Feature

Preflight Interview: Stephen Bowen, Mission Specialist
10.31.08
jsc2008e039696 -- Stephen Bowen, Mission Specialist

STS-126 Mission Specialist Stephen Bowen. Photo Credit: NASA

Steve, there are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about a hundred American astronauts. Of all the careers in the entire world that a person could aspire to, you ended up a professional space traveler. What was it that motivated you or inspired you to become an astronaut?

That’s actually sort of an interesting question when I think about it because, you know, growing up in the early seventies, the Apollo program, Skylab, they were front page news, so science was news. There were other programs out there. You had Jacques Cousteau specials on all the time, and it seemed like science and engineering and exploration were news and they were vital and they were important. So I decided fairly early on to turn toward the engineering fields for study and I had the opportunity when I was in high school to do well enough to attend the U.S. Naval Academy. At the Naval Academy I initially wanted to be a pilot. The summer between my junior and senior year at the Naval Academy, I went on a submarine cruise. Having the opportunity with the crew on the submarine sort of turned my eyes a little bit more toward that as a profession. When you become a submariner there’s a lot of training involved. It’s about a two-year pipeline before you get to your first boat and during that time I was at a training command, it’s called the Prototype where we actually train on an actual nuclear reactor, and one of my bosses, the leading engineer for my ship was talking about applying to become an astronaut. That sort of set the little bit in my brain that said, “Hey, you know, that’s actually not a bad thing to keep in mind.” So I progressed through my career, tried to do the best that I could in the submarine force and in 1996 the Navy sent out a message looking for astronauts. I didn’t actually see the message until I got back off deployment and the time had passed. The next time around I was on shore duty down in Florida, Special Operations Command, and the Navy again put out a message and I said, “I might as well apply.” So I applied, followed the directions and ended up down here for an interview. That was the first time I actually met an astronaut and the first time I kind of got a real sense of what it was like to be an astronaut. I thought that would be a, a great thing to be because in addition to flying in space, as somebody said to me, “Ninety percent of your job is not flying in space.” You know, there’s so many other things that you do as an astronaut that the opportunity to fly in space comes rarely and it’s important but the things that you do to support space flight for other astronauts is really a big part of the job as well. So, with that in mind, when they offered me the opportunity, I took it.

Well, tell me about Cohasset, Mass., the place where you grew up.

Cohasset, Mass., is a small suburb of Boston, right on the coast. Have you ever seen the movie ‘Witches of Eastwick?’ That was filmed in Cohasset. It’s a fairly affluent small town. My sister still lives there. I still go back once in a while. We had beaches and spent a lot of time on our bicycles and sort of an idyllic childhood environment I found at the time.

Who or what would you say has been the biggest influence in helping to make you the person you are today, even where you grew up and after that?

Well, it’s kind of tough to answer that question directly. Obviously my, my parents, my father especially were the greatest influences and I hope I picked up some of, some of the traits that my father always presented to us. But through the years there’s always new people coming into your life and new people to look toward and help inspire you, educators along the way, teachers, professors, co-workers, bosses, subordinates. You have the opportunity to learn from so many people. I think, primarily it comes back to my dad and he probably taught me that you have to look around and see who’s out there. Who do you want to be like and who do you not want to be like and learn from? That as well. So I think that’s the easiest answer and probably the most honest one, too.

Steve, give me a thumbnail sketch of your military and professional career.

I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1986. I went in submarine training. Got my first submarine, USS Parche, in 1988 and then promptly went to the USS Pogy for nine months. I returned to Parche and got her under way, did sea trials with her and then went to graduate school at MIT Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. They have a program together and that was a very good experience. After that I was assigned as engineer of USS Augusta and I spent 2½ years as engineer and half a year as the weapons officer on the USS Augusta. From there I went to Special Operations Command in Florida for two years and after did a short stint at the Inert Inspection Team for the Navy prior to being assigned as the Executive Officer of the Precommissioning Unit Virginia when she was first stood up in May of 2000. Only a couple of short months later I was called to come down here to be an astronaut and that was a big change. And since I’ve been here I’ve, have done all those jobs that astronauts do.

You mentioned earlier that you had been on, in a submarine. Tell me what it’s like living in a submarine.

