Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What made you want to be an astronaut, and be one of those people who flies in space?
Image to right: STS-117 Mission Specialist Patrick Forrester. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Patrick Forrester
A: You know, there’s a lot of great stories out there you hear in our [Astronaut] Office about wanting to be an astronaut ever since they were old enough to stand up and look at the moon or whatever. My story’s a lot different than that. I grew up in a military family; my father had gone to the [U.S.] Military Academy and was a career officer. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, too. And so I did that and it was only after I had been in the Army a little while as a airborne, infantry officer, a Ranger, that I realized that I was interested in flying, so I applied and went to flight school, and then just began to fly and I would look for newer things to fly, faster things to fly. I finally went off to the Navy Test Pilot School and then decided from there that I wanted to go to NASA. It was during my early years of flying that I read an article about our first Army astronaut, Gen. Bob Stewart, and I started thinking, wow, you know, you can do this thing that I love, which is being an Army officer -- think that’s a really important role -- and but also an astronaut. Probably there is where my thoughts first started figuring out if that was something that, that I could really do. Once I latched onto that I really never let it go, and pursued it through many interviews and applications before being selected in 1996.
I’d take you back to the beginning and ask you to describe your hometown to me, but you don’t have a hometown.
I don’t. I was raised in the Army, once again, just like my two boys. I was born in El Paso, Texas, and then moved around from post to post but we settled down a little bit in Springfield, Va. My father had several assignments and went off to Vietnam during that period of time and so I lived there for about 12 years and began to think of that, from third grade through graduation from high school, as my home. In fact, that’s where I met my wife; she was a military brat, kind of doing the same thing that I was there, and the two of us met in high school.
Do you have any sense that that place helped, and the people that were there, helped make you the person you are today?
Oh, I do. That was a great place to grow up. I think the military’s a good place to grow up because you get used to a lot of things. You miss out on a lot of things, but the upside to that is you’re used to different environments and different people, making friends every couple years, different schools, and so, I felt like maybe that helped prepare me a little bit for life. But settling there in high school was good for me. It’s a mix of people in the Washington, D.C., northern Virginia area. I think that was good for me. And it had fine schools, some of the best in the nation at the time, the Fairfax County Schools, and I think that obviously prepared me, too.
Being in that metropolitan area, are you able to pick it out from orbit, or were you able to pick it out?
Oh, very much. And I’ve taken some pictures of that area and I’ve enjoyed going back and, and showing pictures, especially of the, of the Washington, D.C. area, and it’s a great place to photograph when the weather’s right.
Give me a, a, a shorter version -- not shorter than what you’ve already done but -- a short version of your education and career. You said you graduated from high school there in Virginia; take us from there on and what were the big stops on your way to becoming an astronaut?
I definitely learned a lot of lessons along the way. I did graduate from high school in Virginia and probably didn’t need to work that hard, and went off to West Point, to the military academy. And from the day that I got there I realized that what I wanted to do was be an infantry lieutenant, and it didn’t matter if I graduated first in the class or last in the class I could do that. And so I began to focus my attention a little bit more on my military training and some of the friendships that I was forming there, and didn’t worry that much about my academics. I just knew that my goal was to graduate and, and that worked well for me until, like I said, I kind of got the bug that I was interested in being an astronaut and knew one of the first things I needed to do was to go to graduate school. Having grown up in Virginia I had a real love for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which is, which is a real fine university and applied there for my graduate work and the first thing they did was take a look at my transcripts from West Point and go, "Wow, yeah, I’m not so sure you’re what we’re looking for here." I tried to assure them that I had not applied myself very well there, but I would like to give it a shot, and through a couple of conversations they agreed to allow me to come in on probation, and as a little bit more mature captain and father of two, I took a different approach to my school work and, and graduated from the University of Virginia, and went on from there to do the things that I had done. It was because of that, those academics, and those opportunities, that I’m able to do that now. And that’s one of the lessons I always try and give to the kids is, you just don’t ever know what you’re going to do, and always apply yourself. I went off to the Navy Test Pilot School, which was probably instrumental in my flying career, that would bring me toward NASA, also.
Your Army career wasn’t restricted to the infantry?
