Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. Steve, what made you want to try to become an astronaut and be one of those people that flies in space?
Image at right: STS-117 Mission Specialist Steven Swanson. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Steven Swanson
A: That’s a good question. It wasn’t one of my dreams growing up. It was more after graduate school. I came out with a degree, an engineering degree undergraduate, and a master’s in computer science, and I was trying to figure out at that point, you know, I really need to get a job -- it’s time to really go to work. It just kind of hit me at that moment that this is the job I’m going to have for 30, 40 years. That was kind of a, an eye opening when I really started thinking about life and really what I wanted to do. At that moment I started really going through all the possibilities of what I could do and what sounded fun and adventurous and would also, though, use your brain a lot -- challenging in all sorts of aspects. One that popped up at that time was the astronaut. Well, I figured I don’t have a shot at but I might as well try; it doesn’t hurt to throw in your application. I threw that in, and after a while of course, you know, in the beginning, to start off you don’t get any response just being out of graduate school. I came to work here at NASA and that really did help, gave me roots, see the program, see what you need to do, continue on like that. I guess that kind of drive, what exactly about the astronaut program that got me to head this way, I think, was the idea of it being somewhat of an exploring and adventure type of a program. I’ve always wanted to do kind of exploring. As a kid I loved to go in the woods and just go off and explore different areas. Heck, if I could have lived 200 years ago I would have loved to have been like with Lewis and Clark and just been living in the woods and exploring all sorts of new areas. It would have been great, as far as I’m concerned. But since I couldn’t do that, I figure the next best thing was to try being an astronaut. And I got lucky.
Let me back you up a bit then, to Steamboat Springs, Colo., your hometown. Tell me about that town and what it was like to grow up there.
Oh, it was wonderful, mountain, Colorado town. There were about four to five thousand people, a small town. I believe we had 89 people in my graduating class. It was a wonderful size there. It was a ski town, of course, which was another good aspect of it. It added maybe a little more of a not big city, I should say, but more culture than you might get in your average small town because a lot of people coming in. We had more restaurants and stuff than you normally have in an average town that size. But it ended up being a wonderful place to grow up because of all the things you could do outside, skiing all through the winter, we used to go cross-country skiing all the time; summertime camping, hiking, fishing, whatever you want to do, in the mountains it was right there. You didn’t even have to go very far at all. So I grew up doing all that kind of stuff, still love doing that stuff. That’s one of the drawbacks of living in Houston, but some of my favorite things to do. And it’s a wonderful place.
Do you have a sense of how the place and the people there helped make you the person that you are?
Well that’s a good question. I think the way they did that is one, it showed you, when, the whole idea of being the outdoor type, I think, is a very good aspect for being an astronaut because a shuttle mission is very much like a camping trip. You do a lot of prep work; you’re going to live in a small confined area with a bunch of people; you’re doing, working a lot, a lot of exercise; you have to be thinking ahead, what’s going on, what’s going to happen; you have to be somewhat cautious with safety, and don’t want to go out without the right equipment; all those kind of things. I think that helped a little bit, and being up there made me endure a little bit of things not being just perfect. You know, on a camping trip, things never are. You get rained on, all that kind of stuff. And you go up and you get used to that, and it makes it a lot easier then for doing a space mission. The schools -- I had good teachers. I always enjoyed that it taught me to get me into college and to do well. Again, I played sports there and I think that that really helped out, too. What I learned from that is that hard work can pay off. If you practice well, work hard, you will do well in everything, or at least you will do it to the best of your ability. If you do that it’s good enough and I think that’s a good thing I learned out of that -- just be happy with what you can do and do well at it.
You touched on it a moment ago; give me a little bit more, a thumbnail sketch, of your education and, and work career prior to becoming an astronaut.
After high school at Steamboat Springs, I went to the University of Colorado for my bachelor’s. I got a degree in engineering physics. From there I went to Florida Atlantic University, and I got a degree in computer systems. Then, after I came to work for NASA, after a little stint at GTE doing software, I worked here at NASA for the Aircraft Operations Division, which is part of FCOD, Flight Crew Operations Directorate. It was a wonderful place to work, working on airplanes, the software, the control systems. I really liked that. While I was working there I applied for a fellowship and got one, to get some more schooling done. So I went off to Texas A&M for a year to work on the coursework for my Ph.D. I got that done on fellowship, came back and continued working at Aircraft Ops at the same time and working on my dissertation. It took me a few years to get through with that though, and after many hours put into that thing I did finally finish it and that was a nice thing to get done. I continued working at Aircraft Ops, and soon after got picked up as an astronaut.
