Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What was it that made you want to become one of them and be one of these people who flies in space?
Image to right: Astronaut Stephen N. Frick, STS-122 commander. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Stephen Frick, Commander
A: Well, I was always interested in space. I grew up in the 60s and we watched the Apollo program, and then Skylab and then the early parts of the shuttle program, and I was in college as the shuttle started flying. And you can’t watch that, as someone who’s interested in aviation and flying, and not be just absolutely captivated by the experience. Flying itself was something I always wanted to do, from my earliest memories, and what could be more interesting than flying outside of the atmosphere and getting to see basically all of the Earth in one 90-minute pass? Just the idea of that was mesmerizing, though you can’t jump right into that career, as everyone knows. I was mainly interested in flying, and so I went down that path with the Navy, and it just turns out that eventually you find yourself in a position where, you know, I’ve kind of headed down the path that makes it possible that I could try to do this astronaut thing. So I found myself in test pilot school with a master’s degree, and I had the basic requirements, so I put in an application and basically just got lucky. There, there are a tremendous number of pilots out there that are as qualified or more qualified than me. I just had a little luck of the draw opportunity there and was able to get in.
So it wasn’t a goal from when you were in college or when you were younger?
Well, it was always a goal; it was always an interest but the odds always looked so slim that you can’t just pursue that goal single-mindedly, because then anything less will be a terrible disappointment. Flying was always a passion of mine, and it was something that I pursued via the route that looked most interesting to me at the time. It just ended up that that led me down a path that made space possible, so I went after it.
Let me get you to talk about that from the beginning. Tell me about your hometown, Gibsonia, Pennsylvania.
I grew up in Gibsonia, which is just north of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania -- great place to grow up; beautiful area, great schools. Most of my family was in that area and we stayed there all the way through growing up and high school before I left to go to the Naval Academy. I grew up in the heyday of the Steelers so I had a great sports tradition to go on, and the Pirates and the Penguins also had good years in there so it was just a great place to grow up. I enjoyed it very much, and I enjoy going back whenever I can.
Do you have a sense of how the people there, and that place, helped make you the person you are today?
It’s an interesting place in America. It’s got folks from all different backgrounds doing all different things. It’s a hard-working place -- Pittsburgh has gone through ups and downs. When I was growing up in the '70s it was a difficult time in Pittsburgh with the steel industry having troubles, but it’s been really exciting then and since watching the town kind of remake itself and come back as one of the greatest places to live in America. I go back now and sometimes I don’t recognize areas, but it’s still a beautiful place and getting nicer all the time.
You mentioned you went to the Naval Academy; if you could pick it up there and take me through your education and your professional career and what were, what were the stops along the way?
I went to the Naval Academy and my goal was always, when I went there and while I was there, to fly some type of Navy aircraft off an aircraft carrier. I was lucky enough to get through the Naval Academy and get into flight school and found myself getting through flight school and getting selected for F18s. I got my dream of getting the chance to fly a really interesting aircraft off aircraft carriers. I was stationed in various places with the Navy: in Meridian, Mississippi, Pensacola, Florida, and then finally Jacksonville, Florida, where I flew for about four years before heading off to Navy Postgraduate School and then finally to Test Pilot School, and getting to do aircraft testing, which led me down here to NASA. But it was a great path for me in the Navy. I had some tremendous experiences and some very, some wide-ranging, group of experiences which really have served me well, I think.
The Navy then led you to NASA. You’ve flown in space. What’s Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, look like from orbit?
You know, I’m hoping to find out this mission…
…because, the last mission I flew we had three passes over Pittsburgh and the Gibsonia area during the time when we were awake and I could actually get to a window: All three times it was completely overcast. So December’s probably not a good time to be trying to get pictures of Pittsburgh, but I’m really hoping this time. I was lucky in that Mike Fincke, who flew a six-month stint on the space station, is also from very close to Pittsburgh, in the Sewickley area, and he was able to get some great pictures over six months of Pittsburgh. So I’ve seen pictures -- great pictures -- from space, but I really do want to see it with my own eyes. I’m hoping for better luck this time around.
