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Preflight Interview: Chris Ferguson
Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What made you want to be an astronaut and be the one to fly in space?

jsc2005e19211 -- STS-115 Pilot Chris FergusonImage at left: STS-115 Pilot Chris Ferguson relaxes during water survival training at the Neutral Bouyancy Laboratory in Houston, TX. Photo Credit: NASA

A: Oh, that’s a great question. It’s one I haven’t heard before. I’m kidding. I remember watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. Now if that, you know, that was a, an epiphany for me, I don’t know; I was only 6 or 7 years old at the time; I’m not sure. But ever since then, it’s always been an interest. Now, I would never conduct my life saying, someday I’d like to be an astronaut. But I’d like to think that I took a lot of steps on the way that would put me in a position that someday I could apply. For military pilots, the, the primary route is to go to a military test pilot school, get a graduate degree in engineering, and then you begin to look a little more attractive for this unique job. I did all that, and I did it pretty well, and I thought that, well, perhaps this could be the opportunity for me to, to apply. So I never really said, I want to do this; it’s just that everything along the way seemed to fit. After a couple of tries—I didn’t get in the first time—but after a couple of tries I ended up here.

Give me the thumbnail sketch of that route of, of your education and your career that, that led you to being selected.

I was interested in not just the space program but also aviation in general, and for some reason, I loved the Navy. I read about it when I was in high school, and I didn’t have a parent or an uncle or aunt that was in the Navy; I just thought it was just a real interesting thing to do. So I applied for and was accepted for an ROTC scholarship. I attended Drexel University, and right next to Drexel University is the University of Pennsylvania. That’s where I did my ROTC training. I graduated from Drexel in 1984, was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy and was selected to go to flight school. I started flight school down in Pensacola and finished up just south of here in Kingsville, Texas—and, that’s about a two-year evolution right there—and was assigned to fly F-14s, Tomcats. I went to, for training in the F-14 Tomcat in Oceana [Naval Air Station], which is in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I flew Tomcats there for about four years, a combination of the training squadron and then the, the Fighting “Red Rippers” of VF-11. Towards the latter part of my experience there I thought it would be nice to apply to the Navy’s cooperative program which includes a year and a half at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif., and then a year at the Navy’s Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md. I applied for and was accepted for that and ended up graduating from Test Pilot School a couple of years later. It was a proud moment in my life. And at that moment I was qualified to do Navy test work. I did a lot of weapon separation for the F-14D, which is the, the latter version of the F-14—and I, I’d like to put a plug in here for the Tomcat community as the F-14 is near and dear to my heart, and in a matter of a few months probably in September, the last Tomcat is going to fly and they’re going to retire the airplane, so it’s a sad moment for me. But I had a lot of time flying the Tomcat, in the test capacity there at Pax River. When I left Pax River it was time for me to go back to the fleet again. I went out and flew for the “Checkmates,” VF-211 off the USS Nimitz, and did a West Pacific and then a Persian Gulf cruise, and that was my first opportunity to apply for the space program. I came back for an interview, wasn’t selected that time, but after transitioning out of the “Checkmates” and holding a job at the Commander of the Naval Air Force, Atlantic Fleet, I got another interview and was accepted in 1998.

Getting pretty excited about your first spaceflight?

Oh, absolutely. Yeah. It’s been four years, and I’ve been hanging around with the same folks and learning from day to day. I feel like I’ve been there without having actually done it, so I’m looking forward to just getting it.

Got a good story about how they told you you’d been selected for the flight?

Yeah. I do. My Commander, Brent Jett—fantastic guy; I’ve learned more than anything from him—probably the day before I had been told that I’d been put on this flight, we had a simulator together. We strive for perfections when we do our ascent and entry simulators, but you know, invariably we make a mistake from time to time, and in this particular simulator I think I made a small mistake; very, very small. The next day Brent stopped by my office and he said, “Hey, Charlie Precourt wants to talk to us about the sim yesterday.” Charlie was the Chief of the Astronaut Office, and you never got called into his office for anything but the wrong reason. So at first I was a little flustered and then Brent couldn’t conceal his smile. I think I kind of knew from that moment that this didn’t really have anything to do with the simulator. So, that’s my story.

