INTERVIEW: Back from the space station, astronaut 'Butch' Wilmor - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Back from the space station, astronaut 'Butch' Wilmore shares story of faith, wonder...and condiments

INTERVIEW: Back from the space station, astronaut 'Butch' Wilmore shares story of faith, Christmas...and condiments

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NOTE: Click on the video player above to hear the interview in its entirety.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If you talk to Butch Wilmore for any length of time, you'll quickly learn he loves his job.

The good-natured Tennessee native talks excitedly when discussing work. He laughs at his own jokes -- cracking himself up at an unexpected pun or humorous recollection. And his southern drawl gets almost wistful at times when he ponders his recent work-related trip.

Because no matter how far you may have traveled for your job or on vacation last year, it's a pretty good bet Wilmore has you beat. In March, the 52-year-old husband and father returned from a six-month stay aboard the International Space Station.

On Wednesday, May 27, we spoke with Wilmore at length by phone about his time aboard the station. With the trip, and his physical recuperation now weeks behind him, Wilmore was able to add fresh perspective to the experience -- and share with us a story that blends his Christian faith with the joys of spaceflight.


Six-Hour Road Trip

Though not as frequently covered on national television as the American space shuttle launches of recent years, Russian Soyuz launches are quite the spectacle -- but Wilmore's experience was from the inside. On Sept. 25, he climbed aboard the cramped capsule with Russian cosmonauts Aleksandr Samokutyayev and Elena Serova, to take part in a successful launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Wilmore has flown on both a Soyuz and a space shuttle -- and he says the Soyuz packs its own kind of punch.

"Yeah, anytime you leave the planet, as you would imagine, it's fairly thrilling, with the thrust as it gets higher and higher and higher," he said. "The G-forces get higher. And then of course you have staging, when all of a sudden the thrust dissipates significantly to the point where, during Stage One, man, it felt as if we lost all engines, because I kind of went forward in my straps a little bit when that staging took place. Because you lose four-fifths of your thrust on a Soyuz at that point, a little bit after two minutes into the flight."

"And then of course when you get to main engine cut-off, when you're actually in space, that's a really super-dynamic event on the Soyuz," he added. "Everything shakes. There's pyros blast firing – and all of a sudden – very jarring, as you might imagine, as well."

But that's just the start of the journey. The hard part is catching up and docking with a space station the size of a six-bedroom house that's orbiting the Earth at just over 17,000 miles an hour (almost five miles a second), at an altitude of 250 miles. You don't do that in five minutes.

"We used to take two days to phase in and get closer to the station," he said. "We'd stay in a lower orbit, which is a little faster, and we'd catch up to it and we'd take a couple of days to do that. But now, we do it in six hours, so from launch until you actually dock with the station, only six hours. It makes for a very long day, but it's much better, I think, in many respects."

Upon arrival, Wilmore and his two crewmates were welcomed by American astronaut Reid Wiseman, cosmonaut Max Suraev and German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who were already aboard the station. 

Wilmore said it's a dramatic moment when the hatch opens, and the astronauts go from the "very cramped" Soyuz capsule to "this big, wide, huge, open expanse of the space station," -- but moving around in weightlessness for the first time can be be difficult. 

"That can be disorienting somewhat for some," he said. "I didn't have any transition issues at all from…gravity to zero-gravity. But you know, you have a fluid shift – the fluids are pulled to the lower extremities of your body, with gravity – and of course you don't have that when you're in space. So the fluid shifts throughout your body. So that can be some[what] uncomfortable as you get used to that, just within itself."

What he says he did experience, was a brief sensation that astronauts typically struggle with when they get confused about whether they're right-side up or upside-down. He says the disorientation is a mental trick caused by conflicting signals sent to the brain, when an astronaut is strapped in (as if there is gravity), but his body floats as if there is not. He said the sensation of tumbling, or of hanging upside-down is deceptive, as there is no "upside-down" in space.

"And I got just a moment – a moment – of that on the Soyuz launch," he said. "But again, since I'd experienced it before, I just said, 'Okay, that's not real. Turn that off.' And it did. It went away pretty quick. Kind of 'mind over matter,' I guess."


Field trip

During his time on the station, Wilmore had the distinction of taking part in no less than four spacewalks -- ventures outside the station -- clocking several hours in a spacesuit, something he calls "a one-man space capsule...shaped like a person."
"Of course you get inside it. It's all self-contained, and you go literally out into the vacuum of space, separated by just thin layers of material," he said.

