An Evening With Michael Foale

Words: Gav Squires
Saturday 26 January 2019
reading time: min, words

Michael Foale, born in Lincolnshire, has been into space 6 times and was the first Brit ever selected by NASA. Our Gav wanted to be an astronaut so he went down to hear what Michael had to say.


When he was young, Michael Foale’s American mother took him on holiday to the USA where he saw the capsule that John Glenn had orbited the Earth in. Usually in the story, this is where our hero speaks about seeing his destiny at a young age, instead he thought it looked like “a dustbin that had a fire in it.” However, following the completion of his PhD, he headed over to the US to join NASA. The selection process for astronauts lasts a week and applicants have to submit a 2000 word essay - Michael was funded form twice. Following the Challenger disaster, he applied for a third time. This time when asked what he would do if he didn’t become an astronaut, he told them that he’d take a high paid job out in the Pacific Ocean and use the money to build his own rockets. NASA were clearly worried enough that this might happen that they selected him to become an astronaut.

After a training regime that included flights in T-38 jets and spending time wearing space suits in swimming pools, Michael was off on the Atlas mission. As the youngest member of the crew, his first job was the design the mission patch, which would be sewn onto the uniforms. The shuttle orbited the Earth 16 times a day and the crew were looking at global warming, the hole in the ozone layer and the effects of the sun upon the Earth. A year later, he was a crewmember on the Atlas-2 mission, which has similar goals. His third trip to space was a joint mission with Russia and featured just the second Russian to ever travel on the space shuttle. Part of the mission was a flyby of Mir to test communications between US and Russian mission control - especially important as Russia used metric measurements and the US used imperial. At the time, a Russian cosmonaut has been on Mir for a year and a quarter and the space shuttle crew could only contact him via an old ham radio. Michael also did his first spacewalk, where they were trying to be in conditions that were as cold as possible in order to prepare for s future mission. Tsk, this week he could have just stepped outside.

On his fifth mission, he got to do another spacewalk, this time in order to fix the Hubble space telescope. This was in 1999 and a lot of people were worried about the millennium bug (ask your grandparents!) One of the pieces of equipment they replaced on the telescope was the computer’s processor - a 486 replacing a 386. For those not up to speed with Intel chips from the ‘90s, your mobile phone is far more powerful than Hubble but probably can’t take such wonderful images of the distant galaxy. Michael’s final mission saw him spend 195 days aboard the International Space Station. This was after the Columbia disaster so he had to undergo some intensive training on the Russian Soyuz. It’s an hour long bus ride to the launch pad but then Soyuz only takes 8.5 minutes to get into orbit. To give some insight into how people keep themselves entertained on the ISS, the astronaut that Michael replaced had survived months onboard with just 8 CDs. One night Michael and fellow crewmember Alexandr Kaleri watched a film about Elizabeth I and the Russian compared her to Stalin afterwards!


All of which leaves out the really exciting mission - the fourth one, to the Russian Mir space station. At the time Mir was some 35 years old and was as much a military mission as a scientific one - to the point where when Michael was training in Russia for a year and a half, a lot of people thought he might be a spy. He wasn’t one. Foreigners were even segregated from the cosmonauts during training.

On this mission, Michael WAS the payload, it was all about getting him to Mir for his four and a half month stay. When he got to the station, there was a leak of ethylene-glycol gas. This is the stuff that is usually used in your car’s radiator (although some people have been known to drink it, despite the fact it can make you blind - a whole new meaning to the phrase “blind drunk”) Towards the end of his mission on Mir, Michael managed to track down the meal but that’s not what the mission is famous for.

Moscow were trying to save themselves the $2million that they were spending on Ukrainian radars for the supply ships that they sent up to Mir. Instead they decided that they could measure speed and distance by eye - the resupply vessel ended up coming in at 90 degrees to the plane that it should have been on and there was a collision. Initially it looked like they would have to abandon the station and there wasn’t enough power for air ventilation or the radio so those systems turned off. It was so bad that they didn’t want to use their torches for fear of burning out the bulbs. Instead they waited for the orbit to bring them back into sunlight so that they could inspect the damage. Then Michael realised that they could use the jets on the still docked Soyuz craft to stop the station rolling and re-align the solar panels with the sun, restoring power.

Michael couldn’t exercise on Mir after the collision as two modules were lost and there was no power for the treadmills. So, when he got back to Earth and normal gravity, he was feeling especially weak. However, when he landed he was greeted with a invite to the White House to meet president Bill Clinton. The president congratulated him on not wanting to leave Mir after the collision. NASA had known nothing about the Russians planning on removing the radar from the supply craft and after the crash, congress discussed cancelling US-Russia missions. If that had happened, there is a chance that the International Space Station would never have become a reality.

It’s been fascinating to hear Michael talk about his adventures in space and he’s incredibly modest about what happened on Mir saying “I was just there, I did the best I could.” There are a number of youngsters in the audience and hopefully, some of them will be inspired to follow in Michael’s footsteps.

Michael Foale’s talk was organised by Pint of Science Nottingham. The Pint of Science festival takes place 20-22 May

Pint of Science website

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