Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. I’d like to know what it was that made you want to become one of those astronauts.
Image to right: STS-117 Pilot Lee Archambault. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Lee Archambault
A: Well, going back to the ’60s and ’70s when I was growing up, certainly one of the most significant events in my lifetime was the first lunar landing. So I became interested in the space program back then, always had an interest in it. Ultimately, I ended up in the Air Force, flying as a test pilot, and once I became a test pilot, that’s where it became, not necessarily obvious but clear to me that this is a good transitional period in my career that if I want to explore space and get on with the NASA team, that this is the best opportunity I’ll have to do it, from my position as a test pilot in the Air Force. So that’s when I gave it the most serious thought as far as thinking this is an option in my career, and I applied with NASA and fortunately was selected.
Well, let me take you back to, further back, to the beginning. Let’s start with Bellwood, Ill. -- tell me about the place where you’re from.
OK. Bellwood, Ill., is a small town about 25,000 people, located just west of Chicago, about four or five miles west of the Chicago city limits. And ironically Bellwood has a real personal attachment to the space program because it’s also the home of Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. So back in the early ’60s when Mr. Cernan was in the space program flying Gemini missions and all, and eventually Apollo missions, he was the man in town, you know. He generated a lot of interest in the space program in our home town. I have to believe that a lot of my personal interest in the space program came from growing up in Bellwood where Eugene Cernan was the main deal back in the 1960s and 1970s. So my hometown has a long history of being attached to the space program, going back to the early days of the program with Eugene Cernan.
Take me through your education and into your career and, and chart that course for me.
OK. Starting back when I was growing up in Bellwood, I went to high school, Proviso West High School, which is a public high school in the Chicago area. Transitioned from there, I went to college at the University of Illinois from 1978 to ’84, got a bachelor of science and a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering. Right after I finished with my master’s degree I started with the Air Force, flew in the Air Force operationally in the F-111 and the F-117, and then from there I went to test pilot school; came out of there, flew weapons developmental testing in the F-16 and was an F-16 test pilot in --1998 when I was selected to come to the NASA program.
Were you ROTC at Illinois?
I was not.
But you finished college and went right in the Air Force?
Finished my master’s degree and joined the Air Force. Because I did not have an ROTC background I had to go through officer basic training. I finished the officer basic training and was commissioned a second lieutenant and then went on to pilot training.
Are you getting excited? Your first spaceflight is getting pretty close right now.
Getting excited but still very much a realist, knowing that there’s always things that could provide bumps along the way but certainly it’s getting closer. I'm getting more excited on a daily basis.
Got a good story about how you were told you that you’d been picked?
Actually I found out I was picked when I got a call from the then chief of the Office, Ken Cockrell ... “Taco.” I believe it was April of ’98. We had done our interviews way back in the fall, October, November time frame of ’97, so it had been some time since the interviews and I had already been at Eglin Air Force Base flying for approximately three years at that point. I had my next assignment in hand already. I was targeted to go to Air Command and Staff College up in Montgomery, Ala., and had my official military orders, had a place rented up in Montgomery and the kids were enrolled in school up there, and we were about a month or two away from actually making the move when (I believe it was in April) Taco gave me the call -- wasn’t home at the time, I was out, I think it was a Saturday, maybe a Saturday afternoon. I was out at the barbershop getting a haircut – I came home and my wife told me that NASA called. I said, "OK, this could be interesting. Do you know who called?" She said, a Mr. Cockrell, and I said, "That’s good, ’cause he’s the chief of the office and it might be good news, so we’ll give him a call." And I called him back and he was actually at the Cape at the time supporting a launch, and he told me the good news – he asked me if I was still interested in joining the team; I said, "You bet; happy to come."
You were here, then, for a number of years before getting the first flight assignment. How did they spring that on you?
The call -- again I was out of town at the time. This time I was up in Rockford, Ill., visiting one of our subcontractors for the space program. When I got back from there my wife told me that Kent Rominger called while I was gone, and told him that I was out of town until that afternoon. As soon as I got back I returned the call and he passed along the good news that he was going to assign me to a flight. I was very, very happy to hear that news after the number of years being here in the program.
