Q: Don, you're set to begin about a nearly four-month-long mission in space. Tell me, what is the goal of this expedition to the International Space Station?
Preflight Interview: Don Pettit
A: The goal of any mission to space station has several facets to it. Certainly, one goal on this mission is to continue the construction of space station, because it's still an entity that's very much under construction, we're in the process of building it. So, we want to continue the construction. We need to maintain the outpost and the human presence there. We need to keep the crew working on station, we need to keep them happy, supply them with materials they need in order to stay there. They need to do repair and maintenance and keep the space station working properly. And then, there's also the scientific payloads and other observations that can be made from an orbiting platform that we will be doing.
Now, for your crewmates, launching from the planet is nothing new, but for you, this is your first trip to space. Tell me what your reaction was when you got word that you had been named to the prime crew for Expedition Six.
…Surprise, 'cause I had been training for backup for over a year-and-a-half. You realize that something like this can happen, and I was surprised when it did happen. I'm ready to go. The training programs here are good, so there's no surprises in terms of the skills needed and the tasks that are going to be asked of me to do.
What has it been like for you to step in with Ken and Nikolai, and move along with the training?
Actually, it's been smooth. I see Ken and Nikolai a lot in the course of our training anyway. And, we're all professionals about this. And if something comes out so a new face shows up, you just keep on working.
You mentioned you've been involved with this mission for more than a year, you've been training as a backup since early 2001. From your point of view, is this a pretty good example of why it's a good idea to train backup crews?
I think it is an example of why you have backup crews. Any time you have a mission where there's a long period of training and a lot invested in the crew classically you have backups: We did this for Apollo, the Russians have done this for their long-duration space missions. It's a smart thing to do 'cause things can operate outside of your control, and you may need to have a backup crew come in, and here I am.
Despite the circumstances, is it the fulfillment of a lifetime dream to finally be, have those words told to you, you're going to fly?
I consider myself an explorer. And you can explore in many different ways, whether it's under the stage of a microscope or running off in a laboratory and making other measurements. I've been an explorer for as long as I can remember…exploring space is just one aspect of that, it's something that I've been interested in since I was a little kid, and now I'm doing it, or going to do it.
Can you remember why it is, in your own life, that maybe even as you were a kid that you wanted to be an astronaut in the first place, or, as you say, to be an explorer?
I think it just comes from the fabric of who you are, the curiosity you have. I've just always wanted to explore, whether it's looking at oil drops on a mud puddle or, [an] anthill that you happen to be walking by. All of this is exploration, and exploring space is just a part of one of the many topics that you could work on as an explorer.
For you, tell me about the path that you took to become an astronaut. In terms of your education and your career, what did you do that led you to become a person who was astronaut material?
I went to undergraduate school at Oregon State University in chemical engineering, and from there I went to University of Arizona to do my graduate work … not with becoming an astronaut in mind, but because these were fields that I wanted to study. And then it wasn't until I was graduating from graduate school that I thought of putting an application in to the program and applying to be an astronaut. And from graduate school at University of Arizona I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where I functioned as a staff scientist there. And eventually, I got an invitation to come in for an interview for astronaut.
Is that a nerve-wracking experience? Or is it just so thrilling, that you seem to be moving ahead in that pursuit?
It's nerve-wracking and thrilling. It's more thrilling to be able to come in and do an interview for astronaut; it can be nerve-wracking if interviews and things like that tend to make you a little bit on the nervous side.
As you look back over all of those things, can you point it to the people who either were or maybe still are the most significant influences in your life?
Certainly my parents were huge influences, and my brothers, and then college professors, particularly some at Oregon State University and then at University of Arizona, had a huge warping of who I am today.
Yeah … trying to change you into somebody that can get to the crux of a complex technical problem and come up with a solution.
It's been since 1996 since you've been an astronaut and been around the Johnson Space Center, from a time when the Shuttle-Mir Program was already under way and, as we'd mentioned, you've been training for this mission for more than a year now. From your point of view and seeing what you've seen during that time, do you see that the nations that are partners in the International Space Station program seem to be succeeding in the goal of learning how to work with one another?
Learning to work with one another, particularly in an international program, is sort of like an onion in that you have all these layers, and you peel another layer off and you think you're making good progress and then you realize there's another layer yet for you to peel off. And as I'm getting older, I'm finding a lot of things in life are like an onion.
