It’s a privilege to get to know believers whose spiritual maturity overrules the glory of their career success. Especially, if you are talking about an active astronaut. Enjoy our conversation with Jeffrey Williams, who has three space flights behind him and one coming. This August our church enjoyed his seminar "God’s Greatness in Creation" and sweet fellowship with him and his wife.
– In choosing an astronaut career you probably understood that it would require a change of priorities. What prompted you to pursue this goal?
– It was a series of experiences, opportunities and influences over the years. Entering the military and being exposed to the possibility of becoming a pilot after I got started in the academy – that was one key component. Then being influenced by some instructors of mine, and their experiences in aviation. The introduction to a concept of not only being a pilot but an experimental test pilot and then the first army astronaut being selected in 1978, which is about the time my goals to be an astronaut were being formulated. All that coalesced to start the journey to endeavor to pursue that goal.
– It’s interesting that astronauts often comment on the humility of their colleagues as a main character trait if they had a chance to notice it. I assume it’s because humility is of great value seeing as the temptation of pride is ever near. What helped you stay humble though you weren’t a believer at this point of your life?
– I think that even in those times I had a very high value on service to country. The motto at West Point is "Duty, Honor, Country", so I think I appropriated that during my years there. I was always sensitive to the fact that I did not want to be doing it for selfish reasons. It was something that was beyond me that provided motivation – principally, the idea of service.
– Did it change with coming to Christ?
– Yes, after I became a believer in Christ, I grew in my understanding that it’s important to serve the country and to be a good citizen and, for my case, to serve faithfully as an officer in the army, but transcending all of that was my growing understanding of service to God and honoring His Son, Jesus Christ.
– Young people nowadays grow up with the idea to dream big and believe in themselves. Do you think that a successful career is dependent on this?
– The opportunity to "be anything you want to be" is a predominant mantra in our country, and was especially so in the 90s when the economy was healthy and prosperity was seen as normal. There was a generation that grew up being taught that you don’t have to do a whole lot to become wealthy (American Dream thinking). The whole technology push was going on at that time. Folks were entering school not to be engineers or mathematicians or something that takes a lot of work but to try to take an easy route and get a degree in business or psychology, not for the substance of the studies but only for the diploma.
There was a focus on money, not on service, not on responding to a calling in life, or making a contribution to society. That was a very unhealthy attitude in the culture.
Since then, as always happens in history, that sense of optimism crashed, particularly in recent years with the war on terror, the supposed peace dividend, the post-cold war disintegrating in some respects and economy failing worldwide. What people have put their trust in was proven to be untrustworthy.
At the same time, through the 90s, young people were being told they just need a desire, and out of self-motivation, they can fulfill any of these dreams.
I’ve always told folks that that’s simply not true. None of us can be anything we want to be.
There was a time in training when I got exposed to the medical field. I thought, that I’d love to become an emergency doctor, work in trauma centers and help people in that way. But I knew I could never do that. I didn’t have enough time in my life to even try to pursue doctor’s career at that point. Even an astronaut can’t be everything he wants to be. That’s true with everything.
– You refer to a sense of calling in life. Can you expound?
– When we answer a calling in life, we develop certain experiences. Also we have certain capabilities in whatever we’re doing: in school or work. Out of those experiences and capabilities, we develop passions or interests in certain areas. Even that is insufficient to go on to achieve what we are passionate about. We also have to have what is largely out of our control: opportunity. A door has to be open. Ultimately, we need to gain an understanding of all of that in light of honoring God and in serving other people.
– Is it hard being in a transparent setting while living at the space station?
– Every day is planned for you up there down to the minute. Sometimes I am able to dovetail different steps to build some free time to take pictures or call home. But it’s tough to get used to that.
It’s really not just the flight itself but years of preparation for it. I spent much time in Russia that meant that my wife and I were mostly apart during that season. Four weeks in Russia, four weeks in Houston and on... Occasionally Anna-Marie would come with me but not every time. So it was a total of 4 ½ or 5 years, when my life was out of my control and my schedule was dictated.
