Q: All right. Our STS-120 interviews continue with Commander Pam Melroy. Thanks for joining us.
Preflight Interview: Pamela Melroy
A: My pleasure.
Image at right: STS-120 Commander Pamela Melroy. Photo Credit: NASA
Pam, let’s start with just a summary of the goals of this ISS assembly mission.
Well, this is a pretty complex assembly mission, and that’s because we actually have two goals that we’re trying to achieve. Usually when we have an assembly mission, there’s one big element that we’re delivering and activating. In this case, we actually have two things that we’re doing. Our first activity will be to deliver the Node 2, which is named Harmony. It’s essentially the hub of all the scientific laboratory sections of the space station. So we’ll be delivering that. We’re actually going to be stowing it temporarily on the side of Node 1, Unity, because it doesn’t go into its final location after we’ve undocked because we’re actually docked to the place that it’s finally going to go. So you can imagine, there’s a lot of complexity associated with moving that element around. In addition, we’re taking the P6 solar array, which currently sits on top of the Z1 truss, where it’s been since 2000 when it was delivered just after the first people started living aboard the space station. And, we’re going to be moving it all the way out to the end of the port truss.
OK. If you could describe the rendezvous with the station …
The rendezvous is a very exciting time for us, for a lot of different reasons. First of all, for the pilot and commander, we’re test pilots. So any opportunity to fly the vehicle is what really gets us excited, and we focus a lot on it during training. But I also find, on a personal level, it’s very exciting because when you approach the space station, it’s an extraordinary sight. Everybody can go to Florida, if they want to, and watch a space shuttle launch. But only astronauts get to see the space station; and it actually inspires that same sense of awe and wonder as you approach the International Space Station. So it’s a very exciting moment, to see it there. You just can’t believe how huge it is, and it’s absolutely gorgeous! From a flying standpoint, it’s a lot of fun. We’re actually going to fly automatically up to just a few thousand feet away from the space station, and then we’ll take over manually flying. And we will actually come underneath the space station; we’ll fly in front of it, and then back towards it, as it flies around the Earth.
Just kind of a follow-up to that: You’ve been to the space station before. When you return, it’s going to look different, and when you leave it’s going to look different. Any thoughts, as you get to see this, the space station develop?
Well, I think that’s been one of the most exciting parts of the mission for me on my two previous flights was to back away from the space station and see the element that you installed. You’ve seen the station grow before your very eyes and know that you were a part of it. It’s also kind of a dramatic thing to realize that it’s just a snapshot. While we’re doing assembly, the space station visually looks different with every assembly mission. And so the pictures that you take, the video that you take, the pictures that your eyes take are unique and just a moment of history. It’s like watching some great work like the pyramids or some enormous structure going up for the first time. It’s always extraordinary to go back and sort of look at the documentation of that. I think knowing that you were a part of that, in making that happen, is fantastic.
Let’s focus in on the primary payload, which is Harmony. Could you describe what it is and what it will do, how it’s important to the station?
Harmony is the second node to be delivered to the space station. I like to describe our nodes as sort of the hub of a Tinkertoy set. They’ve got attach points at either end, and then four attach points all the way around. So it’s actually the capability to attach a lot of different segments together. And Node 2, Harmony, has a special purpose: It will be the hub and the center of all the international laboratories. So, ultimately, it will attach the Japanese laboratory to the European laboratory to the United States laboratory. It’s a very distinctive name to be called “Harmony,” and I think it makes perfect sense when you look at the sort of a crossroads that it will become on the space station. It also provides additional capability for crew members to live aboard and work aboard the space station. That’s another element of the term “harmony” that we hope is reflected in how the space station actually operates.
As commander of this mission and, and just being a part of this mission, how does it feel knowing that your mission to bring this Harmony, Node 2, to the station really starts that, that international, or the next, last phase of this international, event?
Node 2 is very special in that regard. There are these milestones that have occurred in the building of the space station. Just like in the building of any large facility, there’s the moment when you get electricity, when you get your telephone installed, when you have the living quarters. But for us, I think, this is a, a special moment because it sort of brings all of the work that has been done by so many crews, so many people on the ground, all together in the fruition, which is science in space. I love the international element of it. One of the things that’s very different about the space program from the time when we went to the moon was that: it was driven by international competition. And, instead, the space station is driven by international cooperation. That’s a wonderful feeling to see that happen.
