Preflight Interview: Steve Robinson
The STS-114 Crew Interview with Steve Robinson, mission specialist
You have a job that a lot of kids dream about having. Is being an astronaut what you always wanted to do?
Well, it sure is one of them. I, like most kids, there's lots of things I wanted to do. But I can remember being really small and, and the earliest spaceflights were going on wishing that I could do that. And certainly Al Shepard and Gus Grissom and John Glenn were the heroes of every kid in the neighborhood and they really stayed that way for me. As I grew up there were lots of other things I wanted to do -- I wanted to be a biologist and a musician and an artist -- but I never stopped wanting to fly and wanting to fly in space.
Do you remember what it was about it that, that attracted you?
Image to right: STS-114 Mission Specialist Steve Robinson, foreground, is joined by Pilot James Kelly, left, and Mission Specialist Andy Thomas on a Space Shuttle flight deck simulator. Credit: NASA
No, it just seemed to come right from the heart. I was fascinated with things that flew, I think, just about as soon as I could walk. I remember clearly looking at airplane and rocket books before I knew how to read. I grew up just trying to, trying to make things fly and then trying to make myself fly -- I started building hang gliders when I was 15, and I kind of went on from there.
Tell me about what you did then in, in your education and your career that got you to a point where you really were qualified to be an astronaut.
During high school, I guess I was one of those weird kids that enjoyed mathematics. I can't say I was that great at it, but I really liked it because I liked to do things with it. I did start designing and building hang gliders and somehow survived that whole process. I did that for quite a few years. And when I went to college I majored in aeronautical and mechanical engineering -- although I have to admit that I changed my major for a while to biomedical illustration, so you can see there are a few vectors off to the side. But I could just never imagine being away from the fascination with flight. It wasn't just flying myself -- I wanted to know how things flew, how did it all work, and I still have that fascination.
Your career has been in NASA for quite a while before you were an astronaut.
I think, my 29th NASA year so yeah, I'm a really old guy with NASA. I went to University of California at Davis and, through their co-op program began to work at NASA Ames. The co-op program is just a great program. So I did two co-op stints at NASA Ames, working as a technician in the wind tunnels, and learned to operate big tools and big hypersonic wind tunnels. We were doing the final design, detailed design, of the Space Shuttle at that point. This was in the mid '70s and it hadn't flown yet. We were using high-speed, heated, hypersonic wind tunnels to look at the re-entry characteristics of the Shuttle shape. It was extremely exciting, and, of course, I always thought, if it were a dream come true I could actually fly in this machine that we were designing at that point.
Is there one person, or maybe two, you'd say were the most important to you becoming an astronaut? People that you look at as your inspiration or your hero?
Well, I think any time you come to a junction in life, you know, the people that really inspire you and help you make your decisions and help you make your own mistakes. Those are the people that are important to you. My dad is a great adventurer and a great engineer and a very curious guy, and an inventor, and I think he, he was very encouraging of all these things in me. I never was as good as he was at any of those things, but I was just as interested. I didn't follow in the field of civil engineering and surveying that he did although he would have liked me to, but he was very encouraging to go off and do the things I wanted to do, even if it was as crazy as flying in space. I can also say, as a kid, you know, when I was, when I was about seven and eight, you know, John Glenn was one of my heroes, for sure; I wanted to be like John Glenn. And then actually on STS-95, he was sitting next to me when we launched into space. I learned more than his persona as an American icon and a senator and the first U.S. astronaut to orbit -- he's also a very accomplished aviator, a real gentleman and a scholar of the human condition. I learned about life and how to work with other people through John Glenn, also.
Must have been great, then, to have the opportunity to fly with him.
It was almost like science fiction, I would say. I was, it was really a neat opportunity.
Tell me about your other interests or hobbies when you're not busy being an astronaut.
I still want to be a musician and an artist someday when I grow up. I play music and I play guitar in a rock and roll band, and I play banjo and mandolin and bass and a pedal steel guitar. I'm, I've always been active in art, painting and drawing. I guess I get that from my mom's side -- my mother is a very accomplished painter, and I think mostly what I inherited from her is the want-to without too much of the talent. But I'm stubborn enough to keep at it. Of course, I'm flying. I have little antique airplanes at home, and I'm always working on them and fixing them -- and flying them in between fixing them.
We all assume, especially since the loss of Columbia and its crew, that astronauts understand the risks of spaceflight and are willing to accept them. Tell me why you think this job is worth that risk?
