Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?
A: That is a good question because I do not know exactly the reason why. It is something that I got in my head when I was a kid, and I honestly do not know where it came from, if it was something I saw or something I heard, I am not sure. I was very young and I decided that that is what I wanted to do, so it is so hard to answer that because, all I know is it was in my mind for a long time.
Well, let me get you to tell us a little bit of that story; maybe it'll leak out of the side of the story. Tell us about your hometown and what it was like for you growing up there.
I grew up in west central Minnesota. My actual hometown is very small; the population I can't even say right now, probably, it's less than a hundred for sure but I don't know how many people-and not a hundred thousand, 100 people. My high school was in a neighboring town, Henning, Minnesota, and I grew up in Vining, a very small community. Of course, anybody that has lived in a small community, everybody knows everybody, but I think one of the best things about the small community is a school that size was great for me. I had many opportunities to be involved in absolutely everything, and even though my education required that when I got to college, I had to go back a little further than my classmates did. My small school did not have all of those classes offered. I think the fact that I got to participate in all of the sports and all of the music and everything else that I wanted to counteracted that, it made me a more well-rounded person.
Is it a farming area?
So you grew up on a farm?
No, we grew up, my house was out in the country, and we were on a lake actually. It is the Central Lakes Region of Minnesota, but there are farms all over the place.
You left there and went not too far away to go to college. Take me on the trip with you to your college and your professional career after that that ultimately led you here.
I chose to go to the University of North Dakota which, is in Grand Forks. My sister had gone there and I think she kind of convinced me that was the place to go. When I started, I actually wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to study. I had an idea about engineering but I do not think I knew enough about engineering to know that that's what I wanted, and of course at this time I knew that "astronaut" was my ultimate goal. So I got to the University of North Dakota and, I believe the end of my first year, I chose engineering, and chose to study mechanical engineering, and so that's what I did. During my undergraduate days, I learned about the Cooperative Education Program, and I saw a sign on a wall that somebody was giving a presentation who had worked at the Johnson Space Center, and, of course, my eyes went like that [gestures "wide-eyed"]. I'm like, you can work down at the Johnson Space Center as a student? So I hightailed it to the Cooperative Education Office and said, is there any way I can get a job at the NASA Johnson Space Center? I filled out the application and they ask you to list your top three places you would like to work. I put NASA Johnson Space Center, I did not have a number two or three, and well that is where I want to work. I got very fortunate and I did get the job as the co-op student so I spent quite a few semesters down here in Houston when I was a student, and that was invaluable. It extended my graduation by a while, but I think it was very valuable.
What areas here were you working in?
My first co-op tour I was in the robotics and then I moved over to MOD [Mission Operations Directorate] for one semester, and then after that with crew and thermal systems, and that's where I ended up staying, and when I finished graduate school that's where I was hired.
When I finished at UND then I decided, you know, everybody makes the decision do you continue in school or do you start work. I did not feel quite done yet, so I decided to continue on to graduate school. I chose the University of Texas at Austin, and had a spectacular advisor there who I went to see. At the time, he was the head of the mechanical engineering department, Ken Diller. He just made me feel good about going there and I chose to go there. He ended up being my advisor. We talked a lot about the research I would do, he helped me get in that grant from NASA to do my research, and I was able to finish my masters and my Ph.D. in four years with his help. It was fantastic. He was not one of those advisors that tries to keep their students there as long as they can to get the free work. Then when I finished my Ph.D., I got a full-time job offer from NASA, and I worked in crew and thermal systems division. I applied for the astronaut program the next summer when applications were coming. They were due, the next summer after I graduated with my Ph.D., and I never thought that I would be selected. I thought it is time; I have my Ph.D., now I will put in my application. Luckily, for some reason, I was selected and so that's where I am today.
You were, if I understand it right, you were still working at the Johnson Space Center while you were doing your graduate work at the University of Texas?
Yes, I maintained the Cooperative Education Program through that entire time so I worked summers, I think probably two summers while I was in graduate school. I came back here to Houston and worked.
With the idea of being an astronaut all along, even from when you were a little girl?
You are one of only a little over 200 different human beings who have ever been on board the International Space Station. From that perspective, what do you hope, in this case, this mission, that you'll be able to do that will help inspire other little girls and boys to want to be explorers?
