This is the STS-130 interview with Mission Specialist Nicholas Patrick. Tell me about the place that you consider to be your hometown and what it was like growing up there.
Preflight Interview: Nicholas J. M. Patrick, Mission Specialist
I was born in England as you can probably tell from my accent in the county of North Yorkshire on the sea side in a town called Saltburn-by-the-Seand my parents lived in a tiny village right on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors called Ingleby Greenhow. What’s interesting about that apart from the fact that it’s in a very beautiful part of England is it’s very close to where Captain James Cook lived. He, as you know, was the Captain of the famous ship Endeavour that made so many interesting voyages of discovery around the world, particularly in the Pacific. So we would go walking in the Yorkshire Moors, and go and see the monument that was erected to him and that’s one of my earliest memories actually of wanting to be an explorer.
And at what point did you then come to the United States to live?
We moved to the United States the first time when I was about four years old and my father came over to go to business school. We eventually went back to London and then we made a few more hops across the Atlantic, and I ended up staying for most of my schooling in London and then in England for University. Then I finally emigrated after University and came to the States.
Tell me about some of your interests growing up. What kinds of things did you like to do?
I was really interested in sailing. I loved the idea of sailing, as a form of exploration, not just as a competitive sport. I loved the idea of traveling around and exploring coastlines and so on, and it was very hard to do that. I was living in London at that time so my brother and I used to go sailing on the canals in London and then as I grew up my interest in sailing got replaced by an interest in flying. I’m not quite sure why but I caught the flying bug and I stopped sailing and I’ve been flying ever since. Those were my favorite extracurricular activities. At school, of course, like most astronauts, I was very fond of mathematics and sciences and studied engineering at University.
Let’s talk about education. How would you characterize the value of education in your life? What has it meant to you?
Education has been extremely important. I don’t think I would be where I am today without a very long, long education. I obviously was in school into my thirties and getting a PhD in mechanical engineering, and I think it would be really hard to be a good astronaut without having a lot of education because it doesn’t just teach you how to learn, and we do a lot of learning here at NASA. It teaches you the kinds of background knowledge you need to be a competent astronaut, to operate all the machinery that we have here so education’s played a very important role in my becoming an astronaut and my continuing to be an astronaut. I think it would have played an important role whatever I had gone on to do.
You’ve mentioned a couple of highlights in your educational career. If you would again recount your educational steps that you took after high school.
After high school I went to the University of Cambridge in England and I studied General Engineering, so I did a little bit of civil, mechanical, aeronautical and electrical engineering. That was a very good broad introduction to the subject. I then went to work for a few years here in the States in Boston for GE designing jet engines and then went back to graduate school where I studied Mechanical Engineering at MIT in Boston. I stayed there for a few years, got a PhD and came out west first to go to Boeing in Seattle and then here to Houston to work for NASA.
At what point in your life do you recall first getting the notion that you wanted to be an astronaut?
I think it was when I was five and watched the Apollo 11 moon landing and that’s probably true for a great many people who are here at NASA today whether they’re astronauts or not. That was really a very important moment for many of us in our childhoods, watching something that before had been only science fiction become science fact right in front of our eyes. That was really amazing and it galvanized my interest in exploration but it also set me off, I think, in a new direction which was maybe I didn’t want to go explore things in ships. I wanted to go explore things in spacecraft. It made me think that Mars was within our reach and the other planets, perhaps, and maybe the stars one day.
At that point in your life, was there any idea of what it would take to actually achieve that goal?
No, I had no idea how hard it would be to become an astronaut. I think what watching the moon landings did for me was that it made the things that I needed to be good at, to study in school, much more interesting and relevant. So science and engineering were no longer just about learning formulas and units and equations. They were really about achieving impressive technical goals like landing somebody on the moon or building a bridge from here to there, with the use of science and mathematics. I think the space program is great for that. It really helps show young kids that the purpose of all the science and technology is to go and achieve great and monumental things.
So that was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for you to…
It was. I’m not sure I realized it at the time but as I said, I think it helped make all those things that might otherwise have been fairly mundane, fairly boring, really interesting because I could begin to see what the kinds of goals I might achieve with them were.
Recount for us the professional steps that you took, the places that you worked, to finally get to the NASA Astronaut Corps.
