Q. This is our interview with STS-118 Commander Scott Kelly. Thanks for joining us.
Image at right: STS-118 Commander Scott Kelly. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Scott Kelly
A. It’s good to be here.
Let’s get right into the mission. How would you describe STS-118 to the layperson?
STS-118 is a space shuttle mission to the International Space Station. It’s what’s considered an assembly mission which means we’re going to bring up a piece of the space station and leave it there and we’re going to connect a small piece of the truss to the station. We’re also going to bring up some supplies for the crew members on board and, and spare parts, and also another component that allows us to keep more external spares on board the space station called the ESP3. At one point it was a crew rotation mission, but the decision was made to fly Clay Anderson, who was previously one of the 118 crew members and is going to be the long-duration crew member after Suni Williams. The decision was made to move him to the previous flight, so we’re no longer a crew rotation flight.
What has to happen for you to consider 118 a success?
To consider this flight a success, I think, certainly we have to get the shuttle to the space station and back safely and make sure all the crew members return safely. After that we need to install the truss element that we’re carrying to the space station. We also need to install ESP3 again, which is the external spare carrier that we’re going to install not during an EVA, but robotically. And then, we need to get the cargo we’re bringing to the space station transferred. And, I think if we do all those things, have four successful spacewalks, bring everyone home safely, I’ll consider the flight a success.
This flight is timelined for three spacewalks originally. And there’s a piece of equipment that, if it works as we expect it to, will extend the mission and enable that fourth spacewalk. Can you tell me about that piece of equipment?
We're going to be the first flight of what’s called the station-to-shuttle power transfer system. It’s also known as SSPTS. That allows the shuttle to use electrical power from the space station. The … space station has solar arrays that produce electricity; the shuttle uses fuel cells that require cryogenic oxygen and hydrogen to produce electricity. But with the SSPTS system, it’s essentially a system of cables and power converts that allows the space shuttle to use space station electricity. And, by doing that, we can extend the duration of our mission. Without SSPTS, we are likely a, going to be an 11-day flight, and assuming that it works, we’ll be able to, to fly a 14-day mission so we, we can add three days to the flight.
So, it’s kind of a long extension cord of sorts.
Yeah, it’s a long extension cord with some power converts to convert the space station voltages to the voltage that the shuttle can use.
Great. You’re also taking SPACEHAB with you. Why is the SPACEHAB module flying on this mission?
The SPACEHAB is flying on this mission because we have a, enough room in the cargo bay to fit it. It allows us to carry more cargo; about 5,000 pounds of supplies and spare parts, science experiments, things like that, to the space station and then bring home an equal amount of cargo, stuff that is no longer needed or, in some cases, actually even garbage back from the station. We can put that in the SPACEHAB.
Part of the reason you have more room in the payload bay is because the truss you’re taking is shorter. Can you talk to me about S5 truss and what capability that gives the station?
The S5 truss is simply a spacer element. It’s small. It allows us to connect S4, the S4 truss solar array segment to the S6 truss element that will be brought up on a later flight, about a year after we fly, on STS-119. So, it’s, you know, really just a piece that doesn’t have any of its own electrical components. It’s just a connecting element that allows you to connect one of the solar array elements to another one that’s going to come up on a later flight.
Let’s talk about the mission a little more specifically. What does it feel like to launch aboard a space shuttle?
It’s very exciting. My first flight was in 1999, STS-103, and I’ve only flown once before. But I’ll certainly never forget the launch. The shuttle weighs 5 million pounds on the launch pad, and it has 7 million pounds of thrust initially. And you know, it seems like you can feel every pound of that thrust. When you’re watching the shuttle launch as a, as a spectator, it kind of looks like you’re lifting off the pad slowly. But when you’re inside, it doesn’t seem very slow. It seems like you’re really getting up and going in a hurry. You know you’re going somewhere; you’re not exactly sure where; but you know you’re not coming back to Florida. It’s quite a wild ride.
What do you need to do to catch up with the space station?
We do a series of rendezvous burns firing engines on board the shuttle to adjust our orbit so we can catch up to the space station (I guess you could call it). And we’ll actually rendezvous about 48 hours after we launch. And the way we do that is by burning engines at different times throughout the first couple of days of the mission until we get closer to the space station. When we get a few thousand feet away, I’ll start flying the shuttle manually to complete the rendezvous.
There are a few tasks before you dock. Can you tell me about the things that you need to do before you actually reach the space station?
