Preflight Interview: Eric Boe, Pilot
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STS-126 Pilot Eric Boe. Photo Credit: NASA

Eric, there are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world but there are only about a hundred American astronauts. Of all the careers in the entire world that a person could aspire to, you ended up a professional space traveler. What was it that motivated you or inspired you to become an astronaut?

Well, when I was a kid I remember specifically when the moon landings happened. I was 5 years old and I remember my parents calling me into the room and telling me “Hey, watch this. This is really important stuff.” And, of course, as a 5-year-old I barely had enough time to actually stop and sit in front of the TV and watch it but years later I can still remember the image on the black and white TV of seeing the moon landing and that kind of put a little nugget in my brain to think about doing that in the future. I was also very interested in aviation. My father was a pilot in the Air Force so I grew up around airplanes and going to air shows and seeing different things. So for me, the interest in aviation kind of grew and as I continued on in my career. That little piece that I’d seen, the landing, kind of kept coming back to me and I go, “You know, if I get the opportunity to do this, I’d really like to be an astronaut.” And as my career progressed and things continued on I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to do the job I’m doing now.

Tell me about where you grew up.

Well, I was born in Miami, but then after that I, my family moved up to Atlanta. I consider my hometown Atlanta. I grew up on the north, the northeast side of Atlanta fairly close to Stone Mountain and I went to Evansville Elementary School and Henderson High School, if you’re from the Atlanta area.

Do you see in yourself how Atlanta and the people there helped make you the person you are today?

Atlanta’s a great city. It, it’s really grown since I was a kid there. It had the Olympics in the 90s and the city’s grown tremendously but [there were] lots of different facilities, opportunities. I got to go do a lot of camping. I had a teacher at Fernbank Science Center which is in my local community, Debbie Huffman. She’s actually going to come to our launch and she works encouraging youth in aviation and other scientific fields so she really helped me out along the way.

Eric, tell me about the time when you got the news when you were accepted into the astronaut corps.

Well, I was at Eglin Air Force Base as a test pilot. There were a few other people that were applying at the same time and I knew, I could see on their faces that they had gotten some phone calls. My office happened to be in a different building and I had kind of bumped into them in a hallway. And they said, “Hey, have you got some words?” So I went back to my office and saw the message on the, that someone from NASA had left a message and so I called back and when, when they told me that I’d made it I was, you know, truly in shock, really amazed. One of the other interesting things was that I was expecting a son about the same time I was supposed to start. So at the same time I was accepting the honor of getting the chance to be an astronaut my son was going to arrive. So two bits of good news at the same time were so very exciting time for me and my family.

I’m sure you remember this. Tell me about when they told you you’d been selected for this flight.

When I got the phone call I was on my cell phone at Marshall Space Flight Center. I was getting ready to fly back home and I was working on the new space vehicle, Ares, which is the propulsion system that is just going to carry Orion which is the new crew vehicle up to the space station and on to the moon as we continue on. The chief of our office, Steve Lindsey, gave me, called me up on, on my cell phone and I was talking to him and he goes, “Hey, how would you like to fly on STS-126?” It was a great day. You know, it’s one of those things I’ve been training for a long period of time. To get the words that I finally get the chance to go do what I’ve been training for was very exciting for me.

Since this is your first time in space, what are you looking forward to the most?

Well, there’s really two things I guess I’d have to say. The views; I’ve heard the views are awesome. It’s just one of those things that most crews that come back, they really talk about the views. But for me the things I’m really looking for is putting everything together. We have a huge team and have a crew, but we have thousands of other people on the ground that are building up the systems that get us ready for the launch, the training teams that are working with us and all the other people that are kind of involved. It’s truly a national effort that gets the space shuttle flying and so I’m really looking forward to all the interactions with all the different people that make things happen.

Do you think while you’re up there you’ll try to get a glance of Atlanta down below?

Oh, absolutely. I’ll be looking for Atlanta and a lot of other places that I’ve been throughout my career and on vacations and everywhere else. So that’s one of the things to me I think is going to be truly amazing is to get the chance to see a lot of places you may not ever see in your life like Mount Everest or different places in Africa., be really a great opportunity to see those areas of the world.

Now we talked about where you grew up. Give me the short course on Eric Boe’s education and professional background.

I went to the Air Force Academy, graduated there in 1987, and from there I went up to pilot training and the military has a lot of different courses that you go through pilot training. I ended up flying F4Es, Phantoms, in the Philippines. From there I came back, was an instructor pilot in both the T-38 and AT-38 which are primary jet trainers for those students going on to fighter type aircraft. After that I was trained in the F-15C which is the air to air version of the F-15 and I was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. From there I went to test pilot school in 1997 for a year at Edwards. Then, myself and family returned to Eglin and I did a tour at Eglin again as a test pilot where I was flying the F-15C and E model. I also got a chance to fly helicopters as a test pilot in UH-1. As far as education, I talked about the Air Force Academy. I also went and received a master of science in electrical engineering at Georgia Tech.

Eric, what’s it like working and training with this crew?