Good. Tell me about Philadelphia. Tell me about growing up in Philadelphia.

It’s a great city! I miss Philadelphia, I really do. I had an opportunity to do there what my kids, unfortunately, have not had an opportunity to do. We’ve moved ’em around an awful lot being in the, being in the Navy and coming down here to Houston. But you know, I got to grow up in northeast Philadelphia in a, a row-home neighborhood: you know, the “Rocky” era in the ’80s and the Philadelphia Flyers and the Phillies and, and I really grew up with that strong sense of hometown. I have a lot of friends back there and still consider myself an avid Phillies and Eagles fan. I get back there whenever I can. Drexel University is there in Philadelphia, as well, so I really spent the first 22 years of my life and given the opportunity I think we might head back in that direction some day just for no other reason than the great memories that it holds.

You got a sense of how that place and the people there made you the man you are?

I had a few teachers in high school that I think really stand out. I don’t think we lend enough credit to the teachers that really influence our lives as we move on. Harry Neenhold was one that just sticks out in mind. John Connally was a chemistry teacher of mine. Frank Morris was a biology teacher. These were the individuals in high school—I went to Archbishop Ryan High School there in northeast Philadelphia, by the way—who I think really cultivated an interest in me, and they made me want to learn more. And I think that it was due in part to some of the just outstanding teachers I had in high school that I had a constant thirst for, for whatever I didn’t understand. So I would probably have to lend it to my teachers.

You’ve been an astronaut for a few years now, but you’re just getting ready for the first time to do the “flying in space” part of this job, which has proven it can be dangerous. What is it that you think that we get from flying people in space that makes you willing to take the risk to do that part of this job?

I think our space program is a very large source of national pride. I think that a lot of our citizens look upon our accomplishments there. The shuttle is the most complex vehicle on Earth. They look upon that as a tremendous technological achievement. And I think just the source of national pride that we glean from the space program is probably, in and of itself, enough. But what the space program also has us do is it forces us to think hard. It forces us to come up with solutions to problems that we have today, and it forces us to think about problems that we might incur that we really can’t even design for today. It basically forces us to open our minds an awful lot to realize that it’s a large universe and we’re a small planet, and we probably need to think beyond our atmosphere a little bit.

You are the pilot for ISS assembly mission 12A. Chris, give me a summary of the goals of this space shuttle mission and what your jobs are as a member of this crew.

I’d like to think that this mission is predominantly to re-establish the construction of the International Space Station. We’ve taken about a 3½-year hiatus, and the appearance of the space station hasn’t changed very much in that time. Now we’ve had a shuttle mission, which has delivered supplies, but in the end, when that shuttle left, it looked essentially the same as it does, as it did before it arrived. So our, our part is to take up an 18-ton segment which will greatly change the exterior view, and it will also double the power-generation capability through solar power of the, of the space station in general. So what I’d like to think we’re doing is kind of back on the construction phase of the space station again, and we’re setting the stage for what will be the continued development, the addition of the Japanese module and the European module. So, we’re laying the groundwork for what’s to come in the next couple of years.

On this mission, then, what besides the normal pilot duties do you get to do this time around?

One of, one of my, one of my favorite assignments on the mission is to be the backup robotic operator, the shuttle’s robotic arm. Dan Burbank and I, together, as a team, will lift this large payload using the Canadian robotic arm, out of the payload bay and through a series of maneuvers will present it to the space station’s robotic arm. We’ll hand it off to them and they will, they will essentially install it on themselves. So that is probably going to be the highlight of my on orbit activity. Of course, we also have a lot to do with space shuttle inspection, which I’m sure we’ll get to a little bit shortly, but we’re going to manipulate a large robotic sensor to inspect the shuttle. Both Dan and I will spend a couple of days doing that as well. Of course there are a lot of other duties that the pilot also assumes on orbit. He’s essentially the housekeeper—I’d like to think he’s the maintainer of the space shuttle. If the Pilot does his job well, then everybody else can do their job well.

