbit. And of course we’re developing the commercial crew with the SpaceX Dragon module, and the Boeing CST-100 module. Those are being designed specifically to take crews up to the Space Station. So that we in the United States have our own capability to launch people into Space, which we don’t have right now since the Shuttle retired. We rely on our Russian colleagues. So the commercial crew is developing that and they are probably going to launch the end of next year, beginning of 2017, will be their first launch. And whether it’s Boeing or SpaceX, I’m not sure right now which one is going to end up going first. And then the Orion meanwhile is being developed to go beyond low-Earth orbit. And to do that we need a much more powerful rocket than we’ve ever had before. So, Marshall Space Flight Center is developing the SLS Space Launch System which is our new rocket. And we here are working on the Orion capsule. Which we are trying to make it capable of doing more things, like going to an asteroid, or possibly back to the moon. Whatever the politicians decide are finally the right things to do!
Yeah! And when you’re working on something like that how do you strike a balance between new technologies and new ways of operating, also while mitigating the risks of it being untested in a lot of ways?
Well you know, that’s a really good question, and there’s always that trade off that you have to do. It was always funny when people would come and you’d give them a tour of the Shuttle and people would be kind of amazed at how rudimentary the computers were and the displays. Particularly towards the end of the program with everything that’s happened with iPhones and iPads and all that.
But the issue is exactly what you say. First of all, the Shuttle was designed in the 70’s. So the hardware and computers that were chosen were chosen of that vintage technology. And then you go through this elaborate certification program where they do hundreds of runs… an ascent with an engine down at this time, and then two engines down… and so, everyone would say “why don’t we just get new computers?”, but then you would have to do all that testing over again. You have to be really careful to be sure that your equipment is radiation hardened. We’re finding out right now on the Space Station that just on a regular laptop there’s a lot of radiation hits. So there’s always that trade off. And now when we are developing our displays you talk of SpaceX, they want to go do touch screen, and all this current technology, but I personally have concerns about that. Trying to operate a touchscreen under G-loading for instance, you could just touch the wrong thing and you know… You really have to think these things over and sometimes the jazziest fanciest things here on the ground don’t work so well in that environment, and there’s a lot of things that you have to consider.
And especially at the rate that technology is changing now, by the time you finalise a design, purchase it, test it, you know it’s going to be obsolete (laughing). By the time you fly you know that you’re going to be way behind on the technology. So then what you do is you try to upgrade when you can, but then with funding issues and budget concerns what they are, you’re often stuck pretty much with what you have with minor tweaks and upgrades. Because basically when you develop a new vehicle you’re talking about a 30-year program that you want that vehicle to be flying, at least.
Sure. There’s probably something quite comforting about having a physical manual as opposed to an electronic one!
I was just talking with some of the folks that I was working with, and I see it even in the office, you know… people of my age grew up with books, real books, with checklists where you can write in the margins (laughing), and our offices are full of books and everything. And the younger people coming in, you look at their desks and all they have is a laptop, maybe a picture of their family and…it’s really dramatic! And I guess if you don’t know what you’re missing, because they never grew up with that, they’ve gotten so used to just doing everything electronically.
There’s something really good and bad with the electronic procedures. You don’t have to look up and down with the electronic procedure, you just go to a display. That part of it is much better, and I think minimises mistakes. But then you get to a part in a procedure where you wish you could make a note or something, and to try to make that where you can do it electronically… that’s lots of complexities. Again it’s just another sort of trade off, but it’s really interesting if I sit where I am in the office, and I’ve had the opportunity to see all this change since 1978, it’s just amazing the difference of people coming in now and what they’re used to, versus the earlier folks.
Yeah, it’s quite amazing the changes alright!
Yeah, it is. I mean, when you buy your laptop it’s practically out of date. One of the folks in our group just went to that technology conference in Las Vegas they hold every year, and he said they’re not even showing laptops. Laptops are going to be obsolete pretty soon. Just going to be a notebook and…
Sure, just a touch screen.
Yeah, so I don’t think in a program like going to Space or to Mars or anything like that, there’s no way you can keep up with technology. You just have to freeze it at some point in time and just go with that!
I know what you mean. And hopefully choose the safest most reliable option! You had mentioned SpaceX a couple of times and I’ve very interested in them and Elon Musk as a guy. I was wondering how you view the public sector versus this new private sector and how you see things progressing in this regard?
Well me personally, and NASA, we’re all supportive of them. And I really hopeful that they are successful. In fact, SpaceX is launching in a few hours from now and they’re going to try their propulsive landing, on a barge. They failed the first time. I am totally confident that they will figure out what their problems are and they will solve it. And I’m delighted with the success they’ve had so far with their launches taking supplies to the Space Station. But it’s just really interesting to watch… Boeing who’s building the capsule much like the Orion module. And then watching SpaceX, which is also a capsule.
