Preflight Interview: Patrick Forrester, Mission Specialist
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Astronaut Patrick Forrester, STS-128 mission specialist, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-128 interview with Pat Forrester, Mission Specialist on the flight. Pat, could you tell me about the place that you consider your hometown and tell me what it was like growing up there. You actually traveled around a bit as a kid.

I did. My father was in the military, thirty years in the Army, and so we did move around quite a bit. I was born in El Paso, Texas, and we lived there for a while both on base and off base before moving on with my dad’s career. I kind of consider Springfield, Virginia, as my hometown. I moved there when I was in third grade and did not leave until I graduated from high school so through those formative years and through my high school education, Springfield, Virginia, was home.

Can you recall what some of the things were that you liked to do? What were you interested as a kid and in your growing years?

Probably the things that I remember most, I enjoyed camping, being outside, even to the point where I would camp out in my backyard at the house whenever my parents would let me. And also I enjoyed taking things apart and fixing them and any time they would give me something in the house that I could take apart and work on and put back together, that’s the things that I remember and enjoyed doing the most.

That shows a lot of trust in you to…

Well, usually the things they would give me weren’t working, you know, but every now and then they’d give me something that was working.

Do you have a sense of how Springfield maybe influenced the person that you’ve become?

Well, I think a few things stand out in my mind. I grew up in Fairfax County, was the county we were in and at the time it was probably one of the top school districts in the nation. I believe I got a good education there. Also I think living in the shadow of the nation’s capital, we would enjoy going into the city and grew up looking at the monuments and understanding the history and I think there’s a lot of history for our nation, the founding fathers and president there in Virginia and growing up in Virginia history I think gave me a sense of country and a sense of duty.

At what point do you recall getting the notion that, you know, “Hey, it might be nice to shoot for being an astronaut or, you know, to go to space or work in the space program”?

I was fairly old. I knew early on that I wanted to be in the military, that I wanted to go into the Army and so I went to the military academy at West Point like my father had done and I knew that coming out of the military academy I just wanted to be a lieutenant in infantry, air borne ranger and that’s what I did and shortly after that had the opportunity to go to flight school and start my flight training. And I was a captain, a pilot in the Army stationed in Hawaii when I first read an article about Bob Stewart, the first Army astronaut, and it was then that I realized that, “Hey, I could do the two things I really love. I love to fly and be in the Army and also, maybe, do something like be an astronaut” and it was there that I started to apply and prepare myself.

Can you tell us what or who helped you realize the value of education in life?

I’ve gotten that question before and I have never been able to pinpoint a certain teacher that had an influence on my life and when I really think about that, I think that says a lot just about our educational system. Once again I was not one that knew I wanted to be an astronaut at a young age, really as a young man in high school didn’t have much focus, wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. And when I finally realized what it was that I wanted to do, this dream of being an astronaut to be able to look back and realize that I had been prepared in my education to do that I think says a lot about the system that I grew up with and in this case it was in Virginia, in Fairfax County schools and I think that says just a lot about the teachers that were in place and the system that was in place that allowed me at that point to move on with what I wanted and it was no lost time. And so I, when I look back, I realize it was just the education system in general and that we need to continue to look at those students that maybe don’t show any interest in a certain direction or maybe we don’t even think show promise because they don’t know what it is that they want to do. And we don’t want to lose them. We want to capture them so that one day, when they do wake up and say, “Hey, this is what I want to do” that the opportunity is there for them.

You came to NASA but you didn’t immediately become, you weren’t immediately an astronaut. Tell us about what you did when you came to NASA.

I was still an active duty Army Major at the time and was very interested in the astronaut program. I had applied a couple of times and had not been selected and then I was offered the opportunity to come and work for the astronaut office. I came as an aerospace engineer and spent three years in that role working with the folks in the office. That even helped me more decide that this is what I wanted to do and no matter what it would take.

What would you say we need to do to get more young adults interested in space, not that many aren’t now, but even more? I mean, what could we do to put it out there more?

Well, I know that that is a challenge that NASA has and something that they try and do. Of course, whenever we have the opportunity we go into schools and talk about what we do, but we’re just such a small part of what NASA is about and so it’s important I think to let them know that there are so many opportunities in NASA other than say being an astronaut. To be in Mission Control, to be a Flight Director or a Flight Controller, to be a Trainer, to, if you have skills where you just enjoy building to help with the mockups and the trainers and accounting, business, there’s just so much out there that, first of all, I think to let people know that there are opportunities out there. But I think it’s just something that has to come to an individual like it did for me and as long as we continue to stress education, that once they decide that that’s what they want to do, those opportunities are there for them.