Let’s talk about how, it’s going to get attached to the station. There are a lot of steps to install Harmony. Can you describe those assembly steps from start to finish?
Well, I think it’ll be a little bit of a challenge without a picture! There are a lot of steps that we have to do. Ultimately Node 2 will be attached to the place that we dock, so obviously we can’t do everything while we’re there. And, of course, that means a lot of the responsibilities will fall on the space station crew after we leave. It’s our intention to help activate Node 2 to the maximum extent possible, even while it’s in its temporary resting place. So, first, of course, it starts out in the payload bay of the shuttle. We’re going to use the space station robotic arm to reach down into the payload bay and lift the Node out of the shuttle payload bay, and then we’ll be attaching it to the side of Node 1. Now, that’s a, a temporary location, but we can actually go in it. So we will attach power and data, so that we can actually go inside it and have some lights that work and so forth. A lot of the systems won’t be functioning, but some of them will be. We’ll have to have air circulation that we do on our own, and that’ll be fine. So, we’ll open it up; we’ll go inside and we’ll remove a lot of the launch locks, the things that are in place to help withstand the vibrational loads of launching in the back of a shuttle payload bay. We’ll also be just deploying things to get them ready for regular use. All the emergency equipment, of course, needs to be put into place, because you want the capability to fight a fire or breathe on oxygen at any time whenever you’re in any element. We’ll be doing a lot of things like that. It looks like we have about, oh, 25 to 30 hours of activation, moving some things around and stowing them and getting it all ready. And then finally, after we undock, the space station crew will remove the pressurized mating adapter that we docked to, which is at the very end of the Lab; they’ll actually move it around and attach it to the end of Node 2 in its temporary location. Then the station crew will grab the whole stack (so they’ll grab Node 2 and the pressurized mating adapter together), remove it, and stick it on the end of the Lab. And then, at that point, all the systems will be in their final configuration so they can activate the extra air scrubbers and so forth, so that it actually becomes a, a living crew quarters and capable of supporting power and data flow to the other laboratories.
Well, even though it’s going to be in a temporary location while you’re there, at least you’ll have the gratification of going inside and, and checking it out.
Yes. At one point originally in the mission, it was not a requirement for us to go inside. And the crew said, “No way! We want to go inside!” We were very excited about that. And I think actually in the end we realized how busy the space station crew will be after we leave. They have a huge amount of work to try to get ready for Columbus, which is flying up on the next mission after ours, the European laboratory. When we looked at their schedule, we asked ourselves, “How can we help them, take some of the work on ourselves and allow them to do that process a little bit faster so we can get that laboratory up there?”
OK. Another big part of the mission is moving the, the P6 solar arrays. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Iit’s pretty complicated because you can’t do it all in one day. Moving the P6 solar array will be a major activity. You simply can’t reach where it is now and where it’s destined for all in the same location of the robotic arm on the station. So the robotic arm can move around the space station where it needs to, but it can’t do both things from one spot. So on our second spacewalk (of course, our first spacewalk is all about Node 2), we’ll be using the robotic arm in one location to actually reach around and pull P6 off the Z1 truss with the assistance of our spacewalkers. There are very limited camera views where the detach points are, and there’s a lot of stuff in the way. So once the P6 has been detached from the space station, then the robotic arm will move it around to the port side of the shuttle, at which point it will be handed off to the shuttle arm. The shuttle robotic arm will take control of the P6 truss while the space station robotic arm is reconfigured and rolled out on the mobile transporter, the mobile platform, all the way to the far end of the port truss. And then, we’ll use the station arm to take it back and install it in its final location. This is pretty nearly the design-limiting case for the robotic arm of the space station, so it’s out at its full extension, trying to get that truss out there. We’ll have the help of the spacewalkers on the third spacewalk to do that. So, all these activities will actually span three days, three full days, two spacewalks with robotics in the middle.
Are you guys going to be redeploying the solar arrays during, at the end of that?
We are lucky enough to actually be redeploying the solar arrays. It's true it’s a little different than bringing up a solar array that’s been packed tightly inside of a box, for several years. We think with the P6 solar array only recently folded up on STS-116 and 117, we don’t think there are going to be any sticky problems with the solar arrays such as we’ve seen before. So we’re going to try to go for a full deploy at the end of the third spacewalk. And hopefully everything will go beautifully.
You’ve already mentioned some of the spacewalks. Some of this might seem a little bit redundant, I would like to ask, if you could tell us, from your perspective, what you’ll be doing during the, in each EVA.
