Q: There are hundreds and thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world but there are only about 100 American astronauts today. Dex, what is it that made you want to become one of them and be one of those people who flies in space?
Image to right: Astronaut Alan G. Poindexter, STS-122 pilot. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Alan Poindexter, Pilot
A: Really a sense of excitement and adventurism; when I was growing up we watched the Apollo flights, and when I was young I played with model aircraft and was always interested in aviation. I was in college at Georgia Tech and Dick Truly came to speak. Admiral Truly spoke about his first night launch and night landing on STS-8. I was very, very intrigued with it and got to talk with him afterwards. Ever since then, I’ve sort of aspired to come down here and, and be an astronaut.
Well, let me take you back to the beginning of that story. This is where I usually ask people about hometowns -- you, however, have either several or none, I just don’t know for sure how to characterize that. Tell me about how you grew up.
My dad was in the Navy, as I am, and we grew up all over the United States, near Washington, D.C., in Rockville, Maryland, and in Virginia and California and Florida. We lived all over the place, Washington state as well. I really enjoyed moving a lot. There were ups and downs, obviously; down sides that changing schools quite often as a young kid was always a little difficult, but there were many, many up sides as well. I got to see a lot of different cultures, I got to learn a lot of different aspects about the country we live in and our history and I just had a lot of fun doing it.
Do you have a sense of how growing up in the way that you did has made a contribution to making you the person that [you] are today?
It sure did. I was influenced by many, many different people, in my student years and, I was always, I guess immersed in a Navy environment and so obviously that had a big impact when I decided what I wanted to do was go and be a Navy pilot. I was very familiar with the Navy community and felt very comfortable with it.
You ended up, I think, in, you mentioned, in Maryland, around the nation’s capital; that’s where you graduated from high school, right?
Actually I graduated from high school out in California …
… Coronado, California.
Pick it up from high school and, and give us the, the Reader’s Digest version of the Alan Poindexter Story.
After graduation from high school I attended junior colleges in both California and Florida, and then went to Georgia Tech for my undergraduate degree. I was involved in the Navy ROTC program at Georgia Tech and then went down to flight school after commissioning and flew fighters in the Navy for a number of years and went on to Test Pilot School and then, was back in the fleet when I was selected to be an astronaut.
You’ve mentioned how you had heard Dick Truly speak while you were an undergraduate; from then through all the rest of your Navy career you’ve had being an astronaut as the goal?
Sure have. It’s always been there and I was always real excited about it. I knew that in order to be an astronaut pilot you almost had to go to Test Pilot School, so my first intermediate step then was to be selected for Test Pilot School. I applied for that in the early ’90s and was accepted, and spent the mid-’90s at Test Pilot School and working as a test pilot, and then later on, after I was selected to come down here, [I've] been working in several technical jobs since then.
It’s been a number of years then since you were an undergraduate and here you are on the, on the cusp of getting ready to fly in space for the first time. You must be pretty excited about it.
Real excited. Just real proud, real proud to represent the, the people that I know, and real proud to go off and work and try to be successful, and really try to represent all the thousands of other people that work on the space programs that allow human spaceflight to be such a great success.
How did you get the news of your, that you’d been selected for this crew?
I was in a shuttle simulator, working on some generic training and the boss’s secretary called me up and said, "Hey, the chief wants to see you." And I said, "Well, that can be only one of two things -- it could be either good or bad." In this case it was a good thing.
We know that the flying in space part of an astronaut’s job does have its risks. I wonder what it is that you feel that we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth that risk?
Flying in space is risky. It will never be safe, and the best thing we can do is manage those risks. It’s important for people, for human beings, to be in space because they’re adaptable and because they’re not pre-programmed software that can go off and do tasks that are appropriate for machines. We can think and we can adapt and we can explore and discover and then report those results to those on the ground, who obviously could use that data.
You are the pilot on this assembly mission to the International Space Station. Dex, give me a summary of the goals of assembly mission 1E and what your jobs on this flight are.
STS-122/1E’s main objective is to deliver the European Space Agency’s Columbus module to the International Space Station. We have secondary objectives as well, that the, main one of those is to do a crew exchange -- we’re taking up Leopold Eyharts and returning Dan Tani after his stay on the station.
Well, let’s talk about the big payload, the one out in the payload bay, the European Space Agency’s laboratory module Columbus. Tell me what it is and what it does and what it’s going to add to the International Space Station.
Columbus is the main contribution of the European Space Agency and it’s the first pressurized module that’s non-U.S. or non-Russian. It adds a lot of laboratory space as well as interior volume to the space station; I believe up to ten extra laboratory racks will be available for experiments and studies on the station now.
And it also must add a lot in the sense of, well, I guess pride for Europe, but all of the partners in the project.
Absolutely. You know, thousands of people have spent at least the last 15 or 20 years on Columbus, and, it really is the pinnacle of, of their efforts to, to have it be attached to the space station and finally airborne.
