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Preflight Interview: Scott Kelly
08.04.10
JSC2010-E-052564 -- NASA astronaut Scott Kelly

Expedition 25 flight engineer and Expedition 26 commander Scott Kelly participates in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article in the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: When I was a kid, I was interested in being an astronaut like a lot of kids are, because it seems like an exciting job; I was also interested in playing baseball for the Mets and, race car driving, and other more realistic things, I think, as I got older. Eventually I decided I wanted to be a pilot in the Navy. I chose the Navy over the Air Force because I thought landing on the ship would be harder and more challenging than landing on a runway, and I was right, and then I was a fighter pilot. I flew the F-14 Tomcat and then decided that being a test pilot was the next level of flying challenge. And then I decided, I guess a lot of guys that are test pilots put in an application to be an astronaut and thinking then of the next level would be being a pilot or commander of the space shuttle some day, and timing and preparation and luck aligned for me to get an interview and then get selected.

What would be the next level of challenge after astronaut?

I don’t know, I’m going to have to think about that one. I’d like to fly again, actually; I wouldn’t mind assuming I enjoy this mission and the opportunity presents itself, I’d like to fly again, I think.

I didn’t mean to presume that you weren’t going to. Let me take you back to the beginning. Tell me about your hometown and what it was like to grow up there.

I grew up in a town that is about 20 minutes west of New York City. It’s called West Orange, New Jersey. It’s kind of a half-somewhat city-like—wouldn’t say quite urban but—half like suburbs. We had a very good public school system; most of the kids that I went to high school with went on to college, which is good, I think we had a very high graduation rate there. I think it was a great place to grow up. New Jersey has a lot to offer. It’s a very diverse area of the United States and, I don’t go there very often—I wish I could actually go more and visit but—because the beaches there on the Jersey shore are great, it’s close to Manhattan, it’s close to New England, you can go skiing within a few hours’ drive, so it’s got a lot of nice things about it.

You have a sense of how that place and the people there helped make you the person you are today?

I think the school system was good. I think the teachers and my parents, specifically, always encouraged me and my brother that there was nothing that was beyond our capability if we worked hard enough at it and wanted it hard enough. So I think that was critical to our success.

Is it possible to make out West Orange, New Jersey, when you’re flying over it at 200 miles up?

With a pair of binoculars, you could; I’ll try to.

Well, you’ve had an opportunity to…

Yes?

…take a look at it, right?

You know, it’s on my previous two flights, not really. You’re, on a shuttle mission being in space for such a short period of time, what you get to see over the Earth is very dependent on orbital mechanics, day and night, cycles of when you’re over a certain period of the Earth, but also the weather plays a significant role and depending on what time of year you launch, certain areas can be covered by clouds when you’re over them so, I don’t recall ever getting a really good look at New Jersey from space.

You’re right, you probably will get the opportunity over time.

Oh yes, over the six months, yes, I’ll try to take some good pictures.

You’ve touched on it; if I could ask you to tell me a little bit more about your education and your professional background and the path that led you to be astronaut.

I was an electrical engineering major in college and was interested, like I said, in flying in the Navy so I was in the Navy ROTC, chose a school that was military-like school because I thought that would help with my discipline and make me a better, at least give me more time to study, less distractions—I was right—and then graduated and went into the Navy and flight school, and got my Naval aviator’s wings on July 7th, 1989, and then went on to fly in a fighter squadron—VF-143, the world famous Pukin’ Dogs is what they’re called—was there for several years and then, Test Pilot School in the early ’90s and showed up down here in 1996.

As you said, you looked at astronaut as being a challenge, as a thing to do; we know that the flying in space part of this job has its dangers, as does portions of your previous jobs. Wondering, Scott, what it is you think that we get or learn as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth that risk?

There’s a lot of science we do on board that has real benefits here on Earth. And then, like I said earlier, there’s the science that allows us to live and work in space longer and, I think in some ways they’re complementary. But they’re different. I mean, a lot of the science is basically we fly in space to see if we can fly in space longer and if we want to venture away from our planet we need to know how to do that, but then there’s also the medical research we can do on board, the material science, other types of basic science that are equally, in my opinion, important. I think, the whole space station is one big science experiment. The fact that we’ve built this incredibly complicated structure in this very… I wouldn’t say complicated but challenging partnership, is a very successful experiment in its own right, and I think we’ll find benefits from that that we haven’t even thought of.