"And the first thing that went through my mind is, 'I cannot believe we actually do this!'" he laughed. "We actually put little pink bodies into little bitty suits and send them out to work outside the space station! In that respect, it's pretty mind boggling."

As he speaks, you can tell he's grateful for the experience.

"It is amazing," he emphasized. "You sit there and you look 180 degrees through your visor, and you see the beauty of the Earth and contrast it with the station. And there's no air particles. There's no dust in the air, because there is no air. There's no humidity in the air, so the visual is absolutely without obstruction – and it's amazingly clear and beautiful. It's just overwhelming." 

"But you're outside for a purpose," he's quick to add. "You're not outside to stargaze, so to speak. You're outside to work. And it is – it is a great deal of work. But at the same time, it's very, very rewarding. When you go out and you go to change things and they power up and they work. When things go well, it's very rewarding – especially, I would say, magnified by that environment."

That's not to say it's not without its dangers. In February, Wilmore was outside the station on a spacewalk with fellow astronaut Terry Virts (three months into Wilmore's mission, crewmates Wiseman, Suraev and Gerst were replaced by Virts, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov). Upon re-entering the station after that spacewalk, Virts discovered traces of water in his helmet. 

The discovery was eerily reminiscent of another, more dramatic incident, in July 2013 which a space helmet used by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano filled with water, posing the risk that he would drown.

Wilmore was quick to downplay the danger.

"Yeah, Terry's suit – it got some water in the helmet," he said. "But as you go back and you change pressure outside the suit, as we started to re-pressurize the airlock, it does change some things. There's some condensate that basically built up in his suit. And it's a known issue with that suit. Some of the mechanisms within the suit itself – they're built to the same specs, but just like anything, sometimes you get a lemon. For a car, other cars are built the same way. This isn't a lemon, so to speak, it's just a characteristic of his suit. It has extra condensation as the re-pressurization process starts – and that's what started to spit out into his helmet. So again, it was a known issue."


Christmas in space

Holiday celebrations pose their own unique challenges in space. Being away from your family can put a damper on the experience, but Wilmore said he and his crewmates found ways to spread the holiday cheer.

Days before Christmas, Wilmore and Virts appeared in a video from the station, with a small, floating artificial Christmas tree in front of them and stockings pinned to the wall behind.

"We want to take the opportunity to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year," Wilmore said in the video. "Terry and I, you know, Christmas for us is a time of worship. It's a time that we think back to the birth of what we would consider our Lord. We do that at our homes, and we plan to do the same thing up here -- take just a little bit of time to reflect on those topics."

Months later, Wilmore, a committed Christian, recalls spending Christmas Day itself on the station -- and one experience he will always remember.

"I get up early. I'm an early riser. And everybody else – they're probably more normal," he said. "I'm more abnormal. I'd get up at 4:30. I'd work out early. And on days off, they would stay in bed a little longer. So on Christmas morning, I got up at the normal time, and I had like four or five hours alone. And during that time – the timing of it all may be a gift from the Lord, I don't know – we went right over Israel Christmas morning. I was all by myself and it was the clearest day I had seen the whole time I was on-station. To go over the Holy Land and to experience that on Christmas Day was certainly very special for me."

Later in the day, the crew would enjoy Christmas together.

"We treated it like Christmas," he said. "We had a Christmas tree. In zero gravity, there is no up-and-down, left-or-right, as you mentioned, but still, we label the deck. We label the overhead. So our Christmas tree – we stuck Velcro to the overhead so it was inverted, with respect to how the station was labeled – kind of unique. And we had all brought little gifts and we had a little time for that."

Even Mission Control got into the act.

"A lot of people have to work on Christmas Day and they were no different," he said. "So since they had to do that, we actually sang them some Christmas carols from space. Just to have fun – because it is a unique day, of course."

I mentioned that, although I saw their Christmas message, I never had the opportunity to view video of the Christmas carol "concert."

"Yeah, I don't know that we took video of that," Wilmore said, laughing.

Another video that is conspicuously absent: the "turkey call" competition the crew had on Thanksgiving Day. The competition was graded by Mission Control.

