Feature

Preflight Interview: James P. Dutton Jr., Pilot
03.08.10
JSC2009-E-207326 -- STS-131 Pilot James Dutton

STS-131 Pilot James P. Dutton Jr. occupies the pilot's station during a training session in the shuttle mission simulator (SMS) in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-131 interview with Pilot Jim Dutton. Jim, tell me about the place that you consider to be your hometown. What was it like growing up there?

I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and Eugene is a really beautiful place. It’s at the south end of the Willamette Valley nestled into the mountains right between the coastal range and the Cascade Range. It’s about an hour and a half drive to the Oregon coast and if you go the other direction, about an hour and a half drive, there are some real beautiful mountains where you can ski and hike. The more I have traveled over the years the more I’ve realized just how beautiful the home where I grew up was. It’s a very health conscious city. A lot of people run. A lot of people are athletic. There’s bike trails and running trails all over the place and just the natural beauty and greenness of everything is really breathtaking. It’s a beautiful place to grow up and a lot of fun.

Get a chance to make it back there often?

I do because we still have family back there. My wife is from Eugene as well and her parents still live there. My parents have moved a little bit north of there but a lot of extended family is in the area so we went back last Christmas. We were there for the big snowstorm they received up in Portland, about eighteen inches, and got to play in the snow which is pretty unusual for them and got down to Eugene. We usually go back in the summer, which summers are really beautiful. Going back in the winter reminded me of what a Eugene winter can be like. We had four straight days of overcast, and I know it goes a lot longer sometimes in the winter without seeing the sun in Eugene.

Tell me about the kinds of things you liked doing growing up, as a kid and up through the years.

I was really involved in a lot of sports as a kid, most of the organized sports that kids will typically play like soccer and, later on, football, basketball and baseball. It also seemed like sports were a big part of recreational fun, too. On the playgrounds we’d go out and we’d play dodge ball or basketball and, at home we lived in a cul de sac where we kind of had this little isolated space for all our friends, and so we’d play street football or we had a basketball hoop and, so that was a real big part of growing up. Later, in junior high and high school, got a little bit more into some of the recreational sports like skiing, snow skiing and water skiing. Some friends introduced me to that and eventually our family started doing both those and had a great time with that as well.

Tell us about your educational background, the educational steps you took after high school.

I went to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for four years, graduated there in 1991. It was just after the first Gulf War had happened and the Air Force was going through a pretty major draw down and I went through pilot training the year after that but they actually had reduced the number of airplanes available so they sent a good number of the pilots coming out of the initial training off to ground jobs. I was able to get a slot to graduate school along with a lot of my fellow pilots and ended up going up to the University of Washington in Seattle and getting a Master’s Degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics before returning to the Air Force.

Do you recall at what point it was that you had the notion of shooting for becoming an astronaut?

I’m not sure exactly, it was pretty young. There was a birthday cake for my third birthday that had a rocket on it so I don’t know if that was the first inklings or that was my parents’ initiative but certainly in grade school. I remember just being very fascinated with the stars, and sleeping out in the summer. One night in particular I can remember looking up and it was kind of a rarity in Eugene except in the summer to get to see the sky because it’s usually very cloudy. Looking up and just being amazed at the number of stars up there, seeing the Milky Way, and I don’t know, it just always seemed to be a part of who I was, that I wanted to fly and I wanted to go to space. Junior high was really when I first started to get serious about it, thanks to a librarian at my junior high. She helped me write to NASA and I studied that brochure, read it many, many times and decided that I would like to try to go to a service academy in order to become an astronaut.

Do you remember who that person was who…

I do.

Have you talked with her…

Yes, we’re still in contact, Linda Ague. She’s a great lady. She’s hopefully going to be coming to the launch as well.

Then tell us about the time period from when you first started applying to be an astronaut up to the point that you got the call and just give us an idea of long it was and what the process was like for you.

