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2006 Preflight Interview: Michael Fossum
02.21.06
 
+ Read 2005 interview

Q: You have a job that millions of people dream about having, Mike. Is being an astronaut and getting to go fly in space what you’ve always wanted to do with your life?

JSC2005-E-45671 -- STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum Image to right: STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum in a NASA T-38 trainer jet. Credit: NASA

A: Well, I grew up in the Space Age. We’d begun our missions into space with the Mercury, Gemini, and then Apollo missions. I was about 12 when we landed on the moon and like every other kid in America I wanted to be an astronaut. But I soon kind of gave up on that dream. I figured that wasn’t a job that real people had the opportunity to do. And so I kind of shifted more to wanting to get into engineering, where I could design and build new things.

You said you “soon” gave up; when, what do you mean—what age?

Well, it was while I was in high school. I said, "This kind of thing isn’t realistic. I just didn’t believe that such a thing was possible for what I considered to be normal people.

When we were in high school we all began to have different ideas of what we were going to do in the future. Take me from there, on—take me through your school and your career and tell me how you ended up being somebody who could be an astronaut.

I got started on the journey without having any idea where it might lead someday. I wanted to become an engineer, and I decided to go to Texas A&M University. In a kind of a strange quirk the dorms were full; and apartments were too expensive. My only option for getting a dorm was to, join the Corps of Cadets, join the ROTC program, at A&M. There I was exposed to the Air Force and the opportunities for engineers in the Air Force. I decided to pursue a commission, and I did—I was commissioned into the Air Force. They sent me to graduate school through the Air Force, and after grad school, where I got a master’s in systems engineering, the Air Force sent me here to Johnson Space Center. I supported shuttle mission operations beginning in 1982. I worked down the hall from the crew office and got to know a, a number of the folks. I realized that they were not that different after all; you know, more or less normal. It just, dawned on me over the period of a couple of years that this was something that I could do, too. It meant working a little harder in what I was doing and believing that such a thing was possible. That led me, actually with the encouragement of [astronauts] Jerry Ross and Ellison Onizuka, a couple of Air Force flight test engineers in the Office that had been through the Test Pilot School, flight test engineer training at Edwards [Air Force Base]. They encouraged me to apply and I did and I was accepted. I went on to do flight test in the Air Force for eight years before I came back to Houston to work, first as an engineer here and then I was hired into the Astronaut Office.

So you were here and then left?

That’s right. I was here for three years in the early ’80s; I left for eight years, and then, Texas was calling and we came back.

I think you’re probably the first person I ever heard of who got into the Corps at Texas A&M by accident, too.

It’s not a very common thing. It was just one of those odd quirks of life that lead you in directions you can’t possibly imagine.

To where today, if my information is correct, you’ll be the first Texas Aggie to fly in space.

That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

That certainly has to be important.

Well, it creates a little bit of commotion sometimes. I’ve got many, many, many Aggie friends and family. Everybody’s excited for me. I’ve got a, a whole lot of people wearing maroon that will be cheering all the way.

Think back: tell me who was a hero to you. Who was an inspiration when you were growing up?

I thought about that a lot and I keep coming back to the, my original answer. It’s really my parents. My mom and dad came from modest backgrounds, but believed in education and hard work and self-reliance. They pushed us hard in a lot of different ways. But the belief in strong education was big. There was never any doubt in my mind that I would be going to college, although my father never had the opportunity to. And my dad really loved the space program. We would watch and read books on the space program as a young kid. He had nothing to do with it whatsoever—he worked for the Department of Agriculture at the time—but he thought this was an important thing for America, and it was an exciting thing. You never know where those kind of things might lead.

You grew up in South Texas.

That’s correct.

McAllen, Texas.

Right.

Do you still get to go back there often?

I get down to McAllen a few times a year. Mom still lives down there--my father’s deceased—and I’ve got a lot of friends down there.

