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Return To Flight

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2006 Preflight Interview: Mark Kelly
+ Read 2005 interview

Q: Mark, you have a job that millions of people dream about having. Is being an astronaut and flying in space what you always wanted to do with your life?

JSC2005-E-45668 -- STS-121 Pilot Mark Kelly Image to right: STS-121 Pilot Mark Kelly prepares for a flight in a NASA T-38 trainer jet at Ellington Field near Johnson Space Center, Houston. Credit: NASA

A. I think it’s something I’ve been interested in since I first watched some of the, probably later, Apollo flights—I don’t remember the earlier ones all that much because I was so young—but on and off throughout my career, it’s something I’ve been interested in. I didn’t really think I would have the opportunity, but I always worked hard in school and did well enough. One day I was kind of in a position where I was able to apply for this job and get lucky enough to, to get selected.

Let me get you to fill in a little bit. Tell me about the course of your education and your career that let you get the qualifications for this job.

Well, I went to a pretty good engineering school as an undergraduate, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, New York. Later, after being a pilot in the Navy for a while and flying off an aircraft carrier, I went to the Naval Postgraduate School, and after that to the Naval Test Pilot School and became a test pilot for a couple of years before I was selected to come here to the Johnson Space Center.

Do you know what it was, watching those Apollo missions, that, that sparked your, your interest or imagination in, in flying in general, or, or flying in space?

Well, it was the whole excitement behind it and the challenge and the opportunity to leave our planet, which always kind of appealed to me; it’s something not a lot of people get to do. It was just the exciting aspect of this career that drew me to it; it has been great.

Of course you’ve done that once before already. What’s your hometown look like from 200 miles up?

Well, my hometown from space is actually really hard to see because it’s in the New York metropolitan area, right outside of New York City. New Jersey’s the most densely populated state so it’s kind of hard to pick out a single town. From space, that whole area looks like a big spider web of stuff, and you recognize it as a big city area where people live.

Do you get a chance to go back there much and talk to the people that were there that helped you grow up to become astronaut Mark Kelly?

I do go back. I’ve visited my high school several times since I’ve been an astronaut, and even my elementary school, the grammar school I went to, Pleasantdale School. I have talked to some of the teachers, some of — my physics teacher from high school is, he was a pretty young guy in the 19-early-80s-late-70s, and he’s a little older now; Mr. Lawrence — I can’t remember his first name but his wife’s actually from Friendswood here, pretty local to where we are here in Houston. I’ve seen him on one or two occasions and the former principal, who’s now the superintendent of schools, I know him pretty well — he’ll actually come down for my launch.

Are these people that you would think of as your inspirations when you were a kid?

I think inspirations to get a good education; there’s several teachers who I enjoyed their classes and who encouraged me maybe to excel a little bit beyond my abilities. It’s good to see them, the ones that are still there.

Tell me, what do you like to do when you’re not being an astronaut? Tell me hobbies.

Hobbies? Well, I used to play golf a lot, and then I got hit by a car on my bicycle and kind of hurt my shoulder a little bit, so I put that on the back burner for a while. I do ride my bike, and I spend time with my kids, primarily. I have two daughters, eleven and eight years old, and I just enjoy spending time with them.

An astronaut who’s assigned to a mission and in training for a flight has got less time for other activities than they otherwise would. What is it, for you, that provides you the motivation to know that, I have to put some of those things aside now and focus my concentration here?

I think it’s the importance of the mission. This flight is in a sequence of flights that’s going to get space station built and get us on to other things, and it’s hard work getting ready to fly in space; it’s a lot of time that you have to devote to it. There’s only so many hours in a day, and so many hours in a week, and you’ve got to set priorities, and as you get closer to flight, the personal stuff completely goes away and you really focus on being ready on launch day.

As an astronaut you’re more aware than most people of the dangers that there are inherent in what you do for a living, yet here you sit ready to go do it a second time. So, I want to know why. What is it that you think is important enough about this that you’re willing to take the risk?