The military’s a little bit different than the civilian world because you know some of the path that you have to take. For example, if you want to be a pilot astronaut you have to go to test pilot school. So from the time I set out to be a pilot I wanted to try and fly fighters knowing that would be the best path and because that’s something I’d always wanted to do as well. Then after one operational tour and one test tour in fighters I applied to go to test pilot school, the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base and was selected to go there. Once you complete that training then you’re really competitive for the first time as a pilot to apply to NASA. I missed the 2000 board, and I was about to apply in 2002. Matter of fact, I had my package in hand, ready to mail that day when I got the word that that board had been cancelled and delayed. So 2004 was when I was able to apply the first time and thankfully was selected.

What was that like when you got that call?

Well, there were several ups and downs in that whole process. I came out of the interview not feeling really good about it and so I told my wife I thought maybe I had a ten percent chance, but I was pretty much preparing myself to not get selected and to face what I was going to do next. The way the process works is NASA conducts background checks after that first round of interviews on those that they’re considering, and I got word that I had a background check which was a great surprise to me. So now all of a sudden I went from thinking I had very little chance to I had a pretty decent chance. But there was a long wait after that, several months, before we got the final word and I’ll never forget that day. I was out flying in an F-16, just doing a proficiency sortie and came back in and there was a sticky note on my desk that said to call Kent Rominger, who I knew was the Chief of the Astronaut Office. I didn’t know if that meant good news or bad news. I was naïve in that sense. I found out later that’s usually a good sign but when I called Kent he talked for a little while and asked me what I was doing that day. He asked me about my flight and kept asking questions and I thought, “He must be letting me down easy”. But, in the end, he said, “Well, what do you think about coming to work here?” and I said, “That sounds great. I’d love to.”

You were selected as an astronaut candidate during a period where the shuttle was grounded. It was the year after the Columbia accident. How confident were you about coming to NASA during that period of uncertainty?

I knew that I wanted to. I remembered the day of the accident. I was actually at work on a Saturday morning. We were doing the test flight that morning and someone walked in and said what had happened and, of course, we all turned on the news and certainly felt just tremendous sadness for the families and those involved. Also, in a way, as I reflected on it over the next few days, it really helped to steel my desire to come to NASA. I realized that yes, it is dangerous, but to me it’s a worthwhile cause. During the process of selection I think in the back of everyone’s mind was, “Will this class really be selected?” We’d heard rumors that it was somewhat contentious whether more astronauts were needed during a down time at NASA but I knew that was out of my hands so I felt peace about that. There was nothing I could do about it and if it was meant to work out I figured it would work out.

Tell us about what you’re looking most forward to on this mission. This is your first mission…

Yes.

…so obviously a big deal.

Very big.

Can you even corral in your mind what you’re looking forward to the most?

JSC2009-E-285098 -- STS-131 crew members

STS-131 Mission Specialist Rick Mastracchio participates in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article in the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Pilot James P. Dutton Jr. assisted Mastracchio. Photo Credit: NASA

I think it’s knowing it’s all real. We go through so much training where we are using pretty high fidelity simulators and you can kind of put yourself there. But once I’m actually looking out a window and seeing the real International Space Station or looking back and seeing the real, instead of a simulated, graphical Earth that we use in our training. That’s going to be a true eye-opening moment. I think personally what I’m most looking forward to is looking out into space, seeing the sun rise and set, looking back at the Earth and just getting that new perspective that I’ve never seen. From a professional standpoint I think that operating a space vehicle is going to be really exciting to do. The pilot is basically a backup to the commander, but getting to sit up front and see everything from there. Then during undocking the pilot gets to do the fly around so getting to fly the shuttle around the space station is going to be a real high point.

How different has it been actually training for a mission? You’ve been training just to learn the ins and outs of being an astronaut since you were selected. Now there’s a different purpose. What’s that been like?

I’ve been a little bit surprised. I was expecting that it would be more of the same of what we’ve been going through in the last three and a half or four years. In the first three and a half or four years that I was here, our entire class was pretty much in some kind of training most of the time while also doing support jobs and it has been quite different. You really delve down into the details of how the vehicle works so there’s a lot to know. It’s really amazing as you have one trainer after another who’s an expert in their system coming in and giving you the details of how their system works and trying to retain all that information and really get the big picture of the vehicle. We have to be very broad in our understanding of the vehicle, not necessarily experts in every single area, but there’s just a lot to know. And it’s been really fun to learn how the space shuttle works in that kind of detail, to understand more about the International Space Station and then, of course, for the tasks that we’ve been given to do on our mission to really delve down deep and know those very well. It’s very fulfilling to do that.

