Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?
Preflight Interview: Sandy Magnus, Mission Specialist
A: You know, it’s funny, they asked me that in the interview and I didn’t have a good answer for them, either. It’s something that caught a hold of me when I was in middle school, believe it or not, and I’ve always liked science and technology and math, it’s always been fun to learn how the world works and to see new things and learn new things, and there was something about flying in space that just grabbed a hold of me and didn’t let go. So here I am a little bit of luck and a little bit of hard work.
Well, let me find out how you got there. Let’s start with your hometown. Tell me what it was like to grow up in your hometown.
Well, I grew up in Belleville, Illinois. It’s near St. Louis but on the Illinois side of the river; medium size town, lot of family living in the area. It was really quite a nice place to grow up, very solid, well-grounded community, lots of very nice people, and I enjoyed it. We had St. Louis nearby if you wanted to do big city stuff but we were yet a smaller town so we didn’t have a lot of the big city issues, and it was a good place to grow up.
Did you get a chance to see it from orbit?
I did. I took some pictures of the area and showed them to my family, found the street my mom lives on, sent her that.
Big cities are easier to see than small towns and you’re talking about picking out a street?
Yeah, but I had four and a half months to practice. (laughs)
How do you feel like the people there and that place helped make you the person that you are?
Well, as I said it’s the Midwest. We’re very well-grounded in the Midwest. People are friendly they value hard work and discipline and help each other. It’s just a really nice community. I really value the fact that I got to grow up in such a great place.
Well, tell me about how you go from Belleville into college and then into your professional career. What’s the path that led you from there to here?
Well, following my interests really is probably the best way to describe the path. I enjoyed studying physics when I was an undergraduate. I didn’t know much about engineering until I got to college ’cause there weren’t really any engineers in my immediate vicinity. Got to college, discovered engineering, thought that was kind of interesting so I dabbled a little bit in electrical engineering and ended up doing a master’s in that after I started working at McDonnell Douglas for about four and a half years. While I was at McDonnell Douglas my job involved working with airplane design, and materials, specifically, and how they function, interact with electromagnetic fields, and so I got interested in materials, I didn’t know that existed. Then I wandered off to Georgia Tech and did my Ph.D. in materials. At that point I think my resume looks all right, so I can apply to NASA and see what happens, and what happened was I got selected and here I am.
Was the idea of applying to NASA always there from…
…undergraduate days on?
It was always in the back of my mind. I just didn’t feel ready to apply until I was nearing the completion of my Ph.D.
You’ve gotten to a job where there’s a big part of it, the flying in space part of it, that has got dangers that most Ph.D.s don’t have to encounter. Sandy, what is it that you think we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth that risk?
Well, a comment about the danger part first. My brother is a police officer; on a daily basis, he is probably in more danger than I am because I don’t fly in space every day. I fly in space once every five years, so I have like spikes of danger, he’s got sort of low-level danger I’ll let people decide which one’s actually, truly, in total, the more dangerous job but aside from that, yes, flying in space is definitely risky but we learn a lot from being in space. I mean even just about how the human body changes, and these insights can help us fuel creative ideas on how to solve problems here on the Earth. For example, if we can figure out what’s going on with the bone density and even if you don’t lose bone density, your bone regrows but the structure’s a little different; so what does that mean? Could that be harmful or beneficial and if it is beneficial could you duplicate that down here and help people? and we get a lot these serendipitous discoveries: we’ve done some cancer cell research up there and found a little bit new and unusual things about how cancer cells grow, we’re finding interesting things about the virulency of some diseases, we’re finding interesting things about how materials operate, we’re finding interesting things about fluid dynamics, and all these little pieces of information can be used here on the ground to create things that can help people or technology that can do new things and you just get a lot of information like this and we don’t even know what we don’t know and by going there we can learn these things.
You are one of four crew members on the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis. Sandy, give me a summary of the work that’s planned for mission STS-135 and what your jobs are going to be on this flight.
Well, it’s a very busy mission. Our prime job is to take tons of logistics up to space station and get it up there while we still have the huge cargo-carrying capacity of the shuttle available. In addition, we’re tasked with bringing down the pump module which failed late last year, because it failed a little bit earlier than expected and we need to dissect it and learn from it what happened and how to improve our engineering designs. Those are the primary mission parameters that we’re working with.
