Q: This is a question that you’ve probably been asked a few times before but knowing the odds of actually becoming an astronaut what made you want to apply?
Image to right: Astronaut Gregory H. Johnson, STS-123 pilot. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Gregory H. Johnson, Pilot
I guess it started off when I was 7. I was watching a black and white television in Cairo, Mich., at my grandparents’ house and I watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon. At that point it set the bit for me to be an astronaut and it was kind of like a dream but it really wasn’t reality. I progressed through my schooling, undergraduate and graduate degrees, excited about math and science and engineering but really didn’t think about being an astronaut at that point. It was kind of unreachable. But once I started flying airplanes in the Air Force and then was able to join some of the preparation I had in college at Test Pilot School, then I realized that that was kind of a pretty good fit for being an astronaut pilot. I have to credit Dan Goldin and Charlie Bolden, or Gen. Charlie Bolden, when they were doing the NASA Town Hall Meetings around the country in the early 90s because as a fighter pilot who had just come back from Desert Storm I was curious about the space program and I hadn’t been following it that much because I was so ensconced with what was going on with being a fighter pilot. And Charlie Bolden said, “Hey, why don’t you apply to go to test pilot school?” And that’s kind of what got me going to test pilot school. He said, “Do very well. Fly cool things at Edwards and throw your name in the hat.” So I threw my name in the hat. I still didn’t ever think I’d get picked, but I did want to get an interview. I wanted to get a chance to meet some astronauts, go see what it was all about, blow the ping pong ball in the thing and hold it between the lines and whatnot. And we still do those sorts of things. It’s not really a ping pong ball. It’s a, it’s on a computer monitor. But, long story short, I didn’t expect to get picked. There were a lot of guys that I interviewed with who I thought, “Oh, he’s going to get picked.” In fact, I predicted that six or seven of the, of the 20 that I interviewed with would get picked and those guys didn’t get picked and another seven did, so I think everybody was pretty much qualified once we came down. So I feel very lucky. I know there’s some guys behind me that, that could have gotten picked and they had the same skill set but, but it was my lucky day that I got the chance to be selected to be in that class of ’98.
Could you recreate for us the moment when you found out that you had been selected as an astronaut?
You know, where were you? How did it happen? How did you feel?
I was in Alabama. I was going through a year long of military leadership school in preparation to go to the Pentagon for a desk job. It was going to be my first desk job. Right before graduation of that event, Chuck Yeager and a bunch of other aviation heroes came to our graduation and it’s called ‘The Gathering of Eagles’ and they had a whole bunch of great flyers from our history there. Hoot Gibson was there. Anyway, I had met Chuck Yeager at Edwards in my flying out there and so they picked me to be his escort. And so I was there with Chuck Yeager and he was signing autographs on these lithos, these special edition lithos, and Hoot Gibson had his escort and he was sitting at another table and there were 18 other aviators, famous aviators, and they were all signing these lithos. Now Chuck Yeager was a great test pilot but he never was an astronaut and so his orientation, he knew it was a trade between me potentially flying the F-22 and going to the astronaut corps and he was kind of being a devil’s advocate saying, “Hey, you sure you want to give up flying the F-22?” Meanwhile, Hoot Gibson at the next table was going, “Oh, yeah, you’ve got to say yes.” In either case, I was not allowed to tell them whether it was a yea or nay when I got the phone call, so I picked up the phone, but I think they could tell by the smile on my face that I was picked. And then Chuck kind of frowned at me and Hoot kind of smiled at me and then that was it. So it was really a neat, neat memory that day that I got called by Ken Cockrell to come to the class.
Well, NASA’s recruiting the next class of astronaut candidates. What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about applying?
