Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and, and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What made you try to become an astronaut and be one of the people who get to fly in space?
Image at left: STS-115 Commander Brent Jett prepares for water survival training at the Neutral Bouyancy Laboratory in Houston, TX. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Brent Jett
A: I guess for me it was a little different than probably your typical story that you hear from astronauts. Folks that are about my age grew up in the ’60s watching, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo and, of course, those astronauts were heroes, they were my heroes. But I did not have that revelation at that early age that some day I’m going to be an astronaut. It just didn’t seem like it was even a possibility for me. I was fascinated by airplanes growing up, and that led me to, the Naval Academy. The Navy trained me in flight school to be a pilot. They sent me to Test Pilot School to be a test pilot. They, sent me to graduate school to get a graduate degree. So through my career in the Navy, somewhat unintentionally I ended up doing those things that were necessary to become qualified to apply to become an astronaut. It wasn’t until I was a test pilot that I had a chance to take a trip down here to the Johnson Space Center, visit with the astronauts, and, and find out what the job really entailed. And that, for me, is when it sort of struck me as that, boy, I’d really, really like to do this job. I was fortunate enough to be selected and when I look out there at all the, the other pilots -- there are so many pilots that are qualified for this job, so many, scientist and engineers, certainly more, at least as qualified if not more than I am -- so I feel very fortunate, to have been selected because I’ve really enjoyed my, my career here.
Tell me about Fort Lauderdale, the place where you grew up.
It’s been a long time. Being in the military, even though you still have your roots in your hometown, since you move a lot and, it’s a little bit harder to put down roots anywhere else, except, in the case where you come to a place like NASA and, and get to live for a pretty long time. I came here in ’92, so it's 14 years. I really almost feel like Houston is more my hometown than Fort Lauderdale. But I still have family in Fort Lauderdale. That city has changed so much since 1976 when I left. It used to be a...not a, not a small town but it had a little bit more of a small town feel. Now, when you look at that area from space, it’s solid from well south of Miami, from the Keys, all the way up, well past West Palm Beach. It’s just all solid, homes and businesses and buildings. It used to be little individual cities separated by some space. It’s, it’s changed a lot since, since the ’70s.
There was actually something I was going to ask you about is, what does, what does Fort Lauderdale look like from space, from up there?
It’s hard to pick it out, just because there’s so much development. I think, all the land that’s available there is, is built on. You can identify where it is. It’s been great to go back. After my last flight, I was able to go back for a visit in, in Fort Lauderdale, and the folks there are extremely, extremely nice to me. There’s a strong Navy, Navy presence there as well and the Navy League. It’s still a great town to visit. I just, don’t get there as often, as probably I’d like.
How did that place and the people there make you the person that you are today?
Well, I think that question really goes more towards my family. It was obviously my family that made me the person I am today, and my teachers in school. I don’t think the fact that it was in Fort Lauderdale. Those same people could have been in any town. I was very fortunate to have very good teachers all the way through, elementary and middle school and high school, who challenged me to do well. My parents expected me to do well in school and that, I think, was one of the best things that could have happened to me growing up. As you develop in those years, things like sports, which I played a lot—I mean I loved, you know, playing sports—and having great teachers, that goes a long way.
You brought up education. If you can, give me kind of a thumbnail sketch of your education and your professional career.
We touched on it earlier when, when you asked me about becoming an astronaut. Pretty typical -- I came out of high school, I didn’t go directly to the Naval Academy, I spent a year at the University of Florida, which actually turned out to be very beneficial, the Academy being a very, very rigid environment; I think a lot of folks, when they first go to one of the academies, you have all their friends who are in college and they’re hearing these stories about what a great time they’re having and, you know, going to, going to football games and frat parties or whatever. So that year at Florida, I think, helped me kind of understand what was sort of on the other side. And, when I went to the Naval Academy, spent four years there; came out of there, flight school, eventually graduate school and Test Pilot School -- I really, I really owe a lot to the Navy, for my education and my training, because those are the things that, really helped me, get selected as an astronaut.
This part of your job, the getting to fly in space and actually doing that, has shown that it actually can be very dangerous as well. What do you think that we get from flying people in space that is worth the risk, that you’re taking?
