Q: There are hundreds and thousands of pilots and scientists in the world but very few American astronauts—only about a hundred of you guys right now. What was it that made you want to try to become one?
Image at right: STS-117 Commander Rick Sturckow. Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Rick Sturckow
A: Well, it’s just something that sort of worked out this way. I was in college and I was involved with off-road racing and circle track racing, and a professor who had been a Marine Corps pilot during the Vietnam War came up to me and said, "You ought to think about joining the Marines and being a pilot." And of course he made it sound very easy, like just go down to the Marines and they paint your name on the side of an F-18; it wasn’t quite that simple but things just worked out.
Let me take you back even further than that. Tell me about your hometown -- tell me about Lakeside, Calif.
I’m from Lakeside, Calif. It was a pretty, small, rural town at the time -- I didn’t actually grow up in town. I grew up on a ranch about five miles from town. This is in eastern San Diego County; back then it was pretty small. We raised turkeys and we had cattle and we then later started into sort of a tree farming business. We had a variety of different trees that we sold.
You got the sense of that place and the people in that place really having a, making a contribution to you turning out to be the man that you are?
Absolutely. Teachers, Little League coaches … I started getting involved with racing when I was about 15 years old and a lot of ex-Navy officers and guys that taught me a lot about leadership and really dedicating yourself to the job and not messing it up.
You ever get a chance to see Lakeside from orbit?
I have seen Lakeside from orbit. We had on my first flight a daylight pass, just right at crew wake-up and we actually went all the way down the California coast and then a good part of the ways into Baja; I used to race down there. I was able to see all that from orbit. It was beautiful.
Give me -- and you started this before, but I’ll ask you to do it again -- give me a thumbnail sketch of, of your education and your career.
I got out of high school when I was 16 and I worked for two years at International Harvester -- I was a truck mechanic, a lube boy. I did brake jobs, transmissions, that sort of thing. Then I went to college, at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to study mechanical engineering. They had a racing program there with the SAE, Society of Automotive Engineers, which is why I wanted to go there, and that’s where I did the majority of my racing. I also did some stock car racing on my own car that I built, and drove it on dirt tracks in California. And then, I think we already talked about, the guy came up to me and said, you ought to join the Marines and be a pilot.
And you did?
And I did. It’s been great.
Tell me about your Marine career before you got this job.
After you graduate Officer Candidate School, every Marine officer goes to The Basic School. It’s six months of infantry officer training at Quantico, Va. The theory is that if you’re going to support Marines on the ground from the air you should know something about what they do on the ground, so we learned that. I went to flight school at Pensacola, Fla., and then advanced jet training at Beeville, Texas, went to F-18 training at Lemoore, Calif., and then I went to a Marine fighter squadron in Beaufort, S.C. I was stationed there for four years, we did, a pump to the Western Pacific, to Japan, Korea, Okinawa, the Philippines, for about seven months, then I came home, went to Top Gun, and then we deployed to Sheik Isa Air Base in Bahrain for Desert Shield, and Desert Storm. I flew 41 missions there, and then came back and I went to test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base, and then I was a test pilot at Pax [Patuxent] River, Md., and then I came down here to Houston.
And been flying in space, fairly regularly ever since. The “flying in space” part of this astronaut job, we know, can be dangerous. I want to know what it is you think we get out of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk that you’re willing to take.
I think that the human exploration is very important to maintain the interest of all of us Americans in space exploration. If we don’t send people there it’s hard to get the American public fired up about what it is we’re doing. It’s great to send robots and orbiters and do some limited surface exploration, but till you put a human on that other body, you’re not going to know what it’s really like there. And that’s, I think, what interests people.
And anybody that knows Rick Sturckow knows that you’re about nothing if not being fired up.
There ya go.
You are the commander of STS-117. Rick, give me a summary of the goals of assembly mission 13A and what your job as commander is on this flight.
The goals of the 13A assembly mission are to install the S3/S4 Truss segment. My job as Commander is to make sure that’s done safely and successfully.
Well, that sounds like an easy job, since you have such a great crew.
We’ve got a great crew, and hopefully it’ll be an easy job.
Let’s talk about the hardware. The S3/S4 Truss segment is going to fill up your payload bay on the way uphill. Tell me what that is, and what it does, and why it’s so important to add that to the International Space Station.
We’re providing power. This will provide the 1A and 3A power channels, and it has the SARJ, the solar array rotary joint, that supports the rotation of those arrays so they can track the sun. There’s some electronics in there, and some other ancillary hardware that makes all that work out.
Do we want more power at the International Space Station just because more is better than less?
We need the power so that the follow on modules … Node 2, and the European and Japanese modules -- will need that power to conduct the experiments [for which] those labs require that extra generation.
There’s a nearly identical set of hardware, the P3 and P4 Trusses that were added to the station two missions before yours; were there lessons learned on STS-115 that you guys are able to apply to your flight?