– I heard a lot of accounts on the overview effect. Some astronauts seek an explanation for it in religions, some in science, but all of them get overwhelmed with a view of the planet when they see it for the first time from space and the self-awareness they have to face. What mark did it leave on you?
– A lot of people will come back and say, "I felt so small, so insignificant." That, of course, is with the view of Earth out of the window from 250 miles above. You see the grandeur of it. It is literally awesome. That’s an abused word, now often attributed to trivial things of life. But the view of the Earth is truly magnificent.
We know, as believers, that it reflects the glory of the Creator, we see His wisdom and majesty in creation. And I think from a believer’s point of view, it increases our significance...
– Interesting, that is quite contrary to what most people think. Why is that?
– Yes, we are uniquely, individually created in the image of God and given a soul. He, in his wisdom, has created us in our time and place to fulfill our calling and purpose in life, ultimately to serve Him and other people.
If you understand it that way, seeing the Creator’s work from that vantage point, that brings profound significance to yourself, bearing the image of God. It ups the sense of responsibility that one has in the brief time on Earth.
– You are known to be the astronaut who took the most pictures of earth from space. What prompted you to do this?
– I learned before my first flight, talking to those who have been there before, that you miss a lot of the experience because you’re so focused on executing the mission, adapting to the weightlessness challenges and being very stimulated by the view. The advice given to me was to capture the experience as best as I can through photography and video.
In my opinion, video goes by in a moment of time and is gone. A photograph is timeless, so I prefer capturing the impressions through photography. My motivation is to communicate the experience to others. There’s a big sense of responsibility that I bear having been given the opportunity. Everybody who goes into unique environments and has unique experiences, bears a responsibility to share it with others that won’t have that opportunity.
– Have you been taken photography classes?
– Yes. We are trained on many things. Photography is one of them.
– Is it possible to be actively involved in a local church having such a demanding job?
– It has been possible. There have been seasons in life when I’ve been mostly at home. During those seasons over the years, I have regularly taught Bible classes and served in other ways as well.
– How does the church serve you when you are gone?
– The body of Christ is designed and purposed to provide support for one another, to encourage, to teach, to correct one another, to hold accountable. When you’re isolated from the church, that’s the first thing that you miss.
Even on the space station, there are ways to maintain that body life through communication to close friends and other believers on the ground.
Our church family supports us very well, both Anna-Marie at home and me in orbit. There are some other Christian ministries that we have become friends with that have also helped us. For example, the "Grace to You Ministry" in California has been very interactive with us, encouraging us, and sending me sermons and Bible teachings in different formats.
– Is it hard to maintain a healthy spiritual life with this job?
– In one sense, yes, and in another sense, no. I think, by the grace of God, He sustains us in our faithfulness in any circumstance, to include being on board the Station. With the view out of the window and the teaching of Scripture it helps to support your spiritual life. That’s on a positive side.
The negative side would include the fact that you are isolated from direct interaction with believers. One of the primary aspects of that interaction is accountability with one another. You could say that this is the grace of God that, because of the isolation, there’s not a lot of temptation that is before you. But you don’t have the personal, face to face fellowship and you’re very busy up there, so there are a lot of distractions from the devotional part of life. It’s an area that takes discipline to maintain.
– You mentioned that you keep the Lord’s Day in space. That’s probably strange to many believers even here on earth. Can you share your thoughts on this?
– I think the significance of the Lord’s Day is lacking because of the influences of our society and perhaps, the weaknesses of the church to ground the people in the importance of the Lord’s day. The priority of participation in an organized congregation has been whittled away. So that now, sometimes in the best of cases, it’s merely a one hour dedication on a Sunday to attend the worship service. Then you can claim credit for attending and go about your business. Of course, that low view of worship weakens the church and that weakens the individual in their relationship with the Lord.
Family (to Anna-Marie)
– Is it hard to attend family gatherings or church activities by yourself when Jeff is gone?
– Not really because we’ve been married for thirty something years and our church family has seen a lot of Jeff’s career and experienced him coming and going all the time, so they are a lot of support as well.
