This is the STS-130 interview with Mission Specialist Bob Behnken. Tell me about the place that you consider to be your hometown and what it was like growing up there.
Preflight Interview: Robert L. Behnken, Mission Specialist
Well, my hometown is Saint Ann, Missouri. I grew up in that area pretty much the first 20 years of my life and then went to Washington University in the local area. The town that I grew up in is kind of a small working town. There aren’t a lot of college graduates working actually in the town. They might go off and work someplace else but it’s more of a blue collar kind of a neighborhood and I think I grew up with, the sort of a experience, I guess, in my bag of tricks that I’m more of a working class sort of a person than a university type of a person.
What did you like to do growing up? What kind of things interested you?
My father’s a construction worker so I had the opportunity from a young boy to go work on construction sites. So whether it was spreading straw out as, grass grew, simple jobs that a kid could do to just be close to his father, I got to do those sorts of things and as I grew up. I actually took some jobs on construction sites participating in constructing waterlines or the beginnings of new neighborhoods.
How would you say that being exposed to that work ethic helped you in who you’ve become basically?
I think that it provided me with two things. One is that understanding that there is value to hard work, hard work needs to be done. That’s how you get some work done. It just is hard and has to be accomplished. The other part of it is after working a couple of summers, in the heat of St. Louis, I decided that going to college would be a good idea so that I didn’t need to spend the next thirty or forty years of my life working so hard in the summers.
So education then, it impacted you in that way, kind of opened your eyes as to what was available out there basically.
It did. Having those opportunities early in my life to kind of work harder and do those sorts of things, I saw the benefit to an engineering education and how I could be the guy who was designing how things were going to be done versus the guy who just implemented them after somebody else worked out the details and so I took advantage of that opportunity when it arose and went to engineering school.
Tell us about the educational steps that you took after high school.
After graduating from high school I was searching for a way to pay for college and the Air Force ROTC program allowed me to complete an engineering education. I got an engineering degree as well as a physics degree under the ROTC scholarship program and that allowed me to not go into a large debt other than the four years I owed the Air Force after completing my education.
At what point in your life do you recall first getting the notion that you wanted to be an astronaut?
I think that there was a time when I was young, when I was interested in being an astronaut but at that time I was also interested in being a race car driver, a rock star and all the standard jobs that were out there. A fireman, things like that, all those exciting things that kids want to do. For me when I was in graduate school, I had a friend named Garrett Reisman. He’s another astronaut who’s in the program now. He and I were both, he was a civilian, and I was an Air Force officer. We both were interested in the astronaut program. I felt that as an Air Force officer I needed to complete Test Pilot School before I would really be eligible to go off and be an astronaut and Garrett was actually selected as a civilian a couple years before I was. By the time I got to Test Pilot School later on in the Air Force, I hadn’t applied yet to be an astronaut and all my classmates were applying to be an astronaut and so I filled out the same form that they all did and was lucky enough to get an interview. It’s kind of an interesting story. Terry Virts, on this flight, he and I went through Test Pilot School together and sat next to each other through the year that we were at Edwards Air Force Base at Test Pilot School and were selected for the astronaut program at the same time.
And in that time period from entering the Air Force to Test Pilot School what types of activities did you do? What kind of deployments did you make, things of that nature?
I have an interesting career field in the Air Force. The Air Force has a field called Developmental Engineer. They brought me into a research lab at Eglin Air Force Base, the Air Force Research Laboratory, and I did weapons design and weapons test down at Eglin Air Force Base. So it was basically development work on systems that would in the future be in our inventory for the Air Force but were still under development at the time. I did that for about eighteen months and then was selected for the Air Force Test Pilot School and went off to Edwards Air Force Base.
And at some point, too, you went off and got a PhD.
I did. After finishing my undergraduate school, it was the early ‘90s. The Air Force and the rest of the United States military was restructuring after the collapse if you will of the Soviet Union. We were restructuring our military and I actually took four years in inactive reserve status, and finished the PhD. The National Science Foundation was able to fund me and I finished the PhD at Cal Tech before actually entering active duty and that job with the Air Force Research Laboratory. So probably having that PhD is what put me in the Air Force Research Laboratory as a Developmental Engineer. There weren’t a lot of First Lieutenants turning up in research laboratories with PhDs at the time. Usually those were Majors and Lieutenant Colonels, but it was a great opportunity for me.
