Preflight Interview: Donald Pettit, Mission Specialist
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STS-126 Mission Specialist Donald Pettit. Photo Credit: NASA

What motivated you or inspired you to be an astronaut?

As a little kid, my eyes were opened when I saw John Glenn fly. I know there are a number of contemporary astronauts who all say the same thing, seeing early Americans, the first Americans flying in space just opened your eyes as a kid where you could realize, “Wow! I can do that.”

Let’s go back in time a little bit to April of 1996. Tell me about the time you got the news you were accepted into the astronaut corps.

I was on a scientific expedition in New Zealand. This was a volcano fumerol gas sampling expedition as part of a scientific team from Los Alamos National Laboratory and we were in the middle of doing our fumerol gas sampling when I got a phone call to come to NASA to be an astronaut.

You grew up in Oregon. Tell me about growing up in Silverton.

Silverton’s a small town. Its economy centers around logging and farming and my brothers and I grew up in this rural environment then where we could go off in the woods. We could make dune buggies. We could make go carts. We would take all kinds of, items that most people would call ‘junk’ and we could turn them into other kinds of treasures that we used to explore the world around us at that point in time.

Were you ever involved in, in scouting or any kind of organization like that?

Oh, we did Boy Scouts. We would swim in the local pond and we would work in the fields. They had opportunity for young kids to pick berries. In fact, the whole school system was geared around the summer crops. You got out of school just in time to pick strawberries and school started right after the last crop of the season came in. This was a marvelous way for kids to make some real spending money to go off and do whatever they wanted to with.

What do you expect to draw upon the most from your background?

Probably growing up in a rural area where you learned to make do with the resources that you have and you learn to fix things. You learn to make whatever you want from the junk that’s laying around you. That’s what I seem to be utilizing so much in my professional career.

What are you looking forward to the most when you go back to the station?

Gosh, what I’m looking forward to the most when I go back to space station is just going back home. It’s a home away from home. Home is an abstract idea that may be where your real home is but could also be some place when you’re away from home that you’re making a temporary residence. And space station is certainly that for me. It has been that for me and when I return this time, it’s going to be like I’m going home.

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

I’m with an outstanding group of folks. I think it’s more important who your crew members are and how you get along than what the absolute magnitude of your particular space mission happens to be.

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

This gets into a philosophical construct of working on the frontier and you’ll find if you’re climbing a mountain, say Everest, if you’re working on the bottom of the ocean or you’re a scientist that’s working on ice in the central part of Antarctica. All of these frontier environments require staging of supplies and staging of people where for each scientist on the ice in Antarctica, there will be dozens of people back at McMurdo to support them and even more back in the continental United States to support those in McMurdo. Space is no different than that. It takes hundreds of thousands of people to keep an individual in space. The lucky ones who are in space are the very tip of the iceberg. It seems to be that what is required when human beings go off into a frontier where we are barely grabbing on with our technology so that we can live and work in places.

What would you say is the best part of your job?

There are two facets to the best part of this job and they are of parallel importance. One is you get to fly in space and two you get to work with students, young people, and get them excited about math and science and engineering. You’re in a position where you can work their minds into thinking about coming and working into the space program and taking over my job when I’m ready to sit in a rocking chair and see the next generation go off. That has to be one of the most gratifying parts of the whole job is to see the bright eyes of these students light up when you tell them stories about exploring space.

Don, very few have experienced a shuttle launch from inside the orbiter. Take me through the physical sensations of the launch and ascent of the shuttle.

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STS-126 Mission Specialist Donald Pettit participates in a food tasting session to prepare a menu for his shuttle mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Well, my first ascent on STS-113, I was riding up in the mid-deck and it’s kind of like being in a small room with not a lot of lights and it just starts to shake and move and you know you’re going some place. It’s very apparent, but you’re not really sure exactly where you’re going at that point in time and then, after about 8½ minutes, it gets really quiet and then, of course, everybody comes to and gets to work.

Don, having been through a ballistic re-entry on Soyuz, there’s question as to whether it’s really safe to travel on such a vehicle. What kinds of measures are being put into place to make Soyuz safer for travel?

The Soyuz is a robust vehicle. It has a lot of safety built into its very engineering design. It has the equivalent of two spare tires. During our ballistic entry, which was on Soyuz TMA1, we used one of our spare tires coming in. The Soyuz is notorious for rough landings and that’s actually independent of whether you do a ballistic entry or not. There’s always going to be that big thump at the end and that’s a characteristic of having the spacecraft land on the land via a parachute. We had our big thump at the end and there was sufficient crosswind that after the big thump, we went roll, roll, roll, roll and we ended up about a hundred feet from where we landed on our side and I was the equivalent of being strapped in a chair on the ceiling.