Well, the first two days of the flight are, are very, very busy. Once we get on orbit, we have to configure the shuttle from a rocket to a, kind of a spaceship. It takes a lot of work. We have computer networks we have to get set up; photo TV equipment that we use that needs to be set up; we have to get into the SPACEHAB module; we have to reconfigure the whole tunnel system and the docking system that allows us to dock. A lot of that stuff is done on the day we launch. The next day we do inspection for which we use the space shuttle’s robot arm and a boom that is attached to it to inspect the thermal protection system of the shuttle for any damage that may have occurred on ascent. And then on the third day (it’s really about 48 hours after launch though), is rendezvous day. We get up early and we do a series of burning the orbiter maneuvering system engines and reaction control system jets to close in on the space station.
Will you turn the back flip?
Yeah, all flights now are doing what’s called the rendezvous pitch maneuver which we do when we’re approaching the station from below. And when we get to within a range that you can get some, some good pictures of the, of the bottom of the shuttle (between 500 and 1,000 feet away), what we’ll do is using the shuttle’s digital autopilot we’ll command a series of pitch maneuvers that basically allows the shuttle to kind of pitch up and kind of flip around as we’re approaching the station. And the guys on board the station will take pictures that’ll later be analyzed on the ground to kind of further inspect the integrity of the thermal control system on the bottom of the space shuttle.
Can you tell me what you do right before you dock, that last approach and rendezvous? What’s your job during that time as commander?
My job is kind of to be the overall, you know, person responsible for flying the orbiter during the rendezvous. That’s obviously my main task during that specific phase of flight. And as we get within several thousand feet of the station, I’ll actually start flying it manually by looking at some camera views on some monitors, but also looking out the window. We’ll come up from beneath the space station. And inside of 1,000 feet, we’ll do this rendezvous pitch maneuver where the shuttle flips around. And then once that’s complete, we’ll get the vehicle stabilized below the space station, close in a little bit further, and then start a fly-around where I’ll fly the shuttle 90 degrees to what’s called the V-bar (it’s really the velocity vector). So, I’m flying in front of the space station as we both kind of head around the same orbit and then close in from there. And basically you fly the vehicle manually using these camera views and out-the-window views until you get about two inches away, and then you push a button and the autopilot fires a series of firings to kind of complete the last part of the contact to make sure that you have the right contact parameters where you’re actually connecting the two docking systems.
Once you’ve docked and you open the hatch, you’ll get to meet up again with someone you’ve trained with quite a bit and, and the other ISS crew members. Can you tell me what it will be like to meet up with Clay Anderson again?
You know, my first flight, we repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. So, it’s not like we actually went to a specific place, and obviously we didn’t get to see any other, other people. So, I’m kind of excited about that part of the flight, visiting another vehicle and going inside and seeing people that you haven’t seen in a while. For us, it’s somewhat unique in that Clay was really a part of the STS-118 crew until just several weeks ago, about three months before our flight. And then, he was moved up to the previous mission. So, he was trained to do a lot of the mission-specific tasks with us. He’s doing a lot of the robotics operations, and he’s also doing two EVAs. In some ways it’s kind of an advantage in that, when we get there, Clay will have been in space for a couple of months already. He’ll be very comfortable. And although his training won’t be very recent or, you know, as recent as our training, I think that is going to be OK because his experience and his comfort in space will make up for that. So it’ll be great to see him there as well. I think it’ll be a very fun time to get see him and Fyodor and Oleg. We haven’t trained with those guys in a while. They launched in April (I think). So, they, they will have been on board for quite some time by the time we see them.
In the seat that Clay Anderson is not in, you have a new crew member. Can you tell me what Alvin Drew adds to this mission?
Alvin Drew actually adds a lot. You know, there are certain parts of the flight that were a concern. As an example: We have a lot of stuff to transfer, and we don’t have enough time to do it. By adding Al, it’s allowed us to pick up some of that transfer time. So instead of me being concerned that we might not get this done or we’re going to overwork the crew to get it done, it provides me with a little bit more sense of security that, that we’re going to be successful at getting this stuff transferred because we have him to help with it. And there are other examples like that. These missions are very, very complicated. The timeline is very, very full. It’s really a big advantage to us to get this seventh crew member to help offload a lot of the, a lot of the extra work that we put into these timelines. So although he doesn’t have specific, high-profile responsibilities like doing an EVA or the robotics operations, the stuff he’s doing is very, very important to our mission success and I’m very happy to have him on this flight. So far, he’s been doing a great job, and I expect great things from him on orbit.
You have a role related to the, to the spacewalks. Can you tell us about that?