You’re a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 25 and 26 crews. Scott, summarize the overall goals of your six-month flight and tell me what your main responsibilities are going to be.

We have many goals on board the space station, both programmatic and personal. As far as my personal goals are concerned, my priority is that no one gets hurt, we don’t break any of the space station hardware, and we meet all of the program objectives. As far as the program objectives are concerned, we have, obviously we have many but the Expedition 25 and 26 time frame that goes from when we arrive in October until we leave in March is pretty much characterized by a lot of visiting vehicles, and a lot of visiting vehicles mean a lot of logistics, transfer of supplies to and from, these various vehicles, and they consist of one Soyuz while we’re, on board that comes up with the remainder of the Expedition 26 crew in December, we also have two Progress resupply vehicles, we have an ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], which is a European resupply vehicle that, that docks to the Russian segment of the space station, and we also have the Japanese HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], another large resupply vehicle, this will be the second one of those—also the second one of the ATV—and we berth that to the U.S. segment and that, that arrives in January, as well as two of the last space shuttle missions, unless we add a third. The first one will be in November, and then the last one will be towards the end of my increment in the end of February or earlier, early March.

It’s a good thing you’re going to have six months to handle all that traffic.

Yes, I think we’re going to find ourselves pretty busy; it’s a interesting time for the space station. One great thing about this increment is even though we do have all these, logistic requirements we also have a lot of, a lot of time for science, and now that we have a six-person crew on board we’re going to try to average at last 30 hours a week of various types of science and hopefully we’ll have great, great results from those scientific experiments that we’re able to do on board.

Now you’ve been to the space station once before but that was during a briefer time for a shuttle mission. What are you most looking forward to about getting to spend six months at a stretch off the planet?

Yes, my primary thing that I look forward to is having a very safe and successful mission and the feeling of satisfaction you get from working at something that’s very, very hard and being successful at it. The second thing I think would be on a shuttle mission you visit space and you don’t really ever have enough time to get comfortable as if you’re, you’re living there like it’s your home, so I look forward to getting to spend more than just a few weeks and getting comfortable enough to feel like I’m actually a resident of the cosmos, I guess you’d say, rather than just a visitor.

Well, this time you’re going to begin your visit arriving on a new edition of the Soyuz spacecraft; it’s got some upgrades from the TMA model that’s been in use since 2002. Tell me just a little bit about what’s new about this Soyuz, what kind of improvements.

The improvements are rather significant. The displays that the cosmonauts and myself—although my role in the Soyuz is somewhat minor—but that they use to control the vehicle have been upgraded to make flying it easier. It’s less operator intensive, but the main and most important change is they have a new, what we would refer to as a flight control computer. So the computer that operates the systems on board is new and the software is new. Now the software is written in a way to kind of model the previous algorithms that control the vehicle but it is new software and it is new hardware, most of which has been tested on the Progress, Russian resupply vehicles, but the Progress doesn’t re-enter the same way as the Soyuz does so when we come home in March it’ll be the first time that this new flight control computer and the entry software will be demonstrated in flight.

Must be exciting for a test pilot to fly the new upgrades.

Well, I would prefer it not to be exciting, and everything go just as they expect, and I’m sure it will.

Tell us about this place that’s going to be your home. Give me an overview of what the International Space Station is like today.

It’s much larger than when I was there last. It consists of basically two sections: a Russian section that consists of several modules now, what’s called the Functional Cargo Block [Zarya], the Service Module [Zvezda], we have two logistic modules on board that are like small cargo and science modules, as well as a docking port. While we’re there, there’ll be at least one Progress resupply vehicle, two Soyuzes, and a and the European very large transfer module, so it’s the Russian segment alone is pretty significant in regards to its size and, and volume and its capability. And then the U.S. segment consists of all the other partner modules, both U.S.-manufactured as well as Canadian, with regards to the robotics, and Japanese and European Space Agency their modules. So on the U.S. side we have laboratory, three nodes, one of which has this cupola that is often talked about, and an incredible capability to do science. The science laboratory facilities we have on board are really state of the art. As you know, the space station is now considered a national asset with regards to conducting and, and producing science, and I think we’ll find that we really are able to exploit that capability now for many, many years to come.

JSC2010-E-057269 -- NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka

Expedition 25 Flight Engineer and Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly (left) and Expedition 25/26 Flight Engineer Oleg Skripochka participate in a routine operations 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

As you say, there’s not only more modules, there are more crew members on board that will allow you to really do more utilization. Let’s talk about the science for a second. A lot of the science is designed to find out how people can live and work in that environment, and for that you and your crewmates are the test subjects as well as operators. Tell me about some of the research that goes on that, for which you are the experimentee.

