Q: The STS-120 interviews continue with Mission Specialist Paolo Nespoli. Thanks for joining us.
Preflight Interview: Paolo A. Nespoli (ESA)
A: You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Image at right: STS-120 Mission Specialist Paolo A. Nespoli (ESA). Photo Credit: NASA
Paolo, let’s start out with just a summary of the goals of this ISS assembly mission.
Well, this is one of the assembly missions, and, not differently than the missions that have been running in the past, years and, will run for the next years. It’s a very complex mission aimed at building of the space station. Space station has been developing now in a kind of a one horizontal axis, but we need to expand in other axis, so we will bring up a module, which is called a Node that will allow the station to grow in other axis and the international laboratory to be attached to the station. So, bringing up this module, attach it to the station is one of the goals. And then, if that would not be enough, we’re going to take a group of solar arrays which is called P6 which currently is on top of the station, was used until recently and now has been folded. We will take this group of solar arrays and bring it all the way to the end of the truss so it can be open up again and can start generating electricity. This is also very complex operation that involves, the (robot) arms, spacewalks, and all of these things. Of course, last but not least, we will do a little bit of scientific experiments, both for NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency), and Italian Space Agency. And then, of course, we will also bring up with us, one of the crew members that will stay on board of the station and we’ll bring back one of the members that has been up there for the last month. And that’s all for this, “simple mission”.
It sounds like it’s going to be a busy one, and, if we can focus on the primary payload of this mission which is called Harmony. Could you explain what it is, what, what it does?
Harmony is the name of what we call the Node 2 in technical terms. It is a cylinder of about 25 feet in length and 15 feet in diameter, which is a pressurized module and it has two hatches at the ends and four hatches around. And this will allow again the expansion in the other axis of International Space Station. It’s very important because without this we cannot expand, we cannot attach the international laboratory. This module was built in Italy, by the Italian Space Agency, but it was a barter with the European Space Agency and at NASA. So it’s a very complex piece of hardware both from the engineer point of view that from the administrative point of view. But it’s an example of how an international cooperation can work together and produce excellent results and bring them up on the space station to finish and continue the building of this, important laboratory.
There are a lot of steps to get the Harmony, Node 2 module installed. Can you, can you give us a thumbnail sketch of that; kind of take us through that assembly process?
Well, of course we go up to space with the Node inside a cargo bay of the shuttle and we actually dock with shuttle to the port where the Node should be at the end, so we cannot install it there. So the first thing is that we need to take the Node, with the arm inside the shuttle and hook it up to a temporary place. And then we will start going out with spacewalks and start changing the outside of the Node, preparing it for being attached - finally moved to the final position. And all of this takes, at least, two spacewalks and will involve the work of both of the shuttle robotic arms and the space station robotic arms. So it’s fairly complex operations there.
Very good. Another big part of the mission is, as you mentioned earlier, moving the P6 solar arrays to a new position. I’m just curious if there’s any concerns about moving that module, those solar arrays and redeploying them.
Well, the P6 group of solar array was put on top of the space station during the build up of the space station. There was no truss, so we could not put it at the end of the truss. And it was up there happily generating power for many years. But now it has to be folded up so that the rest of the station can actually get the Sun and it cannot work any more up there. So we need to move it into final position. This again it’s a complex operation. It requires first an EVA to go up and detach all the electrical connections that there are between the P6 and, and, the Z1 truss, where it’s currently located, and then the arm needs to grab it, and the arm cannot reach all the way to the end of the truss so there is a handover between the station arm and the shuttle arm and they pass it a couple of times, until when finally they will put it there. This will take about 24 hours. It will require another spacewalk so that astronauts can go up there, actually visually direct the arm, for the space station arm operator, so that they can bring it in the exact position, and then tighten up all the bolts and make all the connections again. All of this is a little bit complicated by the fact that once we disconnect the solar array, the group of solar array, there is a thermal clock that starts and we have, only a certain amount of hours, actually it’s about 48 hours, that we need absolutely bring back the solar array and attach it, because otherwise, the solar array will freeze and it will not be usable anymore. So a lot of coordination and cooperation -- the ground has to send all the commands to detach the power, the astronaut has to disconnect the connectors, the arm operator has take, this, this big, huge piece of hardware – it’s about the size of a bus, it’s not a little box, it’s as big as bus. Then we need to bring it at the end of the, of the truss and we do again the operations. So there are a lot of complex things that we need to be done in the exact sequence.