And we know that the flying in space part of your job can be dangerous. Steve, what is it that you think we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?
That’s a great question. I think if you asked every person that flies in space, they would say it’s absolutely worth it, because it’s the human race exploring beyond their current bounds, and whether it’s, folks hundreds of years ago crossing the oceans or a hundred years or so ago going to the Arctic or the Antarctic, places which were completely unknown at the time, didn’t know what they were getting into, and frankly took terrible losses in those exploratory missions and travels. I think it’s the same in space. It’s a place we have to go. We have to keep going farther, and until you get a human some place I don’t think we really feel like the human race has reached out that far. I will say that I think astronauts that have flown in space or that hope to fly in space watch the robotics missions we send to deep space and to the other planets very closely. We’re tremendously intrigued by them, and we certainly hope that we don’t ever end up in a battle where we’re competing, humans and robotic exploration, because we get tremendous knowledge from those, from those experiments. I think we’ve seen in the past that when human spaceflight does well, robotic spaceflight does well. So I think we work very well together, but we need to send humans as far as we can in addition to sending robotic exploration as far as we can.
You are commander of this mission to the International Space Station. Steve, give me a summary of the goals of assembly mission 1E and what your job as commander is.
Well, our main goal is to bring our primary payload, our primary piece of hardware we’re delivering to the space station, which is the Columbus laboratory, launch it, dock successfully, and attach it and activate it successfully, to the space station. It’s a major increase in our capability to do science in the future on the space station, and, we’re really excited about the chance to bring it up, get it installed, get it working, and, leave it ready to go as we depart finally from the space station.
Of course you’re also bringing another payload, about – what -- 5 [feet] 8 [inches], 170 pounds.
Well, swapping out a crew member is also a really interesting and exciting thing for us to do. It both gives us one more person to help us with the job, which is great, when you take somebody like Leo [Eyharts] up who has been training for so long to work on the space station, and bring somebody like Dan Tani back home after having been up there. They’re going to be a great addition to our crew for the times we’re docked, and we’re looking forward to hearing their stories from their time on orbit when they get home.
Let’s talk about that primary payload. It’s a new laboratory module from the European Space Agency. Tell me about Columbus, what it is, what it’ll do, and what it adds to the space station.
Well, it’s a tremendous contribution to the space station. It’s a very large, in our mind, orbiting laboratory that’ll greatly increase, the space, the facilities, and the various payloads for all different types of science to do on the space station. It fills half the payload bay, and it’s going to take us all of our docked time to try to get it going. And they’ll be working on it after we leave, to get it completely up and running to have the, both the payloads that we have launched in it that the European Space Agency has supplied, and also payloads will move into it in the future.
Do you compare what Columbus adds to the station to what the U.S. Laboratory brought when it arrived?
There are similarities and differences. The similarities are they are both orbiting laboratories, they both have tremendous capabilities, both currently and in the future, with the payloads they have in them and the resources they can supply to payloads that can come up in the future that we haven’t even thought of yet. But Columbus is really more of a pure laboratory. The U.S. Laboratory is really the heart of the space station—the U.S. segment of the space station. It’s got laboratory mod, payloads, it’s got all kinds of science resources, but it also has the heart of the U.S. segment: It has our, our computers, it has our power distribution, it has all the things we need to keep functioning and keep alive. The Columbus laboratory is really more of a pure laboratory: it has the resources it needs to keep its payloads going and to keep the crew members that are working inside of it healthy and able to do their job. But it relies on the, the other modules in the U.S. segment for resources like power and cooling and air and those kinds of things.
[It] certainly adds a lot more space to the station than what was there on your first trip.
