Q: We are talking with Mission Specialist 5, Al Drew, flying on the STS-118 space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. Thank you for coming.
Image at right: STS-118 Mission Specialist Alvin Drew Jr. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Alvin Drew Jr.
A: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.
Can you describe to us how it felt when you found out you were selected to fly in space aboard Endeavour?
Complete shock. You understand that some of this crew has been assigned to this mission since 2002, from way back when, and so I’ve known about the 118 mission for years and years and known that there’ve been a few minor adjustments here and there. I never envisioned anybody in my class, much less me, would be on that mission. In fact I was working hard to become a shuttle orbit Capcom. I’d been working the station and I was hoping to be qualified in time to work the 118 mission, in Mission Control this summer. In fact I’d just done my first check out in Mission Control when I got my phone call from the chief of the astronaut office welcoming me to the crew.
So you’ve worked with some of these crewmembers before.
And you’re no stranger to the ISS; can you talk about some of your work?
I spent most of my time in the astronaut corps, since I finished up ASCAN training in early 2002, working on space station related items. My first job was working on the Columbus module and the crew interfaces for it. I’ve also just wrapped up a job where I was working space station training payloads, and as lead Capcom on the Expedition 14 mission for the office. I've just been all over. My fingerprints are all over on parts of space station at this point.
Do you feel any additional pressure having been assigned to this flight so late in the training flow?
I feel the pressure, but I think it’s just a sense of rush. Most of the veteran astronauts have told me I have plenty of time to get ready for the jobs I have onboard the shuttle mission, and the pace is, while it’s been full, it hasn’t been over whelming. I was like, "Is it going to ramp up at some point?" It’s going to get worse, but is it? The schedulers tell me this is about what I can expect up until about launch time. It just seems like there’s a lot to learn between now and then.
While training for a mission such as this, you’re bound to learn something new. In addition to your assigned duties, what have you learned from the unique experience of training as an astronaut?
Main thing is that a lot of the technical parts of the job which we’ve been training for for years are just really a part of what you do onboard the space shuttle. A lot of the things, like just day-to-day living, how to take care of yourself, is a thing that we don’t practice in the simulators because you don’t live in the simulators for two consecutive weeks. That part has been, you know, as the veteran astronauts have come up to me and said, ‘Here are things you want to think about while you’re in space. Here are things to think about while you’re going to space.” Those things that you don’t ever train or simulate and so that’s all been a big education for me.
What’s been your greatest challenge or reward from working and training with your crewmates for this mission?
For me the biggest challenge is catching up. These folks, because their mission's been delayed, are through with much of their training and from my perspective they are working bankers hours while I’m pedaling furiously to catch up. The fact that they are just so fluent and conversant with all the issues that go on with the mission … they’re second nature to them while there’s some of those things that are still novel to me and I’m still catching on. It’s been kind of frustrating to me because I’d like to be able to be as proficient as they are.
Have the recent crew changes affected the rest of the team? Did they just, "go with the flow”?
Changes are constant in the office, so it’s not like it’s a big shake up. We learn to roll with these things continuously.
Not only did the crew change, but there are changes that may happen on the mission depending on whether the Station-to-Shuttle Power Transfer System works. We expect it to, but … How’s your training been affected by the fluid schedule or the fluid tasks that may happen on the flight?
Well, we always train for the most conservative or worst case, so we plan on the fact that the mission may go shorter than we expect if the power transfer cable doesn’t work. So if it does work and we don’t do things like late inspection that’s just gravy, that’s extra time we have to get our job done. As you know, most missions are very heavily subscribed and there’s not a lot of room for slippage, so, if for some reason everything does work, OK, the, the power transfer cable which I think is a huge revolutionary capability for the shuttle does work on its first try out, that’d give us a lot of time to catch up on the things that we probably slipped up on somewhere along the timeline.
You mentioned inspections. How important is it to do on orbit inspections of the shuttle while it’s flying?
I think until we’re comfortable with the tank and how it acts during ascent, it’s going to be an important part of verifying that the fixes that we’ve made have actually taken and work as we expected them to. At some point, I expect that we’ll be comfortable enough with the fixes that we’ve made, we’ve got confidence just from a, wealth of data from doing these inspections in order to eventually forego them to some degree.
I’d like to find out more about how you got here. Can you trace the path that it took you to get to this point in your career? You’re a military pilot.
