Astronaut inspired by 'The Right Stuff' gets set for the second act he never expected
Retired NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson will return to space on the first crewed flight of Boeing's new commercial space capsule.
Chris Ferguson walks under the space shuttle Atlantis after landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 21, 2011. The flight marked the end of NASA's space shuttle program.Scott Audette / AP
After flying in space three times — including as commander of NASA's final space shuttle mission — and spending more than 40 days off the planet, Chris Ferguson hung up his astronaut wings in 2011. But rather than kick up his feet, the former U.S. Navy pilot went back to work — this time in the commercial sector.
MACH recently chatted with Ferguson about his decision to leave NASA, why it's harder to pilot a space capsule than the shuttle, and what he hopes for the future of human spaceflight. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. [Editor's note: Boeing is a sponsor of MACH's Making of an Astronaut series.]
MACH: Take me back to the retirement of the space shuttle. What was that like for you?
Ferguson: Nobody wanted to see the shuttle go away, but we all understood that human spaceflight programs are expensive — they're very taxing on the taxpayer's dollars. It's hard to develop a new system unless the old one goes away. You just can't afford to do both at the same time. So we understood that in order to take two steps forward, we were going to have to take a half-step back and retire the shuttle. I didn't want it to go away. Nobody did. But given that it had to happen, I was just elated to be a part of the last mission. Bittersweet is overused, but it really was.
I wanted to make sure the shuttle went out on a good note. We wanted a nice, calm mission. I think in the end we delivered it, and we had a chance to celebrate on behalf of so many people who had made the shuttle program happen for over 30 years, and the crews that had flown it.
What went into your decision to then retire from NASA and join Boeing?
I remember as a young astronaut, showing up in 1998, I looked at all of these older astronauts in front of me and thought, “Wow, they've had the chance to be in space. They’ve done so much. Now I wish they would move on so I could have my turn, you know?” It was a selfish way of looking at it, but I saw that as a veteran astronaut. You looked back and you wanted to give the younger folks their turn.
There is no set retirement age for astronauts. As you get into your early 60s, it gets harder to pass the physical, which is pretty strenuous. I knew that I probably had — how old was I at the time? I was 49, I think. I knew that I had another half of a career in front of me. I thought it was just the best time to get started on that and leave on a high note. It was hard, but in hindsight I think it was the right move.
Did you think at that time that you would never fly in space again?
I was positive I was not going to fly again. I didn't foresee this coming about at all. I started talking to some of the senior leaders from Boeing — we started talking about maybe needing an astronaut's touch on the new vehicle that they were building back in 2011. Not many people knew about it, myself included. When they started talking about having me join the team, I thought, “Wow, I actually get to leverage some of my experience.” To be able to put all of your experience to use and help put together the next generation of spacecraft, who would not jump at that opportunity?
You're in a unique position, working on the corporate and engineering side but also preparing to return to space as an astronaut. Is that a fun position to be in — or is it stressful?
All of the above is a really good description. We're charting new territory. It took Boeing and me and NASA a little while to wrap our heads around how exactly we were going to manage this. Frankly, to a certain extent, we're making it up as we go along.
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But it is sort of a unique position. For NASA, the commercialization of cargo in space, and crews in space, is part of their agenda. Having commercial astronauts is just an extension of having a commercial way to get back and forth from space.
I go back to the infancy of aviation where you had these barnstormers who then started carrying passengers — not so much for hire, but just as a way to get from point A to point B. Twenty years go by, and you have the onset of the commercial airplane industry. Those commercial airplanes are piloted by people who cut their teeth in carrying the U.S. mail around as government contractors. Fast forward 100 years, and we are at the threshold of the same sort of business, with something that previously belonged exclusively to government. Is this the initial vestiges of what could be called a commercial space race? Time will tell.
Early on, were there things about the Starliner’s design that you wanted to tweak?
When I started, it was a blank slate. We didn't have a crew interface. We had to understand how the vehicle was going to operate autonomously yet still be capable of being operated by a human at any given time, and then turn it back over to automation. So this is a new concept. The shuttle was very manual. All the displays, the interaction, how the pilot manually flies or conducts orbital burns — that was all just a dream. I look back on it, and it was one of the most exciting times, to take a clean sheet and say, what does the spacecraft of 2030 look like?