I’ve been very fortunate to have had a very varied education and a very varied resume of a very varied work history. As I said, I studied General engineering in England so I got to touch on all of the different major areas, civil, mechanical, aeronautical and electrical. That was really useful because it turns out that the more areas of engineering you know, the more flexible you can be and the more different ideas you can bring to bear on a problem. In grad school I was also then able to study the things that really interested me, optimization, artificial intelligence, human factors, that is the interaction between humans and the systems you design to help them. So my education has been fascinating and fortunately very varied and my work history, too, has been interesting. I’ve worked as an engineer for GE designing jet engines, for Boeing helping design cockpits for and cockpit displays for aircraft such as the Triple 7. I’ve worked as a Flight Instructor. All these things have made my career, I think, very interesting.
This is your second spaceflight. You flew on STS-116 in 2006. What types of experiences do you remember most about that previous spaceflight? What sticks out in your mind and things you’ll never forget?
I don’t think I’ll ever forget any of it really. The whole thing stands out. There’s what everybody knows about spaceflight, the launch is spectacular, an amazing experience, but it’s over very quickly and then you’ve two weeks in space, roughly. A space shuttle mission takes about two weeks. They’re full of amazing new experiences, new sights, new sounds, new smells. Everything is like nothing you’ve ever had in your life up to that point. I’ll never forget the views of Earth, how you could see the curvature of the Earth, the sun rising and setting very quickly. You could see all the different kinds of geographical features on the ground, deserts, mountains, forests and oceans. It was really stunning, just breathtaking. I could have done nothing for the two weeks except look outside and maybe sleep occasionally. And, of course, there’s lots of work to do and the work was fascinating. We got to install the P5 truss on the International Space Station on STS-116. I got to support the spacewalks by helping run cameras, take photographs, and I learned a little bit about spacewalking on that mission and my main job was to run the shuttle’s robot arm through the two inspections of the thermal inspection system and pulling the P5 truss out of the payload bay and so it was a busy flight for all seven of us aboard and a very rewarding one, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget. I hope I haven’t forgotten any of it yet.
And on this mission a new experience for you - you’ll make your first of three spacewalks.
How much anticipation are you experiencing about that?
I’m really looking forward to the spacewalks. This mission, the training for this mission has been completely different. On the last missions, as I said, I was a robotic arm operator and I was in charge of Discovery’s laptop computers, photo TV equipment and so on. I had a lot of engineering jobs on that mission. On Endeavour for STS-130, I will be EV2, the second spacewalker with Bob Behnken as the lead spacewalker, and he and I are going out to do three, what for me at this point, look like very nice challenging spacewalks. The training for these is very different from the training for anything else you do. It’s much less about checklists and procedures and it’s much more because you can’t hold checklists or procedures when you’re outside. That’s the job of your IV, the in-vehicle support person during the spacewalk. When you’re outside you really have to keep everything in your head. You have to understand how to use electrical connectors, quick disconnects for ammonia jumpers, and you have to be able to remember how to do all these things carefully. It’s a bit like working in your garage really. So it’s a completely different training mindset and that’s been a lot of fun.
What’s it been like training with this particular crew for this mission?
They’re a great crew. We have a great Commander, George Zamka, who was in my class, the class of 1998 called The Penguins, so I’ve known George for a long time. And the pilot, Terry Virts, a great guy. I love flying with him in T-38s and the other Mission Specialists, Steve Robinson, Kay Hire, Bob Behnken and I; it’s just a great crew. I’m very, very privileged and lucky to be working with them all.
There are thousands of people that work behind the scenes to attempt to make all missions a success and safe. What is it like during your travels when you go training to get to meet those people and talk to them and thank them for their contributions?
This job wouldn’t be half as interesting as it is if you only ever saw the hardware and you never met the people and heard the stories behind their work on the hardware and the stories behind the hardware itself and so we really enjoy meeting people and finding out what they have brought to the space program and many of their contributions are really huge and we wouldn’t be here without any of them. It’s been fun for Bob and me to go to Italy to look at Node 3, Tranquility, before it was ever shipped to Kennedy Space Center. We were able to install handrails. We were able to talk to the people who’d actually assembled Tranquility and get their advice on how to do this. That’s really important. But their enthusiasm is also contagious. It’s very easy if you work at NASA to sort of think, “Well, this is just a normal job; it’s a hard job. It’s a normal job.” When you go out and meet the people who work on all this hardware, you realize how excited everybody is to see their hardware going to space and how great their hopes are for the way that you’re going to handle it, treat it, and set it up in space and it’s really fun.
