Q: Pilot Bill Oefelein, can you tell me a little bit about why it was you decided to become an astronaut? When did you make that decision?
Image at left: Astronaut William A. Oefelein, STS-116 mission pilot. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Bill Oefelein
A: Sure. I grew up in Alaska, and I always liked exploring. I was in the Scouts and did a lot of camping and hiking. As I got older, given the vastness of the state and the lack of roads and all, it became apparent to me the best way to get out and do some of the exploring was by flying airplanes. So I worked hard and got a pilot’s license and got a float-plane rating and was able to kind of do some of my exploring that way. As I got older, I started thinking, “Well, maybe somebody will actually pay me to fly airplanes for them.” After college, I decided to apply to the Navy and become a pilot with the Navy. As I was flying for the Navy, I was always interested in engineering; that's what I studied in college. I decided to apply for the Test Pilot Program. A lot of folks who do that test pilot work also went on to fly space shuttles. I started talking to a bunch of those folks and at that point it just seemed natural for me to go to the next phase and try to fly space shuttles. I never really, as a kid, wanted to become an astronaut; I just wanted to fly airplanes and explore. I always liked math and science. And, I just kind of found myself in a position, about 10 years ago that, “Hey, I can use all this background and test aviation and exploration and maybe help fly a space shuttle for NASA someday.”
Tell me a little bit about your hometown. You mentioned lack of roads and whatnot. Did that kind of make you a natural explorer?
I think so. You know, a lot of the people that go up to Alaska, I think it’s a younger crowd. People are more adventurous and they like the openness. They like the ability to get out and explore. I think the people that stay up there see the, what other people see as obstacles -- no roads and all that -- as opportunities to get out and explore, develop new roads or develop new communication systems or somehow connect the remote parts of the state, to develop new technologies or employ existing ones like airplanes to connect the state. I think that just makes you more of an explorer, when you see things like that, and you don’t see them as obstacles but opportunities to get out there and apply existing technologies or develop new ones, like some of the communications people do up there or the gas companies, gas and oil companies do up there.
And, what’s the name of the place and where is it near?
I grew up in Anchorage. It’s kind of the big city up there. It’s kind of south-central Alaska, on the lower part of the state, right in the middle.
Tell us about how you found out that you were picked to be a part of this crew, and that you were going to make your first spaceflight, and what your reaction was.
At the time I was a capcom, and I was working one of the missions (I forget which one it was, STS-109 or -110 maybe). I was a NASA entry capcom, so I was one of the folks that work in Mission Control talking to the folks as they go up and come back down. And it was late on a Friday afternoon, and I get a call—it’s like five o’clock on a Friday—to come down to the corner office. The corner office is the boss’s office. Well, this is going to go one of two ways: It’s either going to be really good or really bad. As a capcom you’re kind of highlighted. I didn’t think I’d screwed anything up, but maybe I did … but I didn’t think it would go too bad. So I kind of had in back of my mind, when I got that call to come down to the corner office, that maybe this is the call that you’re waiting for. Sure enough, I go in there and there’s the chief of the office at the time and then my first Commander. Terry Wilcutt’s in there and at that point I kind of figured what was going on. They asked me, “Hey, you still interested in flying in space?” I said, “Sure.” And then, they said something about STS-116 and talked for another 30 minutes. I caught about five or six words of that. I figure I can catch all that other stuff up later. I was pretty excited and went home and told my family. They wanted to get the media announcement out I think on the Monday. So [my family] had to be hush-hush about it for the weekend. Maybe the hardest part about that is not sharing it with the rest of my family beyond just my immediate family.
What was your family’s reaction?
They were pretty happy. It was good news. It was a little while coming at that point, and everybody knows that I work hard and my family made a lot of sacrifices. So, it was good.
Let’s move on and talk about the mission a little bit. If you would, could you summarize the main goals of 12A.1 and give us a brief description of what your main responsibilities are as pilot?
