Feature

Preflight Interview: Rick Mastracchio, Mission Specialist
03.08.10
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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. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-131 interview with Mission Specialist Rick Mastracchio. Rick, tell me about the place that you consider to be your hometown and what it was like growing up there for you.

Okay. I was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut. Waterbury is a small city, mostly blue collar. I went through the public school system there and growing up was probably not too different than most folks from the Northeast. I had my friends and family, had plenty of things to keep me busy and I thought it was a great way to grow up.

Tell me about some of the things that you liked to do as a kid. I mean, we all have hobbies and interests.

I played sports. Like most kids, I played sports in high school and when I was younger. Just hanging out outside. We didn’t have the video games that we have today so it was basically just spending a lot of time outside playing.

You’ve flown twice before in space. Did you have a chance on either of those flights to see Waterbury from space?

It was hard to see Waterbury exactly but I did get some good shots of Connecticut and actually, on my first mission, my crewmate, Scott Altman, took a nice picture of the northeast, including Connecticut. When I got that picture back after the mission I was able to actually get down almost to where my parents’ house was if you look close enough, so it was a great thing to see.

Pretty cool?

Yes.

Tell us about your educational background starting from after high school.

After high school I went to the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut for an engineering degree in electrical engineering and computer science. Once I graduated from UConn, I got a full time job as an engineer up in Connecticut. While I was working, I went to night school at Rensselaer Polytech Institute which is actually the Hartford branch of Rensselaer and got a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering. That took me five years or so. At that point I moved to Houston and, again, as I was working I got another Master’s Degree from the University of Houston in Space Science.

Tell me about when it was that you first got the notion about being an astronaut and talk me through that process of how that happened.

Okay. Well, unlike most people, I really didn’t realize that it was even possible or how you became an astronaut as a kid or when I was in high school or even in college. The first sign that I saw that it was even possible to become an astronaut was when I saw an advertisement in a magazine and I thought it would be exciting to see what an astronaut application looked like so I sent away for an astronaut application. I got the application. Of course, it was just a standard government form, nothing exciting about it and I threw it in a drawer and soon after, maybe a year or two later, the Challenger accident happened and I was just finishing up my first Master’s Degree so I decided to send in an application as an astronaut just to see what would happen. I knew NASA would be rebuilding and coming back from the accident and I wanted to be part of that. Actually, I was not accepted as an astronaut based on that application but I got a call from Houston, Johnson Space Center to come down and work as an engineer and that’s how I actually ended up in Houston.

Okay. And then from there how long of a process was it from when you started again applying to be an astronaut and when you finally got selected? What was that duration like?

That took nine years. It took nine years of applications, three interviews and another Master’s Degree before I was finally selected in 1996.

Nine years.

Nine years.

That’s perseverance.

It’s perseverance but I had a great job here at the Johnson Space Center working as an engineer so whether I got accepted or not, I had a great job.

Can you tell us about that moment when you got the call finally saying, “Hey, do you want to become an astronaut?” Where were you? What were you doing and what was your reaction?

Yes. I was working in Mission Operations Directorate at the time as a Flight Controller in Mission Control and I was at my desk and I got a call from the head of the Astronaut Office saying that I was selected as an astronaut and, of course, I was thrilled. The whole phone call lasted all of about thirty seconds and the first thing I did, of course, was call my wife and give her the news.

Tell me about what you remember most from either of your previous spaceflights. What things stick out in your mind?

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STS-131 Mission Specialist Rick Mastracchio uses the virtual reality lab in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center to train for some of his duties aboard the space shuttle and space station. This type of computer interface, paired with virtual reality training hardware and software, helps to prepare the entire team for dealing with space station elements. Photo Credit: NASA

Probably the things that you remember the most are the dynamic phases of flight, the ascent and the entry. The ascent and the entry are very dynamic phases. The ascent goes by very quickly and the entry, of course, takes a little longer but you get a great light show and you get a great view of the Earth and the Kennedy Space Center as you’re coming in. So I’ll never forget those. And then the other thing, of course, that is the most memorable are my spacewalks on my second mission, STS-118. The views as you’re out doing a spacewalk are incredible and I’ll never forget those.

I’m sure you get a lot of questions about spacewalks from people. How do you even do it justice in words, trying to explain…

Yes, it’s very difficult. Being an engineer, it’s hard to describe things as well as some other folks so it’s very difficult to describe but it’s an incredibly beautiful view of the Earth that you have when you’re out spacewalking and just to see the size of the space station when you’re out there is pretty amazing.

What’s it been like training with this particular crew? Are you, you obviously spent a lot of time together and people have formed relationships and see strengths in your crew mates. What’s it been like training with this crew?

Well, any time you get together with six other people; seven people total are on my crew right now, you form great bonds, great friendship between them all. We get along just great. We’re starting to click as a crew. We’re through most of the training at this point so it’s been a great experience. I’ve enjoyed it.