The first EVA is really about Node 2, Harmony. The spacewalkers will be out in the payload bay, preparing Harmony to be detached from the shuttle payload bay and a few other tasks that we have going on at the same time. One of the principal responsibilities of the commander is actually to hang back from all the technical activities that are happening and ensure the appropriate balance and communication between all the crew members. During all of our EVAs, we have robotics occurring on the space station side and, for two out of the three of them, we also have some activities on the shuttle side. That means that the robotics operators have to coordinate with each other and they have to coordinate with Paolo, who is our IV, our internal, spacewalk coordinator. So my responsibilities principally will be to help make sure that everybody is talking and if somebody is falling behind on the timeline that everybody knows so we can appropriately rebalance activities and, basically to feed everybody lunch! (Laughs.) So, I guess I’ll be supervising.
Image at top: Commander Pam Melroy and fellow STS-120 crewmembers celebrate the end of formal crew training with a cake-cutting ceremony in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA
It looks like the expedition crew will be, actually conducting one of the EVAs. I’m curious why. Is there any benefit to having the shuttle crew still there while, and having the expedition crew doing the EVA?
Absolutely. That developed pretty late in our plan. It really has only been in place for a couple of months. A few things happened. One of the things happened was that we were transferred from Atlantis to Discovery. Discovery has a special capability built in; it’s a power transfer cable that allows us to take power from the station to the shuttle, which allows us to stay docked for longer because we’re not using up our own cryo creating electricity in the fuel cells, or as much. So with the extra docked days, we asked ourselves, “What can we do?” As I’ve mentioned earlier, the process that the station crew members are going to have to do to activate Node 2, move it around, get it in place, and get it activated and ready for the Columbus Laboratory, they’re under a huge amount of time pressure to get those things done. So we suggested that their first spacewalk occur while we were docked. There are a lot of benefits to that. First of all, when it’s just three crew members, now you have two people in the airlock, one person getting them dressed and ready to go on the spacewalk, acting as the internal coordinator, and trying to do robotics at the same time. And, this is very challenging. Obviously we’ve done several spacewalks just like that on the space station. One of the differences is that all of the spacewalks for this activation of Node 2 are very busy and very lengthy. In general we try not to overbook our space station spacewalks. These were all just full to the brim. Because we’ll be there, we can actually provide assistance, helping them get dressed. We can actually back up the expedition crew members as the choreographer. I think the big benefit usually comes at the end of the day when they come in and there are reconfigurations that need to be done and the station crew will be very tired from the spacewalk. We can take a lot of those responsibilities for them. In addition to all the regular, normal, everyday things that are happening aboard the space station, we can assist with that as well. So, it greatly reduces the risk of the activities on that spacewalk.
OK. It makes a lot of sense. Thanks for that explanation. The International Space Station is the biggest, most complex thing we’ve ever built in space. How does it feel to be a part of this historic work?
Heck, it’s one of the most complicated things anybody’s ever built! I mean, it’s definitely, in my mind, the premier wonder of the world. I don’t think there’s anything that can compare to it. The environment is incredibly hostile, from the standpoint of thermally and the fact that it’s in vacuum, so much has to be done robotically and remotely or, through spacewalks, and so forth. It really does make me feel the same way I feel when I watch a space shuttle launch, which is a sense of awe that human beings could do this. That there are people this smart who can pull together the complexity of this and make it work and make it run, and make things happen, that are for the benefit of everybody. It is absolutely amazing.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, which was the birth of the space age. Your thoughts on our progress in space travel.
I think we’ve done pretty well. I think we could be doing better. When I reflect on, for example, 50 years after the development of the first automobile, 50 years after the famous first flight that the Wright brothers flew, we were at a point when virtually anybody could own an automobile or an airplane and operate them as private individuals. Obviously, 50 years later we’re not quite there with spaceflight yet. Now, granted, it’s a lot more complicated and it’s a lot more technically difficult to do. But it’s my hope that in the next 50 years we do actually accomplish that goal, and that a hundred years after Sputnik, anybody will be able to go to space. And I hope that we will have a multitude of spacecraft that can do all kinds of things, just like we have lots of different airplanes, from little jet fighters to airliners, to high-altitude aircraft, and so forth. It’s my hope that we have a, a broad spectrum available to us in 50 years from now.