I hope they see from looking at my situation that there are possibilities out there. I think some children do not know the possibilities and I think some children may not know what they are capable of doing. People from small towns-you get kind of stuck, and it's not that it's bad being in a small town, that's fantastic, but if you have a dream of doing something different, by all means there's probably an opportunity to do it if you really want to and you really want to set your mind to it. I set my mind to it when I was a kid, and it worked. There are definitely possibilities of disappointments along the way, but that is part of life. You pick yourself up and you just keep going. I hope that children will see me and the other people who are doing this - not just the people that are the lucky ones, like me, who actually get to fly in space, but also the other people working here. There is some incredible work that happens at NASA and I think it should be any child's dream to be able to help with a program like this.
As an astronaut when you fly in space, you take some risks that a lot of the other people who work for NASA don't take, not personally, anyway. Since you're doing it I'm going to assume that you think that the results of that work are worth the risks. Why-what is it that you think we're getting as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking those risks?
I think a lot is based on human nature, that we are all very curious people. Human beings like challenges and this is an ultimate challenge. A lot of it also has to do with it being an exciting thing. We talked about children, and children and adults' alike look at spaceflight and it is interesting and exciting. If it can get the kid in school to study his or her science or math a little harder, I think that's an important thing, and our country needs people in the sciences, math and the technology to be our leaders in the future. I think if it does that for an education purpose, I think that is a good reason to do it.
You and your crewmates are next in line to launch to the International Space Station. Karen, tell me, in summary, what is the goal of your mission and what are your jobs going to be on this crew?
Well, obviously we have been building the space station for about 15 years so that has always been our primary task, to get it built. Right now we're at a point where we actually can use it for what it's intended to be used for, and that's as a science laboratory. The main goal for all of the increments now is to use the station as the science laboratory that it is. That's mainly what we'll be doing, along with upkeeping, like you would in your house, keeping it up and running. We are trained on the same tasks these days and we are prepared to do anything. Some of us are specialists in one module, maybe not another. I'll be flying with an ESA [European Space Agency] astronaut so the Columbus module will be his, he'll be the specialist there, and I'll be the specialist in the Japanese module, and when we hand over about, a little over halfway through the mission, when Chris Cassidy and their crew leaves, I will become the USOS [United States Operating Segment] lead. My Soyuz commander, Fyodor [Yurchikhin], will be become the commander but since he's on the Russian segment and knows more about the Russian systems, and I have a better understanding of the U.S. systems, I'll become the USOS lead at that time.
You've been to the station once before, but it's different now. What are you looking forward to about seeing on this trip?
Well, when I launched the first time we took the Japanese module, and there has been a lot that has been added since then. The Exposed Facility on the JEM [Japan Experiment Module; Kibo] is there now and the Node 3 where we have all of our exercise equipment. Of course, I probably think what everybody would say, the Cupola. It is our window to the Earth and I cannot wait to see that. I am sure it will astound me even though I have seen the Earth from that distance before. I am excited to use that window. Also, the shuttle flights are so quick-14 days I was on orbit-that you never really get to stop and smell the roses, so I'm looking forward to that aspect of it, to live there and just become a part of that environment.
You pointed out a minute ago that the main goal of everything on the space station right now is the science research; [of] course, you have to take care of the station as well. How would you convey to people the potential for what we can learn in science on board this space station?
Actually, I think there is more than just science that we are learning from space station. It is multifaceted, really. Even during the building process, we were learning things about hardware and equipment. We had to build this closed system where we can't always be bringing up water so we've had to design in systems to recycle liquids, that has obvious definite potential for Earth operations and, just learning how to build and how to use the robotics. We have been learning this whole time, and a lot of that has applications to things that we are doing on the Earth. Another aspect, just looking at STS-124, we flew in an American space shuttle, carried a Japanese laboratory, used a Canadian robotic arm to install it to a module that was built in Italy, and we did all this traveling 17,000 miles an hour. These modules never having been mated on Earth to see if they fit, and it's that international aspect of it that I think we have learned a lot, and I think a lot of other organizations could look at that and learn as well- people on Earth learning what we have done internationally. Then, of course the science, that is going to be the big thing from now on. Without the laboratory, as it is without gravity, is obviously an extremely unique environment and there are a lot of opportunities to test various processes and look at the intricacies of various processes without the effects of gravity, and there is a lot of potential for Earth applications.
I am going to talk about some of those specifically here in a minute.
Of course, one of the big areas of the intention of this research is to find out how being in that environment affects people…
…and what can be done to counteract the negative effects of how that affects people. Recently the program decided they are going to send a crew up there for a full year to try to gain some more knowledge in that area. What do you think about that idea of a mission that is going to be twice as long as yours?
