Q. Our interview with Charlie Hobaugh, pilot for the STS-118 mission. Welcome.
Image at right: STS-118 Pilot Charles Hobaugh. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Charles Hobaugh
A. Thank you.
Charlie, how would you describe STS-118 to the lay person?
Well, I’ve been at this probably four years as far as being assigned to STS-118 and I guess I am a lay person and it’s taken four years to learn it an- and get in the fine details but our flight is basically a logistics flight and also assembly flight. We’ll be bringing up a small truss piece that will enable us to continue to grow the power on the station, and then of course it’s the, a logistics flight will be the last flight as far as what’s on the books for the SPACEHAB, and we’ll be doing a lot of transfer to the space station.
What new capabilities will this mission add to the space station?
We’ll be besides adding the transfer aspects of the water and equipment bringing some down mass back. The main thing is building onto the truss so that we can put on S6 in the future. That will allow us to get the European and Japanese modules up and be able to power the whole station from there.
Can you talk about the Station-Shuttle Power Transfer System (SSPTS)?
Yeah, it’s a capability that’s been in development and Endeavour’s the first vehicle that actually has the hardware to be able to do that. Subsequent vehicles are being retrofitted. We’ll have the first opportunity to exercise it. And basically what we’ll be doing is drawing power from the station to power up fuel cells. That should enable us to stay on orbit a little bit longer and, for us, it means an additional EVA. There are actually days of capability gained by taking power from the station. Our planned power draws in the neighborhood of about four kilowatts. The normal that we use is, you know, in the, in the mid-teens, you know, in the 12 to 14 kilowatt region. So it gives a much better on-orbit stay capability by preserving some of our cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen.
You mention SPACEHAB. Why is the SPACEHAB module flying on this mission?
We have the payload capacity to be able to fly SPACEHAB. We have an external stowage platform that we’ll be putting on the station that has some on-orbit change-out components if necessary. One of them is necessary; it’s integrated into one of our EVAs but it’s a stowage platform for basically large boxes. It could potentially need to be changed out. We have the truss piece which is a fairly light, small truss item, and then we have the extra payload capacity to be able to handle a pressurized logistics module which of course is SPACEHAB so, we’ll be taking that up. It’s basically a storage facility or a, a moving van, for taking up and bringing back.
You mentioned the S5 truss. Can you tell us what the S5 truss’ purpose is?
It basically spaces out the section between the S3/S4 and the S6, both of which have large solar arrays on them, so it- it gives them, it basically spaces them out enough so that you can attach the S6 onto S4; it’s just the intermediate step and one of the previous missions has already taken up the opposite side which is P5, and that’s already up on orbit.
Did you learn from watching the installation of P5?
Yes, we did. We watched it intently, of course, to make sure that we understood any challenges they had. We have always been told we’re very close to a mirror image of their flight but there are differences so we need to understand the similarities and also make sure we know the differences between their flight and our flight and then learn from any kind of challenges they had and make sure that we’re ready for that.
Let’s talk about the flight. Can you describe what if feels like to launch aboard a space shuttle?
That’s a real tough one. People always ask me 'were you nervous before you flew?' The biggest concern is what kind of anxiety you have prior to launch. My first flight we had which was STS-104 back in 2001, we had five crew members, four on the flight deck, one on the mid-deck and, out of the four fight deck crew members during the pre-launch count, everyone was just zonked. I mean, we were tired from sleep shift and everything so where you think you really might be really nervous and charged up, as we’re sitting in the orbiter we basically were dozing off at some point just because we’re so tired. It’s a very long count, it’s very relaxing. But then as you get closer to the actual countdown, things pick up. You need to do a lot more actions, kind of like a freight train… everything starts to come closer in the actual moment where you have engines start and then SRB ignition is very exciting and the vehicle just kind of leaps off the pad. You go from sitting and doing nothing to just everything’s in high speed. It was also very exciting on my first launch where we launched into a sunrise so, about midway through our ascent, you know when it was dark, all the sudden we see the sun rising into our forward windows and you’re supposed to be monitoring all the systems and looking for anything going on but you really cheat yourself if you don’t look out the window once in a while. It’s just a very surreal event. You get a- the force of acceleration that, that builds, especially towards the end of your 8½-minute ascent to the point where it, breathing’s a little forcible. You try to lift your arm and it wants to come back down of course. You’re taking acceleration through your chest where you’re usually used to it down through your spine when you’re flying aircraft and pulling Gs. So it’s a very different sensation. Then you go from 3G acceleration to absolutely nothing. You feel like you’re falling forward in your straps from being pushed out of your seat. And then the other thing was the very surreal part, when our mid-deck crew member on my first flight came floating up from the mid-deck. Your arms still strapped in, I look over my shoulder and everything seems in slow motion. It is just a, a really incredible experience but it happens really fast. Basically, 40 percent of your training is done in 8½ minutes and then you get another two weeks of your mission. Much less of your training time is spent really getting ready for the on-orbit phase.