The Vision for Space Exploration sees us going beyond the space station. What’s your philosophy about the future of human space exploration?
I think the future of human space exploration is never ending. I don’t see that people will ever stop wanting to reach out and understand more about the universe, to explore, to look out beyond us and try to get as big a picture as possible. In my mind, whenever I’m struggling with a technical problem or even with a personal issue, I find that the more perspective I have on it, the better the solutions that I find. I find that the more I can pull back from it and try to understand the context, the better quality output will occur. That’s the way I see human space exploration. I think that we need to expand outwards into our universe so that we can get a better perspective on our own Earth, what our role as humans who live on this Earth really is, and what our place in the universe is. So I think that will never go away. I really look forward to seeing more humans in space, though. It’s, it’s a wonderful experience; it’s an amazing experience, but sometimes it’s tough because there are so few of us and we want to share it with everyone.
There are hundreds and thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but only a few astronauts. What made you want to become an astronaut?
I think there's something that is profoundly moving about the idea of exploring. I find the exploration of space to be so inspirational and fascinating. It’s a very unusual thing to study astronomy because, in most cases if you do chemistry, biology, other kinds of science, you can actually physically get your hands on whatever you’re experimenting with. You can’t do that with astronomy. It’s all observational. We’re at a huge distance from our data sources. I always felt very inspired by the idea that I was moving closer to those data sources, even if it’s only a couple of hundred miles closer. I think that it’s that idea of exploration, but also of doing something that’s of tremendous value to everybody, because I think that the things that we’re learning have an impact on everybody’s life.
When the shuttle docks with the space station, there’ll be a female commander for the ISS, Peggy Whitson, and, of course, you’ll be the female commander for the shuttle. Your thoughts on this historic first?
The thing that is the best about this is that it happened totally by accident. Nobody planned it; nobody said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if we could have this or this?” Peggy was assigned a long time ago and, with Expedition crew members, there are a lot of changes in the schedule. You’re not really always sure when you’re rotating. It can come and go. When we were originally assigned, we were supposed to be flying a couple of months earlier, so that was not going to happen. It wasn’t until after the launch slipped and Peggy and I were talking one day and we kind of looked at each other and went, “Hey! Check that out!” It kind of surprised both of us. We weren’t really expecting it. And I love that, because it just happened by accident. Nobody planned it. To me that is the ultimate goal: When you get to a point where nobody thinks twice about this stuff; it’s just whoever’s turn it is, whoever happens to be in that position, to me that’s a great moment for, for the space program.
We’ll go back a little further before you became an astronaut. Tell me about the place where you grew up.
My father was in the military when I was young, so we moved all over the country. But we settled in upstate New York, in Rochester, N.Y., when I was in junior high. I went through junior high and high school there. That was pretty much the longest I’d ever lived in one place and gone to school to one school. So, obviously I’m very rooted there and very connected, and I consider Rochester, N.Y., to be my hometown. My parents now live just outside the city but have very close connections still. It’s a wonderful community. They’ve been so supportive of me.
Were there any teachers or people there who influenced you along the way?
Oh, absolutely! Countless teachers, I think, in all those different schools, all throughout the country, had an impact on me. But I do remember, in particular, my physics teacher in high school, Brother William Wright, who I’m still in contact with. I invited him to the launch. He used to say, “Knowledge makes a bloody entrance.” And that helped explain why physics was so hard and we held our heads and struggled with it. But, I knew I wanted to be a physics major in college, and so I tried to learn everything that I could from him. He was very inspirational for me.
If you could give us a sketch of your education and professional career.