Aviation is a risky business, and anyone who gives their lives to aviation has to accept a certain risk. If you've been in aviation long enough, you have lost some people that are really dear to you. We found this out all over again with Columbia. It is a risky business, particularly spaceflight. If you try to take the fragile human body from zero velocity relative to the surface of the Earth, accelerate it to 17,500 mph in the vacuum of space, and then reverse that process and bring it down, it is inherently dangerous. It really is. It is, however, worth it because this is the human destiny; this is, this is something that human beings should be doing. We on the pointy end of the spear are just the very fortunate ones who occasionally have to incur the risk. But I feel that we are doing something that is it's really written in the destiny of every human being.
It's one thing for you to take that risk; how does your family deal with the risk that comes with your job?
Image to left: Robinson wears a training version of a spacesuit while practicing for a spacewalk. Credit: NASA
I think it's much more difficult for the family; much more difficult because they are the ones who have to deal with the worry while we're off doing the mission. Frankly, this is a wonderful job. The risk is there, but also you're working with the best people in the world. You're having a lot of fun. There's a tremendous amount of excitement and newness and learning, and the family really doesn't get too much of that. It's very tough. I think it, it's a test of any family bond of commitment and love and permanence to be able to allow a family member to go off and do something like this. I think the families who can do this successfully, which are all of them, really are the ones who also believe this is just really important, this is essential for humans to do.
It's been more than two years since Columbia and its crew were lost. Steve, how have you and your crewmates talked about honoring the memory and the spirit of those seven people during your time on orbit?
They were dear friends to us, they weren't just colleagues, and besides thinking about them every single day, both at work and outside of work, on the mission we will commemorate them in a couple of different ways. First of all, and probably the most obvious is our mission patch, the STS-114 mission patch, which you've seen. It has a few design elements but the one that's right at the top and sort of breaks the horizon and is headed upwards is this blue Shuttle shape. If you've seen the STS-107 Columbia patch it looks just about like this. There are seven stars in here, and one is the Star of David. That, of course, commemorates the seven crewmembers. So there they are, on our patch. We're bringing them back, the legacy of what they were doing and their memory, back into orbit. That's the most obvious way. We will also be bringing some personal remembrance items from the families themselves up with us to return back to them. And we will have a time on camera while we're up there where the whole crew gets together and talks about what this means, and we will have something special to present from orbit.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board pinpointed physical causes for the loss of Columbia and specified mechanical fixes to make flying this Shuttle safer. Assess the improvements that have been made to try to eliminate foam debris and to inspect the Shuttle and repair damage that may be found.
Obviously, the biggest effort of the whole mountain of efforts that have gone on has been, number 1, to understand where and how and why foam fell off the external tank on the 107 launch and on some previous launches, too. How did that occur? There's a very complicated physical explanation, and it's not surprising that we didn't understand it before. The understanding is much greater than it was before. There's probably more understanding to go, but this is the world of physics and there's always more to learn. Anyway, the redesign of the external tank and the way the foam was applied has gone through many iterations. The folks involved with it have done just a fantastic job putting that foam on this tank. We've gone down and looked at that tank many times, talked to the people from the managers all the way down to the guys with the spray guns, and the women with the spray guns, and I personally feel confident that they have done the best job that humans can do to get this tank ready to go. There will be little bits of foam come off but there will not be large bits of foam that come off. So I think we can feel confident that we have a redesigned tank that's going to do the job we really need it to do.
And then, beyond that, the efforts that have been made in terms of inspection and possible repair.
We're going to do things on orbit that nobody has ever done before, take a look at our spacecraft before we fly it back down to the atmosphere. That's a lot more complicated than it would sound. You'd think while we were there; you can just inspect it. But we're on the inside and it's all on the outside, and to get down to the belly of the Shuttle is very difficult. You don't really want to do that on a spacewalk. It would take a long time, it's hard to get there, and you potentially could damage the Shuttle itself on a spacewalk, so you really don't want to do that. We'd rather do that by remote inspection; what we call remote sensing. We're going to do that while we're on orbit in a couple of different ways. The main one is an extension of the Shuttle's robot arm which has a camera and two laser sensors. We can get 3-D information on the surface of the Shuttle, on the leading edge, the nose cap, and on the belly. You take a look at the Reinforced Carbon-Carbon and the tiles and see what kind of shape the ship is in before we bring it home. There are also lots of additional cameras for the launch phase and we're going to do an unusual maneuver once we get up to the Space Station. We're actually going to flip the whole Shuttle over, right in view of the Space Station, 600 feet away while our pals in the Station are taking pictures out the window with very long telephoto lenses. So that's another way to inspect the Shuttle before we come home.