I think the first piece of advice would be that there are a whole lot more qualified people than the number that they can select and so I was very prepared not to get selected. I would suggest they don’t take it personally. Just throw your hat in again next time. I think there is a dose of luck in getting selected to be in the astronaut corps and I think everybody in the office knows that and we appreciate that and we also feel lucky and honored to be selected because we know that the proper door and the proper skill set and the proper personalities all have to merge and the stars kind of have to align to get picked. I also think that anyone who would apply to the astronaut corps should love what they’re doing as the baseline skill set that got them in there. With me it was being a pilot and I loved being a pilot. I loved being a test pilot and so being an astronaut was, was not my end point in, you know, either I achieved success by being an astronaut or if I don’t get picked I’m not successful. I loved my career as a pilot and it was a bonus to be selected as an astronaut. So I would hope that no one would apply to the astronaut corps in that being the only thing that they’re really going after. You know, children often ask me, they say, “Well, how do you become a fighter pilot or how do you become an astronaut or…?” And I say, “Love what you’re doing and do it very well.” And most of the astronauts you’ll find, we have a great veterinarian on our flight and we have a couple great scientists on our flight. There are teachers in the office. There are medical doctors as well as pilots and I think the common thread between all those disciplines is that they love what they’re doing and they do it very well.
Now tell us about the place you consider your hometown and the people there and how that hometown and those people made you the person you are today.
I think I have a number of hometowns, but the two primary hometowns I think I’ll claim would be Traverse City, Mich., because that’s where my parents grew up and that’s kind of been a family recreating ground and also visiting ground and a stable place for, for my family history over my whole lifetime. I was a military brat, though, so I was moving all around. The place that I ended up at high school is probably my second hometown and that would be in Fairborn, Ohio, where I went to high school. So let me start with Fairborn. I was just there last weekend and the background that my teachers and interest they took in me as a student was a great motivator to me. I was a member of the marching band and, actually all the bands, the concert band, and my band leader, Bob DiPiro, took me aside and he nurtured me and he taught me discipline which was a pretty big challenge. At high school he kind of rubbed some of those rough edges and I still credit him with today with some of the lessons that he taught me when I was 17 years old with my hair down to here. Many of my relatives lived in Michigan and my parents, before they passed away, were up in Traverse City, and I have a lot of roots from that area including, like I described earlier about being in Cairo, which is a little bit further downstate where my grandparents initially shared in that milestone of watching Neil Armstrong step on the moon.
So are you going to look for or do you think you’ll recognize any of your hometowns from space?
I think it’ll be really easy to see some of my hometowns in Michigan because of the shape of the state. You know, it looks like a hand. It’s got water all the way around it. Ohio -- you know, they don’t put the state boundaries on the ground like you would see on a map. So I’ll have to kind of work out the Miami River and the Ohio River and I can probably pick out Dayton. I was looking at a close-up picture of the city during an over flight of an earlier shuttle mission and I was able to pick out a couple of the major runways in that area so I think I’ll be able to pick it out.
We touched on this a little bit earlier but I’m going to ask you this question again; but tell us the story of your journey to become an astronaut and include your education and then your professional career.
My journey to become an astronaut started with high school. I paid attention in high school and loved math and science. I went to the Air Force Academy, got a bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering and also some flying time in a glider and a small prop airplane. At that point I wanted to go fly and I was really excited about flying. First I got a master’s degree in flight structures at Columbia University and then went straight to pilot training and started flying. I flew the T-38; I flew the F-15 for a tour which included Desert Storm, so I got some really good practical flying in the F-15. Then I went on to test pilot school and then stayed at Edwards to test the various versions of F-15s as well as a NASA project which was the NF-15-B. It’s a red, white and blue project, or red, white and blue one-of-a-kind asset, test bed, F-15 test bed that we use to test technologies for the joint strike fighter propulsion technologies. At that point I was headed toward the Pentagon, went to a leadership school along the way and then instead of going to the Pentagon I came here, so that’s kind of how I got here in a nutshell.
You’ve logged over 3,500 flight hours in more than 40 different aircraft. How does your test pilot experience prepare you for flying the space shuttle?