Do you get a chance to meet the people, talk to the people who were the adults when you were growing up, and talk to your hometown about what you’re doing?

I’ve had a, a number of opportunities to get back, through the years. I’ve stayed in touch with several teachers, pastors, and especially, Boy Scout leaders that were very important to me growing up. They were a big part of my life, helping me stay on the, the right track in a lot of different ways and encouraging me along the way.

I think this may be part of your answer to what I was going to ask next, about other interests and hobbies. I guess Scouting is a, has been a big part of your life.

Oh, I’m a very active Scout leader now. My older boys have been in two different Boy Scout troops that I’ve helped with. My youngest son is in Cub Scouts today. I try to help out there, too. My daughter was in Girl Scouts, for a while. I love the Scouting program. I know that it changed my life in many significant ways and, and I like the opportunity now to help work with the kids, to help them learn and understand and help them grow in different ways. I really like the high adventure aspect of it. The last few summers, I’ve taken, taken groups up canoeing in the wilderness in Canada and backpacking in northern New Mexico. The guys give me a hard time, telling me I’m going to be missing next summer’s High Adventure activity because I’m working on another one for NASA.

Whether it’s Scouting or, or other activities, you’ve got a conflict with your job, because your job right now, training, requires an awful lot of your time. What is it, for you, that provides you the motivation to give up those things, temporarily, to do this?

My No. 1 job really is to be husband and father. I’m, I’m very active with my kids and with my home. I’m busy with them, fixing cars, working around the house, going to Scout activities, of course, and, sports activities, going to the games. My family believes in the importance of this, too, and they’re, they’re behind me 100 percent. It’s been an exciting part of our lives.

Because you’re an astronaut, you’re more aware than most people of the dangers that go with spaceflight. But here you are ready to go fly in space anyway. Tell me why you think there’s something that we get or, or learn from flying in space that makes it, to you, worth taking that risk?

You bet. We’re a nation of explorers and pioneers. My ancestors came from Norway, Ireland, and Germany, to seek out new lands and new opportunities. There was risk and peril for them in that day, and there’s risk and peril with exploring today. We’re taking “baby steps” now, but I don’t think we’re destined to remain on this rock forever, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

This mission, STS-121, is going to be your first opportunity to go into space. What was it like when you got the news, Mike, you’re going to fly?

That was a day I’ll never forget. I actually got the call on Columbus Day 2003. It was a federal holiday. I was at home. The rest of my family was at school. I was working in the garage, working on cars, cleaning the garage. I was greasy from head to toe and drenched in sweat, and the phone rings. It’s Kent Rominger, the chief of the Astronaut Office. He says, "Mike, you ready to go fly in space?" It was like, that didn’t take long to answer: “You bet!” And I, I hang up the phone with Kent and fell to my knees. I said, “Thank you, God; I can’t believe it’s really going to happen!” And then I just sat there on the floor of the garage, for probably 20 minutes, just saying I don’t believe it’s really going to happen after, you know, all these years and, and all the dreams. So, yeah, I’m excited about it.

It’s been more than three years now since Columbia and its crew were lost. What was it like for you to find out that an accident had claimed seven colleagues and friends?

JSC2005-E-26797 -- STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum Image to right: STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum participates in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit fit check. Credit: NASA

That’s a shock. It really hurts. I’ve been around the business a while, I had experienced the same shock and pain, 20 years ago when the Challenger accident occurred, and I’ve been through the similar things with Air Force colleagues in flying accidents, and my own father in a flying accident. So that brings back a lot of painful memories. But, as you work through the grief and then you go seeking answers, you want to understand why, and then you pick up your resolve to move on and to keep moving forward. And that’s what we’ve all been going through.

It’s exactly what, what’s been going on here. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board pinpointed some physical causes for the loss of Columbia. Assess the improvements that we’ve made in that time to get to the point where we can eliminate hazardous debris or, or detect and repair damage.