Well, it is a risky profession and you do think about that: Strapping into a rocket ship is something you don’t do lightly. You understand the risk. It’s a lot easier knowing what the risks are than if you just took somebody off the street and send them on a flight like this. But what makes it something that I’m willing to do and I’m prepared to do, is the fact that I think it’s very worthwhile. Anything that’s risky, you’re going to want to evaluate what the benefit is, and it’s not just the personal benefit to me—it’s what’s the benefit of our space program to our country and to the planet, and I think that’s, that’s pretty, pretty big. The benefit is enormous, so it’s justifiable for me to climb in the space shuttle Discovery whenever our launch date will be and take that risk.

What about your family? How do they deal with and process through the risks that are present in your job?

Well, they have to deal with it differently. My children, as we get closer, they’re going to think about the risk more. Right now they’re not since we’re months from launch, they don’t think about it all that much, but as we get closer they’ll start thinking about Columbia. My children knew three of my colleagues that were on that flight, particularly Laurel Clark they knew really well, so they’ll think about that, and that’s something I’m going to have to talk to them about.

It’s been more than three years now since the loss of Columbia and its crew. What was it like for you to realize that an accident had cost the lives of seven friends and colleagues?

Well, it was a pretty big shock, when you realize that the vehicle and, and the crew are not coming back, especially when they’re very good friends of yours. It’s sad and depressing, and it’s really tough for the whole community not only here at JSC but in Houston; it’s a difficult thing for the whole country.

But that hasn’t ended space shuttle flights. They investigated it, and the investigation board pinpointed some physical causes for the loss of the orbiter and its crew. Assess the improvements that we’ve made to this point to try to eliminate hazardous debris or detect and repair damage in flight.

Well the biggest improvement, hopefully, is the way we apply the foam to the tank, and actually removing foam from certain areas of the tank, we hope, will eliminate large pieces of foam that could damage the vehicle from coming off. We are going to have some foam coming off; that’s expected. Hopefully it’ll be small pieces, and since [STS-]114 we’ve made some additional changes and removed more foam, foam from certain areas, and we expect that the foam will not be an issue after this flight. We’re going to hopefully prove that.

The foam is, and removal thereof, with an eye toward eliminating debris; talk about some of the changes that have been made about trying to detect whether or not there’s been any damage.

Well, the detection system that we now have, which is a bunch of different components that we never had before, is going to allow us to see, in more detail, what has come off the tank. As most people, or as a lot of people, I think, understand, we don’t get the tank back; the tank actually burns up in the atmosphere so we don’t have the opportunity to examine it closely. We’re going to have to do that with sensors. We have certain sensors that we have available during the initial phases of liftoff; we have cameras that sit around the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center that are going to photograph the vehicle as it starts its ascent. We also have a radar system available that, is hoped, will be able to detect some pieces of foam; and we have cameras on the orbiter that are going to take pictures of this tank. We have an ET umbilical well camera that’ll take images that we’ll send down to the ground. Then, Stephanie [Wilson] and Mike [Fossum] will physically take some still photos and some video, and we’re going to send that down to the ground as well. When you put all that together, you’re going to have a really good picture of the foam on the tank and anything that might be off of the tank.

There are thousands of people across the country who have been working on all those things that you’ve just talked about there for three years now, trying to make a safe Return to Flight possible. What are your thoughts about the, the contributions to this team made by all of those people?

Well, you know, from a personal standpoint, I’m really thankful to them for the work they’ve done to try to make this flight and the previous one and all that follow as safe as they possibly can be. That’s hard work, especially after an accident and as you create this new engineering program to address a problem and you have setbacks, it’s difficult. But, myself and the crew of [STS-]121, we really appreciate all the time and effort that those people put in, especially the folks at Michoud [Assembly Facility] that have had to do this through not only the Columbia accident where there were some issues with how the foam was applied and how that affects them, but also through a hurricane where many of them lost their homes, and there was even some loss of life with some of the people that work at the factory there. So they’ve been under a lot of stress and have worked under some pretty tough conditions. I think out of all the people that have worked on this program, I think we appreciate them the most.

