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Return To Flight

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2006 Preflight Interview: Steve Lindsey
02.23.06
 
+ Read 2005 interview

Q: You have a job that millions of people dream about having, Steve. Is being an astronaut, flying in space, is that what you always wanted to do with your life?

JSC2005-E-29641 -- STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey Image to right: STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey awaits the start of an emergency egress training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Credit: NASA

A. I didn’t always necessarily want to fly in space my whole life. I mean, when I was a kid, probably eight years old when Neil Armstrong, you know, first walked on the moon, I remember watching it on a black-and-white TV and like every other kid, I said, wow, I want to do that, I want to be an astronaut. And he was a hero, obviously, and I went on and the space program went on and I grew up. When I was in high school I wanted to be an engineer because my dad was an engineer, I wanted to go to engineering school. But I also really wanted to fly airplanes, and so I wanted to pursue some job where I could do both of those. I applied for and was accepted to the Air Force Academy, and so I got my engineering degree and started flying airplanes after I graduated. I did that for about five years, and then what I really wanted was a job where I could combine engineering and flying. So I thought, well, how I can do that, and, I thought, well, the perfect job for that would be to be a test pilot because as a test pilot you bridge the gap between the engineering community and the flying community. I applied for and was fortunate enough to get into the Test Pilot School, and was a test pilot for four or five years and probably after I was a test pilot for a while then I started thinking, well, you know, I am qualified for the astronaut program; I have the, the qualifications so, and they do the same thing. You get to do a lot of engineering, science, plus flying; I thought, wow, it would be a, it would be a really good job to do that same thing, so I applied for this and I figured the worst they could say is no, and they got my record mixed up with somebody else’s and selected me. So my career goals have always been use my education; I love flying, use that as well; and this job fit in with that just like the other jobs I had had, and so it wasn’t really until a little bit later in my career that I really wanted to be an astronaut.

I think a lot of people who watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon had the same reaction you did—Oh, I want to do that!

Right.

But some people looked at that and said, I don’t want no part of that.

Right.

Do you have any sense of what it is about that that got you so excited?

No, I don’t. I don’t know what it was. I think it was just at the time, it was pushing technology. Probably the biggest thrill is doing something that has never been done, and trying something new, and, breaking paradigms and doing something different and expanding our knowledge base, expanding what we can do technologically. Certainly probably the risk element is part of the thrill—like any boy, I think that’s why you do crazy things on your bicycle when you were a kid or on the skateboard—it’s because you like to do that. So it’s probably the pushing the boundaries, trying something that had never been done before, was probably what excited me. And flying is a big part of it.

When you were growing up who were your heroes or your inspirations?

Oh, probably, you know, Neil Armstrong was one, John Glenn who I was fortunate enough to fly with later on; probably my biggest role model though were my parents, my father; seeing what he did in his life and trying to emulate that.

You said he was an engineer?

He was an engineer. He grew up on a farm during the Depression and basically got drafted, went to the Korean War, came back from that and he graduated, went to a lot of one-room schoolhouses and things like that and got back from the Korean War and says, I think I’m going to be an engineer. So, he went on the GI Bill and got his engineering degree, which, really a tough row to hoe, considering his background. And so, in that way watching him live his life and being able to do what he did, I thought, was a pretty significant achievement, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

You grew up in Southern California.

Yes.

Do you get a chance to go back there and talk with the folks?

I’ve been back, probably, oh, half a dozen times, I suppose, and I do, I’ve talked to all the schools, and it’s always fun to go back and talk to everybody and, and see the folks that I grew up with as well as all the teachers that I interfaced with when I was growing up, so, yeah.

What’s the Los Angeles Basin look like when you fly over it 200 miles or so up?

Oh, the Basin, Los Angeles is really easy to pick out from space because it has a unique shape, it’s right on the coast; cities usually show up kind of grayish. It’s very unique as far as picking out where I specifically live; I could probably do it with a powerful set of binoculars. But, you know, at five miles a second it goes by pretty fast and you better know exactly where you’re looking — unfortunately, you don’t have a lot of time to look at it — and quite frankly, to be honest, during most flights, I don’t really have a lot of time to look out the window.

What do you do when you’ve got a lot of spare time on the ground? What other kind of interests or hobbies do you..?

Oh, well, I have three children, so most of my time is spent with them and all their various activities. Hobbies that I have outside of that—actually I do it with them, too—is I like to water ski in the summertimes, which is mostly summertime here in Houston, and I have a motorcycle, I go out and ride it, I do dirt bike riding a little bit, and so those are kind of my hobbies; very involved, again, with my kids, with our church, and things like that.

When you’re assigned to a flight and an astronaut is training, it takes up a, a lot of time, and it’s time...

Sure.

...that you could be otherwise spending doing any one of those other things. What is it for you that provides the motivation to make that choice?