You’ve flown twice before to space, incidentally both times with Commander C.J. Sturckow, STS-105 and STS-117. What, are there experiences that stick out in your mind that you’ll never forget about either of your previous spaceflights?

There are. Of course, every spaceflight is special and in this case I have flown with Rick. This’ll be my third time and there’s really nobody I’d rather fly with. He’s a great commander. Some of the benefits of being with him again, I know what he expects and hopefully he knows what he can expect out of me. One of the things I remember right after being assigned to STS-105 was Rick Sturckow pulled me aside. I was the only one on the crew that had not flown in space, the only rookie, and he let me know right away that I wouldn’t be treated any differently because I hadn’t flown in space, that I would be expected to handle responsibility. We were a crew of four at the time. We were taking up Expedition 3 and bringing back Expedition 2 and so the four of us were handling all the rest of the details on Discovery to include two spacewalks and an MPLM. And so I had been the only rookie on his flight and it was important to him to let me know that I would be treated just like the rest of them and he saw to that. And I remember how much that meant to me at the time, that he would even, that that would be important to him. It was a great crew, obviously my first crew and I have enjoyed keeping in touch with both Scott Horowitz and Dan Barry. To be reassigned again for the third time with Rick allows me to know exactly what is expected of me. Hopefully he knows what he can expect from me and there’s nobody I’d rather fly with.

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Astronaut Patrick Forrester, STS-128 mission specialist, is pictured during a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

And you’ve talked about Rick Sturckow, C.J. What about the rest of the crew? What’s it been like training with the rest of this crew? Each crew is different and everybody gels together differently. What’s it been like with this crew?

I tell you what, every time I’ve been on a crew I’ve thought it couldn’t get any better and it just continues to amaze me the people that we have in the office. This has been a fun crew to be with. We started out in the beginning of our training on what we call a NOLS Trip, a National Outdoor Leadership School. We went down into Baja, and it was there that we really learned to work together and saw some of the skills that each of us had and those have really carried over into training. It’s always fun when you do have some new people, those that have not flown just as they’re going through their training and we look forward to seeing the expressions on their face and how they adjust to spaceflight. It’s a real pleasure to have each one of them with the different backgrounds and skills that they bring.

There are thousands of people that work behind the scenes to ensure the success of every mission and the crew’s safety. When you get a chance to meet these people during your travels for training, what’s it like to talk with them and what kind of things do you talk about?

Well, it’s always fun to get to meet the people, especially the times when you’re there and you realize, “Oh, this is the person that put this hardware together, or this is the person that came up with the design for this particular experiment.” Obviously we work here at JSC on a daily basis with our trainers and their dedication is really unparalleled. We have long hours sometimes, and it’s easy to think, “Hey, I need a break” and then I always remember that those people behind the scenes are in there before we get there and then they’re there after we leave and they do it day after day without the benefit of getting the opportunity to go to space. So as far as our trainers here and those that run the mockups and behind the scenes, we always appreciate them and we get to see them on the daily basis. As we travel to other centers it reminds us that even though we live in Houston and work at JSC that it’s a combined effort from all the centers to put humans in space and so we just appreciate what everyone does.

You’ve, you’ve gone out on four spacewalks in the past, nothing like the first one, I imagine. Tell us about that.

Well, you know, each one of those spacewalks is special. It’s different. One of the things that I remember from each one of them is the partner that you go out with and how much you depend on them for your own success and for your own safety. The very first spacewalk that I did was with Dr. Dan Barry on STS-105 and we did both of those spacewalks out of the shuttle airlock and so the first time out you’re in the enclosure of the payload bay of the shuttle and so there’s still a sense of safety as you go out and a sense of familiar surroundings before you pop your head up over and have your first view of Earth. I remember almost more before I went out. Some of the comments that folks would come up with is, “You’ve trained a lot but you’re still a little bit of nervousness as you’re preparing to go out” and at the time Yury Usachev, who was the commander of Expedition 2, floated over and said his good-byes to me before we closed the hatch and had some real encouraging words and then just having our own team on board gave me a lot of confidence as I went out. But it’s just a spectacular thing. The view of Earth, the feeling that you are out there as your own, kind of your own spaceship, I experienced the sensation of falling, some people have it, some don’t. But I remember thinking also how well trained I was once I was out there.

And for this mission you’ll be on the inside during the EVAs as the Procedures IVA, Intravehicular Activities member. You’ll kind of be the third EVA crew person up there. What, how does your experience help the guys that are going to be on the outside?