No, it wasn’t. Early on I had just been picked up by a helicopter. I’d been a couple days without sleep, picked up in a what we call a PZ, a pickup zone, and was sitting in the helicopter with my feet hanging out, hungry and tired and I looked up at the pilots and one of them was eating a little box of chicken. I still remember that little red and white box. And I said I thought that this was what I wanted to do; that’s what I wanted to do, right there. And applied to flight school and went on, and my flying career took off after that and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I had the opportunity to fly all the way through my career in every assignment to include my first assignment here with NASA, as an aerospace engineer, I had the chance to fly with the Texas National Guard out at Ellington Field. So I have always flown and I always enjoyed it.
Now you’re flying in space, which we know can be a dangerous thing to do. What is it that we get from flying people in space that, in your opinion, makes it worth the risk you’re taking?
Well, that’s a tough question. You know, there’s risk in everything, and this question’s not about the risk, I think, but more about what it is that we get out of it. I think what I mentioned earlier, the article I read in the paper, just kind of brought it to light to me that there’s just so much that we’re getting out of this that we don’t even know. I think that as human beings we always need to continue to look around us. And sometimes that means to look around us on the ground, and sometimes that means to look up into space. And we’re learning things and discovering things that, that we have no idea how they’re going to impact our lives, and we just have to trust that as long as the endeavor that we’re going for is a worthy one, that those things are going to come out of it.
You’re Mission Specialist 1 on this trip to the International Space Station. Pat, tell me what are the main goals of assembly mission 13A and what your main jobs are.
Well for STS-117, or 13A, we are headed to the space station where we are going to install two pieces of truss. We call it S3/S4. It’s the second and third pieces of truss that will be installed up there on the starboard side of the space station. We are also going to carry some few supplies and equipment up there for the folks living on the space station and then we’re going to bring back some things to help clear out the space station; it’s gotten kind of full over the years. Well, I am Mission Specialist 1 and that allows me, on the trip up, on the ascent, and also on the re-entry, to be on the flight deck, and I just help with procedures and a nominal timeline. I’m also EV3, which means I lead the second spacewalk -- and the fourth spacewalk if we end up needing one. I’m also the robotics operator -- I will take the S3/S4 Truss out of the bay using the robotic arm, the shuttle robotic arm, and I’ll hand it off to the space station robotic arm, which will be flown by both Lee Archambault, who is on our crew, and Suni Williams, who’s up there right now.
Let’s learn something about what you’re delivering, the S3/S4 Truss: tell me what that is and why it’s important to add that to ISS.
Well, the truss is kind of the backbone of the space station, and it’s at the end of the truss that we have our solar arrays and that’s what we use to provide energy, collecting it from the sun and then transferring into the station for power. And we are carrying up two pieces of truss, like I said, the S3/S4. It’s the second and third truss sections on the starboard side of the space station, and in between those two, actually attached to the S3 module, is what we call the SARJ, or the solar array rotary joint. And that is a mechanism that allows that external portion, the S4, to rotate, and the S4 has the solar arrays on it, and by allowing it to rotate, then it is able to track the sun, is much more efficient as the station orbits the Earth.
Do we need more power because more is better?
Well, we need more power because we are getting ready to take up some pretty exciting modules, several built by our international partners, the Japanese and the Europeans, and then another node section built by the United States. Before we can put those pieces of equipment up there and start to operate them, two of those are laboratories, we just need more power.
You mentioned that there’s a P3/P4 Truss that’s already on the station, delivered two shuttle missions ago. Were there lessons learned on that mission that have been incorporated into your flight?
Oh, of course, always. That mission was on the port side almost exactly the mission that we’re conducting on the starboard side of the space station. And we do a lot of training here, a lot of simulations but to be able to watch another crew on orbit do the mission that you have trained for is always a great thing. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal for a play. We would get up in the middle of the night to watch their spacewalks, to watch their robotics operations, just to see if there was anything that we could learn from them. And we learned some lessons that we are going to incorporate in there. But for the most part, as we did in our training, we are going to do things just like them rather than reinvent anything. They were a great crew, well trained, and so we are trying to just do the things that they did.
The lesson learned is, the original plan works?
