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Preflight Interview: Mark Kelly, Commander
JSC2005-E-20603 -- Mark E. Kelly

STS-124 Commander Mark E. Kelly. Photo Credit: NASA

Q: Mark, at different points in our lives we decide to take different paths, going one way or the other. Can you give us the story about how you decided to choose a path that leads to space?

A: Well, I grew up in New Jersey. When I graduated high school I went to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy but very quickly realized I wanted to fly airplanes in the Navy, fly off air craft carriers, and that’s what I did upon graduation. I went down to Pensacola, went through flight school, eventually was on the USS Midway, you know, flying off the ship, later became a test pilot, went to grad school and then found myself here in 1996 and have flown a couple space flights since then.

Is there any particular event or, or person in your life that kind of influenced your decision to, to want to be an astronaut?

I watched the Apollo astronauts in the late 60s, early 70s. I kind of remember Apollo 11 a little bit and then remember the last Apollo missions, remember seeing footage about what astronauts did in their careers before they were astronauts and then became interested at that point. It’s not something I planned on doing my entire life growing up, but later on in my career I had the opportunity and that’s the path I decided to go on.

Being an astronaut can certainly be considered being a dream job. Is there another one that, if you had a chance to do, you’d think would be a real blast, some other career?

If I had the opportunity I think playing quarterback for the Patriots would have been a great job but certainly Tom Brady proved that, that he’s much better at that than I am.

I think a lot of people are with you on that one. What was it like growing up in your hometown and what was it about that place that kind of made you what you are today?

I grew up in a town of about 50,000 people, suburb of New York City within 20 minutes of Manhattan. I wouldn’t say it was urban but kind of on the verge of being kind of an urban environment. Great school system -- I went to public schools. They still have a good school system there. I think going to the public school kind of made me what I am today. A good education there allowed me to go on to college.

Probably a huge conglomeration of different mixes and people and everything, I imagine.

Yeah, that’s correct. Especially now, not so much then, but it was a pretty diverse community back then, 20 years ago.

What was your favorite sport, hobby or activity growing up and why?

My favorite sport was baseball until I wasn’t good enough to play anymore unfortunately. I played a little bit in junior high school, didn’t play in high school. I was captain of the swim team. I was on the track team. I was a pole vaulter. Played football, Pop Warner football, growing up but that, too, was not to be later on in my career.

Pole vaulting, that’s interesting and that could be a bit of rush, I guess. Is it?

Yes, it’s a lot of fun. Much lower altitudes than what I do today.

If your closest friends were asked to, to honestly characterize you, what do you think they’d say?

I think my closest friends would wonder how I got so far.

How has preparing for this flight, your first as a commander, been different from your previous spaceflights?

Well, my first two flights I was the pilot on Endeavour in 2001, Discovery in 2006. Being the commander is different in that you’re responsible for the overall mission rather than just having your piece of the pie. You have to worry about the whole thing, the training drill your other crew members are getting, mission success, and mission safety. So it is a more comprehensive job, requires more time. I’m really a little bit surprised at how much more there is to it. But I think it’s more rewarding as well.

Could you summarize for us the main goals of this mission, STS 124?

The main goals of 124, has one big giant goal and that’s installing and outfitting and checking out the Japanese Pressurized Module which is the big laboratory of what’s called the JEM, the JEM system, I guess you could call it. It has a robotic arm on the end. Getting that installed safely, successfully on station and get it working is our No. 1 goal. We also have other high priority items on the list, inspecting the orbiter before we come home. It’s going to be done a little bit different on this mission than it has been done before, so that’s a high priority for us. We’re going to do three spacewalks and those have specific goals for each. But the main goal is getting the Japanese laboratory attached to station, getting it outfitted, getting it checked out.

You briefly touched on the, the Japanese experiment module. It’s a laboratory. Can you elaborate on that? What’s it going to be used for? What kind of experiments?