How do you catch up with the space station, once you’ve hit MECO?
It’s all a matter of orbital mechanics. The lower you are, the faster you are in orbit. It’s not speed differential in dramatic terms but it’s enough that you basically phase your orbit. We launch with the station out in front of us and we stay in a lower orbit and catch up over a couple-day period of time. Then we step up our orbit over a series of burns, to slow down our closure up until docking day when everything is in control. The orbital plane is pretty much set on launch, and it’s just a matter of playing our altitude against the station altitude to catch up.
What’s your job during docking?
During docking, I’m working closely with Scott. He’s got to actually do the manual phase, but leading up to that’s when some of our burns and taking care of the navigation system making sure that our- our sensors are telling us accurately where the station is relative to where we think it is, where both state vectors, you know, that are calculated by the ground, or basically tweaked by star tracker onboard radar. We have a laser system that doesn’t actually update our nav system, but gives us a real good presentation. We play them all together and make sure that we have the most up-to-date information possible to accurately compute a series of burns to get us on the correct trajectory. I work with the navigation system predominately once we get that going. I back Scott up on a lot of the burns and then after we get through what’s called our insertion burn Scott goes in the back. I take his place up front, finish out the last series of discreet burns for mid-course corrections and just to get to the point where Scott takes over manually and then he flies it in from that point on. Then I’m kind of the keeper of making sure everything is done in sequence. Tracy backs me up on that; Rick backs me up on that. Scott’s doing the driving so it’s a big team effort to just make sure everybody’s on the right page and we’re not leaving anything out -- that everything’s taken care of and the ground’s not having to intervene and tell us we’ve done something wrong so that’s always the goal.
Once you open the hatch, you’ll get to meet back up with when- a person you’ve been training with for a while, Clay Anderson. Will you be happy to see him?
Absolutely, yeah, Clay’s an awesome crew member and you know, Al Drew’s an awesome crew member also. They’re both great and there’s no bad people you can fly in space with, but we had worked with Clay for a while. He and I worked together pretty closely on a lot of the robotics operations for the station arm and that was always fun. We trained a fair amount together. Now he’ll be launching early, of course, on STS-117. Al has stepped in and done a great job. But it’ll be a lot of the things I trained with Clay with we’ll get to do once we get on-orbit, that we’ll just not have trained as recently as we’d expected and been able to go up together so it should be fun.
What does Al Drew add to this mission?
Al’s just an incredible individual. He’s extremely well organized. He came in late which is not the best for him. But he can walk in and take a completely fresh perspective. Where we may have been doing something for years a certain way, he can kind of look at it from a- from a fresh perspective and maybe give us insight into something that maybe we didn’t think of, or left out.
Soon after docking, you’ll get your hands on the controls of the space station remote manipulator system, or SSRMS. Can you describe what it’s like to operate that system?
I can describe what it’s like to operate the- the simulators. So the first time we get to actually fly the arm I’m sure it’s going to be very exciting. I’m kind of imagining what it’s going to be like. When we go through training, a lot of our training aids are in kind of a virtual reality-type lab, a video system, and much of what we fly with on the station arm is video. We can’t get direct views for the most part and so you’re flying, basically through a video image. What is very striking though is to see a full mock-up, and they have one in Canada. There are different forms of it in different places. We have some here in Houston also. But you look at how immense the arm is and the capabilities it has, and what it can do, and it’s very impressive, yet also kind of daunting at the same time. I’m sure there’ll be some degree of caution when you actually get your hands on the real arm. You need to make sure you’re doing everything right. And so, much of the training that I’ve done up to this point, and continue to do, is just to hammer through everything as detailed as I can, so that there’s no surprises or no differences expected to do certain things. It’s basically like on-orbit when in the pre-launch you’re not supposed to touch anything outside of nine minutes. Inside of nine minutes, things got to be happening fast or you could be the reason for a launch delay so, you basically go from: "You can’t touch anything" to, "you got to go or nobody’s going anywhere," and that’s kind of how I’m going to treat the arm, you know.
