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Preflight Interview: Doug Hurley, Pilot
06.03.11
 
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NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, STS-135 pilot, 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

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: I know some people say that they knew from a very early age that that’s what they wanted to do and that’s awesome, but it wasn’t quite that way for me. I think I was a little more practical about things, and I was interested in spaceflight and I was interested in airplanes at a very young age, I can remember that from way back, and I think it was just a natural progression of things: being interested in engineering, being interested in, in aviation and space, and it just kind of led me down a path into college, in the military, and then in the Marine Corps flying fighters, and then ultimately as a test pilot, and then to be lucky enough to get to come here. It just kind of was that next job that interested me, or that I had the prerequisites for, that I could try for, and it progressed such that I showed up here at the doorstep of NASA about ten years ago.

Not satisfied with what you were doing, looking for something else?

Well, I think it’s just a case of, I’ve always been one, and I think that’s fairly common in our office is to kind of set goals for this particular, what you’re doing this week or this month or this year, and then set goals, longer-term goals, and it just seemed like all those different interests all kind of coalesced, to what would be described as the job description for an astronaut. And so I think naturally it just progressed to that point, and obviously I was lucky enough to be chosen to come here.

Let me take you to the other end of that story. Start, tell me about your hometown and what it was like to grow up there.

Well, I grew up in Apalachin, New York, which is a very small town in the southern tier of Upstate New York and I mean, it was just a wonderful place to grow up. It was a very small town, it was fairly rural; I had a lot of close friends, played sports, downhill skied, did all the things that I think most folks from that part of the country do and really enjoyed it. It’s a great place to be from and I always look forward to getting back there.

You have a sense of how the place, and then the people who are there, really contributed to making you who you are?

Well, I always kind of felt like I needed to give something back, I had this sense of service to the country and I don’t know where it came from, but I had that from a fairly early age, that I wanted to do something for the country, serve the country, and the military seemed like the best way to do that. I think you see that from the people that I grew up with, that they’re very patriotic and love their country and I think it just carried over to a degree in me personally and then the mutual benefit of getting to fly airplanes for the military was just a great experience.

Did you get to make out your hometown from orbit?

I’ve seen it a few times. The weather in Upstate New York can’t always be, or isn’t always cooperative; it tends to be cloudy there a fair amount of the time but I’ve seen it a few times on my previous flight.

Uh, take, take us from, from that point, from high school and on, and, and what were some of the highlights do you think in your education, your professional career and your military career, that ultimately led you here.

Well, I think the first big decision was the combination of going to school on a Navy ROTC scholarship, so I was actually a Marine option, as the Marines are part of the Department of the Navy, both the Marines and Navy officers can go through the Navy ROTC, that was obviously a big decision, and then taking engineering in college at Tulane University was probably the other major milestone that kind of led me down that path to be a pilot and then a test pilot.

What made, what gets a kid from Upstate New York to Tulane?

That’s a good question, I get that a lot. I think it was as much maybe seeing another part of the world as anything, and I think the other part of it was I was hoping to get somewhere where it was a little warmer in the wintertime, so those are probably the two biggest things. New Orleans intrigued me, it’s just something totally different than what I grew up with and it ended up just being a wonderful place to go to college.

So you go to college on the ROTC scholarship…

Yes.

…studying engineering.

That’s correct. Studied engineering, I had a great professor, Dr. Robert Bruce, who kind of was that one person in academia, in college, that really pushed me. He was a structural engineering instructor, professor, and I just really enjoyed civil engineering while I was there, and because it would have been easy to do something different, engineering is a fairly challenging degree and then with all your other competing priorities with ROTC and just college life in general in New Orleans, as you might imagine, you were pretty busy. But I really enjoyed it and getting that degree, paid huge dividends down the road because that’s what got me into Test Pilot School was having an engineering degree, not only being a fighter pilot but having that degree as well.