The Japanese lab is the biggest laboratory. It’s actually the biggest module on space station. It’s pretty heavy, 32,000 pounds, longer than the U.S. lab, more system, systems’ racks, more experiment racks. It’s its own little spacecraft in the sense that it has an environmental system, electrical system, its own computer system, its own robotic arm. It’s going to be used for fundamental chemistry, fluid physics, regular physics and biology experiments. Some of those will come up later. But it, it’s going to be a world class laboratory.

Okay. There are, are integral components that are going to work with JEM? Can you give us some background about the overall function of those, starting with the logistics module?

There’s a Japanese logistics module, also called the JLP. It’s initially going to be attached to the top of Node 2 which is where the JPM, the Japanese laboratory is going to attach to the side of Node 2. It is going to contain some of the systems that are going to be installed later in the Japanese laboratory and we will do that during our mission. It’s also going to be moved about halfway through our mission. It’s going to be moved from the top of Node 2 to the top of the Japanese laboratory and then we will probably open the hatch. It’s going to be used later for stowage, you know, just to store things in. But STS 123 brings it up and it’s a critical component for our flight in that it contains a lot of the things that go inside the laboratory. And the reason it's going up in the logistics module is that the laboratory with all those racks is just too heavy for the orbiter to carry so we have to separate some of the stuff and bring it up ahead of time.

And the Exposed Facility and the Exposed Logistics Exposed Sections, what are those things going to be?

The Exposed Facility is going up on a flight called 2JA which is, I think, about a year after we launch and install the lab. That Exposed Facility is going to be used to expose experiments and payloads to the conditions in space. It sits on the outside of the Japanese laboratory, on the far end outside of the Japanese airlock and near where the robotic arm is. The robotic arm will then be used to bring experiments from the Japanese airlock out on to the Exposed Facility and back in.

The Japanese robotic arm, could you give us some idea of how it compares to the current station arm that’s there now?

The Japanese robotic arm is similar to the same number of joints and degrees of freedom. It looks very similar to the robotic arm on the station that moves around station. This one is not going to move around station to different points, though. It’s going to stay on the end of the Japanese laboratory. [It was] built by the Japanese. I think they had some help with the same manufacturer of the arm on space station. It’s going to be used primarily to support the science in the Japanese laboratory.

You won’t have the orbiter boom sensor system in the payload bay. Can you give us some background about why you won’t have it and what the plan is to do the inspection?

Since STS-114, we’ve inspected the outside of the orbiter. After the Columbia accident, we decided we needed this inspection capability and the capability we came up with was this long boom -- it’s as long as the shuttle robotic arm -- that the shuttle robotic arm grabs in the payload bay and we can inspect the bottom of the orbiter with. That boom has been flown on each mission since STS-114 until STS-124. And on 124 the issue we had, the Japanese lab is so big that the boom does not fit in the payload bay with the lab there. So we can’t carry up the boom. So the boom is going to be left on board station by the previous mission, STS 123. It will be handed off to the shuttle arm and then, when we undock, we’ll have the boom and we will do the inspection at the end of the mission instead of the normal inspection that’s at the beginning of the mission.

JSC2007-E-26216 -- Mark E. Kelly

Astronaut Mark E. Kelly, STS-124 commander, participates in a food tasting session in the Flight Projects Division Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

You will do an inspection on flight day 2 with the shuttle arm, correct?

We will do a limited inspection on flight day 2 with the shuttle arm but we have a restriction there because of the size of the laboratory again, we have to constrain the elbow camera on the shuttle arm. We have a couple straps around it so it doesn’t move and the concern is that during liftoff that camera will move and it will contact the Japanese laboratory, so we don’t want that to happen. So we’re going to constrain it but that limits the use of the arm until we get those straps removed on flight day 4 which is our first EVA. So on flight day 2, when we do the inspection with the shuttle arm it’s going to be very limited.

Tell us about what, what your main duties will be for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight?

