This is the STS-131 interview with Commander Alan Poindexter. Alan, tell me about the place that you consider to be your hometown or the areas that most influenced you growing up.
Preflight Interview: Alan G. Poindexter, Commander
I grew up in a Navy family and like most service families we traveled a lot and moved a lot. I grew up on both coasts and in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Rockville, Maryland, and have had a great time doing it.
And how would you say that those places or that particular area influenced who you’ve become?
I think it had a large influence in who I’ve become. Moving around a lot allows you to experience many different cultures and learn about the ways that different people in different parts of the country live and it probably made me somewhat more adventuresome and allowed me to meet my future wife in Pensacola.
Did you get a chance to see either that region or some of the regions or areas that you were interested in or have been to from space on your last time up?
I did. I saw San Diego and the Washington area and also Pensacola, Florida, from space and it’s interesting; our minds work at about sixty miles per hour from driving vehicles on the freeway, or even six hundred miles per hour in an aircraft. When you’re doing five miles per second in a spacecraft you have to look pretty early to catch what you want to look at. It goes by very quickly, but it’s interesting that you can see such a large swath of land and all the geographic features that exist around your point of interest.
What kinds of things did you like doing growing up? What interested you then?
I was a typical American boy. I did a lot of outdoor activities, played a lot outside with my friends, loved to go the beach, liked to hike, boating and fishing and I flew a lot of model airplanes, as well.
Walk us through the educational steps that you took after high school graduation.
After high school, the four year university probably wasn’t a good fit for me right away so I went to a junior college for a few years and then moved up to a four year university. After that, I went and got my Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering and then went into the Navy. Then, while I was in the Navy I went to post-graduate school and got a Master’s Degree in engineering as well.
Do you recall at what point it was in your life that you first started to think about being an astronaut?
Well, I always thought about and had that thought in the back of my mind. I don’t know that everybody has that goal right off the bat but I did think about it occasionally. But I think it was in college when an astronaut came and visited and talked with us about his experiences on one of the early space shuttle flights. That really piqued my interest and allowed me to think more about what kind of steps I would have to take to make that a reality.
And then take us on the journey with you from there about the steps that you took to get you from where you were at that point, to becoming an astronaut or applying to NASA and how long that took?
Like most Navy pilots I went through flight training in Pensacola, Florida. Then moved up to Meridian, Mississippi, and completed my flight training there. I flew fighters for the Navy in San Diego for three years, went and did my post-graduate education and then I was a test pilot in Patuxent River, Maryland, for a few years. I was back in the fleet in the Navy when I was selected to come back here to NASA to become an astronaut.
What experiences do you remember most about your previous spaceflight?
I think every moment of the spaceflight is a great memory. The launch was certainly spectacular and very dynamic, very exhilarating. Then, I think the best part about the whole mission was being with your crewmates in a vehicle working together as a team to get the mission done and those are the moments that really stick out and shine. The ones where we’ve worked together as a team to overcome problems and to come up with the ground, to come up with solutions and execute those.
How would you say that preparing for this mission, STS-131, your first as a commander has been different from your previous spaceflight, from preparing for that?
It’s interesting that the commander of the mission is responsible for making sure that everybody is trained, not just himself so in one way I’ve had to pay closer attention to the training schedule and making sure that the right people are scheduled at the right time. We’ve got a great training manager that helps out with that and I’ve had to ensure that the right people and the right skills mix are applied to the right tasks and it’s been different in that manner.
This mission will commemorate a milestone for JAXA. It’ll mark the first time that two Japanese astronauts, Naoko Yamazaki and Soichi Noguchi, will be in space together. That’ll be a first for them. Tell me your thoughts about being able to be on hand to witness that.
Yes, I’m really looking forward to that. Soichi is a very good friend. I’ve known him for twelve years and he’s a wonderful friend and a great comrade. I’m looking forward to being in space with him and Naoko, as well. Naoko came to us in 2004 and she’s just a fantastic addition to our crew and I’m very confident in her abilities and looking forward to seeing them both on orbit at the same time and celebrating that with them.
What’s it been like for you training with this particular group of crewmates?