But that’s not your first stop when got your degree, in the Marines…

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NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, STS-135 pilot, prepares for a flight in a NASA T-38 trainer jet at Ellington Field near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

No, so then, once we graduate we’re commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps and then I was off to Quantico, Virginia, for several months of what they call The Basic School in the Marine Corps, which really means every Marine officer is a ground/infantry officer first and then once you finish that school, you’re afforded the opportunity to go do what you intended to do, your discipline, whether it be a tank driver, an airplane driver, an infantry officer, so I spent some time at Quantico and then after that was on my way down to Pensacola and flight school was a long process, it was Pensacola to start with, then Corpus Christi, Texas, where I actually started flying airplanes, and then I finished up flight school in Meridian, Mississippi, in jet training, and got my wings in 1991, and then was off to the West Coast to fly F-18s and I spent several years out there operationally flying F-18s in the Marines.

They finally got you off the Gulf Coast.

Yeah, little did I know I was going to be back.

Well, and take us through the last step of that. You’re a Marine officer now and how did you end up astronaut?

Yeah, I get that a lot, too because everybody kind of wonders, well, how did you end up there? I had flown operationally in a frontline F-18 fighter squadron for, it was the better part of four and a half years, and a couple of my commanding officers while I was in that particular squadron had said, you ought to consider Test Pilot School, with the engineering background, and I asked them a lot of questions about it and they knew that I had some desire, being an astronaut and they said, that is probably a way to go, and so I kind of looked into it and applied to Test Pilot School, and was accepted at the Navy Test Pilot School which is in Patuxent River, Maryland, and so in 1996 I left the West Coast—at that time I was at Miramar in San Diego—and went to Test Pilot School for a year at Patuxent River, Maryland. One thing they don’t tell you about Test Pilot School is that after being out of college for eight or nine years it’s like going into an intensive aeronautical/engineering master’s program, so it was a little bit of denial there for the first few months getting back into the academics, but a very rewarding experience, got to fly a number of different airplanes over the next year and then, once you graduate from Test Pilot School then you become an operational test pilot for typically a two to three year tour, and I stayed in Patuxent River and was involved in several F-18 flight test projects as well as flying the new F-18 Super Hornet, so it was a great experience, loved living there. It was actually the closest I’d been to home in my entire military career so that was nice as well. And it was while I was there as the operations officer for the test squadron that I had applied and then subsequently gotten picked to come down to NASA.

And you got here and had taken a job that, not unlike test pilot, has its own share of risks, albeit maybe slightly different ones.

Yes.

But, Doug, what is it that you think that we’re getting or learning as a result of flying people in space that makes that risk one worth taking?

Well, I think you see a number of benefits. I mean, all this technology that we gain from spaceflight has become such a fabric of our lives that it’s just incredible to see, and that alone, in my mind, is worth the risk. But just to explore low Earth orbit, to explore the moon as we did before, is well worth the risk of a single person or a few people, to get those answers, to see what’s out there, to see if there was life on other planets. So, for me, obviously flying fighters my whole life I’ve come to grips with the risk years ago, and it really hasn’t changed for me in that regard. So this just seems like just another day at the office.

You are one of four crew members on the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis. Doug, could you give me a, a summary of the work that’s planned on STS-135 and what your jobs are going to be?

Well, obviously my position in the crew is as the pilot, but, primarily we are trying to get the station in a position where it can last without being resupplied significantly for over a year. So we’re taking up a fully loaded MPLM, multi-purpose logistics module, to supply station for that amount of time and to keep things rolling as far as that goes.

Now you guys are going up with only four astronauts on board Atlantis. Why just four this time?

Yeah, that’s a great question. We haven’t flown a four-person crew since STS-6, so we obviously don’t take this lightly. But the combination of a couple different things kind of drove the crew size to that number, the primary one being that, since Return to Flight, STS-114, we’ve had a shuttle in a position where it can provide a rescue for the previous shuttle if there was a problem with the heat shield that we discovered on orbit, and obviously being the last shuttle flight we don’t have that option. So in order to facilitate a potential rescue scenario we have to come down on Soyuz rockets and after some consideration, we would have to stay on the order of three months for the first person, up to a year for the last person by the time we come down, so four successive Soyuz flights would bring down one person at a time over the course of the following year that they declared a rescue.

You’re saying that if you had a larger crew it would take longer to get everybody home.

Yeah, it just adds to that and I think most folks are comfortable with allowing a crew member under those particular circumstances to remain in space for a year, but once you start pushing things out beyond a year, that requires a lot more consideration and thought.