There’s something new about this flight is that there are only four shuttle crew members. Why is that?
Yeah, it’s going to be a challenging mission with only four of us but really the driver for that is the fact that our rescue scenario’s a little bit different than normal. Ever since Columbia
, we’ve been mandated to have a shuttle on the pad ready to launch in case the crew has an issue with the orbiter and they need to be rescued. Because we are the last orbiter, there’s not an orbiter there waiting for us so our rescue scenario involves the Soyuz capsules which we’re flying to station via the Russians, and on the Soyuz capsules only one person can come down at a time. With a crew of four it takes a year to get everybody down and that was deemed to be enough. You don’t want to have six or seven people up there it would take close to two years to get everybody down.
Why would it take a year to get the four of you home that way?
Well, as I mentioned, the Soyuz is a three-seat vehicle and you’re still having crew rotations occurring on station, and they’ll fly up with an empty right seat. That means that one person will be able to return with each Soyuz, and so for four of us—and a Soyuz is launching every three months or returning every three months—that’s a year.
And that’s on the assumption that the Soyuz flies at the same regularity?
Yeah, I think that’s a pretty solid assumption.
How comfortable are you with the idea of flying on a Soyuz, and of maybe getting a few extra months in space?
Well, actually for me it’s not really a problem because I’ve lived there for four and a half months already and my stay would be about nine months so it would be double the time that I’ve spent there already and I’m already trained on the Soyuz since it was part of my space station training process. I feel pretty comfortable with it and I’m very familiar with the station and its fun living on the space station. It wouldn’t be a problem.
Well, let’s talk about that training. You have been to the station for months; each of your shuttle crewmates has been to the space station before. How has that experience helped you folks get ready for this flight?
Well, clearly having been to the station before, whether it’s for a short duration or having lived there is very helpful in a training flow like this because we’re already familiar with what the station does, how it operates, we’ve been there, we understand how things work on board, and we can very easily fall into the efficiency of operations that we need to have once we get there, and with four people in a short period of time to transfer all of these things that we’re transferring.
What are you looking forward to seeing when you get back to the station?
It’s only been two years since I’ve come home and since I’ve been gone, they’ve delivered three more modules and the Cupola so the station has grown even bigger, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it looks like now. I mean, it was already huge while I was there, and I’ve been told the views out the Cupola are stupendous so I’m really looking forward to spending some time in there and seeing the whole horizon at one time.
It’s, the station’s bigger, and the crew is bigger, too. It’ll be kind of a different experience.
Definitely. There, we were the last three-person crew when I was on board two years ago; now we have six people and, with us it’ll be 10 total, which doesn’t match the highest amount we’ve ever had but it’ll be crowded but I don’t think it’ll be too crowded ’cause, as I said, the station is really huge.
On this flight you’re carrying a shuttle-full of supplies for the International Space Station. Give us a sense of what kind of cargo you and your crewmates are bringing to orbit.
Well, we’re taking a year’s worth of food, for one thing…
…one year’s worth of food, we’re taking about 2000 pounds of science equipment, we’re taking hygiene items, we’re taking clothing, we’re taking thousands of pounds of spare parts for the different systems, life support system, the electrical system, the computer system and so forth. These are the big things that we’re taking ’cause we’re trying to supply the station for a whole year, and that hedges our bets against when the commercial follow-on cargo contracts will be available up and running.
That’s, I’m trying to envision all of that packed into the crew compartment of the space shuttle.
Well, it’s not packed into the crew compartment. We have a multi-purpose mission logistics module in the back end and that comes out of the payload bay as a big cylinder. It comes out of the payload bay with the robot arm, it gets attached to the station and we open up the hatch and that’s where all of the transfer really will take place. The middeck has several thousand pounds but the MPLM [multi-purpose logistics module] has several tens of thousands of pounds.
Nothing to sneeze at what you can put in the middeck.
No, we can get a lot into the middeck these days, and especially since we don’t have anybody sitting on the middeck, instead of where the seats are they’ve put stowage bags, we have three extra stowage bags on the middeck than any other mission.
MPLM, as you mentioned, have usually been attached to a place on the station, on the Unity module, that’s filled right now with a permanent attachment, so where is the MPLM going to go this time?
