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Interview: Astronaut Susan Helms and DP J. Neihouse

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Written by: Ross Anthony
Date: April 2002

Ross Anthony caught up with Astronaut Susan Helms and DP James Neihouse to discuss "Space Station 3-D."

  

Category: Interviews

Astronaut Susan Helms and DP James Neihouse sit uncomfortably waiting for me to set up my recorder. It's 30 minutes before the official start of the premier events and I'm their first interview. Susan in a blue Nasa jumpsuit accented by her blue eyes and contrasted strongly by her red wavy hair, speaks carefully and sharply, yet personally. In fact, I think the production would have benefited were she the narrator. Jim is well dressed and ready with a good sense of humor.

RA: The hair ... was that a problem?

SH: (big laugh) Well how do you think it looked? (laughs again). I basically had long curly hair for many years, but in space it is incredibly difficult to take care of it when it's long. So I decided that for the space station flight where I'd be away from a shower for months I decided to cut it off. In the IMAX film it's actually a short hair cut, I know it doesn't look like it because it's all puffed out from the fact that I'm without gravity. But if it would have been long, it would have been very ugly.

RA: Any tips for the hair conscious ... once we all move into space, that is?

SH: I would recommend people keep their hair short instead of long because it gets in the way.

RA: I liked the underwater sequence in the film where you're practicing for zero gravity. How closely related is it to real zero gravity? What differences are there to the real deal?

SH: There's one major difference. The suit itself is buoyant in the water, but you are not buoyant in the suit. In other words when you are upright in the water your feet are actually standing on the inside of the boots in the water. Now in space, you don't. You are floating in the suit and the suit itself is floating without the effect of gravity. SO that is the major difference. There is another difference worth mentioning, when you move in the water you feel the resistance... the drag of the water on your body. In space there is no drag on your body. So there's a little bit of difference in your motion when you get up in the space walk for real.

RA: Those differences are easy to get over or no?

Well, the best approach is to move slow. You always move quicker if you move slower. If that makes any sense. You just take your time and don't try to rush things. If you try to rush things you inevitably get behind.

RA: I read that you have the world record for EVA - nearly 9 hours. What is EVA?

SH: 8 hours 56 minutes, that right. Oh, that's a space walk. NASA lingo for space walk - extra-vehicular-activity.

RA: So you have the record, anyone else close?

SH: Jim, my buddy. Every time you space walk you space walk with a buddy. And Jim Voss, who is not only my space-walking buddy, but he also happens to be my crew buddy in the film with the mission that we were on. We were on ISS together for almost 6 months and we also happen to do the space walk together. So we both have the record, cause we always were working as a team.

RA: For those of us who would love to be in space ... what's it like?

SH: Well, the best I can tell you is that IMAX films come the closest to giving you a sense of what it's like. If you're watching television you can see what the astronauts are seeing, but you don't get a sense of actually being a part of it. The IMAX is the closest thing to becoming part of that, that you can experience here on Earth. In fact, when I got into space for the very first time, and I floated up to the window and looked out at the Earth, the first thing I said to my crew mate was 'ohmygosh, it is just like an IMAX film!'

RA: Fit handsome men, confined space, several months ... did you ever play spin the bottle to infinity?

SH (laughs) You wouldn't believe how unglamorous space is in that respect. Trust me, it's no senior prom (laughs again).

RA: What interesting things about being up there don't appear on the film?

SH: Well it's impossible to capture everything that we did on the film. I mean I think we shot a total of 12 miles of film... each shot was only about a 30 sec burst. So if you look at 5.5 months, there's just no way to possibly capture everything we did up there. A lot of what isn't in the film is some of the more mundane stuff like working with the computer networks and the exercise we did everyday. I mean, just running on the treadmill for an hour and half everyday ... the film doesn't capture that that's really what you're doing. The monotony of running on the treadmill.

RA: Biggest hardships?

SH: I'm sure most people would say, 'being away from your family.' We do have email and the ability to have several video con's over a period of several months, but people are not with their families and that is the one thing that they missed.

JN: Susan's biggest problem was leaving ... they had to drag her out.

SH I wanted to see them, but I wasn't quite ready to leave.

RA: What's the scariest part?

SH: Worrying about screwing something up. Thousands of people have worked to make these moments happen and the astronaut is on the hook to make sure that they come off smoothly, and so the astronauts are always worried about making mistakes.

RA: So how do you handle the pressure?

SH: Well a good crew will back each other up. Everybody will double-check everybody else. That's something that's inbred in you in the training process.

RA: What's the most amazing thing to you about the ISS in terms of how it will advance the program?