It must be kind of exciting for you, too, then, to be in the middle of all that activity.
It sure is. [I'm] just a real, real happy and real proud to be a member of the crew that gets to take Columbus to orbit.
Well, let’s talk through the flight, launch on flight day 1; on flight day 2 you’re going to spend a good portion of the day surveying the orbiter for damage. Tell me about the task and the use of that Orbiter Boom Sensor System by you and your crewmates.
The Orbiter Boom Sensor System launches along the starboard (right) sill of the payload bay of Atlantis and on flight day 2 Leland Melvin and Stan Love, along with Steve Frick, our commander, will take the shuttle robotic arm and reach across the payload bay and grapple the Orbiter Boom Sensor System, pull it out, off of its attachment points, and then use it to survey the leading edges of the port and starboard wing as well as the nose cone and a few other areas of the orbiter for any ascent damage. That data is then sent to the ground and analyzed by experts here at Johnson [Space Center] and throughout the agency. The Mission Management Team gets that data and looks at it for, for any type of damage that we might have received on ascent.
This inspection using both television cameras and other sensors has been conducted since the Return to Flight mission. Has the procedure evolved over that time?
Sure has. We’ve gotten smarter; we’ve become more knowledgeable in ways to shave time off of doing the inspection while still continuing to do a thorough inspection. We’ve cut the time down and we’ve got better procedures now that allow us to get the data to the ground faster and still allow us to carry out our other duties on flight day 2.
On flight day 3, of course, you docked to the International Space Station and shortly after that there’s another one of these, maneuvers involving the OBSS in order to leave it attached to the shuttle’s robot arm. Tell my why there, why you’re going through that procedure.
The Columbus module is wide enough that there is very little margin along the sides of the payload bay, along the sills, and if the Orbiter Boom Sensor System was left along the starboard sill we may have interference problems. So just after docking, again Leland and Stan and Steve will use both the station and shuttle robotic arms to remove the Orbiter Boom Sensor System and move it over to the shuttle robotic arm, which will then be off the port side. It also allows the added benefit of using the cameras on the OBSS for views during the EVAs and during Columbus installation tasks.
The installation of Columbus takes place during the first of three spacewalks that’s scheduled during the time that you and your crewmates are going to be at the International Space Station. You don’t get to run the arm though. What is your job during spacewalks?
My job during the EVAs, the spacewalks, is to act as the inside coordinator. I remain on the aft flight deck of the shuttle and I act in a manner to help the gentlemen outside, my fellow crewmates, who are performing the EVA tasks. Because the suit is very difficult to work in and there’s no real place for checklists, I keep a checklist inside and keep them on the timeline and coordinate with the ground, who are the real quarterbacks in this mission, to keep the guys on task, to keep them on time, and to work with any contingencies or any extra tasks that may come up.
Image to right: Attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, STS-122 Pilot Alan Poindexter participates in a training session in the crew compartment trainer in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
It takes a lot of concentration to stay focused on, and being in the middle of that conversation, outside and the ground, for six or more hours.
We use a variety of tools to increase our situational awareness. We have the Wireless Video System on the EMU, the extravehicular mobility unit, so you’ll see the cameras, that show the, the, what the crew members are doing outside. We have the radios, obviously, and we have cameras on the shuttle and all over the station that allow us to watch the EVA crew members, transmit that data and that video to the ground, and keep our situational awareness up.
Well, let me get you to tell the story of the three spacewalks that are on this mission. We’ll start with the, just the first one. The day after you dock, Rex Walheim and Hans Schlegel will be going outside. Tell me the story of EVA 1.
The main job is to prep Columbus for removal and attachment. The Columbus module is tethered to the payload bay with a heater cable. Rex will remove that heater cable early in the EVA. The power and data grapple fixture that is required for the station robotic arm to grapple to Columbus and remove it from the payload bay is launched on the side wall of Atlantis, so Hans’ first task is to get on the station arm and go over to the side wall of the carrier, the side wall carrier of Atlantis, and remove that power, data and grapple fixture, and then place it on the Columbus module with, with Rex’s help. They’ll button that down and then they’ve got a few other tasks to do in the payload bay before the arm guys, Leland and Stan, can grapple Columbus and then move it to the side of Node 2.
Now, the spacewalkers are not supposed to be directly involved in the actual attachment of Columbus, correct?
That’s right. As soon they’re done in the payload bay with the tasks that are needed to be done before we remove it, they go out on the P1 Truss and do some get-aheads for EVA 2, where they ready the Nitrogen Tank Assembly for removal and replacement, which will happen on the next EVA.
And before we go to that, you, you described how Hans Schlegel will be installing a grapple fixture on Columbus. I’m sure there must be a reason, why it’s not there when you launched?
Sure thing. Again the Orbiter Boom Sensor System along the, the starboard side of the shuttle would interfere with that power and data grapple fixture when we go to close up the doors, and so it’s launched on the side wall carrier and then placed on the side of Columbus after we’ve moved the OBSS and the doors are open.
