Q. Our interview with Rick Mastracchio, Mission Specialist 2 on the STS-118 mission. Welcome. Rick, how would you describe STS-118 to the layperson?
Image at right: STS-118 Mission Specialist Rick Mastracchio. Photo Credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Rick Mastracchio
A. STS-118 is another space station assembly mission, and I break it down into three pieces. We’re bringing up S5; it’s another piece of truss we’ll be installing on the outside of the vehicle. We’re bringing up external stowage platform No. 3. An external stowage platform is just a large platform filled with spare parts basically that are used outside the space station. And, the third piece of the STS-118 mission is a SPACEHAB module. And, the SPACEHAB module will be filled with supplies and equipment they will, that we will transfer over to the space station for the crew’s use inside the vehicle.
What has to happen for you to consider 118 a success?
Well, pretty much, just like I said, the three pieces we have to complete. We have to successfully install S5 truss, successfully install the external stowage platform, transfer all the supplies and equipment over to the station, and of course we have four spacewalks or EVAs on this mission, so obviously I would like to see all of those being very successful.
We’ll talk about S5 in a moment. But, I’d like to also have you tell us about a, another new capability that this mission includes, and that’s the station-shuttle power transfer system.
Can you tell me about that?
A little bit, yeah. We’ll be the first mission to fly the station-to-shuttle power transfer system. Basically it’s a very simple concept. The space station has these large solar arrays; it’s creating a lot of power. The shuttle has very limited power, because its, runs on cryogenics, hydrogen, and oxygen, and we run out of those things after a certain number of days. So if we could utilize the solar arrays of the space station to power the space shuttle, the space shuttle can stay docked to the station a longer period of time. That’s what the, the station-to-shuttle power transfer system is. We dock with the station. We then utilize their power to maintain our time on orbit, and we reduce the amount of cryogenics we need to stay docked to them. And that allows us to stay docked to the station two or three days longer; it allows us to do an extra EVA for this mission (that’s why we have four EVAs where three is normal for the length of a normal mission). So it’s a simple concept, but it’s a good idea.
What do the mission objectives of 118 tell you about commitments or plans that NASA’s made towards the future of space exploration?
Well, the biggest one is obviously the completion of the International Space Station. That’s NASA’s No. 1 goal right now, to complete the International Space Station. STS-118 is the next mission, after 117, to continue with that. Beyond that, NASA’s going to move on to the moon and Mars, as we’ve all seen, with the Constellation Program.
So, this mission is a stepping stone towards the Constellation Program?
In a way. I mean, it’s a stepping stone in that it’s part of the completion of the International Space Station. And, once we complete that, then we can spend much more of our time and resources towards going back to the moon.
So, you just mentioned, even the length of your flight is dependent on how things play out on orbit. If the station-shuttle power transfer system works, then you’ll be staying longer.
How do you train to be more flexible and adapt to mission tasks that may change while you’re flying?
Well, you always have to stay flexible in the Space Shuttle Program or in the space business, obviously. But basically we’re training for four EVAs. That’s the biggest part of our mission while we’re on orbit. The first three EVAs we will get whether the power transfer system works or not. The fourth EVA is dependent on that power that we draw from the space station. Now, if we don’t get that power obviously we won’t do the fourth EVA, and that will fall on to a future flight’s shoulders to do that work. But, the fourth EVA is kind of, I call like a “to-do” list. We have a large list of tasks that we have to take care of on the space station, EVA tasks, and that’s what the fourth EVA, we’re going to start working on those tasks and getting them done and checking them off. And they’re nothing that’s time-critical. It’s nothing that if we can’t, if we don’t get it done we have to make a special EVA or anything like that. It’s all stuff that we just have to do eventually. So, that’s how we’ve trained for the four EVAs.
Let’s talk about the EVAs a little more specifically.
Let’s talk about EVA-1. Can you take us through that?
Yeah. EVA-1’s pretty straightforward. We’re going to pull S5 out of the payload bay the night before and get it ready for handoff. While we’re prepping, while Dave Williams and I are prepping to go out for the EVA, the space station robotic arm will grab S5 and put it in position. We will then go out there. We will guide the robotic arm operator, who will be Charlie Hobaugh in this case; he’ll plug in S5. And then, Dave and I will proceed with the bolting of S5 to S4. We’ll attach some electrical connections. We will, we have a grapple fixture, the PVR grapple fixture we call it, basically a radiator grapple fixture that we will move from its launch location to its on-orbit location. Then S5 will be ready to accept the next component, which will be S6, on a future mission. That’s a big part of EVA-1 right there. And then, after we’re done with the S5 work, we’ll go up to P6, which is the solar array pointing zenith on the space station, and we will retract the forward radiator and cinch it down and stow it and get it ready to be moved, because P6 is going to be moved from the zenith to the portside of the space station on a future mission. So by us retracting that radiator, it gets it ready; it’s one step closer to being ready for a move. And, that’s basically all about, of EVA-1.
