Q: This is the STS-116 crew interview with Mission Specialist Joan Higginbotham. Joan, let’s start at the beginning of your astronaut career. What made you want to do this?
Image to right: Astronaut Joan E. Higginbotham, mission specialist. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Joan Higginbotham
A: My career plan originally did not include becoming an astronaut. What I had envisioned for myself was to get a degree, my electrical engineering degree, going on to work for IBM. It seemed like a natural fit at the time because I had interned with them for two years in college; they were a good company; and they thought I was a good employee. However, at the time I was graduating from college, they had a hiring freeze on engineers. So they offered me a position as a sales associate and would move me over to engineering once that hiring freeze came off. In the interim someone from NASA called me and had gotten a hold of my résumé and thought I’d be a real good fit in two positions that he had in his directorate. I opted to go with NASA, and about eight years into my career, after some cajoling from my then boss, I applied for the astronaut corps.
Tell me a little bit about the path that you took academically. You touched a little on the professional path, but just what kind of things academically did you line up to get where you are?
Academically, I started out with an electrical engineering degree, undergraduate. Two weeks after graduation, I started working for the Kennedy Space Center as a payload electrical engineer. About three years into my career, I actually went back to get an advanced degree. I did it through NASA, and I got a degree in engineering management. After completing that degree, I applied for the astronaut corps in 1994 for the ’95 class. I was one of the lucky ones that got interviewed (there were only 122 of us), and ultimately I was not one of the 15 selected. After talking to some board members, they suggested I go back and get a more technical advanced degree, which is what I did. I went back to Florida Tech and got a master’s degree in space systems, reapplied for the corps in 1995 and got selected for the ’96 class.
Was it hard to go back to school at that point?
It was hard.
I’d been back two years earlier. I’d gotten a master’s degree. I’d pretty much figured that I was done. And it was hard too because I was working full time while getting both of these master’s. So I worked essentially night shift so that I could go to the school during the day and get my second degree. But obviously it paid off.
And you ended up graduating in, what was the class you are? I believe it’s ’96, was it?
It was. We were the graduating class of 1996. Class No. 16.
A lot of your classmates ended up being on the STS-107 crew.
Were you close with many of them?
I was. It’s hard not to go through a training program like that and not become close with several people and friendly with at least everyone in the class. I did have three classmates on board STS-107. I considered every one a friend. So it was very hard that day. It was like losing family members. It was very tragic. In fact, for a long time I think I was just in a state of shock. One day I was driving in and I saw a car that KC used to drive. And I go, “Oh, there goes KC.” I had to remember that that wasn’t KC. It was a shock to get over losing such good friends.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you found out that you were selected to this crew and that you were going to make your first spaceflight? What was your reaction?
It’s a little strange because I wasn’t originally selected for this crew. I was originally selected for the STS-117 crew. I do remember the phone call, because it came the day before my birthday in the year 2002, and we were slated to fly in September of 2003. Due to the accident, of course, our mission got pushed back. But I continued to train with that crew for about two years. Then one day, just out of the blue, I got a phone call from the chief of the astronaut office, asking me to report to his office. As I was walking up the stairs, I was trying to figure out why I was being called into the principal’s office and what I had done wrong. When I got there, he told me that they had been looking at some of the crews, and they were realigning the crews, and that I had been moved up to the crew of STS-116. When he told me that I had been moved to this crew, it was basically a shock because I had been with my other crewmates for two years and I thought that’s pretty much how we’re going to launch in that crew configuration.
You said the initial crew was -117?
The initial crew was STS-117.
Basically the docked ops are very similar if I’m remembering ...
Actually, they’re not. They have S3/S4 and we have P5.
They actually have solar arrays.
Thank you for clearing that up for me. Tell me a little bit about the place that you consider your hometown, and what it was like growing up there.
Chicago for me is hometown. I was born and raised there, and I still have family in and around the Chicago area. So it will always be home in some manner for me. It’s a great place to grow up. There’s a lot of stuff to do. There’s a wonderful Museum of Science and Industry, a great planetarium, and a wonderful aquarium. And the lakefront in the summertime is just fabulous, and we have a wonderful skyline. I think the city itself has a lot to offer to just about anybody who goes there. I highly recommend visiting the city.
I’m going to put you on the spot here. Cubs fan, White Sox fan?
White Sox fan.
Speaking of sports, I know from reading your bio that you’re an avid weightlifter, a bodybuilder. Why and how you got into that.
I got into that actually when I worked at Kennedy Space Center. They had put a new gym in the first floor of our building. And two ladies who went to the gym were going to be in a bodybuilding competition. I essentially went to make fun of them because I imagined they were very petite women. So I imagined these women’s heads on an Arnold Schwarzenegger body. I just could not fathom the concept. I went to the show to see them, and I thought they just had incredible physiques. One of the trainers was sitting in the audience with me, and I asked him if he would be willing to train me. I did that show the next year and came in third place.