You must love it when your wife tells you somebody called from the office while you are out of town.
Usually, it happens when I’m out of town for, for some reason, but it’s always good news when I get that message.
You know, this part of your job, the “flying in space” part of your job, that’s shown it can be very dangerous. What is it, Lee, that you think we get from flying people in space that makes it worth the risk you’re willing to take?
You know I don’t think about the danger part of it too often. I think there’s risk in about everything we do in life. I mean, our policemen and firemen are every day putting their lives on the line in a dangerous job for our community safety. Soldiers overseas, Iraq, Afghanistan. So I, when I put into perspective thinking about all the folks who do dangerous things to make our lives better, I tend not to think about the danger associated with this job. But, to specifically answer your question, I think nothing comes without risk, and if we’re going to continue to explore, if we’re going to continue to be who we are as Americans and explore beyond the confines of our country, beyond the confines of our world, we’re going to have to take some risk. So, what are we, gaining by that? Well, we continue being who we are, and that’s explorers.
You are the pilot on space shuttle mission STS-117; give me a summary of the goals of assembly mission 13A and what your jobs are going to be on this flight.
The overall goal of our mission is to bring up the S3/S4 truss, which is going to house a couple of solar array wings to give us two more channels of electrical power on the space station. So that’s our primary payload. That’s our goal, to install this and have it up and operating by the time we leave, and to do that we’ll also have to have three EVAs to make that happen. As far as my own specific responsibilities as the pilot, I’ll be backing up the commander in a lot of the flying tasks and specifically I’ll also be personally flying the undock and the flyaround. While on orbit I’ll be performing some of the robotic arm operations, both with the space shuttle robotic arm as well as the space station robotic arm.
Image above: STS-117 Pilot Lee Archambault trains in the shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. Image credit: NASA
I’ll bet it took a lot of training in a lot of different places to learn how to fly a 50-foot-long robot?
Well it was a lot of different places. To start with the space station robotic arm, we started our training in Canada. For me personally, about a year and a half ago, [of] course up there, and then follow on training down here. The space shuttle robotic arm, training all occurred right here at the Johnson Space Center. But you’re right, it took a lot of hours of training both in Canada and here to get ready to fly both robotic arms on orbit.
Now we’ll talk more about that as we move through the mission. The major payload, as you pointed out, is a component called the S3/S4 Truss. In summary, what does it do, and, and, and what is it, and why is it important to add that to the International Space Station?
Well, it’s a 35,000 pound truss, one of the primary backbone structures on the space station. It, again, will hold two solar array wings that will provide power to two electrical power channels on the space station. When the space station is complete we’ll have a total of eight electrical power channels. This will provide the power to two of those eight channels. The reason it’s important to get this truss segment on when we do is we’re going to go from two power channels to four channels when we’re complete, and we need those, those additional power channels so that we can add the additional components. Next comes the node, then the Columbus module and then following soon after that by the Japanese modules. Before we can add those additional modules we need extra power, and this is going to provide. This will essentially double our power from two to four channels.
The same component that exists on the other side of the truss, the P3/P4 was installed a couple of shuttle missions ago. Overall, any lessons learned from that space shuttle mission that are being put into effect for your mission?
Good lessons learned, and we’ve had a chance to speak with the STS-115 crew, at length and in great detail. Particularly for myself, I was able to get us a good debrief from Steve MacLean, who was the space station robotic arm operator on that mission, and he was able to share with me a lot of what he learned -- for instance, the dynamics of flying the space station robotic arm with a 35,000 pound payload out there. We can’t necessarily model that real well in our simulators here, so Steve was the first guy to actually have a payload with that type of mass on the space station robotic arm. He learned a little bit about how the arm dynamics are with such a payload and he was able to share those with us so we don’t, perhaps, get caught by surprise when the arm isn’t flying quite like it’s modeled in the simulator.