Well, you bring up a good point that it does take a lot of time, especially in a training flow, especially as you get toward the end of a training flow. What I try to do is really be careful with the balance that I try to be as efficient as I can during the day. I try to start work earlier rather than later so that I can hopefully get done a little at a normal time so, I try to balance that. As a Commander, I try to balance our training schedule to make it like that for everybody else, that we have adequate family time. As far as being motivated by what we do, every day is different. As an astronaut when you’re training or in flight, it’s always interesting, it’s always different; it’s almost always fun and it’s always doing new things or things that you’ve never done before, things that have never been done before. So, I love the job; I’ve never had a job I didn’t like, and so it’s really, to me it doesn’t feel like work.

Because you’re an astronaut, you’re more aware than most people are of the dangers of spaceflight.

Sure.

And yet, here you sit, ready to go do it again. So I want to know why. Why, what is it that we’re learning or, or that we’re, we’re getting from flying in space that makes it, in your mind, worth the risk that you’re taking?

Well, the key, obviously, is to take the risk; the gain has to be worth the risk. And, for me, the gain is I believe in the human spaceflight program; I believe [in] what it’s achieved. If you could wake up in the morning and analyze everything you do from the time you get up in the morning till the time you go to bed at night, and even while you’re sleeping, and in each moment of the day you could identify something that you use or take advantage of, either technologically or otherwise, that came from the space program. So, there’s a lot of talk about spin-offs, and we talk about specific spin-offs, but you could literally trace your day, and you could identify something, each moment of the day, that came directly from the space program, and you can see it all over the place: telecommunications devices, a lot of the medical equipment that we use today, telemetry, you name it, even the beds they advertise now actually came out of the space program. And so, there’s all of these spin-offs. I believe that there’s a desire for us to explore and to learn new things. In a space research-type program, just like research at a university, for example, if you’re in the commercial business world you can’t afford to try a thousand different things and have 999 of those fail. In a research program you can, because you don’t know what’s going to happen; you don’t know how it’s going to be used; you’re not going to know what the result is. Part of space is research, and we try things, and maybe 999 of them fail, but the one thing that succeeds might be a new cancer medicine or something like that, and that’s really important. The other way I think we learn technologically and grow as a nation and as a set of nations and learn and advance technology is by trying to do something that’s difficult. Doing spaceflight is difficult: it’s dangerous, and it’s difficult, and it’s hard to do—it’s hard to get to orbit, it’s hard to get out of orbit; it’s hard to go interplanetary, which is where we’re headed now, and just the act of developing the technology and the operational skills necessary to do that will result in all kinds of applications that we can’t possibly imagine now. So, I look at the gain in terms of the exploration, what we can learn about ourselves how we can advance our own civilization through it, and I just think it’s worth it.

What about your family—how do they deal with the risks of your job?

It’s a little bit harder for my family because they’re not going on the missions, and they watch me go on the missions. What promise I’ve always made to my family is that I will look at what we’re doing, and if I believe that we are not doing it as safely as we possibly can — I’m not saying that it’s “safe,” I’m just saying as, that we’re taking all the reasonable precautions that we can and doing it as safely as possible — I’ve always made them this promise that if I don’t think we’re doing that, I won’t fly. So at least, they’re assured that I think it’s as safe as we can make it before we go. They support me in doing it; they support the mission, and they understand the risks.

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

It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through. I was, for that particular flight, the lead family escort for the Columbia families, so I was there at the runway with them when it all happened, so it was extremely difficult to go through, and I hope I never have to do it again.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, after looking into it, it pinpointed physical causes behind the loss of this orbiter.

Yes.

Assess the improvements that we’ve made to this point in eliminating hazardous debris and detecting damage on orbit and making repairs.

