Feature

Preflight Interview: Tom Marshburn, Mission Specialist
05.28.09
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Tom Marshburn, STS-127 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-127 interview with Mission Specialist Tom Marshburn. Tom, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and the first human steps on the moon. Give us some sense about that historic event may have impacted you and maybe even in your decision to become an astronaut.

I grew up in the whole era of the new space age. I distinctly remember the night or the afternoon watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon, watching the first steps, listening to the first step on the moon. But in terms of my decision to become an astronaut, it was kind of the coming together of a lot of events. Primarily I loved adventure. I loved reading about, knowing more about people that went on journeys and came back a changed person or had changed the world around them in some way. I, in particular, loved to go up in the woods, back packing, camping, any way that I could as a child growing up in Georgia. But certainly throughout my childhood, hearing about even some of the Gemini flights, hearing about the Apollo flights, that instilled in me a deep interest in space flight even though I didn’t connect myself to it until a little bit later in life.

You’ve talked briefly about being from Georgia. Tell me a little bit more about the place you consider your hometown and what it was like growing up there and how it made you, you?

I would vacation in the summertime in Georgia. We had some property up in north Georgia so that was my first experience to the wilderness but I grew up, born and grew up in Statesville, North Carolina, a typical small town, USA ... little town. My father was a preacher there, a very popular church so I knew a lot of people that lived in Statesville, a wonderful little place to grow up. Don’t know how many places you can still today just hop on your bike and ride your bike to downtown to go buy some candy or get a milkshake or walk with your brothers and sisters to the movie theater from your house. But my childhood is full of those memories and just the friendliness of the people around there, our neighbors, where I went to school. I moved when I was nine years old, just about to turn nine and would love to go back and see a lot of those places again. It was a wonderful place to grow up.

Okay. So you’re not from, you didn’t grow up in Atlanta?

After that, after I was nine, then I grew up in Atlanta, that’s right.

Can you tell me a little bit about the educational and professional steps you took to become an astronaut?

I guess the most important educational step is to learn how to learn so that means doing whatever curriculum comes before you and trying to do the best that you can at it. I certainly tried to do that throughout elementary school and high school. It was a little bit late in high school, and I thought, “Boy, I’d love to work for NASA. I’d love to build rockets.” That’s what I wanted to do, build spaceships. Then I knew I needed to, I mean, go to math and science, engineering in particular. So I made the decision to go into physics regardless of the school I went to. Went to Davidson College, became a physics major, really strongly considered going on as an engineer as well but ended up, going into engineering physics, little more theoretical. And then I found out I loved medicine so I ended up in medicine ultimately. I did have an eye towards working for NASA throughout all of that. I never thought I could be an astronaut actually but I wanted to work for NASA. I wanted to in some way be involved with the space program and I knew excellence in some kind of technical field would be mandatory to be able to work for NASA. So that was my goal throughout.

Tell us a little bit more about your medical background, your specialties and then any more information about that, if you would.

Okay. I’m an ER doc, so Emergency Medicine Specialist, I think we call ourselves now and did a lot of work in Ohio which is where I trained. I did my residency in Ohio, went to medical school in North Carolina but really had cut my teeth in medicine I’d say in Ohio, a wonderful place to train because I was part of, one of the reasons why I went to residency there is because I could be a life flight physician as a resident. So after just one year of internship and I was allowed to get on the helicopter, fly with the flight nurses and go out into the field or out to small towns and take care of patients there in the environment where they were. It might be a little town hospital but often it was in the middle of a car that was on the highway or in a field where somebody had been involved in an accident. So that was, and that plus the flight time, I really, really loved that. So emergency medicine was my specialty for quite awhile. I trained in, or continued to practice in Seattle, Washington. That was when I found out they have a training program here at NASA for outlying physicians to come in and learn aerospace medicine and so they could help take care of astronauts. So I joined on with NASA, became a flight surgeon and worked with them for quite a while as a flight surgeon. So it’s, during that time did mostly aerospace medicine. We continue to work as an ER doc on the weekends and any other time that I can squeeze in to continue the skills in that field as well.

