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Preflight Interview: Sandra Magnus
09.24.08
jsc2008e056296 -- Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Sandra Magnus

Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Sandra Magnus participates in a pre-flight briefing at the Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Q: Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you ended up a professional space traveler. What was it that motivated you, or inspired you, to want to be an astronaut?

A: You know, they asked me that question during the interview: "Why do you want to be an astronaut?" And I can’t really think of a “alleluia” moment where I just had, like a lightning bolt hit me and say, hey, I want to be an astronaut. It’s something that I think came to me from the viewpoint of being able to be on the edge of something, you know, be on the forefront and contribute to something new that’s going to help people. I’ve always been interested in why things work and how things work and, and here’s this real complicated world that seems to work and go explore it. Just the whole idea of exploring and learning new things just grabbed me and space was the place to do it. It’s a fun job; I get to learn a lot of new things every day. No day is the same, and so I’m very lucky.

We like to ask astronauts about hometowns. Tell me about Belleville, Ill. What’s that place like?

Belleville is on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, across from St. Louis, so it’s kind of like an extended suburb, if you will, and right on the edge of Belleville is where a lot of the farming country starts, so I had the best of both worlds. I had a city within 30 minutes with, you know, baseball teams and airports and things like that that are very comfortable to have when you want to participate, and then I was also right on the edge of the country so we, it was a small place and you know a lot of people and my family knows a lot of people and it didn’t have a lot of the problems that you associate with the big city so it was a perfect place to grow up.

You have a sense that the, that place and the people there made a big contribution to you being the person that you are?

Well, being a Midwesterner -- not a Northerner, being a Midwesterner, I think it’s a place that people get very well grounded and I think I was able to absorb some of that from there and it was beneficial, I think.

Take us on the trip from Belleville to here. Tell me about your educational and professional background that led you to be an astronaut.

Well, you know, it’s funny: when you’re a kid and you think about being an astronaut, or really anything, you kind of have this picture in your head about how it’s going to come about. I remember going into high school thinking, OK, so here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to take chemistry as a sophomore, and I’m going to take advanced chemistry, chemistry, and physics as a junior, and I’m going to take advanced physics as a senior, and then I’m going to go to college and I’m going to get a degree in physics and then I’m going to get a master’s degree in physics and then I’m going to get a Ph.D. degree in physics and then I’m going to apply to NASA and I’m going to be an astronaut. And of course, I was putting this plan together in ignorance because, when I was that age, and really all the way through high school, I really didn’t know anything about engineering. I was never exposed to it. I thought engineers were people who drive trains, really, quite frankly, because there was no one in my family who was an engineer. So physics is my bachelor’s degree. I went to the University of Missouri-Rolla, which is now called Missouri University of Science and Technology -- they recently changed their name. So I studied physics. Physics is my first love because it answers the questions why, and you learn, you learn how to derive the equations that engineers use, so you really do understand what’s going on. But while I was doing physics, I discovered engineering. It was like, oh, this looks kind of interesting. So I took a few electrical engineering classes as an undergraduate, just for fun, to kind of see what it was all about. There were parts of it that I liked and parts of it were, hey, you need to derive those equations before you use them, what are you doing? I was kind of tired of school at that point, I was a little burned out and I was ready to work, so I got a job McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis working on aircraft and stealth technology, did my master’s at night but in electrical engineering, the more physics-y side of electrical engineering. So I crossed over into engineering at that point. While I was working on airplanes at McDonnell Douglas I started really getting interested in some of the problems that you have when you build airplanes. A lot of that is dependent upon materials, because materials drive everything when you’re trying to put airplanes together. You're looking for certain kind of materials that do certain kinds of things and so why do these materials work this way and those materials work a different way? And so I decided to go back to school and get my Ph.D., but do it in materials because I was now interested in that. That’s a field I didn’t have any idea about when I first made my plan to be an astronaut. So I went to Georgia Tech and got my Ph.D. in materials and at that point I felt that I was ready to apply to the Astronaut Office, and here I am, I was lucky enough to get chosen. So that was my path; it wasn’t what I thought. It meandered a bit, but it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot of neat things along the way.

Sandy, we know that flying in space is, is a job that can be dangerous. What is it that you see that we get as a result of flying people in space that makes that risk one that you’re willing to take?

