This is the STS-130 interview with Pilot Terry Virts. Terry, tell us about the place that you consider to be your hometown and kind of give us an idea of what it was like growing up there.
Preflight Interview: Terry W. Virts Jr., Pilot
I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore and Washington and it was a great place to grow up. We had a lot of friends. I had a great educational opportunity there. The school I went to really emphasized folks going on to college. It was a very diverse place to grow up. I had friends of all different types of backgrounds and I had a great family experience there. My whole entire family on my mother's and father’s side is from there so most of my weekends were spent at my grandparents’ or aunts’ and uncles’ houses or playing sports of some kind so I had a lot of fun growing up in Columbia.
So was sports your thing? What was your interest back then?
I really loved playing sports as a kid, mostly baseball and football and golf, but I played lacrosse also and I was on the track team in high school so I wasn’t especially good at any of them but I really had a lot of fun playing them.
Give us a little bit more of an idea of how you would say that place influenced who you’ve become and the things you’ve accomplished.
I think growing up in Columbia was really important to my future because education was very much emphasized by my parents. I was just expected to do well at school and that really helps you out when you’re a kid to have parents that force you to focus on education and the school I went to had great teachers. I had a good set of friends, and they kept us on track. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re a teenager and, and I was kept on track pretty well by that environment and I found out when I went to the Air Force Academy right after high school just what a good education that I had because some other folks struggled, coming from different parts of the country and I could see that I was pretty fortunate having the background that I’d had.
Tell me about when it was that you recall first getting the notion that you wanted to be an astronaut.
I remember being in kindergarten when I was five years old and the first book I read was about the Apollo moon program, and I think it was at that time that I thought being an astronaut would be a pretty fun job. I grew up in Maryland where my parents worked at the Goddard Spaceflight Center, so that wasn’t directly involved in the Apollo or the human space flight but there were rockets and talk of space and so, at a really young age, I was interested in space and being an astronaut.
You’ve talked about education a bit briefly here. Walk us through the educational steps that you took after high school.
After I graduated from Oakland Mills High School in Columbia, Maryland, I went to the Air Force Academy when I was seventeen years old and I majored in math while I was there, Applied Math, and I also got a minor in French. I had taken a lot of French in junior high and in high school. That was the language that was really emphasized there so I had a great opportunity while at the U.S. Air Force Academy to do a semester long exchange in France with their Air Force Academy and that was a lot of fun. So I graduated with a degree in math and a minor in French. I, then, went on to pilot training where I flew F-16s and spent about ten years in the Air Force as a pilot flying F-16s, eventually got a Master’s Degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and I went to the Air Force Test Pilot’s School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. So I really had a continuous educational experience during my time in the Air Force as a pilot and then since coming to NASA it’s been a continual educational experience also through astronaut training and all the different advanced courses that we have here, so I actually find myself in a classroom on many of my days here at work as part of my job.
What kind of a benefit was it, would you say, for you to experience being in France and in that program there? That had to be pretty cool.
Right. Going to the French Air Force Academy was really a great experience because there were only a few American cadets there. It was a completely different culture to be involved in. They really emphasize flying so I got a chance to fly some of their different Mirage jets and Alpha jets which was a lot of fun; when I was twenty years old that’s definitely what I wanted to do and then spending all day in the French, in any foreign language is tough and so that was a good experience, but it was a lot of fun.
Walk us through then the steps and talk about the time frame it took from when you first applied for the astronaut corps and then how long that took and then just kind of give us an idea of that whole situation.
Applying to be an astronaut is a big job. There’s a lot of paperwork involved, a lot of time in just going through the application process. When I was a Test Pilot School student we started filling out the paperwork and actually my Test Pilot School classmate, Bob Behnken, we sat next to each other at Test Pilot School, we got hired to be astronauts at the same time and now we’re flying on the same crew together, so we went through this process together. But it was a long and involved process. You turn in your paperwork, well, first we did it through the Air Force and then we made it through that hoop and then that got forwarded on to NASA. There were a couple of different milestones that we had to get through each one and eventually they bring you down for an interview. When I interviewed, it was a one-week long interview. Nowadays for their most recent class, they came back for two different weeks. After the interview it was a waiting game and they told us that we’d find out in March and then finally when July rolled around, on July twentieth we got the phone call that we got accepted to be an astronaut so it was a long and involved process, but it was worth it.
