Q: This is the STS-124 [interview] with Mission Specialist Karen Nyberg. Karen, at different points in our lives we choose different paths to, to wherever we’re going to go. Can you tell us the story about how you chose the path that leads to space?
Preflight Interview: Karen Nyberg, Mission Specialist
A: Well, I decided when I was a little kid that I wanted to be an astronaut and, honestly, I can’t pinpoint an event or a person or anything that made me decide that. I just decided that that’s what I wanted to do and I kind of kept that with me and most of my friends in high school knew that’s what I wanted to do. They just called me the rocket scientist and all that. So it’s just something that I decided and I became very passionate about it for some reason and I don’t know exactly why.
Do you remember about what age you were?
It was probably lower to middle elementary school, about that age.
And, and once you made that decision -- that’s pretty early on -- can you recount for us the academic and professional path that you took to NASA?
When I finished high school, I decided to go to the University of North Dakota. Actually in high school a friend of mine who knew I wanted to be an astronaut suggested aerospace engineering. I knew absolutely nothing about engineering and I actually wrote a career report on that when I was a senior in high school. So I went to the University of North Dakota and didn’t choose a path I wanted to take the second I got there. I gave myself a semester to figure it out and I did decide engineering is what I wanted to do. Which discipline of engineering? It’s kind of funny how I chose mechanicals because this was before the time of computer-aided drawing and computer-aided modeling, and I like to draw so it was like drafting sounded fun. So I chose mechanical engineering and when I finished my undergraduate degree, actually before finishing, I got into the cooperative education program and I worked down here at the Johnson Space Center. That was a great experience. I learned a lot about engineering and I got my foot in the door here at JSC. When I finished undergraduate school, I decided to continue on with school right then and there and continue on to get my master’s and my Ph.D. so I moved on to Austin, to the University of Texas at Austin, and got with a great advisor there and got to do some NASA research. I finished up my master’s and my Ph.D. and then got hired here at JSC in crew and thermal systems for two years before I was lucky enough to be chosen to be an astronaut.
If you could have two lifetimes to explore other careers, something that you haven’t done before, is there something else that you would consider a dream job?
I think a dream job for me, as I said before, I like drawing. I also like sewing and creative projects. I could spend two days in a row working on a quilt or sewing, so if I could make a living out of that, I think I would be in good shape, because I really, really enjoy that, and drawing and painting and anything like that. So if I could figure out a way [to], you know, earn a living doing that, I think that would be what I want to do.
Is that therapeutic, or is it just the detail?
You know, it’s probably both. I’ve liked this since I was a little kid and I just, for some reason, I can get going on it and I can probably go without sleeping, just keep working, so I really enjoy it.
Tell me what it was like growing up in your hometown and how it influenced who you’ve become.
I grew up in a very, very small town in central Minnesota. It’s called Vining. Since I can remember, it’s been less than a hundred people, very, very small. My family lived, and my parents still live, in a house outside of town on a lake in the country. The town that I went to school in is a neighboring town and its one school was kindergarten through twelfth grade. So, I went to school with pretty much the same people my entire life. There’s a lot of good things about being in a town like that, in a small school like that. There are a couple drawbacks. Education-wise, it was a good education but since it’s such a small school they can only offer so much and when I got into undergraduate school I had peers that were starting in Calculus III and I, you know, I still had to take a trigonometry to get caught up. But it all ended up okay. The good side about being in a town like that, in a school that size, is I was able to participate in everything that I wanted to. I was playing sports. I was in the band, in the choir, student council and being a part of a team in that way. I think if I had gone to a bigger school, like my sports’ abilities, I was OK but I never would have been able to play in a big school. I just wasn’t that good so I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to be a part of a team in that way and, and play the sports and, and do every activity that I wanted to. So I think in the long run, for me, it was probably good that I grew up in a, in a little town like that.
Tell us how, how you found out that, that you’d been picked to make your first spaceflight and, and what your reaction was.
It was almost a year ago and I think it was just a typical day at the office, if I remember correctly. It’s one of those where you walk in the office and there’s the light on that you have a message and the chief of the office, Steve Lindsey, had called and at that point, when he calls and leaves a message for you to come see him, one of the options is that you potentially are getting assigned to a space flight and I think, you know, we had been working through the people in my class, so I knew that I was going to be sometime in the next few. So then I went down to see him and, sure enough, that’s what it was.
