Q: This is a question that you’ve probably been asked a few times before but knowing the odds of, against actually becoming an astronaut, what made you want to apply?
Image to right: Astronaut Robert L. Behnken, STS-123 mission specialist. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Robert Behnken, Mission Specialist
A: Mostly it was people around me at the time that I actually applied. You know, I think all kids have dreams when they’re kids being a fireman or being an astronaut or being a race car driver and all those sorts of things. So I had all those dreams when I was a kid. I wanted to do all those things, maybe even a rock star. We all have crazy dreams when we’re kids. So I wanted to do all those things and then I went off to school, had fun in school and decided that college seemed like a good idea because I liked math and science and the things that I was doing in school and wanted to keep doing that. I wasn’t ready for a job, I guess, at the time so I wanted to go off into school. Then as my career progressed, when I was in graduate school, I met some folks who were applying to be astronauts and I thought that if they were applying, maybe I had a chance to apply. At the time I was an Air Force officer waiting to come on active duty and there really wasn’t a good mechanism for me to do that because I had already committed myself to the Air Force. So I had to wait a little bit longer. Once I came on active duty in the Air Force, I went to the Air Force Test Pilot School and there were probably a half dozen or a dozen folks who were filling out applications while we were students at test pilot school. Another kind of an alarm went off and said, “Hey, everyone else is doing it. You should do it now, too, because it might be a good time for you to get selected if everyone else thinks they have a chance now. ”So we all filled out applications and I was lucky enough to get selected and another member of my test pilot class, Terry Virts, was selected in the same class of astronauts as I was.
Could you recreate for us the moment, the moment when you found out that you had been selected as an astronaut? Where were you? How did it happen and how did you feel?
I can a little bit. I think everyone remembers that, that time for them. It usually is based on who you get a phone call from. After the interview process, there’s some cues that lead you to believe that you might be on the short list of folks that might get selected. I had had some of those cues that made me think I might be on that short list. And then I actually got a phone call and the first the message was left on my machine. I worked at the F-22s CTF which is a combined test facility, out at Edwards Air Force Base testing a new airplane, the F-22. I, I wasn’t at my desk. I guess I still don’t spent a lot of time at my desk, but at the time I certainly didn’t. When I came back to my desk and checked my messages, it told me who had left a message and it said, “Bill Parsons or Charlie Precourt. Call Johnson Space Center and talk to one of those two guys.” And so I knew, from receiving that message that I was probably selected because Charlie Precourt was the chief of the Astronaut Office at the time and so I figured that must have been the case. And I called back and got Bill Parsons and then Charlie Precourt was in the room and they put me on speaker phone and told me. It was very exciting. I think the worst part about that was that they told us, “OK, now you can’t tell anybody for a couple of days.” I had a lot of things in the queue at the F-22 squadron. We were scheduled to go to Marietta, Ga., and get the fourth F-22, the first avionics airplane, and bring it across the country after doing some initial checkout flights. I already had travel orders to actually go to Marietta and start this process and I needed to find a replacement. But I couldn’t tell anybody that I was selected to go off and be an astronaut and that’s why I was leaving. And so I think I violated the rules a little bit and went and told my squadron commander because he had to fill a slot so that they could get that airplane out of Marietta. But I guess that was the good and the bad of being selected.
NASA’s currently recruiting the next class of astronaut candidates. What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about applying?
I’ve gotten that question quite a bit. I mentioned my test pilot school class, I guess, but some of those guys who are now squadron commanders and senior folks from where I sat when I was working as an active duty, regular Air Force person, have asked me to mentor some junior officers who are thinking about applying for that new class of astronauts. One of the things that I’ve told all of them is that you really have to do things that you like to do. If you want to do all the things that you think might get you selected by NASA to be an astronaut, but when you do them you don’t like them, that’s going to be unfortunate -- because if you do get the job, you’re going to have to do a lot of stuff that you don’t like. So you should do things that you like and, and that are really interesting to you and that will probably make you do a better job at doing them. If you’re excited about math and science, then that’s something that you should pursue. If you’re excited about flying, then that’s something that you should pursue. But if flying makes you miserable, pursuing it just so that you could be selected as, as an astronaut might make you miserable if you do get selected. So I just ask them to focus on things that they really enjoy doing.
Bob, tell us about the place you consider your hometown.
