Q: The STS-120 interviews continue with pilot George Zamka. Thanks for joining us today.
Preflight Interview: George Zamka
A: Sure. Happy to be here.
Image at right: STS-120 Pilot George Zamka. Photo Credit: NASA
George, let’s begin with the general overview of the mission, if you could give us a summary of the goals.
We’ve got three primary missions, the first one is to take Node 2, also called Harmony, up to the space station. That’s a pressurized dome that is going to be prime real estate for joining the three space programs together. The second is moving the P6 solar array from its current location on top of Z1, on top of the space station, and putting it in its final location on the end of the truss, out on the port side. The third one is rotating our space station crew members. We’re going to take up Dan Tani and we’re going to bring back Clay Anderson.
Since you’re the pilot I’d like to ask you about rendezvousing with the space station. Can you talk us through that process?
We start with the space station flying overhead at about two-hundred miles or so at a speed of 17,500 mph. If it’s a nighttime launch you can actually see the space station pass over Kennedy Space Center before we launch. The space shuttle launch is, to catch up to it, we burn our main engines for 8½ minutes. At the end of that we’re at a slight slower speed and a slightly lower altitude than the space station. Because we’re at a lower altitude we are flying a smaller circle around the Earth in our lower orbit than the space station is, and so we’re kind of cutting the corner and that’s how we catch up to the space station. As we get close to it, we do some rendezvous OMS burns to raise our altitude to a slower relative speed and get our relative attitude closer. For the final, it’s called the manual phase of the rendezvous, we actually transition to the front of the space station and back down on it, using the back windows and the space shuttle to join up with the space station.
And, backing up just a bit there’s a, a maneuver that the shuttle has to do where it flips over. Can you talk about that a little bit?
It’s called the rendezvous pitch maneuver, and we do that as part of the heat shield inspection procedures that, that are in place now for the space shuttle. About 600 feet below the space station on the R-bar, this is between the space station and the surface of the Earth, Pam Melroy who’s our commander will initiate a three-quarter of a degree per second flip. It’s nose going over the tail. And as she’s going over, we expose the underside of the shuttle, all the heat shield tiles to the space station. Onboard the space station we have crew members, I think Clay Anderson will be doing this for us, he’ll have an 800mm lens on a digital camera and he’ll be systematically taking pictures of the tiles on the space shuttle. He’ll downlink them and see if they spot anything. In the past they’ve spotted gap fillers; they spotted on STS 118 the little gash that was in the, in the heat tiles, and that will bring on follow-on inspections. On flight day 5, we’ll do a focused inspection. Once we’re complete with that, Pam, Pambo, we call her, will regain control of the space shuttle and set up for her TORVA, which is her transition to the front of the space station for the final join up.
The primary payload is Harmony. Can you describe it? What it is and what is the importance of Harmony to the ISS.
Harmony -- it used to be called Node 2 -- is a pressurized structural element that will reside at the front of the space station. I think it is prime real estate because, it is at the front and it’s at the nexus of three primary, pressurized modules; there’s the U.S. lab that’ll be, coming from the back, it’s currently there on the space station. On the port side will be attached the Japanese experimental module, and on the starboard side will be the Columbus European module. All three have to connect in Node 2 and, and the future space shuttles will be docking in Node 2, so it’s a very important element for completion of the space station.
Can you talk about the steps it’s going to take to get Harmony out of the shuttle and onto the station?
It’s actually pretty complex bit of choreography that’s been in work and will be worked on prior to us getting there. What we actually have to do since we dock to the part of the space station where Node 2 will have to be, we actually take Node 2 and put it on the port side of Node 1. Backing up a bit, prior to it even getting there, there’s a PMA, a Pressurized Mating Adapter, that’s living there; the station crew’s going to have to take that off and put it on the underside of Node 1. So we’re going to take, Node 2, put it up on that empty space and then, after we go away, the station crew will take PMA 2, the Pressurized Mating Adapter that we docked to, attach it to Node 2, and put the whole gizmo back on the front of the space station, and that’ll be the final configuration.