I have never flown the space shuttle until my very first flight when I get to fly the space shuttle. The flying that I’ve done in my career, outside of the test pilot regime, has been to fly in the simulator and then you practice and then you just keep flying that same airplane and you get better at it. In the shuttle you only get a few shots at it. Maybe one for me. I might have two if I’m really, really lucky before the end of this program and so the first time I fly the space shuttle I need to be fully trained and, and ready to go do the job. As test pilots, I think, they train us in a lot of different airplanes so that we can walk into a new situation and maybe have an edge over folks that haven’t seen those various airplanes so if something comes up that’s unexpected or something that you just didn’t pick up in your training when you weren’t in the, in the real vehicle that you can adapt to that and, and succeed. And so, over the years the astronaut corps has hired pilots that have been test pilots for that reason -- because we’ve seen lots of different kinds of airplanes and potentially we’ve got those skills to adapt to what new horizons might befall us.
This is your first flight. How are you feeling as you get closer to launch day?
It just occurred to me maybe a week or two ago that I have some of the same feelings that I had right before Desert Storm kicked off. There are a lot of unknowns. I really don’t know what it’s going to be like up there. I’ve talked to lots of folks. There is some element of risk and so you become a little bit more aware of that. Of course, that’s clouded by all the excitement of getting to go. It was exciting to fly Desert Storm and to, to support our country and that’s what a fighter pilot wants to do, what he’s trained to do. And similarly I’m going into space. I’m ready to go do it but I’m aware that there are some risks and, and I’m just curious about the unknowns.
Earlier you mentioned some advice you got from some of your veteran fliers. Are any of your other veteran fliers offering any advice to you?
Oh, you get advice from all corners of the office. I think you know Alan Bean. Alan Bean gave me the same sort of input. He and I were talking a couple years back at an astronaut reunion and he said, “Greg, you never would believe how beautiful our planet is when you’re standing on the moon.” Now I’m not going to the moon. But he said he just had a deep urge inside of him to go right back to that beautiful planet and why is he on this dusty, drab moon. I’m told by many of the astronauts that looking at our planet from outer space is something that pictures won’t do justice to, so I plan on doing that during [a] lot of my free time on the space station.
Now share with us the story about when you found out you were picked to fly on the shuttle for the first time.
I was completely elated. I’d won the lottery. Any of us would want to fly with anybody in the office but getting to fly with Dom Gorie, I’d say that he was my No. 1 first choice wish I could fly with that guy, and Dom Gorie’s the commander. And then the rest of the crew. We’ve got a stacked crew, talent everywhere, Bob Behnken's, a very smart guy. I call him the E.F. Hutton on crew. When he speaks, everybody listens. But Bob’s spacewalking. He’s also on the flight deck for ascent and entry. He’s a super space station robotic arm operator and he and I work together on several of the tasks. And then we’ve got Mike Foreman, a Navy test pilot. He’s also on the flight deck. He’s a spacewalker. He and Bob are going to be getting the OBSS on EVA 5, one of [the] diciest EVAs that I recall maybe after Scott Parazynski’s big repair on the, on the solar arrays. But EVA 5 is really going to be a momentous event. And then Garrett Reisman -- we’re leaving him up there. He’s an arm operator. He and I are working together a lot on EVA 2, EVA 3 and EVA 5, operating the station robotic arm. And Takao [Doi], he is meticulous. He’s running a tight ship. He’s keeping track of our stuff for post-insertion and deorbit preparation. He’s also a rendezvous guy. Each one of these guys is just so talented. Rick Linnehan … what can I say? He’s the Yoda of spacewalkers and he’s training all those guys. We’ve got four spacewalkers, three rookies and then Rick Linnehan. And so if I went through the entire office and handpicked the perfect the crew, I really couldn’t pick a better crew that what I was assigned to.
Flying in space has proven to be a very dangerous endeavor. What do you think we gain from spaceflight that makes you willing to take that risk?
