Feature

Preflight Interview: Mark Polansky, Commander
05.28.09
jsc2009e028086 -- Mark Polansky

Mark Polansky, STS-127 commander, looks over a checklist during a training session in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-127 interview with Mission Commander Mark Polansky. Mark, this year marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first human steps on the moon. Can you give us some idea of how that event may have impacted your decision to become an astronaut and just you personally if you remembered; if you were around when it happened and you remember watching it.

Well, first off, I’ll go ahead and age myself by saying that yes, I do remember pretty vividly, as opposed to not everybody in my office who was around or had any cognizant thoughts at that moment, but I was thirteen years old and the story, the true story is that I was at a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York when we actually physically landed on the moon and they interrupted the game and made an announcement that we landed on the moon. Everybody went crazy at the stadium and everybody stood up and sang “God Bless America,” and it was pretty special. And I remember being at my grandmother’s apartment in Manhattan that evening and staying up late to watch like everybody else did Neil and Buzz come out and to get that first walk on the moon. So that was pretty inspiring but I’m also old enough to have gone back to before that to the Mercury and the Gemini days and to be part of the generation that had little black and white televisions wheeled into their classroom while everything stopped any time there was going to be a launch of an American in space and all the major networks covered everything live down in Florida and so it became ingrained in thinking the fabric of our lives back in those days and so unlike today when unfortunately there are probably a lot of people don’t even know that there’s a space station orbiting the Earth with people on it. Back in those days everybody knew what was going on and so that started me thinking as a kid about, “Boy, this is really cool! What do you want to be when you grow up?” I think Apollo certainly helped cement that and certainly one doesn’t seriously, I think, at the age of thirteen say, “I’m going to be this kind of a person when I grow up,” and then just follow it through completely. But to carry the story forward I had the good luck of going to Purdue University which happened to be the alma mater of not only Neil but Gene Cernan. So when I was a freshman, I got to meet Gene Cernan at the university doing a little social at one of the common areas of my dormitory and that really got me thinking about a path and got me thinking about Air Force ROTC and becoming a pilot and a fighter pilot and a test pilot. So all those events kind of all played together.

Now if I remember correctly, you graduated in four years with not only a Bachelor’s but Master’s.

Right.

That takes a lot [of] doing. Did you plan on doing that when you went in or…

No, not at all. You know, [a] lot of life is just good timing and good luck and it’s also a hard work. I mean, I think that I worked hard but it just happened that in my four years at Purdue I was able to garner enough hours that I already had some hours I could apply towards a Master’s, and Purdue happened to have a program which I don’t even know if they still have, but the program was if you got thirty hours then you go ahead and get a Master’s Degree without having to do a thesis. So as I approached the end of my senior year there, I knew I was going to have a good nine hours of credit that I could apply so I only needed an extra twenty-one and the Air Force, when I got my pilot’s slot, they gave me a date to report for active duty in February of 1979 and I’m graduating in May of ’78, so I sat there and I said, “Well, I could take nine hours in the summer, stay one more fall semester, take twelve hours there” and not quite four but four-and-a-half years, wind up leaving with both. And I looked at myself at the time and I said, “You know, boy, like a lot of folks you’re really looking forward to getting that degree, moving on, getting into the real world.” I was very excited about going to pilot training but since I had to wait anyway the decision was do that or go back home and get my old job in the liquor store for a while, while I waited it out, and I said, “You know, if I don’t do it now I don’t know if I’ll ever go back, so I might as well take this opportunity,” and, of course, in hindsight it was a really good thing to have done.

Obviously with that thought process, you knew the value of education. Who or what was it that made you realize the value of education in life?

Certainly, I don’t think this is an uncommon answer, that my parents played the most important role in my upbringing and my educational philosophy. My father, he served in the Merchant Marines during World War II and came back and wound up going to the University of Florida, getting a degree and eventually became a pharmacist. My mom never went to college, and so I think they were both very big on the fact that this is the kind of a country where you want to take advantage of these opportunities. So they certainly encouraged me without pushing me to the point that I had a lot of freedom to decide on my own what it is that I wanted to do, where I wanted to go to school, and they were nothing less than one hundred percent supportive and so I think I was really lucky in that I had that kind of an upbringing from my parents that was able to allow me to really develop educationally the way I wanted to, but deep down I knew that I was going to college.

Tell me about your hometown and what it was like growing up there.

Well, Edison, New Jersey, is where I grew up, that and another town nearby named Perth-Amboy before we moved to Edison in the fifth grade. It’s in an area that we call Central New Jersey and despite its knocks, you know, as the butt of a lot of jokes, New Jersey is a great, great state, great place to grow up. It lives in the shadows of New York City to the north, Philadelphia to the south, so sometimes it sort of gets lost in terms of identity. But for us it was what you’d think, I think, in terms of suburbia and it afforded a lot of access to the big city, so I was about a 35-, 40-minute train ride away from Manhattan and at a very early age remember going to Manhattan with Dad, going to the museums. I have relatives that, at the time, lived in Manhattan, so I’d go visit my grandmother every summer, all the holidays, so a lot of access to things like that. But Edison itself was fairly, I guess I’d call it a large small town, if that makes sense. It had a small town suburban flavor to it but a lot of sprawl so it was a very large township, but I just have a lot of fond memories of that place and my mom still lives in the same house that I grew up in.

