Feature

Preflight Interview: Stephen K. Robinson, Mission Specialist
01.27.10
 
JSC2009-E-125142 --  STS-130 Mission Specialist Stephen K. Robinson

Astronaut Stephen Robinson, STS-130 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Steve, tell me about the place that you consider to be your hometown and what it was like growing up there.

I was born in Sacramento, California, in the Central Valley and I grew up around the East Bay area, little town of Moraga, and so that whole area is sort of my hometown and I still like to go back to it. It’s a wonderful place.

How would you say that place influenced who you’ve become and what you’ve accomplished?

I think as a kid growing up in California, I grew up mostly outside and so I think that really gave me a great love of the outdoors. I still crave being outside and out in the hills.

You’ve flown to space three times before and on any of those previous missions did you get a chance to actually see the San Francisco Bay area from space?

Oh, yes. I had a great experience one time. I was outside. I was doing an EVA on STS-114 and I was waiting for my partner, Soichi, to come back and I looked up and we were coming right over California and I looked up and I could see Sacramento, California, my hometown and it was just very, very powerful and emotional.

Tell me about some of the things that you liked to do growing up. What were your interests?

I grew up being crazy about flying machines and flying. I was always building models or parachutes or trying to figure out how things flew and when I was about fourteen I started building hang gliders in the backyard and flew those for many years. Somehow I survived. I was pretty interested in flying.

Did you make frequent trips down to the Bay Area when the Blue Angels came to fly?

Yes, we used to see the Blue Angels. The family would go see them. Heck, any time we drove past an airport I would try to get my dad to stop and we just want to see one take off and one landing.

Tell me how you would characterize the value of education in your life. What has it meant to you?

Education has been the central current of my whole life. Since I worked out of college as a scientist for NASA and what you do as a scientist is you try to learn stuff that we don’t yet know. So that’s the field of education and then coming to work as an astronaut, you’re trying again to do things that people haven’t yet done before so it’s all about education and learning every day is my idea of a good life.

Walk us through your educational background. Take us through the steps that you took educationally after high school.

I graduated from Campolindo High School in Moraga, California and went from there to University of California at Davis near Sacramento and UC Davis was a great opportunity for me. I did a double major in mechanical and aeronautical engineering, again still crazy about airplanes. Although it wasn’t the only interest I had. I changed my major briefly to art, to biomedical illustration actually because I was trying to combine other interests in biology and art and I’ve always been active as a graphic artist. I ended up back in engineering and during my UC Davis years and I got a chance to be a co-op at NASA Ames Research Center in California, so that started my exposure to NASA right there. After I graduated from UC Davis, I ended up going to work at NASA Ames and then worked part time to get graduate degrees at Stanford for many years. I got a Master’s and PhD at Stanford while I was working at Ames.

At what point do you recall first getting the notion that you wanted to become an astronaut?

That was back in the Alan Shepard years. Alan Shepard ,Gus Grissom and John Glenn were the heroes of all the kids in the neighborhood and I never stopped thinking that way, I guess.

Tell me about when you first applied, around about what timeframe that was and how long it actually took for you to be selected?

It took a long time to get into the astronaut position. I was already working for NASA, of course, and I think I applied for the first time 1981 and I finally arrived, maybe 1983, I finally arrived here at JSC in 1995 so it was a long process.

What experiences do you remember most about any of your three previous flights?

I think the experience you’ll never forget is launching for the first time and arriving in orbit the first time, getting that first look out the window, and as an aviator for my whole life, looking out the window at the Earth has been something I’ve always loved to do. To finally see that from space, I’ll never forget that. But also going outside yourself, doing a spacewalk, putting on the big suit and going outside and being out there in the vastness of the universe was a fantastic experience.

Talk a little bit about what it’s been like training with this particular group of crewmates for this mission. What’s that been like?

Well, for STS-130 we only have six crew members. Normally on a shuttle mission to the space station you have seven. So we have six. We’re a little bit more compact, a little tighter group, little more efficient. Everybody has a little bit more work to do and we have bonded so well. When you train for a space mission you’re much like a family, which means that, this person has a skill that maybe I don’t have and vice versa and so the complementary skills go together. This crew has come together and bonded into a team that, we feel like we’re really ready to do this mission.

As a spacewalker on previous missions, you’re not spacewalking on this one…

Right. …but you’re the intravehicular person. You obviously have more experience than the other two. What’s that been like to be able to kind of lend some of the knowledge to them?

It’s, another sort of sub team. The EVA team, the spacewalking team is sort of a sub team within the crew and so we’ve got Bob and Nick going outside and I’m inside and my job is like an air traffic controller. I’m basically taking them through their steps, helping them to be safe, making sure they stay out of hazards. If we run into something unexpected, which we will, then we work on it together and I’m the guy that communicates with the ground and it’s very much like an air traffic controller and we’re all very comfortable with that model and it’s been great fun developing our skills all together as a sub team of the crew.