We have several main objectives. One is we’re going to rotate out a space station crew member, Suni Williams, who’s a classmate of mine actually (we started here at NASA together). We’re going to take her up and replace Thomas Reiter, the ESA astronaut who’s up there right now, replace him with Suni. We’ll take Suni up and bring Thomas down. That’s one of the main objectives. One of the other big ticket items is we’re going to reconfigure the electrical system on the space station. Right now it’s running on an early electrical system, one that was just developed to run just during the construction period. Once it gets to a certain size, you need to bring all these other switching units and batteries and so forth on line. We’re going to activate the new electrical system, kind of the permanent electrical system, and deactivate the earlier or preliminary electrical system. Then we have some other, minor objectives. One other big one, I should say, is attaching P5. We’re actually adding a part of the truss. That will be one of the first things we do. The truss is called, P for port, S for starboard, and there’s different segments, like P3, 4, P5, P6, and then S so forth. We attach P5, which is a truss segment, to add the solar arrays so we can add the solar arrays, which are how the space station generates power, electrical power. It just allows us to get more and more out there so we can get more power into the space station to do more science. So those are kind of the three big things: P5, the electrical reconfiguration, and the crew rotation. We’re also doing some things with some of the ammonia systems and activating a whole lot of other boxes and putting in a few bags and fixing some cameras and moving some things here and there. There are a lot of little things in addition to those three big ones.
You mentioned P5. Tell us a little bit about what its purpose is, and why it’s so important to ISS.
P5, as I said, is a truss. The solar arrays are mounted on the space station on this big truss. Right now we’re in the process of building it. STS-115 takes the P3 and P4 out there, and then they’re going to have a solar array on that. Well, this is a spacer so we can take an existing solar array that’s on there and stick it on the outside of this P3/P4 segment. So you have that for the solar array; we have P5 as a spacer so we can add more solar arrays. We’ll have some on this side and eventually we’ll have some on the other side. We’re working on the portside, so this is P for port, side first, and then we’ll work on the starboard side. It allows us to get more solar arrays out there by putting our truss spacer segment in there so more solar arrays, more power, more electricity to space station so we can do more in the space station itself.
For the electrical power system reconfiguration, there’s going to be about half of the station on two separate days they’re going to be powered down for that. What risks does that pose to systems and hardware and what measures are in place to mitigate those risks?
That’s going to be very challenging from many different aspects. But, usually when we build something for spaceflight, we want to build redundancy in there -- meaning, if something fails, something else will start working to compensate for that failure. That’s how you make something safe. You either build something to not fail, which is very hard to do, or you build something generally that you don’t want to fail but you understand things can fail, and then you have a backup way, or backup system. As far as the power systems go, you have a box, and you have a power supply in here and then a backup power supply. What we’re doing is kind of shutting off one of those power supplies so you only have one power supply. So you’re getting rid of some of your safety nets, temporarily. Because what you don’t want to do, which is more unsafe, is to kind of unplug something that has power applied to it and plug it into something that has power. Anybody that’s done that with electricity and seen arcs and all that or got a static electricity shock, you know, that’s just built-up charges. We don’t want to do things like that. So we have to make these other connections and activate the final electrical configuration. We have to power down some of those, systems that we’re connecting from one place and putting it to another. We can’t have electricity flowing through there while we do that, so we have to put it maybe on its backup system. So, you get rid of some of your fault, tolerance or ability to download to a backup. We’re getting rid of some of those safety nets in order to make these other connections to add capability later on. The other thing is you have to do things in a very specific sequence, and it’s going to be very important for us, in space and the folks on the ground, to be very much in sync. We worked for many years with our lead space station flight director, John Curry. He and his team have developed a very choreographed sequence of events. Things need to happen both on the ground and in space. If they’d have to power down this box so that we can disconnect this connector and reconnect it to some other place, and then when we do that then we tell them that we’re done and then they have to power it back up and then go on to something else. The other part of it is getting things done in the sequence that they need to be done in. That’s going to be very challenging, particularly for me, as the IV, to make sure, that’s kind of one of my main roles is to make sure we’re not getting ahead of them, and they’re not getting ahead of us. I’m kind of the person that makes sure that everything stays in sync between the ground and the guys or the guy and girl outside.
And then, is there also a time issue, a time concern here, because some of these systems are going to be cooling off or exposed in some way?