Let’s talk about the delivery of that, and you’re going to be one of the prime operators of the robotic arms. Those robotic arm activities start on docking day, and will continue then before the first spacewalk. Start by telling me what you’re going to do at the point that you’re first going to be lifting that payload out of the payload bay and what you do on docking day.
The robotic arm operations will actually start immediately after docking, but even prior to us opening the hatches between the space shuttle and the space station. Right after docking Pat Forrester and myself will go ahead and grapple the payload with the space shuttle robotic arm. This is about a 30 minute procedure that, where Pat will be flying the arm and I’ll be assisting him but it’s kind of a tricky procedure in that Pat’s going to have to reach across the belly of the shuttle payload bay and over the top of the payload and grab it from the starboard grapple fixture on the payload; reason being is, ultimately, we’re going to have to grapple the port side grapple fixture with the space station robotic arm. Flying over the top is going to cause Pat to have to maneuver that robotic arm very close to some of its joint limits so it’s going to take a little time, about 20 or 30 minutes, for Pat to finesse that arm over and grapple it. Once we grapple the payload with the robotic arm, about that time the hatches will be opened, we’ll go into the space station, we’ll get a hand-off brief with the space station crew and they’ll give us a safety brief, and then Pat and I will immediately go back to work on the space shuttle robotic arm. Pat’s going to go ahead and unberth this through a series of vertical and horizontal and also some rotational moves to get it in a good position to then perform an automated maneuver to ultimately put this payload in a handoff position. And that’s about an hour and a half’s worth of robotic arm work right there.
I think the whole thing is probably complicated by the fact that you’re already docked—the space station and its structure are sticking out of the payload bay and they must present some impediments to movements of the arm with a payload on the end.
Well, it obscures your view, and you don’t have a direct view of what you’re doing. But you have a lot of cameras that you can rely on, on the space shuttle as well as on the space station. So we have an assortment of camera views that we will be able to use to aid ourselves in the grappling of this payload, in spite of the fact that, as you say, the space station is obscuring a lot of our views out the window.
Did we get to the end of robot arm ops on docking day? Did I stop you?
No, on docking day we’ll finish with that automated maneuver performed by the space shuttle, we’ll get it in a handoff position, and then at that point, I will hurry over to the space station and then assist Suni Williams, who’s one of our space station crew members, and she will have the space station robotic arm ready to go. She will move in and double grapple, if you will, the payload with the space station robotic arm. And then once we get the payload grappled with the space station robotic arm, it will now be double grappled, and then I’ll hurry back over to the space shuttle and then assist Pat in ungrappling the space shuttle robotic arm from the payload, and that’s where we’ll complete our arm operations for that day, Flight Day 3, which is docking day. We’ll leave the payload grappled to the space station robotic arm in that handoff position overnight.
The operations then continue from that position the next day.
Beginning the morning of Flight Day 4 the first thing we’re going to do is move the payload from that overnight parking position into an install position, and then go ahead and install it. Immediately after we install the S3 Truss onto S1 the EVA 1 will begin.
You mean the, the spacewalkers will come out at that point, but there’s a lot of work, as you’ve described, beforehand, moving it into position.
That’s right. On the morning of Flight Day 4 we’re going to start our space station robotic arm operations by performing a, an automated maneuver, takes about 40 or so minutes, to put it in a pre-install position which is approximately a meter and a half from the S1 Truss. Once we get it about a meter and a half out then we’ll, I’ll go ahead and manually fly this into a install, basically to install it until we get ready-to-latch indications. What we’ll do there in between that meter and a half and actually installing it is we’re going to pause for about a few moments at around 45 centimeters, to allow our Space Vision System to go ahead and give me a an updated depiction of my exact position with respect to the S1 Truss, and be able to install this thing within a one or two centimeter tolerance. We’ll finish the install, we’ll get the ready-to-latch indications, and at that point the EVA crew members will then start donning their helmets and beginning the process to ultimately walk out the door and perform the EVA.