One of the things that NASA is trying to do is inspire the next generation of space explorers. What would you say that NASA needs to do to get more young adults interested in space exploration?

It’s a really hard thing to go ahead and do. I tend to think that it’s a mistake to try to get them interested in space, per se, and more importantly it’s to go ahead and make sure that our youth gets really excited about getting a solid education and being exposed to all facets of it. We talk a lot about the importance of math and science in a child’s education, and I firmly believe that it is something that is critical to this nation and to the world is that we really want folks to think that math and science is really important, especially for women and minorities who sometimes kind of get left behind in that area. That being said, I don’t think you want to do that at the expense of vast exposure to other areas, and so when I go out and I do appearances and I visit a lot of schools as an astronaut, I tell them, “Hey, I’m not trying to get you to be the next astronaut or even to work in the space industry.” I think it’s the greatest place and I will certainly tell my story, tell other people’s stories and hope that that inspires them in those areas, but I think that what I really want them to do is to get excited about technology and being a part of that and then, if they go off and they become medical doctors or engineers or they design widgets or whatever they want to do, and then some people will eventually get into space. I think that’s the way you go ahead and do it and I think NASA is the quintessential story about exciting things, sending people into space, sending robotic vehicles into space. There’s a lot that goes on in that area that I hope that kids get very excited about, and I think it’s just somehow making sure that they’re aware of what we’re doing, that’s the big thing.

STS-127 will be your third spaceflight. Tell us what you remember most about your previous spaceflights, either one of them, good or bad.

Well, I try to remember all the good things and forget about any of the bad things, not that there were that many, but certainly your first flight is something that you never forget. STS-98 I will remember forever lying on the launch pad and the second that the solids lit and we started going, I felt this tremendous wave of relief come over me to know that, “Okay, I’m finally going. They can’t take it away,” and all my family and friends got to see the launch because there are always some folks that you get a lot of delays and they lose a lot of their guests and so, for them, I wanted it to be this magical moment and so I knew that that was behind me and now I could just concentrate on the job. The second mission was also very memorable because at the time it was not common that you would fly once as a pilot and then on your very next mission become a Mission Commander so, while it was, the second flight, it was the first time in a new role and so that was very rewarding to go and be the commander of a mission. We had five people that had not flown before on that mission, and I always find it very, very rewarding personally to take folks that haven’t done it and maybe just a little bit show them the way and help them get there and then just watch them mature as flown astronauts, and I got a big kick out of that.

What has it been like training with this particular group of crewmates that you’re training with now for this mission?

Crews are interesting. It’s probably like any kind of a dynamic, group dynamic, whether you’re part of a team that’s working on something or a sports team or anything else. They’re all different. Everybody’s a different individual. And so one of the keys is trying to early on figure out strengths and weaknesses, personalities, idiosyncrasies, and trying to get everybody to work toward the same goal or, you know, row at the same pace. So what I try to do with this group like I did in my last one was to get everyone focused on the mission and make sure that it’s about getting the job done, it’s not about us. And the good news is that everybody kind of already knows that, but sometimes just have to work in certain areas and so, as a group, we have a vast expanse of experience both within and without NASA. We have different capabilities, bring every kind of, you know, quality to the table here so it’s just interesting in that, there’s nothing in particular that’s interesting from one to the next. To me what’s interesting is that everyone’s different and so every mission is different and the challenge is the same but with a different group of people so you’re not always going to get from point A to point B the same way and usually I don’t try.

Tell me your thoughts about the thousands of people that work behind the scenes to make every mission a success and ensure the crew’s safety and what it’s like for you when you get to meet those people.

Well, you know, that’s always one of those things that, you know, it can sound almost condescending when you sit there and say, “We couldn’t get this done without all of the folks that work in the program,” and as astronauts I think it’s very important for us to realize and to stress that in spite of the fact that I’m the one that’s sitting here getting the interview and there’s going to be lots of pictures and attention about the people because, in fact, we’re the ones going in space. To some degree it’s not about us at all. We’re going there to get a job done, not just to go. I do hope that most people really believe that. We’re going there because I personally feel that we’re doing critically important work for the nation and hopefully for mankind. So, with that in mind, everybody’s working to go ahead and accomplish that mission, and the mission right now that I’m working on is finishing construction of the International Space Station. So whether you’re, you know, the engineer out there working on the piece of hardware that somebody else is going to work on orbit on an EVA or whether you’re the person that’s the trainer or you’re working in Mission Control or you’re working in Safety or you’re working down at the Cape getting the vehicle together or at Marshall or at any other of the centers around the agency, I truly believe that this is the quintessential team effort. Everybody has a role. Everybody’s an equal in doing this and that it’s important that we all have some sense of ownership and some pride of ownership in what’s being accomplished and that we don’t make it about the astronauts, and I don’t want people thinking that they’re working for me because I don’t feel that way.

When you do get there, there’s no shortage of work to be done. Give us a brief rundown if you would of what the key objectives of this mission, STS-127, are.