My main duties on flight day 3 for the rendezvous and docking [are], first of all, to make sure all of the procedures are done correctly so we successfully dock. We get up in the morning; very quickly we’re into the rendezvous checklists. We have several burns of the OM, the orbital maneuvering engines and the reaction control system. We have these several burns in the rendezvous checklists. A long procedure, the whole rendezvous procedure takes about four, five hours to complete. Once we get close to the station, I’ll be in the aft station of the orbiter visually flying the space shuttle up to and docking on the forward part of Node 2.

Are there any other major events for you that day? Any preparation for the next day? What kind of things?

After we dock on flight day 3 we get the hatches open. We do a safety brief and then the next important event is to get ready for the first spacewalks on flight day 4 so we have to get Mike and Ron’s EMUs or spacesuits that they use for the spacewalks over into the airlock. We've got to get the tools over. We've got to get the stuff installed, checked out and then that evening, Mike and Ron will go to sleep in the station airlock at a lower pressure to prepare their bodies for the spacewalks the next day.

And the next day is the first EVA as you mentioned. Can you give us a brief overview of the things you’ll, you’ll be trying to accomplish that day and during that EVA?

On the first EVA, it’s all about getting the Japanese laboratory and the space station prepared for the installation for the lab itself. So Mike and Ron will go outside and they have tasks to do on the laboratory while it’s in the payload bay and they also have to prepare the space station, essentially the interface where the lab is going to dock, to prepare those two pieces and then during the spacewalk, we’re going to actually move the Japanese laboratory over and install on station.

That’s also day 2 that you’re going to get the OBSS back?

That’s, yeah, that’s correct. Also on flight day 4 during that spacewalk we’re going to hand off the OBSS from the space station arm to the space shuttle arm.

Move on to flight day 5 - can you tell us about what’s on the to-do list that day?

Flight day 5 we have the Japanese laboratory attached to Node 2. On the beginning of flight day 5, we’re going to open the hatch. We’re going to go inside and we’re going to start outfitting the Japanese lab with the racks from the logistics module.

What does this outfitting entail?

The outfitting of the laboratory includes doing some kind of mechanical work inside the lab, removing some parts, reconfiguring some of the systems, and then a big part of that is moving these very heavy, very big racks, each one’s about the size of, I’d say maybe a motorcycle, moving them from the logistics module into the lab, installing them into the Japanese laboratory, hooking up all the connections, turning them on and checking out that these systems work.

What are the goals of EVA 2, if you could tell us?

Flight day 6 is EVA 2. We’ve got a whole list of tasks to do. Some of those are going to be done on the outside the JPM by the JLP in the back by the Japanese robotic arm. We’ve got a laundry list of, of things that Mike and Ron are going to be doing over the 6½ hour EVA.

The next day is when focused inspection is scheduled. We talked briefly about that before. It’s going to be, it’s critical probably on this flight that this happens on that day. Little bit about the procedure for, for that.

On flight day 7 we have a large chunk of time allotted to do focused inspection and we may do it; we may not. Focused inspection depends if in any previous analysis that there’s any reason to believe that you have any damage to the underside of the orbiter, to the thermal protection system. So if we were to see something during the rendezvous, when we do the rendezvous pitch maneuver which is a 360-degree pitch that we do underneath space station where the space station crew can take a bunch of photos and if we see any damage on Flight Day 3, then on Flight Day 7 with the OBSS, we can go and look specifically at certain areas. We also might do that on this mission based solely on photography that was done on liftoff. So if we saw some foam come off the tank and we kind of knew where it was and maybe we didn’t necessarily see something on flight day 3 during the RPM, on flight day 7, we have the opportunity to take a closer look.

This is also the day that you’re scheduled to move the logistics model from Node 2 to the JEM. How does that happen?

On flight day 7 we will move the logistics module from the top of Node 2. We’re going to stick it on top of the Japanese laboratory and we’re going to do that with the space station robotic arm. Karen Nyberg and Greg Chamitoff will use the, the space station arm to grab the JLP and then we’ll disconnect it and we’re going to move it over and install it and hope they open the hatch and get back inside.

Are there things that are critical happen before you can actually move the JLP?

