Speaking with Steve Lindsey, the Commander of STS-121. Steve, how did you make the decision that you wanted to be an astronaut?
Image to right: STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey. Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Steve Lindsey
Well, I don't think I was typical. I didn't grow up always wanting to be an astronaut. I remember watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon; I think I was 8 years old at the time. And, gosh, when that happened, I wanted to be an astronaut.
But then so did every other kid my age at that time. Later on, I always wanted to fly airplanes, and I wanted to get an engineering degree. That kind of led to my decision to go to the Air Force Academy and go into the Air Force and fly and get a degree. And I just kept doing things in my career that, that I wanted to do, and I was fortunate to get selected to do all these things. After I'd been in the Air Force about 10 years or so, I found myself qualified for this program. So, at that point, because it was an opportunity to combine flying and engineering, the two things I like to do the most, I decided to apply and just give it a shot. The worst everybody could say would be "No." They didn't, and here I am.
Give me a little more detail on your education and your career path that got you qualified to be an astronaut.
As I mentioned, I always wanted to be an engineer, to go to engineering school. And, I wanted to fly airplanes. I found out, when I was in high school, about a place called the Air Force Academy, which would basically allow you to do both. So, I applied and was fortunate enough to get accepted. I went to the Air Force Academy, got a degree in engineering from that school, and then went to pilot training. After pilot training, I got to fly fighters in the Air Force for several years. After flying for a while, I was looking for a job where I could combine the education I had gotten with flying. The fit seemed maybe to become an experimental test pilot. So, I applied to Test Pilot School and was fortunate enough to get accepted to that. Along the way, the Air Force sent me to graduate school, to get a graduate degree in engineering. Then I became a test pilot after going through Test Pilot School and did that for several years. Again I found myself qualified for this program, decided to apply, and was fortunate enough to get accepted again. That's how I got where I am today.
Was there any one person along the way that was particularly influential in pushing you toward being an astronaut?
In terms of somebody specifically pushed me toward being an astronaut, probably not. I certainly watched the early Mercury astronauts and the Apollo astronauts, and they were role models to me, as they were to many other people. Probably the people most influential in everything I've done, they were my parents, not necessarily pushing me to become an astronaut, but pushing me to do the very best I could and go after whatever it is I wanted to -- go after it and work hard for it.
What sort of interests and hobbies do you have when you're not busy working, not being an astronaut?
Well, these days, it seems all I do is train as an astronaut, because we're getting so close to flight. But when I'm not training, I do a lot of things: I have three children, and, obviously we have a, a gazillion activities associated with them that I'm involved in. That probably takes the majority of our family's time; rightfully so. We're actively involved in our church. I teach college Sunday school. I enjoy that. In terms of hobbies, I like to water ski; I do a lot of water skiing in the summer. I do a lot of motorcycle riding in the winter, dirt biking, and things like that. Mountain biking, camping, just about every sport. I'm not necessarily good at any of them, but I sure like doing all of them.
You mentioned how much time that takes, especially when you're training for a specific flight.
Why are you willing to sacrifice so much of that that's important in your personal life for your job?
Well, it's an interesting question. I guess I don't think of the time I put in as an astronaut training for a flight as a sacrifice. You know, all of NASA is going after a goal eventually of space exploration. Doing Shuttle missions is a big part of that, and certainly Return to Flight is the first step back to doing that. So in all my flights I consider that the goal that we're all going for as a group more important than myself, and I think it's important in any job to have that view of what you're doing. I look at the amount of time I'm putting in and my crew's putting in to do this; but then I see all the other folks at NASA that we're working with and folks at other centers are doing the same -- putting the same hours if not more than we are. I think everybody is motivated as I am. We believe in the goal of what we're doing and we believe it's worth the sacrifice to do it.
Especially since the loss of Columbia and its crew, we know that you astronauts understand the risk of space flight but you're still willing to do it. Why are you willing to take that risk?
The reason we're willing to take the risk is because the goal, exploration, is something we think is an inherent part of us. It's an important thing to do. What we learn from space flight far, far exceeds the risks, in my opinion, so it's worth doing. That's why we're willing to take those kind of risks. That's why I'm willing to take those kind of risks, because I believe in the cause. If I didn't believe in the cause, I wouldn't be taking the risks.