Sure. Well, it’s a real exciting mission. We are the last mission that is taking up Japanese hardware on a space shuttle, you know, really big pieces of equipment that we’re going to go ahead and leave behind on the space station for construction. So with that in mind, we’ve got five spacewalks during the course of our docked time up there, and we’re going to go ahead and take what we call the Japanese Exposed Facility, we’ve nicknamed the “Jeff”, and we’re going to attach that on our first full day, once we’re docked on orbit during our first EVA. We’re going to take up another Japanese element called the Japanese Logistic Element. We call “Jelly” and we’re going to attach that to the “Jeff” and that’s going to have three Japanese payloads that we’re eventually going [to] transfer to the “Jeff” and leave it behind. We’re going to take up another component called an ICC-VLD which is a logistics carrier that has three large orbital replacement units, or ORUs, that will be left behind on space station for contingency use later and that has a lot of capability that gets added to the space station, all this during the docked timeframe. And, of course, interspersed with, there are the minor things like doing a minor little inspection to make sure the vehicles safe, rendezvous, undocking, fly-around and an eventual landing, so it’s, all kidding aside, a very, very busy mission.

And as Mission Commander, you mentioned about overseeing the mission but there, you do also have specific responsibilities. Tell us about some of those.

Well, my mission component is, as much as possible to let the six other crew members that are on the team do their jobs ‘cause they’re the experts and to try and maintain the big picture as much as possible. But on missions that are complicated, you unfortunately have to do some specific tasks so, for me, it will be, I will be one of the shuttle robotic operators. Most of the time I’ll be the backup, what we call the R2. I will assist the primary robotics operator, the R1. I’ll adjust the cameras. I’ll read the checklist but I won’t be doing much if any of the flying involved. I will perform the rendezvous. It is the traditional Commander’s task so a lot of that will be done setting up through the computer to accomplish certain burns to put us in a position, but once we get into what we call the manual phase, then I’ll actually be at the controls on the aft flight deck and fly to the rendezvous and the docking. On board also I will be doing some of the robotics on the Japanese arm because we’ll have these three payloads to transfer using their robotic arm and so I will do one of those. And then probably the critical thing at the end of the mission is I actually get to land.

Give us your best description, if you would, of the “Jeff”, the primary piece of hardware that you’re going to be bringing up.

The exposed facility is a piece of equipment. It’s, we call it ‘the porch’ because the Japanese pressurized module, it’s their big laboratory. So it’s attached out there and it’s hanging out there by itself, and we are going to attach almost to the base of it the “Jeff” so if you had this big module here, you’re going to have this small platform, well, not small, but a fairly large platform that’s going to extend from, if you would, the floor of the JEM going outwards and so from there it has lots of different positions that you can attach external payloads which you might want to bring up, leave outside for a period of time to do whatever science that they’re designed to do and then at some point retrieve them and bring them home is one thing that you could do with them using the robotic arm. So it’s a platform to do scientific research external while people are up there and maybe you can control it from inside as well because you do have interfaces through the computer system on board the station to control things that happen outside on the “Jeff”.

The term “space management” [is] going to take on a bit of a different meaning or new meaning during your mission. By that time the station crew is scheduled to increase from three to six. Add seven shuttle crew members and that’s thirteen people that might have to negotiate the space up there at any given time. What’s that going to be like?

I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I know what it’s like for ten, and it’s going to be challenging. Thirteen ought to be very, very interesting. Here’s what I do know is, since the last time I flew Columbus’ module’s up there. KIBO’s up there, which is the Japanese laboratory, and we have an extra node, Node 2. So we have a lot more volume which is good any time you’re dealing with a lot of extra people. I think what’ll be interesting for me is to understand during the timeframe that we’re docked there, there are lots of things that go on. When you start doing the spacewalks, it’s only natural that everybody wants to be a part of the spacewalk and see what’s going on and I do think that the one risk will be to not have too many cooks. So it’ll be important that we all have our roles and responsibilities and we adhere to them and there is a point where you get too many helpers, so we’ll just watch out for things like that. Make sure that we have good tag ups between myself and Gennady, who will be the Commander of ISS at the time, that we know what’s going on in each other’s worlds and that we talk about where the critical activities so that we really don’t get in each other’s ways as we’re doing things. I think that’s going to be the most important thing.

After you launch on Flight Day 1 and configure the shuttle for your stay in space, you’ll do some other activities on Flight Day 2. Kind of give us a rundown of what happens on Flight Day 2 and your part in it.

Flight Day 2 is, you know, and it’s amazing to even say this word, but it’s fairly routine now which is a great testimony to all the people that worked to come up with what we’re going to talk about; this big boom for doing inspection of the orbiter, and I remember being a part of that whole discussion post-Columbia prior to launching Return To Flight on 114. But now we have this large boom that flies on the starboard side of the payload bay and so, on Flight Day 2 from a robotic standpoint, early on we take the shuttle robot arm, we grapple this big boom. We pick it up. It has a camera and laser package at the end of it to do inspection, and we will run up and down both wings for the leading edge and inspect in great detail the RCC and, hopefully, find that there is no damage that was done during launch to orbit that requires us to do anything further in terms of a more detailed inspection or even any kind of a contingency repair. So it’s very intensive, takes a lot of time and a lot of attention so three of us will be doing that. In the meantime, the rest of the crew will be getting ready for what they’re going to be primarily accomplishing which are the spacewalks, or the EVAs. So they’ve got all of the EMUs, the spacesuits, downstairs in the airlock. They’ll break them all down. They’ll do a complete checkout of the equipment, make sure everything’s working properly, configure it, get all the tools ready and they’re going to set up because the next day, when we talk about rendezvous and docking, as soon as we open the hatches, they’ve got to immediately start getting ready for the spacewalk on the following day which means getting all those suits across to do the spacewalks out of the station airlock. So they will prep all that material. They also do a little bit of the prep to get ready for rendezvous the next day as well. So most of Flight Day 2 is inspecting the vehicle or getting us ready to dock the next day.

