This is the STS-132 interview with Pilot Dominic Anthony Antonelli, more commonly referred to as Tony. Tell us about the place or places that you grew up in and what it was like growing up there for you.
Preflight Interview: Tony Antonelli, Pilot
I mostly grew up in North Carolina. I went to high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I think it was not rural and not big city, just a regular, medium-sized town, small- to medium-sized town. I think a high percentage of folks grew up in a similar setting.
What would you say was the biggest influence in that place and maybe influencing who you’ve become?
My mother. That’s probably not too different from probably half the people hopefully. She was always, and I think we’re going to get to that talking about education and stuff, but pushing education as a way to open up opportunities.
Well, let’s talk about the education. How big of a factor was it in helping you to get to where you are basically?
I think that was everything as far as the factors go. That was all of it starting out. Working hard, doing your best in school, those kind of things, and then the education that I ended up getting afforded me opportunities to continue doing different things.
Have you had a chance to go out and talk to kids these days about that? What’s that like if you do?
I get a chance just a little bit. I’m busy training, of course, for STS-132 right now, so I haven’t been in a little while. I’m still planning on making a trip back to my high school, which I haven’t done yet, but it’s thrilling getting to go talk to school kids and remember. When I was a school kid I was invincible and all the problems of the world seemed completely solvable. They just needed us to grow up, get out of school and start running the place, and that’s still true today. If you go to any of the schools, the kids are mostly invincible. They understand that the problems that we face today are no issue for them. They’re going to handle them just fine as soon as we give them a chance.
Tell me about your hobbies and interests growing up and even today, if some of those are still what you like to do.
When I was younger I played basketball and football. It was organized sports, and then outside stuff like skateboarding and hanging out at the community swimming pool in the summertime, just mostly outside stuff. I still enjoy hanging out at the swimming pool in the summer. Most of the other things are a little bit different.
Did you get a chance on your most recent mission to see the area that you grew up from space? I know you grew up in North Carolina but you also lived in the Indianapolis area for awhile. Did you get a chance to see either of those?
I didn’t see North Carolina real well from space. Actually the first thing that I looked out the window and knew right away where I was without getting help from the computer was Chicago. We have a computer program that kind of shows us where we are over the world, but just floating up to the window, having no idea where you are and looking out the window, the first thing I recognized was Chicago lit up at night. Once I recognized that, because of Lake Michigan and how Chicago lays out, it stands out pretty clearly. From there I could find Indianapolis and the area but, of course, it was at night so you couldn’t see a lot of detail other than the city lights.
Any thoughts go through your head about, you know…
Yeah, from there to here?
Not exactly. The view was pretty amazing and just trying to take that all in was all I could do at the time.
Tell us about some of your most memorable experiences from that first flight.
It’s all the really obvious things. The Earth is round. I remember that being one of my first thoughts and, of course, I knew that. I’d heard that before. It wasn’t the first time I heard it, but seeing it for some reason is different. Later on in the mission when we had a little bit of time off, I spent some time just looking out the window and it dawned on me that everybody I know is from here, Earth, and everybody that they know is also from here. It definitely makes the place look small and makes it seem like we should be a lot more neighborly than we are. I think that if everybody realized how small of a place we live, we would probably do a little more to take care of each other.
Kind of puts it in some perspective then.
Walk us through the educational steps that you took. Let’s start after high school graduation.
I finished up high school and needed a way to pay for college, so I went into the Navy ROTC program just as a way to pay for college. I ended up going up to the northeast and studying engineering at M.I.T. I thought at the time that I would get my degree, and I’d pay the Navy back their four years that I owed them for paying for school. Of course now I’ve been in the Navy over twenty years. I ended up liking the work that I got to do in the Navy. I got commissioned in the Navy the same day I graduated from college so there was not any real after college time to speak of that wasn’t Navy. While I was in the Navy, I actually spent close to ten years working on my Master’s Degree, so I figured out that school and work together are pretty difficult. School may seem hard enough on its own when you’re doing it by yourself, but once you try to do that and have a job, it’s a whole lot harder. I finally got my Master’s Degree while I was here at NASA working.
And if I remember correctly, too, while you were at M.I.T., you were on the rowing team.
Yes, I was.
What was it like, and how did rowing help you in the rest of your life? How did the team aspect of things help?