It probably wasn’t far fetched to become an astronaut after being an ER person. You’ve probably seen everything, I mean, that…

Yeah, there’s a lot of similarities. The training is a lot different but in terms of making decisions quickly and handling a lot of things at the same time, absolutely, they’re almost exactly the same. And being versed, being good at several things, being flexible, in what, you know, an ER doc might see a, you know, a pediatric case followed by a trauma case followed by a cardiac case, and I know in space flight they like people who have a real breadth of knowledge in a lot of different areas even before they begin training specifically for a mission so I think that helped a lot.

What or who was it that helped you realize the value of education in life?

Well, I have to start with my family, and I don’t recall my parents ever said, “We expect you to do well.” I do recall that they loved learning. I remember my father reading a lot. I remember being rewarded for having done well, and I’d have to say that the primary motivator were brothers and sisters. I’m the last of seven kids, and my six brothers and sisters all valued education very highly, all did very well and they were certainly a huge motivating factor, and they did it all in a very good way. They were happy about it. Life was good for them because they were excited about what they were learning. They had well-rounded lives but the fact that they were excelling in the academic field, and that would improve their lives at that time was a huge motivation for me.

What was it like when you found out you were going to be making your first spaceflight? What was that moment like?

Well, it kind of happens twice, you know, when it gets, you realize you’re going to be selected as an astronaut and there is an assumption that you eventually will be assigned to a crew. But I’m thinking of January of 2008 when we found out they were putting this crew together and that I was going to be on that crew and I was stunned. I got called in by the Chief of the Astronaut Office, Steve Lindsey, who needed to talk to me about a meeting that was coming up that I was making a presentation and so I got my papers and I walked in and when, as soon as I sat down he said, he closed the door and said, “Actually I didn’t call you in here to talk about that meeting,” and he pulled out, I think it was a red folder and opened it up and my name was on the list of seven people assigned to a crew for 127 and you get a stunned feeling. You can’t believe that this is happening. I’m very, very happy, very excited, tried not to show it all but still very excited, went straight to the gym and went for a long run. Just had to burn off some energy at that point and once I found out who was going to be on the crew, very, very excited as well. Three of the crew members have been friends for a long time and one of my crewmates is a classmate that I’ve enjoyed working with very much so I couldn’t imagine a better crew to be working with.

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Tom Marshburn, STS-127 mission specialist, prepares for a training session at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

There are thousands of people that work behind the scenes to ensure the success of every spaceflight and the safety of the crew. What’s it like when you get to meet those people and get a chance to talk with them?

I get a huge sense of pride because these are the people that make the space program work. These are the people that really make the United States and our space program one of the best, if not the best, in the world because of their dedication to what they do so there’s a lot of pride that I have working with them and it’s a great privilege as well. It also motivates us to be as best as we, as good we can, be the best that we can. We’re going up there handling objects, payloads, materials that people have dedicated their lives to ensuring are well taken care of, well designed, and it’s up to us to just put that little last final piece in there of operating it or moving it and we want, it motivates the crew to do the absolutely best that they can to take care of the nation’s hardware. I’ve been very impressed with the people I train with and obviously, the flight control team, we put our lives in their hands, and I have no qualms with doing that at all. We’ve met most of them. I’ve worked with a lot them before. They are a wonderful team.

Tell us about what your primary role and responsibilities are as Mission Specialist on this crew.

My prime role will be as one of the EVA team. There’s four of us, Tim Kopra will be living on the ISS after we leave, is doing one EVA. But then Dave Wolf is the EVA lead and Chris Cassidy and I will be working under Dave and we’ll each be doing three spacewalks so that’s my prime role. I will also be called the Loadmaster, the person that’s in change of transfer, making sure everything, and not too much, get transferred to station, everything comes back that should come back. I will also be in charge of the photo/TV hardware. That’s kind of the eyes and ears of the ground when we start to do our operations, getting all the cameras, the screens just right so that everyone has the visual communication they need when we do our complex operations of robotics and EVA and having the ground tied into us as well as recording all this information. So I’ll be in charge of that as well and then I’ll have some sub-specialty tasks as well, be in charge of some of the payloads before they get transferred over to the station. I’ll be the Crew Medical Officer; don’t anticipate any medical problems coming up, but if they do then I’m getting the training to get familiar with the shuttle kits, medical kits in case I need to take those. And then finally I’ll be on the flight deck coming home, so I’ll be one of the flight engineers on the flight deck once we do our de-orbit burn and come into entry.