jsc2008e139778 -- Mark Polansky

Mark Polansky, STS-127 commander, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

And speaking of the next day, Flight Day 3, can you just give us a rundown of what happens during rendezvous and docking?

Right. Rendezvous’ a busy day because you start very early. You want to go ahead and maximize the time that you have because it seems like every day that you’re doing something, part of it is getting ready for the next day ‘cause the next day’s going to be busy, too. And then you forget that makes the day that you’re working very busy. So rendezvous is a busy day because, besides the rendezvous, there’s a spacewalk the next day. So what we’ll wind up doing, is we’ll get up. We’ll immediately do what we call a ‘water dump’ because our fuel cells, which generate our electricity, produce a lot of excess water. When we are docked to station, we are limited in the kind of water dumps that we can do because it might impinge upon the equipment up there so we need to go ahead and get a last water dump done. We’ll do that early in the day. We’ll do a series of what we call ‘burns’ to adjust our position in space so that we set ourselves up for a rendezvous. We’ll go ahead then and manually fly the rendezvous. There’s a team of four of us that work most of the flying and then other crew members come up to help with the docking system as well as taking some photography as we come on board. We’ll dock, make sure that’s everything’s okay, get a good leak check of the area that we’ve docked to – to make sure that everything’s working properly and, at that point, we’ll finally open the hatches, the traditional meet and greet. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of emotion as you see your friends up there and it’s always an exciting time to do that. And then after about five minutes of, “Boy, this is really cool!” Back to work. So now it’s time to get the safety briefing to make sure that as we’re docked everybody knows exactly what the layout is because we’re not back in Houston and Building 9 in our little simulators any more. We’re in a real living, breathing space station and, should anything go wrong, everybody needs to know immediately what they’re supposed to do, where the fire bottles are, things like that. So we’ll get a good safety brief and then we have robotics right away for some of the folks. We have other folks taking equipment to the airlock, and people are going to do what we call ‘camp out’ that very night, where they’re going to go and start pre-breathing oxygen, get themselves pressurized down to a 10.2 PSI within their little airlock and get ready for the next day’s spacewalk.

On Flight Day 4 you mentioned the first spacewalk. All hands on deck for that one, first of five scheduled spacewalks on this mission.

Right.

Tell us about what the main goals of EVA 1 are; what you and the IV people inside the complex are going to be doing.

Right. Flight Day 4, EVA 1 is a very unique day. The most important task on that day is to take this Japanese Exposed Facility, the “Jeff”, out of the payload bay and get it attached to station to the JPM. You can’t do it without some EVA work, but the EVA itself only does parts of it. So the EVA guys come out of the hatch and before we can actually do anything with the “Jeff” to take it out of the payload bay, they have some keep-alive heaters from the shuttle to the “Jeff” that need to be removed. Also, the berthing mechanism that’s already a part of the JEM, the Japanese lab, that has a big protective, we call it a MLI cover, a thermal cover around it and that needs to be removed so that the berthing mechanisms can be exposed and we can work those. So those two things from the spacewalk have to occur before anything happens. Otherwise we would love to bring this thing out of the payload bay early and have it ready to go but we can’t. So that happens early in the spacewalk. Then, while the spacewalkers are accomplishing other tasks out there in preparation for other activities, we’re going to go ahead and have Doug Hurley and Koichi Wakata, who’s already going to be up there at this time, they’re with the station arm going to grab the “Jeff” and be grappled to it. Julie Payette and I are going to be over on shuttle and then once they give us the go, we have to release all the latches from the shuttle so that they can then take this thing out of the payload bay and move it off to the side of the payload bay on the port side or, if you’re looking forward, the left side of the vehicle. Now eventually we need the station arm to install it. But guess what? The station arm isn’t in a position where it can do that at its current location that’s required to grab it. So it then has to wait for the shuttle arm to come grab it and then it releases. It does what’s called a ‘walk off’ where it’s attached at one end. It grabs another part of the station, releases this end and then walks itself off. And then it can go ahead and re-grapple the “Jeff” from the shuttle arm, and I know this is starting to get really complex, but a series of these handoffs from arm to arm and then it’s finally positioned where it can go ahead and install it. It doesn’t require the EVA guys to be there but, should there be a problem with either clearances that we weren’t expecting or with any of the latching mechanisms, then we’re hoping that we’ll be early enough into the EVA that they still have time available that they can go out there ‘cause there are contingencies that they can do from an EVA perspective to work with the berthing mechanism and the latching and the umbilicals and the power and things like that. So very complicated choreography here between the robotics and the EVA.

Flight Day 5 will potentially with dual robotic arm operations. One scenario has you doing what’s called a ‘focused inspection’. If that happens, can you tell us that process?