Well, there are a lot of dangerous things out there and our nation has been kind of founded on the idea of exploration. I mean, we started off early on when guys were exploring across the Atlantic and finding new things and then driving across our country exploring and learning. And I compare the space station project to the Lewis and Clark expedition. People say, well, it’s over budget, it’s delayed. They’re not doing some of the things they wanted to do; but Lewis and Clark were tenfold over budget and they didn’t find the Northwest Passage but yet the knowledge that they gained from that expedition has been critical in the development of our country. Similarly, I think the space station and the space shuttle and all the stuff that we’re doing today is going, we’re going to see the benefits in the future that we can’t even imagine right now. So I think we need to continue exploring. I think we need to go on from low Earth orbit, to go to the moon, to go to Mars and keep pushing.
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.
We have three major portions of our mission: to get Garrett Reisman up and to get Leo [Eyharts] down, to take up the Japanese Logistics Pressurized Module, the JLP, and deliver that to the space station and finally to assemble the SPDM, Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, and leave that up on the space station as well.
As you just mentioned, there are two primary pieces of station hardware that will be carried up on your flight. One is the first of 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 EL, or ELM-PS but it’s more commonly known as the JLP. Tell us what it is and explain its function as part of the ISS.
The Japanese have a great lab that’s going to go up there and that’s going to be Kibo and it’s got a lot of components. It’s going to take a number of missions to get all the parts up there. We’ve got the first piece and that’s going to be basically a storage closet area where the major laboratory is a complete separate module and so we’ll be able to store things or organize things up in that kind of closet that sits on top of the Japanese lab. The lab is a huge payload in and of itself and so all the other pieces and parts wouldn’t fit on one shuttle mission so they break it up between several.
The JLP’s going to be installed in a temporary location. Where will it be installed and why is it a temporary location?
Image to left: Astronaut Gregory H. Johnson, STS-123 pilot, participates in a food tasting session in the Flight Projects Division Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
Well, because the lab itself is coming up the next mission so we’re going to stick it on the node and then STS-124 that follows us, they’re going to bring that huge, laboratory and connect it to the Harmony node and subsequently the logistics module will be moved on top of it.
Once it’s opened, what kind of access will there be inside the JLP?
It’ll be open during our mission. We’re going to be doing some work in there. Takao is our Japanese astronaut on this mission and he is tasked with a lot of different preparations for the upcoming Japanese deliveries.
Speaking of Japanese hardware, share with us your thoughts about adding this initial piece of Japanese hardware to the station in regards to an increased international presence on the station.
I believe there are 16 countries involved in the International Space Station. The Russians and the Americans have been the primary contributors but a lot of other nations have brought their pieces and parts. The Canadians have done a lot with robotics and we’ll talk about the SPDM, Mr. Dextre, later but the Japanese are going to be a big part as soon as we get their modules up there.
Well, let’s talk about Dextre or the SPDM. What is it and what capabilities is it going to add to the International Space Station?
Well, the Canadians have taken the lead on robotic arm development and they produced the shuttle’s robotic arm as we talked about and the space station robotic arm which is, it has more capability because it has more degrees of freedom for movement and also it can grapple things on both ends and so it can be moved around various places on the space station, whereas the shuttle robotic arm has to stay on the shuttle itself. But the end effectors, or where you grab things, only interfaces with a pin, a special grapple pin. If a payload or object does not have a pin like that then it can’t be moved by the shuttle’s or the station’s robotic arm. So Mr. Dextre has an end effector just like the station arm but he also has two other arms that have an infinite number of configurations to move various payloads that aren’t designed to be moved by the station robotic arm. So you could think of Mr. Dextre as kind of like a hand on the end of the arm and that hand can be extra manipulative and move things that only a spacewalker would have been able to do on a spacewalk and so potentially, Mr. Dextre is going to help us move big, do big projects without the use of spacewalkers.
Even though nighttime occurs about every 45 minutes, let’s talk about what us folks here on Earth would call your first night in space. You’ve just experienced an intense launch into low orbit. You’re traveling at about 17,000 mph around the Earth and flight day 2 is going to be very, very busy. Do you think you’re going to actually be able to sleep that first night in space?