Tell us about when you first, the time period from when you first applied for NASA and when you were finally selected. How long of a time period and how many applications and what that was like?
I applied while I was a student at the Test Pilot School along with probably fifteen or so other classmates from my Test Pilot School class. You have to apply very early in the military system. You have to go get a physical from the military base itself. You have to get approval from the Wing Commander before your application will be forwarded on to NASA so I went through that process and then was assigned to the F-22 Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base. I was off working in that job when they eventually came back from NASA and started checking reference letters and they were checking my next job after Test Pilot School, how I was doing at my next job before I was asked to come down for an interview at NASA. The process, if you go through the military, is probably on the order of eighteen months long and so it’s a long process because the military has its system for deciding which applications and whose names they’re going to forward off to NASA and also, once those names are forwarded on, NASA goes through a selection process to filter again and pick the folks that they want to bring down for interviews. So for me it was at least a year before I came to NASA after filling out the initial application at Edwards Air Force Base before I was scheduled for an interview and then it was probably another seven or eight months before I was selected to come down to Houston.
Talk about your first space flight. What experiences do you remember most about that? What sticks out in your mind?
I flew last year on STS-123. I was lucky enough to do three spacewalks on that flight. It was a long mission, on the order of sixteen days so we had a lot of stuff to do which was probably the thing that was most memorable. There were a lot of robotics operations. There were a lot of spacewalks. There was just a lot of work to be done on the space station. We actually took two payloads to the space station, similar to this flight where we’re taking Node 3 and the Cupola. We also took two separate payloads to the space station on my previous flight and so that’s probably one of the most memorable things is just how much different activity there was actually to do on the mission as well as, anytime somebody gets to go out the hatch and do a spacewalk, that’s something obviously that they’ll remember for the rest of their life. You’ll just remember that first time going out the door as, just the experience and the rush of going off to do it is something that I’ll remember forever.
What has it been like working with these crewmates during training?
It’s been really interesting for me. I mentioned Terry Virts before, a person that I went through Test Pilot School with and then have been here in Houston with for the last eight or nine years and so it’s been a long time since we were two Captains sitting next to each at Edwards Air Force Base to where we are right now. The rest of the crew has been great and I’ve enjoyed the training flow to this point.
There are thousands of people who work behind the scenes to ensure the success and safety of every mission. What has it been like traveling around during your training to the different centers and you get to meet these people and tell them how much their contributions mean?
It’s been really exciting for us and you mentioned during the training flow one of the things that you do post-flight is really take advantage of that opportunity to go and visit the workers at Kennedy Space Center or at Huntsville or even the headquarters of NASA in D.C. and visit all those folks who participated in making the mission possible. So that’s really the timeframe where you get a chance to go back and thank all those folks. During the training flow you’ve typically got your head down and you’re really busy focused on the mission, but this mission has been a little bit unique in that Node 3 was actually in Italy when we started the training flow so Nick Patrick and myself actually flew to Italy about a year ago and got to visit the Node and make sure that when we started our training process, that the training that we were going through was representative of the actual Node 3. So we took that opportunity and got to meet some great people in Torino in Italy and those same folks have now migrated to Kennedy Space Center with Node 3 now that it’s temporarily living there until we take it to the International Space Station.
Tell us in a nutshell what the key objectives are for STS-130.
For STS-130 our key objectives are to take Node 3 and deliver it to the space station and install it in its permanent location on the side of Node 1. We’ll also take the Cupola that’s currently on the end of Node 3 when we install it and relocate it to a new position to allow a good viewing from the nadir portion of the space station or the bottom side of the space station. You’ll be able to look out those seven windows and see the Earth below or see arriving vehicles that come up from below.
And you are Mission Specialist 4…
I am Mission Specialist 4.
…for this mission. In that role, what are your primary responsibilities for this flight?
