Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What made you want to become one of them and be one of those people who flies in space?
Image to right: Astronaut Garrett E. Reisman, Flight Engineer. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Garrett Reisman, STS-123 Mission Specialist / Expedition 16 and 17 Flight Engineer
A: I could tell you that when I was a kid, if you asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up," I would not have said astronaut. I would have probably said I don’t know, maybe doctor or engineer or something like that. I was always interested in math and science and that area. It was something I was fascinated with. I used to watch the old, I had a Super 8 movie projector as my, my dad’s old toy, and we had a reel of footage from Apollo, and I watched that over and over. Eventually, the weight of the Scotch tape I had on there to splice it back together when it broke was greater than the weight of the celluloid of the film itself so I may have watched that thing so many times I wore it out. And so it was something that always fascinated me, and if you came to me when I was a kid and you said, "Hey, the space shuttle’s leaving tomorrow. How about you pack your bag if you, you want to come with us?" I would have been all over it. But I never really took it seriously as a profession, mostly because I guess I never really considered it as within the realm of possibility. But when I got off to college I started looking at some of the backgrounds of some of the mission specialists here at NASA and it seemed to be not all that far from what I was doing with my life. I thought, "Wow, you know—this might actually … maybe." So I said, I’ll fill out the application and then if it works out it would be great. If it doesn’t, I’m still very happy with what I’m doing and everything’s fine. But wouldn’t this be really neat if I win the lottery and I actually end up here. And I went. Then people ask me, "What did you do different from all the other guys? How did you get the job?" I don’t have a good answer for that. I really have no idea how they messed up so badly and picked me and not all the other capable guys that they were interviewing. The only thing I could put my finger on, I guess, if I was really pressed to give an answer is, you come in for an interview and sitting arrayed before you are all the senior astronauts and the person that, that kind of chairs the interview is John Young; I can’t think of anybody that’s had a more accomplished career than this fellow. He’s been to the moon in Apollo but he also was the first commander of the space shuttle. He flew the first Gemini mission with Gus Grissom. It’s, it’s pretty hard to stand up in front of him and talk about how proud you were captain of your high school wrestling team. But my strategy was to try to make John Young laugh. And I figured if I can do that maybe I got a shot. So I walked in there and I think I accomplished that in the first five minutes. If I was hard pressed to say, why me, I’d say because I made a joke that was kind of funny.
Well, let me take you back to the beginning; we’ll work back to it. Tell me about your hometown, Parsippany, N.J. What was that place like for you as a kid growing up?
It was a great place to grow up. I really, really couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing and a better community. It’s a small town that’s located due west of New York City, about a 40-minute drive, so you have all the advantages of the big city and, as I got older, that was a really nice thing. But growing up there, the school system was outstanding, I had a lot of great teachers and mentors along the way, all the way from my elementary school. There were guys like Jim Neumiller, who was my teacher back then who encouraged me to bring my rockets to class one day. I was into building model rockets and we’d blast them off in the backyard of the school. We lost one — it went up and the parachute came out and it floated out over the trees and was never recovered. I’m hoping that this spaceflight goes a lot better than that one did. Nonetheless, it was all these episodes, that experience in his class, and then in junior high school great guys like my wrestling coach, Don Babb, who had a big effect on my character development outside of the classroom. My high school wrestling coach, Gary Vittorio, really at a very developmental age, had a large role in teaching me about leadership and followership and things that are serving me well now as an astronaut. My high school physics teacher Gerry Vandervoort had maybe the biggest impact of all of my teachers in Parsippany. He really turned me on to science and all the possibilities of studying physics, and then that led me into engineering and really led me here today. So I can go on and on. I’m sure there’s a lot I’m forgetting about, a lot of other teachers I could name that were really fantastic to me. Really it was all those teachers and the community as a whole. It was just a great place to grow up.
Pick it up from there and go on — tell me about your, your education and your professional career up to your coming to work at NASA.