Yeah, and we’re very excited about that. My first flight -- I was with Rex Walheim, who is also on this crew -- we went on STS-110 and brought the S0 Truss segment to the space station which was very exciting, especially for the EVA crew members -- they got to do a tremendous amount of work to get this truss segment installed on the space station and serve as the backbone to the solar arrays that we have today. But we’re bringing up a pressurized module, which is something completely new and different for us. And not only do we get to bring it up and install it on the space station, but we get to go inside and work in it afterwards and see the dramatic change to the space station with the addition of this new volume.
There is a new wrinkle in the rendezvous to the station since your first flight -- an activity called the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver, which lets the station crew members take photographs of the bottom of the shuttle, looking for damage. I’d like to get you to describe what you’re doing on this maneuver and tell me how it’s been refined since the first time Eileen Collins flew it on STS-114.
Well, the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver certainly is something that we like because it gives us a chance to get detailed photography of the entire shuttle to see the condition of the Thermal Protection System and really all the surfaces. We’re really excited that NASA was able to come up with such an interesting way to get a free inspection, basically. The maneuver from the shuttle side is very similar to the way it was when Eileen Collins’ crew did it the first time. We pull up in our normal rendezvous profile, up underneath the space station about 600 feet away, and we just do a 360 degree flip, stop it when we’re done, and then proceed with the rest of the rendezvous. For the space station crew, though, they’re working harder and harder every time we do this. The first time we did it we just took photographs of the tile underneath the orbiter, and then we realized that the photography they took was so good and so accurate and detailed that, hey, there are other areas in the shuttle we could take a look at for free. So now they photograph the nose, the top of the orbiter, they photograph the engines on the back, the OMS [Orbital Maneuvering System] pods. So we basically map virtually the whole orbiter during that 360 degree flip maneuver. For us, we just do the flip and we proceed on into rendezvous and dock. The space station crew works real hard for that just couple of minutes when we’re doing the flip, taking the photography, and then they get it right in their computers and get it downlinked to the ground so the ground starts looking at it within, sometimes, 40 to 45 minutes of when we’ve done the maneuver. We have the easy part—just a couple minutes of work. The ground then has the hard part which is many hours of analyzing all that photography to look for the smallest defects.
As a pilot, do you get nervous about the idea of turning your back on your target?
Image to right: While seated at the commander's and pilot's stations, Commander Stephen Frick
(left) and Pilot Alan Poindexter participate in a post insertion/de-orbit training session in the crew compartment trainer (CCT-2) in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
No, actually it’s really interesting to us. We know exactly how we’re coming into the station. We know exactly where the orbiter’s going to go when we start that flip, so we’re not at all concerned about turning our back on the target. But the advantage for us is we get to see the station in a very different way than we ever did before. We’re used to just bringing the payload bay of the orbiter up to the space station for the entire rendezvous, so we see it in the same place. We kick off this flip maneuver and we see the station rapidly move over the nose and then a, a couple minutes later rise over the tail almost like a sunrise. It’s real interesting and we’re hoping to get some, some video of that to, to show the folks on the ground, ’cause it really is a different view than we normally get.
When you dock to the station it’ll be the first time that the shuttle has hooked up to PMA [Pressurized Mating Adapter]-2 in its new location out on the end of the new Harmony node. Does that have any significant impact on your rendezvous and docking maneuver?
There are some differences, but really they’re small. We adjusted our training. Obviously, the station’s a little bit longer so it looks a little different, and we’ll be in a little different position when we finally dock because of the length of the Node 2 that we’ve added. You’re just at the end of a longer ship now. It’s a little bit different, there isn’t quite as much wiring going to the PMA now so we don’t have as much redundancy when we dock to take care of the things that have to happen automatically, but Peggy [Whitson] and her crew have trained in order to cover those actions if they don’t happen automatically, and we also have the ability to do that. So we just have to watch a few more things, but other than that it’s going to be very similar to the last time.
Shortly after you complete that docking, there is an operation for your crew to unberth the Orbiter Boom Sensor System and leave it hanging out attached to the shuttle’s robot arm. What’s the reason for that, and how does the crew go about accomplishing it?