There are certain time constraints. There also are sort of thermal clocks. I have one watch on here but maybe I’ll have four or five that I got running for different thermal clocks, either for a tool or for a system that doesn’t have what we call keep-alive power, power that keeps heaters going so it doesn’t get frozen up. There are all sorts of little things that are going to have clocks that I have to keep track of. But I’ll have a great team on the ground that’s going to help me keep track of those things as well.
You mentioned the crew rotation. I guess [this is] going to be the first one where it’s going to be a crew member taken up and a crew member brought back, shuttle-based anyway, for quite some time. As an American space professional, how does it make you feel to be part of that, to get that back on track?
I think it’s great. That’s one of the things that’s great about the space shuttle. With its seven seats we have the capability to take a lot of people up in addition to the cargo. We don’t necessarily have to bring the same people back down. In this case we’re swapping out a crew member. I think it just highlights one of the capabilities of the space shuttle system and one of the capabilities that we’re going to continue to have with our next-generation space vehicle.
Let's go on to going flight day by flight day. Tell me, if you would, about the key activities for flight day 2.
Sure. flight day 2, one of the big things we’re doing there is, we’re, what we call flight day 2 inspection. We’ve just launched the day before. As you know, we’ve had some problems with our external tank and foam coming off of that. The thermal protection system, the surface that protects the space shuttle from burning up as it comes back from space, is right next to this tank on ascent. If parts of that tank come off and hit this thermal protection system, it could cause damage and not allow that system to protect the orbiter. We want to make sure that didn’t happen. So on flight day 2, three of us, myself, Commander Mark Polansky, and our lead shuttle robotics officer Nick Patrick are going to take out a big, OBSS, orbiter boom sensing system, with the space shuttle’s arm and we’re going to inspect most of the thermal protection system on the space shuttle to make sure that it wasn’t damaged. It doesn’t sound like that’s a lot, but that actually takes several hours because there are very specific ways that we have to inspect it, and it’s a very tedious process to get a scan pattern and get all the little angles that we need to make sure that we didn’t have any damage. We’re looking for very small amounts of damage. That takes most of flight day 2 for the three of us.
While we’re doing that, we have other crew members getting ready for our docking with the space station on the following day, flight day 3. They’re getting equipment ready. Our two spacewalkers are getting their spacesuits all checked out and powered up. We check the comm. (communications systems) and the data systems with them. We’re basically just getting ready for the next day. But, those are kind of the big activities on flight day 2.
On flight day 3, docking day, there’s a lot of activity, probably more than people know. Talk a little bit about that day.
I’ll tell you, our first four days are going to be pretty busy. You spend flight day 1 getting ready for flight day 2, you spend flight day 2 kind of getting ready for flight day 3, and on flight day 3, we’re going to be getting ready for flight day 4, which is our EVA. But first we have to rendezvous. If you’re rendezvousing with one spacecraft to another, that was the big thing of the day. But that’s only half of our day on flight day 3. Fortunately we have very good folks on the ground that have developed very good, very repeatable procedures that allows us to get up to the space station in a very efficient manner and rendezvous and actually dock with it. So, we’ll spend the first part of the day flying a profile that’s been flown many times before. Once we get docked with the space station, our day isn’t over. We have a spacewalk we’re doing on the very next day. So, myself and our two spacewalkers for the next day, Bob Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang, get all of our gear ready and we’re going to get it over to the space station, because we’re going to do our spacewalk out of the space station airlock. And, there’s reasons we want to do that. We’re doing a particular preparation, a protocol to avoid some decompression problems that divers and high-altitude flyers might have. We have very special medical protocols in place to avoid those. That has to start on the end of flight day 3. Once we open up the hatches and greet everybody over there, we have to get all our gear transferred, the spacesuits, and get them sealed up inside the space station airlock the night before. We will depressurize that module down to 10.2 psi, and we need to have that for a little over 8½ hours. So basically, they’ll stay overnight over there. We have just a little bit of time, several hours, between the time we dock and open the hatches to the time we need to close that hatch with Beamer and Christer inside on the space station. We have a lot of work to do in that period of time. So, it’s going to be a very busy day, and that’s all in preparation for our spacewalk on the next day, flight day 4.