How did you react?
I was pretty excited. Like I said, it’s one of those things we knew the time was coming, so it wasn’t necessarily anti-climactic but you kind of expected it soon, but still, this is what I came here to do, so I was very, very excited.
Can you give us a nutshell summary of what the goal or goals are of STS 124?
The main goal of our mission is to deliver the Japanese Pressurized Module of the Japanese Experimental Module to the space station. That’s one of the biggest payloads the space shuttle has ever flown, so there’s not a lot else that we’re taking up, other than that module. So that’s the main goal, to deliver that to the space station, install it, activate it, get it up and running. We’re also taking an expedition crew member up and exchanging him for one of the expedition crew members that had been living up there.
As mission specialist 1, what are your main tasks?
I’ll have the opportunity to operate all three robotic arms that will be on station at the time. I’ll work the shuttle robotic arm, the space station robotic arm, and the new Japanese robotic arm, so that will be some of my main tasks. Also Aki and I are going to be the prime crew members to get the Japanese module installed and up and running.
I understand you’re going to be the first person to operate three arms.
That’s what they tell me. That’s what they tell me.
How does that make you feel?
That will be pretty exciting. Those robotic arms are pretty cool and they’re fun to work with so I’m looking forward to it.
Tell us a little bit about what the JPM is and what it’s for.
Well, the Japanese module’s going to be primarily a laboratory, a scientific laboratory once it’s up and running and it’s going to have an exposed facility where they will be able to do experiments that are exposed to the vacuum of space which is a little bit different. We have some of those that we put out on the space station, but this will be an opportunity to do more of that. They have a robotic arm will be used to transport the payloads from the exposed facility into an airlock that the Japanese module has so we’ll be able to bring the experiments in and out and work with them that way. So it will be a quite capable experiment laboratory.
There’s another module that you’ll be working with, one that will be there waiting for you, the logistics module. Give me an idea of what its function is.
Actually it will be the primary module to bring up some of the racks that will eventually end up in the laboratory module. The laboratory module is so big and massive that a lot of the racks, the systems’ racks, will be launched in the JLP. One of our tasks is to transport them internally from the JLP through Node 2 into the laboratory module. Once it’s completely emptied out we’ll use the space station robotic arm and move it over to its permanent location on the JPM. It’ll basically be empty and it can be used for storage at that point.
We’ve talked a little about JEM or Kibo, as it’s nicknamed, and its robotic arm. Can you introduce us to that arm? How is it, how is it different or similar to the space station arm that’s up there already?
It’s a little bit smaller than the space station arm. It also has one location where it will always be. The space station arm can inchworm from one grapple fixture to the next and kind of expand its capabilities of where it can work. The Japanese arm will be at the end of the Kibo module at all times and its primary function will be for working with the payloads like I talked about earlier. It operates similarly as far, as far as the mechanics of it. The software and how it operates is a little bit different and how we interact with it is a little bit different, but the function of it, the way it works, is very similar.
For the ride uphill to, to station you won’t have the orbiter boom sensor system.
That’ll be the first time since the first return to flight mission, I believe.
Can you tell us first why you won’t have it in the payload bay and what the plan is for inspecting the thermal tiles on flight day 2?
The reason we don’t have it is the size of the Japanese module. There are some interference issues, so we can’t have both of them in the payload bay at the same time. STS-123 will leave the boom on the space station attached to the truss for us to pick up once we get the Japanese module out of the payload bay. On flight day 2 we’re going to do kind of a, a downgraded version, using just the end effector camera on the shuttle robotic arm. The point is to look at as much of the wing surface as we can with that, to give the damage assessment team a little head start on looking at how the wing is doing after ascent. Like I said it, it’s a smaller version and we can only look at some of the top and front of each of the wings, but, they design it to look at as much as we can with what we have.
Let's move ahead to flight day 3. Can you give us an idea of what you’ll be doing for the rendezvous and docking phases?
I’ll be working on the flight deck with Mark and Ken and Aki. I’ll be kind of the MS who’s, kind of backing up the flying they’re doing and all that, working with the rendezvous tools that we have, the sensors, a computer that shows where we are and how we’re making progress and gaining our position to the space station. So I’ll be involved heavily throughout the entire rendezvous process.
