Preflight Interview: Steven Swanson, Mission Specialist
JSC2006-E-44334: Astronaut Steven Swanson

Astronaut Steven R. Swanson, STS-119 mission specialist. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-119 interview with Mission Specialist Steve Swanson. Steve, would you tell us the story about how and why you decided to become an astronaut?

Sure, no problem. It started back in graduate school when I was getting ready to graduate from graduate school and had to come up with a job that I was going to do for the rest of my life. At that point I really didn’t know for sure. I knew I liked science and engineering. I just didn’t know exactly where in that area I was going to work. So I started thinking about really what I want to do for a long time and what would excite me and keep me interested and that’s when the astronaut idea came into my head. So I started looking into it at that time. I still didn’t really qualify for the job at that time. I don’t know if I’m qualified at this time, but I’m doing it. So I started looking into it and I started going towards that goal at that time.

Once you made that decision, tell us about how you actually got here. What educational steps and professional steps did you take?

I started to work in the engineering field after I got out of my graduate school, after the master’s and applied to NASA as an astronaut, but again I wasn’t qualified. After about a year, they actually gave me a call and said, “Hey, do you want to just come work for us and learn more about NASA and how we operate and get some experience?” And I said, “Sure” and came to work at Aircraft Operations Directorate, working on the shuttle training aircraft, starting off as an engineer, then a flight simulation engineer. That was a great job, a wonderful job I had there. It combines both the engineering aspect of the job and also the flying aspect which made it very enjoyable. I really liked that job. After about 11 years of that I got selected as an astronaut. While I was doing my time at Aircraft Ops I went off and got a Ph.D. Maybe that does help when you’re trying to become an astronaut.

Tell me about the place that you consider your hometown and, and how that place influenced you and the things that you’ve accomplished.

I consider Steamboat Springs, Colo., my hometown. Steamboat Springs is a beautiful place. What I think it helps me in achieving my goals is more the fact of just an outdoor self-reliant type attitude that you have there. I’ve used that I guess throughout my career here, just in my life. I do like doing outdoors. Maybe helps in spacewalks, you know, going for a big hike outside in inclement weather. But over all it just, it was a wonderful place to grow up. It gave me great memories.

So, so it kind of helped you appreciate the, the, being an explorer basically?

Yeah, exactly. Growing up I loved to explore and go for hikes -- not even follow a trail. Just go off and go, finally get to the top of a mountain somewhere. I really think that kind of idea of exploration was set in my brain at that time.

What or who helped you realize the value of education in life?

I think my parents definitely drove in the fact that education was very important. It was never an option really what you’re going to do with your life in the sense of getting a good education. As you just look around in the world, you see that the people that you want to emulate or be like had education part as part of their background. The jobs I wanted to do needed education also and you combine, all together it was just for me an idea that I had no choice but really to go on and get a good education and, again I thank my parents. That was a wonderful opportunity and I do appreciate that.

What’s it been like working with these crewmates as you’ve trained for this mission? Tell me about some of [the] relationships and some of the intangibles that you’ve seen in your crewmates.

In one way it’s very difficult because they’re all smarter and work harder than I do so that makes me look bad. But besides that they’re a great bunch of guys and I do enjoy it very much. We have a good time. As with any crew you, you get along in a mission and you’ve been working with somebody for nine months. There are a lot of inside jokes going on so we have a good time with that. But they’re also all very competent people. I enjoy their work ethic and they are also very intelligent, smart type people. It’s fun to work with people like that who are very competent. They get the job done and at the same time they do have fun. It’s a good mix.

Can you, can you take a moment and maybe go one by one and tell us a little bit about what, what impresses you about each one of them?