Now you’re getting ready to make your first spaceflight. Are you getting more excited about that as it gets closer and closer?
Yeah, I guess a little bit. I’m still at the point where you know, is it really true yet, real yet? We’ve been here, you know, quite a long time, waiting, and which isn’t bad. It’s just a reality of the situation. I was afraid sometimes that they can take this thing away from me at any time. Say if something happened on 116, it could stop the program again. Or things could happen -- not that, hopefully, nothing will happen but there’s always that possibility, they can always find something else to delay it. So I’m trying to keep myself actually in a spot where I’m not looking too much forward, just trying to be realistic about it. Probably when I actually suit up and get in the orbiter, then I’ll start feeling like it could happen.
The “flying in space” part of this job that you’re getting ready to do, we know it can be dangerous. Steve, tell me what it is you think we get from flying people in space that makes it worth the risk that you’re getting ready to take.
There’s a couple of things. One, I think the one thing we get out of it almost as a culture is we need to explore. And, I think as part of that, that we’re lucky to be the ones that actually get to do the exploring, but we’re doing it for everybody else. We’re doing it for everybody to see that we are still as a race exploring and trying to move on and do other things. So, we need humans to be able to do that part of it. I think the robot’s also a wonderful thing -- they need to go first to figure out how everything is, to make it safer, to make it more doable. We need a lot of information before we can get the humans there. And so they’re a good aspect of the whole exploration project. But then once they go we need the humans to go. One, it’s just the whole idea of being able to feel it, to be able to relate that back to people and say, "Hey, that’s what it really looked like; that’s what it really felt like." And then as we go more and more, they become, set up the means that we’re doing now, more and more people, other people will get to do the same thing as it becomes more routine. So I think if you don’t send people we’ll never get to that point. At some point you’ve always got to be sending people and exploring, just as a race, just to fulfill our needs.
You’re a Mission Specialist on STS-117; give me a summary of the goals of this assembly mission 13A and what your jobs are on this flight.
Our big goal is to attach the S3/S4 Truss segment to the International Space Station. That’s another power channel for them, helps them in their endeavor to get bigger and larger and do better things. Of course that’s also connect it and make it operational—and after that there’s some other steps we will do to improve the International Space Station, small stuff, but, then just to make sure it’s a safe shuttle for the next crew after that.
What is your job on, as a member of this crew?
Starting off I’m MS2, which means I’m a flight engineer on ascent and entry. I like that, that’s a wonderful job. I'm very happy to get that one. I work with the Commander and Pilot on all their checklists and switches we have to throw on the way up and, and on the way down. After that, though I will work on being an arm operator on the shuttle and also then on the station arm, and beside that I will do a spacewalk, the second one which we call EVA 2.
You mentioned the primary component on this mission that you are delivering to the station is a hunk called the S3/S4 Truss. Tell me what it is and what it will do and why it’s important to add that to ISS.
The truss segment for the station, the way I look at it, is just a connecting I beams together, to a structure that, that will give support to the solar arrays that are out on the far ends of the truss segments. Our S3/S4 (S stands for starboard; that’s always a good acronym to get start, out of the way there), so we are putting up the third and fourth segment on the starboard side. In between the third and fourth segment is actually a joint called the alpha joint. It will allow the solar arrays to rotate. We’re bringing up then one pair of solar arrays, 1A and 3A. We will deploy those to add, add power to the space station.
Are we adding power generating capacity just for the sake of having it, or is the extra electricity spoken for?
Oh, it is spoken for, maybe not right at this moment but the mission not right after this but right after that, they’re going to add new modules to the space station. There’s a European module and a Japanese module and a Japanese experiment facility, all sorts of other facilities to enhance their research capabilities. So they need electricity for those new modules and that’s part of our job, to allow them to have that.
The virtually identical component to the S3/S4 was installed on the station two shuttle missions ago. Were there lessons learned from STS-115 that have been incorporated into your flight?
Yes, there sure were. They did a great job, of course. One thing we learned about, I’m sure everybody, not everybody but most people, heard about the bolts being lost. We found it’s mostly a manufacturing flaw or design flaw that we have in those bolts. Given the right circumstances, they can pop out and become loose. So we’ve come up with techniques as operators when we take the bolts off and put them back in to minimize the chance of that happening. Also, they had a tough time on a launch restraint bolt. That is a bolt that will, holds S3/S4, stuck together until we get it assembled on orbit, and then we can decouple the two and that way the alpha joint will rotate. There was a bolt that would not come loose for them, or it was very difficult for them to get loose. It took two guys with a cheater bar on a wrench to get that thing loose. So they’ve developed a new tool for us, a torque multiplier. It’s about 15 to 1 on the torque, and we will use that if we get into that situation.