Oh, you can be sure of it. I talked to Dom about this and us rookies have a fair amount of uncertainty about how we’re going to feel when we get into space and exactly what it’s going to be like and how it’s going to feel to move around and do work and how efficient we’re going to be. I keep talking to veterans about this. But Dom is a great mentor by the way. I couldn’t have hoped for a better commander to be assigned to. I feel like I won the lottery getting on this mission. But anyway Dom has told me that his first mission he got up there and he was dog tired and he had so much excitement and exhilaration once he had a bite to eat, he just basically crashed right on the flight deck. I expect the same. He’s already told me where I’m going to sleep. He’s says, “I’m, going to lay you down right here. You’re going to be dog tired. You’re going to get a good night’s sleep and we’re going to go to work the next day.” So I think I’ll sleep great.
On flight day 2 the orbiter is surveyed for any damage that may have occurred during the launch. Give us a brief overview of the survey process, what you’re looking for, and tell us what your responsibilities will be during that survey.
The flight day 2 survey, it’s Dom, Takao and myself. We’re all operating the shuttle’s robotic arm and we’ll first grapple the OBSS, the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, and it about doubles the length of the arm. Then we can reach around and look underneath the orbiter and check out all the tiles and the reinforced carbon carbon and we can also reach around and look at the nose of the shuttle. We basically will be inspecting in great detail, every little, tiny little patch of thermal protection system on the shuttle. So it’s an all-day task. The three of us are rotating, R-1, R-2 and R-3, R-1 being the guy who’s actually moving the arm. R-2 is his assistant and runs the procedure and R-3 runs other sensors. We’ve got tapes that run and sensors that have to be recorded as well as some camera movements and whatnot, so there’s a lot of stuff to be done. But R-3 can take breaks periodically in the more dead times of the procedure so we expect, you know, R-1 and R-2 will be rotating through the day and R-3 will be taking some breaks and we’ll get the whole job done.
On flight day 3, just before docking with the station, the mission timeline calls for another type of survey, the RPM. What is the RPM and what are your responsibilities during that part of the mission?
The RPM occurs in the later phases of the rendezvous. We spend the whole day basically planning, getting closer and closer to the space station and approaching it in a safe and predictable manner. But the RPM occurs about 600 feet immediately below the space station. We typically would have brought the shuttle up here and then come around to join up on the, basically in the direction of the velocity vector of the space station. So we’re directly underneath the space station and we’ll hold the shuttle there and then flip it around 360 degrees. And what happens is, the guys on the station will be taking pictures of our thermal protection system. It's another redundancy in the inspection process to catch anything that possibly could have been missed during the, during the flight day 2 inspection.
Rendezvous and docking are both two major events during any mission. Take us through the rendezvous process. What happens during that part of the mission and what your responsibilities will be?
The pilot and commander are the rendezvous kind of guys. That’s pilot stuff. It’s pretty funny. You have two kinds of astronauts. You have the pilots and then you have the smart ones and I’m a pilot. Moving the vehicles around in space in the air and also in the vacuum is why we’re hired. Rendezvous is a really exciting part for me as a pilot and I get to watch Dom, who’s one of the best in the office in rendezvous. The plan is to get the space shuttle from some different orbit to the exact same orbit of the space station. We approach the space station in a very predictable manner and then we stop 600 feet below and do the rendezvous pitch maneuver that we talked about earlier. Then we join up on the, on the space station itself. We’re approaching it at many feet per second starting off but when it finally ends, we’re approach at … about one inch per second, not really super fast because we want to make sure that the shuttle docking system is exactly aligned with the space station docking system.
Now share with us the complexity and excitement of docking the space shuttle to the International Space Station.