What is it about that sport that really floats your boat basically?
It is the discipline that it takes. The working out is not the hard part. It’s the eating correctly that makes you what you are once you get up on stage. So it’s the aspect of the discipline. I just really wanted to see if I could do it.
How would your best friend describe you, if I were to have a conversation with that person?
I think she would describe me as willful, determined, kind-hearted, and sometimes generous to a fault to my friends and family and those people who I keep in my core circle.
Image to left: STS-116 Mission Specialist Joan Higginbotham takes a break from training to pose
for a portrait with a NASA T-38 trainer jet at Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
I also read that you like doing motivational speaking. What is it about that? Why do you feel the need to do that? Some people who don’t know you might think [you] have the Charles Barkley attitude, “I’m not a role model.”
It’s not so much that I think I’m a role model. It’s more of that I think I’ve been incredibly blessed as an individual, and I had wonderful parents and family and friends who just encouraged me to be the best that I could. I think that’s why I am the person I am today and where I am today. I just feel a sense of responsibility to do the same for people who are coming up. I think nowadays there are a lot of children who weren’t as blessed as I am. They don’t come from homes where families encourage them to do things. I think if I can maybe help them and encourage them to do whatever it is -- not necessarily become an astronaut -- just encourage them to do their best and expect nothing but the best from themselves, I think that I’m doing something good.
Let’s talk about the mission. Could you summarize the main goals of ISS assembly mission 12A.1? What is your main responsibility as a mission specialist?
We have a couple of different roles that we are fulfilling with this mission. The first one is to install the P5 truss. One of the other major tasks is to retract the solar arrays on the P6 truss. One of the hugest tasks that we’re doing on this mission is to electrically reconfigure the space station. We then have transfer to accomplish between shuttle and station, and we’re going to rotate one of our crew members out. Suni Williams will be staying on station and we’ll be bringing Thomas Reiter home. My primary tasks in this mission are to act as robotics arm operator on the space station along with Suni. I am the load master, the person in charge of transfer. I also am in charge of deploying some small satellites once we undock from space station.
You mentioned the electrical power system reconfiguration. Why is that being done?
We are trying to put our electrical system in a near-assembly-complete state. To do that, we are now going to run our primary power through our main bus switching units (or MBSUs). And, like I said, that’s basically the final configuration that we’re going to leave the station in.
For the two EVAs on which the power reconfig will take place: about half of the station at each day is going to have to be powered down. What kind of risks does that pose to systems and hardware? Are there plans in place to mitigate those risks?
The risk is not necessarily powering down the equipment as long as you do it in what we call a graceful manner. To that end the flight controllers have worked very hard and tirelessly to come up with a very detailed procedure of what equipment to power down when and how long each piece of equipment can stayed powered off. The biggest risk that we have there is leaving certain pieces of equipment unpowered for a long period of time. To mitigate all these risks essentially is all in the choreography of powering things down and powering things up.
There’s a time issue then?
There is a time issue there. If for some reason things do not go according to our nominal plan, we do have contingency procedures in our hip pocket that we can actually use to back out the configuration if needed or do whatever the situation, the scenario calls for.
This is the first shuttle-based semi-crew exchange, one person up, one person down, since before Columbia. What does it mean to you, as an American astronaut, to get that at least partially back on track?
It means to me that we, as NASA, are getting back to the task of accomplishing the goals that we have set, and that is completion of the space station. Personally it means that I have this really unique opportunity to serve my country in this manner. I feel extremely honored and blessed to have that opportunity.
The primary piece of hardware that you’re bringing up, as you mentioned, is the P5 short spacer truss segment, or truss. In relation to the other parts of the truss that’s up there, it’s a relatively small piece of hardware. Why is it so important to ISS though?
It is important because, as you mentioned in the name, the short spacer, it provides space between the P6 and the P4 array, and that’s essential because each one of those trusses (the P6 and the P4) have solar arrays. Basically the P5 will now allow those arrays to operate and rotate without interfering with one another. Also, it acts as a conduit (it’s going to have cables running through it) that’s going to transmit power and data from the P6 segment to the other segments on the station.
Let’s move on to flight day-specific duties. What are the key activities that are slated to take place on flight day two?
On flight day two, we are essentially checking out hardware that we need to get ready for our rendezvous and docking. I specifically will be checking out the handheld laser, which is a laser, a box, that we use. We point it towards the station and shoot at it, if you will, and this will tell us how far we are, the range, from the station and the range rate which is the rate at which we are closing in on the station. We use all that data to dock with our space station, to come in according to the different velocities at which we’re supposed to be tracking at different distances, as we’re closing in. The EVA crews are going to be checking out some of the hardware that they’re going to use on the first spacewalk.
