This is the STS-130 interview with Mission Specialist Kay Hire. Tell us about the place that you grew up. What was it like growing up there and how did it influence who you’ve become?
Preflight Interview: Kathryn P. Hire, Mission Specialist
I was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, and it was just a wonderful experience living there on the Gulf Coast and just all the great things that brings.
Now you’ve flown once before. Did you have an opportunity to actually see that region from space when you were up?
Yes, I was able to see, the Gulf Coast. It was quite interesting the first time I had the opportunity to look out from the space shuttle Columbia at that time and look back at Earth and saw what I thought was familiar and seemed a little strange because I thought the picture would be a little smaller but I was able to see the entire Gulf Coast of the United States all in one view. That was surprising to me the first time I saw it because usually when you see the pictures that are sent down from space they’re smaller and we have a much broader panorama, that we can see out the space shuttle windows and it was very interesting, but then it was also very easy to zero in on particular areas, especially Mobile Bay and the whole Gulf Coast region.
Tell us about the things that you liked to do when you were growing up. What were your interests?
Definitely recreational interests, outdoors and especially anything to do with the water. I was very fortunate to have access to Mobile Bay and the Gulf Coast and we were water skiing, swimming, surfing, sailing. All of these activities were pretty common in our free time.
How would you characterize the role of education in your life and the value that you reaped from it basically?
Education has been very important. Having a good solid education is what has allowed me to take advantage of the opportunities that have come my way.
Talk to us about your educational background. Tell us about the steps that you’ve taken educationally from high school.
I started off in Mobile, Alabama, actually went to St. Pius X Grade School and then on to Murphy High School, graduated from there in 1977 and went on to the U.S. Naval Academy, graduated in 1981, went through flight training and became a Naval Flight Officer. I served in the U.S. Navy for seven-and-a-half years and, after that time, left full-time active duty and joined the Navy Reserve continuing in the aviation field but then also started to work on my Master’s Degree at the Florida Institute of Technology and picked up a Master’s of Science in Space Technology. At that time, I was also working at the Kennedy Space Center as a space shuttle ground processing engineer. So it’s been very important to have that educational background to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that have come along for me that I could never have forecast to begin with. For instance, when I went to high school, there were no women at the Naval Academy. That is something that became available before I graduated from high school so I was able to apply for that position and was actually accepted. Then when I was at the Naval Academy, there were no female Naval Flight Officers and that is, the air crew members that fly with the pilots operating the aircraft systems and the weapons systems, so that became available before I graduated from the Naval Academy so I was able to take advantage of that opportunity and become a Naval Flight Officer, then years later, I was able to apply for and be accepted as a NASA astronaut.
You talked about the absence of women in some of those prominent roles, in some of those traditional roles that would eventually transfer into an astronaut. When did you decide that you wanted to be an astronaut? When do you first recall having that notion and, considering there were no women even to serve as an example, how did that happen?
Right. Well, I didn’t really have a specific goal to be an astronaut as a child because there were no women astronauts and I guess I just never really thought about it that way. However, I was very interested in space. I remember watching all of the NASA activities and being quite interested as a very young child watching the moon landings and looking at the moon with a telescope and just had developed a love of aviation and aerospace in general. When those opportunities became available to me, that’s when I started realizing, “Wow, this is something that I could do and I could apply for,” I was very fortunate and the timing just all worked out for me.
Tell us when was it that you first applied to the astronaut corps and tell us about that time period, how long of a duration was it and just kind of tell us that story.
After I had left full-time active duty with the Navy I went to work at the Kennedy Space Center as a contractor to NASA, as an engineer working on the space shuttle from the time it landed all the way through the ground processing that was required to get it ready for its next launch and through the actual launch countdown. So that was really just a wonderful job for me. It was very exciting to be working directly on the space shuttle flight hardware and preparing so many different missions. So during that time I went ahead and made my application, submitted an application to become an astronaut. This was once before I’d actually finished my Master’s Degree and received notification that I was on a good path but I needed to get a little more experience and finish my education. I applied again after I had actually earned my Master’s Degree and it was at that time I got called in for an interview.
Although you have flown before, this is going to be your first trip to the International Space Station. Tell us about what kind of anticipation you’re experiencing about this upcoming flight.
My first flight was on the space shuttle Columbia and we had the Spacelab which was a laboratory that filled the majority of the payload bay of the space shuttle. It was a great facility but in comparison to the International Space Station it was absolutely teeny. We thought we had a nice lab on the Spacelab but we’ve been able to grow that capability on the International Space Station and make it much longer duration in order to conduct scientific experiments so I’m really looking forward to going and experiencing this larger volume but also to see firsthand the science that is ongoing every single day on the International Space Station.