Well I get really excited in training just sitting in the dome which is a 360 degree kind of a simulation where we can look in all directions and watch as we approach the space station. But during the RPM, when you’re just 600 feet away and as we flip, flip the shuttle around, you can watch the station rise in the aft windows of, of the shuttle and it’s just amazing. It’s huge. I get excited in a simulator so I can’t imagine how excited I’m going to be on the real day. But as you approach the space station, it’s unbelievable how big it is. In fact in my previous days we were training with fewer modules on the space station generically and now with the Harmony node and the European laboratory, the space station, and, and the solar arrays, three huge solar arrays are going to be out there in the configuration when we join, it’s the size of a football field. You’re just coming in and you can’t even see all of the space station in your peripheral vision. It’s so huge. So I’m going to be excited. I guarantee you that.
We talked about the SCS dome … that’s how you train. So tell, tell us a little bit about how do you train to dock the shuttle to the ISS?
Well, like any task in the mission we have various simulations with increasing fidelity. We have some simulations that are on a laptop and then we have some systems that are in a room that’s stationary. It’s a single system trainer and we can do some of those tasks for rendezvous and the various other things that we do in the mission in those trainers. The dome is a much higher fidelity trainer where you have the whole aft portion of the shuttle’s flight deck right in the middle of the dome and then a visual that goes all the way around. It really looks like it’s going to appear when we do it on flight day. We also have other simulations that we can practice rendezvous in and I can’t really list them all but basically each little task has been broken into little parts so that we can learn each part and then we put it all together in the integrated simulations.
After the orbiter docks with the ISS, the hatch between the two vehicles opens and you’ll be welcomed aboard the International Space Station. First you’re given a safety briefing. As a visitor to the ISS, what do you plan to do those next few moments you’re on board?
That’s going to be a busy time because we’re going to get the welcome ceremony and immediately Bob Behnken and I are going to dive into the laboratory. And this is what’s really interesting. I’ve never been to the space station. I’ve been to mockups but we’re going to walk right into somebody’s house and get to work. It’s going to be kind of a funny thing, you know. Peggy’s going to be going, “What are you guys doing?” We’re going to do the welcome ceremony, here’s the fire extinguishers. Here’s your emergency mask. Okay, Bob, Box, get to work. And so we’re going to unberth that SLP and stick it up on the station, so it’s going to be a short welcome ceremony for me. We’re going to shake hands and get to work.
Flight Day 4 ushers in the first of several spacewalks or EVAs during which both the JLP and Dextre will be transferred from their temporary home inside the orbiter’s cargo bay to their new home on the ISS. Describe the process for transferring the JLP and tell us what your responsibilities will be for that task.
For the JLP, Dom and Takao are going to use the shuttle’s robotic arm. They’re going to unberth the JLP and through a sequence of maneuvers they’re going to install it onto Node 2 in a temporary location awaiting the arrival of the Japanese lab on the next mission. My portion of that task is to maneuver shuttle or station cameras to aid that process. I’ll be in the U.S. lab, and I’ll be operating cameras from the station robotic work station and piping them to Takao and Dom so they can get the job done.
Now share with us how Dextre will be transferred and installed on the ISS.
Image to right: Attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, astronaut Gregory H. Johnson, STS-123 pilot, awaits the start of a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
Dextre, his pieces and parts, are in this SLP, shuttle launch platform, sitting in the shuttle’s payload bay. Right after we rendezvous we’re going to take that SLP and install it in a temporary location on the ISS. Then through the next three or four days, actually five or six days, we’re going to assemble Mr. Dextre on the various spacewalks and that’s a pretty involved process. The first spacewalk is going to be Rick and Garrett. They’re going to go out and prepare Mr. Dextre, do some initial tasks. Then Rick Linnehan and Mike Foreman are going out on EVA 2 and they’re going to spend the whole EVA moving the arms around and the other parts of Mr. Dextre and I’ll aid Rick with the robotic arm. He’s going to be holding on to Mr. Dextre. We’re going to elevate him 60 degrees, pop him into place and then stick the arms on. This is a pretty involved process though because the whole EVA, Rick is going to be at the end of the station robotic arm and I’m going to be flying him around. Garrett’s going to be helping me, helping me out. We’re really both doing it. I happen to be M-1 on this particular task and he’s M-2 but we’re both doing it and we have pre-planned locations where we’re going to move Rick around and he’s going to basically give us voice protocol to clarify exactly where he wants to be. We’re going to get him close and we’re all going to be a tree full of owls trying to make sure that we don’t run him into anything or we don’t run any of the hardware into any other hardware. It’s going to be a very tedious focused effort for EVA 2 as we put those pieces on Dextre. Finally, on EVA3, we’ll finish him up, maybe get rid of some thermal covers that we didn’t get on the previous EVAs and then move him to the laboratory where he’s going to hang out for the rest of the space station future.
