Q: This is a question you’ve probably been asked a few times before but I’m going to ask it again. Knowing the odds of actually becoming an astronaut, what made you want to apply to be an astronaut?
Image to right: Astronaut Dominic L. Gorie, STS-123 commander. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Dominic Gorie, Commander
A: Well, I can’t imagine a, a more exciting job for a pilot. I remember when I was a little boy watching the first moon landings, I looked at that with the same awe that I watched people standing on the pitcher’s mound of a World Series with, and I thought that was one of the most exciting, incredible jobs that anybody ever could hope for. But as a small town little boy I didn’t think that was really in my future. I knew I wanted to fly airplanes and my father was an Air Force pilot so that was my dream was just to continue along that path. Once it became possible, once I was a test pilot and realized that that was the last hurdle you needed to get over to apply to NASA, boy, I jumped at it and it’s been a wonderful, wonderful career ever since.
Could you recreate for us the moment when you found out that you had been selected as an astronaut candidate? Where were you? How did it happen? How did you feel?
Well, we, my wife and I, were in Orange Park, Fla. I was in an F-18 squadron flying and we came home from running some errands and there was a voice message. It was Dec. 7. I remember the day very clearly. We called this phone number back and when I was asked if I really wanted to continue and join the astronaut office I thought that was sort of humorous that anybody had to ask me that question. But my wife was right there and we were just ecstatic. It was an unbelievable dream come true and I never really thought that it would happen but it was a pretty exciting time.
Well, good. NASA’s currently recruiting the next class of astronaut candidates. What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about applying?
I would heartily endorse anybody that ever thought of coming to the astronaut office. I would also encourage them to, if it didn’t work out the first time, if they weren’t accepted the first time, to keep applying. It took me a couple times, a couple applications, before NASA relented and let me come here. But you have to be persistent. I think that’s one of the things that NASA’s looking for -- somebody that’s motivated and knows what they want to do and has a strong enough desire that they will persevere despite any possible setbacks or pauses in the process. And once you get here the wonder and the joy of flying in space one time for one orbit makes it all worthwhile. All the years and hours and hours of hard work that you’ve spent studying and working towards it -- just one trip around the planet makes it all worthwhile.
So don’t give up if you don’t get it, accepted the first time.
OK. Now, now tell us a little bit about the place that you would consider your hometown.
Well, we moved around quite a bit when I was a little boy. We lived in states from Louisiana to Minnesota to Illinois and then finally I went to school, high school in Miami. So we transitioned from a real small town in previous locations to a big city. I consider where I went to high school probably as my hometown. My family still lives in Florida.
How did Miami and the people that were there that you grew up with, how did they make you the person that you are today?
I think you’re molded by everybody that you’ve ever been associated with -- your family and your friends and your teachers -- and that’s certainly true of me. I had a great big family with seven brothers and sisters so the house was always busy and there were things going on all the time. That was probably the biggest part, the people that I lived with since I was very small. My brothers and sisters are awesome. We still get together and do a lot of stuff together. At the school I went to, I had some great teachers, especially in math and science. They encouraged me to really open my eyes to different opportunities and things in our world that needed to be looked into. I really owe a lot to them.
We’ll talk a little more about that in just a minute. Can you recognize Miami from space?
Miami is one of the most recognizable cities I think in the United States. It sits down on the end of this beautiful peninsula right next to the Bahamas and the beautiful colors of that of those islands. So Miami is really easy. It’s always great to be able to fly over your home town and be able to look down and see where you grew up and wave to people that you know are down there watching you go over.
Tell us the story of your journey to become an astronaut and if you would, include your education and your professional career. You had a very distinguished career of, of service to this country. Tell us about it.
In high school I knew I wanted to be a pilot and the Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy were where I thought about going to college. The Naval Academy won out because of a couple different reasons, mainly because they had the most exciting airplanes to fly, in my view, and getting to fly off aircraft carriers. I don’t think you can top that as far as an aviation choice. After I got out of the Naval Academy and went to flight school I ended up flying a couple of different airplanes, A-7s and F-18s, in fleet squadrons. Interspersed with those tours were, were trips to the test pilot school and also out to Colorado Springs. Then once you have a test pilot background, you can apply to NASA. They looked at all those check marks in peoples’ careers and decided whether you’re a, a good candidate or not. That’s how I got to NASA, through flying in the Navy.
