Talking with Mark Kelly, the pilot for STS-121. Mark, how did you make the decision that you wanted to be an astronaut?
Image to right: STS-121 Pilot Mark Kelly. Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Mark Kelly
I think I was very interested in the space program as a kid, watching the first Apollo missions to the moon, and it's something I thought that would be a lot of, of fun and exciting and a very worthwhile job -- something where you're helping a lot of people and discovering new things. I didn't think it was really a realistic ambition, though, until later when I was in the Navy and became a Navy test pilot. I saw that if I worked hard that it was a real possibility.
Talk me through with some of those details. What did you do in terms of your education and your career that actually made you qualified for this job?
Well, I have an undergraduate degree, a couple of bachelor's degrees, from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Later, after flying in the Navy for four or five years, spending some time on an aircraft carrier, I applied to and was accepted in a program where I went to graduate school first and then to the Naval Test Pilots School. So I had a master's degree in aeronautical engineering and was a test pilot in the Navy, and that's pretty close to a requirement to be a pilot-astronaut.
Was there any one person who served as an inspiration for you as you moved through your career?
I recall, when I was very young, watching some footage of Alan Shepard landing on an aircraft carrier. It was kind of like the b-roll for the Apollo 14 mission. I remember that and I remember thinking, "Well, that looks like a great combination. You go fly airplanes in the Navy off of a ship first, and then later you become an astronaut." So, it was kind of what I wanted to do. I never thought it would actually happen, but that was my goal.
Tell us a little bit about your interests and hobbies. What do you like to do when you're not working?
Well, right now we're so busy that I kind of had to put all the hobbies on hold. But I like going camping with my kids. I have two daughters; they're 7 and 10 years old. I play golf and I like to go to the gym when I get a chance. And that's pretty much it.
Well, we know you've been busy and had to sacrifice a lot of things that are important in your life. What provides the motivation to make that sacrifice?
A trip to space is a big motivator to give up some things in your personal life. Obviously, you can't give up everything and you don't want to. But it can change your priorities a little bit. And it's a big, very exciting adventure to get to make a trip into orbit. You look at it as a privilege. So you really decide that you're going to put the time in and work really hard to get to the point where you're ready.
Especially since the loss of Columbia and its astronauts, we know that you astronauts understand the risk of spaceflight, but you're still willing to do the job. Why is this job worth that risk?
After the loss of Columbia a couple of years ago, I think we were reminded of the risk. All of us, though, have always known that the Space Shuttle is a very risky vehicle, much more risky than even flying airplanes in combat. It's something we understand and we accept. Personally the way I can accept that risk is, I look at the benefit. Having the benefit to our society, not only here in the United States but throughout the world with the amount of invention you get from having a space program, is well worth the risk that an individual like myself has to take by flying in the vehicle.
Now, it's one thing for you to accept those risks. How does your family deal with those risks?
My family deals with those risks. The best I can do is talk to them about some of those risks. I'm not incredibly specific with them, especially with my kids. I want them not to be afraid that there's going to be another accident. They were very close to one of the Columbia crewmembers and knew, probably, four out of the seven of them fairly well. So I want the experience of me going up into space to be a positive one for them. But, they understand that their, their dad has a risky job. But I've told them that the problems we had with Columbia that caused the accident have been corrected, and that makes them feel a lot better about it.
Image to right: STS-121 Pilot Mark Kelly. Credit: NASA
How do the folks in West Orange, what do they think about you and your career as an astronaut?
I grew up in West Orange, N.J., and I have a lot of supporters there. I visit the town usually a couple of times a year. They have a big St. Patrick's Day parade. I like to go back for that. There's a lot of interest there in the missions that I fly on and the ones my brother's involved with.
As you tour around NASA, have you seen a change in how folks approach their work on human space flight?
I imagine you mean since, since the Columbia accident, has there been a change in how people approach their job. I personally believe this Agency has always been very dedicated and has always worked as hard as it possibly can to do things as safely and as effectively as possible. There's been a lot of discussion about NASA culture and changing that. I think our culture has always been one of trying to do a very difficult job and do it well. The goal was to be successful. Now, in hindsight, it appears that there may have been some mistakes made in decision-making and in the way individuals are perceived in their jobs. Now, having said that, I think after an accident kind of get refocused and you try to correct some areas that you thought you might not have been doing so well. I think we've done that. But it's not something you really notice, 'cause I've always thought the people here have always done their best, and they continue to do their best. They just might do it a little bit differently.
As you tour around and, and talk to these folks here these last couple of years, what do you say to them when you get the chance?
There are a lot of people out there, not just the astronauts, that are working a lot of hours. We personally, we have one of our EVA flight controllers, a guy named Tomas Gonzalez -- it seems that he's working about 18 to 20 hours a day right now getting our mission ready, getting our spacewalks in a good enough shape and training us to do that mission. He's working a lot harder than I am. I tell these people that we really appreciate what they're doing for us. There are a lot of dedicated people out there that don't get the recognition that we get, but they're as important as the people that are sitting in the vehicle.