You also participated in one of the N.E.E.M.O. (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) projects prior to your first space flight.
Now that you’ve been to space and been able to compare and contrast, what are your thoughts about the differences or the similarities between the two environments?
There are some obvious differences. One is a 1g high pressure environment underwater with lots of fish, and the other one is a weightless environment with absolutely nothing out there but the view. But the similarities are more striking. In both cases you’re doing a difficult mission that’s about two weeks long. You’re living in a confined space with half a dozen other people and the way that you behave is extremely important. I don’t mean inter-personal behavior. I mean, the way you just carry yourself in every operation that you do during the day, the way you clean up after yourself, the way you operate equipment, the way you prepare to go outside for either a spacewalk or a scuba dive if you’re on N.E.E.M.O., the way you help others do their work, these things were really important and you need the same set of skills on N.E.E.M.O. as you do on the International Space Station. You have to be able to help people. You have to be able to do your work without making mistakes or, if you do, to be able to catch those mistakes early enough that they don’t become dangerous. You have to be a good house maid. You have to clean up after yourself, and keep the place shipshape. So there’s really a lot they have in common and one other thing I would say is that for both missions you go through a sort of an intense pre-flight phase where you gradually ramp up to the mission tempo and where all the other things in your life, sort of have to take a backseat for a little while, and N.E.E.M.O.’s very good for preparing astronauts, I think, to develop that mentality before they can fly in space.
Tell us about the key objectives for STS-130.
Well, I think we could sum the key objectives up in one word which is Tranquility, maybe two words, Tranquility and the Cupola. We’re taking up Node 3 which is the final pressurized element to the International Space Station. It’s a 40-ton connecting node for the space station and it will be the home of the Cupola, the space station’s seven window observation port and that’s what this mission’s mainly about.
You are Mission Specialist 3 on this flight. You mentioned a couple of the tasks that you’ll be doing. What are your main responsibilities in that capacity?
Obviously my main responsibility will be performing the three spacewalks with Bob Behnken, and each spacewalk takes a whole flight day and the preparations for each spacewalk take the best part of another flight day. So, for example, the day before, our first spacewalk will be Flight Day 4 and we’ll spend that day gathering our tools and supplies and setting them up very carefully near the airlock so they’re ready to go in the following morning with us. We’ll spend part of the evening reviewing the procedures for that EVA and incorporating any changes which the ground may need to send to us at the last minute. Things, of course, during a space flight are always changing and you have to be fairly flexible and that takes a fair amount of preparation. My second job is helping fly the two robot arms. I’ll fly the shuttle robot arm for parts of the inspections at the beginning and the end of the mission, and I’ll fly the station robot arm, the Canadarm2, for the unberthing of the boom from the shuttle payload bay right after we dock so that we can hand it off to the shuttle robot arm that can’t reach it round the docking system. Also we’ll be relocating a PMA Pressurized Mating Adaptor, from Node 1 nadir, facing the Earth, in the middle of the space station to the outboard end of Node 3, Tranquility, which as you know we’re carrying up. My third job and arguably one of my most important jobs is to run the mid-deck during post-insertion, which is the few hours immediately after main engine cutoff when we change the shuttle Endeavour from a rocket into a small space station, as it were, and then running the mid-deck again during deorbit prep, which is the preparatory phase the day before we reenter the Earth’s atmosphere where we turn our little space station essentially, the space shuttle Endeavour, our home in space, back into something that can enter the Earth’s atmosphere, something with seats and parachutes, where we’re are all wearing suits and everything is stowed. So I will spend those two days really running the show on the mid-deck and making sure that everybody gets de-suited comfortably and that everything gets put away.
Introduce us, if you would, to the Node 3 Tranquility Module and the Cupola. Give us an idea of what they look like, how big they might be, things of that nature.
Node 3 is a large aluminum cylinder. I guess it’s about 20 feet long and 15 feet in diameter. It’ll weigh about 20 tons, that’s 40,000 pounds, when it’s fully outfitted in space. It’s hard to describe in everyday terms but it looks just like a cylinder. I’m going to start that one again.
Introduce us, if you would, to the Node 3 Module and the Cupola and give us an idea of what they look like, how big they might be, things of that nature.