It’s an interesting ballet we have to do. Certainly we want to fly the boom because we need to inspect the orbiter’s Thermal Protection System, especially the RCC [reinforced carbon-carbon] on the leading edge of the wings and the nose, but when we carry a large payload like Columbus up it’s a pretty tight fit in the payload bay, and when you add this large boom on one side of the orbiter for the entire flight, we have to have some way to get it out of the way to be able to pull the Columbus module out and move it into position. It turns out it just would not fit very well if we had that boom in place. So after we dock the first thing we have to do is pull the boom out to get it out of the way for the next day when we get Columbus out of the bay. But the funny thing is, we can’t actually reach it with the orbiter arm once we dock, so the station arm has to come down and grab it in a different location, pull it off of the orbiter, move it out to the side, and then the shuttle robotic arm will come in and grab it and take the hand-off from the station arm and move it out of the way so we’ll be all set for the next day’s activities.
And those activities the next day would be the delivery of Columbus and berthing it onto the station, which takes place during the first spacewalk in the mission. During the spacewalks -- all of the spacewalks -- what are you going to be doing?
The times that I train the most for and I’m primarily responsible for during the mission are more dynamic times like launch and landing and rendezvous. During the times when we’re docked to the space station, I’m really in more of a support role. I need to make sure that all the crew members have the resources and time they need to do their job, but they’re the specialists. Rex Walheim and his EVA team have trained for hundreds of hours to get ready for their spacewalks. My job is to do the couple of hours of prep work to help them get into their spacesuits, make sure all the systems in their suits are working well, and get them out the door -- out the airlock on time and with everything working. Then during the EVA I’m going to just basically be supporting. Alan Poindexter is going to be doing the IVA [intravehicular activity] job, kind of choreographing the spacewalk from inside, so I’m going to be helping him out to make sure he can concentrate on the spacewalk. And there’ll be work going on in the space station both for robotics, and after we install the Columbus module they’ll be working inside Columbus getting all the racks relocated and activated and make sure the module is up and running. So they’ll probably need some help that I can do some grunt work for.
Let me get you to give us your perspective on what is going to happen. The first EVA to install Columbus -- if you could talk me through the timeline and how you’re going to complete that delivery.
That’ll be an interesting day, actually. We’ll start out the way we start out all EVA days, which is, we get up, and we jump right into the timeline. The EVA folks, the ones that are going out that day in a spacesuits, have to get right into what we call the pre-breathe to get all the nitrogen out of their system. It takes a couple of hours. It’s kind of a complicated procedure. We’ve got to make sure we do it exactly right so that they can go out the door safely. While they’re just about ready to go out the door, the robotics team, Leland Melvin, Stan Love, and also the station crew members that are robotics qualified -- Dan Tani, Leo Eyharts, and Peggy -- will be making sure that the space station’s robotic arm is ready to grapple the Columbus module. But before we can do that, we have to do some work on Columbus. We have to install the grapple fixture; we have to disconnect the cables that provided heater power, before we unberth it from the space shuttle. All that work has to get done on the spacewalk before they can actually grapple it with the station’s robotic arm, pull it out of the orbiter’s payload bay, and move it around to where it’s going to get installed on Node 2. So really, the spacewalk is two parts. The first part is Rex Walheim and Hans Schlegel working on the Columbus module to get it ready for unberth. Once they’re done they go off and work on other tasks while Leland and Stan and Dan work on actually grappling and unberthing the Columbus module and maneuvering it over to the Node 2. After the spacewalkers come in, we still have more work to do. Once you have a module attached to the side of the space station you still have to make sure it’s safe to open the hatches and get in there. You have to make sure the seals are tight, it’s holding air, you have to disassemble a lot of equipment that’s kind of blocking the path into the module, and once all that’s done, basically, our day is over. So we’re going to go to sleep that night and get up the next day, and then we’re going to be able to go into the Columbus module.
The next day -- and you don’t get to go right in, you know, you don’t have breakfast the next day and go inside.
There’s more, I take it, of the same kind of work in order to prepare, to make sure that it’s OK to go inside. What’s entailed there?
