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Return To Flight

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2006 Preflight Interview: Lisa Nowak
+ Read 2005 interview

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

JSC2005-E-29635 -- STS-121 Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak Image to right: STS-121 Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak is attired in a training version of the shuttle launch and entry suit. Credit: NASA

A: When I was a kid growing up near Washington, D.C., I got to go to the Air and Space Museum and saw a lot of space exhibits, some of the Apollo things, and got to see the space program getting started with the space shuttle. I always thought it would be neat to do that. But I knew there were lots of people that wanted to do that. And I thought, well, what are the chances that I’d get to. But certainly I always thought it would be terrific, and I’m thrilled to be here.

Well, what did you do that led you ultimately to be qualified to be an astronaut?

Well, I studied hard in school, starting when I was little, and tried to get good grades. When I graduated from high school I went to the Naval Academy. I wasn’t necessarily thinking, "Well, this is the exact path to become an astronaut." I thought it wouldn’t hurt because I knew some of the astronauts, or a lot of them, were in military service. I majored in aerospace engineering. That was very interesting to me. After I graduated I went off to Navy Flight School and became a naval flight officer, and then went to an operational squadron, then went to graduate school and studied some more aerospace engineering. I was fortunate enough to get selected for the Navy’s Test Pilot School, where I learned to test lots of different aircraft systems, and after doing some acquisition work for the Navy, got selected to come here to NASA.

Did you go to the Naval Academy with the idea of being a, a, a flight officer?

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was very interested in flying and computers. I was interested in a lot of scientific things. At the time there weren’t as many options for women as there are now, so I wasn’t sure what all the opportunities would be. But I knew that if they were there I would certainly be very excited and interested to do that, and I did get into a program, I got to fly Navy jets, which was the area I was most interested in.

If you look back at that time and back to your “kidhood,” is there a, a person you look at and see as your, your hero or your inspiration as you went along?

I probably didn’t have one particular hero. Everybody in the space program I certainly admired and looked up to. And when they started having women, and start being selected in the space shuttle program when I was in high school, that was a more particular area that I could identify with. There were a few teachers and track coaches and things like that who provided different kinds of motivation, but no -- no one particular person but a large group of people.

Rockville, Maryland, is your hometown, right?


Do you get to go back there a lot and, and talk to any of those teachers or coaches?

I go back occasionally to visit family, but I have not really gotten to do a lot of talking to schools and things like that in the area. But I’m hoping that after the flight, I will get to do that.

But you get to go to the area and, and be around those people that helped make you who you are.

Right. A lot of my parents and sisters and their families all still live around that area, and it’s always fun to go back there and see everybody.

You got other hobbies that keep you busy when you’re not being an astronaut, which, like, takes none of your time at all?

Actually I have lots of hobbies and probably not enough time to do all of them. But, I have some that are more quiet hobbies. I like to read books a lot and do crossword puzzles, and I have some more active hobbies like going running and bike riding a lot, and sailing, when I can. I don’t have a sailboat, but I like doing that. And I like taking care of indoor plants. I have a whole lot of African violets and belong to a club that gets involved with growing and showing those. I have a lot of rubber stamps; I like doing creative projects with that, and making cookies. Obviously I can’t do all these things at once, especially while we’re training, so I maybe concentrate on two or three at a time.

Well, I was going to say, your job, especially when you’re preparing for a flight, takes an awful lot of time that you might otherwise be spending doing those things or being with your friends and your family. For you, what is it that provides the motivation for you to make the choice to give up those things now?

Probably the most important thing is the big picture of why we go explore in space in the first place, or why anybody explores undersea or a different country or anything. It’s an important goal that probably all humans have inside them. We want to go explore and learn other things about the world and universe around us. Just from a personal point of view I feel that also, and I know that my family supports that too.

STS-121 is your first flight as an astronaut. Tell me what it was like when they said, Lisa, you’re going.

First, I was very excited. I’d been training for many years and supporting the astronaut and space program in different ways. I’d been a Capcom in Mission Control and gotten to talk to the people in space; I’d worked on procedures; I’d been to other countries and worked on development of things like the space station’s robotic arm, some of the training that we would do for that. So it was very educational and interesting to be involved in all those other phases, but actually going there and doing it is a goal that every astronaut has, and to finally find out that I would get to participate in that way was very rewarding.

Because you’re an astronaut you’re more aware than most people about how dangerous flying in space can be, but here you sit ready to go do it. So tell me why. What is it that we get or that we learn from doing this that you feel makes it worth the risk you’re taking?