You make it sound almost, pretty matter of fact that we’re going to have a couple of centimeters tolerance. This is some pretty delicate work.
It is delicate work, and the tolerances are small, but we have a lot of good aids on board. We have good instrumentation on the space station, we have this Space Vision System, which will allow us to know our precise position of the truss with respect to the space station truss, the S3 with respect to S1, within a couple centimeters tolerance, and that’s the tolerance that we’re allowed to install this with. Now should the SVS, the Space Vision System, fail or falter, we do have visual reference that we can use to still install this within the same tolerances.
Once you get it latched together, do the arm operations continue once the spacewalkers are outside?
Once the spacewalkers are outside, we will continue arm operations but they will be more in a support role to help the EVA. If the ground would like to see different views, different camera views that we can provide with our space station robotic arm cameras, then we’ll maneuver the arm into the appropriate position to support the ground need for different camera views of the EVA.
Give us a quick overview, then, of the tasks that the spacewalkers will accomplish during that first EVA.
First EVA there’ll be a number of, of connections that both J.R. Reilly and Danny Olivas will have to make. In addition we’ll, they’ll be install installing a Drive Lock Assembly and removing some of the launch locks on that EVA 1.
It’s the day after that EVA that these new set of solar array wings are going to be deployed. Can you describe for us how that’s done and what you folks on orbit are going to do as part of that process?
Yeah, the solar array, the solar array wing deploy will be led by J.R. Reilly, it’ll be led from the space station. Five of our six crew members will actually be on the space station supporting that. We’ll have lots of different people looking at different camera views as the solar array wing is being deployed. I personally will be over on the space shuttle supporting the deployment by providing different space shuttle robotic arm camera views. The other five guys on the space station will be looking at things such as the tension reels, the actual counting of the number of bays as the array wing is deploying, to make sure that it is deploying the way it’s supposed to deploy. If at any point the deployment looks off nominal, we’ll have to stop. J.R., again, will be leading this effort and he’ll be commanding the deployment through a PCS, a computer on the space station, and he’ll be able to start it and stop it whenever he feels necessary. But hopefully we’ll start it once and let it go and it will deploy normally.
Now the next day is your crew’s second spacewalk, but the plan for that EVA -- and for the third one -- got some pretty late changes because of issues with folding panels and sticking guide wires during the retraction of one of the P6 solar array wings during the last flight. You’ve got the retraction of the other P6 solar array wing on your flight, Lee. What is the new plan for that, and how does it impact EVAs 2 and 3.
That’s right. We did have some problems on STS-116 retracting the solar array 4 Bravo. We’re going to be retracting solar array 2 Bravo coming off that P6, which points out towards the starboard or right side of the space station. Because of the retraction problem we had on STS-116 they ended up actually having to add a fourth EVA. Now we’re going to try not to do that. We’re going to try and get out in front of it and be prepared on both EVAs 2 and 3 to assist in the retraction of that solar array at the beginning of those EVAs. So on EVA 2 Steve Swanson’s going to pre-position himself up on the top of the mast canister at the beginning of the EVA and Pat Forrester will get inside the APFR [articulating portable foot restraint] which is on the end of the space station robotic arm, and from there I’ll take him and fly him with the space station robotic arm up to the solar array panels so that he can be in position ahead of time to assist in the retraction of that solar array 2 Bravo. We’ll spend about an hour and 15 minutes to an hour and a half, at the most on that EVA assisting the solar array retraction, and then Pat and Steve will go off and resume what originally was packaged for EVA 2 that being the removal of the remaining launch locks as well as to engage one of the Drive Lock Assemblies, to prepare the SARJ for rotation.
The STS-115 spacewalkers ran into some difficulty removing some of those launch restraints on the SARJ on their mission. Do you guys have some new tools or new strategies about how you’re going to go about that this time?
The EVA team does have a new tool, a modified torque multiplier, to assist them in removing some of that hardware that gave the STS-115 guys such problems. This modified torque multiplier will, again, assist them in that they won’t have to manually get through a very resistant piece of hardware.