I consider St. Ann, Mo., my hometown. They use the word "consider" a lot but I grew up there so, it’s not really considering. That’s where I came from. It’s a, it’s a small subsection, I guess, of St. Louis and so really St. Louis is the big metropolitan area next to St. Ann or St. Ann is in St. Louis County. I grew up right near the airport, Lambert Field, there in St. Louis and so that’s the town that I consider home.
How did your hometown and the people there make you the person that you are today?
I think the combination of the, the hometown and also my family made me the person that I am today. I kind of grew up in more of an area where folks were kind of hard-working, not a lot of folks who were college graduates or engineers or things like that. The people were more blue-collar. My dad’s a construction worker, teaches at a training school now for construction workers. I think what he instilled in me and what the neighbors that I grew up with in my hometown instilled in me was a work ethic. Hard work is not something to be avoided. It’s something to get accomplished and then move on. I think that that’s probably the biggest thing that my hometown gave me and my family as well.
Do you think you’ll recognize your hometown from space?
I hope I can recognize my hometown from space, but I’m also confident that we have a nice computer program that’s going to make that a little bit easier. I’m from the Midwest and so I’ll be able to pick out the center of the country and I’ll be able to look for the river to find St. Louis there. But it might be tough to actually pick the actual point out from space without a little bit of help.
Tell us the story of your journey to become an astronaut and, and include your education and your professional career as well.
I think we’ve covered a little bit of this already, but for me, I mentioned math and science as something I was really interested in when I was in school. While I was in high school, I just took as many of those kinds of classes as I could and it was something I did because I was interested in it. It wasn’t something I did because I thought NASA would appreciate if I had taken a couple years of physics while I was in high school or a couple years of chemistry while I was in high school. That didn’t cross my mind while I was in high school. I just did the things that I thought were exciting. After completing high school, I guess, I was trying to figure out a way to pay for college because I wanted to stay in school and I wanted to continue in math and science. The Air Force actually has a series of scholarships for the Reserve Officer Training Corps, ROTC, and so I was able to get one of those scholarships to get a degree in physics. What I found exciting was engineering, but the Air Force wanted me to get a degree in physics and so when I went to Washington University there in St. Louis as a commuter student from home. I actually studied both physics and mechanical engineering and ended up with two degrees. The Air Force wanted one and I wanted a different one and so we did both of them. Then in 1992, I guess, when I graduated from Washington University the Air Force was downsizing. The Soviet Union was separating at the time and we were downsizing our military in response to the Soviet Union downsizing their military and so there was a, an extended delay where folks who were in ROTC were not coming on active duty and that seemed like a good time for me to go off into graduate school rather than wait an extended period of time and not really have a job as I waited for the Air Force to bring on active duty. I was able to get a National Science Foundation fellowship. So the National Science Foundation helped me go to graduate school and finish out the four years and finish up a Ph.D. there at Cal Tech. I was able to do engineering there, stay in mechanical engineering. The Air Force let me transition after physics over to mechanical engineering for the Ph.D. program and then they called me on active duty in 1996. I started at Eglin Air Force Base. I worked at the Munitions Directorate there on guidance and control systems, and then I was selected to go to the test pilot school. After a year at the test pilot school I moved over to the F-22 squadron to test a new airplane that was going into the Air Force inventory and while I was at the F-22 squadron I got the call to move down to Houston.
And here you are.
And here I am.
This is your first flight. How are you feeling as the launch date gets closer?
I thought I would be more nervous about the flight. I’m, I’m thankful for all the folks who support us in all the things that we do because now I really realize I can’t do so many things by myself. I need a lot of help training-wise and kind of across the board getting us ready for this flight. I’m starting to realize just how busy folks have been when I’ve been watching them train for flights and didn’t quite understand. But the biggest feeling I have is just that sense of all the things that we need to pack into our heads and all those things that we need to refresh ourselves on right before we launch, and then thinking about all the people who are really making that possible because we just can’t do it by ourselves.
You have a few veteran fliers on this mission. Are they giving you, giving you any advice?
I think mostly they’re not, they are giving us advice but they’re also giving us extra work to do it seems like. No, I’m just joking with them. They've given us lots of good advice about how to prepare and, and live in space and the things that we really need to focus on. As new fliers, it can be difficult to figure out what's important and what’s not as important. So when I talked about being busy and all the things that we’re trying to refresh ourselves on right up until the last minute, those veteran folks are really key to helping us figure out, “Hey, you really do need to get a refresher on this” or, “That other thing, you can, you can delay a little bit on.” So they’ve given us a lot of really good advice about how to be efficient and how to be more comfortable with things that we might be uneasy about that they can say, “No, you’ll be OK with that. Don’t worry.”