Tell us about your crewmates. What’s it been like interacting with them; a few of them are your classmates, well, two of them, I believe?

Yes.

What’s that been like training for this mission with this crew?

It’s really been great. We have a lot of experience on our crew. We have four veterans and three rookies, so it’s a great balance. We have a lot of fun. The veterans joke around, give us a hard time about wearing rookie helmets and putting little bumper pads on the end of them to make sure we don’t fly into things in space our first time. We try and throw a little back their way as well, but it’s been really great. The folks that have flown before on our crew have been very conscientious about helping us understand what to expect, thinking out loud about what a certain phase of flight is going to feel like and talking about it so that we can know what to expect. We have a lot of good times, a lot of fun. Our training team is outstanding so in the midst of what’s very professional training we have a really good time, too.

Have you had a chance to talk to the thousands of support personnel that work hard to make every mission a success during your times traveling around centers and, if so, what’s it been like interacting with those people, and what have you talked about with them?

The further you get away from Johnson Space Center the less common it is for people to have interacted with an astronaut. I have gone out and given the Astronaut Office Award, the Snoopy Award, at different centers and people are always very appreciative of what we do, but I try and turn around and say the same thing to them. I mean, it would not be possible to do what an astronaut does without all the support that we get from people across the agency and at our various contractors. Everyone has a part in it and I think people feel ownership. Being an astronaut is a very special thing because, in a way, you represent those thousands of people when you’re up there, and also many people who are outside the space program that are big supporters of it and would love to be in our shoes, doing what we’re doing.

You’ve talked already about being a backup to the commander in your role as pilot on this mission. What other key responsibilities do you have in the role of pilot on this mission?

I’ll be an arm operator both on the shuttle and on the space station. For the shuttle arm we’ll be using it primarily for inspection tasks, looking at our thermal protection system. On the space station, I’ll primarily be involved in the spacewalk robotics work that we’re doing where the arm is working with the spacewalkers to accomplish the task that we’re doing. Also I will be one of two crew members working to suit up Rick and Clay before their spacewalk and then help them de-suit after they get back in.

Give us an idea of what the key objectives are for this mission, STS-131.

We’re carrying up an MPLM, the Multi Purpose Logistics Module. It’s full of a lot of important cargo to resupply the space station. So getting the MPLM out of the payload bay, connected to the space station and getting the hatch open so that we can begin the transfer of all the thousands of pounds of payloads that we’re bringing up to them. Secondary we’re doing a replacement of an ammonia tank assembly on the starboard side of the space station, so we’ll be taking the old ammonia tank off, temporarily stowing it, grabbing the new ammonia tank out of the payload bay of the shuttle and putting it into place. Then we’ll go about taking the old one, putting it back in the shuttle’s payload bay so we can bring it back and eventually that ammonia tank will be recharged and sent back up to space station.

Each mission has its own complexities. What would you say are the biggest challenges of this mission?

Our three spacewalks that we’re doing are all involved in doing that swap out of the two ammonia tanks, and it’s a pretty challenging scenario. As big as the space station robotic arm is, we can’t base it in one place and reach all the way into the back of the payload bay which is where the new ammonia tank assembly is, and then reach back over the backside of the space station’s truss to where we’re going to install it, so it requires three spacewalks. On the first one, we’ll be grabbing the new tank and temporarily bringing it up and stowing it in something that we call the POA which is essentially like the end of the robotic arm only fixed in place. Then on the second spacewalk, we’ll grab the old tank, take it off, temporarily stow it, grab the new one and put it in. That’ll require us to have a new base position for the robotic arm so overnight they will reposition the arm. Then on the last spacewalk we’ll take the old tank and put it back in the payload bay. So there’s a lot of choreography that goes on there with the spacewalks. Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger will be primarily the one that will be helping to orchestrate all that and then myself and Stephanie Wilson will be doing the robotic work while Clay and Rick are outside.

