|Preflight Interview: Dave Williams||
Q. This is our interview with STS-118 Mission Specialist 3 Dave Williams. Thanks for coming.
Image at right: STS-118 Mission Specialist Dave Williams. Photo Credit: NASA
A. All right.
Let’s get right into it. How would you describe STS-118 to the layperson?
STS-118 is going to be a really exciting mission. There’s three main objectives for the mission. The first one is: We’re going to be taking up a section of the space station, called S5 -- it’s one of the truss elements -- and we’re going to be lifting it out of the payload bay of the space shuttle and installing it using the robotic arm in the shuttle, handing it off to the space station, then putting it out on the starboard side to enable us to put more solar panels out to provide power for the space station. In addition to that, we’re also going to be doing a number of spacewalks, and helping to continue building the structure of the space station. But, the second main objective is to take a number of cargo items up to the space station and resupply the space station. Of course, when you’re living and working in space in this closed environment, you go through a lot of consumables; we rely on other spacecraft to bring those consumables up. And, the third objective of the spaceflight, which is really exciting, is the first flight of the educator astronaut. Barbara Morgan will be flying with us as a mission specialist educator astronaut, trying to captivate the imagination of the youth of America, looking at that next generation of space exploration, what we’re going to need in terms of technology, to live and work on the surface of the moon or send humans to Mars.
What has to happen for you to consider STS-118 a success?
Well, there’s a number of different aspects for STS-118. For me personally, as one of the main spacewalkers for the flight, I think I’ll consider it a success when I’ve gone through the three spacewalks that I’ve scheduled to do and we’ve accomplished all those different objectives. But, I’m also really looking forward to being able to do various experiments in space, educational activities in space, to share that with kids and then come back after the mission and talk to them about the things that we learn in space, captivate their ideas about what they can then learn from space to go forward for the future.
What new capabilities will this mission add to the space station?
Technically, this mission is going to add the capability to provide more power to the space station. And, we have large solar arrays that capture power and create the electricity that we need to power the space station. But, to expand the structure of the space station, all the different laboratories and modules, we need more power. To be able to have more power, we have to have more solar arrays; we have to have a place to put them. So, extending that central truss segment out and attaching those solar arrays will be critical for the future of the space station.
Speaking of power, there’s a, a new capability that the space shuttle is taking this time. Can you talk to me about the station-shuttle power transfer system? What is it, and what will it mean for future station assembly flights?
Well, one of the challenges that we face bringing the shuttle to the space station is using up what we call the “cryo” on the space shuttle to produce electricity for the space shuttle itself. Wouldn’t it be a great idea, when the shuttle docks, to use the power generated by the space station, captured by those solar arrays? So, to do that, we actually have a station-to-shuttle power transfer cable that we’re going to be using for this mission for the first time. That will allow us to keep the space shuttle docked to the space station for longer periods of time and certainly expand significantly our capability to resupply the station, to use the station as a research technology development pro- platform, and then also to build the space station.
If the station-shuttle power transfer system works as expected, your mission duration will be extended. Even the length of your flight is dependent on how things play out on orbit, and you’ve had crew members change in the training for this flight. How do you train to be more flexible and adapt to mission tasks that may change while you’re flying?
You know, flexibility is one of the key elements to being assigned and working as an astronaut. For this mission in particular, we’ve had changes in our crew; we’ve had changes in the objectives for the spacewalks that we’re going to be doing on board the space station; and, in fact, our mission duration may change if the station-to-shuttle power transfer cable doesn’t work and we have to shorten our mission duration. So, we have trained all these different scenarios; and, as we go forward preparing for a mission, we learn that flexibility is one of the critical elements in enabling mission success.
That’s not just the key to success for this mission. It’s also the key to success for future missions. Can you talk to me about how this mission is a stepping stone towards the Constellation Program?
Well, I think what’s really exciting about the space station program is the station itself is not only a research platform; it’s a technology development platform. Really what we’re doing is using this capability for exploration, enabling research and technology development, helping us to return to the moon. So, as we go forward and we look at the station, we can envision the number of challenges that we faced in building the station that we have to answer for the station that can also help us on the moon. Things like inventory management, trash management, re-supplying food, all these issues that we face for the space station are similar issues that we’re going to face on the moon, and we can develop new technologies for habitability, living and working in space, test them out on the space station, and then take those technologies and apply them to lunar exploration.