Well, living in a submarine is a little different experience than what most people ever get the opportunity to have. You’re in a confined space, you know, 300 feet, 360 feet long or so, 32 feet in diameter. There are about a hundred other people and, although you’re on board with a hundred other people, there are times when you can go for weeks of a time and see the same five, six faces and that’s all you’ll ever see. It's a very confined environment, it’s hard to do without explaining that you've got three people, officers, living in a, in a broom closet. The enlisted crew, they’re sometimes four high on a passageway and people have to go through this passage way to get to work. Most of the deployments are 90 days to 180 days in length or 72 days on a ballistic missile submarine. Some people don’t see the sun for that entire time. As an officer, I had the opportunity to look out the periscope and that was how we would see the sun. Day and night on board, you control the lights, you know, and it’s just a different sort of experience. It’s incredible. One of the things that, about a submarine that most people I don’t think fully appreciate is that the crew of a submarine is dependent on each other to the extent that you have to really trust each individual on board a submarine with your life. Because of that you have to train and understand the systems well enough that you can do that, that you feel confident, not only in yourself but in your crewmates around you. I think that’s, that’s sort of a different environment than most people will ever live or operate in and it’s just a different sort of place.

I’m going to talk about something you mentioned a little bit earlier. Remember the day that you were actually accepted into the astronaut corps.

Yeah, actually I was Ex-O of the Precommissioning Unit in Virginia at the time in July. I had gone to meetings all morning and it was an interesting meeting. Virginia, because we had just stood up and (I try to make this point to the crew when we stood up) this is the first boat of a brand new class of submarines. You know, the standards that we set on board are the ones that are going to potentially carry through to the end of the program 30, 40, 50 years from now. So we actually have an opportunity to, sort of stamp our brand on her and make a legacy and carry it on. I thought that was an incredible opportunity and really, just a, an incredible responsibility because you want to do it right. They called me on July 20th and I almost said no. I really did. I thought about it. I said, “You know, I, this is such a great opportunity here and, and it would be a real key thing to look back and say I had a part in that program.” At the same time I saw the astronaut program as another incredible opportunity and as the first submarine officer asked to participate, I felt an obligation that it would probably be the right thing to do. They may not ask again and I think, hope that it’s a, it’s a good path.

jsc2008e015714 -- Stephen Bowen, Mission Specialist

STS-126 Mission Specialist Stephen Bowen prepares for a spacewalk training session at Johnson Space Center's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Photo Credit: NASA

You also had another almost, I believe, and that was being assigned to your first flight. Tell us about the day that you were actually assigned to your first flight.

Oh, that was STS-124. I was assigned to that flight and Steve Lindsey called me in the office and told me I was assigned. I asked him what I was going to do and I had the opportunity to do a couple of EVAs. I was capcom for the ISS that evening and so I went, sat capcom and at least one of my classmates came over and congratulated me. She had somehow figured it out. I’m not sure how, because they try and keep those things quiet. And then they held the all-hands meeting and announced it to the rest of the astronaut office and then I get a bunch of calls. I had a call from Mike L-A [Lopez Alegria] and Suni on space station at the time and so that was pretty exciting. Then a couple months later they changed the rotation plan for the International Space Station and I was moved off of that flight and basically onto 126, which was a great opportunity to, opportunity as well.

You mentioned a little bit earlier about your military career. Did you grow up in a military family?

No, not at all. I grew up in fairly large family. There were eight people, six children in my family. My dad was the, was the tile man. He laid tile for a living. He always taught us that education was very important. That’s one reason he moved to the town we moved to. It had very good schools. He managed to get all six of us through college which is a pretty good, pretty amazing accomplishment in my book. No, we definitely weren’t a military family. Most of my family is still actually in that area. I’ve got one brother that lives over in Belfast, over in Ireland and he lays tile.

What do you like to do in your spare time when you’re not being an astronaut?

When I’m not being an astronaut? . . . like somehow you’re not a human being. You're some other creature, you know. (laughs)…

That one I didn’t include in the questionnaires, did I?

Actually, I have three children and so taking them to their swimming and soccer and ballet keeps you occupied most of the time. Before I got here I played ice hockey pretty regularly and taught them all how to skate. That’s one thing I like to do. I don’t get a great opportunity to do [that]. I’ve been kind of busy lately. [I like] reading, attending the theater, movies, just getting out and about, exercising, running, lifting; that’s about it.