So that you guys will have a little extra oomph to…
Exactly, we won’t have to try so hard. We have, we’re doing it with a bigger, better tool.
Let’s talk through the, the process here. Start with delivery of S3/S4, which begins with robot operations on docking day, very shortly after the shuttle docks to the station.
That’s true it does. What will happen is Pat [Forrester] will grab the element with the shuttle arm, lift it out of the bay, and maneuver it. It takes quite a bit for this maneuver to happen because it’s very, very tight clearances. He’s got about three inches on either side as he lifts it out of the bay, but when it gets up high enough the boom sensor we have for, for doing orbiter surveys is actually in the way a little bit more, so they have to move two inches to the port side. That gives you one inch on the port side, and as it goes by the boom it’s about two inches on that side, so it’s very tight clearances. It’s the same thing that was on 115, they did, the same problem. Once he gets it out of the bay he moves it into a position where the station arm can grapple it and then take it from there. And then after that point where the station arm grapples it, the shuttle arm moves away, gets into a viewing position for the next day, when we actually attach it to the ISS.
And at that point, I believe, the station arm holds the S3/S4 out in, in that position overnight?
That’s correct. Overnight it will stay there. And then the next morning the first thing we do when we wake up is to start moving that over into position to attach it.
When you say “we”, you’re in on this now, aren’t you?
Well, actually, no, I’m not part of, that. Lee Archambault -- we all call him Bru so I’ll use that from now on -- and Suni Williams will do that. I will be helping J.R. [Jim Reilly] and Danny [Olivas] suit up for their spacewalk that helps attach it.
Image above: STS-117 Mission Specialist Steven Swanson trains in the virtual reality laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. Photo Credit: NASA
The first spacewalk of the mission is for, as you said, for Jim Reilly and, and Danny Olivas. Why do they need help getting dressed?
Getting into those spacesuits is not the easiest thing in the world and it does help to go through and get them all prepped and ready to go, to have somebody else there. Actually there will be two people there, myself and another station crew member, going through and helping them get ready. While you’re doing it yourself it’s tough to read the checklist while you’re getting it in. It’s a very long and complicated checklist. So it helps if someone else is there to do it. Actually one will probably be reading it, and the other guy helping the person get into their suit. That way it stays organized and we don’t miss anything. We definitely don’t want to screw up on that area or make a mistake when somebody’s going out on a spacewalk. It could be very hazardous to their health if you do.
And as you mentioned earlier you’re going to be one of the spacewalkers on EVA 2; on EVAs 1 and 3, while the other guys are outside, what is your job inside?
My job is, depends on the EVA, but mostly is to keep the shuttle systems working properly, helping out where I can, doing water fills, anything they need me to do at that point.
Let’s talk through EVA 1. While you’re doing those things inside, what are the tasks, briefly, that are going to be done during the first spacewalk of the mission?
In the first spacewalk is the deployment of the solar arrays themselves. Right, when they go up they are attached, bolted on to the side of S4, so you have to unbolt them, you have to spring them a little bit away from the S4 Truss; it has a linkage system that helps move them away a little bit, to get them into the correct position for deployment. Once they get those out and ready for the deployment, they have to swing the solar array canisters themselves, the masts, into the correct perpendicular position. When they’re all done with that they go back and they have a bunch of clean up stuff again, and helping us on EVA 2 they’re getting some of the bolts done that will, that will help us move the alpha joint. When they’re all done they’ll come inside and we will then, the next day, actually deploy the solar array.
The deployment, as you say, does happen the day after EVA 1...
...whereas on the last mission it happened after EVA 2, after the SARJ [Solar Alpha Rotary Joint] was, SARJ was…
Right. That’s because the alpha joint had to be rotated for the 115 mission. For ours, it doesn’t. When they had it in the shuttle cargo bay, they had to rotate theirs to have it work there. Ours doesn’t have to have that rotation so we can do it right after the first EVA. We don’t have to do a rotation.
All right. Tell me about the deployment, which is, visually, from here on the ground is, you saw it, a pretty dramatic thing to see that happen.
What is it that you guys do to, to make that come true this time?