Another big part of the mission is moving the P6 solar array. Can you describe what’s going to be happening there?
That’s another complex operation that’ll take three days. It starts in our second EVA. We’re going to have Scott Parazynski and Dan Tani outside. They will do the electrical and thermal demating of P6 from its current location on top of Z1. Two flights prior to that, STS-116 and STS-117, were involved. They recoiled the solar arrays, they brought them from their extended positions into their blanket boxes, first on one side for 116, the other side was done by 117. When we arrive there, it’s going to be in that furled position. After Dan and Scott demate it electrically, Stephanie Wilson and Doug Wheelock will take the station robotic arm and mechanically separate it from Z1, and then they will take it to an overnight, parked position, and the next day the shuttle arm will grab onto that and the station arm will release it, go on to it’s, kind of a trolley car, an MBS we call it, and it’s going to roll from its inboard work station to its outboard work station so it can reach the end of the truss. It’ll re-grab P6, and on EVA 3, the follow day, attach it, and then Scott Parazynski and Doug Wheelock will do the electrical mating. At the end of EVA 3, hopefully the arrays unfurl and then we’ve got a final configuration for P6.
Given there was a little bit of troubles there, in putting those solar arrays back in, is there any concerns with your crew on unfolding the solar arrays?
Not as much, we don’t think, as there was when we were bringing the solar arrays back in. For one thing, the natural force of the extension maneuver tends to pull out and separate the panels whereas, when you retract them, you’re trying fold them in like you’re in folding a map. So we don’t think we’ll have these same issues with snagging, we may, when this array was originally extended, there was a thing called “sticktion” where the panels tended to stick to each other, because the panel had been in storage for a long time. We don’t think that’ll be a problem, it’s been outside in the environment, we think that, that problem is gone now. There is also a guide wire that has a little snag on it about, one-third of the way out from the end of, we think it’s the two-B side. We’ll keep an eye on it when we’re extending it and we’ll look for that particular spot as we look for the entire extension. If there is a problem, we have contingency EVAs planned for that, to fix that.
A big part of this mission is conducting several EVAs to make sure all these tasks take place. Can you talk about what your job is during the EVAs?
For the first EVA, the one single job that I probably can say that I will be doing is, as the station arm is bringing Harmony in towards Unity, I’ll be working with Clay Anderson on the common berthing mechanism. This is the locking module that on the Unity side will be active, it will be passive on the Harmony side. It’s basically going to grab onto the Harmony module with some latches initially, then we’re going to take 16 bolts and we’re going to drive them in a certain amount so that there’s a hard mate. That’s kind of a key time frame during that EVA because while we’re doing that, the station has to have some of its control modes inhibited and the station arm has to be in a kind of a relaxed mode, so that there are no sudden jerks or impulses put into the system. Once we have it in that, we call it A-bolts or acquire bolts position, the station can assume its normal, control mode and the station arm can now be free to do what it needs to do. So that’s the key thing on EVA 1. On EVA 2, I’m providing some views. On all those EVAs, a big part of my job is provide views that’ll be used by Paolo Nespoli to help conduct and coordinate the EVA. Also for robotics views, there’s no direct view available out the window so you can see what you’re doing with either arm, so, what you have to do is kind of fit together a mental image of what the arm is doing, how close it is to certain spaces. We do that providing viewing angles from different cameras that are onboard the station and the shuttle. The shuttle camera views are important. On EVA 2, one of the views that’s very important is actually out the commander’s window, and it’s tough to imagine, unless you’re familiar with the geometry. But if the shuttle is joined to the front of the station, the commander’s window looking up and back provides the best view of the station arm grappling to P6. We’re doing that with a little mini-camera that has a certain configuration to it. We shove it up in the window and I have to provide that up to Stephanie so that she can do that job. Those are the views on EVA 2. It’s a particularly unique one that we had to enable her to do that. On EVA 3, one task I get to do is probably to me a highlight. We need to take the MBSU, the Main Bus Switching Unit that we’re bringing up -- it’s a, a secondary piece of cargo that we’re bringing in to be a spare for the space station -- out the payload bay and bring it up onto ESP2, external stowage platform number 2. The way we’re doing that is, I get to pick up Doug Wheelock; he'll be on the lab. He’ll be standing on the shuttle arm; I will fly him from the space station down into our payload bay and he will pick up this MBSU which is 400 pounds, now it’s in space and there’s no gravity but 400 pounds is still 400 pounds mass, and he’ll be holding it like this so. I have to be kind of ginger on the controls as I’m flying him, and we’re going to fly him up to ESP2. It's kind of a cramped space, and Scott and Doug are together going to fasten that MBSU down. It’ll be a neat thing having a buddy out on the arm and doing that job so I'm looking forward to that one on EVA 3. And on EVA 4, I’ll be providing camera views also.