The Starliner isn't designed to have astronauts aboard for significant periods of time. How did that factor into the spacecraft’s design, and what are some ways that you balanced comfort with practicality?
The space shuttle — I always liken it to an RV. It had most of the creature comforts of home because it was designed to stay in space for 14 to 16 days. It had the means to keep seven people comfortable and the elbow room to keep them not in each other's face for almost three weeks. That’s a far cry from where we are right now. For missions to take astronauts to the space station, we can get there within six hours. So, one of the measures is to just go sort of bare bones as far as the creature comforts. As opposed to RV camping, it's sort of like wilderness camping.
The Starliner capsule mixes autonomous operation with astronaut-controlled operation. When you do take over the controls, will it be more or less difficult than piloting the space shuttle?
It [requires] thinking differently. Most people think about flying as your nose is pointed forward and you roll left and the vehicle goes left and you roll right and the vehicle goes right, and to a certain degree, that's true in orbit. Most people don't realize that the shuttle actually did a lot of flying once it got into the atmosphere, but look at it — it had wings, of course it was flown.
Capsules can do a little bit of flying too. And the whole reason they do the flying is so that they can get what's called cross range. If you didn't have cross range capability, or the ability to sort of fly sideways on re-entry, for every opportunity to land, you would have to have your landing site right underneath you. That happens very infrequently, so you have to be able to fly left and right a little bit. And when you do that kind of flying in the atmosphere, your back is forward, so now you're flying backwards and you're flying at an angle of attack that's about 150 degrees. Typically, we fly at an angle of attack that's about 10 degrees, so I really had to wrap my head around the whole concept of flying backwards. I'm still not sure I have my whole head around it, but that's one of the big differences.
Were there any lessons learned from the shuttle program that went into Starliner's design?
Yes, one of the big enhancements is crew safety. As wonderful as the shuttle was, we lost two of them and 14 astronauts to go with it. You don't like marks like that on your record, so one of the big enhancements that NASA requires is an all-envelope escape capability on ascent. Some of the early rockets — you may recall those conical-shaped nose cones at the top, what they call an escape tower, to pull you away in the event something drastically goes wrong during ascent. Sort of like an ejection seat for a rocket. We've added that capability to our rocket, and it has proven to be interesting and one of our design challenges as well.
The other one is autonomy, the ability to have the vehicle navigate itself. It really doesn't even need the support of the ground team. When you launch, it executes a series of scripts that essentially say, “Fido, go fetch the space station.” That ability to find and dock with the space station has reduced the training load on the astronauts, whose mission is to spend six months on the space station, not learn how to operate a rocket.
What's the competition like between Boeing and SpaceX? Is it anything like the test pilot rivalries depicted in "The Right Stuff”?
“The Right Stuff” was the thing that sort of got me into all this. I thought, "What is this right stuff?" I was a teenager at the time. I think I tweeted once: "Before Tom Wolfe, nobody knew what the right stuff was, then generations of people like me went out in pursuit of it." And I ended up with the job I ended up with, all because I wanted to know what the “right stuff” was all about.
There is an implied competition between SpaceX and us. The overarching theme is: We're not going to fly until we're ready. But I think that there is some of that competitive spirit that keeps us moving forward, and I think that's a good thing.
Do you envision the Starliner ever making trips to the moon or to Mars?
We wouldn’t fly Starliner to the moon unless we made some significant upgrades. A lunar trip, to go there and back, you're going to spend at least three or four days [in the capsule], and even three or four days in a basically, electric battery-powered spacecraft is a long time. And then we talked about the draconian toilet facilities as well, so we have to do some work there.
But the bigger question of what’s going to happen in 20, 30 years? Where do I see us? I'd like to see a more permanent presence in and around lunar orbit, or on the surface of the moon. I think we've demonstrated we could do it 50 years ago. Why not go back again? And then, I really hope that we're, if not actively planning, then well on our way to Mars. I certainly think that is a venture that is worthwhile of global attention.
If you could wave a magic wand, what would your dream mission be?
I'd like to roll the clock 20 years back and go to Mars. That would be really cool. But that's for somebody who's probably about 20 years old right now. That would've been my dream mission, but I'm happy to be part of a team that can do it for some youngster out there.