Early in the mission you’ll do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior once you get to orbit and have transformed the shuttle into an orbiter. Talk me through that process of examining the shuttle’s tiles and tell me about what your role will be in that.

The process really is we’ve got several sensors on the end of a long boom that we now carry up on the starboard side of the shuttle. We’ll take the shuttle arm over and grab that boom and unberth, then use those sensors to essentially scan the leading edge and the underside of each of the wings, as well as around the nose of the shuttle to make sure we don’t have any damage and, if we do have damage, to assess how big that damage is. It’s a long day so we actually rotate through. There’s three of us, Dottie, Naoko and myself who will be the primary ones for operating the arm that day, and then Dex and Steph will be sort of the backups where they will be standing back, using a couple of software programs we have to help watch clearances of the arm and the boom to the shuttle, and also to watch the configuration of the arm and make sure it’s safe. So we essentially go through a very scripted set of maneuvers and collect the data that the ground needs, sending it down so that they can then do the analysis to clear our thermal protection system for entry.

Everybody’s also pretty busy the following day when you, at some point, will have the station in your sights.

Yes. Walk me through what you’re going to be involved with for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight.

I’ll be up on the flight deck and for a good part of that I’m the procedure manager along with Clay. The two of us will be watching over the procedures, making sure we hit every line and at one point, after we’ve finished the terminal phase initiation maneuver, we swap out decks. Dex will take a break and he’ll step out of the commander’s seat and I get to jump in there for my big moment. I’ll get to do some of the mid-course burns to make fine tuning adjustments as we come up underneath the space station. At about 1,000 feet, Dex will then take over from the aft part of the flight deck, flying out the windows and using the centerline camera. From thereon in essentially I’m primarily watching the systems of the shuttle, being prepared to know what our backup plan is if we have any failures and then watching over the nominal steps, just making sure we hit each one.

Talk to us about the level of involvement that the space station crew will have during the docked operations, and how that will help in actually accomplishing the mission.

JSC2010-E-017731 -- STS-131 Pilot James Dutton

STS-131 Pilot James P. Dutton Jr., attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, prepares for an ingress/egress training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

It really is an integrated team effort when we’re up there. For example, while doing the suit up of Rick and Clay before each spacewalk, as well as the de-suiting, I and one of the space station crew members will be working together. Probably one of us is reading the procedure, the other one taking actions on the suits. So that’s definitely a team effort. Part of our robotics during the spacewalks is going to be done with Stephanie and one of the space station crew members as well. So we’re very involved together. Certainly they’ll be very involved in the transfer operations that are going on because we’re essentially unloading our pickup truck into their house, so they’re going to have a real say in where things go and how that whole shuffle works.

Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson are scheduled to perform three spacewalks on this mission. Can you give us an overview of what they’re scheduled to do on EVA 1 and tell us about what you’re going to be doing on the inside? You mentioned you’re going to help them get suited up. Tell us about that day and what’s going to happen.

It’s a really busy day as are all the spacewalk days. We’ll start out in the airlock. They’ll come out. They will have camped out overnight at 10.2 PSI, a lower pressure than normal to help get their bodies ready for the lower pressure of the suit to avoid the bends. When they open the hatch they’ll be on oxygen masks and they’ll go out and take a break. During that time, I’ll come in and begin the process of preparing their suits and when they come back in, we’ll drop the hatch back down. We’ll go back down to about 10 psi and get them in the suits and purge those suits of all the air except for oxygen so they’ll be in a pure O2 environment. Then they have about a 50-minute wait in there before we take them off the stand and start preparing to send them into the crew lock and then outside. For EVA 1, the first day, we’re really going after that new ammonia tank in the back of the payload bay so the station robotic arm will be based on Node 2, kind of forward so that it can reach down into the shuttle’s payload bay and we will essentially work the choreography with them. They will take that tank off and Clay will be in a stand where he can lock his feet in and grab a hold of the tank and hold it for us while we then bring in the robotic arm and grapple the tank. Then while we move the tank back over near the lab to a structure called ESP2, Rick and Clay will transit back around the payload bay over to ESP2. We have to have an adjustable grapple bar put on to the tank that allows it to be held by this fixed mechanism called the POA where we’re going to stow the tank until the next EVA. So we’ll go ahead and put that on there and then we’ll put the tank on to the POA and that’s where it’ll stay for the next couple days.

