Preflight Interview: Dave Wolf, Mission Specialist
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Dave Wolf, STS-127 mission specialist, participates in a training session in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is STS-127 interview with Mission Specialist Dave Wolf. Dave, this year marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the first human steps on the moon. Can you give us a sense of how that historic event impacted you on a personal level and may have influenced your decision to become an astronaut?

The early space program, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, influenced me like it did all the people in our society and inspired all the young people. I saw them do that. I saw Ed White do the first U.S. spacewalk from a Gemini capsule and I said, “I know I could do that.”

It made me work harder in school. It gave me a vision. It inspired me just as it did everybody else.

Tell me a little bit about the place that you consider your hometown and what it was like growing up there.

I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was in a country area. The neighbors had horses. We played in barns and walked to school, typically. I lived on a dirt road much of my life and enjoyed it very much.

How did that place influence who you’ve become and what you’ve accomplished?

In those days in Indianapolis when I grew up on a gravel road and they eventually paved it, the kids would go out and play until and after dark. We didn’t want to come home. There were no computers. There were no cell phones. Many of the things that seem to distract us now, so it, those were different times that we all look back at with a real fondness.

Could you recount for us the professional and educational steps that you took to become an astronaut eventually?

I remember when my father went to medical school. He did it rather late in his life. I used to actually help him study and that inspired me to go into medicine, but first I became an electrical engineer, ended up combining the two careers at NASA eventually as an electrical engineer, a biomedical engineer, if you will, flew several payloads that I was, I and our team was responsible for building. And, in fact, I flew with several of those payloads eventually later as an astronaut. It was, it’s an interesting full circle to have been both on the development and then on the flight crew side. I studied medicine and did an internship in eventually aerospace medicine in the Air Force International Guard as a Flight Surgeon and ended up applying this as a bioengineer at NASA to biomedical research projects. We found that we could use zero gravity in very unique ways to improve various technologies on, that we use on earth such as tissue engineering. We found ways to assemble human tissues in three dimensions, laying some of the groundwork being used today for the emerging field of stem cells and tissue engineering.

You touched on education a little bit earlier, what we were talking about. Who or what was it that helped you realize the value of education in life?

Like so many young people we’re so influenced by our parents and our teachers and our friends and it was a combination of all these that inspired me. You know, my father in medical school, when I watched him doing that, I had some older kids in the neighborhood that were in college that talked to me about that. And, of course, I had some wonderful teachers. Particularly I remember a physics teacher in high school that just kind of turned me on to studying math in a way that was useful and I could see the purpose. Went on to college at Purdue University in electrical engineering and had my eyes opened to how things work in the world.

What would you say that we need to do to inspire more young adults to think more about space exploration and want to come this way?

The key to inspiration and motivation is interest. When young people see something they would like to do, as many of us in the astronaut corps or NASA in general, myself seeing, for example, Ed White do the first spacewalk, thirty years later doing my own first spacewalk. When they see something they go, “I can do that.” They’re interested in it. They see the benefits of it to the Earth. This makes them work very hard, harder than they would just for the pure, to study and get good grades, you might say. NASA has a unique way of really eliciting that motivation.

What experiences do you remember the most about either of your previous spaceflights and tell us some things that stick in your mind maybe.

There’s several things that stick out in all astronauts’ mind from spaceflight. Of course, the launch and the entry are exciting dynamic phases of flight. The first look at the Earth through a window from the distance where you see a large amount of the Earth and see the dimensionality of the Earth and you see the finite quality of the Earth. This always strikes astronauts and then, of course, doing spacewalks. The first time you clip a tether on outside and step out and you float free with this panoramic view and you become part of space, that just really has a strong impact on any person.

What was the mission on Mir like? What was it like being part of that, this whole international thing?

Long duration spaceflight has its own quality. The attitude I took was, “I will move to space, in this case the Russian Mir space station, and someday I’ll move back to Earth.” And it’s a very interesting space to go to in your mind where you now live in space and zero gravity is your normal environment and the unusual, abnormal environment is where things fall and you have to, and you’re restricted to the floor. So I really enjoyed kind of cutting the cord to Earth and living on a spacecraft.