To be honest, I’m very much a homebody. Even when Jeff and I are there, we pick and choose what we want to participate in. Family activities of course are a priority–we have three grandchildren. We get to spend a lot of time with them and that’s just a real joy for us.
I also have girlfriends. I’ll entertain friends at the house before I’ll go out and do activities. I’ll just invite a bunch of girlfriends over to our house and make dinner for them. It’s actually one thing that helps me stay connected to Jeff because we do that a lot as a couple.
– Is it hard to carry Jeffrey’s responsibilities when he is gone and to not overstep your role when he gets back?
– It is challenging. Ever since Jeff’s been flying, the boys were at ages where they were more of a support, than I had to still be raising them. That helped a lot. Even now I remember my younger one saying: "Mom, you know, when dad is off the planet, call me if you just need to hear my voice". They are very understanding of the stresses that I might go through while Jeff is away.
There is no one replacing him when he’s gone. I have to take out the trash. I hired a lawn mowing service. But I love to be at home.
I’ve been sharing with one young girl this morning about the providence of God. When you think about Mary and Joseph, God must have trained them from when they were little to make them the people He needed them to be to accept His will. I think the same is true with us.
My mom often used to tell the story that there could be ten children playing in the backyard and her Anna-Marie would be away from everybody else, just playing by herself.
Remembering that made me think of all the time now I spend with Jeff gone. God put that in me from a very young age to be comfortable by myself. It’s a part of that provision that God blessed me with. I certainly miss him but, to support him, I want him to understand that things are in good condition at home and I will take care of everything while he’s gone.
Throughout our whole marriage we had times when he has been gone, even in the army. I think the most difficult thing when he’s gone, is that I have to do all his duties at home. When he gets back I have to remember that it’s his job and he wants to do it and he’s able to, so I have to give that control up.
When the boys were little, they would be counting on me to do everything, and then when all of a sudden he’s back taking the lead and the dad’s role, it was a little bit of an adjustment. But I think that’s all I would say.
– How does Jeffrey’s one month "adaptation period" after his return from orbit affect family life?
– He’s not allowed to drive my car. (laughs) Well, NASA recognizes that he shouldn’t be driving for a short couple of weeks and takes care of that.
On my side I just try to give him whatever space he needs. We built our house eight years ago in a very quiet place just for that specific reason, to be able to be in the yard and garden or sit out in the backyard and enjoy nature, the quietness that he has missed and spend that time together. Kind of catch up for a while.
I’m in a little bit of a protective mood when Jeff gets back until he’s back up to a hundred percent. I also give him real food. I love to cook. For his job, he has to be especially healthy and strong at things.
– Do you have a hard time getting used to each other’s’ presence after Jeffrey’s return?
– (Jeff) We actually cherish that time because there’s a stress level with the years of training, travel separation and certainly the flight. The time immediately after a flight, even when I’m going through the reconditioning and re-adaptation, is characterized with an overwhelming sense of relief and restfulness that both of us experience.
– Do you fear for him and yourself while he is gone?
– I don’t fear for him because he has much confidence in what he’s doing. Being over in Russia and seeing what he’s doing on there, the equipment he’s working on and meeting the people that he talks about, who support him over there, I think that if I did have any fear, that relieved some of that. There’s risk in anything. But the confidence that he has, helps me.
– How do you make sure that individuals flying together are compatible?
– In the interview process we try to identify some traits in individuals that may not make them conducive to the environment. Some folks don’t like small, enclosed places, they can’t operate effectively in a high-stress environment.
Once people are selected for the job, we try to have some training experiences that will help identify weaknesses in them and train them to overcome those weaknesses.
One example of training that we have used in recent years is extreme environments in the wilderness, like going out for a 10-day backpacking trip in the Canyonlands of Utah where you’re completely out of touch with civilization.
Each person carries a 60-lb backpack with all of the equipment and food that he needs and some water. A significant daily objective is to find water to keep yourself alive for the next 10 days and to navigate through some very extreme terrain, up and down canyons.