We’re talking about S5 for EVA-1. Can you tell us about S5, why it’s so important, what it does?
Well, S5 is a very small piece of the space station truss segments. S4 has a large set of solar arrays on it; S6 will have another large set of solar arrays. In between S4 and S6 is obviously S5. It’s a very small piece. It’s basically an interface or an adaptor between S, so that you could attach S6 to the first set of solar arrays. It doesn’t have a lot of importance in terms of it doesn’t have to carry solar arrays or anything. It’s really just an interface between S4 and S6.
I’ve heard that you guys have a nickname for that piece.
Yeah. We didn’t come up with the nickname. But, we were told P5 was called “Puny” and S5 was called “Stubby” because they’re so small when compared to the other truss segments.
Are they easier to maneuver?
Well, obviously they’re much lighter and easier to maneuver robotically. At one time S5 was actually going to be installed by two EVA crew members just hanging on to it and plugging it in, but they determined that it was better to do it robotically. The other difference between them is: S5 is actually bolted to the, manually bolted to the space station, whereas S3/S4 is, is connected through electric motors and IV commands.
Let’s talk about EVA-2. You have a big goal for that EVA.
Yeah, EVA-2 is a, is an important EVA, like all of them of course, but, in that we’re going to be doing a remove and replacement of an old CMG, a control moment gyro, and we’re bringing up a new CMG. So, EVA-2 is basically going to take the new CMG out of the payload bay, replace it with the old CMG on space station, and then we’ll take the old CMG and we’ll store it on one of the external stowage platforms up on space station and we’ll leave it there for a future crew to bring it home for repairs.
How bulky is this?
A control moment gyro weighs about 600 pounds. But then, where when we move it, when we carry it, Dave Williams is going to be on the end of the station’s robotic arm; and when he picks up, the first time he picks up the control moment gyro, it’s going to also have all its ground support equipment (or its flight support equipment, I should say). And, that’s another 600 pounds. So, Dave’s going to be hanging on to about 1,200 pounds as the robotic arm moves him from the payload bay to one of the stowage platforms. Then we’ll then bolt it down to a stowage platform, and then we’ll move the 600-pound CMG out and we’ll swap the two CMGs.
How long does that take?
The robotics movements don’t take long. The whole EVA will be about six hours, but the robotic movements go from one place to another usually, you know, 10 minutes or so. But when you’ve got 1,200 pounds in your hands, it’s probably going to seem like a while.
And, why is it so important to switch that out?
Well, the space station uses the CMGs for attitude control. It saves the space station from having to use fuel; they use the CMGs instead for attitude control. And, right now I believe they have three functioning CMGs. It's well capable of operating on those; but obviously we want the fourth one in case another one fails or has problems. So, it’s a, basically for redundancy.
So, let’s talk about the third scheduled EVA. You’re installing some communications gear?
EVA-3, what we’re doing is yeah, we’re going to, going to move the SASA antenna off of P6. Again, P6 is going to eventually be moved from the zenith part of station to the portside. So, we have to kind of clean up P6. And, part of it is to move this large antenna off of P6 and install it on P1. While I’m doing that, Clay Anderson, who will be living on space station when we get there, will be installing two electronics boxes to support that antenna. That will give the space station its second set of antennas, I should say, communication antenna capability. The second part of that EVA is: we’ve got two large CETA carts that run along the trail, the tracks on the, on the truss work. We’ll be moving those CETA carts from the one side to the other side in preparation for a future mission. And then, there’s some other clean-up work after that we’ll do.
What types of things are you transferring from the shuttle to the station?
Oh, there’s a whole list of things that are going to be transferred. But, the bottom line: it’s basically supplies and equipment to help out the space station guys in their mission. And, of course, anything that they have that they’re not using we will take from them and then store it in the SPACEHAB and bring it home.
So, that’s another use for SPACEHAB.
Right. Basically take up the, the equipment they need, bring home the equipment they’re no longer needing or something that needs repairs, things like that.
There’s several surveys on the orbiter that you’re involved with before and after undocking from the space station, in-, inspections that go on during this mission. Why are these surveys and inspections important?
