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Preflight Interview: Shannon Walker
06.01.10
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NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, Expedition 24/25 flight engineer, is pictured during 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: Why did I want to be an astronaut? That’s not an easy question to answer because I know a lot of kids want to be astronauts when they grow up but it stuck with me and I think just maybe growing up in Houston and always having the astronauts and the Johnson Space Center in my backyard, I was always aware of the space program. So I just decided to pursue it, and was fortunate enough to work at the Johnson Space Center and then eventually become an astronaut.

At this point, [I] usually ask people about their hometowns. Tell me about Houston. People know it as the home of the Johnson Space Center…

Yes.

…but tell us about Houston.

Houston’s a very big town. It’s changed a lot over my lifetime, it’s quite a bit bigger now than it was when I was growing up, but it’s a fantastic city. I know a lot of people perhaps don’t give it the credit it’s due but it’s a wonderful city that’s got absolutely fantastic restaurants. It’s got wonderful museums, it’s got theater, it’s got symphony, so there’s just all kinds of things that can happen in Houston, and I really enjoy it as a place to live.

Were you surprised to find out that you are the first native Houstonian to be an astronaut?

I was surprised. I thought for sure with being such a large city and having such good universities here that more people would have been selected from Houston, but apparently I am the first native Houstonian.

You mentioned that being here and having the space program here influenced you; how? What was it about what was going on in the space program that made Shannon Walker, growing up in Houston, want to be a part of it?

Well, I was quite young when we first walked on the moon; I had just turned four, but I did watch it on TV. I think that just set the seed right then that that would be a really interesting thing to do. Then I sort of followed what NASA was doing through the years, and it never changed my mind that that is exactly what I wanted to be a part of.

Take us along on a short version of that trip. Tell me about your educational and your professional background that led you to becoming an astronaut.

Growing up in Houston I did go through the public school system. I went to Parker Elementary, Johnston Junior High and Westbury Senior High. That was before they changed to middle school and high school. Then after high school I went to Rice University, and did my undergraduate degree in physics Once I graduated I was extremely fortunate and was offered a job out here at the Johnson Space Center to work in the flight control center. So I did that for a few years, and then I decided I hadn’t had enough school so I went back to Rice University and pursued my doctorate in space physics. Once I completed that, I sort of took stock: do I want to be part of the human spaceflight program, or do I want to be part of the unmanned spaceflight program? I decided I really enjoyed the human spaceflight program so I was able to come back to the Johnson Space Center and continue my work as a flight controller. After a few years of doing that I moved on to other jobs. I started working with the station program working to get the hardware built for the space station. Primarily I was working in the robotics area, working with the Canadians to build the Canadian robotic arm and our equipment that interfaces with it. I did a stint actually in Russia for a year: I took a little jog away from robotics and did avionics integration in Russia for a year, so it was making sure that our computer boxes were talking to their computer boxes, which is very important. When I came back I went back to the control center but not on the flight control side. I worked on the engineering side, and so I worked in the area and ultimately was the leader of the area in the control center which is responsible for what we call the technical health of the station. So we monitor all its systems and if something’s not working properly, then it was our job to figure out not only what went wrong, but how we’re going to fix it. Because sometimes what you need to fix a problem is not what you have on board, and so you have to be a little creative to get problems solved. And I was doing that job when I was selected as astronaut.

I had someone once tell me that the best place to be during a spaceflight, other than in space, is in the flight control room. What do you think?

I would agree. That’s kind of the nerve center of what’s going on. It’s always an interesting place to me to be in the control center because you have people working their areas. Sometimes it’s a very quiet place; sometimes it’s a very noisy place. Different groups of people are doing different things in the control center but it’s where, aside from the action on orbit, it is where the action is on the ground.

The flying in space part of your job now, we know has its dangers; Shannon, what is it that we’re getting or learning from flying people in space that you think makes it worth doing that?

People can do a lot of things. I know a lot of people have the idea that it’s either people or robotics. Personally, I think it needs to be a joint mission, people and robotics. Robotics can afford you automated activities, but they are quite limited in scope. What people can afford you are hands-on repair work, which is not easily done via robots. It can afford you changes in the mission very easily: if you see something that’s not going right or needs to be done differently, you can immediately change course and that’s not always easy to do with robots. I love the Mars robots, I just think what they’re doing, the Mars rovers, is absolutely fantastic, but when you think about how far distance-wise they’ve actually traveled over the number of years that they’ve been up there, it’s not that far. That’s not to cast aspersions on the robots; they have done wonderful things, but in a given day if they were going flat out, probably move the length of a football field, and so humans can travel farther, can travel faster and do a lot more things than robots can do. I think working together is the right way to go with exploration.

