Atlantis astronaut Mike Fossum isn’t going to the moon, at least not yet, but is headed to the International Space Station, where he’ll get to walk in space.
One of just 321 men and women in the history of the U.S. space program to become astronauts, Fossum now is training for his 12-day mission on STS-121. The launch is scheduled for Sept. 9 – currently down in the media’s attention span, as sister ship Discovery prepares for launch.
Fossum will make three space walks during the mission. One job for him will be inspecting Atlantis’ tiles and wings. He also will attempt to use new materials and techniques to repair damaged tiles the crew is taking along, an experiment to see whether crew members would be able to make shuttle repairs if needed.
“It’s one thing to make repairs in a laboratory environment. It’s another to roll up your sleeves in a big, bulky space suit and do it right,” Fossum said. “It’s like trying to repair plaster in sheetrock while wearing all of your winter clothes while standing on ice.”
The Atlantis flight will be only the second in the shuttle program since the Columbia disaster of Feb, 1, 2003. NASA has set a launch date of July 13 for the first flight, and Shuttle Discovery is already on the launch pad.
The Atlantis mission originally was targeted for last November, but was pushed back as NASA finished its process to ensure the shuttle flight is as safe as possible. Although Fossum is eager to fly, he doesn’t mind the delay.
“That doesn’t bother us a bit,” Fossum said. “Nobody wants to fly until everything’s ready.”
Fossum, accepted into NASA’s astronaut program in 1998, and the other six crew members started hard-core training in January 2004. During a typical week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, he spends 10 hours one day practicing launches and landings in a space simulator. Mission Control members sit in the control center, just as they would be during a real mission, and throw problems at the crew.
Uncle Carroll Fossum of Canton is eager for the trip to Florida to watch the Atlantis carry his nephew into space.
“I’m really proud. When he was accepted into the program, we were really happy,” said Carroll Fossum, 71. “I’ve just seen launches on TV. It will be nice to see this one.”
Carroll’s wife, Vivian, said it will be thrilling to see her nephew reach his goal.
“It’s wonderful for us but also wonderful for the country. We need something to rally around,” she said. “Mike wanted to do this always. Isn’t that every little boy’s dream?”
Vivian Fossum said she is determined that her 7-year-old grandson, Christian, be a part of the group that watches the launch. Maybe, some year, he’ll follow in his uncle’s space steps.
“That’s on his agenda, this week – becoming an astronaut,” she said.
Although Mike Fossum is a member of an elite group to reach astronaut status, his relatives say he’s a grown-up version of the normal kid who spent many summer weeks camping with cousins Jim and Jeff beside a creek bed in his uncle Ken’s pastures. He hasn’t forgotten his roots. “He’s just a regular guy when he comes back to visit,” Carroll Fossum said.
There was a time when Fossum almost let his dream die.
He studied engineering at Texas A&M University, then received a commission in the U.S. Air Force. After completing his graduate work at the Air Force Institute of Technology in 1981, he got his first break when he was detailed to NASA’s Johnson Space Center where he supported space shuttle flight operations.
“I had completely forgotten about my dream. Then I was loaned over to NASA and realized it could come true. I got to work with some of the astronauts and realized they aren’t that much different than me,” Fossum said. “That kind of awakened the dream in me and motivated me to try harder. Don’t believe you have limits. I did and I about forgot. I gave up on my dream until I was lucky to be in a situation where it was achievable. Don’t be afraid to work hard and go for it.”
“I consider myself a very normal person,” he said. “Nobody I grew up with thought, ‘Gee, he’s going to be an astronaut someday.’ “
One week before launch, the crew will enter quarantine in Houston. Four days before the launch, they’ll be moved to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
On launch day, the astronauts will strap into seats much like an airliner’s. They will lie on their backs for the launch with knees pointed upward.
“It’s a strange sensation,” Fossum said. “It’s very disorienting.”
At full throttle, they’ll experience up to three G-forces, essentially a stress on the body three times greater than the acceleration of gravity.
Astronauts also will have to be in a lying position on the return trip because the body loses its ability to control blood pressure after an extended time on the space station.
Once Atlantis goes into orbit and the main engines shut off, Fossum will jump out of his seat and get busy with his responsibilities.
“When that’s complete, I will probably look out the window and say, ‘I can’t believe I’m here. Thank you Lord,’ ” he said.
That shuttle’s left wing was damaged during liftoff in January 2003 when a large chunk of fuel-tank insulating foam broke off and struck it. That caused the shuttle to break apart during re-entry two weeks later, killing all seven astronauts.
Fossum hopes this mission will be the first of several for him. Astronauts typically are limited to three or four space missions because of the number young astronauts eager for their turns to fly.
“For me, I don’t really harbor any hopes of going four times,” he said. “I hope to go on a couple.”
If one of those should involve an extended tour on the space station – where Fossum helped persuade NASA to add an observation window – that would be all the better.
“That would be incredible, not to be up there for a sprint,” he said. “A space station tour is more of a marathon.”
As for the chances he could one day set foot on the moon, Fossum said it’s a possibility. But it would not happen for many years, and it wouldn’t involve a space shuttle.
Plans call for the shuttle to be phased out in 2010. Work is in progress to develop the next generation of spacecraft, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle.
President Bush last year outlined a vision for space exploration that laid groundwork to return to the moon, as well as Mars. Fossum said it’s just a matter of time before mankind sets foot on Mars.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And I just pray there’s an American flag on his shoulders.”
A mission to Mars will be a big challenge compared to the moon, which is about three days away.
“The moon is still close enough you can get out of Dodge and still get home in a relative hurry if you need to,” Fossum said. “Mars is about an eight-month journey. We need to learn a bit more. That’s really 20 years away, beyond my flying career. My kids are really dreaming about it.”