Preflight Interview: Richard Arnold, Mission Specialist
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Astronaut Richard Arnold, STS-119 mission specialist. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-119 crew interview with Mission Specialist Richard Arnold. Your crewmates and people who know you well refer to you by your nickname, Ricky, just for the record. Ricky, give me some sense of what it was that, that made you want to become an astronaut.

I guess as a kid growing up in Maryland, there were three things that really interested me. One was a third baseman by the name of Brooks Robinson who played for the Orioles. Two was the guys walking around on the moon, and three was a gentleman named Jacques Cousteau. I used to watch his show every Sunday. I was really motivated by those three things. I quickly realized that the Brooks Robinson route in life was not going to happen through my antics in Little League. But I ended up taking the route where I wanted to go study marine science.

Tell me more about that. How did you get into that and what was that like, the marine science thing?

I had a fortunate series of experiences. One was I ended up in graduate school at the University of Maryland. They have an environmental science center over on the eastern shore, the Hornpoint Environmental Lab, and I got in with a really good group of scientists there on my advisory committee who also really encouraged me to try some different things in the field when I finished. Prior to that I’d actually worked as a, oceanographic technician at the Naval Academy and it was there I kind of got the bug for teaching so I kind of had dueling interests there. I got to work with a lot of the incoming midshipmen and really enjoyed that and I also enjoyed the oceanography. At some point I decided that I can combine these two and do something really worthwhile. I ended up with a career in education.

Tell me about your teaching experiences. What's that like to be able to impact kids and know that the things that you offer have made a difference?

Teaching is a great profession. I taught school for 15 years, grades six through twelve. It’s a really difficult job. I don’t know that I really started getting proficient at it until I’d been teaching for quite some time, but you get to go in every day and mentor kids and work with kids. They haven’t yet determined what their life story is going to be and where they want to go. To be able to help them think about what the possibilities are and then when you’re teaching long enough and you get old enough, you start seeing them realize a lot of their dreams. It’s a really, really rewarding thing to run into a kid somewhere, to get an e-mail out of the blue and say, “Hey, I just finished medical school” or, you know, “I just got married and we’re getting ready to have our first child and I really appreciated the things you did when I was in seventh grade or when I was in eighth grade.” It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s, it’s a really powerful moment.

Have there been many instances where you’ve found that you as a teacher have learned?

Oh, every day.

Tell me about some of that.

You don’t really realize how much you don’t know until someone starts asking you. When you have kids who are really interested and particularly being fortunate enough to teach science – there are so many open ended questions in sciences -- kids just ask questions. You just can’t possibly have the answers to everything. When you get to teach something that’s really open ended and so early on, I’d be going home studying every night because of the questions I couldn’t answer. There’s an old saying that you don’t really know something until you have to teach it. The reason is that you have 20 to 30 people holding you accountable in every single classroom for the knowledge. That was really exciting. One of the really exciting things for me in a selfish way was a job where I just got paid to learn. And it’s a lot of fun when you’re working with a group of people and you’re sitting there learning together and it's one of the real rewards of the profession.

You talked a little bit about the marine science. Did your hometown, where you grew up, that play into your interest in, in the water and marine life?

I had two, I guess, really influences with that. One is, growing up so close to Chesapeake Bay and spending a lot of time out there fishing and crabbing when I was a kid. I also had grandparents who lived down on the coast of Florida and we used to make the journey down there to visit them. It was down there that I got to put on a snorkel and a mask for the first time and go look underwater. It was, it was really exciting for a third, fourth grader.

What was your immediate feeling when you submerged and you were in that environment?

I wasn’t a big hurry to come back up. That was real exciting.

Can you, can you recount some of the things you saw down the first time and how that impacted you?

That was a while ago. I can actually because it was a pretty neat moment. There was an old jetty that was used to kind of stabilize the beach I assume. You get down in the water and I remember it being really quiet and yet there’s this flurry of activity around with all the fish and the different sea life. I remember the first time, going along that jetty and there’s just a nice-sized barracuda hanging out and we just kind of sat there and stared at each other for awhile. It was a pretty neat experience.