This is a great crew. If I had to pick a crew, this would be the crew that I would pick. I mean, without a doubt, they’re just great folks and super skilled and very, very professional and just a joy to work with every day.
Give us your thoughts about the work done by the thousands of people behind the scenes to ensure the safety and success of every mission. What’s it like when you get a chance to meet them?
It’s a great honor to meet the folks that make the space program what it is. As you said, that the thousands and thousands of people that work on the space shuttle and space station programs around the country. Their life’s work is to make sure that the job gets done and we get to go out and have the honor of going out and executing it. But, you have to realize that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of hours put in by many, many, many dedicated people well ahead of time and we really appreciate all of their efforts.
Give us a synopsis, if you would, of what the key objectives are for this mission.
STS-131, the ISS Mission 19A, to the space station is a resupply mission. We are carrying up a multipurpose logistics module in the cargo bay, and we will dock with the space station and attach that module with the robotic arm to the space station. We’ll resupply the space station with the almost 13,000 pounds of cargo and then bring back about five or six thousand pounds. We’ll also perform three spacewalks to replace an ammonia tank assembly and some other tasks that need to be done on the outside of the space station. Then, we’ll bring all that gear back home and land in Florida about two weeks later.
As commander you’re obviously responsible for the big picture of the mission. What other ancillary tasks will you be responsible for?
My position as commander is one of a management position, so to speak, a leadership position. So, I will be spending a lot of my time helping others out where I can and trying to maintain the big picture, as you point out. I’ll manually fly the rendezvous with the space station and the docking and also land the vehicle at the end of the mission.
For people who may not be familiar with what an MPLM is, can you give us your best description of what it is and what it looks like, how big it may be?
The Multi Purpose Logistics Module weighs about 13 or 14,000 pounds, and it’s a large cargo carrier, cylindrical in shape. It has a common berthing mechanism that allows us to mate it with the space station node on another common berthing mechanism half and it allows us to carry cargo up in a contained fashioned pressurized module so that we can get to it from the inside of the space station and so we go through. Once we attach to the space station, we can go through the hatch and then pull out what we flew up in the inside of it and resupply the space station with that. Then, we refit it for the return trip home.
Just a little bit of background about the pieces of hardware that you’re going to be working with, the ammonia tank assembly. I’ve heard it described as or made analogies as to Freon that you use for your car.
The ammonia tank assembly carries ammonia and that ammonia is used in the thermal control system for the space station and it is a very toxic substance. But, because it’s outside the space station, that’s okay. The tank itself is about 1,800 pounds. It’s about the size of a big household chest freezer. We launch a full one in the back of the payload bay and then swap it out with an empty one on orbit.
Each mission has its own complexities. What would you say are the biggest challenges of this mission?
I think the biggest challenges on STS-131 are to be able to complete the transfer in the allotted time. As you know, we have a very compressed schedule and we have a lot of work to do and we need to get all of that transfer done. The three spacewalks, the EVAs that we’re going to do, are also quite challenging. As well as getting all the other tasks done that need to be finished.
The day after you make it to orbit you’re scheduled to do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior tiles. Can you give us an overview of that process and explain to us what you’ll be doing for that?
The main robotic arm operators for the inspection are the pilot, Jim Dutton, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger and Naoko Yamazaki. Stephanie Wilson and I will act in the advisory fashion for that inspection. The arm operators will grapple the orbiter boom sensor system with the shuttle robotic arm, lift it out of its sill carriers and use it to scan all of the sensitive areas on the outside of the space shuttle for any damage that we may have received during the ascent phase.
Discuss, if you would, the level of involvement that the station crew will have during the docked ops and how critical their involvement is to the success of the mission.
The space station crew will be quite involved with us during the docked operations. For one, we need their help getting the spacewalkers ready to go outside. We’ll also use them extensively to help us with the cargo transfer back and forth and to help install some of the scientific racks and the crew quarters that we’re bringing up.
At some point before docking you will have the station in your sights and start to close the gaps between the two spacecraft. Walk us through what happens during rendezvous, the rendezvous and docking phases and tell us what you will do.