How does your family deal with those risks that you take?
I've talked with my family a lot, especially since Columbia, and we've always been aware of the risks as astronauts. I talked to my family about it, especially after Columbia, extensively. I said: "You know, certainly there's a lot of risk in space flight, but I can tell you that we're doing everything we possibly can to minimize those risks. You can't take those risks to zero. It's still going to be a high-risk operation. But we do everything we can to minimize risk." And, what I did promise my family is that, "If I thought at any step along the way we aren't minimizing those risks, then I wouldn't fly," but obviously I believe we are, since I'm here training to fly. And watching the aftermath of Columbia and, and all the things we've done since then, I believe we are doing our very best to, to minimize as much as we can all the risks associated with space flight.
Image to right: STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey. Credit: NASA
What do the folks back in Temple City think about you and your career as an astronaut?
I don't know. They occasionally have me back for different celebrations and things like that. So, I suppose they're excited about all that. I guess I still think of myself as just, somebody that grew up there and no different than anybody else. Hopefully they think the same thing.
As an astronaut, you get to travel around a lot and meet lots of folks, including lots of folks working at various centers at NASA.
Have you seen a change in the last couple of years in the way folks approach their work on human space flight?
Going especially to the, the human space flight centers, Kennedy Space Center, Marshall, and, obviously, here at Johnson Space Center, we're most familiar with, everybody, what I've noticed since, since the accident, since the CAIB Report came out, is a lot more emphasis on things that we might have taken for granted before. There's a lot of questioning going on over those things. So, I see a workforce, an attitude in the workforce that everybody is certainly more willing at this point to ask questions, hard questions, not being afraid to do that, and not hesitating in doing that, which is a good thing. But if you take it to extreme, you end up never getting anything done. It's kind of a balance we have to go through. The cultural changes are an ongoing process. It's very difficult to change a culture. But, we're taking steps in that way. So the answer to your question is, yeah, I have seen a change, certainly within our office as well as within the, the rest of the NASA centers that I've observed since Columbia. The other thing I've noticed is that people have been working very, very hard. You might think that if we stand down for a couple of years that people are not working that hard. What I found is in the last few years it seems that people have been working even harder than they did before. We've had to do so many changes and re-looks at things that we assumed were OK before. In all of that has been a tremendous amount of work. I've observed a lot of people working a lot of extra hours in the last few years, trying to get us ready for Return to Flight.
What do you say to those folks that are working so hard for your mission?
Well, I really appreciate those folks that are working for our mission. Every chance I get, I like to thank them. Unfortunately, I can't get everywhere to thank them all at once. One of the fortunate things we get to do usually after each flight is we get to go to those places and thank those people personally. The one thing I know I can do is that at least, after the flight, I can go to those places, talk to those folks, and personally recognize them for what they do. We really, really appreciate what they do. Typically, all you see on a mission is the crew on orbit through various press conferences and things. But, we represent thousands and thousands and thousands of people that worked very, very hard to get us where we are, and we certainly couldn't come anywhere close to doing what we do without all of those folks there, folks who are really the backbone of the whole flight.
Your mission is the second Return to Flight mission. What does that mean, being a Return to Flight mission, is it basically a test flight?
We're the second Return to Flight mission or, and the second test mission. We were specifically added as a test mission when we looked at all the objectives and things that needed to be accomplished as part of Return to Flight testing for STS-114 and realized that there was no way we could fit all of those on one flight. So the goal, by the end of our flight, is to be ready to go back into Space Station assembly and pick up the manifest where we left off prior to Columbia. As a test mission, our primary objectives are going to be to carry out all those test objectives that weren't accomplished on STS-114, to take the lessons learned from STS-114 in terms of Return to Flight tests, and apply them to our flight. Hopefully, at the end of our mission, we'll have everything done that needs to be done prior to going back into Space Station assembly on the flight after ours. So we're really important. We're kind of playing clean-up, to pick up everything that 114 doesn't get done -- a whole bunch of different objectives from 114 that they couldn't fit on their mission. Hopefully we'll situate the program to go on to Space Station assembly.
You touched on this just now, but it's, so the plan is for the flights that follow yours to be significantly different? Will they not be doing the sort of detailed inspections that your crew will be doing?
