Q: This is the STS 124 interview with Pilot Ken Ham. Ken, at different points in our lives we choose particular paths to where we’re going to go. Can you tell us how you came to choose a path that leads to space?
Preflight Interview: Kenneth T. Ham, Pilot
A: That would probably start quite a while ago for me, not that I was specifically goal-oriented for being an astronaut, however, getting into aviation and then military aviation is the path that kind of led me to where I am today. That started back in high school when my dad kind of encouraged me to get into flying general aviation and took some flying lessons. And then I remember specifically a day where I was sitting in the office of my guidance counselor in high school and he asked me what I wanted to do for a living and I told him I had no idea. Then he rephrased the question and said, “Well, what is it that you like to do?” And I said, “Well, I like to fly” because I had gotten into some flying stuff and he showed me a picture, I still remember it to this day, of the Blue Angels which I had never heard of. But they were flying A-4s and they were in their little diamond formation and he goes, “Would you like to do something like that?” And I went, “Yeah, I’d love to do something like that.” So he said, “Hey, you can go to this school called the Naval Academy” and I knew almost nothing about the military. I applied to the Naval Academy, looked into it and it looked like something fun to do so I went there, went on through aviation, had a lot of fun flying jets in the Navy and at one point I had a commanding officer in the squadron, Rick Nelson, good friend of mine, who encouraged me to fly with my heart which was a wonderful thing. I learned to really appreciate all the aspects of flying through this man. He also encouraged me to go get a master’s degree and go to test pilot school which I ended up doing and had a ball. One of the most rewarding career or time periods in the military was being a test pilot at Pax River. As sort of a natural progression out of that was going on to, trying to try and fly a space shuttle so I ended putting in an application and ended up down here. And it’s all been fun and very rewarding.
You just mentioned something that made me think. You were encouraged to fly with your heart. Can you, can you kind of elaborate on what that means, especially for a non-pilot like me?
That’s a tough one because it’s usually a topic that most flight instructors don’t talk about. Maybe most pilots don’t even really think about that way. Flying is a checklist-oriented, methodical way of conducting business in an airplane to keep yourself alive and conduct the business safely and kind of learn from history and do things in an established way. It’s kind of the safest way, the most efficient method to get your job done. However, there’s the other half of your brain that’s the artistic side that allows you to really think about different ways to accomplish what you’re trying to do. I, at some point I started flying with my instinct and my gut and it really made flying a lot more fun and a lot more creative. I think it made me a lot better pilot but, anyway…
Do you remember what it was like on your first solo? How did you feel?
My own first solo, I think I was a, it was the minimum age in the FAA when you could do it back then. I can’t remember if it was 15 or 16 or something like that. I drove out to the airport by myself and went out flying on my own and I remember distinctly being in the airplane, flying around the pattern just singing songs to myself and having a good old time. It was really fun. It’s kind of, at a young age, you know, being a teenager it’s a very independent feeling so it’s a, it’s kind of a leap in growing up.
Can you tell me a little bit what it was like growing up in, in your hometown and how that helped influence who you’ve become?
Ah, my hometown of Clark, N.J. New Jersey is much different than where we live down here in Houston. It’s much more of, I would say, a melting pot of different cultures living together in the same area. I think that served to make me a very open-minded person with regards to everyone I’m living with and dealing with. For the most part I would say it’s a fairly blue collar area, if that term is still appropriate, I’m not sure. But it’s made me feel very comfortable around, for example, when you get into the squadron life in the military I’m very comfortable around the troops and hard-working guys. Those are the guys I can really identify with and enjoy being around. I guess that’s probably the biggest influence.
You, you mentioned obviously flying’s a definite passion. Is there some other sport or hobby or activity that you really liked growing up and why?
I’ve always really enjoyed team sports. I played soccer in high school. I probably wasn’t all that good at it but I really enjoyed playing it. I enjoyed baseball as a youngster. Kind of got away from it, I got into playing soccer full time but since I’ve had two boys of my own I’ve gotten back into coaching their teams, being on the Little League Board and eventually I’ve gotten back into playing the game myself. Over the last few years that has been extremely rewarding to me. To get out there on the field with young guys in their twenties and I’m in my forties, trying my best to hang in there with them and be able to at least salvage a little bit of pride on the diamond with, with these young guys and play ball -- that is truly a passion of mine, playing baseball now. I really like it.
