Of all the careers in all the world that a person could aspire to, you end up a professional space traveler. So tell me what is it that motivated you or inspired you to become an astronaut.
Preflight Interview: Nicole Stott
Well, honestly I think my initial and probably kind of the grounding motivation that I have is growing up with a father who loved to fly small airplanes: built small airplanes in our garage, and at the airport while we were growing up, and so I spent a lot of time hanging out at the local airport with him and flying with people that were there, a little small Cub and in his aerobatic airplanes, and it was just I think that was kind of the initial thing. It was there; I developed a passion for flying from what I saw in him and the passion that he had for it, and I think the one thing that he expressed to me, too, was that you need to pay attention to the things that you enjoy, and those things can be part of what you do for a living, and so that led me down the path of studying aeronautical engineering which then took me to a job at Kennedy Space Center, which was the number one place I applied for and really wanted to be there after growing up in Florida and seeing shuttles launch while I was at university, and got a job at Kennedy Space Center in shuttle operations—I mean, what cooler place could you be working—and every step of the way there I was just thrilled with the jobs I had. I’m working on a space shuttle, I’m on the runway for landing, these things, I’m in the control center where we’re launching the shuttle. I mean, it didn’t seem like it could get any cooler than that, and fortunately I had people that I considered to be mentors that I worked with there. My family did the same thing. Several of my university professors encouraged me to apply for the Astronaut Office, and honestly, up until that point I really just thought that was one of these way cool things that could never be a possibility for me. And so the confidence that I got from them encouraging me is what led me to fill out the first application and ultimately the dream comes true, but it’s been a really nice evolution, this kind of moving through the NASA jobs and shuttle operations, working here at Johnson Space Center in aircraft op[eration]s as a flight engineer on the Shuttle Training Aircraft, and then moving into the Astronaut Office with this, one day there might be this really great perk of flying in space.
Let me take [you] back to the beginning of the evolution. Tell me about Clearwater, Florida, what it was like to grow up there.
Oh, it was great. It’s a very nice beach, like a typical beach town in Florida on the west coast, so you’re at the beach in the summer time; you’re, like the weather here in Houston, you’re comfortable throughout the year, you’re outside doing stuff. I really enjoyed growing up there; look forward to going back and visiting my high school after I fly, too, and talking to them about all of it.
You have a sense of how that place and those people helped make you the person that you are?
I think so. I think because it was a comfortable place to live, a relaxed environment, because I had the time to hang out with my father at an airport where you could, I mean, if you’ve hung out with airport people before you know they’re a relaxed group of people with a lot of personality and I think that with that kind of atmosphere and then I of course had a couple of teachers from high school, a biology teacher—I never took the path of biology but she encouraged me that science and math could also be exciting things and it helped me see that so, I think it had a huge impact on kind of the path I took.
Help fill in some of the details. Tell me the thumbnail sketch, I guess, of your, your educational and your professional career.
OK. Well, let’s see. So, Clearwater High School, that’s where I graduated, 1980, and then I went on to, actually I stayed local for about a year at St. Pete[rsburg] College, where they offered this aviation administration program, and as part of that program you could get your private pilot’s license. And so I stayed and did that for about a year. It was a great program at the St. Pete/Clearwater airport, really a nice fleet of airplanes to fly, and very structured so you knew when you started and you were going to get done, which was great. And then went on to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where I studied aeronautical engineering, got a bachelor’s degree there, and then, from that point, graduated, had a job at Pratt & Whitney down in West Palm Beach working as a structural design engineer for about a year and a half on their advanced engine designs. And then while I was there I got a call from my original application to NASA at Kennedy Space Center, where they were finally off their hiring freeze and needed to pick some people up for the shuttle ops group that they were forming, where we were going to have people working actively in the orbiter processing facility and at the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] and the pad and they wanted to bring some young people in to do that, and so very fortunately got a job there. And the rest is history as far as job goes for me: I worked at KSC for about ten or eleven years in shuttle processing, did a little work for them in the station processing group, and that really was all about getting space shuttles ready to fly and getting station hardware ready to fly on the space shuttle, so…
How do you think that work experience contributed to your ultimate selection as an astronaut?
Oh, huge. I mean, it really, like I said, up until the point of starting work at Kennedy Space Center with NASA it never crossed my mind that being an astronaut was a possibility, and once I started working there and meeting the people that worked there and seeing astronauts come through and seeing what they did when they were there, working with the hardware or getting their colleagues ready to fly, it became more real to me, and then having people encourage me was, I think, the big step to actually getting here.