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expeditions 24 and 25 crews. Please summarize what your main responsibilities are, and the overall goals of this spaceflight.

First I should probably mention that we’re actually launching on a Russian rocket on the steppes of Kazakhstan, and one of my main duties right off the bat is to act as the co-pilot on the Soyuz rocket that we’re launching on. I work with the commander to safely see our flight up to the station, and rendezvous and dock with the station. So, that’s my main task right now. Once we’re at the station then we actually have a variety of tasks that we’ll be performing like most station crews. While we’re there, the last two shuttle flights should be visiting us and we’ll be doing the final outfitting of the station from the U.S. side. We will be having one spacewalk—I will not be performing that spacewalk, but my duties on that will be suiting up my two crewmates and making sure they get out the hatch safely and get back in safely. We have lots of science going on during this time: even though it’s going to be a busy time with lots of visiting vehicles, shuttles, other Soyuz and cargo ships coming up to visit us. We will be performing lots of science while we’re there.

What is it that you’re looking most forward to about getting to spend six months off of the planet?

That’s a good question. I think, the first thing I’m looking forward to, of course, is the launch because I haven’t been in space before, and I just want to know what a launch is going to feel like. Being an active part of it is going to be very exciting. And then once I’m there learning how to live and work in space; shuttle missions are pretty short, but long-duration [missions], six months, you really get a feel for what it’s like to live in space, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.

When you got your pilot’s license did you ever think you were going to be the co-pilot on a Russian spaceship?

It was kind of hard to imagine then that I would be doing what I’m doing now, so no.

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NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, Expedition 24/25 flight engineer, participates in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

And that’s an extra part of your training that some of your American colleagues haven’t been through?

That’s true. Only a handful of us have been trained as the co-pilots on the Soyuz, and it’s quite an extensive training process. I’ve spent the better part of the last three years over in Russia working with my Russian colleagues and my Russian instructors to learn how to be the co-pilot, so it’s quite an endeavor.

I’d like to get you to tell us about the place you’re going. Describe the International Space Station and the laboratories and the airlocks and the other modules that you’re going to be living in during your time up there.

Well, the station now is quite a big place. It has grown over the years, and it’s nearly complete. On the U.S. side, which is actually not really the U.S. side; it’s the U.S. and our international partners’ side, we’ve got three main laboratories that we’ll be working in: the American laboratory, there’s a Japanese laboratory called Kibo, and then the Europeans have a laboratory called the Columbus module. So three main places to do our science. We also have the connector pieces, the nodes; one of those nodes now has all our exercise equipment in there, so it’s kind of like the gym where we’ll be spending our time exercising. One of the nodes is used for mealtime, a place for the crews to gather. We also, of course, have our airlock—we actually have two airlocks on the station, one is for people and one is for equipment. The airlock, the U.S. airlock, is for people, so that’s where we go out and do our spacewalks; the other airlock is in the Japanese module and that is used to put equipment outside. And then, of course, there’s the Russian segment and that’s actually been growing a lot as of late as well. There’s the main module called the service module and that’s where a lot of the Russian experiments are conducted, and then we’ve got a Mini Research Module that’s been attached. Soon we’ll have a second one, so we’ll have two more research stations on the Russian segment, plus their docking compartment which is where they can do air spacewalks using their spacesuits out on their side, so it’s quite a big and complicated place.

Plus the original station module, the Zarya module, right there in the middle.

That’s true. That’s right there in the middle. That’s a good point; we do have the Zarya module.

Now that there are six crew members on the station, there’s going to be more crew time for science research, as you mentioned a minute ago. There’s going to be research into how people thrive for long periods of time in weightlessness and then how they readapt when they come back, and as one of the crew members, you’re one of the research subjects…

Yes I am.

…for this. Tell me about a few of the experiments that you’ll be working on in this area and the kind of things that you and your crewmates do to gather data for this research.

One of the things we’ve known throughout the years is that when people live in space they lose bone density and they lose muscle mass. So a lot of the experiments that we are performing now are geared towards actually understanding the mechanisms of how that happens, so we can try and prevent it in the future. We don’t want to lose too much bone density, and we certainly don’t want to lose too much muscle mass, and one of the things that a lot of people don’t realize or think about immediately is the heart is a muscle. So we actually lose mass in our heart, which is something we certainly want to understand. So one of the main experiments that we’re doing is called Integrated Cardiovascular. It is a pretty complicated procedure where we get a lot of heart data and throughout both pre-flight, during flight and post-flight to understand how the heart is actually operating. On the other side for bone loss there’s a number of experiments; some of them have to do with nutrition. We know that if you could tweak your nutrition, you may either speed up or slow down your bone loss. So we’re doing very specific diets on orbit to try and understand what would be better because if we can prevent bone loss through something as simple as changing someone’s diet that would be a very easy way to go and a very helpful way to go in space.

