This is the STS-128 interview with NASA astronaut and pilot Kevin Ford. Kevin, tell us about your hometown, the place you grew up and what it was like growing up there.
Preflight Interview: Kevin Ford, Pilot
Well, I grew up in Montpelier, Indiana. It’s a little town in the northeast corner of Indiana. It’s a rural community; about two thousand people, a very much hometown U.S.A. kind of thing. I was lucky enough to get to know most of the people in the town, while I lived there, all through, all the way through high school and just a great community with things like volunteer fire department, just a few churches. I could see my elementary school from my front porch and my middle school and, you know, one doctor, one dentist, that sort of thing. It was just a really nice, nice close knit community and just a really great place to grow up, spend my early years.
And do you have a sense of how that place influenced who you’ve become?
Well, I think so, because of the type of community it was we all knew each other well. We pitched in to help each other a lot. Summers, even though I lived in the town from about six years old on, I, for example, my dad just signed me up to help bale hay in the summer with the farmers in the community and the people I went to church with and I was able to kind of have the run of the town and go out exploring on my own. We had a river. We had a railroad running through the town and I was able to spend time there with friends and go fishing and kind of grow up and develop kind of my own sense of what it was I like to do and how to spend my time.
Do you recall at one point in your life that the notion of becoming an astronaut or going to space occurred to you?
Well, I’d read some books when I was younger. I stumbled onto a book called Carrying the Fire that my brother owned, and I read that at about thirteen or fourteen years old, and the space part really interested me, but the flying part fascinated me probably even more than that because it’s also a lot about being a test pilot. That was written by Michael Collins and just stumbling onto that made me start to put my eyes on the skies and my brother who had owned that book was also a private pilot. He’s eleven years older than I was and he got his pilot ticket at a very young age and took me for my first airplane ride, and I just really, really loved it and decided when I was of age that I would learn to fly myself, and one of the local grocers there, Tom Williams, when I finally was old enough to take lessons granted me a job because he was a pilot, too, and said, “Hey, if you’re going to use this money for flying then you have a job in my grocery store” and I used every penny I earned. I made about fifty-four dollars a week and spent it on two flying lessons every week at the age of sixteen and was able to get a license then pretty early and knew that that’s what I wanted to do, some kind of a career in aviation. I did know about space flight but at that point it was still pretty far out there. It was really kind of beyond of my dreams I would say at that point in my life.
What or who was it that helped you realize the value of education in life?
Well, I was interested in things I saw, buildings going up and bridges and cars and airplanes and I knew that somebody that had really studied was able to design and build those things and I think I just always realized that if, if you wanted to be somebody who really made big contributions, that you really had to have an education. I just kind of assumed that I would continue in education as long as I could and make as much out of it as I possibly could. I don’t know if there was really one defining moment other than just seeing my older brothers and sisters all go off to college as well and just knowing that the more education you could get the better your chances were.
Tell us about your educational background post high school and why you chose to study your field of study.
Well, as a pilot, it’s one kind of level of knowledge to be able to operate an airplane. That’s certainly a very large field of study in itself but really what makes them tick also interested me and I wanted to fly but I also wanted to learn all I could about aviation and just make aviation my life. And so I chose aerospace engineering as a major and at the same time I applied to the Air Force to go into the ROTC program and at that time they offered a really great scholarship. If you could take some tests or two and do well enough on them that they would give you a college scholarship and then depending on how well you did they’d continued with the scholarship. So I took that scholarship and I took it to the University of Notre Dame and studied aerospace engineering and they almost essentially funded my four-year education at Notre Dame and I got the bonus of going to pilot training afterwards so, to go into the Air Force and fly. Education beyond that I was lucky enough while I was in the Air Force to have a tuition assistance program. I think the military still offers these programs where you could get advanced degrees so I took advantage of that for a couple of advanced degrees on my own time while I was active duty Air Force and then also when I was a Major in the Air Force, I had a chance to go to the Air Force Institute of Technology and study full time and get yet another advanced degree, again all paid for by the Air Force so almost my entire post high school education is funded by the military and so it’s really, really a great program.