It’s a, a, quite a lot of teamwork and communication. About five of us are going to be watching the deployment and each has a specific job, to watch something on the deployment. From watching tension bars, to counting mast canisters coming out which is one of my jobs to doing a little robotics work, from keeping the views where you want them to go, all sorts of other little things that everybody’s got to do and everybody’s got to talk to J.R., who’s the, like our boss at this point, for this deployment. And everyone has to give him the feedback – "OK, my systems going well, you’re here, you’re here," and it’s really a big coordination effort to get that thing to go out. And this all comes from the fact, though, that they did have troubles on the first solar array deployment, back on 4A, and they learned a lot of lessons on how they have to do that. And that’s why we all now have these tasks to make sure it’s all going well.
As we said, the day after that deployment is the, the second EVA, which will be the first of your career. I wonder if you’d gotten a lot of advice from experienced spacewalkers about what it’s like to be your own little satellite?
Yes, I definitely have gotten a lot of advice. It is wonderful. Everybody’s been really nice and helpful in that area. The biggest thing, of course, they tell you, is that it’s a fantastic experience, and don’t forget that when you’re out there, you know, take a second when you can, look around, look at Earth. It’s the best view you’re going to get. Those are the things they really tell you to do. Then other times they’ll go back and say, oh yeah, remember to do this-and-that, you know, to make sure it’s safe and you do the best job. But, they always, the No. 1 thing they tell you is to enjoy it a little bit, and look around.
Are you going to do what they said?
Yeah, that’s my plan.
Now the plan for that spacewalk, and the third one on this flight, got some very late changes because of issues with folding panels and sticking guide wires during retraction of one of the P6 Truss’s solar array wings on the previous flight. You guys have retraction of the other P6 solar array wing on your flight, so tell me, what’s your new plan for that and how is it impacting EVAs 2 and 3?
Well, the new plan is to try to retract it a little earlier in the mission just in case there are problems. To start off, on EVA 2, just before we go out the door they’re going to try to retract it a little bit and see if there’s any problems. At the same time, or once they’ve tried to do that, we will on the first part of EVA 2 go up to the solar array -- I’ll be on the mast canister while Pat Forrester is on the arm -- and we will assist in any areas they need. The first problem they think they might have is if it folds the wrong way in the first flap. Also we’ve noticed there’s a spring loose on the tension bar that we might have to cut off. They don’t know exactly what they want to do with that at this point but they’re working that. So we do have some issues we will have to do at the beginning. They say after about an hour and fifteen minutes of working on that they will pull us loose from the retract and we will then go to our original tasks, getting the SARJ joint ready to rotate for the solar array panels.
Tell me what’s involved in that; how, how do you free the SARJ?
The SARJ is in a launch configuration and that means it’s bolted all down, so we will go on to that area and release all the launch locks. That means you have to remove a cover, MLI [multi-layer insulation], which is a, a protective cover over the SARJ joint, remove the launch locks, which are just big metal plates that hold both sides together, and put them in a little storage area. There are 16 of them and we’ll bring them back with us. But that will allow, will allow the joint then to move. There are also launch restraints which are on the beams that go, the support structure of the truss, that also hold it all together, so we have to remove those also, and some other braces and other stuff that, help the structure work well during the times that the joint has to rotate.
That’s all something that you’d been preparing for, for some time. I take it you spent quite a bit of time since December focusing on the new task.
Yes, it has. We felt pretty comfortable with the tasks we had before, and then just recently we had to change, of course, this first part of the EVA. The most difficult part of that is actually logistics because we have different tools we have to bring out for the solar array retract so we’ll have to bring those out for that part and then we go back to the airlock and redo all our tool config and then go back to do the SARJ task. So that’s just a whole new step and a lot more things that I have to remember, which is not my strong point, but that’s what I have to do.
It shouldn’t demean it to say that you’re going out to remove all these launch locks, but it sounds like you’re going to be all working in one spot, pretty much, loosening bolts.
Pretty much. We’re doing lots and lots of bolts; we’re probably going to wear out the battery in our PGTs [Pistol Grip Tools], but you’re right. But again it’s, it’s a wonderful thing and it’s not an easy task, in the sense that I’ve talked to the people on 115 and, and they found that it was not trivial to do all, all these bolts again they had issues with. They were working very hard; they came back with all their fingers very sore. So, it’s going to be an interesting and fun time, but also it will be pretty difficult.
Before the flight they referred to the task as “repetitive”. Afterwards they may have more respect for it.
Yeah, exactly. Yes, you’re doing the same thing over and over, but you actually have to be very cautious and very disciplined in what you do each time. So that’s the, probably the biggest thing you have to really keep yourself from, when you’re doing the same thing over and over again, is the complacency factor, the "Oh, I’ve done this before." But each time can be a mistake ready to happen, so you have to keep yourself always alert and ready to go.