Before we move the JLP, one critical thing is you got to get the hatch closed. You’ve got to install some avionics boxes into the active common berthing mechanism and check that out first. Then you have to physically detach it after your grapple. You wouldn’t want to detach it before you’re grappled with the robotic arm. That would be bad. So after you grapple, you would detach it and there’s a procedure to move it over.

What is the primary focus of EVA 3?

Primary task on EVA 3 is to replace a depleted nitrogen tank that’s on the outside of the space station. We have a spare up there on ESP 3 which was brought up on a previous flight so Mike and Ron will go outside and they’ll go up on the truss. The space station has a long truss where the solar panels are connected. There’s also this platform that has some spare parts and one of the spare parts is this nitrogen tank. We’re going to take that nitrogen tank off and physically Ron will hold it in his hands and on the space station robotic arm will be brought over to the other side, well, not quite the other side, of the truss. But it will be a long trip on the robotic arm. Then we’ll replace the old one with the new one and it, the nitrogen tank is installed inside the truss.

JSC2007-E-43443 -- Mark E. Kelly

Attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, astronaut Mark E. Kelly, STS-124 commander, awaits the start of a water survival training session in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

On flight day 11 you’re scheduled to undock. You will fly around. Tell me about that procedure and what else happens on that day.

Well, after being docked to the space station for, at this point, about eight days, it will be time to say goodbye and go home. So we say goodbyes with the space station crew. We leave Greg on the space station side of the hatch and make sure that we have Garrett on our side, because we’re swapping out one of the expedition crew members. We close all the hatches, we depress the space between shuttle and the station and then we drive a bunch of hooks to undock. At this point Ken Ham will be flying the undocking. I’ll have the procedure but he’ll be looking out the window, looking at the computers, the monitors and manually fly Discovery away from space station, get out to about five hundred feet and do a 360-degree pass around space station, get some photos of the outside. This is a good opportunity for the ground to see what the outside of space station looks like up close, to see if there’s any damage. So we’ll take a bunch of pictures. And eventually we’ll kind of drift away over time and get farther away from space station. Then we’ll do our, our late inspection with the OBSS.

I’ve been told that the English translation of, of Kibo, the main load of the JEM module, is ‘hope.’ After this mission, after you complete it, what do you hope that it will do for the bigger picture of space exploration?

The Japanese name Kibo is ‘hope,’ like you said, and you know, I hope that we first get it installed and get it activated and all the systems work and then get all the experiments on board. It’s a world class laboratory. It’s got a, a lot of capability. I’m hopeful that over years that laboratory produces significant discoveries in chemistry, physics, material science, life sciences. It certainly has that potential and I hope one day to be able to look at some new invention or new discovery that came from the laboratory that I installed or my crew installed on space station. That would be a great thing so I’m looking forward to that.

Can you give us some insight into some of the skills and talents and personal relationships with your crew that make you as a commander confident that this mission’s going to be a success?

I’m really fortunate to be given the crew members that I have on this mission. It’s myself and six others. We do swap one of our crew members with the expedition crew member on board. So Greg goes up, Greg stays on station and Garrett comes home. But the crew that was assigned to me -- I’m really fortunate to have some really talented people. Ken Ham, as a pilot, knows the orbiter better than anybody I’ve seen. This is his first flight. My lead EVA crew member is Mike Fossum who did three spacewalks on my previous flight, STS-121. We’ve flown together before. I have all the confidence in the world in his ability to execute these EVAs. Karen Nyberg, my MS1, sits on the flight deck for ascent and entry. She’s also the lead for all the robotic arm operations. She’ll be flying three robotic arms in space, incredibly motivated, well ahead of the game and I expect great things from her. Ron Garan is my flight engineer, a colonel in the Air Force. This is going to be his first time in space as well as is Karen’s and Ken’s and he’s doing three spacewalks. So he's got a lot on his plate. He’s been doing great during training and he’s going to have the opportunity to prove himself during these three spacewalks. I kind of wish it was me getting to go outside. I can’t do that, but we expect great things from Ron as well. And then I have Aki Hoshide, our Japanese crew member, who grew up in New Jersey kind of like me. That’s an interesting thing about our flight -- we have four people from New Jersey on the mission. I look at Aki as the payload commander. He is responsible for that Japanese laboratory and he has taken on that responsibility as completely as I could have hoped for. All through our training he’s been very much focused on the Japanese lab, making sure it’s ready to go, making sure we’re completely trained on the systems and everything we have to do. I’ve given him a lot of responsibility and he’s completely taken it on.