Share with us the story about when you found out you were picked to fly on this particular mission.
It was interesting. You always wonder how that process works and for me the way it worked was similar to being selected as an astronaut. I came back to my desk and there was a message on my phone that had come the previous day that asked me to come and see the chief of the Astronaut Office. I went to his office the following day, and he told me in the office that he was going to put me on STS-123 and how did I feel about that. I told him that I was very excited about that. I didn’t ask him what I was going to be doing on the flight. I didn’t ask him what the mission entailed. I said I was very excited and happy to be a part of it.
What did you do once you left his office?
I made some phone calls and told a few people because he didn’t tell me that I couldn’t tell anybody.
You have over 1,000 flight hours in more than 25 different jets. How has that experience prepared you for flying aboard the space shuttle?
I think one of the most exciting things that I’ve been able to do to this point is attend the Air Force Test Pilot School. There one of the neat things you get to do is fly in a lot of different airplanes as a flight test engineer. Pilots go through a training sequence where they fly a lot of different airplanes as they build up to the one that they’re going to actually fly as their regular airplane. As an engineer I kind of got a snippet of a lot of different airplanes. It was a really neat thing to do. There aren't very many places that you can get all that experience. It was especially exciting for me coming from a background where I didn’t do a lot of flying, before moving out to California and then to get to jump into the back of an F-15s and F-16s both at the school and also for test support there at the F-22 squadron where I was stationed. So I think seeing all those different airplanes and how all those different machines work and also some practice testing on those different airplanes really prepared me well for moving to Houston. One of the things that I did out at Edwards was test conductor for new missions with a new airplane and one of the things that we do here in Houston is either test conductor for an EVA, and the EVA is like a little spaceship that’s out there moving around. So you’re, you’re helping the guy who’s inside of that little spaceship accomplish his mission. I was able to learn some of that when I was at Edwards practicing with airplanes. We just have a spaceship that we are doing a test with instead of airplanes that we’re doing a test with.
Flying in space has proven to be a very dangerous endeavor. What do we gain from spaceflight that makes you willing to risk that danger?
I think that any area where you’re kind of pushing the envelope engineering-wise we have risk and so you see that in NASCAR racing where guys are trying to go as fast as they can with a lot of guys really close to them and, you know, they have wrecks and unfortunately sometimes folks are seriously injured or, or even worse. I think that that’s an area where we’re pushing the envelope for technology. Same thing with high-performance airplanes. We do push the envelope with the fighter aircraft that we’re developing and when we’re flying just the missions. We push the envelope sometimes with those airplanes but we think that it’s valuable because we’re expanding the knowledge frontier, I guess, and the space station and the space shuttle are also part of that process. So we need to remember that as we construct missions and we construct the space station that, hey, what we really are trying to do is push the knowledge frontier a little bit further, whether it’s what humans can do physically. You have humans in a specific place, living on the space station now and what they can do and what you need to do to help them survive and thrive. But there’s also what the folks who actually build all that equipment, equipment can do, the engineering and the science that goes into it. How can you still build spacecraft? How can you still build something that pushes the envelope whether there’s a person inside of it or not? That knowledge frontier is what we need to push forward and so that’s why I think the risk is worth it in any of those endeavors, whether it’s racing cars or building space stations. It’s all about pushing that knowledge frontier forward and then, and trying to do something that hasn’t been done before, whether it’s by a person or by a team of folks who are building the equipment that that person uses.
Give us a summary of the primary goals of the STS 123/1JA mission to the International Space Station and your responsibilities during that mission.
Well, 1JA actually has kind of three primary objectives, the first one being rotating out [an] expedition crew member. We’ll be taking Garrett Reisman up with us and bringing Leo [Eyharts] back. Garrett and I actually have a long history. We went to graduate school together and a decade ago we were graduating together at Cal Tech out in Pasadena, Calif. So that’s pretty exciting for me. The second objective that we have is to deliver the first component of the Japanese laboratory that’s going up there. And the third objective that we have is delivering Dextre. It’s basically a little fine hand to stick on the end of the SSRMS, the big arm that lives on station that performs module installation so we’re adding a component to the end of that as well. My tasks during the mission include EVAs and robotics. It just depends on which days as to what I’m going to do. On ascent entry I’ll be helping the flight deck crew and throughout the mission I’ll be doing EVAs and robotics tasks.
