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CNN interviews Discovery's commander

STS-102 commander James Wetherbee  

(CNN) -- As NASA prepared the space shuttle Discovery for launch on a mission to the international space station, CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien interviewed mission commander James Wetherebee.

(Editor's note: Russia has booked U.S. multimillionaire Dennis Tito, 60, who wants to be the world's first space tourist, on a Soyuz rocket flight that will blast off April 30, from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome. The rocket will carry Tito to the international space station.)

MILES O'BRIEN: I want to talk to you about this Tito thing. And I know this is a big, you know, source of discussion. Even as we speak the Russians are here and and there's a lot of give and take in this. I just want to … to understand what the big concern is. ‘Cause you know on the one hand NASA and and a lot of astronauts will tell you, hey we'd like to have everybody come on up to space because that would insure the the the program would go on because it's an exciting place and let's open it up to more people. And yet on the other hand, it appears to be the astronaut club kind of closing the doors saying hey you're not good enough. You can't come up into space. Is that what it is? Or what is the real concern here?

JAMES WETHERBEE: No I don't think that's a fair way to say it. As you said, I do wish that anybody who wants to fly into space could come and fly in space. It's a tremendous experience. You can't go and sit on top of a rocket without feeling very close to the crewmembers who you're getting ready to launch with. I think tourist in space is an interesting title, but not very descriptive. I think anytime you sit on top of a rocket -- no matter how you got there -- you're no longer a tourist, you're a fully integrated member of the crew. And I think that with a sufficient training and and certification process that it's something that we can do and probably will do in the future.

MILES O'BRIEN: But not now?

JAMES WETHERBEE: We are now developing the certification process and the training that anybody needs to have to fly on top of a rocket. You know, space is an interesting business. Space and rockets don't care how much money you make or how much training you have. Crewmembers don't really care how much money you have. But they do care how much training you had. You must be well trained and and certified and ready to handle difficult situations both physiologically and operationally. And so anytime you're going to attempt to do a venture like this you have to know somebody and have them come and and train and it's a again an interesting environment. These days you don't have to be in peak physical conditioning. Although certainly the re-entry process is is relatively demanding on the heart so you have to make sure you have a pretty good heart things like that. And you have to be in generally good health. Those kinds of things though can be overcome. And I think we can fly people in the future as as long as they're properly trained and certified.

MILES O'BRIEN: But not April 30th?

JAMES WETHERBEE: I don't know how far along they are in those kinds of discussions. I expect when I come back I will be involved in those kinds of discussions.

MILES O'BRIEN: Let me ask it this way. What do you think this says about the partnership (between the U.S. and Russia)? You almost get the sense that the Russians seem to want to just do this no matter what. It's a gray area of the partnership as it is. There's a sense that there's a bit of an end around here or an attempt to at least violate the spirit of the partnership.

JAMES WETHERBEE: Well, I think the Russians who (are) on the operational side are are very good. I've been working with them very closely for many years. And they really know what it takes to find space. They, by the way, know more about long duration flight than we do. They've done it more. They've had much more experience. We've learned a tremendous amount from the Russians. I think that they understand the kind of training that someone must have to go and fly in space and to and to not endanger the crew and and to be able to be a good crewmember. And I could even use the words of my friend Valin Martita (PHONETIC). I've flown with him twice now. And he said to me one time when we were talking about contingencies and training and difficult situations and emergencies on the launch pad -- and he said mostly this doesn't really matter. The important thing is do not leave a crewmember on a burning rocket. You must take care of each other. And there is that trust that you must have when you're strapped onto a rocket. I'm sure you can develop that kind of a trust with good training. I'm sure the Russians understand that. And I'm sure we're going to be able to do it in the future.

MILES O'BRIEN: But this doesn't speak poorly about the cooperation and the partnership in some way?

JAMES WETHERBEE: I don't think so. I think the Russians know what the right answers are and these kinds of things. And I'm sure they're involved in the discussions and generating in parallel with us and in cooperation with us the certification processes and the training that must go into flying someone in space. I also think that, by the way, if someone is going to go and climb on top of a rocket that they would want to have a tremendous amount of training and to be fully prepared and and to have preparatory situations where they see how they're going to react. I mean I wouldn't want to climb on top of a rocket with all that explosive propellant without knowing how was I going to react and handle those kinds of situations. I think the experience, when all is said and done at the end of it, would be much better if you went through those kinds of things and preparatory training and learned the crewmembers and worked with them. That's all part of the space flight experience -- which is far more rewarding than the actual flight -- working with the people on the ground. I've been here about 15 years now and I've flown in space for a total of about a month. In the rest of the 14 years and and 11 months I've been helping other crews get ready -- working with crews working with the trainers and the instructors and building trust with the Russians. That's the great part of the job is working with the people. I think it would be very rewarding for someone to go and fly on a rocket if they went through certification process and training.

O'BRIEN: Good chance if everything happens the way it's supposed to happen (that) while you're up there Mir is going to come down. You've had a chance to see Mir up close and personal like few people in the world have. Is that going to be a day where there's a bit of relief here in the sense that the Russians can focus now completely fully on international space station? Or is that relief already came with the fact that they've pretty much moth-balled it a year ago?