So, would you say that long-duration flights near Earth are important to when it comes to exploring the moon and other planets?
Well, I think what’s really exciting now is we, over the last 40 years of space exploration, we’ve seen the human space program go to low Earth orbit, a very exciting Apollo Program in the late ’60s where we sent humans to the moon and brought them back, followed by the evolution of keeping humans in space longer and expanding the amount of work that we can do in space. The research we do in space now is much more complex and the technology we have much more complex, and we will use that to now once again leave low Earth orbit, send humans back to the moon, and ultimately send humans farther and keep them working longer in space by sending humans to Mars.
Can you tell me about what inspired you, as a child, to become an explorer?
When I was growing up in Canada, I remember a…around six, seven years of age watching the original Mercury astronauts on television. And, of course, in those days, you know, having a TV was just something really incredible in itself, and a little black-and-white image, and you’d watch the amazing flights of the original astronauts, small little capsule, short duration missions, but seeing images of the Earth for the first time from space, I thought this was absolutely incredible. And, I think that was what really captured the desire in me to become an explorer. And, in those days, Canada was the third nation in the world to send satellites into space, but we didn’t have any human spaceflight program. So, I thought, “Well, there’s no opportunity for me as a young boy growing up in Canada to fly in space.” So, I thought if I couldn’t explore space, I’d explore the other final frontier: the underwater environment. And, I learned to scuba dive at age 13; and, ironically, I had a chance to live and work in space before I ever had a chance to live and work aboard an undersea research habitat.
But, you did work on an undersea research habitat. Can you tell me about that?
Well, that’s another exciting part of the space program, living and working underwater. We use that as an analog to help astronauts train and prepare to go on board the International Space Station, but we also use it as a testbed to develop technologies, test these technologies before we send them into space. The program that we have at NASA is called NEEMO, and it’s a collaborative program between NASA and NOAA, two major government agencies working together, and we send crew members down to the Aquarius undersea research habitat in Key Largo, Fla., for seven-day missions, 10-day missions, and, most recently, I was very lucky to be commander of NEEMO 9, which was an 18-day mission.
The NEEMO mission is also an example of learning to, to live without near-term access to supplies and medical care, things like that. Is that the reason you were interested in NEEMO, because your background is as a physician, as a medical doctor?
NEEMO is a great testbed to allow us to assess various technologies. And, one of the great technologies we can access there is remote medical care. How do you deliver health care in a totally isolated environment? And, of course, the answer to that is using what we call “tele-health,” being able to use high-speed telecommunications technology, whether it’s satellite technology or whether it’s fiber-optic cabling, to enable physicians to communicate with either other physicians, other health-care providers, or, in many cases, laypersons to deliver health care in remote, isolated environments.
What do you look forward to the most on this flight?
Well, there’s a number of different things that I’m going to look forward to on this flight. Probably one of the most important is just simply getting back to space, you know, the incredible 8½-minute ride getting out into space, the shaking that you get in the first stage of flight with the solid rocket boosters and then six more minutes of flight until you’re out floating around in microgravity. But then, the view is absolutely spectacular, being able to look out at the planet and recognizing that the planet is actually quite small, depending upon the perspective that you look at it from. And, orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes is absolutely spectacular. But, while we’re out in space, not only do we have the incredible beauty of the Earth to look at; we have the excitement of the challenging technical objectives for the mission. These missions are not easy. The robotics that we’re doing now is some of the most complex robotics that is being seen in space. The spacewalks that we’re doing have a number of challenging objectives and take us way out to the extreme limits of the space station where we’re working essentially looking out into free space. So, it’s going to be a very exciting mission for me.
Let’s talk about the mission a little more specifically. After you’ve launched and you’re, you’re nearing the space station, what’s your job during docking?