But the way they do business is just very very different, as you can imagine. Boeing being, you know, a company that’s built with the government and builds commercial aviation and has to adhere to all these strict rules and standards and everything. And SpaceX which wants to be cleaner, faster, cheaper kind of mentality. It’s just interesting to watch it and the concerns that we have is just making sure that safety is just always kept in the forefront. You know, our procedures and everything have grown cumbersome because of the accidents that we’ve dealt with in manned space flight, the Appolo 1, Challenger and Columbia. Out of each one of those we’ve learned lessons and things that we could and should have done better. So, you know, that’s your concerns. I hope they don’t have to learn those lessons the hard way. That they learn from our experience.
Sure. I was curious about the extensive experience of say NASA as a whole, and then something like MarsOne is a more audacious kind of project, really…
I think we’re all totally supportive of all those efforts. All of us will be delighted… Virgin Galactic, what they’re trying to do… I really hope that we can figure out how to make Space accessible to many more people. And then like the Bigelow building the inflatable module, which he hopes can be destinations for people to go to experience what it’s like to be weightless, and so on to universities to create their own laboratories and so forth. I think it’s a whole brand new world out there. Just like the early days of aviation. And that’s what you get. I would love to be a Space tourist (laughing)! Go into Space and just play and have fun and not have to work as hard as we do on our flights. I would love to be able to do both. To work in Space and then also have the opportunity to soak in the experience, you know?
Sure! It’s funny you mention that because I had listened to another interview where you described your own experience being in Space. And you were asked is it better to be in Space or on Earth, and you mentioned that Space is a very sterile environment, you miss the sun on your face, the wind, the smells and those senses. But I wondered also what it is like to be looking back down on Earth and if you had the time or inclination to contemplate life in any way that you didn’t before?
Well on our flight, we took an hour after we said goodnight to mission control. After we got caught up on anything we hadn’t done during the day. And then each of us, we spent an hour just watching the Earth go by before we went to sleep. You know, on a Shuttle flight, particularly on the flight that I was on, you have really busy, long days. So, you really need to be disciplined and make sure to get your rest. Because if you don’t it’s going to just add up and each day gets more and more difficult. Plus you have to be ready in case there’s an emergency. Always in the back of your mind is that you need to have enough rest so that you can perform at your best.
But we always took an hour to look out at the world going by below. And I just had some of the most amazing memories just from that. And now in Space Station when they’re up there for six months, they have a lot of time and they’ll start to know the Earth. They can just look down at night and see the light patterns and the colours of the lights, or over Africa where there’s no lights… and after a while, after you’re up there for six months… and I don’t know if Scott Kelly is going to be a real expert after he gets back after he’s up there for a year… the world just becomes much smaller to you. You just know it!
And I think that’s the thing that every astronaut will say when they come back. And I know that it really hit me, particularly now with everything going on in the Middle-East and and all that. When you look down at the Earth there are no boundaries, there are no lines. And, it’s so beautiful and then you realise when you look out into the vast blackness of Space, or the folks who’ve done spacewalks while they’re sitting on the end of the arm waiting to be moved to a new location to work, and they’re pointed out. Rather than being pointed looking at the Earth, they are pointed out looking at the blackness of Space, and you really realise that the Earth seems big when you are on a long flight to Australia or something, but it really isn’t when you look at the vastness of Space. And then you look at all these people having these wars and killing people and… I know I’m kind of minimising things, but it does seem really petty, it seems like you just get one life here, you know? And it’s short enough as it is. This is a beautiful planet, we should treasure it. There’s nothing, nothing worth killing people or fighting about, whether it’s boundaries or religion or whatever. It just makes you sad.
Okay! I was actually going to ask if you had any advice for people looking for meaning or purpose from life, but I think what you were saying just sums that up.
I think one of the things I love most about my job is that not only do I just enjoy it personally, I feel like I’m part of a bigger plan of people taking their first steps beyond our own planet. Even just the very beginning baby steps… you know, I’m hoping that with the way technology is changing that pretty soon it will be like Star Wars, or Star Trek (laughing) or something like that. I hope that that’s what we are heading towards and it won’t be just science fiction but it will be travelling at warp speed to other solar systems and all of that. I hope that is indeed in our future. And for me that is what is really gratifying, to be a part of those first steps.
Yeah! Sure! And do you think before say the warp speed stuff, but things like Virgin Galactic and Space tourism like you mentioned… how far off do you think something like that is in terms of being accessible to regular people?