How do you feel about the idea of maybe coming home on a Soyuz or spending an extra year in space?

Well, I looked at it a couple of ways. I remember when Peggy Whitson called me into her office and said, I’ve got some good news for you. And I said, what’s that, she goes, I’d like you to be the pilot on STS-135. And I said, well, of course, and I said, is there something else, and she said, well, right now it looks like you would be the last person to come down if there was a rescue declared. I was like, hmm…I thought about it for a few minutes and I said, well, let me look at it this way: I’ve got nine months of shuttle training for this flight, vice the two and a half years that most folks typically train to go on ISS for six months, so I told her, I said, well, it’s a bargain at any price so I’ll take it.

So in the, in this rescue scenario you’d be the fourth of four.

That’s what it’s looking like, that’s correct; the last one down, at least the current way. Sandy [Magnus] and I would be the last two and it’s because we’ve got the robotics in the mix as well as EVA and, because you essentially become a de facto member of the space station crew because if this rescue was declared they’re not going to fly people up in that empty seat because they need it for us to come down, so we have to assume at least some sort of a role as a crew member on space station. So that’s the way they’ve sorted it out.

Now you have been to the space station before. All four of you have been there.

That’s correct.

Of course, Sandy has had a long-duration mission there.

Yes.

Has that experience among the four of you been helpful as you prepared for this flight?

It has been invaluable. Sandy is amazing. She flew a shuttle flight back in, I believe, 2002, STS-112, and you would not have known it’s been eight-plus years since she’s flown; just amazing what she remembers from that flight. And then the additional space station expertise has just been great because there’s not that concern that if, no kidding, if this rescue scenario happens to come into play, and obviously the likelihood is extremely small that that would happen, Sandy would jump right into the role of our continuing instructor while we’re on space station because obviously living there for six months she knows all the ins and outs. Obviously it’s changed slightly since she’s been there but the general philosophies on how the station operates, the science, the experiments, as well as just the day-to-day things that you need to do on space station, she’s been invaluable kind of offering her insight as we’ve gone through this training.

And it’s not like you and Chris [Ferguson] and Rex [Walheim] have, don’t have any experience at it.

Yeah, that’s true. I mean, we’ve all had missions to the space station and it does feel a little different this time— there was a lot of that unknown on my first flight where you just didn’t know what to expect getting to the space station and then how you’d fit into the whole crew mix, and I think that part of it is, it definitely feels a little easier this time having been there once before.

What are you looking forward to seeing on the station when you get back there?

I’m sure this is an answer that a lot of people probably give you, but it’s got to be the Cupola. Just, the pictures that I’ve seen out of the Cupola have been unbelievable and, and knowing, having been in space before and looking out a window, there’s no camera that can capture that vividness, just the stunning views that you see out the window, so, with the Cupola having unobstructed views of the planet and the space station, that is probably what I’m looking forward to the most, just getting in there and hopefully having five minutes to look out the window without having to do something else.

You and your crewmates are bringing up, well, a shuttle-full of supplies to the International Space Station. Give us a sense of the kinds of, of things, what kind of cargo are you guys bringing up to orbit?

We are bringing up the multi-purpose logistics module Raffaello, and about, the number changes, it seems like weekly, but roughly 16,000 pounds of material. That would include food—on the order of a year’s worth of food for the ISS crew- spare parts, replacement parts, some scientific experiments. We’re taking up, I think the latest number is eight middeck payloads, three sets of mouse enclosures so 24 mice that we’re doing studies on with regards to osteoporosis, so, you name it, we’re taking it up there, and obviously this is to just put the station in its best possible stature for the post-shuttle era, so that from a large supply standpoint it is taken care of and as far as replacement parts, it’s taken care of at least for the near future.

As you said, some of this is coming up in the middeck. The bulk of it is going to be inside the MPLM.

That’s correct.

MPLMs used to get docked to the underside of the Unity node but now there’s a permanent module there.

Yeah.

Does the fact that that’s out there now create any, any changes for the way the robotics operation will, will be to install Raffaello now on the underside of, of Node 2?