Well, I think there’s a couple ways that it helps. First of all, to have been there, to know what they’re feeling and what they’re going through always helps. That would be in any situation whether we’re talking about an EVA or we’re talking about coaching a little league team. I do believe that because I have experience in the suit, I know some of the limitations that they have because of the suit, the speeds at which they can translate, the things that they can reach. Part of the training that I went through even as IV for this mission was to get in the suit and run through the tasks that they are going to do so I’m familiar with the work sites. Station has gotten so big and these EVA crew members are moving along different areas of it that we don’t always have views of them. We can’t always either see them out the window or have a camera on them, that to be familiar with the exterior of the station, personally having been out there, helps me to visualize where they’re at and the body positions that they might be in. So I think it’s always valuable when you can have somebody that has EVA experience on the inside now helping them.

STS-128 is a mission of great importance. Give us some of what the key objectives of this mission are.

Well, one of our top objectives is to take Nicole Stott up there to join the Expedition crew and to bring back Tim Kopra, so to exchange those long duration crew members is our top objective. We are also carrying an MPLM up there, Leonardo, where we’ll have on it supplies that will help maintain the six-person crew that we just established, just in the last week or two. And so it’s important that we get that on board and that we get the supplies there and then that we were going to bring some supplies home in that MPLM. We also have the three EVAs planned in which we’ll outfit this station with a new Ammonia Tank Assembly and exchange some experiments that are up there right now.

This will be the final time that a shuttle is used to rotate an Expedition crew member, a station crew member. It’s kind of an end of an era. What are your thoughts about that and your feelings about that?

Well I’ve been fortunate that all three missions we have exchanged crew members with the folks on station. On 105, of course, the Expedition 2 and 3 crews, on STS-117, at the last minute, a change; we ended up taking up Clay Anderson and bringing back Suni Williams and that ended up being one of the highlights of that mission to me. To go up there to the space station is pretty phenomenal to start with and to open the hatch and see folks from your office that you’ve trained with and that you work with that have been living in space for a long period of time is pretty unique. Just to see the excitement on Suni’s face and to add her to our crew and bring her home was, like I said, a highlight. She added a lot to that and so it’s been fun again with Nicole as we train with her and see her prepare for her long duration flight and get ready to bring home Tim. Tim’s a good friend, a fellow Army officer. We’ve known each other for years and so it’s special also in, with my military background to be up there again with another Army officer. We ended up bringing Jim Voss, an Army colonel, home on STS-105.

You’ve touched on the MPLM, the Multi Purpose Logistics Module. Just for people who may not be familiar with it, what it is, how it looks, can you just kind of give us a description of what it looks like?

Well, it looks like a giant canister from the outside. I like to think of it almost like a moving van. We’re bringing supplies up to their home, the space station, and we’ll bring supplies home. There’s always a challenge in that. It would be as if a moving van showed up at your house full and somehow you needed to get everything off of that into your house and then everything in your house back into that moving van and so there’s a little bit of a shell game going on. We have a tendency now to take a little more stuff up than we bring back. That’s not always been the case. But that’s what it is. It’s a moving van to get things up there and to bring things back.

You mentioned earlier about the Ammonia Tank Assembly you’re going to swap on P1. That’s going to be on a carrier in the payload bay. Tell us about that carrier in the payload bay.

The carrier is the LMC, the Lightweight Multipurpose Carrier. It is in the back of the payload bay, where the MPLM, the Multi Purpose Logistics Module, sits and it’s flight support equipment that we use to carry things up to space and we can actually bolt things back on it and bring them home. On top of the LMC will be the Ammonia Tank Assembly that I spoke of earlier and we’re going to pull an experiment off of the station, it’s called EuTEF and Nicole will hold that as she rides the robotic arm back into the payload bay and she will install that on the underside of the LMC. So it’s a piece of equipment that we use to, to bolt things to so they can sustain the launch and landing loads.

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While seated on the flight deck, astronaut Patrick Forrester, STS-128 mission specialist, participates in a post insertion/de-orbit training session in the crew compartment trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Forrester is wearing a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

Another piece of hardware you’re going to work with, you’re going to replace what’s called a Rate Gyro Assembly eventually. What is that and where is it located and what does it do?

Well, the Rate Gyro Assembly is a piece of equipment that is used in conjunction with the GPS or Global Positioning System and it helps determine the attitude of the space station.

A couple of experiments that you’ll be working with, one’s on the outside. Is the other in the inside? Is Glacier on the inside?

Yes, yes.

