Q: This is the STS-116 crew interview with Mission Specialist Nicholas Patrick. Nicholas. Can you tell me a little bit about when it was that you decided that you wanted to become an astronaut, and why you decided to shoot for what some might consider such a lofty goal?
Image at left: Astronaut Nicholas J.M. Patrick, STS-116 mission specialist. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Nicholas Patrick
A: When I was 5, I saw the Apollo 11 moon landing, and that really, really caught my imagination. I remember exactly where I was, watching it with my parents. And from that point on, I decided I wanted to be an astronaut. There were many other things I wanted to be as a child: an archaeologist, a boat designer, all sorts of things. But that’s the one interest that’s really stuck with me through my childhood and through my subsequent education and career.
Can you remember your initial reaction when you saw the, the moon landings? What kind of emotions came up in you?
You know, it’s hard to remember back that far what the emotions were. I think I was amazed that anybody could be that far away, wondering whether they’d all come back safely. But the amazing thing about that was that they had just done it, and maybe this meant that we would all be going to the moon someday soon, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Would you give us a thumbnail sketch of the academic and professional path that you took to get to the astronaut ranks?
I was educated mostly in England. I went to a boarding school outside London and got very interested in mathematics and physics while I was there. And then, I went to university, over in England as well, Cambridge, where I studied engineering. And when I finished that, I decided to come to the United States. I essentially emigrated and wanted to be an aerospace engineer or perhaps an astronaut. But, really, my sensible goal was to become an aerospace engineer. I ended up coming back to the States, where my parents were living. I worked for a large aerospace company designing jet engines for a while, and then went back to school to MIT, to study mechanical engineering. I stayed there for a few years getting a master’s degree and a few more getting a Ph.D., and went back out into the workforce, designing cockpits, for a large commercial aircraft designer. That was where I was picked up by NASA.
What kind of fortitude would it, does it take to stick to that kind of plan, because it’s a long road?
Well, I would say more than fortitude. It takes interest. And I was really studying the things that I loved to study -- engineering, mathematics, physics, some industrial psychology; all things that fascinated me. Without that, I’m not sure I would have been able to get as far as I did. So the real key is to find the things you love and pursue those, and your interests will carry you.
Tell us a little bit about how you found out that you’d been selected to this crew to make your first spaceflight, and what your reaction was.
I was in the office when I got a call from the secretary of the chief of the Astronaut Office. She asked me to come meet with him. My first reaction was, “Oh, oh, have I done something wrong?” And, fortunately that turned out not to be the case. When I went to see him his smile told me immediately that I hadn’t done anything wrong. He asked me if I would like to fly on the space shuttle; and of course my answer was “Yes.”
What was your reaction? What did you think?
Well, I was relieved to have been selected, excited to be part of a crew. I was optimistic about the kinds of jobs I would get to do and a little worried about how much work there was ahead of me. And, a mix, a huge mix of emotions. But mostly, I was just very happy, and grateful to have been selected.
You had a chance to experience the NEEMO project. Tell me a little bit about what that was like and what parallels you can draw between NEEMO, that environment, and what it’s probably going to be like in space for you.
Well, NEEMO, as you know, is NASA’s underwater spaceflight mission analog. NEEMO missions involve trips of, say, 10 days to two weeks to an underwater habitat called Aquarius off the Florida Keys. The great thing about Aquarius is it’s real. It’s not a simulation. When you go down there, you’re responsible for your own safety, and nature intervenes with all of your mission objectives. I think that’s what makes it most like a spaceflight. Things can go wrong, and you have to be constantly vigilant, to make sure that they don’t.
What was your favorite hobby, sport or activity growing up, and why?
When I was young the sports that I really enjoyed were squash, sort of like, tennis inside a small, small room where we use the front wall to bounce the ball, and shooting. I loved shooting. It required a kind of patience and quiet skill that I found straightforward to master. And, the results were very obvious. I loved shooting. And, as I grew older, I took an interest in flying; and that has really become my main hobby, I think, over the years. Flying obviously is a wonderful thing to do to prepare yourself for spaceflight. We fly, in the Astronaut Office, to keep our skills sharp and to develop our decision-making capabilities. Before I came here, I was flying for 15 or 20 years, first as a private pilot and then as a flight instructor. I think those experiences have really helped me hone my operational skills.
If you would, please summarize the main goals of this mission, and give us a brief description of what your primary responsibilities are for the mission.
Image at right: Astronaut Nicholas Patrick, STS-116 mission specialist, simulates a parachute drop into water during an emergency bailout training session at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, TX. Photo Credit: NASA
STS-116’s main mission objectives are to carry up the P5 truss element for the space station and to install it, to carry up supplies for the space station crew (food, water, experiments, and so on) and to carry up a third space station crew member to keep the space station’s complement at three. My contribution to reaching those mission objectives is primarily as the prime robotics operator on board the shuttle. I’ll be responsible, along with the mission commander, Mark Polansky, for pulling the P5 truss out of the payload bay and handing it off to the space station robot arm so they can then install it with the help of the spacewalkers. I’ll also be running the flight day 2 survey using the space shuttle’s robot arm and our boom, the 50-foot extension that allows us to see parts of the shuttle that would otherwise be hard to see such as the tips of the wings and the nose.
The station’s electrical power system is being reconfigured on this mission. Why is that happening?