If your closest friends were asked to talk about you, to characterize you, what do you think they would say? How do you think they’d describe you?
Boy, that’s a tough question. I don’t think I can give you my honest answer because it’s probably not fit for television. But let’s see. As a point of data maybe, as part of our training as a crew, we went on, I guess you’d call it a team-building exercise with a national outdoor leadership school. In our particular case we went sea-kayaking in Alaska. So our crew plus our flight director went out and spent 10 days basically secluded with the guidance of a couple of NOLS, National Outdoor Leadership Schools, instructors and a couple exercises were performed along the way, classroom sort of exercises out in the woods. It was a wonderful experience where you sort of characterize how you fit in with your team and what your strengths and weaknesses are. I think what I learned out of that, which is interesting, is that I am the cheerleader on the crew. And that’s kind of a weak explanation of my role on the crew but I do enjoy, trying to keep people happy and sort of emotionally oriented on where we’re trying to go and what we’re trying to do. I don’t know if people would characterize me that way but I would like to fill that role.
That’s good. Okay. Do you recall when you found out that you were, you were picked to make your spaceflight and can you tell us that story and what your reaction was?
I guess it’s over a year ago now. I was invited in to talk to the chief of the office, Steve Lindsey. He informed me he was trying to put me on this crew and what issues we needed to work out. And we worked out some stuff and I got on this crew. You know, you’ve interviewed the other crew members, this happens to be a really good crew. We get along very well in a lot of aspects and we’ve really gelled in a performance sense to be able to accomplish our mission very efficiently and safely. But at the same time, I think we try to have fun every day and it keeps us motivated and focused on what we’re trying to do. It helps. I think I got off subject on you there but…
Just maybe a little bit more … was it a total surprise or did you like go into the bathroom and go…
Ah, in my pipeline if you will as a shuttle PLT, pilot, there’s a sort of a natural progression of when people get assigned and how they go. I knew an assignment was probably in the works and coming so it wasn’t a huge surprise to me. However, it’s, it’s a nice feeling when you finally get told and it’s under your belt and yeah, there’s definitely a piece of going home and going, “Yeah!”
Could you summarize for us the, the main goal, goals of STS 124? What are [you] guys going to be doing?
That’s pretty easy. We are bringing up a piece of the International Space Station, a habitable piece. It happens to be the largest habitable volume piece, if you will, also the heaviest element that we’ve launched to date. I believe that’s an accurate statement. It is sometimes misnamed the JEM, the Japanese Experiment Module. However, that term really encompasses elements from three different flights that are all going to exist or be located, if you will, on the forward port side of the space station. Our piece is the JPM, Japanese Pressurized Module, which is a, essentially a very large cylinder that is filled with racks, the term we use to describe the elemental pieces of machinery that fill the cylinder volume on the inside. Many of those racks are simply there to support life for us in space -- anything from distributing electrical power to, thermal control to managing the environment inside the module. However, there are some other racks that are purely oriented towards research. There’s a life sciences rack. There is a material sciences rack. There are, there’s a rack that controls the external arm which is attached to one end of the cylinder, the free end, if you will, which can allow us, or not us per se, us the 124 crew, and further space station crews to conduct experiments that happen out in the space environment. And the arm can pick up the experiment, put it into an airlock which is integral to the end of the cylinder of the JPM and take these experiments inside and outside.
As the pilot for this mission, what are your, your main responsibilities? What are you responsible for, just a couple different things?