After I left Parsippany I went off to college at the, at the University of Pennsylvania. There I, I was a dual major. I studied business at the, the Wharton School, and I also studied engineering in the engineering school at Penn — and was really interested in both areas. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be when I grew up at that point, and so I was kind of preparing for a wide variety of things, and I had a great mentor there by the name of Bill Hamilton, who ran the Management and Technology Program He was just a, a great source of advice through all that and really a fascinating guy. The dean of the engineering school, Joe Bordogna, was also a great source of advice and encouraged me more along the technical lines. He was also a great sponsor of our senior class project. We built this electric-powered car, a solar car that we raced with a bunch of other schools. We finished near dead last, but we held that thing together with duct tape and rubber bands and whatnot and managed to cross the finish line despite the fact that our budget was a fraction of some of the other schools. We took that as a badge of honor despite the fact that we were miles and miles behind most of the other guys. So anyway, all these experiences I had there I kind of, led me more towards the technical side and I decided to pursue that, to do graduate work in mechanical engineering. I went off to Caltech and there my thesis advisor was a fellow by the name of Chris Brennen — and I keep naming all these people because they, they, they played a huge roles in all this and I was really, really, really fortunate that every step along the way I had these outstanding mentors that, that imparted so much of their own wisdom and, and just did a lot to, to get me to where I am today. Chris was certainly a big part of that. I had spent a lot of time with him. He’s a brilliant scientist and we did some great work. We studied bubbles; more technically, it’s cavitation, what happens when you get small bubbles of, of steam or vapor that occur in the water around say a propeller or a pump, I’d be working in the lab and having some troubles and I would go into his office. We’d start putting diagrams on the board of the experimental setup or maybe some equations or something and he would look at it for a while and he’d realize that I was kind of on the right track and he said, you’ll figure it out. And he would come up to the board and he would erase that and he would start drawing these mountains in the San Gabriels and these little canyons and he’d say, "You know, I think we can rappel down into this canyon and we can get over this waterfall and come down here." So he did more than just teach me the technical side of thing. He also sparked a great sense of adventure and exploration, too. So that was a fantastic experience at Caltech.
And you got a couple of degrees there.
Yes, a. master’s degree and then eventually a Ph.D. at Caltech. After that I went off and worked at TRW. That had nothing to do with bubbles. At TRW, I worked as a guidance, navigation and control engineer where we designed an unmanned spacecraft for NASA. It’s the Aqua satellite, part of the Earth observation system, and it’s run by NASA/Goddard [Space Flight Center]. I was responsible for designing this thruster-based control law. I remember one day I met Dan Goldin, when he was the administrator. It was unplanned but I ran into him and I was wearing my TRW polo shirt — he was formerly from TRW as an executive before he came to be NASA Administrator — and so he came in and I said, "Sir, I had no idea I was going to meet you today and so I’m not trying to kiss up or anything like that -- I just happen to be wearing this shirt." He said, sure, sure, and then he asked me what did I do at TRW and I explained that I designed this control law for the spacecraft but I said, you know, it’s really the first time I designed a control law that wasn’t part of a homework assignment, because I was a bubble guy, right? And I said, "Frankly, sir, when they launch that thing. If I were you I would be deep underground somewhere; I have no idea where it’s going to go when they fire those thrusters." It worked, though. He looked me in the eye and he said, "Well, I know where to find you." So thank goodness when they fired that thing up it actually worked and it’s been doing fine.
You’ve been at NASA for nine years or so at this point? Are you getting pretty excited about your first spaceflight? You can see it coming now.
Oh, yeah. As we get closer and we go through all the steps in the process and having seen other people go through it, you know you’re getting closer and closer and it definitely ratchets up the excitement level. I find myself working longer and harder without even realizing it because it’s exciting, it’s getting close. But at the same time, 9½ years is a long time to wait. Maybe this is healthy, but a part of me still doesn’t believe it’s really happening. I think I’m going to say that I’ll know when and where I’m going when those SRB’s, the solid rockets on the side of the shuttle, when those things light off because then there’s no going back. So I think at that moment I’ll finally believe that this is really happening but there’s definitely a small sense of disbelief even now.