I think we talked about this when we talked about what’s important about human spaceflight. Is it important for our country, to stay, on top technologically in the world? Obviously it is. Does the space program help that? Obviously, the answer to that is yes. Is it important for us, as humans to explore the solar system? I believe it is. You have to take risks, in order to make that happen. But I think back to some of the things that we used to do, in the military flying. The risks there are I would say no less than what we face flying in space, and in fact you take that risk more frequently. So you think about what our military forces deal with on a day-to-day basis. You know, the risks we take, flying in space seems, in my mind, to pale in comparison to the risk that some of our, some of our troops are facing on a day-to-day basis.
You are the commander for the ISS assembly mission 12A. Give me a summary of the goals of this space shuttle mission, and what are your jobs on this flight?
Rather than talk in detail about some of the objectives on the mission, I think, for the 115/12A, mission it’s, it’s probably more appropriate to talk about the significance of returning to the ISS assembly sequence. As you know, since the Columbia accident, the two missions since then, 114 and 121, have been focused a lot on the Return to Flight objectives, primarily, fixing the external tank, and some of the other things recommended by the CAIB [Columbia Accident Investigation Board]. Now those missions have been very valuable to station as well -- logistically, making, repairs for the station, adding a third crewmember. But really, 115 is the return to the assembly sequence, and I think that’s significant. We have a mandate to finish the station by 2010 and retire the shuttle. So we need to shift from the Return to Flight mode back to a more operational assembly sequence, where we’re flying hopefully four to five times a year and, completing the assembly fairly quickly.
Since you’ve brought it up, your mission does restart the major assembly of the ISS after kind of a hiatus of more than 3½ years now of actual assembly on the station. What’s the significance of the partner nations getting the building of the station’s going again?
Well, we’ve completed some of the U.S. pieces; we’ve delivered some of the U.S. elements to the station; we have a few more to go. But none of our partner elements, other than the Canadian arm, have been delivered. We have the Columbus module that still needs to go up and the Japanese modules. I think it’s important from a global standpoint that if NASA intends to lead the world in space exploration as we explore our solar system, as outlined in the Vision [for Space Exploration], we need to prove we meet our obligations—when we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it. I think that’s extremely important that we meet those obligations to our international partners. The corollary to that, is if you are going to explore the universe and you’re going to set up a permanent presence on the moon, you’re going to set up a permanent presence perhaps on Mars -- the baby step, the first step, is to maintain a permanent presence close to home in, in low Earth orbit. So we have to not only prove that we can do that, but we have to learn what we need to learn, in that first step, going to low Earth orbit with a permanent presence.
Let’s get to your mission specifically. You’ve been training, with your crewmates for this mission since February of 2002. How have you been able to keep focus in this expanse of time?
I guess I really didn’t answer the second part of your first question, but this all kind of rolls in together, so it’ll, it should fit pretty nicely. The answer is, you can’t stay focused for four years; it’s impossible. And you asked what my jobs were on the mission. Probably the most important one, in my mind, is to provide the leadership and prepare the crew, make sure that we have a plan we can execute working with the flight control teams and the program, and keeping the crew together. We’re one of the few crews that were, assigned at the time of, of the accident. In fact we were fairly close to launch; we’ve all stayed together. We haven’t had any crew changes. Our mission has stayed, pretty much the same over the four years. There’s been a few additions and changes. So you don’t try to keep everybody focused—you let everybody, at the appropriate times, take a step back, get away from the mission a little bit, and then bring everybody back and have them peak at the right time.
The extended training is a result of implementing some of the changes result, recommended by the CAIB. Are you satisfied that they’ve led to some real improvements in the shuttle safety?
The primary delay has obviously been repairing the external tank and getting a handle on the foam-loss issue for the tank. That was included in the CAIB report, but I think the program knew they needed to fix the tank. In that respect I think we’ve made the shuttle much safer. The tank is much better than it was prior to the accident. Even after 121, they will continue to work for improvements on the tank as sort of an ongoing, improvements to reduce the foam loss. Obviously, you can’t eliminate all foam loss on the tank. It’s going to be something the program will be dealing with, probably up until the end, till 2010. The thing that’s impressed me, since, the Columbia accident, is not so much that just what they’ve done with the tank -- typically, when there’s a lot of focus on a problem, that’s usually not your next problem. I’ve been impressed the fact that the program is out there looking for other things, that may be sort of off the radar a little bit or maybe we haven’t focused on in the past. I think they’ve done a good job of not becoming just myopic on what caused the Columbia accident, but looking across the program where they maybe there was something that’s been sort of out there, just like foam loss was out there—we knew it was out there. So I think they’ve done a good job at trying to find out really if there is anything else out there that we need to be worried about. I think that has also led to a, an improvement in safety.