Well, you’re right; this is risky. There are a lot of things we do every day that involve some risk that we may not think about — just getting in a car and driving to work, or people that fly airplanes for their jobs — those things are all risky. We can sit in one place and never go anywhere or do anything, but that’s not what people are about. We have a drive to go and do things, even if it’s on a daily basis or with a larger goal of exploring. You can’t explore and go and do things without taking some risk. We here at NASA certainly feel that’s worth it, and all the people that support us and our families all know that’s part of the really important goal. That’s what makes it worth it.

How does your family deal with the risk that comes with your job?

Well, again, they share that interest and knowledge that exploration’s important, so they have that feeling. But of course when it’s personal, it’s somebody in your family, there’s another piece of that, and there’s a little more worry or things like that that go along when it’s somebody you know very closely. So I know that there’ll be some of that nervousness going on when we launch and come back and in between, but I know they’re also very proud to be involved with the space program, the roles they have. So, they also feel like it’s worth it.

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

It’s devastating for everybody, and when it’s friends, people that you know, it’s even harder. Three of those people were in my class, that I knew very well. So that’s hard. But I remember on that day, sitting there with my son, and we’re both watching together everything’s that’s happening, and he reached over and took my hand and said, “Mom, I still want you to go.” So, it’s a terrible tragedy to happen, but we know that there is a cause behind it and that we’re going to continue to follow that.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board pinpointed physical causes for the loss of the accident. Give me a, a brief assessment of the improvements that have been made to this point to eliminate hazardous debris and to detect and repair damage on orbit.

The debris falling off the tank is, of course, something that we don’t want to have keep happening. A lot of teams of people have been working very hard trying to reduce or eliminate that problem. In fact, that’s why our flight has been delayed some or one of the reasons, to try and make that better. We have many different kinds of inspections with different equipment that we’re going to be using on the flight to detect if something, say, hits us during the launch, or maybe a small piece of debris up in space that couldn’t be tracked on the space trackers. So, with both of those combined I, I think the team’s doing a great effort to minimize the risk as much as we can.

STS-121 is the second Return to Flight test flight. STS-114 was the first. What did we learn from the flight of Discovery on that flight last year that’s being incorporated in your mission?

Well, one of the things was about the debris coming off the tank. We realized that it was still coming off, so they’re continuing to refine that and make that better. Another thing we learned on the fly, literally, on 114: the areas between the tiles on the underside of the orbiter have a material called gap filler, and we discovered that those can start protruding in flight. They actually designed an EVA during their flight so they could go remove some. We would like to not have to do that on our flight. So they’ve gone and reworked the whole underside of Discovery, and any one that was loose, they’re redoing all of those gap fillers so we can prevent that. Those are things we learned about that were not as good as we would like, and we’re fixing them. But another thing, and people don’t look at this that often, is we learned a lot of things that are positive, too. At least I did, since I’m mostly involved with robotics work. The fact that all the robotics on 114 went so smoothly and efficiently was very impressive to me. They had very good operators on board, of course, and very well-designed trajectories. All the people that did that are not something you see covered a lot in the news because it went not just perfectly, but very efficiently. So I take that as a model, a goal, for me to follow on my flight.

You know that there are thousands of people across the country who have been working for more than three years now to make a safe Return to Flight possible. What are your thoughts about the contributions of all of those people to this effort?

Every single person is a part of the team, and I am impressed with that every day that I am at NASA, from the day that I first came for my interview and met the different people that were working. One example is I had somebody doing a Doppler exam of my heart, and this person was telling me about how she had done a similar exam with someone that was going to space soon. And I meet some people that are building hardware, and every single person you can see they’re beaming with how proud they are of the role they play. Every single one of them knows they’re important, which they are. Every piece is key to the whole effort, and that big team is what makes all of this happen.

You know, the CAIB also pointed out some, that human factors and organizational factors inside NASA that bear some of the responsibility for the loss of Columbia, too, looking at the management and the safety culture here. Tell me about the improvement you’ve seen in those areas in the last few years.

At NASA we always like to think that we’re working on safety and having a good culture, but you’re right, there are some things that were pointed out, areas to improve. You can see that all over NASA that people have been paying even more attention to detail on improving those. That’s a sign of a good organization -- that you never accept, say, Oh now I’m there; you always want to look for ways to improve. So even as we’re working on these things, I think if we continue to find ways to improve. That will show that we are really on the right track.

This mission is referred to as station assembly mission ULF-1.1. What does that mean? Tell me what the goals of this flight are?