How’s your family feel about the prospect of you riding a rocket to orbit?
My wife, Simone, I think she’s fine with it. First of all, she would eagerly strap herself in, in my place given the chance, so she certainly understands the excitement and the reasons I want to do this. Also we’ve had such a long time to prepare for this. My mother, I think she’s just overwhelmed with excitement and pride, too. She’s talking to, to all of her friends about my son’s going to be in space, and all this and that. She’s very, very excited and she’s doing -- I guess it’s her right -- to do some bragging about it. Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing but that’s OK. But I think the anxiety is going to come in as well, once we get really close to launch. I can tell you another quick story: When we first came to Houston, in 1998 when I was selected, I was looking for a place to live and a realtor was taking us around and showing us apartments. They showed us this one apartment and I thought it would be fun to bring my parents along to let them participate in getting me settled in. So my mom and dad were there and in this one apartment my mother looked up and she said, "Oh, no, this won’t do." And the realtor said, "Why; what’s wrong. It’s a nice place. It’s got a pool …" And my mom said, "Well, there’s a high tension wire, power lines, and those could cause cancer, the electromagnetic radiation…I read on the Internet that maybe that might cause cancer." And the realtor kind of looked at my mother at that point and she said, "Do you have any idea what your son has signed up to do here at NASA? Do you know what his job is?" So, there’s that side of my mom that I’m sure is going to come out at the appropriate time but hopefully just as it is for the rest of us, the excitement will be a much greater factor.
Image to left: Attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, astronaut Garrett E. Reisman, Expedition 16 Flight Engineer, smiles for a photo as he awaits the start of a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near Johnson Space Center. Image credit: NASA
Well, we know that the “flying in space” part of your job can be dangerous; we’ve seen that happen. What is it, Garrett, that you think we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth the risk you’re getting ready to take?
There’s a lot of capability that you get by having humans in space that you don’t get by having machines up in space. In addition to the fact that, that we’re much more adaptable and flexible than a robot, you also get the fact that, that we provide data — we are the experiment; we are the payload when we do these scientific investigations. If we are in the future, and I believe that’s inevitable, that in the future we will be living up there, we’ll be living on other planets, we’ll realize all these great dreams. To do that you need to find out how the human body reacts and you can’t do that without having a human body up there in space. I think that you get a twofold advantage to doing this, finding out how to keep the human body healthy in space and then finding how to work effectively in space, are paving the way for that future. I see the kind of the future that was promised to us in the science fiction of the ’50s and the ’60s, the classic stuff. We’re heading that way, and that’s really what we get by having humans up in space.
You’re going to be flight engineer on board the International Space Station; you’re actually going to end up being a member of a couple of different crews. Summarize the goals of your flight and what you’re going to do while you’re off the planet.
I start out as a crewmember on STS-123, a space shuttle flight, and our main mission objectives are to bring up the first piece of the Japanese laboratory, and to bring up the Canadian robot Dextre, or SPDM [Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator]. The other objective is to rotate a space station crewmember, which is me. We’ll be heading up there and we have to do a lot of spacewalks and a lot of robotic operations to build Dextre, the robot, because it comes up in nine different pieces, we have to put him together. Also we have to do the installation of that first component of the Japanese laboratory, the Kibo laboratory. We’ll be very busy doing all of that, and that has been the focus my training recently. We start off my whole time in space with a bang with that spacewalk and all the robotics, and working with the STS-123 crew of Endeavour. After the STS-123 crew leaves, they’ll leave me behind and they’ll take home Leo Eyharts. I’ll stay on board as a crewmember on the space station as part of Expedition 16, and I’ll be with Peggy Whitson and Yuri Malenchenko. The three of us will be the crew complement for awhile until Expedition 17 shows up. And so, and that won’t take too long: it should be about a month or so before Expedition 17 shows up, and then Yuri and Peggy will, will go back home and, and it will be breaking in a new crew of myself plus Sergei Volkov, will be the new space station commander, and Oleg Konenenko, who will be the new flight engineer, along with myself. It’s a very busy time because we also about then might have the first visit of the ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], the European resupply ship. We also have coming up as part of that taxi crew, the first South Korean astronaut, so it’s a very exciting time with lots of people coming and going as you can tell. Then we have to prepare for my ride home which is STS-124. It’s a space shuttle mission that brings up the, the big piece of the Japanese laboratory, the, the pressurized module. We have a lot of work to do to outfit that module and get it up and running. I’ll be working with that crew as they go about their business, and I’ll be a part of all that, and then finally I ride home with them. It’s a lot.