You describe that very well, thank you. Woven into the assembly tasks, as you have discussed earlier, some spacewalks. I’m just curious what your job will be during the EVAs or spacewalks.
I will be inside the station and the shuttle. Inside the space station I will help the astronaut who go on spacewalk to suit up and check all the equipment. But then I will move into the flight deck of the shuttle from where I will actually direct and coordinate, the, the spacewalkers, and the arm operators, and also I will talk to the ground, in order to make sure that all of the tightly scheduled choreography can, can happen in sync. And so I will kind of give the tone and the time. I’ll be the timer of the, all the spacewalks. That will be my job aboard.
Paolo, how do you feel to be part of this historical work like the construction of the International Space Station?
Well, I feel really privileged being able of realizing my personal dream, which is going to space, and going to the International Space Station; contributing with this mission to the construction of the space station. This would be, of course the high point, one of the high points of my life. I’m also very proud from a professional point of view, I’m grateful for these opportunities, and I’m grateful also because I can go into space with a piece of the Italian industry that represents the work and the commitment of the thousands of people that work for this. And for that I’m very grateful, thank you.
And I’m curious how it feels that, to be a part of the mission that you’re adding a component to the station that this is going to open a whole new phase of the station, that will be a place for the International Partners to put their modules on. I’m just curious how you feel about this international aspect to it.
Well this is another part that is very interesting. Of course the station, by definition is, it’s an international endeavor, but in particular, the fact that we will bring up in space, the Node 2, Harmony, the Node 2 that will allow the European laboratory and the Japanese laboratory to be connected there. It’s also an important stepping stone, both for our agencies and our programs, and for our nations -- for making sure there’s international laboratory becomes really international and everyone of the partners has, has enough space, enough capabilities, resources to conduct the experiments that we will do on space station.
Image at top: Paolo Nespoli participates in a training session at a console in the simulation control area in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at the Sonny Carter Training Facility near Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA
This year is the 50th anniversary of Sputnik – the birth of the space age. I’m just curious about your thoughts on our progress in space travel.
Well, I was born in 1957, so it’s both the year of the space station and the year in which I began my career here on Earth, my life here on Earth. I think we’ve progressed, very well. From little satellites around the Earth, slowly but surely, we went to the moon and, and now we’re building the International Space Station, a very important laboratory that will be available for everybody. And then, the plans are already there for going back to the moon and going to Mars. Mars is a very complex mission. It’s not so simple right now. We cannot even think, actually we can think but we cannot even build a spacecraft really to go to Mars. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. So, all things considered and the complexity of the mission, the costs -- the costs both in terms of human power, brain power, ingenuity and all these things is very high and I think we are progressing fairly well.
OK, thank you. The vision for space exploration sees us going beyond the space station. What is your philosophy on what the future holds for human space exploration?
We really need to continue the exploration of what is around us. I think the moon is about 250,000 kilometers, Mars is about 5 million kilometers away, but for astronomical distances, this is just around the corner. So we don’t know really much what is around us. It’s a pity because I think, there are a lot of surprises there. There are a lot of good things that we can find and learn. So we need to start moving. We need to start going out of this, cradle or this little place where we are, which is Earth, which is big but it’s still relatively little compared to everything else. We need to explore, we need to understand, we need to learn more and I think, that’s where we are, that’s where we are programmed to go and that’s where we’re going, we are going to go. I think that we’ll go there and I’m really proud that I’m part of it and that we’re part of it.
And just following along with that thought, how do you feel your flight fits in to those future explorations?
Well, our flight, as all the flights that are happening right now, are really important for the build up of the completion of the International Space Station, and for that they are very important. Any single hiccup in this sequence creates a lot of ripples and problems. So our flight is very important for this. But it is also important because it allows cooperation to continue. In particular, the node was built in Italy, the European Space Agency was involved in this, so the, the international cooperation continued to developed. We find a way to talk to each other, to put our measuring systems together, meters and feet, and all these things. We find a way to overcome our little boundaries here on the Earth and use our capabilities for a goal that is above all of us. And I think this is really important.