Docking is a really busy time for the whole shuttle crew. For me specifically, I’m going to be up on the flight deck using what we call a hand-held laser device. This is essentially the same type of laser you might see a police officer using to detect the speed of cars that are driving by. My job is to use this hand-held laser to bounce it off the space station to find out how far we are away from the space station, and to look at how quickly we’re closing with the space station. Of course, we have very strict limits on closure rates and things, and we have a number of sophisticated sensors on board the space station that also get the same information, but I’m there to provide yet another source of information in case we have problems with our other sensors.
And you mentioned that the shuttle will be taking a lot of materials and transferring things from the shuttle to the station. What types of things are you transferring from the shuttle to the station on this mission?
Well, on this flight, we’re very fortunate to have the SPACEHAB in the payload bay of the space shuttle. The SPACEHAB has been used as a research laboratory in the past. For this flight, it’s essentially used as a cargo vehicle. It is packed to the gills with resupply items for the space station, ranging from specific pieces of hardware that we need to bring up to the space station to either replace hardware that’s having a problem right now or to provide backup hardware for the future. We have spacewalking equipment that we’re going to be bringing up and leaving on board the space station as well. There’s various experiments that we’re going to be taking up to the space station. So, all of this equipment is there to resupply the station. Right now, this is slated as the last flight of SPACEHAB. So, needless to say, we’re optimizing our capability to take as much hardware up as we can.
You’re also taking up the S5 truss, which you mentioned before. What is the S5 truss, and why is it important?
Well, the S5 truss is one of the segments of this long, central backbone of the space station, and it sits out on the starboard side. Each one of these you could think of as a little modular element that, you know, plugs in to the previous one. So, S5 allows us to extend the starboard side of the space station out farther and provides us a point to attach S6, which will enable us to have more solar panels on the space station, providing more power to the space station.
Let’s talk about the EVA where you attach S5 to S4. Can you take us through EVA 1?
EVA 1 Rick and I are going to be going outside. It’s going to be a really exciting spacewalk for us. We’re both highly trained spacewalkers, and we’ve both been to space, but neither one of us has actually done a spacewalk before. So, you can imagine opening the hatch of the airlock, sticking your head out, looking down at the Earth below you, traveling 25 times the speed of sound, reaching out and, handrail by handrail, moving out to the extreme limit on the starboard side of the space station. Once we get out there, we’ll be looking out into free space as the robotic arm comes around with S5, brings it towards us, and we attach S5, driving a number of bolts with an electric power drill and doing a number of electrical connections and things. Then, once we get S5 in place, the grapple fixture that the robotic arm used to move S5 has to be moved. So, we will go out right on the end of S5, the structure we just attached to the station, and we’re going to grab on to this grapple fixture; I’m going to be standing in a foot restraint, and Rick is going to push me around the corner of S5, and I’m going to hand off the grapple fixture to Rick. When I get out of that foot restraint, I no longer have handrails beside me to grab on to. So, I will use a tether attached to the foot restraint, reach down, pull myself out, and float freely in space tethered to this foot restraint, and pull myself back towards the space station. You can imagine what that’s going to be like. We’re really looking forward to it.
After that you are retracting a P6 radiator?
Once we finish out on S5, we have to go all the way back to the center of the space station. And, this time we’re going up onto P6. So, we’re basically getting two-thirds of the space station covered in our first EVA. Up on P6, we have to get P6 ready to be moved out to the portside, attached to P5. To do that, we have to retract one of the radiators up on P6. So Rick and I will go up and do that as our last task for our first spacewalk.
Why does P6 need to be moved?
Well, P6 is again, it’s one of the points where we have solar panels attached, so it’s going to go out on the portside for the solar arrays, and then we’ll have the equivalent S6 on the starboard side for the solar arrays out there, providing a full-power capability for the space station.
Let’s talk about the second spacewalk. You have one main objective for that spacewalk. Can you tell us about that?
