Exclusive interview with NASA astronaut Charles Precourt

The sky is not the limit

An exclusive interview with a NASA astronaut

Most of us may not be aware of it, but there is indeed a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in real life. It is called the Association of Space Explorers. Primary membership requirement is at least one Earth orbit in space. We spoke to its former long-standing Vice President, Mr Charles J. Precourt.

Charles precourt interview space view
Charles j precourt interview

Precourt makes the cut easy: in his career as an active astronaut, he spent almost 40 days in space on four separate missions during the 1990s. He orbited the Earth 640 times and clocked in around 25 million kilometres of space travel (one orbit takes around 90 minutes for roughly 40,000 kilometres).


The inspiring story of Charles Precourt

Precourt has come a long way and not only in terms of geography: born into the modest background of a middle-class family in 1955 ("My family could not afford a bike for me in junior high school," he says), he has piloted over 60 types of aircraft in 11,000 flight hours over the years. Like for many economically struggling Americans, joining the armed forces offered a way out, a shot at a college education and a career. "My father flew planes and my uncle served in the Air Force," says Precourt, "but even more than that, the moon landing in 1969 left a big mark."(Precourt was 14 at the time).

Exclusive interview charles precourt portrait

It was the beginning of a great adventure – and a skyrocketing career: today, Precourt is not only a retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force but also holds two master degrees. He was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2012 and currently serves as General Manager of propulsion systems for Northrop Grumman, a giant American aerospace company.

Ground control

Despite (or perhpas because) of these massive achievements in the most high-flying of sisciplines, Charlie Precourt seems like one of the more grounded persons you will ever have the privilege to talk to. Although he certainly has more urgent matters to attend to (the interview takes place between meetings; it is 7 a.m. his time), he answers even the sillier questions in a patient, soothing tone, almost as if he was still the CAPCOM in the Houston Mission Control Centre. The CAPCOM, short for "capsule communicator" is the only one directly talking to the crew of a space flight. It's him who you turn to when you really have a problem.

Charles j precourt interview

When asked who of the original Star Trek crew he would best identify himself with, he says: "Captain James T. Kirk. A pragmatic problem-solver type and a great team player too." It's also first and foremost these qualities Precourt was looking for when he had to put crews together himself as NASA's Chief Astronaut: "Space travel requires a kind of humble character. Type A and goal-oriented for sure, but not ego driven."

Discipline requested

Most of the challenges astronauts will face in space are of the psychological nature. "Of course, you have to be in reasonably good shape, but that is more a question of discipline than athleticism." The psychological factors are way tricker to evaluate, which is why today's recruits have to undergo rigorous stress tests in the maritime facilities of NEEMO (short for NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) just off the coast of Florida. Here they are performing tasks which are somewhat comparable to the challenges of space travel, submerged underwater and isolated from the real world for weeks at a time. It is either that or the dreaded high-altitude survival camps in the Rocky Mountains (or sometimes both!).

Better safe than sorry

This is, of course, the rationale behind this ordeal: the margin of error in space flight is practically non-existent and the odds of something going catastrophically wrong are pretty high. Statistically speaking, 1 in 200 missions goes wrong – with fatal consequences, obviously. Considering that Precourt took off four times his overall odds were a hair-raising 1 in 50. "I wrote a set of letters to my wife and three daughters each time, in case I didn't come home," he says, "but ultimately the excitement offset the fear".

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Precourt got lucky: after his first mission in `93 had to be aborted three seconds before take-off, the rest of his trips went smoothly by comparison. ("Although having to fix the toilet waste-water system once certainly was not funny", he recollects.) During his years at NASA either in space or in the Mission Control Centre he never heard nor had to say the famous words "Houston, we have a problem." The big catastrophes of NASA happened before his arrival and after his departure as an active astronaut (Challenger, 1986, during launch, and Columbia, 2003, during re-entry; each incident claimed seven lives).

Fragile Earth

Precourt tells all these stories that seem like scenes from a Hollywood movie in his calm and collected trademark CAPCOM diction. His take on the state of the planet is equally level headed: "It's quite amazing to see the Earth surrounded by all this darkness. It seems to glow from within. But when you realize how thin the atmosphere is and how little protection it actually offers you get an idea of how fragile this planet really is," he says. "What you also see – and I share this opinion with many astronauts – is that most of the problems we are facing – deforestation, highly polluted urban areas and whatnot – are mainly local problems and therefore have to be met with local strategies."

Ready, steady, go!

This, of course, is James Tiberius Kirk speaking through him. The problem solver, the pragmatist, the doer, not the talker: "I don't believe there is a general solution once and for all. I believe there are many, many small solutions." In other words: perhaps it's better to start out with "small steps" of every man (and women) instead of waiting for that much anticipated "giant leap of mankind that seems so hard to come by. It might be our best bet right now.


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