Interview

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Preflight Interview: Chris Cassidy
02.20.13
 
Chris Cassidy

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, Expedition 35/36 flight engineer, participates 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

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: I’m asked that often and for me, it was not a dream that I had as a little kid; in fact, I never even thought about that it was something I could possibly do. I knew about the space program but I was more interested in playing basketball and doing other things. I always tried to do my best in school, but it wasn’t until I became a Naval officer and I learned about Bill Shepherd, who had a background similar to my background was sort of lining up with—without any special planning—it just sort of was tracking how his career path prior to getting to NASA played out. One day I actually met him, or called him, and he gave me some great information and I thought you know what, that sounds like a really fun job, I think I’d like to do that. I was probably 26 or 27 when the idea first popped into my head, and I got the paperwork and applied for a position here. I applied in, for what would have been the 2000 class and was not accepted, and then applied again in 2004 when I was lucky enough to get picked. Ironically there’s an astronaut selection going on right now, and when I’m in space they’ll be the new astronauts. They will be told who they are and they’ll be called and said, hey, congratulations. I very much remember that very same phone call, so it’s an exciting period in those peoples’ lives. It’ll be neat. I think it was Mike Foale who was in space when I became an astronaut and I remember thinking, holy cow, I’m going to meet that guy here in a few months when he returns. It’s really kind of interesting to be on the other side of it.

Tell me about the phone call. Tell me about the event of finding out that you had been selected.

That was interesting because I interviewed in September here at Johnson Space Center, and then the next week literally I went away on a six-month deployment with the Navy, and nothing, no news, because I was busy doing my job and really the Astronaut Office was interviewing other groups of folks. At one point, my neighbor came up to my wife—I was gone—and she, an elderly woman, and said, “You know, some people from the FBI were asking about Chris’ background,” and my wife said, oh, really? That’s the first time we got an indication. This was maybe close to Christmas that things were trending towards the positive side. Then at the tail end of my Navy deployment, this was in April, so fast-forward six months, I got an email message from the selection office that says, please call us Monday at noon, or something along those lines. Well, just happened to be that I was returning home from my six-month deployment that weekend, so I was home. It was a nice reunion with my family on the weekend, and now Monday arrives. I wasn’t at work because I had the day off and I remember looking at my watch ─ if you remember the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or maybe it was a different movie but anyway the clock starts ticking backwards when they’re waiting for the time to elapse, that’s what it was like. The phone rings in my house; it rang about five minutes before I was about to call, and I remember perfectly, Kent Rominger was chief of the office at the time and he said, “Hello, is Chris there?” “Yes, speaking.” “This is Kent Rominger from NASA, just calling to see if you’re still interested in working for us?” My wife and three kids were in the kitchen. My kids were younger, I don’t think they quite realized; my oldest daughter was in fifth grade at the time and she kind of got it but the other two didn’t, they just knew that Dad and Mom were really excited and they should be excited too. That was the phone call. I think I said, “OK, yes. What do I need to do?” and he said, “Call these other people and they’ll tell you when to be here.” It was a blur after that because a month later we had sold our house and we were on our way to Houston. It was a very exciting day.

I want to get you to tell me about The Chris Cassidy Story from further back than that. Go back; tell me about your hometown, what it was like for you growing up in a small town in Maine.

York, Maine. It’s just over the border from New Hampshire, maybe an hour and a half from Boston; it is just a really neat place to grow up. It’s on the coast of Maine and in the wintertime the population is not that big, but it almost doubles quite a bit in the summer when vacationers come and sort of populate the seacoast there. I was just like every other boy: I mowed lawns, had a couple odd jobs in restaurants and things in the summertime, but that were all to pay my gas to drive to the basketball court. We had a basketball court right on the beach and I remember we played there all summer long. Then in the school year just like everybody else, doing my studies and playing some sports. They have the Nubble Lighthouse in my hometown in York, and they have a road race on the Fourth of July weekend called The Four on the Fourth; four miles on the Fourth of July, and it’s not a big road race but it’s very popular in the town. I’ll be hopefully participating in it from space as the town runs The Four on the Fourth I’ll be running simultaneously on the space station.

Did you get a chance, could you see York, Maine, from space?

I tried. There’s Cape Cod and you kind of go up a little bit north and it was difficult to tell with my naked eye exactly which of those coastal inlets was my town, but with the aid of a computer program that has a map, it’s a little bit easier and I was able to then pinpoint it some of the time. Again, on the shuttle it’s so busy, that opportunity was only one time that I looked and there weren’t clouds and was able to see it. Now going up for six months I’ll have plenty of opportunity to see that.