What was it like basically being a human experiment on that first flight?
Yes, definitely on the Neurolab which was STS-90 and the Spacelab, that was a very interesting mission. It was the first mission we had, and actually I guess at this point the only mission that NASA’s had that was dedicated solely to just one area of science and that was neurology. There were twenty-six primary neurological experiments conducted as well as a large number of secondary experiments as well. We took along animals with us. Animals who were test subjects and we ourselves were test subjects and it was quite interesting. We were test conductors and also test subjects so we had hundreds of mice, rats, swordtail fish, oyster toad fish, and crickets on board that we conducted experiments on them and it was different. It was a new experience for me to be that type of a test subject but the interesting overall results from the Spacelab, was that the human central nervous system is very complicated. We already knew that but it’s also very adaptive. It’s amazing how quickly the human body adapts to the zero gravity or the microgravity environment of space and we also noted that, in the animals that we took with us, too, they very quickly adapted to this new environment and then when we came back to Earth, all of us adapted very quickly again back to the 1g environment here on the surface of the Earth.
Do you have a good story to tell us about the time when you finally were selected to NASA, you got the call or the letter, what you were doing? Do you remember that?
I do. I was at the time a supervisor at the Kennedy Space Center. I was supervising orbiter mechanical systems and launch pad swing arms and I got a call in my office from the head of the astronaut office here at the Johnson Space Center telling me that they would like me to come out to Houston and join the Astronaut Office.
Pretty exciting time.
What has it been like training with this group of crewmates for this mission? You’ve obviously developed relationships and the team has come together in certain ways. Talk to us about what it’s been like.
We are so fortunate on STS-130. We have so much talent. I just feel this is just a tremendous opportunity for all of us and I feel very fortunate to be part of this team. We have such talent. We have the majority of the crew that has served as Capsule Communicators or capcoms in Mission Control which gives a lot of insight into how the ground portion of our team is functioning while we are on orbit. We also have experienced EVA or Extra Vehicular Activity walkers, that are sharing that experience with this crew and just a wide range of educational backgrounds as well and we all bring our own talents to form a very strong team.
Talk to us a bit about how you feel about the contributions of the thousands of people who work behind the scenes to make the mission a success and make it safe and what it’s like, what it has been like when you’ve got a chance to meet these people traveling around during training.
When people look at STS-130 and they see the six crew members, we are just a small representative of the entire team. To make this mission happen and to make it successful, we have thousands of people working all across the country, at NASA centers and even at subcontractors and vendors scattered all across the country to provide individual pieces and parts of not only the space shuttle but also the payload that we carry and every bit of controlling the mission once we are on orbit. It takes all of these different people, also our trainers and instructors that prepare us for the mission, and not to mention our international partners as well. Our payload is coming from Italy and we’ve had just tremendous support from the folks in Italy that have provided this fantastic payload for us to bring to the International Space Station to enhance the capability there so it’s not just the six crew members that you see. We are just representatives of this entire effort that is just fantastic.
Give us a synopsis if you would of the key objectives for STS-130.
STS-130 will deliver the Node 3 and the Cupola to the International Space Station. Also inside Node 3 are various racks and systems that we will activate while we are docked to the International Space Station.
You are Mission Specialist 1 on the flight. Tell us about the key responsibilities that you have in that capacity.
As Mission Specialist 1 I will fly on the flight deck both for ascent and for entry, assisting the team there, the Commander and the Pilot and Mission Specialist 2 serving as the Flight Engineer. I’ll be assisting that team and also later throughout the flight I will be operating the space shuttle robotic arm and assisting with operating the International Space Station robotic arm.
Introduce us, if you would, to the Node 3 Tranquility Module and the Cupola. Kind of give us an idea, your best description of what they look like, how big they might be, things of that nature.
Node 3 on the outside looks like a large can but it has docking ports on several sides and so it will in fact connect to the port side of the International Space Station and allow for other components to dock to it as required and our plan is, we will take the Cupola which will be on the very end of the node for launch because that’s the way it will fit into the payload bay of the space shuttle and then we will relocate that Cupola from the end of the Node Number 3 down to what would be considered the bottom, we call it ‘nadir’ or facing down towards the Earth, so that those windows on the Cupola will be able to look down upon the Earth and provide an opportunity to take photographs of the Earth as well as to see visiting vehicles as they approach the International Space Station. For instance, as a Japanese or a European transfer vehicle would come up to the International Space Station. We’ll be able to move the robotic arm control station into that Cupola area, consider it like a bay window, and be able to have an actual out the window view to operate the robotic arm because as we operate today on the International Space Station for the robotic arm, we’re using all external camera views. We have no direct window views to operate the arm.
