Interview with an Astronaut

Dr Leroy Chaio Talks Leadership 

Lilly Steger


When the Laurel team sat down last fall to brainstorm what to feature in the spring edition of The Laurel, leadership was always set to be the theme. After several discussions and renovations, it was decided to seek out and feature Phi Tau alumni who had gone on to reach the top of their given careers. We wanted to be as expansive as possible in the fields we chose; the final list of alumni included CEOs, Senators, State Representatives, generals, professional broadcasters, and bishops. However, no matter who was in the room their first suggestion for a feature was none of these - it was always Dr. Leroy Chaio, Berkley ’79, former Commander of the International Space Station.

As the first man to be brought up, Dr. Chaio was also the first man to be interviewed. He was kind enough to give me 15 minutes of his time this winter for this feature. Dr. Chaio has always been generous with his time to Phi Tau in the past. He’s spoken at several of our events - Presidents Academy and Convention - and was eager to give us more of his time for The Laurel. As you will read below, Dr. Chiao began his career at UC Berkley and went on to obtain a Masters and PhD., as well as learn both Russian and Mandarin, to become the Commander of the International Space Station. Cumulatively, he has spent 229 days in space on 4 different missions. 

Because the full interview could not be included in the magazine due to space constraints, Dr. Chaio’s full interviewed is being shared below. If you would like to read the full article - including words on leadership from our other outstanding alumni - you can do so here. To be put on the mailing list for The Laurel fill out our opt-in form

What drew you to Phi Tau instead of another fraternity? 

I just remember going through the houses and meeting the people and getting a good vibe from the Phi Taus. It really had everything to do with the members and it felt like that would be a good fit for me. I started spending a little more time there during the week and I was invited to pledge, and I did, and the rest is history. 

Do you think that your time with Phi Tau has included your professional journey? 

Oh, sure. I think, like a lot of experiences, Fraternity is something that impacts you. You make lifelong friends in any organization, whether it’s a fraternity or it’s just your group in your professional studies. I still keep in touch with a few of the guys from my era. I think you learn a lot living in a fraternity or the Greek system. You learn about yourself and how to negotiate or manage yourself socially. You learn to manage your life and your time, of course university is a time when you’re figuring all that out, but when you’ve got a big support group of like-minded people, I think that helps a lot, and that’s what contributes to those lifelong friendships. 

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Was becoming an astronaut something you grew up wanting to do, or did that unfold on its own? 

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in airplanes and rockets and things like that, but it was really the Apollo 11 moon landing. I was eight years old when we landed on the moon, and even though I loved all those flying machines, I never really thought about being an astronaut myself until we did that. I remember going outside to look at the moon later and just marveling that up there, almost a quarter of a million miles away, two astronauts were getting ready to go out and step on the moon for the first time. So, when that actually happened, I just remember feeling, “Wow, I wanna be like those guys. I’m gonna try and do it.” So, I always knew I was going to try and get there.

So, I entered university and studied chemical engineering. I was always interested in technical things, so studying engineering was a natural course for me to follow. Then, getting the degree basically qualified me to apply to NASA. Every day when I was studying, I remember thinking, “What kind of career I want to have?” and I kept going back to, “Well I really want to be an astronaut.” I knew that I qualified to apply, because just before I entered university, NASA had selected the first group of space shuttle astronauts, and they included a lot of people from the civilian world. It wasn’t just a military thing anymore. 

When I was at Berkley as a sophomore, I did go down to the Air Force ROTC office. I had the intention of becoming a military pilot. I wanted to fly military airplanes, and I figured that was a way of bettering my changes to get into NASA. Unfortunately, during the first week I noticed my left eye was no longer 20:20, so I was no longer qualified to become a military pilot. Fortunately, I hadn’t signed on the dotted line yet to commit to the Air Force, so I went ahead and left that behind. But the fact that they started selecting engineers and scientists who were civilians for the shuttle program opened up that opportunity. That was exciting to me and that was the path I chose to follow. 