You have been training with these same crewmates for essentially this same mission since February of 2002. How have you guys kept yourself focused on what you’re going to do, what you have to do, over such a long period of time?

It has been a four-year period since we’ve been assigned. We went about 75 percent of the way through a training flow when we essentially stopped for a couple of years. So I don’t want to think of it as one long training flow as it is more two independent training flows with a short break in between. And then when we resumed training about a year ago, we also picked up a lot of additional responsibilities, with regard to external shuttle inspection. So it has been four years, but it doesn’t seem like it’s been four years. I don’t know if that’s a great answer, but we’re a great team, I think we’re all pretty low key; none of us gets too worked up or upset about anything. We’ve had the great fortune of getting along real well in that four year period. If I had to do it for another four years, I couldn’t imagine doing it with a better group of people. It’s been a great experience.

The extended time period, this four year period, is a result of the Columbia accident and then implementing the changes post Columbia recommended by the CAIB [Columbia Accident Investigation Board]. Are you satisfied at this point that there’s been a real improvement in shuttle safety?

There’s no doubt that we have a much greater capability to detect if we’ve been damaged, either doing ascent through foam or another piece of debris that may come off the, off the shuttle stack or even on orbit, if we’ve been hit by a small micrometeorite, which could also cause a lot of damage. So we’ve increased our ability to detect that type of damage and ensure that we have a safe shuttle for re-entry. So from that standpoint due to the changes made by the, by the CAIB and implemented through the folks at Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center, there is no doubt in my mind that the shuttle will be much safer for re-entry in the post-Columbia time frame.

There are some new post-Columbia inspection tasks on the shuttle mission that come up in fact on Flight Day 2, very early on, as, as you referred to. Describe the inspection that you and your crewmates will do with the new Orbiter Boom Sensor System.

Early in the morning of Flight Day 2, which is in the morning after we wake up from our first night on orbit, we will, we will extract this 50-foot Orbiter Boom Sensor System using the space shuttle’s robotic arm. The entire length of this sensor will be in excess of 100 feet, so it will require some pretty precise manipulation as we work our way around the orbiter. On the end of the OBSS are three sensors. One is a laser, another is a high-definition camera, and the other is a laser as well. We’ll get to work our way along the leading edge using this sensor, the leading edge of both the port and the starboard wing. We’ll also look at the top of the space shuttle crew cabin, and another critical area is the nose. So we will, we will essentially begin over on the starboard side and work our way all the way over to the port side. It’s about an eight-hour evolution, and we will send all the information that we’ve gleaned from this to the ground and they will analyze it and hopefully within a couple of days we’ll know if we’ve incurred any damage due to ascent.

The shuttle is a big vehicle, but eight hours?

Eight hours. It takes a long time. It’s a series of automated maneuvers, so the operators, Dan and myself, we’re essentially relegated to the role of monitoring the automatic activity that’s going on. So while it is a highly-focused and intensive task we are able to back out a little bit and monitor the computer’s automated system, or the shuttle’s automated system. So it’s a long day, and it’s going to be a tedious day, but we’re prepared for it, we’re ready to do it.

I guess that gives some sense of just how meticulous, or thorough, the inspection is?

Yes. And it’s not just the inspection. There are other activities which will also detect damage. There are leading edge sensors which detect impacts. We also have the capability to take high-detailed, high-resolution photographs of the space shuttle’s external tank and send them to the ground within hours of launch. So I think it’s quite unprecedented, what we have the capability to inspect ourselves, both shortly after launch and then shortly before re-entering.

jsc2003e55802 -- STS-115 Pilot Chris FergusonImage at right: STS-115 Pilot Chris Ferguson. Photo Credit: NASA

Let’s talk about the payload. Your, prime cargo is a, an element called the P3/P4 Truss. Tell us what that is and what it will do, and why its addition to the space station is so important.