Actually for the last few missions, the MPLM has gone nadir on Node 2 we’re not any different and when I flew on [STS-] 126 we were an MPLM module, mission as well, and we attached it to Node 2 nadir which is where ours is going to go. The permanent MPLM which you’re referring to is on Node 1 nadir, and it’s not going to really be an issue. We’ll take stuff out of the Node 2 nadir spot, translate down the Lab and most of the stowage and transfer that we’re doing will be in the permanent MPLM that’s on board.
In terms of the robotic operations to install it then, does the existence of this other MPLM on the bottom of Unity cause any change to the way the arm has to maneuver to install the new one?
No, not really. They may have to base it in a different location but I’m pretty sure it can still be on, where it is now is pretty much where we had it for 126 that’s not really a new element. It is when we’re flying procedures robotic procedures in support of EVA we have another blivet that we have to watch out for so.
Now there’s also one spacewalk in the plan for this mission, on Flight Day 5, but unlike previous shuttle flights there are station crew members who are going to be going outside to do the EVA. What’s the reason for that change in the assignment?
That’s another consequence of having a four-person crew. Mike [Fossum] and Ron [Garan] are experienced crew members, they’re already on station, they can train for the EVA before they launch. It’d be difficult for us as a four-person crew to train an EVA crew in addition to everything else that we’re doing because we’re having to cross-train a lot. Normally you have a crew of six or seven, you can send the EVA sub-team off and they can do some training while the flight deck team is doing some other training, and you can work in parallel that way. We can’t do that because there’s only four of us we all have to be at every single training event that they have and by offloading the actual EVA to the station guys that allows our training flow to be reasonable. Now we’re all supporting the EVA. For example, Rex [Walheim] is operating as the IV [intravehicular crewmember], Fergie’s [Chris Ferguson] the airlock IV, he’ll be suiting up the guys to get ready to take them out, and Doug [Hurley] and I will be supporting doing the robotics, so we’re involved in the EVA but the actual EVA operation will be run by the station guys.
OK. Well, tell us what’s on the agenda: what are Mike and Ron going to do outside, and what kind of arm support is required?
Well, as I mentioned, one of the prime mission goals is to bring back the pump module which failed last year, and so the mission, [STS-] 133 mission placed the pump module on the storage platform just outside the airlock, and we’re going to go pick it up and put it in the payload bay it’s very huge and you need the robot arm to move it from place to place. Mike and Ron’ll get on the arm and then he’ll remove the pump module and we’ll carry him over to the payload bay, and then Mike and Ron’ll attach it. While we’re in the payload bay attaching the pump module to the logistics carrier, we’ll retrieve this experiment for the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator that will allow the robotics community to show the ability to do remote refueling and other dexterous tasks that might be involved in servicing satellites. This payload will go out on the truss and then they’ll bring the SPDM over and they’ll practice all these different and delicate operations as a technology demonstration and operational concept development, that perhaps someday you could send robots to service satellites.
And those are activities that are going to happen later…
…but your job is to get it out there?
Yeah, we’re delivering the task board so they can go do their development later on.
And that’s pretty much the EVA tasks for your mission?
Those are the two prime ones. There’s several reserve tasks that the program is looking at based on the time that it takes to do these two tasks and where we are in transfer because the primary driver for our mission schedule is getting things transferred from the MPLM into the station and then bringing things home and repack to pack to bring home in the MPLM, and everything revolves around making sure we have enough crew time to get the transfer done. If it’s determined that we have enough crew time and we’re doing well with transfer, then Doug and I can support robotically a little bit longer in the time frame EVA and there’s a few other tasks that can be attacked at that point. There’s still a little bit of flux there.
And it’s the scheduling is that fine, that tight?
This mission the scheduling is that tight. They’re looking at 15-minute windows, half an hour windows and having debates at that level to figure out how to get enough transfer time on the books they feel confident that we’ll be able to move everything from MPLM to station and then from station back to MPLM and the middeck.
Well, as you said, the transfer work is the top priority and it takes up most of the time. It’s- almost like you were packing up and moving two houses back and forth within the body of the space station. Can you give me a sense of what is involved in not just moving things but knowing where things are all the time and coordinating what’s going in which direction?