You've made reference to the fact that there are in fact thousands of people across the country who've been working for more than two years to make a safe Return to Flight in the Shuttle possible. What are your thoughts about the contributions and the efforts that are made by those people?
All the thousands of people who have been really putting heart, soul, extra hours and lots of hard thinking and effort into bringing the Shuttle back to flight -- they are the Return to Flight effort. They are making it happen. We are the lucky folks who get to climb inside the vehicle, but they are the Return to Flight effort. We couldn't think any more highly of them.
What's it meant to you when you've gotten the opportunity to go to the various NASA centers and visit with the members of that team?
It's been really meaningful. It's been educational on the technical side, and it gives me a lot of confidence. It's almost kind of emotional to go down and see the people who are working on our Space Shuttle. I ask about what their background is and what do they think about what they're doing, what their concerns are and how their morale's doing. Sometimes both of us end up almost with a little bit of tears in our eyes, because we're talking about something that is so emotionally strong to us. I go away from an experience like that feeling like there's an awful lot of people putting their very best foot forward into getting this flight going, and I feel great about going on it.
Image to right: Robinson practices emergency bailout procedures. Credit: NASA
Let me ask you about how you feel about your part in it, in the sense that repair procedures that have come about as the result of investigations and the, and the Board recommendations are still being fine-tuned, they're still being developed. But the Shuttle program's confident in returning the Shuttle to flight while the procedures are still being tested and still being certified. You're comfortable with that?
I think we'd all feel a lot more comfortable if we knew how to launch a Shuttle with the least possibility of damage, to inspect it while it was up there, and to repair any damage while we're there. The repair part is, is something that nobody has ever attempted at all. It's an experimental process that new knowledge about materials science, about engineering applications of this science, and about the operational applications of that engineering. All these things need to be done in a cycle, that's normally how it's done. And so we need to go as far as we can, go up and test what we found, come back and adjust based on the results of the test and continue that cycle. In the meantime, if we do have damage on the Shuttle -- we don't expect that, but we're going to know it if we do -- we do have the backup of staying on the Space Station until another Shuttle can come and get us.
Beyond physical causes of what happened to Columbia, the CAIB cited organizational and human factors within NASA that also bear responsibility -- the management system and the safety culture within the Agency. Do you see change for the better in those two things in the past two years?
It was really great for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board to bring up the culture of a group which consists of a bunch of human beings, all who have hopes and dreams and, and emotions. They're not just, not just mechanical machines. It's very appropriate, when we try to respond to mistakes we've made in the past, to realize that we're human beings and we're a culture, we're a collection of human organisms and we think together. The real question is, how should we change our culture, and what should we change our culture to. That's a very difficult question, something that requires a lot of introspection and sort of, I'd say a cyclic process. Now we have learned to be introspective; we're trying to look at our own culture much more than we ever did before. This is where the health really lies. This is where you get better. It's not that you bring your culture to some new state and then stop looking at it. The point is to look at it, and to understand that it's important. And we're doing a lot of that now. And I think it's really doing us a lot of good. We're not done changing -- we've got a lot more change to go, and I think that we should always be in that process.
STS-114 is called Logistics Flight-1. Steve, what are the goals of this flight, and what are your primary jobs?
Well STS-114 is a service call to the Space Station, which hasn't had one for a long time. It's about due. So we are going to take new materials up there, we are going to fix some broken things, and we're going to test some of the things that we need to test. We need to learn to inspect and repair our own Space Shuttle. My job on this mission is really two separate things. On launch and on entry, I'm flight engineer, which means Eileen [Collins], as the commander and Jim Kelly, as the pilot will be sitting in their seats, and I sit in a seat sort of a little behind and in between them, and I'm responsible for understanding all the systems of the Space Shuttle and helping the right information flow to the right person in the cockpit. In particular, that becomes important when there's any malfunctions. In flight, there aren't too many malfunctions but in training there are lots of them. We train to be ready for anything, basically. So I'm part of the cockpit crew. While we're up there, my job is to be a spacewalker. Soichi Noguchi and I will do three different spacewalks on the fifth, the seventh, and the ninth days of the mission.
And I want to talk about those in a second, but I want to talk about something that happens earlier in sequence. You made reference to the fact that you are doing new things in terms of inspecting the vehicle and also, within the first few hours of the mission inspecting the tank, or confirming aspects of the redesign of that external tank. Tell me what it is that your crewmates and you will be doing, and how you get the information that you gather back down to the ground.
