As commander of Expedition 1, the first crew on the International Space Station, it’s no wonder that Capt. William Shepherd was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, one of only 28 astronauts to receive the distinction. A Navy SEAL for more than 30 years, with a NASA assignment that included four trips into space — totaling more than 159 days in space — one would think Shepherd is ready for retirement. But no, on to his next act — in academia.
Four years ago, Shepherd was asked to join the advisory board of the Systems Engineering Research Center (SERC), a Department of Defense-funded consortium of 22 universities led by Stevens, which stimulates research in systems engineering and leadership to manage critical 21st-century challenges facing the nation’s defense and intelligence communities. “In my time doing that, I got interested in becoming more involved in academia, and I was offered the chance to help part time with the SERC staff. So far, I’ve lectured on campus about NASA’s technical culture for space flight and I’m working on a syllabus for a future SERC course which brings together a lot of technology I’ve seen in the Navy and in the space program,” he says. “I’m also coaching a Stevens capstone design team this semester, working on an interesting and complex design problem.”
Q: Why is a space program important and why do we send people to space?
A: It’s been a debate since the start of the space program, what positions humans have in space. There were robotic vehicles on the moon before any human ever got there, but we’ve seen that human exploration is incredibly important and valuable. We sent scientists and geologists to the moon and they were able to discern things that machines just could not interpret. More than that, I spent the last half of my NASA career working on the International Space Station (ISS), a premier research platform, which is the place crews and ground teams do great research in the microgravity of low Earth orbit. Beyond that, though, it’s a place where six humans live at a time, who are not “residents” of Earth anymore. It’s an important question we are asking — “Do humans have a place where they can live and work away from the Earth?” — and the ISS is helping to find the answer. This is one of the biggest reasons it’s necessary to have humans in space — to find out how far we can explore in space, and to figure out what is needed to stay there.
Q: What was unexpected out there?
A: On my fourth flight — I was up there for 4 ½ months — I’d been up there for a month and I was running around thinking about what daily life was like. The biggest surprise was that it all became so normal to me. I’m 200 miles up, going 17,500 mph around the Earth and looking out at these places that most people will never see; I remember passing over the Strait of Gibraltar for the fourth time one morning and thinking to myself, “Is there any more coffee in the galley?” It surprised me how quickly life on ISS became “normal” after about a month in orbit.
Q: What did you do for fun in space?
A: I liked to read books, and as a crew, we got together and watched DVDs at night. I was with two Russian Cosmonauts. We’d trained together for 4 ½ years, and we got along really well. In our orbital routine, we ate together and the food took a bit of preparation. For the evening meal, we’d stick the food packages in a small oven and it took about 30 minutes for things to heat up. We’d start the oven and start a DVD on a large laptop hanging on a nearby bulkhead. We’d each have lanyards to tie us off to the wall so we didn’t drift off as we bobbed around watching the movie. We would watch about half of the show each evening meal. One night we’re floating around, watching 2010 with Roy Scheider. It’s a science fiction space movie about an international crew (with Russians), on a large craft on a deep space exploration mission. In the background of the video you could see computer screens. And there I am, in a spacecraft with Russians, looking at the screen, seeing other spacecraft and their crews looking at screens, etc., etc. It was one of those infinite images of mirrors within mirrors where you see reflections going somewhere strange.
(Editor’s Note: Shepherd says the movie’s depiction of the spacecraft was accurate and “very representative.”)
Q: What do you want people to know about the experience?
A: Most people who get into NASA, whether they go in space or work in the teams on the ground, are very aware that we’re doing this stuff more because it’s hard than because it’s easy. I was a “frogman” in the Navy for over 30 years, and I remember one thing I was told in basic training. You get up every day, and you are getting ready for a really hard day of training. Then the instructor would step up and address the class: “You don’t have to like it; you just have to do it.”
It’s hard as a young person to have that kind of perspective, but I think most people who end up being astronauts approach their goals in a similar way.
As far as being selected to be an astronaut, thousands apply, hundreds get extensively interviewed. Most of the other applicants you meet in Houston would make great astronauts, but only ten or 15 are selected. When the space shuttle program started in the late ’70s, I applied for the 1980 class and was very encouraged, but then I didn’t get selected. I got picked in the following NASA selection. I still believe luck had something to do with it. (Editor’s note: Shepherd was accepted into NASA’s Astronaut Corps in 1984.)
Not being selected the first time was very hard for me, but failure is good in some respects. I think that doing design work or learning to engineer something, you have to have failures. If you don’t have some of it in your academic or professional life, you’re not growing.
Q: Did going to space change you or your viewpoints?
A: Not really — at least not in a way most people expect. Some astronauts say they have had an out-of-this-world experience, but I didn’t feel that way. I don’t mean to be negative about this, but when I flew my first flights on the space shuttle, the space “truck” that helped build the ISS, there were several times when I was on orbit, looking out the window at the Earth, 200 miles away, wondering — “Is this all we’re going to do?” I thought a lot about the amazing capacity of the shuttle and its technology. There had to be more to spaceflight than just circling the Earth — we had the capability, so let’s go out and see what we could do.
Kids today were not born when the moon landing happened. They know only the history they see on their laptops. For most, it’s probably a minor note in their personal interests. We should be doing more in our space programs to excite and inspire younger generations.
Q: What would you like to see for the future of the space program?
A: I roll it back to the reason why we did space as a new technical field: because it was challenging, and because it was politically and diplomatically important to have a strong capability in space. Space exploration was fueled by public interest, which was a big part of why it was successful. Future space exploration needs public support on the political front and the willingness to break out the credit cards — and we don’t really have either now. I don’t know how to “reignite” interest in space from the early days, but setting some clear national goals — to do more adventurous explorations in space within the next decade — is where I’d start.
The question should be, “What should we be doing to get that?”