I think that the Mission Specialist number is really a color code that goes along with the which food you eat on board the flight and so I’m Mission Specialist 4 which means my food has a little brown dot on it and so, if you went to all the Mission Specialist 4s that were on different flights we might have a wide range of different responsibilities on the flight. For me, specifically on STS-130, I’ll be the lead spacewalker. I’ll be EV 1. I’ll have red stripes on my spacesuit when I go outside on each of the three spacewalks and that’s really my primary responsibility, conducting and making sure that we are prepared to go off and execute those three spacewalks.
Introduce us, if you would, to the Node 3 Module and the Cupola. Kind of give us an idea of what they look like and how big or how massive they might be.
Okay. If you looked at the space shuttle payload bay and looked at the percentage of the payload bay that these modules were taking up, the Cupola and Node 3 are taking up a little bit more than two-thirds of the payload bay so they’re not the biggest modules we’ve ever taken. We’ve taken modules that fill up the entire payload bay so the Japanese laboratory has one component that takes up the entire payload bay. Node 3’s a little bit smaller than that but it’s a little bit heavier, a little more dense in terms of the hardware that it’s going to have inside of it once it gets on orbit and we’ll have an additional life support system on board. So it’s really additional outfitting and additional capability for life support and just living on the International Space Station. The Cupola actually is the window that allows us to look out. If you look at the U.S. segment and the international partners’ segments separate from the Russian portion of the International Space Station, there aren’t a lot of windows, certainly aren’t a lot of big windows. There is one notable exception, that’s the laboratory window on the U.S. lab that allows you to look down on the Earth. The Cupola will provide seven additional windows to allow a little bit more of a panoramic view of the underside of the space station. Node 3 and the Cupola will provide the final pressurized segments for the International Space Station on the U.S. side so they’re the final big pressurized components that will be part of the U.S. and international partners side of the International Space Station.
What’s it mean to you to have a part in that milestone for space station, finishing out basically the U.S. pressurized section of the station?
It’s really exciting for me to be a part of the construction of the International Space Station. I know there are several flights after ours still, but not very many flights that are actually after ours so it’s exciting to be a part of that final pressurized segment, that final area where people will live and work inside of the space station. So it’s very exciting.
How would you characterize the complexity of many of the tasks that you will have to do on this flight, either with the quick disconnects for the electrical cables or on the inside outfitting the Cupola for even the installation? How complex as a whole is that going to be?
Generically I think the tasks that we do during the spacewalks are each task in and of itself is not very complex. We’ll hook up an electrical line or we’ll take a cap off and then hook up an electrical line. The complexity comes when you realize that you’ll be connecting up or interfacing with ten different locations that have electrical lines on them and keeping track of the ten caps that are associated with that and the ten caps that are on the electrical line that have to go on to those locations as well and so you start adding up these groups of ten. Pretty soon you start saying, or realizing that you have 50 or 60 things to keep track of, in a bag as you go out and do your spacewalk and so that’s the complexity that you really see is the stacking up of all the little bits and pieces that actually need to be accomplished to perform the outfitting of Node 3 and the Cupola. I, as a child, really enjoyed playing with Legos. I don’t want to do an advertisement for Legos but that was an experience that I really enjoyed and if you look at the single page that tells you how to put together that Lego model you’ll see all the blocks that are laid out. Each step is very, very simple. When you realize there are 150 steps to the process to put something together you realize the complexity is not individual steps. It’s keeping track of all 150 or 200 or keeping track of every step that’s required to make sure you don’t forget a piece some place in the middle that turns out later to be critical.
After launching you’ll make it to orbit, transform Endeavour into an orbiter from a launch vehicle. Then there’s an inspection of the tiles scheduled for Flight Day 2. Tell us about what your activities are going to be for Flight Day 2. What’s on the schedule for you?
I actually won’t be really participating in the inspection of the orbiter. I’ll count on the rest of the crew to go off and execute that. My primary responsibility on Flight Day 2 will be to start the process of getting the spacesuits, which are little spaceships in and of themselves, ready for our spacewalks on the International Space Station. We’ll actually be bringing two spacesuits to orbit with us on Endeavour and transferring them over to the space station when we actually get docked. On Flight Day 2 we actually perform a checkout and an evaluation and a verification that those suits are actually functioning properly so that we’ll be ready on Flight Day 5 when the time comes to go off and do the spacewalks. So care and feeding of spacesuits, that’s what I’ll be doing.