Yes, there’s different types of science we do on board, some of which, is to find ways for people to live in space for longer periods of time and they range from, seeing how our bodies react to the weightless environment with regards to bone and muscle mass and how we can prevent potentially debilitating losses of those bones and muscle mass, but also investigations into areas where our health can be affected by certain immune system responses that we see in microgravity—our immune system doesn’t work as well—and other things along those lines. But there’s also the other science that we do on board that is just as important, often not talked about as much, but we do do other experiments with regards to material science, investigations in areas that may produce—and I think we’ve recently have some drugs that have been in the pipeline for approval with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], things along those lines—that provide potential real benefits to the taxpayer. So if you looked at the list of experiments, I can’t remember them all here because it’s just hundreds of experiments, many of which have some interesting outcomes that could be potentially beneficial: there’s one I was trained on recently in Japan that was looking at how these seedlings behave how water versus gravity, how they are attracted to, and how they grow with the influence of water and gravity, and the predominant effect is, is gravity, obviously, but there is also a mechanism where they’re attracted to water and one of the goals of this experiment is if you could figure out which gene is responsible for the water attraction, you could potentially bioengineer plants such that they would need less water, and that has real impact on our ability to produce food in this country and, and around the world, if you could make plants that didn’t need as much water. Obviously, you know, we hear about, you know, water shortages around the world and this is kind of a national security issue and this is one, I think good example of some of the science we do on board that could have potential, real significant benefits, you know, outside of the traditional type of science we do in space.

Sounds like it could just be fun, too, to play in those laboratories and do these experiments and see what happens.

Oh, yes, I think the whole thing has certain aspects of fun and interest to it in various ways, whether it’s conducting the science, doing more operational things like fixing hardware, potentially doing spacewalks or robotics, but I think the most fun, like I said earlier, is doing something that is very, very difficult, something that you’ve worked very hard at for many, many years, and being successful at it, and I tell kids all the time about this, how this is what makes being an astronaut, for me the best part, and I encourage them to find those things in their lives that they can, that are challenging, they can work hard at it, and then be proud of them, themselves for their success whether it’s with their schoolwork or sports or something else, some other career they find in their life, it doesn’t have to be the space program but I think it’s very fulfilling to have something in your life that challenges you and then if you find success in it, it can be very rewarding.

Throughout the course of your time there there is the plan right now for three spacewalks out of the Russian section of the station, in November and December of this year. Tell me about who will be going outside and what kind of work is going to be done by spacewalkers outside your space station.

There are a few Russian spacewalks, we have no scheduled U.S. spacewalks. The first one is done by Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Skripochka, and the subsequent spacewalk’s by Oleg Skripochka and Dima [Dmitri] Kondratyev, and they have various objectives outside the Russian segment, maintenance objectives.

In years past, or in your first space shuttle flight, people would go outside to do spacewalks and everybody inside was involved in some way in supporting that. It’s not quite the same now when space station crew members go outside for a spacewalk. What do you guys do inside?

During the Russian spacewalks, because of issues with where Soyuz is and who’s outside, I’ll probably have to be locked in one of the Russian modules so I’m not isolated from my Soyuz in a contingency, so as far as my participation in the spacewalk, in the Russian spacewalks, will be very limited. I’ll probably have some kind of science or something I can do inside that MRM 2 Russian logistics module where myself and Sasha Kaleri will be isolated during the whole time these guys are outside, so even if I wanted to participate I really couldn’t.

And the science work continues regardless.

Yes. Now we have U.S. spacewalks when the shuttles are there, planned spacewalks and I’ll help with getting the crews, before they even show up, I’ll be critical to getting the airlock ready, getting the suits ready, if they’re using U.S. suits or U.S. spacesuit components, and their tools prepared, and helping them with the airlock operations, maybe a little help with the robotics. And then if there turns out to be any U.S., what’s called a stage EVA, or spacewalk when the shuttle isn’t there, then if it’s in the first part of the increment I’ll be doing it with Doug Wheelock, and if it’s in the second part, after he leaves, it’ll be me and Paolo Nespoli from the European Space Agency that’ll conduct a spacewalk.

And again, that’s the backup plan in case another spacewalk is needed.

Yes.