What’s it meant to you to get to go to Michoud or to other centers and, and meet and talk to those people?

Well, meeting the people that are actually doing the work is pretty valuable to us to get their personal insight into the whole process, especially with regards to the external tank. It’s also good to see the hardware. A picture is worth a thousand words, and actually seeing the real stuff, is really valuable to us to understand the challenges of the engineering involved in modifying the ET. We really look forward to the opportunities that when we do get to do that, and we do it, not often, but, I think, often enough; our training schedule allows us to visit some of the other centers, and we really enjoy doing that.

We’ve been talking about hardware, but the Columbia Accident Investigation Board pointed out organizational and human factors within NASA that were, also had some responsibility for the loss of Columbia. Do you see enough improvement in the management and safety culture in NASA?

I think there’s been a lot of work done to try to improve that culture and the safety program here. I think before Columbia it was good, but there’s always room for improvement. I think individuals are going to work as hard as they can to make this program as safe as possible. People understand there’s a lot of risk. But it’s tough: flying a spacecraft, and flying the space shuttle into orbit is a difficult thing to do, and it’s risky. I think all the people that work here try to make the best decisions available with the information they have. Sometimes you might make mistakes and you try to improve on that. We’re constantly in this process of improving our decision-making and the safety culture and trying to encourage people to speak up when there are safety issues. That’s an ongoing process; it’s something I think we did before Columbia, but we’re stressing it a little bit more now.

Your mission is referred to as space station assembly mission ULF-1.1. Can you summarize for us what the goals of STS-121 are?

Well, it’s the second Return to Flight mission, so we have a number of test objectives that are focused on getting the space shuttle flying again after the Columbia accident. We’ve got two EVAs that are devoted primarily to Return to Flight and to developing some capabilities for inspection of the vehicle and repair. That’s our first spacewalk, and our third spacewalk; the one in the middle is more of an assembly-oriented EVA. We’re also doing some logistics on the flight: we’re bringing up a bunch of cargo to the space station, we’re bringing a crewmember up, but there’s a lot of things that we’re doing that are devoted primarily to returning the space shuttle to flight.

We’ll touch on those several subjects. A lot of that cargo is going to be in the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module out in your payload bay. Give me a sense of some of, of what you’re bringing up inside Leonardo.

We’ve got a lot of supplies for the crew of the space station that’ll be inside. We have some racks that will go in the U.S. Laboratory, and then a lot of gear. Things tend to wear out in space so we’re bringing a lot of supplies that’ll replace things within the space station and on the outside of the space station, stuff that’s devoted to later shuttle flights is going to come in our MPLM.

Now you are also the second Return to Flight test flight since the loss of Columbia. What does it mean to now be called a “test flight?”

Well, I think every space shuttle flight in some regard is a test flight: There haven’t been many of them—I think now this will be the 115th flight of the space shuttle, so actually when you look at number of flights for an aircraft, the 115th flight would be very early in a test program; so, they’re all kind of test flights. After Columbia, NASA felt the need to correct some things specifically from the accident, and the first two flights are going to try to prove that those things have been fixed before we press on with the assembly sequence of the space station.

Earlier you made reference to some of the changes that have been made with the external tank, and in the very first hours of your flight you’re going to, you and your crewmates, are going to be working to try to confirm some of those changes. Talk about what’s going to be involved for you folks in getting data from the new wing leading edge sensors and, and from all the cameras inside and outside, down to the ground in a, in a rapid fashion.

Well, we’re going to downlink some video to the ground; still images are going to be sent to the ground; and we also have a wing leading edge system, a sensor system, that senses any impact to the leading edge of the orbiter’s wing. That data has to be, there’s some things we need to do within the cockpit, setting up some computer equipment, configuring the system, in order to send that information down to the ground, and we’re going to do that on Flight Day 1.

