NASA Podcasts

In Their Own Words: Michael Barratt
06.23.11
 
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SLATE:
What inspired you to become an astronaut?

BARRATT:
Wow, that's a big question, I think it's probably characteristic of all the people in our office is that everybody had pretty broad interests, kind of a career anxiety if you will that could only be solved in a place that puts so many incredible things together. I think at one time I wanted to be an astronomer, at another time, an oceanographer, another time a paleontologist and human medicine, obviously, is what took me to medical school and guess what? The space program puts that all together. As an astronaut you do Earth observation, we do ocean science. I lived on an underwater habitat in my astronaut career and we study a lot about natural sciences and that’s along with what happens to the human body in spaceflight, obviously very near and dear to my heart. And just doing your normal mission specialist duties on the space station. So, there's nothing that puts all those things that we love together better than spaceflight.

SLATE:
What was it like to spend 199 days in space?

BARRATT:
Well, I loved it. I could sum it up in that way, but I can tell you, that was my first spaceflight and flying out of Baikonur Cosmodrome was pretty special. I mean, I launched off the same pad that launched Yuri Gagarin and that's pretty neat.

I had a terrific crew in Gennady Padalko, my Soyuz commander and station commander, and Charles Simonyi. We got up there and the first look at the station was just unbelievable. When you open the hatch and see how big it is, that's going to be my home for the next six-and-a-half months, that's pretty overwhelming and it did take me awhile to get used to navigating around in zero gravity and doing my work and learning how to work the timeline, work with the ground, find things, not lose things in zero gravity. I think probably a few weeks into it, I really felt like I was hitting my stride and then I really, really enjoyed it. I can tell you that as tightly attached as I am to my family, at the end of six-and-a-half months, I didn't really want to leave, so it was an incredible experience.

SLATE:
What are the differences between launching on a shuttle and a Russian Soyuz?

BARRATT:
Well the differences between the shuttle and Soyuz are huge. The mission statements of each vehicle are quite different. The Soyuz, I like to think of as a commuter rocket that takes three people to work. And you park it. Park it for six months. And at the end of six months you turn the key and it goes and you come home. Whereas the shuttle delivers a load, a big load, the space station. Whether it's cargo, pressurized cargo that we transfer or, in our case, piece parts for the station, a big module that we left there and an express logistics carrier we left there. It's designed to carry those loads and up to seven people and, of course, bring back large amounts of pressurized cargo as well. Both vehicles do their job very nicely, but obviously you have very different launch profiles, very different launch experience with each of them.

With the Soyuz, it's all-liquid boosters, it's a very gentle ascent. It's hard almost to know that you've left the pad because you have the shaking as the engines spool up and you really don't feel a difference when you leave the pad. You only know that from your clock that starts with your ascent indicators.

With the shuttle there is no doubt. The main engines start and in about five seconds those things kind of spool up. You feel the orbiter shake and creak and groan and tilt a little bit on the launch pad and you know it's getting ready to do something, but when those solids light, there is no question, that is the moment you have left the planet and you are starting to scream toward space. So, very exciting ascent on the shuttle I would say.

Now landing, I would say, is much more exciting on the Soyuz. The shuttle of course lands like an airplane, the Soyuz hits the ground with a parachute descent.

SLATE:
What happened during STS-133?

BARRATT:
Well the time went by in the blink of an eye. What I can say, as an astronaut you look for certain kinds of space activities that are just really exciting, I mean, everybody loves to do robotics and spacewalks, the docking and rendezvous, the dynamics of flight, if you will. And 133 put a lot of those in a very short timeline, so everything that really makes spaceflight wonderful for an astronaut, we had compressed into this 13-day flight for us. So, of course, we had Discovery with us for this final flight, we did the docking, the rendezvous. We put two large pieces on the station, the Express Logistics Carrier-4 and the PMM, that's essentially like a big closet, but we put that there.

Two spacewalks and a lot of outfitting of that new module that we put up there and a lot of science. We transferred a lot of cargo back and forth. So you're always busy doing something dynamic, something different every day so it was really magnificent.

SLATE:
What was spacewalking like?

BARRATT:
I think a spacewalk is where the rubber meets the road for an astronaut. It's the closest you can be to the space environment and it's just an amazing thing. I think all of us are glued to the windows whenever we can. We look at the Earth, we look at our station and we look at the stars and whatnot and that view, that view is just incredible. But when you get outside the ship, when you are just out there in your spacesuit and you have a big, wide helmet, then it's almost overwhelming. Seeing the Earth below you much more panoramically, seeing the station around you is just amazing and I think that's one of the most overwhelming things about it. Then you go right to work and everybody focuses on their task as much as they can and whenever you do get any down time, you just look again, you remember how incredible where you are is. It's an amazing feeling.

SLATE:
What was it like to be part of Discovery's final mission?

BARRATT:
Well it was an incredible honor. I was assigned to this flight when I was still flying my long-duration flight, so that was a shock and a surprise. I thought that the door to shuttle flights had slammed shut quite a bit before even I launched. So out of the blue comes this opportunity to fly on one of the few shuttle flights. I was incredibly honored for that. I landed and they said, 'Hey you're behind in your training schedule already, you better get to work.' Fortunately the crew that I was training with, the 133 crew with Steve Lindsey as commander and the rest of the crew, all my classmates from the class of 2000, the crew was fantastic, very easy to train with and the instructors are just unbelievable. It was nice to train only at home and only in the English language for a period of time and I think the training flow was just a lot of fun. And there were no surprises on the flight, the training was super.

SLATE:
What went through your mind when you landed at the end of Discovery's mission?

BARRATT:
Well, it's an interesting point that when we fly, even when we know it's the final mission of our orbiter, in this case Discovery, overwhelmingly our thoughts are on our mission. Our job is to execute our timeline, to do it as accurately and on-time as possible and that's pretty much where your head is. We definitely were asked a few times on the flight about the legacy of the Discovery and the shuttle program and of course we would turn our thoughts to that for a moment, but it's only when you successfully land, after wheels stop, that two things happen. One, you can reflect back on your mission that was successful, safely done, the vehicle was incredibly clean and it was successful all around. But the other thing is that, now you realize it's the last flight, and now you're turning the ship back into the hands of the people who have cared for her for so many years and back into this facility that's taken care of her for so long and that's when it really hits you that it's the final flight and you're taking this magnificent spaceship and she's being retired. So I think a lot of us started to feel the emotion at that point.

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