Let’s discuss the delivery of S3/S4 that’s, and we’ll start after the shuttle has docked to the station. I realize the trip up there is part of the delivery, too, but let’s start with robot operations on docking day, which you are intimately familiar with.
I am. I am what we call R1 for the space shuttle arm. I will reach into the payload bay of the space shuttle and will grapple the S3/S4 Truss. It’s actually, the grapple fixture is on the S3 portion, and right after that the hatches will be opened, we’ll say our hellos to everyone on board station and then we’ll get right back to work. And, with Lee Archambault as my R2, we will pull the S3/S4 Truss out of the bay, put it through a series of maneuvers and bring it to a point where we can turn it over to the computers, what we call automated maneuvers, and then the computers will fly that arm and the truss section attached out to a position where we can hand it off to the space station robotic arm.
Now, you made that sound really easy, but you’re working in some cramped quarters with some pretty large pieces of equipment there.
We are. The S3/S4 weighs about 35,000 pounds, very similar to P3/P4. It’s just a little bit heavier, and I think to date this will be the heaviest payload that we’ve delivered to station. The folks, the trainers in the robotic area have simplified things for us and have designed a series of what we would call one-axis maneuvers as we bring it out of the bay and then shift it a little bit to the port side of the orbiter to move it away from the new boom that we carry for inspections. Then we’ll bring it out a little bit higher, push it back a little, do a couple other small maneuvers, and then it’ll be in a position for the computers to fly. So actually it’s a very simple task.
And yet, when you’re talking about moving it a little, we’re talking about a matter of inches.
We are. One of those maneuvers is two inches to the port side of the orbiter, and that is when you’re talking about something that weighs 35,000 pounds -- and people think, well, how can it weigh anything in space; it doesn’t, the way we think about it here on Earth, but it does have mass and any time you get something that big moving it takes just as much effort to stop it. And so slow is the secret to being able to fly that truss on orbit.
Flight Day 3, docking day, you lift the S3/S4 out of the payload bay, and hand it off to the station arm. What’s the next step in installation of the payload?
Image to left: STS-117 Mission Specialist Patrick Forrester trains for a spacewalk at JSC's Neutral Bouyancy Laboratory in Houston, Texas. Image credit: NASA
Well, the next morning the robotic arm for the space station, that ended up taking it from the shuttle arm that I was flying, will put it in a position to bolt it on to, like I said, the S1 section that’s up there on orbit. There is no S2 section, if you’re wondering why we’re going from S1 to S3. But then my job at that point will be to go over and activate a series of motorized bolts, which will then bolt this truss together with the rest of the station. And at that point the station arm will be able to release it, and then maneuver to a position to help with the spacewalk that’ll follow after that. And we’ll use both the space station arm and the space shuttle arm to provide views for the folks on the ground and in the vehicles to help out with the spacewalks.
And it’s at that point that the first spacewalk begins, when two of your crewmates will exit the airlock. What are your jobs for the three spacewalks?
The first spacewalk will be conducted by Jim Reilly, who’s our EV1, and Danny Olivas. And my job, during that spacewalk, is to run the procedures from in board the shuttle. We call that the IV, versus the EV, “E” being extravehicular and “I” being intravehicular. I will be responsible for the choreography of where they’re at and what they’re doing and trying to keep them on the timeline. We have a main goal of that spacewalk, and that is to make sure that that solar array that we are flying up on the end of S4, is ready to be used by the space station. And so the very first thing we need to do is we need to get the power applied to it. I’ve already talked a little bit about the motorized bolting of just the structure itself, and now we need to apply power to it. And we do that almost like you’d take an extension cord and plug it in from one module to the other. Really that’s the concept, a little bit harder, and Jim Reilly does that, those connections. Once we get that power flowing then the folks on the ground can begin to, to reorganize some circuits and check that out. We also need to open up these giant blanket boxes, we call them which are also bolted down for launch, and Danny does most of that. And once that’s done we will swing those things out, and prepare them to open those solar arrays, which will expand about the length of a football field when they’re done.
Now, the new solar array wings are going to be deployed on the following day. Describe for us how that’s done and the part that’s played by the crew on orbit in deploying those giant wings.