One’s called MISSE, the Materials on International Space Station Experiment and the other is Glacier. Tell us what those two experiments are all about.

Okay. MISSE, as you said the Materials for International Space Station Experiment is currently positioned on the Columbus module and it’s a suitcase size, there’s actually two of them, a suitcase size experiment that is unfolded almost like you would open your suitcase and inside are all types of materials, paints, metals, fabrics, these types of things. And what we’re doing is we’re exposing them to space for periods of time. They’re exposed to the atomic oxygen and we have them out toward the front of the space station so that they’re in the, what we call the RAM. The purpose of those is to bring them home and see how different materials held up in that very harsh environment, thermal and, once again, the atomic oxygen and it will help us design better spacecraft and spacesuits and other materials for space. Now this isn’t the first time we’ve flown MISSE. In fact, on STS-105 we installed a set of MISSEs out on the airlock, Dan Barry and myself, and so it’s been a series of experiments that we’ve put them out, left them up for a period of time and brought them so that we once again can determine which materials stand up best in the environment of space. Glacier is basically a refrigerator and it’s on the mid-deck and we are using it to first of all carry up some samples that will go over to the space station and into another freezer that’s called MELFI which is basically a Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for the ISS. And then, when we launch Glacier, it’s about plus four degrees Centigrade. Once we’ve taken out those experiments that we’ve kept cool on launch and moved them over to the ISS, we’ll turn the temperature down on Glacier to minus ninety-five degrees Celsius and then we’ll use it as a deep freezer to bring samples that have been taken, on station over the last increment and we’ll bring those down to the ground and give them to the researchers for them to determine whatever those experiments involved.

After launching and making it to orbit, you’ll eventually on Flight Day 2 go through the process of examining the shuttle’s exterior with the boom. Tell us about that process and what you’ll be doing during that time.

Okay. We do, like you said, do that on Flight Day 2 and that’s our opportunity to look at the leading edge of the wings, the RCC, the nosecap of the space shuttle and some of the area underneath for damage, in case we should have lost some foam or something else that impacted the shuttle. We started doing this after the Columbia accident. We did it on STS-117 on my last flight. We use the robotic arm from the shuttle along with the boom that we have now started carrying on the starboard side of the shuttle and basically we run through a series of automated sequences with that robotic arm. That data is recorded and sent to the ground where the folks down there will evaluate it to see if there is any damage. It’s a very detailed process that we go through. It’s a thorough process that we go through and we have a lot of confidence now that we can determine any damage that the shuttle might have. My role as the lead robotics person on the shuttle side is to kind of spearhead that but I’ll be doing it with Kevin Ford and Jose Hernandez and over the period of Flight Day 2 the three of us will rotate through the roles of flying the arm, doing clearance with the boom on the shuttle and also just monitoring the monitors and the tapes and the other processes that we do.

You’ll eventually get to the point to where the station is in your sights and you will approach. Tell me what you’ll be doing for rendezvous and docking.

Okay. I’m what they call the Rendezvous MS which basically means I have the procedures in my hand and I make sure that as crew, each person has specific responsibilities, I make sure that we’re following the nominal timeline. I will be on the flight deck for really the entire rendezvous. Once we dock my responsibilities change to the docking system where I’ll help back up Christer as we go through a series of latches and hooks to eventually draw the shuttle and the space station together to form a seal.

The day after docking you’ll eventually install the Multi Purpose Logistics Module. Tell us about how that happens, where it’s going to be installed on the station.

Okay. The MPLM, of course, is in the payload bay. Kevin, from the space station side using the space station robotic arm, will grapple the MPLM in the bay at which point we’ll release the latches holding it to the shuttle and then he’ll maneuver it with the space station robotic arm and attach it on Node 2.

There are three EVAs on this mission. On the first EVA Nicole Stott, who will be a station crew member at that, by that time, will go out with Danny Olivas. Tell us about what Nicole and Danny will do outside on that first EVA. What work sites will they be at and what they’ll do?

Okay. I mentioned earlier that we are going to replace an ATA, Ammonia Tank Assembly, and it’s a fairly large object that must always be controlled either by a crew member or by the arm and so, once again, it’s another one of these shell games. You have one out there that you’re holding on to and you need to replace it with another and so we’ve broken that task up over two EVAs and so on the first EVA, Nicole and Danny will move out to the work site on P1 where the current Ammonia Tank Assembly is located and they’ll remove it and stow it in the end effector, the latching end effector on the space station’s robotic arm, and there it will remain until EVA 2. Following that task they will also go out to Columbus and take care of some experiments. They’re going to remove an experiment called EuTEF, which is a European experiment, and they’re going to put that in the cargo bay on the LMC, the Lightweight Multipurpose Carrier, for its ride home to Earth. They will also bring in some of the MISSE, the Materials for International Space Station Experiments, that had been out there collecting data.