Oh, you want me to give positive attributes about my crewmates? That’s not going to happen. No, let’s see, start out with our commander Lee Archambault. We call him “Bru”. It’s a good story if you ever want to ask him that one. He is again a competent individual. He is very organized, which is his job and he keeps us very much on the right path in the sense of our schedule which is a very difficult thing to manage during training flow. We have lots of different things that point us in different ways. He keeps that all under control. He makes sure that we’re training on the right things, that we’re not training too much in some areas and a little, too little in other areas and that our time is not being wasted anywhere. He does that very well. It takes somebody using a lot of discipline and diligence to do that job and he definitely does that. But he also has a nice dry sense of humor which comes out once in a while which is nice to see. Our pilot, Tony Antonelli, is a Navy man and has the good demeanor of a Navy man. He has good, dry wit but is very competent at the same time. We do a lot of, I guess Navy style jokes with him. He's a fun guy, but again a very, very good pilot. He knows his systems very well on the shuttle and his job, and hopefully he can clean a very good toilet. Next would be Joe Acaba, MS 1. I’ve been working with Joe a lot because he’s one of the EVA guys with me. He and Ricky both are some of the hardest working, diligent people you could ever imagine. They’ve taken on tasks and done much more than I ever did in my first time doing this job when I was doing my first mission two years ago. They’ve worked so hard at it and become so competent it’s amazing. Their abilities are just very impressive. Then again at the same time, I enjoy being around them. They've got good sense of humors. We have a good time talking to each other. It’s just fun to be with them. I enjoy it.

And John Phillips?

And John Phillips, he’s the old salty dog of the crew. He has a huge amount of experience in space and in life period. He definitely is a great to have on the crew, a very good asset. He likes the mountains like I do. We have a good time joking around him also. He takes it well because we do rib him a lot about his age. And Koichi … Koichi is a fantastic person to begin with, amazing. Just an impressive person to be around. The guy is amazing. I mean, he always got the, the term “The Man” from his earlier missions because he was so good at everything. He’s actually more of a demigod, but he’s just an amazing person, very nice. He's the type of guy that is always considerate towards everybody and, at the same time though, is super competent, a really nice guy, unbelievable.

And your crew will deliver Koichi Wakata to ISS to be the Japanese Space Agency’s first long-duration astronaut on ISS. That’s a milestone for that space agency. How does it feel to, to have a role in, in doing that?

It’s very nice. I’m honored to be part of the space agency or space program anyway and so it’s great for JAXA and the Japanese people. They’ve worked very hard and spent a lot of resources on the International Space Station. Now they get to see some of the fruits of their labor. I know they get to have a Japanese person on board the station living and I think that’s just a great thing for them. I hope they enjoy it tremendously. It’s a great honor.

There are thousands of people behind the scenes that work hard to make this and every mission a success. What are your thoughts about their contributions and what’s it like when you get to meet these people during your travels for training?

They do a fantastic job in their contribution towards the space program, actually probably more than we do as astronauts. They are just an amazing group of people because they usually do all the things that needed to get the job done and that’s sometimes without management help. As you know, as a political agency sometimes it doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d like but these people, no matter what happens, they always get the job done. I find that amazing. And I’ve worked with many of them, just working in Mission Control as a capcom. We got to work with a lot of them and that was very enjoyable. They do a fantastic job in, in Mission Control on getting us ready, the vehicle ready, and they run smoothly. It’s a great thing. And then from our trainers to the engineers, everybody’s just fantastic. They make sure we’re ready to go. The engineers make sure all the systems are well thought out and work well. It’s just a great team effort they have here at NASA.

JSC2008-E-052160: Steve Swanson

Attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, astronaut Steve Swanson, STS-119 mission specialist, watches a crewmember during a training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Tell me a little bit what it was like for your first spaceflight, and your first EVA, just coming out of that hatch.

That was an amazing experience, really hard to even describe. What I found most interesting or I liked the most on the spaceflight was just being in the microgravity environment, just floating around. I found that made everything fun. It was always just interesting to do everything new at that time. I felt like I could have been there for a long time and enjoyed myself. Of course, one of the highlights was doing the spacewalk and that was amazing. It was nighttime when I came out the hatch so it feels just like you’re in the pool, the NBL. That made it, no big deal coming out at all. I worked my way up to the top of the station at that time where P6 was on the top. So I got myself in position for a task up there and that’s when the sun came out. That was an amazing view. It was just, heart-stopping, hanging on the top of the station. You look out and the sun comes up and you can see the station with Earth below. I couldn’t work there for a few minutes. I just stopped and just looked at everything and took it all in. It was amazing.

