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Preflight Interview: Ken Ham, Commander
04.23.10
 
JSC2009-E-258474 -- Ken Ham

Astronaut Ken Ham, STS-132 commander, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, participates in a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-132 interview with Commander Ken Ham. Ken, tell us about the place that you consider to be your hometown and what it was like growing up there for you.

I grew up in Clark, N.J. It’s a sort of melting pot area of the state of New Jersey which in itself, the entire state, is basically a melting pot. I think that was a wonderful place to grow up and get an appreciation for the various types of individuals that live on this planet and understand where they’re coming from, what different people’s aspirations and goals are. I loved growing up there. I’ve been back there recently after flying my last mission and got a very warm reception at my high school and it was great to see some of those folks again and share the experience of flying in space.

What kinds of things did you like to do when you were growing up?

My biggest effort was to try to stay out of trouble but aside from that, I liked playing all sports. I played varsity soccer and baseball whenever I can get my hands on it. Back in that area, sandlot football and stickball in the streets was a big deal. I and my very good friends made every effort to spend every minute we could, outside of school and getting our homework done, out there on the streets playing ball. It’s kind of interesting that down here in Houston, you don’t see that much of it. Maybe it’s the weather being so crazy hot here most of the time but I like it when kids get out and invent games and test each other. It’s pretty good.

You’ve flown before. Did you get a chance to see from space that region of the country at all?

I did. In fact, just about on a daily basis, we got a day pass right over the New York City area and I frequently had binoculars available or high powered cameras to look down there and, sure enough, you can see into Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, and the area where I grew up. You can’t make out streets, at least I couldn’t with the naked eye or even with cameras, but some of the rivers and natural boundaries were pretty obvious. It’s pretty neat to see that and have that perspective, knowing that I grew up down there. My good buddies are still down there and here I am zipping overhead at a gazillion mph.

Tell us about some of the memories that you have from your previous space flight, anything that sticks out in your mind.

They’re spectacular. I would say the single greatest fundamental thought I had sort of occurred to me, I don’t remember when, probably halfway through the mission. We had brought up the Japanese Experiment Module which has these beautiful large windows at the end of it. You can actually sit there like a kid with your hands on the window sill, there is no window sill, but floating there looking out the window and staring at the Earth and somewhere in there it just hit me like a ton of bricks that I have this responsibility now to try to share this experience of what it’s like to be out in space looking back on what is clearly a sphere floating in quite literally nothing. It’s just blackness out there and there’s this sphere and everything. I know this is an old cliché and I heard it a million times before I went up into space but to see it and have it register sort of in the back of your brain that it’s all real and that’s all there is to it. That’s all, our whole planet right there. It’s really profound. I know it’ll never happen, at least not in our lifetimes but if everyone on the planet could go get that perspective, life would be different on the planet. Everyone would think twice before they did something stupid -- polluting, not taking care of the asset that we have. So I see it, you know, I came home. I never thoroughly enjoyed standing in front of people and talking. That was not in my makeup per se, but I know it’s my job now. So for the rest of my life, I, I intend to talk to as many people as will listen to me about how beautiful space travel is and how beautiful this planet is.

What about the experience surprised you once you got up there despite, no matter how much training you had about, you know, what it was going to be like, no matter how much floating in the zero-G aircraft or whatever. Was there any experience that surprised you?

The physical sensations were not all that foreign to me. The duration of zero gravity being constant twenty-four hours a day is really cool and interesting, being able to pass things to your buddy, tools or pencil or whatever just by tossing it, is really an interesting cool perspective. However, that didn’t really surprise me. I think what surprised me is how everybody involved in the mission enjoyed every moment to the maximum. It kind of brings out the kid in everyone to get thrown into that extreme environment, if you will, and be able to play and smile and laugh and still get your job done, because we’re professionals. We’re up there to do a job but I think it’s pretty neat to watch what happens to people in space.

Tell us about your educational background. Let’s start from high school graduation. Tell us the steps that you took educationally.

After high school I went to the U.S. Naval Academy which is sort of an interesting story if I may digress a little.

Sure.