The term ‘space management’ takes on a whole new meaning this mission. By the time you’re scheduled to arrive, the station crew is scheduled to increase from three to six people. Add seven more coming up on the shuttle, that’s thirteen people that will have to operate in that space at any given time. What’s that going to be like? How challenging is that going to be?

I don’t know. I think it’ll be fun to see the people up there. I’ve heard that modules are often a little bit smaller when you get than you anticipated. I know that when visitors come to NASA and they see the inside of the spacecraft they say, “Wow! That’s a lot smaller than I expected.” Now when you get into space, you have access to the ceiling, every corner because of zero gravity so space tends to open up for you. However, I anticipate there’s going to be a lot of activity. It’ll seem very, very busy. Somebody’s probably going to be exercising, maybe having a meal and a lot of people working all at the same time. The challenge will be with communication. When we are doing very focused operations between the two vehicles and there may be other channels of communications going on with other operations, that could be the biggest challenge. But I know very well some of the people that are going to be on station that’ll greet us when we open the hatch, so in terms of just being able to work shoulder to shoulder with them, that’s going to be a real joy. That’s going to be a dream come true.

On Flight Day 1 you’ll launch on board Endeavour and start configuring the shuttle for your stay in space. Then on Flight Day 2 the crew’s going to be busy with some other activities. Tell me about what you’re scheduled to do on Flight Day 2.

On Flight Day 2 I’ll be helping mostly with the preparation of the spacesuits. We’re going to bring them over to station. We’re bringing up two of our spacesuits. In many ways a spacesuit is a space vehicle in itself. It’s got everything it needs. It’s got propulsion. It’s got life support, communications, all that. So we will, the EVA team will be coming together to prep our spacesuits ‘cause right after we dock we’ve got to get those suits over and get ready for doing the spacewalk on the day after docking. I’ll be preparing for the docking. Dave Wolf and I will be setting up the centerline camera which is a central for rendezvous and docking. We’ll be preparing for the docking system which we will actuate and, to drive into station once, or to pull the station into us once docking has occurred. So we’ll be getting ourselves ready for that as well. And then there’s a lot of little things again, the photo/TV setup I’d mentioned, the payloads maintenance, we’re doing a good bit of that as well.

The second spacewalk on the mission is scheduled for Flight Day 6. It’s also going to be the first spacewalk of your career. What do you imagine it’s going to be like when you float out of the hatch?

I have no idea what it’s going to be like. I’m a climber so I can only imagine it’s going to feel something like, I’ve been on climbs where you’re about halfway up a cliff but you’re in a little, under a ledge and you have [to] reach out and pull yourself up on to the cliff so you all of a sudden just get this huge rush of “I am totally exposed, way out with hundreds of feet of air below me and I’m just holding on with my hands.” So I’ve had that feeling. I can only imagine it’s going to be something like that, so I’m preparing myself in that regard. I’ve heard that, you know, when you open the hatch you look out of the hatch and you’re looking straight down on the earth so you almost get a feeling like you’re going to fall out and down towards the earth. So anticipating that feeling and then as you flip upside down and rise up, you almost feel like you’re coming out of the top of a tank because you’ve just flipped yourself upside down which we can’t really train that here. Even in the pool, the training kind of still feels, makes you feel like you’re going headfirst. So I think it will be unusual to, for the first time, be out in space with just my EVA partner. There’ll be no one else helping us. Like in the pool, we won’t have any divers. There won’t be any bubbles. There won’t be any, somebody bring you a tool if you need it, that sort of thing. So we’re totally on our own and I will have, they’re going to allow me a few minutes what they call “translation adaptation”, for the first time in the spacesuit to hold on to a handrail and just kind of use the muscles of your wrist, kind of move up and down, kind of get a feeling of actually how you’re going to start moving rather than just taking off and find out you don’t know how to stop and before it’s too late, you pull yourself off or your feet, you know, come flipping around and you bang into something. So they’ll give me about ten minutes to practice moving around a little bit.

