Interview

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Preflight Interview: Don Pettit
11.01.11
 
Don Pettit

NASA astronaut Don Pettit, Expedition 30/31 flight engineer, fields a question from a reporter during a preflight press conference at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: I wanted to be an astronaut…I should say, the bit was set that it might be neat to be an astronaut when I saw John Glenn go into space. I know a lot of people have said that, probably half the people in my class point to that one event, in terms of say, wow, I want to do that, too. And after that bit was set, I went to school, did technical stuff, engineering, science, and then when I was getting ready to graduate all of a sudden I realized, hey, I’m qualified to become an astronaut, and there happened to be an astronaut selection at that point in time so I put in an application.

So this has been the goal for you all along?

Not during my school years. You know, growing up it’s wasn’t like, I got to do this, I got to do this so I can become an astronaut. It was, I was just doing things that I like to do. I concentrated on things that I was interested in, and it wasn’t until I was finishing up school that it occurred to me that I’m qualified and I could become an astronaut.

Doing things you were interested in, like…

Oh, like science experiments at home. I, go figure: in my spare time on station, in off duty time, I do science experiments of my own design because that’s what I like to do to relax, and when I was in high school I did the same thing. On weekends I would spend the time in my dad’s shop making all kinds of little scientific inventions, and then when I was in college I would do the same thing and then I became an engineer in terms of my schooling but really a scientist by profession, and I think by heart an explorer.

Let’s go back to the beginning of that story. Tell me about your hometown and what it was like for you when you grew up there.

I grew up in a small logging, farming town in Oregon, not too far from Salem, in the middle of the Willamette Valley, and growing up in that environment I learned to not only fix things and take care of things but I also was able to go off into the woods and go snorkeling in ponds and look at pond mud under a microscope and ask questions, and get excited about just the world around you.

So, took advantage of the, of what was there?

You take advantage of the environment that you happen to be thrust in and, as a kid, you have no choice in that and you just do what you can do in the environment that you’re in, and I took advantage of being in a small town. It happened to have a really good high school with teachers that would encourage students who were interested in science and math, and I, I graduated from high school and hit the college circuit with, all the skills necessary to do well in, in the college environment.

Did you get a chance to see Silverton from space?

I did. Silverton being in the middle of the Willamette Valley, it’s a low-contrast target, meaning it’s kind of hard to see from space. If you’re looking at something in the middle of the desert you get stark shadows and high contrast and you can see small details, but, farming communities in the middle of a farming valley, the contrast is so low it’s hard to see unless you use binoculars or a telephoto lens.

And you knew it was coming so you’d have the opportunity to be prepared?

You know that these things are coming and you’d be amazed at how quickly they go by. Orbital velocity over a single point on Earth, you have maybe 45 seconds, maybe 60 seconds, to look at any one area and then it’s out of view.

A second ago you had brought us up to the point in the story, you said that you went to a very good high school that got you ready to go off and to college. Pick up the story from there. Tell us about your college, your graduate, post-graduate experience, and your professional career that led you up to becoming an astronaut.

Well, in college I learned that science, math and engineering is the key to doing everything cool in life, and it allows you to go off on scientific expeditions and collect data. It allows you to go to the bottom of the ocean, it allows you to go to the top of mountains, it allows you to fly in airplanes in the stratosphere and take samples. You can do all these really cool, frontier, expeditions; it allows you to go to places like Antarctica as well. And so, when I was in college I focused on the science, the math, the engineering, ’cause that was the cool stuff to do.

Walk us through the steps for you, from, in your college and then in graduate school.

Well, I majored in engineering, chemical engineering at Oregon State University, and I love chemistry and I love engineering so I figured that would be a good compromise, and while in the engineering department I would take extra classes, and I would take classes in economics, I would take classes in biology, I would take classes in glassblowing and surface chemistry and things that you typically don’t have time to do in a normal engineering curriculum, and somehow I would work them in. I guess I didn’t date a lot in college but that allows you to work in some of these other, some of these other activities. So anyway, I was able to get this broad view of science and engineering, and then when I hit graduate school I went to University of Arizona, again in chemical engineering, and again I took as many classes outside of chemical engineering as I could and, graduated from University of Arizona.

And then you had a, some, quite interesting professional experience right away.

Well, from University of Arizona I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory, and they like to get people young, right out of school so they can be formed into the kind of researchers they want, and at Los Alamos National Laboratory I worked in the capacity of, as a scientist, and then from Los Alamos, I was there 13 years, from Los Alamos I got picked up by NASA. And I find it interesting that I worked the early part of my career at a national laboratory and now I’m going back into space on space station and again it’s a national laboratory asset, so in some respects I’ve gone a full circle while I’m going in circles around Earth.