Ah, probably the list of responsibilities is, is actually fairly short. If anyone’s familiar with the space shuttle, you’ll know that the cockpit is really divided into two sides. There’s a pilot’s side and the commander’s side. The systems that are accessible on the pilot’s side are not from the commander’s side so I am responsible for all those systems -- the orbital maneuvering systems engines, the reaction control system thrusters, the auxiliary power units, the main engines, all the electrical buses. All the kind of stuff is on my side. My responsibility with those is essentially to make sure that they are operating correctly and safely. Johnson Space Center does a great job in training us on how to do all that. Having said all that, once we’re on orbit, I’m helping out some on the shuttle arm, mostly doing activities which revolve around making sure that the thermal protection system of the orbiter itself is in good shape after ascent and safe for us to return home. And then my other new fun job that I’ve learned over the last few months is how to be a, what they call the IVA guy, the intra-vehicular activity person which is integrated into the EVA team, which is the extra-vehicular team. The two crew members going outside are Ron Garan and Mike Fossum. They’re going to go outside for three different spacewalks and my role in that team is to be the person on the inside of the shuttle that helps conduct the spacewalk in a real time sense. That, I’ve learned over the last few months, is a really fun, rewarding job. It’s a chance to be flexible and use the assets you have in real time to try to coordinate getting a maximum amount of efficiency out of Mike and Ron. So I treat them as work horses. They wouldn’t agree but I tell ‘em where to go and what to do. Of course they really know most of that stuff already. However, if anything unexpected were to occur during a, an EVA -- unexpected could be anything from a malfunction problem with a space suit to a something mechanical, a task that they’re trying to do outside doesn’t actually go the way they wanted it to, the spacewalk will need to get rearranged real time and rather quickly to make sure you get as many of the high priority tasks done as possible. That function, being that it needs to be done very quickly, will probably be my responsibility and Mark’s, the commander. We’ll work it out quickly with, in conjunction with the ground. However, we may not have communication. The ground may take a while to think about many different aspects and it may be easier for us to just take care of that on board and that’s kind of a fun thing to do.
Okay. All right, good.
The answer I just gave you was the official answer. The real answer for me is to do all of that correctly. However, to learn how to be a commander, I have my eyes and ears open in a big way watching Mark and what he does. He’s done a spectacular job of pulling a, a crew together, keeping everybody happy and making sure that everyone feels like they have a big part of this crew. And they do. He’s done it in a great way and I’m learning a lot. It’s not one of my official responsibilities but it’s definitely on my list of things to, to learn in this endeavor.
You won’t have the, the orbiter boom sensor system for the ride uphill. Give us a little background about why that’s the case and how you do flight day 2 inspection.
Sure. The reason we don’t have it is simple. The payload that we’re bringing up is simply physically too large to put the boom in and close the payload bay doors and launch the vehicle, so the mission before us, STS-123, is bringing the boom up. They’re going to leave it in a structure that is on the main truss of the space station, sort of on the starboard side, top side of the truss and therefore, we’re going to launch without it. After we launch, before we rendezvous, we’re going to use the shuttle arm and the camera that’s on the end of the shuttle arm to do as much of the rudimentary inspection as we can of the, of the wings of the orbiter. We can’t see very much of the bottom. When we get up in proximity of the station, just before we rendezvous, we will do the RPM maneuver as it’s called when we essentially flip over once and the crew members on the space station will take detailed photographs of the belly of the orbiter, downlink those to the ground. There will be extensive study on that, that imagery to see if we have any other thermal issues. After we dock, if it turns out that we do have some areas of the shuttle that we need to look at, once we get the boom back in control of the shuttle and we will do some inspections if necessary with the boom system while we’re docked. [Getting the boom back] is kind of a, a tricky little process of using EVA guys, Mike and Ron, outside releasing the boom from that truss assembly the space station arm picking up the boom and then handing it off to the shuttle arm. We’ll have it by, I think, it’s flight day 5, I could be wrong.
Regardless, once we undock, we are taking the boom with us and going home. Now our payload bay is empty so we can fit it in there. After we undock, we will do the traditional detailed survey of the thermal protection system of the orbiter so that we can guarantee that we are safe to enter.
What will you be doing for the rendezvous and docking phase?
As the pilot which, in this case, is certainly a misnomer -- the commander’s doing the piloting task of flying the orbiter -- I will be making sure that the checklist is done in its entirety, every little element of it. The rendezvous timeline and this checklist is, I guess you could say it’s complicated. We’ve trained to the point where it’s no longer complicated but it is thorough and exhaustive and you need to accomplish every one of the elements. My role is making sure that everything is completed. I will perform some of the smaller rendezvous burns myself from the front of the cockpit while Mark is in the back getting ready to do the manual phase flying to the actual rendezvous and I’ll basically be doing the communication with the ground.