A military pilot and it’s a path here has probably had a few twists and turns along the way. It hasn’t been a straight-line shot to the astronaut corps. I came out of the Air Force Academy in 1984, and went off to helicopter pilot training in the Air Force, not the, the normal way to get to the astronaut corps. I can only think of one other person who’s done that in the history of the astronaut corps from there. I did combat rescue and then flew special operations missions in helicopters, H3s and Blackhawks. I got bit by the test flying bug while I was there. We were trying out new hardware on the H60s that I was flying and so I put in my application to test pilot school back in the early '90s and, much to my surprise I got accepted. The Air Force doesn’t have testing strictly for helicopters. They don’t buy very many helicopters or test them, so I spent a year going through jet pilot training and then went to the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School. I spent four years working at Edwards Air Force Base just test flying whatever came down on the docket that particular day, and that was just -- you talk about hog heaven, just getting to go out and just go strap on something new and try it out and see what happens. From there, I went to work on staff at Air Combat Command in the Air Force, mainly just going out and putting together requirements for new aircraft, much like we’re doing for CEV right now. From there I decided, I thought that my resume was as competitive as it ever would be for becoming an astronaut, not that I thought it was very competitive. But if I was going to apply that was the time to do it. And so in 1999 I put an application in through the Air Force to NASA and from there joined the class of 2000.
Was there a particular person who inspired you to become an astronaut?
I can’t think of any one person. There’s a bunch different people who kind of gave me boosters along the way, but really the first people I remember doing it were the Apollo 7 crew -- looking at that going, "Boy, that looks like fun". I was all of 6 years old at the time and to find out that people got paid for doing that. It didn’t look like work … Years later I was still bitten by the aviation bug, I wanted to be an aerospace engineer and possibly fly airplanes if I could. My freshman year, when I was just starting at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I had one of my physics professors explain to me, it was almost prophetic, he just mapped out the way to get to the astronaut corps. He said graduate from the Air Force Academy with a technical degree, go to pilot training, become a halfway decent pilot and then try to become a test pilot. At that point, this was 1980, a majority of our astronauts were test pilot school graduates and he felt that was the best way to get there. It just kind of made my hair stand on end and really inspired me to go and do that. It certainly gave me the oompf to go study through four years at the Air Force Academy. Once again, when I was at test pilot school, watching a number of people I knew who were applying and getting into the astronaut corps, certainly it seemed very realistic. It was a realistic goal again.
After all your pilot training and study, you’re studying now to be a mission specialist for your first flight.
Did you ever expect that?
Not while I was coming up as a pilot, no. I never thought I’d have a chance to fly at this end of the spectrum. Helicopters fly low and slow, you know, bugs on the windscreen. To think I’d be trained to fly in orbit just seems beyond what was conscionable at the time.
Are you looking forward to be able to, to watch the flight, be onboard the flight? Are you going to be thinking about the flight from a pilot’s perspective? What is it going to be like to fly this shuttle as a pilot one day, or are you concentrating solely on your mission specialist tasks?
I may look back on it some day and think about the flying part of it as a pilot, but for at least the two weeks I’m going to be on orbit, that’s going to be very much focused on what’s right there in front of me -- probably not much time smelling the roses or considering other perspectives. It’s a busy mission and I just want to make sure that the parts I’m doing, I’m getting done correctly.
What advice could you give to someone who’s considering becoming an astronaut? You said you took an unconventional path.
Yeah. I’d say it was an unconventional path, but not one I think I’d change. The advice I give everybody who asks me about that is, “Do something you love doing”. Never ever count on becoming an astronaut. It’s more than just being good in what you do. There’s a strong element of luck involved and so you can never, even if you’re the best at what you do, or you do every thing right to become an astronaut, there’s probably still a good chance you won’t. So typically the way you get to the point where you’re good enough to compete is by having done something you enjoy doing. You have a passion for it and you’ve excelled at it. And so that’s how you get to be able to apply to become an astronaut. The second part of that is that if you don’t become an astronaut, you’re now stuck in a job that you love anyway. So that’s always my advice is you know. If you want to be a poet, go be a poet, if then that works out for you.
What are your thoughts regarding how NASA and the education community has worked together to, to inspire this next generation of explorers? Is exploration important?
Exploration is hugely important. We’ve always been a people who’ve explored. Whether it’s exploring the Earth or exploring the moon, we’ve always had to go out and push the boundaries. The fact of the matter is, the Earth has a finite set of resources and we are potentially an infinitely large population of people, and if we’re going to not fight over those resources, we need to expand the pot. There’s a whole solar system full of Earth-sized or bigger bodies out there, most of them without ecosystems that are delicate or need to be protected. So going out and open face mining the moon isn’t going to do any horrible things to our environment. Exploration’s hugely important and the people that are going to do the exploring are currently in school. We need to get that across to them right now, that there is an important mission out there waiting for them when they turn their tassels and graduate from college or graduate school. I think if they understand that, it’s enough to inspire them. I know the reason that I’m here is because I watched people land on the moon. And so we need to go out there and do things that inspire people who are in school right now to pursue those types of endeavors.