So, there are a lot of layers, then, in the relationships among the nations?
There's a lot of layers in terms of learning how to work with each other. And it can always get, there's always ways that you can improve how you are working, and you can look back, though, and see that you've made a lot of progress because you've dug through a lot of layers.
In order to complete this mission, the members of the flight crew have to possess a range of talents in order to do all the jobs. So, tell me what are some of your main responsibilities as a member of Expedition Six?
I'm going to be doing a lot of the maintenance and repair on station during this increment. I'm going to be the science officer, so I'm going to be in charge of making sure all the scientific payloads get done. And then, I'll be the main robotic arm operator.
And robotics are going to play a big part in the first act of your mission, if you will, when you and your crewmates are delivered to the station by Jim Wetherbee and his crew. The first day of docked operations of that shuttle mission includes the installation of the P1 truss segment, which requires the use of robot arms. Tell me about what happens that day, and point out, if you will, what your responsibilities as part of that team are going to be.
OK. The P1 Truss robotic arms operation is going to be done by the current crew that's up there, so I won't be partaking in that. I'll be doing the robotic arms operations involving the EVAs after the truss has been installed.
As far as the P1 installation, though, can you describe for us what is going to occur in order to complete that job?
You need to latch onto the arm, latch onto the P1 Truss with the arm, and pull it out of the payload bay and move it into position and latch it onto the end of the S0 Truss. And basically, that's it in a nutshell. It's…
Well, this is an undertaking, if you will, that's going to involve that unusual aspect of having two robot arms working at the same time.
That's true, there's a handoff. You pull it out with the shuttle robotics arm and you hand off to the station robotics arm, and then you put it in place with that.
While you're not scheduled to be doing either of those tasks, I'm sure you've been around while they've practiced it. Is that as difficult as it looks to those of us on the ground?
You certainly have to concentrate on what you're doing. It's a pretty well-scripted and pretty well-practiced operation.
The day after the P1 installation is the day that you and Ken and Nikolai are scheduled to officially move onto the station. What has to happen in order for that exchange to be finalized?
You need to transfer the lozhiment, the Soyuz couches, and you need to make sure that your Sokol suit, the launch/entry suit you wear in the Soyuz capsule, those two items have to be transferred. That's the main criteria for crew handover. And this allows you to use the Soyuz spacecraft as the emergency escape vehicle and come back down to Earth.
What's special about the equipment that you're bringing that makes that possible?
Well, the Sokol suit is custom-fit to you, and chances are no one else is going to be able to fit into it. And, same thing with the couch -- the Soyuz spacecraft has a rather hard landing, and you have a formfit couch that's fit to your back to keep you from getting injured during that landing. And it would be ill advised to land in a Soyuz capsule with someone else's couch.
Throughout the many days of docked operations on this shuttle mission, there's time set out for an activity that's called handover, involving you and your crewmates and the Expedition Five crewmates. What is it that you folks do and talk about during this period, and how is it going to help you guys get off to a running start, if you will?
Well, in crew handover, they talk a lot about stowage, in terms of where things are. And you can imagine going into somebody's garage, it's jam-packed full of stuff, and saying, here you go, and then giving you a task list where you have to find a hundred and fifty items and put 'em together for an experiment; it's going to take you a while. And so, much of the handover involves with going over where things are stowed and how to find things. Another aspect of handover is learning the little nuances of operating the equipment, which you don't learn when you're on the ground. And sometimes you read about the design of equipment, and they say the green light comes on before the red light, but then the way it really operates the green light doesn't come on at all, and only the red light comes on. And you don't know these kinds of things until you get into orbit, and that's part of what the handover is about.
The shuttle crew, who is going to head home with your predecessors and leave you three to settle in and get comfortable with your routine on orbit, assuming there's such a thing as "routine" life 240 miles above the planet? Can you describe what, if there is one, is a "normal" day in space?
Well, I can answer this question better after I come back. In terms of how we simulate routine days on orbit, I basically start off in the morning with a cup of coffee and you look at the timeline that was uplinked that tells you what you're going to be doing that day, and then you have a short powwow with the ground to go over any questions that you might have, and then you just roll up your sleeves and start doing all the things they want you to do, which will be a mix of maintenance items, maybe replacing filters or checking fluid levels in tanks or something like that or setting up and doing payload experiments, or getting things pre-positioned for the next day's activity.