Tell us about EVA 2. What will you and Dave be doing out there during it?

That’s a, for Dave and myself, we’ve talked about this is a, the big point of the mission for us. The first thing we’re going to do is to take this huge antenna, very obvious dish antenna called SGANT. Dave is going to pluck it off from the end of that pallet I was telling you about and I’ll be providing with my eyes and my cameras on my helmet the clearance views to assist either the robotic arm operators, Doug and Julie, or Dave with any clearance he needs, ‘cause it’s nestled in with the other payloads on this pallet. And then Dave gets to do this wonderful (inaudible) on the arm over to the install site and I go around and again provide clearance for the install of this. Our clearance comes down to about two inches or a little bit less than that and making sure that this, dish doesn’t impact any of the metal structure that’s on the pallet ‘cause that’s where it’s going to rest, just right in there again nestled amongst all this other metal and other payloads. So we really, we’ve been trying very hard to make sure that goes as well as we can. We have two more payloads after that where Dave and I work together completely on making sure that these payloads come off and are installed safely and securely. After that, we will be moving one of the cameras on the, there’s two cameras on the experimental platform that they need for future operations on station to view the top of the platform and to view an arm that’s coming in to work on the platform. So we’re going to be installing one of those cameras and making sure that’s all set to go and there’s a few what we call ‘get ahead tasks’, some things that I’ll be doing in between as well to, again things that the station might need later on after we’ve left and I’ll have an opportunity, I’ll do some of that work as well.

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Astronaut Thomas Marshburn, STS-127 mission specialist. Photo Credit: NASA

Another EVA on Flight Day 8, Dave Wolf and Chris Cassidy outside, what are your duties for that EVA on the inside as the intravehicular or IV person?

There’ll be the IV guy as opposed to the EV. They’ll be the EV, the extravehicular team. I’ve got the procedure with me. When you’re out in space doing the spacewalk, you can’t carry that with you and even though they’ve got, certainly all the big steps and even almost all the little steps totally locked in their minds from training, I’m the guy that keeps ‘em going on the timeline, kind of reminding them the next heads up, what’s coming up, to help them mentally stay in the big picture. I’ll also be tracking their step-by-step moves, and if, by any chance, anything gets dropped off, remind them to do something and so they’ll know. So I keep track of exactly what’s going on, provide them any information they need. I’ll be talking to the ground in case the crew has a question. Likewise I’ll be talking to the crew in case the ground wants them to do something differently. Certainly if anything goes wrong, that is, unexpected during the EVA and the ground or we need to come up with an alternate plan, I’ll be helping with that communication as well. We think of the IV crew member as very much the third person of the EVA team. The IV role is very important. I know when I’m here, when we’ve been training, completely rely on the IV person to keep me straight and honest, answer any question, and it’s a very important, I think the biggest challenge is to make sure the communication’s just what it should be, that the IV doesn’t talk too much. The IV can anticipate when they need information without asking them, can follow what they’re doing so as they’re approaching a worksite start giving them a little bit of information, even to give a big picture heads up, say, “Hey, great job, guys. You’re halfway done,” or “You’ve just got this and this to go,” that sort of thing. And so the IV can play an essential role as part of the EVA team.

After a bit of a break on Flight Day 9 the shuttle crew is back at it on Flight Day 10 with another spacewalk. Tell us about what you and Chris Cassidy will do outside on EVA 4.

Well, we start off with the batteries, getting the rest of the batteries done. We anticipate we’ll only get four of the six done in one spacewalk. I heard that the program thought we could only do one battery in an EVA so I think we’ve come a long ways to get four done. They might even get six done on EVA 3 which would lighten our load for the EVA 4 but we anticipate four will be done so we’re training to get the last two taken care of. Then after that there’s one more of those cameras that I was talking about on the platform that needs to be installed and powered up so that the exposed facility has its complete use, certainly in terms of being able to monitor the payloads and robotic arm. And after that point, Chris and I are going to have a lot of wrap-up things to care of. There is, believe it or not, there’s a lot of covers on the experiments. They’re there for thermal control that have to come out so you can, come off so you use the payloads that are on the platform. So we got to take those off.