Tell us more about what happened after you finished high school in Maine, from there on into college and your professional career in the Navy, what were the other big milestones for you as you worked your way up to, ultimately, be an astronaut?

After high school, I had applied to the Naval Academy, but I didn’t get accepted right away out of high school. I was given the opportunity to go to the Naval Academy Prep School which is a one-year program in Newport, Rhode Island, and at the time I felt a little disappointed that I didn’t get directly in, but turns out that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I went for my one year at Navy Prep and matured tremendously from an 18-year-old guy – I was a good kid, but in terms of life I was rather immature. Then with one extra year of meeting all these people from around the country in a sort of boot camp environment under our belts, really understood the importance of, OK, I need to buckle down and I’m going to the Naval Academy and this is important stuff in my life, and let’s get it done. From there I went to the Naval Academy and moved on through the four years. I was sort of naïve when I left high school and didn’t know, I just thought I’m going to go be in the Navy, I didn’t know that there’s lots of different things you can do: you can fly, be on ships or submarines, or on the SEAL [sea, air, land] teams, and once I was at the Naval Academy I learned about the SEAL program and it really excited me to think, wow, is that something I can do? Do I have it in me to get through that training? I met some other SEALs and I had some buddies that were interested in it as well, so I pursued all the prerequisites to get there and fortunately was one to be given one of the positions, or billets, we call them, to attend SEAL training. My wife and I got married right after I graduated college and moved across the country to San Diego, which is where SEAL training is and then that was just a really fun time in my life. It was challenging, SEAL training is everything that you see in the books and the movies; it’s a hard program to get through but very rewarding. I tell people, you can’t get through it by yourself, it takes a class. As I was talking about earlier, there’s some days when you need help from others and there’s other days where you provide that help to them, and that’s exactly what happens in SEAL training. Some days are colder than others for you and other days you look over and that person’s shaking and you’re thinking, I’m fine, so together you make it through and that’s one of the key lessons that I got out of my SEAL training. Really there’s no substitute for the support and camaraderie that you can get from a group of people that are focused and putting all their effort into accomplishing one thing. I guess that gets me up to finishing SEAL training and then my first assignment in the Navy was in Little Creek, Virginia, which is in Norfolk. I drove underwater submarines, mini-subs—we call them SEAL Delivery Vehicles or SDVs—and that was a tremendously satisfying job because, as a brand new young Naval officer, once we submerged, it was just me and my dive buddy, and he’s one of my great friends to this day, Travis McNeese. He and I, we spent hundreds of hours underwater together and solving challenging problems because it never went right when you got underwater. There was always something breaking or some curveball that’s thrown at you. That has helped me tremendously in my life as an astronaut – the lessons I learned underwater in those mini-subs just working with my hands and my head trying to figure out challenging problems. I did that for four years and then went off to grad school at MIT up in Boston which, now I have a daughter who’s a freshman in college there so we’ve come a full circle. After my two years in graduate school, I moved back to the West Coast where I was preparing SEAL Team 3 for a deployment, it just so happened that our scheduled deployment was supposed to be in Thanksgiving of 2001. We were the most-ready SEAL platoon for combat, when September 11th happened. Just as luck would have it, that’s the position I found myself in. I say luck would have it because as a person in the military, you train for a reason and that is to go to those jobs, and other people might have a different perspective of why would you feel lucky that you were going to be headed off to combat, but I think I speak for pretty much most military folks – that’s why we’re there, to protect and defend our country and we’re happy to go do that job. So we found ourselves in Afghanistan not too long after September 11th. I came home from that deployment in 2002 and moved back to Virginia, where I served in a special boat team which is another type of job that we have in the SEAL teams, and from that tour is where I applied for and was selected as an astronaut.

To fly in space is a job that has got some unique risks to it, but since you’re doing that job I assume you think that those rewards are worth the risks, but I want to know why. What is it that you think that we are getting or learning as a result of flying people in space that makes those rewards worth the risks you take?