We wake up in the morning of rendezvous day and get right to work setting up our tools and making sure that we have all the equipment we need for the rendezvous. The folks on the ground have been working hard up to this point to make, to get us to the right point to execute the rendezvous. We do a series of burns or maneuvers to bring the shuttle up underneath the space station at about 1,000 feet. We fly directly below the station to a distance of about 600 feet and from there we’ll execute the rendezvous pitch maneuver which allows the space station crew to image the orbiter’s thermal protection system with some high powered cameras. We’ll then manually fly the shuttle up in front of the station to a distance of about 400 and then slowly back it into the space station’s docking port. That’s all done manually from the aft cockpit and I’ve got a lot of help on the flight deck with some real professional crew members who are doing most of the hard work.
And then once you’ve docked to the station there’s time to get acclimated, say hello to the station crew and then it’s right to work. Tell what else happens that day?
We’ll have a very quick welcoming ceremony and safety briefing with the station crew and then we will get right back to work with some transfer that needs to be done for the mid-deck and we also need to grapple the orbiter boom sensor system with the station’s robotic arm and pick it up out of the payload bay and then hand it off to the shuttle robotic arm and that needs to be moved in order to get the MPLM out of the payload bay the next day.
And if you would walk us through that process of taking the MPLM out and attaching it to the station.
Stephanie and Naoko will get right to work on the morning of Flight Day 4 and they’ll head over to the station and fly its robotic arm. They’ll reach down into the shuttle’s payload bay and grapple the multi purpose logistics module and lift it out of the payload bay very slowly. With lots of cameras and lots of help, they’ll make sure that they’ve got the tolerances they need and then they’ll bring it up and they’ll attach it to the bottom of the space station at the Node 2 port.
Then there’s some other work that needs to be done before you can actually enter the MPLM. What needs to be done before you can actually go in?
Clay and Naoko and two of the space station crew members, Soichi and T.J., will help outfit the vestibule. They will make sure that the common berthing mechanism is completely secured and that all the bolts are driven all the way in. They’ll outfit the vestibule and we’ll do some pressure checks and thermal equalization. Then, once all that’s done and we get the approval from the ground, we’ll go ahead and open the hatch and then go inside and start outfitting the inside of the MPLM with lights, emergency equipment and stuff we’ll need to work there for the next eight or nine days.
Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson are scheduled to perform three spacewalks on the mission. Can you give us an overview of what they’re scheduled to do during EVA 1 and tell us what you’ll be doing on the inside?
During the EVAs my job is to help Dottie who is our intra-vehicular activity officer and she is the choreographer for the spacewalks. I’ll be assisting her on the flight deck of Discovery and also doing a few other odds and ends but mostly staying out of the way. Rick and Clay are highly trained professionals and they’ll go out. EVA 1 is our first move of three in order to do this ammonia tank swap. They’ll take the new ammonia tank out of the payload bay and it goes up with the help of the station’s robotic arm and gets attached to the mobile base system and it will stay there for a day or so while we get ready for the next spacewalk where we’ll go out and remove the old tank.
And if we could continue there to go on to the next spacewalk and tell us how that will proceed.
On EVA 2 we’ll go out and Rick and Clay will go right to work and they’ll go over to the S 1 truss and begin disconnecting the old ammonia tank and getting it ready for removal. The arm again will come in and help move that. They’ll attach the tank to the arm and then Stephanie and Jim Dutton will fly that arm back over to the front side of the truss where Clay and Rick will remove the tank and strap it down temporarily on the Crew Equipment Translation Aid, the CETA cart. We’ll then take the new tank that was temporarily stowed on a mobile base system and put that back in the truss and that’ll take most of the time of EVA 2 will be spent doing that tank swap.
And for EVA 3?
For EVA 3, once again the robotic arm will have to be reconfigured overnight. We can’t reach into the payload bay and to the back of the truss with the arm in one position, so we have to do these reconfigurations. So, between two and three, we’ll reconfigure the arm again and base it off of the Node 2 grapple fixture. We will go in and grab the old empty ammonia tank off of the payload attach mechanism and then put it back down in the payload bay.