Did you by chance get a chance to see, see your hometown from space?

Not while I was outside but during the mission, we did. That was nice. It still looks beautiful from up there. But I found out that as you go around the Earth and see many different parts of it, places you’ve never been, you find out that there are many places on Earth that look just as beautiful. You’d love to go explore those areas, too. I didn’t realize how much was out there that you still have no idea about or would love to go see.

Could you summarize the main goals of this mission? What will you and your crew be trying to accomplish?

Well, one of the goals, of course, is to take Koichi up and bring Sandy down. The next one would be the S6 truss and its solar array and get that all on and deployed and generating electricity. I think those would be our main goals of the mission. We do have some transfer items we need to bring across and help out for the space station. From then on, it’s tasks to help the station be in a better configuration for the next 10 years.

And as a mission specialist what are some of your main roles and responsibilities on this mission?

Mission specialist 2 is a flight engineer spot on ascent and entry. I’ll be on the flight deck helping the plot and commander do the ascent and entry phase of flight which is a wonderful spot to be in for a mission specialist. I enjoy that tremendously. After that, my main task is to lead the spacewalks. We’ll have four spacewalks. I’ll be out on three of them, the first, second and fourth. For the third one, I’ll be the inside quarterback or choreographer. We call that the IV. I’ll be doing that job for the third one.

Could you give us your best description of the S6 truss and its attached solar arrays?

My best is not very good. I’ll start off with that. It is a metal structure that fits in the payload bay. It’s about 35 feet long, I believe. It’s pretty much, call it a square shape with the sides being around 10 feet long. It will have a spacer part which is just structure until you get the solar array farther away from the closer solar array on the space station. It will have a solar array section with batteries and associated electrical components of that out there. When it’s launched it has to be in a launch configuration which means all the solar arrays are bolted down in a configuration so the shaking of launch will not damage them. When we get out there the first thing we have to do is get it in a configuration so that we can deploy the solar arrays. I believe it weighs around 31,000 pounds.

And once S6 and its solar arrays are attached and activated and deployed, tell us about the change in capability for station and the look of it.

First of all, it’ll be symmetric which is to me a very important thing. We did it on 117 and now we’ll do it on 119, making the station symmetric. It’ll finally look like those artists’ renditions of years ago, what space station should be. And powerwise, will increase it about 33 percent. We’re going from three solar arrays to four solar arrays so that will be great addition. We can now do more science. We can bring more modules on. They will be a great help, I think, to the International Space Station.

How would you characterize the job that the STS-126 crew did during their mission on this starboard side solar alpha rotary joint and its relevance to your mission?

They did a great job. In fact, they, right now from the data we’ve been told that the solar alpha rotary joint is working well or at least definitely a lot better and they probably can use it and that will help us tremendously since our S6 goes on, on the outside of that and the idea of that joint, of course, is so that the solar arrays can track the sun and this will help them, of course, produce more electrical energy to run the station. If it can track the sun, it does better at getting energy out. So their job that they did will enable our truss segment to be more productive.

On flight day 1 you and your crew will launch on board Discovery and check out and configure systems for your stay in space. Then on flight day 2 there’s a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior. Can you tell us about that activity with the boom sensor system?

The idea of that is just to make sure that – we call it thermal protection system -- and more specifically on this day it is the leading edges of the wings and the nose cap are in good shape and we look at that very detailed with sensors that can tell us if there’s cracks, delamination, or any issues with this leading edges or nose cone and we’ll go over that very carefully. It takes about six hours to do that job and after that the data is sent to the ground where it’s processed and they will tell us if it passes or not for reentry.

The next day is the first of several very busy days for both your crew on, on board Discovery and the crew on ISS. Tell us about rendezvous and docking, how that will proceed. Specifically what will you be doing for that activity.