It takes up a, a bit of time on the very first day as you guys get used to the environment.

A little bit of time; not too much. On Flight Day 1, most of our time is devoted to turning the rocket ship into the spaceship, reconfiguring the orbiter on the flight deck and the middeck for operations in space.

So that on your second day, you can spend time inspecting the exterior of the orbiter, and you’re going to be the second crew to use this new Orbiter Boom Sensor System. Explain a bit about how it’s designed to help you take a look, if you will, at the outside of Discovery.

Well, every orbiter, normally, flies with a robot arm. The robot arm’s about 60 feet long. The Orbiter Boom Sensor System gives you another 60 feet of length, and it can be grappled with the arm to give you about a reach of about a hundred to a hundred and twenty feet. And on the tip of that boom, after we grapple with the robot arm, we’re able to move the tip of the boom along the leading edge of the orbiter’s wing and on the underbelly to inspect the tiles. It has some sensors on it: it has a laser ranger on the tip, it’s got a laser camera system, it has another camera that takes kind of normal video, and all those sensors work in combination to give you a good picture of the condition of the reinforced carbon-carbon on the leading edge and the tiles on the bottom of the orbiter.

It was flown on STS-114...

Yes, it was. did it work?

It worked great on 114. There were a couple of issues: our sensor; there’s going to be some modifications, a little bit of changes in the procedure; but it was very successful on 114.

JSC2004-E-22656 -- STS-121 Pilot Mark Kelly Image to left: STS-121 Pilot Mark Kelly dons a training version of the Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit. Credit: NASA

Inspections of your spaceship are going to resume during the final phase of docking to the station on Flight Day 3. Talk about that plan for those early-day inspections and then the, the operation that allows the station crew to take pictures of Discovery.

Well, we’re going to inspect on Flight Day 2; we’re going to dock on Flight Day 3. During the docking we’re going to do this maneuver called the rotational pitch maneuver, RPM, where we get about 500-to-600 feet below the space station, then we do a hundred and, or a 360° pitch; and after about a hundred and 80 degrees of pitch, the space station crew is going to map the bottom of the orbiter with some still cameras. They’re going to take some video at the same time. Those images can be sent to the ground, and then we’ll have a good idea of the condition of the, the tile system on the bottom of the vehicle. Later on Flight Day 4, if there are any more detailed areas that the ground would like us to look at based on the information they have, before we’ll go, we’ll have the opportunity to go look at that with the sensors at the end of the boom.

Within just a couple of hours of the hatch opening after your, your docking, you are scheduled to have transferred to the station one of the largest items on your manifest: Thomas Reiter. What are your thoughts about being there when you get the space station back into operation with a crew of three, and with, and with someone who’s not American or Russian as part of the crew?

Well, I think both of those are a pretty big deal. I mean, I think getting back to three people, the station crew that we had before the accident, it’s a significant milestone that we can now support three people on space station; that’s great. It’s also great to see another country getting a long-duration crewmember on ISS. We’ve had the Russians brought up on Soyuz, for short periods of time, crewmembers from other countries—from Spain, from the Netherlands, probably a couple of others—but it’s really good to see that we’re going to have a really international crew with a Russian, an American and a German on board. It’s a pretty big milestone for us.

Day after docking is the day that calls for the installation of the MPLM onto the Unity node. Describe for me the, the operation that is required to make that to, to do that docking.

To grapple the MPLM in the payload bay, Lisa [Nowak] and Stephanie are going to do that with the space station arm; it can be done with the space shuttle arm as well. On [STS-]108 that was one of my jobs, was the installation and removal of the MPLM to put it back in the payload bay. I’m not involved with that on this flight, but they will grapple with the station arm, pull the MPLM out of the payload bay, kind of lift it up over the payload bay, and stick it on the bottom of ISS.

Is that a complicated thing? I mean, you’ve got experience—is that, is that a hard thing as robotics operations go?