At some point in your military career you obviously started thinking about NASA. Tell us about the progression of that from thinking about it to actually getting here. How did that happen?
Well, like any pilot, I really followed what was going on with the space shuttle and so I was always in tune with the missions, but I was out in the Air Force flying fighters. I flew F-15s in Germany and then after that I went to Iceland and flew F-15s there for a few years and because again I was interested in the engineering side and the whole field, I applied to the United States Air Force Test Pilot School and was accepted to the Test Pilot School and went through that program in 1990. And after Test Pilot School or while I was there even, Eileen Collins actually was a student there at the same time I was, my senior class when I was a junior. As I came in they were the senior class and she was selected to come to NASA and I realized that a lot of test pilots actually do apply to NASA. In fact, almost all of them do because you’re going to do a flight test assignment and then what better thing could there be than to go out and fly the orbiter and we heard that NASA usually looks at people with the test pilot ticket to take those jobs, and so I started applying then but I went off to Eglin Air Force Base to be a test pilot and then I went and did an advanced degree and back on the staff at the Test Pilot School and during those years I put an application in every time the cycle came around. I’m kind of one of those stories about persistence and that I applied in 1994 and then I applied again the next time, the next time and on the fourth application I finally was hired, so interviewed a few other times and got the, ‘Yeah, we appreciate the interest but try again next time’ story but finally was hired and got in on the 2000 class.
Now some years later you’re on the verge of making your first space flight. Is there a recollection of the day that you were assigned to this mission and just that sinking in, that, ‘Hey, I’m actually going to go to space now’?
I remember it well. It was about ten months ago and I came in as a pilot so every mission, there’s one more seat and you’re just waiting for that opportunity. You’re waiting for the pilots in the classes ahead of you to get assigned and so you kind of have an idea of when it’s coming. For my class coming in 2000 and flying 2009 it’s been the better part of a decade obviously and so we just stayed after it. There was a lot of work to be done in between and getting assigned to the space flight to me is finally like kind of finding out when your final exams are going to be and you’re finally going to get to go do all this training and go through an assigned flow with the crew. I think the biggest part of that day was finding out who my crewmates were going to be and just really knowing now what you’re going to do, about when you’re going to fly and who those crewmates are going to be doing it with you. It was just an awesome day.
Probably not an easy question but what are you looking most forward to for that actual flight?
During the flight I’m really looking forward to the ascent, that acceleration for eight and a half minutes, you know. The takeoff in an airplane is a fascinating thing for me, too, but I think the ascent’s just going to be really awesome. I’m going to, I’ve got real work to do, of course, during the ascent so I’m going to have to pay close attention to my duties but hopefully I’ll just have a chance to really enjoy that ascent. Everybody who does it so far has. So I’m looking forward to that. Then the work in space is obviously very, very busy. One of the highlights up there, of course, will be the rendezvous, seeing the space station for the first time. Everybody says it’s essentially a zip code in space now. It’s just this huge structure out there and you just can’t take your eyes off of it when you see it. So I’m looking forward to Rendezvous Day. And then also the on orbit work, I’m lucky enough to be able to fly the Canadarm2 and work with the EVA crew members and there’s going to be a couple times where we’re flying the EVA crew members, really through open space from the truss back to the payload bay and I just can’t wait to see them doing that. And then, of course, rolling out on final at Kennedy Space Center or Edwards Air Force Base. Both places are almost like home to me so doing that approach and landing in that orbiter is going to be something that’s just beyond compare as well.
What’s it been like training with this crew so far? What, well, let me ask you this. How is the actual training compared to how you may have imagined it would be before you were assigned to the flight?
