Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but only about 100 American astronauts. What made you want to be an astronaut, to be one of the people who actually flies in space?
Image at left: STS-115 Mission Specialist Joe Tanner prepares for water survival training at the Neutral Bouyancy Laboratory in Houston, TX. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Joe Tanner
A: I get asked the question of why I want to be an astronaut a lot, usually at schools, and mostly by teachers, as a matter of fact. I think they, they want to motivate their kids, and rightfully so. I grew up in the ’60s. I was very much aware, while we were racing to the moon and I was totally enamored by it, as was just about everyone who grew up and was paying attention to the space program in the ’60s. I never dreamed that I could actually do it, because the astronauts were superheroes, as you recall, back in those days. I think we’re just normal people now. I’m not trying to put us collectively down but I couldn’t dream that big. I did have that goal out there, and I did a few things right, did a few things wrong. About the time the shuttle era was starting up, I started looking at the program and the qualifications to be an astronaut, and I said, "why can’t I follow that dream? I should apply." What can they do: Say “no,” and I can take it. So that’s really when I actively started taking some action on my childhood dream of actually flying. Now why would I want to fly? It’s the ultimate adventure, and I’m an adventurer and have been even as a young lad. I would rather do than watch, and flying in the space program was the ultimate “doing” for me.
Let me ask you about being a young lad. Tell me about Danville, Ill.
Danville, Ill., is 130 miles south of Chicago, just on the Illinois-Indiana border. It’s a relatively small town, less than 40,000 people, but it’s a, of heartland of America kind of place -- good, solid people with good, solid basic morals, backgrounds and beliefs. It was a good place, a wholesome place, to grow up. The people there have been a tremendous support to me, and I’ve tried to, to give back what I can to the area, visiting schools and just doing what I can for the people of that community. It was a good place to grow up and, and I love going back there.
Tell me about how you feel the place and the people have made you the man you are.
Well, I grew up sort of out of town and had ties in town in some of the activities that I was doing there. We were in the school district for a very rural area, and the town that, that we went to school in -- I think the population doubled when school was in session—is Bismarck, Ill., just north of Danville. But the school was excellent, and still is. We learned the basics, we did all sorts of activities in class, out of class athletics were fantastic, the coaches were role models, and the teachers were role models who cared about the students. It was just a great. It was kind of a farm community sort of setup, but everything that’s good about America is in Bismarck, Ill. Then I went to junior high and high school in town, in Danville, once again, a top-notch education, preparation for college. I can’t single out individual people -- I would hate to do that because I might forget somebody -- but collectively the people I was associated with, the teachers, a lot of good male role models for me to follow, made a tremendous impact. I had four brothers -- still have four brothers. We always had a baseball team anywhere we went. We, we were very good at entertaining ourselves.
You brought us up to the point where you graduated from high school. Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of what happens between high school through college and your career up to the time you came to NASA?
I went to the University of Illinois -- it was only 35 miles away, and one of the best schools in the country. I was a competitive swimmer in high school and continued that in college. I felt like I could participate on that team and did -- I swam competitively for four years. That was a, a major part of my college time being a part of that smaller group. I studied mechanical engineering and was interviewing for jobs my senior year and also looked at the Navy about flying some airplanes, maybe. I kept applying or taking the tests with the Navy recruiter, and I kept passing ’em and finally I decided, well, why don’t I just join the Navy for a little while. So I ended up in the Navy for six years, and then started to try to get on with NASA at about that time. It took about four years to finally get hired as an instructor pilot here at Johnson Space Center. I worked flying the T-38 and as an instructor in the shuttle training aircraft, for a grand total of eight years, I guess. I kept applying for the astronaut program and finally got selected in 1992. So mine is a story of perseverance: if you want something bad enough, don’t give up.
The part of your job, the, the “flying in space” part of the job that you have right now, has proven itself very clearly to be dangerous. Joe, what is it that you think we’re getting from flying people in space that makes it, to you, worth the risk of, of flying people in space?