On flight day three after the shuttle docks to ISS it’ll be about time to get the robotics operation under way, to get P5 out of the payload bay and into position for that day. Tell me how that’s going to proceed.
There is a ballet, is what I call it, that’s going to have to happen to get the P5 truss out. On the shuttle side, we’ll have Nick and Mark operating the shuttle robotic arm, and they will grapple P5 and pull it out of the payload bay and essentially position it on the portside of the shuttle, a little bit forward on the portside. Suni and I will be on the space station; we will already have the robotic arm in place. We will also grapple the P5 truss. So at one time we will have two arms grappled to the truss. Once we are sure that we have a good hold on the truss, Nick and Roman will back away, release the truss, back away to a clearance position, and the P5 truss will remain there overnight.
The following day the truss is out there parked overnight. That day, EVA-1 is set to get under way. Take me through that day starting from where the truss is and where it’s going to go, and the rest of the EVA.
Starting that day, we, Suni and myself, start the robotic operations before the EVA crew gets out the door. We are doing a series of maneuvers to position the truss from the overnight park position, which is on the portside of the shuttle, all the way to 200 centimeters just shy of where it’s going to mate with the P3/P4 truss. At that point, we will just hang out. Christer and Beamer will come out and they will do a couple configurations. Then they will come over to where the truss is, and they will give Suni and me verbal cues as to how to move the truss in. The reason we need them out there is because on that portside of the truss, there are very few camera views. We can use another two set of eyes to help verbally GCA us in, as what we call it. So, once they get out there, they will maneuver us in to about 20 centimeters out. They’ll take off some hardware at some launch lock removals, and once that is done we’ll get into good alignment where we think we are with mating with the P4 truss, and they will verbally guide us in into a good mated position.
From there, what will the EVs do? How will the P5 get hard docked?
At that point, they will go and physically bolt P5 to P4.
There’s also a camera that needs to be replaced. Will you be doing anything for that? How’s that going to happen?
There are no robotic arm ops included in the camera R&R. What’s going to happen is: We are actually flying up that replacement camera in the Spacehab. It will be assembled on the space station side. During the EVA, Christer will come back to the airlock, retrieve that new camera, go out to the starboard side of the truss, and he and Beamer will replace the old camera with the new camera. They'll bring the camera back inside.
Let’s move on to EVA-2 which is the first part of the power reconfig. Can you tell us how that’s going to proceed?
As I said earlier, the flight controllers are going to power down some of the channels of the space station. The EV crew will go out and demate some connectors from where they were currently routed and route them through our main bus switching unit. That in a nutshell is basically what’s going to happen. Once all those new connections are made, then the ground controllers will begin to power up that equipment that had been powered down for the connections.
If I understand the timeline correctly, while the ground is going through that power-up procedure, the EVs are going to be busy doing something else. Can you talk to me about that?
Image to right: STS-116 Mission Specialist Joan Higginbotham awaits the start of an emergency egress training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
They are. We are going to relocate both of our CETA carts, which are currently on the S1 truss. One of the reasons is in case we need to replace one of the main bus switching units, in case one doesn’t work correctly, we need to reposition that CETA cart to get that main bus unit there. The other reason we’re moving that CETA cart is to pre-position it for one of our upcoming missions. They need it in a certain area, and while we’re out there maneuvering one we might as well get the second one.
Can you tell us a little bit about the thermal insulation that’s going to be installed on the station robotic arm?
There are things called force moment sensors on each end effector on the space station robotic arm. Right now the engineers on the ground have not been able to get a good calibration on those sensors due to the harsh thermal gradients. So the theory is: If we go ahead and put more multilayer insulation on those end effectors that it will protect those sensors from the different thermal gradients and they can get a good calibration on the ground.
There’s been much made about how difficult the rest of assembly of the ISS from this point on is going to be. What are the challenges that poses to actually getting it complete and continuing on?
The missions are really complex now. The arm operations are really complex. We have very tight tolerances between the arm and different structures. For example, on our mission, as we’re putting the P5 truss into position, we are coming within inches of a box. That’s unheard of. You always want to stay two feet away from structure. So two feet and two inches is a big difference. The spacewalks are really complicated. They have a lot of content in them. It’s really crucial that we execute these missions as well as we can. That's the big thing: When we go back to the moon and on to Mars, I don’t think those operations are going to be any less complex than the ones that we are doing now. So it’s essential for us to master these skills now for us to continue with our exploration.