I have no doubt that Virgin Galactic will be successful. But the problem with Virgin Galactic is that it is a suborbital flight. So, you will only get… it’s kind of like Alan Shepard’s first suborbital flight… you’ll probably get five minutes, or six minutes weightlessness. You’ll spend a good chunk of time getting up to weightlessness and you’ll have a few minutes of weightlessness, and it’ll be time to come back down. And in early days, just like in the early days of aviation, only the wealthy are probably going to be able to afford things like that. I mean, like the people that are buying the seats on the Soyuz and going up to Space Station. So, you know, it’s probably going to be like that, in the early days it’s going to be only wealthy people.
But look at commercial aviation now, nobody thinks twice about buying a plane ticket and flying somewhere. So I’m hoping Space will get to be like that. Still at the stage of our technology it’s risky, and in the early days of aviation, I mean a lot planes crashed and a lot of people died. But you know, nobody’s forcing you to go on these things. If there’s things that you want to do then you have to personally decide that it’s worth the risk to you. But what the exact timeframe is, that’s the hard thing to predict. I mean, if you had asked me in 1995 did I ever envision that everybody would be carrying little phones that were there computer and internet, I would never have envisioned that. So it could easily happen faster than we imagine. And I could just as easily see it taking a little bit longer. But I have no doubt that it is going to happen. It’s just a matter of the timing and what’s happening in the world.
The one thing I would hope for is that as more and more people go up into Space and more and more people see that view, that a few of us who had that chance to see, I wouldn’t say that it’s a religious thing, at least not for me, but I’m trying to describe it, it makes you so much more aware of how fortunate we are to have this planet. And as more and more people start to feel like they’re part of this planet instead of part of this country or part of this religion… you know, maybe that will go a long way towards people being better to each other. I hope (laughing)!.
Yeah, sure! I just have a couple more questions if that’s okay?
This is a fun one really, but if you could keep just one of the medals you’ve been awarded over your lifetime, would you go with the ‘Mother of the Year’ or the ‘NASA Exceptional Service medal’?
Oh, mother of the year! (Laughing). That was really funny… Here I was, I was assigned to my flight two weeks before I delivered my daughter and so, it’s never happened since. So I was training for my Space flight, and I had a new daughter and all of that… I don’t recommend it! But, I was doing the two things I love most. So basically I’m working really hard and I’m gone a lot, and I get a mother of the year award! Then I take a seven year leave of absence to stay home and I don’t get any mother of the year award (laughing). But anyway, I just always thought that was ironic. It was really good because if my daughters would complain as they were growing up I could always whip that out and say, “hey, wait a minute, you’ve got a mother of the year here” (laughing).
That’s great. And for a final question, I was wondering who is Anna Fisher when you are not working. You are so busy and you do a lot of interviews about Space, I was wondering what you like to do in your free time, if you have any?
That’s an interesting question. It’s funny because last week I was in Virginia. I was doing an appearance for aerospace day at the Langley Space Center at Richmond, Virginia, which is the capital of Virginia. And so it was like two days work of talking with people and telling them what it’s like to be an astronaut. And then I went to visit two family members who I hadn’t seen in a while, and talk with them. I remember when I came home, I was talking with my friends and I said, “I’m just really sick of talking about myself” (laughing). You know you just kind of… I don’t know, I don’t really think of it in that kind of way.
The other thing that’s really interesting is that I have three really close friends who have nothing to do with Space program. We all met because of our children doing activities together, and we stayed friends over all these years. One day I was wearing the necklace that I wore in Space and I made some comment about the necklace, and my friend looked at me and said, “you know, you haven’t told us what you do in Space!”. She’d never heard my talk or we never really talked about Space. So, even now we’re actually planning on getting the group together and just talk… because when I’m by myself, I love to ski, I love to waterski, I love to read and I have learned to read on a Kindle, I never thought I would do that (laughing) and I’ve actually grown to really like it! Let’s see, I love to work out, I run and I lift weights. I love spending time with my family and my friends. Like everyone else.
Sure, that’s great. Sounds wonderful! Thanks a million for taking the time to speak with me and sharing all your brilliant answers. It’s really great to get the kind of inside track and hearing your insights.
Thank you so much for having looked at things and knowing the backgrounds. It allowed us to talk about some of the more fun aspects, and you asked some really really good questions.
Great, it’s been my pleasure! It’s been a great talk.
Yeah, I was really impressed with your work. I thought it was really neat and forwarded it on and thought it would be a really neat thing to do..
Cool! Thanks a million. That’s really nice of you to say.
Thank you so much Ross, it was nice talking with you.
Great, thanks Anna.
Okay, see ya, bye.
For more on Dr. Anna Fisher, and Space in general, you can visit the links below:
Astronaut Bio: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/fisher-a.html
Orion program: http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/systems/orion/
Nasa website: http://www.nasa.gov/
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