Well, first of all, I don’t focus on the risk on a personal level. I do know that it is numerically a risky business and there are certainly other professions that numerically are risky. If I thought it was going to happen to me, I would probably have a whole different outlook, but you never think it’s going to happen to you. You know somebody’s going to get in a car wreck and get all mangled up on I-45 going home today, but you don’t think it’s going to be you. So I don’t focus on that personally. From a bigger picture we, as human beings, are meant to explore. There’s risk in exploration. There's always been risk in exploration. History says that the rewards for exploration have justified the risk. I believe that to be true in space travel.
You’re a mission specialist on International Space Station assembly mission 12A. Joe, give me a summary of the goals of this mission and what your jobs are on the flight.
Our primary mission, of course, is to get to the International Space Station and supply some more electrical power to the station and then get back safely. That’s the big picture. My portion of the mission primarily focuses around the assembly tasks, the EVA tasks in particular of installing the P3/P4 Truss -- “P” stands for “port” and “3” is a number outboard from the center -- and they are physically attached together. We will attach that fairly large structure. It weighs almost 35,000 pounds, so it’s one of the heavier payloads we’ve ever launched. That structure will attach to P1 and continue the truss out to the left, or port, side. On P4 there are two solar array wings with two blankets per wing, and we will prep those for deploy for eventual collection of the sun’s energy to charge batteries, and eventually provide more power to the station.
You have been training with the same crewmates for this same mission since February 2002. How have you guys kept focused on the mission over such an, an extended period?
Yeah, we have been training for a long time together, and fortunately we have a tremendous chemistry. We really, really like each other. It’s been over four years together, and we know each other very well. I think we work extremely well together as a team. We’ve been diverted to other tasks. It’s not like we’ve been training 100 percent of the time for four years. After the accident all of us went off to separate non-related-to-STS-115 type of tasks so that, that provided a little break from the training routine. And then, even when we’ve been in training, we’ve had extra duties that we’ve been able to do with the spare time that we have. Of course, for the last three or four months, we’ve been 100 percent devoted entirely to this mission. But we haven’t really had that much trouble staying motivated, staying focused. We feel very strongly about this mission and how important it is in the assembly sequence. We’ve taken the extra time to look under every rock and in every nook and cranny for things that we haven’t thought about, yet things that we could do better.
The extended training period is at least partially a result of implementing changes that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended to make future shuttle flights safer. Do you feel, at this point, that the changes that have been made have succeeded?
I was involved very heavily in the Return to Flight effort and the changes that we needed to make to provide a safer vehicle and capability to do a potential repair on the vehicle if it were to get damaged. We think it’s a low probability that we’re going to take a hit that would require repair, but I feel confident that we can at least do something about just about any kind of damage that we would likely sustain. So I feel pretty good about the vehicle. I think it’s the safest vehicle that, that we have flown. I’m confident that the team, as a whole is focused on safety first.
There are some new safety procedures that fill up the first day and a half or so of, of your time on orbit. Tell me a little bit about the inspection-related tasks that a space shuttle crew is now called upon to do.
The second day of the mission is always a busy day. It’s not in the past typically been filled with a lot of official activities, but it’s always been a busy day as you settle in to your home away from home, if you will. Now it is filled with inspection, focused inspection of the leading edge of the wings and the nose cap, and general inspection of places like the tops of the wings that we can see with the, with the arm cameras. That’s going to involve almost the whole day’s worth of activity. Now I’m not very involved with that part of it. Heide [Stefanyshyn-Piper] and I will be working on the spacesuits during most of that morning, and I’ll be able to break away and help with the arm operations a little bit if the three guys that are really focused on that need a break to eat lunch or something. But we are doing this very detailed inspection to make sure that all of the launch assets to view for damage -- the ground cameras, the on board cameras, the motion detector, impact detector sensors that are in the leading edge of the wing -- to make sure that they have properly recorded no hits or maybe recorded a hit. So we will go and look at every area to make sure that we don’t have any impacts, and then of course if we have a sensor that says we got hit or a camera that says we got hit we’ll really focus in that area and determine if there’s any damage. So, it’s very important, for our flight of course, but also very important for future flights, to know that, that our cameras and our sensors are working correctly.
Let’s talk about the primary payload on this mission. Your payload bay will be filled with P3/P4 Truss. What is that, what does it do and why is that important to the future of the space station?