And then for the rendezvous and docking phases for the following day, what will you be doing on that day?
On rendezvous day I participate in operating the fancy system that connects the space shuttle to the International Space Station and has an acronym just like everything else at NASA, the APDS system. No one really is concerned about the details of what that acronym actually stands for but it’s the thing that allows us to connect the space shuttle to the space station, the springs and dampers that allow us to come together and absorb the energy of impact and then stay captured and actually perform the mating operations of the shuttle and the International Space Station. So I’ll be operating that system during rendezvous and docking. After docking I’ll begin transferring the spacewalk equipment, the spacesuits and some of our hardware over to the International Space Station in preparations for the upcoming spacewalks.
Then you’ll have a day to get prepared for the first EVA. On that first of three scheduled EVAs, you and Nick Patrick will go outside. Tell me about what you’re scheduled to do on that day and talk about the other activities that will happen that day.
The night before our first spacewalk we’ll actually begin our spacewalk activities. We’ll actually go into the space station’s airlock and go into what we call ‘Camp Out’ which means we spend the night in there and we breathe 100 percent oxygen to prevent ourselves from getting any sort of decompression sickness the following day and we’ll actually spend the night at a lower pressure inside of that airlock in preparation for the spacewalk the following day just again to avoid that decompression sickness potential that can happen during the spacewalk. On the first day when we go out, or the first day during that spacewalk we’ll actually head almost immediately from the airlock over to the space shuttle exterior, not on the interior, on the exterior of the space shuttle and on the space station to prepare Node 3 for removal from the space shuttle payload bay. There’s some electrical power cables that Nick Patrick will disconnect and kind of store those in the shuttle payload bay, get them disconnected from Node 3 so it’ll be ready for release and installation by the space station’s robotic arm. I on the other hand will continue further aft in the shuttle payload bay and remove a protective seal that’s protecting the sealing surface of Node 3 to make sure that when it actually gets berthed and brought together with the space station we get a good pressure seal and we actually can hold atmosphere inside of that Node 3 once it is attached. After the robotics operations, I bring the Node 3 out of the payload bay and install it on the space station. There are a series of electrical connectors that need to be mated so that we can get heaters going on the Node 3 so that it doesn’t get too cold inside or get any sort of condensation, basically keep it warm during the time until we can get the hatch open between Node 3 and the rest of the International Space Station as well as the avionics cables that allow us to basically see the status of Node 3, to see how it’s doing, to see how its sensors are actually performing before we open it up to the rest of the space station.
Tell us about the activities planned for EVA 2. What will you and Nick do on that EVA?
The second spacewalk will happen a couple of days later and we’ll execute it very similar to how we executed the previous one where we go into the Camp Out before. For the spacewalk itself, the primary objectives are to actually connect the cooling lines from the U.S. laboratory over to the Node 3 so there are ammonia jumpers is what we call them, but they are basically fluid lines that are pressurized at 50 “PSI-ish” for their maximum pressure that we’ll actually mate from the lab over to Node 3 and then we’ll open the connection to allow cooling to go from Node 3 over to the laboratory and back and forth. The remainder of that spacewalk will actually encompass further outfitting of the exterior. There are a series of handrails and equipment that needs to be installed on the exterior of Node 3 that if it had been installed during launch, it would have potentially interfered with the space shuttle itself and so we have a series of hardware that we’ll take outside, handrails and things like that that just protrude from the surface, that need to be bolted on to Node 3 and we’ll do those things, time permitting.
A bit later in the mission with both Node 3 and the Cupola installed in their final locations, you and Nick Patrick will go outside for EVA 3. Tell us what’s on the plan for that EVA?
For the third spacewalk after Node 3 is installed and the Cupola has been relocated to the underside of Node 3, Nick and I will go out and open up a second loop of cooling for Node 3. We’ll have done the first part during the previous EVA and then have to wait some time and come out on the second EVA and open up that cooling loop, the second cooling loop on Node 3. We’ll also start outfitting of the Cupola. By outfitting of the Cupola I mean to remove a protective shroud that will protect it after it’s installed on the space station until its internal outfitting is complete. This will allow heating and electrical collectors to be mated inside and we’ll have a protective on the outside. After those electrical connectors are mated, we can go outside and remove this, insulating blanket, if you will. We’ll stuff that big blanket in a bag and bring it back inside. After that’s complete, currently we’re scheduled to go over and deploy a payload attach system on the underside of one of the trusses. That’s in preparation for a future flight where they’ll actually use that attach system to install a carrier unit with replacement spare parts for the space station and that would conclude EVA 3.