JSC2005-E-46650 -- STS-121 Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak Image to right: STS-121 Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak participates in an exercise in the systems engineering simulator at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Credit: NASA

As far as the name of the flight, they come up with the names a long time ago. Utilization and Logistics Flight, ULF, is what that stands for, and the numbering just falls out with the way they come up with the order. Since it came in between some other ones that they planned, ULF-1 and then there was a 2, but we were planned after that, so it was a “dot” flight, 1.1. We’re bringing up a lot of supplies to the station, consumable supplies, and also some replacement and spare parts. But of course one of the major missions of our flight, being a test flight, is to look at new repair materials and techniques. So we’ll be spending some time doing that, and to try out some inspection techniques, some of which were done on 114. We’ll be doing some different ones with new cameras, looking at the underside and edges and all of the orbiter to make sure there’s no damage.

Most of the cargo that you’re carrying to orbit is in the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module out in the payload bay. Give me a general idea of what you’re bringing up and what you’re bringing back.

Well, we’re bringing up some consumable supplies, like food and clothes and water, to the folks on the station. We’ll also have some replacement parts for the inside of the station. There’s some experiment hardware that people on board will use, and a small freezer that they can keep samples for the experiments in.

STS-121 is the second Return to Flight test flight since the loss of Columbia. What does it mean now to be called a “test flight?”

Well, actually every shuttle flight could be considered a test flight. I come from a test background, and really until you’ve characterized every kind of flight regime you wouldn’t consider a vehicle operational. We can’t really do that with the shuttle. So a lot of people think every shuttle flight is a test flight. But for these few that we’re doing right now, 114 and ours, which consist of the Return to Flight mission. We’re doing some specific tests on new repair materials and techniques which we’ve never done before, and also the inspections. We’ll use that information, after these two flights, to decide for the follow-on flights if we need to continue doing inspections or how to develop or characterize those repair techniques to see if we need to implement any of those in the future, and decide on how to do the rest of those flights.

Some of those new things start in just the very first hours of your flight, when you’ll be confirming some of the aspects of redesign of the external tank. What is it that’s involved in getting the data from your inspections back down to the ground, the data from wing leading edge sensors and, and all those new cameras?

We have some cameras that will work automatically, filming the detachment of the tank and hopefully nothing falling off of it, and we also have crewmembers that are trained as soon as we get up there, basically, to get unstrapped and get some very large cameras out, a still camera and a video camera, to film the same things. We have information coming from lots of different sources. As soon as possible we’re going to get our system set up so we can downlink this information and people can start analyzing it.

It sounds like you’re going to be, not only the picture-taking itself, but the downlinking of the information, is a, is a new wrinkle in a timeline.

Yes, we have to do the downlinking, but also right away, as soon as we get up there. There are a lot of things you need to do right when you get up there, but this is definitely a high priority. We have some folks specifically trained to get these things set up as soon as possible.

That’s on the first day, on launch day. The next day, you’ve got related inspection work to do, and you’re going to be part of the second crew to inspect the exterior of your orbiter for damage using this new Orbiter Boom Sensor System. Describe that for me, and tell me how it’s designed to see if the thermal protection system on the shuttle’s been damaged.

We are doing lots of inspections on Flight Day 2 and other days as well, but that will be the first involved day. There are many, many hours of it. We’ll be taking this long boom, which is in fact about as long as the shuttle arm itself — it was even made from parts that were spare parts that were originally designed to be part of a shuttle arm — so we’ll be taking our robotic arm from one side, going over and picking that up, and now having a very much longer structure than we had before. There are some special cameras on the end of that boom that we can now bring around and survey all the different parts of the shuttle, or many different parts of it, and look at areas we never could see before -- detailed scans of the leading edges and the crew cabin, the nose cap area. We’ll be doing all of those before we even get to the station. Then when we come up to the station, before docking, the shuttle will do a flip all the way around so we can see the underside in more detail. Then, after being attached to the station, we’ll do even more inspections. So it’s a long process of getting detailed looks of every part of the orbiter.

The STS-114 crew was the first to use this OBSS in orbit. How did it go for them, and did they give you any, any tips about how to wield that thing?

Yes, we got a lot of good information from their robotic operators, who were the ones conducting these inspections. First of all, it does take a long time, and you’ve got to stay on your guard to make sure you don’t hit anything with this long boom. The clearance concerns are always, always important, and even though some parts of the trajectories are preprogrammed, you still have to watch and make sure that a, a point wasn’t programmed wrong or maybe a piece of structure was not in the model when it was designed. Or something mechanically could go wrong with the arm and it might start going towards the orbiter or towards the station when you’re attached. You always have to be on guard for that and be able to stop things if necessary. Another thing that we can’t really train that well for on the ground is the effects of light and darkness. There are some times they may have trained a certain trajectory and they were able to see things, certain views and cameras, but it might have been darker on orbit and they had to compensate and use other views. So, we’ve been thinking about that also and how it will affect us on our mission.