There…

They say we’re going to have to fix stuff on the outside that’s supposed to break, so we’ll be ready.

Well, there will be spacewalks, as you mentioned, during the visits of the space shuttle missions, and the current launch plan calls for Discovery to arrive on mission STS-133 in November. Tell us a little bit about what’s on the plan for that space shuttle mission late this year.

They bring up what’s called the PMM now; it was the PLM, now it’s the…

…the MPLM [Multipurpose Logistics Module].

Yeah, it was the MPLM, the PLM, now it’s the PMM, the Permanent Multipurpose Module, and basically it’s one of the old—not, I wouldn’t, shouldn’t say “old”—but one of the MPLMs that has been improved to be able to stay on board permanently as a location to, to store equipment, which is very challenging on board: we don’t, it seems like the space station’s really big but when you need all the stuff you need to live there for six months, it gets pretty full and having another module to help with stowage is critically important to improving our efficiency in doing our daily work on board. So they’re going to bring up that module and do some things to get it attached and outfitted, and then they have some other spacewalks that are, with secondary objectives that isn’t, doesn’t have anything to do with the module itself.

It’ll give you the opportunity to see what a space shuttle visit to the station is like from the other perspective.

Yes, I was actually hoping Atlantis would come up while I was there because I’ve never seen Atlantis in space. My first flight was on Discovery and my second on Endeavour but, unfortunately if Atlantis flies again it’ll be I think well after I’m gone, probably in June; June or later, but it’ll be neat to see a shuttle visit.

Near the end of November you’re going to become the commander of Expedition 26 when Doug Wheelock and Fyodor Yurchikhin and Shannon Walker go home. How’s that change daily life for you on the station to become its commander?

I don’t know that it’ll change it a whole lot unless things start going awry. As long as we don’t have any emergencies, we don’t have any significant problems with the hardware or people, then things will probably just, kind of like the status quo. Certainly as the commander you’re responsible for safety and the health of your people and making sure they have everything they need to do their jobs, so I’ll certainly be conscious of those things but we’re all professionals, we all understand what we need to do, and we’re all kind of self-starters and kind of take care of ourselves very well so it shouldn’t be much different than when Doug Wheelock, the previous commander, is in charge.

As you mentioned earlier, you expect to see one more visit from a space shuttle; that’ll be in late February. Tell me about the plans for the joint operations when Endeavour arrives with STS-134.

It will be very similar to 133: we’ll help with, you know, the robotics tasks and getting the crews ready for the spacewalks and getting all their pre-positioned items that need to go on the shuttle and taking care of any logistic items they are bringing off the shuttle to be stored on the space station. Basically having a lot of work to do to prepare the station for the arrival of a shuttle, whether it’s 133 or 134, is very similar.

And this mission is going to deliver a big science instrument that they’re going to put out on the truss. When the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is installed, does that create new work for the station crew members?

It operates autonomously. At one point I heard that they were talking about giving the on board crew a little bit of insight into how it’s operating, the status of its systems, but I’m not sure how far along they are with that or if we’re actually going to get that capability. If we did it would be after I’m gone so I haven’t had any training on it but it’s basically designed to use the space station resources to collect its science but then the science is obviously analyzed on the ground but the spacecraft is also operated from the ground.

It’s not a science instrument that the crew operates…

No.

…in an active sense. STS-134 is right now the last shuttle mission and it’s commanded by your brother, Mark. This joint operation will be the first time that two siblings have been in space together. You excited about the idea of getting to share an orbital road trip?

It’s actually the first time that two blood relatives have ever been in space together. It’s exciting. I’ve obviously known my brother a really long time, and we’re great friends and, it’s a real privilege to, to share the experience with someone you’re so close to, the experience of being an astronaut, being able to talk about things that we experience and have a common framework to discuss it. And getting to see him in space will actually make that even better. It’s certainly very exciting for the two of us to be able to see this, and it’s pure luck—he was supposed to fly in July, this past July, actually this month was his launch date, but then things got delayed and now he’s coming up at the end of, of my increment. So it’s pretty exciting.

Your mom and dad like the idea of having two sons off the planet at the same time?

They don’t like the idea of having one son off the planet at any time, so this can kind of stress them out a little bit and I’m sure it will stress them out even more. Fortunately my brother’s the one that’s going to have to deal with it because I’ll be in space.