Don Pettit

Don Pettit participates in an EVA operations training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

Well, now you’re going flying in space, and this is a job that has risks associated with it that most of the rest of us don’t have to encounter in our jobs, but it begs the question for you, and that is why? Why, what is it that you think that we’re getting as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking the risk to do it?

Well, there’s almost nothing that we have here in our modern society that doesn’t involve some risk of those who were able to provide it for us, and we don’t necessarily notice that or we don’t take the time to notice it. But you look at something as simple as our airplane travel; I should say we take it for granted that we can jump on an airplane and fly halfway across the country for a birthday party and then we fly back to work the next day, and, things that were unheard of a hundred years ago. Now we, we jump on an airplane and fly all over and we have very little thought as to the safety involved with flying airplanes. But it wasn’t always that way, and it took people who were willing to accept some risk and work in a risky field to make airplanes and the whole aviation area as safe as it is today. And we oftentimes forget about that. And we are in the infancy stage right now for space exploration. We can do it but it’s right at the ragged edge of our engineering ability, and whenever you do something like that there, the risk level goes, is, the risk level is elevated, and if you’re not willing to take the risk then you as a society will not be advancing that field and you’ll be sitting back watching a different country who’s willing to take the risk advance that field. And I think you can see historic examples of that with transoceanic exploration and the countries who literally wrote the map on what the New World looks like and the names in the New World versus those countries that might have had the capability early on but decided not to.

Don, you’re getting ready to launch to the International Space Station to be part of Expeditions 30 and 31. Give me a summary of the mission goals are for your time on orbit and what responsibilities and jobs are going to be yours when you’re up there.

Well, I’m one of the science guys and I’m one of the repair guys, and fortunately there’s lots of science and lots of repair to do on station, so that will certainly keep us all busy.

Now you’ve been to this station twice before on your previous space flights. What are you looking forward to about this opportunity to go back?

Well, the first time I went there was Expedition 6 for five-and-a-half months, and you feel like station is your home; that’s where you’re living. The second time I went there was for a 16-day shuttle mission, and you feel like you are a visitor in somebody else’s home. And I personally like the ambiance of living and working in space, so I’m looking forward to going back home.

Well, the International Space Station today is a lot different than it was…

Yeah.

…the first time you saw it.

Yeah.

Give us a rundown of what is there, what’s…

OK.

…up there on orbit right now.

OK. Well, the International Space Station has grown significantly since the last time I lived there. On the Russian side they have two new modules, they have MRM 1 and MRM 2, and these are an airlock module and a storage research module, and they’re planning to add yet one more module which will show up shortly after I return on this mission. On the USOS [United States Operating Segment] side of the station we have two new nodes, which are kind of like the connect-o Lego block that you can fasten other modules together with, and we have the JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] modules, there’s two JAXA modules, the Japanese space agency modules. There’s a Columbus module which is a European Space Agency module, and then we have our storage closet—that’s a reworked, MPLM [multipurpose logistics module], which I can’t even remember what that acronym stands for any more ’cause sometimes these acronyms just become their own noun and you forget what the acronym is, but the MPLM, which is a storage container, transport container that we’d haul up and down in the space shuttle, one of those is now permanently attached to the space station, and it’s the PMM [permanent multipurpose module] and that’s its new name and it’s a big storage closet.

You’ve got all of that in addition to the parts that were there the first time that you were there, so you’ve got lots of modules now, lots of laboratories, and as you mentioned, a lot of science research is on the agenda for you guys here, that’s the primary reason that we have the space station in the first place. A lot of the concentration of that science has to do with figuring out how people can live in that environment. So, give me a couple of examples, if you would, of some of the human life sciences experiments that you’re going to be involved with on this flight.

Well, living and working in space go along with doing science experiments in space, and I see two basic areas of work. There’s the scientific research, and then there’s what I refer to as engineering research, and both of these are legitimate fields of advancing our knowledge. And the engineering research might be working on a new regenerative life support system, which we have, and I was fortunate enough to be part of the crew that brought up and assembled the regenerative life support system that’s currently on station: multiple racks, starting with a new toilet that gets hooked up to a couple other racks, which ends up being hooked up to a new galley, and so I like to refer to this as the “coffee machine” because it takes yesterday’s coffee and has an uncanny ability to turn it into today’s coffee.

