Leroy Chiao served as a NASA astronaut from 1990-2005. During his 15-year career, he flew four missions into space, three times on space shuttles and once as the copilot of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. On that flight, he served as the commander of Expedition 10, a six-and-a-half-month mission. Dr. Chiao has performed six spacewalks, in both U.S. and Russian spacesuits, and has logged nearly 230 days in space. Chiao is also the father of twins, a girl and a boy, age 6. Discovery News‘ space producer Ian O’Neill spoke with him recently to discuss his hopes for the future of spaceflight and how his unique experiences in space shaped him as a father.
Ian O’Neill: The first question that came to mind is, obviously, have your twins expressed any early interest in following daddy’s career path as an astronaut?
Leroy Chiao: I’ve really tried not to push them at all toward the direction I’ve chosen or anything like that. My wife and I agree that the plan should be, and is, to expose them to as many things as we can and then let them choose and figure out what they have a passion for and encourage them to go their own direction.
At different times my son has said “I wanna be an astronaut,” but really most of the time he’s thinking about other things. He’s actually had a real fascination for the work medical doctors do. So if I had to guess right now, I’d say he’s gearing himself toward that. He’s really fascinated about the body and what the organs do. My daughter is also more focused on medicine, but lately she’s been more interested in ballet! So they’re kind of all over the place, which is exactly what they should be doing at this age.
But generally, I think the best thing any parent can do is to expose kids to as many things as possible and then let them figure out what gets them excited and what they have a passion for.
Being an astronaut is great, I’ve certainly had wonderful experiences and I’m fortunate to have had those experiences. But I know that being an astronaut makes people on the ground worry about you, so if they were to choose my profession, I would worry about them even though I didn’t worry about myself.
O’Neill: You have had the extremely rare opportunity to see the Earth as a whole, and one often hears about the “overview effect” and how you consider Earth in a different light when you’ve actually seen it from orbit. Has that changed your perspective in bringing up your children?
Chiao: Yes. Going into space changes you. It certainly affects everyone; myself included. It gave me tremendous perspective. It made me take a step back and consider what was really important. The thing that was weirdest to me was, when flying over the Earth in low-Earth orbit and looking down, every part of the world is beautiful in its own way.
Colors are very bright an vivid in some parts of the world and in others areas it gets more monochromatic, but there’s still interesting features and textures. It just looks absolutely peaceful, but intellectually I knew that we were flying over certain areas of the world where there’s conflict, war, famine and suffering. I had a hard time resolving that in my head — so that gave me a perspective and an appreciation of life and made me re-evaluate priorities.
I think that translated, as a parent, into not trying to program a kid to go do one thing or another, but to let them explore their world and let them consider all the alternatives of what’s out there. As parents we help children understand what’s right and wrong, guide them through the early parts of their lives.
But I also want to teach them to take care of the planet. I remember being in orbit and seeing air pollution in one location traveling half-way around the planet; once you see it for yourself, with your own eyes, it’s staggering and makes you want to take care of the planet more, especially after having kids. You want them to inherit a good environment.
O’Neill: In a recent guest article you wrote for Discovery News (Don’t Let Them Hijack Our Dreams, May 7, 2013), you expressed concern for the diminishing interest in space and the media’s obsession with reporting negative news. Do you have any advice for parents hoping to perhaps “shield” their kids from a lot of the negative press, while highlighting amazing scientific progress?
Chiao: I definitely hear you. What we do with our kids is talk to them about things that are happening in the world and some of the cool breakthroughs you read and hear about in science. And we do actually shield them quite a bit because, by accident, we raised them without television, which helps an enormous amount!
What happened when my wife and I got married a little over nine years ago, we kind of merged our homes and between the two of us we had these two old TVs with the big tube in them, so we actually sold a lot of our stuff, including the old TVs in a garage sale with the intention of buying a new flat screen. Back then, the best TVs to get were the big plasmas, but we never got around to going out and buying one.
So we got used to living without a TV and then a couple of years later when we had kids. So we’ve by and large been shielding our kids from the 24 hour news cycle and the pounding home of every tragedy and crime that’s committed.
So from this, we’ve been able to accentuate the positive news, helping them to focus on the important and positive events that are going on to get them thinking about lots of different things. But, it is a bit drastic to say “hey, get rid of your television!” because probably most people wouldn’t do that. But think about what you want your kids to see rather than them being constantly exposed to all the negative stuff. Unfortunately it seems to be human nature that we are drawn to the negative, tragic and heartbreaking stories.
O’Neill: What space future would you envisage your kids growing up in?
Chiao: Space exploration will continue, but the question is, how will the U.S. be participating?
I think we’ve taken space exploration for granted for some time and that the American public and politicians haven’t woken up to the fact that we’re slipping. We’ve grounded the space shuttle; we’ve got a nebulous future government (manned space launch) program, but countries like China and Russia continue to push forward in space, and they’re going to do it.
China, especially, has the resources to continue, which has become a source of national pride. So the question we need to ask is: To what extent does the U.S. want to participate in space?
It’s my hope that the U.S. still wants to participate and still wants to lead in space. A few years ago I was on the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee (Augustine Commission) and one of the findings we had was that this international coalition that built and operates the space station is probably the most important thing to come out of this era of space exploration.
So, we recommended that the partnership should be expanded to countries like China and other emerging space exploration countries, and that the United States should lead that coalition. That’s that way we can maintain our leadership position while we develop new spacecraft and new missions and go forward to lead the international coalition beyond low-Earth orbit.
So it’s my hope that when my kids are grown up and working on their careers — be it in the space business or another area — that the United States continues to lead a vibrant human exploration program beyond low-Earth orbit.
It’s important to have the goal of astronauts setting foot on Mars as part of an international crew, not just including the ISS partnership, but also China who are gonna do it anyway! I think it would work out best if we can find this collaboration and that the U.S. should lead it.
O’Neill: What projects are you currently working on?
Chiao: I do a few different things. I’m part of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute funded by NASA, through the Baylor College of Medicine. What we do is to target research dollars to individuals and organizations that which have promising leads on developing countermeasures for the medical effects of long duration spaceflight. The technical barrier of sending people to Mars or the moon for extended periods of time is how do you keep them healthy that far from earth for that amount of time. It’s not propulsion, it’s not computing, navigation or anything like that — it’s really the effects that the space environment has on the human body. I also do consulting work. I’m also the CEO of a little start-up company making biomedical materials — a company called Diomics.
O’Neill: Any plans to go back into space?
Chiao: Probably not. I left NASA a little over 7 years ago, so I’m definitely out of the government program. People have asked me if I’d fly in a commercial vehicle and the answer, again, would be probably not.
Why? Number 1: They probably wouldn’t ask and, number two, I’ve already had those adventures in low-Earth orbit — if I had the chance to go to the moon or something, on a government vehicle or commercial vehicle, I’d certainly consider that. But the suborbital flights and orbital flights are all things I’ve done, I’ve spent almost 230 days in orbit, so I probably wouldn’t risk my life for that again.
O’Neill: So let’s just hope that in 20 years time a trip to the moon will be a fathers day gift!
Chiao: That’s right!