We typically hyphenate this P3/P4, which I think just serves to mystify what it really is. It’s actually two segments: the P3 segment—and the “P” stands for port, so it will go on the left side of the station, if you can think of left and right in space, so it will go on the left side of the station—and it’s connected to the P4 segment, which is outboard. The P3 section essentially looks a lot like the truss that’s up there already. When I say “truss,” I mean the lateral girder-looking structure that’s mounted on top of the long laboratory. So it will look a lot like that, and it bolts directly on. And there’s a transition between P3 and P4, and it’s a large rotary joint, we call it the SARJ, or the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint. What that will enable the solar arrays to do, once they’re unfurled—and the solar arrays, by the way, are housed in P4—is to rotate and track the sun while the space station crew portion remains parallel to the Earth’s surface. As I mentioned earlier, what essentially we’re going to do is double the electrical power output of the space station. It will also serve to be a spare capability for power generation. Right now we’re kind of single string: we have the P6 element up there right now, which is the prime power-generating capability for the American segment, and we do need a backup. After a while, you know, things have a tendency for their performance to degrade on orbit. This will, this will provide some fresh solar arrays and prepare the station to grow.

Something else that’s new on this mission in the preparation for the spacewalks is an activity that’s called a campout pre-breathe. Can you explain to us what that is, and why that is being used on this mission—what, makes it of any value in this particular circumstance?

What in a nutshell that will do is take a couple of our EVA crewmembers, who are going to be doing a spacewalk the following day, and it will put ’em in the space station’s airlock overnight. They’ll reduce the pressure and that enables them to slowly purge the harmful gases which are in their blood because the following day they’re going to go much lower in pressure. We want to prevent a thing called “the bends.” So that places ’em in the airlock overnight, and it allows them to gradually acclimate to that lower pressure rather than do the exercise pre-breathe protocol, which is what we would otherwise use that day. It’s much quicker, but it’s a lot more invasive in that it involves breathing oxygen and riding a bicycle at the same time. So I’d like to think it’s a much more gradual transition and a much more comfortable transition for the crew to prepare for their EVA. Now there are some drawbacks to that, too, you know. Namely we lose two of our crewmembers because they’re sleeping elsewhere for the night. I’d like to think that’s a little drawback. We always like to have them close to the shuttle. But I think that the benefits greatly outweigh the disadvantages. This is going to be the first time we try this. I give a lot of credit to our EVA crewmembers, specifically Joe Tanner, Heide [Stefanyshyn-Piper], Dan, who came up with this idea. Hopefully this will be a capability which we’ll be able to use in the future.

Let’s talk about the delivery of the P3/P4 Truss then. Talk us through it, starting with the robot arm operations shortly after docking up to the beginning of the first spacewalk.

Traditionally space shuttle crews have kind of taken the day off after docking. It’s typically a very long and very busy day. They might do some general transfer operations after docking but they would kind of pause and take the night off and begin the heavy construction the next day. I think what we’ve elected to do, and the Space Shuttle Program has agreed, is to get right into the, into the payload operations shortly after docking. So about two hours after we’re together, hard-mated and the hatches are open, Dan and I are going to extract the payload from the payload bay. Once again, this payload is, is huge: it occupies the entire payload bay and weighs about 36,000 pounds, so it’s no small operation. There are some areas where the clearances get rather tight. So it’s going to be a rather focused evolution to squeeze it between these areas that we need to squeeze it between, but once we’re outside of the payload bay with it, it’s a fairly easy translation over to just above the left wing. And there, the space shuttle, space station’s robotic arm will grapple it, and we will ungrapple—we’ll essentially give it to them—and there the truss will spend the night in preparation for the installation that will occur the following morning.

Just leave it hanging out in space?

We’ll just leave it out there.

Is there a, a conditioning reason behind that, or...