Our second spacewalk I think is almost going to be as exciting as the first. Our job is to replace one of the gyros that we use to stabilize the position of the space station. There’s four gyros that we currently have on board the space station. The gyro essentially is a spinning disk that conserves momentum. It’s used to stabilize the station. One of them isn’t functioning properly, so we have to replace it. To do that, Rick and I will go up to the Z1 area, take out the old gyro that’s not working properly, temporarily stow it, then Rick is going to go down to the payload bay of the space shuttle, I’m going to get into the robotic arm, and I will go down to the payload bay of the space shuttle on the robotic arm. We’re going to remove the new CMG, the new gyro, from the payload bay of the shuttle. It weighs 1,200 pounds. I’m going to be holding on to it on each side, with my heels turned outward holding me in place in the foot restraint on the end of the robotic arm. And then, we’re going to come back up to the stowage platform, ESP-2, right by the airlock, install the stowage assembly for the new gyro, then take the new gyro off, bring it back to the worksite where we had the old gyro, swap the two and bring the old one back to the stowage platform. A lot of choreography there. It gets kind of confusing about which is going where and things. So we’ve worked very hard on the choreography. But, for me, what’s going to be really exciting as a Canadian astronaut is getting a chance to ride the robotic arm down to the payload bay of the space shuttle, holding 1,200 pounds, where we come back up to the stowage platform and then taking the CMGs and riding the arm up to the worksite and bringing the old one back. It’s going to be really, really exciting.
And, that robotic arm is a technology developed by the Canadian Space Agency, correct?
We have two robotic arms in space that have been developed by the Canadian Space Agency. On the shuttle, of course, is the very famous Canadarm, and then the Canadarm2, which is on board the International Space Station. It is going to be joined in the near future by yet another smaller robot developed by the Canadian space program, which is very much analogous to the hand and fingers. If you think about the robotic system on board the space station right now, Canadarm2, has the arm; the next robot we’re going to be sending up is like the hand and the fingers. So, we’ve got a long history of expertise in robotics that we’re very proud of.
Are you excited to see that up close?
I’m going to be really excited to see it up close. The amazing thing about this as well is that, if you look at the robotic technology developed for the space program, that technology is having major implications in how we practice surgery on Earth. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen the development of a whole new area of medicine using surgical robots to help surgeons perform complex operative procedures in the operating room. The type of robotic technology you see in the operating rooms is, in many cases, a direct spin-off of the robotic technology developed for the space program.
I’d like to talk about that in a moment. But let’s get back to some of the spacewalks. You’re not scheduled to go outside the space station during EVA 3. But, if the mission is extended as expected, EVA 4 holds some challenges. Can you tell us what’s planned for that fourth spacewalk?
Yeah. Right now I’m going to be going outside with Clay Anderson, our space station astronaut, to do the fourth spacewalk. We have some tasks that we know that we’re scheduled to do already. Essentially these are what you might call maintenance tasks for the space station. We’re going to be installing a stanchion system to support this orbiter boom sensor system, if we wanted to put that on the space station. We’re installing and moving some antennas around. But, that’s really only the first part of our spacewalk. The second half of our spacewalk, we’re still developing the techniques for the procedures that we’re going to be doing. At this point, we don’t know for sure what those tasks are. But over the next four to six weeks, we will know what the tasks are. We’ll develop the choreography. But the training that we get has to be much more flexible than the training we might have for our first or second spacewalk where we had a lot of chance to practice it, rehearse it, and develop what we call the choreography of the spacewalk.
We were talking about the orbiter boom system before. During this mission that system will also be used for on-orbit surveys and inspections of Endeavour. Why are those inspections still necessary?
You know, as we go forward in the space program, what we try and do is mitigate risk. People often ask me: Am I worried about flying in space? And, I like to tell them, “In the space program, we don’t take chances. We manage risk.” And one of the critical elements that we learned after Columbia was the importance of being able to inspect tiles on orbit to see if there was any damage to the tiles during the liftoff or the ascent phase of flight. Amazingly enough, the system responded; the new technology was developed; and we have the capability now of going and inspecting the tiles on the undersurface of the space shuttle using this orbiter boom sensor system. So, it’s just an incredible combination of robotics and photography and laser inspection techniques, and things that allow us to inspect the tiles on the undersurface of the orbiter.
How does it feel to be such an active part of this immense project, the International Space Station, which reflects the participation and contributions of so many diverse cultures and countries?