Well, we’re certainly hoping that we’re not required a focused inspection. For those that aren’t aware of what that is, very quickly, we’ve done this big inspection on Flight Day 2. As soon as we get the images down, there are people on the ground that are reviewing them and seeing is there any area that we’re concerned with that might require a more detailed inspection. Also, on Flight Day 3, as we come on board with the rendezvous, we do this big rotational pitch maneuver where we do an end over end and, as we do that, people on the space station have big lens cameras and they’re taking pictures of our belly for the tile and they send those images down. So these teams are poring over that imagery and deciding is there any area that we are so concerned about that we cannot say that the vehicle will be safe for entry at the end of its mission without getting more data. If the answer’s ‘yes’, then Flight Day 5 is set to do a more detailed or what we called focused inspection. It will be on just the areas that have to be imaged more closely to clear the vehicle. If that happens, then we do the similar, well, we do a similar thing, too, our Flight Day 2 inspection, we have to grab the boom and then whatever they want us to look at, and it might now be underneath the vehicle, they’ll send us the details and the procedures to accomplish that. The difference is, since we’re now docked, the shuttle arm can’t physically come across and grab the boom without interfering with the space station, so now we need the station arm to help us out. They grab the boom. They bring it out of the payload bay. They put it in a position where we can grapple it. Then we grapple it. Then they let go. So it’s another one of these handoffs. Then we can go ahead and get our inspection done and then when we’re done with that inspection, we need to hand it back to them so that they can berth it because we need the arm for other things.

A focused inspection or not, the other main task for that day involves pulling a cargo carrier out of Endeavour’s payload bay. Tell us about that carrier and you touched on it earlier, then some of the payloads that…

You’re talking about the ICC-VLD.

Yes.

In the very aft of the payload [bay] will be, it’s a logistics carrier. It’s basically a platform and attached to the platform are three very large pieces of equipment that a crew member can swap out or two crew members can swap out during an EVA. One of them is a big antenna called an SGANT. The other one’s a pump module package and goodness gracious, the linear drive unit, the LDU is the third one. So three different payloads, or not payloads but pieces of equipment that we’re going to go and leave behind on a platform called ESP 3 so that, if required at some point in the future, it’s basically a hot spare ready to go on orbit. On the other side are six batteries. Four are the very first element that went up with solar arrays was called P6 and for those that have been following this program closely, they know that P6 is meant to go on the port side of space station and yet it was on the upper, or the zenith side, for a very long period of time ‘cause that was its first temporary home and temporary became semi-permanent for a while. But finally it’s moved to where it belongs. Well, those batteries have been up there, my goodness, when did, when did that mission launch? That was, back a long, long time ago, probably back in 2001 or something like that so we’re going to go and swap out six of those batteries and, over a couple of spacewalks, so on the other side are those batteries and we’ll eventually remove the six from P6 that are there and replace them with these. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take it out of the payload bay using the shuttle arm and then we again can’t reach where it needs to go on station so we will just move it to a position where the station arm can grapple it. We’ll let go and then they’ll put it to its home where they’re going to use it for the next couple of spacewalks.

On Flight Day 6, EVA 2, Dave Wolf and Tom Marshburn are going to go outside. But even before they go out the door, there’s some robot arm ops that need to happen with the integrated cargo carrier. Walk us through what you just mentioned, the handoff and the eventual temp stow. Where will there be a temp stow at?

It’s a place called the POA and it just gets temp stowed in a location that’s relatively close to where we’re going to put it in its final resting place, the pieces in its final resting place. The carrier on this EVA will be stationary and we’re just going to use it as a base to go and get, piece by piece, one of these ORUs off of the carrier and eventually move it to where it needs to go. So the way we’re going to do that is when the guys come out the door we’ll be in a position to where Dave can go ahead and get the station arm to a position where he can then install the equipment that he needs so that he can insert his feet into what we call an APFR which is basically a fancy acronym for a foot restraint that will hold him in place by his feet and then the arm will then fly him around for most of the day. Tom will be going ahead and just be external to all of that and will be maneuvering on his own. So Doug Hurley will be flying this. Julie Payette will be with him and I’ll be over on the shuttle side. The shuttle will be in a position where it can provide camera views from its arm, from its wrist camera and so if it needs any tweaking, I can just very gently move the wrist a little bit to line the camera up and then I can zoom the camera in and out to help them with clearances. But primarily what’ll happen is that Doug will fly Dave over to the ICC-VLD and they’ll pick up the ORUs one at a time and they’ll start with the SGANT antenna and he and Tom will work on removing it from that carrier and then Doug will fly Dave over to ESP 3 and Tom will translate on his own over there and then they’ll go ahead and install that, make sure that it’s clear and then we’ll repeat this process two more times for the other payloads. And as simple as that sounds, takes a long time to actually do it.

Let’s move on to Flight Day 7. Could you walk us through the plan to get the JLE out of the payload bay to the temporary spot where it’s going to be put on the exposed facility?