Oh, my goodness. You can look at what the space program has done for not only just our country but the world for the last 50 years and get an answer to that question. I mean, every time we push technology a little bit more to do the things that we’re trying to do in space -- which are not normal, by the way, they’re very unusual -- there are constant spin-offs that end up helping people. You know, portable medical equipment, you now have someone in a vehicular accident, the ambulance shows up and has all this sophisticated portable medical equipment. Why? Because the space industry needed a way to miniaturize electronics for some of the earlier programs, and so here, 20, 30 years later, we have these spin-offs. And so we don’t even know what’s going to spin off from the type of work that we’re doing now and how it’s going to benefit. But it does, and you can be assured that it will continue to do that. How could you not want to be a part of something like that?

You’re Flight Engineer on Expedition 18 to the International Space Station. Sandy, would you summarize the goals of your flight and what your main responsibilities are going to be on orbit?

Well, I have sort of a mixture of responsibilities which is really interesting because on ULF-2 [utilization and logistics flight 2; STS-126], when I arrive, we’re bringing a lot of the habitation equipment that we need to prepare the station for six people -- extra toilet, water regeneration racks, exercise equipment, things like this -- so one of my responsibilities and goals is to equip the station for habitation by six people. I’ll get to work on sort of assembling the station, as it were, as well as on [STS-]119 I’ll be helping to install the S6 Truss with John Phillips, so I’ll still be working on helping to equip the station. And as science officer I’m also going to play a big part in conducting the science experiments and taking care of some of our payloads, so I get to actually split my time between the assembly and the utilization parts of the station. I’m pretty excited about that.

I want to touch on all of those different aspects. You have flown in space before but it wasn’t an extended mission, such as this one is. What are you looking forward to about spending months off of the planet?

It’s going to be a lot different than a shuttle flight, when you’re in a sprint mode. When you arrive on the shuttle, you have things to do. You have a finite period of time to do them in, and you really don’t have time to think and take in your environment in, in the way that I will on the space station. Being there for four months I can live there, I can establish a rhythm of life, if you will, I can establish a lifestyle, and I’ll actually be, no kidding, “living in space.” I’ll get to experience what that is like, to have a life there and not just visit and be in a sprint mode all the time. So I think it’s going to be very, very interesting. I’m not really sure what to anticipate.

s112e05023 -- STS-112 Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus

STS-112 Mission Specialist Sandra Magnus prepares a meal in the middeck of space shuttle Atlantis in October 2002. Photo Credit: NASA

You said, and you spent a lot of time getting ready for this extended period in space. In this case, the crew assignment got changed just a few months before you were going to launch. How does that impact the last months of your training and preparation for this mission?

I think going into a space station assignment you have to be very flexible because things are always changing. It’s a very dynamic program. There’s a lot of players involved internationally, even just inside the NASA family, and you have got to be flexible. Last-minute assignments and changes can always happen and you have to be used to them. Most of the people training for space station are great people and you know you’re going to end up with a good crew. On the other hand it’s nice to be able to spend some time ahead of time with the people you’re going to fly with. Yury [Lonchakov] got assigned back in May. We’ve had a chance to spend some time together as a crew. We’re going to have a, a really good time together on board, I think.

And that’s why we have backups.

That’s why we have backups. That’s absolutely right.

Let’s, just take it from the beginning. Tell me what are the goals of the mission that delivers you, shuttle mission STS-126.

One of the primary goals is to bring Greg Chamitoff home and deliver me so we can have a rotation for the crew on the station, and the delivery of, I mentioned before, all of the habitation equipment so we can start equipping the station to handle six-person crew, which we hope to do next summer. And in addition the program has worked very, very hard to get a lot of science and a lot of payloads pre-positioned so Mike [Fincke] and I will be able to do them and also stage them for the next few increments because, as you know, on ULF-2 we have an MPLM [multipurpose logistics module], that’s a very nice way to get lots of upmass to the station.

You referred to the new hardware that’ll allow the expansion of the crew. Give us a little more detail about just what it is that is going to be delivered along with you that was going to, that was going to facilitate that expansion.

The primary set of equipment is the water regeneration system. As you know when the shuttle docks we get water from the shuttle because it’s a by-product of how the shuttle produces electricity. So we’re constantly filling water bags, our CWCs [contingency water containers], our water bags, on the shuttle and bringing them to station, stowing them on station. We don’t really have a closed loop water system on the station at this point. When the shuttles retire that nice water delivery system that we have will go away. In addition we’re going to have six people on station so our requirements for water will go up at the same time that our normal delivery system goes down. So the program has contracted, built and delivered this water regeneration system which will allow us to reprocess all of the water on station, from non-potable into potable. It basically will be more of a closed loop system and we can create our own water.