That is the tricky part and I am the loadmaster for this flight I’m intimately involved in that, and there’s a great team working on it. We, we’re coming up with a very efficient plan for how to move things out of the MPLM very efficiently and then move things back because there’s a lot of constraints and dependencies. This is MPLM is all stowage, there’s no racks that get transferred—in the past we’ve been able to transfer whole racks of equipment and we have to rotate some racks, there are some racks that block access to other racks and the stowage in there, and so there’s a very efficient plan that, has to be thought up so you’re not constantly having to backtrack and get into things that you’ve already buckled down. We’ve got bags on the station that are waiting to come back in, and getting them in efficiently and then dealing with some of the remnant foam that we inevitably send up to station, that’ll keep us busy but because the team on the ground is so solid I feel that we’ll have a really good plan to operate on.
The foam you’re talking about, that’s packing material?
Yes we are very enthusiastic in our use of packing material here at NASA and the goal is to not leave a lot of that excess up on station because it’s just trash that has to be gotten rid of later, and one of my personal goals for this mission is to minimize the amount of foam that we leave on the station.
The task you describes seems like it almost has to be scripted out one bag at a time in order to make it work.
Well, you don’t have to go one bag at a time but you do need to think about how the racks interfere with each other, and you have to think maybe at rack level or even half a rack level, but again the team that is planning this is very experienced and very competent. I have huge amounts of faith in them and I think we’ll have a really going-in plan. You always have to alter it as things happen but you have a really solid going-in plan 98% of getting anything done is the planning and we’re going to have a great plan.
Is it a general philosophy to like first empty the MPLM and then bring the returning stuff in to pack?
That is the philosophy but that’s not necessarily the most efficient way to do it. Its how you have to access the racks we’re going to actually be emptying and filling all at the same time. For example, there’s some places that are blocked some, support structures that we have to fold out of the way to get to some blocked access when we take the resupply items that need to go to station out of that spot while we have the structure out of the way we’re going to put the return items that are coming home in at that moment so we don’t have to move the structure out of the way more than once. It’s better as you plan to think about these kinds of things so you can do this swap and not have to go backwards.
Is it a giant puzzle?
It is. It’s a three-dimensional puzzle, a giant three-dimensional puzzle, so we’ll be busy.
When the joint timeline on the station is over, you and your shuttle crewmates are going to mark a milestone with the last undocking of a shuttle from the International Space Station. Is there anything special on the plan for that undocking operation itself as Atlantis finishes the shuttle’s mission at the station?
Well, we’re hoping we’ve had some discussions with the imagery folks and that we do a lot of photo documentation of the station as we do the flyaround as we leave so that they can keep an eye on how the station is doing, if there’s micrometeoroid hits or how the solar arrays the radiators and things like this, and one of the things that we have not been able to do all of the flyarounds are along the long axis of the station where this is forward, this is aft and the solar truss is this way. We’re going to this program both the shuttle and the station program are working on rotating the shuttle either 45 or the station
45 or 90° and we’ll do a flyaround in an opposite manner, and we’re able to photo-document the station from a different aspect and get some very valuable information for the imagery guys. That’ll be very interesting because we’ll have very different photos from our flyaround than any other mission before us.
We’re looking forward to trying to do that.
A view that very few of us have ever seen.
I was thinking about, is there anything special that you’re going to be keeping your eyes open for during that last fly around and that final separation?
Well, I’m lucky enough to be the photo person during the docking and undocking time frame, and I’m looking forward to having some nice time at the window and just taking tons of photos of the station, hopefully getting, first of all good documentation for the engineering folks who need the photos to study how the station’s doing, and second, try and get some of those pretty shots that NASA chooses to use every now and then. We’ll see. It’ll be a unique view though.
We need more beauty shots.
Yeah. The station’s a beautiful thing.
When you were assigned to this flight it was supposed to be a rescue mission for what was the last shuttle mission, and it was going to fly in summer of 2010. The plans for that have all changed. What was your reaction when you came to realize, I’m flying on the last space shuttle mission?
Well, first of all I have to say being assigned to a shuttle mission again, of any kind, was a big surprise for me. After doing my long-duration mission I had assumed I was now in the long-duration pool of folks, and I was actually working in Washington, D.C. when I got the phone call to come back to Houston and train for this. I was surprised just in general to be assigned, and we’ve always known that the last rescue mission could potentially turn into a mission, and that’s always been a 50-50 proposition. The big surprise for me was just getting assigned to a shuttle mission at all.