Let’s talk about the mission a little more specifically. What has to happen for you to consider STS-118 a success?
First, to meet our major goals. And of course the first thing we’re trying to do is install the S5 Truss segment up there and we’ll have to get that out of the payload bay. We’ve also got a control moment gyro, a sick one to bring home, and of course a new one to replace that one with. That’s a big deal. We’ve also got some MISSE experiment pallets to deploy up on the truss. So getting those things out of the payload bay that we are spending a lot of time and effort to get up to orbit would be something that makes us successful. We’ve also got a job there resupplying the space station and keeping it in good working order. We’ve got a whole Spacehab full of resupplying goodies and things that we need to transfer over to the space station. Some of the things, I’m sure, they’re looking forward to seeing themselves. And of course the big thing the shuttle brings to the program is its down mass, bringing things back down from a space station that can potentially be very overcrowded. So it's not just offloading the things that need to be brought up there, but getting the things back on to the shuttle that need to be brought back down to Earth in one piece.
You mentioned Spacehab. Can you tell us what Spacehab is and why it’s flying on this mission?
Sure. Spacehab started its life as a laboratory. Back before there was an International Space Station we needed a big area in which we could conduct experiments. Spacehab sits out in the shuttle payload bay and it’s got two different sizes, a regular Spacehab and a double Spacehab and it’s just the amount of room you have from front to back. It’s got power and it’s got resources for supporting science experiments, and also an observation window. So before there was the International Space Station we had the Spacehab doing that particular job. Right now we’re using it as a container. We have the MPLMs, which we use to bring up things normally, but for weight and center of gravity purposes we’re bringing up this time, there’s really no room for that MPLM. So we pressed the Spacehab into a second life as a container for bringing up all the things that we need to resupply the space station with and also to bring down the things that we need to return to Earth.
What type of things are you taking up and bringing down?
Like I said, we’re bringing up parts of the boom sensor system, that’s going up there, as well, it’s going to be important for future inspections of the shuttle. Of course, we always bring up water, and that seems to be one of the big limiting consumable resources on board the station. The shuttle is a huge supplier of water to the space station. And we’ll bring up all the various and sundry things that, that run out like food and paper and, and other things like that.
Your mission is an 11 day mission scheduled, but there’s a good chance that it will be extended because a certain piece of equipment that you’re taking up, or a certain capability that the shuttle Endeavour’s been equipped with. Can you tell us about that?
The Station-Shuttle Power Transfer System, or by its more pedestrian acronym, SSPTS, is a way for the shuttle to use the solar energy that the space station collects to power itself. Things that limit a shuttle mission are the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen we use to power the fuel cells. There’s no way to replenish that, so we take off with as much energy as the shuttle’s going to have when it leaves the pad. Once that runs out, then the shuttle has to come back to Earth. There’s no place to tank up on orbit. By having this power transfer system, we have a means of tapping into the space station’s power, which is infinitely renewable from those big quarter-acre solar arrays. From that we can extend the life of the shuttle on orbit to do other things. Of course that oxygen we use to breathe as well, so eventually we will run out of that. But it gives us extra time to go do the job on the space station. As I said, those missions are very heavily subscribed so every extra day is a great benefit.
And this is a capability that’s planned for other shuttles?
Yes, I believe, two of the three shuttles right now have that capability. I’m not sure which one doesn’t. I think Atlantis? Well 117 missions will not have that but the 118 mission of course does. And with that, it just buys us time for transfer. It also buys us time if there’s a problem with the shuttle on ascent, we have the ability to extend the time while we go look it over, to keep the shuttle alive while we try and resolve the problem.
Let’s talk about changes that may happen on the mission and how you train to adapt to changing mission tasks. The SSPTS system may add time to your mission, which allows an extra EVA. Do you train to be more flexible than astronauts did in the old days, or is this a change in paradigm for spacewalks and for NASA missions in the future?
The paradigm’s been evolving at least since I’ve been here. When I first showed up, the spacewalks were very tightly choreographed, very tightly scripted so you trained to a specific task. What’s happened since I started doing the training was that we train just generic skills. For a mission, they still go through and rehearse the task, but if you wind up off of the script for some reason, you still have a huge bag of tools that you just put together as you need to, to go and train. So, if we do have the chance to do get ahead EVAs out there toward the end of the mission, it’s simply a matter of, of doing things we’ve already done. We all know how to translate, how to drive bolts, how to move the big orbital replacement units that are out there on space station regardless of whether or not it’s something that we’ve scripted. What we lose really is just efficiency. We can always do these things safely, because we’ve trained to do them.
What are your thoughts about the job that ground support personnel does, from your trainers, to shuttle processing, to mission control?