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NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, STS-135 pilot, participates in a tools and repair kits training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Not a significant amount. It is going to be in all your camera views because it’s going to be right next to Raffaello when we install it, but generally speaking, it actually ends up being, I think, a little closer to the shuttle. From that respect, it’s not a significant difference as far as the installation, robotically, but it’s definitely something that we have to pay attention to because the clearances obviously are much smaller.

It’s something new that, maybe, in the, uh, the theater of operation?

That’s right.

Uh, this mission also features one spacewalk on Flight Day 5, but unlike previous shuttle flights, on this one station crew members are going to be going outside. What’s the reason for that assignment?

Well, I think it’s a couple things. One, Ron Garan and Mike Fossum have done EVAs previously, and coincidentally together on STS-124, so they have a significant amount of experience. I believe they did three together on that flight. That being one, and the other we kind of fall back on the same thing: we are a four-person crew and we had about eight or nine months to prepare for this mission, and just from a preparation standpoint and the other things that we had to do regarding training, we’ve just kind of thought that that was a better way to do it and spread the load around the entire docked crew rather than just place it all on the shuttle crew, because typically you have seven people and we could have had two people concentrate primarily on EVA whereas on this flight, everybody has to attend almost every training evolution that we have. However, that’s not to say that we’re not going to be deeply involved with the EVA. Sandy and I will be providing robotic support throughout the EVA, and Rex is going to be the IV [intravehicular crew member] for the EVA, so, the quarterback for the EVA. I think that pretty much says volumes about the shuttle/station team and how we’re just going to put this whole thing together on orbit, and it’s kind of been a neat way to do our training.

Well, let’s talk about what, what’s going to happen there, and from the perspective of, of the arm operations particularly, take me through the timeline as it exists today…

OK.

…of their spacewalk and what are these guys going to be doing out there?

Well, the big purpose of this spacewalk is twofold, at least from a robotics standpoint. The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to retrieve the failed pump module that we had last summer, and put it back in the the shuttle payload bay, to bring it back to Earth so that the engineers can kind of study it more closely and determine what exactly caused it to fail, because obviously it’s a very important part of the space station, it provides cooling for the space station and we need to understand why it failed. So that’s the first thing. And then the next big objective from a robotics standpoint is we’re going to detach the robotics refueling module, RRM, from the payload bay which we brought up along with the MPLM and attach it to station right next to the SPDM [Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator]. So those are the two big events, and then there’s a number of other what we call getaheads that we’re going to try to accomplish while Ron and Mike are outside, and, as you know from previous flights, those getaheads and those priorities typically change almost weekly as we get up towards the flight, and I think some portion of that will depend on how much [STS-]134’s spacewalk teams get accomplished and then we may pick up some of the things that they don’t do or if they end up doing some of these getaheads, we may do some other ones.

And since they won’t need them done then.

Exactly.

From the robotics operator’s perspective, how, how easy or hard are the, uh, are the operations for the pump module and the RRM?

Well, I think any time you’re involving a spacewalker on the end of the arm and close clearances, it’s always fairly intense. We had a fair amount of that on my previous flight, on STS-127, and this will be very similar where we’ll have both Ron and Mike on the end of the arm, either retrieving the pump module or the robotics refueling module and placing them in their appropriate final areas, and, within the payload bay it’s going to be very tight clearances and then when we go to get the pump module that’s over on the starboard side of the space station in some fairly tight clearances on one of the ESPs [External Stowage Platforms], and then, when we put the robotics refueling module back on space station, it’s right near the SPDM and right near the U.S. Lab so there will be a fair amount of vigilance obviously by us on the robotic arm, as well as the folks down on Mission Control.

Now your area of operations here are all relatively close to one another.

That is very correct. Yeah, it’s kind of going to be a back and forth between kind of the center portion of the station near the Lab down to the payload bay and back. So, ideally we’ll have some fairly good views out the window with the Cupola based on its location, which is something obviously that Sandy and I have never had the luxury of having, which should really help us as far as that goes because previous to this both Sandy and my experiences has been with the robotic station in the U.S. Lab where there were no windows and you were just purely dependent on station camera views as well as some of the shuttle views as well.

Now, from the underside of Node 3 right there just behind the Lab you should be able to see virtually every place you’re going here, I guess, except the ESP.