What is the training like to be allowed to go into space? 

The training - they want you to have a technical background in either science, engineering, or medicine. The idea is it’s not important what specific subset you study, what’s important is that you have a strong foundation or base that allows you to learn the systems of the spacecraft you’re going to operate, and the principles of the vehicles, procedures, and experiments you’re going to preform. All that. The best astronauts are the ones who are jack-of-all-trades. They’re trainable - you can learn a lot of different things and you’re good at the variety of things you’ll have to do. 

So, I have to ask, what’s it like to be in space? What is the space station like? 

It’s pretty crazy. The first time you go up into space and you’re instantly weightless at main engine cutoff, you’re immediately dizzy. Your inner ear is there telling your brain that you’re tumbling, but your eyes tell you you’re not and that mismatch makes you really dizzy. You also notice a fluid shift, there’s no gravity down towards your legs so that fluid comes up into your torso and increases the pressure in your head. It feels like you’re laying on an incline. But you’re also floating, so it’s pretty weird. 

One of the first things I needed to do on my first mission was to unstrap and put together the camcorder to take video of the external tank as we separated away from it, so I got to look out at the Earth right away. I was really, really taken aback at how beautiful it was. It was a surreal experience being up there, especially the first time. 

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What have you been up to since your time with NASA? You’re an entrepreneur and a speaker?  

Right, since leaving NASA a little over thirteen years ago I started working for myself. I jumped up and started doing some speeches first with the Speakers Bureau of Hosts. Then fairly recently, just within the past couple of years, with my own company to formalize some of that activity. 

I also worked as a consultant for both aerospace and other technology fields. I’ve been involved in some technology startups and right now I’m associated with universities. I was a Distinguished Chair Professor at Louisiana State for a while. I’m still a part of Rice University here in Hudson and Baylor College of Medicine. I do a lot of that, mostly for fun or personal interest. 

The thing I’m focused on now is my little company I started a few years ago, One Orbit. We have two sides to our organization. We do the corporate work like keynotes, workshops on topics you might expect - leadership, how to avoid complacency, how to bring your organization to the next level, things like that. A lot of personal views and lessons brought from NASA that can be applied to the corporate world. But on the more fun side we’re geared towards students. We do a lot of sponsored student activities; a corporation will come and pay us to go to their local area and visit schools and motivate kids to get them excited and start thinking about what they want to do. That’s really rewarding. I have twelve year-old twins, and I’m especially interested in helping young people develop their futures. 

These are young kids? Like elementary aged? 

Right! We speak to elementary all the way through university level students, so obviously we have different talks we give to the different levels. But our sweet spot is that middle school, twelve to thirteen year-old age group. That’s really when the kids are trying to figure out what they want to do. It’s those awkward years when hormones start up and the behavior starts changing and all that. That’s the sweet spot of hitting these young people. 

Do you view yourself as a leader? Do you feel like you’ve always been a leader or is it something you’ve grown into over time? 

I definitely have held leadership positions, including being Commander of the International Space Station. I’ve led more small-to-medium sized groups and organizations. I’ve never been the leader of a large corporate organization, but the fundamental principles are the same. But no, I do not consider myself a natural born leader. I was definitely not as a younger person. It was something I had to learn and grow into, and that’s kind of what I talk about in some of the leadership presentations. 

Not everyone - in fact, I would say most leaders are not born leaders. There are a few people that are unique, that you’ve known since they were young had that quality. But I think one of the best characteristics of a leader is someone who can take care of the people that they are leading, and doesn’t forget about what being a leader is about. 

Oftentimes, I talk about how leaders forget they’re supposed to be leading people and building teams. They’re not supposed to be managing people and the process, you hire a manager for that. I saw a lot of that at NASA. In my presentations, I talk about some of the folks that lost their way and present strategizes to keep yourself from falling into some of those traps. 

What qualities do you think make a great leader? 