And therefore less reliant on delivery.

Yes, which is where we need to be, quite honestly.

Along with this water regeneration, there’s more hardware that’s needed in order to take care of six bodies.

As I mentioned, the water regeneration was the most important but by no means the last. We need a second toilet. With six people you really do need to have a two-bathroom house. It’s a lot more convenient and a lot more efficient. The toilet is hooked up to the water regeneration system so we’ll be automatically reprocessing urine. With six people you need more exercise equipment because, as you know, exercise is very important for us to maintain our capabilities to come back to Earth and readapt in a healthy and efficient manner. So we’re taking up a new resistive exercise machine. And with the addition of extra people to station we’ll be needing more bedrooms for our house on orbit. So we’re taking a couple of extra crew quarters. There’s two more that are slated to go up on a future mission, but we’re taking the initial two up on our mission as well, and these are the main complement, and there’s a few other small items. There’s a, a, a TOCA, Total Organics [Carbon] Analyzer, that allows us to verify that our potable water is maintaining its standards, and other ancillary equipment that will help us to monitor the water system and get all this stuff up and running. So we’re going to be busy.

During the time of the joint docked operations where will your focus be mostly -- will you be worried about the delivery or will you be worried about getting briefed?

During the docked operations I’ll be participating in robotics to support a couple of the EVAs that the ULF-2 crew will do, as well as one day I’ll be participating in the airlock to help suit the crew up and get familiarized with airlock ops in case Mike and I will need to do an EVA later. And I will also be very, very interested in the transfer activities, where everything that is in the MPLM is going because I’ll have to deal with it after they leave so I’ll be highly interested in that. I’ll be doing some handover with Greg Chamitoff as well. He sort of feeds me the ins and outs and the daily life clues that will help me get settled on station. So those are sort of the major goals that I’ll be dealing with while I’m there during the docked time frame.

And once Greg Chamitoff goes home a lot of your focus then, I take it will be turned to setting up and activating a lot of that new hardware that was delivered. Give me a sense of what kind of work will be required for you and Mike and Yury to accomplish that.

The station program is hoping that we’ll get some time to do that during the docked time frame so that we can send some initial water samples down on the shuttle. So you may see us doing that not only during the stage, completing some activities, but actually during the docked time frame as well, which will be excellent because the sooner we get some samples to the ground the sooner we know where we stand with respect to how the system works. But there’s two major racks that the water regeneration system is comprised of, and we have to hook some hoses up back and forth, install a few ORUs [orbital replacement units], or a few avionics blocks and tanks and filters and things into the racks, and get those kind of up and running. There are different stages of activation. Initially we will not be hooked up to the toilet. We’ll be feeding urine that has been stowed in tanks from the other toilet on board into the system to start priming it to do the regeneration. We’ll hook up the organics analyzer I mentioned, and we’ll try and get that calibrated to make sure that it’s analyzing appropriately and we’re going to try to get some of that done during the docked time frame. Whatever we don’t get done, of course, we’ll hit the ground running within the stage as soon as the shuttle goes away.

jsc2008e096843 -- Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Sandra Magnus

Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Sandra Magnus trains in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

We shouldn’t look for all of this to be hooked up in the first couple of weeks; it’s not just plug in a couple plug-ins.

No, there’s a little bit of work. You know, equally as time-consuming is rotating racks and taking all the launch restraint bolts off and all the standard kinds of things you do when new racks or systems come up to the station. They have all of these launch configurations that you have to sort of dismantle in order to get them into operational. So you’ll see us with our little Mikita drills up there, going to town, no doubt.

Along with that kind of setup work you also made mention of the fact that you’re going to be the NASA science officer on board. A lot of science work done on the station these days is research on how people can successfully live in a weightless environment. Tell me about some of the experiments in that area that you’re going to be involved with on Expedition 18.