Well, both arms, the shuttle and the space station arm, are pretty complicated robots. They’re very user-intensive, you’re actually flying the thing with a rotational and a translational hand controller, so you’re flying the end effector around into the payload bay, over a grapple fixture; you’ve got a huge camera system, you’ve got some computers that are supporting you. It’s a two-person job to do this—one person actually flying it, the other person backing him up—and the thing’s pretty big and heavy and you really don’t want to hit anything with it, so you’ve got to be really careful. Having said that, the crew that’s going to do this, Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson, have spent a lot of hours training for this. Over the last two years they’ve spent hundreds of hours training for this task, so they’re really good at it by now. So when we get in space they’re very ready to do this, and it’ll go just like we’ve practiced, you know, many, many times in the simulator. So where it is complicated, and from the outside it looks complicated, they’re really good at it, so it should go very smoothly.

Transfers in and out of Leonardo go on then for a number of days while you’re, while you’re there, along with three spacewalks that we referred to earlier scheduled for the docked phase of your flight. What’s your role on the spacewalk team?

Well, my role is I am the IVA crewmember, which is the, instead of the extravehicular it’s the guy inside with the procedure; I also help Mike and Piers [Sellers] get suited up, get them in the airlock, get them out the hatch. Then for the whole spacewalk I’ll be in the orbiter, on the radio, I’ll be the guy talking to them, kind of helping them go through all the procedures over this six-to-eight-hour period to complete everything that they have planned for each one of these spacewalks.

I want to get you to describe what’s planned, in, not in excruciating detail, but...the first spacewalk of this mission is another component of the Return to Flight effort aimed at improving safety, in this case a demonstration of the use of the robotic arm as a possible work platform. Tell me what’s on the schedule for that.

Yeah, this is going to be, I think, one of the highlights of the flight. This is going to be really cool to watch, especially, people on the ground getting to see this; they’re going to think this is something. We’re really excited about it because we’re going to stick Mike and Piers on the end of the arm; one of them is going to be in a portable foot restraint which holds him rigid by his feet, and the other crewmember will be free-floating on the tip of the boom. They’re going to do some inputs to see how the boom reacts to having a person, or in this case, for the part of the spacewalk, one person and then later two people, on the tip of the boom. Because we need to be able to prove that we can use this for repair. And we’re going to do that by putting these guys on the end of it, and the boom is going to be held by the robot arm, and they’re going to be extended pretty far out in space, and they’re going to be doing certain maneuvers and we’re going to see how this thing reacts. So I think visually it’s going to be pretty, pretty neat to watch this and pretty exciting. This is our highest priority EVA because the boom is really important to prove that we can repair the orbiter.

Now, over the course of its life, the arms have carried things far heavier than Mike Fossum and Piers Sellers, although the new OBSS has not. Is it a matter of finding out how that combined system responds to movement rather than mass?

Well, that’s the thing. A crewmember on the end of the arm and then, in this case, on the end of the boom, he’s a mass that’s much smaller than a lot of the other stuff we’ve carried, but he’s pretty strong. And, he can flex his legs and flex at his waist and push off of things that can put, put a lot of force into the whole system, and that’s what we’re going to see. We’re going to see if this arm and boom combination, with one or two crewmembers on the end, is a suitable platform to do some of the things we need to do outside the orbiter.

And scheduled for the, the whole six hours, I take it then, that it’s at various locations and various angles and whatnot.

Yeah, we’ve got a few different positions that they’re going to be doing some tests at. The final one is they’re going to actually be pushing off the truss of the space station and pushing with a force gauge simulating that they’re doing some repairs so the arm is going to be extended out pretty far in that case. Another one of the positions is kind of over the port wing, over the payload bay, but a little bit to the left side. I think that’s going to be a good one for people on the ground to watch; it’s going to be pretty exciting.

The second EVA got a major change at the end of last year after one of the station’s Trailing Umbilical System cables got severed. Give me an overview of what’s on the plan now for your EVA #2.