Then on EVA 2 Danny is outside again, this time with Christer Fuglesang. Talk to us about what’s going to happen then on EVA 2.

Okay. At that point we left the Ammonia Tank Assembly, the one that has been up there, the one that we want to bring home, on the robotics arm. So at this point we’ll have Danny and Christer go to the payload bay where the new Ammonia Tank Assembly is on the LMC, and they will remove that and Christer will hold on to that and they’ll fly that up to the location where they had removed the other one on P1. They’ll replace that and then, now that the LMC is open, they will then fly back with the other one and put it back on top of the carrier to bring back to Earth.

At certain times during EVAs 1 and 2 there’s going to be somewhat of a unique situation for the arm, it’s going to kind of have its hands full I guess you could say. What’s it going to be like to see that?

Well, it will be pretty unusual. We’ll have Christer on the arm holding an Ammonia Tank Assembly. We’ll also have the arm’s grapple fixture holding an Ammonia Tank Assembly and so that will be quite a sight. Also because the station has gotten so big and there’s so many modules up there, some of the routes that you fly the arm are pretty long and so, for quite a while, Christer will have a ride, maybe about forty-five minutes, on the arm as it extends to its length and circles around between the payload bay and P1. Unfortunately his view will be limited holding the Ammonia Tank Assembly with both hands but we’re going to have some great views of Christer and the two ATAs out at the end of the arm that we’ll hopefully be able to capture with the cameras.

And then for EVA 3 Christer and Danny back outside again. Tell us what’s going to happen on EVA 3.

EVA 3 is going to be an opportunity to get several tasks done that we’ve needed to do. One of the main ones are they are going to lay a set of avionics cables, two cables, out there that will help when we bring Node 3 up there. They’ll be active launch and power cables, activation cables for Node 3 which is coming up on a future mission. We’ll also do some cleanup with some other cables that are out there from an earlier flight, we call them PMA-3 heater cables. They will move what’s called a Node LAN Cable so it’s in a better configuration for Node 3. There’s several things that we want to make sure that we have clearance on as we bring Node 3 up on a future mission.

This isn’t an assembly flight technically so there’s probably the chance that the crew may have to be flexible. There may be stuff that you’re asked to do that may come up. How’s the crew with that? I mean, have you, is there stuff you’ve trained for that may be a possibility of your doing or…

I think so. This is a very flexible crew and I think all crews are now. We realize that as we come toward the end of the shuttle program and there are things that just need to be done while we’re still flying the space shuttle. We do cross train first of all amongst crew members so that we have flexibility in that area. We also do what we call contingency runs for our EVA crew members to where they’ll have looked at several different things that we are not planning to do on our mission that if for some reason Houston needs us to do, we can do it. And then inside we’re always prepared for what we call IFM, or In-Flight Maintenance, that we might not have prepared for. So I think as much as possible we are ready for anything that they might bring.

Once your work on orbit is done, you’ll close the hatches between the two spacecraft, say good-bye to the station crew, spend the night in shuttle before undocking the following day. Talk to us about what you’ll be doing during undocking.

Well, once again as the Rendezvous MS I’ll just be running the nominal procedures. I will be working with Christer again for the docking system as we unlatch and unhook from the space station. At that point, the next day, we’ll do another inspection of the space shuttle, very similar, not quite as detailed as the one we do on Flight Day 2 and I’ll be responsible for that, too.

How do you imagine space station’s importance might be characterized in humankind’s history some years from now when people routinely travel back and forth between Earth and other worlds in part because of some of the work that’s being done on space station right now?

Well, first of all I think it will always be part of our nation’s history, even for those that are not aware of what the space station is all about, even the assembly process that we’ve been through, maybe not even big space fans. There’s people that talk about now the first landing on the moon, that maybe were not even aware of it at that time. It just wasn’t in their focus. But it has become part of our nation and what makes us great and people look back at those things and I think that with the space station it will be that way, even for people right now that don’t realize it, what an accomplishment this was and maybe you almost have to see it up there to really appreciate what we’ve built in space. I think that we’ve learned things from that that we don’t even know now as we move forward with space exploration or really anything that we’re going to take lessons learned from that that are going to make us better. So I think it’s just, be part of our history, our history as a nation as an exploring nation and it’s going to prepare us for things that we don’t even know about in the future.