Well, since the Columbia accident, the kinds of things that we, actually we’ve done a whole bunch of things, but let me kind of just summarize them as best I can. Obviously, we’ve looked at the tank and analyzed the tank and looked at all the critical debris sources—in other words, where on the tank you can have debris come off that’s large enough to do damage in the orbiter as well as actually the solid rocket boosters and any other external part; debris from the launch pad, for example — analyzed all that and determined, OK, what are the pieces that can cause this critical damage, then looking at those pieces and looking at methods to eliminate them. The results of that effort, in a nutshell, were to try to eliminate all those sources of critical debris: now, whether it be a redesign to that area, elimination of foam in that area, reduction of the size of the foam in that area, or possibly an improved spray technique so that you can get the foam on more consistently and make it less likely for it to come off during flight. We made a whole bunch of changes to the tank; the big ones that everybody heard about, obviously, was the bipod ramp area, which was fixed, which was the cause of the Columbia accident, the foam coming off in that area made that fix and in several other areas, which I won’t go into here. When [STS-]114 flew in the summer of ’05, pretty successful except for a couple of pieces that came off that we didn’t expect. The one that really surprised us was the one that everybody talks about and that’s off the Protuberance Air Load ramp. Since that time, we’ve done a lot of analysis on that, done some more wind tunnel and, and some more wind tunnel will be completed prior to the launch. To analyze and come up with a solution that essentially involves eliminating that Protuberance Air Load ramp completely off the external tank. And obviously if you eliminate the foam completely, it can’t come off and hit the vehicle. So that improvement is being made and will be made by the time that we fly. We’re waiting for the last amount of data to come in on that, and hopefully, we’ll be able to confirm that we are safe to fly without it, so our flight will be a test flight in that we’ll fly a different tank configuration than the STS-114 crew flew. So those are the changes in terms of debris. So the first question is, or the first thing you want to do, and the primary solution to this problem on Columbia is to eliminate the critical debris. Don’t allow it. Don’t allow critical debris to come off and hit the orbiter. The second thing is, if you get airborne and you do have things come off, you want to be able to detect them. So, the next thing we focused on was inspection. In inspection there’s a whole suite of sensors, if you will, and ways to detect that. We’ve added cameras on the launch pad to image the vehicle as it climbs up; we have a couple of airplanes airborne that image the vehicle as it’s climbing up; we have on-board cameras in the solid rocket boosters and some on the external tank area to actually image the tank and the bottom surface of the orbiter as we’re flying, and we’re getting all that data down. Once we get up there and we get to main engine cutoff and in orbit, and the tank separates, we have additional digital cameras automatically that go off in the, in some wells on the orbiter to shoot the tank and take a look at the tank. And finally we’ve moved up and changed our techniques for, we’ve always, as a crew, have photographed the external tank, and the way we do that is after the tank separates, I maneuver the vehicle and pitch it around while a couple of the mission specialists get out of their seats with cameras; they tell me to stop when they see the external tank in the overhead windows, and they image it with both a digital camera of high resolution as well as a video camera. So, we’ve moved that up so that we’re actually closer to the tank when that happens now, and we have that. And that gives us a whole bunch of data on the tank, and some on the underside of the orbiter; we also have leading edge sensors in the leading edge of the wings that detect, we’re actually testing right now in an attempt to use them to detect if we take a debris hit on the leading edges of the wings. Once we are airborne and up there and we’ve gotten all of that data, then our next step on the second day we’re up there is we’re going to use the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, which is what the STS-114 crew used — we’ll be the second use of that — and we’re actually going to inspect the leading edges of the wings and the nose cap using that. And that has sensors on it, laser sensors, and a new digital camera on it that have the ability to detect critical damage size. In other words, the smallest hole that could cause us problems during entry, they can detect. So we’re going to pump all that data down to the ground, and then, on Flight Day 3 when we rendezvous with the space station, we’ll also do the rendezvous pitch maneuver, which is the same thing that STS-114 did about 600 feet below the station, where the station crew will be using still cameras and they’ll be imaging the bottom of the vehicle to get all the tile areas, and we’ll provide all that data. So we have a huge suite of inspection sensors that overlap each other, that detect critical debris size and are able to tell if we have damage.

Most, if not all, of those changes that you’ve gone over for us were used on the first Return to Flight test flight, on STS-114.

Yes.

How did they do?

Well, let’s see; let me go through them all. The ground cameras worked great; got a lot of data for us. The on-board cameras on the shuttle during ascent, they all worked fine. We actually are flying some additional cameras on our flight, so we’ll have a little more capability than they did there. They call them ET umbilical well cameras — they’re digital cameras that, as the tank separates and we thrust the orbiter forward, they take pictures of the tank — those worked very, very well, and we’re going to use those again. And the crew handheld photos of the tank also worked very well. On Flight Day 2, when the STS-114 crew used the Orbiter Boom Sensor System I believe the result of that, from everything I’ve heard, is it actually performed better than we expected. It’s more detailed than we expected, and that worked very well. The rendezvous pitch maneuver on Flight Day 3, they got great photos from that, and they were able to detect everything they needed to see from that. The wing leading edge sensors did work; it’s a challenge to correlate that to actual photographs, and they’re still working on that, but the leading edge sensor system actually worked real well and the batteries in them lasted a little bit longer than they expected so, as a whole, I’d say all the inspection work worked very well. Another thing to note is that they had a ground team that was taking all of this data plus camera data from radar data from the Cape, camera data from some airplanes we had airborne, plus all of this other data, putting it all together in an attempt to determine the health of the vehicle, and they had a huge amount of data to deal with in a very, very small amount of time. Because if we’re going to do something, if we had a problem and we wanted to do something about it, we have to have all that information back within four or five days. And they did, that’s one of the really big successes of this is, they did a great job pulling all that data together, coming up with a cohesive, coherent story to give the Mission Management Team confidence that they had a healthy vehicle.