With all of that in mind, is there any one thing that you, at this point, are most looking forward to about the time you’re going to be in space?
I would have to say the spacewalk. The spacewalk is going to be, I think, the highlight for my entire time up there. All that stuff I just talked about, that’s the most exciting thing, and it’s going to occur on flight day 4 so right in the first four days the highlight. It’s kind of like playing the Super Bowl and then the regular season. It’s going to be fantastic, though. I don’t think anything that I’ll do will be able to compare to going outside in a spacesuit and floating free of the station.
I want to get you to talk more about it in a second, but let me help set the stage for that. You mentioned that the shuttle mission that delivers you also delivers new hardware from both the Japanese and Canadian space agencies. Tell me a bit about the significance of the arrival on orbit of these two new components.
It’s a, it’s a big moment for the space station because it adds new capability. Probably more importantly, it’s a big moment for the Canadian Space Agency and for JAXA, the Japanese space agency, because these people have been working for a long, long time and have had their hardware ready to go. We’re finally getting a chance to bring it up to orbit and use it. It’s a tremendous amount of excitement up there and over in Japan. It’s a really fantastic time for everybody. Dextre, the SPDM, is going to add new capabilities, robotic capabilities, for us to do things that we normally could only do during a spacewalk. It creates opportunity for us to do some of those tasks robotically. The first piece of the Japanese laboratory that we’re bringing up is just a start of what will be an amazing laboratory complex on board station. It really vastly increases the scientific capabilities of the station. So for those reasons it’s a big step forward for us.
You described the, the Dextre a little bit but tell me more about this logistics module and the role that it plays in that Japanese section of the space station still to come.
Ultimately -- I don’t mean to insult my own payload here -- it’s really just a closet of the Japanese laboratory. It’s a storage location. It is very important in the beginning, because packed into the JLP [Japanese Experiment Logistics Module — Pressurized Section] are all the important components for the operation of the main laboratory. Now, the main laboratory is so big — it’s the biggest module that will exist on space station — that, and it can barely fit inside the space shuttle. It’s so massive that if we filled it up with all of its equipment, the space shuttle couldn’t get off the ground. So what they had to do is pull out all the really important components, two of the scientific racks. They pull all that stuff out and they put it all in the JLP. They are coming up with us, and basically we’re the caretakers of all this equipment. We have to prep all that equipment so that when the main laboratory shows up, it’s all ready to be installed. There’s a lot of work that we’ll be doing as part of the STS-123 docked time frame, but also Peggy and Yuri and I will continue that work and I’ll be, continue it also even after Peggy and Yuri leave and we go into Expedition 17. We’ll be working to be ready as possible so that things go as smoothly when the STS-124 crew shows up.
OK, with that in mind, knowing a little bit about what those components are, as you said, they’re going to get installed during STS-123 and set up during spacewalks while the shuttle is still there, including [the] spacewalk where you’re going to get to go outside. Tell me a bit about the, the spacewalk plan during STS-123. What’s going to happen and what are you going to do?