There are thousands of people that work on the mission all around at other NASA centers. What’s it like when you get a chance to meet those people? Tell us about what you think about their contributions and what it’s like to actually meet them.

Well, they are every astronaut’s heroes. The people who make all the aspects of developing the mission and getting off the ground safely and back down on the ground safely. They’re absolutely our heroes. We trust them with our lives even though we haven’t met them so the fundamental aspect, the power that drives the space program is trust. We’re very, very fortunate to have a team like that behind us.

JSC2009-E-224179 --  STS-130 Mission Specialist Stephen K. Robinson

Astronaut Stephen Robinson, STS-130 mission specialist, is pictured during a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Tell us about the key objectives for STS-130.

Well, our key objective is to bring up the Node 3 which is a big pressurized canister, attach it to the space station and then attach the Cupola, it’s a robotics windowed viewing station and we’ve sort of changed the location that it launches on Node 3. So when we leave, there’s going to be a whole new room on the space station.

You are Mission Specialist 2 for the mission. You mentioned being the IV person. What other key responsibilities fall on your shoulders in that role?

Well, my job is the Flight Engineer which means during the launch and during the entry that I’m kind of the systems guy. It’s my job to understand the shuttle’s systems, the electrical and the computer and the hydraulics and so on so that, when the Commander sitting over here, George Zamka, and the Pilot, Terry Virts, sitting over here, I’m sitting in between them and just behind them and trying to kind of orchestrate the whole cockpit and make sure that we don’t get one side divided off against the other, make sure that if we have any malfunctions to work, they’re being worked while the nominal flight plan is still going on and this can be very dynamic. Things happen very fast when you’re under rocket power. Kay Hire is sitting to my right and she’s helping both Terry and me out and, so that’s another kind of teamwork that develops a very, very tight cohesion within our crew.

Give us your best description, if you would, of the Node 3 Tranquility Module and the Cupola. How big are they? What do they look like?

The Node 3 is a canister and it’s about 22 feet long. It’s about 14.5 feet in diameter, fits into the back part of the shuttle called the payload bay. It’s kind of like, the shuttle’s a big pickup truck and we’re going to haul this big piece of construction equipment up to the construction site and it’s the last piece to go on the space station, pressurized piece from the U.S. side. The Cupola was made in Italy and is part of their contribution to the International Space Station and so once we get up there and dock to the space station, then we’ll use the space station’s robot arm to reach down, grab the Node 3 out of the payload bay and bring it up and attach it onto the space station and again more robot arm operations. Take the Cupola off the end of that canister where we launch it and put it down on the bottom facing the Earth and, as I say it’s a thing with seven windows on it, kind of a dome with seven windows and we will have the most spectacular view of the Earth anyone’s ever had from the inside.

Tell us about what additional functionality or what function those two pieces of hardware will serve. What purpose will they serve?

Well, Node 3 is life support location, or will be, on the space station which means it will house engineering facilities for revitalizing water, recycling air, generating oxygen. It’ll be an exercise location. There will be a waste and hygiene compartment in there and then the Cupola, the window, the domed window, will serve as a robotics work station. In other words, you can operate the space station’s robot arm from the Cupola using two hand controllers but looking out these windows so you can actually see the work you’re doing with the arm.

Based on your knowledge of either, and involvement with robotics ops or the outfitting of the Node 3 Module, give us some idea of just how complex the activities are to be able to get those things done.

One of my jobs, once we get the robotics operators to attach the Node 3 to the space station, one of my jobs on orbit will be to help do what we call outfitting. Outfitting is just, let’s say we added a room to your house and so structurally we add on the room and now we’ve got to do the plumbing. We’ve got to do the air conditioning. We’ve got to do the power, the phone lines and all that kind of stuff, so that’s what we have to do. There’s pressurized lines of various sorts, especially since this is the, life support, the environmental control life support module, it has lots of types of plumbing that we’ll get to hook up so it’s going to be a great job.

Tell us about what your thoughts are about having direct involvement with essentially putting the finishing touches on the U.S. pressurized section of the station.

It’s a great honor to fly in space at all, but, to be there for the last module to go up is just a wonderful opportunity, I think for all of us and it’s a little bittersweet, too, you know. There’s a feeling of completion or sort of an impending sense of completion for the space station and now it’s going to start being used more and more as a laboratory, the whole reason it was built, so we’re all really excited about that. But it’s a little bittersweet, too, in that there won’t be any major construction missions after us but the point of building something is to complete it and then use it and it’s really nice to finally be turning that corner.