And the goal, I take it, is that you want to be able to still be strong when you get some place where there is gravity?

That’s exactly right. If we’re going to spend several months going to another planet or somewhere else in the solar system, the last thing we want to have happen is not to be able to function once we get there, or even worse break your leg because you’ve lost so much bone density. So we want to know how to keep astronauts, or people living in space, as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Now, the station’s various laboratories are hosting research in other scientific disciplines, and in those cases you guys are going to be operators for the experiments. Tell me about some of the other kinds of science experiments that you’re going to be involved in during this flight.

There is a whole range of scientific experiments. We’ve got biological experiments, material science experiments, space science experiments. So some of the things we do are looking at how plants grow in space. I know that happens a lot, but there’s a lot of really understanding the detailed mechanisms of how plants are reacting to the stimuli they see in space, be it the nutrients they receive or be it the light needs to be well understood, again for the long-term goal. If we’re going to depend on growing our own food in space we need to understand how they’re going to grow, so we can best grow food in space. Some of the other things we’re doing, some of the experiments have to do with, again, looking at how the body reacts in space, but not using the body as a mechanism for studying that. For example, there’s one Japanese experiment that will be operating where we’re using goldfish scales, which mimic how the bones grow and degrade in space. So we’re looking at how the goldfish scales react. Material science, a lot of material science looking at how we can make better materials, stronger materials ultimately for better materials production on the ground. Space science on the outside, we’ve got things that are scanning our heavens to understand the universe better. So if there’s a field of science, we’re probably doing it on the space station.

You doing some of the physics that was your own academic background?

I try to leave that to the scientists on the ground. It’s been a while since I’ve done physics, but that part of it really interests me.

You mentioned a couple of minutes ago that the latest plan for your time on board calls for American and Russian spacewalks in the middle of the summer. Tell me more about who’s going to be doing what, and what the work plan is for you folks for those two EVAs.

Well, starting with the U.S. spacewalk, we’ll be doing some outfitting on the outside of the station, and it’s going to be my two American colleagues, Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Doug Wheelock, that will be going out for that. What we’re doing is putting a fixture on the outside of the Zarya module that will allow us to use that fixture as a base for the robotic arm, the Canadian robotic arm. I should point out there are several robotic arms on the station—but the Canadian robotic arm, which has the capability to move around on the station, they’ll be putting on the hardware so it can walk off to the Zarya module. They’ll also be routing the associated video cables and electrical cables that need to go with that. That’s the main task of that one. On the Russian side they’re going to have probably at least two, maybe three, spacewalks while we’re there. I know my Soyuz colleague, Fyodor [Yurchikhin], will be doing at least two of those and so what they’re doing is, the Mini Research Modules that are coming up need to be outfitted on the outside, much like when we put modules on, we have to make all the fluid connections and the electrical connections. So they are doing those similar kinds of things for their modules, so that we can use those modules as docking ports for the Soyuz [vehicles] that are coming up.

You mentioned your job for the U.S. EVA is going to be working in the airlock to get…

Yes.

…your crewmates ready to go.

Yes.

Is that just a couple hours work or…

It’s a couple hours before they go out the hatch, and several hours after they come back. So it’s making sure all the equipment is configured properly, actually getting them suited up, making sure the suits are ready to go by doing the pressure checks and making sure all the systems on the suits are working. We want to have healthy suits before they go outside, so I’ll be involved in all of that, and then actually, physically, putting them in the airlock, I will do that. Then once they’re out, I actually get them out the hatch and then hand off to the ground to orchestrate the rest of their work.

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NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, Expedition 24/25 flight engineer, is pictured during a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

So at that point you guys, you and the other folks inside, get to watch and cheer.

That’s true. We’ll probably be in the cupola watching.

You saw some of the video from the installation of that new module, the cupola module; that get you jazzed about getting to peek out there yourself?

Absolutely. I think that’s going to be a fantastic place to view the Earth on a personal level, but I think it’s also going to be a fantastic place to observe the Earth on a more scientific level because it does afford us beautiful views of the Earth.

There is a shuttle visit that’s expected at the International Space Station in the summer. It’s shuttle mission STS-134. It delivers another External Logistics Carrier and the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Shannon, tell me about what those new components are and about how you and your station crewmates are going to be involved with the shuttle crew during the joint operation.