Probably the biggest thing with the Columbia accident was nobody knew that there was, there had been damage to the shuttle that was going to end up being catastrophic. The first thing we’ve done is to eliminate maybe at least most of the hazard of the foam coming off the tank to keep it from striking the shuttle and causing damage to the thermal protection system. The second thing we’ve done is improved our ability to inspect the outside of the vehicle for any kind of damage that could cause a lot of trouble. We’ve got sensors in the wing that will be monitoring very carefully for any kind of impacts. They sense a vibration, the shock of something hitting the wing. We have the orbiter boom sensing system that we’ll be using to scan the leading edge of the wing to look at, very closely, for any signs of damage as well as looking underneath the, belly of the shuttle for any damage to the tiles down there. When we come up to the station we’ll do the flip maneuver, and they’ll be able to take detailed photographs to inspect and catch things that we might not be able to see when we’re doing our initial inspections on orbit. The third thing we’ve done is developed ways of performing some level of repairs where we could fix some of the problems that might occur ourselves. We’ve made a lot of ground in all of these areas. We still have some work to do, but those have been a big part of the physical things we’ve been doing to get ready. On the other side, it’s the leadership things we’ve done and the management things that we have done to encourage people to speak up, and the managers are listening. Now we, we would never be able to fly if we stopped for every worry or concern that any individual had. That’s why the managers are in the hot seat to understand the details and understand what realistic, valid concerns are that we, that we have to drive to ground, and which ones are just the nature of the business. You’re sitting on 4½-million pounds of explosive propellants. It’s not inherently safe. It’s more about managing the risks, understanding the details of the systems and managing the risks to make it as safe as we can.

Tell me about any of the things that we learned from the flight of Discovery on the last mission, last year, that’s being incorporated into your flight.

First we learned that, that the wing sensors worked. The orbiter boom sensing system worked very well. They had a few problems with pointing some of the sensors and we’ve been working on ways to compensate for that. It wasn’t a big problem; it just came up as one of those little surprises with a new thing. I think the most significant thing it probably did was just give us the confidence to go fly again, because everybody’s a little bit scared after you have an accident, and it’s kind of like getting back on the horse that threw you. You just got to get back on. We’ve got to get moving forward again, and that’s what STS-114 did for us.

One of the things we learned is that we hadn’t finished fixing foam problems on the external tank. There are additional changes that are being made for your flight.

Indeed. I think all of us experienced a great deal of disappointment when we saw that first video that showed the foam coming off of the external tank. And there’s been a huge team of people working since that occurred to understand exactly what happened. They’ve done a lot of detailed testing, dissecting similar tanks that had already been built and not yet flown, to understand what’s going on in those under-layers, and a lot more of analysis to prove that the fixes that they’re making for us are sound and that we’re ready to go.

As you mentioned, there are thousands of people across the country who have been working to try to make a safe Return to Flight possible. Tell me your thoughts about the contributions of those people.

These people are the heroes of the space program. They’ve put their lives on hold for many months to understand the details, to dig in. Everybody that we’ve met takes this so seriously, and we appreciate that. But they really do, and they’re putting a lot of effort into it. All the guys at the Cape…we get to the Cape a lot and get to talk to those workers and see the birds that they own, that we just borrow. They all take it so seriously and if we make the mistake of saying, we’re glad to see our shuttle, they’ll tell us: “That’s our shuttle. You’re borrowing it.” We respect that. The folks at Michoud [Assembly Facility], where they build the external tank, have really been under a lot of pressure to understand the details of the foam application and all those processes, and try to sort through some very tough challenges. They’ve put their heart and soul into it.

A few minutes ago you mentioned how the managers in the shuttle program are kind of on the hot seat; well, management and the safety culture is part of what the Columbia Accident Investigation Board pointed out as a, a contributing cause to the loss of Columbia. Have you seen enough improvement in the management and safety areas?