Actually it was not designed to be that way. For thermal reasons, for heat reasons, the contractor would like us to install the truss right away. We kind of pushed to have this done so we could kind of front-load the activity. The idea is to get the, the truss installed as soon as possible. You always want to hope for the best and plan for the worst. I guess that's probably the best way to put it. Anything could happen while we’re docked right there: we could have a, a problem with the shuttle, a problem with the station, some need to undock. So the idea is to get the truss installed as soon as possible in the eventuality that something should arise that we would need to undock. We would not want to take the truss home with us; we would want to leave it there. So we have pressed to try to get this all done a little bit sooner. We’ll leave it out there in space, and the contractors agree that that’s probably the best way to approach it.

So, Flight Day 4 will dawn with the truss waiting to be attached and two spacewalkers in the airlock ready to go. Tell us what happens during the day on, on EVA 1.

The first thing that will happen from a personal standpoint is that I’ll be over there behind Steve MacLean—Steve MacLean will be the space station robotic arm operator who will move the, the truss into a position to be attached. There is what’s called a Space Vision System; a system whereby which we can precisely align the P3/P4 Truss to bring them together, to mate them to the P1 Truss that’s out there. I’ll be operating the Space Vision System, which will enable Steve to bring the two parts together so we can drive four large bolts. They’ll be remotely operated on the space station by Steve and I and those large bolts will essentially perform the hard-mate to bring the P3 and P4 Truss in contact and hard-mate with the P1 Truss. At the same time Heide and Joe will be preparing for the first EVA. And as soon as we have three of the four bolts in a tightened position they’ll be cleared to go out and begin their EVA, which will perform the keep-alive efforts. They’ll connect power cables and get P3/P4 kind of up and running and powered. So that’s kind of in a nutshell what’s going to take place on the first EVA.

The second EVA, then, with another pair of spacewalkers, involves more setup to get the, the new component ready to be deployed. Describe the activities then for the second spacewalk.

The second EVA will be, will be Dan Burbank and Steve MacLean, and they have an extremely important task, albeit perhaps a little monotonous. They have to remove several launch locks, which are around the perimeter of the, the junction between P3 and P4. As I had mentioned earlier that’s designed to rotate. Well, we, we can’t allow anything to rotate while it’s in the payload bay, so there are several very robust launch locks and launch restraints which keep that entire structure rigid during launch while the shuttle’s in the vertical and, and what they’ll do is they’re going to spend just about the entire day pulling the launch locks and restraints off. When they’re done, due in part to their activity, the SARJ will be able to rotate, the alpha joint will be able to rotate, and I believe that’s what we’re probably leading up to in Flight Day...

Well, it seemed like what happens the next day -- judging from the last time solar array wings were deployed -- is a pretty visually dramatic thing. Talk about the deploy activities the next day.

That’s actually quite a busy night for the Mission Control Center. A lot of times we get a lot of credit for doing the grand visual activities, but overnight the Mission Control Center is going to be extremely busy. They’re going to be doing a lot of what’s called SARJ checkout that evening. They’ll rotate the alpha joint 180 degrees. Essentially we’re going to flip the whole package upside down so the radiator is now pointed nadir, towards the Earth. They are going to unlock the blanket boxes. The blanket boxes are the rigid covers which cover the solar arrays. They’re going to do a lot of the preparation activities so that when we come out on the next flight day, we’ll be ready to unfurl the solar arrays. When we wake up in the morning I will be the only one over on the shuttle, and I’m going to be providing the station with views as the solar array wings are deployed. The balance of the shuttle crew will be on the station in various capacities: Brent will be actually unfurling of the mast canister, which will pull the solar arrays from their, from their blanket boxes. I think you alluded to an earlier mission, STS-97, which delivered the P6 Truss, and they did have some problems unfurling the arrays. They tended to get a little bit stuck and when they released, due to the tension it created a large rippling wave, created some mechanical problems down at the base of the solar box. So, I’d like to think we have those problems circumvented. The folks here at Mission Control have come up with a great solution which hopefully will prevent that from occurring again.

