A Milestone Remembered: Q&A with STS-88 Commander Bob Cabana
On Dec. 4, 2008, NASA marks ten years since the crew of STS-88 flew space shuttle Endeavour on the International Space Station's first construction mission. Astronaut Bob Cabana, who now serves as the center director at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, was the commander of that mission. He recently offered some of his first-hand accounts of that history-making flight.
Q: What would you say was the defining moment of the STS-88 mission?
If I had to pick one moment that was probably defining of the mission, it was when we went inside the space station for the first time. I kept getting questions on the ground, "Who’s going to be the first one in?" I wouldn’t tell anybody and they kept asking. We finally got all the hatches open and we're up to the main hatch going into Node 1. We open the hatch and Sergei Krikalev was with me. I just waved my hand toward the hatch and the two of us entered together.
I think what it talks about on the space station is international cooperation. You know, there wasn't a first person in. It was we went in together. When you look at Japan, Canada, the European space agency and all its partners, Russia. You take all those different cultures, people, and hardware built around the world and it comes together for the first time on orbit and it works flawlessly -- that's phenomenal. The engineering of it is phenomenal. But when you throw in the cultural differences and that we have worked together in space as partners through some tough times and some easier times for 10 years now -- that's amazing.
Q: What’s your favorite story from the STS-88 mission?
I'd have to say my favorite space station story was the night after we had docked with the space station and gone inside for the first time. It was an extremely busy day. We were still working well past the end of the work day into our pre-sleep. I had a rule that, not everyone needs eight hours of sleep, and there were some crew members that needed a little less; Jim Newman for one. I said, "Stay up, it is fine. You know, but these other guys that need their sleep. You know, when the sleep period came, the lights were out on the middeck, the bunks were set up, people were in there sleeping. If you were up on a flight deck and want to send e-mail back home, or just look at the window, that was OK. But be quiet."
So we were docked that night. Let's say we were on an eight hour sleep schedule, where you went to bed at 11 p.m. and got up at seven in the morning; that was your eight hours of sleep. I guess it was probably about, I don't know, one o'clock in the morning and Jim decides he wants to go back in the space station. I was, where I set up my sleeping bag was down right before you went into the airlock, where the internal airlock used to be. We had these huge bags down there full of stuff. I was kind of between the bags, scrunched in there because it felt good to feel sleeping kind of in a scrunched up position. Nancy Currie was over on the other side. Jerry Ross and Rick Sturckow were out in the middeck area and Jim is sneaking by. He knows that if he wakes me, he's going to be in trouble. He just sneaks by real careful and he turns into the airlock and goes up into the space station. And when he gets there who does he see, but me and Sergei Krikalev.
The three of us stayed up. It was probably about four o'clock in the morning, I think, when I finally said, "Hey, we got to knock this off, we got a really busy day tomorrow." We were doing work. We were taking out fasteners, setting things up, trying to get all the things done, as much as we could so that when we left it was ready for that next crew to come up. We just talked about our future. What it meant to have these two modules joined together, a U.S. and a Russian module; a grounding, a cornerstone for this huge international cooperative effort that was coming. All the hardware that was coming. What it meant to us. What it meant to the future. Working together. Being in space exploring together. It was a really special night. It just, that's the night I made the entry into the space station log book, you know, for our crew. We got to make the first entry in it. I’ll never forget that. I will cherish it forever. It was special.
Q: What was the most tense moment of the STS-88 mission where things didn’t go exactly as planned?
There was one time that I particularly remember. It was during the station keeping on the FGB. We completed the rendezvous. Everything was perfect. I'd poised the arm about three feet away from the grapple fixture. We were just waiting to get over the Russian comm. site so they could say that the FGB, confirm that it was in free drift; so that when Nancy Curry grappled it, it wouldn't fight the arm and break the arm on the orbiter.
When we fly the orbiter in that environment, station keeping like that, we use the autopilot to control pitch, roll and yaw. Then we use the transitional hand controller to manually control side-to-side, forward-back, up-and-down. So you only have to control three degrees of freedom as opposed to the six. So we're parked there perfect. Everything is just right and the orbiter maintains its attitude within a dead band. When it gets to the edge of it where it's getting out of attitude, it fires jets to center itself back up. When it fired these jets it used the big jets not the small ones. These are the ones required to use to get the right roll and control on it. And that motion coupled back into a translation.
And all of a sudden this 45,000 pound mass of an FGB starts moving down into the payload bay and toward the arm. So I thought, "Well that’s not good." So I start firing the jets to back away from it; and it keeps coming. It's because I was, we programmed the autopilot depending on what we're doing; and there's basically two quick buttons you can press for each mode, A and B. And B was very fine control. Real quick I hit the A DAP so I had a little bit more control power, and was able to back away from it and back in. Get it all stable again. Then put it back into fine control and tweak it up so Nancy could grab it.
We got over Russian ground site and everything was as planned. Well, it got really quiet in the cockpit during that. Jim Newman, really smart physicist, all during the rendezvous, you know, "What do you think about a couple of ups? How about a down?" You know, and I've got all of the displays, the orbiter displays, and our PGSC computer display, and Jim. And I'm kind of filtering it all doing the right thing for the rendezvous. And when this happened nothing. So when it was all over I said, "Jim you didn’t say anything." He said, "Boy, I know when to be quiet." So that was our tense, my tense moment. It all worked out really well, but it was exciting there for a while.
Q: What is one of the biggest contributions and benefits the International Space Station has made to space exploration?
The space station is a proven model. For 10 years now, we've had excellent cooperation. When we had problems and didn't have a shuttle to get crews up and down, our Russian partners were able to make up the difference. You know, we're working together. When they had problems we used the shuttle to get stuff up there. It's a real cooperative effort. I think a great model for future exploration.
Q: What do you believe should people know about the International Space Station?
If folks needed to know anything, I think they need to know that NASA's on orbit. Right now, 24 hours a day seven days a week, 365 days a year. We have humans in space exploring. Exploring how to work in that microgravity environment in space. In that harsh environment where it can be as cold as minus 150 F or as hot as 300 degrees, you know?
We're making things work. We're doing real science. We're going to do more science when we get a larger crew up there. We're proving the systems that we need. We have an excellent international cooperative partnership. I think folks need to know that we can work together. That, you know, it's not just when the shuttle launches. There's a crew up there right now doing real work in space.
Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center