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

It’s a construction flight for space station. Space station is still a construction zone. Some of the construction flights put external truss segments and things like that where station looks dramatically different after the flight than before the flight. We’re outfitting things on the inside of space station so after we come and go you will not be able to see any changes on space station from the outside. However, there will be significant changes on the inside in terms of station capability. It’s a bit like when a house is built. A framing crew will come and in 10 days the basic layout of the house is done. From somebody looking streetside it looks like it’s finished, but it will take another two months for the plumbers and the electrician and sheet rockers and the cabinet makers to outfit the house with all the finished carpentry. So what we are doing to space station is more like finished carpentry.

What will be your job during the mission?

I have two main duties. I’m doing a lot of the internal construction work and then I’m also flying the space station arm for the two EVAs and transferring this pressurized module that we’re using to carry up supplies with.

One of the elements that you’ll be taking up is the Multipurpose Logistics Module. Tell me what that is and what it will contain.

This module is sort of like a transportainer that you see being loaded on ships. It’s something that we fill with cargo, about 12 metric tons or 27,000 pounds and it’s pressurized so that it protects the cargo from the vacuum of space and from the temperature extremes of space and it allows us to transfer this cargo in a pressurized manner to space station so we can use it on the inside of space station. And some of the cargo that we’re bringing up this time -- we’re bringing up re-supply items for the crew, food, clothing, that sort of thing, as well as new science racks and equipment to be used on space station to support a six person crew. We’re taking a new toilet. We’re taking regenerative life support. We’re taking a new galley. We’re taking sleeping quarters, finished carpentry type work to outfit a space station that’s still under construction.

You talked about something called the Environmental Control and Life Support System. You’ll be delivering that as well. What’s involved in installing and activating that system and what will this enable the station [to] evolve to? Tell us what it is and what it does.

This all falls under the realm of regenerative life support which is a fancy term which I like to call it ‘the coffeemaker’. And what this equipment does is it turns yesterday’s coffee into today’s coffee and then, it turn, it makes today’s coffee into tomorrow’s coffee. It’s one of these great circle of life kinds of things.

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STS-126 Mission Specialist Donald Pettit trains for his mission in a training version of the launch and entry suit at Johnson Space Senter. Photo Credit: NASA

In addition to delivering all this equipment to the station, you’ll be delivering a new crew member to the station and that’s Sandy Magnus. Tell us about that.

I have a little compassion for that because that’s how I first went to the space station on 113 as a member of Expedition 6. The whole crew flew up on the space shuttle and then were transferred to space station. So it’s one method of rotating crews on and off of space station using the shuttle and then the other method is using the Soyuz vehicle.

How does it feel knowing this mission is setting the stage for a six-person crew? Why is that important?

It’s important, particularly from a regenerative life support equipment point of view, to take care of human beings for long periods of time in space, something that we haven’t been able to do. If we ever want to venture away from planet Earth, we will need to know how to make robust life support and this is the first stage in that, moving the crew from three people to six people and learning how to make life support equipment that doesn’t need a continuous flow of spare parts. And once we’re smart enough to do that, then we can think about going away from planet Earth for long periods of time.

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

I think that almost any engineering endeavor that human beings do that really pushes the forefront of our technology takes a canonical 10 years to complete. If you look, for example, at the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. It took 10 years to do. It was behind schedule. It was over budget. It had a scandal or two thrown in there. They had to learn about new things called Casing’s Disease which is really exposure to the bends and had to figure all of this stuff out in the process of making this huge suspension bridge. And building space station is fraught with the same kinds of perils as any of these major engineering projects and to see them take 10 years to complete is not unexpected and the amazing thing is how short people's memories are. A few years after the Brooklyn Bridge was built, people no longer thought about all the trials it took to build it. They were just thinking, “What a marvelous engineering structure this is!” And I think the same thing will happen with space station.

Along those lines, what do you think this station means to our world now and to future space flight?

Well, it’s a first step, moving away from the planet in a significant way. It’s not flags and footprints. It’s moving out beyond Earth into low earth orbit and from there learning how to do that and going beyond earth and going off to other places in our solar system.

What was your favorite subject in school?

Oh, I have to say subjects, plural. Math and science had to be my favorite subjects.

Why is that?

Well, it’s like asking what’s your favorite color. Why is blue your favorite color and not green or red? It’s just I’m fascinated by science. I see math as a tool that helps you explore the science and explain things and perhaps it all boils down to curiosity and wanting to explore the world around us and figure out how it all works.

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

Probably more the mentors that have been in my life from high school chemistry teachers to some of my college professors, post graduate college professors and, of course, my parents who were central in working a kid into an adult.

Speaking of kids, if you had a message for today’s youth, what message would that be?

I like to tell kids that your education is the key for doing everything cool in life.