This is the STS-131 interview with Mission Specialist Stephanie Wilson. Tell us about the place that you consider to be your hometown and what it was like growing up there.
Preflight Interview: Stephanie D. Wilson, Mission Specialist
I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and lived there for about a year before my parents decided to move to the western part of the state, Pittsfield, Massachusetts., and I consider Pittsfield to be my hometown. That’s where I attended elementary, middle and high school, and that’s the place that I consider to be my hometown.
What was it like growing up there? How did that place influence who you’ve become?
Pittsfield is a small town. There’s a very strong sense of community, and I feel that that’s one of the biggest points that’s affected me as I’ve been growing up, the fact that it has a strong sense of community.
Now you’ve been to space twice before. On either occasion did you happen to see that area from space, and what was that like if you did?
I did on my first flight. We had a very clear view of Massachusetts so I was able to get some nice clean pictures. On my second flight, though, when we passed over Massachusetts there was a little bit of cloud cover, so I wasn’t able to get as nice of a picture, but we did take some. It is very exciting, and we have a very warm feeling when we pass over our hometowns or our home states.
Tell us about your interests growing up. What did you like to do?
I had a lot of interests growing up. I ran track and I played soccer. I also played clarinet, so I was in the marching band, an orchestra, a jazz band and a woodwind quintet. I had a lot of interests, and for school studies, I was interested in math and science and English, in reading and writing.
Okay, pretty busy.
I was very busy.
Walk us through your educational background. Tell us the steps you took post high school, after high school graduation.
I attended Harvard University and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Sciences, and I attended the University of Texas in Austin and received a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering.
Do you recall at what point in life you decided that you wanted to become an astronaut?
I do. When I was about thirteen I was given a school assignment in a Career Awareness class to interview someone that worked in the career field in which I was interested. I interviewed a local area astronomy professor. I thought that astronomy was a fantastic career, being able to teach, being able to see events in the heavens and to do the observations. Later, I became more interested in engineering and decided that I would study engineering in college and perhaps that aerospace engineering would be a good combination of my interests in astronomy and my interest in engineering.
Recount for us then the steps that you took to get to NASA and then subsequent to that, how you ended up then becoming an astronaut.
My first job was with the former Martin Marietta Astronautics in Denver. I did loads and dynamics works on the Titan IV launch vehicle, and I also worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There I worked mostly on the Galileo as a member of the attitude control sub group and from JPL I sent in my application here to Johnson Space Center for the astronaut corps and was accepted into the class of 1996.
What was that time duration like from the first time you sent in an application to when you were selected? How long was it and how many applications?
I believe I had two applications and the first was in 1993 and I was, of course, sent a very nice letter, “Thank you for your application. You’re very qualified but we’re not quite ready for you yet,” and I sent in another application in the ’95-’96 cycle and received some positive feedback to come here for the interview process and was subsequently selected.
Do you recall where you were, what you were doing when you got the call to say, “Hey, come on down.”
It has been some time, but I do remember getting the call in the morning. It was a little bit early for me since I was in California, but in getting the call from Mr. Leestma to ask if I would be interested to come to Johnson Space Center and train to be an astronaut and I, of course, was very delighted, very excited and said “yes”. I enjoyed working at JPL. The people there are very wonderful and there are great programs and projects that are being worked by JPL, but this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.
What kinds of things stick out in your mind about either of your previous space flights?
Well, one thing that sticks out, on my second flight, STS-120, we had some trouble deploying a solar array, and during the deploy the port six solar array tore. That was almost very similar to an Apollo 13–like moment. The teams on the ground, the EVA teams, the robotic teams, our flight directors, our structural and mechanics personnel all came together to come up with a plan to repair this solar array only using the materials that we had on board. They sent up procedures for us to fabricate cuff links that a spacewalker would install to bridge over the tear to give the array some structural stiffness to complete the deploy. So, we put together with the help with our ground team a spacewalk and robotics procedures that we hadn’t seen before. It was very complex, but very memorable that as part of this larger team we were able to deploy the solar array, and complete the spacewalk successfully.
When they call up and started talking about cufflinks, what was the reaction of the crew? Was it like, “What are you talking about?”
Well, we saw a picture so we knew what they were talking about. It’s hard to come up with a name for basically a very complex string that has two tabs at the end so that when inserted into a hole it will stay if there’s a little bit of tension if it’s pulled. It was very exciting to watch the cufflinks being made on orbit and this whole plan of structural mechanics, spacewalking, robotics, all coming together to come up with a plan to repair the solar array. It was very exciting.
This mission will commemorate a milestone for JAXA. It’ll be the first time that two Japanese astronauts, namely Naoko Yamazaki and Soichi Noguchi, will be on orbit in space together. What’s it like for you to have a role in this moment for that space agency?