And, you work five days a week? Seven days a week?
I think you work however many days a week you need to work. And, if you get a day off then you relish that. But the folks on orbit, I think, you're pretty much working all the time.
There are a variety of categories of science to be done during your time in space. One of them is called Human Life Sciences research. What is the value of examining how people live as they do in low Earth orbit?
OK. When you do research associated with exploration, you're in a unique environment and you learn new things about people and new things about nature. And these in themselves enrich the knowledge for everybody that doesn't go on the exploration trip. One example I like about human physiology in exploration is transoceanic exploration in the 14th and 15th century and the role of diet and vitamin deficiencies. And, it was this kind of exploration that helped open the can of worms leading to things like vitamin C and its role in scurvy, and this information was pried, so to speak, from the souls of the early explorers. And once you learn this information, then it helps and benefits everybody back on the continent that didn't get a chance to go on these trips. And I see this as the goal of the life science research on space station.
You're trying to find out how people live in that environment?
Well, there's several facets. One, you need to find out changes in the body and the physiology of the body in reduced gravity so that you can enable future exploration missions of long duration, perhaps going to Mars and elsewhere, so that's one facet. Another facet is learning nuances about how your systems in your body work, and knowing that may help improve the lives of people that are still on the planet.
Tell me about a couple of the Human Life Sciences experiments that you'll be working with during your mission.
Well, one of them is kidney stone formation. It's fairly well known that you decalcify your bones, your bones lose calcium, and this comes out in your urine, and you have a greater propensity of making kidney stones. And so one of the life sciences experiments involves collecting a number of urine samples over the whole course of the mission and looking at the calcium and trying to link that with diet.
Another one, are there other human life sciences experiments that, -
Oh, there's lots of experiments in which we can be guinea pigs for, and I say that in a positive sense 'cause perhaps one of the better data sets that will come from space station is 10 or 15 years of the life science data collected on human beings. We're doing muscle biopsy experiments, where they go in and maybe not take a pound of flesh but they take some flesh and they look at your cross section of slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. And then they see what the effect of living for long periods of time in a reduced-gravity environment does on, for that.
There's another category of experiments for your mission that's called microgravity science. Now, while I think everything that you do is microgravity science, since that's where you are, what's the distinction about this subset of investigations?
The microgravity science experiments are generally physical science experiments: crystal growth, combustion, things like that. And, they are utilizing an environment where there are small sedimentation forces, no buoyancy forces or reduced buoyancy forces, things that will allow you to do containerless processing, where you can have something floating around without touching the walls of a container, or a high vacuum, high pumping rate environment like an experiment done outside of the pressurized modules on an exposure platform.
What sort of things in general is it that we're trying to learn here that could be of value to us on Earth?
Well, many observations in science are key around the balance of forces, measuring one force in the absence of another. And many of the phenomenon that we see on Earth are governed by the balance of these forces. So if you remove, say, gravitational force, now all of a sudden you can see surface tension force. And so, experiments done on space station are designed around the reduction in the gravitational force so that you can see other forces manifest themselves and you can make new observations that are very difficult, if not impossible, to make any other way.
Well, just the point exactly: that you have to do these in that environment, you can't do them here, can't do them on the ground.
Exactly. Some experiments you can come, you can, you could start some experiments on the ground-for example, plant growth experiments where you hold the plant horizontal to gravity and just rotate the base of the pot; that, the first order can kind of null out the effects of gravity, but, it's a different regime when you try to grow plants in long-duration reduced gravity.
We talked about a couple of these general areas of science research that are to be done, and, these things have been under way since the first of the Expedition crews arrived. In fact, you're going to get to the station roughly two years after the arrival of the Expedition One crew. Two years' worth of human habitation, continuous human habitation, in this environment. In your opinion, Don, what is it that you think is the best thing that's come out of this two years of work on board ISS?
Well, most of the two years has been devoted to building the space station and learning how to run it, and I think everybody associated with space station is a whole lot smarter now than they were two years ago on, just, how do you get the crews up there, how do you keep 'em supplied with goods and materials, how you conduct experiments between folks on orbit and folks on the ground, how you deal with the international aspect of it where you have people scattered out on the ground through nine time zones. Just learning how to live and work together, both in orbit and on the ground, I think, is one of the biggest lessons we've learned so far.