As you mentioned there are two primary pieces of station hardware that will be carried on your flight. One is the first of six components that make up the Japanese experiment module known as Kibo. This first component of Kibo is the Experiment Logistics Module Pressurized Section or ELM, ELM-PS. It’s more commonly known as JLP. Tell us what this module is and explain its function as part of the International Space Station.
It had a long name that you rattled off there but it’s basically a logistics module and it turns out that the next component of the Japanese experimental facility is so large that it can’t launch on a space shuttle fully populated with all the equipment that it needs to actually operate. And so the JLP, the simple name that we use, is actually going to carry up some components. They’re going to be used inside of that other module when it arrives and so we’re just kind of a logistics module to help carry the, the things that are going to be required in that other module when it, when it actually arrives on the next shuttle mission.
And it’s going to be installed in a, in a temporary location.
Why is it a temporary location?
It’s a temporary location because after the next module is installed, this module that we’re bringing will be moved and installed onto that module and so the place, its final home isn’t there yet. Its final home is going to get there on the next shuttle mission, STS-124.
Once it’s opened what kind of access will there be for this piece of, for the JLP?
There’ll be pretty good access. It’ll be just like any other module that we have attached to the nodes on the space station. It will be kind of interesting. It will be kind of like adding this first second story to the space station. All the modules are kind of like the ground floor right now how they’re installed but this component’s actually going to go on top of that ground floor so it will be the first second story component.
Can you share with us a little bit about your training for delivering this particular…?
For me, I have quite a wide range of responsibilities. For Kibo, what, what I’ll do for this JLP module is perform the actual operation of the berthing mechanism. Once the robotics operator, which is Takao [Doi], brings the module into place, I’ll drive the bolts to bolt that component onto Node 2.
This is going to be one of the first pieces of Japanese hardware for the International Space Station. Share with us your thoughts about adding this initial piece of Japanese hardware to the station in regards to an increased international presence on the International Space Station.
I think one of the really interesting things about this module is that when it actually arrives it will mark the first time that we’re really going to be operating both in Japan and in Germany for ESA and in Russia and also with the Canadian hardware. So this will be the first time that we really have the entire international conglomerate come together and actually operate the space station together. So that’s what makes it really exciting is that the Japanese finally get to step into the final stages of the completion of the space station.
The second piece of station hardware being installed is the Canadian Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator or Dextre for short. What is Dextre and what capabilities will it add to the International Space Station?
The SPDM as we call it -- I know that Dextre is the name that is coming along that’s a little bit nicer but unfortunately we’re kind of wrapped around the SPDM name. But for us when we deliver the SPDM, we’ll actually perform the construction of it and then the, the station crew that’s on orbit will spend some time checking it out and we’re hoping that the SPDM is going to provide the capability for us to actually change out equipment on the space station without having to do spacewalks. We’ll be able to take a spare computer or a spare electronics box, pull that out of a stowage location on the space station and install it where a failed one was with the aid of this new piece of hardware. I guess I’d describe it as a little hand that lives on the end of the arm that the Canadians have built and already provided for the space station to allow us to change things out without having to send a space walker out to do it.
We’ll talk about this a little bit more later, but part of the EVA is actually constructing Dextre.
Parts of three EVAs are actually constructing Dextre.
How did you train for delivering Dextre to the ISS?
Image to right: Astronaut Robert L. Behnken, STS-123 mission specialist, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
We’ve trained on a lot of different ways. We went up to Toronto to visit the manufacturing facility and actually get some hands-on with the actual hardware before kicking off our runs at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. It’s basically a large swimming pool where we were able to practice our spacewalking techniques. They have a very nice mockup that they’ve built that’s very similar to Dextre but it’s not quite the same because it, you know, it didn’t cost the same and, you know, people didn’t put the same love into it that the Canadians did when they built it. We used that training hardware after visiting the real hardware and using our imaginations to practice our spacewalks.
Now let’s talk about early on in the mission. Even though nighttime occurs about every forty-five minutes during orbit, let’s talk about what folks here on Earth would call “your first night in space.” You’ve just experienced an intense launch into low orbit. You’re traveling at 17,500 mph around the Earth and flight day 2 is going to be very busy. Do you think you’re actually going to be able to sleep that first night in space?