Will you be doing more, more functions for undocking?
For undocking it’s sort of my chance to do some manual flying and actually be a pilot, which is a great tradition. I don’t know where it began but whoever started it, I’m thankful. I’ll be able to do the manual flying for the undocking phase. If everything goes well and we have enough propellant we should be able to undock, go out to about six hundred feet and fly a full 360 degree trajectory around space station while we get to take some pictures of it and document where everything is.
And you’ll be at the controls for all that fly around and…
How do you feel about that? I mean, it’s going to be…
Oh yeah, I’m looking forward to that; it’ll be fun.
For the first EVA, flight day 4…
That’s right, OK.
… one of the first things you guys are going to do is, is get the boom back. You’ve mentioned that. What else is going to happen that day?
On Flight Day 4, that EVA is, we call it EVA No. 1. Like I mentioned earlier, we’ll get the boom back, um…
I think that’s also the day that the JPM is going to be taken out…
Yes, it is. There’s another small interesting fact of this mission. Once again because the JPM is so large in the payload bay, there is a, a camera on the shuttle robotic arm, on the elbow, which is very important for later robotics operations. But due to the fact that there’s a reduced amount of volume for that camera to sit in the payload bay for launch we have to strap it down or clamp it down in some manner to make sure it doesn’t vibrate and hit the JPM or the payload bay doors. One of the things we’ll do during that EVA in fact, it’s about the first that Mike does is he’ll run forward along the lab up to Node 2 and then reach out and remove whatever retention device we end up using on that camera so that we can use the camera for the remainder of the mission. This is, it sounds like a small task but it’s actually very, very important for the success of the whole mission. We’ll do that. We’ll get the boom, I mentioned earlier, and then Mike and Ron are going to go ready the JPM in the payload bay for extraction, so that we can remove it and install it on space station. What that involves is removing some covers on the mating interface, the ceiling interface itself on the CBM, as well as unplugging the module from orbiter power which is a manual task. I think the last thing we’re doing there is starting to release some of the launch locks on the windows in particular for the JPM so that we can get a window open early if we desire or if the ground desires.
A little background on focused inspection. Is it a given actually that that’s going to happen or is that just going to be determined based on some things?
Yeah, that’ll be determined real time. It is certainly not a given. To be quite honest, I don’t know the requirements that have to be met in any particular suspected damage site such that we will go and do focused inspection. It’s sort of an area that we don’t train a whole lot because it is unscripted. We will do what the ground tells us to do and what area to go look at. With the boom on the shuttle arm, you can see a large amount of the acreage tile, on the belly of the orbiter. I believe there’s maybe four hours blocked out in the timeline right now to do it. We may use none of that or we may use twice that. We’ll see.
Let’s move way ahead to flight day 9, EVA 3. The big thing that day is the R&R, remove and replacement, or just swapping, of the nitrogen tank assemblies. Can you kind of give us a brief Reader’s Digest version of how that’s going to happen?
This is actually going to be kind of interesting. I hope we have good KU coverage and cameras for this.
So do we.
I think it will be a pretty spectacular image. There is a nitrogen tank assembly which pressurizes some ammonia tanks on the starboard truss of the station. It is essentially empty or needs to be replaced and the full nitrogen tank assembly will be on the almost extreme port end of the truss. So we need to swap these two tank assemblies. The tank assemblies from the outside look like a large rectangular cube, maybe 3 feet by 3 feet by 5 or 6 feet, rough dimensions. To do this, we’re going to use the space station robotic arm which will be based on the mobile transporter and the free end or the working end will start out on the starboard side near the depleted NTA. Ron is going to release the NTA and be connected to the large arm and then the arm is going to, it’ll, by the way, the arm will be almost stretched out to its full length to get there, and the arm is going to act simply as a windshield wiper, if you will, go from one side of the space station all the way to the other side. So at some point in that trajectory you can imagine Ron attached to the arm sticking straight up out of space station which I don’t know exactly how long that space station arm is but it may be maybe 30 meters, quite a ways up there, hanging on to this NTA which weighs about 500 pounds, this big rectangular box kind of a thing. It’s got to be a spectacular view for him and for us watching him do it. Then he’ll go over to port side, swap out the, the two tank assemblies with Mike’s help and then return all the way back to the starboard side via the same method and reinstall the, the full tank.