I’m really impressed by the management. We have the chance to meet with the program manager, Wayne Hale, periodically, and he lays it all out on the table with us. It’s, "Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know for sure, here’s what I’m concerned about," and, and then he says, "What do you want from me? What concerns do you, the crew, have, that you’d like to know more about that I need to dig into?" And I think that’s a really positive thing. I know they’re listening to the workers, and the problems and concerns bubbling up from, from any area. I think there’s more emphasis on that, and I think that’s a very positive, healthy thing.

This mission is referred to as station assembly mission ULF-1.1. Can you tell us what that means? But more importantly, what are the, the goals of this space shuttle flight?

ULF-1.1 is part of the space station nomenclature for keeping track of the different types of missions. We’re a utilization and logistics flight. Before there was a “dot-one” there was a “one,” so we’re a kind of a follow-on as it falls in the sequence. They added our flight in after the accident to help catch up some with the logistics, carrying up supplies and some spare parts to the space station. We’re bringing up the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module in the payload bay. It’s full of additional supplies, spare parts and food, and some new, new equipment for the inside of the space station. We’re taking up some spare parts on the outside. We’re also taking up a new crewmember, Thomas Reiter, from the European Space Agency. We will add him to the crew. He’ll become the third member to join this crew, so the, the station will be back up to a three-man crew. In addition to this we have several Return to Flight objectives. This is a test mission, and we will be testing out, again, the orbiter boom sensing system and our ability to inspect ourselves for any potential damage. We’ve got additional objectives for testing repair techniques and materials. That’s the part of the test mission that we need to get the shuttle program cleared to resume normal operations.

In the very first hours of the flight you’re already going to be working on some of these test objectives, to confirm some aspects of redesign of the external tank. Tell me what’s involved in getting all this new data that you gather in the first couple of hours back down to the ground, data from, from new sensors and cameras.

We’re going to be, as we said back in the Air Force flying days, “blowin’ and goin’” from the time the main engines cut off. I’ll be jumping out of my seat to, grabbing a camcorder to take video of the external tank as it separates from us, using that as another source of information. As soon as that’s complete, about 15 minutes’ worth of video there, Stephanie Wilson’s going to be taking still photos at the same time with a digital camera. Then we start configuring the space shuttle and getting it ready for on-orbit ops. The first thing we’ll do is start setting up a computer network. That’s important because that computer network is going to be our method to get the video and photographs downlinked to the ground. The leading edge sensors will be downlinking using actually a radio link to the sensors that are in the wings, setting antennas up in the window connected to a laptop to reach out and tap those and get the data out of those and start bringing them in so the ground can downlink it. We have cameras that are on the belly of the shuttle that will be taking close-up pictures of the external tank as we fall away. They’ll be taking pictures as we’re going by the tank. We have to go out and electronically get those out of the camera and bring them on board to where the ground can grab them and then we’ll be downlinking the hand-held still camera and video camera information.

And all of that’s on the first day.

Oh, yeah.

The second day of the mission, you’re going to become the second crew to conduct a, an inspection of the exterior of the orbiter. Give me a brief description of this Orbiter Boom Sensor System and how it can examine the shuttle’s thermal protection system for damage.

The Orbiter Boom Sensing System, the OBSS as we call it, is about 50 feet long, and we’ll carry it up over on the right side of the payload bay of the shuttle. That forms an extension for the shuttle’s external arm, or robot arm, which is about 50 feet long. So we’ll use the shuttle’s arm to reach over and grab this boom—it’s sitting in the payload bay—and then lift it up, and on the end of the boom we have several sensors: a video camera and a laser camera system. We’ll be able to use that boom on the end of the arm. We’ll be able to get all the way out to the tips of both wings and, and we will literally scan back and forth, very carefully, collecting data from the various sensors on the boom, to get close-up views to make sure there’s not, not any kind of damage to the biggest thing. The boom on the end of the arm is a very, it’s very cumbersome. It’s very large. The 114 crew proved that you can do this safely. Most of it you cannot see through the windows well enough to make sure you don’t run it into something So we’ve got to trust camera views from different angles. We don’t have as many camera views from as many angles as we would wish. They broke the ground here on proving that you can move a big, cumbersome contraption like this all around the shuttle. You don’t want to hit anything—it’s very important that we don’t because this boom could cause, could cause significant damage itself. So it’s a very delicate operation that’s going to take up a good part of the second day of our mission.