In your view, tell us about what it does take to pull off a mission successfully. It doesn’t happen by happenstance.
You’re right. It doesn’t happen by happenstance that we pull off successful missions. It takes a lot of training up front to make sure that we’re ready for both the mission that we have laid out in front of us but also the mission that may evolve as we start down the path of executing our mission and have to make changes. There’s an old saying in the military about, ‘the plans don’t survive the first contact’ but what you learn from the planning process is how to make more plans and recover, if you have to make changes to what you’re going to go off and execute and so, in our case, for the delivery of Node 3 and Cupola to the space station we have to do a lot of things in the right order, to get from the beginning to the end. We have to launch first so there’s a lot of folks who are going to work really hard to make sure we get the space shuttle up and ready to go. The weather will have to cooperate to get us into orbit. Once we get into orbit we have a series of events that we have to accomplish in order to get ourselves both ready to be on orbit but also to get ourselves rendezvoused and docked with the space station. After those two big milestones have been completed we can start thinking about going out to do a spacewalk or going out to do the robotics activity that takes Node 3 from the payload bay over and installs it onto the space station. Once that’s accomplished we can start thinking about how do we outfit that node? How do we make sure it gets its cooling? How do we make sure that it gets its electricity that it needs and so we’ll do another spacewalk to accomplish some of those tasks and we’ll have to do some more robotics activities where we take the Cupola off the node and relocate it to a new home. Unfortunately the Cupola can’t launch in the appropriate location because if it did it wouldn’t fit into the payload bay and so we’ll have to relocate that Cupola and get it to its final home and then do a third spacewalk to go outside and get that Cupola ready for use on orbit. After all that’s complete we can go back to our space shuttle and start the process of getting ready to come home which will mean getting undocked, getting a good survey and inspection of the space shuttle, and then, finally being prepared to come back for reentry. So all those things have to happen in the right order and all successfully for us to have a successful mission and we’ve done a lot of training to be prepared for that and also to be prepared if things don’t go a hundred percent on time and on schedule. We’ll perturb the plan a little bit and the great flight control team and the flight directors will scratch their heads together and come up with a new plan for us to make sure we accomplish all those things in the right order.
And this shuttle has a system that lends itself to giving the shuttle crew extra sustainability in space that allows you to do, if you need to stay longer. Tell us a little bit about and how much of an advantage that is.
So there are a lot of things that have to be in place for you to be able to stay on orbit. You need what we call ‘consumables’ and consumables are everything from food that the crew eats to the oxygen that they breathe to the electricity that the space shuttle has to provide to stay powered through the docked portion of the mission itself. Endeavour, this particular space shuttle, along with one of the others in the fleet actually has a power transfer cable that will allow us to receive power from the space station and actually preserve some of those, what we call ‘consumables’, some the things, the hydrogen and the oxygen that we use to make electricity, we don’t have to use those up if we can use electricity from the solar arrays that are on board the International Space Station. So that capability allows us to stay a little bit longer. It allows us to do a little bit more while we’re docked to the International Space Station and should there be a slight delay or replanning required, there’s potential that we could stay on orbit a little bit longer and actually still fulfill the mission even if we couldn’t do it in the original allotted period of time.
We are fast approaching the scheduled end of the shuttle era, a sad time for many who have been intimately involved with the shuttle. For others, they choose to celebrate the accomplishments of the vehicle. How do you view it? What does it mean to you? What’s this time mean to you?