Tranquility is a cylinder of about 20 feet in diameter and it’s about 20 feet long. It’s about the shape of a soda can, maybe a short soda can but, of course, much larger. It will weigh 20 tons when it’s fully outfitted on orbit. It has six docking ports essentially on it that allow it to be connected to other modules. We won’t use all of those. We’ll use two on the ends and then we’ll use one of the four that make a ring around the middle of Tranquility and at one end we will be docking Tranquility to the space station and we’ll be able to open hatches and float through in our shirtsleeves without the space suit. The other end is where we launch the Cupola which is a seven window viewing port for the International Space Station. and in the middle of the mission Kay Hire and Terry Virts are going to take the Cupola and pull it off the end of Tranquility and install it underneath where it will have a really excellent view both of the Earth below and the bottom half of the space station where many of our visiting vehicles arrive and our robotics operations take place. Tranquility, the node is made of aluminum. It’s fairly nondescript from the outside but on the inside it’s going to be really interesting. It’s going to house most of the space station’s U.S. life support systems, that is, things that circulate air, remove carbon dioxide and so on. It will house a new toilet which we call the WCS and it will house a treadmill and exercise equipment. So it really is the sort of life support hub of the space station, a very important module to have and we’re very lucky to be taking it up. Cupola is going to be probably the best set of windows that’s ever flown in space on any program in the history of space flight. It’s seven large beautiful windows each with an aluminum shield that can be closed over it when it’s not in use to protect it from orbital debris, and when you float in the middle of Cupola, you should be able to see half of the universe and hopefully it will be the half with the Earth in it because that’s one of the most beautiful halves to look at from space. Cupola’s also a space where we can not just enjoy the view but we can do some really good work by moving one of the robotics workstations into the Cupola and using it to give us a view of important things that are happening on space station. For example, the Japanese spacecraft called HTV cannot dock on its own with the space station. It can fly up and hover in close proximity and then a robot arm operator has to grab it with the Canadarm2 and berth it onto the space station in the same way that we will berth Node 3 onto the space station during our mission. That requires a good view and Cupola will provide that good view.
Based on your knowledge of and/or experience in involvement with either the outfitting of the Cupola or the installation, give us some idea of just how complex those two activities will be.
The installation of a module on the space station is probably not the most complicated part of bringing a new capability to the space station but it is one of the most tricky. You have to get the module perfectly aligned as you bring it to the space station and then, when you’ve docked it, you have to go through a long sequence of tightening the bolts, the bolts that hold the modules together against the very large force exerted by the air pressure inside that wants to pull them apart. That’s tens of thousands of pounds, so these bolts have to be very strong and they have to be very perfectly tightened. Once you’ve got the module attached to the space station, you can open the hatches. There’ll be two, one on the space station side and one on the side of the new module and then the hard work really begins: launch restraints, extra bolts, for example, required to hold panels in place during the three Gs and the violent shaking of a shuttle launch, need to be removed so that future astronauts can have access behind panels. Heavy, or rather I should say in space, massive and therefore difficult to move items need to be brought in. We have the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device that needs to come in from Node 1 to Node 3. We have the C.O.L.B.E.R.T. Treadmill that needs to come into Node 3 and several pieces of complex life support equipment that will need to be not just brought in but plumbed in, that’s connected into the veins of the space station from Node 3. So there’s a lot of work to do and unfortunately because I’ll be space walking and preparing for spacewalks, I won’t be around to do a lot of that but I’m going to help whenever I can because I think it’s going to be really interesting and challenging work.
Delivery of Node 3 and the Cupola will mark a major milestone for the station. What’s it feel like for you to have a direct part in basically putting the finishing touches on the pressurized section of the U.S. part of the station?
I think we all feel incredibly privileged to be a part of this culmination, almost the culmination of the space station assembly. It’s a fascinating vehicle. It’s huge. It’s a great place to live and work and to even have the smallest role in that is a wonderful thing and to have a role as significant as helping bring up Node 3 is just the greatest privilege, so we’re all very excited about it.
You and the crew will launch. You’ll make it to orbit on Flight Day 1, change the vehicle into an orbiter as you mentioned. Talk to us about the actual inspection on Flight Day 2. You’ll inspect the exterior tiles. What’s that involve?