There are hundreds and thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but only a few astronauts. What made you try to become an astronaut and be one of the people who fly in space?
Well, it was a dream. It was an idea, it was a seed that, I would say, started when I was a little kid and I was seeing these images coming from the moon, with the astronaut bouncing around. And as a little kid I thought, “Wow, that’s what I really like to do when I grow up.” Of course, things develop in a different way. I went into the army first and I had a different career, but then eventually I went to this original goal and I thought, you know, when you’re a kid you decide things or think about things, but you really don’t know what the possibilities are. What life really, what life really has in store for you. But then later on I just thought that this goal was probably not too far away from my capabilities. Of course it is very difficult, and I decided to really give it a try, seriously. It took a lot of time, it took a lot of stubborness, but eventually, I got here and of course now I feel ready to finally go out into space and give my contribution to this activity, and, finally, last but not least, to realize my dream.
As an ESA astronaut, are you excited about your first flight?
Oh, yes. I’m really excited that finally I get to achieve the goal, which is a lifetime goal. I’m really excited of, of finally going to space and getting to see Earth from out there. But from a professional point of view, I think this is a very important point for myself and for the European Space Agency, for all the nations of Europe and specifically for Italy, which I represent. I think this will be a culmination of the work of a thousand of people, and I’m really proud to be there and representing them. It’s a very important point for Europe that, finally Europe sees some of their modules are up in space and working and crystallize the attention of the public and the research. All these reasons have finally come together and I’m really proud of being part of this.
Paolo, if you could talk about the place where you grew up, and how the people who live there influenced you to be the person you are today.
I’m from a little region in Italy north of Milan called Brianza. The people in this region are known for their commitment, for their loyalty to family and friends, for their dedication to work and to hard work, specifically. And I think all these characteristics were burned in me when I was growing up. I did not realize it, but most likely I have them because people tell me that I do show these characteristics and I see them when I go back and, visit my family and friends. And I’m really proud to use them, and use them for this goal of going into space.
OK, let’s talk a little bit about that. Can you tell us about your education and your professional career as it led up to this point?
I went through what we call the primary and secondary schools in Italy, which take people from the age of 7 to 19. I went through those schools in the region where I grew up. And then, at 19 I was drafted by the Italian Army. We still had the draft at that time. And so I went and did my year and, and then I decided to stay. It was a kind of a change. I never thought of being in the army or being a military. But I stayed there; I really liked what I was doing. I ended up staying for eight years in the army during a very complete and strange and interesting set of activities that’s brought me in the last year. I was a member of the multi-nation peace keeping force in Beirut, Lebanon. So, this was the strong experience. At the end of this I really sat down and decided, well, what do I really want to do. And that’s when the, the idea of being an astronaut resurfaced. I decided to give it a go. I went back to college, got a degree in aerospace engineering, and then started working in Italy for a R&D lab that was building, actually, pieces of the satellite, it was the tethered satellite system. That’s very strange experiment that was done in the '90s on board of the shuttle. Then I worked for the European space agency as a astronaut trainer. And then, eventually, after several tries, in 1998 I was selected as an astronaut and since then I’m here at Johnson Space Center training, getting ready for a space mission.
Flying in space, and working in extreme environments, has been shown to be risky. What do you think we get from flying people in space that makes it worth the risk you’re taking?
This is a very interesting question. I think, first of all we need to dare to do things. If we don’t dare, if we don’t push our envelop of capabilities and knowledge then we don’t gain anything. We stay there and eventually we become stale. And so it’s really important, I think, that we keep expanding this, this knowledge. This, per se, is really a gain enough to make sure that we need to continue this as much. But also I think that people need to be challenged continuously and we need to know ourselves. I don’t think we know, completely the limits of our capabilities in terms of brain capabilities and for sure we do not know what we can do when put together. As a single person I think we know fairly well what the single person can do, but when put together a team of people, coming from different nations, coming from different regions, coming from different capabilities, we find out that, with the right training, with the right planning, with the right equipment, these people can do things that are absolutely impossible, or we cannot even dream about it. And this is what we gain. I mean, out of all of this we gain a lot of things that will essentially become part of our lives, and allow us essentially to live better.