Rendezvous mostly starts that morning of the flight day 3 and from then on we get ourselves in the proper position to dock with the station and we will do that. We will set up different burns to adjust our orbit to come up on the nadir or below the station. At that point, we get about 600 feet below. We’ll come in. That’s when we do the flip maneuver so they can take pictures of the belly and make sure the tile on the underside is OK. And then we’ll get in front of the station and then move back on in and dock. The whole thing takes probably about six hours.

And is it just Tony, Bru and Joe that are going to be on the flight deck at that point?

No, on the flight deck are various people at different times. Definitely Tony and Bru are on there mostly. John is the rendezvous MS. He’s working a couple different systems. One is a laptop that helps give the trajectory and so there it’s very nice to see exactly where you’re going, type program. It’s called RPOP and it’s a wonderful program that we use. We also have handheld laser. We can take marks on the station to give us distance and a rate on the station. That is John’s job. Joe and Tony are also up there, again helping with the systems. Ricky and I are called the union men because we work on the APDS or the docking system itself. We don’t get called in until about probably 45 minutes to docking when we set it up. Then again just at docking we have to work, so during that whole process actually we’re downstairs doing, EMU, transfer stuff, getting set up for the tasks we have to do right after docking.

Then on flight day 4 the focus turns to S6 and some joint robotic work between the shuttle and ISS. What’s the plan to get S6 out of Discovery’s payload bay and finally to the point where it will remain overnight?

To take it out we’re going to use the station arm to pull it out of the payload bay and Sandy and John will be flying that. They’ll pick it up and move it on out. At that time we’ll have the shuttle arm grab S6 and that will be Joe and Tony flying that part. Once it’s in the hands of the shuttle arm, we'll move the station arm onto the MT and out starboard, as far out as it can go. We’ll move in the S6 into a location where the station arm can grab it again and take it away from the shuttle arm and move it into an overnight position. Then on flight day 5 it moves into the pre-install position.

What happens in the unlikely event that one of the robotic arms doesn’t quite work well or fails completely during this joint robotics work to get S6 out of, out of the payload bay? What backup plans do you have?

Not much, and it’s not a good day if that happens. We need both arms most likely to get the solar array, or the S6 truss segment out there and installed. We do have some backup plans to maybe temporarily stow it on part of the station, but that would be a lot of work and would have to be done real time. It also really depends on what failure. If only one thing breaks they have backup modes and other ways to get around a lot of failures on the arms. So hopefully it won’t ever break fully and we would lose all capability.

The next day, you mentioned, the S6 will then be maneuvered into place for install. Tell us about the procedure that you and your colleagues use to actually install S6?

Well, first, Joe and Koichi are going to move S6 into the pre-install location which is about a meter and a half out from S5, exactly lined up, ready to come on in. At that same time, Ricky and I will be getting ready to do our first spacewalk and hopefully timing works out that we’ll be out the door and heading towards that area after John’s got it all ready to go. Once we get there, we will direct John on in and give him any kind of guidance on how he needs to change the current attitude or position of it so it’s going to match up perfectly when it comes on in to the S5. Once he does that, it’s going to come on in and Ricky is going to drive a claw around a bar on S6 that will pull in the S6 snug against S5. At that point hopefully everything will be good and we can drive the four bolts, one on each corner, that will hold it tight onto S5. At that point it will be physically attached to S5 and from then on we have to just do the electrical connections to get it on and get the solar array ready for deployment.

So S6 gets installed and you make the necessary connections for it. Then you move on to some other tasks on EVA 1. Tell us about what else you’ll be doing on that EVA.