On the second spacewalk of the mission, Rick and Clay will go outside again to do more work. Tell us again about what’s going to happen on that spacewalk and what your involvement will be.

EVA 2, again very similar, I will be involved in suiting up and de-suiting Rick and Clay. As soon as I finish with the suit up and we get them outside and they start going out the hatch, I’ll be flying right on over to the robotic work station, basically jumping right in there. It’s a long day. EVA 2 is really kind of shell game. We’ve got the new ammonia tank stowed on station and the old tank is in place, and that’s where Rick and Clay will go up and start to work on the old tank to get it unhooked and pulled off of the truss. We’ll bring the arm over and grab that old tank, bring it back around to the front side of the space station’s truss and put it on to the cart that we have on the front side of the truss where we can temporarily stow that tank. We’re then going to go back over and get the new tank which has been temporarily stowed as well over the last couple days. We’ll grab that and bring it back and then take off a grapple bar and put it on the back side of the truss so now it’s in place. That’s a big part of the mission objectives right there. Rick and Clay will have a configuration to do on that tank to get it ready, hooking up electrical connections and ammonia lines, and then they’ll come back over and help us to grab the old tank, put it back on the arm and we will take it over and install it back in POA again for a temporary stowage until we get to EVA 3.

Then on EVA 3 tell us what the plan is for that spacewalk.

On EVA 3, the big picture objective is to get the old tank into the back of the payload bay so that we can bring it home and that’s exactly what we’ll go do first. We’ll grab that off of the POA, get it configured to put in the payload bay and bring it on down there. But we also have a few other tasks that will be done, that I’ll be involved with as a robotic operator. When we get down into the payload bay and hand off the tank to Clay, we’re then going to go back up to the Columbus Module which was flown up by the European Space Agency. On the exterior there’s a rack that experimental payloads can be attached to and left out in space. There’s no payload on there right now but that rack needs to come home so Clay will meet us out there. He’ll install a foot restraint on the arm and climb into it and grab the rack. Then we will fly Clay back into the payload bay where he and Rick will install the rack in the aft part of the bay. Then we will fly Clay back around, he gets to do a lot of flying on the arm on EVA 3, and take him back over to the port side of the lab, where we’ll be working on a Canadian Space Agency system called the SPDM where Clay will be installing a camera and doing some reconfiguration. We’ll fly him in there and then we will take him back and drop him off over on Columbus.

Are there any plans right now to do any of the robotic work from the cupola?

That’s the hope, yes, and it really makes an amazing difference. We actually just today did our first training session in a dome environment where we had high fidelity graphics with the cupola mockup in there, and it will be amazing to work from. We’re used to, in space station robotic training, working almost completely off of just video feeds. We have between three and five camera views from exterior cameras that we have on the space station on the robotic arm and also we can bring over camera views from the shuttle. But, when you climb into the cupola, essentially it’s like being inside of a greenhouse. I mean, you‘ve got windows on every side and over the top. You’re actually head down towards the Earth, so above you is the Earth and you’re looking right into the payload bay of the shuttle. Two of the worksites that we’ll be using heavily on EVA 3, both on the Columbus side and then with the SPDM, are right there in front of the cupola, so it really is a huge enhancer to our ability to clear the arm from all the structure that’s around it.

At some point all your work will be done on orbit and then it will be time to leave the station. Tell us about what you’re scheduled to do for undocking. That’s a pretty big day for the pilots always.

It is. It’s the day I’m really looking forward to. The pilot’s big moment of glory is getting to do the fly around of the space station. So we’ll undock, back away around 400 to 450 feet in front of the space station and then begin to fly a maneuver over the top in front of the space station, essentially complete a 360 degree arc around the space station. Then we’ll continue to maneuver to essentially break out of our orbit with the station, so we’ll get a real panoramic view. As big as the station is now I can’t really imagine how breathtaking that will be, getting to see it from every perspective but it’s a day I’m really looking forward to.