So how does your training as a test pilot prepare you for flying the shuttle?
Training as a test pilot hopefully opens your eyes to things that you weren’t expecting. That’s pretty much true almost every day on the space shuttle and on the space station. There’s things that come up and change and it’s a very fluid environment, so being trained in how to adapt to that and how to be resilient and fluid in our processes is what I think makes test pilots valuable in the space program.
You were the pilot for STS-91 and STS-98. You were the commander for STS-108. You have the lead role again as Commander of STS-123, your fourth mission. What is your perspective on space travel now as you prepare for this next mission?
Well, space travel for I think the current era is pretty much reserved for astronauts or for a few lucky individuals that are able to get on board the, the space station. I’m looking forward to the future where, as we’re just starting to see some signs of the commercial market opening up space travel, I think that’s going to be quite some time before we get a lot of people in space. But I can’t imagine a more exciting pursuit for, for people that are not professional astronauts. When I look at NASA and the entire effort of flying in space for astronauts and the builders of the space station I’m overwhelmed each time by the amount of effort that’s required and each flight. I think opens up my eyes even more to the unbelievable amount of effort it takes from people around the planet to make our space station what it is. The first time you fly you’re exposed pretty much to what your role is and you’re nervous about just accomplishing what you’ve been tasked to do on that timeline. But, as a commander, you’re able to see all of the teamwork in a much broader context and get an appreciation for how small a role you play but how critical it is as well.
You have several first time fliers on this mission. Have you given them any advice about preparing for their first trip into space?
I think almost every time we get together, whether it’s for social or for training purposes, we’re talking about flying in space and hopefully they’ve learned enough about experiences of folks that have gone before that it won’t be too much of a shock. But hopefully it’ll still be a wonderful surprise to them. We talk about the basic living, things that they will experience as well as the professional tasks -- doing spacewalks and robotics operations and what that’s going to be like for them. One of the biggest lessons I think is to, is to be able to remember and recall the, the wonder of flying in space and not get distracted by the tasks that you’re being asked to do each time. You still want to be able to remember how beautiful the view was outside, the feelings of weightlessness while you’re doing all the hard work that we’re going to be doing up there.
Flying in space has proven to be a dangerous endeavor. What do we gain from spaceflight that makes you willing to risk that danger?
I think what we’re doing with the International Space Station and every space shuttle flight is exploring our boundaries. We’re finding out things about ourselves. We’re finding out things about our environment and technology that improve life on the planet every single day. In addition to that, every time you get to speak to a student or a child about space travel and you see their eyes open up to the wonder and the beauty of flying in space you also see turning in their minds the opportunities that they maybe didn’t envision or think about in the past, whether that’s in math or science, but it’s a very real benefit. It’s hard to put a cost or a dollar value on when you see people's minds and especially in our young people open to opportunities and things they never even dreamed about.
So you feel that you are a role model to kids.
I don’t know if I’m a role model. I get to show them an exciting career choice, an opportunity for them to do something exciting and I hope that they would have the same excitement that I would have at their age looking at an astronaut walking into their school.
You talked about education. What was your favorite subject in school and why was it your favorite?
I think my favorite subject had to be science, whether that was physics or chemistry. What I saw in those classes was how our planet and how our world functions. Studying science opened my eyes to things and [gave me] a desire to find out even more about our world than was being presented in the classroom.
Give us a summary of the primary goals of the STS-123/1JA mission to the International Space Station and your responsibilities during that mission.
On 123 we were bringing up Garrett Reisman. He’s our No. 1 delivery item to the space station and we’re going to bring Leo [Eyharts] home. After that our first goal is to be to transfer that JLP which is the Japanese logistics module pressurized section. We’re going to attach that to Node 2 and then assemble the SPDM, Dextre, for the Canadian Space Agency. That’s going to take a couple of EVAs worth of work. There are a couple of other goals after that, but those are the, the three primary ones I think of.