"Oh yeah," Wilmore laughed. "All three of us gave our best turkey call. Samantha Cristoforetti is Italian – so she had the Italian turkey. I'm from Tennessee, so I had the backwoods Tennessee turkey."

"We try to have some fun."


"Landgazing"

As exciting as space exploration is, you're still cooped up in tin can. Granted, it's a tin can with a pressurized volume equal to that of a Boeing 747, but a tin can nonetheless. Doesn't it ever get old? After spending months in space, aren't there times when the astronauts want to pull their hair out, jump in the spare Soyuz capsule, flip the switch and go home?

"You know, Travis, no there wasn't," Wilmore said. "It is such a unique place. Zero gravity never gets old. I mean, literally, you fly around. You feel like Superman, literally, because you're flying. It just doesn't get old, because it's so unique. So no, I never felt that."

One of the things that make the trip so exciting, Wilmore said, is the view.

"It is literally sensory overload," he said. "I mean, it never got old floating up to the window and just star-gazing – or land-gazing – for hours on end. That opportunity was rare, but we did have some of that on the weekends."

"And we'd fight sometimes: 'Hey, let me take a picture of that! My turn!'" he laughed. "I'm kidding of course, but it was pretty amazing."

And the speed the space station is traveling gives the astronauts the opportunity to see a lot quickly.

"In one eight-hour period, I went over Baja, California, which is the desert contrasted with the blue of the Pacific and the sun glint coming off the ocean," he said. "I mean, you haven't seen glint off of water until you've seen it off of an entire body of water over hundreds of miles at the same time."

"So that was that, and then a couple of hours later, it was over the mouth of the Amazon River, and then a little bit after that, it was over the red clay area of Australia. And then there were just unbelievable sights of these super-blue lakes contrasted with the desert in Uzbekistan. And that was, like I said, one eight-hour period."

"I took pictures of all of them, I sent them to my family, and I said, 'You know, this is just an example of what you can see and experience in just a very short period of time.'"

As breathtaking as the view was, Wilmore admits there are still things you miss from home -- and chief among them is family. But there was one other thing he missed...

"You know, I learned that you can eat anything if you've got enough condiments, so I think condiment was the thing I craved," he said. "There was a period where we had none, but then SpaceX came and they brought up a bunch of yellow mustard and I was very happy."


There...and back again.

An astronaut's typical "tour of duty" on the space station is six months -- and in March, it was finally time for Wilmore and his crewmates to come home. On March 11, they boarded a Soyuz capsule -- the same one they rode up on -- and disembarked from the station, leaving Virts, Cristoforetti and Shkaplerov behind.

Then began the process of re-entry.

"This was another moment where, as we're 17,000 miles an hour inside the 3,000 degree fireball, looking out the window and everything is just orange, I'm thinking, 'Oh my. Here's another point where, I can't believe we actually do this. We put little pink bodies in a capsule and sling 'em, back to the earth at 17,000 miles an hour!'" he laughed.

As mentioned above, Wilmore has now flown on both a Soyuz capsule and the space shuttle -- and as he explained, the landing was nothing the gentle touchdown the shuttle would experience when it returned to Earth.

"Of course the touchdown was just – it was – oh my," he said. "I've heard it described as a Mack Truck hitting you in the back, and I can imagine that's what it would feel like. It was the hardest thing I have ever felt in my life. I mean, you're falling at 22 feet per second. Even though you're under a parachute, it's still pretty quick that you're coming down."

"And, oh my, the impact was something else," he said.

In the weeks since he's been back, Wilmore says he's had the opportunity to watch the space station fly over from the ground, and it brings a wave of fond memories. He knows some of the crewmates he served with -- Virts, Cristoforetti, and Shkaplerov -- are still up there. (They've agreed to stay an extra, seventh, month as Russia investigates the destruction of a Russian Progress 59 cargo ship that suffered a launch failure.)

"You see it go over, you realize what's there," Wilmore said. "You have a visual of what it's like that other people don't have. You have a visual of what the outside looks like that other people don't have – other than pictures. And the people that I spent months with are still there, so in that respect, the reminiscing part of it was fantastic."

His voice is wistful.

"But I didn't long to be back," he said, after a beat. "At this point, there's a lot of other people that have been selected to do this job and have trained for it long and hard, and they need to have their turn, obviously, before I get to go back. And that's the way it should be." 

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