Well, this is going to start sound like broken record here, but we’re going to do another series of robotic handoffs. We will take it out with the shuttle arm. The only thing the shuttle arm can’t reach was that “Jeff”, the most forward one. So the JLE is sort of in the middle in the payload bay. So we’ll go and we’ll grapple it with our own arm, the shuttle arm, and we’ll take it out of the payload bay and we’ll maneuver it off to the side where the station arm is ready and it will go ahead and grapple that. After that, we’ll release the shuttle arm from it and we’ll move ourselves in a position where we will provide camera support and then the shuttle arm, excuse me, the station arm will take the “Jelly” and we’ll move it in a position where it can then berth to the “Jeff”. The “Jeff” is berthed to the JEM and then on the end of the “Jeff” are several of these different ports where you can berth a payload. And there was one specifically in mind to handle the “Jelly”. So we’ll come and it gets driven to a position where they don’t actually touch. It’s not the kind of a mechanism where they connect per se and have bolts driven in and everything else. This is a temporary thing so it will get driven to a point here where then a series of latches can be commanded to go ahead and grab it and pull it in and that’s where it’ll remain for most of the mission.

Can you tell us about some of the payloads that the JLE has on it?

Sure. There’re three that they’re carrying right now. One’s called ICS-EF, MAXI and SEDA. And ICS-EF is a communications kind of a payload where it’s going to be used, it’ll talk through their center at Tsukuba and through the TDRS system and it will provide, I think, a lot of information that they’re going to use, especially when they do berthing for their HTV which is an autonomous cargo carrier which they are hoping to launch later this year, I think towards the end of the year. So it’s very important to them, the Japanese, and of course, for us because HTV’s coming on board for this payload to get up there and to operate properly. MAXI is a payload that is going to be, it’s a small, I mean, all these payloads are relatively small compared to what we really think of when we take things up there but it’s going to provide some X-ray observations, not quite like Chandra that’s up there but it’s a way of going ahead and sweeping the sky and looking for X-ray imagery. And SEDA is a payload that is, I sort of describe it as it’s going to sit there and measure the space environment so it has all kinds of different little sensors to measure different types of space particles and to look for things and so it’s going to dwell up there and just be absorbing that and getting a lot of information about the space environment.

jsc2001-01347 -- Mark Polansky

Astronaut Mark Polansky, STS-127 commander. Photo Credit: NASA

What happens robotically after you get JLE attached? Do you have to turn your attention to the ICC-VLD to do something there? Go, tell us about that.

Well, the ICC-VLD, the main thing on that on is now we’re getting ready to do batteries so, if you remember, we originally had three large ORUs on it plus six batteries. The three ORUs are now gone so we just left them behind and we didn’t bring anything back with us. So now we just have a carrier with six batteries. So now we’re going to have those batteries in a position where, when the spacewalkers go out the very next day, they’re not going to be on the arm but the batteries will be so it’s almost in reverse from what you do which is, you know, we’re kind of, it’s hard to talk one without talking about the spacewalk itself. But when a spacewalker is there working the batteries, the spacewalker’s going to be, at this time, in a fairly fixed position and it’s the carrier with the batteries that we’re going to move around to almost keep maneuvering that thing so that the work area of interest to the spacewalker is always going to be presented right directly in front of him and it’ll be the robotic operator that does that by, if it’s this battery you want to do, he’ll move the arm here. If it’s the next battery, then he’ll move the carrier so that the next battery lines up. So we’re going to position it way out there on the port side of space station so that we’re ready to go for the spacewalk.

Flight Day 9 is going to be mostly filled with prep work for the next EVA and some off duty time for the shuttle crew except for Koichi Wakata, who by that time will be a shuttle crew member. He and Tim Kopra have some work to do, some robotics work to do with another robotic arm. Can you tell us much about that?

Yeah, and this is something that’s evolving as we speak. I think the timeline will change so that we’ll probably wind up with Flight Day 9 being, there’s a good chance that Flight Day 9 could be a day off or Flight Day 11 will be a day off and, because of how we’re going to insert that thing, what’ll wind up happening is that when we do these payload transfers which will now all occur on the same day, there’ll be five of us that are really a part of this and so for the first payload transfer, we’ll have Koichi and myself will work on that and that’s where we’ll be using, from the Japanese laboratory, we’ll be working the Japanese arm and Koichi will go ahead and grab one of these three payloads that’s on the “Jelly” which we installed earlier in the mission and he’ll grapple it and move it to its final resting home on the “Jeff”, the other carrier or piece of hardware that we brought up to the space station because, again, getting ahead, we brought two major pieces of hardware to attach to the space station, the “Jeff” to JEM, the “Jelly” to the “Jeff”. But we’re not leaving the “Jelly”. That’s not the plan at least. The plan is to bring it home. So that’s why we need to transfer the payloads. The “Jelly’s” job is just to be the carrier for these pieces and after that its job is done. So we have to transfer those pieces. Koichi will transfer the first one and then, more than likely, we’ll go ahead and have Tim Kopra transfer the second one with Julie backing him up and then I’ll transfer the third one with Doug Hurley backing myself up.

And that will be, to your knowledge, the first time that the Japanese robotic arm actually does actual, the work that it was designed to do with real payloads?

Right, that’s absolutely true. So it’ll be really exciting. We’re glad that Koichi will be able to do that since it’s JAXA hardware. He’ll have done a lot of calibration work leading up to that. There are other crew members that have done a lot of work to get that up there obviously. This came up on 1J and STS-124. So it’s a long time coming but now, for the first time, we’re actually going to do, you know, real payload transfers.