Based on your knowledge of or involvement with either or both, the robotic ops and the outfitting of Node 3, tell us about how complex those actions are, installing and outfitting.
Once we install Node 3 onto the port side of the International Space Station we will configure the hatches and perform leak checks to make sure everything is in good shape and then we’ll be able to open the hatch between the International Space Station and Node 3 and go inside. We first go inside it’s going to be dark because we don’t have the electrical power all hooked up yet to the Node Number 3 so we’ll go in with headlamps and portable lights to be able to start working inside. We’re bringing up a lot of things stored in the Node 3 and we strap it down very tightly for launch to make sure that it does not get damaged during the vibration of the launch. So we’ll be unstrapping all that and configuring everything. We have some very large pieces we’re going to be moving around, the size of an entire rack of the International Space Station so it’s going to take quite a bit of choreography to make sure that we move all these in the correct order; you don’t want to paint yourself into a corner. We don’t want to get racks configured in such a way to where we can’t get another rack past it in the microgravity of space, as we’re floating these things around, it’s going to take a little bit of choreography to make sure that we get everything done not only correctly but efficiently. We don’t have a lot of time to get all this accomplished so we’ll be moving as quickly as we can and trying to execute the choreography that’s going to be orchestrated for us from the ground.
Delivery of Node 3 and the Cupola basically is a major milestone for the station. How do you feel about having a direct involvement with basically closing out, putting the finishing touches on the U.S. pressurized section of the station?
We’re very fortunate to be assigned to this mission as the STS-130 crew because it is our great privilege to bring up Node 3 and the Cupola and these are the last U.S. major components that are coming up to the International Space Station, all outfitted for electrical power and thermal conditioning. We’ll be able to perform a lot of activities in Node 3 and the Cupola itself, so it’s really going to greater enhance the capability of the International Space Station and give our crew members another fantastic view from the Cupola.
You and the crew will launch and then transform the vehicle into an orbiter for your stay in space. Then on Flight Day 2 there will be a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior tiles. Talk to us about that process and tell us what your involvement will be for that.
We have launch day and it takes us eight-and-a-half minutes to get into space and we immediately go to work. We start configuring the orbiter on the inside to get it ready for all the operations that we’ll be performing because for the launch, we do experience a tremendous amount of vibration, we have everything strapped down very tightly. So we will need to go ahead and start setting up all of our systems and our tools that we’ll need to go and rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station but before we do that we want to inspect our thermal protection on the orbiter to make sure that we didn’t sustain any damage during the launch that would affect our thermal protection that we would need for re-entry and landing. So we go ahead and accomplish that on what we call Flight Day 2 which is our second day in space. We get up that morning and get the robotic arm ready to go and we reach across the payload bay and grab a boom that we have that extends the length of our robotic arm. We have sensors on the end of this boom that we can use to inspect our thermal protection and this takes a better part of the day, more than half the day to go ahead and get a good inspection and make sure that our thermal protection is in fact all ready to go for our entry. So we will perform that. I’ll be operating the space shuttle robotic arm for that and then later in the day we will start setting up our tools that we’ll need for the rendezvous. We use handheld laser and we also have different systems on board configuring our computers to make sure that we’re all set to go to monitor our rendezvous. We also monitor the actual location of the International Space Station and we start tracking that and start tracking how we’re closing that distance between us and so then on Flight Day 3 we will go ahead and rendezvous and dock with the International Space Station, check the pressure across the hatches and be able to open those once it’s equal across the hatches and go ahead on board the International Space Station on Flight Day 3 and start getting set up for the rest of the mission.
There are three EVAs on this mission. On the first one Nick Patrick and Bob Behnken will go outside to perform some duties. Give us an idea of what they’re going to be doing outside and tell us also what you’ll be doing on the inside for that day.