Do you have a good story to tell us about where you were, what you were doing when you got that call?
I was a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base and I was in the F-16 test squadron and we were having a meeting with the engineers about a test we were doing and Charlie Precourt called in the meeting and he asked if you’d still like to be an astronaut and I said, “Well, let me think about it. Yes.” But, and then he said, well, you can’t tell anybody 'cause it’s not going to be released by headquarters until Monday and I was in a meeting and everybody in the squadron knew I was waiting to hear so immediately everybody knew and they had a congratulations party that afternoon even though I hadn’t officially told anybody so that was a lot of fun. I went home and my wife was excited and that was a big day.
Similar situation, STS-130 is your first spaceflight.
Talk to us about where you were and what you were doing when you found out you’d been selected to make your first spaceflight.
I was just up in the office one day and I ran into Steve Lindsey, our Chief Astronaut, and he pulled me aside and told me I was going to be the pilot on STS-130 so I was very excited. I called home, told my wife right away and when I got home that night there was a big giant Congratulations banner on my garage, you know. It said, “STS-130” and so that was a lot of fun. It was pretty cool to come home to that banner. My wife got it done in just a few hours so that was fun.
That’s cool. What kind of things are you looking forward to on this flight? I mean, it’s probably too much to talk about but the anticipation level has to be very high.
I think everybody on their first space flight is just looking forward to going into space. It’s an amazing concept to think of leaving the planet Earth and just not that many people have gotten to do that so I’m really looking forward to that. A really unique thing on our flight, STS-130, is one of the modules, we’re bringing up the Cupola. It’s a seven-windowed module. It’s like a giant bay window and I’m really looking forward to getting in that module once we have it attached and opening up all the windows and looking out to Earth. That’s going to be a lot of fun.
Take a lot of pictures, a lot of mental pictures, too.
Tell us what it’s been like training with this group of crewmates for this mission for you.
The crew that we have for STS-130 is a great bunch of people. I think it’s the best shuttle crew that we’ve had. I’m a little biased but we have a great group, starting with the Commander, Colonel George Zamka, and there’s six of us, with pretty diverse backgrounds. We have Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force and we have civilians. We have, George and I are fighter pilots. We have a Naval flight officer and some scientists and engineers so we have a really diverse group of talent, diverse group of people, but we get along just very well. Every time we’re in the SIM or in a class we laugh a lot and there’s a lot of jokes. After space shuttle flights, there’s a hallway in our office building that is full of quotes. When you come back from your mission, the training team puts together funny pictures and quotes and stuff and I’m sure, after our flight, there won’t be any problem filling that hallway.
Talk to us a little bit about how you would characterize the contributions of the thousands people that work behind the scenes to make each mission a success and to make it safe and what it’s like when you get to meet these people during your training.
Something we learn really quickly as an astronaut is just how many people are involved at NASA in making us fly safely. We get a chance to go visit the ten different NASA centers and there really are literally thousands of people that work to make a space shuttle mission successful and one of the best things at NASA is the people that work here. It’s certainly the best place there is to work. I mean, the people are talented. They’re motivated. They’re excited about what they do. We all love what we do and we all have a common mission so it really is a great place to work because of the people that we have and what we do is not easy. Flying space shuttles is a complicated thing. It requires a lot of very smart and talented people, from the people that do the manufacturing to the engineers and managers who make decisions and it’s the people here that make it really a special place to work.
Now you came to NASA in 2000?
It’s been nine years.
It’s been over nine years.
Tell us about some of the things you’ve done since you’ve been here before your first flight.
I’ve had several different jobs in the Astronaut Office. I’ve worked as our lead T-38 person. I’ve worked in several different technical jobs helping out with space station. Probably the biggest job that I’ve had is as a capcom and that’s the person that works at Mission Control with the Flight Director and the capcom is the one that talks to the crew. The Flight Director runs the team and he’s the person that makes the decisions about what’s going on and the capcom is the person that takes the decisions and the plans that go on at Mission Control and communicates that with the crew and that’s a job that I’ve done for probably about the last five years.