Well, during the launch there are a number of cameras both on the ground and on board. There's also a big radar system on, on the ground, there's also wing leading edge sensors of accelerometers and temperatures. All this data needs to get back, back down to the ground. So shortly after we get into orbit, we will download the data -- it's all in digital form -- from whatever sensor it is, whether it be a camera, an accelerometer, a data buffer, whatever, bring it onto a laptop on board and then put it onto the data link system that will send the data back down to the ground. We have nine laptops on board, and we'll try to get about four of them up within just about an hour of launch, to help with that process.
And, this is a part of the process that's new for this flight. Pictures have been taken before, but there are more pictures, and other data, coming down sooner.
Image to right: Robinson uses a virtual reality system to practice a spacewalk. Credit: NASA
That's right. We have digital pictures that will be taken from the, from the external tank umbilical well, down in the belly in the Shuttle, that will look at the external tank as it separates from us. Also, as we separate from the tank, we're going to flip the Shuttle over so that we can see it, and Soichi Noguchi and Andy Thomas will float right up into the windows -- this is just after we get into orbit -- as Eileen pilots the Shuttle near the external tank, and they will photograph that tank. The idea is to see if there's any damage to the tank. Should any of the insulation have come off, we should know about it by looking at it in that way.
A part of your training in the past two years has focused on techniques for spacewalkers for repairing damage that may be done to the Shuttle by foam from the tank. How involved have you and your crewmates been in the development of the techniques and the materials that has been going on during this time?
Well, the whole crew has been pretty involved in the invention process of repairing the Shuttle on orbit. All kinds of ideas have come and gone, and sort of the best of each idea is retained to try to put together into a final picture for what to do. We've looked at inflatable extension booms for the, for the robot arm. We've looked at patches and plugs and crack repair and tile repair (sort of a, a caulking material for tile repair) and all of the engineering aspects that go along with applying those during a spacewalk. So we've been heavily involved underwater, in the zero-gravity aircraft, the KC-135, and also lots and lots of meetings. When it comes to our flight we'll try to take the most promising of all those techniques and get started testing them in space. Again, we won't finish it on our flight, but this is a test flight, and this is one of the things we'll test.
And understanding that the final plan for what you're going to do is still in development, the idea, as I understand it, is that you and Soichi are going to go out and try to give a, a practical test for how one could actually repair, whether it be a thermal tile or Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panels.
One of the things we can do is carry up some of these materials in the payload bay of the Shuttle. And Soichi and I can go out there during our spacewalks in our spacesuits and practice repairing thermal protection materials there in the payload bay, without actually doing it on the operational part of the thermal protection covering of the Shuttle itself. Then we can bring home those test articles, test them in wind tunnels and arcjets facilities, and see how they do. Then we can go on to the cycle and see how best to proceed from there.
There are other spacewalks for other goals that are planned for this mission as well. One is the replacement of a Control Moment Gyroscope that's located in the Station's Z1 module. What does CMG do, and why do we need a new one?
The Control Moment Gyro is a great, big gyroscope, and we all know what gyroscopes do. They, they have a spinning wheel, a massive spinning wheel, around an axis, that resists any, any turning. Well what we would like to do with the Space Station is keep its attitude constant; its attitude is sort of what angle it's at relative to the Earth. And the best way to do that is with the great big gyroscopes on board. There are four of these big Control Moment Gyros -- they weigh on Earth, about 600 pounds each so they're pretty large -- and one of them has failed. A bearing has failed, we think, and it's ground to a halt. This happened a couple of years ago, and we're going to replace it.
Describe the choreography of what's involved in swapping out two 600-pound gyroscopes.
When you describe something like this it sounds very easy. It turns out it's a little more delicate and difficult work than that, but conceptually is very simple. We bring up a new one in the payload bay of the Shuttle. Soichi and I come out of the airlock, we go up to the broken one, unbolt it. Soichi is on the robot arm at this point, on the Space Station robot arm being operated by Jim Kelly and Wendy Lawrence, and I will help unbolt it and we'll get the big shroud out of the way, and, and pull the broken gyro out of the Space Station. Soichi will just hang onto it with his hands, and in space you can actually move around this 600-pound mass, very carefully with your hands Of course he'll be tethered to it, will climb down to the payload bay and Soichi will be moved down to the payload bay on the robot arm, and we will temporarily stow the gyro in the payload bay, pick up the new one, reverse the whole process, and put the new one back in to the, to the Station.
There is another spacewalk that is being planned for the, centered around the installation of something called an External Stowage Platform. What's that hardware for?