You mentioned a couple of them there. But there are two primary pieces of station hardware that will be carried on your flight. As you mentioned one of the first is one of the six components that make up the Japanese experiment module known as Kibo. This first component of Kibo is the experiment logistics module pressurized section or ELM-PS. Tell us what this module is and explain its function as part of the International Space Station.
When I’ve gone into the Building 9 mock-ups for the last couple years, I’ve seen this piece of hardware up on top of the JEM. It looks to me like an attic, but what it really has is, on our flight, eight racks that provide the initial capability for the Japanese lab module when it comes up but it also provides the backup power sources for the JEM. You wouldn’t want to launch the JEM without a backup power supply so the intent is to fly the JLP or the JLMPS first, attach it to Node 2 so that when, when the JEM finally arrives, we can attach our module to it and it would have primary and backup power.
So it’s going to be installed in a temporary location.
Image to left: While seated in the commander's station, astronaut Dominic L. Gorie, STS-123 commander, participates in a training session in the crew compartment trainer (CCT-2) in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Gorie is wearing a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit. Image credit: NASA
It is temporary and it, we’ll attach it with our, the space shuttle arm to the top of Node 2 and then when the JEM comes up, it will attach to the side of Node 2 and they’ll subsequently pick it up and put it on top of the JEM.
So you may kind of have answered this question, but why is it in a temporary location?
It’s permanent location is on top of the main Kibo laboratory module which is not on orbit yet, so we have to put this on top of Node 2 first and that just happens to be a great location and extra open port of Node 2. When the JEM arrives it will attach to Node 2 on a different port and then simply put the JLP on top.
Once the ELM-PS is open, what kind of access will there be inside this newest addition to the International Space Station?
The hatch to the JLP is just like any other hatch on modules in the space station. It’s quite large. You can move racks in and out of it. We’ll have crew members going in and out of that outfitting the JLP the entire time we’re on orbit. It will have some reduced capability as far as electrical power and, and smoke detection capabilities so we’re not going to have people spend the night in it. But it certainly will be able to take crew members back and forth. There might be initially some limitations on how many people we put in there until we demonstrate its whole life support capability and air supply and recirculation, but it’s an open module as soon as we open up the hatch.
And so that’s part of your responsibilities during this mission is to check it out and make sure that everything functions properly?
One of Takao [Doi's] primary roles is the outfitting of the JLP and so he’ll spend a lot of time opening up racks and moving equipment around, setting up electrical connections and air circulation capabilities. So Takao is going to be living in that for quite a few hours after we get him up there.
This is a nice segue when you’re talking about Takao Doi who is a JAXA astronaut. Would you share with us your thoughts about adding this initial piece of Japanese hardware to the station in regards to an increased international presence?
The International Space Station for its first couple years was primarily a, a joint venture between Russia and the United States and now, as the different components come up, it truly is living up to its name. Takao is a really good friend of mine. We were in the same astronaut class so to have him on this flight as we bring up his nation’s first piece of hardware is really exciting and it really does make it much more of an international partnership to see that piece come up.
Tell us about your training for delivering this first piece of Japanese hardware.
The whole crew is, is involved, of course, with that first EVA where we’re going to bring the JLP out of the payload bay and attach it to the space station. Takao and I will be working the space shuttle arm to lift it up. Takao’s the primary robotics operator on that flight so he’s going to be really excited. He’s already getting a, a big smile on his face thinking about it. And then we’re going to have Rick [Linnehan] and Garrett [Reisman] outside preparing the module with removing some covers and, and electrical connections so everybody’s going to be involved in it, in that first primary spacewalk that, that delivers it. My role will be to assist Takao a little bit with the robotics but mostly to watch the entire effort unfold. That’s sort of the role of the commander on the whole flight, to watch everybody do all the work and sort of sit back and, and enjoy all the hard work paying off. In this case there’ll be the simultaneous EVA and the robotics so it’s an exciting EVA from the get-go.