We have a lot of spacewalks planned for STS-123. Now we’re up to five spacewalks. I’m only participating in one of them but it’s the first one. It’s mine plus Rick Linnehan’s — he’s our lead spacewalker on the flight. He’s [a] very experienced spacewalker. He was on the last flight to Hubble [Space Telescope] and did the spacewalks there — and he and I are going to go out the door. Our job is to prepare the JLP for installation on the, on the space station. There are cover, kind of blankets that keep it warm in the coldness of space, that need to be removed before it gets installed. So we have to take off those covers and blankets. Then we also have to unplug [an] electrical cable that is used to keep it warm while it’s inside the payload bay and that cable needs to be unplugged before it’s lifted out, installed on the space station. We do that and then we go off to start working on building Dextre, the SPDM. In the interim, as we go off to start building Dextre, Takao Doi and Dom Gorie will be lifting the JLP out of the payload bay using the shuttle’s robot arm and installing it on the space station. We’ll be focused on our, our work but, out of the corner of our eye we’ll see them taking this big module outside the payload bay. It should be quite a sight watching that get installed as we go over to do the beginning, the first assembly work on Dextre. Our job is basically to put Dextre’s hands on his arms. So that’s, that’s, that’s what we’ll be doing.
Where does that work take place? Is that still in the shuttle payload bay or are you at its location on the station?
Prior to, to us going out the door on our spacewalk some of the other crew members are going to use the station’s robot arm to take the pallet that contains Dextre and pull it out of the payload bay and stick it up on the truss, so we’ll be actually going hand over hand on our spacewalk — it’s called a spacewalk. It really should be a space crawl because you go around by using your hands —and we’ll be going down to the payload bay first to work on the JLP and then we have to go all the way back up to the truss. We’ll cover a large portion of the station as we do this. We go all the way back up to the truss where the Dextre will be waiting in his pallet to put him together.
Sounds like you’re just doing the first part of the assembly. I take it the rest of it comes on subsequent spacewalks during the shuttle mission.
That’s right. The lion’s share of the work for the assembly is done on the second spacewalk and that’ll be performed by Rick Linnehan and Mike Foreman. They’ll go out and, if we do our job well, they will take the arms and put them on the shoulders. I should take a second to explain that Dextre is very anthropomorphic. It’s got a body; it’s got two arms, two hands. It could, it could pivot at the waist, and it’s got two cameras which are kind of like two sets, two eyes so you could think of it as almost like a human being. The arms have to come on the shoulders. Some of its tools, basically its tool belt, have to be installed. Another platform it uses to hold boxes and equipment also needs to be installed and blankets need to be taken off. So there’s a lot of work to be done to put it together. The vast majority of that will be done at the end of the second spacewalk. And then once it’s all done, we can actually — and I’ll be involved with this from the inside —reach down with the station’s robot arm to grab Dextre kind of by the feet when he’s all put together, and pull him out of the pallet on the truss. Then we’ll be reconfiguring him, doing some testing on his joints, making sure his arms work OK, and then we’ll be installing him over on the lab where, where he’ll live until he’s needed for his first work assignment.
Image to right: Astronaut Garrett E. Reisman, Expedition 16 Flight Engineer, gets help donning a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for an emergency egress training session in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at Johnson Space Center. Image credit: NASA
And he can do work from, I guess, from that position or on the arm or from other locations?
That’s right. Numerous locations have this grapple fixture. It’s a pin and also an electrical connector so that you can get power. There are also bars there that it could latch onto so it can get nice and stable. So you can use any of these different locations that are about the station. Primarily it will be used at the very tip of the large station robot arm. It’s very analogous to what we do during a spacewalk, when you have a spacewalking crew member in a foot restraint at the very tip of the robot arm, and the robot arm is used almost like a cherry picker to move the crew member from location to location, allow them to access whatever they need to work on. The same concept for, will apply to Dextre. Dextre will be at the tip of the arm and be moved from place to place to do his work.
You said that you’ve now got five spacewalks on this flight; what are your other jobs inside during those other spacewalks?