Well, I think it is a natural evolution, especially if we are going to start traveling further away and missions become longer. We need to start looking at it if a mission longer than six months will have different effects or more effects on the person. I think it is something that was about to happen at some point and we have this laboratory up there that is the perfect place to try it out, so I think it's great.
You like to try it out for a year yourself?
That's a really a tough question because, if you look at just the technical aspect of it I would love to live there, be involved in the science, and I would love to be the guinea pig for all that. But if you look at personal, where I am in my life right now with my family, I don't think I would want to spend a year away right now so maybe if you asked me at another time but right now I don't think I would actually want to.
You have been to the space and you have felt the effects of what being in that environment, for even two weeks in your case, can have on somebody. What areas should we be working on to maximize our chances for sending people on long-duration missions further away?
Well, obviously, probably one of the most important things, at least from the crew member's perspective, is crew health, and so we need to look at all of the things that radiation and lack of gravity do to us and make sure that we can mitigate that, all the negative effects, as much as possible. There are also hardware effects. We need to make sure that the equipment can be maintained without spares, that we have not thought about and then I think we probably need to get some sort of crew autonomy built into this for time delays that will happen as you move further and further out. So there's a lot to think about and, like we said, a lot of this can be studied on the space station.
The delays are something that I think a lot of people haven't quite gotten their minds around yet because for long duration, we're talking about a delay in one way communication…
…that could be 20, 30 minutes long.
Right. So operations need to happen, I think, a little bit differently, so that needs to be thought about and considered.
From the personal point of view, the personal physical point of view, there are effects from being in that environment that we have to learn how to deal with. Can you give me two or three examples of specific experiments that you are going to be a part of that you are going to be one of the guinea pigs for during this trip to the station?
Absolutely. One of the hot topics right now that I am sure a lot people have heard about is ocular health. We've discovered that there are quite a few astronauts coming, coming home with decay in their eyesight, and it's not known exactly at this time what causes this, but it's an important thing, especially if we're going to be spending longer and longer times-will it get worse as the time goes on? So they're really starting to do a lot of experiments with us, taking images of the retina, taking pressures, getting eyesight checks throughout the mission. We don't know quite what we were just starting doing all of these tests, we haven't done them on a lot of astronauts yet. I would like to think that once we get all these up and running, that there will be earthbound eye diseases that we could contribute to the success of solving some of these, and I'm confident there will some type of an Earth application that will come from this. Another great one to talk about is bone density. With the lack of gravity, our bodies are smart and there is no reason for our bones to be here because we do not have to be held up against gravity, and they start to degrade and they degrade very quickly and in fact even faster than a 70-year-old woman with osteoporosis, probably about ten times as fast. So we have a great opportunity to look at the decay of the bones and figure out what type of processes we need to mitigate these decays, and there's great potential for using that and applying it to earthbound osteoporosis.
Cardiovascular health is another of these areas that…
…in a similar way, right?
Those are some of the experiments you are going to be working on. Do you know how many different experiments you are going to have?
Well, not just the health experiments but including all of them, there's somewhere about a hundred and fifty, and that includes, up to 400 investigators from around the world. There is a lot going on.
And you're an expert on all of them?
Now there are a lot of other experiments in other scientific disciplines that are in these laboratories that you brought up…
…and special equipment that was made just for the purpose. Give us a handful of examples of some of the other types of the science experiments that you are going to work on and tell me how those things are going to impact future exploration as well as have some effect for those of us who do not ever get to leave the planet.
Sure. Like we had mentioned before, the main aspect of the space station that is wonderful is the fact that we don't have the gravity to affect what we're doing. A lot of the processes that take place on Earth, as in combustion of materials, solidification of materials, flow of liquids, all of that is highly affected by the force of gravity. And scientists, when they want to understand how all of these processes take place, really need to look into the intricacies of it. That force of gravity is so strong with all of this that when you can get rid of that, they can study how these processes take place, write their mathematical equations and understand the little pieces so they can come up designs for more efficient flow of fluid. Where pumps maybe don't need as much energy to force the fluid to flow, or where we can get more powerful semiconductor materials, or we can burn flames without the harmful off-gassing. In general, there are many of those processes where it does the benefit of doing it on the space station where there is no gravity is priceless, really.
There are experiments into, into how plants grow…
…differently in, in, in microgravity, too, right?
There are other things like that.