Now that brings us to EVA #3 on this mission, and Jim Reilly and Danny Olivas may have some solar array wing retraction work ahead of them as well, right?
That is definitely a possibility. They will try on Flight Day 7, which is the day in between EVA 2 and EVA 3, to retract the solar array. If it does not work, or any kind of issues come up like they did on 116, then EVA 3’s main task will be to get that solar array retracted. We have no idea, really, what that entails at this point, because we don’t know what the problems might be, but we are very familiar with the problems that happened on 116 and believe we can efficiently solve those problems at this time. So hopefully it’ll be something similar if there are problems. If not, we will be ready to adapt and do whatever is necessary to get that solar array retracted.
Which is in fact what the 116 crew had to do…
…since they didn’t have an example to learn from.
Exactly. We are well-trained as almost all crews are to be able to adapt and try to figure out what is needed to be done and go ahead and do it.
Beyond any efforts that they may have to expend to assist in the solar array wing retraction, what are the other tasks that are, are on the timeline for EVA 3?
EVA 3 tasks are, try to help the station just get in a better config for its long time in space and, and its normal mission. One of those tasks is to help out the new oxygen generator. It needs a hydrogen vent, to have it work, and they’re going to replace a, a current vent with the vent for the oxygen generator. That’s a major task they have. Of course, they also have to help out, if we, on EVA 2 or EVA 1, did not finish everything we're supposed to do on the SARJ side and make sure that is all operational, and clear the path for the Mobile Transporter. If those aren’t all complete, they will go ahead and finish up any of those kind of tasks. Besides that, the rest of them are what we call just get-aheads, as in the stuff that will just make the station a lot better, from a, a wireless instrumentation system for monitoring the structural stresses put on the space station to putting out a LAN cable to help get their laptops all connected between the Russian segment and the U.S. segment.
We’ve been talking about a lot of work going on on the outside of the station and the shuttle. There’s work inside, too. What are you guys doing, to be doing inside of the station for a week or so?
Well, we’re doing stuff just to help the station crew members themselves; that’s our main job, too, while we’re there. They need supplies, for one, so we’re bringing them some new supplies, from food to all sorts of things, and new computers. So we’ll be giving them as much as we can handle. Our payload being so large has limited our ability to give them a lot. But we will still have some stuff to give them and we will then take some of their stuff away, their trash, whatever, that they want to get rid of or bring back down to Earth, or to Houston. We’ll take that from them and load it into our middeck lockers or wherever we can, and bring that back for them.
Do you think seven or eight days is going to be enough time for you to really explore the inside of that space station?
That’s a good question. Probably not, because there’s a lot to it, I believe. A lot of it is covered up with their own stuff. They have, definitely I think, maybe an issue with the stowage. They have along a lot of their walls stowage stuff and I think it’d be very difficult to figure out where everything is in that International Space Station. It may be a big task, and, but just going around to it and seeing like, I’m not really saying a tourist, but you’re more just trying to figure out how it all works in a “big picture” way. There will be enough time, I think, for that, but not to really get into the details of it.
The International Space Station is the biggest thing that people have ever built in space ... so far.
And it’s getting bigger.
And it’s getting bigger. How do you feel about getting to play a part in building this …?
Oh, it’s wonderful. It’s great opportunity. I’m very happy to be part of the whole program. NASA’s a good program. It’s wonderful to have a little part here; I love it. Definitely, I've been working at NASA for quite a few years and so it’s just a, it’s wonderful to kind of see this whole thing come to fruition, the whole space station itself, and to be a part of actually putting it together. It’s just a dream come true.
Of course, the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond this space station we’ve been talking about. Tell me about your philosophy about the future of human space exploration.
I definitely am in line with the way we are going. I’d like to see us go back to the moon, set up a lunar base, and get used to actually living in different areas. The station’s a good start, though. People have to realize that we don’t really have the technology or knowledge to go straight to Mars. We have to learn how to do that kind of stuff and get the technology that we need. And station is first teaching us to live in space over a long period of time. Next will be the moon, where we have a little farther away -- it’s like times 10 the distance away -- so we will learn how to have a base there, have people live there, how to do more science. It’s a great stepping-stone, and then we can go on to Mars once we figure all that out, learn, get that technology that we need to have that kind of exploration. I do think it’s mankind's need and goal to explore and it’s great to be a part of that.