That’s a really interesting question and it’s a tough one to answer, because there is significant risk. When you strap onto a rocket, I think I heard John Young say one time, if you’re not a little bit nervous on launch day, then you don’t understand what’s happening behind you. That’s exactly right, he’s exactly spot on. Why do we do it? I think that people like to see people doing interesting things. That’s why, on the Discovery Channel it’s so popular to watch programs with people climbing Mount Everest or submerging in a two-person submersible and going down to the deepest parts of the ocean. We as human beings, we like to explore; there’s frontiers of knowledge, there’s frontiers of physical space that I think we all just feel compelled to go to and each one of those different types of environments, be it space or high mountains or the water, all bring different aspects to what we can learn, what can we can bring back to better life in either a small spectrum of our lives or in the broader sense of it. That’s how I think the space program is. John Young always got great quotes, but one of my favorite quotes of his is, “single planet species don’t survive.” I tend to, again, agree with him. At some point we’re going to have to, and maybe not in our lifetimes, but maybe it’s in several generations from now, but there’ll be a time when there’ll be people living on other planets, and it’s the hard work that we’re doing right now, all of us across the globe, that are going to set the stage for that type of environment – just like Christopher Columbus set sail one day across the ocean. Thanks to those great explorers we live the life that we do today.

You and your crewmates are next in line to launch to the International Space Station. Chris, in a nutshell, tell me what are the goals of your mission and what is your role on this crew?

That’s a great question. The goals of our mission are similar to all the subsequent space station missions that are happening now, and since we are completed with the assembly portion of the space station, now it’s time to utilize all of this fantastic facility and national laboratory that it is. So, we are tasked with carrying out some of the science experiments and the research that is ongoing on the space station, as well as to do some maintenance and upkeep with various activities, some Russian EVAs, spacewalks, that will be happening, and there might be some spacewalks on the U.S. side as well, and plenty of visiting vehicles. Our timeline is chock full of visiting vehicles coming with cargo and going with disposable cargo, so we’ll be completely full with visiting vehicles, maintenance and carrying out the science experiments.

Of course, you’ve been to this space station once before; this time it’s going to be for a much longer stay, and the station has changed. What are you most looking forward to about, to seeing there this time?

I’m really excited about going there and staying for a while and really settling in and having my little nook and corner with my things and just having it be a home. When you’re there on a shuttle mission, it’s a very busy timeline and you’re always thinking, OK, what do I got to do next, and it’s hard to a step back and enjoy the facility that it is. I’m just really looking forward to settling in and getting sort of a work pace and living there for the full six months.

The station itself is different…

Yes

…than what you saw…

Exactly, there’s more modules—I was there prior to Node 3 [Tranquility] arriving and the PMM [Permanent Multipurpose Module], both off of Node 1 [Unity]. Node 1 was a much smaller environment when I was there, it was just the airlock and Node 1, and so that whole area has drastically changed with the additional facilities that Node 3 brings with it. The hygiene compartment and the exercise and the Cupola with the fantastic views, so I’m really looking forward to getting up there and seeing what the Cupola brings to the space station. Now I was involved with that, adding the Exposed Facility to the Japanese portion of the space station and that was a great opportunity too. I’m looking forward to just getting back up there.

There’s a possibility your mission could start with something new to the program: they’re discussing having your Soyuz dock to the station the same day as you launch. A couple of questions that brings to mind…the first is, what is the advantage of launching and docking to the space station on that same day?

It’s a really exciting and interesting concept to do. Typically for folks that are watching that are not familiar with the rendezvous process, we’ll launch on one day, go to bed, be up that whole second day with a few tasks and activities but not much significant activity on that second day, and then go to sleep again and wake up and rendezvous on that third day, middle of the day kind of thing. We’ll scrunch that whole timeline down into about a six-hour period. The interesting thing from a human point of view is we don’t have the time to take off our spacesuits so we’ll be strapped in our seats in our spacesuits for the whole duration of that six-hour period plus the pre-launch activities. So it’ll be a long day and a lot of time in the suits. Now you ask what’s the benefits to that…

I’m assuming there must be one…

…yes, the benefit to us from a crew point of view is we get to the space station faster. When you’re in the Soyuz – the Soyuz is a very small vehicle; it’s designed with a specific purpose and that’s to get crews up and down, home safely and to the space station or to space safely, and it does that in a fantastic job. It’s not the most comfortable vehicle to be in for an extended period of time. The toilet is right next to where you sleep which are right next to your buddy and eating and all; it’s like living for a day in a smart car or a Volkswagen Beetle. It’s very scrunched. So the benefit to us is we get to the space station faster with the facilities that it offers, much more comfortable type of environment to be in and it also demonstrates some technology that’s useful in visiting vehicles and other space vehicles to get to the space station on that same day.

Chris Cassidy

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, Expedition 35/36 flight engineer, is pictured during an emergency scenario training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Is it a difficult technical thing to launch and get there in just a few orbits instead of two and a half days?