Give us an idea of what the key objectives are for STS-130.
The two big objectives we have on our flight are to deliver the Node 3 Tranquility Module and also the Cupola module and we’re going to bring those into space and we’re going to attach them to the space station.
And you talked briefly about the Cupola. You started to describe it a little bit. Introduce us, if you would, to Node 3 and the Cupola. Kind of give us an idea of how big they are, what they look like and things of that nature.
The two big payloads that we’re flying are Node 3 Tranquility and also the Cupola that combined they weigh over 30,000 pounds so it’s a very large, one of the largest payloads we’ve flown to the space station, and they fill up the back half of the space shuttle payload bay. Node 3 is about 24 feet long and 14 feet in diameter and it’s about the size of a small bus and the Cupola is about the size of maybe an entertainment center or large piece of furniture. It weighs about 4,000 pounds and when you’re inside Node 3, it looks like the other space station modules. It’s white. There are four walls and once we assemble it and get it up or operational in space it’s going to have a lot of different computers and equipment racks. It’s going to have an exercise rack in there so it’ll have different equipment once it gets into space but right now it’s basically four white walls on the inside. The Cupola, like I said, is the size of a large piece of furniture. You can fit two people in there and it’s kind of a dome-shaped module and it has seven windows on it so it’s really not like anything else that we have in space right now.
Kind of envision the "Star Wars"…
That’s exactly what it reminds me of, right, in the "Star Wars" movie or I think there was a movie from years ago called "Black Hole" but there’s been several space movies with the module where you can kind of look out at the galaxy and that’s going to be what the Cupola’s like.
You are the pilot on this flight.
Kind of talk to us just in general terms about what some of your overall duties are for this flight.
As the pilot, I have a lot of different responsibilities. My first and most important responsibility is helping Colonel Zamka operate the space shuttle, especially for launch and landing and rendezvous, while we’re flying it in orbit and also just for a lot of the housekeeping tasks that you have to do to keep the shuttle running once we’re in space. So that’s going to be my biggest job, being responsible for space shuttle tasks and helping our commander with that. But once we get to the space station I have a couple of important jobs. One of them is as a robotics operator. I’ll be flying the shuttle robotic arm mainly for inspecting the external heat shields to make sure that those are okay. I’ll also be flying the space station arm along with Kay Hire, one of my crewmates, and we’re going to use that very large Canadarm2 to grab Node 3 while it’s in the space shuttle payload bay and we’re going to remove it and attach it to the side of the space station and then, a few days later, we’re going to grab the Cupola and remove it from one end of Node 3 and attach it to the bottom of Node 3. Once we have those tasks done, Kay and I and also George Zamka and Steve Robinson, several of us have outfitting tasks is what we call them where we go inside the modules and start connecting the cables and plugging the different hoses and so on together to get the modules activated.
Kind of give us some idea of what the complexity of the robotic ops for this mission are and the outfitting of Node 3, either on a scale of one to ten or in an analog kind of way.
The robotic operations that we will be doing are pretty complicated. The payload is one of the heaviest ones that we’ve flown. It’s going to weigh zero pounds but it has a mass of over 30,000 pounds and when we pull that out of the shuttle payload bay there’s only a few inches of tolerance on each side and we fly that operation manually so that’s a pretty delicate operation just getting it clear of the shuttle. Also we’ll be doing that while there’s a spacewalk going on. Bob Behnken and Nick Patrick are going to have to go out first and unplug Tranquility from the shuttle so that it’s ready to move and then Kay and I will pull it out of the shuttle payload bay. We then need to twist it and rotate it and move it past the space shuttle arm which is going to be about 100 feet extended at that time and also past some space station radiators and underneath the space station truss, a big 300 foot long truss that goes sideways, so there’s some obstacles out there that we have to avoid and then once we have it positioned, we’ll move it into the final grappling position where it’s attached to the station and that’s a pretty tight tolerance. It’ll be attached probably within less than a degree and two or three centimeters of tolerance there so it’s a pretty delicate operation. The Cupola’s a similar kind of thing. It’s a much smaller module. It’s only about 4,000 pounds of mass so several days later we have to do a similar thing where we detach it [and] rotate it around some station structure and then attach it to the other side of the Node 3.