Yeah, it’s a huge team sport, as is space flight. I think I said that last time. Space flight’s a team sport. One person can make a boat go slow without too much difficulty, but one person can’t make the boat go fast by themselves. I think a lot of that is true with most things we do. I haven’t done too many individual kind of sports. Flying airplanes for the Navy, I flew single seat airplanes so I was the only one in the airplane but it’s still a team sport. You don’t go and deploy that weapons platform by yourself.
Tell us about some of the places that you served at in the Navy. Did you do any overseas stuff at all?
I did flight school in Pensacola and then in Beeville, Texas, just down the road a little bit. After that, I got shipped over to Lemoore, California, and flew F-18s out of Lemoore. I did workups and crews on the Nimitz, and we left from the west coast and did a tour in the Gulf from the Nimitz. When I came back though, I ended up doing Test Pilot School with the Air Force. I was a Navy exchange guy in the Air Force’s school down at Edwards Air Force Base, California. When I left there, I spent two years just up the road in Ridgecrest, California. The Navy base there is China Lake. I worked up there for a couple years.
Do you recall when it was that you first got the notion of becoming an astronaut and why?
Ever since I was young, mostly before I can remember it just seemed like something cool to do. It was on the list with race car driver and firefighter. Today I still think the same three things would be pretty cool to do, but I just ended up with this one.
Tell us then how you then transitioned from there to here. When did you start applying and how long did it take before you got the call?
It depends on how you look at it. I went through a long process, flying airplanes for the Navy, wanting to go to Test Pilot School and applying to go to Test Pilot School was part of the process for getting here and one of the things you need to do to show up and fly for NASA. I ended up applying just once to NASA. I’m a little reluctant to say that because I think it gives people the wrong idea. It’s just luck and timing if you have the qualifications they need. You get the job when and if you happen to fit into the rest of their big puzzle. I personally just applied once and got hired, but it’s not exactly easy.
Pretty cool. When did you get the call? What was that like? What was that moment like?
It was pretty cool. I had left China Lake and was back in Lemoore. I had orders. The Navy ordered me to go back and serve as a Department Head in an F-18 squadron in Japan. So, I was back in Lemoore getting requalified to land and take-off on the aircraft carrier, and I got a call. We started talking, and I got asked the question, “Do you like what you’re doing right now?” I thought about it for a second, and I said, “Hey, I’m flying F-18s in defense of the nation’s freedom. Yes, I like what I’m doing right now.” I’m not sure what answer they thought I was going to give them, but I gave them the honest answer. Luckily for me they didn’t end the conversation there. They asked if I’d be interested in doing something different. I said, “Yeah, I’m always open to considering things. What do you have to offer?” Then I was offered to come to NASA and to fly. That wasn’t too tough of a decision to make.
All right, and then from selection, tell us about some of the things that you’ve done in the Astronaut Office from being selected up to the point of when you were assigned to your first flight.
My entire class spent about the first eighteen months learning about shuttle systems, basic shuttle systems, and basic International Space Station systems, and how to operate those two vehicles. We finished that up, and we all split off and got different technical assignments. My first one was working space shuttle propulsion, so I was working with the elements, the external tank, the space shuttle main engines, the solid rocket booster, and the solid rocket motor. All those programs are managed out of Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I was kind of our office’s liaison to those projects. I ended up doing that job for quite some time. I kept telling myself it wasn’t because I wasn’t doing a good enough job. They just wanted me to get it right before they moved me on. I think it’s valuable to have folks in our office have a bunch of different jobs and get a feel for the whole program. I ended up doing that propulsion job for a while, just because of some of the circumstances we had. I started working in Mission Control as the Capsule Communicator, “Cap Comming” as the Flight Director’s voice up to the space shuttle and space station. Those were my jobs before I got assigned to my first mission.
What’s it been like training with this group of crewmates for this mission?
I’m not sure how many of them you’ve interviewed yet, but it’s great. They’re all very talented, very sharp, which is important. Your co-workers need to be capable of doing their job. We all share an office, and we’ve spent almost a year now training together. What’s most important is just how good of guys they are, and they’re all great guys. They’re a lot of fun to be around, and since we spend so much time together, that actually is the most important thing. They are pretty sharp, and I think a couple of them are a little bit of a cut up, so if you haven’t interviewed them yet, you’ll have a treat when they show up.