Pretty brave, too.

Maybe not very smart, but…

Who or what was it that made you realize the value of education in life?

My parents definitely, from early on. In hindsight I look back and they moved to a specific place because it had a good school system. They were always really involved in my education and really encouraged me a lot. They always made it clear that I’d be going to college when I graduated from high school, because that was an opportunity that neither of them had. The other was some of the teachers I had along the way who really made a big difference in, in making me who I am as a person.

As far as the teachers, what was it about them? Was it their teaching styles or was it the methods or just, how did they reach you and the other students?

I think it’s like anywhere else. Kids can tell who cares about them and there were certain teachers, it wasn’t so much what they were teaching. It was how they were, treating you as an individual and the fact that they showed they cared about you. It made a huge difference.

As an educator, you presumably believe in the notion that education can take you anywhere? Here we are. We’re knocking on the door. You’re about to go to space. So you’re a living, breathing example of that. How do you, how would you hope that your example impacts other kids?

Well if you look at our crew, we all come from very diverse backgrounds, different parts of the country, different experiences professionally, different family experiences. Yet, the one thing we do have in common is that education was a really important part of who we were growing up and even as adults. Those dreams are all out there for these kids that are sitting in school today to realize. You just have to pick what you want to do and work hard to get there.

NASA is striving to inspire the next generation of space explorers. How would you suggest NASA do that? How is NASA doing in that endeavor?

The way I like to think of it is one of the things that I think this agency does really well is kind of stick a flag out in the future and say, “Here, here’s where we’re going,” you know, “We want to go back to the moon and set up long-term scientific outposts there. We want to go to Mars and see what’s going on there in terms of geology and the history of the solar system.” I think those national goals and international goals are really important and much like a generation that was inspired to put people on the moon for the first time. There are kids in school today sitting there thinking about, “Well, you know, I’d really like to be a part of that.” What they need to be thinking about is what part do they want to play. This is going to be a journey that is made one day and, there’s going to be people all over the world making it happen. So they just need to be thinking about, “What part do I want to play?” It’s not just a handful of people doing it. It’s thousands of people everywhere.

You were selected as an astronaut candidate the year after Columbia and the year before Return to Flight. What was it that made you think that or make you feel that coming to NASA was still the right thing for you during that time of uncertainty?

We’ve experienced some tragedies in NASA throughout the history of human, human space flight. Those are difficult lessons we learn as we go out and do things that have never been done before. I had actually just mailed my application in right before the accident happened. I remember watching it on the news with my wife live. We were in a different time zone so it was really late at night. We looked at each other and we said, “You know, this is something that needs to be done” and we’ll learn from the mistakes. We’ll take those lessons and do the best we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but that’s no reason to quit trying.

What’s it been like training with your crewmates for this mission? You’ve developed relationships. You’ve been able to kind of, learn from some of the more experienced crew members. What’s that been like?

It’s been a good time. I’m part of a great team and it’s not just the crew. We have a great training team that’s getting us ready for this mission. We also have a great ground team that’s going to help us pull off this mission. We’ve just been really impressed by the, the quality of the people, the camaraderie we’ve developed and the sense of teamwork that we’ve developed to go pull off a really difficult mission.

And you mentioned the, the ground support personnel. They’re an extension of the crew. Without them nothing’s possible.


What it is like when you, when you’ve gotten a chance to meet these people during your, your travels for training, to talk with them and kind of interact with them?

That’s one of the real joys of going out to the other centers and meeting some of these folks because they understand what they do really, really well, to a detail that we sitting here can’t even begin to comprehend. They’re part of a mission that we’re trying to pull off and they understand the consequences if they don’t get their job right. I met a gentleman down at Kennedy Space Center before one of the previous launches and he’s the guy who makes the, the pumps that pump the fuel for the main engines. It’s, something we’ve been concerned about since early on in the program. And I go up and talked to guy and introduced myself and he said, “You’ve got nothing to worry about. We’re, we’re taking good care of you guys.” And you tell them about how much you appreciate it and we kind of take mutual pride in what the agency’s able to pull off.