Okay. And what you just described, installing the Node 3, that happens during EVA 1.
And if you can kind of give us an idea of how complex the outfitting of Node 3 is.
Right. Once Node 3 is installed, we’ll be going in and outfitting it. We’ll be taking several racks, some of the most important ones were launched last year on STS-126 and they do a lot of the environmental recycling. There’s a water reclamation system. There’s a new toilet that we had recently flown up. There’s an atmosphere revitalization system that cleans out carbon dioxide. So several of these racks are going to be moved from the U.S. lab down to Node 3. That needs to be pretty tightly choreographed because all of those environmental control functions are needed on the space station and we can’t just leave them unplugged for weeks on end. We’re going to need to get them plugged and up and working again. Also we’ll be doing this work inside while during spacewalks outside, especially spacewalk 2. We’ll be doing the stuff on the inside while Bob and Nick are doing the work on the outside and we also have a piece of equipment that’s called A.R.E.D. (Advanced Resistive Exercise Device), it’s a very large workout machine where you can do squats and dead lifts and bench press and basic gym exercises there. That’s a big part of being in space is exercising because otherwise your body would atrophy so we have to move this very large piece of equipment in there, which needs to be choreographed with the other equipment moving because they can get in each other’s way and so that’ll be a job also, just getting all of this activity organized.
Give us some idea of how it feels for you to have a direct involvement with what is essentially putting on the finishing touches to the U.S. pressurized section of the station.
I’ve always said if I could only have one space shuttle flight and it wouldn’t be the first shuttle flight, STS-1, that this is the one that I’d want to be on. We really are getting to do a little bit of everything. We’re getting to go to the space station. We’re getting to do assembly, bringing up these important parts. We’re going to see the space station largely in its final configuration. We are bringing up the final U.S. pressurized living sections of the station and so that’s going to be just a great feeling to see that. But it’s also nearing the end of the construction phase of the space station and thinking about this, I think, in many ways it’s like finishing the Transcontinental Railroad. If you were working on that railroad and laying down the last sections of track there, I know that the men that were working on that were just very excited about it. They knew it was a historical accomplishment. That railroad was decades in the making, literally hundreds of thousands of people worked on it and when it was finally completed it was a great national accomplishment and I think that all Americans should be proud of what we’ve done on the space station, taking the lead role in assembling and working this project. It’s a magnificent vehicle that we’ve built and like the Transcontinental Railroad, it was the end of the first phase but it was really only the beginning of settling the West and America moving westward and I think in many ways the space station is the same, in the same way.
Early in the flight, a day after launching, you’ll do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior tiles. Walk us through what your part will be for that inspection and kind of give us an idea of how that will go.
Much of our second day in space, Flight Day 2, will be doing this inspection of the space shuttle’s exterior, the leading edges of the wings, the bottom surface of the heat tiles. Also we’ll use cameras from inside the shuttle and just take pictures of what we can with regular handheld cameras. But several of the crew members will rotate assignments here, but we’re going to be grabbing the boom which is called the Orbiter Boom Sensor System. It has an infrared camera and a laser camera and a regular camera on it. We’ll grab that with the space shuttle arm and then we’ll move it down the right wing, all around the nose cap of the shuttle and down the left wing and this operation is going to take several hours. The boom needs to pass, it’s going to only be a few feet from the shuttle as it moves back and forth, taking this data and at the end of that day, we’ll send this data down to the ground and there’s a team of engineers that are going to analyze it to make sure that there wasn’t any debris from ascent or from our day in space that hit the tile or the leading edge of the wing and damaged it.
Then eventually, at some point the next day, on Flight Day 3 you will eventually have the station in your sights and maneuver the shuttle to an eventual docking. Talk to us about what your involvement will be for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight.