Well, the surveys and inspections are something new since the Columbia accident. And, what we’ll do is: On Flight Day 2, we’ll take the robotic arm and the boom, which is basically like an extension of the robotic arm, and we will inspect the underside of the space shuttle. We’ll inspect the wing leading edges and other parts of the space shuttle to make sure it didn’t suffer any damage from ascent. And, obviously that’s important because of what happened on Columbia. And then, we’ll dock with space station. We’ll do our mission. And then, after we undock, we’ll do the exact same inspection again; and that’s to see if any damage had occurred while we were on orbit, if there was a micrometeoroid hit or some kind of space debris that hit the vehicle while we were on orbit. It’s just a way for us to ensure that when we return on entry day, the space shuttle’s in good shape.
I’d like to talk about your early career and how you got to be an astronaut. Can you tell us about the path that you took to get to this point in your career?
I graduated as an engineer from the University of Connecticut and got a job working up in Connecticut. I worked up there for several years. I applied as an astronaut in, oh, ’86 or ’87 and I got a phone call saying, “Hey, we’re looking for engineers. We’d like you come on down.” So, I got a job down here as an engineer, working down here for several years. Worked as an engineer; worked as a flight controller in Mission Control; and then I got accepted in 1996 after about three interviews and several years of paperwork, I was finally accepted in 1996 as an astronaut.
Did you find that your experience working with ground support and, and Mission Control helped?
Oh yes. Quite a bit. Going over to Mission Control and getting that experience was a great help. There’s a lot of things that folks in Mission Control look at every system in great detail, whereas an astronaut looks at the bigger picture in not as much detail in each system. So, it’s, it was a very good experience.
Was there a person who had an impact on you with regards to being an astronaut?
Oh, I don’t think there’s any one individual that had a large impact in terms of how I got to become an astronaut. But there are a lot of folks. I’ve had a lot of teachers, obviously, that helped me along the way. I had my parents, my wife obviously was instrumental in all that.
Were you always interested in being an astronaut when you were … ?
To tell you the truth, yeah. I didn’t know you could be an astronaut when I was a kid. I had no idea that you could just become an astronaut. I saw an ad in a magazine after I had graduated from college that said: “Send away for an astronaut application.” So, I sent away for an astronaut application just to see what an astronaut application looked like. And, eventually I filled it out and sent it in; and nine years later, I got selected. So, it was a long road, but …...
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an astronaut?
Well, the best way to become an astronaut is not try to become an astronaut. Try to find something you really enjoy, something math-science related, things like that. Find something you really enjoy. Go to school for it, get a job, get, become very good at it. Go to get a, get a master’s degree, get a Ph.D. if you have to, or if you think you’d like to. But find something you really enjoy, get really, really good at it, and then apply to become an astronaut. And then, you’ll have a chance of getting selected. And if you don’t get selected, you still have a great job that you’re enjoying that you’re good at. It’s a tough road, but it’s definitely worth it, and it’s worth applying. You never know when you’ll get selected. I never thought I would get selected. But I did. A lot of people don’t, and so it’s always good to have a job that you’ll enjoy, even if you don’t.
What are your other interests outside of your astronaut job?
Oh, obviously my family. And I do some woodworking. Things like that.
How does your previous spaceflight experience affect your expectations of this mission?
Well, my previous spaceflight was seven years ago. And it’s not so easy to remember seven years ago, to be honest with you. But obviously it was a great mission. I enjoyed it tremendously. This mission is quite a bit differently, it’s quite a bit different in that we’re doing so many EVAs. We only had one EVA on my first mission, and I wasn’t even involved in that. So, it’s quite a bit different. But, you know, having that experience is great in that you know what to expect. When I get up to the International Space Station, I know what it looks like. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to be weightless for a couple of weeks. I know how my body is going to react. I know how to work in space to a certain extent, for anybody who’s been there for only two weeks, but so it helps out a lot in that it takes away some of the questions that you might have going up for the first time.
Let’s talk about your hometown for a few minutes. Do you get back there much?
I used to get back there a couple of times a year. Now, I’m about once a year, I try to go back and visit my mother and my brothers and sisters and friends.
Do you have any plans to look for that area of the country while you’re flying?
Yeah. You know, we’re going to be pretty busy on orbit. But it’s always nice to take a few minutes every once in a while to look out the window and look for places that you know like your hometown and, and things like that.
What did it feel like when you found out you were selected to fly in space aboard Endeavour for the STS-118 mission?
Well, I had a very different experience when I was selected for 118. It was one of those good/bad things. I was assigned to STS-117 for four years and I was training for 117. I was very happy training for 117 when I was called by the office to come and talk about mission assignments. I was told I was going to be moved from 117 to 118. So, it was one of those things where I was very happy working, flying and training with 117; but now I’m very happy that I’m going to fly on 118.
