Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists and engineers out there in the world but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What made you try to become an astronaut and be one of the few people who actually get to fly in space?
Image at left: STS-115 Mission Specialist Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper
A: I kind of think that I’ve always had a fascination with flying. That was one of the things that, that led me to apply for the astronaut program. I should say that when I was growing up my mother came from Germany, and every couple of years she and my father would send one or two of us, usually two of us, to Germany. I remember when I was 4 years old going and flying in an airplane and I thought that that was the neatest thing. And then the next time I went over was about five years later, and then it was just my brother and I. And I thought, you know, flying was neat. So I’ve always had this bug in the back of me that says I really want to fly, I really want to fly. I took an ROTC scholarship to help pay for college—I was going in the Navy -- and I decided I was going to try to fly for the Navy. After I graduated, I stayed at MIT an extra year and got my master’s degree, and decided that, or it was decided for me that, because I didn’t pass the eye exam, I wasn’t going to become a pilot. So I was looking at something else to do, and so I went and became a Navy diver. And, had a great time fixing ships underwater and doing salvage work. Then when I learned about NASA and building the space station and I saw how they were doing the construction and they were training underwater, I thought that looks to me more like diving than it does flying, and so I think I can do that in space. I think I had a lot to offer, to help build the space station. That’s how I applied to the program, and I consider myself very, very fortunate that I was accepted and that now I get my dream of not only flying, because I get to fly in space, but also being able to help build the space station.
You’re from St. Paul, Minn. Tell me about that place where you’re from and where you grew up.
I grew up in St. Paul. I actually grew up in the city. I have four brothers; I was the second in line. And growing up it was just kind of a typical Midwestern, middle-class family. Minnesota was, I think, was a great place to grow up. One of the things I learned after not living in Minnesota for a while is that I really like four seasons. Yes, it gets very cold in Minnesota in the wintertime, but you kind of get used to it and that was something that never hindered us as kids. You always went out and played in the snow, and if it was cold you just put on another sweater or another scarf or an extra pair of mittens or something and so you always went outside. It was nice to have different seasons. In the summertime it was, it got warm -- it actually got hot, but in Minnesota there are lots of lakes and lots of rivers, and so we spent lots of time in the summertime going to lakes. I learned to swim, which I guess helped when I became a diver. And, and it was a nice place to grow up. I really liked it up there. St. Paul is a, it’s a fair, you know, it’s a large city, it and Minneapolis, but it’s not an overwhelming city. And so I also learned that I like smaller cities.
How did the people in that place help form who you are today?
Well, I think a lot of it had to do with my parents because both of them came from Europe. My mother came from Germany and my father’s from Ukraine. They came to America and they believed in the American dream. They believed that, OK, they’re going to, you know, come here, raise a family, and that the kids would grow up and we would all go to college and become successful and find our life in this new country. And I think, just having that in the back of your mind and always growing up that way, you’re always going to strive for something. My parents wanted all of us to have a good education; school was very important. That’s why they sent us all to Catholic schools thinking that we would get a better education there. And I think that it probably helped going to a small, private school. It allowed me to focus on my studies. And the fact that they always wanted us to go to college just led me to think, OK, when I graduated from high school I was going to go to college, and that’s what I did. I think that if I didn’t have that, that drive to always improve and to try to get something better, then I wouldn’t be sitting here today.
Now tell me a, a little bit about your education and professional career. What’s the, what’s the brief thumbnail sketch of, of your path getting here.
The brief thumbnail sketch of getting here is, well, after high school I went to college, and I applied to MIT, you know, looking at different schools. I figured, OK, Massachusetts Institute of Tech, Technology, is a good technical school. Math and science were definitely my stronger subjects in high school, and so I figured I’d probably do a career in something math and science. Back in the late ’70s or early ’80s, they were doing a big push to get a lot more girls to go into engineering. And so I said, OK, engineering, that’s math and science, so I guess I can do that. So I applied to MIT and I got accepted, and then I took a Navy scholarship to help pay for college. From there, I got a degree in mechanical engineering -- actually I got two degrees. I had so much fun at MIT I decided to stay an extra year and finish my master’s degree. And then I was commissioned in the Navy, and I did underwater ship repair and ship repair and some salvage work. That was kind of my professional background in the Navy. And then from there, I applied to the astronaut program and was fortunate enough to be accepted.
