Follow this link to skip to                                      the main content

Return To Flight

Text Size

2006 Preflight Interview: Stephanie Wilson
+ Read 2005 interview

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

JSC2005-E-47439 -- STS-121 Mission Specialist Stephanie Wilson Image to right: STS-121 Mission Specialist Stephanie Wilson participates in a simulation exercise using the Space Station Remote Manipulator System simulator. Credit: NASA

A: It is. When I was 13 I first became interested in space. I actually had a school assignment to interview someone that worked in a career field that I was interested in, and I interviewed a local area astronomy professor. I was very fascinated by his work. Later, though, I became more interested in engineering, and I thought that aerospace engineering would be a good combination of my interest in space and my interest in engineering.

What was it that made you, as a, as a young girl, to be interested in astronomy and space?

Well, I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts and all of the stars were very visible at night and so, I just looked up at the heavens and I thought it would be a nice way to fulfill my interest in space.

So, it sparked your imagination.

It did.

Well, tell me how you did it. Give me the short story of how you, through your education and your career, ended up becoming a person who was qualified to be an astronaut.

Well, I studied engineering science at Harvard University. I went on to receive a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. For my first job I worked at Martin Marietta, the former Martin Marietta, in the astronautics group, performing loads and dynamics analysis for the Titan IV launch vehicle. Then I worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California on the Galileo spacecraft as part of the attitude and articulation control group. So that was all, for me, a natural progression from working on launch vehicles and robotic spacecraft to now flying on the shuttle.

Was the goal always to become an astronaut yourself?

Well, I would have been happy working in any capacity in aerospace. It was a nice goal to have and I would go after it once I met the qualifications. But, I was happy working on robotic spacecraft or on launch vehicles, also.

It sounds to me, from the, the progression that you tell there, that it’s been a long time since you’ve been back and lived in western Massachusetts.

It has.

Do you get, get a chance to, to talk to those people often?

Not as often as I would like to. The people there are very excited, and they’ve been very supportive of me. I hope to have a chance, during our postflight appearances, to go back and thank the people there.

You may even have a chance to look down and see what Pittsfield looks like from orbit.

I hope so.

In all your vast spare time, when you’re not training for this mission, what other kind of things are interesting to you, your hobbies?

I enjoy downhill snow skiing and stamp collecting.

Really? They don’t get to do much snow skiing in Houston, though.

No, not very much, I’m afraid.

The job, I tease about it because your job requires an awful lot of time for you in, in training, and it’s time that you could be spending on these other things if you so chose. What is it for you that provides the motivation to make that, that choice for yourself?

Well, most careers are very, require sacrifice. If one is very interested in one’s career then it makes the sacrifice much easier. And there are many people — our training team, our flight control team, the shuttle and station program teams — that have worked very hard to prioritize our mission objectives and to train us to execute them, and so I’m just very excited to execute my part. Making sure that I do my part successfully is great motivation.

Because you’re an astronaut I suppose that you’re more aware than most people about the dangers of spaceflight and, but yet here you sit ready to go take that spaceflight yourself. Tell me why. What is it that we get or that we learn from flying people in space that, to you, makes it worth that risk?

Well, I think that there is a great thirst for knowledge, and humans have always wanted to explore. That issue is something that is integral to me, to have that, quest for knowledge and that thirst to explore. The improvements that we gained from our work in space, all of those improvements come back to improve life here on Earth. I think there are great benefits to the work that we’re doing, and it’s just very worthwhile and worth the risk.

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 seven colleagues and friends?

I was very sad to learn that there perhaps was something we could have done to, to, prevent losing the Columbia crew. I was the lead Capcom for that mission and three of the crewmembers were also in my ASCAN class. We were all very close, we all worked very hard together, and it was a tough time. It was very sad.

Well, as you know, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board pinpointed some physical causes behind the loss of Columbia. I’d like to ask you to assess the improvements that have been made up to this point to eliminate hazardous debris and to try to detect and repair damage on orbit.