Now let’s talk about the second piece of hardware that you’re going to bring in, the Canadian Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator or Dextre for short. What is Dextre and what kind of capabilities will it add to the International Space Station?
Well, Dextre looks like a little robot. It actually looks like it has a body and a couple arms and it truly does. Each one of those arms has a capability to do some fine manipulation which would maybe take away the requirement to have a space walker go out and remove components from the space station and install them in different locations. It has the ability to grab hold of fairly small connectors and bolts where before that kind of task was limited to a crew member’s hand while he was out doing a spacewalk. It’s going to take a couple of EVAs to put that thing together so we take the arms, they’re laying in this pallet, and remove them and attach them to the body, rotate the body and also attach cameras. It’s a, quite a tinker toy project but much more complicated than what we’re used to as children. But it offers a great capability to the space station in the future and when we finally get that attached to the end of the space station arm when the shuttle is gone, it will give them a capability to do work outside, like I said, without space walkers.
And how did you train to deliver Dextre? What was the training involved for you?
As a commander I am pretty much in that management role with the space lab pallet. The SLP carries the Dexter out on the payload bay and we simply lift that up with the robotic arm from the space station and attach it to the space station. We’ve got space station robotics operators working it and then our EVA crew members out on EVAs 2 and 3 putting it together so the commander doesn’t have a, a hands-on role with Dextre. I sort of get to watch again.
Even though night time occurs about every 45 minutes during orbit let’s talk about what us folks here on Earth would call the first night in space. You’ve just experienced an intense launch into low orbit. You’re traveling at about 17,500 mph around the Earth and flight day 2 is going to be extremely busy. Do you think you’re going to actually be able to sleep that first night in space?
The first night in space it's hard to sleep because of a couple things. One is the excitement level is really high and everybody enjoys just looking out the window as you’re getting ready to go to bed. Also your adrenaline’s been pumped up because of the launch. You know what’s coming the next day so as a commander my job probably is going to be to put everybody to bed. Having been there before, I’ve experienced those same sensations and it really is hard to get to sleep but at bedtime it’s going to be bedtime and we’re going close up the shades and try to get some sleep. I would imagine we might not get the entire eight hours that’s programmed for us but we’ll make every effort to do that because the next day is a really busy day.
I guess that being a dad really helps you to handle all the “kids” on board. Now flight day 2 the orbiter is surveyed for any damage that may have occurred during launch. Give us a brief overview of the survey process, what, what you’re looking for, and tell us what your responsibilities are during that survey.
On our flight we’ve got three space shuttle robotics operators, Greg Johnson, our pilot, Takao and I are the three that are going to do that throughout the flight. On flight day 2 we split up the roles of the inspection into three different pieces, one being the starboard wing and one being the port wing and the other the nose cap, and we’ve divided those up so that each person is in charge of the robotic arm for each one of those phases to give everybody a break, because each one might take close to two hours to complete. It’s a lot of time to be spending on the arm and we rotate jobs, through that process and in that process we pick up the boom, the OBSS, with the space shuttle arm and we use that extension with the sensors on the end of it to inspect the possible damage along the leading edge of the wings and also the surface tile on the belly of the orbiter. There are trackers and cameras that are recording that data and will downlink it to the ground. They'll inspect it for certain criteria that have to be met for any possible impact sites before we are safe to come home. So we are in the process of scanning it and recording it and then downlinking it to the ground, where they do all the hard work and tell us if we’ve got a good vehicle to come home or not.
On flight day 3, just before docking with the ISS, the mission timeline calls for the RPM. What does RPM stand for and what are your responsibilities during that part of the mission?
The Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver is a 360 degree pitch almost like a loop where we expose the, the bottom of the orbiter to the space station where they have some very powerful cameras, 800 mm lens in effect like you see out at the end of the football field in the end zone with cameras taking, people taking pictures of a football game. And with those cameras they are able to detect whether there’s any white tile showing on the surface of the orbiter and that would mean that the black coating on the belly tiles has been damaged and then we can go out and inspect further later on in the mission if they happen to see that. During the RPM, the commander is in charge of the, the orbiter and flying the vehicle, so I’ll be at the aft station of the space shuttle flight deck and we’ll be looking out through the overhead windows as we start this maneuver and make sure that we are in the right position with the right rates. We’ll start that off with an auto pilot maneuver that takes us through this hands-off pitch at that point. It’s sort of different than anything we’ve done before as, as astronauts, to be hands-off of the orbiter as we cannot see the space station any more. But the last couple flights that have done this have had great luck and it’s worked very well for us.
Rendezvous and docking are two major events during any mission. Take us through the rendezvous process, what happens during that part of the mission. How do two vehicles both traveling 17,000 mph rendezvous?
The rendezvous is controlled with ground guidance commands and also from computations that the space shuttle is doing on orbit. What we’re in essence doing is trying to catch up from a position behind the space station. We fly in, I guess you can think of it as inside the turn like you were trying to pass a car on a, on a curved highway. You can, once you’re on the inside of the turn, catch up to the vehicle that’s on the outside, and the space station is on the outside of that turn. We catch up by flying a little bit lower than the space station and then we slowly raise our orbit until we’re within 1,000 feet. At 600 feet is where we do this rendezvous pitch maneuver. After that we fly a quarter of a lap around the space station until we’re out in front of it and then we slowly back into the space station with the commander at the controls and flying it manually. That is one of the most exciting parts of the mission for me. You get to fly formation with the space ship being framed by creation underneath you that’s just spectacular. So it’s very easy to get distracted by the beauty of what’s going on underneath and the beauty of the space station. Flying formation at that time is a really, really exciting thing that demands everybody on the flight deck to be participating. Everybody has a role in that process so it really relies a lot on teamwork and training.
And the commander is the one who is actually flying the shuttle?
The commander is and that’s a really exciting thing to do. So here you are a couple hundred feet away from the space station watching it grow larger and larger in the centerline camera view. The tolerances are small but we’ve got a lot of really good aids in the cockpit to help us fly a very accurate approach.
Let’s talk about docking. It’s very complex but, like you said, it’s very exciting. Talk with us about what is involved with docking to the International Space Station and the excitement of those two ships coming in.
The docking is really exciting. What I remember from having done this before one time was the ship’s bell ringing as the two space ships are closing. In sort of a naval tradition, as a ship approaches -- and that was a really exciting time to know that here we are flying two vessels together quite different than Navy ships in the past but still with some of the same traditions. The docking system is a very elaborate beautifully designed piece of equipment that can connect the two vehicles together after a very slow collision. There are hooks that grab onto the space station, once all of the motions are damped out, with springs like shock absorbers on this extended ring. We slowly draw the two vehicles together with the screw drives that pull it together and after an hour of pressure checks and docking system checks we are able then to open the hatch. But knowing that there’s this space station crew on the other side waiting for our arrival, eager to have a replacement for one of their folks and, and some of the re-supply items that we’re bringing, it makes it a really an exciting time as well.
After the orbiter docks with the ISS, the hatches of the two vehicles open and you’ll be welcomed aboard the International Space Station and given a safety briefing first. As a visitor to the ISS, what do you plan to do those first few moments once you’re on board?
I think that this time will probably be to revel in the excitement. Everybody else on the crew will then be able to go inside the space station for the first time and see this unbelievably beautiful and massive structure that’s getting bigger with every mission. I think as a commander one of the neatest things is to enjoy the other crew members' excitement and see the wonder of the space station in space for the first time. That’s not to say it’s without excitement for me. I think it’s going to be great to see Peggy and, and Leo in there and Yuri, so I’m really looking forward to that moment.
You’ve seen those folks on the ground here in Houston training and now you’ll see them in space. What’s that like?
Image to right: Astronaut Dominic L. Gorie, STS-123 commander, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for a training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
Not a whole lot different than simulations. I think that seeing them floating around of course is way different. Their smiles will be probably bigger than they were in the training events that we were in and I’m sure Peggy’s going to be a well-seasoned space station commander at that point eager to get us on board and to work. This won’t be the first arriving vehicle for her.