One of the things that you and your crew will do is deliver Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata to ISS to become JAXA’s first long duration astronaut. It’s a big deal for that agency and for ISS as a whole. What’s it feel like to have a part in reaching that milestone?

It’s really exciting. One of my jobs in the astronaut office before I was assigned was to be part of the team that was helping get the JEM, their experiment module, ready to fly on STS-124. So I know a lot of the folks over in Japan who’ve been working for a long time to see this day come to fruition and it’s really exciting to be the guy delivering Koichi, or ‘The Man’ as they call him over in Japan, up into space.

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Astronaut/aquanaut Richard R. Arnold II poses for a photo, while under his habitat, during a session of extravehicular activity for the 13th NEEMO mission. Photo Credit: NASA

You also participated in the underwater experiment called NEEMO. Tell me about that. First of all what it is for people who may not know and tell me what it was like.

NEEMO is a joint operation with NASA and NOAA. It’s NASA Extreme Environment Mission Objectives. There’s an underwater habitat off the coast of Key Largo called Aquarius. It’s about the size of a bus and it houses six people. NASA takes down astronauts and engineers along with a crew from NOAA. I was part of NEEMO 13 so thirteen missions thus far, developing techniques for setting up outposts on the moon and Mars. One of the neat things about working underwater is you can use the buoyant effects of water to create kind of an artificial gravity environment. So, they were able to weigh us out like we would walk on the moon and, and then have us do different tasks to help develop the next generation of spacesuits that folks are going to use for walking and working on the moon. One of the most interesting things about it when we were doing these tasks, it was, they would try to get us to come up with different techniques to get from point A to point B and to pick up a rock and to do really simple tasks here on Earth but in one-sixth gravity with this cumbersome suit, we do it differently. If you go back and look at the footage that we filmed and the techniques we ended up preferring was the same thing the guys in Apollo were doing. Kind of bunny hopping across the surface and ways you were bending down to pick up a rock so they thought a lot, they came up with a lot of really good answers during the Apollo program about how we’re going to live and work on the moon.

Could you summarize for me the main goals of this mission, STS-119?

The, the main goal, well, two of them, and you alluded to one earlier, is getting Koichi up and bringing Sandy Magnus back home. The main hardware objective is we’re taking up the S6 truss. We’re going to install the truss and deploy the solar arrays to start providing more power for the International Space Station.

Tell me a little bit about the S6 truss. What, what is it? What’s it for? How is it going to change the station?

It looks like something that was built by an erector set. We call it the backbone of the station. You have kind of the living quarters which are basically a hollow tube running down the length of the station and then you have the structure called the truss that kind of runs perpendicular and the truss provides the, a place to generate power and to put a lot of the hardware for cooling and, and power. We’re going to attach the last segment. The S6 is about the size of a school bus. We’re going to attach it onto the end and then we’re going to deploy a pair of 240-foot solar arrays that will provide the power needed to accommodate a six-person crew and to do the full science on the new labs, the Columbus and the JEM that we just installed over the past year or so.

And for this mission you are a Mission Specialist. What are some of your key roles and responsibilities as Mission Specialist?

One of my key roles is part of the EVA team. I’ll be participating in, in three spacewalks and I’ll be choreographing the other spacewalk from the flight deck of Discovery. We have four EVAs and that’s really the big focus of our mission. I have a couple of other responsibilities. I’m going to be responsible for operating the docking system when we go to dock with the International Space Station. Steve Swanson and I will be doing that and I also will be responsible for getting all of our pictures back home.

So we’ll be counting on you for that.

That’s right, yeah. You’ll know who to blame.

How would you characterize the job that the STS-126 crew did on the starboard side solar alpha rotary joint and how, how it has impacted the relevance of your mission?