In terms of inspection of the orbiter, we're doing 100 percent inspection, just like 114 is doing. But we're carrying a number of additional systems on board that we're testing out. When we're finished with our flight, the, the program will make an assessment of: how well the inspection work went, how well the tank performed. Based on all of those things, they'll make a determination of how much inspection will be needed on follow-on flights. I can't say that they won't be doing any inspection, and I can't say that they will be doing 100 percent inspection. We may have, in some cases, replaced the inspection with detection. In other words, instead of active inspection of a surface, for example, the leading edges, we'd be doing detection, active detection system that would tell us if we have a problem in a specific area. So the goal is to get away from 100 percent inspection. But again, until all the data come in and proves to us that, No. 1, we fixed the tank and that what we think we've done on the ground is in fact how it actually happened, and that we're confident in our inspection as well as our new detection techniques, that will determine what happens on follow-on flights.
Give me an overview of the inspection techniques that are being done on your flight.
Well, for inspection, the first thing is we have a number of additional cameras on the launch pad that are going to be imaging the vehicle during ascent, to take a look at the performance of the tank. Just like on STS-114, we will be a daylight launch to determine how, how good our fixes are and what, what kind of foam shedding we get off the tank. When we get on orbit and jettison the external tank, we have cameras that will be imaging the tank as it goes away to take, get a good look at it. We'll downlink that imagery. On flight day 2, the second day up there, we're going to pull out the inspection boom, much like STS-114 did, and do 100 percent inspection of the nose cap of the vehicle and the leading edges of the wings using our laser sensors. On Flight Day 3, we'll rendezvous with the Space Station and we're going to do the rendezvous pitch maneuver, just like STS-114, where the International Space Station crew will use digital cameras to image all of our tile areas and our tile surfaces. I think that covers about 100 percent of the vehicle. We also have time in our timeline after we're docked, if we need to, to do any repeat inspections. One additional thing we're doing on our flight, one of the test objectives we have, is it's not necessarily an inspection technique but during one of our spacewalks, we're carrying an infrared camera out and we're going to do some test imaging of the leading edges of the wings, using an infrared camera that can detect differences in surfaces based on heat signature. We'll have that data available; we'll send it out to the ground, although that's not part of our planned inspection.
Your Shuttle mission is designated Utilization and Logistics Flight-1.1. What does that mean?
I have no idea. No, I'm kidding. Utilization and Logistics Flight-1.1 is what the Space Station Program calls our flight. The flight previous to ours is Logistics Flight-1. They were originally Utilization and Logistics Flight-1, but they changed it to Logistics Flight-1 because they went away from Space Station resupply, which was their primary objective before, to a logistics flight where they supply stuff to the Station and Return to Flight. So, we were the next, when we were added, we were added as what's called a "dot" flight, and that's how we got the designation.
We know you're the commander of this mission. What does that mean? And, what are your duties overall on, onboard the Space Shuttle on this particular mission?
Well, as the commander of the mission I think of myself as responsible for everything. I'm responsible for the crew assignments; who does what job, integrating all of those jobs, primarily making the crew into a team, responsible for, overseeing all the training, making sure we get all the proper training, make sure we're ready to accomplish all the tasks. In flight, I'm responsible for the overall conduct of the mission and accomplishment of the mission objectives. But my primary responsibility on orbit, of course, is the safety of the crew and the vehicle. I'm also responsible for seeing that we're integrated with the Space Station crew when we're working with them. And I interface with the Program and all the various other elements as we go through all of this. So, I'm pretty much responsible for everything associated with the mission from a crew perspective.
Once you and your crew do arrive at the Space Station, you'll be delivering the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. What's going to be on board that MPLM?
The MPLM, which we'll install on flight day 4, is primarily carrying logistics for the Space Station. We're re-supplying them with some rack experiments, a lot of food, clothing, things like that, hardware replacements -- there's a whole laundry list of things that we're supplying to the Space Station. But, it's logistics; it's about 20,000 pounds of logistics. The other purpose, of course, of the MPLM is to bring things down. And so, we're going to bring back a whole bunch of stuff that they don't need anymore. That includes experiment samples, used articles they're not using anymore, and trash -- you name it. One of the issues with Space Station since we've lost Columbia is we've been putting things on board, but we haven't been able to get very many things off. So, one of the goals will be to help them with their stowage issues and logistics issues by bringing a bunch of things off the Space Station as well.