For the first EVA our EVA crew members will be configuring Node 3 to get it prepared for us to remove it from the space shuttle payload bay and go install it on the International Space Station. So as we launch, we have to be able to provide just some heating to the Node 3 because we don’t want anything to freeze from the extreme temperatures of space so we actually have cables connected to the Node 3 in the payload bay that have to be powered off and then de-mated and that is done by our EVA crew members. That’s not something we can do from inside the orbiter. So they get that all configured and make sure that the Node 3 is all set for us to remove it. Then they go off and perform another task but during that time they are performing the other task, the Pilot, Terry Virts, and I will be operating the space station robotic arm to grapple the Node 3 and then remove it from the space shuttle payload bay and then maneuver around and position it on the port side of the International Space Station.
Talk to us about outfitting again. There’s going to be a lot of it for this mission and several stages of it I imagine. You’re scheduled to do that, as it’s currently scheduled, part of it on the day that you’re supposed to do the Focused Inspection. If Focused Inspection happens or doesn’t happen, there’s still the outfitting to do. Talk to us about what you’re scheduled to do in the first part of the outfitting for Node 3.
Once Node 3 is attached to the International Space Station we have a lot of activities inside to configure it and remove some of the items we have transported up to the International Space Station just as storage there. Remove those but then also start moving some of the racks around and start powering these things on and getting them functional for this space station crew. This is actually over several days. One day that we are scheduled to do this also includes a place holder if you will to perform a focused inspection of our thermal protection system and that is if we saw something that we were interested in, got our attention that looked like it might be something damaged that might cause a breach of our thermal protection during our entry and landing, then we would want to go take a much more detailed look at that and that’s what the place holder for focused inspection is for. If we gave a clean bill of health to our thermal protection system during our surveys that were performed on Flight Day 2, then we will not need to perform a focused inspection and that will give us a little more time to go ahead and get the Node 3 task done. Even though we have a plan when we launch, we have a Flight Plan with a very detailed schedule, every night when we go to sleep the team on the ground in Mission Control sharpens their pencils and looks at everything that we’re planned to do and they may reschedule things for us. So even though we have a set schedule right now, it’s always subject to change and we’re always ready to take on whatever tasks they have for us. So certainly the Node 3 outfitting includes a lot of tasks and will be spread over several days but we’ll see on the real day when those tasks actually occur.
A couple of days after Node 3 is scheduled to be installed, the Cupola then also needs to be relocated. You mentioned that. Walk us through what’s involved with that process and tell us about that day’s activities.
When we launch, Node 3 and the Cupola are attached together but the Cupola is on the axial or the long end of Node 3 and that’s so that it will fit properly in the space shuttle’s payload bay. After we attach Node 3 with the Cupola attached to it to the International Space Station, a few days later there will be more EVA tasks to prepare for that Cupola move but we will first go ahead and close off that hatch between Node 3 and the Cupola and then depressurize the Cupola so that it’s down to a vacuum which is the same as the space environment that it’s in. We will grapple the Cupola with the space station robotic arm and then move the Cupola down to its new home which will be on the bottom side or the nadir side facing the Earth of the Node 3. Once we attach it there, we have latches that we have to actuate, from the International Space Station side that latch it all into space and then again we start to check and make sure there’s not going to be a leak across that surface and sealing surface. We eventually go ahead and pressurize from the International Space Station now into the Cupola volume and once those pressures are stable across those hatches and we see there’s no leak occurring, then we can open the hatches and go inside of the Cupola and start outfitting that to become a work station, a worksite for the space station crew.
There’s a lot of transfer activities on this flight. I guess as, probably it’s not any different from any other flight but there’s that to be done. That’s part of your duties. You are what’s called the Load Master. Tell us about the complexities of that and how that plays into your flight.
That’s correct. When the space shuttle docks with the International Space Station we have the opportunity to bring up different supplies, parts, components, and science up to the International Space so not only in our payload bay where we have Node 3 and Cupola, but also on the mid-deck of the orbiter Endeavour that we can bring bags of equipment and, as a matter of fact, I’ll be serving as the Load Master to make sure all of this equipment is transferred across to the International Space Station. We also have the opportunity to bring home scientific samples as well as different equipment or supplies that are no longer required on the International Space Station. We can bring those back with us. So we have hundreds of items that will go back and forth across the hatches and you can imagine with the space station being a large volume we want to make sure and keep track of what in fact goes across and what comes back and then by the time we close the hatches to be able to undock and return back to the surface of the Earth that the right equipment is on the right side of the hatch. So it’s a little bit complicated because also it’s something that’s dynamic. It can be changing right up until the time that we launch. It could even change while we are up there when maybe a decision might be made to send an additional piece or part back to Earth. Then we’ll have to change that real time but, it’s quite an interesting and challenging job and every crew member will take part at different times carrying equipment back and forth and making sure it ends up in the location that it’s supposed to be but I will be trying to herd all of those efforts into one successful transfer.