We have done a great deal of work on our external tank: we have enhanced our spraying technique for the foam, and also the bipod area that caused trouble on Columbia has been redesigned—there’s no foam there now, we have heaters instead. We have a suite of imagery sensors that will be used during missions now. We take ground-based imagery during launch, we have wing leading edge sensors to detect impacts to the wing, there’s air-based photography that occurs during ascent and we as the crew take pictures of the external tank after separation. There’s also radar tracking—and so all of those, devices are put together to put together a picture of what happens during ascent. And then we have the robotic inspection of the vehicle, and we get data from that imagery as well. So there is a lot that has been done to redesign and also to, to help us to detect impacts to the vehicle.

Now a lot of that was, was used first on the first Return to Flight mission, STS-114, and it, it proved its worth.

It did. It was very valuable.

What did you think that we’ve learned from that first flight that we’re able to roll into your flight as, as we continue to ramp back up into, to getting shuttle flying?

We have perhaps, fine-tuned some of the procedures for the robotic inspection, and the 114 crew has been able to tell us how it operated. We were able to get a better sense and a better feel for some of the clearances. The clearances with the boom are very tight, it gets very close to the vehicle, and so that’s something that we have to monitor very closely. Having had them go through it prior to us gives us a, a better feeling for the trajectory that the boom will go through and that the clearances will be safe.

There are, are thousands of people all across the country who have been working for more than three years on many of these things that you just talked about, things that are designed to make a safe Return to Flight possible. What are your thoughts about the contributions and the efforts of those people?

Oh, the contributions and the efforts of those people are tremendous. The people have done very important work. Every job is very important, and I’m thankful for their dedication and for their contributions and their efforts.

Do you get a chance to go from center to center and, and visit with those people sometimes? What’s that like?

We have an opportunity to do that a little bit. Our training schedule is very hectic, but we take every opportunity that we can to thank the people. You know it’s wonderful to see the excitement and the dedication; people have worked long hours and have sacrificed weekends and holidays, to work on the Return to Flight effort, and so, we’re just very thankful for all of their work.

The CAIB’s investigation turned up physical causes for the loss of Columbia, but they also pointed out some problems in organizational and human factors with, inside NASA, in the management system and in the safety culture. Are you seeing improvements in those areas, too?

Change is something that takes quite a bit of time to take root in an organization, and so it’s not something that we can expect to see overnight. I have seen a renewed vigor, a renewed dedication to our space program and a renewed or increased appreciation for the risk.

This space shuttle mission is referred to as assembly mission ULF-1.1. What’s that mean? Can you summarize the goals of this space shuttle flight for us?

We are a Utilization and Logistics Flight as well as a Return to Flight test mission, and so one of our goals is to provide the space station crew with supplies and logistics so they can continue their work, and also to test a variety of repair techniques and vehicle inspection techniques for the Return to Flight effort.

Let’s expand on that for a second. A lot of the cargo that you’re carrying up to the station and to the crewmembers is in that Multi-Purpose Logistics Module that’s going to be in the payload bay. Give me a, a broad sense of what it is that you’re bringing up and, and bringing back down after, from the station on the way home.

We are bringing to the space station crew a variety of experiments. We have a -80° laboratory freezer that they will use to cool samples; we have a, a European cultivation module that they will use for their experiments; we are pre-positioning an oxygen generation system that will be used for future crews, and we are bringing them a new, Common Cabin Air Assembly for a heat exchanger in the laboratory. The old one has failed and they’ll need to replace that. We have food and clothing for them as well, and hopefully a surprise or two will be packed in there.

Do you want to tell us what the surprise is?

No, can’t tell you what the surprise is.

You mentioned that this is also a, a test flight, a Return to Flight test flight; it’s the second. What does it mean nowadays to be called a “test flight?”

KSC-06PD-0312 -- STS-121 Mission Specialist Stephanie Wilson and Pilot Mark Kelly Image to left: STS-121 Mission Specialist Stephanie Wilson (right) and Pilot Mark Kelly work with equipment that will be on the mission. Credit: NASA

Well, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board did detailed recommendations that we had to implement into the shuttle program, and we are still testing those objectives with our vehicle inspection and our repair techniques. We are still in the process of validating the changes that we made to the shuttle program based on the recommendations from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

One of the things you’re doing, and you referred to it earlier, is you’re in fact going to be the second crew to inspect the exterior of your orbiter for any launch debris damage. Describe this new Orbiter Boom Sensor System and, and how it’s designed to help you learn if there’s been damage to Discovery.