There’s a fifth EVA which actually was originally the fourth EVA. What’s going to happen during that EVA and what are your responsibilities going to be?
Well as I said before most of my work in support of the EVAs is either doing photo-TV stuff or operating the, the station robotic arm. EVA 5 is going to be a very interesting EVA because we’re going to install the OBSS boom on top of the ISS truss. The mission that follows us, STS-124, the Japanese laboratory’s so large that there’s just not room for them to bring the OBSS boom up with them and this boom, of course, is what we use to inspect our vehicle on, on flight day 2 and then before to re-entry. And so we’re going to inspect our vehicle just before EVA 5 using the boom while we’re docked and then once we’re done with that, we’re going to stow the OBSS on top of the truss. That involves grabbing the OBSS with the station arm and basically sticking it up on top of the truss and handing it off to two spacewalkers. Bob and Mike are the two guys on EVA 5; they’re scampering on top of the truss. We’ve got a gun rack that’s already installed up there. I think STS-118 took it up there and so it’s waiting for our mission when Bob and Mike are going to grab the OBSS. They’re going to attach some connectors to it and whatnot and actually the station robotic arm is at its very farthest reach limit just to get up to that point. So it’s going to be very interesting when we’ve got this 50-fifty-foot long boom that’s within inches on either side of the truss as we hand it off to those guys, so we’re really looking forward to it and we practiced a lot in the VR lab to make sure that everything goes as planned.
What are the different ways you train for EVAs?
I’m going to be operating the robotic arm so I can’t say I’m really training for an EVA but I’m training to support the EVAs as an arm operator. There are two primary places that we practice EVAs: in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the pool, and also in the Virtual Reality Lab which is basically a, a big video game. In the pool we have, it’s a huge pool. We’ve got a mockup of the whole space shuttle, payload bay and what parts of the space station that we can fit in there. There are two robotic arms, the station robotic arm and a shuttle robotic arm that aren’t exactly flight-like but as close to flight-like as we can get them. The spacewalkers are under there and I actually operate the shuttle robotic arm or the station robotic arm, depending on the task, and we just go through the choreography of the EVA. There’re some things we just can’t practice in the NBL, for two reasons. First, the space station is so huge you just can’t fit every piece in there. But secondly, the configuration of the station we just can’t, we have large objects that are like upside down, for example, and since we have gravity on Earth, we just can’t support those objects to be exactly in the geometry that they’ll be in space. So we have to do the best we can with the geometry and, and practice, make everything as flight-like as possible. That’s where the VR Lab comes in. In the VR Lab is a big video game so everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be. Those tasks that we can’t practice to the highest fidelity in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, we go over the Virtual Reality Lab. The spacewalkers put on a virtual reality helmet and they can actually see the geometry that they’re really going to be experiencing in space. So you put those two things together, we’re very comfortable and with the choreography of the EVAs and we can get the job done.
Do you do any EVA training over in the Building 9 mockups for EVAs?
Building 9 is an interesting facility because it’s the only place that, without being in a spacesuit and underneath in the pool, that I can walk through the whole geometry of the space station and the space shuttle itself. Our simulators have different volumes of the space shuttle and different volumes of the space station, but Building 9 is where you put it all together. So specific to EVA training, I’d say it’s not as significant as the NBL training and the VR Lab training that I was talking about previously. But the way we interface with our crew members and the way we can actually see the geometry in its entirety Building 9 is a very useful facility.