I don’t mean this in a bad way, but it sounds like it could be pretty tedious.

It could be, and that’s something we really have to keep in mind. We’ve even talked about that: We don’t want to become complacent. Say you're driving on a dark road at night and everything starts to look the same. You don’t think about it that much, and that could happen, because it seems like, OK, one point, the next point, the next point, we’re just monitoring. But it’s not just monitoring. We have to make sure we can see every part of that arm and boom in a camera view or a window view, and if we need to we’ll stop and reposition and make sure we have all those views, because we can’t assume that it’s going where it said it was going to go. We cannot afford to hit anything. So being complacent is not something that can happen. We know that the possibility is out there, and we’re going to be on guard and make sure it doesn’t happen.

Jump ahead a bit: shuttle is docked to the space station, and within a few hours of hatch opening you will have already transferred over to the station Thomas Reiter, who is one of the biggest items on your manifest. What are your thoughts about getting the ISS back to operating with three people -- and not just Americans and Russians, in this case.

That will definitely be an improvement for the use of the space station. We’ve still been able to do some science and different operations with two people, but with three we can do a lot more. Certainly having people from other countries involved was the whole goal. It’s called the International Space Station. So for all of those reasons, it will definitely be a high point by bringing the crew up to three.

The day after the docking the schedule calls for the installation of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. Describe that operation as well as your part, your role, as part of the team that day.

We’ll be moving the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, the MPLM, from the payload bay up to the space station, and we’ll be doing that using the station’s robotic arm. Stephanie [Wilson] and I are the ones trained to use that station arm, and whenever we do that we work as a team. One of us will be on the controls and the other one working the cameras and the procedures and some of the other support areas. And on that day she’ll be on the controls and I’ll be doing the cameras and other things. She'll basically be reaching over and getting a hold of the MPLM, very carefully taking it out of the payload bay — there’s lot of tight clearances — and then moving it up and around and installing it onto the station.

Once that’s done the, the schedule calls for more robot operations to prepare for later inspections, is that right? What, what happens later on that day?

We’ll be doing some more inspections, continuing from our Flight Day 2 activities, which were undocked. Now that we’re docked we can do some more inspections. And we may leave room for something, if we did see something on the first day of inspections, an area that we just aren’t sure what’s there, I mean, maybe there is some damage, we might do a focused inspection on that area, just get more information about that. We’ll also be taking a look at some of the other areas that maybe we couldn’t have seen as well before.

There are three spacewalks scheduled for this mission. You’re not one of the spacewalkers but you’ve got work to do during those EVAs. What, what will be your job?

JSC2005-E-29637 -- STS-121 Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak Image to left: STS-121 Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak dons a training version of the shuttle launch and entry suit. Credit: NASA

I will be the one operating the robotic arm during those EVAs — in some cases the shuttle arm, in some cases the station arm. There are a lot of different challenges doing that: Sometimes it’s moving equipment, sometimes it’s moving EVA people around on the end of the arm or the boom, depending on which EVA we’re doing.

Well, let’s talk about the first spacewalk. It’s one of the Return to Flight efforts at improving safety as a, this demonstration of the use of the robot arm as a work platform. Talk me through the EVA; tell me what’s going to happen.

That first EVA is basically a big test, and we’ll be doing some things we’ve never done before -- putting people out on the end of that boom, one and then two. From a robotics point of view, it’s going to be very interesting because these, again, are things we’ve never done before. Basically we’ll be putting first one person and, and then later two, in different positions, we call strong position, a more rigid position in the arm, and then one where it’s stretched way out. We’ll be having them do certain motions, jumping a little bit, trying to, as if they were doing some kind of repair, and then seeing how rigid the arm is: Does it move a foot back and forth when they start moving, or does it stay as a stable platform to do work and repair on? We’re going to evaluate all this data and decide whether it could be a stable platform for doing those repairs.

Is this with one or the other arms, or, or do we try out both?

This will be with the shuttle’s robotic arm and the boom on the end of it.

And it’s going to take an entire six-something-hour spacewalk to do that?

Some of that is involved with setting up and cleaning up, but because this is a test, we don’t just want to go straight to the, the last part. We want to do it progressively. So we’re going to use a more known, stronger position in the arm with one person to start out with, and then we’ll, we’ll build on that. We’ll go to a weaker, a more questionable position, maybe, and try out some more things. Then we’ll put two people on. It’s a progressive effort, getting data as we go so we can characterize if it’s going to fail somewhere in the middle, we’ll know at what point.