Tell us about how you view the contribution of the thousands of people that work behind the scenes to ensure the success and safety of the crew and each mission. How valuable is their contribution?
It’s actually everything. John Phillips, who I flew with on 119, was always really good about explaining. STS-132 is a mission, and all of us work together to put that mission together. It sometimes gets referred to as ‘our mission’, and if I ever say that I mean the big group. A lot of folks work a long time to put this mission together. I think probably the majority work longer on it than we do, and I wouldn’t want to necessarily trade with too many of them. We’re pretty lucky to get the part we play in the mission. We’re pretty lucky to get that part, but it’s huge. It’s everything and the propulsion job has given me a little bit of insight into just what goes into the propulsion aspects of the space shuttle. That’s a pretty large group of folks, but that’s still just another piece to the folks all around the country and all the other pieces that I don’t personally have a lot of insight into. However, I do have a lot of respect for the work they do because we wouldn’t be going anywhere without every one of them.
Give us a synopsis if you would of what the key objectives are for STS-132.
Mine are to get everybody back home safely. We’re delivering a Russian module called MRM1. It was Russian built. It actually has a few pieces on the outside that they’ll use in other places on the space station. It’s also packed full of U.S. supplies. I don’t keep up with all the negotiations that the different international partners go through, but I’m sure this was part of some negotiations. We’ll fly their module, and I guess we get the internal volume initially to fly supplies up, and then we’ll sort it out once they get up there. So that’s our big piece. That’ll be in the aft or the back part of the space shuttle payload bay. Just forward of that, we’ll have a pallet and on that pallet will be six batteries for the truss out on the far left side, the port side, P6. STS-127 replaced six batteries out there on P6, and now we’ll flip that truss over and replace the other six too. It’s one of the things that we’re going to do. The other side of the pallet that doesn’t have the batteries has basically a radio antenna. It comes in a couple of pieces that you might hear us refer to as the ‘boom’ and the ‘dish’. We’ll take the boom off and plant it on the top of Z1 like a flag, and then put the dish on top of that. The other thing on the pallet, you might hear us refer to it as EOTP. It’s basically just a platform for SPDM (Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator)
so that when SPDM needs to replace different elements on the space station, it has a place to store those elements. On the mission that just landed, the OTP, which was a temporary platform, was removed. We’ll put the EOTP in, a more capable storage platform.
You are the pilot for this mission. Tell us about what your key responsibilities are in that capacity.
Yeah, I get all the important stuff. Ken “Hawk” is our Mission Commander so he’s ultimately responsible for seeing that everything gets done, but while he’s busy with the big picture, situational awareness and running the mission, he hands off all the important things to me. On the way up I’ll be responsible primarily for the space shuttle main engines and making sure they’re running correctly, and if they’re not, figuring out the correct game plan to optimize our performance with whatever situation we have. On the way down, Hawk’ll be doing the landing, but I’ll be putting the gear down. I tell people, “No matter how pretty of an approach he flies, if I don’t put the gear down, his landing won’t look too pretty.” Then the rest of the mission, which is, of course, the vast majority of the time, I’m responsible for keeping the toilet clean and operating, and then keeping the trash all sorted and cleaned up, so I’ve got the most important job for all the phases.
Give us your best description, if you would, and tell us just basically what you know about what the MRM1 is, what it’ll be used for and where it will eventually live basically on station.
Okay. Garrett and Piers are going to fly the big arm. Hawk and I will hand them the MRM1 from the shuttle’s robotic arm, and Garrett and Piers will grab it with the big arm. They’re going to install it on the nadir or down facing Earth side of the FGB, the forward end of the FGB, and it’ll live there the whole time, as I understand it right now. We’ll attach one interface, and then there’ll be another docking interface, nadir of that, that allows the Soyuz or Progress to dock to the nadir end of MRM1. Like I said, it’s full of U.S. supplies right now so they’ll get in there and clean all that out, and then it’ll be another laboratory, if you will. It’s a different configuration from the laboratories on the U.S. side, but it’s basically just a laboratory. It’s not completely full of Russian experiments yet, and I don’t know how far along they are in developing what experiments they’ll conduct in there.