Well, EVA 2 used to be a Pump Module, a SHOSS-ED—which is a, a box with spares in it—and a CIPA DTO. Now there’s been some pretty big changes: we’re not going to do the CIPA DTO—which some people might call the “goo gun”—that has fallen off of this EVA; but also the SHOSS box we’re not going to do anymore—that’s going to be pushed to a later flight—and in its place we’re going to try to repair this TUS reel, which had an umbilical which was cut—not sure exactly how it got cut—but we’re going to replace this component that goes inside of the truss.

Then, you said the Pump Module then is still on your EVA, too.

Yes, we’re going to install this Pump Module on the outside of the space station and, and do the TUS reel removal and replacement.

And that second one, it’s not a matter of simply replacing the cable that was cut; it’s the apparatus that contains the cable as well?

Yeah, it’s a pretty big box. It’s probably about, I don’t know, I’d say, half the size of a motorcycle; it’s pretty massive. We have to remove the old one and, and install this new one. It’s going to take a good amount of time; I should think that task takes probably about five or six hours in itself.

The third scheduled spacewalk is devoted entirely to tests of techniques being developed for repairs to the shuttle’s thermal protection system. Again, what’s the plan for EVA #3?

Well, Mike and Piers are going to go back into the aft part of the payload bay, and we have this box that we’re going to open, we open the lid and we have some samples of tile and samples of reinforced carbon-carbon, and we have a few different techniques we can use to repair damages in these tiles. These tiles were intentionally damaged on the ground, and we’re going to use certain techniques we’ve developed to repair them in flight, and we’re going to see how that repair goes. It’s a challenge doing things in space: you’re in this big, heavy suit with these gloves on under pressure, there’s no gravity, you’ve got to be tethered all the time, tools are more difficult to manage. So we want to prove that we can actually do these repairs that we’ve tested on the ground. The final proof is the flight test, and that’s what EVA 3 is devoted to.

That’s a lot of stuff.

A lot of stuff.

Three spacewalks and repairs and the supply the time you’re ready to close the hatches and start heading home, what do you think it will be that will have had to have happened, at least, to make sure that this flight was a success and set the stage for the follow-on shuttle flights?

Well, I think the boom DTO is probably the number one; well, it’s the highest priority EVA task we have. So that’s really important to prove the boom system. But I think EVA 3 as well, to prove we have some repair capability, I think those are the, the two highlights. Station assembly stuff is important to continue building the space station, and the TUS reel replacement is important because we need that Mobile Transporter for follow-on EVAs on later flights. So we’ve got to do that, but I really feel, you know, proving the boom system is the most important thing we’re doing on this flight. Well, that and the foam on the external tank.

Your mission is bringing the space shuttle back to flight and resuming station assembly at the same time that we’re looking at going into the last few years of space shuttle operations. Tell me about the space shuttle’s contribution to the space station project.

Well, the space shuttle is what we’ve used to build the space station, so you couldn’t have one without the other. It’s brought most of the hardware up to space; I think I mean certainly more than half, probably a lot more than that, even, by weight. So it’s key to building the space station—you can’t do it without the space shuttle; that’s how the station was designed around having a space shuttle, and not only to build it but to support it once we have a crew on board.

And yet building and operating the space station in Earth orbit isn’t really the final goal; it’s a step toward the next goal. From your perspective, tell me how the space station is contributing to the future of human exploration of space.

Well, learning to operate things and having people work in space, it’s key to doing anything later. We went to the moon in the late 1960s, early 70s, for a very short period of time; if we want to operate on the surface of [the] moon for extended periods, and then later go to Mars, we’ve got to be able to operate in space for longer durations. That’s what we’re learning on the space station right now. Space is a pretty challenging environment for people to live and work in, but it’s also very challenging for equipment. The failure rate on electronics and mechanical hardware is a lot higher in space than it is on Earth. Outside it’s a pretty unforgiving environment but even inside with the cosmic radiation that you have to deal with, electronics don’t like that too much, so they tend to fail. The space station is going to help us to learn how to work in space for extended durations so we can go do those other things.