Back up to EVA 3, I’ve heard the term before, flying the arm. Can you explain what that means?
Probably controlling is probably better except for, it’s flying, it’s similar to flying an airplane in that it’s closed control and it’s analog control. It’s not point and click, it’s having continuous controls on the translational hand controller which physically moves the arm around in space or the end of the arm up down, left right, forward back, and the rotational hand controller which controls the attitude of the arm. I have to use all these inputs, these six degrees of freedom to control Doug because he’ll be in one orientation on the space station; I’ve got to bring him back down into the payload bay, twist him, roll him, bring him back so he can face the MBSU in the payload bay and undo a couple bolts. Then I’ve got to bring him back out into the payload bay, up and out and over onto the space station, so I’ll be moving all the controls to do that. Now, it’s not fast, it’s not, at the speed of an airplane, but you still have to be very careful. There’s a lot of structure. As I said you’re not really having a direct view of anything, so you’re mentally keeping up with where you are using camera views and, and digital readouts of the position of the arm, and also talking to Doug and, and Scott on the radio.
Must be kind of an interesting thing to do considering a person is going to be on the arm that you’re moving.
Yea, it’s got my attention that there’s a live human being on the end of the arm, and it’s my buddy. He’s got this refrigerator between his two hands and he's putting it into a very tight spot, so, that’s something we’ve been rehearsing and practicing. That’ll be something I’ll probably be thinking a lot about the night before.
Image at top: STS-120 Pilot George Zamka, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA
The International Space Station is the biggest, most complex thing we’ve ever tried to build in space. How does it feel to be a part of this historic work?
Hugely privileged, to be a part if it. I view the space station as a springboard to follow-on space exploration. While we’re on the space station, we’re learning how to live in space, how to work in space. We’re encountering problems as we encountered earlier this summer; we’re coming up with solutions and we’re learning from it. That’s what the space station is going to provide for us for a good long period of time. The ability to bring Harmony up to the space station not only increases the livable air space, but it allows these other space programs from Japan and from the European Space Agency to participate and be part of the problem-solving and part of the solution. The fact that I happen to be on this mission is a purely a, a function of being fortunate, as the flight schedule came up. I’m just thrilled to be here and very fortunate to be part of the mission.
A bit of a historical question: Your flight’s pretty close to the 50th anniversary of Sputnik, which happens this same year, which heralded the birth of the space age. Your thoughts on our progress?
The obvious comparison would be with the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and how far we’ve come in that time frame. In 50 years in space we’ve come a long way from launching a very small payload into orbit to actually having people living and working on a space station that’s in an orbit of the Earth. I do think though that we’re more at the beginning of things than in the middle. We’re in the infancy of human spaceflight. The fact that there are other nations that are involved in space and that there are private industries that are involved in space tourism … suggest that we’re going to take some pretty huge steps here in the next decades. In addition, the mandate that we’ve undertaken to fly to the moon and Mars, it all tells me that we’re at the beginning of something big so I think folks in the future are going to look at these days as kind of baby steps out toward space, but crucial baby steps, things that we needed to be doing.
Any other thoughts on how this flight fits in with going to the moon and Mars and, and fulfilling that vision?
