This is the STS-119 crew interview with Mission Specialist Joe Acaba. Joe, could you give me the story about how and why you decided to pursue being an astronaut.
Preflight Interview: Joseph Acaba, Mission Specialist
Sure. It really happened at a pretty young age and I blame a lot of it on my father and my grandfather. When we were younger as a family we would get together and we would look at family photos and family films, the old reel to reel tapes that we don’t have nowadays. And as part of that, my grandfather and my father were really interested in the Apollo missions and so they’d show us those tapes so, even though I wasn’t watching them live, I did feel like I was at that time and that really got me thinking about space. Also as a, a young kid I liked to read a lot of science fiction and that opened up just tons of possibilities and it kind of got me thinking about maybe some day becoming an astronaut.
Did you have a sense at that time about what it would actually take? I mean, it seems like a good goal, being a kid.
I think back then it was just a, a lofty dream, not really sure what it would take to get there, so really didn’t have a big clue about what it meant to really become an astronaut.
Tell me about some of the educational and professional steps you took to actually get to NASA.
Education-wise I have both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in geology from the University of California in Santa Barbara and the University of Arizona in Tucson. My professional background is quite diverse and maybe that helped me to get to where I am today. Worked for a couple of years as a hydrogeologist in Los Angeles and from there I joined the U.S. Peace Corps working in the Dominican Republic as an environmental education volunteer. From there I hopped over to The Bahamas and worked as the manager of a marine research center and worked there for a short period of time. I think all of those steps really led me to become a teacher and before I was selected here with NASA I taught both at the high school and middle school level in Florida.
How did those travels outside of the country impact your perspective on things?
I think you get a great perspective on the, on the world outside of the United States by doing those travels, especially serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. It really applies a lot with what I’m doing now with the International Space Station and that huge international endeavor we have going on there.
Tell me a little bit about the place that you consider your hometown and how that place influenced who you’ve become and what you’ve accomplished.
Well, I’m a kid from Southern California. I was born in Inglewood, but I really consider Anaheim my hometown which is where I grew up. The landscape is much different today than it was back then. There was a lot more open land, Orange County, so there were a lot of orange groves out there and a lot of room for a kid to explore and really that’s what I did with me and my friends. We’d go out and spend the days, you know, just exploring and having a good time outside. But I think what I really learned about growing up there as I reflect back on that area is how much my parents really sacrificed and worked for us to live in that neighborhood and to move to that area and it really taught me a lot about working hard and really the, the importance of family values and how much that meant to my parents which, of course, made me realize how important that really is.
As an educator you presumably believe in the notion that education can take you anywhere. You’re about to go to space as a living example of that. How would you like to see your example impact kids?
I think you said it correctly about example. I think a lot of times we try to tell kids what to do and really say, “This is the way it should be done”, but I think they learn a lot more by looking at examples whether it be their parents in my case or their teachers that they spend a lot of time with. So if a student were to look at my case and maybe use me as an example, I hope they’ll see someone that worked really hard in my schooling, in my jobs. I really worked hard. But if you look at all the jobs that I’ve had up to becoming an astronaut, I’ve really enjoyed all of them and so my biggest advice or if you look at my example is really do what you like what to do and have a good time doing it. If you do that, and you work hard, you’re going to be successful.
You were selected as an astronaut candidate the year after Columbia and the year before Return to Flight. What was it that made you feel that coming to NASA during that time of uncertainty was still the right move for you?
As I look back I can’t say at that time I knew it was the right thing to do. Just happened to be that NASA was looking for a new class of astronauts at that time, so when the accident occurred I was actually in the process of filling out the application, getting all the appropriate paperwork. It wasn’t until almost a year later that we came in for interviews and the final selection. But when I saw the opening come up, that they were looking for a new class, especially looking for educators, I just thought, “Hey, this is a great opportunity for me maybe to realize the dreams I had as a kid.” So once I got the phone call and was asked if I wanted to come to, to NASA to become an astronaut, there was just no doubt in my mind that an opportunity like that doesn’t come very often. I just knew that it was one that I had to accept and I’m just very grateful that I did.
You're on the verge of you taking your first spaceflight, so the decision appears to have paid off. Tell me what it was like when you, when you found out you were going to be making your first space flight.