Well, from a crew point of view it’s really not that much different. The tasks that we do are all the same tasks that we would have done in that three-day period. However, the timeline is smaller, so there are shorter gaps in between the discrete activities that we have to take care of to stay on the correct orbital flight path to make it to the space station correctly. Really our tasks are the same, they’re just closer together.

I’ve understood that one of the reasons for making it a two-day or three-day flight was to allow the crew members time to get acclimated to being in a weightless environment. This, you do without that or, at least, you would have to do it after you arrived at the station.

Yes, I thought a lot about that. I think that having never ridden in a Soyuz, but I have my shuttle experience in going to the space station. I remember from the shuttle opening that hatch and floating into the space station and feeling that it was so gigantic and the volume into which you floated, or you could be in the middle and not have a hand or a foot on some piece of structure, which is not the case in the shuttle, you’re always close enough to grab something. Even more so the case on the Soyuz — it’s very small, as I just described. The adaptation of that I think is a little bit different, you’re really not truly adapting in that day and a half. Two days on the Soyuz, that same adaptation that you’ll have once you get to the space station just because it’s a different perspective for your brain to get its arms around.

The plan, I assume then, would be for all future Soyuz’s to dock on launch day?

I’m not sure about that. That’s a decision that probably will be made by Roscosmos, the Russian side of the house, but certainly what we learn will be passed on to the other crews and we’ll see how it works out from there.

We’ve made reference a few times to different portions of the space station; help us understand the place that you’re going. Describe the International Space Station as it exists today, the different modules and systems that are there to support you and your work?

Yes, that’s a really interesting question. It’s in my basic brain; I think it’s phenomenal that it’s built. If in my neighborhood I tried to build the mobile hot dog stand and I said, OK, in my garage I’m going to build the chassis and the wheels and my neighbor’s going to build the kitchen part and somebody else is going to build the navigation, I guarantee we’d have to go to Home Depot on the Saturday when we actually put it together. And you can’t go to Home Depot and put it together up in space, so just the fact that it exists and its working so well is phenomenal. And so what are all those parts and pieces? The core U.S. structure with the Lab [Destiny] and the nodes we have that allow us to expand and grow the space station, and off of those nodes are where the U.S., the international partner elements—the Japanese off on the port side and the European module off on the starboard side of the vehicle—and further aft with the whole, the Russian segment of the space station. So it’s a really expansive vehicle. And people always ask me, is it going to be hard to be cramped up in a small tube, and that really doesn’t describe it very well. It’s a series of rooms and turns and nooks and crannies and you can really get away from people, you can explore places that you haven’t been before. I know that there are places that weren’t there when I was on the shuttle time frame. I really didn’t get around much on the Russian side, so I’m excited to really understand and explore. Now that I know from all my training in Russia, I’m very familiar with the systems and the Russian part of the vehicle which was not the case when I was a shuttle guy. It’s really a large facility and to me it didn’t seem small when I was there on STS-127; it’s even larger now so it’s an interesting place to live.

Since assembly of the station is essentially complete right now, the emphasis is on maintenance of the station in order to do the science mission. Can you explain what the potential is for what we can learn doing science on board the station?

That branches off into several aspects. One, how can we improve technologies that help us here on Earth? The most exciting part from my perspective is long-term bone health for people. As we age and we all have grandparents or parents that are aging or ourselves also. How do we stay healthy all through life, the key aspect of that, and I’m not a medical doctor, but what I’ve learned from being here and learning a little bit about the experiments that we’ll be doing, is bone health is a fundamental part to us staying healthy as a human later in life. How can we improve that bone health? That’s one of the main emphasis, with some of the experiments that we’ll be conducting - how to keep your bones healthy in zero g, which translates directly to on Earth. The other aspect of what we can be learning while we’re up there is how do we improve life for the astronauts and folks that will live long-term in space for exploration, for long-term living on the moon, Mars or other planets or whatever the case may be in the future, and it’s those same experiments will help us with that as well. Finally, technology developments, for the same exploration type of environments where have a test bed, if you will, on the space station, to really fine tune some of this hard technical problems, engineering problems, to make them reliable, robust systems that we can go explore other planets and parts of the universe with.

Let me get you to talk a little bit about some of those different sections. The biggest area of the research, as you say, is using you as a test subject, you and all of your crewmates, to find out how living in a weightless environment affects a human body and of course how to find ways to counteract that so that you can do work. The station partners, in fact, have recently agreed to send two crew members to space for a full year…

Yes.

…in 2015 in order to advance that kind of research. What are your thoughts about that yearlong mission?