As I said, our main task is to get the solar arrays ready for deployment. They come in on launch config, all bolted down. So to start off Ricky will work on the solar array blanket boxes which are these large boxes, probably about 15 feet long, a foot and a half wide, a foot and a half deep, that house each solar array blanket itself and they are bolted down in a launch config. He’ll go and remove the bolts and the structure that holds it down so that they can be free to move up. He’ll do the nadir side first, then the zenith side. While he’s doing that I’ll be removing a keel pin that’s in the way. It has to be folded over a little bit. I will be working on the MMOD bolts which is a get-ahead task. I will also maybe just basically get a coffee and watching Ricky doing all the work. That’s what my main plan is leading a spacewalk. But, and in another sense, there’s always a bunch of little tasks that I have to get done before those things can be deployed so I’ll be doing all those, running around the S6 doing those while Ricky works his. Once he gets done with that, we can release Beta Gimbal Assembly Restraints. The mast canister on the solar arrays will pop out and at that point then we’ll make sure it comes out all the way for each one of them. One goes up. One goes down and then we have to climb on each one. I will take the nadir mast canister. He’s going the zenith one and we have to then open up the blanket boxes so that out there they come out, opposite of each other. They were launched in a more parallel config.

What options do you have if, for instance, the solar array blanket boxes don’t unfold or something doesn’t go quite right with the process of getting them to unfold?

Oh, we have contingencies for that. The idea is that we’ll go out again on a spacewalk and hopefully what the problem is something we can fix on a spacewalk. We don’t know all the problems that could happen but we’ve thought of a lot of them and all the ones we’ve thought of we’ve come up with ways we can go out on a spacewalk and help the solar array to deploy. So it depends on what that problem is. There are things we’ve seen on other missions that we know how to do now and we plan for. Hopefully anything that happens we’ll be able to figure out a way to do it. That’s one of the great things about the ground teams. They are ready to jump into action on any kind of problem we have and come up with a solution. It's our job just to execute their solution.

How does the truss install on this mission compare to what you did on STS-117 and was there anything that you learned from STS-117 doing that activity that might help you with this?

It’s very similar. The only difference is on 117 when we attached the S3-S4 to S1 was the bolts were driven from inside by commanding. This time they’re going to be driven by us EVA folks and that’s the biggest difference. Besides that, once we get out there and start deploying the solar arrays, it’s exactly the same as the 117 mission. I didn’t get to do that on 117 so I’m real happy to get to do it this time.

On flight day 6 there’s, there’s a focused inspection scheduled, but there’s a chance that you might not do it.

Hopefully we’ll not do a focused inspection.

If you’re not required to do one, tell us about what will happen on that day.

That’s the day then we’ll deploy the solar arrays and that’s a pretty intricate process. Even though it isn’t a difficult thing to do in the sense of it’s commanding from inside the station and that commanding is set up well, we have had issues on deploying solar arrays. There the process we go through is quite intricate. It has to bake out in the sun to make sure it doesn’t stick together as much. That’s a process we have. Everybody has a job during that to look at the solar arrays that is coming out to make sure there are no issues with it. That’s a very important thing because we don’t want to have any problems with it or to damage the solar array during the deployment. So we really concentrate on that. It takes about four hours probably to deploy the solar arrays that day and hopefully that will all go well.

So the, the ground will start the procedure…

It’s a ground procedure and a crew procedure. The ground sets up the systems for ready for deployment. We’ll actually command the deploy ourselves on board because we have better views. They’ll be watching very intently and have a lot of insight on the ground but we probably do have the best view so we’ll be watching that. We’ll deploy it out to about halfway and then we let it bake out which is in the sun for about 20, 25 minutes and hopefully that will work fine. It worked well on 117 so this is what they learned over the years. After that, we’ll deploy it the rest of the way out. But if anything happens during these deployments, we have always been trained to stop the deployment and do certain tasks to help it recover and still continue with deployment.

JSC2008-E-043278: Steve Swanson

Astronaut Steven R. Swanson, STS-119 mission specialist, gives a "thumb-up" signal while participating in a training session in one of the full-scale trainers in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, Swanson is seated on the flight deck for a post insertion/de-orbit training session. Photo Credit: NASA

On the second spacewalk of the mission, you and Joe Acaba will, will tour the truss, so to speak. Tell me about the worksites you’ll be at and what you’ll be doing there.