It was very cool to find out. It was kind of that same feeling that I got when I received the phone call asking me if I wanted to come and become an astronaut -- just something that’s almost unbelievable, the realization of a dream and just a very happy moment. It’s almost hard to describe, just the feeling. But I think a lot of people will appreciate it if they’ve worked hard towards a goal and once they’ve reached that goal they know what I’m talking about.
What kind of reaction did you get from your family?
My family’s great, very supportive. Once I was selected for a spaceflight the realization of what I was doing maybe sunk in a little bit more so maybe there’s a little apprehension on their part but they’ve always been very supportive and it was great news for the whole family and we definitely celebrated Acaba style.
Well, you have to expand on that.
I’ll talk about that a little later.
What’s it been like training with your crewmates for this mission? I mean, did relationships develop and you draw on strengths from other crewmates. What’s that been like?
It has been a fantastic experience. I’ve been very fortunate to be with this crew. They’re just fantastic. They’re very, very intelligent but they’re very, very funny so we have a, a good time. Once again, going back to having a good time with what you’re doing, and we definitely do that. But have a fantastic commander. He has just done a phenomenal job, taking care of us and making sure that we’re ready for this mission. Like you said, there’s been a lot of support and it’s really neat working with a group of people that all have a common goal and you all don’t mind working really hard and doing whatever it takes to reach that goal. I think we’re all kind of there and whatever you have to do to get the job done, everybody’s willing to do that and so it’s just been a, a great experience and now I can’t wait to go up in space with them, with my, my new brothers, as I like to call them. It’s, after spending over a year with people every single day, they do become like family.
And speaking of that, the extension of the crew is the support personnel, the people who work hard for this mission and every mission to make sure it’s successful. What do you think about those contributions and what’s it like when you get to actually meet these people during your travels for training?
It’s really great meeting all these people and I don’t think most people -- I know I didn’t -- realize the amount of work that goes into each and every mission that we have. It’s just a huge base of people that support us and we’re very fortunate that we get to hop in the shuttle and go for a ride and come back. But we really appreciate and we know how much people are working -- whether it be our flight control team, going out and talking to sub-contractors, going out to the Cape and talking to the people out there -- and what really strikes me is just their enthusiasm. Everyone you talk to, no matter what part they have with the space program, they’re excited and they love what they do and they know how important it is. We know that every day they’re working hard so that we’ll be successful and it’s just, it’s great to go out there and meet them and hear their stories and share our stories with them.
There are several Japanese Space Agency components on space station so JAXA has become a full fledged participant on ISS. Now Koichi Wakata will fly up with you guys and he’ll stay there as JAXA’s first long duration ISS astronaut. What’s it feel like to be able to have a part in that milestone?
I think I have a very small part in all that but it’s a great experience. It’s been great working with Koichi. I was fortunate that in our class we had three other JAXA astronauts going through the astronaut candidate training with us, so that’s been a neat experience. It’s very nice to be part of this really a bigger project. When you think about the International Space Station, it’s a huge endeavor to have this many countries working together, building the space station and just knowing that if we do want to go and explore outside of Earth, then moon and Mars, it’s really going to be an international endeavor. So it’s neat to, to have a small part of that right now and just looking forward to where we end up.
Joe, could you summarize the main goals of this mission, what are you trying to accomplish?
I think the goals in our mission are pretty specific. We’re really looking at getting the S6, the starboard truss, up there and attached, deploying the solar array wings and it’s really our main objective up on orbit and, like every other space mission, I think coming back safe is, is an important goal and I think if we can do those three things, then we’ve had a very successful mission.
Talk about if you would some of your key roles and responsibilities as a mission specialist on this mission.
I think I’ve been very fortunate in the roles that I have. I kind of feel like a utility player on a baseball team. I think my commander’s referred to me as that a couple of times. I’m fortunate that I’ll be on the flight deck as mission specialist 1 both on ascent and on entry and that’s been a great experience and I’ve learned a lot about the shuttle systems doing that. I’ll also be working the shuttle robotic arm with Tony Antonelli, so he and I will do a lot of robotic work there. And then I’m also part of the EVA team and so I’ll be doing spacewalks No. 2 and 3 and for 1 and 4, when I’m not out the door, I’ll be the IV, the person inside going through the procedures with the two guys that are outside so I’m getting a, a little bit of everything on my first flight, so it’s been a, just a, a great training period.
Do you think having so many hats to wear helps you stay more focused?
I don’t know if it helps me stay more focused. I think we’re all pretty focused on what we’re doing. I think having parts in many different areas really gives me a big picture of what’s going on, so for me personally it’s been very beneficial.