JAMES WETHERBEE: Mir is a great vehicle. It was a great battleship. When I first went up and saw Mir several years ago I think many Americans around the country didn't even know that the Russians had a space station that was permanently inhabited. And they had been doing it for 9 years at the time I think. To me it was a dream come true. Since I was 10 years old, I had watched movies of people go zorching (PHONETIC) up and fly up next to a space station. And here I was several years ago doing that and seeing a space station. Brilliant light. Just perfect in appearance. And really look nice and it was unbelievable to me. And I thought back to the time when we were in competition with the Russians. And here they had a space station. Jump forward a couple years three years or so and when I went and (INAUDIBLE) docked a second time you could see as I approached, you could see little imperfections in the vehicle. It was older. It had many millions of more miles. It had other solar rays. You could see some of the micrometeoroid hits on it and some of the discoloration due to the radiation and the harsh environment of space. But inside it was a much better vehicle. It was capable of performing science experiments and and a real workhorse for the Russians. We spent the first night before we got into the heavy activity of transferring equipment -- we had a leisurely dinner. And I watched a videotape of us -- film of us and Atlantis coming up and docking with the Russians. And it was a tremendously proud moment for me just to stand there and float along and just think about here I am on a Russian space vehicle -- a Russian space station. This country has persevered -- has worse budget problems than we do and they took the next step. After not getting to the moon, they built an outpost in space and they've been working there ever since. And they know much more about long duration space flight than we do. And more than that I think their country is committed to exploration even with their severe budget problems. And I also happen to think that if we continue to explore and and learn from each other and improve technology that that will help the budget problems in the future. So I think the partnership is is great. We continue to learn from the Russians. Hopefully they're learning from us. And I think the program is better off because we're together.

MILES O'BRIEN: Do you think that anybody truly has anything to worry about as as Mir comes down? It is unprecedented. It's certainly in size. It's aerodynamic features. Nothing like this has ever fallen. Nothing manmade has fallen from lower Earth orbit. Should we be concerned?

JAMES WETHERBEE: Well, that is exactly why you want to de- orbit a vehicle like Mir as it's reaching the end of its useful service flight because you want to have it reenter in a controlled fashion where you know where it's going to impact in the vast ocean. You don't want to wait too long if it starts to lose some of the systems and it's ability to control itself and then you can't predict where it's going to come down. And so that wouldn't be good. And so I think from that technical point of view, it is the right time to do it. Again it proves the Russians know operations. They know when it's the right time to deal with Mir and and that's what we're about to do.

MILES O'BRIEN: It is the right time then?

JAMES WETHERBEE: I think so. It's at the end of its service life. We have the next vehicle that, by the way, they're going to receive a tremendous amount from the international space station with their service module and … all of the science that they intend to do on the space station.

MILES O'BRIEN: Is there a plan currently for deorbiting the international space station?

JAMES WETHERBEE: I think anytime you build a vehicle into lower Earth orbit you must have, you must be thinking about that. It is the right thing to do. I have not discussed with anyone those plans. But of of course you -- again we need to do it when it's time. And before you start to loose too many of the systems.

(Editor's note: In February, NASA announced the George Abbey, the prime manager of the U.S. role in space station Alpha, would be relieved of his duties in Houston. Abbey was reassigned as a "senior assistant" in NASA's headquarters in Washington.)

MILES O'BRIEN: George Abbey. Put his legacy into perspective, if you will, now that he's left. What did he do for Johnson Space Station manned space flight here?

JAMES WETHERBEE: I had to think for many years that we would not be able to get through the initial parts on the space station without having significant problems. And I was wrong. And that was because of George Abbey. He was a tremendous influence -- will continue to be a tremendous influence on design and operations of space vehicles. He has taught me a tremendous amount. You know, if you think about the hardware of the space station, it was the first time we'd ever built something with different contractors and subcontractors around the country. And they didn't they didn't have the ability to hook the pieces together before launching it because some of the newer pieces you had to get on orbit. Some of the later pieces you hadn't designed yet. And so the first time we're going to connect it is up in the harsh environment of space. You take the hardware up there. On one side it's frigid. The other side, it's boiling hot. It's suffocating in a vacuum and it's drowning in radiation. And you're hoping that the hardware doesn't get cut in half by a piece of dust that thinks it's a laser beam at the speeds they're going. And it's amazing to me that you can put together a vehicle like this and have it work. That is because we had all of the Saturday meetings that Mr. Abbey chaired and got the companies together and built the vehicle to its current design and launched it. So it's a tremendous legacy. I'm very happy and encouraged by Mr. Golden's selection of Roy Estess). He has spent the last 40 years doing similar kinds of things, asking pointed insightful questions. I spent 5 years with him on the flight readiness review board when I was the deputy director here. And he has tremendous, Mr. Estess, has a tremendous capability for understanding the testing that's required before you launch a vehicle into space. He assured me over the weekend that we're going to continue those kinds of things to make sure that every flight is very successful. And I'm very encouraged by his selection to follow in the footsteps of Mr. Abbey.

MILES O'BRIEN: Was it a good tenure and what is lost?

JAMES WETHERBEE: Well absolutely was a good tenure. I think he spent probably more time here as a director than anyone else. To use Mr. Abbey's words that he told me over the weekend, we all have to be ready for change and we have to prepared to be flexible and and move on. He's continuing to work with us and I'm sure he's going to make whatever he works on much better than before he got there. So I'm very encouraged about that. He has built a great program that exists now and so others can come in and continue to operate the program and ask the good questions like Mr. Estess will. And now it's time for Mr. Abbey to go off and improve something else. I figure this space station is Mr. Abbey's. He designed and built and launched it. Now he's going to help us make something else much better.

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