Can you tell us what you’ll be trying to accomplish on flight day 4, for the first EVA, just a kind of overview, general idea?
Flight day 4’s a big day for us. Mike and Ron will be going outside for their first EVA. Aki and I both will be working heavily on robotics. The first task we’ll do during the EVA is the elbow camera on the space shuttle. Again because of interference issues with the Japanese module when it’s in the payload bay, it's going to be strapped in a position to keep it from bumping the Japanese module. I will be working the shuttle robotic arm and when Mike’s outside, he’ll get up, climb up on Node 2 and I’ll bring the arm up to him so he can remove those straps. After that, Aki will be on the space station arm and Ron and Mike will disconnect the OBSS from the truss and Aki then will have it grappled and pull it away from the truss and do a handoff to me on the space shuttle robotic arm. So then I will then have control of the OBSS and park that. After that, the big arm, the SSRMS, will do a walk off from its position on the MBS over to Node 2 and get ready to bring the, the Japanese module out of payload bay. So at that point, Aki’s going to fly the arm, bring it out of the payload bay, does this big old slow maneuver and we’ll install it on Node 2. So that’s going to be a big day.
Can you give us an idea of what’s, what’s on the to-do list for flight day 5?
Flight day 5 is mostly working on getting the Japanese module up and running. We’ll be doing a lot of physical work with the hardware, getting all the power and data and cooling lines connected. Once that’s, is done, we’ll do our Channel B activation. The Japanese module has two power channels and the racks that are installed during launch in the module allow for us to activate the systems for Channel B. We will get that activated and once that is activated so we have air flow and lights in the module, we can open the hatch and ingress the module. So that’s the primary goal of flight day 5 is to get the hatches open and get inside and get the Channel B activated.
The vestibule outfitting will connect the JEM to the Node. There are three parts. Why the multi-part process and why can’t you do them all at once?
It’s broken up basically into how the activation process happens. Primarily we do the first parts in order to get Channel B activated, and then the second part in order to open the hatch and get some air flow. The third part is before we activate Channel A so it’s basically doing the final power jumpers for Channel A. So they just break it up according to what kind of processes are going to be taking on with the systems, during that period of time.
What role do ground controllers have in the activation of the Channels A and B?
The first part of, the initial activation of Channel B we’ll be doing onboard and that’s basically up through the time that the main computer is running in the JEM. At that point, the ground can take over and do some final tweaking on getting various components up and running. Channel activation, they’ll be doing on the ground entirely once we get the power jumpers installed.
Okay. at some point you’ll ingress the Japanese module, the pressurized module, and, and to complete setup activities. what are those if you haven’t touched on those already?
Um, there’s various things, removing an accumulator that was there for launch that we no longer need, checking some valves, some positive pressure release valves, and negative pressure release valves, setting up the safety system, the fire extinguishers and the portable breathing apparatuses and just getting the, getting it in shape for us to work inside.
Could you tell us what’s involved in, in completing the JEM-RMS rack transfer, and why that’s so important for the next, next day’s activities?
The JEM-RMS rack is the first one we’re going to transport from the JLP into the, into the JPM. We’re doing that the day that we ingress because we want to get the heaters on the arm up and running. So we’re going to get that rack into the JPM and plugged in so we can get the heaters and put it in a good state for the arm, which is outside exposed to the vacuum of space.
One of the main activities for flight day 7 is focused inspection. Can you give us an idea of how that’s going to happen? You’ll have the OBSS back now.
The space shuttle arm will have the OBSS. Depending on what the engineers on the ground see on the vehicle, they will determine in what areas we need to inspect and they will uplink that data for us. They will uplink procedures for the robotic arm and we can take the boom then and take it under the belly and look at whatever area it is that they think needs further inspection.
This is also the day that the logistics module is scheduled to be relocated.
What needs to happen before JLP can actually be moved over? Are there some prep things that need to happen?
Yeah. Before we move the JLP we have to make sure it’s empty. We even have moved all the racks. We also have to close it out meaning we have to disconnect all of the cables and the lines that actually STS 123 had connected and close up the hatches. Then we’ll be ready to move.
Could you give us some idea of what the plan is to move the logistics module, onto the zenith of Kibo?