There are also some new tasks that are now post-Columbia, that come early-on in your mission. Describe some of these inspection-related tasks, like looking for the damage done during launch.
What we’re going to do is not really anything different than 114 and 121, at least on the initial inspection. We’re going to go up after ascent, and, on Flight Day 2, we will take a good look at the leading edge of the wing and the nose cap, which are all RCC [reinforced carbon-carbon] and, make sure there was no damage from any debris on ascent. There’s a possibility of a second inspection of the TPS later in the mission. The first one is obviously geared towards any debris which came off during ascent and may have hit the orbiter. There’s a second threat to your Thermal Protection System, and that is from micrometeorite damage. It’s a threat we deal with on every mission. There’s an analysis done that, that gives you the probability of being struck by a micrometeorite. It all depends on what attitude you’re flying and, and what orbit you’re flying in. The thought is that if you inspect early in the mission for ascent debris, you might want to inspect late in the mission to see if you’ve sustained any damage from a micrometeorite hit on the RCC, a critical area of the orbiter.
Something else that’s different is your rendezvous profile on STS-97; this rendezvous is going to be different than that. There’s now the RPM maneuver and you dock on the V-bar. Talk about the, the significance of, of these changes, these differences, when it comes to the task of flying the shuttle into the docking.
The RPM maneuver, or rendezvous pitch maneuver, I think, is what most people call it, is actually very visually dramatic. The pictures we saw from station on 114 -- you look at the shuttle flipping around 600 feet below the station. It does provide some, some good footage. But from a flying standpoint, it’s not really any more difficult than any other type flying we do for rendezvous. The real significance of the RPM is that it allows the station crew to take photos of the underbelly tile areas of the orbiter, which we don’t inspect on Flight Day 2. On Flight Day 2 we’re looking, primarily at leading edge of the wing so this is a whole other area of the Thermal Protection System, which allows the folks on the ground to analyze for any damage. If for some reason we can’t do the RPM, it’s a significant impact to our mission because we still have to, at some point, go under there and look at the tile. The RPM is a very, very efficient way for us to do a little flip maneuver, as we approach the station and allow the station crewmembers to, to use, essentially an 800mm lens to photograph all the, the tile and send it down to the ground and let them analyze it. So it’s a real important maneuver, not, you know, not terribly difficult from a, a flying standpoint. And I say that it’s not terribly difficult if you have all your tools and sensors working for you. That maneuver is mostly done hands-off; it’s initiated by the autopilot. The commander really just sets up the initial conditions to start it, lets the maneuver happen, and then at the end of the maneuver you take back control, essentially, of the vehicle. It’s real important for you to figure out, OK, what’s, what are my conditions. Am I opening, how fast did I end, with some motion in one direction or maybe potentially out-of-plane motion. The sensors that we have give us that information to great detail. If those sensors aren’t working, it can be a little more challenging – determining what’s really my end state here and getting everything back under control.
Image at right: Official NASA portrait for STS-115 Commander Brent Jett. Photo Credit: NASA
Now let’s talk a little bit about the cargo that you’re taking up. This is an assembly mission. You’re taking a component called the P3/P4 Truss. Simply, what is that? What will it do, and why is it important to the space station?
The, P3/4 is to be, the second U.S. power module to be delivered to station. My previous mission, STS-97/4A, took the first power module. The first power module sits on top of, essentially on top of Z1, just above the Lab. The second power module, and eventually all of them, will be out on the truss, so our job is to, take P3/4 up there, get it installed, get the arrays out, and have it start generating power for the station. The entire reason we are building the truss on the station is to get these power modules up there and to provide the power for the European laboratory module, the Japanese laboratory module—not only the power to run their systems but also, the power for the experiments that will be done there so, all the power modules are, are important. They all link together into finishing the station and meeting our, obligations to our international partners.
Let’s talk about the delivery of the P3/4, starting with the robotic arm operations, both on the docking day and then before the first spacewalk. What happens, and, … [how are] you doing this installation?