Frankly, the training, the scheduler we have and the way, C.J. Sturckow, our Commander, has set us up, the training has just clicked along just beautifully. It’s been one of the most predictable almost years of my life. I’ve had schedules here to launch for a long time and we roll into a week and we’re just clicking off those events. A highlight is really getting to know these crew members well. I’m sure every crew really gets to know their crew members well and is really fond of them by flight time. But, I’ll tell you this, this is just a really very unselfish crew. They’re very team oriented. If there’s anything you’re not getting to, somebody else will do it for you and put it on your desk. It’s just really been an amazing experience working with the people in this crew and it’s one of the reasons, I, even though I’m anxious to fly, I’m not anxious for the whole flight event to be over with because I’m really enjoying the assigned flow.
What’s it been like getting a chance to meet and talk with the people who are the support personnel who ensure the success and safety of the mission as you travel around to the different centers to train? What’s it like when you get a chance to talk to them?
Well, it’s great you ask that question because we’re kind of, we’re the crew and we’re very, very lucky to be able to fly on the vehicle and go to space and do the work. But it’s the work put together by just thousands and thousands of people around the country and now, of course, around the world, the whole international community, so there is just, for everything we do from landing the orbiter, there is a team that is the Shuttle Training Aircraft Team that teaches us how to land an orbiter and very dedicated to their jobs, totally professional. We don’t know everything about it like they do in many cases and if there’s questions about something we see, we can call them up and they’ll come give us a briefing and just really make sure we need to know or we know what we need to know for that particular task. And it’s like that for every task so we have trainers from all walks of, all the corners of the mission elements and stuff that come together and teach us very well. And besides the trainers, of course, that space station was envisioned by somebody. It was, the architecture was developed by somebody and it was engineered and then built and put together by teams of engineers who we wouldn’t have any place to go if it weren’t for those teams. I enjoy going out to the plants, the factories where just some sub-element maybe of the orbiter or the space station is built. Those people take such pride in that component and they build it to perfection and it’s just a pleasure to see that.
STS-128 is not an assembly mission but equally important. Give us an overview of what the key objectives are for this mission?
Well, I think of it a little bit as an assembly mission in that, certain flights take up, the boxes, the physical components that make the structure bigger, certainly put the shells up there and most of those components launch empty or mostly empty and then we build out the inside, much the way you’d build a house and then you would outfit it on the inside with all the things you need, to make it a home, for one thing, a place to live. Space station is different than a home, of course, in that you need protection against certain things, and there’s just unique ways of taking care of the environment and everything that all has to operate properly and then, of course, we have it up there to do research and so research racks and all that stuff have to be taken up and put inside and plumbed with whatever they might need, gases, certainly power, cooling, perhaps a vacuum to take advantage of that space environment, and so they’ll have to be put in and made ready to do what it is that they are supposed to do. So we’re taking up this logistics module with 15,000 pounds roughly of interior outfitting equipment in it. After we hook it up, everything has to come out of that module and go into a certain module and be put away properly so it’s a great deal of what we call it ‘transfer’ but it’s a great deal of interior outfitting that we’ll be doing while we’re staying at space station.
One of the other things on your timeline, one of the other objectives is to rotate a crew member, a station crew member. This will be the last shuttle to actually, to do a crew rotation. What are your thoughts about that? I mean, it’s almost, it’s an end of an era almost.
It is an end of an era. When we started out, there were occasions where we were rotating the entire crew, three up, three down, that sort of thing, on the orbiter. The orbiter is really good for taking things up in the payload bay. You know, that’s its main strength and we’ve always taken advantage of crew rotations when we could. We’re slowly transitioning, of course, to the end of the shuttle era and crew rotations, we’re getting the cycle going now with Soyuz, so it’s the end of an era. We’re taking up a dear friend of mine, Nicole Stott, and leaving her there, and she’s the last one up and it will be something, just very special to be part of that last drop off for a space shuttle and that era.
You mentioned the logistics module, a module from the European Space Agency, it’s a multipurpose logistics module. This one has a name. It’s called Leonardo.
For people who may not be familiar with what it is and what it’s used for, can you kind of give us a layman’s description of basically of what it is and how it’s used?