Well, that’s a long time and I come from a military background so I have quite a few friends that have spent close to that time or longer overseas, not in zero gravity but away from their families and the separation from their loved ones. Similar type, it’s kind of analogous to the year that Scott Kelly will be doing in space, and my perspective is how you keep your mental focus and mental edge. I’ve had a few, four long deployments myself in my military life and, as a leader, I noticed that it was around different people it varied but there was some point in a long deployment that people’s mental edge started to fall. You really have to keep a lookout for each other for the differences and to really know, OK, it’s time for me to pick up the slack because my buddy needs a break today, and that’s fine because tomorrow it’s going to be the other way around and I think that’s an interesting thing - how do you stay mentally sharp for that long when every day you have to perform. Every day you’re conducting experiments, every day you’re doing something that could be harmful to the space station or yourself. That’s a lot to bear for one year and it’ll be hard. I think we’ll learn a lot because it’s a long mission to go to Mars, for example I think this will be great information, both the physical person, as well as mentally staying sharp for the whole mission.

Would you like to go to the station for a year?

It’s a good question. I, at a personal level wouldn’t mind it; I would certainly miss my family, it’s a long time but, like I said, I have had plenty of friends and good families that have survived yearlong deployments so I know it’s totally a doable thing, but it’s a mental hurdle to get over. If NASA asked me to go I would probably say yes, but it would certainly be with a lot of discussion inside my house.

And after you have the perspective of six months in that environment, to have some idea of what you’d expect.

Right.

From the perspective of someone who has spent some time off of this planet, and you’ve experienced the effects of exposure to microgravity, what do you think we should be working on in order to maximize the chances of a successful human exploration in space out beyond Earth?

I think that we don’t have to make it the most comfortable living facility that, we just need reliable systems, and I think if a crew is going to strap themselves onto a rocket and know that they’re going off to really explore, the most important thing is to know that the system I’m riding is reliable and I can count that there’s a team of experts behind us supporting all that, which is the case as now and will always be because NASA’s very excellent at supporting these missions. However, that to me is the most important thing: I’m fully onto this mission and I know this equipment is going to do its best to get us there and back, and that’s kind of what we do on the space station. We’re really running through the systems and making sure it’s all up to par.

In terms of the systems that we have to try to make sure that the human beings can function over a long period of time, what are the areas that are most important? Is it the bone health you referred to before?

Bone health and radiation is important, but when you get to some place it’s probably going to have a little bit of gravity, and specifically I’m talking about Mars, so you want to be strong enough to strap on a suit that has some mass to it and walk around and do heavy tasks because spacewalking either on the space station or with your footprints on a red, dusty planet, it’s still hard work. I really think that it’s of the utmost importance that you can maintain good physical health to be able to carry out that hard work when you get there, because that’s the whole reason you’re going, that is the mission, so you don’t want to turn into a cream puff when you get out of the capsule on the planet.

We’ve referred to the fact that there are a lot experiments that you’ll be a subject for; can you give me two or three examples of the kinds of human life sciences research that you’re going to be involved with on this mission?

I talked about the bone health and one of the experiments is an ultrasound of the spine. Now that’s really not a common practice on Earth, I’m told, because we have better technologies that can give a higher granularity of what’s going on in your back. However, most parts of the planet don’t have access to MRIs or some of these high, more expensive things but ultrasound is now inexpensive and can come in small, briefcase-size packaging. That, in my opinion, would spread to lots of places on this planet that don’t have the means and the financial wherewithal to get this expensive medical equipment. I think that’s a really exciting and important technology we’ll be demonstrating is spinal ultrasound, not only for the technology but also to what we’re going to learn about our own spines and how they react. There’s some nutrition studies, I’ll be part of a specific period of diets where there’s a relationship between the potassium and protein in my meals for four days, then they change the ratio to a high and low on a different set of four days. That’ll be another experiment conducted on myself.

So there are a lot of different kinds of things and just being there is…

Exactly, just being there itself is an experiment all by itself.

In the meantime, you’re going to be working with some specialized equipment that’s there for laboratory research in other kinds of scientific disciplines, other than human life sciences. Tell me about some of those other kinds of experiments that you’ve been preparing to work with on the station.

Everybody likes to play with fire, and there’s a combustion experiment that I just received training on this week that I’m excited to participate in, and some really unique fluids experiments that are looking at capillary flow. How do you make fluids go where you want them to go in the absence of gravity so that it’s not all falling to the bottom of the tank? How do you make it move in the direction you want to so you don’t lose some valuable consumables? If you can’t slurp up that last several gallons of fuel it might fail the mission, so you want to be able to use all that fuel in the tank and so some of these fluids experiments are along those lines as well. I just was told recently that there might be some more fish flying. Aki Hoshide started out with a fish experiment, I think Kevin Ford finished it up; the aquarium is still there but I believe that there’ll be some new batch of fish flying up to do more studies, and that’s along the bone health side of the house also.