Other than what you’re doing right now, what was your favorite part of that leading up to where you are now? And then, maybe, your least favorite part as well?
I think one of my favorite parts was definitely in, the time I spent in the Navy. I took the ROTC scholarship thinking that, OK, it paid for four years of college, and I could spend four years in the military; I could do that for four years. And I kind of told myself that whenever I was not having enough fun and it just became too much of a chore, that I would leave the military and go find something else to do. I found that once I got there, that actually I liked what I was doing. For the most part, I really liked working with the people in the military, the sailors. I’ve had a lot of sailors work for me, just, really good people. If we had a task at hand, we would just go do it. If it took us 18 hours to do it, well that’s how long it took to do it and we’d figure out a way to get it done -- we’d go do it. It was really rewarding to work with people that liked what they were doing. That’s probably one of my fondest memories in the Navy, working with the sailors and being on the ship.
As we get closer and closer, are you getting more excited about your first spaceflight, and do you have a good story about how you were told that you were selected for this flight?
I’ll answer the first part: Yes, I am getting very excited as we’re getting closer especially because of the fact that we’ve waited for so long for this flight. There were times that it kind of felt like, OK, I’m, I’m training for a flight and this is what I do. I train for flight. Now that we’re getting closer and closer it’s sinking in that the job is not training for flight, but the job is actually to go fly. That’s something we are going to do; we are going to go fly. Yes, every day I get more and more excited about the flight. I cannot wait for launch day. And to ask, answer your other question about yes, actually I do have a good story about how I got told because the day that I was told was my birthday.
And how appropriate. It was a great birthday present. I knew that, that I was assigned because I got a call from, from a secretary in the front office that said I needed to go talk to Brent Jett. So right there I knew what it was about, because just ’cause of my job, the fact that, you know, if I’d gotten a call to go talk to another astronaut you know, I wasn’t really working on anything that he was working on so the fact that I had to go talk to him obviously was not, you know, a technical issue. And so I had a pretty good idea of what it was about. And so I went to see him. He kind of said, we need to go see Charlie Precourt, who was the head of the [Astronaut] Office at the time. That kind of confirmed that. And I told them both that it was my birthday and it was the best birthday present that I had.
Not a bad one to get.
This part of your job, the “flying in space,” has shown that it can be actually very dangerous. What do you think we get from flying people in space that is worth the risk that you’re going to be taking?
Yes, it is dangerous. I think anytime you strap yourself on to a rocket and, and launch yourself into space at many times the speed of sound that that’s dangerous. But, I think the benefits of spaceflight outweigh that risk. It’s a dangerous operation but you have to have trust in the training that you have, in the equipment that you’re flying, and that the people that operate the equipment and that maintain the equipment -- that everybody has done their job to the best of their ability, and they’ve looked at all the risks involved and that, you know, they’ve satisfied themselves that, yes, we’ve minimized the risks. We can’t completely get rid of the risk; that’s just not possible. You can’t even do that driving your car, to say that there’s no risk in driving your car, so why would that be any different in going into space? But you look at the advantages that we get from going into space, whether there’s a research aspect of being in space and doing experiments in space and learning from people living in space. You have the spin-offs. We develop a piece of equipment for spaceflight but we find that there’s a use for it on the ground. Then there’s just the whole issue of exploration. I think that for us as humans to advance, to become a better race, is going to require us to go out exploring. I think once we stop exploring and you stop trying to look for something new or go someplace new, then you’re just going to start almost disintegrating because you’re just going to not be thinking. I think once we stop thinking and stop wanting to go further, then that’s going to be the start of the end. And so I think just for all of that, it’s important that we keep exploring.
You are a Mission Specialist for the ISS assembly mission 12A. Give me a summary of the goals of this space shuttle mission and, kind of, your jobs on this flight.