I knew I wanted to major in physics and astronomy. So I looked at a lot of schools in the northeast, and fell in love with Wellesley College. It’s a women’s college just outside Boston, one of the Seven Sisters. It’s just a fabulous place. The observatory is just amazing. When I saw the telescopes there and met the professors who were teaching, I actually cancelled all my other college interviews in Boston that afternoon because I told my parents, “This is where I’m going to school.” So I studied physics and astronomy and minored in math. Then I went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and got a master’s degree in planetary science. And then I was commissioned, actually I was commissioned at the end of college and spent a year in graduate school. After getting my master’s degree, I went on into the Air Force and went through pilot training at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, which has subsequently been closed, which officially makes me an old person (laughs) when the base that you went through pilot training at is closed. Then I was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I lived there six years, which was a really long time for me, because I moved around so much when I was a kid. I flew KC-10s there, as a copilot, and then as an aircraft commander as an instructor pilot. I had the honor to fly in Just Cause and Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It was an amazing professional growth period for me, obviously, coming from a pilot with 200 hours out of pilot training to instructor pilot who’d been in a combat situation. So, went off to test pilot school. That was my dream, even going into the Air Force, I knew I wanted to be an astronaut. And so, I had hoped to go to test pilot school. I found out, actually just before I went to fly a mission in Desert Storm, that I was accepted. I don’t remember a thing about the mission anymore, because I was on Cloud Nine when I was selected. So I went off to Edwards Air Force Base and went through test pilot school. At the end of that, after I graduated, I was sent to the C 17D Developmental Program. The C-17 is the Air Force’s newest, heavy airlifter. It was a fascinating program when you have the capability to do things for the very first time with an airplane. For somebody who is scientifically trained, the opportunity to do experiments with airplanes was pretty cool. Absolutely nothing could have ripped me away from that job except being selected as an astronaut.
Do you have a story about how you were selected, or how you found out that you were selected for an astronaut?
Well, it’s funny: I had spent so much of my life thinking about that moment when I was going to get that phone call, and what that was going to be like. I had an image in my head. The image was that I would be sitting in my kitchen, and I’d be married and I would have a great job that I really loved, and I’d get this phone call, and I would have friends and family to share it with, and that it would just be an incredibly exciting moment. Doggone it if it didn’t happen exactly that way! That is exactly how it happened. I was always sort of picturing it in the evening, but when the phone rang, as I was sitting there, finishing up breakfast, I was kind of panicky. I’m like, “Whoop! Am I late to work? Who in the heck would be calling me at quarter to seven in the morning?” And, of course, I was in California, so it was earlier than in Houston. And so, when I answered the phone and realized that it was Dave Leestma on the other end, my heart started to pound. He said, “We’d like you to come to Houston and be an astronaut.” And, I said, “I hope that I can live up to this honor.” And, he said, “Oh, don’t start that already!” He said, “Don’t get there already. You’re going to put so much pressure on yourself; don’t start now!” He said, “Just enjoy it for now.” That made me laugh. But, I hung up the phone, and I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody. But, of course, everybody in my squadron knew that I was waiting for the phone call. I showed up for a meeting, half an hour later, and at the moment I walked in the door, I didn’t say anything. No, I never said a word; I wasn’t planning on telling everybody. And everybody in the room jumped up and screamed, “You got in! You got in!” “Like, how can you tell?” They were, like, “We could tell! You look like a lamp, turned on!” It was pretty funny. I said, “Well, I can’t tell you.” They said, “We, we know already.”
Flying in space and working in extreme environments has been shown that it could be risky. What do you think we get from flying people in space that makes it worth the risk?
I think the benefits of human spaceflight really span a, a lot of different elements that are wonderful for humans. There’s obviously the inspirational element of it. Whenever you are in a position to explore or see things from a new perspective or in a new way, I think that that is something that lifts everyone’s heart. That’s a wonderful thing to be a part of. but there are other ways that we make a difference: Obviously there are the science benefits. Science benefits are harder to put down exactly what you think is going to come of each one of them. We’re doing basic research. A hundred years ago, nobody really understood what understanding the nature of the atom could do for us. But if we didn’t understand the nature of the atom, we could never build lasers, for example. And so a lot of the science that we’re doing now … it’s really hard to know specifically what is going to come of those basic insights to biological processes, chemical processes, mechanical processes in microgravity. I think that’s a benefit that I can’t tell you exactly what we’re going to get out of it. But I can look ahead and predict that there will be many things. And then there are the sheer mechanics and logistics of going to space. I think that’s something that we have seen, in our own lifetime, even in my time in the Astronaut Office -- the miniaturization of medical equipment, for example, in order to try to care for our astronauts in space; telemedicine is something that NASA has also pioneered. There are also hundreds of patents, thousands of patents, that different companies have taken out after trying to solve a technical problem for us. Maybe it’s as simple as two different materials with different thermal properties that are adjacent to each other in space and not in a bolt. How do you make it so that when you go through a solar cycle of +250 degrees and then 45 minutes later it goes to –250 degrees, how do you keep those things from sticking? How do you make sure that they’re going to function properly? How do you make sure that they’re going to hold together? So, there’re so many logistical things that come from what we do every single day. I see all of those things: the short term, the long term, the intellectual, and the personal.