It’s quite a range of different kinds of work that you’re going to be involved with.

It really is; that’s what I think is exciting. Here on Earth I enjoy when my day is different days of the week have different activities and before I know it the week has gone by fast, and that’s what I think living on the space station will be. There are so many things that need to be done and, experiments. At one minute you’re a research assistant conducting an experiment; literally, the next hour you could be a plumber or a mechanic or changing out something that’s a critical failed piece of equipment that needs to be fixed so that the next experiment can be conducted on time and with a great deal of success. That’s what I’m really looking forward to. I’m a kind of a garage tinkerer anyways, I like to fix stuff and repair broken things in my house, so that appeals to that side of me, the maintenance part of everything.

Chris Cassidy

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, Expedition 35/36 flight engineer, participates in spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article in the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

That’s another part of what you do is what you do with the time when you’re not a science experimenter. You’re responsible for making sure that the station, all its systems as well as that science equipment that everything continues to work. Give us a sense of what a day is like for a space station crew member. What do you do during an expedition?

On Earth, we’ve all moved into houses that are a little bit old at one point in our lives and somewhere in there, in the ten year mark, everything starts to kind of be a little less reliable, and that’s I think where we are with the space station. Mechanical things break and mechanical things need maintenance and repair, and other than the science activities, we do just that. I think just this week Chris Hadfield and Kevin Ford are repairing a critical valve in the ECLSS [environmental control and life support system] system in the Columbus module that will regain some key capability for the Columbus activities. That’s a major event that I know the European Space Agency is excited about, and that’s just one example of things that creep up in a given week all the time to be repaired. So what is a day like for an astronaut? We’ll get our weekly look-ahead on our timeline, and sort of see, OK, this is a heavy payload day on Monday and it looks like I’ve got a lot of maintenance activities on Tuesday, and sort of think that you have that plan, but then it completely can change as soon as there’s some erroneous alarm and the ground calls up and says, hey, we’re going to need to shift priorities and refocus our efforts on this piece of equipment because that’s critical to getting everything done.

Several minutes ago you made reference to the fact that on a shuttle mission everything is very tight and you have a schedule that you have to keep. It’s not that way on the space station, right; you have time to relax, you have off duty—you have weekends off! I mean, what other kinds of things like that are there to help crew members live over this extended period of time you’re going to be there?

Just to kind of set the stage, we’re living on London time because there’s centers all around the world so Greenwich Mean Time, is when we’re waking up. We’ll wake up and then around equivalent of about 7:30 in our morning we’ll have a conference with the ground, sort of set the stage for the day, and then embark on our workday which does have lunch in there, and then at the end of the day we’ll conclude with another conference with the ground to sort of tie up any loose ends and briefly talk about the next day’s activities. So outside of those daily planning conferences what do we do? Well, just like here on Earth, as soon as you put your feet on the floor from when you wake up in the morning, you’re not instantly at work; there’s a period of time where you use the restroom, you get dressed, you get a shower, you have your coffee, you eat your breakfast and read the paper, all those sort of things. We have a similar activity called Post-Sleep, and generally that’s not a relaxing thing that you kick back and do, that’s preparing for the workday. But on the other end of the day there’s a thing called Pre-Sleep that sort of encompasses what happens after work here on Earth where you drive home, you stop at the grocery store, you get new milk and then continue on home, relax with your family, watch a little TV, read a book, and then prepare for bed and go to bed. That’s Pre-Sleep for us, and you can spend it in a variety of different ways. In some busy weeks maybe it’s looking a little bit ahead for what you have to do in the coming days, but really you need a little bit of time to unwind and relax and that’s, in my opinion, the time to go look out the window, take photographs of your crew doing sort of other-than-work activities, because that’s a fun thing to capture, too, for ourselves and for our families and our loved ones back on Earth, and just looking at the planet. I equate looking out the window at the Earth kind of like when you go camping and you could just sit and look at the campfire for hours, be mesmerized by the flames doing things, and adding wood and it just captivates your attention—that’s how the Earth was for me when I was up on the shuttle. I could have just looked for hours and hours and hours at the planet going by underneath.

And over the course of a week or the months you get a chance to talk to folks on the ground and your family so it helps break up the isolation a little.