You know, for me being part of this whole program is just an incredible experience. And it’s also really very humbling, because, you can imagine, I have a chance to work with the best and the brightest, most talented people in the field of space exploration. The engineers that we have are absolutely incredible. The people who are designing the next generation of spacesuits and the next generation of spacecraft -- amazing to work with. And of course, the astronauts that I get to work with themselves are tremendous individuals. So, just being in that environment for me is a really humbling experience. But I really relish the opportunity to go forward and explore space and also explore underwater because, for me, exploration is the quest for knowledge. When I worked in a research lab as a neurophysiologist, I had that same desire, that quest for knowledge. People don’t think about that as exploration in the traditional sense of going to summit Mount Everest or going to the Antarctic. That drive, that curiosity, that’s in each one of us is the same, whether you’re working in a cancer lab, a neurophysiology lab, or whether you’re exploring space on board the space station.
Was there a particular person that in-, inspired you to be an explorer when you were a child?
There are probably a number of people that did. You know, I mentioned earlier in the interview the original Mercury 7 astronauts, the Gemini astronauts, and things. But I was watching them on TV and they seemed a little more distant. When I was growing up in Canada, after I became really excited about underwater exploration there was Dr. Joe McGinnis, who was the first Canadian to live and work on an undersea research habitat. And I thought, “Wow! You know, if I can’t be an astronaut, I want to be an aquanaut and I want to be just like him.” And I used to watch Jacques Cousteau on TV every Sunday night and things, and we like to think of Joe McGinnis as our own Canadian Jacques Cousteau, if you will, this remarkable underwater explorer. And then, as I got more into scuba diving and looked at the technology you need to live and work underwater, Phil Newton became one of my heroes as well. And, he’s kind of known as the Leonardo DaVinci of underwater exploration, because his area of specialty is building diving suits that can take people 2,000 feet below the surface, building subs that can take us down below the surface 1,500/2,000 feet, come right back up to the surface and you get out right away and you can go back to working on the surface. It’s an amazing task to be able to do. And, of course, Phil has his own ideas for building underwater habitats and even underwater colonies where people can live and work underwater for long periods of time.
To live in an extreme environment, the human body has to make some adjustments, and the environment that is built for them to survive requires certain adjustments. You know these first hand because you’re a medical doctor and an emergency physician. Can you talk to me about your early career before you become a, an astronaut?
Yeah, it’s interesting looking at how careers evolve, because when I was in university as an undergraduate, I was very interested in neurophysiology as it applied to marine invertebrates. I was kind of blending my diving background with a research background. And then, as I went on into graduate school and looked at the opportunities for the future, I thought, “I would like to take my knowledge of physiology and my desire to live and work in these unique environments and apply it clinically.” So, I applied to medical school and went on into medical school, and then subsequently became an emergency physician because that’s an area in medicine where we not only deal with providing medical care in emergency rooms; we deal with providing medical care in the back of ambulances working and training with paramedics, in the back of helicopters, working and training with critical care ambulance attendants, and also providing wilderness medicine support. A number of wilderness medicine experts are emergency physicians or family physicians.
When did the idea of becoming an astronaut become tangible or real to you?
Well, the idea of becoming an astronaut first occurred to me when I was a kid, but it was never really a tangible objective at that point. It first became tangible in 1992 when the Canadian space program was having its second selection of astronauts. The first selection was back in 1983, but I was still in medical school and I didn’t think that they would take a medical student and make them into an astronaut. But in 1992 I was at that point in my career where I was able to transition from full-time clinical practice into training to be an astronaut, and I was lucky enough to be one of over 5,000 people that applied to be selected into the program; they selected four that year.
When you applied to be an astronaut, what do you think it was that made the Canadian Space Agency take a closer look at your application?