That’s what we’re hoping so we’re really looking forward to just being able to look out the window to give ourselves clearances which, obviously, one look out the window is worth a thousand camera views, we’ve practiced it in VR—Virtual Reality Lab—and it looks like we should have some great views out the window.

Once the spacewalk is over with, the combined crews are scheduled for a lot of transfer work. Is that a lot of transfer work?

Yeah, that is the understatement, I think, of the mission. I think we’re going to do transfers. Then we’re going to transfer. Then we’re going to do more transfer, and then we’ll throw an EVA in the middle of it, I think is how we have referred to it as, because the MPLM is going to be packed full, literally, and it’s going to take a long time to unpack it, and then unlike the previous mission, STS-133, where they left the MPLM up there, with a fair amount of cargo still in it, we have to empty it out completely and then there is a laundry list of things that we are going to bring back from space station. So you’re kind of packing and unpacking a house twice, I think, is probably the best way to say it.

Well, you’re packing and unpacking two houses at the same time in the same space.

That’s correct and we are beyond thankful that Sandy is going to be the one on orbit that’s going to run the choreography for this. She’s a consummate professional and, we just are trying not to get her upset with us.

Can you give us a good sense of what it’s, what does it take in terms of not just moving things back and forth, that’s pretty straightforward, but also knowing where everything is supposed to go and, and knowing where it is at the, at any given time?

Yeah, that’s the thing with transfer, and I discovered this on my previous flight and I know Chris and Rex and Sandy as well have talked about this on their previous flights, you have to be meticulous with your bookkeeping, you have to be meticulous with your plan, and you can’t move something out of the MPLM until you have a place to put it in the space station, and then vice versa. You can’t move something back into the MPLM until its spot has opened up from what we brought up. So it is a huge amount of choreography that the ground teams have to work on as well as obviously us on orbit; otherwise you’re going to have these huge traffic jams in the middle of the space station and we don’t have the room for that so it’s got to be very well-organized and I can’t think of anybody better to do the bookkeeping and organizing than Sandy.

I guess you got to be prepared not just to follow the script though but to, to deal with the, but to ad lib if it’s called for.

I think so, Sandy has a great plan as far as, where we can temporarily stow things as we move things back and forth, as well as what we need to do in the middeck and it will require a little bit of ad libbing. It may require some working after hours, it may require some extra game planning at night before we start the next day to kind of figure out how we want to attack this every day because it is literally a mountain of things that we’re taking up to space station.

And when you’re done with all of that, when the joint timeline is done, the four of you are going to mark a milestone with the last undocking of the space shuttle from the International Space Station. Anything special on the plan for the, for the undocking operation itself?

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NASA astronaut Doug Hurley, STS-135 pilot, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, participates in a training session in the Full Fuselage Trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

I think generally speaking, no, but I probably wouldn’t tell you if we had something; it wouldn’t be a surprise. Generally, it will be a typical undock day, with a slight twist: our flyaround is going to involve the station yawing to 90° one side, so when we do the flyaround, rather than over the center portion of the space station, we’re going to go over kind of the long axis of the space station and get some views that we haven’t seen of the space station in a very long time, if ever, and this will also help folks on the ground be able to document any specific areas of interest or micrometeorite damage that the station has had, as we move forward into the post-shuttle era. So it should be, that in and of itself should be a fairly unique flyaround.

For the man at the controls, does that really, does that change the flyaround task much for you?

It really doesn’t. The profile is essentially the same albeit your point of view with regard to station is 90° different, but the profile is essentially the same so it shouldn’t change the procedures as far as on board the shuttle drastically at all.

You’re flying the same loop.

Exact same loop, although the last time we had talked about this, based on the time required, and obviously our entire timeline is managed very closely and it seems like this flight even more so because of the number of people and the amount of things we’re trying to accomplish, we probably will not be able to do an entire 360° flyaround, rather just be, at least as they currently plan, a 180° flyaround, so the top half of the space station…

Or the top side…

…top side, yeah. It’ll make a lot more sense when we do it.

Is there going to be anything special you’re going to keep your eyes peeled for during that last flyaround and then that final separation?