Give us your best description, if you could, of the S6 truss and its attached solar arrays and, and give us an idea of how the station will change in both capability and look after that’s attached and activated.
When I think about the whole truss on the space station, I think of it more as the backbone of the station. It’s where, like you said, we have the solar arrays attached. We have batteries there. We have radiators and we have other components that keep the space station running. So on our mission we’ll be bringing up the final segment of the truss on the starboard side and we’re bringing up the last set of solar arrays. The space station is definitely going to look different when we leave which is, pretty neat. We’re going to go up there. We’re going to attach that on the starboard side so we’ll have a little more symmetry on the space station. It’ll look a little bit more balanced and we’ll have those solar arrays out there so if you look at pictures before STS-119 you’ll definitely be able to see the difference after.
How would you characterize the work that the STS-126 crew did on the starboard side solar alpha rotary joint and how that’s actually impacted the relevance of your mission?
They did a phenomenal job and it was great watching the work that they did and, of course, we’ve been very busy with our training so I haven’t seen all the specific data but I do know that a lot of the work that they did lubing up the SARJ or the rotary joint there has really improved the functionality of that joint so it’s going to allow us, once we attach our truss, to more effectively use the solar arrays that we’re going to bring up there. So what they have done really benefits our mission and just the future of the space station.
On flight day 1 you’ll launch on board Discovery. You’ll check out and configure systems for your stay in space. Then on flight day 2 you’ll do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior. Tell us about that activity.
It’s an activity that we now do. After Return to Flight, we want to make sure that on ascent we didn’t incur any kind of damage on the space shuttle. So we’ll use the shuttle’s robotic arm and we’ll remove the, the boom, the boom and its sensors and do surveys of both the left and the right wings, kind of along the forward edge we may incur some damage and also along the nose cap and we’ll just have the ground take a look and see if they see any damage that maybe they didn’t catch on other exterior video.
And then on the next day the first of several very busy days for both the crew on board Discovery and the crew on ISS. Tell us about the activities planned for, for rendezvous and docking and kind of highlight what you’ll be doing during that time.
The first few days are going to be pretty busy and on rendezvous day, the whole objective is making burns, using our different firing jets to get in the proper trajectory to get to the space station. So we’ll spend that day doing small correction burns to make sure we end up in the right spot which, of course we want to go to the space station. My job in particular -- there’s a point in the rendezvous plan where the commander leaves his seat and will head to the aft station where he’ll do the final flying into the space station. So when he makes that change out, I’ll then go up to the front and I’ll be working with our pilot, Tony Antonelli. The commander actually brings us into the space station, and he and I will work through the timeline and make sure we get to where we need to go.
On flight day 4 then the focus turns to S6 and some joint robotic work between the shuttle and ISS. Tell us the plan for getting the S6 out of Discovery’s payload bay and finally to the point where it will remain overnight.
It’s a pretty impressive process. You’re looking at a very large payload. It weighs about as much as a school bus. It’s about 40 feet long that we have in our payload bay and so because of the configuration of the space station, we’re not able to pick out the payload with the shuttle’s robotic arm so we’ll actually have to use the robotic arm that’s up on the space station. They will come in and grapple the payload and they’ll pull it out of the payload bay of the shuttle. At that point, we will, using the shuttle robotic arm, take hold of the payload and then from there the space station’s arm has to move along the truss segment to a position that they can better attach it on the starboard-most side of the space station. And when they get out there, then we’ll go back and hand it off to them. So it’s a, it’s multiple use of each arm trying to get it out of the payload bay out where it needs to go on the far end of the space station.
Any good plan includes a backup plan. What backup options do you have if, for example, in the unlikely event that one of the arms fails during that process?
Well, of course we hope that doesn’t happen. There’s a lot of redundancy that’s built into the systems. There are two strings that we have on the station’s robotic arm so if one string goes down we do have a backup there. But if we don’t have the space station’s robotic arm, we cannot take the truss out of the payload bay. We don’t have that capability with the shuttle arm. So I think that if we were to have some problem, there’s a lot of faith in the, people on the ground, the engineers, and I’m sure they would evaluate all the data and hopefully they can get a work around that we could actually get it out of the payload bay and get it to where it needs to be to get it attached.
The ambitious schedule continues the next day with the first spacewalk of the mission which is all about getting S6 into position and then attaching it to the station. Tell us how you and your colleagues on orbit will do that.