When you’re not involved with an EVA, what are some of the other ways you spend your time in space? What are some of your other responsibilities?
As a pilot, you know, I feel really lucky to be a robotic arm operator and we do have robotic arm ops that are separate from the spacewalks themselves. For example, moving the SLP back and forth; we have to reberth it. We’re also going to do a walk off of the station robotic arm. Both ends can grapple so we’re going to do a walk off where we’re holding on this side and then we grab something else and then release this and then you can use this side so that’s kind of a cool maneuver. We’re going to do one of those. Also pilots traditionally are in charge of the maintenance and enforcement of the space potties. So I look forward to that duty. And I’m going to run a tight ship. I plan on making sure that proper hygiene is used by all seven of the crew members on STS-123. I’ll also be a transfer guy and so I’ll help Takao. Takao’s the loadmaster. He’s meticulous. He is the right man for the job and he will do a great job keeping track of everything. My biggest challenge in that whole operation is to make sure that I do it the right way because I know there’s going to be a specific way to do this and I’m going to make sure that I know how to transfer things. Keeping track of the piece and parts is really important when you’re in the, the space business.
If you have an off duty time, how do you plan on spending it?
I’ll first say that I’m told that a station increment is a lot like a marathon because those guys go a long period of time and they do have some designated time off. As far as the shuttle, it’s more like a sprint. There is some white space in the schedule right now and I’ve been told by veterans, including Dom, he’s basically ordered me to look outside because it’s, the views are so magnificent and you can learn so much and appreciate so much where we come from by looking out the window. I also plan to take some good pictures and I think probably there’s time for an e-mail or two and maybe a private, video conference with my family. I’ve got three kids. I’ve got a 10-year-old, a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old and they’re all really excited about the space flight. I look forward to being able to talk to them on a video telecon from space.
What’s it like for you to know you’re a critical part of the largest scientific and technological endeavor ever undertaken?
Well, I think a critical part’s probably an overstatement. I feel lucky to be the guy that actually gets to go to the space station and do the work. But you know, we’re the twenty-fifth mission, just assembly mission for the International Space Station. Each of those missions has had seven astronauts. So you multiply that together. Then each one of those missions had a hundred or two hundred folks in Mission Control running it and then thousands of people planning it and engineers building the hardware and designing the hardware. I’m just one little piece of that huge team. But that being said, I’m totally excited. Our class has been waiting a long time to fly. We came in 1998. This is 2008. So 10 years waiting for my first space flight. I think the first guy in my class flew at the seven year point and so as classes go, we’ve been a patient class and so we’re really anxious to go do it. Everybody now in our class has been assigned and we’ll be all getting our first spaceflights or, either previous years or this year. I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut and this is a dream come true.
Once this newest hardware has been installed, all your transfers are complete, you’re undocked from the space station and you’re thinking about heading home or returning to home, but the mission isn’t over just yet. How does the crew prepare for a return to Earth?
Well, once again Takao comes in. Takao is our jack-of-all-trades kind of guy on this mission. As I said before, we’ve got a whole bunch of spacewalks so we have four primary spacewalkers and most of their energy is going to be in doing those spacewalks. They’ve got so much work to do. That leaves me, Dom and Takao. Well, Dom and I are the pilot and the commander so we’ve got other duties in operating the shuttle system itself. So Takao is filling in in lots of different capacities during the 15 days. One of the many things that Takao is focusing on -- and I, as I said before, he’s a big detail guy -- is to help us convert the space shuttle from a space ship to an onboard orbiting laboratory so post-insertion is his baby. And then, as you said, when we come back for de-orbit preparation; it’s about a four hour timeline where we do the thing in reverse. We take the space ship and we convert it into something that can land on a runway. Takao’s got a whole laundry list of things we have to do and we start buttoning up and putting our suits on and getting the, and transferring the shuttle into a glider, a flying safe with the door open as John Young would say and, and, and plan for the landing.