Flight day 4 ushers in the first of several spacewalks during the mission. During these spacewalks or EVAs, the Kibo Logistics Module and Dextre will be transferred from their temporary home inside the orbiter’s cargo bay to become part of the ISS. If you could again describe the process of transferring the Kibo Logistics Module and, and your responsibilities during that time.
The maneuver to transfer that logistics module is going to be unbelievable to behold. We pick it up with the, the space shuttle arm and lift it up to a high hover position and then we kick off this automatic maneuver that is quite different than anything we’ve ever seen before with a shuttle arm. It lifts it up and, and to eliminate the possibility of, of some arm singularities which are problems with certain joint combinations, it goes through an elaborate sequence of twists and rolls as it moves the logistics module up behind our heads and in front of the space station that we’re docked to so in a fast motion video does this beautiful choreographed dance as it maneuvers to the docking attitude and, once it’s close, within a couple feet of the space station docking adaptor, then it stops this maneuver. Takao takes over and manually maneuvers it into position and into a locked location on Node 2.
I’ve seen an animation of that and it is very elaborate, so that’s pre-programmed. It’s going to be …
It’s an auto…
…on its own.
It is an automatic sequence that we initiate and it takes about an hour, I recall, to complete and we’ll, we’ll be watching it with our cameras.
Now share with us how Dextre’s going to be transferred and where will it be installed on the International Space Station.
Dextre, when we pull it out of the payload bay, and the pallet will be attached to a POA adaptor up on the space station. It’ll ride there for a couple days where the space shuttle crew will be building it with a couple different spacewalks. As we attach the arms and rotate Dextre up in the pallet they are able to access the locations where we had attached the arms and then the day after it’s complete, after EVA 3 is over, we’ll be taking the Dextre arm and attaching it to the, the space station where it will reside for the next couple weeks until they maybe move it after that.
I noticed on the mission timeline there’s not a lot of off-duty time but there is some. How do you spend your off-duty time?
Off-duty time, if you are finished catching up on tasks that maybe didn’t get complete or you’ve done some get aheads for tasks that are remaining, is usually spent together with the crew, looking out the window, enjoying the view, looking outside and seeing things that are just hard to describe and, for the folks that haven’t flown before, I think letting them see that is going to be real exciting. It’s exciting for me to see every single time I float up to the window and see that going on outside. I can’t imagine a more pleasurable pastime if you have some free time on your hands.
What’s it like for you to know you’re a critical part of the largest scientific and technological endeavor ever undertaken?
Every time I’ve flown I get an increased appreciation for how many people are involved with this whole effort. Especially now as a commander you see what it takes on the ground and around the country and actually around the world now with the international presence growing. You feel like a smaller and smaller part of that with each subsequent flight, but to be a part of it at all is a wonderful feeling and to see what we’re really accomplishing is really tremendous. On this flight I can’t imagine a more exciting series of events. I haven’t flown with this kind of mission before but with this many spacewalks and this many robotics operations, it’s really an exciting flight to be a part of.
Once the newest hardware has been installed, all transfers complete between space crafts, you’ve undocked from the International Space Station, your thoughts are going to turn to returning home. But the mission isn’t over just yet. How does the crew prepare to return to Earth?
We get ready to come home by cleaning house. We have a lot of equipment and hardware that are in different locations around the orbiter; it can be quite crowded with bags of equipment that need to be put away and seats that need to be set up. Our spacesuits need to come out from their storage locations and that takes quite a bit of time. But once you do that and if you get a good jump start on it, the landing day is a very well planned relaxed event. But if you have things scattered around everywhere and not put away, it can be quite busy that morning. So we’ll spend a day just putting things away and setting up seats and, and pulling our suits out and then another day is spent preparing the orbiter systems and checking out the flight controls and the hydraulic systems to make sure that they’re functioning perfectly for entry. So we’ve got about a day and a half or two to prepare for that and it’s a, it’s a busy time.