First, how we’re involved, when the shuttle crews come up, they have usually done the detailed training on how they’re going to put new instruments or modules onto the station. So we are usually there as assistants for what they’re doing. The external logistics platform is just that, it is a piece of structure that is attached to the outside of the station where we can put spare hardware that can live outside, so if we have boxes or equipment that reach the end of their life or have problems later on, then we can do spacewalks. We’ve got our spares out there, and we can easily go repair what needs to be repaired. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is a very interesting research module, I guess would be a way to describe it, that’s going to be attached to the outside of the station. What this one is doing—I’m very excited about this, this is the physicist in me coming out— is that it will be probing the secrets of the universe, essentially. It is designed to look for things such as antimatter, dark matter, and some very unusual particles called strangelets that are heavy quark particles, and it accomplishes this by detecting cosmic rays, which are not really rays. They’re actually very high energy particles, but that is out there, and so hopefully it will be able to tell us some of the secrets that we’re trying to unlock about the universe.

Is it passive, sitting there waiting for these cosmic rays to hit it?

Essentially yes, so it’s got a very large magnet on there, so it’s waiting for the rays to zoom by and then uses the magnet to direct the cosmic rays to the detectors, essentially, so the detectors can see what’s coming by the station.

So that’s not something that you as crew members of the station would be actively involved in, but it’s using the station as…

Using the station as a research platform to accomplish the science, that’s correct.

Strangelets?

Strangelets; I know…I don’t make up the names.

The last space shuttle flight is targeted to arrive at the station in mid-September when you are going to be there. Again, tell me about the plan for the joint activity with the Discovery crew on that flight.

So that last shuttle flight is really to bring up the final, not the final load of supplies, but a good load, the final load of supplies from the shuttle. It has a logistics module on there that we will actually be putting on the station and leaving it permanently, so essentially we’re going to have a big closet on board which is nice. Because just like most houses, you never can have too much closet space. So what we’ll be doing as a station crew will be assisting the shuttle crew in attaching that module to the station, and then once the shuttle’s gone, we’ll be outfitting it and packing it full of the stuff that needs to stay there.

And this is one of the multipurpose logistics modules that…

Yes.

…have been up and down.

Yes, it has been up and down. I’m not exactly sure which one is flying, but this one has been reconfigured a little bit so it can stay on station permanently.

The International Space Station wouldn’t even be there if it wasn’t for the space shuttle; it was designed to be built with the shuttle as the delivery truck. But all in all now, as the shuttle nears its end of mission, what are your thoughts about the shuttle’s place in the history of human space exploration?

The shuttle is a very interesting spacefaring vehicle. I think on the one hand it’s shown us how difficult space travel is, just by the accidents that we’ve had. On the other hand it has afforded us the ability to do things that we would not have been able to do without a shuttle-type vehicle, such as the servicing and repair of satellites, the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as build the space station. It is a fantastic truck for getting things up to space, and it is also very important for bringing things down. Now the station was originally designed to have equipment taken to the station and brought back to the Earth for refurbishment and returned to the station, so without the shuttle we will not be able to bring the amount of hardware and the size of hardware back to the Earth that we could do with the shuttle. So we’re losing a lot of capability that we have when we wind down the shuttle program.

There are other vehicles that can deliver large cargo but none other that can return it.

That is true. Not the size of cargo that the shuttle can return to Earth, and most of the delivery vehicles only deliver. Most of them burn up in the atmosphere, so that’s not the best way to bring stuff back to the Earth.

But the space shuttle, in that role that it was made for, has made that contribution…

Yes...

…to…

…no question, absolutely.

What about the station itself? How is what you’re doing on orbit contributing to the betterment of life on Earth?

That’s a very good question, and it is not always obvious that it is. There’s a lot of research that has happened on the station that has been fed out into products and life on Earth. We’ve improved air handling capabilities in places. Actually one of the most recent accomplishments was a salmonella study that they did, and they were actually able to isolate the gene in the salmonella virus that causes it to be rather virulent. Right now, as I understand it, the company that sponsored that research is working with the Food and Drug Administration to do clinical trials for a vaccine so the science is progressing, and it is contributing a lot to Earth. Then on the other side of the house, it is helping us understand what it takes to live off the planet, and I think that’s one day where we as a species need to go, find other places to live, and not just our Earth. This is helping us to figure out how to do that.

That was what I was going to ask you about; I’ll ask it anyway: where do you see human space exploration going in the 20 or 50 years…

Twenty, in the future…

…or in the future? How does the International Space Station contribute to that future?

I think our goal ultimately is living permanently off the planet. Now, whether it’s close by on the moon or Mars, or if it’s on a spacecraft in the solar system or somewhere else, I won’t say, but what the space station does is help us figure out to do that. How do you have a life support system that can work for long periods of time and provide you with the water and the atmosphere that you need? How do you grow plants in space? Obviously we can’t keep calling back to Earth for the next pizza delivery, so we’ve got to figure out how to be self-sufficient off the planet. That is what the station is giving us, that knowledge.