As astronauts we are guinea pigs and participate in a whole bunch of different types of experiments. A few of the ones that I am participating in are very similar to the ones that Mike has probably already mentioned to you. There’s a constant requirement to understand our sleep cycles and how to manage those, so we participate in sleep studies. It’s well-known that the immune system becomes somewhat deficient. It’s suppressed on orbit, and we’re still trying to understand the mechanisms for that; we’re trying to understand that through these studies -- blood, urine, saliva collections, things like this. There’s a very interesting study about nutrition that’s on-going on the station because if you send people far away and they’re growing their own food and you, you have to understand what sort of nutrition changes you might have, how microgravity influences your nutrition. They’re getting a lot of interesting data back from us; I’ll be participating in that. I was briefed to study, specifically, the impacts of sodium in the food and how that could affect, or maybe not affect, that’s the hypothesis, the loss of certain kinds of minerals out of your bones. I’m hoping to participate in that. There’s a study on the vascular system and how it may become de-conditioned because of microgravity which, when you return to Earth, can contribute to orthostatic intolerance, perhaps. I’m participating in that as well. These are sort of the highlights but there’s quite a few going on that the investigators are trying to collect data from a lot of people as we go through increment to increment to increment. So we’re building up a good wealth of data about humans and long-term spaceflight.

And that’s a wide range of investigations, under the umbrella of human life sciences. There are other disciplines that have their own experiments on board. Tell me about some of the other kinds of science that you’ll be doing.

Among the same lines as human life sciences, one of my favorites, I think, is going to be a life science experiment that’s geared towards education and observation, just sort of gathering information about how other organisms react to space. They’re going to have some butterfly larvae and they’re going to have the butterfly hatch and go through their life cycle to see how they react. They’ve done this experiment in different … parts of their life cycle, but this will be a complete generation of butterflies. So I know I’m going to want to see how that evolves, how do butterflies react to, to microgravity, to, how does it affect their senses, their senses for flying and things like that. Another one that this group is doing is also educational and investigative, via observations of spiders. They’re going to have a spider build webs and they picked a type of spider that actually builds a web and then destroys it and rebuilds it so they can observe that. Think about how spiders build webs. They use gravity because they use a line to drop down. We’ll learn a little bit about other living beings in space, so that will be kind of fun. We also have a lot of material science experiments and some thermal dynamics experiments, several combustion experiments -- it’s a whole wide range. What’s really interesting is during our mission we’ll not only have experiments from the United States but we now have the Japanese module and the European module. We’ll be doing experiments for them as well. So it’s the whole gamut of, of the experiments that you typically see done in space. We’ve got protein crystal growth. There’s an experiment from Japan to actually study the low-level doses of radiation that we get every day how that could affect cell growth. Perhaps there’s a little bit of an immunity built up if you get a lot, a long-duration of low-level radiation and so perhaps you can build up some immunity for the greater events that may happen occasionally while you’re in space. There’s a hypothesis out of Japan on that, it looks like a very interesting experiment. The European experiments I’m getting trained on next week in Europe so I’ll find out a little bit more about them, but there’s a huge gamut of very interesting investigations going on.

The training for this mission must be quite different from the training for your first flight in that you have training in Europe and presumably in Japan as well as Russia.

Yeah, it’s an international program. We go everywhere and train everywhere and meet a lot of enthusiastic people all over the world who just care a lot about spaceflight and put their heart and souls into it. It’s really, really fun to meet all these people and connect with them.

Since late last year, station program has been working on an issue with the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint on the station’s starboard side of the truss. Can you describe for us what that joint is and why it matters whether or not that thing turns smoothly or not?

Well, in a nutshell, it’s the joint that, that rotates the solar arrays so they can track the sun and get maximum solar power out of it, so we can get maximum solar power out of the arrays. It needs to be able to rotate because, as we go around the orbit our orientation changes with respect to the sun and the arrays need to track. Unfortunately it’s not working so well and the program is trying very hard to figure out why. The ULF-2 crew, while they’re there, is going to be cleaning the port side and lubricating the port side and then cleaning and replacing some of the bearings on the starboard side to sort of bring it up to a good as new condition, or try to. More importantly they'll bring some of those bearings back so we can study what potentially has happened and why we’re seeing so many anomalies out there, and then we’ll come up with a, a way to fix it permanently. But we do need that joint to operate eventually the way it’s supposed to.

The spacewalkers on the last shuttle mission, STS-124, spent some time working out on that joint. What came of the results of those spacewalks, and is there a chance, your crew might be called upon to do some work out there?