Is there a special sense of responsibility, or honor, of being part of the last crew?
Well, I certainly feel honored to be part of the last crew and the thing I think that I feel the most honored about is it requires a special skill set to operate with a crew of four and I’m very flattered that it’s felt that I have that skill set that is needed to do that. I’m very flattered by that.
The end of the shuttle program means a lot of change at NASA, and that includes layoffs and shutting down some historical facilities. What’s your feeling about the decision that was made to stop flying the shuttles?
Well the decision was made to stop flying the shuttle back after Columbia
when the Columbia
commission reported that the shuttle’s have clearly been flying for decades, they weren’t designed to fly for decades in 2010 NASA has to make a decision whether to overhaul the shuttles and give them a really good shakedown and make sure they’re going to continue to be able to fly safely, or cancel the program and move on. That decision was made a long time ago. Looking back that was probably the right choice to make the unfortunate thing is how the transition is actually occurring. When that decision was made that we’re going to, in 2010, cancel the shuttles, that put NASA into a, a time of transition. The time of transition could last for a decade and we’ve had a lot of turmoil during this time as different agendas are brought forward for what NASA should be doing, and it’s because of the way it’s all played out, we’re in a situation now where unfortunately we’re losing a lot of important skill sets. You mentioned the layoffs as a matter of fact, we had CEIT [Crew Equipment Interface Test] just last week and the people who were there helping us get through the CEIT were getting laid off the next day. It’s really heart-wrenching when you’re down to the individual level. During this time of transition we we’re finding ourselves not able to enact the next plan in time to save certain skill sets and that I think is the unfortunate thing. I think we will get a plan. I think it’ll be a good plan if you listen to the agendas of different entities that are arguing over the National Space Policy and trying to formulate it there’s general agreement that we should go beyond low Earth orbit, and that reinforces the idea that the shuttle’s time has come because it’s a vehicle that was designed for low Earth orbit and so we will get our plan but in the meantime it’s been a little unsettling in the transition.
Every mission has to come up with a patch, and yours we see on your shirt; talk about some of the elements that are there ’cause you see parts of the NASA emblem but also the last letter of the Greek alphabet.
The omega came to mind immediately as it is the last letter of the Greek alphabet and we are the last shuttle mission we wanted to sort of highlight that this was the end of the shuttle program. It’s not just something that affects the shuttle program but it affects all of NASA we felt like having part of the NASA symbol on our patch was appropriate as well.
What do you think are the most significant moments in the space shuttle history?
Oh my there are so many. We can talk about the launch of the Hubble. We can talk about the repair of the Hubble. We can talk about the space station program and what it’s been able to do there. We can talk about some of the great science missions, the radar mapping missions and there’s so much that the shuttle’s been able to accomplish, but I think some of the greatest moments in our history as a shuttle program has come after our disasters, because you see what the people of our space industry are really made of what the space industry’s really made of. We have this horrible event, we lose a vehicle, we lose crew, and everybody pulls together and just tackles the problem. I was involved in some of the Columbia
work and I was just so impressed and so amazed. You have this extremely complex problem, we broke it down into little pieces, everybody worked so hard with such fierce determination to solve it, brought all the pieces back together, found the solution, and continued to fly and I can’t think of any other industry on this planet that can do that, and this says a lot about the people that work in the space program. It says a lot about the shuttle program in general.
And doing it out in public in front of everybody.
Definitely, and doing it with a lot of an emotional context to it because we lost people there…
...that’s just hard.
What do you think about Atlantis, this particular orbiter? What will it be remembered for?
I have to tell you, at least in my heart, Atlantis
was the first one that I flew on for STS-112 and now it’ll be my last mission as well so holds a special place in my heart but I think all three of the orbiters have their own personality, have their own sort of following, and for the people who have worked on Atlantis
for so long I think it’s special for them that it will be the last mission.
For the people who are not as close to it, they all look alike—what makes Atlantis different? What’s peculiar about it?
Well, I mean, technically speaking, Atlantis
does not have a modification that allows it to pull power from the space station it’s a little bit different there. I know, it’s hard to put your finger on it. They all have their own little quirks and their own little personalities, and it’s just hard to describe.