We’re approaching the scheduled end of the space shuttle era. Some people who’ve been intimately involved with shuttle are dealing with it certain ways. Others are dealing with it their own way. What’s this impending moment mean to you?

The space shuttle was really the vehicle that I grew up watching and, like I said earlier, that I was pretty young when I decided I wanted to be an astronaut, so most of what I knew in my lifetime was the space shuttle. I think, for my generation most people feel that way. It’s almost hard to believe that the space shuttle could actually retire when that’s the space vehicle we’ve known and what NASA has primarily been involved with in our lifetime. But I think everyone understands that there comes a time and that the shuttle has been a tremendous workhorse for our nation’s space program. We’ve proven that we can get to space routinely. We’ve also proven to ourselves that it’s never routine getting to space with the space shuttle but I think it’s also exciting for our nation to know that, as great as this program has been, that there’s something new on the horizon, something to set our sights on and to begin to go a new direction.

Let me ask you this. What was it like the first time you flew? Do you remember that?

Yes.

That you soloed.

Yes, absolutely.

Tell us about that moment.

The first solo was scary and just exhilarating all at the same time. They usually try and solo you about the time you’re proficient but don’t really believe you’re proficient yet. I think that’s true for most people. I got my pilot’s license in high school so I remember stepping into that Cessna 152 when I was 16 years old and thinking, “Well, I think I know everything I need to know but I can’t believe they’re trusting me to do this,” and went up and did it and came back. It was probably a 20-minute flight. I think I only did three landings and came back in but that was just the greatest feeling in the world to know I had done that all by myself.

How do you imagine that will compare to lifting off the launch pad with the shuttle? Although you’re not actually flying it, that’s still something that you’ve been thinking about for like the longest time.

I’m not sure I can even wrap my mind around it yet. I’ve tried to start imagining it more and more that it really will happen and until I’m there I don’t know what it’s going to feel like but I know it’s going to be great. It’ll eclipse that moment of the first solo in a small airplane I know for sure just because it’s been so many years, really 30 some years now, that this has been a hope and a dream so I know it will be very special.

Are there any shuttle memories that you can tell us about that stick out in your mind for whatever reason?

Well, the first flight obviously was a big thing. Even though I was fairly young, I still remember that day and hearing about that first shuttle flight. It was, of course, on the headlines of the paper so it was a real exciting time and a completely new vehicle. But really, I think my best memories of the shuttle before coming to NASA were while I was at Edwards Air Force Base. When I first showed up at Edwards people said that the shuttle doesn’t land here any more and I guess it hadn’t landed there for quite a long time, so people said, “Don’t expect it,” and “We know you’ve heard about it but it’s not going to happen.” And in the four and a half years I was there it landed there three or maybe even four times and every time that happened it was a really big deal. The base would shut down essentially and people would get their families in and there were some tall structures out near the flight line that we could run up on top. I remember taking my kids up on top of those and watching and saying, “You watch, you know, boys, this airplane coming back in just came from space.” And that really, I remember looking over at my wife and Erin saying, “I just can’t believe that thing was in space just a few minutes ago.” So it really is a tremendous accomplishment that you have a reusable launch vehicle that launches into space as a rocket, comes back as an airplane, turns around and does it again.

You talked about sharing that with your kids. Did it take you back to almost being a kid, too? I mean, were…

Definitely, yes. Yes, having them there and kind of seeing it through their eyes it really did take me back.

In talking with people about the shuttle, I’ve heard comments like how remarkable of a vehicle it was, how much it surpassed people’s expectations. How do you imagine shuttle might be remembered in the future for what it’s accomplished and what it’s allowed us to accomplish basically?

Well, I think that the space shuttle was asked to do a tremendous amount in the design of it. It really was spread very thin in terms of everything it was asked to do and it ended up accomplishing an amazing amount. But I think the greatest legacy the shuttle’s going to leave is the space station, especially when you look at all the thousands and thousands of pounds of cargo that was taken up into space and assembled by spacewalkers largely due to the space shuttle. I think that as we look back we’ll look at how much was done throughout the entire shuttle era, but I really believe that space station is going to be the crowning jewel at the top for the legacy of the shuttle.