All of those people and thousands of others who are working before that flight and afterwards to put together all these changes—those people have been working to make a safe Return to Flight possible. Tell me your thoughts about the contributions of members of that team.

Oh, the whole Return to Flight team, which is really across every NASA center, has had a huge contribution, and they haven’t stopped. They worked and worked and worked for the entire time from the Columbia accident to we flew 114 to get them airborne and since STS-114 has come back, their workload has stayed as high getting ready for our flight and getting ready for the next flight, dealing with the things we learned from STS-114 that we do need to change and coming up with better ways to do what we did on STS-114. So, their contribution has been huge. And you go to all the centers and you talk to these folks and they’re all really motivated and their number one goal is our safety and to get the shuttles flying and get them flying as safely as they possibly can. The good thing about all this is the motivation is all there and you won’t go to any center and find someone who’s kind of lukewarm about it — they’re very passionate about what they do, and that, that’s real motivational for us.

Beyond the foam and the wing, CAIB also pointed out some organizational and human factors within NASA that contributed to...

Yes.

...the loss of Columbia, too. Tell me what you see in terms of the improvements in the management system and the safety culture here.

Well, the first thing I did when I read the CAIB Report, I started reading in those sections, and I saw myself in there. I think that almost everybody else involved in this, because we were all involved in this prior to Columbia, saw a little bit of themselves in this: well, there’s some behavior that I did that I probably shouldn’t have done; I should’ve probably done this a different way. I think the majority of people at NASA took that to heart. And I’ve seen a lot of organizational culture change since then in terms of you just go to a meeting with either shuttle or station program. The tone of the meetings are different, you see people speaking up a lot more, sometimes more than they probably should, but you see a lot of that going on in every meeting, and the whole dynamic of how people communicate really has changed. Organizationally, the Mission Management Team, for example, has changed tremendously; the way the programs are run and, again the free, open communication, you see a lot of changes. That doesn’t mean we’re there — it’s a continual process, and we’ll have to continually improve it; it will never be perfect, there will always be communications problems. There will always be issues like that — any organization has those and any organization you walk into, I believe, has similar problems. All you can do is just keep working on it as best you can. But I have seen a change, and I have seen things change for the better, and I think it’s a good change, and we have to keep working on it; it’s not perfect.

This mission, STS-121, also known as station assembly mission ULF-1.1; summarize the main goals of this space shuttle flight.

JSC2005-E-29728 -- STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey (left) and Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak Image to right: Commander Steve Lindsey (left) and Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak participate in a training session in one of the full-scale trainers in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Credit: NASA