Our third day in space, Flight Day 3, is going to be a big one 'cause that’s the day where we dock with the station. I will mainly be helping Colonel Zamka in his job as flying the shuttle to dock with the station. I will fly several small orbital correction burns and I’ll be helping him with the rendezvous and docking and then once we get docked, we have about a 25-minute welcome and a safety briefing and then we immediately go back to work and starting the different transfer of equipment from the shuttle to the station and getting back on our timeline.
After docking you mentioned that’s when the work starts.
Talk to us a little bit more about what else is on tap for you that day.
Immediately after docking we’ll do a short safety briefing and welcome and hello with the station crew and then we get right back to work. The station arm is going to grab the orbiter boom, this long fifty-foot boom that’s on the right side of the shuttle. It will grab it, move it around behind the shuttle and then the shuttle arm will reach back and take the boom from the station arm and then we will move it off to the left side of the station where it’s going to be used as a viewing area. We’re going to have the camera set in a place where it’s going to help us out throughout the mission. We can’t grab it with the shuttle arm because the station’s in the way because we’re docked and attached to it.
There may or may not be what’s called a Focused Inspection which is another examination of the shuttle’s exterior. Regardless of if there is or not, what types of things, what other things are on tap for you on the day that’s currently scheduled? What other work are you scheduled to do?
The big tasks at that time are going to be the outfitting and getting Node 3 Tranquility and also the Cupola set up. So on the inside there’s racks that we need to move in there. There’s some cables and hoses that need to be plugged in and connected and so we’re going to be really concentrating on getting Tranquility ready to go as a full up module and then getting the Cupola ready to relocate.
Bob Behnken and Nick Patrick will perform three spacewalks on this mission. We’ve talked about EVA 1 that happens the same day that Node 3’s installed. Kind of give us some idea of what happens on the second spacewalk of the mission, what they’ll do outside and tell us what you’re scheduled to do on the inside.
The theme of the second spacewalk will be getting the external ammonia lines attached to Tranquility. Without these ammonia lines there, the module won’t have cooling so it won’t be able to be used. It’s very important that we get these lines done. So most of that EVA will be dedicated to getting the ammonia lines attached and then towards the end of the spacewalk, Kay and I will take the station robotic arm and we’ll grab the Cupola module from the end of Node 3 and move it and relocate it to the bottom of Node 3 and that will give the Cupola the vantage point of being able to see the Earth. It’ll be looking down and it will also have a pretty good view of a large part of the station, external view of that, and the Cupola was launched on the end of Node 3 because that’s where it fits in the shuttle payload bay. If you look at the Node 3 in the shuttle it takes up almost the entire amount so if we put it on the side, the payload bay doors wouldn’t be able to close so we had to launch it on the end and then once we get into space we move it to the final location.
Let’s talk about EVA 3. What’s the plan for that EVA and again your duties on the inside?
Well, the third spacewalk will be mostly doing Cupola tasks. The Cupola’s launched with launch bolts and restraints. It also has a thermal protective covering blanket over it so Bob and Nick will be doing a lot of tasks to get the Cupola ready to go, taking the blankets off so that we can open up the windows. On that day I will mostly be working inside still working on getting the Tranquility and especially the Cupola ready to go, getting the boxes and so on plugged in and outfitted on the inside.
On the day that you’re scheduled to close the hatches between the two spacecraft, there’s some varied activities scheduled for that day. Kind of give us an idea of what you’ll be doing that day.
One thing I’ll be doing is tearing down the oxygen and nitrogen transfer that we used to transfer between the shuttle and the station but the big thing we’ll be doing that day is getting all the loose ends tied up, making sure there’s nothing left on the station or nothing on the shuttle that we need to transfer. It’s like when you go on vacation and everybody’s in the car, you do one last walk through the house to make sure you didn’t leave any lights on and the dog has food and that kind of stuff, so we’ll be doing that final checking before we close the hatches and we will also take the shuttle arm and move it into an undocking configuration where the shuttle arm will be pointed back and the boom will be across the tail of the shuttle and that’ll be in a safe location and spot to undock.
The following day if all has gone well that means it’s time to depart the station. That’s a huge day for you. That’s…
…that’s the day, one of the days you’ve been waiting for on this mission.