SH: The most amazing thing is these cultures working together and pulling it off. The Russians with the Americans working with the Canadians working with the Europeans and then the Japanese ... the fact that all these different cultures are coming together to a single object and that it's actually working well is probably the biggest feat of all.

RA: How is the space program more advanced that it was before?

SH: Now we have the ability to do long term science in orbit without gravity at least on the American side. The Russians have had this capability because they've had space stations for decades. The Americans really haven't had a space station for this long a time period. You're not gonna be able to figure out how humans can live in space for a long time without the ability to do this research on the space station. Therefore, this whole program ends up giving the international community a brand new world class laboratory in order to do these investigations so that we can take the next step of going out there and traveling elsewhere than planet Earth.

RA: What moments stand out as the most tense in your career?

SH: Maybe it's this interview (laughs) I'm kidding. Hmmm... I guess interviewing to be an astronaut is pretty intense. There, your career is sort of in somebody else's hands... and that waiting was pretty tense.

RA: I can imagine there'd be plenty of applicants.

SH: Usually about 3000 applicants for 20 slots.

RA: Who's the best actor in the film?

JN: There's no best actors... they're all up there doing their jobs. I mean, this is a documentary film, this is not a dramatic production. We're filming these guys doing this record-breaking, groundbreaking things in space.

RA: Susan, did you do any filming?

SH: Before the flight we only had time for one person out of the three of us and that one person was Jim Voss. However, Jim did train Yuri and I on orbit on how to run the camera for some of the scenes so that Jim could be in front of the camera. And so yeah, I did hold the camera and push the button and roll film a couple of times. But Jim actually did all the lighting, did the calculations on what was required of the camera and the scenery and did the directing and told us what to do and Yuri and I pretty much followed his direction. So Jim was really the on-scene producer and director of our part of the film. And of course, there are lots of crews doing this, there wasn't just the three of us. How many crews?

JN: 7 shuttle crews and then 2 expedition crews.

SH: So you actually have 25 astronauts that have some training on the camera.

RA: Well that makes a great segue to James over here ... Do astronauts make better cameramen?

JN (Chuckles) They make very good cameramen. I've been surprised. I mean, I'm one of the few cameramen in the world that trains his replacement. But, they do a great job for the limited amount of time that we're allowed to work with them. They pick it up quickly, the thing is, they're dedicated to the project and they show it with what they bring back on film.

RA: How many hours would you say it took to train one astronaut?

J: We typically get 30 hours training time. I get 30 hours to teach them what I've taken 27 years to learn.

RA: Did you direct then?

JN: Toni Myers and I get a directing credit ... it's not as big as hers. We worked together in developing scenes along with the crew members. They would send back things that we didn't ask for and a lot of times it was better than what we wanted. That's why it says, 'filmed in space by astronauts' in the beginning of the film.

RA: Was there any kind of piggyback video that you could see what they were filming while they were filming it?

JN: No, we couldn't see what they were doing. They'd call us if they had any problems.

SH: Jim had conferences with you guys often. And another thing we had to do was protect the film against radiation. Cause while we're on the station we have a higher exposure level of radiation and that could ruin the film. So Jim came up with this clever idea of surrounding the exposed film with bags of water. Because water is a natural radiation protector. And then we'd have to wait for a shuttle to arrive to come bring the film back to earth. In the meantime, during those weeks of waiting, Jim would protect this film from damage by putting it in a water closet.

JN: Like a mother hen protecting her egg (laughs). We're always sitting down at mission control watching the progress of the flight. Occasionally with the cargo bay camera we can tell with telemetry of the shuttle when it's running. So we'll see the shot come up, but we won't see the telemetry indicate a run on our camera...and we're shouting "Okay shoot now Shoot now! ... Remember us!" We were all rooting and then when the camera finally starts, we all go, "Yay!!"

RA: What kind of delay is there between communication to the station?

JN: There's quite a delay. Those signals bounce around.

SH: 6 seconds.

RA: exterior shots?

JN: Susan was involved with the exterior on the I.C.B.C., which is the cargo bay camera.

SH: We called it the icky bicky.

JN: See at NASA you get points for an acronym, but if you get an acronym that you can turn into a word. ... you get extra points (chuckles). Actually the exteriors were a lot easier than the interiors. The camera in the cargo bay had a video camera looking through it so they could see what they were shooting. It was run by an IBM computer.

RA: All those exteriors were shot from the cargo bay?

JN: There was some exterior shots that you all shot through the window.

SH: Yeah through the window, a lot of those space walking faces, they look like they're waving at the camera -- those were shot by Jim through the window.

RA: And how big was that window.

SH About that big (shows with hands - about 1.5 foot diameter.)

Copyright (C) 2002.

Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit: RossAnthony.com

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