As a high school student I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. At some point in there my dad had encouraged me to get interested in flying so I had been taking some flying lessons and I remember sitting in my guidance counselor’s office in the high school and I had three older sisters. He knew them. He knew our whole family and he sat me down and he said, “It’s time to think about what you want to do with the rest of your life” and I told him I had no idea and at that point he pulled out a picture of the Navy Blue Angels. They were flying A-4s back in the day and I had never seen or heard of them. He showed me them and he goes, “You want to do something like that?” I said, “Amen, Brother, sign me up.” So he said, “Here, go to the school called the Naval Academy” and started the application process. I went down there, showed up on the first day with long hair which was kind of the style back then. Within an hour of being there I had no hair and my whole life had changed. That was a wonderful transition, probably something I needed, a little discipline in my life, but maybe we all do. I learned how to be a naval officer and I learned how to learn. I learned how to deal with other folks and lead hopefully. After being in the Navy for a while, the Navy Fleet out on aircraft carriers, I got a great opportunity to go back to school and get a master’s degree at the Naval Post-graduate school in Monterey, Calif. If you haven’t been there, it’s one of the most beautiful places in this country to live and study aeronautics. That’s where I really got a firm grip on how airplanes work. I went straight from there to test pilot school, which is a great educational background to go apply in the cockpit, to fly in the test airplanes.

Talk about something that you mentioned within that dialogue. You learned how to learn. Expound on that for me, if you would.

I know in high school I didn’t necessarily apply myself to my abilities, to the extreme of my abilities. I essentially sat in class, learned what I thought I was supposed to learn, turn around and take a test and that’s what I thought learning was all about. I get thrown into a Naval Academy environment where the demands on your time are much more stringent. You have to figure out how to cram information into your head quickly or you’re going to fail and probably drop out. So it’s that time organization. It’s the ability to sift through a lot of information and find the jewels that are important and be able to apply them as quickly as you can in a test format.

It sounds to me, too, and I know I can speak for myself, when the benefit of what you’re doing is recognized, that’s when it becomes fun, I guess.

Yes, there’s clearly that side of it where there’s a benefit that’s very tangible and then there’s also the side of it where you have genuine fear of failure and that’s also a motivator, in a different way but they both work together and they’re both OK.

Do you recall when it was that you first got the notion of being an astronaut and why?

There are probably two answers to that. One is the obvious one that I think every kid growing up in the timeframe I grew up in, being exposed to landing on the moon, wanted to be an astronaut -- ran around the house with a ray gun like Buck Rogers. I don’t know how early that was. It was a long time ago. But the other side of it is when you start to think that you could actually do this, and I think that was way later in my life. I had been flying on aircraft carriers for quite a while and I got selected for test pilot school which I knew was one of the stepping stones of natural progression to be a shuttle pilot. Once that happened I started thinking, “Heck, maybe this is something I really could do.” It kind of fell in line from there.

Now before you were actually selected to be an astronaut, you actually had a temporary assignment. Tell us about that. You came to NASA before being an astronaut.

I did. That really didn’t have anything to do with the desire to be an astronaut. I’m not sure what it had to do with as far as what was in my own motivation. However, there was a professor I had at the Naval Academy. The year I graduated was the first year they offered sort of a sub-curriculum called space systems engineering and they offered that to some of the folks that were in the Aeronautical Engineering Department. I jumped on it and the gentleman that headed that up came from the NASA family. He knew leadership down here at the Johnson Space Center and between those leaders down here and himself, he thought it would be a good thing to expose young graduates of the Naval Academy to NASA. Five people that summer were sent down after I graduated from the Academy to essentially spend some time before going to flight school. Actually not all of us went to flight school but we all came down here together and we were all given different jobs, essentially assigned to the Astronaut Office as an exposure kind of thing, and that was great. I got to meet some wonderful people in that astronaut class that were brand new back then. We were assigned to them. They went on to do great things in their NASA careers and it’s kind of neat to have those bonds that go way back for me. That was a great tour.

And you, what specifically, what kind of job did you do specifically?

I considered myself the luckiest. I was assigned to the zero-G airplane. Back then it was a modified KC-135 and my job was essentially to ride in the back of that airplane and help the scientists or whoever was doing investigating or whoever was just riding along essentially stay safe in the airplane. There are a lot of ways you could hurt yourself going from zero-G to 2-G, back and forth 50 times a day. So essentially every day I got to go ride on the zero-G plane. I think all in all I had over 200 flights on it and that was a ball. That was a lot of fun.