As far as you know, after you undock, we’ve covered undocking and you do an inspection, is there a plan in place for if there is a suspected area of damage and, and they, what, what do you do then?
Of course, there’s a plan in place. We will conserve enough propellant to re-rendezvous with space station if required. That’ll be a, an interesting decision point if we were to have any kind of damage like that. It will also be possible for us to do our own self-contained repair, be it repair the RCC, the leading edge of the wing because that entire patch kit will be in our possession. Normally that patch kit resides on space station. The repairs would be done on space station because the inspection would be done before docking. You’d know you had the damage. You’d do the repair right there. Our case is different. We have the side benefit of bringing that patch kit home because the next mission to launch is the Hubble mission. They need to fly that patch kit for their mission obviously because they can’t get to space station. So there will be a decision point there if we had damage of whether we can fix it ourselves and come home or whether it’s damaged to such an extent that it’s not safe to come home and we probably can’t fix it right. So we’ll go back to space station as a place to bail out, if you will.
I’ve been told that the English translation of the, the word Kibo, which is the nickname for the, for JEM, for the Japanese Experiment Module, is ‘hope.’ After this mission is completed, what do you hope it will do for the, the bigger mission of space exploration?
I thought you were going to ask that a little bit differently. I was going to say, “I HOPE that we do this all correctly and don’t screw it up,” but what it’ll do for the bigger picture of space exploration? Well, on a global sense it certainly integrates to a large degree another nation into the International Space Station. Of course, JAXA and Japanese government has been involved in a planning and engineering development phase with space station for years. Now they become real true, integrated operators. There is a control room, in Japan that will be integrated on all daily operations of the space station so we’ll be up to five control rooms? Houston, Moscow, Huntsville for our own life science kind of experiments from the U.S., Cologne for ESA and then Tsukuba for Japan. So that’s five different control rooms operating the International Space Station as it goes around the planet which is pretty neat when you think about it. It integrates the, the span of the globe and it may only get bigger as we move along.
A lot of, lot of New Jersey people on this, on this flight.
You guys planning any, any special Jersey thing?
I’ve been trying to get in contact with Bruce Springsteen and see if I can’t flight something for him, but we may have a couple of tricks up our sleeve but I’ll just reserve that for now.
But, yeah, you’re right. I don’t think there’s more than five or six astronauts right now from New Jersey and four of them are on this flight.
You talked a little bit about the team concept of, of this crew. Can you give us a little bit of insight into some of the talents and skills of your crew members that kind of make you confident that this mission’s going to be a success?
I will certainly not touch on them all because there are many of them. I’ll, I’ll go through the crew members and address some of the things that stand out in my mind. Mark, I already touched on. His real role is a leader and making sure the mission gets done correctly. In the Navy squadrons where, you know, my background is from the commanding officer, his No. 1 responsibility is morale. Mark has done that in spades. He’s kept us all happy and focused and I think he’s going to continue to do that on orbit. He’s a lot of fun to be around and he knows how to keep everybody going in the same direction. Mike Fossum, he’s in my class here at NASA. We’ve kind of been working together for, I guess, it’s almost 10 years now. I’ve known Mike very well over those 10 years and he’s a true professional. He also has a great attitude; he’s fun to be around and he has a wealth of expertise as an EVA kind of an operator. I was unaware of that until I got involved with exactly what he does as an EVA member. He’s extremely good, extremely flexible and I have utmost confidence that he can accomplish anything that’s put on his plate that involves being outside. EVA is not an easy thing to do.
I’m sure it’s a spectacular and thrilling experience simply for the view of being in your own little private spaceship outside, but it’s a lot of work and Mike has bottomless potential for getting tasks completed. I’ve also really appreciated how he’s trained Ron. Ron has become also a very established EVA individual. We had an EVA test just the other day where sort of senior EVA guys come in, folks with many spacewalks, and evaluate how we’re doing. They thought Ronnie was doing really well, and Mike as well too. So I, I think in the EVA corner we’re going to do just fine.