Now that’s one example of the, as you said, engineering research; there’s a lot of other research and other sciences. Talk about, some of the human life sciences research that you guys are going to do, how you are, this is experiments for which you guys are the subjects.

Oh, the guinea pig experiments. Much of what the microgravity environment has to offer is learning about how human physiology works. It’s another experimental knob that you can tweak to, put stress on a life, a living system, and see if there’s something you can’t learn, and what you learn has applicability to being in space but it also has applicability to being on Earth. And so, for example, we have a nutrition experiment where we are looking at sulfur-based protein in your diet, which is primarily animal protein, and low sulfur-based protein, which is primarily plant protein, and the sulfur from the proteins that you eat gets oxidized into sulfates and sulfites which can have some interesting affects on your body chemistry. And so we’re looking at the effect of the protein composition in your diet in the microgravity setting of space. That’s one of many experiments that we are dealing with.

Don Pettit

Don Pettit participates in an electrical power system training session in the Space Station Training Facility in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

In some respect the fact that you are there is an experiment, right, just to see how you respond to being some place where there’s only a microscopic level of gravity?

That is true. By simply being in space for long periods of time, living and working, and coupling that with the right kinds of human physiological experiments, you yourself get turned into an experiment. It, it’s kind of like you’re the human equivalent of an ant farm, and the things that you learn when you are in space about human physiology, have application to people who never leave the continents. And an analogy that I like to use is look at the early oceanic exploration which helped spawn the research into vitamins and diet, and learning a cure for scurvy helped the sailors that went off on the explorations but the real benefit were the people who stayed back on the continents, still suffering from scurvy, but now knowing at least a remedy for how to prevent scurvy from forming. And I see the same kind of advances in space with human beings. We will go there into a new environment, our bodies will be stressed in ways that are not stressed on Earth; from that we will learn physiological things about the humans and how our inner workings work, and from that we will garner insight into how to help everybody that continues to live off, on the planet.

Examples of that that we hear about are the loss of bone and muscle mass that astronauts suffer while they’re in space. Are there others?

There a bunch of things that are all related. It’s a network so if you lose muscle mass then you’re going to lose a little bit of coordination, and then you’re not going to be as stable particularly when you come back to Earth. And then you have several different kinds of muscles, you’ve got these smooth muscles that are wrapped around your veins and arteries that here on Earth we don’t really think a whole lot about, but when you get in a weightless environment all these muscles get lazy because they don’t have to help regulate your blood pressure when you stand up and sit down ’cause there’s no difference, and all these muscles get lazy and out of shape, and then you come back to Earth and you stand up and you get faint. And so we’re learning how these kinds of muscles interact with your body in this weightless environment and how possibly this can shed light into these kinds of disorders on Earth where people stand up and get dizzy and have trouble. So it’s helping us on Earth even while we’re preparing to go other places, and that’s why that’s important ’cause you have to be able to function when you get to those other places.

Yes. I think you will find in a frontier, when human beings go off to a frontier, there are technical issues, engineering issues, human physiological issues that surface, that you need to solve in order to continue to live in this frontier, but by virtue of doing that you solve problems that are back on the continent, so to speak, with people who never venture off into the frontier, so you get the benefit of being able to explore the frontier and then you get to solve issues that are back on the continent, and the difficulty might lie in when you go to a frontier you can never quite know what problems you are going to solve before you start your adventures, but after the adventures are over everybody in hindsight can say, well, look at all this stuff that we discovered. That’s the fun part.

That’s the fun part. There’s science in which you are the guinea pig, as you said. There’s a lot of other science on board for which you guys will be the assistants to investigators on the ground, their hands and eyes working in the laboratories. Tell me about some of the other kinds of, I guess what some people will call the hard sciences that, experiments that you guys are working on.

Well, being an astronaut on space station is a lot like being a graduate student in the lab in college once again, where you have a major professor that funds your research and he also tells you what to do with your research, yet you have the license to make some new discoveries and venture off a little bit from what the programmatic research plan was designed to be. And space station is similar to that in we have programmatic research and we are like graduate students doing the work at the beckoning of the principal investigators who are on the ground. Now, some of the experiments that we’re working on, we’ve got this really neat combustion experiment where we are looking at how flames burn in a weightless environment. And flames require gravity and buoyancy-driven convection in order to make what we consider a flame or a fire here on Earth, and you remove the role of gravity and flames become a completely different sort of animal. And this experiment is from NASA Glenn [Research Center] and requires a lot of fiddling around with the astronaut on orbit because you have, first you have to get the flame lit, which is not necessarily an easy thing to do, and that takes a fair amount of fiddling around, and then once you get the flame lit then you got to tweak on knobs, adjusting flow rates and things in order to get the flame to kind of dance around right where you want, and then you collect the data. And that is sort of science experimentation at its best because we’re using the human capability of having a pair of hands and a pair of eyes with a brain on orbit to twiddle knobs and adjust things while the principal investigator, like our major professor in graduate school, looks over our shoulder and, directs the experiment. There’s a fascinating concept that the JAXA scientists have come up with and this has to do with not manufacturing something in a weightless environment for use on Earth but it’s manufacturing a template that requires microgravity to get atoms arranged at the nanometer scale, and then you bring that template back to Earth and once that template has been made you can use it to create more templates on the ground. So it’s a fascinating twist to manufacturing in space where you make one of something in space, you bring that one of something back down to Earth and then you use that to reproduce a mass per, mass-reproduce copies with that same microgravity-imprinted scale… And…