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STS-126 Pilot Eric Boe undergoes a training session in virtual reality at Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Well, it’s a great privilege to get to work with this crew because we have such a wide variety of backgrounds. It’s one of the things I really like about being an astronaut and this turns out the same way in the crews that you work with, you have people from all kind of different backgrounds. You already know I‘m from the Air Force but on our crew we have Heide who’s a professional diver who worked with the Navy. We also have a submariner with Steve Bowen. Chris Ferguson, also a Navy pilot, is the commander. We also have Shane who’s the Army helicopter pilot, Sandy Magnus and Don Pettit with their scientific backgrounds. What really makes the crew special is the unique backgrounds and our different experiences in life and it really brings us together, because we each have our strengths and weaknesses. Throughout training it’s been really great to watch us grow as a team.

There are thousands of people who work behind the scenes to help make the mission possible and successful. What are your thoughts about their contributions and what’s it like when you get the chance to visit with them?

It’s great to get the chance to meet with them. It’s a huge team that makes all this possible. Every little piece of the space shuttle, the space station, different segments of flight, there are experts who know very detailed information about these different parts. It takes this huge team. Really the part that is the challenge is to bring all this effort together. Basically it's a national effort that brings us to the point where we can get, get the system back up and, as you know, we’re looking at going back to the moon. It’s the same kind of effort that we had in the '60s and early 70s to go to moon. This is the kind of effort level that we’re working on with this, this space station and our follow on after space shuttle, Constellation.

What’s the best part of your job?

The best part of the job is actually getting to do something different every day. You come in. You get a schedule every week. The schedule, of course, changes like other things but what’s exciting about it is that you’re always doing something different. You might be in an interview like this where I’m talking to you or might be out flying a T-38, keeping my flying skills up, or in a simulator where you’re working on a particular aspect of the flight. We have the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory where we practice doing spacewalks, a big pool facility. And getting to work with all these different people from all these different areas and specialties is really and truly an honor.

Let’s talk about the mission. How would you describe the STS-126/ULF2 mission to the lay person?

We are going out and basically remodeling the station. We’re basically taking it from a one bathroom, three bedroom type of house and increasing the size to like five bedrooms, two bathroom type house. We’re bringing up a MPLM, Multipurpose Logistics Module, which is going to have a lot of the extra equipment that we’re going to need. One of the other big parts of the mission, and it didn’t develop this way initially, but the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint is having some issues and we’ll talk about that a little bit later. We’re going to go out and actually repair, clean and, and get that working so that we can increase the power and finish space station’s construction. And finally we’re doing a crew member swap. We’re bringing up Sandy Magnus and replacing Greg Chamitoff who’s on space station right now.

As a pilot, what is your job, especially talking about during rendezvous and docking to the station?

My job as the pilot is basically, obviously, to help out the commander and the piloting tasks and other things that are going on board. It's also to run shuttle systems, kind of keep everything, kind of keep track of what’s going on, help with the timeline, help with the, the piloting tasks and keeping the motors running and other systems that are on board the, the station, or on board the shuttle.

One of the elements that you’ll be taking up is the Multipurpose Logistics Module which you mentioned earlier. Tell me a little bit more about what that’s going to contain.

The Multipurpose Logistics Module, looks like a, a big module. If you looked at it and you didn’t know any different you would think it was just a module that we were going to attach onto the station and that’s essentially what it is. It’s a pressurized module that we’re going to pull with the space station robotic arm, the big arm is what we call that arm, bring it out of the payload bay, attach it to the space station and then inside, since it’s pressurized, we’re going to have racks and other things that we’re going to bring across. So we’re going to bring a lot of things like we were talking about to, to make [the] space station more of a home. Right now we have a crew of three and the crew size is going to grow to six and so on board we have extra things like a galley. We have a waste and hygiene compartment, a toilet. We have other systems and, and food. We're bringing in what we call ZSRs, Zero G Storage Racks, which are essentially closets that are going to allow us to put more equipment. We have new crew sleep stations where the crew members can have a little private space where they can spend time and obviously sleep while they’re on board space station.

How does it feel knowing this mission is setting the stage for that six-person crew? What, what will this do? How is this important?

Well, it’s extremely important because right now at space station we’re still kind of the, in the construction phases. The things that we’re really going to get out of space station are going to occur once we have construction complete and with the space shuttle. That’s looking to be at the end of 2010, when we’re finishing up construction and then the crew of six is going to happen sometime next year. Having a crew of six is going to give us the first opportunity where we can really start working in a grand way, the science and investigations that we’re looking at working on. Also with the new Constellation effort, a lot of the things that we’re looking at, new spacesuits, new space vehicle getting us up and down, all these things are going to need to be tested and run and a great facility that we can do this on is the space station. So by having a crew of six we’ll have the extra hands and bodies to not only run the space station itself but also do the research and investigation that we’d like to handle.

Let’s move on talking about the four planned spacewalks. If you could, walk me through each EVA and what’s going to be accomplished on each one.