Image at right: STS-115 Mission Specialist Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper trains in a systems engineering simulator at the Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA
The main goal of our flight is to deliver the P3/P4 Truss element to the station. That is going to be the next major piece that goes up to station. With our flight, we’re continuing the assembly of the International Space Station. The P3/P4 Truss is the third and fourth segment on the port side, the “P.” And on P4, there’s a set of solar arrays, and so that, after our mission station will have the capability in the future to generate more electricity in addition to just the set of solar arrays that is up there. That’s the main goal of our mission. My role specifically is I’m also the EV2, the extravehicular crewmember No. 2. I’ll be going out on EVAs 1 and 3. We have a total of three EVAs, and we have two EVA teams. I’ll be going out on EVAs 1 and 3. On EVA 1 and 2 we’ll be getting the solar arrays and the alpha rotary joint, the SARJ [Solar Alpha Rotary Joint], ready for deploy, and then on the last EVA we have some cleanup tasks and then some other station tasks to do, externally. That’s our mission in a nutshell.
OK. And we’ll get into a little more detail about those in a little bit. But, first, let’s talk about the crew. You’ve been training with your crewmates for this mission since February of 2002. How have you been able to keep focused, or have you been able to keep focused, over this long stretch of time?
We’ve stayed fairly focused. We’ve stayed together as a crew for four years but that doesn’t mean that we’ve been actively training every day for the past four years. We don’t need that much time to train for a shuttle mission. When the Columbia accident happened, we were about three months, 3½ months, from flight. Up to that point we had been training and we were marching along for a May of 2003 launch date. After the accident that obviously was put on hold. There was a time in there that we took a break from training. Part of it was a necessity, to tend to the accident and the other issues involved with the accident. Then after that we stayed together as a crew and we did do some training to maintain proficiency, but it wasn’t an intense, daily training. So I think by doing proficiency training we were able to keep our skills at a fairly high level and keep focused on the mission. That’s what we did for the bulk of the time since Columbia. Also in between there some of us did do some other technical assignments. Our expertise was needed in other places, and that was a good balance between working on other issues so we could learn more about the systems on station. For example I was doing some of the EMU recovery. They had a problem on board station that they couldn’t get cooling to the EVA suits, the EMUs. So I spent a good part of a year, a year and a half, working the technical issues of trying to figure out why and trying to figure out how we could have the crew on orbit help us in our troubleshooting. It was a real team effort between the ground and the crew on orbit, the station crews. That was something that helped me understand more about the suits, so now I know more about the suit and I know more about station systems. That’s helped me for this mission and it’s also helped the program because we were able to solve the problem and figure out what happened. We knew that we had a mission and that, you know, one day we would be going back to flying. Doing technical jobs and training together kept that focus that we needed.
Now, some of this, the extended training, the extended period of training was a result of implementing some of the changes recommended by the CAIB, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Are you satisfied that some of these changes have led to a real improvement in shuttle safety?
I think they have. I think just we will know about the problem or any issues, if there is a problem. The Columbia accident was caused by foam that hit the wing and put a hole in the wing. One of the recommendations of the board was to first of all be able to detect that. We've gone even further to try to minimize the foam and reduce any foam loss during critical times of the ascent and reduce the foam size. If you don’t have, you don’t have as much foam coming off and you don’t have big pieces coming off at a critical time, then, it would lead to believe that you won’t have another Columbia accident. They’ve done a lot of work on that. I know the folks at Michoud [Assembly Facility] did an awful lot of work on the tank on trying to improve the foam and take off foam that’s not necessary, improve their application techniques to try to minimize to the point that anything that comes off is, would be not an issue for the orbiter. Then there are the, the inspections: Now we have the capability to inspect the vehicle before we undock. We inspect it when we get on orbit; we inspect it while we’re docked; and so, hopefully, by that point not only would we be able to detect any damage that happened during ascent, but also any damage that could happen while on orbit. So I think we’re now just more aware of it and we have more insight. By knowing more, you’re smarter and you know what you can do and cannot do.