The spacewalks are very complex. Obviously, there are the two guys outside doing the actual tasks in the suits. But you know there are a lot of other people that, that play a role -- not only on board but also on the ground: the engineers and people that trained us; the flight controllers that work in Mission Control that are monitoring what we’re doing and making, in some cases, real-time decisions in how we should proceed. But there are also other crew members onboard that help. Specifically Tracy Caldwell is what’s called the IV crew member for the tasks. She is kind of the choreographer of the spacewalks from inside the space shuttle. She’ll be talking to Dave and Rick and Clay, kind of keeping them on the timeline. You know, they can’t have notes out there and it’s a lot of stuff to remember. So she’s kind of helping them with what they need to do next and keeping track of what they’ve accomplished and working with them if there’s any kind of contingencies. The other part of that job that I’m doing is actually getting them into the suits. The suits are fairly complex pieces of machinery. It’s a fairly complicated process to get someone out of the hatch. It’s much more complicated than just putting on the suit and going outside. It takes many, many hours of preparing the suits and then actually getting the crew members in them, making sure they’re checked out and ready to go. They’re kind of their own little spacecraft. So they have a bunch of life support systems and things like that that need to be checked. My role before the EVA and after the EVA will be what’s called the suit IV, the person that’s kind of responsible for getting these guys in and out of the suits. During the EVA my responsibilities I think are more in trying to maintain the big picture about what’s going on outside, making sure we’re doing things safely and making sure the other things that are going on during the EVAs get done as well. So, it's trying to keep, I think the big picture on the timeline and keep track of everything that’s going on.
Some of your crewmates have been to the space station before. Your twin brother has actually been to the space station twice. Have you gotten any pointers or advice from them about flying to the space station?
Yes, certainly. We have a lot of experience in our office. You can certainly learn things from people that have done some of these things already. Charlie Hobaugh and Rick have already been to the space station. It’s great having them on board. They have certain areas of knowledge that I don’t have because I haven’t been there yet. So it’s great to have some experience on this crew. Dave Williams has flown before, though it wasn’t to the space station. So he brings a certain level of experience. And then and I certainly talk to my brother a lot -- certainly not only about work. But he is a good source of information for me if I have any, any questions that only someone who’s kind of been there and done that could answer.
Will you have any free time on this flight?
We have some off-duty time. I think that is more time to catch up on stuff that you haven’t been able to accomplish and to rest. These timelines are very busy. This is going to be the longest flight to the space station to date. One of my concerns is that because it’s 14 days long, it doesn’t mean we have more time to do the same amount of stuff. You just pack more stuff in there. So certainly fatigue is a concern. So, any off-duty time hopefully we can use that to just kind of maybe rest and kind of recharge our batteries.
What’s been your greatest challenge or reward from working and training with your crewmates for this mission?
I think the greatest challenge in working on one of these flights, at least when we’re in training, is making sure that we get trained to an appropriate level to do the mission. There’s so many different complicated tasks we have to do. So making sure that everyone, including myself, is at the right level of training is certainly I think the most challenging aspect of it.
I’d like to talk a little bit about your path that, that you took to get to this point in your career. You started off as a military aviator, and you still are. What drew you to that?
When I was younger and in high school, college, I had a desire to fly in the military. I chose the Navy because I thought landing on aircraft carriers would be kind of the most challenging type of aviation in high-performance jets, which I wanted to fly. And I was right: Flying around the aircraft carrier, especially at night, is a very challenging piloting task. When I was at the end of my first fleet tour in a fighter squadron, I decided that maybe not more challenging but kind of a different challenge would be being a test pilot. And then, when I was at Pax River as a test pilot, in Maryland where most of the Navy test flying is done, I decided that I’d apply to the space program. I was lucky enough to get an interview and also lucky enough to get accepted.
How old were you when you decided that you wanted to be a pilot?
I think being a pilot for me was a lot like how kids want to be a lot of different things. So, it’s something that I thought about growing up. But, it wasn’t like it was a single-minded goal that I had. The same thing with, with being an astronaut. It’s something that certainly interested me as a kid, but not something that was this life-long, single-minded goal that I had and as a kid never thought I would actually have the opportunity. It’s quite surprising to be here.
And, when did the idea of being an astronaut become tangible to you?
I think being an astronaut became tangible to me when I was working as a test pilot in Pax River. The commanders and pilots of the, of the shuttle are typically military or former military test pilots. So, having had that background kind of made it much more likely that I would be considered for the job. It wasn’t until just a few years before getting accepted that it actually became something that was more real to me than just some kind of abstract goal.
In your military career, did you know other people who had become astronauts?
Yeah, I did, especially in the class that showed up here just a year before us. A lot of the, the pilots come from the Navy Test Center at Patuxent River, Md., or at least they were there in one point in their career -- whether it was test pilot school or working as a test pilot. So I did know a few of the guys that were down here already.