One of your crewmates comes to this mission from the Canadian Space Agency. What’s it like to work with Dave Williams?
Canadian Space Agency, U.S. astronaut -- I can’t tell the difference. It’s pretty seamless. Dave’s an awesome guy. He’s a very good, detailed individual. It’s always nice to have a real doctor around. He’s a good source. On-orbit if we have any kind of medical issues, we can always turn to Dave and get a perspective. Usually that’s never required, but it’s just kind of good insurance. When you go somewhere, it’s always nice to have someone you can talk to. But Dave's got a good diverse background. He’s really good in the water. He should do extremely well in the EVA. I’ll be driving him around on some of the EVAs. He’s very easy to work with, just no issues whatsoever, he’s just an awesome individual and I’m excited to fly with him.
You mentioned Col. Drew before. Have the recent crew changes affected your mission tasks, or training?
Not at all.
What’s been your greatest challenge or reward from working and training with this crew for this mission?
That’s a tough one because really, flying in space is really about training. Your mission’s two weeks long. Your training, in our case has been, from assignment to when we fly will probably be close to four years or in that ballpark. So you really have to like the people you’re with, and you have to work well with them and it’s always rewarding. We have a- a great group of individuals that work really well together, enjoy being around each other, and it should be fun for, a very quick two-week mission.
What do you expect to be the greatest challenge on this mission, for you, personally?
Probably my biggest challenge is my main task. The thing that I haven’t done before is- is the robotics operations. I’m really looking forward to that. My previous mission I was more involved with the EVAs from the IV standpoint and I was a backup EV. This time I get to shift gears and- and try something completely different. So that is going to be my biggest challenge. I’m hoping to be as efficient as possible and never slow down the- the spacewalks because of having difficulties moving the arm from position to position.
What do you expect to be the most fun?
It’s all fun. The- the going up, the ascent is a really a kick in the pants but that’s so quick. It’s over (snaps fingers) in a blink of an eye but it is definitely one of the most exciting parts of the flight. I really think the most fun part is just going to be working together with my crewmates and getting the job done, working through any issues that we may have with things that slow us down and trying to power through them with the ground team. We have a great mission control team put together for all of our shifts and the flight directors do a great job of keeping things going and really looking out for our better interests and keeping the operation going, working together as a team, working with all the individuals even though we can’t see them face to face for the majority of flight … it’s really a personal touch knowing that everybody down on the ground is supporting us and helping us get our job done.
Are you going to be doing any looking out the window?
Oh, yes. You’ve really got to force yourself to do it though because you can get buried just doing the daily work and getting the job done. You’re really cheating yourself if you don’t sneak a peek once in a while. It really puts a good perspective on what the flight’s all about. It was very easy to get buried in the details of just getting the job done. There’s a lot to do, but I’m going to make sure I take time out, if not just in the evenings, go back into the service module, look out the bottom-looking windows and just watch Europe go by. It’s a lot of fun.
Are there any particular places that you’ll be looking for?
Anything’s good to watch. On my previous flight, we were phased in such a way that the Earth, the U.S. was pretty much in the dark during our wake time, so you really had to burn the midnight oil to get some- some good looks at the United States and particular places of interest, but anytime I fly over a place I’ve lived that’s where I’m going be looking.
Are you excited to see the changes to the International Space Station, first hand, since you flew before?
Yeah, it should be very exciting to see. I know it’s- it’s grown immensely since I was there first and Rick’s on our flight too. It was even smaller when he went, so yeah, I’m sure it’ll be really, interesting to see the- the changes in the- the growth we’ve had since we were there last.
Tell me how it felt when you found out you were selected to fly in space aboard Endeavour, for this mission?