Let’s get into the actual pieces of your mission. The primary cargo on your flight is the P3/P4 Truss. What is it, what will it do, and why is it important to the space station?
As I mentioned earlier, it’s an external structure. It’s not another module that the crew can get into. Externally the main component on it is the set of solar arrays. That increases the power capability of the space station. That’s what the space station, eventually needs, because once we finish out the truss elements -- P3/P4 is the next one and then after that, P5 and S5, or S3/S4, S5, S6, and relocating P6. Now you’ve completed the truss, and that’s the big girder that everyone sees on “station complete” pictures and has all the solar arrays. And by having more electrical capability, you can add the partner modules. You can bring up the European laboratory, you can bring up the Japanese modules, and now the partners are able to have their components on orbit and we can also increase the crew size so that we are able to utilize the space station for what it was built for.
Now getting into the spacewalks: The preparation for the EVAs on this flight includes something new called the campout pre-breathe. What is that, how does it work and what’s the reason that we’re going to be doing this?
Well, the campout [is] interesting enough. It’s a new procedure -- we’ve never done it before. Actually it’s not a new procedure in the sense that someone just thought of it recently. It’s been on the books for a long time. Initially, that was going to be the way we were going to do EVAs on space station. One of the things about doing EVAs in space is you have the opposite effect of going diving. When you go diving you go from the Earth’s atmosphere [atmospheric pressure] to a higher atmosphere and so you’re, you’re, when you come back up you have to decompress. Well the same thing happens when you go out on a spacewalk because you’re inside the space station at 14.7 [pounds per square inch] nominally, and when you go out on your spacewalks, you, in the suit, you’re only down at 4.3 psi. So you’re, you know, almost down a third of your pressure. And so, you don’t want to have the risk of decompression sickness, which you would, you know, get from diving if you don’t decompress. So when we go out on our spacewalks we, in a sense, need to decompress. We’ve taken care of that on the space shuttle by bringing the pressure in the space shuttle down to 10.2 psi the day before the first EVA. At the lower pressure, you have the same amount of oxygen, so you have less nitrogen, so you’re able to off-gas that nitrogen. It’s not practical to bring the whole space station down to 10.2 psi because it’s just too big a volume. If you blow air overboard [to lower station pressure] well … that’s a consumable that you don’t have anymore. What we had been doing was known as the exercise protocol. The crew members going out for EVA would put on a mask and, the morning of EVA, they would get on a bicycle and while they were breathing 100 percent O2 and exercising. You would off-gas, because you’re breathing more during exercise and you’re breathing 100 percent O2. You flush out some of the nitrogen. The only problem with that is that it, the time that it took from the time that you woke up in the morning to the time you were able to go out the door was a significant amount of time. And so this campout protocol kind of mimics the 10.2 protocol that we use on shuttle. The EVA crewmembers get locked in the airlock the night before, they bring the pressure in the airlock down to 10.2 psi, and so instead of living in the shuttle at 10.2 you’re just living in the airlock at 10.2. Since you’re locked in there, it’s been given the name of campout, because you have to take your sleeping bags in there and you’re, in a sense, camping out. By doing that we’re able to start our EVAs one hour earlier, and so that means now we’re not crunched at the end of the day. When you come back in from an EVA you have to clean up your suits and put all your tools away, and all of that takes time. What happened in the past is that, that would run into the crew member’s sleep time. And we don’t want to compromise our crews for sleep because that’ll just lead to fatigue by the end of the mission. So in doing the campout, if we’re able to get out the door one hour earlier, then that gives us one more hour at the end of the day so we can finish all of our tasks and not have to run into our sleep period.
Let’s discuss a little bit more about the delivery of the P3/P4 Truss starting with the robot arm operations, both on docking day and before the first spacewalk. What happens in all of that prior to the EVAs, and what is your role in those operations?