… and that is, fascinating use of the microgravity environment on space station, and they’re having crew like me work on this experiment during our mission. There’s, I found something interesting, too. A couple of minutes ago, when you were differentiating about the kinds of science, you were talking about science such as this where you’re doing work for people on the ground, but then there’s also other science that you guys come with your own, of, on your own. When you were the NASA ISS Science Officer back on Expedition 6, you pioneered the Saturday Morning Science where you took advantage of some of your free time and did some really neat and interesting-looking things that helped make science concepts understandable. You did it on your shuttle mission, too. You have plans for, to do the same thing this time around?

I mostly certainly do… Great.

…and let me talk a little bit about time on station and I like to say that we have two kinds of time. We have on duty time and we have off duty time, and that we really don’t have any “free” time on station. And during the, your off duty time, that’s when I plan to do science of opportunity or science of my own design, or Saturday Morning Science. And these are simple scientific demonstrations that I can use on a non-interference basis using galley materials and little bits and things that I find on station, and use these in some clever way to illustrate some basic principle of science and, and I’m planning a whole repertoire of these Saturday Morning Science demonstrations.

Don Pettit

Don Pettit participates in an EVA tool training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

That’s good to hear, I’ll look forward to that. The U.S. segment of the International Space Station since you’ve been up there has been designated a national laboratory; that’s designed to boost utilization of the resource by other U.S. government entities as well as the private sector, and to help pursue some national priorities in the scientific areas. How’s that working out so far? In what new ways is the station being used by these other users?

The national laboratory concept for space station is to allow other entities, both private and government entities, access to station in a way that they typically wouldn’t be able to have or maybe wouldn’t think that they would have, and so they work on their own experiment and then NASA gets the hardware up, which is hopefully smaller bits of hardware, and then you utilize the big facilities that are already on station, and then the crew time is provided to do these experiments. And the National Institute[s] of Health is one of the big initial partners for using the national laboratory concept on the space station and, as you can imagine, it all, again, hinges on human life science or life science done not on human subjects but life science done at the beaker and test tube level. For the national laboratory concept applied to space station allows a lot more brains to think and formulate scientific problems than if you had a closed laboratory environment, and you have people thinking about science in their own discipline, maybe not necessarily, thinking they could get access to a space station environment and now they have access to the environment and they’re not polarized in the way NASA thinks, and so they’re going to be able to come up with a different set of experiments than somebody within the program, so I think the national laboratory concept is quite exciting and we will see what comes from it.

Now, we’ve mentioned the fact that you and your crewmates are going to be working on science but you’re also responsible for taking care of not just the laboratories but all of the facilities of the International Space Station. Outside of science laboratory work, what other kinds of things do you folks have to do on a daily or weekly basis?

Well, living on space station is a lot like living on a sailboat, and I particularly choose a sailboat because it has a lot of maintenance associated with it. There’s always something that needs to be polished or cleaned, or corrosion fouls up some kind of a pulley and then you got to do all the maintenance on the sails and this and that, and as soon as you get done getting everything fixed from one end to the other, you got to start right back and do it all over again, and station is exactly the same way. You’re living in a harsh environment, you’re working with special one-of-a-kind pieces of equipment that have serial number 001 or 002 and there’s always going to be a few bugs in something like that and you’re always going to be fiddling with it to keep it to work. And you realize that space station is your home and if it doesn’t work right then your home doesn’t work right and you’re going to be aborting back to Earth. So it’s important to maintain the space station and, in the process of doing so, you add to what I call the engineering research knowledge. It’s learning how to make mechanisms that keeps human beings alive in the harsh environment of space so that when we decide to venture elsewhere for longer periods of time we will have the technology to do that.