And now here you are with a career flying in space, which is a part of the job that we know can be dangerous. So what is it that you think that we’re getting as a result of flying people in space that makes that risk one worth taking?
I think it just comes back down to the very basic human side of it, is that there’s something about humans that allows us to process information differently, make decisions differently, change our mind and take a different path than what might have been originally planned. And I think as far as exploring and space being one of these places, you need to have that flexibility, where you’re not just stuck riding down a road and looking at something, that you have the ability to get off the path a little bit and absorb maybe lots more that’s out there than just what the original intention was. And I think that that kind of sensory thing, that thing that humans have that robots don’t allows us to have that flexibility. And I think the expression that we give with the emotional side of it, too, being able to convey to people what’s out there and what the Earth looks like from space and how we need to appreciate it more and those kinds of things, is something you can’t get any other way.
You’re a flight engineer on Expedition 20 and 21 to the International Space Station; Nicole, in a nutshell, what are the goals of the flight, and what are your main responsibilities?
Well, I think, as a crew, we’ll be continuing the final assembly of the space station, and also moving more actively into the utilization phase of station, with the science and research that’ll be going on. And for me as a flight engineer, my primary responsibility is to maintain the U.S. systems as well as the payloads that are on the U.S. side, and that also includes the Japanese Experiment Module and the Columbus experiment module. And I think one of the really cool things about Expedition 20 and 21 is that we’ll be a six-person crew on board station at that time.
Well, I was going to say, you’re arriving at the station to join a six-person crew, and it’ll continue six as you’re there; how important is it to the overall program to have achieved this milestone?
I think it’s huge; I think it’s a really exciting time not only for the space station program but also for just figuring out how to better live and work in space. And that will of course help us with our operations on board space station, but I kind of look at it as developing the techniques and processes and the way we work together for going back to the moon and living and working there, and then hopefully one day moving on to Mars.
For you this is your first trip to space; what are you most looking forward to about getting to spend three months off of the planet?
Well, I think and this will happen while I’m still on the space shuttle, but I think that those first views back at our planet are just going to be, just so impressive, and then the ability then to be living and working for three to four months on the space station, and have the opportunity every day to just keep looking back at that, I think is just going to be just really amazing. And that kind of expands the opportunity to be able to share it with my friends and family at home as well as the science and stuff that’s going to be going on station, sharing that and what’s happening on board station, with them and then with anyone else who’s willing to listen about it. I think it’ll be really, really fun.
All right, let’s talk about that shuttle flight. STS-128 is the one that will bring you to the International …
…Space Station; tell me about the goals of that joint operation, and the new hardware that’s going to be delivered.
OK. Well, not to speak selfishly or anything, but one of the primary goals is a crew rotation, which means they’ll be bringing me to space station for my long-duration mission, and then taking Tim Kopra home after his mission. And we’re called ShRECs, or shuttle rotating expedition crew members, and what’s kind of fun for me is that I’ll be going up on a shuttle and coming back on a shuttle, and it’ll be the last time that we do that on the space shuttle, to bring a crew member to and from station. The other primary goals that we have are the delivery of a logistics module, or something we call an MPLM [multipurpose logistics module], that comes up in the space shuttle, and there’ll be about, I think about 18,000 pounds of equipment—that includes some more new equipment for sustaining the six-person crew on board, we’ll have a new treadmill, we’ll have another crew quarters to bring up, and I believe we have a couple new environmental control system racks that will help with maintaining the station systems on board. And that’s just going to be really exciting, and then in addition to that we have three EVAs that will continue the final assembly of station: we’ll be removing and replacing an ammonia tank as well as removing two large external payloads that have been outside the station and bringing those back on the space shuttle to Earth.
Now, the point that you’ve not mentioned is the fact that you get to make one of those spacewalks, as well. Tell me about what you and Danny Olivas are going to do during your EVA.
Yes, I do, I have the opportunity to go out with Danny on EVA 1, and our primary task is going to be the removal of this large ammonia tank from the truss structure on space station, and we’ll be taking that back to the payload bay and then on EVA 2 Christer [Fuglesang] and Danny will be installing the new ammonia tank on station. In addition to that, we will be pulling off these two large external payloads that are out at the end of the Columbus module. They’re both European payloads; they’re materials science research where we’ve exposed certain things to the space environment, and now we’re going to take those, put them back in the space shuttle and bring them back to the scientists so that they can learn all that they can from those payloads having been out in space.
That sounds like that will probably be a lot of fun to crawl out on the edges and…the top of the space station.