Ground support is essential. It’s the big invisible part of the mission. Talk about the tip of the iceberg. The visible part is what you see and maybe the Capcom or the astronauts on orbit. And there’s just a huge, huge cast of folks out there who are behind the camera. You have Mission Control room and behind them are other control rooms of people in their various disciplines. You’ve got the trainers. You’ve got the engineers. You’ve got mission planners. The list just goes on and on. Every one of those people burns a lot of midnight oil and they’re all essential to getting the job done. I see myself more as a beneficiary of their good work as opposed to leading that.
What are your thoughts about seeing the International Space Station become the reality that was initially envisioned? What do you think the station means to our world now and to future generations?
Space station is one of the great engineering projects that we’ve undertaken, the largest structure we’ve ever put in space. What that means, because it’s not something that’s going to last forever, you know, 10,000 years from now you’re not going to go visit the International Space Station, the first great structure. But what we’ll get from it is the ability to build large complex structures in space for other things. If we’re going to go out to Mars or even beyond Mars to the outer reaches of the solar system, they’re going to require large complex space structures. You’ve got to start some place. We started with long-duration vehicles years ago, the Russians, with Salyut and we with Skylab vehicles. They may have been the Wright Flyers, but you needed to make the next generation of fabric plane, you know, biplanes to get there. I see us at about that spot where we’ve done the Wright flyer part, we’ve got these ”Sopwith Camels” up there in space now, but the way you learn to build the high flying jet air craft is from that point. And so this is one of our first big steps out toward that goal. This is one of the, the milestones, so we won’t have much to show for it in 20 years, other than just the knowledge that we gained from building it.
And that knowledge is crucial.
That knowledge is vital; it’s a vital stepping-stone for us to getting out, away from Earth and the moon.
How important is it for young people to be interested in exploration and to acquire the skills that it will take for us to explore the universe farther?
Interest from people in school right now and young people is absolutely vital. If you have a generation of people turn their back on exploration, it just dies. It’s a lifeblood, having new people coming up with new ideas and new innovations. We’ve seen examples in history where entire nations have turned away from exploration and it’s cost them dearly. So bringing folks on to carry on this mission is vital and is a big part of what NASA does because if we’re going to have things like a Mars mission, or continue to explore the solar system, like I said, the people who are going to do that are, are in fifth grade or in tenth grade right now. They’re certainly not me. I’m going to be old and forgetful by the time that happens.
We touched on some of the tasks during the mission. What do you expect will be your favorite thing while you’re flying on this mission?
Oh man, that’s a tough question. There are so many good things I’m looking forward to out there, from the ascent to my first sighting of the space station as we do the rendezvous, to the docking, to actually getting onboard the space station. To just meeting the timeline. At the end of the day knowing that we’ve gotten a good job done and there are more good things to do. To having maybe a few relaxing hours on orbit after you’ve undocked before it’s busy getting ready for re-entry and then of course the exciting ride back to Earth. Those are all great things, and I’d be hard pressed to tell you which one of those things I’d pick over the others.
If you could summarize your job duties during this mission, can you tell me what you’ll be doing?
I’m the supporting cast for this mission. There’s people out there doing EVAs, there’s people out there doing robotic arm operations, and all those things need support from the rest of the crew. Whether it’s photo and television support or making sure the computer cables and LAN supports work OK, or that the supplies that we’ve had packed up in the Spacehab get out and deployed to the right spot. That’s what I’m doing. It’s not a very glamorous role, but it’s something I’m absolutely very happy to be doing, to make sure that those things when they go, that it's all transparent to them. That when they needed that valsalva device to put in the helmet, that it was in the right spot at the right time.
What part of your background do you expect to draw on the most during this flight?
Oddly enough, what I expect to draw on the most to help me the most in this flight was my times of being deployed in the military. Often as not we were sitting in things like GP medium tents in some third world country for a long period of time with limited resources and in close with people who were fairly pressed and stressed out over having lots of things to do. And you learn how to behave in a certain way that you all work and cooperate together. You learn the value of teamwork and you also learn to think “small footprint”, because you don’t have a lot of space to work in. You just kind of learn to be very self-sufficient and to look out for the people around you and while keeping a strong mission focus. I didn’t see the benefit at the time, but looking back that was probably one of the most valuable educations I got.
When it comes down to working with your crewmates and your team that you’re working with, what’s it been like training with this team?
It’s been delightful working with this team. The crew’s been fantastic. I couldn’t have picked a better crew if I got to hand select from the astronaut corps. The whole team that’s been working on the 13a.1 mission has been fantastic to work with. They're all very professional, and they all seem very happy to have me aboard. They’ve been extremely good trying to get me up to speed in time for launch.