Oh, it’s always like you win the lottery.
Where were you when you found out?
I can’t even remember now, it was so long ago. But it’s always a- a great feeling. It takes a lot of pressure off. When you’re not assigned to a flight, there’s always that bit of doubt if you’re going to get another chance. The program’s obviously going to come to an end sooner than we wish. But all good things come to an end and we’re evolving to the next generation vehicle which should be another exciting time for us. But it’s always a- a- a very exciting moment when you get the call and you find out you're going to fly. And then you’re just eager to- get going with the work.
You mentioned that you’ve been on this team for a while. But there have been changes. How do you train to be flexible for a flight such as this?
It’s always disappointing when someone’s lost from your flight and you’ve worked with them for a while. But it’s usually for the best for everybody. In most cases, you’re just reshuffling to throw experience in different areas, and nobody’s left out for the wrong reason. It’s just for the benefit of the program which is the right way of doing things. It’s the good thing. For us we’ve always had time to adjust. There’s never been an issue with changing personnel and the changes that we’ve had have really been very seamless. We’ve just been able to work them in. They come in very excited about being on the mission, and it goes very well. So, we’ve never had- even though we’ve had a-, a series of changes over time it’s never been an issue, we’ve never had a problem, we’ve never had anything come up that we couldn’t just go right from one thing to the next and make it work.
It sounds like your crew’s been changing to be very flexible, on the flight. Now, in doing the fourth EVA, if SSPTS works, and you have that fourth EVA, it’s kind of a “grab bag” of tasks. How do you train to be flexible during your mission timeline? Is there a basic set of skills?
Yeah, there is. And, quite honestly, you know, we publish the first few days of the mission, and we have summary timelines for what we expect for the rest of the mission, but, quite honestly, we’re ready to take any changes that come on. Everything is basically a subset of things we expect and if it’s something completely different, usually it’s so detailed that there’s a challenge in thinking of what it is you’re going to do. But usually it’s so well laid out that it’s not a- a problem trying to make it work.
Has your military background helped you train for this flight?
I’ve always extracted a lot from being in the military. I think it’s an awesome way to get a start. I’ve been in for over 23 years and I haven’t found a reason to get out yet. The main [thing] the military teaches you is really to try to work effectively with a team. I think the Marine Corps is probably one of the best teams out there and prepares individuals very well. It's been an awesome start for me. I think it’s an awesome start for anybody. The military is all about not you as an individual but what you can do collectively as a group that really matters.
Can you tell me a little bit about your early career? What inspired you to fly? Where did this dream start?
Flying has always been a dream of mine. My dad took me flying in Alaska when we lived in Juneau when I was a- a young kid, up through the glaciers and just in a small airplane. From that point on, I wanted to fly. Then when I was growing up, I remember going to air shows and watching demonstration teams and in particular, watching a Harrier demonstration when I lived in Cleveland. That really inspired me to want to be a Harrier pilot and that’s what I ended up, luckily getting into, and it turns out the guy that was flying the demo in Cleveland was my first C.O. Small world.
Was there a particular person that- that steered you towards this career.
No one really steered me in any way. I think there was always just something that I got interested in as a kid, and I just hoped to get to at one point. I remember reading a book when I was in elementary school. It’s called “Aerospace Pilot.” I don’t remember who wrote it. I just remember it being about a T-38 flight. Probably five or 10 years ago, I remembered seeing this book -- it’s really old -- and reading parts of it and now it’s just, incredibly corny, but at the time it was a- an inspiration to me -- just one more thing about loving aircraft, loving the military, loving ships, subs, aircraft wanting to be around all of it.
Was there a particular point where the idea of becoming an astronaut became tangible to you?
You mean when I was selected. (laughs)
Not until then?
Being an astronaut’s kind of a pie-in-the-sky thought. Now that I’ve been one for quite a while, I tend to almost take it for granted, which is really kind of sad. But it’s an incredible job. It’s something that I remember when I was on the outside looking in, thinking there’s no way I’d ever get there. But now that I’m here, I don’t feel any different, I still feel like I’m the same person I was. You don’t go through this evolution. You don’t think of the job of being an astronaut, you just think of your job. It’s my job. It’s my job to go fly in space. It’s- it’s just a great job to have.