That’s another one of those things that the computers take care of for us, but we do the button pushing and Jim Reilly is responsible for that. He’ll be working on an on-board laptop computer sending commands. The rest of us are in a role of watching and making sure things are going well. When we deployed our first solar array back on 4A we had some problems where this series of panels that are in there had kind of stuck together because they had been packed away so long. And we learned a lesson that if we would only deploy it about half way out and let the temperature settle on it, sun-bake it out a little bit, that we can avoid that. And so our first job will be able to count the number of those panels, or bays, we call them, that come out, and then we’ll stop it, give it a little bit of time to stabilize thermally, and then we’ll go back at it. And each one of us is watching something so that we do this operation correctly.
I notice that, on this flight, flight, you’re deploying the solar array wings before the launch locks on the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint are released, which is the opposite of what was done on the deployment of the P3/P4. Is there a, a reason for that?
Well, there is, and I think, probably, if the program could have done it any way they wanted to on either mission they would be doing it like we are. We have the ability, once again on that first EVA, to get that solar array out and powered. If for some reason we should have to leave the space station after that and couldn’t conduct the rest of our mission, that would at least be able to provide some power to the station, albeit seldom, during the day when the sun would be on it. At least we could capture some of the sun. Ideally that whole solar array would rotate on this joint. The next day, obviously, the next EVA is when we allow that to happen by removing the launch locks from that solar array. The other crew, the 115 crew on P3/P4, could not do that because they could not extend those solar arrays out based on the configuration of the station at the time. And they needed to actually rotate that joint a little bit before extending these solar arrays that I say expand to, to a size of a football field. And because of that they needed to get the SARJ, the alpha rotary joint set first.
The next day, then, is the second spacewalk of this flight and a chance for you to climb outside on the space station again. Looking forward to that?
I really am. Your first flight there’s a lot of new things happening, and it’s hard to just even keep track of all of them, and part of that, believe it or not, were the two spacewalks I had a chance to do. They were, you know, some of the best things that I’ve ever done but it’s been five years now and there’s days I wake up and try and figure out if that really happened and exactly what it was like, so I’m looking forward to going back and doing it again, having a little experience under my belt.
But the plan for that spacewalk, and the third one, got some very late changes because of issues with folding panels and sticking guide wires during the retraction of one of the P6 Truss’s solar array wings on the last flight. Well, you’ve got retraction of the other P6 solar array wing on this flight. Tell me what’s the new plan, and how does it fit in with EVAs 2 and 3?
I mentioned before that we’ve had the luxury of learning from STS-115, who did a very similar mission to ours but on the port side of the space station. But once again we’ve been able to learn from the mission before us, STS-116, about some problems that we could have with the solar arrays and retracting them. And our spacewalk is planned to be on Flight Day 6, and we were going to go out there and remove a series of launch locks and launch restraints on that SARJ, that rotary joint, that would allow that external portion to turn. But the program, knowing that we might have some problems retracting that other solar array wing up there, which is 2B, they’d like to look ahead at that and so while Swanny [Steve Swanson] and I are putting our suits on and in the airlock during our pre-breathe, they will begin to try and retract that solar array. If it turns out that they have some problems, they’ll let us know that before we come out of the hatch and we’ll grab a different set of tools and we’ll head up that direction and be prepared to help with that. If things are going well, we probably are still going to go up and get into that vicinity for about the first hour of our spacewalk and be ready to help out, give direction, maybe, if we need to, help the solar array panels fold the right way. It’s almost like folding a map in your car -- you know, once you’ve unfolded the first time you think it would be easy to get it back but it’s not, and these things have been extended for a while and they have a tendency to want to fold the wrong direction back on themselves. And so we’ll just be ready to help out with whatever is required. That’s really more of a lookahead for EVA 3. Even if we run into a lot of problems, we’re only going to devote about the first hour of our spacewalk to that. At that point they’ll have enough information on the ground to begin to prepare for the next spacewalk, and we will move out to the SARJ and begin the spacewalk that we had already trained for.
Before I take you out there, though, what sort of assistance can you and Steve offer if, if, if they send you up there and there’s an issue?