Flight Day 2 inspection is a highly choreographed set of maneuvers with the space shuttle’s robot arm holding a long boom and tracing backwards and forwards along the leading edges of each wing, first the starboard wing, well, then the nosecap which is also made of the same reinforced carbon carbon composite that the leading edge of the wings are made of, and then the port wing. This procedure takes many hours and it requires a fair amount of diligence because although the robot arm is being flown by the computer, you have to monitor it carefully enough that you could take over and stop it with a few seconds’ notice in case it goes astray because, of course, the thermal protection system that we’re inspecting is very fragile and we don’t think it would withstand a blow from the robot arm, so we’re all extremely vigilant during this phase of our flight days’ inspections. We do one at the beginning on Flight Day 2 to make sure that there’s been no damage caused by launch and then we do another one at the end, to make sure that there’s been no additional damage due to micrometeorites or orbital debris, two things that could cause damage were we to be unlucky enough to be hit by them during the mission.
At some point on Flight Day 3 you are scheduled to have the station in your sights and maneuver to an eventual docking. Talk to us about what your involvement will be for rendezvous and docking.
Unlike my last mission where I was part of the flight deck crew and I was involved with the whole rendezvous and docking sequence, in this mission I will be a supporting crew member. I will be taking photographs and generally helping out when we’re distant from the station. As we come in closer, Bob Behnken and I will activate the shuttle’s docking system, prepare it for its docking. We’ll install the center line camera in the airlock and that’s the camera that the flight deck crew use to really fly the approach to the space station and then we’ll close the airlock and come back up to the mid-deck and get ready to use the docking system. So I expect really to spend my day mostly taking photographs of the station. Some of those photographs will make up a survey of the exterior of the space station and operating the docking system.
There are three EVAs scheduled on this mission. On the first spacewalk you and Bob Behnken will go outside. Give us a rundown of what your job will be out there. What will you do?
We have two jobs on the first spacewalk. The first is really about Node 3. Node 3 is powered during its time on the launch pad and during launch and the first few days on orbit from the space shuttle Endeavour and we have to disconnect those power cables before the robotics operators can remove it from the payload bay. So the beginning of our spacewalk starts with what I think will be a very spectacular translation along the underside of the space station and down the docking system that we had just used a few days before to dock to the space station and back along the payload bay. Bob will go and work on one end of Tranquility and I will unplug these power cables from the other end of Tranquility in preparation for its removal from the payload bay. We’ll then go off and while the robotics crew do their extremely important job of actually moving Tranquility from the shuttle to the space station, Bob and I will go off and work on the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator and we’ll remove a payload platform from that manipulator in preparation for the arrival of a newer version of that platform on a future mission. Then once Tranquility is in its appropriate location on Node 1 port, Bob and I will go back and hook up avionics and power cables to really integrate it with the space station electrically.
And how difficult of a task is the hookup? I mean, it’s kind of hard with the pressurized gloves, I imagine.
Operating electrical connections is always hard and there are a couple of things that are tricky on using electrical connectors. One is managing all the cable which, you know, it’s not alive but I think in vacuum I’m told it can move around a lot like it is alive and so you have to keep it carefully managed and then there are the connectors themselves. They’re easily damaged. They all have small electrical pins in them so you have to be careful with the connectors, not bang them around, and inspect them before you make the connections. And finally when we tie these cables down, we’re doing it with copper wire ties that need to be carefully twisted so there’s a fair amount of handwork to be done on this EVA to make all of that safe and to make it look nice and not snag future spacewalkers if they pass by the junction between Nodes 1 and 3.
Is there any measure of power down to any parts of the station that this will entail?
A few things will be powered down so that we can actually make some connections, but nothing major. This is really about getting heater power out to Node 3 to keep it running for the first few days of the mission.
If mission managers decide that they want to take a closer look at the shuttle’s exterior after you’ve docked, the crew will do what’s called a Focused Inspection. Tell us how that happens. What’s that process like? I guess it’s very similar to the other inspections you’ve talked about.
I won’t be doing a Focused Inspection on 130 but I was part of the Focused Inspection team for 116 and, yes, as you say, if the team on the ground armed with the results of our Flight Day 2 inspection decide that there’s something worth looking at, they will set up a set of procedures that will be essentially new to the crew. They’ll have sent up procedures like these in training but this procedure they get for them to look at something perhaps on the port wing will be a brand new procedure that’s been looked at by people on the ground but never seen by this crew. Our robotics people on the flight deck will maneuver the shuttle arm with the boom on the end of it and take a very close look at that damage. It’s even conceivable that based on what they find we would need to send somebody out in a spacesuit, that would be me and Bob, to go and take a closer look at that site.