They did an outstanding job. We have trained some of that task. It was not an easy task. They came up with some great ideas really on the fly and you know the data that’s been coming back about how those joints have been performing is showing us that they came up with some really good ideas. For us, having the ability to rotate the SARJ more frequently, the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, means that when we attach those new solar arrays that it’s going to be able to more effectively provide power to the station. Being able to rotate, to rotate that joint more frequently is a big deal.

On flight day 1 you and your crew will launch on board Discovery. You’ll check out and configure systems for your stay in space. Then on flight day 2 there’s a limited inspection of Discovery’s exterior. Tell me about [that] activity.

On flight day 2, Steve Swanson and I will be, downstairs in the mid-deck checking out our EMUs or our spacesuits. While we’re doing that, the rest of the crew basically will be part of the robotics teams and they will be doing a survey of the wing leading edge and also the nose cap just to see if we sustained any damage on ascent, to get a first look at the reinforced carbon carbon panels on those areas of the vehicle. They’re going to be busy all day doing that and it’s, it’s really good to get that data back and find out we’re looking good.

Then I know on the next day it’s going to be the first of several very busy days for both the crew on board Discovery and the crew on ISS. I know you just mentioned you and Steve Swanson will come in near the end of that to operate the docking mechanism. What are some of the other activities that day with rendezvous and docking?

It’s a really busy day. The rendezvous team will be up doing a series of burns to get us up to the International Space Station so we can catch up and dock with it. There’s a lot of reconfiguring that goes on for that phase of flight. We are also busy downstairs getting all the stuff ready because once we dock you kind of hit the ground running and a lot of transfer that to occur. We have to get all of our spacewalking gear over to the station so it’s going to be a really busy day during already really busy activity which is actually flying and getting where you need to go.

Then on flight day 4 the focus turns to S6 and getting it out of Discovery’s payload bay. That’s a joint robotic work between the shuttle and ISS. Can you describe for me how you and your colleagues will get S6 out of Discovery’s payload bay and to the point where it will rest over night?

We use the station, space station arm which we call the Big Arm, to actually reach into the payload bay and pull the truss out. But because the S6 is so far out on structure, the robotic arm in that position can’t reach around and put the truss where it needs to be so the Big Arm will, will hand the truss back to the shuttle arm and then the big arm is mounted to this, almost like a train carrier, like a small set of rails that it will then move down to get farther out on structure. Then they will reach back, grab the truss, and get it into position so that we can park it at the end of the truss.

We don’t like to think of things not going as planned but it happens. What options are at your disposal if for instance one of the arms doesn’t work, if it fails during that, that procedure?

Well, the big picture is having the big\arm or the station arm is critical to getting the S6 out of the payload bay. Fortunately it’s redundantly powered. It has two separate strings and the odds of both of those failing on one day are pretty slim. So we’re pretty confident that getting it out of the payload bay is not going to be an issue. Any other failures after that, the ground team will get really busy, coming up with a solution for us to get the truss segment to where it needs to be.

The ambitious schedule continues the next day with the first spacewalk of the mission, also the first of your career. What’s the anticipation like for you right now sitting here?

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Astronaut Richard Arnold, STS-119 mission specialist, participates in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article in the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

I try to imagine what it’s like when we’re over at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the large pool where we train our spacewalks. I’ve been paying a lot more attention to trying to imagine what it’s going to look like and, what it’s going to feel like the first time you, come out the hatch. I imagine that’s one of those experiences I’ll have to talk to you about after. The feedback I get from other crew members who are going up for their first spacewalk is that when you first come out of the hatch, it’s, pretty spectacular, and maybe a little disorienting. Then you grab your first handrail and it’s like you’re right back in the pool and you know where everything is and where you go and you’re really busy because you’re on a short timeframe with a lot of things to do and you kind of get focused. It's just like working back in the pool at that point.

EVA 1 is all about getting S6 installed. Tell me about that activity. What, what’s going to happen during that EVA with the installing S6?

It’s going to be a lot like backing a car into the garage. Steve Swanson and I will be out on the end of the truss where we’re going to attach this last segment. John and Koichi will be flying the robotic arm and we’ll kind of be giving them directions. "Come on back. A little to the right, a little to the left.” They’ll dock it and then we’ll go around, rotate and drive some bolts and attach it. Then we have a whole bunch of activities to follow and then to prepare for the solar array deploy.