There are thousands of people that work behind the scenes to make every mission a success and keep the crew safe. What’s it like when you get a chance to talk to these people and kind of thank them for their contribution? What kind of things do you say? What do you talk about?

Obviously a space mission takes thousands and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of folks to make it successful. The astronauts are just a lucky few who get to finish off that mission and actually execute it from orbit. So, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t realize how lucky I am to have this job. When I meet those folks, of course, the first thing I do is I say thank you because without them we could not do this job and, in fact, we often go out on appearances to various plants across the country and other NASA centers just to tell folks how much we appreciate them, to let them know that we’re thinking about them.

Tell me about the key objectives of this mission. What are you going to do?

In my mind there are two main objectives for this mission. The first one is to dock the MPLM to the space station and transfer all its contents over to the station to get it ready for future experiments and science. The second thing is to perform the three EVAs and the number one objective on those EVAs is to transfer a new ammonia tank from the shuttle’s payload bay and install it on the International Space Station.

And as Mission Specialist on this flight, what are your primary responsibilities?

My primary responsibility is spacewalks. I’m the EV 1 on the three spacewalks so that’s my number one job is to just make sure that we have safe and successful spacewalks. My other responsibility is during ascent I will be sitting in the MS 1 seat during the ascent phase of flight helping the commander and pilot out at that point.

You and your fellow spacewalker, Clay Anderson, are going to be the spacewalkers for this mission. It’s a reunion of sorts for you guys.

Right.

You’ve spacewalked before. Tell me about that experience and what it’s going to be like doing it again with Clay.

Originally, Clay was scheduled to fly to the space station on STS-118, and we were going to drop him off and he was going to spend his six months there. But the way the schedule (worked), he actually flew and launched on STS-117 a few months before us and then he was there when we got there on STS-118. So Clay and I still got to do a spacewalk together. It was the third spacewalk of the mission and then he did the fourth spacewalk with Dave Williams. So, yes, it was great to train with Clay. Clay and I trained together quite a bit in the NBL for STS-118 and, of course, we’re training again for STS-131. The spacewalk that we did on orbit for 118, it didn’t end exactly the way we planned because I ended up with a small hole in the vectran (liner) of my glove so I had to end it a little early, but I’m looking forward to getting out the door again with Clay. He’s great to work with.

Discovery is going to have several pieces of hardware and gear in its payload bay when you arrive at the station. Tell me about what those are and kind of give me a little bit of background on them.

Obviously, the biggest thing in the payload bay is going to be the MPLM. The MPLM is, in simple terms, kind of like a big cargo container. Once the space shuttle docks to the space station, we’ll take that cargo container, the MPLM, and we’ll dock it, mate it to the space station, and then we’ll open the hatch. We’ll empty all the contents out of the MPLM, transfer them to the space station and then we’ll take unused equipment and things that need to be discarded from the space station and we’ll fill the MPLM back up. We’ll take that cargo container, put it back in the payload bay and bring it home for further processing. The other component in the payload bay is called the LMC which is basically just a carrier panel on the back of the space shuttle’s cargo bay and that simply will hold a large ammonia tank, on top of that carrier. It’s about an eighteen hundred pound ammonia tank and then under that carrier will also allow us to return some unused equipment from the space station.

And you’ll also be working with something called a Rate Gyro Assembly. What’s that?

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STS-131 Mission Specialist Rick Mastracchio 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

The Rate Gyro Assembly is a box external to the International Space Station and it’s part of the space station’s attitude control systems. There are two Rate Gyro Assemblies on the space station. One of them was swapped out, one or two missions ago and we will swap out the other one. Both of them had some failures in them so they both needed to be replaced. So one of them has been fixed and now we’re taking the other one and replacing it to fix it with a new one and it’s a small box. I’d call it a medium-sized ORU. That is what we mostly call it.

Each mission has its own set of complexities. How would you characterize how complex this mission is going to be?

Well, from an EVA perspective, the most complex thing we’ll do is we have to integrate the robotics folks with the spacewalkers and with the EVA folks. The ammonia tank, for example; when we take it out of the payload bay, Clay Anderson’s actually going to be lifting this eighteen hundred pound ammonia tank up over his head and holding it steady while the robotic arm operators, Stephanie and Jim, come in and grapple and take it off his hands. Then they’ll bring it over to S1 and temp stow it. They’ll also hand that tank off to us later on during the EVAs, so the integration of the robotics and the EVA guys together, holding this very large object steady while they grapple it or ungrapple it is going to be challenging.

What level of involvement will the station crew have in the docked ops and how will that help get the mission accomplished?

The station crew, right now when we dock to the space station, we will actually be between crews. They will not have six folks on board. They’re only going to have three folks on board with our current launch date, but where the station folks will help us is with, obviously with the transfer. There are a lot of objects to transfer from the MPLM over to station and back into the MPLM so they will be helping us with the transfer and the other place they will be helping us is in the airlock when we are getting ready to suit up and go out for our spacewalks. We will have one of the space station crew members helping us suit up and get ready to go out the door.