By installing the P5 truss, we’re preparing the space station for a move of the P6 truss from its temporary location to its final location. When it’s in the final location, space station will be able to generate significantly more power than it can now. And power is everything on board a spacecraft. Without it, you can’t operate lighting, computers, and, most importantly, environmental control systems.
So it’s a move for the future basically. There’s going to be portions of the ISS that need to be powered down for the reconfiguration on two separate days. What risks does that pose to hardware and systems, and what measures have been put in place to mitigate those risks?
Whenever you reconfigure electrical power systems, you run the risk that you won’t be able to get the system back to its full operational capability. I’m not playing a part in those operations on the space station. Those will mostly be handled by the space station mission control center down here in Houston. But I have every confidence that they have thought through all of these operations and thought of all the possible things that can go wrong and thought of ways to work around them. In fact, I’ve seen them in meetings discuss many of these issues. And they’re a very competent group, and I know they’ll avoid the problems and if any happen, they’ll work their way around them.
The P5, as you mentioned, is the primary piece of hardware that the crew will be delivering to the space station. It’s a relatively small piece of equipment in comparison to some of the hardware that’s already up there. Why is such a small piece of hardware so important to ISS?
Well, this is the next building brick in the main truss that holds out the solar arrays and other power equipment, as far away from the pressurized modules of space station as they need to be to gimbal and face the sun. So in a sense, regardless of size, it’s as important as any other piece. It’s the next building block. And while it may be a bit shorter than some of the other truss segments, it’s every bit as wide. We have to get it out of the payload bay, and it only just fits. So I’m not sure I’d consider it small. Certainly when I’m looking out through the rear windows of the cockpit and moving it with the shuttle’s robot arm, it seems pretty big to me.
Let’s skip ahead to flight day 3. Some time after the shuttle docks to ISS, the operations will get under way to get P5 out of the payload bay of the shuttle and into the hands of the ISS, so to speak. Can you tell me how that operation will proceed?
Flight day 3 is a very busy one for us. It would normally, in previous shuttle missions, have been a full day dedicated to rendezvous and docking. We have the added challenge, after docking and opening the hatches and sending through our space station robot arm operators (so they can operate the space station’s robot arm), we have to pull out the P5 truss. Mark Polansky, mission commander, and I will do that by moving the shuttle’s robot arm over and grappling the P5 truss. It has a special grapple fixture with a target, and we can attach the robot arm to that fixture. We then release the P5 truss from special hold-down mechanisms in the shuttle’s payload bay and we very, very slowly pull it vertically up out of the payload bay. Of course, if we’re upside down that might be down, but in space these things are all the same. Once we have it clear of the payload bay, we move it over the side of the payload bay, being careful not to hit the payload bay doors, and then we move it down and forwards towards the nose of the shuttle to a position where we can hand it easily to the space station’s robot arm which is waiting for it.
At that point the operations may be over for you, but can you just take us through what you know about what’s going to happen with it from there?
The next day the space station’s robot arm will be used to move that truss all the way out to the port end of the existing truss segments and put it in position. Then with the help of the EV crew, spacewalkers Robert Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang, the station arm will dock that P5 truss to the end of the existing installed truss segments.
On flight day 5, there’s potential for yet another kind of survey using the boom that you mentioned on flight day 2. Can you tell us about that, if it happens?
Flight day 5 has been set aside for focused inspection should we need it. We’ll have lots of imagery from the ground, from the International Space Station, photographs taken as we’re docking, and, of course, from our flight day 2 survey of the wing leading edges and the nose cap. As soon as we take those images, the ground will be looking at them very hard to see if they find any indication of damage. If they find anything they’re uncomfortable with, they will send us a procedure to use the shuttle’s arm and the boom and go and take a very close look. What we would do is: grab the boom with our shuttle arm and maneuver it, very slowly, using single joint motions, where we move one joint at a time, to get the tip of the boom within just a few inches of the damaged site. We’ll then train a set of cameras, both video and laser cameras, onto this site where there’s potential damage. We’ll look at the picture and we’ll do some topography using the laser to actually look at the contour of the surface and see whether it’s been damaged. This data will help the ground, hopefully, remove any concerns they have about what they see. It could be something as simple as a little blemish on the surface that you can’t really tell that it’s just a blemish until you go and take a very close look. Now, we hope not to have any of these. But if we do, we’ll be prepared to look at them on flight day 5.
During the latter part of EVA-3, the shuttle crew is scheduled to deliver some panels to a certain part of ISS and a piece of equipment known as the Christmas tree, as it’s been so aptly named. Can you tell us about your involvement with that and what’s going to happen during that part of the EVA?
Mark Polansky and I will be flying Suni Williams around on the tip of the shuttle’s arm during the EVA as she builds up the so-called Christmas tree with its service module debris panels and then carries it over for temporary stowage up on the PMA-3, off the station’s Node. It’s appropriate that we’re moving a Christmas tree around at that time of year. This is a carrier for a set of panels that will provide orbital debris protection to the Russian segment of the space station. We are carrying it up, as you said, and building it. And the way that’ll work is: We’ll pick up Suni, who will be hanging on to the outside of the lab; she’ll get into a foot restraint on the end of the shuttle’s robot arm, and we will fly her down in a big arc from the lab to the shuttle’s payload bay. And we’ll then fly around the payload bay as she picks up, panel by panel, and installs it on the Christmas tree. And then, we’ll fly her and the Christmas tree back up the way she came up towards the Node where she can install it with Robert Curbeam’s help.
Delivering Christmas presents.
I should add that to the end, essentially a Christmas present for space station. I should have said that.