Oh, most certainly. The payload bay of the space shuttle is very large and can carry a lot to space but it’s unpressurized and we have so many individual things that make up this fifteen thousand pounds that they all have to be mounted inside something and inside a pressurized compartment just to get them to space. They have to take the vibrations of the launch environment and also the 3-G acceleration as we deliver them all up there, so they all have to be really, really fastened down well for that trip to space and so this logistics module, Leonardo, once we get into space and open the payload bay doors, we can lift it out of the payload bay and fly it up to the space station. We’ll put it on Node 2 nadir berthing mechanism. And that makes for a very large, very large opening in space station, once we’ve opened the hatches to take all of those components out of Leonardo and then deliver them to the appropriate place in space station which will be their permanent home after we get them there.
Now that space station crew has increased to six people, this flight is especially important.
Talk a little bit about that, please.
Okay. Well, I think that the expansion to six people really is in anticipation of our flight arriving at space station. We have, like I mentioned, the interior outfitting is what this, this logistics module is all about so the research that the six person crew will start to conduct now, now that we have the man hours aboard to actually use the equipment and stuff and not just spend most of our time maintaining space station, all this is really important to fill out the modules and be able to conduct the experiments and, of course, just supporting six people with food, supplies, those sorts of things, too, that’s what’s going to get us there is this logistic module.
Another item in Discovery’s payload bay that will be a carrier, a Lightweight Multipurpose Carrier. Tell us what its significance is.
Well, this carrier kind of spans the payload bay at the very back end, it’ll be just behind the logistics module, right in front of the aft bulkhead of the payload bay, and we’ll take up on it a new ammonia tank assembly, which is fully charged and ready to be put on the back of the P1 truss to replace one that has been depleted. So, it’ll go up there on that. We will, on one of the EVAs, we will swap tanks, the new one for the old one that we’ll bring down and also we’ll use that carrier to bring home the EuTEF, the European Technology Exposure Facility which we will be retrieving from Columbus. So that carrier allows us to take the ammonia tank up, bring it home, the old one home and, bring the EuTEF home as well.
Another task for the mission is the replacement of a Rate Gyro Assembly, an RGA. Just in general terms, what is that and…
Well, a Rate Gyro Assembly, it doesn’t determine attitude but it kind of, it determines the rate so that in combination with the Global Positioning Systems attitude system, it does a better job of keeping track of the attitude of the space station, allow us to control the attitude better.
You’ll launch, then configure the orbiter for its stay in space and at some point on the second flight day you’ll do a limited inspection of the shuttle, the shuttle’s exterior. Tell me about that process.
On Flight Day 2 it’s gotten to be quite a long day, but it’s also really an excellent capability that’s really, in my opinion, made the orbiter [a] much safer vehicle in that we can take this boom that we have in the payload bay, it’s mounted on the starboard sill. It was developed post-Columbia, and we can grapple that with the shuttle’s remote manipulator and it makes for a really long extensive boom that can see all of really the critical parts of the orbiter, and we spend the whole day going, scanning very slowly over say the leading edges and the nosecap and the tiles, those sorts of things to inspect for any kind of damage that we might have had on ascent, uses some really nice technology to get kind of depth. If there’s any damage, it can get depth of the damage and, of course, we can come back with a precise location, if we see anything at all we can go back at a later time and do an even more detailed inspection using that same boom system. But that whole inspection is a, consumes a lot of time on Flight Day 2 but well worth it.
Then eventually you’ll get to the point where you are approaching station and will eventually dock. Can you tell me about what you’ll be doing for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight?
Sure. Well, rendezvous is one of those things that everybody has a job for sure. The Commander and I will start pretty early that day, setting up the orbiter, expanding the computer set so that we have some redundancy on the guidance and control computers and just powering up, making sure all the jets are good to go and that sort of thing and we’ll use the orbital maneuvering system engines several times to do some rendezvous burns to time it so that we catch up to space station at the proper rate of closure and at the proper time of day and everything to make the rendezvous work. So it’s a timeline. We’ll spend five, six hours kind of just dedicated to that rendezvous. While we’re doing it, my job is to really keep a really good eye on the NAV systems to make sure it’s really tweaking our position – velocity relative to the space station – and doing the attitude control maneuvers that we need to do to make it all work so that we get to where we want to be at the proper time and have a nice safe rendezvous.