OK, so S6 gets installed and you make power and data connections. And then there are some other tasks in that EVA. Tell me what the rest of the story is for EVA 1.

Once S6 is installed, then we actually go out onto S6. You have these giant solar arrays which are folded up like an accordion in blanket boxes. Right now they’re anchored down to the structure for launch. We got to release them from structure, actually partially deploy the boxes themselves and rotate them around because the arrays are actually sitting next to each other, side by side. We've got to bring them a 180 out from each other. After we go back inside we can follow up with the deploy. But it’s all about getting ready for the deploy after we get it installed.

What happens in the unlikely event that the solar array blanket boxes don’t quite unfold?

A lot depends on where we are time-wise. We think that if things are going as planned, we have contingency procedures that we’ve trained for releasing the blanket boxes manually. If there were some other reason we were slowed down and we couldn’t get to it during EVA 1, then we’ll come back out for EVA 2 and manually deploy the blanket boxes.

If mission managers decide they want to take a closer look at Discovery’s exterior once you’re docked, you’ll do what’s called a focused inspection. That may or may not happen. You guys won’t know that until you get there. If it doesn’t happen, if they decide everything looks good with the shuttle, what is planned for that particular day?

What we’re hoping will happen is that we will have gotten everything done on EVA 1 and the blanket boxes are deployed and everything’s ready to go to deploy the solar array and we’ll actually be able to deploy the solar arrays a couple days early. And, that will be really exciting. If that early in the mission we get a good deploy of the arrays and everything’s up and running, that will be a really good feeling at that point.

Talk me through that process, and include kind of highlight who’s going to be involved and just a big picture view of what’s going to happen including the ground.

Everyone’s going to be involved. We’ve seen these deploys before on, on television, and the entire crew actually just had a sim the other day where we were doing this. The entire crew, the ISS crew and shuttle crew with the exception of one shuttle crewmember, is on ISS, around the robotics work station. That’s where we have all of our camera views and that’s where the deploy command will be sent from. So that team is on ISS. You’ll have our pilot, Tony Antonelli, who will be on shuttle helping us get some good pictures with the shuttle arm and also with some of the shuttle cameras and you’re going to have a massive team on the ground that’s going to be watching the same video we’re watching, looking for, for any problems. When we've got the right thermal conditions, the sun’s out and the arrays have gotten nice and warm. We have really good camera views. John Phillips will, simple as this, hit the deploy on the computer and we’ll all be watching the array start to unfold. All of us have specific areas on the array that we’re going to be watching, to make sure there’s no problem with our little piece of the puzzle. The same will be happening on the ground and if any one of those three teams, the folks on the station, Tony on the shuttle, the folks on the ground, see something they don’t like, we’ll send the abort command. We’ll stop, gather ourselves, see what data we have and then proceed from there.

This business of dealing with solar array deploys has been kind of dicey in the past. Are there any updated procedures just based on past issues with solar array deploys?

We’ve learned a lot. One thing we’ve learned is that we’re not going to have to, hopefully, take this solar array back in and so create problems. We just have to deploy it, and it’ll stay deployed. A couple of issues we think we’ve gotten a handle on. One is to make sure the lighting is just right so what we were discussing earlier, everyone has a specific thing to watch. But if you have the sun in your eyes or you have a shadow cast on something, it becomes very hard to see so we’re going to make sure we deploying when the sun is just right and there's not going to be any way that what we’re looking at is obscured. The second thing is, we think that the right thermal conditions make a big difference. You’ve heard about the problem of sticktion where the panels that are supposed to unfold stick together. Our plan is that if we see anything we don’t like, we’ll abort. We’ll stop and just allow the thing to bake a little bit and warm up. We think that’s enough to release that sticktion and allow the deploy to continue.

On the second spacewalk Joe Acaba and Steve Swanson will sort of tour the truss. Can you give me an idea of what work sites they’ll be at and some of the things they’ll be doing?