Yes, it sure does. Those types of conference calls on the weekends we’ll have with our family. They have an IP [Internet Protocol] phone, it’s basically a computer program that you can call a regular telephone, given certain satellite coverage and it’s fun to call your friends and say, hey, I’m calling you from the space station…looks like you’re having crummy weather down there in Houston.

So you’re rubbing it in.

Rubbing it in, yes…it’s all sunny up here.

Besides all of the work that you folks do inside the station, there are times when crew members have to go work outside the station. Now, this plan could change but right now there is a plan for spacewalks during your mission. Give me a sense of what’s going on, because there’s a lot of spacewalks on the plan as well. Who’s going outside to do what and particularly what is going to be your role when it comes to these EVAs?

Right. So it’s an International Space Station so we have international spacewalks. The Russians are planning for four spacewalks, and largely what they’re doing is preparing, their tasks to prepare them to receive a new module that will happen, that will arrive after we are gone later in the year—an exact date has been moving around—but many tasks to run cables, prepare the equipment for that module to come. The Russians have their crew complement for those EVAs they all rotate so I think each and every one of them will have the opportunity to get out the door, and those spacewalks are sort of spread out through the increment. Recently there’s been some discussion of adding maybe two or three U.S. spacewalks in the summertime, June-July time frame, we’ll see how it all works out. If we do get that opportunity, it will be Luca Parmitano and I on a couple main tasks. One of them, there’s some, piece of equipment called a Radiator Grapple Bars that are being brought up by the SpaceX that will be launching here in beginning of March, and these are large metal beams that are used to grab on to a radiator once it’s collapsed and folded down, if it needs to be repaired, so that a robotic arm can move in and grab it and take it where it needs to go. When the SpaceX arrives, these grapple bars will be placed on a piece of equipment called the POA [payload ORU [orbital replacement unit] accommodation].

It’s a place to store…

Chris Cassidy

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, Expedition 35/36 flight engineer, is pictured during an emergency scenario training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

It’s a place to store these grapple bars. The key thing about the POA though, it’s a place to store any equipment, and if other pieces of equipment break, that’s a planned location for these major repairs to be held temporarily if it takes multiple spacewalks to conduct the whole replacement of whatever part has failed. So that location is one that we tend to protect and have it is available if we can. Our job will be to take these grapple bars off of the POA and go place them in, one on each side, port and starboard, of the space station. That’ll take a large part of one EVA. The other major task that we’re looking at lately the SARJ [Solar Alpha Rotary Joint], the solar array rotary joints, have shown indication that it’s taking more current to drive to motor to make them spin, which indicates that maybe there’s some binding or it’s not smoothly spinning around the ring.

And these are the joints that are out on the truss, outside of which are the solar arrays that…

Exactly.

…rotate to follow the sun.

Exactly. They’re big; I don’t know the exact diameter of them, but it’s on the order of probably 15 feet. It’s a very big ring and so the engineering team is right now looking at what’s the best way to tackle this problem but it will involve some type of cleaning or lubricating of these rings on both sides of the space station. The task in and of itself is much like squirting a caulk gun that you’d purchase on any home improvement store here, but it’s getting access to where you would squirt that bead of caulk that is the overhead involved with these spacewalks. Those are the sort of big ones. There are some other tasks that are no less important but can happen quicker. For example, there’s a piece of the KU band radio system that has malfunctioned, and right now we’re sort of one failure away to losing some of the key capabilities that that KU band gives us and so we’ll probably be replacing a transmitter and receiver controller box for that system, and there’s also some talk of a part of the system that gets the power from the solar arrays into the batteries, one key piece of equipment that helps regulate that function called an SSU, Sequential Shunting Unit, I believe, and that is looking like it needs to be repaired as well. A lot of little tasks and some big ones and it’s really exciting for me to think about the opportunity to go out there and help fix the space station outside.

Or to go out again?

Out again, yes.

You got about 18 hours worth of experience on spacewalks three years ago.

Right.

Looking forward to another crack at it?

Very much so. I remember distinctly the feeling the first time I opened the hatch and looking down at the planet and for some reason, even though you’re looking out the window inside the space shuttle when you open the hatch and it’s just the bubble of your helmet, it’s a different feel to that same view and I remember thinking, wow, holy cow, I’m really here! It probably was only half a second that I kind of froze and was awestruck by the situation, but it felt like it was probably a minute or two that I was gawking. Fortunately I moved on and quickly got about my work before Dave Wolf could reach behind and smack me on the head and say, come on, new guy, let’s go!