What was that first experience of weightlessness like for you?

Oh, it was good. It was acting like a kid. I was much more of a kid then for sure but what a great feeling to be able to just push yourself around gently with your fingers and, and travel pretty far. That airplane has a nickname, The Vomit Comet. I think it’s safe to say that maybe at least half the people that fly on it end up getting sick at some point. That was one of my other jobs was helping to clean that up. But for some reason I never was really physiologically affected so I ended up being a test subject frequently. I remember cases where they had goggles on my eyes with checkerboards spinning around and me on a little wheel going this way and G-suit on inflating and deflating and all sorts of weird stuff. That was fun.

Take us then from when you first started applying to be an astronaut up to when you got selected. How much of a time period was that and what was that like?

Looking back on it now it seems pretty short. In reality it might have been a little longer. The application process, I think roughly takes maybe six to nine months and I suspect nowadays it’s probably even longer than that. I was serving as a test pilot at Patuxent River and which is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had but it was consuming almost every waking hour of my day so it was really a case of throw in an application, forget about it because I got way more important things to do. And then the phone rings --, come down for an interview. I go do an interview, come back, work, work, work, work, and then the phone rings and it’s folks from here asking me if I want to come down for a permanent job. It kind of happened like that for me.

What was the feeling like when you got the call, “Hey, you want to come down and join the Astronaut Corps?”

That was fantastic. I thought it was a joke at first. I was living in a hotel room in California at the time. I had a test airplane out at the Edwards Air Force Base, doing about a month-and-half long project on that airplane and living out of this little hotel room. I got up one morning to go to work and the phone rang and it was the director of flight crew operations from here. So it was fun to go to work that day.

Talk about some of the projects that you’ve worked on from the time you were selected to being selected for your first flight, the ones that stick out a little.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to be the X-38 project pilot, if that’s the right term. It’s more like the representative from the Astronaut Office to the program. Part of that was being on a source board, which is the government’s selection process to make a major acquisition, in this case the Crew Return Vehicle. Boy, I got to learn a lot about how acquisition works which was really enlightening. It took a lot of time but it was very interesting and at the same time got to work with this X-38 vehicle which was the predecessor to the Crew Return Vehicle. And there were certain test ships that were made. I think we made three of them that actually looked like re-entry vehicles. We brought out to Edwards Air Force Base and other places and dropped them off of B-52s, basically testing the aero side of the re-entry profile. This is the vehicle that had the big square parachute. I was making displays and controls that would be inside the Crew Return Vehicle and some really smart engineers took a vision of those display controls and built them into a van. I drove that, here at Johnson Space Center, drove the van across country to California, set it up out on the lake bed and wired it such that we could control the steering risers on the re-entry vehicle with the parachute out and actually fly it around in the air after it came off the B-52, remotely, obviously. But it was fantastic.

STS-132 is your first mission as commander. What’s it been like preparing for this mission as opposed to the last one, being the commander of this mission now?

That’s a good question and I probably can’t give you a really good answer until I fly the mission and look back on it, but I’ll try. My commander on my last mission, Mark Kelly, is great guy, incredibly talented. I remember as a pilot sometimes looking at him and it was like he was in deep thought a lot. I’m like, “I wonder what Mark’s thinking about” and I find myself in the same position because as the commander, whether you need to think about something or not, you feel obligated to think about what everyone else on the mission is doing all the time and that ends up consuming a lot of thought. So I probably sleep less now, not that that’s a bad thing at all. I think my wife would agree that I’m probably a little bit more stressed out at home although I try not to be stressed out. She says I go home and, and I don’t say a lot. I don’t talk about work. She says, “Well, that’s, that’s showing stress.” So I try to laugh more now. But it’s really fun. It’s an enjoyable task to try to pull everyone’s needs in the whole team, the greater team -- not just everybody on board but in Mission Control and the engineering side, to pull it all together and make it all work and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

JSC2010-E-054304 -- Ken Ham (left)

NASA astronaut Ken Ham (left), STS-132 commander, flies a Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA) over White Sands Space Harbor, New Mexico, during a training session. Photo Credit: NASA

I imagine some part of your job must be made a little easier by the talent that you have on the crew. Talk about what it’s been like to train with these crewmates.