Image at right: STS-115 Mission Specialist Joe Tanner trains at the virtual reality lab at the Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA
The payload bay certainly is filled with the payload. It weighs almost 35,000 pounds, and is one of the heaviest payloads we’ve ever launched. There isn’t room for anything else in there, and it’s a bit of a shoehorn operation to even get it out of the payload bay when we’re docked with station. The arm guys, of course, have trained heavily for that, and they’re pretty good at it. The truss, a portion of it is just metal structure to support boxes that will, or do house for launch, actually, the batteries -- there are 12 batteries, six sets of two. Each set has a battery charge and discharge unit on it that controls the charge rate and discharge of that set. There are also pumps for circulating ammonia cooling to keep those boxes as cool. And all of that is in the P4 segment. The P3 segment has two payload carriers that could eventually contain externally-based experiments. And then, of course there’s all the connecting wires between P1 and eventually the rest of the station that send commands and secondary power up to the P4 batteries and electronics there. Very large cables carry the primary electrical power that the solar arrays generate back to the station for eventual use. The solar arrays themselves consist of two, we call them wings. Each wing has two blankets; each blanket is about, I think, 14 or 15 feet wide and 117 feet long; they’re quite large. Each blanket produces in the neighborhood of 18 kilowatts of power, so we’re taking up 72 kilowatts additional power that will not get used immediately after we leave because there’s a bit of a conflict with the existing arrays on P6. That’s probably more complicated than we want to talk about in this interview. But we will have the eventual capability to provide all this power to the station. After we leave it will be just powering itself until the next mission gets up there, on 12A.1. So that’s what we’re about. We’re bringing more power to the station. It’s a very similar mission to the last one that I was on with one change in that the P3/P4 elements are not hard-connected to each other. There’s a rotary joint, a solar array rotary joint, in between the two that allows P4 to rotate 360 degrees with reference to P3, to orient the, the solar arrays for whatever angle the sun happens to be at the time.
So that in future, when that pair of wings and the one that will be outboard of it later, will be able to, will be able to gather electrical power regardless of where the sun is.
Right. The attitude of the station, of course is adjustable, but some attitudes are more favorable from a propulsion point of view and a control point of view than others. And so you really want the solar arrays pointing at the sun perpendicular to the sun’s rays, so that you can get the maximum collection of energy. We do that now by rotating a joint, referred to as the beta joint on P6. And the P4 arrays have a beta joint as well, but it’s more economical to rotate the alpha joint, which rotates all four solar panels at the same time.
Now, there are three spacewalks on the mission to complete the installation. Before we get to the details of what happens outside, I want to ask you about something new that’s going to happen inside: the preparation for all of these spacewalks includes something called a campout pre-breathe. Describe what that is and, and why you’re doing that task this way on this mission.
Before any EVA, because we go from a pressure of in the station 14.7 psi, which is the same atmospheric pressure at sea level here, we need to scrub as much of the nitrogen out of our bloods as we can before we go down to a suit pressure of about 4.3 psi, 100 percent oxygen. There are a number of ways to do that. We have done it by breathing 100 percent oxygen for four hours in the suit; that takes a lot of time. We also have a protocol referred to as the exercise protocol that accelerates this denitrogenation process by use of exercise, and that is a bit cumbersome on the crew and the ground to monitor the protocol. And you were exercising a little bit before you go out and do more exercise, so we wanted to try a protocol that has been around for quite a while but never really used referred to as campout. It’s a modification of the type of protocol we’ve used on the shuttle for years, where we depress the shuttle down to 10.2 psi from 14.7 and leave the crew at that pressure for up to days. In the one case of the Hubble missions, they stayed at 10.2 the whole mission until landing. That reduced pressure helps purge some of the nitrogen without any extra effort other than just your normal breathing and sleeping activities. So we are going to try this new protocol, and for each EVA the EVA crew will camp out, if you will, in the station airlock and depress the airlock only -- you cannot depress the entire station to 10.2; it’s not certified to go to that pressure -- but you can depress the airlock down to that pressure, and the crew sleeps overnight. As long as you’re in the airlock at 10.2 for eight hours and 40 minutes, I believe the number is, then you have met the requirement to, to be at that lower pressure long enough to purge nitrogen. Now, that’s the upside. The downside is that you probably have to go to the bathroom in the morning, and so we will do what we refer to as a hygiene break. For that break you must put on an oxygen mask. We repressurize the station airlock so that we can open the hatch, and then while wearing this oxygen mask, you go to the bathroom and come back in and the total amount on the mask is 70 minutes, I believe. Once you get back in the airlock, depress it again down to, to 10.2, and if you’ve achieved your 70 minutes on the mask. Then you can take the mask off and do a normal suit-up, just like you would if it was a, a shuttle 10.2 protocol. We do this primarily to save time in the day. We think we can get out the door and start the EVA at least an hour sooner than we could on the exercise protocol, a couple of hours sooner than the four-hour-in-suit protocol. EVA day is a hugely long day: it’s like getting up at six in the morning and, and doing all the activities that you need to do to get ready to go to work, but you don’t go to work until noon, and then, you work, work until about seven in the evening, and then have another couple of hours of activities to, to finish up from what you did at work before you can relax and go to bed, so that’s a very long day. We are trying to shorten the morning time a little bit, get out to work sooner, and give ourselves a little bit more leeway on the back side of that day for things that might go wrong or other activities that we want to try to get done early.
