Continuing with our STS-114 crew interviews. This morning with us is Mission Specialist No. 1 Soichi Noguchi. Thanks for your time today, Soichi.
2004 Preflight Interview: Soichi Noguchi
STS-114 Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi
You were named to this crew some time ago and were just literally weeks away from flying in space on STS-114 when the Columbia accident occurred.
It must have been a very difficult moment, not only personally with the loss of your friends and colleagues, but in terms of your level of preparation for the flight. One year now after Columbia, what has the last year meant to you and meant to your rededication and refocusing not only on a new STS-114, but the whole issue of returning Shuttles to flight?
Yeah. It has been a tough year for everybody in the office, actually for the whole agency, I guess. We were sudden devastated by the loss of our friends and an orbiter. But, we were the prime crew, and we tried to stay focused on the mission and get ready for whatever the challenges or the changes that we might face. And we spent most of the time just focused on what we have to do, what we can do for the return to flight.
And, as a follow-up to that, Soichi, you know, STS-114 prior to February 1 was to have been another garden variety delivery mission to the International Space Station, logistics, science racks, spacewalks. But, now it's taken on a whole different tone. It's a far different mission. How have you and the original three colleagues that were assigned to fly with you, how have you readapted, readjusted to an ever-changing flight that is a very different flight today?
Well, we just do whatever we have to do. You know, what we are assigned to do. And you're right; before the Columbia, we are one of the logistic missions. Now we have a different flavor to the, added to our mission. But, again, our philosophy is the same: we do whatever the Agency asks us to do, or whatever is, is good for the International Space Station. And, for now, I think our mission has tasks for the International Space Station as well as for the return to flight. And we try to stay flexible, whatever the challenge we might have to face, and you know, our Commander, pilot and, and MS2 and me, the original four, I think we did a very good job adapting to the challenges.
Has it been difficult, though, for you personally to absorb this whole recovery period and respond to this changing nature of the flight?
Yes. Since I was a rookie, I thought this is the how the mission goes. And weeks from, from launch, it's completely changed. So, it was actually tough for me to adapt to the changes. But, again we are just you know, one of the astronaut who just do whatever the program asks us to do, the good things for the space program. So I think we are just stay focused on the mission. That's why we can adapt to the changes so, so well.
As an astronaut, as an individual, as a member of this important return to flight crew, how have you personally changed perhaps in reflecting back on the last year, learning so much about what happened, learning more about the risks of space flight perhaps. How has this changed your outlook on space flight?
Well it doesn't change my devotion or desire to fly into space. But the other awareness of the risk will be more, you know, deep. I have more knowledge of the Shuttle systems. I have, I'm more aware of the risk involved. And, that actually will make me a better operator of the Space Shuttle because the, the risk was there. I was, I may not be aware before the accident. But, now I am. After those investigations and after a lot of the future to the, the centers, now I am more aware of the risk that I'm going to have. And still I feel ready. And still I'd like to go to space. I think that's a good thing for me as an astronaut.
Soichi, what has been your impression of the accident investigation board, its findings and the response that NASA has implemented and is continuing to examine and implement its findings?
Yeah. Last summer we have a couple of chances to talk directly to the member of the, the CAIB. And, it was a very up front nice discussion. And, I think in the discussion overall it was very fair. And those return to flight recommendation, we take as a gold standard. And, those are very nice recommendations for us to make Shuttle better, safer, and the more robust.
Trace for us if you will a little bit about your past. What inspired you to want to become an astronaut in the first place?
I was a high school student -- I was 16 -- when the first Space Shuttle flew. I was in Japan. I watched it on TV. I thought that there's a new space age that's coming to us, that the ordinary people, not just the top-notch pilot, but engineers, doctors, and scientists can fly. At that time I think I set my goal as a future profession as an astronaut. And, I studied, you know, the space science, space technology at the university; and someday, I wanted to come close to the astronaut work; and I was lucky enough to be selected as one of the Japanese Space Agency's astronauts.
Was there ever a point over the past year that you sat down in the quiet of your home and thought, "Why am I doing this?" Was there ever a moment when your enthusiasm to want to press on to do this was ever dampened at all?
No. Not actually. Of course we're saddened by the, by the loss of Columbia. That didn't affect my desire to fly to space. I want to be more proficient. I want to be more sophisticated operator. That's why I spent more time in training last year actually to be a better operator of the Space Shuttle and also a better EVA crewmember, to get myself ready for the return to flight. So, it didn't change my desire to fly in space.
Why is space flight worth all of this risk, Soichi, in your opinion?
Well, space is, is our hope to the future. It is a good investment for the future. And space development is a vital link for the human being to open up the new possibilities. Of course, there's a risk involved; but the return is enormous. That's the reason why we are still pursuing our effort to the space development.
And, in regard to the risk, obviously everybody has a personal stake in, in how you prepare not only yourself but also your family for any space flight psychologically, personally. What kinds of things have you discussed with your family in the year that has transpired since Columbia and now in the new year, moving ahead with what I think could be accurately characterized as the final phase of your training for the new STS-114?