While you're docked, what sort of joint operations will you be doing with the ISS crew?
With the ISS crew, probably most of our joint operations are going to involve transfer operations, transferring things in and out of the MPLM, in and out of the middeck. Additionally, two of our three spacewalks are going to be using the Space Station robotic arm, and we will have Space Station crews involved with us, helping us with the operation of that arm. They will also be helping us during all three of our spacewalks in the airlock, helping us with the airlock systems and airlock operations. The Space Station crewmembers are the experts on the Station. They are the experts on all the Space Station systems. Obviously, having been up there for several months by the time we get there, they will be more well-adapted to space, which means they're able to work more efficiently. So they're there to help us with all the Space Station aspects of the mission, support all of our activities such as the spacewalks and the robotics and things like that. If we have any Space Station operations that we have to do, they're there to kind of be prime on those as well.
Image to left: STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey. Credit: NASA
Let's talk some about the spacewalks you were referring to there. The first one deals with worksite stabilization. What is that demonstration? Can you kind of step us through what's going to happen during that EVA?
On our first spacewalk, we're going to use the new Shuttle boom on the, on the Shuttle RMS. Basically the whole idea or the question we want to answer is, can you use the boom as a worksite, as a platform to repairing underneath the orbiter? So, the scenario is you, you have a problem, you want to go repair a tile or a, or a leading edge or something like that. Can you put an EVA crewmember or two EVA crewmembers, actually, out on the end of this boom, maneuver them underneath the vehicle, and is the platform stable enough to allow them to do repairs? The issue is you've got a 50-foot arm and a 50-foot boom, so you can stretch out potentially 100 feet. If an EVA crewmember puts a load or pushes at the end of the boom, how much flex do you get in that boom, how much flex do you get in the arm? Do the joints on the arm back drive? How much do they back drive? And, is it stable enough to be able to do work, precise work, where you have to be careful in how you do it? So to do that, what we're going to do is, we're going to put one and then two crewmembers on that boom, go to a couple of positions, and they're going to do some typical EVA-type maneuvers. For example, they'll lean back aggressively while they're standing at the end of the arm to see what kind of drive you get on the joint. So, they might reach back for a tool and just kind of simulate those kinds of motions. And then, one of the test points will go actually to structure, where they're pushing against a truss structure in the payload bay, and see what kind of flex you're doing. So, we're going to get two things out of that. We're going to get loads information; in other words, how much force you're putting into the arm, how much do the joints move? And we're going to get an operational assessment, if you will. The EVA crewmember will simulate doing a repair and say, "Can I do a repair with the arm in this configuration?" So, the goal is to be able to figure out at what points underneath the Orbiter do we need a further way to stabilize the crew, like some, putting something to stabilize them on the bottom of the vehicle itself? Or, can we get away without doing that at all?
During the second spacewalk, your crew will be contributing to the construction of the Space Station. What equipment are you installing? Where is that going? And, why are these components significant?
On the second spacewalk, we're going to be delivering some what are called critical spares to the International Space Station. One of them is a spare pump module to help pump ammonia around the Station, which is what the Space Station uses for cooling of its electronics. We're going to use the Station arm and the EVA crewmembers to deliver that to Station. We're going to put on something called the External Stowage Platform, which is up by the airlock on the Space Station. It's something that 114's going to install on their flight. And so, we're going to place this pump module up there. And, then we're also placing what's called a SHOSS box. Basically it's a storage box, and it has a couple of critical cold plates. Cold plates are what sit on, underneath critical avionics components flow some sort of coolant through them. The purpose of those are to cool the avionics on a specific box. We're going to deliver a couple of cold plates and also put those up on the External Stowage Platform, or ESP. Additionally we're going to carry up some grapple bars. They're essentially targets that the arm uses to grapple various payloads. We're going to put a couple of those up on Space Station as well. Also during that EVA, we're going to be doing some tile repair. We're going to go out and test some material called STA-54 and determine if it's suitable as a material for repairing the tiles on the bottom of the Orbiter.