Well, let’s see, the main goals of STS-121, first and foremost we’re the second and final Return to Flight test mission. We were a flight that was added after Columbia when we were working on Return to Flight because all the flight test objectives we needed for Return to Flight we couldn’t fit into a single mission. So, first and foremost, that’s our number one priority is to accomplish those test objectives to complete Return to Flight, and hopefully get us in a situation at the end of our flight where we’ve checked out enough equipment and done enough testing on the Return to Flight changes that we can move on back into space station assembly, which is where, you know, that’s the critical step we’re trying to take. So I see us as a bridge just like STS-114 was to get us back on to space station assembly, to complete that, hopefully, and get all those flights done by 2010 when we retire the shuttle. So our objectives, I’ll go through the Return to Flight ones first and then I’ll talk a little bit about the space station objectives, because that’s probably, the truth is, the space station objectives are probably three-quarters of what we’re doing ... maybe two-thirds, so when we get airborne we’re obviously, on Flight Day 2, we’re going to do some more work on inspection and all those objectives, just like STS-114 did, to determine the health of our vehicle as, as well as test out all of that equipment. Once we dock with space station, right after we dock with space station the next day, we’re going to put an MPLM, which is a pressurized logistics module, onto space station and do significant transfers of equipment to station and take old equipment off of station and that will be going on throughout the flight. And that’s a space station objective. Our first spacewalk, which will be on Flight Day 5, is a Return to Flight test objective, and what we’re going to be doing is we’re going to put first one and then two of our EVA crewmembers Mike Fossum and Piers Sellers, on the end of the Orbiter Boom Sensor System which is attached to the shuttle robotic arm; we’ll put them on the end of the boom where we’re going to evaluate the, the suitability of the boom for a repair platform. The idea being you’re not docked to a space station or anything else, and you have to go down underneath the vehicle to repair a section underneath the vehicle, and the only way you can reach it is with the boom. And the question we want to answer is, is the boom and the arm together—with an EVA crewmember and all that weight on the end of it—stable enough that they can do a repair to the tile or a repair to the reinforced carbon-carbon leading edges or the nose cap using that system? Is it stable enough that they can do that, or do we need some sort of local stabilization system? So we’re going to be testing that, and that’s the entire first spacewalk. The second spacewalk we’re doing is going to be all space station objectives. We’re going to be using the space station arm, we’re going to take a, what’s called a Pump Module, which is a critical spare, and we’re going to move it up to the platform called ESP-2, which is what the STS-114 crew installed, and we’re going to put it up there and hook it up, and it will be a spare for the space station crew if they have a problem with their Pump Module. A Pump Module out on space station, it’s a critical spare that they need for assembly. The second half of that spacewalk is going to be to replace a Trailing Umbilical System. In December ’05 we had a, we’re, and we don’t know yet exactly why, but one of the cables that powers this Trailing Umbilical System, and what this Trailing Umbilical System does is it provides power to a Mobile Transporter which allows the space station arm to translate on a couple of tracks along the truss of the space station to reach various work sites, and it has a redundant system, but one of these electrical connectors, essentially, was cut, and we need to replace that unit and replace that cable so they can restore a redundant power, data, and video path to that system. So, the second half of our spacewalk will involve taking a new one that we’re carrying in our payload bay, installing it on space station on the truss section, and then taking the old one down and putting it back in our payload bay and bringing it home. So that’s our second spacewalk. Our third spacewalk is also going to be completely Return to Flight objectives, and on that flight we have a sample box in the back of our payload bay that has some damaged leading edge samples, various types of damage, and we’re going to use the space station arm and use a material called NOAX, which is a crack repair, kind of a goop-type stuff, and we’re going to spend that entire EVA “repairing,” if you will, fractured tile or fractured reinforced carbon-carbon. We’ll bring those samples home after we repair them, and they’ll actually run them in the arc jet and test them to see how well they work. Additionally during that spacewalk, we’re going to have an infrared camera, which is another inspection camera that works to detect heat as opposed to taking a digital picture, and the advantage of that is if you can detect that, you can detect discontinuities in surfaces, and we can actually see through the reinforced carbon-carbon. Because it is possible to get a type of damage scenario where something hits the leading edge of the wing and you don’t see any mark on the outside, but it can fracture underneath. And this infrared camera can see underneath, and we’re going to test that and see how well that works as part of that spacewalk. So, those are the spacewalks we’re doing to support Return to Flight. The second one, again, is purely ISS objectives, and while we’re not doing all of that, we will be transferring back and forth and re-supplying the space station with transfer items, and then as well as taking off the stuff that’s used up, old food trays and things like that. The other thing we’re doing that’s real critical is we’re actually going to augment the space station crew from two crewmembers to three crewmembers. Since Columbia we’ve only had two crewmembers on board because we didn’t have the logistics to support three. But with our flight we’re bringing up Thomas Reiter from the European Space Agency, and we will actually leave him on station. So we’re bringing him up, we’re going to transfer him and all of his supplies over to space station, then we’ll undock and leave him there for probably a six-month tour.

Let me get you to touch on a couple of items…

OK.

...in a bit of detail. You mentioned about the whole range of kind of cameras that you’re going to have on board as well as do sensors...

Yes.

...in the wings’ leading edges. On Flight Day 1, when you’re gathering all that data, you and your crew have also got a lot of work to do to get that data down that day, right?

That’s correct. On Flight Day 1, we’re going to have data from the wing leading edge sensors, and we’re going to have data from those ET umbilical cameras, and we’re going to have data from our handheld photography of the tank. To get all of those things down, we actually use laptop computers and we establish, we have, basically, wireless laptop computers that, that will pick up the signal from, first of all, the wing leading edge sensors and take all of that data into the laptop computer, and then the ground can pull that data out of our laptop computer. We do essentially the same thing with the ET umbilical well cameras as we pull that data into a laptop computer which comes out as, basically, digital photos, essentially; they’re going to downlink all those to the ground. Then the handheld digital photography, we just download it in a computer, just like you would at home, and the ground will pull that down. And the video we’ll actually just play it back and downlink it directly into Mission Control. So, there’s a whole bunch of Flight Day 1 requirements after we get on orbit to get all that data down, some of it will come down while we’re sleeping on Flight Day 1, some of it will come down real time as we send it down.

Similarly, for the OBSS inspections on Flight Day 2, a lot of that data is going to be coming down real time as well.

Yes. The Flight Day 2 inspection using the sensor system, the vast majority of that work we will do when we have a link to the ground, so that data will be coming down real time to the ground as we collect it. If we don’t do it that way, then we have to record it and find a time to play it back later. There are some issues we have with the cameras in doing that anyway, so we try to do most of that inspection work while we have a good signal with the ground so that we can downlink it directly to them and don’t have to play it back later.

The new brands of inspections of the vehicle continue on rendezvous day, and you’re the man who’s going to be flying the rendezvous. Let’s talk about what you’re going to be doing differently this time than you did on your last mission to let station crewmembers have a look at the underside of the shuttle.