Yeah, I think it’s going to be really exciting. And one of the things, when we move the EuTEF [European Technology Exposure Facility], or this European payload, from the end of the Columbus module to the space shuttle, back to the space shuttle, I’m going to get a really nice ride on the end of that arm, of the big station arm; Kevin Ford’s going to be flying me over from the station over to the payload bay, so I’m really looking forward to that. It should be about 20 minutes of getting some really amazing views of the payload that’ll be in front of me, but through my arms I think I’ll get some nice views back to station and to the planet, so…
Of course, this is the first spacewalk of your career; have you gotten advice from your astronaut colleagues about what it’s like working outside while you’re your own little spacecraft?
I have, and I think that’s a really cool way to think of it, as being out there as your own spacecraft, ’cause you really are: you have all the life support is there, everything you need to survive out in the vacuum of space, and I’ve spoken to a number of people who have done this before and they’ve all given me some really great advice. I think one of the main things that comes across from everybody is just how different…well, I guess the differences and the similarities to what we do with our training in the big pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, things like moving, getting yourself moving in this big spacecraft, or spacesuit, is going to be much easier than it is here on Earth in the pool, but getting yourself stopped once you are moving, could be a little bit harder. And then, and everybody has mentioned to me, how overwhelmed you are at first by the, and I guess surprised, by the beauty of the station itself and that view we keep talking about, back to Earth, so…really looking forward to it.
For a pilot, it must be it’s a different kind of flying…
It’s a different kind of flying ’cause you’re just using your hands to move yourself around, but it does the job, so…
Less than a month after you arrive at the station, the station’s expecting to receive a brand new cargo vehicle, the H-II Transfer Vehicle. Talk about this first of its kind Japanese spacecraft and what it’s going to add to the space station.
Well, it’s the H-II Transfer Vehicle—we call it the HTV, of course, ’cause we need an acronym for everything—and it’s a Japanese-built, unmanned cargo vehicle, and like the Progress, the Russian Progress, and the European ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], it will be another means for us to get cargo to the space station, and also for us to get rid of trash from the space station when those vehicles leave. This is pretty exciting for me ’cause it’s different to those vehicles in that it’s going to require us to actually go out there with the big robotic arm and grab it once it’s flying alongside station; we’ll have some pretty significant robotic tasks involved with that, so…
In comparison to those other two, is it bigger, smaller in terms of the amount of cargo it can deliver?
It’s on par with the size of the European ATV, but the difference in it is that both the Russian Progress and the European ATV automatically fly to the station and then automatically dock with the station, so they join up and mate to the station on their own; there are backups in case something goes wrong there, that we could manually control it. But the HTV is kind of cool because it comes up, gets to about ten meters from the space station, and then the two vehicles, the space station and the HTV, are kind of flying along together, and that’s when I along with my crew members will go out—well, I say “go out;” we’ll still be in the space station—but we’ll actually extend the big robotic arm and do what we call a track-and-capture to grab on to the HTV, and then later with that same robotic arm we’ll actually pull it in and dock it to the station, so…
What’s the reasoning behind doing it in that different way; why doesn’t this ship just go and dock to the station like the other cargo ships do?
Well, I think in terms of design it’s a little bit simpler, and I think it allows the spacecraft to be built on a more routine basis and it’s a simpler approach to the overall systems of the spacecraft. It’s a little different for us as a crew because we’re actively then participating in bringing that vehicle up to the station and mating it, but…
And it’s, as I’ve heard others describe it, that you’ve got, not only, you’ve got a time limit set for accomplishing this, and you’ve got two vehicles neither of which are in active control at the time.
That’s true, so that’s what makes this track-and-capture a little bit interesting is that there’s dynamics associated with each vehicle, and although we expect the HTV to be very stable in its flight path next to the space station, there is opportunity for it to have, maybe some motion just there after it goes to what we call free drift, where there’s no active control. And so with the arm, this whole tracking part of it is trying to get in synch with whatever that rotation might be with the end of the arm as we go in and grab it.
And is that’s why there’s a time limit?
There’s a time limit, yes, because you don’t want to let too much of that drift happen, and so I think we have like 99 seconds to achieve the capture, and with all the training we’ve been doing, it looks good.
Now, just to be clear, that’s not one crack at it in 99 seconds, right? If something went on you would have another attempt?
That’s one attempt at it within that 99 seconds. If within that 99 seconds if we see something that doesn’t look good we can always pull the arm back a little bit and then go back in. But, yeah, if that time limit expires and we haven’t gotten over the pin on the grapple fixture and are ready to actually grab the HTV, then we can do something called a retreat, which sends the HTV, puts it back into control and sends it away from the station for a little while, and then brings it back in. Or if something just doesn’t look, really doesn’t look good, we can make the decision to abort and send it out for quite a while and then figure out what we need to do to try again.