It’s a long day getting the truss out to where it needs to be. We talked about previously how we get the truss out of the payload bay. That will be located on the starboard side of the space station when we start the EVA. We’ll have Ricky and Swannie going out the hatch on Ricky’s first EVA. They’ll go out there and just like anyone working construction, we have power tools and we’ll kind of balance between the robotic arm bringing the truss closer with those guys out there actually telling the robotic arm operators how their alignment is and if things look good and once they go ahead and get it close enough. Then it’s back to the old fashioned working with tools and driving bolts and getting that thing attached.
So S6 gets installed and then what happens after that?
Once it gets attached, really the whole EVA is getting it attached, providing power, supplying power to the truss and then actually getting the solar array blanket boxes. We’ll spread those out and get those into a configuration that a couple days later we can deploy the solar array wing. And so the entire EVA is really focused on that it will take the full six and a half, half hours for those guys to get it in that configuration.
We talked earlier about contingencies, if you couldn’t get the truss out of the payload bay with the failure of one of the arms. What happens if the blanket boxes, for instance, don’t unfold like they’re supposed to or something goes wrong with that process?
Well, I think we’ve learned a lot about deploying the solar array wings and getting the blanket boxes out there. I’m sure we’ll have no problems getting the blanket boxes where they need to be for the deployment. Do we know everything about solar array wings? Probably not. These have been in storage for a while so there may be surprises but I think we have a really good understanding of how they work and I think we’ve learned a lot from previous experiences. When you look at procedures that we’ll use, we’ll have the entire crew. We were actually this morning simulating that and everyone’s involved on the crew. We also have the ground involved and everyone’s looking at something specific and if we see something we don’t like, we’ll abort the sequence at that point and then evaluate where we are. So we hope we won’t get ourselves into a spot where we may do some damage to the solar array wing. I think we’ve learned a lot and we should be in good shape when that time comes.
If mission managers decide that they want to take a closer look at Discovery’s exterior, you’ll do a focused inspection. Tell us how that happens.
Well, first we hope we won’t have to do a focused inspection which means that a lot of things went right on ascent. But just like with the S6 truss, we’ll have to use the station’s robotic arm to help us remove the boom that we used on flight day 2 for that inspection. They’ll pull it out for us and then we’ll grab it with the space shuttle’s arm and then we’ll go to a specific spot that some analyst would have told us, “Hey, we may see, there may be an issue at this point. Can you guys take a look?” On the sensor package we have various things we could use. We could use a digital camera or we have a laser system that we can look at the depth of any kind of damage that we may have so a lot of it will depend on what they see as a potential damage. How we get there really will depend on where it is and we’ll kind of go from there. So it’s one of those things that a lot of work goes into planning. Some of the robotic arm operations we know we have to do but this would be something we don’t expect so there would be a lot of work done on the ground before we get those procedures.
There’s a chance that you might not have to do a focused inspection on the day that it’s been timelined for. If that’s the case, tell us about what the plan is for that day.
If we don’t have to do the focused inspection which we’re all hoping for, then we’ll move up the deployment of the solar array wings at that time. So, if all goes well on flight day 6 we’ll try to deploy them and make the space station look a little bit different.
Walk us through the procedure for deploying the solar arrays.
Again it takes the entire crew really to get this to work and for us to see everything that we want to see. We’ll have the robotic arm in the right spot so we can have various camera views using the cameras on the robotic arm but also the cameras we have on the space station. So we’ll have a lot of different views. Tony will be on the space shuttle, working some operations there and the rest of crew will be in the space station and we all have different tasks whether it be looking at different components, looking at the solar array as it’s deployed. With that group effort also including the ground, we’ll go ahead and start the, the deployment. And again if at any time anyone, whether it be on the ground or on board, doesn’t like something we’ll see, we’ll abort and that’s OK to do. We’ll take a look and see where we go from there. so I think we have a, a very good plan in place and we hope to see it go off flawlessly.
You talked about having a lot of experience with deploying solar arrays here lately. It’s been kind of an iffy process recently. Any new procedures in place because of issues with past deploys?
Yeah, getting the whole crew involved and really knowing what we’re looking for as they deploy, I think we’re going to do a better job of that and, again, if the sun gets in our eyes or we just can’t see anything, not that anything’s gone wrong, we’ll go ahead and stop and make sure that we have a clear view the entire time. The last thing we want to do is have any damage happen to the solar arrays. So if we can stop before that happens, that’s great. But I think we have learned a lot. The main thing we’re going to do is really keep a good eye on it throughout the entire process and if we need to stop we’ll do an evaluation from there.