Well, I’m hoping. As Mission Specialist 1, I’ll sit behind the pilot during the launch and so I’ll be up on the flight deck going through that very exciting launch that you’ve described. One of my first tasks is to film out the window, to film the external tank as it comes away from the vehicle and then we see it go back into Earth’s atmosphere. I’ll be filming that so I’m hoping to get some of my excitement out, spending that time watching the Earth go by, and then getting to work. We have a lot of stuff that has to be set up on flight day 1 as you’ve described, all the tasks that we have going on during the mission require us to really get a running start right there once we get on orbit to be ready to kick off the following day with inspection activities and things that are going to set us up to complete the rest of the mission. I’m hoping that that chance to look out the window and relax for, you know, 10 minutes or so is going to get the jitters out of my system and I’ll be ready to go to work and hoping that leads to a, a good night’s sleep as we kick off the mission.
On flight day 2 the orbiter is surveyed for any damage that may have occurred during launch. Tell us what your responsibilities will be during that survey.
I don’t have a lot of responsibilities during that survey other than to kind of set up the equipment the, the photo-TV type of set up so that we can get the proper recording or the proper down linking of the images that we would collect during that survey. We have a computer network that’s got to collect all that data and then it all has to be piped to the ground and that’s one of [the] things that we really want to have set up on flight day 1 when, you’re talking about being excited and unable to go to sleep so we need to make sure we get that network set up so it’ll be ready to process all that imaging and send it to the ground so the inspection can go off without a hitch and the team of controllers that sort out whether or not we did have damage.
On flight day 3, just before docking with the International Space Station, the mission timeline calls for the RPM. What is the RPM and are you involved with that part of the mission?
As the orbiter comes up close to the space station we actually spin around so that the, the space station crew can take some additional photos of the underside of the orbiter to help us out to mapping the tile surface that how we might not have completely inspected during the previous day's inspection. That’s what it is and that’s why we do it. It’s so that the space station crew can take some really good photos and they’ve got a really a large camera lens and they take some very beautiful photos of the underside of the orbiter for us and then they downlink them to the ground. The ground figures out the state of the heat protection system on the orbiter. My responsibilities during those activities are going to probably be hanging out and getting ready to take pictures of the space station as we get closer to it so I really won’t be involved a lot with the RPM maneuver other than to be ready for the next thing that happens after it’s complete.
Rendezvous and docking are two major events during any mission. First take us through the rendezvous process. What happens during that part of the mission and what will your responsibilities be during rendezvous?
The rendezvous process, like you described is a, is a very critical one to our mission’s success. We have to get successfully docked with the space station. We have to do that smoothly. My responsibilities really are focused on what we do right after we get docked, and getting prepared for those activities. There’s a docking system that latches us to the space station and then hooks us in really tightly. I’ll be powering that equipment up and then I’ll be operating it as we finally bring the hard connection between the space shuttle and the space station. That’s kind of critical and we want that to go smoothly. And then immediately following the docking, we’ll have to get the hatches open and perform the proper leak checks to make sure that our atmosphere is going to mix properly with theirs and we don’t have any leaks and things like that. I’ll be involved with getting the hatches open and getting the tunnel between the two vehicles all squared away. I keep talking about going back to work but as soon as we [are] aboard station we’ve got to pull out the carrier that Dextre lives on during launch and get that transferred over to the space station with the space station robotic arm. So we’ll be racing right over, going to work at the robotics work station to get Dextre to its temporary home as we constructed on the space station. That’s all stuff that has to happen right after docking.
Share with us how do you, how do you train for docking the space shuttle to the International Space Station?
For the rendezvous and docking they have some really good facilities here at in Houston for us to use. They have a, a facility that we call the Dome. We call it the Dome because it’s shaped liked a dome and has some really nice visuals so you can look out a simulated window and actually see what you would see as you approach the space station with the space shuttle. And so that’s one of the facilities that we use. Folks are starting to see it more as a VR laboratories and things like that or a very fancy video game. What it is for us is a facility where we can fly the space shuttle and the pictures look like they would when we actually arrive to the space station. So that’s primarily the way that we train.
After you dock to the International Space Station you’re going to be welcomed aboard. They give you a safety briefing. What do you think you’re going to do right after that?