Steve, you spend a lot of time with your fellow crew members. What’s it like working and training with them?

It’s fun and exciting. I think our crew is just a lot of great people. It really is. If I had to go around the office and assemble people I’d like to spend this much time with, this would probably be among the group I would definitely pick. This is a, just a great group of people to spend time with. We’ve also had the opportunity. Shane is the newest person on the crew. In essence he got here in 2004 but he had been here before that so we all knew who he was. We’ve known each other for many years and I think that’s one of the great things about the astronaut office. You kind of get to know everybody well before you’re assigned to a crew and this is just a great crew to spend time with.

There are thousands of people who work behind the scenes to help make the mission possible. What are your thoughts about their contributions and what’s it like when you get a chance to meet them?

You know, and this is, this is sort of an interesting question because it doesn’t happen just here at NASA, you know. I would mention the submarine force. We had the opportunity, on Virginia to go and meet the people who had designed and built the engine room, so we took the engineering department up to New York and met the people. It was eye opening for my crew members who had never taken the time to really think that I am operating a panel. I am flipping switches that somebody has spent, you know, five, six, 10 years designing and building and testing and making sure that things work right just so when you flip that switch, it’ll work. And having had that perspective previously coming here and seeing the incredible amount of work that people do for just a few people to fly in space -- it’s humbling to be a part of it and it’s incredibly humbling to be the person that they’re sending on their way. It’s so much not about the crew. It’s so much more about the mission itself. I understand this interview today you kind of focus on us as individuals but really it’s the over-all mission and what gets accomplished and the people behind. It’s amazing, and it’s funny because Hollywood makes it look so easy to jump into something and to fly into space but if anybody ever took the time to, to sit out there and think what would it take to do that? If I were to start today, how would I get something to safely take me into orbit and bring me back? I think they would quickly be quite amazed at the accomplishments that NASA has had so far and will continue to have in the future and the number of people it takes to do that and the incredible dedication. I tell people that this is just an amazing group of people here to work with on all sides.

Steve, what’s the best part of your job?

I can tell you the worst part of my job. I’ve already told you that. It’s things like this, smiling and being nice in front of cameras (laughs). That’s the worst part of the job. It’s not the best part of the job other than that, having the opportunity to work with all these incredible people and throughout NASA. When you get the opportunity to travel to other centers . . . it’s just an amazing organization with a lot of great people. One of the really great things about the job is that I have no idea, except when we’re assigned to a flight, what I’m going on a daily basis. We have our ground jobs but maybe you’re going to be in sim. You might have an NBL run where you get to go practice an EVA or do some testing out there. You may have the opportunity to go fly. There’s so much going on and so many ways you get to contribute and just have a, a voice and be a part of this whole endeavor. That’s the exciting part.

Let’s talk about the mission. How would you describe the STS-126 ULF2 mission to the lay person?

What we’re doing for the, for the International Space Station is we are making it habitable for a crew of six people. As part of what we’re doing, we’re going to bring up a new water processing system, a new galley, a new toilet. That’ll make the inside habitable for six people. Additionally we’re going to try and fix the solar array rotary joint and that will make it habitable for six people so that you have enough power to run the experiments and ensure that the ISS fulfills its mission of science.

One of the elements that you will be taking up which you referred to, it’s called a Multipurpose Logistics Module. Tell me what that is and what it will contain.

If you thought of the space shuttle as a dump truck, the MPLM is the thing on the back that carries all the stuff. It’s going to be packed up pretty full. Obviously like I mentioned a bit ago, it’s going to have all the water processing racks, the new galley, the new toilet. It’s going to have a couple crew quarters for astronauts to, to sleep and live in on board. It has a lot of supplies. That’s what it is and then we bring it home again.

jsc2008e119076 -- Stephen Bowen, Mission Specialist

STS-126 Mission Specialist Stephen Bowen prepares for a training session in a training version of the launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

Okay, so it will come back empty?

Right.

How does it feel knowing this mission is setting the stage for that six-person crew that you talked about? Why is that important?