You’ve mentioned about getting the MPLM out of the payload bay and attached to station. Kind of give us a bit more detail about how that’s going to happen and specifically about [what] you’re going to be doing for that.
Okay. Well, I’m very happy to be part of the team that’s going to use the space station remote manipulator system, the SSRMS, the Canadarm2, to take the MPLM Leonardo out of the payload bay and mount it to the nadir berthing mechanism on Node 2. Essentially it amounts to powering up the arm and going in and using the end effector on Canadarm2 to grapple the MPLM on a fixture and then we’ll release the attach points from the MPLM to the payload bay and slowly lift it out of the payload bay until it’s well clear, get it up above the orbiter and then it’s, from my perspective, it’s just a bit of a rotation. It’s about a ninety-degree rotation and then we’ll line it up with the berthing mechanism on the nadir port of the station and we’ll just guide it in using some cameras and some mirrors to bring it in about eight centimeters away and then some hooks will grab it from there. We’ll pull it in. We’ll bolt it in. We will make sure it’s all pressurized properly, the interface is pressurized properly and then at that point we’ll be able to open the hatches and go to work transferring all that equipment that’s inside.
Three EVAs [are] scheduled for this mission. On EVA 1 Nicole Stott who will be a station crew member by that time is scheduled to perform it with, with Danny Olivas. What’s the rationale and the benefit for her to do that EVA as a new station crew member?
Well, as a station crew member she’s always on the hook while she’s living aboard to perhaps go outside and do an EVA, a contingency EVA. I don’t actually know what she has planned for her increment but she has all the skills developed to say to go out and do that already, and it’s a great opportunity for her to go outside and see what her space station looks like, just as she’s moving in and to have that experience already under her belt should she need to go back out during her increment and stay.
On that first spacewalk can you tell us what Danny and Nicole will do outside, what work sites they’ll visit and what you’ll be doing on the inside?
Well, I can tell you a little bit about what my, the parts of the EVA that I interface with for sure. They’ll go over to the P1, the depleted ammonia tank and start working with that to detach the plumbing and the power and those sorts of things and get ready to unbolt it, and I will take the space station arm over to meet them there so that when they’re all done and ready to hand it off to me, they’ll just hold it out from the back of the P1 truss and I will go in and grapple it with the end effector’s grapple fixture there and I’ll take that away. I’ll turn the arm around and Nicole’s also going to put a portable foot restraint on it so that she can ride on the arm after I meet her over at the Columbus work site. So that’ll be my interface there. We’ll fly it all the way, again through open space over to the starboard side to the tip of the Columbus module and we’ll wait there for Danny and Nicole to do their work and come over there and meet us to pick up that European Technology Exposure Facility, the EuTEF there. So when she gets over there she’s going to give me what we call a little GCA, just talking me into putting that foot restraint in the right place for her and she’ll ingress that foot restraint by putting her feet in it and attaching her tethers to it and from then on she can just stand on that and ride the arm as I fly it around for her. She’ll talk me into a place where she can get that EuTEF assembly and again they’ll unbolt it and disconnect all the leads to it and Nicole will hold on to it and I’ll take her away then from the tip of the Columbus module and give her a ride through open space again which I think is just going to be spectacular. It’s on the nadir side of the space station so we should have a really great rotating earth background there for some really good views of that and we’ll take her to the payload bay. We’ll put her heads down in the payload bay and we’ll take her back to that carrier that you were talking about earlier, the MPLM, that’ll be gone and out of the way and we’ll put her heads down and she’ll just take that thing in and she will attach it to the bottom side of that logistics carrier, right from the arm and Danny will, of course, have free floated and translated all the way back to that site and help her bolt that in back there. So that’s kind of the day there for me robotics-wise.
And then for EVA 2 there’s, there’s more work with the ammonia tank assembly. Talk us through what’s going to happen that day.