JSC2010-E-080703 -- NASA astronaut Scott Kelly

Expedition 25 Flight Engineer and Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly participates in a robotics training session in the Space Station Training Facility in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

We’ve mentioned STS-134 is the last scheduled flight of the space shuttle; Scott, what are your thoughts about the shuttle’s place in the history of human space flight and its role in the assembly and maintenance of the space station?

I don’t know if we will ever build something as versatile and as capable, a vehicle that can do as many missions as the space shuttle has been able to do, and certainly not in my lifetime we will never see that again. From being able to build structures in space to the robotics capability, the spacewalking capability, the science capability inside the vehicle, the ability to carry very large payloads into low Earth orbit, deliver them to other orbits if required, repair telescopes and other science instruments, carry a laboratory in the aft part of the vehicle—I mean, it really is an incredibly capable vehicle. It’s also very complicated, also very expensive to operate. I think in a perfect world we would continue to fly it and it’d be great if we could use the space shuttle to continue to supply and be there for the space station, but in our economic climate that’s not consistent with trying to do other things so at a certain point you have to make a decision. The previous administration and the current administration made the decision that it should be retired so we can go on and explore eventually beyond low Earth orbit, and NASA and myself supports those decisions. I think it’s going to be a sad day when the shuttle rolls to a stop for the last time, but I think it’s understandable and unfortunately necessary.

You mentioned a couple of minutes ago that there are other spacecraft that will fly to supply the space station even after the space shuttle is no longer flying. Tell me a little bit about the capabilities of these unmanned Russian, European and Japanese spacecraft, and how the crew’s involved in their operations.

The Russian Progress vehicles are similar to the Soyuz but they’re unmanned, and they’re for carrying cargo and fuel and water. They dock automatically although the Russians can intervene if there’s a problem with the automatic system and fly the docking manually from on board, from a work station on board the Russian segment of the space station. Likewise the autonomous transfer vehicle, the European vehicle, is larger than the Progress, it can carry a similar amount of cargo let’s say to an MPLM, something that you put in the payload bay of the shuttle, so it’s got a larger cargo-carrying capability. It also docks automatically, uses the Russian system to dock…and then we have the Japanese version of the cargo resupply ship and that one has a unique capability in that it can carry unpressurized cargo, so it’s not only cargo that we bring through the hatch but it’s cargo that we can easily get outside the space station like a big computer or a pump or battery, something that the external part of the space station needs, and previously we only had the capability to do that with the shuttle so the HTV is critical to bringing up spare parts to the space station. On Expedition 26 we have HTV 2 and there’s two unpressurized components for the external part of the space station. We’re supposed to transfer those with the SPDM [Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator], the Canadian robot hand; if that doesn’t work we’ll have to go and do that EVA, Paolo will I do it EVA if we can’t do that robotically.

The way the International Space Station is supplied today is a lot different than it was ten years ago when the Expedition 1 crew arrived. You’re going to be on board now for the anniversary of permanent human habitation of the space station. Scott, what do you think is the best thing that the station partnership has done up there in this past ten years?

You know, I think the whole space station is an experiment in how you build these very large, very complicated structures, with very complicated systems to maintain human life in low Earth orbit and the reason we do that is to explore and to do science and to learn how we need to support ourselves to eventually venture beyond low Earth orbit and I think our greatest accomplishment is the fact that we’ve actually built this incredibly sophisticated space station with different cultures, different technologies, different ways of doing business. Some of these modules that we have in space as part of the space station have never been connected to one another before—the first time they ever saw one another was in low Earth orbit while going around the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour plus or minus 270 degrees of, of temperature extremes and an extreme radiation environment, in a vacuum, put together by astronauts in different kinds of spacesuits using different kinds of procedures. It’s just an amazing feat and an amazing facility we’ve built that we all should be proud of and reflecting on our ten years of operation, it’s so much more complicated and sophisticated and difficult than I ever thought it would be. I think it’s probably been just as difficult if not more difficult than, the Apollo program in putting a man on the moon. I mean, it really is an incredibly complicated system we have in space.

So that begs the question, what happens next—where would you like to see us go in the next ten or 20 or 50 years?

Well, I hope we continue to utilize and exploit our investment in this amazing science facility we have on board, in low Earth orbit. I’d like to see us venture beyond low Earth orbit when we have a vehicle that will take us there. Whether it’s a government-made vehicle or a commercial vehicle, we just need something. We have learned a lot and we will continue to learn a lot about how systems and people, and how to operate in space for long periods of time and now I think it’s time to see how we can take advantage of it.