I keep talking about going back to work but we’ll probably give Peggy a big hug, because we’re hoping that she’s still the commander when we arrive. That’s the plan right now. And then we’ll get to work. We’ll be making sure that whatever equipment needs to be set up for us to perform that transfer of Dextre to the space station actually happens and then we’ll be ready for the following flight day. I think that’s going to be my biggest excitement -- getting there and seeing the folks that I haven’t seen for a while and then trying to figure out how to get back to work.
You think you may take a little quick tour of the ISS?
Um, I think we’ll have time for our tour after we get that, get that initial work done and so we’ll probably spend some time after arriving, after getting our, the tasks that we need to do, so it won’t be immediately after docking. It will probably be a couple hours later. But I’m hoping to get a nice tour and get a chance to go over and see the Russian segment; of course Columbus module will be there so hopefully we’ll be able to see that. I want to spend some time in the airlock as well. We’ll be putting the crew to bed in the airlock that night so I have to get that in before they close the hatch and start their camp out procedures for the EVA the following day.
We’ve talked about transferring the JLP a little bit but describe the process for transferring that particular module and tell us what your responsibilities will be during that task.
That task for transferring the JLP involves some work that has to be done on EVA-1. Our first EVA is going to go out and detach some cables that are connecting the, the JLP to the space shuttle to provide it power during the launch and keep it in a good state until we’re ready to actually take it over and transfer it to the space station. So EVA-1 is going to do those tasks. I won’t be involved outside during EVA-1 but I’ll be helping the crew that goes out the hatch earlier in the day. Once those cables are removed, we do have some Dextre work that we’ll take care of with that EVA, and once we get that work done then Takao and Dom [Gorie], I believe, will start unberthing that module and slowly bringing it to its new home at the top of Node 2 or of the space station. They’ll start the robotics operation that transfers it over and that’ll take a fair amount of time. It takes quite a bit of reconfiguration. If you had a video and you watched you would say, “That’s, that doesn’t look like the easiest way to do that.” But we have some constraints that we have to live under and so they transfer that module over and get it into position. And then my responsibility will primarily be, to be ready when they get the module in place to start driving the bolts that actually bolt it together with the Node 2.
Let’s talk about the next two EVAs and that’s going to be working with Dextre, transferring it over to the ISS. Walk us through those two EVAs and what’s going to happen.
Well, hopefully during EVA-1, they’ll have installed the ends of the little arms that live on Dextre so that when we go out for EVA-2, which will be Mike Foreman and Rick Linnehan, they’ll go outside and their goal is to take those arms and install them to the body of Dextre. So they’ll spend the lion’s share of that EVA doing the major construction task of getting the powered pieces of Dextre together so that when they complete EVA-2 Dextre will be receiving power to all its components. I’ll be the choreographer for that EVA, for Mike and Rick, while they’re outside. So I’ll be talking them through their procedures and helping to make sure that all the bolts are tightened up the way they need to be or all the electrical connectors taken care of the way that they need to be as well. For EVA-3, my job is to go out with Rick, so Rick Linnehan and I will go out for an EVA and we’ll complete any tasks that weren’t completed on EVA-2. There are two components, basically a platform for stowing new ORUs, new equipment that would be installed on the space station, and a tool holster that Dextre would use to remove components of the space station and replace them. So we’ll install those two components and then we’ll clean up the platform that Dextre lived on through this point so we can put it back in the payload bay during EVA-3.
Once the JLP and Dextre are relocated to their new home, there’s a fourth EVA scheduled. What’s going to happen during that EVA and what are your responsibilities going to be?
During the fourth EVA we’re actually going to test a new shuttle heat shield repair system. A previous shuttle mission was supposed to actually accomplish that test, but they ran into some additional work that they needed to do on space station during the 10-A mission and they were unable to accomplish this EVA and get everything else that got added completed. So we’re going to actually accomplish this test objective for them. The space shuttle program, I guess, is going to have a rescue mission on the pad ready to go for the Hubble mission that’s upcoming and this is just another piece of that puzzle for all the tools they want to have in their bag of tricks if they do run into any sort of a problem. This is a tile repair technique. We’re going to get them some data by actually going out and practicing with this tile repair equipment and material so that they have it in case they need to use it during the Hubble mission.