It will be, I think, very exciting and very memorable both for JAXA and for NASA and for all of our international partners to participate and witness such an event. Soichi was part of my astronaut class, the class of 1996, so I started training with him here at Johnson Space Center, and have come to know Naoko also as a member of this crew on STS-131. I think it will be very exciting to see the two of them in space working together. It’ll be a pleasure to be there and work with them and to witness this event firsthand.
Talk to us a little bit about what it’s been like training for this mission with this crew.
This crew has been very fun and very rewarding. Everyone is very hard working. We have fun when we can, but we know that the work is very serious, so we work very hard. We make sure that we complete successfully the role that we have to play in this larger team and do all of the training and then be able to do the mission objectives on orbit. It’s been a lot of fun to get to know this crew and to get to work with them.
There are thousands of people who work behind the scenes to ensure the success and safety of the mission and the crew. What’s it like when you get a chance to meet these people while traveling around for training, and what kinds of things do you talk about when you meet those people?
It is very exciting, and it is one of the nicest things that we have an opportunity to do, to meet the members of this larger team, to go to the NASA centers after the mission and talk about the spaceflight, and to thank all of the people that have participated and contributed to the success of the mission. Their contributions are enormous and it’s hard to say thank you enough. Everyone works very hard. They sacrifice weekends, holidays and work long hours and it’s a nice opportunity that we have to thank other members of the team. We try to share the story since we wish we could take everyone with us in space but we’re not able to. We try to share the story of the mission and bring it home to them so that they feel as much of a part of the on-orbit mission as they can. We’re often asked questions about what it’s like to be in space, what’s the view like, and so we try to bring back as many pictures and as many stories as we can.
Tell us about what the key objectives are for this mission.
For this mission, key objectives are to launch and install a logistics module. We have several experiments and supplies that we must transfer to the International Space Station, so that’s one of our key objectives. We also are swapping out an ammonia tank to resupply the thermal control system for the space station. So those are primary objectives.
As a mission specialist on this flight tell us about some of your key responsibilities for this flight.
For this flight, my key responsibilities are in the areas of robotics. I will be managing the plan that transfers our launch vehicle into an orbiting vehicle, and the reconfiguration for entry. I’ll also be setting up the computer network and making sure that that runs properly during the mission.
Each mission has its own set of complexities. From your vantage point, how would you assess what the challenges are going to be for this mission?
For this mission there will be a few challenges. One is that we have a lot of experiments and supplies to transfer to the space station, and ensuring that we have enough time to complete all of those transfer operations successfully during the docked time frame, I think, will be a challenge. There’s a lot of equipment that we need to bring to the space station and also return home. Those transfer activities are very complex with choreographies, and it does take quite a bit of crew time to complete those successfully. Other challenges are with robotics and spacewalking, the timing of the choreography for this spacewalk for the swap of the ammonia tanks, the EVA crew is actually holding up the tanks for the robotic arm to grapple to the tank and so there could be a little bit of dynamics. We are having some trouble with the lights on the station robotic arm and so lighting could also be a little bit tricky for us for some of the operations.
Early in the mission, after you’ve launched and made it to orbit and configured the shuttle into an orbiter for the stay in space, on Flight Day 2 you’re scheduled to do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior. Talk to us about that process and tell us what your involvement will be for that.
Yes, that inspection on Flight Day 2, involves the shuttle robotic arm grappled to our boom that has sensors at the tip and we’ll use that boom to inspect or to take data for the port wing, the starboard wing and the nose cap on the orbiter. It will also look a little bit at the crew compartment and the area between the wing and the nose. All that data will be downlinked to the ground, and we will record it on board in the event that Mission Control does not have a good video link. My part in that inspection will be to manage one of our situational awareness tools for robotics on our computer network.
How involved will the station crew be in the docked ops, and how critical is their involvement to the success of the mission?
The space station crew will be very involved, and their participation is critical to the success of our mission. They are timelined and scheduled for quite a bit of our transfer activities. They are the ones who are most familiar with the space station, so they will be involved in transferring a lot of our payload racks and systems racks into the space station. For our spacewalks, they do a great deal to ready the airlock, to pre-position a lot of our EVA tools and equipment. So, they will be directly involved, and the success of the mission lies directly with their participation.
At some point on Flight Day 3, the way it’s currently scheduled, you will eventually have the station in your sights and start the process of approaching it. Talk to us about the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight and tell us what you’re scheduled to do for that period of time.
For Flight Day 3 for docking, I’ll be involved with the rendezvous team. I will be one of the handheld laser operators so I’ll be giving the commander information on distance to the space station and our rate of closure with respect to the space station. Also, I’ll manage some of the situational awareness tools that we have for rendezvous that we have on our computer network.
Then in the period after you’ve docked and boarded station, said hello, spent a little time getting acclimated, what’s on tap for the rest of that day for you?