These days the supplies are delivered to the International Space Station on ships that are provided by Russia and Europe and Japan. There are two new cargo ships being developed under a NASA program that have their initial flights to the station, under the current schedule, com, going to be while you’re up there. Fill us in on what these new vehicles are and how they mix in with the current fleet of supply ships.

Well, I view these vehicles like wagon trains supplying some government-run fort out west, and it doesn’t matter whose wagon train it is, what’s important is that the wagon train eventually makes it to the fort which is a government-run facility out west. And I, that’s the model that I see, and what’s important is to give as many entities who are interested a crack at, at being a wagon train and sending supplies up to space. And so far we’ve got a handful and we’ll see how successful they are in providing the services that need to keep space station going.

Can you give us a little compare-and-contrast about these first two that are in line, the Dragon and the Cygnus?

Oh, the Dragon and the Cygnus. The Dragon’s made by SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corporation] and Cygnus is by Orbital Sciences [Corporation], and Dragon has up-mass and down-mass capability so you can bring things home. Cygnus has up-mass only, and then it has disposable, disposal capability in terms of burning things up if you need to get rid of things, and trust me, we have a lot of things on station that you need to get rid of and you don’t want to bring ’em down to Earth, you just want to get rid of ’em, so they both offer capabilities for up- and down-mass or disposal. They both require near fly by station and then sort of like a cowboy ropin’ a steer we fly in the robotic arm and lasso the vehicle and then we bring it up to one of the docking ports on station.

That’s the same, profile as the Japanese HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle] uses, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s the same profile that the Japanese HTV uses, it, flies in a holding pattern, about, 30 feet away, 10 meters, and then we go in with the arm and, and snag it and berth it to a CBM [common berthing mechanism] port.

Are you going to be doing the arm work?

Dan Burbank and I will be snaggin’ the first Dragon, assuming everything goes as scheduled, and he’ll be flying the arm and I’ll be his right arm.

OK. Adding in these commercial cargo ships to the mix, as you said, it’s, in your opinion it’s just, what’s important is getting the supplies to the fort, not who owns the wagon. But are we looking at a new era? Is your flight going to mark a new era of spaceflight?

Well, it’s a new era from the point of view we’re entering space station flights where United States has no longer the capability to get human beings up and down to their space station, so that, I think, is probably the most significant part of this new era, and then supplies is another significant part of this new era in that we have commercial entities that are lining up to take supplies to and from space station.

You raise another interesting point that I want to ask you about because you have a rather unique perspective on it. As you said, people have noticed that the United States doesn’t have the capability of sending its own astronauts into space any more, and we’re relying on our Russian partners to get astronauts there. But you were in space when Columbia was lost in 2003 and the subsequent grounding of the fleet meant that you made an unscheduled return to Earth on a Soyuz, plus on this mission you’re flying up and down on a Soyuz spacecraft. What are your thoughts about America’s near-term dependence on Russians to keep flying Americans to space?

Well, there’s a certain robustness to a venture like space station when you have more than one country’s capability to resupply goods as well as crew, and we saw this during Expedition 6 after Columbia when we relied on the Russians for transportation to and from space station until we could get the space shuttle system flight worthy again. And we’re working on a new vehicle and we will have a new vehicle, and I see the situation we’re currently in, in a similar situation to what we were in when we relied on the Russian Soyuz vehicle. So there’s plenty of room to have more than one kind of vehicle going to station. It supplies a robustness to the support of the program, and I think the future will show that there will be multiple vehicles from multiple different countries all flying to station bringing supplies as well as crew.

It’s comin’?

It’s comin’.

We’re at something of a historic change in spaceflight right now. I want to ask you to look further off into the future, 20 or 30 or 50 years from now: where do you think human space exploration will be then and how is this space station getting us ready for that?

Oh, gosh, my crystal ball for that far in the future, 50 years in the future, almost anything I’d say will probably be wrong, but after that preface, now I’ll go ahead and say what I think. I think human beings will inevitably expand into our solar system. We, we have, it doesn’t require technology that it would take to, say, go to other stellar systems. We can expand into our own solar system and there’s a number of delightful places to go, and human beings, I believe, will expand to all the delightful places to go in our solar system and maybe some of the places that even aren’t so delightful to go. So I think that will be bright. I think we will have hiccups along the way, just like any exploration endeavor there, there’s going to be some tragedies, there’s going to be some joys, it is going to be hardship, it is going to cost both money and human lives to do this, but in the long run I think it will be worth it. And how do we see space station? I think space station will be seen as one of the little baby steps required to do this.