There’s several things that we can do. Once again, we anticipate that we’re going to have problems with this particular solar array, and so rather than carry some of the normal tools I would on a spacewalk I will have a tool that we’ve kind of manufactured up there out of several other tools; they did this on STS-116 and they left it up there for us. And it basically ends up being about a three-foot-long stick that I can use to, to poke at that solar array a little bit and, and help bend it. I would push along the hinge line if it’s trying to fold the wrong way. The other thing is that sometimes there’s a possibility that these guide wires that help guide the solar array down into the box can get hung up on the panels themselves, in which case I’ll use this same tool or another tool that they have kind of manufactured and help that, assist that along the hinges or the where the guide wires run through the panels themselves. And the other part is just watching and being up there to help direct as they’re doing the commands inside the space station.
Get a chance to talk to Bob Curbeam and, and Christer Fuglesang about what it looks like up close?
Absolutely. They came back, we had scheduled training with them, we got some of the footage from their helmet cameras, and Beamer was a great resource for us. He showed us each thing that we might possibly have to do, and they left the tools up there. What they’ve done for us is develop procedures that might have taken us several hours to do. They spent a full spacewalk out there, and we think because they were just having to do a little trial and error and develop procedures, now that we have those and can train them we could probably get that solar array folded completely up in about three hours. And we, that’s what we plan to do on EVA 3.
OK, let’s take you to the rest of EVA 2. As you said, you’ve got to go out to the, the SARJ to take care of that. What do, what do you and Steve do out there?
Well, we are going out to remove a series of launch locks. There’s 16 of them that are holding this rotary joint, keeping it from turning. That’s mainly because of the launch loads in the shuttle. And so once we get out there, they’re all covered by thermal covers, and we’ll remove those covers, then reach in and remove those launch locks. They are basically about a, a 10-by-12 steel plate being held on by four bolts. We’ll remove those launch locks and then we’ll put those thermal covers back on for protection, and we’ll bring those 16 launch locks in. There are also six launch restraints that we will remove. There are several other pieces of structure that help just strengthen the actual truss section. Those were not installed for launch also, so there’s a little flexibility as the shuttle kind of shakes and bends on the way up there, that the truss would not be damaged. So it’s really just preparation to be able to rotate the solar array.
Your description of the task, it does sound, well, I think as someone else put it, repetitious, I guess, to say the least.
It very much is. We are doing the same thing over and over again. The body positions will be a little bit different, and we would have not thought a whole lot about it except the ability to watch the mission before us do the same thing. We discovered that there are some real challenges out there that maybe we didn’t know about before. There are two of those. One is these covers that we’ll remove that cover the launch locks themselves, have a series of bolts on them that we have found can get away from us if we’re not careful. So we’ve put some attention on that. And then the launch locks, after we are completed with those, there are six launch restraints which are even more hardware that needs to be removed so that this thing can rotate. And on the last mission they had some bolts that would not turn and it took two of the crew members, Dan Burbank and Steve MacLean, most of their strength and about 30 minutes to remove just one bolt, and so we’re preparing for that. We now have a goal to go out there and complete this without losing any of these bolts and hopefully without having any problems with the launch restraints.
What’s the plan for stuck bolts?
Well, there’s been some great work done by the people on the ground, once again -- we always learn lessons and this is one of the lessons that we did learn from that mission. They have designed a tool for us, which is a torque multiplier. Now, a torque multiplier is not a new thing for us -- we use them on bolts that have been torqued down to a force that’s greater than we want to try and use our power tool for. And so they took a torque multiplier that’s in the inventory, that was used for shuttle payloads, and we have modified it so that it will fit on these bolts. Using that, we don’t think we’ll have any problem pulling any of the launch restraints off.
Well, that brings us to EVA 3, and we’ve noted that Jim Reilly and Danny Olivas may be called on to help with the SAW retraction for EVA 3. What else is on the agenda for that spacewalk, and which of those tasks are going to get the priority if the SAW operations run long?