Probably one of our biggest saving graces is that we don’t have any rookies on our crew. They’ve all flown before. In fact, Piers Sellers has flown twice before. So that’s a lot of experience. They’ve been through this whole training flow before and when it comes down to our compressed schedule it makes it really easy for me to make positive argument deals, if you will, with the training side saying, “Hey, we don’t need to do this particular training here. We’ve all flown before,” and typically I’ll be allowed to win those arguments. That simplifies our life and makes it easier to go forward. When I was putting the mission together as far as, let’s see, that may be the wrong term, trying to decide who does what tasks on the mission, I thought it was of particular value to take these extremely talented people and not necessarily have them do exactly what they did last time. So a lot of folks are more or less cross-training. Piers, who has done six EVAs, is probably respected as one of the top EVA guys in the Astronaut Office from his experience and his abilities. I asked him to go to Canada and learn how to drive the large robotic arm on space station and not do an EVA. He’s doing that and I think he’s really enjoying it. It’s something totally different for him but he’s so talented that he can adapt and get into that whole other life but at the same time he can use his EVA experience to help these other guys that don’t have six EVAs develop their techniques to go do some pretty complicated work outside. So it’s working out great and I think it’s only possible because everybody on the flight has so much experience and talent.

You’ve also got Garrett Reisman on the crew, spent some good time on the space station. How’s that going to help with the crew’s major task installing the MRM?

Garrett is going to actually drive the arm for that particular task because that is a strange and unique task and he’s the only one on our crew that has experience, real-life experience on orbit driving the big arm and that came from an Expedition that he did between STS-123 and 124. Interestingly enough, on 124 we were the ones that picked him up and brought him home. I’ve known Garrett for 12 years now. He’s in my ASCAN class. We arrived here together in 1998 so I’ve known him very well. We spent countless hours in the classroom together and flying T-38s. I also know him from being in space with him and I know that he is extremely at home in zero gravity and very capable and a great morale booster at all times. Having a sense of humor in your hip pocket at a ready notice is a great thing to throw out there and then he’s got one of those in spades. So Garrett has the wealth of knowledge of how space station works and all the intricacies of what we need to do to get this module berthed and that will be his task.

What’s it like for you when you get a chance to meet some of the thousands of people who work behind the scenes to ensure the success and safety of the mission and the crew, when you actually get a chance to talk to those people?

Now having a better appreciation for the big gorilla, the elephant that drives this whole teamwork that ends up putting the rocket in space, I love talking to folks like that. This is a bit of an aside but I think it leads to an answer. Typically crews nowadays make a poster that kind of shows the crew and they’re movie-themed in the past and some of them are kind of entertaining. We, as a crew, decided that we wanted to try to get as many people from the team that you’re talking about involved in a poster so they could throw it on the wall and say, “Yeah, I am part of this team. It’s not just the crew. It’s everybody behind it.” We had a great opportunity. I contacted Mr. McLane, the owner of the Astros, and asked him if we could borrow his stadium to put everybody in the stands and take a picture, sort of baseball theme thing. As you know, I like baseball so it kind of worked well, plus we’re launching in May, right in the middle of baseball season. Mr. McLane said, “Without a doubt – 110 percent behind it. Tell me what you need.” So we invited everyone from the team that could make it. Unfortunately there was a mission going on and the weather was really lousy but we had a couple hundred people show up and sit in the stands behind us in the dugout at Minute Maid Park and take this poster. Well, out of that I end up getting feedback from folks I’ve never met, never heard of. They’d just write me an e-mail and say, “No one has ever asked us to be part of a mission like this and we really appreciate it.” And those kinds of comments, they make me feel great. It’s great to pull everybody together and help them realize the importance of what they’re doing and at the same time, as we all know, being the end of the space shuttle program, you got to really appreciate every minute of our jobs.

Tell us about the key objectives of STS-132. What, in a nutshell, will you be doing?