The Orbiter Boom Sensor System is a boom that we will grapple to with our shuttle arm. We have autosequences that move the boom through inspection of the starboard wing, the port wing, and the nose cap. There are sensors on the end of the boom that do the imaging, and that information is downlinked to the ground for further analysis so that it can be used to determine if there’s been damage to the reinforced carbon-carbon.

In fact, one of your jobs on this mission is as a robotics operator, right?


You’ll be involved in, in the, those inspections. What sort of, of feedback did you get from the operators on STS-114 about what that’s going to be like?

The feedback that we received from the STS-114 crew — they said that the boom worked very well. They did talk about the clearances with the boom and the vehicle, and that is something that we will be watching. It gets very close to the vehicle in order to get a good image of the wing leading edge, and so that’s something that we’ll be watching. But they did say that it worked very well.

It’s a lengthy job on Flight Day 2; in fact, it takes most of the day, right?

It does.

How many of you are involved? How do you keep yourself sharp doing that same job, following those same procedures over such a, an extended period?

For any, survey we have three people, working with the robotic arm. We try to give everyone a break. So for the different surveys we’re actually swapping out operators so people can stay fresh and receive a break.

Inspections of the orbiter are going to be done not only by those cameras and the imaging that you mentioned, but they’re going to be done by cameras on board the station as the, Discovery approaches. Give me an idea of what, what is it that happens as you guys approach in your rendezvous so that the station crewmembers can get a view of the underside of, of the shuttle.

As we approach the space station we will flip Discovery over so that the space station crew can take images of the, of the underside of Discovery, and that will also be used to determine if there’s been any damage to the vehicle.

It’s only going to be a few hours after you dock to the space station that you’re going to transfer over one of the, one of the most important if not, if not the biggest items, on the manifest: Thomas Reiter. What are your thoughts about your role in this mission, getting the ISS back into operation with a crew of three people?

It has always been the intent for the space station to have an international crew. I think it’s wonderful that we’re getting back to three people. The more people that we have on the space station the more science we can do, the more maintenance that can be done to the space station, the more assembly that can be done. And so I think it’s wonderful that we’re increasing the crew size again. I wish the crew a very successful mission.

It’s also interesting that this would be, become the first time that we have a permanent crew with people from three different countries.

Yes. That has always been the case to have an international crew, and so I think it’s wonderful. All of our international partners have contributed greatly to the space station, and so it’s nice to see, that we’re able to expand and give everyone an opportunity to have a chance to live and work on board the space station.

Now, the majority of the, the supply effort is not going to get under way until at least the next day, because that’s the day that calls for the installation of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, out of the payload bay onto the station. Talk about that operation and what, what your part is going to be in it.

Yes, I will unberth the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module from the payload bay with the station robotic arm, and we will lift it up out of the payload bay. Then there’s actually an autosequence that moves the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module closer to the Node, which is the installation point. I’ll take over manually and install the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module onto the Node. Then we go through and equalize the pressure, pressurize the module and equalize the pressure between the space station and the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. Then we’ll be able to open up the hatch and begin the transfer of all of the logistics items.

Now recognizing, of course, that you haven’t had the chance to, to fly that arm in space yet, is that movement of the MPLM, is that a, a particularly, difficult or, or unusual sort of robotics operation?

It’s not unusual. I have been able to talk to the STS-114 crew about that operation and, find out from them how well the arm flies and how very smooth that trajectory is. We have a chance to train with those procedures very extensively, and so I expect it to go very smoothly.

Now, I understand that once the MPLM is installed that day there are some, yet some more robot arm operations, regarding possible future inspections of the, of the thermal protection system. What else is, what is it that you have to do that day?

Yes, following the installation of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, with the shuttle arm and the orbiter boom system, we will be inspecting points that were identified from our Flight Day 2 inspection. And so on Flight Day 4, this is called a focus inspection. After the ground has an opportunity to review the data from the Flight Day 2 inspection, they will point out some areas that they would like to have a closer look at. And so we will go back to those areas and, and inspect those areas, image those areas, and downlink that information to the ground for future review.

So, we’ve talked about arm operations and inspections, which is an important part of this mission, and the supply transfers will be going on throughout. Another big part of this mission is spacewalks. There are three spacewalks scheduled for the mission. What’s your role, what, on this spacewalking team?

