Colonel Edward Michael Fincke, USAF, is an American astronaut, who spent April to October 2004, on board the International Space Station as flight engineer. He is scheduled to be the Commander of ISS Expedition 18, launching on a Soyuz spacecraft in October 2008. ICTACEM brought him to IITKGP this December 2007, and we at The Scholars’ Avenue, never too far behind from the flurry of any venerable activity in campus, caught up with him.
He greets us with a typically foreign accented “Namaskar” and ample not-so-typical warmth. While waving at everybody present, he entertains the endless requests of people trying to share a frame with him. The beaming smile never falters. He punctuates his conversation with an occasional “theek ache”, which he says is one of the few Bengali words he has picked up. Decked up in a spacesuit, he stands out amongst the crowd. The man has spent six months in space but surely has his feet firmly grounded. In the more comfortable and quiet setting of his guest house, we fire away.
SA: Have you ever come to India before?
CF: Yes, I was here in 2003 with my family. We went to visit my wife’s relatives in Assam and had a traditional Assamese new year celebration. I am learning Assamese as well and want my kids to learn about the culture their mother hails from.
SA: You have said in your interviews that you wanted to be an Astronaut since you were 3 years old. Was there a specific incident that inspired you?
CF: I was pretty young when Neil Armstrong went to the Moon. One day there was something related to the Apollo moon mission being telecast on the television. My parents made me watch it and I said to myself, “this seems to be something really important”. It was then I think I decided to be an astronaut.
SA: If an Indian student, say someone here at IIT Kharagpur, wants to be an astronaut, what is the career path he should take?
CF: It is unfortunate that India does not have an astronaut program of its own. One way is get into NASA. In order to do that, one must get an American citizenship first. This is what Kalpana Chawla did. Another avenue is to be SUPER RICH! Like the Indians they show in bollywood movies.
On a more serious tone the NASA selection procedure is very strict, a bit like your IIT entrance exam, only the best people get in. The trick here is what degrees you should have and what courses you should take up. I would say just follow your heart. It is really important to enjoy what you are doing. I have degrees in astrophysics and astrology and in planetary geology. These are fields which I thought would help me in becoming an astronaut but these were also what I wanted to study and what I enjoyed. If you blindly emulate somebody else you will end up doing a job you don’t like, you will put on lots of weight, lose hair and probably be claimed by a heart attack.
SA: You graduated in 1985 and got onto the ISS expedition in 2004. What were the significant experiences in between?
CF: I served in the US Air Force with over 800 flying hours. You have to mind the controls, listen to the ground support, watch your trajectory closely and several things are happening at once. So it mentally prepares you. But I failed my pilot training test. Then it seemed like the worst, but in retrospect I consider it’s the best thing that could have happened to me. I decided to become a flying engineer. It was a valuable lesson on dealing with failures. I succeeded through my failures and now I am 5 years ahead of my astronaut colleagues. It was still 8 more years at NASA before I could get into space. During this time I contributed in the best possible way I could. I got to spend some time in Russia, where I helped in getting the space station started. When you are working in a team, the right attitude is to help the team in every possible way and benefits for the individual will come along.
SA: What was it like moments before you were going to get on board?
CF: I couldn’t believe it was happening. 2-3 hours before liftoff I was afraid something might delay the moment. It was like somebody would open the hatch and say all this was a mistake and I would have to get down. Moments before liftoff, I was smiling. Nothing could stop me.
SA: 188 days in space. How many of them were memorable?
CF: Oh those were great days. We carried out 4 spacewalks. My daughter was born when I was on board. But I had to wait for 4 months before I could meet her though I was always in touch via video conferencing. On board after the news of my daughter’s birth we exchanged candy cigars and took the day off. I also saw kuch kuch hota hai and Lagaan aboard ISS during my last expedition
SA: You are the commander of Expedition 18 that is scheduled for launch on October 2008. Tell us something about this mission.
CF: The ISS, started in 1998, is currently humanity’s only outpost in space. The next mission aims at completing the expansion of the ISS. After which, the ISS will accommodate 6 members. We have a fully functional European lab. By January 2008, there would be a Japanese lab too. The complete space station has been equipped with more life support system to facilitate research and pave way for newer discoveries.
SA: Where do you see Space Research heading towards in the next few decades?
CF: It will be aimed towards achieving manufacturing in space considering the vast resources, the rare chemicals, isotopes of helium etc available in outer space. The microgravity environment helps in formation of big crystals that has huge application in the field of medicine. It’s about human beings going beyond their limits. It’s in human nature to explore. The scope is infinite and boundaries none in this field.
SA: How justified do you think is pouring millions of dollars to find water on moon when thousands die thirsty in the undeveloped parts of our planet?
CF: Politics is funny and has nothing to do with logic. We are technical people. NASA has comparatively very small budget maybe 1% of what is spent on defence. It does not cost much but builds technology which is the engine of any economy. Investment in technology is a guarantee to better job, better living conditions. Moon program did that for us. Money spent on space cannot feed everybody but the technology developed will.
SA: To end on a lighter note, we came across a trivia saying you have been a guest star on the TV series ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’.
CF: Yes, It’s a popular series about space exploration in the US. I was quite excited when I was invited for the final episode. Sailing through stars in a starship looked really cool on TV. I visited them in Hollywood, put on a space suit and memorized my lines. But then on a set nothing’s real, everything is fake. All the buttons are made of plastic. We have to pretend a thread is our enemy and fight out with him. It was a disappointment. Still I hope some day I’d be able to take my whole family along on our space ship and show them outer space.