Yes, the undocking day’s always a big day for the pilot because we get to fly the undocking and so that’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re going to slowly back away from the station. At about 400 feet we’ll start to fly up above the station. We’re going to fly a 600 foot circle around it and we should get some great views. What we’ll be seeing will be the first time that the station is in basically its final configuration. We’ll see Node 3, the Cupola, all the major station modules will be there at that point and so that’s going to be a lot of fun. It’ll be my chance to fly the shuttle around the station and then after we do a few burns to back away and really move far away from the station. The whole crew will be involved in doing a late inspection where we take the boom sensor system and we move it around the shuttle to look to make sure there hasn’t been any damage to the shuttle while we were in space, during our, roughly, two weeks in space.
We’re nearing the scheduled end of the space shuttle era. For some people who have been intimately involved with shuttle it’s a sad time while others are choosing to celebrate the accomplishments of the shuttle. What’s it mean to you personally?
Ah, it is a bittersweet time because the shuttle program is coming to an end and many of our workers here at NASA are uncertain right now because we’re not sure exactly what the future’s going to hold, but I know that we will be continuing to explore space and it’s going to be an exciting future. But I think, most appropriately we should just remember the shuttle for its accomplishments. There’s never been a more capable spaceship in human history in terms of being able to launch very large payloads, do great work in space with the spacewalking ability, with the robotic arm. This shuttle has launched NASA’s great observatories, the Hubble being the most famous of those observatories. It’s launched satellites and probes that have gone to other planets, to Jupiter and all around to different reaches of our solar system. The space shuttle has done some amazing science missions with Space Lab and Space Hab flights and it did the MIR program with Russia, a great international cooperation program with the Russian Space Agency and most importantly and most significantly, the space shuttle has built the space station and that is an amazing vehicle that there’s never been anything like it. Like I said, and probably never will be. And so it really is a great time to celebrate what our NASA people have been able to do over the last 30 years plus history of the space shuttle program. It’s been an amazing program. It’s been a lot of fun to see over the years.
Do you have specific space shuttle memories that you can tell us about and kind of give us an idea of why those moments or memories impacted you?
I have a lot of space shuttle memories but the first one was the very first space shuttle launch. I can remember watching that in eighth grade. I remember sitting on the couch watching the shuttle launch and I remember that I was anxious and I was ready for the space shuttle launch because it had been years since we had flown an American vehicle and I was ready and there had been some delays so I was excited and ready for that to launch, but I can still remember watching that, John Young and Bob Crippen flying that mission. I remember one day in 1991, I was a Second Lieutenant flying F-16s out of McDill Air Force Base over the Gulf of Mexico out of Florida and we were doing an air-to-air engagement and I looked off to the east and I saw this big huge plume of smoke. I couldn’t believe it and I called ‘Knock it off’. We stopped the flight that we were in and we just looked to the east for a few minutes and watched the shuttle go up and I was amazed that hundreds of miles away I could see this from my F-16. That was a really cool moment. One thing I’ll never forget is the crew of STS-107, the Columbia mission. That was probably the smartest and the most capable shuttle crew that we’ve ever had. They were just great people. They got some really, really good science done on that two week mission, the Spacehab mission and it was an amazing group of people so I’ll definitely never forget them.
How do you imagine the 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 shuttle will be remembered for the technical achievement that it was. It was a very hard thing to get a space ship that is reusable to bring such a large amount of payload into space and be able to do the work that we’ve done. But I think in the long term and the big picture the space shuttle will be much like the Transcontinental Railroad was in that it was just the beginning. It was an important beginning because until we had it we couldn’t move westward as a country and until we had a reliable routine access to space, we couldn’t routinely do work in space that we needed to do and once the railroad was built there were many more to come. It was only the beginning. Those first trains, people were amazed to go 25 miles an hour and they said, “Oh, that’s as fast as you’ll ever need to go and, man, if you can go that fast there’s nothing better” and, of course, there was much more to come and I think it will be the same thing in space, but I think the shuttle has definitely cemented its place in human history for what we’ve accomplished.