Absolutely. There’s an awful lot of work that has to be done. Once we’ve made sure that it’s sealed up nice and tight, it’s not leaking any air, we can actually open the hatch, but you don’t want to go in right away because there isn’t any airflow. And in zero g, if you have particles in the air like dust or dirt or very fine machine particles from when it was built, they’re just going to be suspended in the air, and you could, you could breathe those or get them in your eyes. So we’re very careful not to go into the module until it’s been cleaned, and then we go in with goggles on and a little mask to keep us protected. Leo Eyharts is going to go in first, and he’s going to hook up the equipment we need to be able to provide that airflow to the Columbus module, and then we’ll let it scrub it for a little while, while we work outside on what we call the vestibule, which is the connection between the Columbus module and Node 2. We have to hook up, just like you are attaching anything new to your house or your car, we’ve got to hook up electrical lines, we’ve got to hook up plumbing lines and we’ve got to hook up computer lines, just like hooking up your network at home. Once we get all that hooked up, the air will have been scrubbed, and then we can actually go into the module for the first time, and start working on all the work that has to be done inside.
Image to left: Attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, STS-122 Commander Stephen Frick awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
Give me a sense of what some of that work is, I guess what you call outfitting tasks for the new module.
Outfitting and activation tasks. The work that we can primarily do is getting the module ready to be controlled from the ground. Even though the Columbus depends on the U.S. segment for a lot of its resources, like electrical power and cooling and air, it has an awful lot of systems inside to make sure those things are distributed inside the module. You have things like water pumps, you have fans to move the air, and you have large boxes that are going to distribute the electrical power. These all have been secured for launch, ’cause when you launch in the shuttle and you go through three g’s and the shaking of the solids, you’ve got to make sure everything’s very tightly held down and doesn’t get damaged on ascent. So we spend a lot of hours, basically, unlocking all that equipment before the fans can be turned on, before the pumps can be turned on, and will work properly.
So you, in the earlier activities, you’re supplying the utilities, but Columbus is built to handle them all and, and run itself then…
… by itself.
Right. We’ll make sure that we have electrical power and the water and the nitrogen and the air and everything hooked up, but then we have to go in and make sure that the module’s ready to receive those things. Once that’s done and we have the basic systems up and running, which will keep it at the right temperature, which will keep the air flowing, which will keep the power going to all the things that need it, then we can start working on the more detailed items, such as taking the different payloads that are going to require power and cooling and are going to do all the research, and move them to their final location. They don’t necessarily launch where they’re going to end up, because we have to make sure that we have the CG, the center of gravity, and the way the weight’s distributed in the module, just right for launch, which means it’s not necessarily where you want it on orbit. So we get it up, we get the module all installed and activated, and then we start moving these racks around to their final position, getting them plugged in and hooked up and ready to do research.
And I guess really the full activation will continue even after you’re gone.
We’re just doing the beginning part of the work. We’re going to get as much as we possibly can get done during our docked time frame, but we only have about seven days or so of docked time and that’s just not enough time to get all this done, including all the spacewalks we’re doing, which take up a lot of our docked time. So after we leave, Leo, who has been trained extensively on the Columbus module, and also Peggy, who has been trained extensively on it in Cologne, Germany, at the European astronaut training center, they’re going to go to work after we leave and finish the activation of these payloads that we didn’t have time to finish up and make sure the module is really ready to go.
You mentioned the other spacewalks. There are two more spacewalks for your crew members scheduled during the remainder of that docked time. The second one takes place the day after you go inside Columbus. Tell me about the operations and the installation, that Nitrogen Tank Assembly on EVA 2.