You’re back at it outside on Flight Day 12 for EVA 5. What’s that one about?

We’re still finding out. That is our catch basin for everything that still has to get done. There will probably be some more of the MLI or that packaging that we have to take off. There’re a number of other tasks that need to be done for continued stage operations on the ISS after we leave. The big determinant is going to be what happens on this next shuttle flight, 119. What they get done or don’t get done will determine a lot of what happens. That’s also the EVA where you can take care of any issues that come up after 119 so if anything needs to be fixed or taken care of by that time, then we’ll take care of it on EVA 5. And we anticipate it’s going fill up really fast. That’s typically what happens as things are added on, but we’ll see.

Is there a perfect world scenario that outlines what, the way it’s scheduled currently regardless of those things? I mean, is there stuff on the timeline now?

On, for EVA 5, yes. And they’re all get ahead, both removing the packaging, taking care of anything remaining that needs to be taken of, but then a lot of the get ahead tasks and we’ve been training, what you do is train on all the possible get aheads that you could possibly do and so you develop a really good skill base, manual skill base, so you can take care of whatever ends up actually falling on that. So we train in all of it, unless something breaks between now and when we get there. We have to fix that but we train on everything that we can anticipate we’d have to do.

On Flight Day 14, a few things to do to prepare for your departure before closing the hatch between the two spacecrafts. Then early on Flight Day 15, Endeavour will separate from the station. Tell me about the activities that you’re involved with that day for leaving the station for fly around.

I think I’m going to be really busy especially with all of the payload transfer. I’m talking about the internal stuff, all the food, all the equipment that they need that we can just pass through the tunnel that, well, don’t have to do by EVA, making sure that is all complete, making sure that when Koichi is now our official crewmate, making sure that he has everything he needs. That’s going to be definitely up in my mind. You want to capture the hatch closing with the photo/TV documentation as well. We’re going to be, I’ll be prime for that. And then the undocking, that whole docking attach system that I had talked about before. Dave Wolf and I again will be operating that which is critical to do it at that just the right time, just as they begin to back away. And then a lot of photo/TV requirements that document the outside of the space station. You don’t often get a chance to fly around to take pictures of it and make observations about, “Hey, this is the way the space station looks right now close up and personal,” from a view that you can’t get out of the window of any, if you’re living there. So it’s an opportunity to learn a lot about your space station and so we’ll be taking advantage of that as well.

Forty years after Apollo 11 and the first steps on the moon, we are in the midst of refocusing efforts with the target being a return trip to the moon and possibly beyond. How do you think the lessons of the past, Apollo, will help us in that endeavor and in that direction?

I think one thing that is very clear when you’re working in the space program is to accomplish any one thing there is a very long history of successes and failures that gets you to how you do one thing today. Everything we’ve, just about everything I’ve learned to do on spacewalks, on operating the space shuttle, how to operate a, you know, a docking system or an environmental control life support system, you learn an enormous number of little details that have been accumulated over time so it gets pulled off correctly. If you don’t do all those things, payload could die on you, the effects of space flight in some way or exposure to a vacuum can erode something away to where it doesn’t work properly. People can end up getting hurt if they didn’t follow the rules exactly as they’re stated when you’re doing a spacewalk and that’s all learned through our space heritage. So every single bit of it has come down to exactly where we are today. Now in terms of the space station, we are learning how to operate long duration space flight is distinctly different from how we do the space shuttle operations and talk about the relationship with Mission Control and even the ground management, how to manage everything that has to be taken care of for long duration space flight, particularly regarding planning forward. All of that’s going to be absolutely key when we take the next step, go to the moon and begin living there. The long duration operations is not just the same thing only longer. It’s a completely different animal and we’re learning about that with every flight, actually with every day on ISS. Eventually, of course, all of this will be a platform for going to Mars and even living there some day. We need to be able to take it step by step like this so we learn our important lessons.