For spacewalks, I will assist Mark Kelly, who is our IV, in preparing the airlock and for getting Piers Sellers and Mike Fossum suited up for the EVAs. Then I will assist Lisa Nowak in the robotic operations.

I’d like to get you to give me your perspective on what’s going to happen on, on these three spacewalks. The first one is a demonstration of a combination of shuttle robotics and possible repairs, trying to see how the, the arm could be used as a work platform. What procedures are you going to do in general to try to, to test that?

We have different positions to place the arm in, weak and strong, so that we can get a feel for how stable a platform the arm and the boom system will be for a repair. And the spacewalkers will provide a variety of inputs into the system to see how well the system responds, how quickly it damps out, so that we’ll know whether or not the fine workings of a repair can be done on this platform.

When you say positions are either “weak” or “strong,” what, what is that a reference to?

It’s a, really a sort of a structural reference. If something is very rigid, it’s pretty strong; and if something is weak, it’s not able to hold up under a certain input or under a certain load. So there are certain arm configurations that are stronger than others. We want to get a feel for, based on a certain position of the arm, whether or not it’s a weak or strong position, whether or not there’s a big dynamic response to an input at that position, and then we’ll know we can have a recommendation to make as far as what positions to place the arm in for repair or certain positions to avoid for repair.

I think that anybody who imagines that, you could see that with the OBSS attached you now have a longer arm so you could reach more places, but it also, I think it might wiggle more just because it’s longer out there in space. And, that’s, that’s what you’re trying to quantify.

That’s right. It is a flexible system, and so we’re trying to get an understanding of the range of the flexibility.

Third scheduled spacewalk for this mission is also a, a Return to Flight type of thing: It’s devoted to tests of techniques being developed for repairs to the shuttle’s thermal protection system. Again, what are the plans for the third EVA?

For the third EVA there is a sample box of reinforced carbon-carbon that has already been damaged, and so we are flying that up in the payload bay. The spacewalkers will repair those samples and we will return those samples to Earth for examination to see how well the repairs took.

Is, in this case is, is there a lot of robotics operations involved?

There are some robotic operations. The spacewalkers begin at the airlock of the space station and we have to bring them down to the payload bay. Then there is some movement that is required in the payload bay. There is also a camera that the spacewalkers will use to image the repairs, to get a good sense of whether or not the repairs took, and so we have to maneuver them to a position that’s good for that camera. Then when their work is done we bring them back to the airlock.

Three spacewalks, transfers of tons of stuff back and forth ... it’s an awful lot of work to get done in about a week, while you’re there.

It is. It’s an aggressive schedule, but we are up for the challenge.

Well, by the time you’re ready to close the hatches and leave ISS behind, what is it that needs to have happened by then for you to think that this mission has been a success and has set the stage to get the follow-on shuttle flights going?

I would say that we would need to have had a successful inspection, a robotic inspection, of the vehicle; we would have to have had good results from our EVA-1 with the boom, showing that the boom can be a stable platform for repair; and also, being able to repair the reinforced carbon-carbon samples and return those to Earth … in addition to installing the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module and being able to transfer the logistics so the space station crew can continue their work.

Your mission is bringing the space shuttle back to flight and resuming space station assembly, and all just at about the same time as we move into what we think is going to be the final few years of space shuttle flights. Tell me about the space shuttle’s contribution to the assembly and operation of the space station.

The space shuttle has been very integral to the assembly of the space station. It has been the vehicle that has put into orbit the modules and all of the components that we have used for assembly, for our spacewalks, and also to bring the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module to bring the supplies that the crews need to live and work on board the space station. It has made tremendous contributions. We wouldn’t have been able to build the space station without the shuttle.

Of course, building this space station in Earth orbit isn’t a final goal either, it’s just a step toward the goal. From your perspective, Stephanie, how does the ISS contribute to the future of human exploration of space?

It contributes greatly. We have used the space station to learn how crews can live and work aboard the station, for long term, to see how crews exercise and can maintain their physical health and strength long term. We have fine-tuned the workings of the crew and our ground control teams so that we can put that into use for a moon or Mars mission. All of the work that has been done on the space station has been great preparation for our return to the moon and an eventual trip to Mars.