The second spacewalk of the mission will be the first of your career. What do you imagine it’s going to be like when you float out of that hatch for, for that EVA?
I don’t know if I have quite that much of an imagination that I could even really think about what it’s going to be like. I’ve talked to a lot of people that have gone out and done a spacewalk and everyone says that it’s a little bit different to them. I’m sure it’s going to be a little apprehension going out the hatch for the first time but we train really hard and what people tell me is that you instinctively will go back to the training you had at the NBL, in the big pool that we use to train. So I’ll kind of fall back on that for the first part of my spacewalk. But I think it’s just going to be an exciting feeling. I hear the views are, are incredible, so I’m looking forward to that and trying to fit a little bit of work in there.
On that second spacewalk of the mission, you and Steve Swanson will tour the truss so to speak. Give us an idea of, of what worksites you’ll be at and tell us what you’ll be doing at the spots.
Well, EVA 2 really is a tour of the truss. We’re going to start off on the P-side. It’s on the left side of the space station and we’re going to prepare some batteries out there for an upcoming mission, STS-127. We’ll head all the way out to the left side and as we work our way back in, there are a couple of platforms that are kind of folded inside of the truss and we’re going to deploy one of the port side and one on the starboard side. So it kind of goes from inside the truss and we’ll fold them out and we’re able to use those platforms either for payloads or for replacement parts that come up. They can have power supplied there so we’ll deploy a couple of those. Then we’re also going to do various tasks along the port side, really looking at, kind of future missions, if something were to go wrong on the space station. We’re going to prepare different parts of the station so we can deal with those problems. Really, I’d say, spacewalks 2 and 3 are looking ahead to the future, what’s coming up.
Assuming the S6 has been installed successfully and the solar arrays have been deployed. EVA 3 will be the point where you turn your attention to some other hardware. Tell us what’s planned for that spacewalk.
EVA 3, for me is going to be a special EVA. I’ll be going out with Ricky Arnold. We’re classmates so it’s, pretty neat for us both to go out the door at the same time. Again on EVA 3, we’re looking at preparing the station for future flights. We’re going to relocate one of the two CETA carts; those are the carts that go along the front of the truss. We’ll take one from the port side and move that over to the starboard side. I’ll be on the robotic arm carrying this thing over to the other side. That should be a good time. And then Ricky’s going to do some work on the space station’s robotic arm similar to 126 where they lubricated the end of the, of the arm which we use to grab onto payloads. He’ll be working on that, lubricating the snares that are in there. He’s also going to be working on the lab area on the SPDM which is another robotic arm fixture we have out there, getting some covers in place and removing others. While he’s doing that I’ll be doing tasks similar to what I did on EVA 2 but instead of being on the port side I’ll do that on the starboard side. So we kind of have a little bit of everything going on EVA 3.
And then what’s the plan for the fourth and final scheduled EVA of the mission?
The fourth EVA will be Steve Swanson and Ricky Arnold going out the hatch again. Swannie will be going all the way out to the Japanese module so he’ll take quite a tour going out there. He’ll be installing a new GPS antenna on that module. While he’s doing that, Ricky will be taking both infrared and digital images of a couple of the radiators that we have on the space station. They also have some of those payload-attach systems that they’ll deploy. We have a couple more of those on the starboard side and they have another antenna they need to deploy.
After your work on ISS is done, you and your crewmates will depart that station. As you’re pulling away you’ll get your first big picture views of the station with the fully built-out truss and all of its solar arrays. How do you think you’re going to feel knowing your contribution will allow the ISS to do more for more people?
I think it’s going to be a very fulfilling feeling. I think it’s going to be neat to pull away and see the station in its new configuration with the new solar arrays out there. I think like anyone that may work with their hands -- whether you’re working in construction or a medical doctor -- when you finish a job you, you really feel fulfilled and it’s a good feeling. I think we’re all going to be happy to pull away and see the work that we’ve done, not only for what we see out the window but, like you said, the station’s going to have much more capability. We’ve talked about the International Space Station and what it’s there for. I think now we’ve have a lot more ability to conduct the science which is really why we’re out there. And so with the new solar arrays we’ll have that power for international partners to conduct more experiments. Being a small part of that, it’s a good feeling.