Additional inspections of the shuttle are going to continue on the third day, right into the, the final phases of docking to the, to the space station. Tell us a little bit about the plan to inspect the upper surfaces of the orbiter and, and then later to give the, the station crew and their cameras a chance to take a look.

We’ll use the shuttle’s robot arm first to take kind of a quick look around the upper part of the crew cabin and the, the portions that we can see. The big change that we’re doing now, that 114 did before us and that we’ll be doing also, is as we come up to the space station, from below, at about 600 to 800 feet below the space station, we’ll do something we don’t like to do much—we’ll have to take our eyes off of it. Normally, as we’re coming up, we’re looking out the overhead windows so we can keep our eyes on the station and, as we fly around it. What we’re going to do there is pause just a, a short while and do a pitch maneuver, where we’ll flip the shuttle around and the two crewmembers on the station will have telephoto lenses and be snapping away and, and doing a, just a complete survey of parts of the shuttle that we cannot see as clearly – some we can’t really see at all, some that we can’t see as well – and get a lot of pictures. It makes everybody a little nervous. We practice it a lot in the simulators and we’re not particularly worried about it. But you train to never take your eyes off of the space station. It’s just like if you’re flying in formation with another aircraft you don’t your eyes off of it. And while we’re doing this we'll have to just trust that everything stays stable. Eileen [Collins] and the 114 crew did a great job of that. It looked just like the simulator, so we’re looking forward to doing it again.

Once you dock to the station, within just a few hours you transfer over, as you’ve mentioned before, Thomas Reiter, a third expedition crewmember, to the station. That gets the station back up to three people and for the first time ever, it has a non-American, non-Russian expedition crewmember. That’s pretty exciting.

We’re excited to be a part of this. Thomas Reiter is a space veteran, and he’s great to work with. The European Space Agency has been a big partner in this space station program since its inception, and they’ve been looking forward to this day of getting one of their own up there, with great anticipation. We’re happy and proud to be part of getting Thomas, our most valuable payload, delivered on time.

The day after that docking, a big activity is taking the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module out of the payload bay and putting it on the station. I made it sound very simple; is it?

A piece of cake, yeah. The Multi-Purpose Logistics Module—we call it the MPLM as part of the NASA acronym speech—is another one of those, those delicate operations. It’s a very large, module. I refer to it as the U-Haul module. We carry it up in the back of the shuttle, but we can’t get into it from there, and so we use the space station’s large robotic arm to reach down into the payload bay of the shuttle and lift that out and put it up onto an open port on the space station that we’ll attach it there. Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson will be driving the “big arm,” as we call it, for that operation, and Piers Sellers and I will be in the space station laboratory right next to Lisa and Steph, and we’ll be operating the Common Berthing Mechanism that’s actually used to attach the two together. It’s a series of latches and 16 bolts that will draw it together, tighten it down so that then we can open up the hatches and get people and equipment back and forth.

And, that’s going to go on then for...

That will go on for the duration of our docked operations, until the day before we leave. We’ll have to get everything delivered, packed—everything that’s coming home, you know—carefully into the MPLM so that it doesn’t shift around, and close the hatches and put it back into the payload bay, reversing the previous operation.

So, that pretty much summarizes all the important stuff on the mission, right?

[Laughs] Well, we’re missing something real important.

This is your first spaceflight, and it is also going to be your first time as a spacewalker. Tell me about what it takes to prepare to become a little spaceship of your own.