I do think it’s a necessary step along the way. Our cumulative experience in space is actually very small. The things we need to do live and work on other, bodies such as the moon and Mars, we have a long way to go before we get there. The things we learn about the human body and the effects of space on the human body, machinery, having things operate, having them operate reliably, when they break down, what do we do to fix them, how do they break down, all those things you can mostly gain through experience. So the space station is a key kernel to that whole plan.
We’ll continue on with a few personal questions. There are hundreds and thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but only about 100 American astronauts. What made you try to become an astronaut, and one of the people to fly in space?
Well, being an astronaut is a great combination of flying, adventure, and working with wonderful folks from many different specialties, on an international level. It’s a hugely attractive thing to me. When I was maybe 12, 13, I first became very interested in flying. You go back a ways. I was probably 7 or so when the space agency was traveling to the moon and we had those early flights there. Those were two interests that kind of combined later on in life. For me, flying on the space shuttle is the pinnacle of flying an airplane. So that’s what drove me to it. I also wanted to be in a place where you have a mix of talents and skills and experiences. I think I’ve always sought to try to be somewhere I could make the biggest contribution. I viewed this as the place where I could do that and so that’s why I pursued it.
If you could tell me place where you grew up, how, how the people and that place influence you.
I moved a lot. I am going to tell you about four different places and while at the time it seemed kind of chaotic and I was lacking a single home town, every place contributed something. I’ve been thinking about how all those places did it so hopefully I’ve got it captured but who knows. I was born in New Jersey, in a place called the Margaret Hague hospital. My parents were living with some relatives in New Jersey at the time and that’s where I was born. They shortly thereafter moved to New York City, and so I lived in New York City from the time I was 1 to when I was about 12. New York is a very cultural place. It’s got arts, museums, everything, of a cultural nature and culture and learning was recreation there. I kind of got pushed there as a kid. I guess the same as all kids, I’d show in a museum and I didn’t really appreciate what I was looking at. There are some things I remember I remember going to the Hayden Planetarium in New York and seeing the marble move around the funnel and being told that was how an orbit went. I didn’t understand it then, but later when I had to learn orbital mechanics I thought about that little marble moving around in that funnel, and the Museum of Natural History kind of got me going. So I credit my early time in New York as giving me an interest in the world around me. It made me curious and I think that helped with academics and learning things later in life. Shortly thereafter, I moved, up the river to Irvington, N.Y. Irvington is in Sleepy Hollow country where the headless horseman made his ride, where Washington Irving lived. It’s a very old, woodsy, hilly place in New York right on the Hudson River, and it was full of, mystery and adventure. I was living there when I was maybe between 12 and, and 14. That was the place where you start with nothing with a bunch of kids and you came up with a plan to have some kind of adventure and then you built something out of nothing and you went and did it. There were bike rides. There’s an old aqueduct that would supply water to New York City. We’d ride along that. We’d hike. There was a fishing pond that used to belong to Admiral Halsey, so there was old kind of haunted mansion place where we could go fishing. Probably the one thing that’s relevant to what I do here is that we would hike to a neighboring town called Ardsley. We would buy rocket kits and we’d take them down to the river and we’d launch these rockets in the river. Thinking back on that, I doubt I could have said, "Hey, I’m going to be a rocket builder because these rockets." I tended to kind of experiment with the instructions. They were more like kid-seeking missiles. They’d be coming off and bend, and then they’d go off for one of my buddies and then barely miss him. … that’d be it, but that was what Irvington was for me. It was, I guess, exploration, having a spirit of adventure and, and going out and doing stuff. Ater that, I moved to Medellin, Colombia, in South America. I lived there for about a year. As a teenager then, I was about 14, if you can imagine that’s kind of a tough experience because this was not moving and living in an American compound or living amongst Americans. My mother is Colombian. It was living on the economy in the civilization as a teenager. Although I knew Spanish somewhat I had to learn fast in order to get along with the kids. I had cousins there that helped me with the transitions and their friends were my friends and we all got along. It was, it was happy time, but it was, it was a tough adaptation, to be an American kid and then suddenly become a Colombian kid and learned soccer, and learn all the colloquialisms and how to get by as a kid. But I do remember sitting in a classroom one time -- went to a school that spoke both English and Spanish and some of the classes were conducted in Spanish. I don’t remember what kind of class it was but I was