Well, as I said, on EVA 1 we’re attaching the S6 which will be out on the starboard side all the way. They’re going to go out to the P6 on the, the opposite side of where we’d done our work on EVA 1. They’re going to prep some batteries for the next mission, STS-127. Those guys have some battery changeouts they’re going to do. We’re going to do some prep work to make their job a little bit easier. They have some fluid lines they’re going to move around, out on the P side or the port side. They then have, on both the port and the starboard side, they have these payload attachments systems that need to be deployed, where you can put an experiment or something and one of them will be a powered attachment system and the other one will not, but it gives you a location to attach payloads out in space for, for experiments and what have you.

Assuming S6 gets installed and deployed and everything is fine with that, you’ll move on to some other hardware on EVA 3. You’ll be the, the lead EV on that one. Tell me about what you’ll do on that EVA.

Again, again we’re doing, some, some prep work for the next mission. The first task right out of, right out of the hatch is to get Joe on the robotic arm and we have these CETA carts, where kind of, they’re, they’re crew and equipment transfer vehicles. They’re like little train cars that ride up and down the truss and we need to move one from one side of the station to the other so Joe gets a really exciting ride on the robotic arm. He gets to grab this thing and go around. I’ll, I’ll translate along and the arm will put him back on the other side and we’ll mount it back on the track on the other side where it needs to be. Following that, Joe has some, some electrical connections and work that he’s going to do out on the starboard side. I’ll be getting on the arm and riding down to Dextre and doing a few tasks there. There’s some MLI covers and few other things that need to be tweaked with Dextre. Then, much like 126 did, we’re going to lubricate the latching end effector of the station robotic arm. These things grapple by using a set of cables that are snares and they’re able to close snares and attach to a pin. That’s how they’re able to pick up big payloads and move them around. Well, the snares are getting a little gummed up so we’re going to try to clean them and make them operate a little bit better.

You mentioned Dextre. Just for informational purposes, can you explain what Dextre is?

Dextre is this really complicated robot built by our Canadian partners. It is a machine that is able to do a lot of the work that I’m able to do. It’s able to move around, drive bolts and change out ORUs. It is a pretty good size robotic structure that’s able to do a lot more fine kind of work around the station than current robotic arms are able to do.

And kind of give us an overview, if you would, of what’s going to happen on the fourth and final scheduled EVA of the mission.

There are a couple tasks. One is, we’ve noticed one of the panels on our radiators which help us basically release heat out into space has begun to peel back. We don’t really yet understand what that means, how it was caused and how it’s impacting our ability to get rid of excess heat off the station. So Steve Swanson and I will come out of the hatch and he’ll go forward on the station to go install a GPS antenna on the Japanese module. I’m going to head aft, get in a foot restraint and take some infrared thermal images of both the radiators. That's to see if we can get some data that helps us understand what’s going on with the radiators and why this panel is peeling back and how that's affecting us. I’ll get some still images of both the radiators and, if I have some time, hopefully get some really good images of the entire backside of the station.

After your work on ISS is done, you and your crew will eventually depart. As you’re pulling away, you’ll get a chance to get your first big picture view of the station with the fully built out truss and solar arrays all there. How do you feel knowing that the contribution that you’ve been part of is going to help the station do more with more people in the future?

That’s a great question, because when you back away from the station you see, and every crew that has taken up a major piece of hardware and seen this, not only your work but the work of the ground team and the folks who actually built this hardware -- some of which was built 10 years ago -- and the engineers who designed it. It was designed even longer ago. There’s a whole group of people who are kind of realizing a life’s work there. So that’s going to be kind of thrilling to know that entire team is going to be sitting there saying, “Hey, you know. I had a part in this.” I think for us looking at it, it’s going to be kind of nice seeing the station as we’re kind of getting close to finishing it. It's going to be 90 some percent complete and, as you said, it’ll be symmetrical. There’ll be two pairs of arrays on either side. I’m look forward to getting some good footage of that fly around and coming back and sharing it with the folks on the ground.