How would you characterize the complexity of the tasks on this mission? How difficult is it going to be?
We’re hoping to get everything done, so I’m hoping that they’re not too difficult. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we’re going to do them and how to lay them out so we can get them done efficiently with the time we have, so if everything goes right, nothing should be hard. In addition to figuring out the best way to lay it out we try to think of every scenario that we can come up with that would go wrong and what we would do if that particular thing went wrong. If nothing goes wrong, it should be easy, and if something goes wrong that we’ve already thought about, hopefully we’ve got our workarounds in place and we just run right through our alternate game plan, if you will. The business of space is all about learning so if something goes wrong that we haven’t thought about, we’ve got a great team on the ground. I think you’ve seen them in action before. We often around here call them ‘Team Four’. They’ll call folks in, and they’ll work all night and they’ll come up with a good solution and send it up to us, and we’ll do our best to execute it.
The day after you make it to orbit, you’re scheduled to do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior tiles. Walk us through that process, and tell us what role you’ll have in that process.
It’s a little bit of a long day, a long inspection. I tried explaining this last time. I think the cartoon graphics do the best. We’ll use the space shuttle’s robotic [arm], and we’ll pick up what we’ll call the ‘boom’. On the end of that there’s a still camera, a laser camera and then also a video camera. We’re going to use that to inspect the leading edge of both wings and the nose. It’s a long series of automated robotic procedures. We’ll put the arm and the boom in a starting configuration, hit ‘go’, and it should run through an auto sequence kind of thing to scan the leading edge of the wings. We have to do the top, the front, and the bottom so it’ll be several of these in a row, and it’ll take most of the day. We’ll rotate different responsibilities, taking turns either flying the arm or running the checklist or keeping the extra computers and data recording going; it’s kind of a three-person job. Then we’ll rotate out because it’s a bit of a long day.
The following day you’re scheduled to eventually approach and at some point dock to the International Space Station. Tell us about rendezvous and docking and what you’ll do for that phase of the flight.
Hawk, our Commander’s going to do the actual flying. It’s a manually flown rendezvous with the shuttle to the space station. He’ll get us up underneath the space station and do a back flip so they can take pictures of our tile. That’ll complete the part of the inspection that we don’t get done on Flight Day 2. Then he’ll get out in front of the space station, and then just kind of back us in from out in front. He’s got his tolerances. There is a cylinder that’s three inches and a closure rate. He’s going to try to shoot for a tenth of a foot per second and he’s only got plus or minus .03. So he’s busy flying. He’s got some pretty challenging flying tasks. I mean, he’s well trained for it and it’s going to be great, but that will be his focus. My job will be to just keep track of the checklist, make sure that everything that’s on the checklist gets done, checked off. I just report back to him that it’s complete. That frees him up to just do the flying.
There are three scheduled spacewalks on the mission. On the first one Garrett Reisman and Stephen Bowen will go outside to do some work. Give us an overview of what they’ll do, where they’ll be and tell us about what you’ll be doing on the inside for that spacewalk.
On the inside, I’ll be working as the IV. The ‘EVA’ is ‘Extra Vehicular Activity’ or spacewalk, so the ‘I’ is ‘Inside’. I’m going to be staying inside the whole time. Same kind of thing as on the rendezvous. I’ll have the checklist. This time they’re going to be out there for six-and-a-half hours, lot of things to do. They’ve got a cuff checklist so they can write down reminders, but I’ll have the full blown checklist, and mark off that everything gets completed. They’ve got a busy, busy EVA1. I talked to you about the radio antenna dish that we’re going to put up there. The first thing they’re going to do will be to take it off this pallet. I guess I didn’t finish the whole story of this. The pallet launches in the shuttle payload bay. Piers and Tracy are going to pull this pallet out of the shuttle payload bay, and install it on the POA which is a grapple fixture on the mobile base system. Steve and Garrett are going to go pull the boom off of there. Garrett’s actually going to be in the station’s arm and fly it over to the top of Z1 which is just on top of Node 1, after the lab. Steve has to translate himself over there. Together they’ll work to plant this flag, plant the boom, and bolt it in. Garrett goes back to the pallet which is on the forward part of the truss, and ride the arm back, grab the dish, bring it back, and attach it to the top of the boom. Steve, while he’s there waiting, will be doing a lot of the electrical connections. When that’s complete, they’ll both come back. Garrett will pull the EOTP off of the pallet and install that on the base of SPDM, and Steve will be over there to help him torque that down. Even though I say it doesn’t seem that hard, it’s actually quite a bit of work.