taking notes down and, I thought, "My goodness, I am glad I understand Spanish." I would never have done that if I had, had not moved here, and so that gave me an appreciation for learning other languages and cultures and that has served me here, obviously since we’re doing the International Space Station. After that, I moved up to Rochester, Michigan. It’s now called Rochester Hills. It changed its name but back then it was Rochester. It was a suburb of Detroit, car country. All my buddies, their moms and dads worked for Ford and General Motors and all the car companies there. They were engineers or business people or mechanics and technicians. There my world began to open up a little bit, between activities, both sanctioned and unsanctioned and sports and friends. I just got a lot of neat experiences there. One I remember. My first car was a 1967 Mustang convertible. Although things worked on it, it was bit of a challenge to keep it on the road. The doors wouldn’t lock. I kind of had to wedge metal bars in to keep ‘em going. The windows wouldn’t go down but the top worked. I had a friend whose father had a shop with a hoist and we’d go in there and work on brakes and water pumps and all kinds of things to keep it on the road. That was a lot of fun. Out of those experiences, I learned there to have a wide circle of friends, have a lot of interests, and fun with them and that has served me well, as I’ve done other things.
If you could give us a thumbnail sketch of your education and professional career that led you here to NASA.
My education career probably started at the Naval Academy. I entered in the summer of 1980 to graduate in the class in 1984. I graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Mathematics. And after that I spent a long time as a Marine officer, learning how to fly airplanes. That’s relevant to what I do today. I started out flying A-6s after I got my wings. It was an old Vietnam-era attack plane that had a cockpit that was kind of similar to the space shuttle. It was designed at about the same time, and it required the same disciplines. We weren’t as concerned about human factors as we were about getting capability and systems into the cockpit, so you had a wide array of switches you had to be careful about. That, that’s actually pretty close to what the space shuttle is like. After that I transitioned to the F-18 Delta; the Marines were trading A-6s for F-18 Deltas which is a two-seat version, supposed to pick up the same mission. That was a much more modern cockpit. It was much more tolerant of what’s called air crew error, but it was a wonderful flying machine, because of it really helped you do your mission. After that, I became a forward air controller for a year. That is working with the infantry troops on the ground to assist with helicopters and airplanes and the completion of that mission. You could say I restarted my education career. I got selected to go to test pilot school, and I went to Edwards Air Force Base to go to the United States Air Force Test Pilot School. It was a big jump for me, going from infantry, ground Marines to these very intelligent, smart folks. Some of them came from the Air Force Institute of Technology and these were my classmates. I had to catch up a lot on systems and math. It was a big jump. But it was a great year of learning how to fly different airplanes, how to evaluate them, how is it they’re made, what considerations that go into them and how you make them fly well. It’s educational along with flying so it was, it was just a great year. Then I got assigned to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station to be a test pilot, where I tested F-18s. While I was there, I went and got a master’s degree in engineering management from the Florida Institute of Technology and I think I got that degree in 1997. Then shortly thereafter, I went back to the fleet and ended up here with the class of 1998.
What made you want to apply to NASA in the first place?
It's common ideas that folks have been aggressively chasing being an astronaut since they were kids. I’ve got to say when I was a kid, I loved the space program, you know, had all the toys that you’d get at the gas station, a lunar lander and all that. I never thought for a minute that I’d ever be close enough to it to seriously, to pursue it. I did like flying and I like serving my country in the military and as it turned out that ended up steering me to a position where I could actually apply. I was in test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base where one of my classmates said to me, “Hey, did you send in your application to NASA?” I was shocked and I said, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.” And he say, “Oh yeah, I’ve already sent mine. You ought to get going on yours. The deadline’s coming,” I scrambled, filled out an application. I just didn’t realize I was that close to it. The closer I was, the further away it seemed because as I found out who else was applying I realized how rich the talent pool was, how may solidly talented people with great backgrounds were applying to NASA. So even though I was sending mine in I thought, well, you know, it’s the cost of the stamp, but I have no idea how this is going to turn out. It did take a couple tries. The first time I applied, I was flabbergasted by the thought that they would even invite me to interview that I think I totally blew the interview. I was just wide-eyed and not paying attention too much. I didn’t blow it too much because they invited me back a second time and the second time they decided to take me onboard.