Mostly I assist with all the robotics operations. Most all of the spacewalks involve to some degree or another support from the station robot arm. So when I’m not outside I’ll be inside assisting, along with Greg Johnson who’s prime for operating the space station arm on our flight, and also Bob Behnken who operates the arm as well. The three of us work as a team at various different points, to come together and do all the robotics work that needs to be done. And there’s a lot. Some of the days are actually very, very long and will be very, very exciting.
And I suppose it’s going to give you some good training so that after that shuttle crew leaves you have a pretty experienced arm operator left behind?
That’s right. That’s part of the point of integrating me as much as possible into what’s happening with the shuttle mission, so you do leave some of that experience on board after the shuttle leaves. By having me participate in some of the spacewalks and the robotics so that, if called upon to do some of that in the period of time after the shuttle leaves, I’ll be in a, a good position to do that.
After STS-123 leaves and you wave them goodbye you mentioned that you’ve got work as a member of the station crew in order to get this new Japanese module that you helped deliver ready for use and ready for the delivery of the main component of the Japanese complex. Talk a little bit about the, the work then that you and your station crewmates will do to get that ready and get it ready to be moved, because it does have to be moved.
It eventually resides on the top of the, of the main laboratory, which isn’t there yet. So we have to stick it somewhere just for the time being, and so we’ll stick it on top of Node 2. It’ll hang out there as kind of a tree house on the top of Node 2. It’ll be kind of neat to have that additional volume on board the station. We have to take out all the equipment and prepare it. Before we move it the first thing that happens is that the large laboratory module comes up and we install that in its permanent location. Then we take all the equipment out of the JLP and move it down into its, its proper position inside the large laboratory. And then once it’s empty, we take the JLP and move it over to its final location on top of the main laboratory. There are a bunch of tasks to be done and we’ll start doing those right away -- removing launch restraints which are just heavy clamps that held everything in position during all the violence of ascent, and then taking out other equipment that needs assembly, camera stanchions also some dummy panels that go in where the racks go to provide a, a work platform will have to be assembled from a, a folded up, disassembled state. So we have that work to do, and we have to get all that done before the guys show up so that we don’t hold them up.
Another thing that you’re going to get to spend time on during that period of your [time] as a space station crew member will be laboratory science, and the primary focus of laboratory science on ISS is research into how people can live and work safely in that weightless environment. Give me a, a, a taste of some of the experiments that you’re going to be involved with during your time on board.
Sure. There are a number of different scientific payloads that I’m participating in both as an operator and also as a guinea pig, as a test subject. One that we’re doing specifically geared towards keeping astronauts healthy for long-duration spaceflights so that we can go back to the moon and on to Mars is something called the Integrated Immune Experiment. Basically this just involves taking samples, mostly blood samples. One of my biggest concerns about this period of time of my mission, other than the space shuttle docked time frame, is I have to draw my own blood which I found I’m, I’m not very good at. All of us I think have some instinctive desire not to stick a metal object into yourself and that happens to be particularly strong in my case.
Being an astronaut not all glamour, then?