The crew will launch. You’ll make it to orbit, transform Endeavour to an orbiter from a launch vehicle. Then on Flight Day 2 there will be some imaging of the, the shuttle’s exterior. Tell us about your jobs that day for the inspection of the shuttle.

Well, I’m one of the people that helps out with the robotic inspection. It goes slow as molasses because you have to be really careful. You’re taking this big robot arm and you’re putting it right next to the heat shield of the shuttle which is very delicate and you never want to touch anything, but you have to get close enough so that you can see very, very fine details. It’s a great thing to do. It doesn’t look exciting but the results are fantastic because we know before we come home the state of our spaceship. So, it’s really important to do it.

On Flight Day 3 the crew is scheduled to maneuver the shuttle to an eventual docking with the station. Walk us through what your duties are for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight.

The rendezvous with the International Space Station and the shuttle is like doing a big orbital dance. We slowly, slowly sneak up to the space station from below, from towards the Earth. My job on board is to make sure the right information goes to George Zamka, the Commander. Most people don’t know, this is not flown by computer. The docking is really flown by hand and he’s looking out the window overhead like this and got hand controllers and he’s actually controlling the motion of the space shuttle but he needs a lot of data. How far away is the space station? What’s its relative attitude? We’ve got computers to help with that. We’ve got laser sensors to help with that and different ways of processing the data, so I’m involved in that data flow from the sensors to the Commander.

After docking to the station you’ll have time to get to say hello, to get acclimated and then work starts. Tell us what else happens post-docking on Flight Day 3.

Well, of course, you dock together and make sure you have a good seal. You do pressure checks and then open the hatch, say hello to your friends. I’m excited since one of the people on the space station’s going to be one of my crew members from my previous mission so I’m going to get to see Soichi Noguchi from JAXA, see him in space again and we did all our spacewalks together so that is just a personal touch. But, you’re right. We go right to work with, a number of different things. Part of my job is going to be setting up computers between the two. We have to make sure we have good communications lines. We have video lines and start getting ready to transfer Node 3.

There are three scheduled EVAs for the mission. On the first spacewalk Bob Behnken and Nick Patrick will go outside. Give us an overview of what the goal of EVA 1 is.

Well, the ideas of all the EVAs are to outfit the space station, leave it in better condition than we found it and during EVA 1, this is pretty neat. The guys go outside and they prepare Node 3 to leave the payload bay. There’s a few wires and covers that have to be configured so they go out and do that by hand. And then the folks on the space station reach down with the robot arm and pluck Node 3 out of the payload bay and move it into its place on the space station while these guys are outside and when it’s in place they go right back up to where Node 3 attaches and they start working on some of the attachments on the outside.

JSC2009-E-258423 --  STS-130 Mission Specialist Stephen K. Robinson

Astronaut Stephen Robinson, STS-130 mission specialist, participates in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

If mission managers decided they want to take a closer look at the shuttle’s exterior after you’ve docked you’ll do what’s called a Focused Inspection. Walk us through what happens during that process and tell us what your involvement will be.

Focused Inspection is just another way of inspecting the orbiter. When we come up to the space station we stop the space shuttle below it, about six hundred feet below. We do this nice slow flip so that the guys on the space station can take photographs of the heat shield, pretty low tech, works great. You can see great details but if we see something that we want to take a closer look at, some potential damage or some kind of mark that we don’t understand, then we can use the robot arm to go and use two kinds of laser sensors and a digital camera at the end of a long boom which is in turn at the end of the shuttle’s robot arm. That’s how we take a better, closer look at the heat shield.

A couple of days after Node 3 is installed, the Cupola, which arrives at the station in a temporary location on Node 3 needs to be relocated. Give us an idea of how that happens basically.

Node 3 is basically a canister, and the Cupola is this window. A dome that fits on the end of the Node 3 when it’s launched and, otherwise if it were anywhere else it wouldn’t fit into the space shuttle so it has to be there and we bring it up, put it on the space station and then the space station robot arm is used to pluck that Cupola off the end of Node 3 and bring it down below and attach it so that it actually can face the Earth.

The second EVA of the mission is also planned for that day. Tell us what the goal is for that EVA.

When we added Node 3 it’s just a structure but it needs cooling and various types of plumbing and some of the plumbing is on the inside but some is also on the outside. The cooling actually is done with ammonia. We don’t want ammonia on the inside of the space station so we run the ammonia lines outside so it’s a very high tech structure that fits together with great precision and then we have these ammonia lines which are relatively low tech that we just fit in by hand, by spacewalk. So that’s what Bob and Nick are going to do is string up the ammonia line.

It’s a little bit of plumbing work.