EVA 4 will be Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn outside. More batteries. Is it just a mirror image of EVA 3?

Very similar. Very similar to EVA 3. There is some other things, you know. All throughout these EVAs, there’re always other little tasks here whether it’s getting some of the cameras on the “Jeff” itself installed that we didn’t do or little things on station. There’s a, you know, a bunch of covers for equipment that all need to be removed. Things happen where you’re required to have hardware to safe, your primary hardware for launch loads and so it’s sort of like having, you know, a special lock. It’s like opening up your brand new computer or piece of electronics in a box and you have all this packing material that’s in there a certain way just to protect it from transfer and you have to unpack it and, of course, when you do it in my living room, you just throw it everywhere, but in space it’s a little more complicated than that. So there are a lot of things like that that will go on during the course of these EVAs, you know, in addition to the primary things that go on during the EVAs.

And then on Flight Day 11 you should be finished with the JLE and you mentioned that just goes back into the payload bay. Is there any mystery to that operation, or is it just in reverse?

I certainly hope there’s no mystery to that nor drama. I would be very pleased if it were just a, what I would consider a ho-hum, hand it back and do everything in reverse and get it in there and it all just works just fine, but that’s the plan.

Okay, we talked about EVA 5. There’s, it consists currently of a lot of different little tasks…

Sure.

…some of them aren’t, I believe, well defined at this point, but could you just tell us what you know about it?

No, I mean, you know, basically there, it’s mostly logistics at this point. I mean, all the primary mission objectives should have been accomplished on the first four EVAs but there’ll be some things that we won’t get done potentially. There’s other little logistics that need to be accomplished. Been around long enough to know that three months between now and when we launch is a lot of time to have any potential additions to our mission come up. You know, I mean, look at what happened with the solar array rotary joint, SARJ, those kind of issues. Things happen all the time, so unfortunately there might be things that we won’t know until some time from now that we’re going to actually do on that EVA. The good news is that the guys train for a myriad of tasks so that they can really be more skills based and able to handle anything that comes up at the last minute. So that one is a little bit more nebulous out there.

So it sounds like there’s been a fair amount of cushion built into this timeline just to…

Sure, sure.

All right.

Tell me about Flight Day 15, the day that Endeavour undocks and separates from the station. Tell us about the activities involved in that day.

Well, we’ll have closed the hatch the evening before which is something that’ll be new for me because on my first two missions you close the hatch the day that you’re leaving. Since then I think we’ve improved the timeline so that we can get all that done because that’s a pretty major activity in itself, just making sure that you got all the equipment over there and it’s, I mean, it’s almost a joke but it’s serious. Don’t leave anything behind because it’s really hard to get it back. So we’ll make sure that everybody’s on the proper side of the hatch. I’m sure that, you know, we want to make sure that Koichi’s on our side, Tim’s on the other side and that we haven’t left anything like a camera or a cable behind or, more importantly, we haven’t taken anything of theirs that they’re not going to get back for a while. So that process plays out. We close the hatches the night before and then when we wake up the next morning, we’ll be in a position where we can go ahead and run through the undocking. That takes a little bit of time. You have to do a series of leak checks, make sure everything is working right and then once you’re depressurized the vestibule then you can start the process of undoing the latches and undocking. Doug Hurley, traditionally the pilot gets to fly, so Doug will be at the controls. I’m sure he’s very excited about that and he’ll back the vehicle away and at about 400 feet we’ll start transitioning, or 450 feet, we’ll start transitioning, doing what we call a fly-around where we’ll hopefully get to do a full lap around the station. For me it’s tremendously exciting because I will have seen three iterations of what a space station looks like and to see how much it changed from my first to my second mission and now from this one where all of the arrays will be out there when we show up and when we leave and all of these modules out there and we’ll have left a piece behind that will be visible. That’s, it should be just tremendous to go ahead and do and hopefully we’ll get some really good high definition images with our camcorder there as well. But Doug will do a big fly around of the vehicle and then we’ll eventually do what we call a separation burn to put us in an orbit where we’ll be out of station’s way. And then right back to work because we do what’s called the late inspection. So we go back to what we did on Flight Day 2 which was the inspection of the entire vehicle, the wing leading edge using the big boom. We do pretty much the exact same thing on this day to make sure that we haven’t had any damage while we’re on orbit from micrometeorites.

Chris Cassidy mentioned something during his interview that I obviously hadn’t even thought about, the process of, on I guess entry day, turning the orbiter back into…

Right.

…a landing vehicle and all the activity involved with that.

Right.

They’re going to be very busy down on the mid-deck. I imagine it’s going to be the same for you on the flight deck.