How would you characterize the work ethic of the support personnel that you’ve seen around the different space flight centers in training?

We’re a small part of the success of this mission. We’re the seven people that are seen the most so we tend to get a lot of the accolades but there are lot of people that are behind the scenes that are certainly as critical as we are to the success of this mission. We have two flight control teams. We have flight directors that spend an enormous amount of time making sure that we are ready, that flight operations are ready. We have training teams that are responsible for making sure we’re trained to do the mission. They’re also responsible for making sure the flight control teams are trained to do this mission. And then we have a whole community of people in Florida that’s responsible for getting the orbiter ready for flight and every one of them is as important as every crew member in making sure that, that Discovery is safe and ready to go. There are also support people at the other centers. Michoud is responsible for making sure external tank is ready. We have some new modifications to this tank that we’re essentially going to be test flying, some titanium brackets that had foam removed from them. So there are people all over the country that are very critical to the safety and success of this mission, not just us on board.

It could probably be said that a true measure of fortitude is in how you adapt to situations, unforeseen things popping up, things not functioning like they should. How would you say that, that NASA and the rest of the spaceflight community has done in that endeavor?

Every mission has some surprises. It’s very rare that we launch and have no unexpected events happen, so we prepare for that. We train for it. We spend a lot of time in the simulator, a lot of time interacting with our flight control team on the ground and simulating unforeseen events. And we expect to have some during this mission like we do with every mission. But because we do spend a lot of time thinking about it ahead of time, they’re usually not great surprises. It’s pretty rare that we have some scenario that we completely did not expect at all. So we do practice and we hope that that practice and the training we get really prepare us to handle anything that comes up.

We are in a phase of construction of ISS where it’s nearing completion. That in some ways is probably, evokes certain feelings in people who, this thing is being complete, yea, we’re getting close. But also it, it could, it kind of hearkens the end of an era with the shuttle and in the construction of this thing. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, we’ve been building the ISS since 1998 essentially, when the first components went up. It’s now 2008 so the construction has taken 10 years. When we get the Japanese laboratory up and attached during this mission at least for me I feel like the major modules are all now installed and the space station can really start to do what it was intended to do, to be this world class laboratory to get us to the point where we understand how to live in space for long periods of time, to prepare us to go on to the moon, one day go on to Mars. So for me I feel good about that. I feel that the space station is almost done. We can, we’ll start using it and we’ll using it for the planned life is for the space station. It’s kind of hard to figure out how long we’re going to actually be using it, but, you know, I feel really good about that.

The shuttle is coming to an end. This will be your, your third shuttle flight. You’ve probably developed a little bit of a relationship with this craft. How do you feel about that?

Well, this will be my third flight on the space shuttle. The first two I flew as a pilot and this is my first flight as a commander, second time I’m flying on Discovery. When we start retiring the space shuttles in 2010, the last flight is now planned to be some time in 2010, probably towards the end of it, I’m certainly going to feel a little sad about seeing the shuttle era end. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to operate and fly the space shuttle. And all those skills, even though they’re transferable to other things, there’s all this knowledge that I’m not going to need any more. So [I'm] a little bit, a little bit sad in that regard but we are moving on and we’re going to be doing some more exciting stuff. We’re building a vehicle that we can take to the moon and when we get to the moon, we’re going to learn what we need to do to go on to Mars. That’s really, really important exploration. So while I’m a little bit sad the shuttle’s going to be going away I’m excited about what’s to come later.