No, it’s not. There are times it’s not all what it’s cut out to be in the movies. But by taking those blood samples, if I manage to do it successfully, the scientists on the ground can analyze them. An interesting phenomenon that’s been noted is that the immune system doesn’t function quite as well when we’re up in space as it does on the Earth. We’re not exactly sure why that is and we’re not sure exactly how significant it is. But it potentially could be a big problem for sending people, say, to Mars, where they’re going to be in space for, potentially, years. You must keep them healthy because it’s a long way from Mars to the nearest hospital. We have to understand why the immune system isn’t working as well as it, as it normally does. Things just take longer to heal and you’re more susceptible to infection and disease while you’re in space, and we have to find out why and what we can do about it. So as a first step, they’re going to be taking our blood samples so they can learn more about what exactly is going on inside our bodies that’s causing this effect. That's one example. Another example is a drug that I’ll be taking called midodrine. This drug constricts some of the blood vessels. There’s an interesting thing called orthostatic intolerance, which is a fancy set of medical words that mean “fainting,” and what happens is when you come back down you have this big fluid shift — your heart is used to pumping against gravity to get blood to the brain so as we’re sitting in, in these chairs right now, it has to fight gravity to do its most important job which is getting blood up to the brain. When gravity goes away, the heart keeps doing its job, and, and so you get this large shift of fluid and your head gets all puffy and swollen. This happens to everybody when you go up to space. This is not a problem in space; it’s a problem, though, when you get back because you get a bit dehydrated because now, with this shift of, of fluid, the body thinks it has too much fluid and so it gets rid of a bunch and you actually end up dehydrated. Again it is not a problem in space, but when you come home you don’t have quite the same blood volume in your body. If you stand up quickly the blood will drain from your brain and you could pass out. And that’s orthostatic intolerance, basically. This drug, we hope, will counteract that by creating kind of a biological g-suit, if you will. By constricting the blood vessels, it’ll prevent the blood from rushing out of the brain into the extremities because those small blood vessels in the extremities will be tightened up. We think that that will help fight this. But we haven’t tried it in scientific detail yet. We haven’t done a full trial, so I’ll be participating in getting that data to make sure that this will work. Then potentially when we do send somebody and they step out for the first time it would be very embarrassing if the person who takes the first step on the surface of Mars passes out. So this could be a useful thing to help that problem.
You’re there to see how it affects you in order to learn about how it affects everybody, in general, that environment.
That’s right. It’s difficult. Part of the problem with only having a limited number up in space is that you can’t pick and choose who your test subjects are. Not only do we have to be the operators of the hardware in the vehicles, but we have to be the guinea pigs as well. So they’ll be looking at data from how we respond and then trying to get a scientifically significant sample size so they can draw conclusions about the, how useful this will be in the future.
You’re not only scientific guinea pigs, you’re also repairmen when something goes wrong. Well, since late last year the station program’s been working on an issue with the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint out on the starboard side of the station. Talk for a minute about what that joint is and why it’s so important that it operates properly.
Without it operating properly we have a great reduction in the amount of electrical power we can use on the station. So in a nutshell that’s why it’s very important. The SARJ —it’s the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, S-A-R-J, we call it the SARJ. The arrays are on the ends of the truss and they spin around kind of like paddle wheels. They don’t go nearly as fast, it’s actually quite slow, but they spin like paddle wheels out on the ends. This joint rotates those and that allows the arrays to point to the sun. The solar panels need to be pointing straight at the sun for them to be generating electricity. If they turn to the side and the sun’s not shining on them well, then you don’t have any electricity.
So you want to keep them pointed as much as possible at a, perpendicular to the direction of the sun.
Right. Exactly. Without this joint working it’s only in its ideal position pointing directly at the sun once per orbit. Since it can’t move in that direction, the rest of the time you’re to some degree hitting it at an angle and sometimes not hitting it at all. So that’s why it’s so critical. You lose a lot of your power generation capability without that joint moving. When we talk about bringing up the Japanese laboratory, Kibo, it takes a, a lot of power to operate all the scientific equipment inside. To have the full capability of the station and fully support all, everything including the new modules we need to have that solar array rotary joint. It has to work.
And, of course, the reason it’s, it’s not turning now, intentionally, because it’s found to be vibrating. There is some grinding going on inside.
What might you and your crewmates be called upon to do to try to help to get that joint back in, in operating condition?