Then for the second spacewalk, it’ll be Bowen heading back out this time with Mike Good. Give us an overview, if you would, of what they’ll do on EVA 2.
This is even simpler to describe, but still a lot of work. Our plan is to replace four of the six batteries. The big arm will take the pallet off of the POA, and hang it out as far to the port side of the station as it can reach, similar to what they did on STS-127. We’re going to pull old batteries out of the truss and put in new batteries from the pallet, and put the old batteries back into the pallet. The plan is to get about four of the six done on EVA 2.
Then on the final scheduled EVA, EVA 3, it’ll be Garrett Reisman and Mike Good out there. More batteries…
The rest of the batteries, hopefully just two, and then we have one last thing we have to do. There is a grapple fixture that the big arm uses to grab onto things or uses as a base. It’s in our space shuttle, Atlantis’ payload bay. They’ll go down, translate out forward on the station, climb into the payload bay, pull this grapple fixture out of the payload bay, and then carry it back inside. The future plan for that is to mount it externally on the Russian segment. The mounting hardware was, I think, manufactured by the Russians. It’ll be flown up in a Progress. They’ll install the grapple fixture to the mounting hardware inside. At some later date they’ll come outside and install it.
You talked about the insulation of MRM1. That’s scheduled to happen a little bit later on in the mission, but on that day that it’s scheduled to happen, that might now be the end of the robotics work for that day. Tell us about what will happen if mission managers decide they want to take a closer look at the shuttle’s exterior that day.
While on Flight Day 2, we grabbed the boom with the shuttle arm, it turns out that we can’t reach the boom with the shuttle arm while we’re docked because the station’s structure is in the way, so we’ll use the big arm, the station’s arm, to grab the boom which has the laser cameras on the end of it. That is what we’re trying to gain access to. They’ll grab the boom, pull it out, hand it to the shuttle arm, and then we will use the shuttle arm and boom to get this laser camera up under whatever area the shuttle program managers want to collect more data on. We’ll use the laser camera, to take a lot of extra pictures, maybe do some 3-D mapping with the laser features of the camera, and send all that data back to the ground so the engineers can take a look at it.
What level of involvement will the station crew have in the docked ops and how critical are they to accomplishing the mission successfully?
They’re critical. It depends on when we launch, of course, who’s going to be up there, but right now Tracy is critical to the big arm robotics. She’s pulling out the pallet on our Flight Day 3. Right after we dock, just after lunchtime, Piers is going to go over there and they’re going to get to work pulling that pallet out of the payload bay. That needs to get done so that we can be ready to do our first EVA on Flight Day 4. Then on the EVAs with Garrett riding back and forth from Z1 to the pallet, it’s actually some critical arm work. The arm has to weave into some really tight spaces, and Garrett’s on the end of it trying to get access to bolts to do the work that he’s trying to do. That’s some really critical robotics work there. Then if that goes well, on Flight Day 5 we’re installing MRM1. Right now the plan is for Garrett to fly the big arm with Piers helping him out, and then Piers running the install procedures, which is all driven off of Russian laptops. The Russians will, if anything doesn’t go right, jump in to help us work through whatever troubleshooting we need to do.
How would you say it is advantageous to have an all veteran crew, all people who’ve been up there before, to get this done, basically efficiently?
I guess from the work standpoint and getting our job done, I think it’s pretty advantageous. One of the things Hawk did at the beginning of his game plan was to make sure that as many of us as possible do something different than what they did on their previous mission. It wasn’t easy on the training team because we’re trained up to do one thing, and now he wants us training to do something else, but it’s really good for experience in the office. For efficiently getting the job done, it’s great. There’s so many others out there that need to get a trip into space because it’s just fantastic, but I guess we’re just not quite there yet. The time hasn’t come.
What different tasks are you going to be doing that are different from your last mission?