You’ve been working with your current crewmates for a bit training for this mission. What’s that been like, getting to develop the relationships and to know these people? What’s that been like? A space crew is a tight group of people. We work hard together. We spend a lot of time together. We learn a lot about each other so it’s a rare closeness. But we have an interesting mix, a wide range of experiences, quite a few rookies on this flight. Those of us who are more experienced really get a pleasure, we enjoy sharing our experience with the rookies, watching them grow and to us, we’d like to shove them forward. What we hope is anyone who brushes up against us will feel themselves propelled forward and be more valuable to NASA in the long run.

There are thousands of people who work behind the scenes on this mission and for every space mission to make it a success and to make it safe. What’s it like when you get to meet those people and get a chance to visit with them?

We feel like the thousands of people behind the scenes that we know are responsible for these flights are there with us on the flight. In fact, when we’re doing activities, spacewalks, for example, installing a large communications system outside, I’m thinking of those people who built that system and we talked to on the ground. They taught us how to do the work we’re doing and I feel comforted that I know that they’re watching and if I ask a question, very quickly they’ll be consulted and the answer will come back. That’s the kind of team we create. There’s no other team outside of NASA that brings so many people with so much knowledge together into this operational work.

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Dave Wolf, STS-127 mission specialist, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

And with the help of those people you guys are about to go to space to do this mission. Can you give us an overview of what the key objectives of this mission are, STS-127?

STS-127 to the International Space Station has an array of objectives. We are the really the last major assembly mission to the space station. There will be some follow-on shuttle missions to get it ready to exist without the space shuttle so assembly of several Japanese components of the space station. We will be putting several large, we call them ORU, Orbital Replacement Units, large boxes of equipment to be spares for future use outside of the space station. We will be changing the batteries on the P-6 solar array, six large batteries that each weigh around 300, 350 pounds, the size of small refrigerators. That’s the oldest solar array system on the space station so we’ll rejuvenate that solar array system. We’ll have several experiments inside the vehicle. It’s heavy on spacewalks and robotics and we’ll be doing a fair amount of re-supply inside the space station, so there’s a broad mix of activities.

Can you give us your best description of the primary piece of hardware that you’re going to deliver to the station, the Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility, or JEF, as it’s more commonly called?

The Japanese Exposed Facility, or “Jeff” as we tend to call it, is very impressive. It’s a large external porch to the space station where high quality experiments can be conducted in high vacuum of space. It’s really an exceptionally valuable piece of real estate being produced in outer space. It has its own robotic arms, the ability to do observations of the Earth and of the sky, astrophysics experiments, a very wide range of abilities.

The term ‘space management’ takes on a whole new meaning on this mission. The station crew will have increased from three to six by the time you get there so that means that at any given time, including the seven astronauts you’re bringing, thirteen people will have to operate in that space at any given time. What’s that going to be like?

We’re kind of having a population explosion in space, you know, with the thirteen or so people will be up there. That will be interesting. I’ve been up there before with, I think, eleven people at once but just for a few days. So we’re going to have to learn to operate and keep all that organized and these are busy schedules with a lot of activity going on, so it’s important that we learn how to handle that, manage it.

On Flight Day 1, you’ll launch on board Endeavour and start configuring your systems for your stay in space. Then on Flight Day 2, the crew will be busy with some other activities. Tell me what you’re going to be involved with on Flight Day 2.

Flight Day 2, we’ve already converted the shuttle from an ascent vehicle into an orbiting vehicle. The EV, or extravehicular crew, the spacewalk crew will be focused on getting their equipment and gear assembled, the spacesuits and associated tools and hardware to conduct these five spacewalks, organized and ready to bring over after docking on Day 3, the next day.

And that next day, rendezvous and docking, it’s going to be a very busy day for both the crew on Endeavour and the crew on station as Endeavour approaches. Tell me about some of the activities that go on there, and what you’re going to be involved with on that day.