How will the work of the shuttle program, the whole program, be remembered?
I think it’ll be remembered as one of the most unique programs in the history of spaceflight. If you look at what the shuttle can do, it’s a very versatile vehicle. We mentioned already the science missions that it had, we mentioned the repair, deploy and capture of satellites. We mentioned the space station and if you look at how the shuttle program’s evolved, it wasn’t clear when the shuttle was first built, what it was going to be doing, in particular for all these different missions. It sort of grew into being able to carry out all these missions because of the versatility that was inherent in the design of the vehicle and because of the dedication and the creativity of the people who worked on the program for so long. I think when you look back at the shuttle program, you’re going to see a vehicle that was adaptable to the fullest extent over the 30-year life in ways that the original designers maybe have, had vague ideas but certainly no concept of the wide variety of tasks that the vehicle was going to be able to perform. In addition, it’ll be unique in history for a very long time in its ability to return cargo from space, and that’s been key for a lot of science that we’ve done. Because it’s not only important to do the experiments on orbit, but it’s also important to be able to bring your samples back and get your data back and things like that and the orbiter has been very unique in that sense, in addition to things like bringing the pump module back and other large pieces of equipment on the space station that have failed over the years. We bring those back on the orbiter and we can learn from them, and it’s been able to do that for us as well, I think there’s a lot of key things and capabilities and qualities that the orbiter has had, that the shuttle program has used it for, that will be celebrated for a very long time.
Lately we’ve been using it to build the space station. What kind of space station might we have today if we didn’t have the space shuttle to use to build it?
A much smaller, and much less capable one. If you look at the space station now, you will see this huge monster building in space you will see science racks and experiment facilities that are on board because the shuttle could take them there. Without that, the station would be much less capable and have a lot less going on than it does now.
After STS-135 it’s going to be up to spaceships from other nations and perhaps private industry to get crews and cargo to orbit, for the foreseeable future, anyway. As an American astronaut, how do you feel about the future for the International Space Station?
The future is very strong for the International Space Station. It’s an entity that we’re flying with a lot of other countries there’s a lot of interest in it, there’s a lot of useful things we can do on the space station. We know for sure it’s going to 2020, it could even go farther, who knows I think there’s still a lot of capability in the space station and there’ll be a lot of good science to come out of the work that we’re doing on the space station.
Do you remember where you were when STS-1 took off and what you thought about that flight?
Gosh, I was in high school and it was just pretty spectacular to see something launching with people in it, even on TV. It’s like, wow, look at that that’s really cool—it looks like an airplane but it’s launching like a rocket—wow! It was really different.
What’s your favorite memory out of the space shuttle program?
Well, I have to say my favorite memory is very personal. I was on Atlantis
when we opened the payload bay doors right after we got to orbit. I was on the flight deck working in the aft flight deck area opening the payload bay doors, and as the payload bay doors opened I looked down at the Earth for the first time and saw the horizon and, that was very special.
Destinations have changed a lot in the 30 years since STS-1 kicked off this era. Where do you think we’re going to go in the next era of space exploration?
As you know that’s a very hotly contested debate going on right now, with a camp stating that we need to go to the moon, another camp stating that we should go to asteroid, another camp stating we should skip all that and go directly to Mars. Those are the three that I hear the most about. I mentioned earlier, everyone’s agreed we need to get out of low Earth orbit and the next step is to go forward and that’s a good thing. I think we’ll find that it’ll be almost irresistible to use the moon as a test bed of some sort, and then the big debate would be how long, but it’s in our backyard and it makes sense to do some technology testing there and some technology development there. It’s quite possible that the destination that we will end up going to is one we don’t even know yet because we’re still exploring, there’s other places of interest in our solar system and who knows? I think anywhere we go is good because it’s broadening the frontier, it’s pushing technology and it’s getting us further and further out into the solar system.
Who knows what we might find as some place we want to look at?
We still have all these telescopes up there and they’re still telling us a lot about the universe and solar systems. It’s interesting the technology that we’d need to do any of these destinations is pretty much the same, we can move forward and get ourselves ready to make the jump while we’re still having this debate about what the final destination should be, and “final” is sort of relative term, because once we get to the next destination then we’ll have one after that, so I think the next
destination’s probably more appropriate term.