Well, our, our primary means of getting data on the underside of the shuttle, the tiles on the shuttle, is through something called a rendezvous pitch maneuver where we take the orbiter and we do basically a 360° flip, and while we’re upside down the space station crew uses digital cameras with powerful lenses on them to shoot the underside of the orbiter, and then they downlink all of those pictures to the ground. So, the way that works for us for the rendezvous is we do the normal rendezvous we’ve always done; at 2,000 feet I’ll take over the vehicle manually; I’ll fly it to a point about 600 feet underneath the space station, get it lined up, with where they’re shooting from. They’ll be shooting from a couple of windows that are in the Russian service module, so they’ll already be ready to go. We’ll be communicating with them, letting them know how many minutes till it starts and everything so they’re ready with their cameras, ready to go. At 600 feet we instead of continuing and doing what’s called the, the TORVA, twice orbital rate flyaround to the, to the V-bar, or up in front of the space station, instead we’re going to pause there and we’re going to do a maneuver. And what we do is we program in a maneuver, and we execute this maneuver which just allows the shuttle to do a 360° flip, at, at a certain rate. So we get in position, we get everything lined up, we give them a call, and we execute this, and then essentially we go hands-off for 360°. And the vehicle flips around, the station crew takes the pictures, and then when we get back stabilized again, we reload our flight control system to get it set up again so that I can fly manually again, and then we continue with the approach and come back to a V-bar.

As I said, that was not part of the rendezvous profile...

Right.

...when you flew...

Yes.

...your last mission. From a pilot’s point of view what’s that like? Is this, is that an important difference in, in the overall approach?

It’s probably what makes it challenging is, procedurally, you have to be very accurate. In other words, if you skip a step or you do a step out of order, it could really mess things up. But if you execute it appropriately, procedurally, it’s really not hard to do at all. And the vehicle comes out in a predictable location all the time. You know, one of our concerns is, if you can’t see the space station and you’re only 600 feet away, you want to make sure that if the vehicle is going to do something you don’t expect, it will do it moving away from space station, not towards the station, because the last thing you want to happen is when the space station finally comes into view again you don’t want it to, see it a lot bigger than you saw it when you left. So we have certain braking gates or speeds, approach speeds, that we want to maintain executing this maneuver; we have windows; we’ve run thousands and thousands of runs through our models here on the ground to make sure that we’re doing it safely. So the key is crew coordination in doing everything because there’s a whole bunch of steps to do, very quickly, making sure the whole crew’s on the same page and we coordinate appropriately and take all the steps at the appropriate times and in the appropriate order. And if you do that, it’s not a problem.

You complete the rendezvous, you dock to the station; within a few hours, you’ll have transferred Thomas Reiter over...

Yes.

...and he’ll become a space station crewmember...

Yes.

...as you mentioned. He will not only get you back to a three-person crew on the station, but for the first time they’ll have a station crew that’s not just Americans and Russians.

That’s right. This will be the first time we have another international astronaut that’s not a U.S. or Russian on the space station for a long-duration mission. So, it’s a very significant event, in my mind because that’s what we’ve always wanted to do with the space station is make it truly international, with multiple countries, and this will be the first time that happens. So I think that will be very significant.

The payload bay of Discovery is mostly filled with a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module...

Correct.

...which gets installed on the space station the second day you’re there.

Yes.

Describe that operation and, and what, what it takes to pick that moving van up and put it where it, you want it to be for the next week.

Well, it’s actually a coordination between folks on the shuttle and folks on the space station robotic arm. What will happen is actually two of my crewmembers will be flying the space station’s robotic arm, and they will grapple onto a grapple fixture to, they have an end effector that, with snares, essentially, that grab a pin, and that’s how we grapple it. So they go in and they grapple this logistics module; once they have it grappled in the shuttle, myself and another shuttle crewmember will be throwing some switches to release the module from our payload bay so that it’s free, and then they proceed to pull the module out of our payload bay, maneuver it in position, and then essentially, berth it onto the space station. I’ll have another couple of crewmembers running a Common Berthing Mechanism — that’s the mechanism that grabs it on the space station, pulls it in, and seals it — and they’ll be actually operating that system through a laptop computer over on space station. So, my crew is all over the place on basically three separate components doing this. And then once the module is attached to station underneath the Node 1 then myself and Thomas Reiter, actually, will go over to that and we’ll do several sets of leak checks on it and do something called vestibule outfitting, and that’s where we get the hatches finally open and we have to make some power cables and some data cables [connections] between the two elements, do a few more leak checks, remove some equipment, and eventually, it’s about probably a three-hour process where we’ll finally get the module hatch open, and then we’ll be ready to start transferring.

And those transfers continue throughout about another week.

Transfers probably take the most time of anything on the mission, and they’re continual every day, and every free moment we have we will be transferring because we have a whole bunch to transfer across, and even more to transfer back. And, and it’s, it’s time-consuming, it’s really important, and so every available minute we have we will have crewmembers working that transfer.