The second spacewalk on your mission got a wholesale change at the end of last year after one of the station’s Trailing Umbilical System cables was severed. Give me an overview of what’s now planned for the second spacewalk on your mission.

The first part of the EVA, as far as we know, is going to stay the same. We have a piece of equipment called the Pump Module, which we’re bringing to the space station. It’s a part which will later be used to help in the assembly of the cooling system. We’re going to pre-position it outside on a pallet and to do that the EVA folks are going to go into the payload bay of the space shuttle, pick it up and hold it. We’re going to come to it with the space station’s arm and grapple it and then move it up to the area that we want to install it on. In the meantime the EVA folks will make their way up there and when they’re ready we’ll hand it back to them and they can install it. This is something we don’t do that often. Usually the space station arm or shuttle arm will actually grapple something itself while it’s in the payload bay. It doesn’t involve people holding it. But, after the loads analysis on this unit, they weren’t sure if it could handle that and they wanted a more gentle approach of somebody holding it while we went to grapple it. So, again, from a robotics point of view, it’s kind of a unique thing to do. Then we’ll give it back to them at the end. The rest of the EVA, as you mentioned originally, we were going to take another box up and do a similar operation, but now we’re looking at replacing that Trailing Umbilical System cable. And we don’t know all the details of how we’re going to do that yet, but it will surely involve robotics operations and the EVA folks doing some of that repair. We’re looking forward to meeting the challenges of that replacement, because it’s very critical to the station’s operation.

The third scheduled spacewalk on this flight is devoted almost entirely to the tests of techniques that are being developed to repair possible shuttle thermal protection system damage. Tell me about the, the plan for EVA 3.

Our EVA folks have been trained in the different materials and techniques, and we have a pallet in the back of the space shuttle payload bay that has some squares with different samples, different materials and different kinds of damage — small holes, large holes, a cut — that they can try out these materials and methods on, try to make it nice and smooth. Obviously if we had some damage we’d want a smooth surface to come back with. And from the robotics point of view, which is where I’m most directly involved, I’ll be controlling the robotic arm. It will have one the spacewalkers on the end, and basically they’ll say, "OK, we need to come to the right to this sample" or "up a little bit," and the whole time making sure we’re not hitting anything that we aren’t supposed to. They also may need to move around for sunlight and temperature concerns. Some of these materials may need a certain temperature range to work correctly, or we’re going to test and find out what ranges work. So we’ll be moving them around for those different reasons.

Three EVAs and you’ve got all the transfers that you’ve got to do and then you’ve got to put the MPLM back in the shuttle; are you excited about getting to do all of that?

Yes. There are some things, again, that we’ve never done before, and some that are fairly new that were only done on 114. All of the things that we will be doing contribute to the whole mission and will be very exciting just to go even if we didn’t get to do any of those things that it would be exciting just to go.

By the time you’re ready to leave the space station behind, tell me what it is that will have had to have happened for you to think that your mission was a success and set for the stage for all the shuttle flights still to come.

Most important is that we go there safely and get everybody back. As far as the mission success, we have a couple of goals. Some of them are the test goals for the materials and techniques, and we may find out that they don’t work, but even that is a successful mission. We’ve tested them and find out that some things don’t work. The inspections, hopefully, we won't find that anything hit us, but we’ll be also just refining these techniques, the inspections. We have some new cameras we’re trying out -- and, of course, to bring up the all-important supplies to the station.

Your mission brings the space shuttle back to flight and resumes space station assembly at about the same time as the shuttle is moving into what we think is going to be its final few years of operation. Tell me about the space shuttle’s contribution to assembly and operation of the space station.

It has been a key part of assembling it. There are many components that can only be brought up by the space shuttle. As you know, the past few years, since Columbia, we’ve been doing what we can with the smaller vehicles that have been bringing people up and maintaining it. But, the space station shuttle is the only vehicle we have right now to bring up some of those larger components. They were designed to fit into the space shuttle. So it’s very important, just from bringing pieces up. From a development point of view, it’s a fascinating vehicle that was built a number of years ago but we’ve learned a lot about, through the development and upgrading it. We’ll be looking forward to taking that information and building the next vehicle.

Well, of course, building and operating this space station isn’t really the final goal, but it’s just a step toward the goal. Tell me your perspective: How does the space station contribute to the future of human exploration of space?

It’s a step. Exploration, just by the very nature of it, doesn’t stop; you want to continue to explore. We’ve explored the Earth, we’ve gone down under the ocean, and we’ve got in up in airplanes and now out to space. We’ve gone to the moon; we’re hoping to go back with our new vision of exploration. The space station is another method of exploring, but we’re also hoping to go to Mars and who knows where else and explore out there in the universe.