I think it gets summarized pretty quickly with General Norman Schwarzkopf. To paraphrase him, and I think he was one of the best leaders of our time, he said, “It’s always about honesty, integrity, and always being willing to do the right thing.” It’s that last point that’s so important - always being willing to do the right thing. His point was most, if not all of the time, you know what the right thing to do it. A lot of the time that might be very difficult. There might be enormous consequences to making that decision and going down that path, but if you’re a leader who’s always willing to do the right thing, you’re going to earn the respect of the people around you. Not only the people you’re leading, but your peers and everyone else that is familiar with the situation. Sometimes it comes with enormous cost; you may lose your job or your position of leadership over it. But if you have those qualities of a leader then you’re going to find other opportunities. 

So, I think that kind of sums up what is important in a leader. Communication, of course. It sounds like a cliché but it’s so important. As a leader you have to be able to communicate both down to the people underneath you, as well as to those you report to - folks on the Board of Directors, whoever that is, you’ve got to be able to clearly articulate your expectations to your team. You’ve got to make sure everyone pulls in the right direction and you’ve got to take into account the difference of people. You need to understand your audience is not all going to respond to the same thing. You have to say the same thing different for different people to hear you. There’s different personality types. Some people like to get a direct order, “Here’s what you need to do.” Other people don’t like that, they bristle at it. You need to coax them and bring them along. Other personalities you need to explain why the decision is this and they need to understand to be a part of it. You’ve got to take all that into account when you’re talking to a lot of different types of people. When you’re talking to a group it can be especially challenging, but you’ve got to make sure you communicate and incorporate those different ways of saying the same thing to make sure you reach all the different types of people and they hear you. 

The mission statement of Phi Kappa Tau is, “To champion a lifelong commitment to brotherhood, learning, ethical leadership and exemplary character.” Do you feel like that is still a relevant vision statement today? Given that, what would your leadership challenge be to our young members? 

Oh, absolutely. I think those are very fundamental, visionary leadership statements. I think they’re timeless. Anyone who talks about leadership or knows anything about leadership is going to touch on those points, maybe in different words but it’s going to mean the same thing. I think those definitely apply to today. For young people, university life is an exciting time and a very difficult time. You’re going to be placed in positions, academically and otherwise, that could have far-reaching ramifications. Part of the social structure of being in a fraternity and the Greek system - even though the Greek system gets some bad press - is that there’s a lot more good things that happen than bad. You have the support of your brothers in your fraternity and your sisters in your sorority, and they can help guide you, especially the older members. If you’re in a situation where you’re facing some dilemma, you have guidance on those tough decisions. It’s important to have fun, but it’s important to remember to do the right thing as well. 

My final question for you: given that I’m sure there was only a limited amount of objects you could bring with you, why did you bring the Phi Tau flag into space? 

It was especially important on my first flight to bring things that were significant or had influenced me in some way. Phi Kappa Tau was part of that. My fraternity experience was a very positive one it was a very enriching one to me. As I mentioned before, I have lifelong friends. I learned some lessons – I made some mistakes, but I learned lessons – so it was import for me to bring along the symbol of the Fraternity. The flag was the best way to do that.
My heritage is Chinese - I was born in the United States, I’ve always been an American, but my parents were both born in China, - so I wanted to bring something that would represent Chinese people around the world. For example, I brought a Chinese flag. I brought and wanted to bring a Taiwanese flag, but the State Department didn’t like that, we had already broken off relations with Taiwan. I was able to bring a Confusion Scroll for Taiwan and present it back to them. I brought a carving of flowers – the name of the flower escapes me – but it’s a symbol of Hong Kong. I also brought personal items: jewelry, for family and loved ones. I brought my wrist watch, which was an important thing to me. I brought a wristwatch for my best friend, he wanted me to fly his watch for him. You know, little things like that. Photographs of your loved ones I kept in my notebook. Those are kind of the items I brought. 

Thank you to Dr. Chaio for giving your time to Phi Tau!