Karen, who sits right behind me for launch and landing, is a wonderful personality. She is fun to be around and she is a true professional in what she does. I have learned that she is a very, very good arm operator. Her three-dimensional awareness is exceptional. Her operational sense, and when I say that it’s a broad term that means the ability to get things done quickly, efficiently and safely, is excellent. She’s fun to fly with in the T-38. She’s a great crew member. Aki is absolutely wonderful. He is, he is our connection to Japan and JAXA to making sure that we are doing everything correctly with regard to the JPM. Once we get the JPM installed, bringing it to life is a very complicated operation and Aki is the man that is going to make sure that that happens correctly. All the rest of us are carrying tools for him and make sure that he’s equipped to do his job. But he’s really the one that’s got the big picture in his head. We all communicate very, very well and enjoy being around each other.
How would you characterize the work ethic that, that you’ve seen at the different spaceflight centers you’ve visited during training? These people are putting in hours upon hours to, to get this stuff done.
It’s exhaustive and I think hard to really grasp and understand the expanse of the effort. I suspect I never will really understand it unless I were to spend weeks at the different centers. We were out at Michoud maybe a month ago looking at our external tank and the incredible facility they have out there and just seeing the army of people that are working on the tank. I don’t know how many shifts they do. They, they probably do at least two, maybe three, shifts a day of constant work to get the equipment and hardware ready to go. Just last week we were out at the cape looking at Discovery. We got a chance to get in it and I was amazed. I don’t have a whole lot of experience of being with the maintainers at the Cape, but I was amazed the extent to which the orbiter is disassembled and inspected before it’s reassembled and ready to fly. Just looking at the number of panels and wires that are pulled out, I know as being around maintainers that represent an incredible amount of work and an incredible amount of accountability in making sure you didn’t drop a screw or screwdriver or something else that could really ruin the spaceflight. It’s, it’s incredible what gets done.
One could say that the true measure of, of fortitude is, is in how well we adapt to unforeseen situations, things that aren’t planned and just pop up and how we rally to come up with inventive ways to get past these things. How would you say the spaceflight community and NASA has done in that particular context just in, in general? Or specifically …
I don’t think I need to address specific examples because if you’re paying attention to spaceflight news, I don’t mean that as a specific outlet but the, the news of spaceflight, NASA’s had its hurdles in a lot of areas and there certainly are unforeseen circumstances. In general, dealing with unforeseen circumstances, the two avenues you don’t want to take is one, you don’t want to panic and the other is, you don’t want to stagnate and do nothing. Somewhere in the middle is making sane educated decisions and moving forward with a plan of action and with some of these large hurdles that NASA has had, I think we have done exactly that -- not panicked, gather as much information as we can and choose a course of action and then act upon it. In almost all cases, that seems to work. We're like any other organization or any individuals, you have your failures occasionally but as long as you learn from them and incorporate what you learn and put it back into your decision-making process, everything’s a good. We’re doing the best we can and I think NASA’s very good at it.
Space station is in a phase of construction where it’s nearing completion. That would certainly be exciting. It’s exciting for some, for some people or, or in some respects but does it also evoke other emotions? It could mean the end of an era for shuttle and no more construction on station. What are your thought on that?
It is certainly a change in the phase of American or international, at this point, human spaceflight. We have been very focused over the last 15 years on how to build the space station. Obviously our main launch platform has been the space shuttle and just about every mission we’ve launched in that time span has been to the station to build it. So as we approach the end of this phase it will mean a whole different way of operating for us here at JSC and in my office, the Astronaut Office, in particular. It kind of changes the whole slant of which way or how we train our crew members and what we try to optimize and specialize in. At some point the space shuttle is going to retire. I’m not sure exactly when that will be. I know it’s publicized but political climates change, things could be delayed or shortened or, or lengthened. But at some point the space shuttle is going to end. It’s a physical absolute that the shuttle can’t just keep flying forever. When that does happen, we’ll have to change our operational ideas of how to run a mission control center. Right now we put an awful lot of person hours into operating the Mission Control Center for space station around the clock, monitoring what’s going on up there. And we also have to transition into the CEV program and getting to the moon hopefully some day. I don’t think I could foresee where all that’s going to happen, but it will certainly be changed and we’ll deal with it.