Absolutely. We’re really fortunate that we have those guys to follow. Almost everything went great on that mission, and the things that didn’t go so well we were able to learn from. Very few times in space station assembly history has a crew had such detailed timelines for things like the EVAs that we can study and adapt to what we’re doing on our mission. The order isn’t exactly the same, but the times for each specific task should work out very closely.
One of the first big steps before you could start to deliver the hardware is you’ve got to arrive at the space station’s front door, and you’re going to fly the shuttle rendezvous. Do you looking forward to getting your hands on the stick to fly that approach?
Absolutely. We’ve been well prepared by our instructors, of course. It’s a crew task … the shuttle is a big crew resource management vehicle in that everybody has a part to play as we fly the approach, and especially the manual phase. We feel well prepared to, to do that job.
One of the things that is done on an approach now that wasn’t done on your first two trips to the space station is the rendezvous pitch maneuver. Tell us a little bit about what’s involved for the Commander of the space shuttle as you come up under the station and spin around.
Right. We’ll basically fly up the R-bar and then we will look to stop our approach around 600 feet, and we’ll do a full 360° pivot while the station crew takes photographs of the underside of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. The job for us is to set the shuttle up so it’s in a good position when we initiate that maneuver, and then we turn the flight controller power off and perform the pivot and then, when it’s done, then we turn the flight controller power back on and recover ourselves to initiate the flyaround to the V-bar, from where we’ll perform the docking on the +V-bar.
Image above: STS-117 Commander Rick Sturckow trains inside a shuttle simulator at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. Credit: NASA
Six hundred feet is not that far away; you get nervous turning your back on the target at that range?
We will be very confident that we know both where we’re at and what our closure is before we initiate that maneuver.
So, you’ve rendezvoused and successfully docked to the station. The delivery of the S3/S4 begins very shortly after you guys hook up. Talk about the robotics operations that happen the rest of that day to prepare S3/S4 to be delivered.
Before we even open the hatches to the space station and go greet our partners in this 13A assembly mission, the crew of increment 14, we will already begin with the shuttle arm grappling the S3/S4 Truss so that we are all ready to start taking it out of the payload bay that same afternoon of Flight Day 3. Then we’ll slowly remove it and take it to the handoff position, where it’ll be grappled by the station arm, and then we’ll ungrapple with the shuttle arm and that’ll pretty much be the end of the Flight Day 3 activities.
And then the beginning of Flight Day 4 it’s already on the, the station arm for the rest of its delivery?
That’s correct. It’ll be in a position so that on the morning of Flight Day 4, we’ll perform an auto-maneuver -- it’s about 42 minutes long -- to maneuver it over to the install position, and then it’ll be manually flown to the installation by our pilot, Lee Archambault.
The first of three spacewalks gets started a little bit later on that same day. Generally speaking, since you’re not going outside during the spacewalks, what will you be doing while the EVAs are happening?
During the spacewalks my primary duty is to ensure they are being conducted safely and in accordance with our procedures, to make sure, just as a double and triple check, that we’re not missing anything that we intended to do, especially if something comes up that’s off nominal. I’ll be monitoring to make sure that we are reacting appropriately. We have a preplanned list of reactions to certain events which might happen during the spacewalks, and I’ll just be carefully checking to make sure that’s what we’re really doing.
So from the point of view of somebody who’s going to be monitoring the situation, what are the tasks, what we, should we be looking to see happen during EVA 1?
An overview of the tasks that we’ll be connecting is some umbilicals on the nadir and zenith trays -- these are power and data connections from S1 to S3. There will be a MDM [multiplexer-demultiplexer] cover jettison, there will be the deploying of the beta gimbal assemblies, we’ll do one of the Drive Lock Assemblies, which is actually DLA No. 2, during EVA 1, and then, a variety of other minor tasks, deploying the blanket boxes and getting ready for the solar array deploy on Flight Day 5.
As you, you say the, the deployment of those arrays comes up the very next day; is that an on-orbit task or is that a ground task?
That’ll actually be an on-orbit task. We’ll deploy them to 49 percent and then we’ll let them have solar insulation, and then we will go ahead and deploy ’em to the full extension, 31½ bays. That’s another thing that you mentioned from your earlier question about the 115/12A assembly mission, that we were able to look at their procedures and understand exactly what’s going to happen, and we look forward to that being successful.
What’s the reasoning? Why go part of the way out and then the rest, instead of just punching the button and letting it...
Letting them go?
...deploy all the way?
The reason for doing that on 4A, when they deployed the P6 arrays, they had some difficulty with stiction between the panels. So this process of baking them out during solar insulation on the back side of the panels allows that stiction to be removed so that they can smoothly deploy to a full 100 percent.
Does the fact that those giant wings have been folded up in a box for a while contribute?
That’s true. They’ve been folded up longer than anybody expected. We did a test to extend that lifetime about four years ago, and we were really surprised at how long it’s taken us to get to this point, but we’re still confident that with this new procedure they’ll deploy successfully.