JSC2004-E-50405 -- STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum Image to left: STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum uses virtual reality hardware in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Credit: NASA

There’s a lot of work involved with that. It actually surprised me—I worked space station assembly operations as an engineer here at Johnson Space Center for several years before I was selected as an astronaut, and we taught the EVA, the spacewalk things, what it takes. And even though I worked in it for several years, I didn’t have a feel for just how challenging it is to get that work done inside this suit that’s inflated to 4.2 pounds per square inch. It looks like you’re trying to do automotive mechanic work in the winter in Michigan with all the layers built up and the gloves. In fact, it’s very similar to that in ways. You just add in standing on some slick ice, so that as you’re trying to exert some force you’re slipping around. You have to brace yourself so that you can react to any forces that you’re trying to put into a bolt or a latch, anything that you’re working on. We train for it in a number of different ways. The one that people are most familiar with is our big training pool, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. It’s a 40-foot-deep facility where they weigh us out in the suits so that we are neutrally buoyant—we don’t, we don’t float or sink in there—and that gives us a chance to practice things. We have a payload bay of the space shuttle that’s sitting, you know, down at one end of this facility, and we’ve got most of the space station is set up kind of around the rest of the facility, and so we can come out of the airlock of the space station, work with all of our tethers and tools, move around outside, actually translate down the side of the station and go down into the payload bay of the shuttle. So we practice moving around and moving our tethers and tools, the equipment. We also do some work in a virtual reality laboratory where we put on the funny-looking helmets and practice different kind of tasks. One in particular that we practice a lot is the choreography of the spacewalk work with the robotic arm work that Lisa and Stephanie will be doing while we’re outside, because there are times when we will be handing things back and forth to the robot arm or they’ll be moving us around. We can’t really practice that in the pool so we practice it in virtual reality. And it’s amazing how much you can learn and, and what a feel you can get for the operations through that process.

What kind of inside tips do you get from veteran spacewalkers?

I’m lucky. Piers Sellers is our EV1, our lead spacewalker. He’s a veteran of three spacewalks on the station himself. He is a, a wealth of information and knowledge. He’s “been there, done that,” and we have a lot of conversations about what it’s really like. We sit down, sometimes it’s during runs in the pool, sometimes it’s around the office as we’re tabletopping things, talking through the procedures. There’s, there’s a lot you can learn in the water and in virtual reality, but there’s some very big differences when we step outside. Piers warns me about that. The biggest one’s probably what it’s going to be like when I slide out of the airlock hatch for the first time, looking down at the Earth 230-some miles below. He says it’s, it’s going to be an eye-opener. "Mike; you’ve got to be ready, ready for that and just be careful you don’t wear yourself out hanging on so tight, get that white-knuckled, as you’re hanging on the handrails, looking down below."

You and Piers have three spacewalks planned for this mission. One at a time, tell me what you’ve got planned for EVA 1.

EVA 1’s going to be very different from what people have done in the past. We’re excited about the chance to do it. We’re going to take that OBSS, the orbiter boom sensing system, that we used for inspections early in the flight and test the OBSS as a platform to get us out to a place on the wing or somewhere on the shuttle that needed to be repaired. The problem with doing spacewalk repairs on the wing of the shuttle is there’s nothing to hang on to. You’re on that slippery ice and no way to stabilize yourself. And so we’ll have a foot restraint that we will put onto the, the end of the boom, and then we’ll climb into that. Piers will be the first one to do it. He will get his feet latched into this foot restraint and they’ll lift him up out of the payload bay where we set this up, and he’ll first practice just doing some, putting some motion into the boom—it’ll be swaying back and forth, bouncing in it, and doing things to it—just to evaluate, what that does to the combination 50-foot boom and 50-foot shuttle arm. Do the joints slip? How steady is it? Those kind of things. We’ll do that at a couple of different positions with just Piers on the boom. Then we’ll come back down to the payload bay, and we’ll swap positions. I’ll get into the foot restraint and Piers will be hanging on to a tool stanchion, which is also out there with us that we’ll be installing. He’ll hang on to that. Then we’ll do some more testing. The reason we do that is we think most repairs will probably require two people. One is going to have his head kind of in the job, be up close to it working on the repair site. A second person will be literally working like a surgical assistant, handing him tools, repair materials, different tools and things like that. You’ve got to be careful you, you don’t cause any more damage to the patient while you’re in there. The two of us will go up into free space, we’ll do some of this—I call it bouncing on the boom—and then they’re going to drive us in close to the space station truss. So there will be some actual structure there that they’ll drive me up close to, and I’ll practice putting different inputs in. As if the structure’s here I’ll be pushing on it and simulating some various repair kind of techniques—some of the scraping-type of actions and putty-type actions that will simulate some of the repair materials. As I push on this, this boom and arm are flexible so it, I’m going to be pushed away from it and we’ve got to determine if it’s stable enough for us to effect a good repair so that we can do good repairs, and not cause more damage while we’re at it.