Your mission is the second of two Return to Flight missions for the Shuttle. What does being a Return to Flight mission - a test flight - mean?
The first two missions have some test objectives, some new capabilities that we're going to try to develop on orbit to possibly be used on later flights. Stuff like tile repair and RCC repair is kind of in its infancy right now; and, hopefully in these next two missions, we'll have a capability. We don't really have it right now, but hopefully we'll have a capability to be used on later flights. That's one thing that makes these first two missions Return to Flight missions. Obviously, the first one, you know, it's going back to flying after two years, but I think our flight was kind of put in there with the first one because of testing the boom that's going to be used to image the front part of the vehicle, the front part of both wings and the nose cap in the cabin area. So I think the combination of the boom and testing some tile and RCC repair kind of makes our mission a Return to Flight mission as well.
Compare how your mission's going to be different from those that follow. Will they be doing the same level of detailed inspections on those missions as they're doing on yours?
Well, I don't know. We're doing a lot of inspection on the leading edge of our wing on 114 and 121, the first two flights. And when we get underneath the Space Station, at about 600 feet, we'll do a 360-degree maneuver so the Space Station crew can take pictures of the bottom of the orbiter. I think we'll continue to do that on later missions. It's going to depend a lot on what we learn on these first two flights.
Let's move on to more specifics about your flight. Your Shuttle mission is designated Utilization and Logistics Flight-1.1. What does that mean?
The ULF-1.1. Well, the ".1" part is that the flight was kind of added in later. "Utilization" means that we're going to have some kind of payloads that'll be either used on the orbiter or some science on the orbiter. We have a little bit of that. "Logistics" means we're bringing stuff up to the Space Station and some stuff home. We carry a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module in our payload bay that has about 5,000 pounds of cargo that we'll transfer over to Space Station. And then, we'll bring a lot of stuff back. We'll fill up that container, put it back in the payload bay, bring it home, land it at the Kennedy Space Center, and then it'll be unloaded later.
Image to left: STS-121 Pilot Mark Kelly participates in emergency training. Credit: NASA
Tell me more about your specific duties on this mission. What do you do as the pilot, and what are your other duties?
As the pilot of STS-121, I'm more or less the copilot. The Commander is in charge of the vehicle. I'm kind of like the executive officer. As far as systems are concerned, I'm responsible for the main engines, the electrical system, the hydraulic system, the APUs, the jets that control the vehicle on orbit, and these other engines called orbital maneuvering engines that control our orbit and actually help us get into a good orbit and are also used for the deorbit burn and for rendezvous. But when we're in space. Those things I'm responsible for the entire mission; but the on-orbit portion of the mission, I'm also the IVA crewmember -- the person on the inside of the vehicle who is basically guiding the two spacewalkers during the three EVAs. I'll be helping them getting suited up, getting them in the airlock, getting the airlock prepared, and getting them out the hatch, and then talking them through these three spacewalks.
What kind of things are you going to bring back with you from the Station? And, why is it important that you guys need to bring things back with you anyway?
It's important to bring things back from the Space Station because, unlike somebody living at the house where the garbage truck comes by twice a week, they don't have that in space. So we've got to bring it home on the Space Shuttle, or load stuff we don't want in a Progress. The problem with a Progress is, anything you load in it to bring it home, you don't actually get it back because it's going to burn up in the atmosphere. So if you want something back, like an experiment you did in space, specimens from an experiment, you're going to have to put them in the Space Shuttle. Some of those things will go into the MPLM. Again, I'm not sure of the details of what we're carrying home.
What kind of joint operations will you be doing with the ISS crew while you're there?
The ISS crew is going to help us during our EVAs and help us during some of our robotics operations. These guys will be on orbit already. They'll be pretty familiar with the airlock and the SSRMS. For our first EVA, John Phillips will be in the airlock with Piers Sellers and Mike Fossum and myself and Stephanie Wilson; there's going to be five of us in there. Three of us will help the other two get suited up, get them in the hatch, and get them out the door.
Let's talk some more about those spacewalks. The first one is a demonstration for a worksite stabilization. What does that mean? Why do you need to do that?
Well, our first spacewalk, you know, we talk about it's a worksite stabilization. I guess a better way to describe it is: We're testing the boom for repair of tile on orbit, or, actually, for any kind of repair. We're going to put first one, then two crewmembers onto the end of the boom, put them in different positions, and let them do different kind of maneuvers with their bodies and repair-like maneuvers while they're hanging out on the end of this over 100-foot-long boom. And, we'll see how the boom reacts to that. We have a load cell on it so the engineers can then look and see structurally how it was doing. We're also going to look at it with some cameras to get a kind of qualitative feel for how the boom is reacting to having two crewmembers on it. After we get back on the ground, somebody will ultimately decide if this system works well enough to do a repair on the underside of the vehicle.
The second spacewalk will be contributing to the construction of the Station. What equipment is being installed out there, and what's the significance of those components?