The No. 1 priority is to deliver the Mini-Research Module 1, also known as MRM 1, a Russian-built module. It takes up about almost a half of the payload bay, weighs roughly 18,000 thousand pounds, maybe 22, 23 feet long or so, and bring that up and attach it to space station. I’ll get back to some of the interesting robotics involved there. Doing that task requires no EVA which is kind of unique, but being a Russian module, they’re going to take care of any EVA later on down the stream. The other part of the payload bay has an Integrated Cargo Carrier. It’s a big rack and on one side of the rack are six solar array batteries, these two hundred pound boxes about maybe that big or so, roughly. On the other side of the rack is a Ku antenna dish as well as the boom that goes with it, a few hundred pounds, the boom being the big giant bar that you mount the antenna to and then another piece of the robotic arm. Taking all of that equipment out of the payload bay and assembling it out on space station is going to consume all of three separate EVAs so of our three EVA crew members, that’s Garrett Reisman, Mike Good and Steve Bowen, are going to rotate in pairs of two on those three EVAs and go outside every other day to assemble these mechanisms on the space station. None of that is very easy and I’m really proud of those guys and the work that they’ve done in figuring out how to do that and all the training that they’ve been doing in the pool. So back to the primary mission: The MRM 1 is unique on space station in that I believe it is the only module that is going to be berthed or attached to space station with the mechanism that the Russians use for free flyer captures which are typically the Soyuz for crew or Progress for supplies. If you remember the free flyer has a probe and the space station has a cone and you kind of fly in and run down the cone and into the bottom of the cone you catch some latches down there and then the mechanism retracts, makes a hard mated seal. Sounds pretty easy. The mechanism’s been around for quite a while and it’s been very, very successful. I don’t think they’ve had any real failures that they couldn’t account for. However, that whole system was built for a free flyer to come in with a lot of inertia and a mass of the vehicle and some velocity to get through these soft captures latches. In our case we’re going to use the space station robotic arm to berth the module. So the big arm is going to reach down into the payload bay of the space shuttle, pull the module out and then run it all the way over to the Russian side and essentially take that probe and try to drive it into this cone. That is something we’ve never done before and we’re not exactly sure how it’s going to work. We have a lot of good guesses and a lot of good engineering behind it. So essentially there are two choices. You can either hold the probe up to the cone and then push really hard with the arm or you can kind of hold it out here a little bit and go fast and hopefully it rides down the cone and goes through the latches. And what we’ve decided on is essentially a combination of the two ways. We can’t go too fast because we might break the arm. We can’t go too slow because the arm may not have enough strength to push through those latches so we’re going at basically a slow rate and hopefully we’re going to drive it right in and it’ll work well. And again that’s Garrett that’s running the arm for that operation because he has some real world experience. Our payload commander for the MRM 1 is Piers. He has Russian language experience which is really helpful. He can read and write Russian and if we have difficulties in this berthing task, he is certainly the right guy to have access to all the commanding. The commanding runs through a laptop system. The commands run down the arm over to the module and try to help this mechanism do the right thing. So he’s been studying real hard on Russian systems which, as you might imagine, isn’t the easiest thing to do and doing a great job.

Give us your best description of the MRM 1. What’s it look like? What’s it going to be used for and maybe where exactly on station it will live?

I’m not sure how to better say this. It looks Russian. It looks different. I think when you look at space station you know exactly where the demarcation line is. It’s right aft of Node 1. The Russian half looks different than the U.S. half, not that there’s anything wrong with either one of them. It’s just that they look different. It’s something to do with the color of the blankets or maybe just the way they’re designed. On the exterior of MRM 1 there are various spare ORUs, Orbital Replacement Units, that are going to be used on the Russian half later on downstream. There’s a radiator, a spare upper and lower arm for the European robotic arm, an airlock that is going to move to MLM, I believe I got that acronym right, later on downstream as the Russians continue to put a couple more pieces of space station up there in years to come. So right now we’re going to attach MRM 1 to the nadir side, which is the Earth-facing side of space station just aft, it’s basically between the FGB and Node 1, so it’s the very beginning of the Russian side of the space station.

I imagine the station crew itself, too, will be pretty significant in getting your mission accomplished. What level of involvement will they have in the docked ops?