A couple of days after Node 3 is installed the way it’s currently timelined, the Cupola which comes up on a temporary spot needs to be relocated. Can you give us an idea about what the robotic ops are, although you’re not directly…
I won’t be doing those robotic ops. They’ll be a fun challenge, I think for Kay and Terry. Obviously the Node 3, Tranquility, fits like a hand in the glove inside the shuttle’s payload bay. There isn’t room for anything on the sides and that’s why on spacewalk 2 I’ll be installing some extra handrails that just didn’t fit in the payload bay on the outside. So the Cupola, being a very large set of windows, will launch on the front end of Node 3 inside the payload bay where it fits easily and then during the flight they’ll have to move it to the bottom. This will involve grappling the Cupola with the space station’s arm. Then using the space station’s computers to unbolt the Cupola and pull it away and use a complicated sequence of robotic joint movements to place it ready for berthing in the new position underneath the node. Then they’ll fly it carefully in using a berthing camera that can look out through one of the node hatch windows and they’ll be able to watch the Cupola come perfectly aligned up to its position mating underneath the Node 3 and then they’ll again drive all those bolts and connect it to the space station. That promises to be an interesting operation, I think.
Tell me about what’s planned for the second EVA of the mission.
The second spacewalk is all about ammonia. We have ammonia on the space station as a refrigerant. It’s the fluid that’s piped around outside the space station to remove heat from the station and take it out the radiators and Node 3, full of life support equipment as it needs its share of the cooling system on space station. So Bob and I will go out and start this spacewalk by connecting two of the four ammonia jumpers. These are thick braided stainless steel lines that will carry ammonia from the lab, past Node 1 and over to Node 3. We connect two of them. We lay out some insulating blankets around those two and we open those two and allow the ammonia to start flowing and cooling the node. Then we’ll install the second pair of ammonia jumpers, so-called Loop B jumpers, and when we’ve got the insulation wrapped around them nicely, Bob and I will head off and do some outfitting on Node 3. My part of that is adding a line of handrails that, as I mentioned, won’t fit inside the shuttle’s payload bay so they have to be added during the mission, during the spacewalk and adding a non-propulsive vent to the forward outboard end of Node 3.
With Node 3 and the Cupola securely attached, you and Bob Behnken will subsequently go out again for EVA 3. Tell me about what you’ll both do on EVA 3.
EVA 3 is focused on the Cupola itself. Bob and I have to remove two very large sheets of MLI, that’s multi-layer insulation. It’s designed to protect the Cupola from the thermal environment of space before its fully powered up and ready to go so we have to basically roll up these large sheets of insulation and then bundle them as small as we can, stuff them into a bag to be carried back into the space station. After we’ve taken that MLI off, Cupola will start to look almost the way you’ll see it in its final flight configuration with one exception. That is the aluminum shutters that protect the window panes from orbital debris will be bolted down, and I have to remove each of those bolts. There are three bolts on each shield and there are seven windows so that’s twenty-one big bolts that I’ll be removing with my pistol grip tool during EVA 3.
So those metal shields, once they come off, are they able to be put back on?
They can be opened and closed from inside. But for launch, because of the vibration and the G forces of launch they need to be bolted down very securely. So I’ll be removing those 21 bolts and then Bob and I go off to do get-ahead task. It’s not associated with Node 3 or the Cupola. We’re going to deploy a payload attach system on one of the starboard truss segments. This is a system that’s stowed inside the truss. We need to undo some bolts and deploy this so that a future payload, for example, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or a payload like that can in the future be attached to the truss.
If all goes well, you’ll be finished with your work on the station. You’ll say goodbye to your comrades on station, undock and then subsequent to that you’ll have to actually get Endeavour ready to enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Tell us about what that involves.