I just try to be honest. Trying to just tell them, tell my family, my kids, my wife what I know, where I'm going. And mainly talk about why I'm doing this. You know, space is a good thing for them, my kids. We're just creating a better future for them. And I talked to them about the risk involved obviously. But also what we are doing to minimize the risk we have. And if we have a safer vehicle, then our future will be bright, obviously -- easier and safer access. So I think my wife and kids understand that what I am doing now is a good thing for the whole mankind, and for them in the future, that we have an easier access to space, which brings a better future.
Let's talk a little bit about STS-114 as it stands today. There will be things over the course of the year that may mature, evolve, possibly change a bit. But, outside of going to the International Space Station and delivering critical supplies and bringing home all of this material that has accumulated during this down period for Space Shuttles, I think the mission will be accurately highlighted by two key things: and that will be inspection of the orbiter, and the spacewalks, the three spacewalks that you and Steve Robinson will undertake. Talk a little bit if you will, Soichi, about those spacewalks. And, let's go first to what is currently planned as the first spacewalk for you and Steve to demonstrate a capability to patch up potential damage to the thermal protection system and a leading edge, the reinforced carbon-carbon.
Yeah. As EVA crew, we spend a lot of time in the NBL, the underwater training pool, or the zero-g flight to evaluate those repair techniques, both for tile and RCC. We are getting close to the completion of the development efforts. I trust my instructors. I trust my EVA teams. Together, we can make it happen. Tile is pretty close to completion. For RCC we still need a few more tweaks before we, before we say it's ready for training. But I think the both tile repair and RCC repair are obviously doable. And Steve and I are really excited to do that on orbit.
Are you confident that if in fact it should be required, you and Steve could repair a damaged orbiter?
Yeah. I guess so, by the time we fly. I guess we have a pretty good plan. I would say, it's a new, new material, new techniques obviously. But it's, but it's doable. I think we can make it happen.
Now, the second spacewalk is devoted to the replacement of a failed control moment gyroscope. It will have been a few years since its failure by the time you and Steve get to that task. At one time, this was considered a huge undertaking. And, I guess it's faded a bit in terms of the glare of publicity moving towards thermal protection system repair. What's involved in replacing one of these huge gyroscopes on the Z1 truss of the Space Station?
It's still one of the biggest tasks of our mission. We, we should not underestimate the difficulties of this CMG repair mission. CMG, as you mentioned, control moment gyro. The ISS has four CMGs, and they help control the ISS attitude. One of them failed a year and a half ago. It's a big, big box, over 600 pounds. And, we have to use the Space Station arm, because the Shuttle arm would not reach the back of the Z1 truss. So, it's the combined task of the Station arm plus EVA work. First we have to remove the failed unit from the Z1 truss. I will be on the arm. Steve will free floating, helping me remove the bolts and connectors. I grab the CMG in my hand, 600 pounds, and the Station arm will move me from the Z1 back to the Shuttle cargo bay, where we have a new unit. There we play a kind of a shell game, temp stow the old one on the beam, get the new one, and put it on the stowage device. The failed one goes to the same location where the new CMG was. I will grab the new one, again make a return trip to the Z1 truss, and install it. And one of the challenges, of course, is it's a big, big mass, 600 pounds. Hopefully I can get a good look from Steve or Jim Kelly, Vegas, my pilot, will be the arm operator so that they, well, we won't hit any hardware on the Station or the Space Shuttle because I might, view it's completely blocked by those boxes and so on. Those require a good crew coordination.
And then, the final spacewalk is currently designed essentially to continue the external outfitting of the Station with what is called an external stowage platform installation, basically a parking platform for future critical spare parts for the Station. How difficult is all of that work?
ESP-2, this External Stowage Platform No. 2, is a temp stow location for the ORU. As we expand the trusses, there are a lot of ORU devices on the truss which may require routine maintenance. And, we need to store the critical spare somewhere on the Station. Right now we don't have anything. So, we have a flat surface on the airlock, close to the airlock, where we can stow the POP module or the new trunnion for the, the T.V. system. That will be stowed on top of ESP-2. It is initially stowed in a cargo bay; and Steve and I will basically connect the cables and do the, the bolting. And, again, we have to use the Station arm for this task. So this also requires a crew coordination between the Station arm operator and EVA crewmember, like us. So, it's a, should be interesting task.
Soichi, you, you'll be the second Japanese astronaut to walk in space ... behind Takao Doi, who, of course conducted his spacewalks on STS-87, including a manual grab of a science satellite during that flight.
Aside from your specific training for your mission, have, have you talked to Takao about the art of spacewalking, some of the things that he encountered? I'm struck by how information is passed on anecdotally.
We spend a lot of time talking about the EVA techniques and what he did, what he saw. One thing he taught me about the EVA is to just go slow, take your time, and that's right. He did the manual grab of the big Spartan satellite. So he helped me understand the mass handling, because I have to do the CMG maneuver with it in my hands. So Takao really helped me understand the how we can handle the big mass in space.