Well, certainly over a series of days. I mean, the undock day is, you know, you come off. You go ahead and get all the inspection stuff done and then you slowly start packing up and getting ready to come home. But, of course, we still have another day where we go out there on the L-minus-1 day and we perform all of our checkouts of the vehicle, do what’s called a Flight Control Systems Checkout, an FCS Checkout, an RCS hot-fire test. So the FCS system, we will basically move all of the controls of the vehicle, make sure they all work properly, make sure all the backup systems work properly, make sure all of our navigational equipment, our nav-aids work properly, test everything. If there’s anything that doesn’t work we’ll already have figured out the protocol for how we’re going to handle that before we even attempt our entry. So that gets done. We do what’s called an RCS hot-fire test. The RCS system consists of the forty-four little jets which don’t take you anywhere but are used to maneuver the attitude of the vehicle and so during the course of the flight you may or you may not have actually fired every one because there’s redundancies built in so we want to make sure that every one has gotten a chance to be fired so that we can see whether they’re going to work and whether there’s any one that we want to say, “Well, since we have three of these jets, this one’s not as swift as the other two. We’ll put it in what we call ‘last priority’ so it’ll be the last one to fire should we need it.” We’ll do those kind of tests as well. We’ll do a bunch of communication checks with the ground to make sure that everything’s working both from the ground sites at the Cape as well as the one out at Dryden should we have to go into Edwards Air Force Base. And all the while, as you said, we’ll be configuring the vehicle for entry. We’ve taken all the seats down. We’ve taken a lot of the equipment down that we didn’t need for being on orbit. Well, now we need to put ‘em back up and so it’s very easy to get them set up the day before so you don’t have to do that much the day of. And so we’ll do that. So it’s a very, very busy day.

As we mentioned earlier, we’re here this year 40 years after the first human steps on the moon and Apollo 11. We are in the midst of refocusing our direction with the return to the moon and possible trips beyond. How well do you think the lessons of Apollo will play into helping us in that endeavor and inspiring to get there? Boy, that’s a really hard question actually. I certainly hope that we have learned the lessons that we learned from Apollo, good and the bad. You know, you just, it’s that old cliché about, you know, those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. And you always worry that since it happened such a long time ago, generations ago for a lot. I mean, there are very few people left, you know, that really worked at the height of that stuff and not to mention the fact, did we capture all the data? Have we studied everything? Have we got our lessons learned? And I know I’ve worked with some of the folks in Constellation to know that they’ve done a lot to bring in what we call ‘grey beards’ and bring in folks that have done this before and learned some of those lessons. But it remains to be seen, you know, if we’ve really done our homework properly. I certainly hope that we are and from everybody I talk to I know that we’re trying to do things to not repeat some of the same mistakes, but what we find out in general is that people think that this is pretty routine and launching space shuttles, we’ve been doing a long time and we should do it and we should never have anything bad happen and, oh, how could bad things happen. Well, you know, I hate to let some folks know but this has risk. This is an extremely unforgiving environment and it’s amazing technology, it’s amazing work that a lot of people do. I have the privilege of being able to not just get in the vehicle but having worked on it at KSC to crawl around the innards of the vehicle and when I see all the things that I see there on the launch pad, all the pieces, the parts, I mean, as I, if I take off my professional hat and just looked at it as a lay person, I’d sit there and be amazed that we ever get to orbit, ever. It’s just so complicated how we put all these things together and the fact that they have to work. So that’s the kind of legacy that any program has to carry forward and it’s going to apply to the next program in Constellation just as much as it applies to shuttle as it applied to Apollo as it applied to Gemini and Mercury before, just like space station. One mistake could be catastrophic and we all know what happens because, unfortunately, we’ve had that happen to us several times in several programs, so we know that there’s a big risk and a big price to pay and I do think that as I travel around and talk to folks that everybody’s very aware of what that risk is and they take it very personally and I’m glad they do, not because I happen to be flying on the vehicle in this case but because I think that we all have to realize, you know, what the risk is here as we go forward. So the lessons learned and the legacies, I think it’s critical that we go ahead and we make sure that we’ve learned those lessons and we carry them forward and we don’t just look at the mistakes from yesterday and solve those problems, but we’re forward-thinking and trying to say, “What problems are there that we haven’t thought about? What could possibly go wrong? What do we have to mitigate for? What do we have to protect ourselves for?” If we’re only fighting yesterday’s wars, we’re not going to go ahead and think about what’s out there lurking in the future and so it’s a really tough problem but, you know, if it wasn’t tough wouldn’t be worth doing.

Tell me how, what it means to you to be part of this legacy of Apollo and especially here with the potential of what’s at our fingertips…

Sure.

…of the return to the moon and maybe going beyond.

Well, I mean, you know, I can’t say, it’s hard to put into words the amount of pride that I feel to be so privileged to be a part of, you know, this whole program. I mean, I’m biased. I work for NASA. I’m an astronaut but I, remarkably, kind of think that, you know, NASA’s a pretty darn cool place and we do pretty amazing things and I know that we have our detractors but I think that what we do is still, you know, something that not a lot of folks can say that they can accomplish and I think it’s really exciting to be a part of all of this. I also would be less than honest if I didn’t say that, you know, I would have hoped that by the time that I got to be my age, having been thirteen years old when we landed on the moon, that I’d have been doing something similar to that and not just going a couple hundred miles up. Doesn’t mean that I think that the work’s not important or that what we’re doing is just trivial. It’s just that I think that we’ve been in low earth orbit long enough and so I’m really excited to be a part of this process that gets us out of here and gets us to more human exploration. I’m probably not going to be able to do it but there are a lot of young guys and gals in the office that are, as well as people that will become astronauts in the future so I just am really happy to be a part of that process and what’s going forward.