To do that Greg and I will be working on the space station robotic arm. We will grapple to the JLP. Aki and Greg will be working the mechanism that releases the bolts that connects it to the Node 2. Then we’ll maneuver it, basically, straight zenith and then translate it down over to its new berthing mechanism and then again install it then on top of the JPM in its permanent location.
The next day, if I understand correctly, you’ll be deploying the robotic arm. What does that involve?
Well, the robotic arm on the JEM is launched where it’s kind of tucked up on the port side of the JEM and it’s held in place with some hold release mechanisms. The first step is to release those and then we’re going to very slowly deploy one section at a time, get the wrist out of its holding mechanism and get the elbow out. So it’s kind of a methodical process. It’s done in a few phases. There’s an initial deploy and then a final deploy which will put it in its parked position.
Could you give us a, a brief summary of how the nitrogen tank assembly re-, R&R, will happen the following day?
That’ll be EVA 3 and Aki and I will be working on the space station robotic arm, Mike and Ron, of course, outside and Ron will be riding the arm. So he will ingress an APFR on the end of the arm and basically we’ll be flying him around, flying the arm for him to pull the old NTA out of the truss and then doing a very long -- it’s going to be a fun ride for him -- because the arm is going to go completely stretched out up in a big arc over to the other side of the truss and so he’ll be clearly on top of the world at that point. Then they do a trade off of the new NTA and he leaves the old NTA back there. We do the reverse of that and install the new NTA into its position on the truss.
I’ve been told that the English translation of the Japanese word Kibo is ‘hope,’ After you’ve completed this mission what, what do you hope that it will do or mean for the bigger mission of space exploration?
After this mission the space station is going to be very close to its completed state and I hope that at that point we can actually utilize it to do the things that it was meant to be for, all the, the science that originally it was intended for. And I hope that it can be used, and it will be, to look at the effects of microgravity on humans which is very important for the future of what we plan on doing in sending humans back to the moon and even on farther where you really, we’re going to be in microgravity for very long periods of time. It’s actually pretty exciting to see the space station close to its final configuration, so that it can be used in the way that it was originally intended.
And that leads me to one of my questions down the line here. ISS is very close to being completed. What are your thoughts? I mean, there’s excitement seeing that impending completion coming but, is there also a bit of mixed emotions about it possibly marking the end of an era with the shuttle and no more construction to the station?
What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I guess all good things have to come to an end at some point. It is sad but I think it just paves the way for future things. We can’t keep doing the same thing forever. We need to move on so I think it’s actually very positive that we’re finally at that point where space station is going to be where we wanted it to be. It’s sad that the shuttle will stop flying but, again, all good things need to come to an end at some point and the shuttle did its job, did it in a spectacular way. It’s now time to figure out a vehicle that can take us farther.
Can you give us some, some insight into some of the skills and talents and intangibles of your crewmates that kind of make you confident that this mission’s going to be a success?
I think we have a very strong team and, of course, that starts with strong leadership. Mark is a great commander. I think he gives everybody the freedom to do their job and everybody the freedom to use their particular strengths. I think it’s all the individual strengths coming together. It’s not just our crew members but the ground team as well. We have very strong flight directors working with us, and so I think everybody as a whole, all the individuals as a whole, I think, makes for a very strong team.
And, and speaking of the, the ground support, you’ve seen it during your visits around the different spaceflight centers and the work they do. How would you characterize the work ethic that you’ve seen?
I think the people at NASA have an incredible work ethic. I think most of us that work at NASA are very passionate about space exploration. Few people just end up here by chance. There’s a lot of people are working at NASA because that is their lifelong passion and it definitely shows in the work that they do. Even with setbacks that we’ve had over the past few years, sometimes it just makes people stronger and want to work harder, I think. I’ve seen a great work ethic from folks all over the country that work for NASA.
You talked about the setbacks. That happens with any big endeavor and it could be said that the measure of fortitude is how we adapt to those setbacks and unforeseen things. How would you say that the spaceflight community and NASA have done in that respect?
I think they’ve done a tremendous job in adapting as necessary. We see it on the space station today with the problems we’re having. It’s going to happen. This is a difficult thing we’re doing and with any exploration there will be setbacks. There will be problems and I think that NASA does an incredible job of just keeping on track and moving the track when they need to, to make it work and accomplish what needs to be accomplished.