Well, first we need to understand what, what’s causing the grinding. A lot of very smart people are looking at that very intensely right now. It could be [a] manufacturing defect in the material itself. It could be a misalignment in one of the bearings. We have some information that we gathered from a couple of spacewalks that we’ve already done to inspect it but we still need to learn more. First we have to learn exactly what the root cause of this problem is. Then we have to figure out what to do about it. There are a couple different possibilities. One is just keep running it and keep grinding and maybe you can limp along for awhile. Another possibility is maybe we could clean it up and maybe even put some lubrication down. That would be kind of ground-breaking. It would be [a] very interesting task: We never had to take a, a 10-foot-or-greater diameter gear and lubricate it on orbit. The other possibility is, there actually are two parallel gears. We could use either one of them. It’s kind of like having a car engine with two flywheels and you could take your starter motor and, right now, it’s turning one flywheel; well, you could take your starter motor, remove it, reinstall it and turn the other flywheel. That gives us built-in redundancy and so if we choose to we can go ahead. But that’s a big job. It’s not as simple as what I just made it sound like. It could take five, maybe even six spacewalks to do everything, including cleaning and preparing. So I am training for all those tasks. I’ve been working with the people that are investigating the problem, our team of, of spacewalk coordinators and trainers. I’m working with them to try to see what the current thinking is and what tasks might be required. I’m going into our big pool, the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, to practice these things wearing the spacesuit and I’ll have at least two practice sessions before I launch. So we don’t know exactly what the repair’s going, going to be; we don’t know exactly when we’re going to do the repair; but if they want to do it while I’m there, I’ll be ready to go.
You’ve trained for spacewalks and a lot of other things, not only here in Houston, but for this mission you’ve trained in Russia, in Japan and in Germany. What’s it been like for you to be in all those different places as you get ready for this flight?
It was a lot of, a lot of travel and it was, it was very exciting. It was really great to go to all these different countries that you just mentioned, to spend time in Tokyo, Moscow. I grew up, like I mentioned before, just outside of New York so I, I kind of like the big cities. I really enjoyed Moscow, Tokyo, Cologne and Montreal. They’re all a lot of fun and beautiful cities for all different reasons. That was great. It had its downside, too. I spent a lot of time away from my family, and that was difficult. Over the past 3½ years or so, I spent almost 50 percent of my time overseas or on the road domestically, training. So there are, there are pluses and minuses to all that but I think it will pay dividends because I did get a feel for the cultures of all these different places and have a better feel for some of the international partner astronauts and cosmonauts that I’ll be working with. I think I understand a little bit better about where they’re coming from and we have more common experiences now. That, I think, will definitely pay dividends.
Do you have any sense that spending all that time away from home in several different countries helps you prepare to spend a few months away from home on a space station that’s home to people from several different countries?
Yes, it does. It is called the International Space Station for a reason. We joke about it with some of my cosmonaut buddies on increment 17. When we’re in Russia, we all talk Russian to each other and when we’re here in the U.S., we talk English. I was wondering if we float across the hatch, do we have to quickly change our languages and do you need a passport and what happens if we go into the Japanese module ’cause none of us can speak Japanese. So now, now we got a really big problem. But to answer your question seriously, I do think that experience of travel and especially learning to appreciate other cultures will help out in the day-to-day aspects of living aboard International Space Station.
All the nations that are building and operating the International Space Station have exploration plans that go even beyond this remarkable vehicle. What’s your philosophy about the future of human exploration of space, and the contribution that the International Space Station makes to that future?
We have a bunch of space programs around the world that are all thriving right now and it’s really a wonderful thing to see. In addition to our own program the Russians are reinvigorated and have great plans for exploration. Japan also is involved in their own space race of sorts. So I think, in the future there will be international efforts, whether they be cooperative or competitive in space. People questioned when we partnered up with the Russians, about the longevity of, of this partnership and can we hold it together, can we overcome the technical challenges of two completely different systems of technologically speaking, and can we also overcome all the political obstacles that come along with a big international project. We’ve proven that we can. The ISS would probably not be up there right now if one nation alone put it together. The international aspect proved its value in the sense of redundancy, after the Columbia accident. So I think that our proven ability to work together and all the lessons we’ve learned working with Roscosmos and other space agencies -- I think in the future, if we decide to do cooperative space exploration, this will pay tremendous dividends.