Image at left: STS-115 Mission Specialist Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper awaits a training session at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at the Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA
Well actually my role in the, in the actual handoff and installation is none. I’m not involved in any of those robotic arms operations because the first one takes place using the shuttle arm to pick up the element, P3/P4, out of the shuttle bay get it clear of the shuttle, and hand it off to the station arm. And that’s done by Dan Burbank and Chris Ferguson; Steve MacLean. While they’re doing that -- and they do this almost immediately after docking -- once we dock and open the hatches they’re into this operation already. Steve MacLean, meanwhile, gets over on the station side and, together with the station crewmember, with Jeff Williams. They get the station arm ready to accept the P3/P4 element. They do a handoff. The shuttle arm presents it, and there’s two grapple fixtures on the truss, and so they’re able, they grab onto the other one and once the station arm has it then the shuttle arm lets go. Overnight, they bring it to a park position so that it's … in a location that’s thermally acceptable and they can leave it on the station arm overnight. While all of this arm robotics is taking place Joe Tanner and I are getting ready for EVA the next morning. Since we go out and use the, the station’s airlock, we’re bringing over our EVA suits and all of our tools that we brought up that we will need to take outside. That’s why I said I’m not involved in any of the robotic operations. While they’re doing that we’re getting ready for EVA the next morning. We get into our campout scenario and get locked in the airlock. The next morning after we wake up, Steve and Jeff complete the installation and they take the P3/P4 Truss from the overnight position and then all the mating operations are done, commanded from station. Once the two elements are bolted together, then we can translate onto them. And so, even while they’re doing the installation and the bolting, Joe and I are getting ready to start EVA 1. We’ll be suited up, and we have certain points, and so when they got three out of the four bolts mated, then that’s our cue that says, "OK, once that happens we’re ready to go out the door." And hopefully by that point, you know, we won’t be waiting for them and they won’t be waiting for us and so, and so it’ll, it’ll all mesh up together. And then, we can start EVA 1.
Well, let’s talk about EVA 1. Obviously you are EV2, as you mentioned. What are you doing on EVA 1?
On EVA 1 we start getting the P3/P4 element ready for solar array deploy. That happens two days later. The first task [for] that is to hook up the umbilicals. Those are just the power cables and data cables so that the ground can start commanding all of the, the MDMs, the boxes that are on the elements and getting them ready for deploy. Actually one of Joe’s tasks is to hook up the umbilicals. While he’s doing that, I’m starting to remove the launch locks on the solar array blanket boxes. The solar arrays are folded up into what we call blanket boxes. The blanket boxes are attached to a mast canister, which is attached to the four-bar linkage, which is attached to the, to the P4 structure. In order to get that all to fit inside the shuttle bay and also have it be safe for the vibrations of launch. There are a number of launch locks and bolts that just hold it all together. On EVA 1, I go out and start removing these bolts. The blanket boxes, instead of being out, like you see them in all the pictures with the solar arrays deployed, are folded up together. They have big bolts that hold them together so I go out and I start removing all the bolts, first on the aft side and then I go to the forward side. Meanwhile, Joe’s done with the umbilicals. He comes out and gets one of the solar arrays. There’s more bolts holding them together, swings the, the four-bar out, and then he climbs out onto the very end of the mast canister, and swings the two blanket boxes out. And so now that, that array’s ready. While he’s doing that, I’m out on the forward one, and I do the same thing. Now the blanket boxes are pretty much ready for the ground to start commanding them as far as unlatching them and making sure that all the pins that hold them in are all deploy. That, that gets that ready for the solar array deploys. We’re not quite ready to deploy the arrays yet because, in order to get the P3/P4 to fit inside the shuttle bay, we have to have the alpha joint rotated 180 degrees. In order to, to rotate it back to the zero position, there are two drive mechanisms that needed to be deployed, the DLAs [Drive Lock Assemblies]. We start working on those so that they can command the SARJ. That’s pretty much what EVA 1 is. And then, EVA 2 finishes up the tasks, because we’re still not ready to deploy the arrays, ’cause we still can’t rotate the alpha joint -- we can’t do that until the end of EVA 2.
And, let’s go, you’re not directly involved as in, doing the spacewalk of EVA 2, but let’s talk about EVA 2. One, what are they doing, basically, and then, also, what, what’s your role.