Early in the mission the crew will conduct what’s called an early inspection of the shuttle’s exterior tiles. That’s scheduled to happen on Flight Day 2. You’ll be doing some other chores for that day. Tell us about what you’re scheduled to do on that day.

On Flight Day 2, Clay Anderson and I will be checking out our spacesuits and our EMUs. We’ll go through a series of tests on the spacesuits to make sure they are ready to perform the spacewalks on the following days of the mission. We’ll also be pulling bags of equipment together, EVA tools and other things so that when we dock to space station we could transfer that equipment right over to the airlock and be ready to go.

Then on the following day at some point you’ll have the station in your sights and start the approach. Talk about what you’re scheduled to do for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight.

Rendezvous and docking is a pretty easy day for me. Everybody’s going to be working pretty hard. My basic job during rendezvous and docking is camera ops. I will be videotaping the folks performing the rendezvous and docking. I’ll have the camera out the window taking pictures of the space station as we approach it.

You and Clay Anderson are scheduled to perform three spacewalks on this mission. Give us an overview of what’s going to happen for EVA 1.

On EVA 1, first thing we’ll do, once we egress the space station airlock is head over to the payload bay. We have the brand new full ammonia tank in the back of the payload bay of the space shuttle. We’ll translate over there. We’ll disconnect that ammonia tank from the payload bay and Clay will actually lift it up out of the payload bay and hold it while the robotic arm comes over and grapples it. The robotic arm will then take that ammonia tank and temporarily stow it over on the space station for future EVA. After we’re done with that, I’ll go over and pick up what’s called the Seeds Experiment. It’s a material science experiment over on the Japanese exposed facility and then Clay and I will head back to the space station, where we will do the remove and replacement of the RGA, the Rate Gyro Assembly. Once that’s done, both of us head out to P6 which is the far portside of the space station and we actually start preparing a series of six batteries out there. We actually start prepping those batteries for removal on the next mission so we basically go out there and set up the work site for the next crew that’s going to be up there.

Then on the second spacewalk of the mission, you and Clay are back outside again for more work. Give us an idea of what work sites you’re going to be at and the tasks that you’re scheduled to do there.

On EVA 2, Clay and I will actually swap out the old ammonia tank for the new ammonia tank so we’ll start with removing the old one on the back side of the S0 truss on the space station. We’ll remove the old tank. Here’s where I will actually lift up the old tank and hand it off to the arm. The arm will take the old tank and move it to the front side of the S0 truss and we will head over there and we will take that tank off the hands of the arm and we will temp stow it on what’s called the CETA cart. Basically just tie it down temporarily. Then we’ll take the new tank that we transferred over from EVA 1. The arm will meet us on the backside of the truss where I will take it from the arm and we will install it, make the electrical connections, make the fluid connections and up the new tank. At that point the space station has a new ammonia tank. Then we’ll clean up by going back to the old tank and handing it back to the arm where they will begin to temp stow it until we get to put it away permanently on EVA 3.

And on EVA 3 what is the plan for that spacewalk?

EVA 3, basically picking up where EVA 2 left off. We’ll take the old ammonia tank and the arm will meet us in the payload bay. We’ll take it off the arm and we’ll install it into the payload bay, bolting it down where the new one came up and we’ll bolt it down and make sure it’s ready for reentry. After that’s done, we’ll go and pick up some spare hardware. Clay heads over to the Columbus Module and picks up a spare piece of hardware. The arm brings him with a large spare piece of hardware where we install under the LMC in payload bay, again it’s just some extra hardware no longer needed on space station. At that point Clay and I go separate ways. I go off and do a light fixture remove and replace on the lab and Clay heads over to the SPDM where he installs a camera and does some other work to further prepare the SPDM for operations. And then we clean up and head back inside.

Do you have any space shuttle memories that you can share with us and tell us why those moments made such an impact on you?

Well, I’ve got lots of memories of my previous two missions obviously and hopefully I’ll make more memories on this mission. I’m sure I will. But, again, working on something for twenty-two years, actually I’ve got a lot of memories of working on the program as an engineer or I’ve got more memories of working on the program as an engineer than I do as flying on the space shuttle as an astronaut. So I can’t think of any specific memories off the top of my head that are worth sharing but it will be a big part of my, it obviously was a big part of my life and will continue to be for the rest of my life.

How do you think the space shuttle might be remembered in history in a future where travel between worlds is as commonplace as airplane travel is today here on Earth?

Well, I think the space shuttle program and the space shuttle vehicle is going to be looked at as way ahead of its time. It’s the most capable spaceship that this planet has ever seen and, in my opinion, it is going to remain the most capable spaceship that this planet has ever seen for at least one hundred years. I don’t think we’ll ever see anything as capable of, as the space shuttle in many, many years, not in our lifetime and probably not in our children’s lifetime. So I think it’s going to be looked back upon as a great vehicle. Obviously again it had its failures and problems but I think it’s a very capable vehicle that, hopefully, someday in the far future we’ll see other vehicles as capable as the space shuttle.