Rendezvous and docking are complex in themselves, as two spacecraft going almost 18,000 miles an hour will rendezvous and join up. Right after docking we’ll equalize the pressure, open the hatches and we will bring all this spacewalk gear across into the space station because that evening, the two of us going out the next morning, Tim Kopra and myself, on the first spacewalk of the mission on Day 4, have to get into an airlock, lower the pressure and sleep in a reduced pressure that night to be ready to do the spacewalks. We have to wash the nitrogen out of our blood. So we kind of have a hard deadline at the end of Day 3. We’ve got to be in an airlock with the pressure decreased so that we can get out on time on Day 4.

On Day 4, as you mentioned, it’s all hands on deck for the first of five scheduled spacewalks. Tell me what you and Tim Kopra will do once you go out the hatch.

The time critical task that Tim and I will do on the first spacewalk of the mission, Day 4, is to get that exposed facility, the Japanese “Jeff” exposed facility, ready to be unberthed robotically out of the payload bay. This is a choreography between the spacewalk crew, ‘course the ground and the robotics arm operators. We have several tasks, that reconfigure cabling and power out, in the space shuttle payload bay, so that it is able to be raised out and then attached to the space station. We’re also standing by in case there’s several, any of a group of problems that could occur attaching “Jeff” to the Japanese module. In between there we’ll be doing a wide range of tasks over on the space station while the robotics is carrying this “Jeff” facility from the shuttle to the space station.

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Dave Wolf, STS-127 mission specialist, awaits the start of a training session at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Flight Day 5 is potentially going to be loaded with dual robotic operations one of which involves pulling the carrier out of Endeavour’s payload bay. Can you tell me about that carrier, what it’s called and, and tell me about the payloads that are attached to it?

The carrier, one of the carriers that will go up in the payload bay is called a Vertical Cargo Carrier. It has some of the big equipment we’ll use during the spacewalks. On one side of the cargo carrier are the three ORUs, Orbital Replacement Units, that we will transfer to the external stowage platform 3 on the station. That, those boxes will be what we access the next day, on Day 6, Spacewalk Number 2. So that carrier will be pulled out and put in position so that we can access those three very large, some weigh thousands of pounds, boxes. The other side of that carrier has batteries on it that will replace the six batteries on the P-6 solar array. Those will be used on Spacewalk Number 3. So that carrier will be moved later, further out robotically. It’s a very interesting choreography of spacewalks and robotics and intravehicular activities. The three large payloads or ORUs, Orbital Replacement Units, that we will be transferring from the Vertical Cargo Carrier to the External Stowage Platform 3 on Spacewalk Number 2 are the LDU, Linear Drive Unit, SGANT antenna – Space to Ground Antenna, and the pump, a pump module weighing thousands of pounds. These are three critical spares, we call them, which should they fail, the current units on the space station, it would lose serious redundancy or even lose the space station eventually. So restocking the space station with these very critical components is essential to the space station’s life and productivity on past shuttle retirement.

On Flight Day 6, that’s the second spacewalk of the mission, this time you’re out with Tom Marshburn. Tell me what EVA 2 is all about.

On EVA 2 we will be moving three boxes, Space to Ground Antenna, a pump module and a linear drive unit. These are critical spares to survival of the space station in the years past shuttle retirement. Some of these weigh thousands of pounds. In the case of the Space to Ground Antenna, it has a very delicate, large antenna. I’ll be holding this box through a very large maneuver and as we bring it in to the stowage platform, part of the structure of the stowage platform will actually come within an inch or so of this delicate antenna, so Tom and I will be manipulating this box slowly down, kind of holding our breath. And I can tell you after we get that locked into place and didn’t damage that antenna, I’m going to be breathing a lot easier.

There’s some more robotic arm operations scheduled for Flight Day 7 with the temporary installation of another piece of JAXA [hardware] called the Japanese Logistics Module Exposed Section, or JLE. Tell me about the JLE and the payloads that are, that it contains.

The JLE, it represents really the first real use of the “Jeff”, Japanese Experiment Facility. It has three payloads that will be moved from the logistics platform to the actually functional Japanese facility. They can include astrophysics, micro-gravity research and high vacuum research. It’s the beginning of the real use of the Japanese facility for the intended purpose, doing the kind of research that can’t be done on Earth.

Okay. Moving along, another EVA on Flight Day 8, the third scheduled spacewalk of the mission. This time it’s you and Chris Cassidy. What happens on EVA 3?