After you’re done with Beamer and Christer, and they begin their campout, is the day done for you? Are you, are there preps for you for the following day as IV person?
I’m going to be the only one at that point that can get anything done that wasn’t done, because Beamer and Christer are now locked away, not to be seen until the next morning. So, if we weren’t able to get some tools put over, or I still have to get my little nest set up, I’m going to be doing all the controlling up from the space shuttle from the flight deck, so I still need to get all my workstation setup up there. I call it my little nest, and make sure everything and everybody is ready to go for the next day. I’ll kind of just do a little cleanup; but pretty much by that time it’ll be time to get the orbiter ready, to be put to bed, and I’ll put myself to bed.
What’s going to happen on EVA 1?
The big thing is, we’re going to attach P5, the port truss spacer segment, to P4. It actually would have been pulled out of the payload bay the day before, on flight day 3, and passed off to the space station robotic arm. They’re going to have it sitting out overnight; so when we wake up on flight day 4, the morning of the EVA, they’re going to have it pre-positioned. Our two spacewalkers, once they get out there they do what we call a GCA, an old flying term for ground control to approach. It mainly means that they’re talking to the robotic arm operator about clearances as they come in, because there’s some very, very tight clearances as they bring P5 in to P4. Christer actually has just under two inches that he has to watch for, as our robotics operators, Joanie and Suni, bring P5 in there. Once they bring it in they do some preparatory work, and then they mount it in there. Christer and Beamer are outside -- they drive some bolts with their power tools, make some electrical connections and attach some grounding wires. Then they do some other things while they’re out there. Then we have what we call get-ahead tasks or tasks that we don’t have to get done, but if we’re ahead of our timeline, we can do some things out there that’ll help the next folks on the next mission. Once we’re done with that, one of the other things we’re doing on EVA 1 is replace a camera on the space station that hasn’t been working so good. We’ll have a spare camera in the airlock, and we’ll do a remove and replace (we call it an R&R). We pull the failed or not-working camera off, grab the new one, stick it on, and then bring the failed one back inside. And then there are just some little ancillary tasks that we’re going to do, maybe put some bags up on the airlock and some other minor things. But, the big thing for EVA 1 is getting that P5 truss attached, and that’ll take a little more than half the EVA. And then, between the camera and some other ancillary tasks, that’ll take the rest of the EVA on that first EVA day.
There’s also, from what I understand, a grapple fixture on P5 that needs to be relocated.
The guys will do that while they’re still out there on the P5. That’s not one of the get-aheads; that’s one of the actual tasks that we need to do to make room for some of the other space station equipment that’s going to be out there. They have to unbolt some bolts. Basically this was the grapple fixture that the shuttle arm grabbed onto, handed off to the space station arm. They actually need to kind of move it around and out of the way. So, they pull it off of one place and just kind of stick it on another so it’s kind of out of the way for some, rotating space station equipment.
Just to provide some more clearance space?
Flight day 5, there are no EVAs planned, but there are still some key activities on that day. One of them is that the solar array wings on P6 will be retracted. Why is that happening?
We’re getting ready for some major electrical reconfigurations now on EVAs 2 and 3. We need to provide the space station with an ability to generate power. We need to power down. There are four channels on the space station, and we’re powering down channels 2 and 3, so we can reconfigure channels 1 and 4. Then we’re going to power down channels 1 and 4 so we can reconfigure 2 and 3. You’re basically powering down half the station. To allow the space station to generate electricity with the remaining solar arrays, we need to allow them to better track the sun, or rotate around these, rotation joints the solar arrays are on. We have to provide these solar arrays clearances to do that. So we have to retract one solar array so another one can kind of move. We’re going to pull it all the way in. That’s a big deal because this thing wasn’t supposed to stay extended so long. We’re going to be watching like a hawk to make sure it happens just right. We’ve had some very specific training on things to watch for, and we’re going to be primed to stop the retract if things aren’t happening just like they should be. We have a camera’s end out the window views that we can use to watch this thing. But, we basically have to get it more than about 40 percent retracted to provide clearance for the other solar array to rotate. That’s all in preparation for the power reconfigurations that we’re going to do on the subsequent days. The other big-ticket thing we’re doing on flight day 5 is we’ve got a lot of gear to transfer. We’re bringing up thousands of pounds of gear in our SPACEHAB and, flight day 5 will be a big day to get a lot of that gear over to the space station.