It sounds like another example of training to be flexible.
Have the recent crew changes affected your training timeline?
The recent crew changes with Clay and Al Drew? No, not so much. Clay is still a member of this crew in my mind. Clay is going to get to the space station ahead of us, but we’re going to do two EVAs with Clay; Clay’s going to help us do EVA preps, Clay’s going to help us do robotics during our mission. So we’re just lucky enough now that we’ll still have Clay for a large part of the mission. But now we got Al Drew, who’s a great guy and is going to do a lot of great things for us. So, it’s like we've got an extra hand now. We’re glad to have Al on board.
What skills do you think you’ll rely on most during this spaceflight?
On orbit, we’re going to be spending a, a lot of time thinking about EVAs, Dave Williams and I and, and Clay Anderson, of course, are going to be spending a lot of time either preparing for an EVA, doing EVAs, or post-EVA activities. So, we’re going to rely on all the skills that we practice at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory or things that we practice over in the airlocks over in the simulators.
You’ll be heading out headfirst when you open the hatch —
Yep. Head first.
What do you think that’ll be like?
I think that’s going to be great. We got the hatch basically points right at, right at the Earth, points down at the Earth, and when I open up that thermal cover, there’s going to be nothing but space below me and the Earth, and it’s going to be a fantastic view. I’m looking forward to it.
What’s been your favorite part of spaceflight so far? Do you expect that to change once you’ve done EVAs?
Well, yes, I think it’s going to change tremendously. I think EVA is going to be the best part of spaceflight. It’s hard to believe that it won’t be.
And before: Looking out the window. When I was on orbit for those two weeks on STS-106, every time you looked out the window at the Earth, you saw something more beautiful than the day before. I would just imagine while you’re out EVA, it’s going to be even better!
This will be your second trip to the space station, the world’s largest orbiting laboratory. The largest that’s ever been built. How does research in space benefit humanity?
Well, that’s a tough question, especially for me. I’m a hands-on person. I like to build things, and that’s why I kind of enjoy the role I have on the International Space Station. But obviously research and development is a very important part of everything. We can’t just get lucky and invent things or discover new things. You have to do basic research. We have to understand how things work before we could build things that help out people and help out humanity. I think that’s what the space station is all about. It’s basic research, basic research that will lead to future inventions, discoveries, and things like that. It’s not something that’s going to pay dividends instantly. It’s going to take many years, but it will eventually pay dividends. So, I think it is important. We can’t just go through life not researching and trying to understand what’s going on around us. If we do, we’ll, when the time comes for us to know something, we won’t be ready.
How important is, is it to let young kids and students know about the things we’re doing in space?
Oh, I think it’s very important. I think we have to, to get out there; we have to show the world, the country, the kids what we’re doing in space. We have to be very open with them. We have to let them understand everything about it because it excites them. It’s exciting to me, but if we don’t let them know about it, they’re not going to hear about it, they’re not going to get excited about it, and they’re not going to be interested in maybe pursuing some kind of career in science or math in the, the space industry.
Are you looking forward to talking with people about your experiences once you’ve returned?
Sure. I always enjoy going back and talking to the kids. I also enjoy talking to the folks who work in small companies all around the country that build some small part of the space shuttle, some small part of the space station. I enjoy going back and talking to them, showing them what we’re doing with the, the, the things they’re building for us.
I asked you before about the job that ground support personnel do. Do you have any thoughts on shuttle processing and Mission Control folks? How do they help you?
Well, yeah. I was a Mission Control guidance officer for several years, so I know a lot about that. Obviously, the astronauts have one of the best jobs I think. But, we’re a small part of it. We’re just this very, very small part of what it takes to get the space station and space shuttle built. It’s really the thousands and thousands of folks working on the ground that make it possible. And, without them, you know, we would, we wouldn’t go very far.
How do you feel about being a part of continuing a human presence in space?
Well, I’m just a small part of it. I’ll be honest with you. I’m just happy to be here.
What’s been your greatest challenge or reward from training with this group for this mission?
The greatest reward is going to be the mission itself, obviously. A successful mission will be the greatest reward and coming back safely. The greatest challenge is, I hate to keep saying the same things over again, but a large part of this mission is, for me, is the EVAs, the four EVAs. Preparing for those four EVAs. That probably, I’d have to say, is the greatest challenge is pulling together the plan and training for that. It’s been, you, you know, it’s challenging, but it’s been so enjoyable that I, I surely don’t mind it.
I appreciate you talking with us. Thank you.