Before the first spacewalk, the delivery of the P3/P4 Truss starts shortly after the shuttle docks to the International Space Station. Describe for me the procedures and the arm operations that your crewmates will be involved in from docking time up to the first spacewalk.
In order for our whole protocol to work successfully we need to get the P3/P4 Truss out of the, the Atlantis’ payload bay right after we dock. If we wait till the next day we just don’t have enough time in the day to get everything done with the arm maneuvers, the handoff. We have to take it out of the bay using the shuttle arm and, and that takes a while because of the obstruction from the tail of the orbiter, the aft bulkhead of the orbiter, and then the station lab that we are in very close proximity to. This takes a couple of hours just to get it out of the bay. And then we’ll hand it off to the station arm and it maneuvers to the pre-install position. Then we gradually bring it in using the arm to final install. All of that activity will take up to five hours or so, and probably four crewmembers', maybe five crewmembers', constant attention. So we felt like it was best to split the activities up. We will take the payload out of the payload bay right after docking, actually hand it off to the, to the station arm, and the station arm will maneuver to an overnight park, a thermally benign position. That's so the, the payload doesn’t get too hot or too cold overnight until we can actually hook it or plug the electrical power in to keep it, keep it warm. We feel like that’s the best way. We’ve worked to get everyone happy with that way of doing business, and I think everybody thinks it’s the best approach for this mission.
That plugging-in is where you and your spacewalking crewmate come in to play on the next day of the mission. So if you would describe for us the activities of the spacewalk, from your point of view. The new truss section will be in position, about to be attached when you arrive on the scene?
Well, Heide Piper and I are paired together for EVA 1, that’s extravehicular activity No. 1 -- we have three of them altogether. We’ll be waiting in the airlock; hopefully all of our suit-up process will go well and they won’t be waiting on us. We don’t want them to have to wait on us, and they don’t want us to wait on them, so we’re all kind of racing to get, get there first. As soon as three out of the four attach bolts have been made Heide and I will have the clearance to exit the airlock and start out on the P1 Truss and start our activities to activate the P3/P4. The first thing that we do is collect a couple of foot restraints, and we stow a bag. Heide starts to work using her foot restraint and a torque multiplier tool and pistol grip tool, releasing the solar array blanket box restraints. While she’s doing that I’m connecting one of the two sets of cables that connect the P3 to P1 for transfer of secondary power, for activation, and for commands to the computers that are on P4. When I finish that I sort of join Heide -- we’re pretty much separated during that whole phase -- on P4; we’re working independently at this point but in the same geographical area. While I deploy the aft solar array wing she is still preparing the forward for deploy. She’s already finished on the aft so I can actually swing the blanket boxes out, and then she will do the same thing on the forward. Then I start on one of the two drive lock assemblies that control the alpha rotary joint on the interface between P3 and P4. While I’m doing that and she’s finished some swinging of our boxes we’re waiting for the ground’s commanding to be complete to connect the second set of cables between the two elements, and when the ground is ready I will break off and, and make those connections. Heide will probably do the second Drive Lock Assembly -- there are two of them. I’ll do the first, and she’ll do the second. Then I’ll come back and we’ll finish up whatever we can in the time that we have left. Hopefully we’ll get some extra things done so the EVA 2 team doesn’t have quite so much to do.