As the year unfolds, what do you envision, Soichi, as the most challenging aspect of the forthcoming training in preparation for this critical flight?
As an EVA member, I think the TPS repair, the tile repair and the RCC repair will be the biggest challenges. We spend a lot of time with our EVA instructors, engineers, and the supporting teams. And we have to make it more operatable the procedure we find does require a lot of underwater training. Of course, the repair is one side. The other side is inspection. And, I am not an arm operator; but we can help the arm operator by monitoring the clearance or checking the data to those laser instruments. So I think we have a lot of challenges. Trying to stay focused on our mission, focused on the training, and next year will be challenging, tough, but it should be an interesting one.
You mentioned that you first became interested in becoming an astronaut when you were a teenager watching the first flight of the Shuttle. That's 23 years ago now.
That's a long time. The Shuttle obviously has been a magnificent spacecraft. But, its frailties are known by all, too painfully. Why, in your opinion, should we continue to fly the Space Shuttle, now and for the foreseeable future?
Yes, the Space Shuttle is a magnificent spacecraft. It's robust, and powerful, too, for the space development. All the International Space Station construction relies on our return to flight of the Space Shuttle. As a matter of fact, our Japanese Space Agency has the Kibo module, Japanese experimental module, which is supposed to fly in the cargo bay of the Shuttle. Without a Space Shuttle return to flight, our Kibo module will be in jeopardy. So this is a key to the International Space Station. And, as astronauts, we're not just passengers. We operate all the spacecraft. We fly, control the Space Shuttle; so we know every inch of the Space Shuttle by the time we fly. So, we fly with confidence.
Here we are a hundred years after the first powered flight, and still going strong, despite challenges, setbacks and adversity. What do you envision as the long-term future for human space flight down the road, 10, 50 years from now?
I really hope that we continue our space development outside of low Earth orbit, back to the Moon, go to Mars, and expand our human capabilities. I'm pretty sure we can do that. If we continue to pursue our desire to explore the outer space, we can get there. We'll go back to the Moon, go to the Mars, and beyond.
If you were talking to any group, employees here at NASA, employees at JAXA, the Japanese Space Agency, and children, what would be your message? You're a member of a crew that's going to receive a lot of attention over the next year or so. What would be your message to all these folks in terms of where we're at today and why we need to keep pressing ahead?
Our crew is very appreciative of all the sincere effort and, and devotion to the return to flight. Together, we can make it happen. Space is our future. What we do as an agency, as international partners, we devote ourself to the return to flight and we start the construction of ISS. And, that's the, the best investment for the future. That's my message.
Let me, press on if I might, Soichi, with a final set of questions here. You know, there are thousands of people working every day to try to get Shuttles back into orbit. You and your crewmates represent the most visible aspect, more or less a symbolic human face that's put on this return to flight effort. In a big picture sense, how significant, how important is your flight in getting not only NASA but the rest of the human spaceflight arena physically and psychologically back in the saddle, back in orbit, as far as the Shuttles are concerned? How important is your flight in that regard?
I think this return to flight is very important for all agencies and whole world. And it's just not us, just not astronauts, but all the control teams, all the workers throughout the countries. This is a team effort. And the fact that all those team members, working together, devote themselves into this important mission is a key to success. If you bring Shuttle back to space, we can have a new state of mind, we can extend our possibilities for the future. So together we can make it.
As we are upon the anniversary of the accident, and as you continue your training for your mission, you can't help but spend time reflecting on the past year, how difficult it's been and the loss of your friends and colleagues on STS-107. What are your thoughts about this anniversary, that crew, and why you're dedicated to press ahead here?
Yeah, it's almost a year. And I remember those days right after accident, we were saddened, devastated by the loss of Columbia. And we still are. But we have to continue, for them as well. I had three classmates, the class of 1996, in the crew. We spent a lot of time together training for the space flight. And for those three classmates, we have to pursue their dreams. And when we come back from space, I can tell them, in my heart, "Hey, we did it for you and, and for us, and for the rest of the world."
And, finally, Soichi, on STS-26, the flight of Discovery in 1988, the first post-Challenger mission, Rick Hauck and his crew spent a lot of time on orbit after they deployed their satellite thinking about and publicly commemorating the memory of the Challenger crew. During your mission, whenever it flies, how much will you and your crewmates be thinking about Columbia's crew and what they sacrificed to make your mission and those beyond it possible?
Yeah. I don't know. But the Columbia is always on our mind throughout the training. And I'm pretty sure that when we are on orbit, we are thinking of them, seven astronauts and Columbia. But, yeah. I think it will be still a tough moment thinking about seven members and Columbia. By the time we fly, I can, I hope I can change it to, you know, some more positive memories to, you know, push me into the new challenges. But for now, it's still tough. And hopefully, it will be better by the time we fly.
+ Read Noguchi's 2005 Preflight Interview