Were they the ones that inspired you to apply to the corps? Or, was there something else?
It wasn’t really a specific person that inspired me. It was more just kind of the concept of flying in space and taking flying to the next most challenging level that inspired me. Certainly the Apollo Program, being a kid during the moon landings and having a memory of that, was always in my mind. I thought it would just be a very challenging and exciting job. And I was right.
Who inspires you to continue in this career? Is it just a love of, of the spaceflight program? Are there particular people that inspire you to continue this?
Well, I think for me it’s more that it’s a very interesting job. It’s very challenging. You get to work with very dedicated people -- not only the people that have the privilege of flying in space, but all the people that train us and the engineers that work on the program, and just everyone involved just has such a love for what they do. It’s kind of contagious. And so I think I get my inspiration from the organization as a whole.
Have you had a chance to meet the ground support personnel that work on this flight or talk to some of the people who help put this flight together?
Yeah, I’ve been assigned to STS-118 since December of 2002. So I’ve had an opportunity to meet a lot of the people here and at the Kennedy Space Center, the guys that work on the vehicle and get it ready for launch. It’s really great to be able to meet them, especially the folks at the Kennedy Space Center that feel like they own the space shuttle and take so much care to do the work and then get it prepared for launch and get it right. It’s really a privilege to go and fly it for them and bring it back and, hopefully, return it to them in good shape.
How do you feel about being part of continuing the human presence in space?
I’m proud to be a part of this organization. I think that’s the way I would answer that question. I think having a permanent human presence in space is important for not only the country but the rest of the world. I think if we’re going to continue as a species eventually, far in our future, we’re going to have to find another place to live. And, this is just a small stepping-stone towards that goal. I think the space station is very important for us to learn to live and work in space -- not only just from a human aspect, but all the equipment we have that operates on the space station 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We need to know how to build and operate that stuff if we’re going to ever venture farther away from this planet, like going to the moon and on to Mars or somewhere else after.
After your crew’s jobs on the spacewalks are done and it’s time to undock and go home, what’s your job and what, what needs to happen before you land?
We will close the hatch between the station and the shuttle the night before we undock, that's our plan. When we wake up the next morning; there are some things we need to do with the tunnel to get it ready to undock. And then through the docking system we command the undocking and some springs will push off the shuttle at a specific rate. The pilot, Charlie Hobaugh, is actually doing the flying during the undocking. He’ll back away to about 600 feet and then he will manually fly the shuttle -- very similar to what we do during the docking when we go from underneath the space station to in front of it. But he’ll fly the shuttle all the way around, probably a full lap (360 degrees). We do that to take photo documentation of the outside of the space station just to make sure that it’s as we expect it to be. And then once we do the 360-degree fly-around, we’ll do another burn that’ll kind of take us above and behind the space station. After we do that, we do a whole other series of inspecting the thermal protection system on the bottom of the shuttle, just like we did on the second day of the flight, we’ll do that a couple of days before coming home. And, we use the shuttle’s robot arm attached to the boom that we carry up in the payload bay, and we again do another whole, almost exactly the same as we did on the second flight day, series of inspections. If we see something during those inspections that we don’t like, there are several things we can do. One is do nothing, if there is damage that’s OK to land with. The other is we could potentially send our EVA crew members out to repair it. Or we could go back to the space station and dock and use that as a safe haven for the crew. After that day we use the next day to get the shuttle back configured from kind of a spaceship to a re-entry vehicle. There’s a lot of work to be done there. We check out the flight control system. We check out the reaction control system jets, make sure they’re all working OK. And then the very next day we come, come back and that’s landing day.
Are you looking forward to sharing your experiences with the public once you’ve returned?
Yeah, certainly I look forward to talking about the mission and trying to relate what it’s like to be a crew member for one of these missions.
What’s your favorite part of spaceflight?
There are a lot of things that are great about having the privilege of flying in space. Certainly the ascent is an unbelievable feeling of energy that is getting the vehicle and you accelerated to 17,500 mph. The microgravity environment is fun and makes certain things easier to do. A lot of other things it actually makes harder to do. Looking out the window is a fantastic experience. But personally, for me, I think the best part about it is working with a really great group of people, both the folks on the crew and the thousands of people that are responsible for making these missions a success. Working with this very dedicated group on something that is really, really complicated …. to me it seems like it’s one of the most complicated things we do as humans is flying people on these, on space shuttles, on these very complicated space station missions. So working hard on something like that, with that kind of goal, and then being successful and the feeling of satisfaction I get from that makes that the best part of being part of this mission for me.
Scott Kelly, commander of STS-118, thank you for talking with us today.