The Hubble mission won’t have the luxury of actually hanging out of the, at the space station …
No. The Hubble mission actually won’t have the luxury, just like you just said, of hanging out of the space station. They won’t have a couple of months to wait for a, a rescue mission. Theirs will have to be on the launch pad because Hubble actually isn’t a living space. It’s a telescope. So they’ll need to return relatively quickly after they go up and visit it and the only way to do that is with a second shuttle that would be on the launch pad.
So during that EVA, what are your responsibilities going to be? You’re going to be actually doing the spacewalk with Mike Foreman.
I will. Mike Foreman and I will head outside. We’ll actually take a couple of bags of equipment with us, all the things that you might have in your garage if you were going to do some spackling and some dry-wall repair. We’ll have that stuff in the bag. We’ll have scrapers and brushes and all that sort of equipment. We’ll also have some kind of engineering equipment. If you wanted to really understand how well of a repair job you’re doing, we’re taking some thermometers and a camera and things like that so that we can actually assess the progress of the repair material and our repair technique and see how we’re doing with it. We need to collect some engineering data while we actually do the spackling on the simulated underside of the orbiter. We’ll work together. Mike will actually flow the material and I’ll be setting him up with different equipment that he needs to continue on with that test. Then at the end, I’ll take the samples down and I’ll stow them in the shuttle payload bay. And that’s where they’ll re-enter. They’ll be stowed inside of a storage area inside the back of the payload bay on one side and then the actual repair gun and equipment will be stowed on the other side.
So how do you train for an EVA like that?
So as far as training goes for an EVA like that, there are a couple of things that we’ve done. Since time was limited we didn’t get a lot of runs in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, in the big tank that we do our spacewalking training in. But we were able to go out there and kind of practice the choreography. By choreography I mean getting all the tools out and making sure we keep track of everything and get it back in the, the place where it’s supposed to be at the end of the EVA and make sure that we brought everything out that we were supposed to at the beginning of the EVA. So we kind practice the mechanics of going through an EVA in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Since this material is kind of a, kind of a semi-liquid and we can’t really flow it and pollute the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, because it would probably shut down all the other EVA practicing that was going to go on out there. And divers in that water and this material would probably not mix very well. So we’ve gone to a couple of different facilities here at the Johnson Space Center. We’ve gone to Building 9 where, kind of in a shirt sleeve environment, we were able to practice flowing the material and get familiar with the different tools that we would use to do that spackling on the tile samples. And we’ve also, just recently, done a test that was probably the most valuable. We were able to go to a simulated environment where they pumped us down to an atmosphere similar to what we would see on orbit, closer to vacuum, and they actually gave us the material and the dispenser that was launched on the 10-A mission that they were unable to use when they ran out of time because of other EVAs that were added. So we were able to use that actual piece of equipment in this vacuum setting to actually see how it would behave at the low pressures that we’re going to see on orbit to try to keep that material under control, to keep it from getting it all over our hands and get all over our visors, on our spacesuits -- and just try to learn how to see this dynamic material and keep it under control. So anybody who’s done caulking or spackling has gotten to that point where they run out of fingers to pick up the pieces of caulk that they didn’t want to have left behind, so we’re trying to get a little bit of familiarity before we figure that out on orbit, that we were in that same box as that poor caulker what is trying to take care of your house.
Well, there’s a fifth EVA as well.
And if you would, walk us through that EVA and share with us your responsibilities for that.
Image to left: Attired in a training version of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit, astronaut Robert L. Behnken, STS-123 mission specialist, awaits the start of a training session in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
On our fifth EVA one of the things that we’re doing is stowing the OBSS which is a, a long acronym that’s basically the sensor boom that the space shuttle uses to perform an inspection of its heat shield. EVA 4 and EVA 5 are a little bit related because EVA 5 is associated with this boom that you do an inspection with and EVA 4 is figuring out a material, that you would actually use if you found anything when you did that big long inspection with this boom that we’re going to stow on EVA 5. On EVA 5 we’re going to take this sensor boom and we’re going to figure out a way to attach it to the space station. This boom has some cameras and some equipment on it so it does need to have power so that it doesn’t get too cold and those sensors still work for the next flight that wants to use this sensor boom.
Normally the OBSS flies back with you, with the shuttle to Earth. Why is it going to be left on station?