The External Stowage Platform -- now that's the kind of thing I really wish I had on my house -- is kind of a combination of a back porch and a garage, both at once. It's a flat platform that sticks out from the airlock on the Space Station, and of course being in space you can use both sides of it, not just one side -- now that would really be handy at home. But it's a place to keep spare parts, and it's got power. Any electrical instrument up there is going to need to be protected from the cold, so it needs heaters, so it needs power. This will be kind of a grid type of platform. The way we put it on is we have a, kind of a big adapter plate that I put on while I'm attached to the arm. I just hold it, attach it to the Space Station, bolt it on by hand, and that gives the external platform stowage platform a nice home to berth on. That's done with the robot arm while Soichi and I kind of watch and guide things. And then we cable it up ourselves. We each have a big, long cable that we route from one part of the Space Station onto the stowage platform. And then it should be ready for operation.
Image to left: Robinson waves as he is submerged into the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory pool at the Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA
After that, what else is planned for the two of you on that spacewalk?
Well, this will be our last spacewalk so anything that the Space Station needs at that point, we will try to do. Now, that could, that could involve anything from fairly simple stuff like bringing in expired tools and tethers and things that have been outside in the UV and cold of space for too long, to a little more complicated things, like swapping out Department of Defense material science experiments called MISSE. It is about a suitcase-size box that gets opened up. There are a couple of them up there right now which have been exposing advanced materials to the environment of space to just see how they do. We're bringing a new one up, which will be put out for the same type of idea. There's also a GPS antenna that needs to be replaced on the Space Station. There are many things that we could end up doing and we'll do whatever is the highest priority that we have time to do.
The day after your last spacewalk you're scheduled to close up the cargo container, the MPLM. The day after that you undock and, and begin to head home. But the last big event on this flight, the landing, is probably going to get more attention than, well, maybe any landing since the very first Shuttle landing. What are your thoughts about that part of this flight?
Oh, I think it's going to be a real triumph for the whole space program to have Discovery come down and land at Kennedy Space Center. That's going to be a, a very triumphant day, after, first of all, the shock and pain and anguish, and then all the concentrated effort to come back from that. I remember STS-1 pretty well. I was working at NASA Ames, and I remember the tension in the auditorium as we watched, waiting for the Shuttle to come out of its communications blackout. The people who had designed the heat-resistant tiles on the belly were in the audience with us. The tension was tremendous, and the celebration when, when Columbia landed was just something I'll never forget. I think it'll be something like that. I'm very much looking forward to it. I studied hypersonic aerodynamics for a fair amount of my career, and it's an interesting thing to undergo yourself. I'm really looking forward to it.
I've heard it said that STS-114 is opening a new chapter in space exploration that is going to change the Vision for Space Exploration into a reality. Do you agree?
It certainly is a new NASA; it's a changed NASA. The NASA that we had before STS-107 and the NASA that we'll have after STS-114 are very different. It's a much better NASA now, I think a NASA that is probably enthusiastic and ready to move out of low Earth orbit and get on with the human imperative of, of exploring our environment. That means going farther out in space, getting out farther away from the Earth. Every step that we've ever taken in the space program has been a step closer to that destiny. STS-114 will be a fairly obvious step, but it'll just be one more step.
Well, building a Space Station that's just a few hundred miles up isn't the ultimate goal of the space program anyway. From the perspective of somebody who's getting ready to leave the planet to go visit it, tell me how you see the International Space Station helping achieve the Vision and prepare us to take the next steps in exploration.
The Space Station, I think, is a, is a really essential part of this step-by-step process of, of moving out, getting beyond the Earth, not just exploring, but living somewhere else. We had to learn to live in space, and this is something that the International Space Station has allowed us to do. We had to learn to see what happens to the human body when you live in space for a long time. The International Space Station has slowly been helping us learn that, and as we get back into finishing the Space Station and bringing it back up to its scientific capability as a laboratory, then we'll learn lots more about how humans survive in space. These are all things we need to know if we're going to go off, way out of Earth orbit, without the option of coming home in an hour and a half, and live successfully and healthily.
Is STS-114 critical to the future of ISS?
Every single spaceflight is critical to the future of ISS and to the exploration Vision that we have. We haven't flown the Shuttle, the U.S. space program has been on the ground for a long time, although we've certainly had astronauts on the International Space Station the entire time that the Shuttle's been on the ground. But yeah, it's really critical to get flying again, and 114 will just be the beginning.
+ Read Robinson's 2004 interview.