That view is unbelievable already so I think just taking that view in one more time, I know we’ve sent back video of the flyarounds, and it’s just incredible as the sun comes up and lights up the solar arrays, you can see the shadow of the orbiter on the arrays, it’s a one of a kind view, and I think, for me personally, that’s what I’ll be looking at and obviously trying to maintain all the parameters that we’re required to maintain and then, once again all the other folks will be very busy doing other things, too. But I think we’ll be able to manage a glimpse or two at space station as we get ready to go.

When you were assigned to this mission it was going to be a rescue flight for the last space shuttle mission. Then, of course, the plans for that have changed.

Yeah.

What was your reaction when you realized, hey, I’m going to be on the last space shuttle mission?

It’s a mix of emotions. Obviously you’re excited; any spaceflight is a great spaceflight and the reality that this is the last flight in the program I think sets in to a degree. Obviously the biggest thing is you count your blessings, you’re honored, you’re humbled, you’re lucky, and very thankful, I think are some of the things that went through my head. And then the reality of it set it that, this is going to be a real flight and, we got four people and a lot to do, so I think, especially in the last few months, that’s been the biggest challenge is just trying to get all this together with only four of us has been very busy.

So there is a special sense of, of honor or, and maybe responsibility, to be on this particular mission?

It’s a huge responsibility because you want to represent the thousands and thousands of people that have worked, probably their entire careers—I don’t know how many people that we’ve talked to or met that have been in the space shuttle program since STS-1—and nothing means more, I think, to all four of us than to honor that legacy and go out with as best a mission as we can fly.

Well, as you, you know very well, the end of the program means a lot of changes at NASA including people, layoffs…

Yes.

…closing some historic facilities. What’s your feeling about the decision that was made to stop flying these vehicles?

Well, I would imagine it was an incredibly difficult decision on so many fronts. I understand it; there’s a logical end for all programs. Obviously, coming from a military background, I’ve seen airplanes fly out their service lives and be retired, and it’s just the natural progression and, fiscally it was a decision that needed to be made. We’ve got priorities at NASA, we’ve got things that we want to do outside of low Earth orbit, and the decision was made to go that direction and it’s probably time, but that doesn’t make it any easier for, for the folks that fly it and I know it doesn’t make it any easier for the folks that have worked on it their whole careers but, you know, we just want them to know that what they’ve accomplished is incredible and, we’ll do our best to finish this program the way it deserves to be finished.

The end of the program is reflected in some of the elements of the patch that you guys have for your mission.

That’s correct.

Tell me about what, what we’re seeing in that, in that patch, what are those elements?

Well, we kind of went for a couple different themes with the patch, and as you may or may not know the, the crews are the ones that end up designing the patch, which is a great honor. We did ask for a lot of advice from family, from friends, from other folks around the different centers, what they would like to see, and of course we got about as many ideas as we could possibly handle. But we wanted to keep it simple. We wanted to represent in some way the program as a whole, and we kind of did that with a little bit of a design that looked similar to the STS-1 patch and then, of course, the omega I think is one of the other big aspects of the patch, which is the last Greek letter in the alphabet, for the last flight. Not so subtle, well, maybe subtle way, to refer to the last flight, and then aspects of the NASA meatball which, once again represents, after our flight, 135 flights for the program, which is the lion’s share of NASA spaceflights. I think the last big factor was we wanted to make it relatively simple, not too busy. Some patches are busier than others and, we just wanted to kind of keep it a little bit simple, so we hope folks like it, we hope it honors the space shuttle program and the men and women that have worked there.

So if you think back of, about 134, 135 space shuttle flights, what do you think are some of the most significant moments from the space shuttle’s history?

Well, the space shuttle for me personally, that is the space vehicle that I grew up with; it’s really the only one that I remember. I have some memories of Skylab but really nothing prior to that, but space shuttle’s been around my whole adult life. But I have to start with STS-1, an unflown vehicle, and those two men getting on board and flying that, trusting that the engineering was correct, trusting that the design was correct, trusting that all the safety measures were in place. To me it’s just amazing. I’m not sure if we’ve done anything since then—and we, I mean the country—with a test program. It’s just amazing. Hubble has done wonders, I can’t say enough about the accomplishments there, and then the International Space Station—what a magnificent engineering feat to build something of that size in orbit, 225 above the surface of the Earth, is just amazing and, those things for me will be a very lasting legacy to the space shuttle, and as far as we know there’s no other vehicle that could have done all that.