Yeah, on our second EVA, we're going to install a spare part called the pump module. We're going to install it on a platform that's on the outside of the U.S. airlock on the Space Station. We'll also install a, kind of a cargo carrier box, called the SHOSS-ED, on that same pallet, on the opposite of it. So we have those two modules to install. We're going to move a fixed grapple bar and we're going to do what's called a CIPA DTO. The CIPA is, I guess, what most people might call a goo gun. It squirts the, the pink goo that's going to be used for tile repair. It's another test objective. We'll set out a bag with some tile samples in it. Mike will help Piers put the CIPA on his back, on his back, essentially on the backpack of the EMU, the spacesuit, and then they'll have a, a gun and they'll squirt this goo in the tile and kind of work it into the correct position. These tile samples will be brought back, put in an arc jet, and we'll see how they perform.
A third spacewalk is going to demonstrate more inspection and repair techniques, especially concerning the reinforced carbon-carbon, the leading edge of the Shuttle. What sort of work is being done on that spacewalk?
Our third spacewalk takes a lot of, there's a lot of set-up time associated with it. We have to bring some things to the aft part of the payload bay of the Shuttle. We're going out the U.S. airlock, so it's a pretty long trip. We're going to have a sample box with some reinforced carbon-carbon samples and the material to repair them -- to repair cracks and plug holes. We'll be pulling this stuff called NOAX out -- it'll be in a gun as well. We'll be kind of squirting it on a crack or on a palette, and working the material to get it to the right consistency. That depends a lot on what the temperature is. Then we'll try to repair a crack, just like somebody might have to repair a crack in their tile in their bathroom. The difference here, though, is: you're in a vacuum. There's no gravity. Temperature might change between minus 200 and 200 degrees in a matter of minutes. You got a lot of sunlight or darkness. It's been difficult for the scientists and, and engineers to come up a, with a material that works well. We think we have one, and our job is going to be to see whether we can actually repair cracks on orbit and, like the tile samples that we did on the previous EVA, these will be taken home and will be tested in an arc jet to see, see if our repair capability works.
A lot more work on testing tile and RCC repair is happening on your mission than what happened on STS-114. What are you hoping to learn from all this work to help future work outside the Space Station and just learning how to safely run the orbiter?
By doing these tile and RCC repair test objectives, we're trying to come up with a capability that could work. In the future, if we do have another foam debris or some other kind of debris comes off the orbiter -- there are other things that could happen as well; you could have a bird strike; you know, some debris from the pad on liftoff -- but if you do damage the tile or RCC, we would like to have a way to, to repair it on orbit and, and bring the Shuttle home. The Shuttle's a very valuable asset to us, and we don't want to lose it. So we need to come up with a capability to do that. Hopefully, we will prove in space a couple of techniques that we've developed here in the laboratory, and they could be available -- hopefully, we'd never have to use them -- but they would be available to be used in the event of another, another mishap.
Understandably so, a lot of attention is focused on STS-114 and their Return to Flight. Are you confident the right amount of attention has been focused on your mission and getting you guys safely to and from orbit?
Well, naturally 114 is going to have a lot of focus on it. We haven't flown in two years, so they're getting a lot of attention right now. That crew's the prime crew. Today we had an ascent sim, a simulator for two hours, and we weren't able to use the motion-base simulator like we normally would because the 114 crew was in there. When they get back, the attention will be mostly on us. That's kind of the way it works in this business. I think our crew is confident that our vehicle, Atlantis, and our procedures and the operations are all getting the appropriate amount of attention right now. But, rightfully, the focus is on 114 until, until they safely get home.
Since the loss of Columbia, there's obviously renewed focus on the entry and landing of the Shuttles. What are you going to be thinking about as you prepare to return to Earth?
Well, when I'm in orbit and preparing to return to Earth in light of what happened on Columbia, I don't think I'll be thinking anything different than I did my first mission. I have a job to do. Entry day is very busy. You have to take your spaceship and kind of get it in a configuration to be an airplane again. It takes a lot of work, and you're really kind of scrambling up to the last minute, up to the deorbit burn. And then, you have a lot of procedures that you need to go through until you climb out of the vehicle. I don't think I'll really be thinking about what happened with Columbia. That was an accident that even if they knew it was coming, there was nothing they could do about it.
What do you think the significance is of your flight in fulfilling the Vision for Space, Space Exploration? How does this make that happen?
Our connection to fulfilling the President's Vision for Space Exploration I think has to do with getting the Space Station back to a better, better condition for, getting three crewmembers on board the Station, getting it completed, and continuing to learn how people can live in space for long periods of time. That's what we're going to have to do when we one day go back to the moon and go on to Mars. Even now, with just two people on the Space Station, we are learning a lot; and it's very valuable. But having the orbiters available to take people and logistics and things home from the Space Station will kind of move us more down the road in the right direction, to be prepared one day to make these longer journeys, hopefully to Mars.