In some respects, what you’re going to bring back is more important than what you’re delivering?

Yes. It’s, well they’re, they’re both very important, and our first priority is to resupply, so everything that’s in the module we’ll transfer across, ’cause it’s all critical things that the space station needs. It’s, it’s food, it’s clothing, it’s experiments. We’re, we’re bringing across a, a couple of large racks—one is a freezer, and one is a oxygen-generation system that will allow us to generate oxygen within the U.S. segment, or within the U.S. Lab; it provides redundancy and that’s a capability that could eventually allow the space station to go up to six crewmembers, say, instead of three. So, they’re all critical transfers across, but logistically, you know, as, as space station food and things like that, they end up with a lot of things they need to get rid of, or old experiments or old equipment, equipment that’s failed and it’s been replaced. Our best method to get all that equipment down is to use this logistics module, so we want to get as much of that packed back into the module so that we can bring it home as we can, because the more stuff you have on space station the more difficult it is to work on space station. If you think about your house, if you just fill your house up with bags and bags and bags of stuff, and trash, and you never empty the trash or you never take it out or you never get rid of old furniture, eventually your living space becomes unlivable, and that’s what we want to try to prevent on space station by bringing as much down as possible.

And, during the docked phase of the operation, along with all of that, there are three spacewalks that are scheduled.

JSC2004-E-54715 -- STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey Image to left: STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey, photographed in a T-38 trainer jet, prepares for a flight at Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center, Houston. Credit: NASA

Yes.

You don’t get to go outside; what do you do? What, what’s your role in this team?

My role in the, my role in the spacewalks is, is in some ways similar to my role in the whole mission. I mean, as commander, my job is to enable my crew to do their job, and that’s the way I see my role. I’m in a supervisory capacity, or I try to stay in a supervisory/“big picture” capacity as much as possible, not to interfere with them, not to micromanage them but just enable them to do their jobs, make sure they have all the tools to do their jobs. So during the spacewalks, primarily, I will have additional duties like you know, water transfers as we’re, we transfer a lot of water from the shuttle to the space station, which they use to generate oxygen as well as drinking water; and also my other, probably, big duty on all the spacewalks, to do all the robotics that we have to do, both on the shuttle arm and the space station arm, take a lot of camera views from both space station and shuttle. And I’m the primary camera guy during the spacewalks, making sure that the shuttle views that the, that the folks working on the space station arm have are, are set up and shipped over to them; space station views that need to be shipped over to shuttle are done; so I do a lot of that work. But primarily what I try to do is keep the “big picture” in terms of what’s going on, on the space station arm, on the space shuttle arm, as well as our spacewalking team, which is, you know, our two spacewalkers plus our crewmember that’s inside, my pilot, Mark Kelly, who’s kind of directing the spacewalk from inside. And I try to keep the “big picture” to watch out for problems that might be coming up, looking at timelines, looking at changes we may need to make based on how things are going in the spacewalk, “big picture”-wise, to get our objectives accomplished.

In a similar, in a similar vein in terms of changes we might need to make, the second spacewalk on your mission was pretty much a wholesale change after that TUS cable was severed late last year, and you’ve described what you’re going to do with that...

Yes.

...this time around. What does that say about your, about the program, but about your crew’s ability to respond to these late changes and do what needs to be done now?

One of the things I tried to impress on our crew from the beginning is that you need to expect change. The space station is a great machine but like any machine things break. And things unexpected break, and this was an unexpected break, and you know, because, because we, we, our crew, I think, has thought about change a lot and recognize that, you know, we’re going to have to deal with change and, depending on when we fly things will change, we’ve kind of tried to train ourselves to get used to that idea. We’ve, you know, in, in the course of our training, our EVA team has trained a whole bunch of different get-ahead—we call them “get-ahead” tasks, different tasks on space station—not knowing exactly what we were going to get. Well, we thought we had this EVA 2 all figured out until this monumental change came, but because of all that, I think, my crew is really good about responding to change and ready to respond to change, as well as our ground team that’s supporting us in the training as well as in the operations, is ready to respond to the change. So when that happened, I watched the both programs shift into high gear, you know, it happened right around Christmas time, and everybody shift into high gear and says, OK, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get this thing on the flight and get all the changes, and just watching everybody work, going, accepting the change and dealing with it and coming up with a plan very, very quickly has been very impressive to watch. So, I think the whole ground team as well as the crew is ready to respond to those kind of changes.

It’s a jam-packed timeline; you’ve got an awful lot of things in there.

That’s probably one of my biggest worries.

By the time you’re ready to come home, what do you think you’ll need to have done in order to consider this mission a success and set the stage for the missions to come?