What is the solution? How do you make sure, or do your best to make sure, that that the deploy is more smooth?

They concluded that the last time the problem, these sticking panels, was due to just the length of time that they were compressed within their canister. I’m not sure of the amount of time that elapsed in the P6 case. It was on the order of at least a year. But in the case of our truss, those solar arrays are going to have been compressed and stored for a period that exceeds three years. So we’re going to only unfurl the array about halfway, and we’re going to let it bake in the sun. There’s a special attitude, a maneuver that we’re going to conduct, so that we have maximum solar radiation on the, on the back side of these solar arrays. Hopefully, the heat of the sun will reduce that—they’ve coined the term “stiction”—it will reduce that grabbing force which tends to keep the arrays together. And once they’ve warmed up sufficiently, then we’re going to deploy the rest of the way. We may get some small sticking, but I think that they have a pretty good handle on what’s going to cause it and, and the, the degree to which the stiction will occur. So, we’re looking forward to two good deploys.

OK. You’ve got two new huge solar array wings out, and the following day a third spacewalk. What’s that one about?

A lot of miscellaneous tasks are going to take place on that spacewalk. There’s a lot of cleanup activity. Some launch restraint equipment, things that fix the truss into the payload bay, will have to be stowed away. There are some tasks that are still being added to this day. There recently was a minor problem with one of the S-band antennas on the space station. It looks like we may get involved with switching out antennas. So, EVA 3 is still in a little bit of a state of flux.

This mission -- you alluded to this before and I know you guys have had it on your mind -- is going to restart major space station assembly after a hiatus of more than 3½ years. In your mind, what’s the significance of the partner nations and the program getting back to this point now, where they’re ready to start, and move ahead, with building the space station?

We made a commitment, I think, to ourselves and to our partner nations. There are 16 nations involved with the construction of the space station. The United States was going to put up the backbone and we were going to supply the power. The partner nations were going to supply laboratory assets in most cases. We’re at a point right now that the space station is sufficient, in and of itself, but the laboratory assets that were going to be provided by the partner nations have no place to be attached. So the Japanese module has been sitting at the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC for a little over a year now, and the Columbus module just recently has made its trek to the United States as well, and it soon will be staged there as well. But what we have to get the second node launched. The node is essentially what it is. It’ll connect to the forward end of the lab, and it will provide a connection point for the, for the additional segments, namely the Japanese and the European segment. So I’d like to think we’re setting the stage for additional construction of the station to occur. And the partner nations, I think, are all on board. As a matter of fact we did just have a minor rearrangement to the launch schedule to move up some of the partner nations’ activities ’cause we don’t want to bump into the end of the, the shuttle program limit, which is going to take place around 2010. We want to get all these things up in the time we’re allocated.

Well, you lead me to where I, I wanted to lead you and that’s the future. We’re, the space station we’re building right now is not the end; it’s maybe a step toward an end, though. What’s your philosophy, Chris, about where human exploration of space is going?

I’d like to think we’re going to end up on the moon on at least a semi-permanent basis, and that’s a good thing. There’s [a] lot to be gleaned from the moon. A lot of people talk about helium-3, which could be a fuel for fusion; we talk about solar energy, collecting solar power on the moon and sending it back to the Earth. But I’d like to think that we would use the moon more as a stepping-stone to learn how to live and work off of the planet yet close enough that we could get home if something happened and we needed to do so. We’re going to learn how to live and work on an extraterrestrial body, with the hopes of someday pressing on to Mars. A lot of people say, "hey, we’ve been to the moon; we’ve planted a flag there and we’ve come home." But the parallel I like to draw are the European explorers. Christopher Columbus came to the New World in the late 1400s, but we really didn’t settle here until over 200 years later. So going to the moon and taking a break for 30, 35, 40 years is insignificant. This is not a program that will take place in one generation. This is a multi-generational thing in which we are going to move forward from the Earth and spend some time on the moon and beyond.