Worst-case scenario with that array retraction, if it doesn’t retract, what is the backup plan?
There are worst-case scenarios, but there are things you can do before you get to your worst-case scenario. We, the EVA team, are training on how to get outside on a spacewalk and actually do some manual retract. So, if that thing doesn’t automatically retract, we can certainly talk. But, depending on how it failed, sending the guys out to do some manual retraction is certainly an option. If it was still in the way, and it all depends on how far it’s retracted. If it’s still in the way and we need to do some work, there’s a possibility you could jettison it, just pull it off and let it go. But I think we’re, we have a lot of work to do and a lot of other failures that would have had to happen before it got to that point.
Image at right: STS-116 Pilot William Oefelein occupies the pilot’s station during a mission training session in the Shuttle Mission Simulator in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA
On to EVA-2 on the next day. Can you walk us through how that’s going to go? What's the plan to get the first half of the reconfiguration done?
On EVA-2, the channel, 2 and 3 power reconfigurations, that's the big thing. This is where all this choreography comes into play. The ground team’s been working the previous day and night, getting everything configured and reconfigured so that we can power down basically half of the space station and demate and make other connections to activate these other primary electrical systems. So, most of the EVA, we have, Beamer and Christer going to various parts all over the space station, kind of independently of each other. So, it’s almost like two EVAs going on simultaneously, where Beamer’s over here making some connections, and Christer’s over here making some connections. My job is to try to help them out as best as I can. There are certain checks we have to do on every connection that we make. The ground’s following all that along, making sure the proper equipment’s powered down for the connections they’re working on. Once they make the connections, we can start powering up certain things. And then, once we get that done, we have to, there’s these things called, CETA carts, the crew equipment translation aids (CETA carts). They're basically just pallets that attach to the MT or the mobile transporter unit, the thing the space station arm sits on. So, these pallets are kind of sitting there. It looks like a little bit of a train. They’re in our way for some of the worksites we need to get into on the next EVA; so we need to take them off of one side and stick them on the other, one at a time. To do that, we need to get Christer in the space station arm, and he flies down there, and he grabs one of the CETA carts. Beamer unhooks it from the rails, and then the space station robotic arm operator flies them one side and flies around, and we stick it on the other. And, we do that twice, one for each of the two CETA carts that’s on there. While that’s going on, or just before, the ground’s powering up some very critical equipment for one of the things that’s called a pump module. It’s one of the cooling pumps that runs all cooling fluid through there. This is another critical piece of gear and a critical time for the space station, because this thing wasn’t supposed to be sitting idle for so long. So, we’re going to have to power it up before we start doing a whole lot of these CETA cart relocations. Hopefully it powers up fine. If it does, hey! We’re happy. We’re pressing. If it doesn’t, well, it’s going to become a bad day because now we have to start backing out of the connections we’ve just made, and that’s why it’s so critical, again, as soon as they make these connections, I tell the ground, they start powering up the thing, these things, including this pump module. We want to do all that before we start moving these CETA carts over, because if we start moving CETA carts, and we can’t get in some of our worksites and, yet not getting the pump module going wouldn’t be such a good thing for us.
Yeah. Okay. And, is there, I believe I read that you’re bringing a backup one, a pump module up?
Well, -121 brought a backup pump module up. They just put it on the space station. So, there’s one that exists. However, if that thing didn’t start up on EVA 2, we’d have to back out of the electrical connections that we just made, and then we’re done with that EVA. Now, to remove and replace the failed one with the new one, that could be another two EVAs that we don’t have currently in our timeline, let alone to get the reconfigurations done that we want to do. So, pump module R&R is something that we are planning for, and we actually have space in the space shuttle to put a failed one in there underneath, we have a cargo pallet in there. So we can bring a failed one back, but actually to do that, we’re trained to do it, we know how to do it, and we’ll do it should we need to. But, boy! It will be busy up there, and we might not get all of our primary objectives done at that point that we wanted to do.