Well, that’s important because, you know, the International Space Station’s like any house, any home, any building. It has, it requires overhead to make it run, to keep it running. If you look at the timelines of the International Space Station crew members, they have a, a finite amount of time in their lives and then within that, there’s a finite time that you can actually dedicate to doing the work of science on board the International Space Station. In a way, I think it’s if you build it they will come. The opportunity to increase the science capability of the space station exists and as we get more crew members up there, the ability to utilize the equipments on board, to create and develop that scientific research will increase as well. So really getting up to six people is a way of fulfilling the mission initially thought of for the International Space Station.

You’ll be flying during the time of the tenth anniversary of the start of the ISS building. What significance does that hold for you?

It’s interesting because really the start of the International Space Station way back 10 years ago a point that I had always followed NASA. The International Space Station through the years, as it developed, the issues with getting it started even with Congress years before, had always seemed to me, based on my experience in the submarine force, a very logical step and sort of a logical opportunity. Actually it was one of the things that made me think of applying since staying in a metal tube for months on end with people you don’t know extremely well . . .I’m very familiar with that opportunity so I thought this would be a way of carrying that experience on. The International Space Station, I think, will stand in the long run as an incredible achievement for mankind.

So what in your opinion does the space station mean to the world now and to the future, future space travel?

You know, it’s hard to quantify. And the reason it’s hard to define that there are so many different ways of looking at it. You can look at it as a real test of international cooperation in constructing this incredible engineering platform. You know, there are good things and bad things with doing things internationally. The technological and the cultural things that you run across in doing something like that are all woven in there and that accomplishment, that achievement, the fact that it’s up there at all is pretty amazing from that point of view. Then there’s the engineering aspect of it. Just getting it up there, making it operate. The things that you learn . . .Nobody anticipated that the SARJ is going to have these problems. Well, how do you fix it? How do you fix things when they’re broken and you can’t get there right away? Have you designed this system to be redundant enough or robust enough to handle the environment that you’ve thrown it in? Those things that you learn on the engineering side, hopefully we’re going to carry on and learn and move further and progress. And everything you learn up there doesn’t stay up there. Nobody’s throwing money away into space. All that information, all that development, it all comes back down here and you know, it’ll affect the lives of everybody on this planet in years to come, the stuff we learn. And then there’s the scientific side which when we go to six people is really just the beginning. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know what questions to ask to find out. That’s the exciting part, when you get into the experiments that will be carried out, even just having people live up there. We’ve, we’ve had a small data base that grows with every single space station flight, what long term exposure for that environment does to the human body. What we learn from that will help us continue exploration. That knowledge, that information, doesn’t stay on orbit. It comes back down here. We learn from it down here. So in the long run, I think that it’s hard to confine really what this program, what the space station, what the shuttle, what Orion, what any of these programs is actually to mean to society at large or to mankind in the future. I just think that the things that we learn will improve and help us in the long run.

What was your favorite subject in school?

I actually liked most of my subjects in school. I liked them a lot. Initially, when I was in, I guess it was first grade, I was not a very high-level reader at the time, which was a good thing. They let me know I was not a very high-level reader and since I’m a little bit stubborn, I used that as a little bit of an opportunity and within a couple months I was in the highest reading group in my class. I think I learned from that, because I truly love to read and I continue to read. It’s just, just a great, great skill and a great thing to carry on. What I learned from that was you need to look at the things that you don’t think you do well at. You know, I try and tell my children, I try and tell audiences when I get out and have the opportunity to speak, that you have to look at the things that people have told you you can’t do or you shouldn’t do or you’re not good at, because there’s some reason that those things are important. Otherwise they wouldn’t be teaching them in school. And every time you, you learn and you do better you may find that, hey, you really love that subject or you really think that this is a tremendous skill. The more things you work hard and do well at, the more opportunities you have in life. That is one of the biggest things I try and pass on to school audiences -- that you wouldn't know today if you’d ask in sixth or seventh grade. I wanted to be a professional ice hockey player. I am clearly not a professional ice hockey player. You don’t know what you want to be at an early age. I was fortunate in the sense that I understood that I really liked engineering and I was doing well in math and science and so I never changed majors when I was in college. But I think I’m the exception. I think most people change their minds somewhere along the way, well after they’ve got out of high school, as to what they want to do with their lives and the opportunities you have are based on what you have learned. Grades are one thing but really understanding and getting the subject -- , you could get all A’s in English and not like to read or not enjoy reading and you may never progress. But if you have learned and enjoy reading or math your opportunities are endless.