That sensor boom is going to be left on station because the following mission is going to deliver the next portion of the Japanese laboratory. That module is a very large module and there’s actually not room in the shuttle payload bay to launch both that module and this sensor boom on the same shuttle flight. So to provide the inspection capability to allow that next shuttle mission to be able to inspect their thermal protection system before they come back for re-entry, they’re going to need to have a sensor boom. They can’t bring their own and so our flight is going to do an inspection late in the mission and then we’ll stow the boom during our EVA 5 on the ISS and hook up the power to it and it’ll be all ready for those guys when they actually arrive and install the Japanese module.
What are the different ways an astronaut trains for either conducting an EVA or supporting an EVA?
I think we mentioned earlier how important it is to actually get a chance to visit where the hardware came from or visit the actual hardware. So we talked about going to Toronto for Dextre. And a lot of the hardware comes together at the Kennedy Space Center, so we’ll make trips down there to visit the actual hardware at Kennedy to figure out which parts of our imagination we need to use when we get lower fidelity pieces of hardware at the NBL. So we’ll spend some time with the actual hardware. One of the other things that we get to do is to take some time where they suspend a heavy load for us and we can see how much force it takes to, to move it around in a simulated zero G environment here at JSC. That’s very important so you can kind of calibrate your body to put in small forces if that’s what’s required so you don’t smash things that don’t need smashing. Some things may need smashing but it’s just best to know when they do and when they don’t.
And what about the VR lab?
We also use a, a facility called the Virtual Reality Laboratory. We wear an interesting helmet over the top of our head and, and that really provides us the capability to see the visuals and see how far away things are during tasks that you might need to do EVA.
When you’re not involved with EVAs during this mission, how will you spend your time?
I think during the mission we’ll actually spend our time preparing for those other EVAs or we’ll spend our time performing robotics operations to power up new equipment that we’re bringing. So we have a fair amount of checkout and things that need to be done on Dextre after it’s put together, both to get it in a better configuration for the next EVA and to get it in a better configuration and checked out so that it can permanently move to the space station. I mentioned earlier about the campout protocol that we’ll use before we go outside for an EVA and what that means is two crew members, the two guys who are going to go out on our mission to do an EVA for each of the nights prior will actually sleep in the airlock with the hatch closed with the atmosphere set in a special way so that they’ll more efficiently be able to go outside the next day.
Okay. If you have any off duty time … how do you think you’re going to spend that?
I already mentioned having the chance to look out the window early in the mission and I’m hoping a little bit later in the mission we’ll have time as well to spend some time taking some pictures and looking out the window and just seeing the Earth from that vantage point. That’s probably one of the most exciting things that we’ll be able to do on the mission is look at the Earth from that orientation and at that altitude so it should be very exciting. I also think it’s exciting to look at the space station itself. There are a lot of stars and things to look out and there’s the Earth to look at but there’s also the space station that we’ve constructed, that also has very interesting things to look at as well.
Speaking of the ISS, what’s it like for you to know that you’re a critical part of the largest scientific and technological endeavor ever undertaken?
It’s very exciting to me to be a part of that process and to realize the number of people who’ve put so much effort into making the space station come together. You know, when I was a, a kid there really wasn’t a space station yet. It was an idea that came when I was in high school really as far as a mature process that the government was going to start working towards. So it’s very exciting for me to see something that was discussed when I was in high school that’s coming to fruition at this point and to be a part of that. While I’ve been training in Houston for seven years for my first space flight, there have been people who’ve been working on the space station for 20-plus years, getting it ready to go. It’s really exciting for me to be the guy who gets to make their dreams come true as well.
Once this newest hardware has been installed, all transfers between spacecraft have been completed and you’re undocked from the International Space Station and your thoughts are going to turn to returning home. But the mission isn’t over just yet. How does the crew prepare to return to Earth?
One of the, the biggest things to figure out once you get to that point is how you stow all the things -- put away all the stuff that you got out to do your mission. So one of the things that you’ve probably seen during a camping trip is that you got your stuff all packed before you put it in the car, got it all into the car and then drove to where you were going and then miraculously you seemed to have more stuff. It seems like when you try to put it back, it's just is hard to get stowed where it needs to go. We’re going to be struggling with that on the space station. And normally on a camping trip you don’t get any extra things but some of our things will change. We might get some extra stuff from the space station, so that can make it even more challenging, trying to get thing, everything back where it needs to be when it, when we come back for landing. It’s really critical that we get everything back where it needs to go because the space shuttle needs to be in a very known, very controlled configuration so that we don’t have any problems during the entry. It wouldn’t be very good if some of the spacesuits that we took up came loose from their storage location when we were coming in for entry.