One of the main things they’re going to do on EVA 3 is removal of a drag link and a keel pin. It’s on what we call face 1 of the truss, which would be the most forward-facing portion and it’s in the way of being able to use that as a translation path for our robotic operations. So the first thing they’re going to do is remove that and stow it. Another thing they’re going to do is replace a vent, install an H2 vent into the Lab, and that’s being used for an oxygen generating system that’s being brought up as we begin to increase the man-loading on the space station from three to six. We’ll need some more environmental support and that’s one of the things they’re going to do. They have several tasks that we would consider get-aheads for future missions that are going up to the space station. I think that because of what we learned on the last mission, and the techniques that, that Beamer and Christer developed, that Jim and Danny will be able to do the solar array work and those main tasks that they have for EVA 3. If for some reason those did not get done and there was something that needed to be done on our mission Steve and I have trained to go out on an EVA 4, kind of a contingency EVA, and do those same tasks. And we always try and cross-train because we never know what might happen while we’re on orbit.
The International Space Station is the biggest thing that people have ever built in space so far. How do you feel about getting the chance to be a part of this construction job?
Well, obviously I’m excited. I’d like to do anything that gave me the privilege of flying in space. But it’s going to be neat to go back because I was part of it in 2001, and just to see the, the work that the folks on the ground, the engineers and scientists and my fellow folks in the Office have done since 2001, it’s going to be good to go back and see that. But I think back from when I was first selected as an astronaut, and like many folks in the Office I had applied several times and was finally selected. About the same time we were coming on board the Office they were naming the first crews to begin the assembly of the space station. I remember being so disappointed thinking, wow, I missed it. You know, that was the thing that I wanted to do was to build the space station. We knew we had our training ahead of us and a lot of folks in the Office, and surely it would be built by the time I was trained and ready to fly in space. And to think back on that now and kind of smile and to know that even 10 years later I’m still having a chance to do that is really a lot of fun.
Well, as you say, you’ve been at the Johnson Space Center since before the first component of the space station flew and you’ve been there yourself, so from your perspective what do you think’s the most notable accomplishment of the International Space Station program to this point?
I think just the ability to design and build on the ground, in sections, and then carry to orbit and assemble something as large and as complex as the space station I couldn’t single one thing out. There was a time when we didn’t think it would be possible to do the number of spacewalks that we do, and somebody just figured out that we could do that, with the right training team and the right training facilities. And now, even though it’s not an everyday, common occurrence, it’s something that we’re very comfortable with, doing it at a rate we never thought that we would do before. And just the construction of the modules and the number of international partners that we’ve gotten involved and the modules that they’ve built has been fantastic. For two years I worked with the Europeans as they built a couple of modules, one being the Cupola module and one being the Columbus module. Hopefully, both of those will be flying soon, and to see the way that they feel about space and all, and the space station that we’re a part of has been good for me, too. It is truly an international accomplishment.
Of course, the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond this space station that we’re building right now. I mean, literally to “beyond,” if you will. Pat, tell me your philosophy about the future of human space exploration.
Wow, that’s a tough question. I could take the easy way out and tell you that we have been so focused the last few years on training for the mission that we’re doing now that, as President Bush and our administrator began to outline going to the moon and Mars and beyond that’s just been something that other folks in the Office are working on. I just know that what I want to do is operate the robotic arm and get EVA 2 completed safely, and so I haven’t had a lot of time to think about that. But this morning I was reading the paper and there was an article in there about a mechanical device that was found in a, on, in a ship that had, that had had a shipwreck, had gone to the bottom, around the Aegean Sea and where it meets the Mediterranean, and they think this thing is a couple thousand years old, probably built maybe around a hundred, to a hundred and forty years before Christ, and off a technology or what had been learned by the Babylonians as they examined the lunar cycles and stuff like that. And I thought, you know, way back then people were just involved in their everyday lives, probably herding sheep and farming and just getting things to market, and yet there were people already staring up into the skies and trying to figure out what all those things up there were and what was going on with them and I think now, 2000 years later, every kid in elementary school can picture what our solar system looks like and the planets and how they rotate around the sun and all these things. And I’m sure that people around them were thinking, what are you doing looking up in the, the sky -- you need to get to work down here and worry about those things. I think that the direction that we’re going and the things we’re doing are good. You know there’re, there’re times when I know the public wants us to be able to answer right away: what are we going to get out of this, give me this cure, why haven’t we found this yet? And yet it just took people 2000 years ago looking up there trying to figure out what all those things meant to get us to where we are now, and I’m hoping that the things that we’re doing now, even though maybe they don’t make sense to everybody that are involved in their everyday lives will maybe one of these days be something that just makes sense to everybody at that time.