This is an interesting problem -- not a problem, an interesting facet of all the missions that we do nowadays. The space station crews are on a pretty strict schedule. The Soyuz launch and land on a clock that’s pretty reliable and easy to predict. Space shuttles are not always the same. So doing mission-specific task training with a given increment on board space station is not always a wise thing to do because you can easily slip the space shuttle into a point where the those guys are gone and they’re back on Earth and you just ruined all the training. So it’s hard to get them involved in, for example, the MRM 1 operations. Tracy Caldwell is the most likely person that is going to be up there when we’re there and she has done a fair amount of robotics training with us on the ground to help out Piers on orbit driving the big arm. So the majority of the help we can get from the crew is more of a generic form. It’s going to be in transferring supplies, making sure they get from the right spot on space shuttle to the right place on space station and supplies that need to go from space station back to shuttle go from the right place to the right place. It’s really important for weight and balance as well as simply just accounting that this piece of equipment did in fact make it to space station and we think we know where it is because it’s huge now and it’s kind of hard to keep track of all that equipment.

What are you most looking forward to your second visit to space station?

There are all the little personal aspects of floating and living in zero gravity and looking out the window. I’m looking forward to doing that again. I don’t want to jinx anything, but what I would like the most is to watch the guys on the crew do the good job that they are trained to do and pull that off to their satisfaction. They have high standards for themselves, but if they can do that I’m going to be the happiest guy there is, just to see them be happy.

Once you’ve made it to orbit, one of the initial things you’ll do is inspect the shuttle’s exterior tiles on flight day 2. Tell us about that process and what your involvement will be for that activity.

That process has been repeated now since, I guess, STS-114, on the return to flight is, I believe, when that started. Back in those first couple flights when they were doing this, this was considered a very difficult and unique robotics maneuver so a lot of attention was spent on it. Since those flights, we’ve flown a bunch more. We’ve a lot more confidence in how this works and at the risk of sounding cavalier, and I don’t want to, but that task is now almost considered somewhat mundane. I’m going to do it with Tony, the pilot, and Piers. He’s obviously a big arm driver and we’re doing that to give the other guys time to get prepared for the EVA that they’re going to do a day-and-a-half later. So it does take time to get it done but it’s the kind of thing that I figured was good for Tony and I to knock out so that the other guys can get their job done.

And you’ll also be busy the next day when eventually you’ll have the station in your sights and start closing the gap between the shuttle and the station. Talk about the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight and what you’ll be doing.

Rendezvous day is a great day. I am really looking forward to that one, not just because I get to fly the orbiter this time but that first time, you get really busy in the cockpit during the rendezvous. There’s a whole bunch of stuff you need to get done and at some point in there you actually look out the window when you’re close and you see this monstrosity that is out there orbiting the planet. There’s that moment of “Holy cow! What has humanity built up here?” It is amazing and I’m looking forward to that because the station’s even bigger than it was last time I was there and it’s just a neat thing to look at. It’s a reality check.

Right after docking, after you’ve had a chance to get acclimated and say “hi”, what kind of activities are on tap for that same day?

That whole day is probably our single most busy day. Aside from getting all the rendezvous tasks done, when we get on board we need to pull that ICC, that rack out of the payload bay which Piers and Tracy are going to do, pulling that out of the bay and sticking it up on top of space station in preparation for some further arm motions that the ground, Mission Control, is going to take care of overnight, all the while we’re getting our two first space walkers, which is Steve Bowen and Garrett Reisman, in the airlock ready for campout, getting their blood chemistry right, if you will, overnight to get ready to go out the door the next day. So there are an awful lot of things that have to happen that day and happen on time so that we can get to bed and get up the next day and go to work.

And there are three scheduled spacewalks on the mission. You mentioned that Garrett and Steve Bowen will go outside the following day to start EVA 1. Talk about what they’ll be doing out there and what activities you’ll be doing on the inside during that spacewalk.