Is there any room left in the payload bay for the spacewalkers?
There’s a little bit of room left, but not a whole lot.
The first spacewalk ends with Columbus being mated to the starboard side of Node 2, but you -- all of you -- don’t get to go inside that new module until the following day. Talk a little bit about what has to be done before you open the doors and get to enter Columbus.
I’m not directly involved in those tasks but Leopold Eyharts and Steve Frick and Hans Schlegel are involved in some outfitting that needs to be done. They’ve got to open the doors and they’ve got to replace some pressure relief valves and install some intramodular ventilation. We need to make sure the atmosphere is safe to enter. We’ve got to get that Columbus module powered up and, once that’s all done we’ll all have a chance to go inside.
And there’s at least similar kinds of outfitting and assembly, not assembly work but set-up work inside Columbus, throughout the rest of the time that you’re there, right?
There sure is. We almost always have at least one crew member in Columbus working on outfitting and activation tasks. Mostly it’s Leopold and Peggy Whitson, the station crew members, that’ll be doing that.
Image to left: STS-122 Pilot Alan Poindexter attired in a training version of his
shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
The day after you go inside Columbus is the second spacewalk of the mission and, as you said, there are get-ahead tasks associated with it on the first EVA. Tell us what happens on the second spacewalk.
EVA 2’s main objective is to replace the Nitrogen Tank Assembly which charges the ammonia system in the station’s radiators. The Nitrogen Tank Assembly on the P1 Truss assembly is empty. We bring a full one up in the payload bay on the Integrated Cargo Carrier and we use the EVA crew members and the station robotic arm to move that tank that’s in the payload bay up to the P1 Truss, replace the one that’s up there, and then bring that one back to the payload bay.
This is of sufficient size that it requires the arm to …
It is. It’s a really big Orbital Replacement Unit -- it’s about the size of your household chest freezer, and weighs several hundred pounds. Rex will be on the arm and carry that up to the P1 Truss and, with Hans’ help, they’ll swap it out and bring the old one back.
And that’s, I guess … take the old one out and leave it on the side so you have a place to put the new one …?
Yeah, there’s a lot of intricate choreography that needs to be done and we have some very specialized tools that allow us to do that but, that’s right, they’ve got to, juggle that two Nitrogen Tank Assemblies once they get them to the P1 Truss and then bring the old one back.
There is a somewhat similar task on the third spacewalk of the mission that involves the retrieval of a Control Moment Gyroscope that’s been left out on a stowage platform on the station. EVA 3 with Rex Walheim and Stan Love, now, outside; tell us what they have in store for them.
EVA 3 is going to be really exciting. It’ll be Stan’s first EVA and, we’re really looking forward to that. The main objectives for EVA 3 are to take the two exterior experiment payloads and put them on the exterior platforms on Columbus, the SOLAR and the EuTEF [European Technology Exposure Facility] experiment pallets and then also, like you said, bring back the Control Moment Gyro that’s over on the ESP-2 and we’ll put that back in the payload bay. The EVA will involve Stan on the robotic arm, flying these payloads around to their appropriate place and then bringing the CMG back into the payload bay.
Now that’s a pretty sizeable piece of hardware, too.
It is. It is, and [STS-118 spacewalker] Dave Williams, and Stan have talked about how to carry that. Dave removed it from the Z1 Truss and put it on ESP-2 and they used the arm to do that. So Stan and Dave have talked and, about techniques and ways to carry and Stan is looking forward to get it [off] of the ESP-2 and then bringing it back in our payload bay.
And these scientific payloads that go on the outside of Columbus, they’re maybe not as large but, but they get moved via Stan Love on the arm as well, right?
They do and they all have similar attachment mechanisms. The SOLAR and EuTEF payloads that ride up on the top of the Integrated Cargo Carrier when we launch, we’ll move from there over to the exterior platforms on Columbus, and they’ll stay there and they’ll perform exposure measurements and measurements of the sun, and data will go down to the ground for that.
The International Space Station is the biggest thing that people have built in space so far. How do you feel about the part that you’re getting to play in building this, this new outpost?
You know, it’s a good question. When I first got here in 1998 we were just talking about these days and how exciting they would be and, and sure enough, here we are and, it is a very exciting time and we’re getting ready to, to start a, a, a several-month expansion of the space station to double the interior volume and, really make the space station what it was designed to do, and hopefully set it up for a six-person crew and some really good life sciences and material sciences that Columbus adds to it.
Of course the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond the space station that you’re helping to build right now. Tell me about your philosophy and the future of human exploration into space.
Another great question. I’m really hopeful about the future of space exploration and human spaceflight. Civilization as we know it has been defined by exploration. You know, we need to go off and find out what’s around the next corner and what’s just beyond what we already know. It’s part of our being, it’s part of our moral fiber to go off and explore. I can’t imagine ever stopping that. I think space is a, a natural extension and we need to go off and find out what’s out there.