On the last mission I was the suit up IV, so I stayed inside. I helped get the spacewalkers dressed in the morning, made sure their suits were ready, got them dressed and got them outside. Then when they came back in, I got them undressed, cleaned up their suits, configured them, and made sure they were good to go on the next spacewalk. On this mission, Hawk’ll be doing that, and I will be doing what he did on a previous mission. While they’re outside, I’ll be keeping track of the checklist and helping them get on to the next task and marking the tasks that they complete off of the checklist.
At some point you’ll all be finished with your work on orbit and it’ll be time to head home. Tell us about undocking day, what your duties are for that and then how that will proceed.
I get to fly so that’s the most important part for me. I get to fly the separation. If we have the propellant, the gas and the time, I’ll do a one-lap fly around of the space station. We train that a lot in the sim. It turns out the view is much better for real and the flying is more fun when you can actually feel the vehicle moving around. It’ll be crowded on the flight deck. There’s only six of us but everybody that can fit a camera in the window will want to either take a peek and/or take a picture and so it will be crowded in there but [I’m] really looking forward to that. If we’re lucky and the timing works out, we’ll undock in the afternoon. We’ll do our fly around and then it’ll be almost dinner and bedtime and we can just talk about what a great afternoon it was. If the timing doesn’t work out and we do that first thing in the morning, just as soon as we get that complete, we’ll jump into a late inspection which is similar to the inspection we do on Flight Day 2. We repeat that before we re-enter.
What are you most looking forward to on your return trip to the station?
Wow, that’s a good question. The first time I went to the station, I was most surprised by how much fun it was to just float around. I hadn’t thought about this a lot until just recently but now I’m curious if floating around was so much fun just because it was the first time and because it was something new and exciting, or if it really [is] just that much fun. So I’m curious about that, but then the view out the window is spectacular. I’m really looking forward to getting to look out the window.
Makes you wonder if you ever get tired of floating around. I don’t know, but let me know about that.
It was nice on the previous mission. We had a few little hiccups, but all the big stuff went off without a hitch, so we got all our work done and things were flowing well. It was very enjoyable at bedtime to know that, “Hey, we just had a great day. We got a lot of good work done. Of course, we have a busy day tomorrow, but it’s all good.” That feeling was great, so hopefully we won’t run into any major snags that kind of knock us off of our plan on this mission.
STS-132 is the last scheduled flight of Atlantis. It’s a shuttle whose legacy includes the first docking to the MIR space station, delivery of the Destiny Lab to the International Space Station, and the last scheduled visit to Hubble Space Telescope. What’s it like for you to be part of that legacy and to be part of what might be Atlantis’ last hurrah?
First thing that comes to mind is that I’m not worthy. I’m pretty fortunate to get the opportunity, but then when I think about it, it’s kind of along the same lines of the, ‘How do you feel about the thousands of people that work on this?’ and that it’s really a lot bigger than just the six of us. Everybody that puts together our mission put together a lot of those, and it just makes the team that much bigger because there were folks that worked on Atlantis throughout her flying career that aren’t currently working on the mission. It just makes the big team that much larger when you start including all those folks. That’s what I think about most. The docking to the MIR and all the things that Atlantis has been able to accomplish in her flying career and all the teams that got to play a part in that.
Any space shuttle memories that you have that you can tell us about and tell us about why they impacted you so much?
On space shuttle Atlantis specifically?
Well, just space shuttle overall, any specific mission, any moments, anything space shuttle related.
It’ll be interesting to see how we look back on the space shuttle program. I don’t think she’ll be remembered like the Wright Brothers from a relative to a flying standpoint. It wasn’t first, but it was a very capable vehicle. It has done so much. All of my adult life, that’s been our way to get people to and from low Earth orbit. It’s just everything that we’ve been able to accomplish the last, wow; it’s been a while now, huh? A lot has happened since we’ve been flying space shuttles, since John Young and Bob Crippen started it for us.
So let’s talk about that a little bit more.
In a future where maybe travel between worlds is as commonplace as airplane travel is today, how do you imagine people will look back on the space shuttle and its role in that accomplishment?
I think being reusable was a big milestone in the shuttle’s creation. It’ll be interesting to see where we go next and then on after that. I think all of the space shuttles will be fondly remembered for their contribution to getting us started. I do think that’s the future: traveling around from world to world. It will be exciting to get on with it. Space shuttles will be remembered for quite some time for their role in the whole getting us going part.