You know, it’s hard to know what attracts a space program to select any particular individual. In Canada in 1992, the selection process went over the course of six months. We started off with over 5,000 people applying; and, as I recall, there were over 600 applications from kids less than 10 years of age, because (laughs) they wanted to get their application in early. I think that’s great. But we went from sending in our backgrounds, our CVs and biographies, through a selection process that was done remotely in that they started their selection process where you first got to meet interviewers, and that was what we called the 100 stage, where they were interviewing 100 people, and then it dropped to 50. And, they took the final 20 people to Ottawa, the nation’s capitol, for a week of intensive selection where you had fitness assessments, psychological assessments, a lot of aptitude testing, and, of course, many, many questions by many different panels in both English and French; they looked at our presentation skills. And, I honestly thought, looking at the other 19 people around me, any one of that group would have been an incredible astronaut. To me, it was kind of like winning the lotto. I still don’t understand why they picked me; I was just lucky enough to get picked, and I’ve had a tremendous opportunity in the program since then, having been able to fly in space on STS-90 and having been able to take part in two NEEMO missions, and now I'm looking forward to my second spaceflight.
You mentioned that there were several kids that applied to be astronauts for the Canadian Space Agency, and it’s the same for NASA. If you had a message for today’s youth, what would it be?
You know, often I get asked: If I had a message for today’s youth, what would I say to them? And, it’s really a hard question to answer because, you know, I’m excited about being an astronaut, and I’m very passionate about that, and I’m passionate about exploration, and that was my dream when I was growing up. But, not everyone has that dream. And, that’s OK. I think my message for kids would be to: Find what drives you, find your passion, find your dream, and believe in it, and believe in yourself and go for it. No matter how many people say it’s impossible or how unreachable that dream may be, if you work really hard and you persist, and when the going gets tough you keep at it and persist in believing it, in yourself and your dream, hopefully your dream can come true just like mine came true. Whether it’s being a doctor, an engineer, a researcher, a ballerina, a pianist, a musician, whatever your dream takes you, pursue it with everything you’ve got and hopefully it will come true.
There’s a strong education component to this mission. Can you talk to me about that?
You know, we’re really excited about the education component of STS-118. This is going to be the first flight of a series in the educator astronaut program. Barb Morgan is not only a mission specialist, she’s a professional teacher by training. And, we hope to capture the imagination of students throughout North America by challenging them to think about how they would design various things for spaceflight. One of the ideas that we’re going to share with them is: If you wanted to stay in space for a long period of time on a lunar habitat, could you grow your own food? And if you could grow your own food, how would you do that? What kind of plant growth chamber do you need? How would you design that? So, we’re bringing a plant growth chamber into space with us on STS-118 that we’re going to leave on board the International Space Station. Clay Anderson will set it up, and the students will have a chance to look at how that chamber is designed, think about how plants are going to grow in that environment, and then be able to ask questions: What would I do if I were designing a similar chamber for the moon, or for Mars? What’s really exciting about this is we’ve taken one of those plant growth chambers underwater to the Aquarius undersea research habitat, so we can compare and contrast how plants grow in this chamber underwater, in space, and then asking students to think about how they would design a chamber for the future exploration missions.
So, this is a long-term project?
It’s a long-term project, and it just opens the door, it’s opening the door to the next generation of space explorers to think about all those challenges of design. Because not only are we really talking about plant growth chambers; we’re talking about habitats, we’re talking about rovers, the next generation of spacesuits, the next generation of spacecraft that are going to be taking us to these environments. So I think it’s really exciting. When I talk to kids that are growing up right now and I say, “How many of you out there are 7 years old?” And, the hands go up. I say, “Did you know I was 7 years old when I dreamt of becoming an astronaut? Maybe one of you will have a chance to go to the moon. Maybe one of you will have a chance to go to Mars. That’s really incredible.”
How important is it to inspire kids … regarding spaceflight?
I think it’s really important to inspire kids not only about spaceflight, but to inspire kids to pursue their passion, to be curious. That’s really what a lot of spaceflight is all about. We push the edge of the technology envelope to develop these exploration-enabling technologies to take us to the space station, take us back to the moon. But whether you’re doing that or whether you’re working in a research lab, that curiosity is what’s really exciting. And I think it’s really interesting looking at some of the parallels between the performing arts, let’s say, and what we do in medicine in the space program. You know, people would say, “Why is playing music similar to being a doctor?” Well, if you’ve ever tried to memorize the fret board of a guitar, if you have the capability and the persistence to do that it’s the same skill that you need to memorize the Kreb cycle in biochemistry that we use in medicine. You know, that commitment to be able to learn the information; and it’s that commitment that we share in the astronaut program, that desire to learn, that desire to explore, the desire to take new technologies and test them in these unique environments.