For the rest of Flight Day 3, once we’re docked we will, of course, have a safety briefing and meeting with the space station crew, and we’ll get right to work, and do some robotics operations. We’ll have the station robotic arm unberth the boom sensor system that we used on Flight Day 2 for the inspection. We will unberth that and hand it over to the shuttle arm and that will complete the operations for the day after docking.
We’ve talked about the MPLM and have some idea of what’s going to be in it but in order to do the transfers you have to actually get it out of the payload bay. Tell us when that’s scheduled to happen and kind of talk us through how that process will take place.
So the day after docking, on Flight Day 4, we will unberth the logistics module using the station robotic arm, the manual maneuver to unberth it out of the payload bay. Then there is an automatic sequence that rotates the logistics in an orientation that’s proper for installation on the space station, and then we do a manual maneuver to install it onto the space station.
Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson are scheduled to do three spacewalks on the mission. Give us an overview of what they’re scheduled to do on the first spacewalk and tell us what you’ll be doing on the inside during that EVA.
For EVA 1 we will be working with our ammonia tank that’s in the payload bay so the spacewalkers, Rick and Clay, will hold up the ammonia tank. The station robotic arm will grapple to it and we will take it from the payload bay and stow it in a temporary location, on the POA, on this payload accommodation ORU end effector that’s on the space station on the mobile base system. So I will be participating in the robotics operations for that day for the spacewalk.
There is a place holder day in the mission scheduled to allow for a procedure called focused inspection. If that happens, tell us how that will happen and what your involvement will be.
I believe the place holder is on Flight Day 5 for focused inspection, and as a result of the inspection that occurs on Flight Day 2, if there are any areas of concern or areas where the ground control team would like to see more data, they will send us to those areas during focused inspection. We will then use the shuttle robotic arm grappled to the orbiter boom sensor system to gather more data on those areas of interest.
Then on the second spacewalk of the mission, Rick and Clay are back outside for more work. Again give us an overview of what they’ll do on EVA 2 and what your involvement will be for that spacewalk.
On EVA 2 we’ll be working with both the new ammonia tank and the old ammonia tank. We will get the old ammonia tank from its location on the starboard 1 truss. Rick and Clay will hold it up for us, and we’ll use the station robotic arm to grapple to that old tank, and we will put it in a temporary location on a CETA cart, also on the truss. Then we will go and get the new tank that we stowed at the end of EVA 1 in the POA, in this payload accommodation ORU. We will take that using the station robotic arm out of the POA and put it on S-1, in the final location on the starboard 1 truss.
It’s kind of like a shell game.
Yes, it is. It is very complex.
Then a couple of days later they will be back outside for EVA 3. Again an overview of the spacewalk and just basically tell us what’s going to happen.
On EVA 3, we will start with the old tank that was on the POA, and we will put that into the payload bay for return home. Again we’ll have the assistance of Rick and Clay in the payload bay. We’ll hand it off to them and they will install it on the carrier that’s in the aft portion of the payload bay.
The remainder of EVA 3 involves some operations with the pallet that’s on Columbus and also some work with the Dexterous Manipulator that’s on the lab. While we have Clay on the station robotic arm, we’ll be removing a pallet from Columbus, from the European Laboratory Module, also stowing it in the payload bay on the carrier that’s in the aft portion of the payload bay. Then we will bring him from that location to the lab to do some work on the Dexterous Manipulator. Clay will be installing a camera and also removing a blanket or a shroud that’s on the Dexterous Manipulator.
And give us an idea of what you’re scheduled to do for the undocking of the flight?
For undocking, I will be involved with the undocking team. I’ll again be operating the handheld laser to give information on range and distance to the space station and also a rate of opening from the space station. I will manage the situational awareness tool that we have on our computer network for rendezvous and undocking.
We are approaching the scheduled end of the space shuttle era. People have different feelings about that depending on who you talk to. What does this mean for you basically?
The retirement of the shuttle is very sad. The shuttle has served us very well as a heavy lift vehicle, a great workhorse to put into orbit payloads such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra, X-ray Observatory, other payloads and in building the International Space Station, so it will certainly be sad to see this era close and to see the shuttle retire. However, we have been in low Earth orbit for a long time, and we are well past due the opportunity and the chance to go beyond low Earth orbit. So, I look forward to that new chapter of exploration.
How do you imagine the space shuttle will be remembered in a future where travel between worlds is as commonplace as airplane travel is today here on Earth?
I imagine that the space shuttle will be remembered in many ways, one of which would be bridging the gap between low Earth orbit and exploration and deep space exploration. I also think that the space shuttle will be remembered for bridging a gap between communities and bringing together international partnerships as it had a very strong role in building the International Space Station. So I hope that the shuttle is remembered in many ways but hopefully those two will be included.