So we’ll start that day with Christer Fuglesang will be EVA 2 that day with Danny Olivas and we’ll meet back in the back of the payload bay and Christer will this time get in and ingress that foot restraint again and we’ll take the new ammonia tank assembly off of the carrier, the old one being still grappled to the end effector and Christer holding the new one in his hands. These tanks, they’re on the order of fifteen hundred pounds, I think, maybe thirteen hundred empty and eighteen hundred full so very, very large tanks, maybe three refrigerators put together and then and full, so we’re talking about a pretty big item here. And then he will hold this and we will take him back over to the P1 work site to install the new tank there so another ride through open space for Christer again this time and we’ll install that new tank where the old one was on the back of P1 and at that point, we will move away, once that tank is installed, and we will, Danny will get the new one and we’ll ungrapple from it. We’ll turn Christer around. He’ll take it again in his hands now, now being free and again in his hands, we’ll take that tank back to the payload bay, meet Danny back there again and the two of them will put that old tank back on to that carrier, on the top side of the carrier, EuTEF now being on the bottom in the ammonia tank, the old ammonia tank being on the top.
A bit of a unique situation for the station’s arm during those two EVAs. It’s going to, the arm’s going to have its hands full, I guess you could say.
When it’s grappled, it’s always got, its one hand full. In this case, we’re going to strap something to its wrist as well and that’s that foot restraint, with the astronaut in it and him holding the other tank. So, it will be a very unusual configuration for the station arm but this is the best way to get that work done and make it go expeditiously and smoothly, so it should be a spectacular thing to see. I don’t know how often that’s been done but it should be really something.
Once your work on orbit is done, you’ll say farewell to the station crew and close the hatches between the two spacecraft and spend the night before actually undocking the following day. That’s another big moment for you. Talk about that.
Well, that’s right. I guess you know traditionally the pilot gets to fly the separation, the undock and the separation out the V-bar, out the Velocity Vector in front of the station and then, if propellant allows, I’ll get to do a fly-around that day as well. It’s a big deal because you get to see the space station from pretty close in and from almost all aspects as you go around and you do your loop. So it’s a pretty special thing, to get to do that, to get to fire the 870-pound reaction control system jets and hear them, hear them booming and firing and just to say good-bye to the space station and Nicole, of course, it’ll be a pretty big day for us and having, hopefully, accomplished all of our objectives on the flight so I’m really looking forward to that and it’s just one of those things I trained that I really enjoy getting to do and it is some real flying of a spacecraft which just you don’t get to do a whole bunch of it so that when the opportunity is there, it’s something that you really have to appreciate.
How do you imagine space station’s importance might be characterized in humankind’s history some years from now when people routinely fly from Earth to other worlds and back, just based in part if not entirely on some of the stuff that’s being accomplished on space station and will be here in the future?
Well, space station is, it really is one of the more if not the most impressive technological achievement of the modern day, not only in what we’ve accomplished engineering-wise but what we’ve accomplished on this international scale because that anybody will tell you that was half the challenge is making it all work. But these modules have all been carefully engineered prior to going up there. Most of them have never seen each other or touched each other and yet they’ve all been integrated together into one assembly that is the space station. It’s really working beautifully. We learned a lot from the construction. We learned a lot, of course, from say the early days of space exploration in Apollo but what we’ve learned on space station is a completely new unique subset about how to live in space, the solar power, the heat rejection, all of the things you need to do to make that outpost last indefinitely. And we’ve just learned a tremendous amount just from the construction itself. Now that it’s complete we’ve gone, we’re going to six-man crew. We’re hoping to learn even more from what we can learn from the research and getting the ideas in there. There’s no telling really what we can learn from space station over the course of the next decade while it’s up there. There’s just no telling what we don’t yet that we’re going to learn and this vehicle will really allow us to plan for construction elsewhere, whether it is on the surface of the moon or whether it’s, it’s to construct something to travel outside of where we’ve been before here, just close in and around the moon and stuff, if we’re going to go there we’re probably going to have to construct things and we’ve just learned a tremendous amount from space station that will allow us to do that so we’re going to look back on space station as one of those very first, very important steps.