What’s your favorite part of spaceflight?
For me, I think, the, there’s two favorite parts. One is simply being there and enjoying the experience, and floating, looking out the window at the sun setting and listening to “What A Wonderful World,” for instance, or “Imagine” by John Lennon. It’s just an absolutely incredible experience to float around, looking out at the Earth going by underneath you and just take it all in, the spectacular beauty of our planet. The other element, which is as exciting for me, is working together as a team. We have an incredible team on STS-118. And the, within our team as a crew, we’ve got little sub-elements. We’ve got the EVA team with Rick Mastracchio, myself, and Tracy Caldwell who are working very closely together; and, of course, they’re supported by the rest of the crew. But we work very closely with the choreography of the spacewalks. And then, there’s the robotics tasks that we’re doing where you’ve got Rick and Barb and Scorch, our pilot, all working together. Scott: Just a tremendous commander. He’s like the band leader, you know, keeping all of us working together, working on the timeline to be able to accomplish the mission objectives. When you land after a mission like that, it’s just this incredible sense of satisfaction having worked with all these different folks from different backgrounds to be able to accomplish such challenging mission objectives.
You’ve been assigned to this flight for quite some time. Has it been difficult to wait this long?
I was first assigned to this flight in November of 2002. And here we are in 2007 going to fly this mission. If you look at the length of time, it seems like a long time. But it’s gone by amazingly quickly. My biggest frustration with this whole wait is that I’m actually older, quite obviously, than I was when I was first assigned to the flight. So, when I go out and I exercise, it’s a little harder now than it was four or five years ago, and I have to work harder to stay in shape, and I can’t lift the same amount of weight that I used to five years ago and things. I’m recognizing more of my limitations, and sometimes that’s frustrating with me because when I launch, I want to be in the best shape of my life, being ready to do these spacewalks. I don’t want to let the crew down when I go outside the door with Rick or with Clay. So, that wait has just made me a little bit older. But, hopefully, I’m a little bit wiser, too.
What’s it been like to train with this crew?
Training with this crew has been a great experience. You know, we, we’ve had crew members change amongst the crew. Al Drew has been the latest addition to the crew because Clay got moved forward to STS-117. Al’s a tremendous addition to the crew; great guy; I’m really looking forward to flying with him in space. But I think our crew has done a tremendous job about being flexible; and our tasks have changed as the mission has kind of evolved over the last four to five years. The crew members have changed, and, as we discussed earlier, we’re not totally sure if we’re going to be an 11- or 14-day mission (we’ll know for sure when we get to the space station and the power transfer cable works). But overall, this crew has done a phenomenal job in accepting all those challenges, working with the flexibility required, and we’ll all looking forward to the, the flight.
When 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?
I think one of the challenges is learning to accept the fact that you can never be perfect at everything you do all the time, you know. And what I find now is that in every task I try to make sure that I can do it without making a mistake. A mistake and I get all upset and I think, “OK, next time I’m going to make sure that I don’t make that mistake.” And, of course, as we get closer and closer to flight, the number of mistakes we make gets less and less. But it’s accepting the fact that you can’t be perfect all the time while you’re going forward to do these amazingly challenging tasks, because, of course, we all want to do our best for the flight. We want to do our best for the mission. We want to achieve those really demanding mission objectives.
What’s been your greatest challenge from working and training with your crewmates for this mission?
I think so far the biggest challenge are the hours that we put in, you know, the amount of time that we’re away from our families when we travel to train in various locations and things. My wife’s a pilot, so she’s away from home a lot as well; and sometimes we’re like ships passing in the night, where I’ll be away for three or four days, she’ll be at home; I come home, she leaves to go; and the kids are kind of watching one parent go as the other one arrives and things. That can be really challenging at times. But what’s exciting at the same time is sharing the experience of training for a mission with my kids and with my wife; and often, you know, when we’re doing our spacewalk training, our drink bag that we have inside the suit normally gets thrown in the garbage after we do a training episode. I’ll bring it home, and the kids get to look at it, and they go, “Wow! That’s inside your spacesuit? You use that to hold the water that you drink? Can I have a sip of the water, too?” And, you can see the excitement in their eyes. That really brings it all together for me, being able to share this experience with our families.