Image at left: Official NASA portrait for STS-115 Mission Specialist Joe Tanner. Photo Credit: NASA
And the second EVA, what, what is their job then? Let’s assume that you’ve done everything that was set out for you. What is it that Dan [Burbank] and Steve [MacLean] have in front of them for the second spacewalk?
Well, Dan and Steve, on EVA 2, have their work cut out for them. These are activities that we’ve never done before. Many of the things on EVA 1 are repeats of what Carlos Noriega and I did on STS-97; everything that we do on EVA 2 is brand new. We’re basically preparing the, the rotary joint, for rotation. There are 16 launch locks that have to be removed that hold the two pieces together from rotation and six launch restraints. So they will spend their whole time removing all those locks. Now, if they finish that there are four braces that they can complete, and that’s about a 30-minute job to get all four of those. Then if they are way ahead, like we hope they are, we’re going to ask them to do some of the items that Heide and I have scheduled for EVA 3 to get us ahead.
In between, though, there’s a, a day where there’ll be what, as I recall, is a pretty visually dramatic event: the deploying those two big solar array wings. Describe what the crew on orbit’s going to be doing on that day.
Well, the deploy day, that’s the day between EVAs 2 and 3, is going to be very dramatic on board, in the control room, and visually I believe for the people who watch the station go over at night. We are going to deploy the forward and aft sets of arrays on P4. Most of the preparation is done by ground commanding. When we wake up, really the only activity we have for the first hour or so is to set up camera views and verify that all of the commands that the ground set up overnight, while we were sleeping -- it may be the middle of the day for them; we don’t know -- that all those commands were effective. So, if we get up and we see that that’s the case, then we rest easy, and we enjoy our breakfast and read the morning mail and all the things we normally do in space for the first couple of hours. When it’s time to deploy we will do the actual commanding to the motor that deploys the mast. Oh, we are doing a modified procedure from what we did on STS-97 for the, the second deploy. We’re very much different than the first deploy, in that 97 that didn’t go quite so well. The teams have really worked hard since STS-97 to develop a more reliable and safer deploy scheme. So we will be watching the blankets as they come out, and primarily, and that’s my job and Brent [Jett]’s job, is to look at the tension reels on each blanket to see if there’s any motion. If there’s a motion in the tension reel, it’s an indication that we have a sticking panel, and if we have a sticking panel, we will stop the deploy and then try to get as much sun on the panel as we can to warm it up so that, hopefully, it will unstick. So everybody’s going to be holding their breath on board and on the ground watching these panels come out and just hoping and praying that none of them stick. And I’m real confident that it’s going to go very, very well.
As you said, you and, and Brent Jett have the experience of having been there when there were some bugs in the deployment the first time around. What was the cause of the problem, and how are we hoping to avoid it this time?
Well, there was actually a combination of problems. The first problem was nine or ten of the panels are prone to stick together just because of the way they’re designed. And, we had several of those sticking on STS-97. The other problem was that the procedure had us deploy in what we refer to as the low-tension mode on the first wing. That was not the correct mode to be in and after that deploy everyone realized we needed to really be in high-tension mode, which puts more pull on the blankets. So the second deploy, we did in high-tension mode and had no tension reel problems at all. We got a really nice, clean deploy. And so we’ll be deploying the [STS-]115 arrays in the high-tension mode. The thing that, that we’ll be watching primarily on our deploy is for the stiction, and it may be a little more severe than the 97 arrays because these arrays have been packed for so much longer; they’ve been compressed together for so much longer that the stiction could be worse and the force to pull them apart could be higher than what we saw. All the analysis that the team has done says that, that we should not have a problem and I’m convinced that we won’t -- the only opportunity would be the very last few bays, is the, the ones that are really stuck, are finally letting go.
Assuming that EVAs 1 and 2 went according to plan, what are the planned activities for you and Heide on the third spacewalk?