The second spacewalk really got a wholesale change on you at the end of last year when the station’s Trailing Umbilical System cable, one of them, got severed. Give me a, an overview of what is now planned for EVA 2.

As it stands right now for EVA 2, we’ll be carrying a pump module up in the payload bay of the space shuttle. We’ll go unbolt the Pump Module, get it ready to go, and then use the space station’s robot arm to actually lift it up and hold it. The arm will grab it, and then they’ll move it over to the space station where we’ll install it on an external stowage platform where it’ll stay for future use. Then we’ll get onto the Trailing Umbilical System. It will also be carried up. The replacement part, it’s, it’s big—it’s about the size of a refrigerator—and it’ll be carried up in the back of the payload bay. We’ll have to do a similar thing with it, except when we get it unbolted and ready to go there’s no way to grab it with the arm, and so, one of us will ride the arm, again on one of these foot restraints like we used on the boom, and then, we’ll hand the Trailing Umbilical System, the TUS, this replacement unit, to the guy on the arm, who will then manhandle it, take it over to where we’ll, we’ll remove the old one and install the new one on the space station. Once we get it all bolted in, there’s kind of a ribbon cable that has power, data, and video all in this one cable, and we’ll have to stretch that out and, and get that part installed too.

So, the replacement that you’re doing is, is one large component to replace the cable that was severed and the hardware that was accompanying it?

Yes, the cable itself is a fairly small thing. It’s about 1¼ or 1½ -inch-half wide and about an eighth of an inch thick, but it’s a very complicated mechanism that is used by the Mobile Transporter as it goes up and down the truss of the space station. This is used to provide power and data while we’re moving it to different work locations. Unfortunately, the take-up reel—and this is similar to the kind of extension cord you might have mounted to the ceiling of your garage, but it’s actually a very, very high tech cable. It's not just a power line to run a work light. Again it’s got the power, data, and video all running through the same thing. And it's got to maintain the proper tensions, in the very harsh environment of space. It’s a pretty complicated, cumbersome system.

So, rather than try to replace the cable you’re going to replace the whole apparatus.

We don’t believe that replacing the cable is a viable option. We've got to swap out the whole reel.

The third scheduled spacewalk on this mission is again devoted to some tests of techniques that are being developed for repairs to the shuttle’s thermal protection system.