EVA 3 brings its own challenges. Chris, Navy Seal, he and I will go out several hundred feet, multiple tether lengths out. There’s no way to get back quick. We’ll, the robot arm will place these large solar array batteries out, reasonably near where they will be installed, but we’ll be handling these heavy batteries, each the size of a small refrigerator, each with rows of delicate cooling fins on the back. And we will pull those out of the Vertical Cargo Carrier, hand them back and forth ‘til we get them in position and very delicate, make those fins, with the opposing fins on the space station, those are cooling fins so those batteries won’t overheat in use. We’ll do four of those batteries on EVA 3. We’ll do two more EVA 4 and we consider this one of the highest critical pieces of work to do on this mission.

There’s a little bit more happening on EVA 3 that we want to talk about. Tell me a little bit more about some of the…

Okay. For example, on EVA 3 the space station is now so big we can’t fit in our training Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, the water that we do our training in for spacewalks, space station’s just too big. The robot arm, for example, would be going way up out of the water and there’s just no pool big enough. So we do part of the training in virtual reality. We do part of it in the pool. We do part of it in our minds, in table talk. The first time all these pieces will come together is in this flight. There’s no way to integrate and get complete training. So we’ve done our best to think of all the things that could happen, but this is going to be exciting. It’s just more complexity and size than can be fully simulated on the ground any more.

A bit of a break on Flight Day 9 for the shuttle crew. Then on Flight Day 10 you’re back at it with another spacewalk, EVA 4. Is it just a mirror image of EVA 3, or is there some difference there?

You know, there are some similarities between EVA 4 now and EVA 3 in that we’re doing batteries. We’re also doing some camera work that is similar to EVA 2, but each spacewalk brings its own challenges. One interesting thing is that two of our rookies for the mission will be going out on these spacewalks as they will on the 5th spacewalk, so they will come all the way from rookie to EV1 Lead Spacewalker here in the course of one mission. That’s a pretty big step. Also even for this task that might be batteries, several batteries, the geometry keeps changing and the challenges of the arm and the reaching the cargo carrier to the right positions and handing off these batteries, the problem keeps changing as we go. We need to be adaptable and, again, we can’t fully emulate that in any facility on the Earth. So we train now to be adaptable. We use basics, we train certain skills because we can’t train the exact specific task as we’ll be doing it. There’s no possible way.

Flight Day 12, 5th and final EVA scheduled. Tell us about what Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn will be doing on EVA 5.

EVA 5, as it’s scheduled today is going back out to the Japanese Experiment Facility and completing its outfitting, getting all the various pumps and coolant lines and equipment ready to operate. A lot of it is removing multi-layer insulation covers getting them into a configuration for the long run. Now we’re doing five spacewalks on this mission and, as you know, things that don’t happen as expected tend to pile up as we go so we’ve left some room to adapt in Spacewalk Number 5 so we would be able to digest changes as they come along in real time.

You mentioned as it stands today. Is there some reworking going on with that EVA?

Even today, what are we, three or so months before flight? There’s discussion almost every day about the changes that could occur on the various spacewalks so with this many spacewalks in particular, it’s essential that we leave some room for adaptability. EVA 5 will give us a lot of that. Also the way we train is to be able to handle late changes, understand the fundamental skills and to go, be able to go out there and execute the first time.

Forty years after Apollo 11 and the first human steps on the moon the space community is in the midst of refocusing efforts with a planned trip, return to the moon and eventually on to Mars. How would you say the lessons of Apollo will play into that and the impact it had on humanity, and how will that then inspire us as we head toward that new target?

Human destiny is in space. We’re inspired by it. We’re drawn to it. The early space program, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, laid the basis. Look at where we’ve come, space station, space shuttles. Different countries have approached it different ways which turn out to be very complementary. We’re now drawing upon all this capability, the scientific data base, the engineering data base, the practical and empirical data that we’ve gotten from operating space craft, to design our future back to the moon, on to Mars, even further. The human spirit is to explore. Without that, it would just be a sign of a decadent society. So we are bringing, using all the knowledge we’ve got to design our further exploration program.