How did you get to this point? Your career started in the military?
Yeah, it started with the Naval Academy. I selected in the Marine Corps and went into basic school. The biggest challenge you have to get to flight school is making sure you pass the physical that you don’t wash out of flight school, at worst and then, from that point on making sure your grades are good through flying. Basically every flight you do is graded then your selection for “props, jets, helos”, is dependent on your grades. Then once you get into the props, jets or helo pipeline, then your grades matter for what aircraft you get after that. And then of course it’s always needs of the service, which are No. 1, so everything’s kind of a little bit of a gamble. You never know where you’re going to shake out, no matter how well you do. Sometimes you’re not going to be able to get exactly what you want. But for the most part it seems like if you perform well, you work hard, you study, prepare and do well, then you basically get close to what you want. And that’s kind of how I got through jets, through Harriers, then into test pilot school, and then applied to become an astronaut.
And you’re still studying…
Still studying, never stop studying, never stop learning. It’s a continual process. If anything I feel like I should go back to have some college courses and relearn some of the things that I’ve forgotten. But, the things I’m learning now … I know what I need to know. But there’s always a quest for knowledge, so that- that never stops.
How important is it to instill that thirst for knowledge in young people?
I haven’t seen many young people that don’t have a thirst for knowledge; it may be directed in a way that you recognize as in a book, studying math or studying science. They may be working. You know, if they’re playing a little bit of Nintendo, that doesn’t hurt either because a lot of our aircraft are flown with buttons, switches, cur sors that you need to have good hand/eye coordination. So, you've got to balance it all. You've got to- you've got to study hard academically, you have to play hard, athletically too. You need to rest. Whatever your interests lie in, as long as you put forth 110 percent you’re going to do well. Find the thing you like and go for it.
Do you enjoy the hands-on parts of your training?
I do. That’s probably the most fun part, the real operational things you get to do, working with equipment. It’s not always fun sitting in a classroom, but if that classroom leads to something that’s practical and tangible, that you get to work with hands-on, then it’s, then it’s just much more exciting.
What inspires you to continue in this career? Is it- it’s not just spaceflight, is it?
Spaceflight is a huge part of it. It's an exciting job to have. You get to work with some very smart individuals. Everybody’s motivated for the right rea sons. Everybody’s excited about their job; everybody’s interested in going to work in the morning and that makes it fun. If you don’t like what you do you’re in the wrong business. In the space business, it seems like the people that are in it are very passionate about their jobs and you never have a really bad day in the space program. The only bad day you have is when you get people that are passionate about their job but they’re on different ends of the spectrum and you just have to find a happy medium for them. But there’s never the unmotivated per son that you’re dealing with. That’s really just not an issue in our job.
And you’ve worked in- in ground support yourself, as CAPCOM?
What are your thoughts about the job the ground support personnel do? You’ve had a chance to meet a lot of people, I suppose.
Oh yeah. That’s one of the best jobs going. If I couldn’t be flying in space, I’d want to be on the ground supporting people in space, and actually controlling the spacecraft and deciding the next day’s activities and planning out the events. Whether you’re working from the program side and determining the destiny of spaceflight or you’re doing the real-time ops there’s nothing that doesn’t have the rewards of a job. You know, it’s all very exciting.
As a mission to the space station STS-118 is a stepping stone towards the Constellation program. How important are long-duration flights, near Earth, when it comes to exploring the moon, and other planets?
I think it’s just very important to understand the environment you work in, and understand some of the challenges that we have. The- the station’s been an incredible platform for researching some of the long-duration type issues. Certainly, the moon is kind of an intermediary. But when we start talking Mars transit times and then getting into the Mars environment, then back to Earth, it’s an incredibly important thing to understand and know ahead of time what kind of counter-measures you’re going to need, how you’re going to feel, how you’re going to be able to operate, what kind of challenges you’re going to, going to have. So long-duration in low-Earth orbit kind of gives you a- a controlled environment -- a handle in that. You won’t have, when you go on a Mars mission, the ability to just come back in a matter of a day. You’re going- to need to be able to survive on your own and do the right thing.
Thank you for talking with us today. This has been our interview with Charlie Hobaugh, pilot of STS-118. Thanks for coming.