On EVA 2 Dan and Steve are the two EV members. They’re primarily finishing up the preparations to rotate the solar array. Or, rotate the solar array alpha joint. In order to hold this big alpha joint from any vibrations, there are a number of launch locks all the way around the joint. They have 16 launch locks. It’s a somewhat tedious task because each lock is underneath a cover. You have to remove the cover, then you have to take the launch lock out, and then you have to put the cover back in. There are 16 of those that they go through all of them. Then on the six corners of the truss element, there’s another launch restraint, another bolt holding the two sections together, and they remove all of those. There are some braces that need to get put in also. And so at the end of EVA 2, then we’re going to be ready to rotate the joint in preparations for the solar array deploy. And as you mentioned, I’m not directly involved because I’m not outside, but that doesn’t mean I’m not directly involved because whenever we have crewmembers outside EVA, we have someone inside being the IV, [intravehicular] crewmember, and that’s the person that’s reading the procedures and orchestrating what the two crewmembers are doing outside to make sure that they indeed, that we get everything done that we’re supposed to do and that it’s all done correctly. And so while Dan and Steve are outside, Joe and I will be swapping off the task of the IV crewmember.
There’s a visually dramatic event on the day after EVA 2. Describe the work that goes into deploying the solar array wings and on this new truss.
The actual work is for us is not that much, because it’s all done from inside station. We’re not actually out there cranking the arrays out, although that is a contingency that we could do if we have to. But nominally, it’s all done from inside station, commands via the PCS, the computer system. Our task is primarily, to observe and, since we’re, in a sense, closest to the evolution at hand. We’ll be doing the commanding from inside the station, as opposed to the ground, just so you don’t have the delay of commands going up and down. The last time we did a similar task was on 4A, when they brought up the P6 array. Two of our crewmembers, Brent and Joe, both were on, you know, STS-97, and so they’re well familiar with this task. They ran into some problems while they were doing their solar array deploy. Now, since then we’ve learned what the problems were, we’ve made some design changes to the arrays so that we don’t have this problem again. Our jobs during the deploy will be to very meticulously observe what is going on so that if there is, if there are any issues, you know, we can stop it from, from getting into a worse situation.
Two EVAs are done, the solar arrays are deployed then we get to EVA 3. What are the tasks that you’ll be doing on EVA 3 including the radiator deploy?
One of them is the radiator deploy, because now that, now that we’ve rotated the SARJ to the zero position we can deploy the radiator. It will be going nadir on station. And so that’s one of the tasks. We go out and again there are bolts and cables holding the arrays together for launch. We remove them. That lets the array extend out. After that we have some cleanup tasks on P3 before we’re able to, to call P3 and P4 ready and complete; things like removing a keel beam and a drag link -- that’s just structure that allows P4, or P3, to sit inside the shuttle bay, but it’s not needed on orbit. We have to take those pieces off, and they just get stowed inside the truss element. The second half of our EVA we’re still working on. A lot of it is going to depend upon what the most critical piece of equipment that station needs to get repaired is. We still have a little bit of flexibility and there’s still some time before our launch for us to figure out exactly what we’re going to be doing during the last half of our EVA.
A couple of years ago the Vision for Space Exploration was announced. That Vision sees way beyond the space station that we’re currently building in low Earth orbit. What is your philosophy about human exploration of space?
To me exploring space is just a natural progression of, where humans are going. As we become more advanced and we have more technology to go farther. Thousands of years ago people would just go beyond the next hill, go over the mountain, go across the river. Then it led to going across the oceans. And, then it was "OK, let’s go into the skies." We now have airplanes. We can fly. We have submarines and submersibles; we can go into the waters. So looking into the skies and looking at the stars and at the planets and thinking, what’s out there … We’re curious. We, as humans always want to know what’s out there. To me it, it just seems natural that we’ve looked around here and we’re just going to go look out farther. We’re still developing the means to go out there farther. But that’s just where we’re going to go next. To me, exploration makes sense because we’re always looking at what’s the next thing out there -- what else can we learn, and how can we go there. Maybe we can learn something that we can bring back here and help solve some of the problems we have on Earth.