On this flight the solar array wings are going to be deployed after EVA 1, before EVA 2, rather than after EVA 2 when the launch locks are removed, and that’s the order in which it was done on the last mission. What’s the reasoning behind that?
It has to do with the difference between the P3/P4 segment and the S3/S4 segment. They had a requirement to rotate their SARJ, their solar array rotary joint, 180 degrees before they could deploy their solar array wings, and we’ll be able to deploy before we rotate our SARJ.
It has to do with the way it was fit in the payload bay then?
That’s correct, yes.
But the next day is your crew’s second spacewalk, and the plan for that EVA and the third one got some pretty late changes because of difficulties with folding panels and sticking guide wires during retraction on one of the P6 solar array wings during the last flight. Well, Rick, you’ve got retraction of the other P6 solar array wing on your flight. Tell me about the new plan and how it impacts EVA 2 and 3.
On the morning of Flight Day 6, while the EVA crew of Pat Forrester and Steve Swanson are in the airlock getting ready to go outside to do that spacewalk, we’re going to attempt to retract the 2B array for the first time. We think with retracting it a couple panels, we’re going to have a good idea whether we’ll see the same sorts of problems they saw with the 4B array on STS-116.
If we do see the difficulty then, what does that mean for the spacewalkers?
One of the first things that could be a problem is the backwards folding panel issue that they saw in STS-116. We’ll be prepared to have Pat and Steve come out of the airlock and go directly up to P6 where Pat will get on the SSRMS, the station robotic arm, and go up and try and clear that backwards panel fold.
There’s also the possibility that the third EVA could have some solar array wing retraction ops as well, right?
That’s correct. We intend to spend about an hour and 15 minutes of Flight Day 6, the EVA 2, working on the solar array, and then we’re going to, on Flight Day 7, attempt to retract it. It’s not an EVA day but we’ll attempt to retract it as far as we can. Then on the third EVA, on Flight Day 8, we will go back up and finish, hopefully, whatever else needs to be done to retract that solar array, and you’ve already mentioned the problems about the guide wires, frayed wires, that sort of thing.
OK, those are the additional tasks that may come up, but your guys have been training for EVAs 2 and 3 that had their own full list of things to do. Tell me about what else is on the plan for EVA 2.
EVA 2 will, after the solar array, then focus on the SARJ, the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, preparation so that it can rotate. There are launch locks and launch restraints that have to be removed, and then SARJ braces which need to be installed, and then the other Drive Lock Assembly … that work will be performed.
You know, the spacewalkers on STS-115 had some difficulty removing some of those launch restraint hardware off the SARJ on their mission. Do you guys have some new tools or new strategies if you encounter some of that same problem?
We do. We’re flying a modified torque multiplier that Pat and Steve will be able to use to go up there and remove those bolts, much more easy, so they won’t have to expend the amount of effort that was done during STS-115.
OK, and let’s don’t forget, then, the rest of EVA 3. Jim [Reilly] and Danny [Olivas] may have some solar array wing work to do, but what else is on the agenda and, and what has the top priority?
The top priority is clearing the path for the Mobile Transporter out to work site 1; this is the Mobile Transporter for the station robotic arm. And so they have the IEA keel pin, if that has not been done yet; that’s the Integrated Electronics Assembly keel pin, and there’s another keel pin called the drag link keel pin that’ll have to be stowed, and then there’s some other minor tasks to clear that path out there. Additionally, if there’s time, they will do the hydrogen vent for the oxygen generator system.
Danny said that he thinks there’s a good chance they may not really know what they’re going to do out there to do until the night before.
That’s correct. Again, based on the lessons learned from STS-116, we should have a more efficient plan for dealing with the problems, but this array may have a completely different set of problems than the ones that were seen during STS-116, so we’ll just really have to see what we get.
You’ve been at NASA since before the very first module of this space station was launched, and you were there on the very first station assembly mission eight years ago—eight years ago; from your perspective, what’s the most notable accomplishment of the International Space Station so far?
I think it’s just demonstrating the technical challenge. I don’t think it was well understood how difficult this really would be to assemble a vehicle this complex, and then operate that vehicle. I think we’ve learned a lot from it and we’ll be better prepared to carry on our task of the exploration of moon and Mars. However, the lesson that people need to take from all this is that it probably won’t go smoothly then, either. Fortunately we have a really smart team of NASA scientists and engineers here at JSC. I think they’ll do a great job of solving whatever problems come up.
You know the International Space Station is not our end goal -- the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond the space station that we’re building right now. Tell me about your philosophy about the future of human space exploration.
I’m really optimistic about the future of human space exploration. I think that, you know, the possibilities are endless. It’s just the will required of the American people to continue to fund it and support it. There’s just no limit to what we can accomplish.
What do you, what would you like us to accomplish?
I’d love to see in my lifetime a lunar colony established, not just a small station but a real group of people that are living and working toward that next goal and the next step beyond.