We'll head off all the way to the far end of the port side, the P6 side. That’s going to be interesting because before it was on the S6 side. So now we get to see the station from the far port side, to see if there’s any difference. It should be wonderful though to be able to get that kind of views out there. We are just doing tasks for other missions ahead of us to help them in their abilities to get the job done and make sure there’s no issues with the stuff they have to do. So we’ll be out there for a couple hours working on the P6. Then we’ll come on in a little farther, to the P3 area and work on deploying a payload retention system that starts off inside the truss when it’s launched. The way it can work is you remove a few clevises and bolts and you can swing it on out. It comes folded in and you pop it out and it folds out like this and then you put the payload on top of it. It attaches and allows data and power to get to the payload and holds it on at the same time. So we’ll deploy one of those and then we still have more get-ahead tasks, tasks that help station in its long-term operation, things to do on the station to make it maintenance wise be in a better configuration. So we’ll do those. We’ll keep moving in on the P1 side and then when we’re all done with that, we’ll go back to the starboard side and do one more of those payload attach systems. Then we’ll come on in.

Assuming S6 has been installed successfully and its solar arrays have been deployed, you’re scheduled to turn your attention to some other hardware on, on EVA 3. Tell us about what’s going to happen.

On EVA 3 to start off with it’s going to be Joe and Ricky out there. Their first task is a CETA cart relocation. CETA cart is a device we have on the station that runs along the front rail and attaches to the mobile transporter. One issue we have is we need them both on the port side so that we can move the MT, the Mobile Transporter, all the way to the starboard side to install the S6, though the mission after us needs the CETA carts mostly on the starboard side to do their task on the port side. One of our jobs is to move CETA carts over to the other side. That’ll be the first thing they start off doing. From then on Joe is going to work on more tasks to put the station into better config for long term operations. Ricky will go get on the arm himself and head off and work on SPDM [Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, Dextre] covers. There are some of the tasks, when they were putting the SPDM on a few missions ago, they didn’t get to finish. He’ll go finish those tasks and then he will move on to a spot where they’ll drop him on the truss but allow him access to the front of the Canadian robotic arm where he will lube, we call it the snares. When the arm comes in over a pin to hold on to what we call a grapple fixture, it has snares that will close and wrap around this pin. When it comes back open they're not coming all the way open. So we’re going to lubricate those mechanisms that help bring it back open and closed and hopefully that will help. So that’s going to be Ricky’s job at that point and then when we’re done with those jobs, we’re going to change – we call them RPCMs, but they’re really just big circuit breakers out there on station, and they’re going to change a few of those out again just to make the station in better configuration for long term operations.

Can you give us an overview of what’s going to happen on the fourth and final scheduled spacewalk of the mission?

To start off Ricky’s going to take infrared photography of some radiators on the station. There’s been an issue with one of them peeling up on part of the radiator and so he’s going to take infrared photography of that one and also the one on the other side. That way they can compare them and try to figure out exactly how much damage and what the damage is on the radiator. By that time I’m going to head off to the Japanese laboratory and install a GPS antenna on top of that. Then I’ll come back and work on a connection on Z-1 -- just a connection that another crew before has a little difficulty with. We found there’s a failure on it and they’ve researched that a little bit, now have more information. They think they have a way now to redo this connection so I’ll work on that. When we’re done with that – Ricky’s done with the infrared photography and I’m done with that -- we will grab a what we call a WETA antenna which has to do with the image you see when we’re spacewalking out of our cameras on our helmets. We’re going to put another one of those antennas out on the starboard side. We’ll grab that antenna, go to the starboard side, install that and then do a few more of those payload attach systems. And that will be it for EVA 4.

After your work is done on ISS, you and your crewmates will eventually depart. You’ll get a chance to pull away from the station and get your first big picture views of, of the station with a fully built out truss and all of its solar arrays. How do you think you’re going to feel knowing that what you just did is going to help the station do more for more people in the future?

It’s great. It’s going to be a wonderful time because, hopefully, we’ll have done our job all correctly and well. You get a good sense of satisfaction and accomplishment because you actually can see the fruits of your labor right there. It’s all done right in front of you. I remember from 117 that there’s a fantastic feeling as you fly over it and see the Earth below and you see the station floating there. It was just a great feeling to know that you worked on that and you helped it become a better place.