I guess I kind of have a couple of views on the space shuttle. As a boy, my father actually drove me to Illinois to see the space shuttle riding on top of a 747 parked on a ramp at Scott Air Force Base. We had to stay outside of the Air Force Base. We had a long telephoto lens that allowed us to take a nice picture and that photo is still in the family room at my parents’ house where you can still see that space shuttle sitting on top of that 747 and so from a boy to now I’ve known the space shuttle program. It’s something that I grew up with and got to participate in to this point in my career, so from that perspective it’s really exciting for me to have been a part of it from when I was a child and had the excitement to now when I get to participate in the actual flying and participating in a mission on the space shuttle. The end of the program, folks are going to have mixed feelings, about the excitement or the trepidation that they have about what the future holds. What I’m telling my launch guests is to take advantage of the opportunity to see a space shuttle launch even if you get to come to a future launch vehicle of some sort, right now it probably won’t be the same level of excitement as actually participating in a space shuttle launch, so I’m trying to motivate as many people as I can right now to go and see one of these last handful of shuttle missions that are left and actually see the glory or more importantly just to feel the kind of palpable excitement that everyone has when they actually see humans launch on a big vehicle like the space shuttle and get into orbit. I’m excited for the future. As a new astronaut arriving in Houston about eight or nine years ago I was a little bit disappointed to not have heard of a follow-on program to the space shuttle. We were in the space shuttle days. We were building the space station and that was our plan for the future. I’m excited now that we’re looking for a future vehicle and I’m excited for what the future may hold.
You mentioned the trip to go see the shuttle being ferried back to KSC when you were a kid. Any other space shuttle memories that you have that you can tell us about and tell us why they have impacted you the way they have?
I mentioned the one space shuttle memory where my father, before the space shuttles had been flying, took me to see a shuttle making its ferry mission across the country for the first time prior to launching into space. So it was a shuttle that hadn’t flown yet but was going to fly in the future and so that was really exciting times. I guess I have a handful of other shuttle memories. One is the Challenger. I was a kid in high school when the Challenger accident occurred and so we got to, we weren’t actually watching the shuttle launch real time to see the accident but for the next couple of days it became a cornerstone of the discussions, in the classroom to make sure that everyone understood the nation’s sorrow associated with the Challenger disaster or accident. For me personally, and I don’t know if everyone reacts this way, but it seemed to be a kind of a calling, if you will, that after that accident you really understood what the purpose of that space shuttle flight was. You understood the purpose of the space shuttle program. You understood the purpose of a nation that actually has a space program and chooses to do hard things like get humans in and out of orbit safely. So it was more of a calling, if you will, maybe a wakeup calling to excite me on the potential of humans flying in space and so I know it’s a kind of a dark subject. There was an accident and folks lost their lives but they were pursuing something great and it was something that I wanted to be a part of later on. I’ve got a couple other memories of the space shuttle program, primarily from the time that I spent at Edwards Air Force Base where you drive out and you actually have streets named after the Challenger, for example, and you can actually see the areas where they had to ferry the space shuttle from its plant South of Edwards Air Force Base up to the base in preparation for the ferry across the country and so you can see the history, if you will, just in the way the streets are designed that allowed those sorts of things to happen. So that history was an exciting thing for me to see and it’s a part of our country. There are a lot of programs that have done similar things, kind of changed the landscape, if you will, of the country in the effort to pursue things and so that’s exciting for me.
Was there another one?
I think that I hadn’t flown on the first mission when the Columbia accident actually occurred and so that was another event that took a lot of hard work to recover from and, as an astronaut, in the office during that recovery period again we all worked really hard together with the rest of the folks in the agency to make sure we were ready for that first flight and returning the shuttles to flight.
How do you think that the space shuttle will be remembered in a future where travel between worlds has become as commonplace as airplane travel is today?
I think that the space shuttle will be remembered as it goes into its retirement phase here, as the first vehicle that was reusable. That reusability and basically taking a plane, if you will, launching it like a rocket and bringing it home like a glider, that all those things being brought together to make happen was a hard engineering problem and so a lot of folks will kind of revel in the difficulty of pulling something as complex as that off. Anybody who’s been to Kennedy Space Center and actually seen a rocket launch with people on board I believe either the Apollo or the space shuttle and actually seen that, it’s a different feeling when you watch people launch into space than it is when you watch a Delta or an Atlas rocket takeoff and so I think that aspect for anybody who’s actually been to a human launch is something that’s always going to be memorable for them. We all watch differently, I think, even if it’s just on the television when we know there are people at the pointy end of that rocket ship, that folks are doing something hard and it’s really critical that everything goes smoothly.