What about this vehicle? What’s, what’s Atlantis’ place in the history of the space shuttle?

Well, I would like to think that Atlantis obviously will get, ideally, the last flight of the program, so in itself that will seal its legacy. It’s done a lion’s share of work with regard to the [station] assembly, it did the last Hubble servicing mission, so Atlantis will have a proud legacy as far as I’m concerned, and we’re really looking forward to flying it.

If you think about the work of the whole shuttle program on all of the orbiters, how is that work going to be remembered?

Well, as I said before, you’ve got the lasting legacy that Hubble, the pictures of our galaxy, that would have never been seen, and you’ve got the space station which, will live on for many more years. So just in that regard I think you’ve got a tremendous history, and then just to look at the engineering feat of building a winged vehicle that goes into space and does things robotically, it rendezvouses with space stations, it carries up huge payloads of supplies, and then returns to Earth and lands on a runway—that in and of itself is a tremendous accomplishment, and I think it’ll be a long time before we see another vehicle that does all those things.

As far as the International Space Station’s concerned, what kind of station would we have today if we hadn’t had space shuttles to build it with?

Well, you think about it. I mean, the space station brought up all the major components, with very few exceptions, and there’s probably a way we could have built the space station, albeit we’d probably be in the very early stages of construction had it not been for the shuttle, because we could bring up huge trusses, the solar arrays, all the modules, for the most part, all came up in the shuttle payload bay. So, I’m thinking somebody somewhere is smart enough to figure out a way to have put a space station together without a shuttle but I think it would have taken almost an immeasurable amount of time to put it together given everything else that we know.

After STS-135, it’s going to be up to spaceships from other nations and probably from private industry to get crews and cargo to the space station in the, for the foreseeable future…

That’s correct.

…at any rate. As an American astronaut, how do you feel about the future of the International Space Station?

Oh, I think the future’s in great hands. We’ve known about the end of the space shuttle program for quite awhile now, and some of the best folks we have are working in the space station program planning all these different vehicles and all the right kinds of supplies and all the right things that need to be put on orbit in order to sustain the space station. We have our Russian partners who are going to initially provide rides for our folks up to space station and back, and then the plan is for the commercial folks to pick up some of that slack in the very near future and continue flights to the International Space Station. So I think if you add the Europeans with the Automated Transfer Vehicle, the Japanese with their transfer vehicle, I think we’re in really good shape.

You remember where you were when STS-1 took off and how you felt about that?

Yeah, I was in school. I believe I was a freshman in high school when STS-1 took off and I think that was the only flight they flew with the white external tank so the entire stack was white like that and it was just unbelievable to see this, what, looked like to a teenager an airplane that was going to go into space, I’ve been mesmerized with it ever since, fascinated with it and obviously I was very interested in heading that direction a little bit later in life, as you can see.

S127-E-006348: Doug Hurley

Astronaut Doug Hurley looks through an overhead window on the aft flight deck of space shuttle Endeavour during the STS-127 mission in July 2009. Photo credit: NASA

Do you have a favorite memory out of the space shuttle era?

Probably a few. I think, selfishly, my first flight was a pretty fond memory, almost to the point where it seems surreal that I actually did it, because it’s so much different than anything else I’ve ever done in my life, but I would say that that was a great moment. I would also say I worked as a Kennedy support personnel down at Kennedy Space Center, and my first launch was when I was working and it was STS-109, first launch I ever saw in person, and that was incredible, too. So those are probably the two biggest.

Shuttles are still going to low Earth orbit but what they’re doing is dramatically different today than when STS-1 kicked off the space shuttle era. Doug, where do you think we’re going to go in the next era of human space exploration?

I hope we go outside of low Earth orbit. I mean, I think why a lot of us got into this business was exploration, and seeing what’s over the next horizon, and that’s what I would personally like to see is let’s go explore other worlds. Let’s explore the moon, let’s explore an asteroid, let’s explore Mars. To me, that’s the part of human spaceflight that really is exciting and just to see what’s over that next bend and around that next curve is why I originally got into this business.