With all of that science to work on, you still have the responsibility, you and your crewmates, of taking care of the whole space station, taking care of the laboratory that you're working in as well as the vehicle that is housing it all. Can you give us a sense of what it is like, what are other kinds of things do you have to do? What is a day in space like for a space station crew member?
You are right. We are maintaining our house, our spaceship, our laboratory. A lot of it is the very mundane-changing filters, vacuuming, cleaning. Every so often, we have to change out equipment, and a lot of it is preventive maintenance. We want to make sure that things do not break down so we are going to take care of them as we go. Sometimes something breaks and we need to replace it. So there is a lot of that through the week and through the 40 hour week that we are working-actually probably a little more than that, but we will call it a 40 hour week. So just like you are maintaining your house or your car at home there's a lot that has to be done, and then we do as much of the science when we can.
You get some time off though, too, don't you?
Yes, weekends mostly off although I hear the housecleaning happens on the weekend but that happens at home, too, so…
Yeah, but that's, you get an opportunity to, to just enjoy being there?
Yes, yes. And that's one of the things I'm looking forward to a lot.
And after all of that work that you do inside the station, from time to time crew members have to go outside the station to do some work. Now, there's a plan that could change, but what is the plan for spacewalks during your time on orbit: who's going outside and what are you going to do as a member of that team?
We have quite a few EVAs planned, actually; a few on the Russian segment where it will be exclusively Russian crewmembers going out the door. For the U.S. segment we have two on the books right now. The EV crew members will be Chris Cassidy and Luca Parmitano, and I will be staying inside, and one of my jobs will be to get them suited up, get them out the door, get the airlock depressed and make sure they're good to go. In one of the EVAs I'll be doing some robotics tasks inside, and then my job at the end of the EVA will be to get them back in and make sure all the equipment is in the order that it needs to be when the EVA is done.
Robotics work is something that you already have the experience at. Which of the arms are you going to be running this time…
This will be SSRMS [space station remote manipulator system], the big arm.
…because you've run the Japanese arm before as well as the shuttle arm?
That is right.
So it was very busy mission…
There are no shuttles coming to the station but there are supplies headed up there on an increasingly regular basis these days, coming in a little fleet of supply ships that are provided by various members of the space station partnership. Tell us the short version of who all these ships are and how they're the same and different; what kinds of opportunities do they provide to deliver supplies to the station?
That's right, we have quite a few vehicles coming up. We have the standard Progress vehicles, which come at a rate that pretty much stays the same. That is the Russian vehicle, the cargo ship, and they dock to the Russian segment and bring up a lot of the equipment and supplies for us. We also will be having an ATV, it is a European transfer vehicle, Automated Transfer Vehicle, and that docks automatically to the aft end of the station, aft of the Service Module [Zvezda], and that should be coming in June, according to the plan. We also have an HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], which is the Japanese, their vehicle, and that one we actually grab with the robotic arm as it comes in and we use the robotic arm to attach it to the space station. We are hoping that in the period of time that we are there we will get the vehicle from the Orbital Science Corporation, the Cygnus vehicle. Potentially we will get their first demonstration flight, and so that would be very exciting to see them make it to the space station for the first time.
And that is similar to the HTV…
…in that it's grappled by the arm, right?
And when "we" grapple that, will that "we" be you?
It is hard to say yet.
It I guess it depends on if it comes before or after HTV and who goes first but potentially I'll be either on the arm for the HTV or the, the Cygnus.
You've trained for it…
…in any case; is that kind of arm operation significantly different than what you did, what you did before?
It is in that we are trained. It's very dynamic and the vehicle could be moving as we're coming to try to design, so it's very steady and in fact they all have been very steady to this point, but we are trained that if there are rates on the vehicle we need to be able to fly the arm at those rates to grab it. So the training has been more challenging in that respect, but we hope, like I said, that the vehicles are stable and that we won't have to use that training.
Can you say what it is about all that you have in front of you there that, its, you're most looking forward to about doing when you get to the station?
There's so much. I'm looking forward to doing all of that: the science part of it, the robotics part of it; living there, I think I'm probably looking forward to the most, just making that my home and I think that's going to be pretty special.
Karen, what is it that we are learning from these missions to the International Space Station that is getting us prepared to push human explanation way beyond where we're going right now.
I think probably the biggest thing in my mind, is the human physical sciences, our health, and how we counteract the negatives like we talked about before. In my mind, that is one of the biggest things. And then, of course, the hardware issues and how we get the equipment to work the most efficiently without needing a lot of repairs, and we're learning all of that as we're going through this process.