Wow, that’s a hard question; what, what I, what I would like us to have done is I would like us to have completed all of our transfer work, completed the space station objectives we needed that are on our flight that enable them to go back to assembly, so from a space station assembly standpoint we want to have those, all those space station objectives that we’re doing complete, the transfers done, the TUS repaired because that’s critical for our next flight, the critical spare, the Pump Module, installed, all of that work done so that we can go back to assembly and get into that. In terms of Return to Flight objectives, I want the, hopefully, the performance of the boom to be the same as last time, the, all of our inspection techniques to work as well as they did, at least as well as they did last time, maybe better; get this, get our two spacewalks done with the boom as well as the, as well as the repair, to see how the repair worked—we don’t know, although we need to test that — and obviously the, the big one is hopefully the tank will perform as we hope it will, and, but that’s why we test it. We, we’ve made changes to, we made changes to the tank prior to STS-114, but what we can’t, what you can’t ever do is, we don’t have a facility on Earth where you can take an entire shuttle and its stack and its tank and its SRBs and run it through the entire flight profile and see how it does. You can test pieces of it, you can do analysis on pieces of it; you do your best, which is what they did on 114, but eventually you’ve got to say, OK, this is everything we can do on the ground; it’s time to go fly and we have to flight test it. And that’s what flight test is all about. Our flight is no different: we’ll, making some more changes to the tank; we’re going to do all the analysis on the ground that we can, all the wind tunnel testing on the ground we can, get the smartest people we can to look at the data, figure out whether we think we’re safe to fly and we’ve done everything we can, and then, and when we reach the point where we’ve done everything we can on the ground and we go test fly it. And so, we’re hoping that those changes work, and we think they’re going to, and we’re going to go fly and we’re going to see what happens, and I hope, I hope we don’t get surprised by anything — my experience as a test pilot has been, 90% of the missions I fly, they go exactly as we think they’re going to go, and about 10% of the missions I fly, they don’t. So, we’re, we’re to the point where we’ll have all the data, we’ll be as confident as we can that we’re as safe as we can, we’ve done the best we can with the changes, and then we’re going to go fly and we’re going to see what happens.

Your mission brings the space shuttle back to flight and resumes station assembly as we also move into the last few years of the shuttle’s operation.

Yes.

Tell me about the shuttle’s contribution to the space station’s assembly and operation.

The shuttle is, is absolutely key to space station, to completing space station assembly, because the international partner modules, the, the Japanese module, the Columbus European module, all of those —Node 2— all of those modules are designed to go on shuttle, and right now we don’t have anything else that can haul them. So, it’s absolutely critical to completion of space station that we use shuttle to do that and get it done, hopefully, by 2010. It’s an international program, we have commitments, we’ve we want to honor those commitments; we want to get the space station to a point where it can operate as a laboratory, as we originally intended it to, so we need to get those elements on board to do that. Having said that, we know that after 2010 the shuttle won’t be there anymore, and how we envisioned operating station is going to have to change, and we’re looking at that now. We’re going to have to have other ways of resupply, other ways of getting cargo off the space station—we won’t have those MPLMs on the shuttle—so we need to look at that. And we’re going to have to change the paradigm in how we operate space station, which I believe we can do—well, I know we can do. If you look at history and you look at, you take a typical military fighter aircraft, let’s say; and you look at that fighter aircraft over, say, a 20- or a 30-year service life, what you’ll see is that at the end of that service life the mission that that fighter performs usually looks very different than the mission it was designed for in the very beginning. So, and that is no different than where we’re going to be with space station, is how we operate space station after 2010 will look different than how we thought we were going to operate it when we designed it. How we operate the shuttle now is very different than how we thought we were going to operate it when we designed it. And it’s true of any system. So you, there, they always, their missions always evolve; how you operate them always evolve. In the space station we’re seeing, we know it’s going to happen, and we’re seeing it evolve, but it’s really no different than any other program, so I don’t know how exactly we’ll be using the space station after 2010. I know the shuttle is critical to getting its initial assembly done, and after that, I don’t know how we’ll use it but I think it’ll be, I think we’ll figure it out. I think we’ll use it as an international community, and I think it’ll be a success.

Of course just building and operating the station isn’t the ultimate goal anyway; it’s, it’s a step toward, toward a final goal.

That’s right. And, and just in the building and operating of it we learned so much for our next mission anyway. We’ve learned over the last two years how to deal with a vehicle when we can’t resupply it, or we can’t resupply it as we want; where, if a box breaks we can’t just fly up a replacement because we haven’t had the shuttle there. Well, the same will be true of any interplanetary mission you go on: if it breaks you’re going to have to figure out how to deal with it on the fly when you don’t have extra parts available, or you don’t have another one and you have to learn how to improvise. So we’ve learned a tremendous amount about exploration, I believe, just during this period dealing with a space station that you can’t resupply.

And so, the station, no matter how we use it, is contributing to the future, our future, of exploration.

Absolutely. And it’s contributing in ways that we can describe, and it’s contributing in other ways that we probably don’t realize yet.