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STS-126 Pilot Eric Boe is attired in a training version of a launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

Certainly. EVA 1 we’re going to start out on the space shuttle. Behind where the MPLM was located there’s a rack that we call the basically LMC -- it’s just a light-weight rack that’s in the back of the space shuttle. We’re going to have a flexible hose, FHRC, which is basically what we use to pump ammonia. It’s a replacement part for the space station. We also have a empty nitrogen tank assembly, NTA is what they call it. We’re going to take the NTA that’s on the space station, put it in the shuttle bay to carry back to Earth and then we’re going to take the FHRC and put it out on the space station. So that’s going to take a good part of EVA 1. We’re also going to start working on the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint repair. We’ve had some issues with the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint and in the last year or so we’ve gone out and actually looked at it and we’ve seen some degradation on the race ring, around the edges where this array rotates back and forth. We’re going to go out and actually clean off that race ring and also work on replacing basically the bearings. They’re call Trundle Bearing Assemblies or TBAs. There are 12 of these that go all the way around so to get all of them, it’s going to take several EVAs. So that, that’s a large part of what we’re doing on EVA 1. On EVA 2 we’re going to start out again using the the big arm, the space station arm, and we’re going to move some carts, we call them CETA carts. They’re basically attached to the train that goes back and forth on the space station. We’re going to move the carts from one side to the other. And that’s basically preparation for, on the solar alpha rotary joint that we were just talking about, we’re going to put another array out there on the next flight, on STS-119 so this is getting the configuration ready for their EVAs coming up.

Now you are on that spacewalk, is that correct?

I am actually working as the IV inside helping the two crew members which are going to be Heide and Shane. They’re going to be both out working on this EVA and so I will be helping them basically, kind of like the quarterback, you know, choreographing what they’re doing back forth between the different parts of the EVA. And then also, we already talked about the SARJ. We’re going to do some more SARJ work, again working on some more of those bearings to help the, the rolling problem that we’re having with the SARJ.

Eric, describe for me the undocking procedure and the fly around. What will you be doing during that and then what will the rest of the crew be doing?

I’ll be doing the piloting tasks. Typically the commander does the rendezvous and docking and the pilot typically does the undock and fly around, so I’ll be actually doing the flying portion. It takes a huge team effort to get all these systems working together and make things happen, so we’ll be taking pictures as we undock. One of the big reasons that we do a fly around is kind of look at areas, is kind of look at areas to see how they’re working, to make sure that we have, we put the things where we want to and also just kind of give an overall big picture view to make sure the station is looking good.

You’ll be flying during the period approaching the tenth anniversary of the ISS assembly start. Talk about the significance of that.

Well, it’s extremely, it’s really amazing that the station has really grown, especially in the last couple years we, with the, the return to flight and with all the flight, you know, station’s actually coming and if you compare what we had ten years ago, the size of the station to what we have now, so, you now, tremendously bigger and we, we’re getting to that point and so it’s an honor to get the chance to, to be flying during this period of time and to actually see the station and as it’s kind of grown up, you know. It’s almost like a little child as you watch it grow and you keep watching with amazement as the child gets bigger and bigger and all of a sudden they’re learning to do things and that’s kind of the stage I see us at, you know. Our 10-year-old is getting ready to get ready to go into high school and actually start doing some of the tasks of life.

What do you think this station means to our world now and to the future generations? We’re talking about the context of returning to the moon, going to Mars and future exploration.

Well, the International Space Station, just by its name is obviously an international effort. I think that’s one of the greatest things about the space station itself is that it brings together all these countries from different backgrounds. We have, you know, different goals and objectives but together we realize that space is where mankind is heading in the future and so this is an effort. Just like with space station, the effort to go back to the moon and to go on to Mars, many countries participating right now are putting spacecraft in orbit around Mars, on Mars, on the moon. And so this effort is just a continuation of where we are in the world and this is a really exciting time in, in spaceflight, you know. We’re starting to get some commercial ventures that are happening. A lot of countries are starting to participate in spaceflight so an exciting time in space.

What was your favorite subject in school and why?

I really enjoyed math. The reason I enjoyed is that it was something concrete that I could kind of get my hands around and there was an answer -- you, you had a specific answer to a problem that was put in front of you. And the other thing I liked about math was how it integrates with a lot of other fields so, like a lot of things in science, just by understanding the math that’s involved, you can kind of get to the solutions that you’re trying to get to in science.

Can you think of an experience from your education that was particularly important in contributing to your career as an astronaut?

Well, one of the things that I think probably that really was one -- I remember my mother taking me to the library. That sounds like a very small thing but it was the interest in school and as I grew up to actually go read books with me or, as I got older, when I had to do some kind of report in school, we would go. Sometimes the library at the high school didn’t have enough of material that we had and my mom would take the time and we’d go down to the local college and get some materials there. And so it was that interest kind of in my learning was, was very important to me.

If you had a message for today’s youth, what would that be?

My message would be, pursue your dreams. All things are possible, you know. Pick a goal out there, go for it and keep trying. Probably the biggest thing is don’t give up. Keep going. I’m extremely surprised that I’m sitting in this seat today. I look back and it wasn’t like all of a sudden. It was just a progression over time. So it’s not something that you can just go from here to here. You’ve got to progress. So pick a goal and work towards it -- and pursue your dreams.