Trying to stay out of the way mostly, I think. The robotics start right after docking, on Flight Day 3. Dan [Burbank] and Chris Ferguson (Fergy) are going to go use the, shuttle’s robotic arm to pull P3/4 out of the bay and hand it off to, the station robotic arm, which will be flown by Steve MacLean and one of the ISS crewmembers, potentially Jeff Williams. If we get delayed it, it might be, Mike L-A [Lopez-Alegria]. So they’ll do that handoff on the same day that we rendezvous and dock, which kind of makes for a long, long day. The next day Steve will finish the installation using the station arm and position P3/4 out at the end, of P1, actually operate the capture latch, operate the bolts. They’ll do all the physical attachment before the spacewalk starts, that same day.
Now the preparations for the EVAs on this flight, include something new called the campout pre-breathe. What is that, and how does it work, and why are we doing this? What’s the reason for that?
It’s interesting. The initial operations concept for station was to have this campout, to prepare for EVAs. Let me see if I can explain it with a few words that make pretty good sense. When our EVA teams go outside, they’re in a suit that’s operating at 4.3 psi. Normal pressure that we experience inside the shuttle and here on Earth is 14.7. Going from a higher pressure of 14.7 down to that lower pressure of 4.3, there’s a risk of nitrogen bubbles coming out in your blood and you could essentially get “bends” symptoms. You can prevent that a couple of ways. What we used to do for shuttle EVAs was take the shuttle down to 10.2 psi, which is a little bit lower than our normal pressure. That helps the body start to purge the nitrogen. So you think about taking an intermediate step down in pressure until you go all the way to 4.3. By spending some time at that intermediate pressure, the amount of time you have to spend breathing pure oxygen prior to going down to 4.3 is reduced. The reason you breathe pure oxygen for a certain amount of time is to purge nitrogen. So if we can spend some time at 10.2 before going down to the final suit pressure of 4.3, that time spent breathing pure O2 gets reduced, significantly, from four hours to the 45-minutes-to-an-hour range. That’s a big savings when you’re trying to get a 6½- or 7-hour EVA done. On the shuttle when we weren’t docked to station, we could take the shuttle to 10.2; it wasn’t a big deal. We can’t do that with the entire station. So we take the two EVA crewmembers, and put them in the equipment lock of the, airlock – it's called campout. We close the hatch and just take that one section of the station down to 10.2. So they spend, they go in and do that the night before the EVA and, take it down to 10.2, and they sleep at 10.2 that night and that helps. They’re essentially camping out in the airlock at a lower pressure to help reduce that amount of time that, they have to be on the mask the next morning.
Now let’s get into the EVAs. Let’s talk about EVA 1 first, and talk about your role, on the team.
Well, it’s pretty easy. We’re kind of covering my role sort of piecemeal here. My job for all the EVAs is the same. I’m going to be helping the EVA crew suit up and get ’em out the door. So I’ll do that with Joe [Tanner] and Heide [Stefanyshyn-Piper] on EVA 1, and then, Dan and Steve on EVA 2, and again on EVA 3. One of the ISS crewmembers will also be assisting in the suit-up and EVA preparations. It’ll probably be Thomas Reiter, if everything goes as planned. It’s a fun job. You 're working with tools, you’re working with the suit, and you’re working on a timeline, because you want to get ’em out the door on time. I do the same thing on every EVA, and then one of the other EVA crewmembers will take over once they’re out the door and does the IV [intravehicular] role or the orchestration role from, from inside. The EVAs themselves are pretty easy to explain. EVA 1 and 2 are preparing for the solar array deploy. EVA 1 does all the, the solar array preparation, and then EVA 2, prepares the rotary joint, the SARJ [Solar Alpha Rotary Joint], which will allow us to, to rotate, 180° before we deploy. Then we deploy after EVA 2, and then EVA 3 really does the final preps, for P3/4, to get the radiator out, which has to be done for it to generate power, and they do some other things to clear the, the path for the MT [Mobile Transporter] to go out to Work Site 8 so the EVAs are pretty well laid out and, they’ve been pretty stable for, for most of our training.
You mentioned getting the solar arrays ready for deploy, in both the EVAs 1 and 2, and they’re deployed after EVA 2. That’s a very visually dramatic event, deploying the arrays.