Outdoor plumbing, exactly. Okay, let’s move on to what the scheduled activities are for Flight Day 8. It looks like some more outfitting and some rack transfers.

Yes. Flight Day 8 is going to be a really busy day because now you’ve got a new room in your house and you have to move in and you’re moving in while you’re hooking up the wires and the cables and the phone and the air conditioning and everything so we’ve got some folks moving in and other people doing that. We’re moving in the furniture which in this case are the racks that are going to be used for the life support systems. Kay and Terry will be outfitting the Cupola and the dome again sort of down low and facing the Earth and I and the Commander, Jeff Williams of the space station, will be working on moving in racks and doing some more outfitting.

If all goes well late in the mission you will have finished your work on station and be ready to make the trip back home. Talk about what you’re scheduled to do for the undocking portion of the mission.

Well, when we undock from the space station we take an inspection tour of the station. So we undock and we fly all the way around it. Terry Virts, the Pilot, will be in charge of the space shuttle doing that. So he’ll have his hands on the hand controllers and, just like rendezvous, part of my job will be to make sure that Terry’s getting the information he needs in terms of distance and angles that the sensors are picking up and going through computers and make sure that he’s getting everything that he needs to do that job. Then we begin to turn our busy spacecraft into an airplane so we start packing things up and getting on our suits and getting ready for that whole re-entry process.

We are fast approaching the scheduled end of the space shuttle era. For some people who have been intimately involved with shuttle it’s a sad time but then for others they prefer to celebrate the shuttle’s accomplishments. What’s this impending moment…

I feel both ways. I’ve worked on the shuttle since before it flew, worked at NASA Ames on wind tunnel and computational investigations into how the shuttle would fly or how it should be shaped so that it would fly appropriately and now here at the end coming, it’s fantastic what the shuttle’s been able to accomplish and it’s sad to have it go away for sure. But, you know, you can’t start something new until you put away the old stuff. Shuttle is a grand statement about America’s ability to make a huge leap into the future. Many things the shuttle does that we now sort of take for granted, we had no idea it could even be done before the shuttle flew and we’re using the shuttle in ways that we didn’t really foresee, much, much more complicated missions than we ever imagined. So we have really learned a lot about becoming a space faring nation with this vehicle. But it’s time to move on and it’s time to move out and it’s time to go further away and so things even the shuttle can’t do so that’s when it starts to become not so sad any more. You start thinking about the missions of the future will be very exciting. We’ll go places that, people haven’t been before, done things people haven’t done so we need to learn that now.

Tell us a few of the space shuttle memories that you probably won’t forget and why they made such an impact on you.

The first time I ever saw a shuttle launch was after I became an astronaut so I thought it would be probably be wise to go and watch what I’d signed up to do and my goodness, it was almost shockingly different from what you see on TV. I’ll never forget hearing and feeling the cracking. The sound is almost too big for the air to handle and the light is almost too bright for your eyes to comprehend and you see this 20 story building-sized thing leap off the ground and go shooting off into the sky. It’s just something I didn’t really expect, I guess. And then when you’re on the inside and all that happens, there’s a whole other set of feelings and, emotions and excitement. Also remember going outside for the first time and looking at the Earth with nothing between my eyeballs and the Earth except a little bit of plexiglass on the helmet. That was just a gift. It was just a blessing to be able to be there and see what I was seeing and no amount of description could ever convey to you what that experience was really like. I got to ride the space station robot arm all the way down underneath the shuttle and watch the sun come up over the horizon of the shuttle’s belly, this gentle curve of the shuttle’s belly and, as a scientist I had worked on the aerodynamic shaping of that very same belly, years and years ago and it was a real special experience to be able to see that right up close with my own eyes.

You’ve been involved with a few shuttle missions that probably have created memories for other people, a couple of which, the mission that John Glenn flew on and also the second Return to Flight mission. What were those experiences like?

Well, flying with John Glenn was almost surreal because he was a childhood hero of mine and when you’re a kid and somebody is sort of this iconic hero, you don’t really think they’re real. You want to be just like that so launching in Discovery on STS-95, he was sitting next to me and that was almost surreal. But as it turns out, he’s a fantastic aviator, a gentleman like you’ve never met and has been a friend and mentor to me ever since so that was a great experience.

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 if we ever get to the point where we can leave this planet with regularity and confidence and safety, we will look back at the shuttle and we’ll say, “Look at that amazing contraption those old fashioned people built. It’s amazing that thing ever worked at all, much less hundreds of times. Those guys must’ve really worked hard to get that complicated contraption to work right every time” and that’s true. It takes an awful lot of hard, hard work. The machine doesn’t do it for us and I think in that way it’s sort of the epitome of what the human motivation and technically educated mind can really accomplish.