And, EVA-3, will it be much the same as EVA-2?
The first part will be electrical reconfigurations, the other channels this time, channel 1 and 4. However, Suni is going to do this EVA in place of Christer. Beamer will still be out there. Beamer’s doing all three of them. Christer is going to do EVAs 1 and 2, and Suni is going to do EVA 3. So it’s the same but different, you know. We’re doing electrical reconfigurations; it’s just different channels. Once we do the electrical reconfigurations, after the first half of the EVA, then Beamer and Suni will go down into the payload bay of the orbiter where we brought up the service module debris panels (or SMDPs). They have to put them on this post. There’s three groups of these panels, and they go down in the orbiter payload bay and work together to put them on the post. Suni is working off the space shuttle robotic arm. Nick Patrick will be maneuvering her around. When they get these bundles on, Nick will fly her up to where we’re putting them on this pressurized mating adapter on the space station, and we’re going to kind of stow it there and the space station crew later in their increment will deal with that. They’re just going to put these panels around the service module, just as additional protection against orbital debris for the service module. But that’s a task that we won’t be involved in. We just are providing them the debris panels to do that. That’s the second half really of EVA 3. There are some other connections we’re doing, some ancillary things that we’re doing on EVA-3. But, those are kind of the two big things that we’re doing on that one.
At some point on flight day 10, or at least beginning on flight day 10, there’s a possibility of you doing some more inspection, outside inspection of the shuttle, kind of like you did on flight day 2 with the OBSS. Can you talk a little bit about that?
We’re calling it late inspection. And the thought is, we’ve been up in space now for 10 days. There’s a lot of orbital debris, little pieces of dirt and stuff floating around up in space at high velocities, so you’ve been exposed to this for a week and a half. And, the thought is: Well, maybe one of these hits you, and you didn’t know about it. So, you want to make sure, if something does hit you, it didn’t cause some critical damage that would inhibit your successful re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, survive the heating, and all that the thermal protection system is designed to allow you to survive. So, the thought is: We go out and inspect that, before or right after we undock. And, the reason that time is important is: It’s late enough that you’ve, you’re just about ready to come home, so you’re not going to be exposed for very much longer. If you do have to do a repair—say, you found something—well, you can do that from the space station. You can use their robotic arm and access the worksites and do the repair, that you need to do. You also have access to all the assets on the space station. The plan is, we look at the port wing, the left wing on the orbiter while we’re docked. The reason we only look at that wing is because, with the arm on the port or left side of the orbiter, it can’t really wrap around to look at the right side or the nose because that’s where the space station is. So, we can look at the left wing while we’re docked, but we can’t look at the rest of it. Maybe we could knock out the left wing. Then we’d undock, do a little separation, do a burn to get just behind – the space station here (we’d just do a little separation) and just kind of trail the space station for a little while. While we’re trailing it, we finish out the inspection of the starboard or the right wing and the nose cap. If we did find a problem, we’re pretty close, and we can come back and rejoin the space station. If we don’t find any problem (we don’t expect to find any problems), then we just do another burn and separate from the space station and go about our merry way. The other way we might be attacking this is: We might just undock straightaway and do the whole inspection, just like we did on flight day 2, you know, a week or so earlier in the mission, do the whole inspection then and go away. And, we’re just trying to make sure, it’s just like one last little check you do to your car before you go on a road trip. Say, I’ve got this big road trip coming up; I just want to check the oil one more time, check the pressure in the tires, kind of like what we’re doing. We don’t expect to find any problems. We haven’t seen anything. We just want to make sure everything’s safe before we come back in for a re-entry. That’s the idea behind late inspection. There’s some thought about the necessity to do that, because it is a big, time hit. On an assembly mission like ours, we have a lot of objectives. So if you’re going to add these tasks, you got to drop something else out. Managers ask if you're decreasing risk substantially, sufficiently to incur, the time hit necessary to do this. You could say, “Hey, we’re going to go up there and inspect everything,” and then you’d never be able to do any of the tasks or assembly tasks that the space shuttle’s up there for. Everything’s a trade. Do we really think this is going to be necessary? And, if it is, what are we going to give up to do it?