What were your thoughts when you, when you got the call that you were accepted?
Well, it was pretty chaotic. I, we were doing a, a deployment to Thailand, to an old Air Force Base called Korat. We’re working with the Thai Air Force and I was involved in all the things there. I was a maintenance office for the squadron and, and dealing with those issues there. At the end of the day we came back, we’re all in a hotel room and the first call I got was from my wife, who said, hey, someone from NASA called, to try to get a hold of you and they’re not able to get hold of you through the Marines, so they called me. Then shortly thereafter my, my boss came and said, "Hey, NASA’s trying to call, and then the third call was, in fact, from NASA, so I got to talk to them, very excited. … it seemed like such a close possibility to know that there were people looking at a piece of paper with my name on it and considering me for that role but at the same time, just such a remote possibility because all the folks that were, that were interested and how strong they were. When I actually got the call I couldn’t believe it, I wasn’t very much the rest of that day. I just kind of, sat down, took a deep breath and started considering what it might be like to actually come here and work and start preparing for spaceflight.
Is there a good story linked to how you were chosen for this crew?
The way I found out about it, I was sitting at my desk, working with, with Debbie Trainor, an engineer that I was working with. I was assigned to the shuttle training role and we were working together on something. In my time here I'd actually worked on a number of different projects. Pam Melroy came in and she said, "Hey, can I interrupt for just a minute?" I looked at her and I thought back to a project we had worked together some years ago, and my mind started, booting up this project, because people come and ask you a question, they don’t tend to warm you up and say, "Hey, remember when we were working on that thing?", It’ll be some very specific question: "Hey, you remember that item entry on that spec that we worked on? Did you want that over bright or just flashing?" You know, they tend to come at you there so I’ve gotten in the habit of doing a quick reboot to remember where was it we left off two, three years ago or whenever it was, and I was looking at her and doing that. "And she said, 'Hey, I just wanted to congratulate you and tell you that you’re going to be my pilot on STS-120'." Again, I, my, computer just locked up because I was thinking about something else. She told that and I think I just stared at her. I just looked at her and then, Debbie kind of broke the ice and said, "Hey, congratulations." But she, she totally took me by surprise, by it.
Working in these extreme environments in space has shown that it can be a risk. What do you think we get from flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?
Flying in space, in a very general sense, is exploration. And exploration, in a broader sense involves risk. I like to look at the names of the space shuttles, and what they’re named after, as an example of what this is all about. You can start with the space shuttle Endeavour. Endeavour was the ship that belonged to Captain Cook, when he sailed from Britain to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. It was a big idea at the time and it was an experiment that kind of had mixed results. It didn’t really show what they had, hoped to show at the time. He had discovered Australia and later discovered Hawaii and while he was in Hawaii he was killed by natives. So obviously high risk was there. It didn’t end well for him. However, you know, we did discover Australia and Hawaii so we got that out of it. Did he go out to do those things? Some things he did, some things he didn’t. But as a result of the risk that he undertook, we were better for it. The ship that we’ll be traveling on STS-120 is Discovery, and that was Henry Hudson’s ship on his fourth try to try to find the Northwest Passage. In his attempts to find the Northwest Passage he pretty much mapped the Eastern Seaboard, Hudson River, New York, New Jersey, all the way up, through Newfoundland; we would not have known of those areas if it were not for Henry Hudson trying to find the Northwest Passage which he ultimately failed at. At the end of that fourth voyage he was mutinied on by his crew and set adrift with his son in a life boat and never seen again, in Hudson Bay, but we remember what he did and we remember his ship by naming a space shuttle after it. So, to me, exploration involves risk and you never know how things are going to turn out. Things turn out wonderfully sometimes, sometimes they don’t. But if you don’t risk you don’t learn.