Push you out the door. Space station is getting supplies from Earth delivered by a small fleet of unhumanned cargo ships these days, and there are a few of them, several of them, that are coming up during your time on board. Tell me about these different ships that you expect to see either arrive or depart or be there, including the new American commercial cargo ships.

Right. So right away the next SpaceX vehicle is planned to launch in early March, which is before we launch, so by the plan, it’ll be a couple days after we arrive that the SpaceX vehicle undocks. We’ll be assisting with the final cargo loading of that vehicle as well. Incidentally I was at Kennedy Space Center just a week or two ago where they were putting the final touches on assembling that vehicle and so I had the opportunity to peek my head in and see the ship here on the ground and see the rocket lying in the horizontal position as they’re preparing to load those radiator grapple bars and the capsule and stack it all into the rocket. So that was exciting to see it on the ground. I’ll get to see it in space. Soon after that we’ll also have an Orbital [Sciences Corporation] Cygnus vehicle arriving; the exact date’s moving around a little bit but not too long after the SpaceX vehicle departs, which will be the first. It’s a demonstration flight, for that program, so it will be very exciting to be part of the robotic mission to grapple it and then be part of the cargo team to help unload and load it. We also have pretty much every vehicle that can fly, there’s an opportunity for us to see and that includes the Japanese HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle] which will be arriving again in that same time frame, and as well as the European ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] which docks in conjunction with the Russian docking system back on the aft end of the Russian segment. Then, of course, we have the Progress vehicles which continue to fly on every expedition. Really the workhorse of the cargo supply system and the space, and the Soyuz crafts themselves that bring us up and our crewmates. Really exciting, and a lot of moving vehicles and I’m glad I’m not on the planning team that has to coordinate all these hatches and the constraints for which each vehicle needs because it’s a challenging shell game to get them all there, but we’ll do our best to unload and load as fast as we can to keep the train moving, so to speak.

If that schedule holds up, you would be the first crew to see at least one of every variety…

Yes, isn’t that something?

… of ships…

Yes, exciting.

…really demonstrating both the international aspect of the program as well as the public/private partnerships.

I think that’s fascinating, just, really see it all coming together because, I’ve been only at NASA for eight years, but in that time a lot has changed. We were heavy shuttle program going on when I first arrived, and then we’re kind of transitioned out of the shuttle program and then now the momentum is swinging to these other commercial companies that are sending vehicles up. To see it all go from sort of discussions and meetings to now fruition will be a really special place for me to be.

What are you most looking forward to about this flight?

As in anything with life, there’s exciting things that you experience, but really the important thing is who you experience those things with and on Earth it’s your family and your loved ones, your colleagues, your work, your work people that you know really well, and it’s the same for us on the space station. I have really gotten to know my two Russian cosmonauts, Pavel [Vinogradov] and Sasha [Misurkin], extremely well over these two and a half years, and I couldn’t be happier to fly in space with both of them. It’s really been special and then, I joke around and say, “I never go to space without Tom Marshburn,” because we flew on [STS-]127 together and I’ll be really nice to see him up there and give him a big hug when we arrive and open the hatch. Chris Hadfield I think is one of the greatest astronauts that we have, he’s just such a nice person and so talented technically; he is a real mentor and to be in space with him, for me, is a real treat. On other side of things, Luca and Karen [Nyberg], to experience it with them is equally special. Luca I’ve got to know tremendously well in this time, just like I have my two Russian crewmates, and Karen, on 127 she was the spouse of one of my crewmates and she did all of the activities with my family on the pre-launch activities, and now to be in space with her and know her family very well. It’ll be exciting.

What is it that we are learning from these missions to the International Space Station, yours and the ones that have come before and the ones that are still to come, what are we learning here that’s, you think is going to prepare us for human exploration of space beyond Earth orbit?

I think what we’re learning is what we’ve probably already learned, is going to space is hard work, and having it, pulling it off flawlessly is something that NASA and all the international partners do amazingly well. I think it’s important to keep that in mind as all these missions come and go and things happen and seemingly perfect, but it’s because of a lot of hard work and a lot of lessons learned and we continue to know that it’s a very challenging environment that we work in. It’s a very challenging task that we’re issued to solve and as we carry that mentality forward that’s what going to get us to the next level of space exploration. It’s just keeping that in mind. I can’t tell you what specific things are going to be those items that get us to the next milestone, but it’s this mentality that we have of, hey, it’s difficult work and it’s hazardous. We need to have the safety program and risk mitigation that we do, and then at some point you have to make a key decision with risk versus reward trades, and then just say, OK, it’s time to go; let’s go do it.