From the, the moment that the Mission Control Center detected some anomalous readings from this joint we’ve spent a lot of time, not only the last mission, investigating the SARJ, but previous missions before that starting with Expedition 16 who did several EVAs to go out there and, you know, it’s all part of the data-gathering process. In order to fix a problem you need to understand what the problem is and how it came about and then you can start evaluating how to fix it. One of the best things that they can do is get samples, these bearings, for example, and swabs of the lubricant and swabs of the ring that the bearings drive on down to the ground so they can find out what kind of metal’s flakes are showing up, where the galling might be, and pictures to look at the condition. So each EVA, each spacewalk, that’s gone over to the starboard SARJ has been able to gather a little bit more information for the ground to analyze. The last flight was able to bring back one of the bearings as well. That’s only one of many so you want to get as many as you can. And they also went and looked at the port side, just to take a peek and see how it was doing. From that, the ULF-2 crew was assigned the task of going to lubricate the port side just to make sure it stays happy. So each subsequent spacewalk has been able to provide a little bit more data. What happens after ULF-2, it’s hard to say. It could be that they’re going to need us to go out and check for some more data. The ULF-2 will bring back the bearings. They’ll look at them. They may decide based on the new data that they’ve acquired that they need to go have us go look at something, you know, X or Y, and perhaps we’ll go do that. We’re being trained to do that if we’re needed.

jsc2008e045475 -- Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Sandra Magnus

Expedition 18 Flight Engineer Sandra Magnus trains for a spacewalk at Johnson Space Center's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Photo Credit: NASA

But the plan does not call for a spacewalk at this point?

No, nominally in the, the plan right now, we are not assigned a spacewalk. But Mike and I, and Mike and Koichi [Wakata], are all being trained to go do that work on the SARJ if something is needed.

There is a plan for a Russian spacewalk out of the Pirs docking compartment during your time on board. What’s the plan for that EVA and what’ll you be doing?

Mike and Yury will be doing that EVA and I will be inside. I’ll have the whole space station to myself which would be quite fun although a couple hatches will be closed. But they’ll be outside and they had some tasks that were scheduled for their EVA that were actually performed by the Expedition 17 crew. So some of their tasks are getting rearranged. They’re going to, I believe, deploy some payloads, although I’m not as familiar with that EVA as Mike and Yury are but, I believe, when they go to Russia this time, they’re going to find the final content. It could be that they end up working on the Soyuz a little bit as well, so we’ll have to see.

They may not find out until after they get there, in fact.

Part of being a space station crewmember is being flexible, as I mentioned, … .

The plan for the conclusion of your time on orbit will begin with the arrival of shuttle mission STS-119. What are the goals of that portion of your mission?

STS-119 is bringing up the last truss segment, S6, and it’ll be very nice to see the S6 installed since on my first mission we installed S1, at the very beginning of that series. So I’ll have helped to install the first one on the starboard side and then the last one on the starboard side, so that’s kind of special, but their main task is to get that last solar array attached to the station and then swap Koichi and I. I will be coming home on that mission and Koichi Wakata will be arriving as the first Japanese long-duration crewmember.

Is the addition of that last piece of truss and that last solar array wing, is that contingent at all on how well the SARJ is operating?

From what I understand, they’re going to go ahead and put the Starboard 6 Truss on the station and there’s several different paths that we can go down to try and fix the SARJ. But in each instance the S6 can be attached to the station so there’s really no interdependency between the two events.

So S6 is delivered, regardless.

Yup, with the caveat that the ULF-2 is bringing back all of this new data for the analysts and the engineers to take a look at so they could discover something new. I will throw that question over to them and they can pipe up and weigh in once they’ve done their analysis.

Do you look at your mission as one big mission that’s got a couple of little, different wrinkles in it, or is it four different missions that go on that you’re trying to get ready for?

Oh, I guess I’ve always thought of it as one big mission with lots of different people participating in…

The Sandy Magnus Expedition?

No, Expedition 18. Expedition 18 and it shrinks to just be the three of us. It expands to be whatever shuttle crew, or for Mike’s Soyuz crew, that happens to be docked at the time.

The nations that are planning all these missions, that have built and operated this space station, have plans for exploration that go beyond just this vehicle. What’s your philosophy, Sandy, about the future of human exploration of space and the role that the International Space Station will play in that?

I think one of the greatest intangible benefits that we get from the space station -- and it can’t be measured -- is the fact that you have all of these people from all of these different countries across all of these different cultures, all of these different ways of thinking and approaching things and engineering things and even just doing business, working together to make the space station a success. It has been, is and will continue to be a success. When you think of the complexity of what we’re doing and how well things work, it’s just amazing. So all of these people from all these places are learning to work together towards a common goal, which is something that everyone believes in no matter where you live. And for any future exploration, the community that we’ve built just doing the space station program is going to be a very big benefit for the human exploration that we’re going to embark on in the future. We will be able to build on that collaboration and that cooperation, and it’s again, not something that you can measure; it just is.