You will have a, an opportunity to share your experiences during your mission with students. Can you talk to me about that?
Yes. We’re going to have an opportunity to share, during our mission, with students throughout North America when we do educational downlinks with students on the ground. What we mean by the downlink is basically a video teleconference where the students will see us on their TV, they’ll be able to ask us questions interactively, and that really helps in terms of captivating their imagination to think about the challenges of space. On Neurolab, we did what we called the “Prof in Space” program, where Rick Linnehan, myself, Jay Buckey, and Jim Pawelczyk, we’re all professors at different academic institutions throughout North America, so we gave lectures from space. And, I gave a lecture on orientation. I started my lecture off upside down for the people who were on the ground, so they’re all looking at me and I’m upside down. And, I said, “Do you think I’m upside down, or am I right side up? In space, is there an up or is there a down?” Then you can spin yourself around so that you’re correctly oriented to them, and challenge them to start thinking about what we experience in space.
But, these aren’t simply lessons from space. These are you mentioned, interactive. Is it about finding teachable moments?
I think the critical element for us is to create these teachable moments in space. For instance: I could be in space with a piece of paper, and I can illustrate the principle of aerodynamics by making a paper airplane that has a lifting surface with its wings and shooting it in a straight line. And then, I can take another paper airplane, piece of paper, ball it up in a small, little ball, make a new paper airplane, which is a ball, has no wings, no lifting surface, throw it, and it goes in a straight line. So students can think about that and ask themselves, “Why is it in space that both of these go in a straight line, whereas on Earth the paper airplane with wings would have lift and the other one would b-, basically go straight to the ground?” These are teachable moments; they capture the imagination of students. I think it’s really exciting to be able to share the excitement of what we’re doing with the kids.
Who inspires you to continue in this career?
If you look at inspiration to stay in this career, it’s everywhere; it surrounds you every day. I have a chance to work at Johnson Space Center, up in St. Jubert at the Canadian Space Agency, working with people that have exploring space as their lives. Everybody’s passionate about it. If that’s not enough, you get to go out and talk to kids. They look at you and they’re so excited, and they’ve got such incredible questions that you come back from doing a presentation to kids and you’re even more fired up about the program than you were before. So this is just a really incredible place to be; it’s an amazing job. I get to go from being a researcher to being a spacewalker to being a scuba diver to being a doctor, all in the course of one day.
How do you feel about being a part of continuing a human presence in space?
You know, for me it’s just a real honor to be part of the continuing human presence in space. I look forward to the next generation of having humans leave low Earth orbit, going back to the moon. Think about it: “By the 50 th”. People think and say, “What do you mean, by the 50 th?” By the 50 th anniversary of Apollo, where we, will we be in 2019? Will we have humans living and working on habitats on the surface of the moon, developing new technologies, testing new things, exploring the lunar surface, doing geological science on the surface of the moon, getting us ready to send humans to Mars? You know, nowadays, you can get a degree in planetary geology. You can specialize in studying the geology of the moon or the geology of Mars. It's absolutely incredible to think of the human species reaching out and exploring our solar system.
What are you thoughts about seeing the International Space Station become the reality that was envisioned?
One of the exciting elements of the International Space Station is the partnership that came from all over the world to build this amazing orbital laboratory technology development platform. We have people from different cultures, different languages, different backgrounds, technologically, all working together, delivering hardware that, in some cases, has actually never been fit-tested until it gets to space. And amazingly, it all comes together, and it all works. The lessons that we’ve learned from that, working together, collaboratively, as the space-faring nations of the world are critical lessons that will help us leave low Earth orbit as the space-faring nations of the world to go back to the moon, go on to Mars on the behalf of humanity.
Dave Williams, Mission Specialist 3 for STS-118, thank you for talking with us.
Thanks. My pleasure.