The first part’s a little more difficult. The second part’s easy. The first part is really a complicated EVA. We got this rack now stuck on the railcar of space station that runs along the truss. It’s basically close to centerline and the arm is also based on that, the big arm. So, at the risk of trying to show you, most of this equipment is going to go sort of over the back of the truss on what’s called Z1 and it’s a system of putting Garrett on the end of the arm. He’s going to grab the boom for the SGANT antenna and then carry it over to Z1. Steve’s going to meet him there and help him bolt that into the Z1. Then he runs back over again on the arm, picks up the dish, and comes back to the boom. In between each of these laps, Steve is doing a lot of electrical connections on Z1, getting this thing ready to fire up. So they put the dish on top and Garrett comes back over to the ICC and picks up the EOTP, Enhanced ORU Temporary Platform. And then moves that over to the Dextre part of the arm which is also based on the same little railcar on the MBS, so it’s crowded up there. The clearances are small. The arm is big. It’s got a live person on the end of it and they got to make all these trips back and forth and get it all done in 6½ hours or so. So that’s a pretty darn full day. Garrett is the EV1 on that particular EVA and he’s done a super job figuring out the choreography of how to pull that off.

And on the inside?

That was the easy part there. I’m doing nothing. I’m probably filling up water bags, and transferring some stuff around, and hopefully keeping everybody happy and maybe telling some jokes or something.

JSC2009-E-224127 -- Ken Ham

Astronaut Ken Ham, STS-132 commander, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

On the second spacewalk of the mission it’ll be Steve Bowen again. He’ll go back out, this time with Mike Good. Give us just an overview of the work that they’ll do.

On that EVA the railcar is going to be all the way down the port side of the space station, all the way out on the left wing, if you will. The arm is still based on that, on the railcar. They’re going to pick up the ICC, that giant rack with the batteries on it, and extend the arm as far out as it’ll reach, past the first set of solar arrays -- Mission Control will lock that set of solar arrays so it can’t move, it can’t gimbal around -- and reach over the top of them and then out between those two sets of solar arrays. Out there is a bank of batteries. There are a couple of banks of them but we’re going to replace six of those batteries and that is likely 1½ to two full EVAs worth of work. Steve Bowen is the EV 1 on that one and he’s leading Mike Good out there to start that whole operation. We’re hoping that they can get four of six batteries done in one EVA and then when they go back out on EVA 3, Mike Good is going to be the EV 1, the one in charge of that operation, and Garrett, from the first EVA, gets to go out and be his EV 2 and help finish up those batteries as well as anything that may not have gotten finished from EVA No. 1. The last remaining task is to come all the way back down in the payload bay and pick up a piece of equipment that’s used for the robotic arm on space station and deliver that back to space station.

You’ve talked about the installation of MRM 1 a little while ago. On the day that that’s scheduled to happen, once you get that installed, that may not be the end of the robotics that day. Tell us what will happen if mission managers decide they want to take a closer look at some part of the shuttle’s exterior.

We loosely call that focused inspection, just for a term that everyone can recognize. If there’s a need to look at the TPS, thermal protection system, the big arm, after dropping off MRM, getting it berthed, will reach down into the payload bay and pull the inspection boom out of the starboard rail of space shuttle and hold that out for the space shuttle arm to go over and grab onto the end of it. And then the big arm will go to a position where it can help view clearances on the belly of the orbiter. So then you take the little arm with the boom attached and on the end of the boom. That’s pretty long. There’s a sensor package on the end, both laser and camera. You take that and basically look underneath the belly of the orbiter and hopefully target the area that they’re concerned with. That whole operation is something you can’t necessarily train for because you don’t know where the damage would be and every configuration of the arm would be totally different. We just kind of loosely train for it and if it ever happens do it slowly and carefully because the last thing you want to do is make a mistake and make your problem worse by running the arm into the thermal protection system.

The day before you’re scheduled to undock from ISS, that should also be a pretty busy day. Talk about some of the things that you need to do to basically pack up to get ready to come home.

We’re obligated to transfer everything out of the mid-deck that we brought up there, supplies, equipment, for space station. In this particular case, again because we’re coming to the end of the shuttle program, managers decided to pull the typical seventh person off the crew and use that space for cargo and mass for cargo. So on the mid-deck, where that seventh seat normally sits, we have some rails and a large bag full of gear, so there’s maybe more than the typical amount of mid-deck transfer to do. So it’s a busy game of accounting for all of this equipment, making sure it goes to the right place and then getting the down mass down from space station. Down mass is a growing concern with shuttle going away. You can’t bring it down on a Proton and a Soyuz is pretty small, so there’s a desire to get a lot of stuff back. That day is our shock absorber of essentially managing that problem, making sure it’s all ready to go.