At some point you’ll be finished with your work, your docked ops work and you’ll be ready to make the trip back home. Talk to us about what you’re scheduled to do for the undocking phase and the subsequent activities for that day.
During undocking we will configure the orbiter very much the same way we did for the rendezvous and docking. I will be operating the handheld laser and that’s basically a speed gun like law enforcement might use to catch speeders, but what that does for us it gives us a range and also a range rate that we are opening away from the International Space Station and that is just to make sure that we are undocking in the manner that we want to, at the speed that we want to. We want to do it very carefully and it’s quite choreographed the way that we already do it. We have other systems that will give us that range and range rate but this handheld laser confirms the other ones and also acts as a backup in case our primary system would malfunction.
What do you imagine it’s going to be like when that first glimpse of the station on rendezvous and then being able to see it again for undocking? What do you think that’s going to be like?
We are really looking forward to that first visual contact with the International Space Station and especially with the size that it is now. It’s getting so close to assembly complete that it’s just going to keep getting bigger as we get closer. We simulate this in our training and we have very good computer generated graphics that provide us a view of what this is going to look like, but to see it in real life, with our own eyes is just going to be very exciting and we’re going to certainly have a lot of cameras out and getting pictures as we approach the International Space Station as well as when we undock from the International Space Station because not only is it just an interesting and beautiful view for us. It also provides engineering data. We will be taking a series of photographs as we undock and fly around the International Space Station. With these photographs engineers and scientists can study the exterior of the International Space Station to make sure it’s all looking as they expect but also to see if there are any changes to it as it has been exposed to the microgravity of space but also the environment that includes space debris. We know it’s out there. Sometimes we get little hits and we always hope it’s a very small hit that can actually cause little bits of damage here and there. Any larger pieces are actually tracked by the ground and occasionally those require moving of the International Space Station or the space shuttle to make sure that we don’t come in contact with a larger piece of space debris. But these photographs that will be taken will be beautiful and enjoyable for us but also quite interesting for the engineers and scientists.
We are approaching the scheduled end of the shuttle era. For some people who have been intimately involved with the shuttle it’s a sad time but others are choosing to celebrate the shuttle’s accomplishments. What’s it mean to you?
The end of the space shuttle program, for me, is definitely mixed emotions. I’ve been involved with the space shuttle for twenty years. I came to work at the Kennedy Space Center in 1989 and it’s been a tremendous experience for me. I’m just so fortunate to have worked the ground aspect of the space shuttle as well as had the opportunity to fly the space shuttle and now going to the International Space Station. This major step beyond the International Space Station is this major step beyond the capabilities of the space shuttle that we had which is the mid-deck capability and the Spacelab capability so it’s just been a fantastic accomplishment for all the space shuttle missions. It’s a little sad to see it come to an end because it has been such a wonderful experience and the team is just tremendous. It’s like a family and in some ways it’s kind of sad because we do see this family moving on to other things and that’s a little bit bittersweet but we’re also very excited about continuing space exploration, continuing all the work that we’re doing on the International Space Station and then moving forward to going into the Constellation and Orion and move these programs forward to continue our exploration into space.
How do you think the shuttle will be remembered in a future where travel between worlds has become as common place as airplane travel is today?
Well, here we are already 2010. When I was a small child I thought by now we’d all have our own little spacecraft kind of like the Jetsons. Kind of disappointed that hasn’t happened yet. So I feel like we have a long way to go and that we’re a little behind but I’m excited about where we’re going now. I think it’s in the right direction and I think that the space shuttle will be remembered. I think so many people didn’t really expect it to fly this long, to accomplish so much, but it’s been this workhorse that’s been able to put humans into space and to work in space. Early on the space shuttle program we had so many times that we not only launched satellites but we did satellite repair. The concept of that is still pretty amazing if you think about just going up and grabbing a spacecraft that’s on orbit and going, taking it and repairing and then tossing it back out there. That is just phenomenal that we did that multiple times with the space shuttle and then the ability to bring such large components to the International Space Station up to orbit and then assemble these things on orbit. You think about these components. They were built in different countries at different times. They were never fit-checked together. The complexity of this is mind boggling but we’ve accomplished this because of the space shuttle and because of the tremendous team that we have that’s been working on the space shuttle for so many years. So this has been an international team effort to do all this and I think that the space shuttle will be remembered quite prominently with our space history.