Well, hopefully not too dramatic.
Well, visually you can see the arrays being deployed.
Describe the work to deploy the solar arrays. What’s the work that has to be done to prepare for the deploy?
Most of that work is done by the flight control team. The EVA crew does the physical work, in terms of, positioning the, the arrays and releasing all the bolts and the launch restraints. So the physical work is done by the EVA team but then the preparation to actually make the deployment happen, all the activation sequence, and the activation of the rotary joint, is all performed by the ground team. It’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done, simultaneously, not only during the EVAs but also during those two nights when we’re asleep -- the ground team’s working very hard to get the arrays, ready. When we wake up on Flight Day 6, if everything goes well, the ground is going to be ready to go. We position a few cameras, so we can monitor the deployment and then we go to the computer and command the arrays to deploy. Now, hopefully, everything will go very smoothly, and, and the problem that we had on 97 we think has been solved. Hopefully, everything will go smooth and we’ll get the arrays out in a couple of orbits.
I was just about to ask about that. There were a few difficulties with the P6, array deployment. Is there something that’s being done differently to avoid that?
On P6, the first array that we deployed, was the one that had the problem with the array. Essentially the solar array panels stuck together, and that was not expected. That caused, one of the, the cable mechanisms to come off a spool, which later had to be fixed. The second array that we deployed on 97 we deployed differently, and it worked pretty well. We’re using pretty much the same technique, to deploy, the P3/4 arrays. They put a lot more work into it. They’re using a combination of some thermal conditioning to prevent the sticking of the arrays, and we have very specific criteria and we can have the ability to monitor if the arrays start to stick together and that same problem starts to develop. This time we have the ability to put a camera on a mechanism, and if we see that mechanism start to move we know we’re, that problem is starting to develop and we can stop, and we can stop the deployment. A tremendous amount of work has gone into it, and it’s just fantastic the amount of work they’ve done. I’m convinced that the arrays will come out, and the deployment will go very smoothly.
Has it helped, in your training that you did some similar spacewalks, associated with the, these operations of delivering the P6 truss on 97?
Well, Joe and I both flew on 97 and for Joe many of the EVA tasks on EVA 1 are very, very similar and the first half of EVA 3 as well, are very similar to what he did, on, on 97. And I’ll let him talk to you more about how similar. Obviously he’s in a different location on the station so he’s dealing with some different things. Initially, when we first started training for this mission back in 2002, a lot of the flight control team was the same as well, so we had a couple of crewmembers who had the experience from 97, and we had a lot of the flight control team, and the folks from the contractors who build the solar arrays, there were a lot of the same people. We all knew each other and I thought that was really beneficial. Unfortunately there’s been a lot of turnover. Although the crew hasn’t had any changes there has been a lot of turnover in the flight control team and in other areas. So in some cases, we provide maybe more of the corporate knowledge, when we have meetings and discuss issues, and I think that’s been beneficial, for the team as well. But, obviously, the more familiar you are with your payload, the better chance of your success.
With the Vision for Space Exploration, that was enacted a couple of years ago, we’re looking way beyond, the space station that we’re currently building in low Earth orbit. What’s your philosophy about human exploration of space?
We talked about it a little bit earlier. Any time you, you take off on an exploration, typically you take steps in a gradual nature. You know, space station has given us the ability to establish a permanent presence fairly close to home but still, in low Earth orbit, in a weightless environment in a vacuum. That’s a good first step. When you explore the solar system, you’re going to need to establish permanent presence, or at least temporary presence on the moon, perhaps; on Mars. So I think the way we’re going about it seems fairly logical. You could almost draw an analogy between the Apollo missions and some of the early explorers who came from Europe to North America. Initially they sort of went, touched base, came home. But really it was establishing the permanent presence, over in North America, that proved to be a huge challenge. So I think we’ll see, as we try to establish a presence on the moon and then move on and establish a presence on Mars, that it’s going to be extremely challenging. We’ll learn a lot from our presence in low Earth orbit, to make that successful. The other piece of that whole question is, why are we going? Well, I probably fall in the camp that says it’s just our nature. It’s human nature to want to explore and, and I hope that the United States leads that effort, among the entire world. We’re going to prove that we can meet our obligations and build an International Space Station, and that will be important to leading an effort to explore the solar system. It’s not just the U.S. but other nations as well.