Now, we talked about some changes to the plans for EVA 2 in regards to solar array wing retraction. The plan for EVA 3 had some adjustment for the same reasons, right?
That’s right, exactly. On EVA 3, originally we were planning on going out and clear the remaining path for the MT [Mobile Transporter] to be able to translate all the way out onto the S3 Truss, and once we got done with that, J.R. -- Jim Reilly -- and Danny Olivas were going to go over and perform some work on the, on the space station as far as an oxygen generating system goes. We still plan on trying to do that, however, we’re going to try and anticipate the fact that we might have that solar array completely retracted, and so at the beginning of EVA 3 Jim Reilly will now get onto the end of the space station robotic arm while Danny Olivas is pre-positioned to provide assistance and guidance, and I’ll fly, with the space station robotic arm, Jim up to the solar array blanket box so that Jim could again be in position ahead of time to continue the retraction, so again we can most efficiently maximize our time out there as far as the EVA goes, to minimize how much time we’re going to spend on the retraction so that they can get to the original business on EVA 3 and that is to clear the, the translation path for the MT.
Did you get some lessons learned from the 116 crew about all of that?
We did. Again, the 116 guys had to add that fourth EVA, and because of all the lessons they were able to share with us we’re going to get out in front of that and be pre-positioned on both EVAs 2 and 3 so that we’re not wasting any time and we can quickly get back to the original business of EVAs 2 and 3.
In a lot of the things that we’ve discussed we’ve talked about the arm operations that you’re going to be doing with both of these Canadian robots. You’re also going to be involved in inspections of the orbiter, too.
That’s right. We do have a lot of robotic arm activity for inspections planned on Flight Day 2. We have four space shuttle robotic arm operators on this mission: Pat Forrester, myself, Steve Swanson and Danny Olivas. All four of us will be involved in that Flight Day 2 inspection, which will take the better part of the day. We’ll be like the previous missions, we’ll be inspecting the starboard wing, the nose cap, and the port wing through thorough inspections, and we’ll be using the OBSS [Orbiter Boom Sensor System], the inspection boom, to perform these inspections. But it will be a joint effort, the four of us will take turns throughout the day flying the robotic arm as well as backing the other folks who are flying it. Generally we’ll have three people at work at a particular time, so the four of us will switch off during the day, providing a three-man crew the entire time that we’re performing the inspections.
That sounds like a lot of crew, for, for that operation. Why does it take three to run the arm like that?
We'll have one person actually flying the robotic arm, if you will. His designation will be R1. His backup, the backup to him, R2, whoever’s performing that role at a given time, his primary responsibility will be to make sure all the proper camera views are selected to allow ourselves to maintain clear, the proper clearance from the orbiter as we’re running this long boom underneath the underside of the orbiter. And then the third person on the crew will be kind of honchoing up the procedures, to make sure, procedurally, we’re on track, we haven’t missed a step and we’re doing stuff on time as well as viewing some other computer outputs to make sure we’re getting the proper look on the leading edge of the wing.
The International Space Station is the biggest thing that people have ever built in space. How do you feel about getting to play a part in this activity?
Personally I just feel very honored to be able to get a chance to play a part, particularly in the role as an astronaut on one of these missions. It’s, it’s an honor to be here and simply put, that’s all I can say on that. It’s an honor to be part of the team, on a mission such as this.
You know, the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond this space station that you’re going to help build. Tell me what is your philosophy about the future of human space exploration?
I think the future is that we’re going to continue to explore. We’re going to, we’re going to leave this planet, we’re going to go back to the moon, we’re going to use what we learn when we go back to the moon, and how to live on the moon, for an extended period of time, and we’re going to go to Mars and we’re going to live on Mars, and then that’ll set the stage for who knows going even beyond Mars. So I think the future is there. We’re going to continue to explore as we have in the past and we’re going to get in the exploration business again as we go back to the moon and Mars and beyond. I think our country, the United States, will lead that effort.