Well, about half of our EVA tasks we’re doing on this mission are related specifically to the Columbus module, both making sure it’s installed correctly on the space station and also outfitting its external payloads, which are EVA 3. But the other half of our activities are doing maintenance tasks on the space station, either delivering other hardware we’ve brought up for the space station such as a Nitrogen Tank Assembly which is used to keep the station’s cooling system operational, and also some other small tasks. About half of the first EVA, after Rex and Hans are complete with getting the Columbus module ready for unberthing and installation, they’re going to go off to the truss on the space station and start disconnecting a nitrogen tank which has been effectively used up in the previous operations of the cooling system. We can’t do a swap of the new one we brought up and the old one all in one EVA. It’s too much work, so they’re going to get a head start on EVA 1 so that when they go out the door on EVA 2 they’ll be ready to just bring the new one out of the shuttle’s payload bay, bring it up to the truss, and swap it out for the old one, bring the old one down, install it safely in the payload bay, and then we’ll be able to bring that one back down to Earth. It’ll be refurbished and brought up in a couple years.
And it’s just that simple and takes about that long, right?
I wish; I wish. The EVA guys have to do some, some really interesting work carrying this very large, weighs many hundreds of pounds, box from the orbiter payload bay and basically do a swap-out, up in zero g, hanging out on the side of this truss, without making any mistakes. It’ll be quite a task to watch.
And then there is a third EVA, this one with Rex and Stan Love, that includes the transfer of some experiments onto the exterior of Columbus. Tell me about those tasks.
Probably the second-most interesting payloads we’re bringing up other than the Columbus module itself are the EuTEF [European Technology Exposure Facility] experiment, an external payload supplied by ESA which will go on the outside of the Columbus module, and the SOLAR payload, which is another payload that was supplied by ESA. EuTEF is mainly a materials payload. It has a lot of experiments on it that will be exposed to the vacuum of space and the environment around the space station, which can be analyzed either in real time via downlink data or they can bring materials back later from future spacewalks and analyze it on the ground. [There are] many different experiments on that, and it should have some very interesting data after it’s been exposed to the environment around space station for a number of years up there. SOLAR is a solar observatory, basically. It will go on the top -- the zenith, we call, or the space-facing side of the Columbus module -- and it has a pivoting observatory which can be pointed toward the sun to gather solar data. All of EVA 3 will be moving these payloads from the orbiter payload bay, bringing them up to Columbus, and installing them successfully on the external payload facility on the Columbus module.
And as you say they’re on the, on the external side and out on the end, the far starboard end of Columbus, away from the body of the station.
That’s right. They’ll be as far outboard on Columbus as we can get them and give them the greatest view of space from their position, being all the way out on the side with nothing above, to the right, or below them.
The International Space Station is the biggest thing that we’ve built in space so far. How do you feel about getting the part that you have in this historic work?
Any mission you get assigned to is very exciting. I’m certainly very excited that we were able to get a pressurized module and also a module that’s supplied by an international partner because it makes for a much more interesting mission. You get to meet a lot more interesting people and be exposed to the space cultures in other countries. That part, by itself, is interesting, but having the opportunity to work on the space station, really is the leading edge. We’ve never done anything like this in space before, and we’re learning a tremendous amount, both in how to design structures that are going to survive for long periods in space, how to actually do the grunt work of assembling them in space, via spacewalks or robotics -- how can we do it smart, how can we do it efficiently, how can we do it in the safest possible way? We’re just learning a lot that we’re going to be able to use in the future when we go other places beyond low Earth orbit. And we’re excited to have even our small part of it.
As we say, the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond the space station that you’re helping to build right now. Tell me what’s, what’s your philosophy about the future of human space exploration?
Well, I hope we keep, we keep moving. We have to keep moving farther out. The space station is just one more step on the way. We’re in low Earth orbit. We never get more than about 200 miles away from the surface of the Earth, which when you’re up there seems like a long way when you’re looking down at the Earth and going over the surface five miles a minute, but we realize …
Five miles a second.
I’m sorry, five miles a second.
But in the big scheme of things it’s not that far, so we’re very excited at the opportunity to go a little further in the future, go back to the moon, maybe farther than that, and we see this as, as our little step on that ladder, but we hope that we keep moving up the ladder and keep moving farther away.