You touched on some of the activities of the third spacewalk a little bit earlier. But, tell me more about the work that will be done with the reinforced carbon-carbon, the leading edge of the Shuttles. What sort of work is going on during that spacewalk?
Our third spacewalk is devoted entirely to reinforced carbon-carbon repair, repair of the leading edge of the wing. And, on that spacewalk, we're going to go down to our payload bay, and in the very back of our payload bay we have a carrier with what we call a sample box. It's a big box. You open up the lid, and it's got samples of reinforced carbon-carbon, leading edge pieces, with various types of damage. There might be a crack or a through-hole or something like that. We're going to carry out an RCC repair kit, which basically consists of some stuff called NOAX. It's a type of material that you put on a crack and it kind of flows into the crack and seals it. It should withstand entry heating, we hope. And then we're taking a plug-type material, which sounds like just what it is. It's a plug where you have a through-hole on the carbon-carbon and you can install that plug. We're going to test out techniques, and we're going to actually do some repairs in this sample box. Additionally during that spacewalk, we're going to take out something called the EVA IR camera. It's an infrared camera that basically instead of using film, what it uses is it, it detects changes in temperature or heat. It images based on heat. The idea of that is you may be able to image the leading edge of the wing where you don't see any surface damage but, because it can see cracks due to variations in thermal heating, it might be able to detect cracks that you don't normally, couldn't see with the human eye or with a camera. We're going to image the leading edge of the wings, just test how well that works, on the way down there. Also during the repairs, we're going to actually back off of that camera and, and take pictures of the repairs because another thing it might be able to do is tell us, after we've made a repair, how good our repair is. Is our repair good enough to deorbit on?
You're doing a lot more work than the STS-114 crew on tile repair and RCC. Give me an idea of what you're hoping to learn as a result of all these tests.
The tile and the RCC repair has proven to be very, very hard to do. We knew that going into it. So that's probably why we're picking up more of it than 114 has, because it's been a continual challenge to get that to work. Ideally what we'd want to come out of this is enough information, number 1, to determine in each types of repair we have: Is it suitable? Is it unsuitable? You know, is, is it a material that will work or not? We want to be able to test something in its flight configuration. Here on Earth we can test things in a vacuum and we can test things in zero gravity for very short periods of time using our zero-gravity aircraft. But you can't really test both together until you go to space. We want to test those materials specifically to see if the materials themselves are suitable. And then, we want to test the repair techniques and decide if they are operationally suitable. In other words, can you take an average, typical astronaut, put him in a suit, take him out there, and can he do a successful repair that you're willing to deorbit a crew on? In a perfect world what we'd want to come out of there is, hopefully, some viable repair techniques that we can trust and that can work. Now, whether we will get that much out of these the first time we try these things is, is to be determined, but that's why we're going to do it.
Since the loss of Columbia, there's been a renewed focus, obviously, on re-entry and landing. What are you going to be thinking about on the day that you bring the, the Shuttle back home to Earth?
The day I bring the Shuttle back and the crew brings the Shuttle back, we won't be thinking anything different than we did on any other entry I've ever been on. We have a whole bunch of work to do. Just like in ascent and any other phase of flight, the best way that I can keep us safe is to do our job the best way we know how. So, our focus will be totally on doing the job exactly as we're supposed to do it, trapping our errors and mistakes and make sure we minimize those, doing all the things necessary to be prepared to come in and land, being well rested, and accomplishing all those things for the landing. During the entry as well as during the ascent, our focus is on doing the job and not possible outcomes of that job. Like I said, the best thing we can do is to be as prepared as possible and do the best job we know how.
What's the role of your mission in contributing to the nation's Vision for Space Exploration?
The first step in the Vision, stated by the President and by NASA itself is to get the, get the Shuttles back to flight. So, clearly, our role is peripheral to space exploration, but it's the necessary first step. We need to restore confidence in ourselves and restore others' confidence in us that we can do spaceflight and do it safely. We need to do these two flights -- get them off and get them done and do it right, learn everything we need to do, continue to minimize risk to the program, and then get back on and complete the International Space Station. So, both of our flights are critical not only to getting us back on track in terms of the manifest for Shuttle but they also have critical components that we need to complete prior to going back to Space Station assembly. Those include logistics to the Space Station as well as the various spare and experiments that we're both putting on board the vehicle. So, we're the first step.