Well, EVA 3 is a cleanup of P3 primarily, to prepare it for future missions. We need to clear the rails, the path for the Mobile Transporter to get out to what we refer to as Work Site 8 so that 12A.1 can install P5 on the end of P4. So there are things that we need to remove -- a keel pin and drag link are the biggest of those. If EVA 2 team hasn’t completed all the, the brace installations then we can do that on EVA 3 as well. On P4 we have two activities. One to prepare the radiator for deploy, and then loosen some bolts on an MMOD [micrometeoroid orbital debris] cover. That's kind of a get-ahead, but we’ll probably do that as well, and then relocate some foot restraints for 12A.1. We’ll also be doing a test on an infrared camera doing some imaging of the orbiter wing in the daylight hours and also some images at night, recording those images for playback to the ground and analysis for future use of this camera and all the activities out there. If everything that we have planned right now ends up on the plate for EVA 3, it’ll take 2½ or three hours probably, of activity. Then we say goodbye to P3/P4 and bring all of our tools back in and our tethers and start to work on changing out some things on S1 -- some tool boxes and the S-band transponder and a signal processor in the S-band communication system. Heide will be working on an electronic instrumentations antenna on the lab and I’ll be heading up to the top of P6 to take care of some unfinished business up there from STS-97, on one balky latch up there, and then putting some clips on some bolts and finally bringing down a science experiment known as MISSE-5. I’ll be up on the top for 45 minutes or so and Heide and I will really be separated. And then we join back up again and finish up probably a six, 6½ hour EVA and then head back in.
Did you have any pangs when they had to cast off your pine tree from the top of P6?
I shed a tear for FPP [Floating Potential Probe] when it got jettisoned. I knew it was the right decision to, to give it a toss, and I was glad it went well.
How has it helped you in getting prepared for this flight to have done similar spacewalks and other similar operations on your last mission?
It helps tremendously to have the, the background of knowledge and the relationship with the people who have worked both STS-97 and 115 from the payload point of view. It’s helped us in our training; as, as a matter of fact there’s, there’s people working the, our current payload that weren’t working on 97 and they sometimes come to me and ask questions about what the payload is like. It’s helped a lot. It’s been a real asset for both me and for Brent.
This mission is restarting major assembly of the International Space Station after more than 3½ years. Tell me what you feel is the significance of the fact that the project has gotten itself back to this point and now ready to move ahead.
Well, I think it’s very significant that, that we’re able to proceed. We’ve gone through a very difficult period in the last 3½ years. We had to fix a few things, and I think we had to develop tools that gave us some repair capability and some backup capability. We needed to understand some things that we weren’t maybe paying enough attention to before. So the fact that, that we’ve done that work and feel pretty good about it and we can get back to the business of building a space station … We all thought that we would be core complete if not further by this time on the calendar, and, and everybody’s champing at the bit to get this construction going again. You’ve got a house that’s only partially built, and there’s so much more capability sitting on the ground that needs to go up -- not just the trusses but for habitable volumes. The Japanese module is a beautiful science platform; it’s magnificent. I’ve had a chance to work with those engineers and seen the module, and it’s really magnificent. The European module, Columbus, is going to be fantastic. Node 2 is sitting at the Cape ready to go, and it needs to be launched. So I think it’s, it’s a great shot in the arm for everybody in the partnership to say, OK, let’s get going again, and let’s finish this job that we started.
You know, the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond this space station that you’re helping to build right now. Joe, tell me about what your philosophy is about the, the future of human exploration of space.
I’m excited about the, about the future. I might not be a part of it real directly, certainly not as flight crew, but I think there are great things ahead, and we’ve got some fantastic young people. Not just in my office -- there are some fantastic [people] in my office that I've convinced that they’re going to the moon someday, just to keep their motivation up. Across the agency there are very capable, eager, brilliant young people who are going to be the future of this agency. I think we have great things ahead of us. We just need to get over this, this hump right now. We can’t forget about the station, we can’t forget about the space shuttle, because those are very viable programs and we have things to complete there. But we also have to keep our focus on, on our next step. I think going to the moon and beyond is part of human destiny. We are born to explore. We start it as soon as we can look with our eyes and use our hands and then crawl. Human beings are meant to explore. We’ve been doing that in space in the U.S. program since 1961, and I just hope that we continue to do that.