Are there plans to do any of the robotic work from the cupola because you’ll have that at your disposal, I guess?
We hope to use the cupola for our robotics operations. The addition of having the exterior window views will really enhance our ability to accomplish the robotic operations in a safe and expeditious fashion.
There’s also a place holder day to do what’s called a focused inspection if that is deemed to be necessary. Just maybe kind of explain what that is and how that will proceed if it does happen.
The focused inspection, if it’s required, will be done by Dottie and Jim with Stephanie Wilson helping out from the flight deck of Discovery. What happens there is, if the team on the ground finds that we had an area of interest where we wanted to go get some further data. Then we would use the shuttle’s OBSS, the Orbiter Boom Sensor System. They’re highly sophisticated sensor packages to go and scan those particular areas of interest to look for any exterior damage.
At some point during the mission spacewalks will be completed, transfers will be completed, you have to put the MPLM back in. Is there any big mystery to that? It’s just the reverse of taking it out?
There’s not a big mystery to moving the MPLM but it is a complex operation. We have to be quite careful with it. Any time we’re moving the robotic arm with a heavy payload on it in close proximity to the structure; we really have to pay attention closely. Stephanie and Naoko are pros at this and they’ll get the job done but they’ll use the robotic arm to remove Leonardo from the space station and reberth it back in the payload bay.
Then at some point you’ll be ready to separate from the station and start on the trip back home. What’s on tap for undocking day?
Jim Dutton will get his opportunity to fly the space shuttle for the first time so we’re really looking forward to that day. Jim will be on the aft flight deck of Discovery. I’ll be up front in the left seat with Clay Anderson helping me out and making sure that procedures are followed and Jim will be in the back and he’ll manually undock the shuttle from the space station and back us out to a distance of about 400 feet. He’ll start a 360 degree lap or fly around of the space station and we use that time to get very good high quality, good engineering imagery of the exterior of the space station. It’s one of the few opportunities where we’ll get to take high powered lenses and examine the outside of the space station for anything that’s happened to it since the last shuttle flight.
What are you most looking forward to on your return trip to the station? It’s changed a little bit since last time you were there.
I’m looking forward to seeing the space station in its completed glory. It’s just going to be a wonderful place. It is a wonderful place. When I was there last we had Node 2 and the Columbus module. Now we’ve since added all of the Japanese modules and Node 3 will be there with the cupola. The truss is finished out so it’s really just looking forward to seeing the space station and working there for a week or so will just be a wonderful pleasure.
We are approaching end of the shuttle era. It evokes certain emotions from certain people who have been involved with the program and with shuttle. What are your thoughts about all of this?
I think the end of the shuttle program is a time to celebrate all the accomplishments, all of the great work that we’ve done with the shuttle over the past thirty years. We’ve managed to do tremendous things that could never have been done without the shuttle; building the space station and working with the Hubble on the flights that we’ve had with Hubble. It’s just been a spectacular experience and I think it’s time to celebrate and it’s time to think about all of the great work and the great folks that worked on the shuttle program throughout the years.
Are there any shuttle memories that you have that you can share with us and tell us why those moments impacted you the way that they have?
I can remember very clearly being in college when STS-1 launched. I can remember very clearly being at the end of my college career when we lost Challenger and that one sticks out in my mind. I was here in 2003 when we lost Columbia and those moments are just terrible memories. But I think they make you think about the importance of what we do and how it’s important to pick up the pieces and learn from the mistakes that we’ve made and the engineering failures that we’ve had and move on and learn from those. I think it makes us a better agency. It makes us a better country and it makes us a better space-faring society.
How do you imagine that the space shuttle will be remembered in a future where space travel between worlds becomes as commonplace as airplane travel is today on Earth?
I think we might see in 100 or 200 years, the space shuttle as one of the early aircraft. We saw the Wright fliers and the Lindberghs as doing the things that needed to be done in order to make commercial air travel as common as it is today; as safe as it is today. We’ll see the space shuttle and the Apollo programs before that and Gemini and Mercury as well as being the early programs that got us on our feet to a successful and safe space-faring society.