There are several big things that we have to do. The first is, after undocking we have to perform another inspection like the one we did on Flight Day 2, this time to check for damage that might have happened on orbit and then we’ll spend an entire day turning our orbiter back into a winged vehicle that can re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. So we’ll get out all our suits and hang them up, ready to go the next morning for entry. We will set up all the seats and the communications lines and the oxygen lines and so on and we’ll start putting away everything we’ve used during the mission, such as clothing. We carry huge bags of supplies for station. The bags may now be largely empty or full of foam that we’re returning from station, but they need to be put safely away so that the vehicle is shipshape for entry and that takes about a day, that process. That’s what our Flight Day 12 will be like.
We are fast approaching the scheduled end of the space shuttle era. For some people who’ve been intimately involved with shuttle, it’s a sad time while others choose to celebrate the shuttle’s accomplishments. What’s it mean to you?
I’m very happy to be a part of this final year of the space shuttle program. I think it’s been the longest run vehicle in the history of the U.S. space program, and it has done amazing things. It’s demonstrated reusability as a concept for spacecraft. It’s capable of carrying more people and a larger payload to orbit than any other spacecraft in anybody’s inventory, and it’s capable of bringing all those things back to Earth gently. It’s really the most remarkable vehicle, and I think we will be very sad to see it go but, of course, we’d like to move on. We’d like to get back to the moon and we’d like to go on to Mars and so hopefully in the future we will take the lessons we’ve learned from the space shuttle and the space station and the programs that preceded them, and we’ll be able to apply those to even bigger and bolder ventures. So I think it’s a bittersweet moment. We’re sad to see the shuttle go but we’re also very excited about the things that we’ll be able to do in the future.
Are there certain shuttle memories that stand out in your mind and, if so, can you tell us about a couple of those and tell us why they have impacted you the way that they have?
I think the first launch I ever saw from the outside really stands out in my memory. It was actually after I flew on STS-116. It was the launch of STS-122 while I was escorting some families at Kennedy Space Center and was able to watch a launch from the ground. That really stands out in my memory. I hadn’t realized how amazing it was to see a shuttle launch from the ground despite having flown on one. My own flight stands out as being an out of this world experience quite literally as well as metaphorically, and I remember the Challenger accident with great sadness. I remember where I was and what I was doing the day of that accident. Lastly I think about the space station, the amazing things the shuttle’s been able to do. It’s launched hundreds of metric tons of living space and working space and scientific equipment into orbit. It’s done a really fantastic job for us, and it’s a spacecraft that I think we’ll look back on and be amazed by even when we’ve seen other things fly to other parts of the solar system. We’ll be amazed at the capabilities we had with the space shuttle.
Tell us about where you were, when you mentioned Challenger, where were you and what were you doing when that happened?
I was at my final year of university. I was at Cambridge in England, and I remember turning on the news one morning and hearing this incredible and terrible story and we all knew about the space shuttle. I was actually working on my senior thesis to develop a follow on vehicle with a different configuration, one that would travel differently, hypersonically, so I’d been thinking about the space shuttle a lot and to me it had been inconceivable that anything could go wrong with a vehicle like that so it was really a shock to everybody. I think I felt closer to it than most people did because I was living in America at the time and, as I say, I was working on my thesis that was aimed at helping design a successor to the space shuttle. But it was really a watershed moment, I think, when everybody in other parts of the world paid attention to the space shuttle program in a way that they didn’t always during routine space shuttle launches. Interestingly looking back it did not change my interest in becoming an astronaut even the tiniest bit. I don’t know why that is but I still wanted to be an astronaut more than I had wanted to beforehand and I want to be afterwards.
How do you think space shuttle will be remembered in a future where travel between worlds has become as commonplace as airplane travel is today?
I think the space shuttles will be remembered the way we remember the sailing ships of the past. Our space shuttle Endeavour is named after Captain James Cook’s Bark Endeavour which was launched from the town of Whitby in North Yorkshire, about five or ten miles from where I was born. We look back on those ships today and we’re not so much impressed by what they can do in today’s terms but we’re impressed by how much they did with them, and I think that’s the way we’ll look back on the space shuttle. In fifty or hundred years time it won’t seem like the most technically advanced vehicle people could imagine. We’ll be doing more amazing things but we’ll be amazed by how much we did with it, how we managed to assemble an international space station in low Earth orbit with a vehicle that was 20 years old when we started doing it. We’ll be amazed at the feats performed by the people who flew it, even if we don’t remember who those people all are. So I think we’ll look back on the space shuttle very fondly and we’ll see it as a very important step in our progression from the planet to low Earth orbit to the moon, the planets and then the stars.