And for undocking, kind of give us an overview of what will happen and what you’ll be doing for that.

Again I’m not doing a whole lot there. I can tell you from my last mission as the pilot, the pilot gets to fly the fly around of space station where you kind of back away to about 600 feet and then fly a big circle around space station. The purpose of that is to take pictures because with that set of pictures you can identify micro-meteoroid damage. You can see all kinds of interesting things that happened to the outside of space station while nobody’s looking because we can’t really see the outside all that well. But I can tell you as the pilot having flown that once, that is one of the funnest times in the whole mission and that’s because all the stress and complexity of the EVAs and robotics is all behind you and you’ve realized that you’re in a position where you can start to almost relax a little and enjoy what it is that you’ve done, because it took a year of training to get there, a lot of folks and concentration and now you get to see the results of your work and it’s a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to that, just looking out the window.

You talked about the complex nature of berthing the MRM 1 and what all that entails. What other complexities are innate to this mission? What kinds of things are going to be very complex?

Are you talking about the things that I’m concerned about?

Yes.

I’m concerned about getting all the tasks on EVA 1 done because it’s such a complex EVA. I’m concerned that MRM 1 may not berth correctly. We’ve set up trouble shooting scenarios to try to figure out what we would do in every case. However, I’m not sure we can script every case and I guess maybe my concern is that it’s going to take time to figure out what to do if it doesn’t work right and eating up that time starts to really mess with the rest of the mission. So I’m a little concerned about just getting that whole operation done and then EVAs 2 and 3 with the guys way, way down at the tip of space station down there with the arm stretched all the way out with this really heavy payload working delicately around arrays and close to the truss. There is concern about how when the arm is really stressed out with a big payload on the end, it’s more likely to move. These guys are going to be crawling around out there doing their work, doing the work of a contractor on your house, and they can get that thing swinging and we certainly don’t want to bang into the truss or a solar array. So, and these are the kinds of concerns I have. We’ll do fine.

STS-132 is the last scheduled flight of space shuttle Atlantis. If my research is correct, it’s the orbiter that performed the first docking to the Mir space station. It delivered the Destiny Lab to the International Space Station and it was the last orbiter scheduled to visit the Hubble Space Telescope. What are your thoughts about being part of its legacy and involved in its final flight?

Well, the part about its being its final flight truly is irrelevant to me. One, you don’t know if this is the final flight or not and it has no more importance than any other flights. They’re all incredible. The legacy itself is unbelievable. I have just recently done the same homework you just did and I saw that it launched Magellan, Galileo. It’s been to Mir seven times, something like that. It delivered the airlock and the lab. Hubble. This incredible machine has done so much for humanity that it’s, I don’t know how you could describe it.

Any shuttle memories for you that stick out in your mind that you could share with us, anything, any specific missions or specific moments in space that shuttle was involved with?

It’s kind of hard to compare because my own memories of STS-124 push all the other ones aside. And being personally involved with the shuttle at that level, it’s an unbelievable memory. I, like everyone else that cares about the space program, remember exactly where I was when I learned about Challenger and Columbia and that’s one of those things that it means so much to you that you can’t help but remember those days.

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

I think about this a lot and I don’t have a really good answer for you as far as an analogy to aviation in its early years. It was easier for aviation, I’m going to use a pun here, to get off the ground because there was a business model to support it. Transporting people from place to place on the planet is a money industry. We don’t really have that equivalent in space yet, so I think from the beginning of human space flight to where we are today may someday be referred to as the golden age of space travel. It’s this really unique time where there was a national will to access space, to get to low Earth orbit, get to the moon. We’re at a point right now where, from a national perspective, we’re trying to figure out what to do next. I think we’re faced with a little vacuum of progress, where we’re going to sit and figure this out as we watch other countries develop. So, yeah, I think the space shuttle is going to be a fond memory for a lot of people.