We’ll be the repair guys on EVA 3. The worksite here will be a box in the back of the payload bay of the shuttle that we’ll carry up that has samples of damaged, reinforced carbon-carbon, similar to the leading edge of the shuttle. We’ll open the box up, and there’s 15 different panels that’ll be in this box. We'll be testing our ability to use the, the NOAX material—it’s a, it’s a black goo that looks very much like roofing tar, except when you squirt some out of what looks a lot like a normal caulking gun out there in zero gravity vacuum, the stuff boils. It’s very eye-opening to see this, occurring in a vacuum chamber here on Earth, and there’s a lot of solvents in it and, and so it starts literally boiling. And so we have to work that stuff down to get it to settle down; it loses some of the solvents—the volatiles boil off—and becomes more well behaved. Then we can start to do the actual repair work. This can vary anywhere from small scratches that we want to just put an extra coating on, to make sure that, that there’s no extra damage from the re-entry heating, to filling larger cracks and, and maybe even small holes that might be in the, the RCC leading edge of the shuttle. The reason for so many samples is that it’s not a science. It really is an art to know when the material is ready to start doing the repair. It has it settled down enough to do the repair, because bubbles in the repair are a bad thing. We’ll do a number of different samples at different temperatures using slightly different techniques. When we get those back on the ground those will all be exposed to the high temperatures to simulate re-entry and see how they stand up Then we’ll know if we have a, good repair for the leading edge or not.

Three spacewalks and tons of material moving back and forth; so it’s a pretty busy timeline. By the time you’re ready to close the hatches and undock from the space station, in your mind what it is that has to have happened so that you can consider that this mission was a success, that it has set the stage for the follow-on shuttle missions to fly?

Wow, that’s a good question. We’re going to be busy. Like I said earlier, we’re going to be “blowin’ and goin’” from the time the main engines cut off until the time we touch down. The mission is chock-full of objectives, first for getting the space station resupplied, getting Thomas Reiter up there to join the crew, a number of objectives to do some repairs and take spare parts up to the station, and then testing our ability for space shuttle inspection and self-repair. It’s going to be a full plate and, there’s no one thing that I could say would be my definition of mission success. We’re going for all of it.

This mission is helping bring the space shuttle back to flight and resuming space station operations just as we’re moving into the last few years of its operational life. Tell me about the space shuttle’s contribution to the assembly and operation of the space station.

I think we’re finally living out the dream that the space shuttle was developed to fulfill. When we were developing the shuttle back in the ’70s, when we started in the early ’70s, the idea then was to use the space shuttle as a way of building a space station. And we’re doing it; and it’s doing it magnificently.

But building the space station isn’t really the final goal. It’s just a step toward our goal. So, Mike, from your perspective, how is the space station contributing to the future of human exploration of space?

As I've said before, I don’t believe that we’re destined to remain on this rock forever. We have to move in steps, and even the space shuttle and the space station, are steps in the right direction. But we’re still in low Earth orbit. We’re still real close to home, about as close as we are from Houston to Dallas. But what we learn from the space station…there are a number of different aspects to that. The first, the most obvious, is the long-term, living in space. What does it take to live, not just live and survive but to thrive in space for long periods of time? The second one is the equipment and proving the system’s ability to handle the power, the water, the air over long periods of time. We’ve learned a lot with the space station so far. We’ve had challenges that could be called failures as we’ve, we’ve dealt with balky systems on the space station. But in thinking about it as a stepping-stone and as an opportunity to test and to learn, they’ve been big successes because we’ve found things that didn’t work as well as we hoped. It sends us back to the drawing board to figure out improvements and fixes. It also teaches us how to cope with systems that don’t work perfectly. If you believe the designers, they’ll think that their system’s going to work perfectly always; but they don’t. Things do go wrong, and you’ve got to learn how to cope with it. You’ve got to learn how to, how to fix things, how to work through problems. You’ve got to learn that redundancy, having more than one really important system, is an important thing. But, the third major thing that we’ve done on the space station is bring most of the spacefaring nations of the world together to work as partners. That in itself, if you think back to what the world was like just 15 or 20 years ago. Now we’re working together as partners. We’re understanding each other and we’re making the world’s biggest engineering challenge, and management challenge, a reality. We’ve learned a lot about that process, and that teamwork that it takes to make those things happen. As we reach out, as we go back to the moon and that next big, significant step, and we dream about going farther, about sending humans to Mars, it’s going to take all of these things that we’ve learned through the space shuttle and space station programs and putting them together, building the foundation, and growing out as we reach further and extend human influence and reach into space.