We rotate the leadership of the group every day, and that leader is given an objective destination for the group and, with only a map, would need to brief his plan with the group and be responsible to get them to cooperate to get there. That’s just one example.
Getting to know people happens over a period of years in all different settings. It’s also true when we are in another country such as Russia, training and living. That has a certain stress to it. So we can see how people respond to that environment, and to teach them to overcome any weaknesses or take advantage of their strikes.
When it comes time to fly, we have certain requirements for putting the crew together. For example, we have to have a pair of folks that can do a spacewalk. Most everybody can do it but not everyone has a strong ability to accomplish the more difficult tasks. We have to make sure that we have the right strengths on that crew with the ability to do the technical aspects of the mission.
– How much time prior to a flight do you know one another?
– Usually years because of the training together, with some exceptions. For example, in 2006 I launched with my Russian cosmonaut crew mate. He and I didn’t know each other until about five months before our launch because we had a crew change at the last minute. At that time we were both experienced, both knew what needed to be done. He was very proficient so we were fine. But usually we know each other for years.
– Is it hard to live with a person from a different culture for half a year and have no means of escape?
– It’s not hard but that’s because we have invested in cross-cultural training. So everybody gets exposed to the potential issues that might come up in work with people from other countries. I have taken the initiative, and many others do as well, to have crewmates over to our house for dinner every time they are in Houston. This way we try to get to know each other at a more personal level.
Last month I was in Russia and it was coincident with the 40th anniversary of Apollo "Soyuz". I saw many old friends that I’ve come to know well over the years so it was like a homecoming.
– There’s word that as soon as the Americans build their own shuttles for the space station, they won’t need Russians anymore.
– Not in the case of the International Space Station. Our whole system of operating makes us very dependent on each other so it would be very, very difficult and impractical to attempt to separate the partnership.
Neither one of us would be flying in space if we were not partners on the International Space Station because that provided the circumstances to maintain the political will to continue flying, to launch in the first place, to get the first permanent crew on board, and then sustain that operation through now and with a plan to take it out to at least 2024, maybe even beyond that.
Both countries have maintained the political will, even in spite of the political difficulties as a result of the Ukrainian crisis in Crimea. The space station operation seems to be insulated from that and hopefully will at least serve as an example of collaboration between the two countries that will help us go down the path of political conflict.
Now you look in the future. Both countries talk about future missions, leaving Earth’s orbit, going to an asteroid or to the moon or to Mars eventually. But I think in reality both countries realize that neither country will do it alone because, practically, the only way it can be done and supported politically is by means of an international partnership.
– To not cause another country to consider you as an enemy? How much politics and how much science are in such projects?
– Politics plays an important role. The most recent example of that was the Constellation Program, which was a plan to take us back to the moon after the space station. It was approved by the Bush administration. As soon as the next administration got into office, they cancelled the program.
You can’t separate politics and science because to be able to execute the scientific objectives, you have to have the political support. If you don’t have that this expensive project is not going to happen.
– How do you rest?
– Much of my free time is spent in service to and in the church. We don’t usually take vacations, per se, but we try to spend time at home and do some projects with the family. I would include in my hobbies gardening and woodworking (I enjoy making furniture when I have time).
– How do you stay healthy?
– I exercise regularly, working with a trainer five times a week if schedule allows. Anna-Marie is very good at maintaining our diet, very good food and very healthy as well.
– (Anna-Marie) Not really but a lot of fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken. When I can get organic, I do but it’s a little harder in Texas. Jeff actually had a wonderful vegetable garden this year. So we did have organic. But we don’t use the microwave, even for warming up coffee. We don’t do processed food, only fresh.
– How often do women fly to space?
– I’ve been in orbit every time with at least one woman on the crew, including long duration flights and they’ve all done just fine. Obviously there are some challenges that are unique to the co-ed environment, so it takes a little bit more discipline to maintain appropriate divisions and privacy, the crews historically have been very good about that.
– Where do you get air to breath at the space station?
– We launch with air in the modules so it’s just a matter of maintaining it. The supply ships also come up with pressurized air or oxygen and some nitrogen to resupply on board.
– And now let us take a breath...