And once you do grab it, then you’ve got to install it?
Is that the right verb?
That’s a good verb. We will actually take it, and this is very similar with what we do with this logistics module like the one that’s coming up in the space shuttle. That’s a vehicle that’s brought up by the space shuttle and then we use the arm, grab it—but it’s a fixed thing in a space shuttle—grab it and attach it to the station. So from that point on with the HTV, once we’ve got it on the end of the arm, it’s a very straightforward task to bring it over and attach it to the space station.
Throughout your time on the station there’s a lot of science being done, lot of research, a lot of it looking into how people can live and work better in a weightless environment…for a long time. Tell me about some of the experiments in this area that you’re going to be working on during Expeditions 20 and 21.
It’s pretty neat. There’s of course, a continuation [of] a lot of the things that’ve been going on up there. Two of the things that come to mind are the studies of nutrition as well as our immune system. And we have researchers looking at what types of food should we be eating, what types of supplements should we be taking to counteract some of the negative effects of spaceflight, as well as just keep us healthy in general. and then studies of our immune system to see how those things are just affecting our systems in general. Then what’s really neat is we go about looking at this data and then coming up with countermeasures. The food is one thing, exercise is another thing, and what I think is really, really neat about it is that everything we’re doing, and looking at something like bone and muscle loss on board station, has a direct application to those kinds of issues here on the ground. In fact all the research that we do, it’s just really neat that you can see the parallel between the benefits you can get for people living and working in space, and then the same kind of benefits you can get for somebody living and working here on the planet.
What about other scientific disciplines—what other kind of research is on the agenda for your mission, in all the various laboratories that you’ve got to work in now?
It’s really interesting, we have some amazing facilities up there. And it’s everything from looking at contamination control on board station, how you improve those processes, material science we have the protein crystal growth activities that are going on as well, looking at improved fire suppression techniques for microgravity environments. Something that I think is really neat is the SPHERES [Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites] payload that we have: it’s like three little bowling ball-sized satellites, they’re like little autonomous satellites that we’re flying in formation inside the station to look at how you can better develop rendezvous and docking techniques for satellites and…I mean, it just goes on and on. It’s really going to be an interesting thing. And then in addition to the, what I would call the real science, like hard science kind of things that are going on in the Japanese module, especially, we have some more culturally-based things like looking at artistic ways to take advantage of the station, looking at the phases of the moon and looking at that from a science standpoint but also how we can get something artistic out of it as well. So, I think it’s going to be really fun.
You’ve got science to do and as a member of the crew you’re, take part in station maintenance as well; you have a sense of what a—if there is such a thing—as a “normal” day on orbit on the space station is like?
I think there’s…on average there’s just a mix of things going on. I think you’ll have some routine maintenance tasks—that could be anything from cleaning the filters that circulate the air on board station, to working with the potty, the bathroom facilities that are on station—and then every day I think there’s some mix of payload activities going on as well, and that could be working just all day long on one research facility and one science experiment, or you could be spread across any number of activities that may just require a status check or may require you to be actively involved with the conduct of the experiment. And I think as crew members we look forward to the time that we’ll get to spend together, too, both over meals or while exercising and that kind of thing, ’cause we have on our schedule every day two hours of exercise, and that’s aerobic and resistive exercise as well.
Which is part of the countermeasures that…
It is, exactly…
…you were referring to before.
…and part of the new equipment we talked about bringing up so that we can help sustain the six-person crew.
There’s another first of its kind operation on board the station that occurs during your increment…
…when a third Soyuz spacecraft arrives; that’s supposed to happen in October. Talk about what’s in store for the crew as you welcome Jeff Williams and Max Suraev while Gennady Padalka and Mike Barratt get ready to go home.
Well, we’ll be continuing the six-person crew, which is exciting…when Jeff and Max show up that’s the official start of Expedition 21, which I think is pretty exciting as we move on with the station program, and with Expedition 21 we have our first European commander, Frank De Winne, so I think that’s just another one of these logical steps that we’re taking in the overall program. And we’ll have another Russian Progress join us, and another shuttle will come up, STS-129, while Expedition 21 is going on.
Is there a real significance to the fact that a European Space Agency astronaut will be the commander of the station?
I think it’s very significant, although I think like we said, I think it’s also kind of just a logical step in what we’re doing as international partners up there, and I think it demonstrates how this relationship that we’ve developed as international partners is just very positive with respect to the station program, and I think will take us forward with the future programs that we have, too, because I don’t see us ever moving away from an international activity with human spaceflight any more.
You mentioned a Progress ship that’s due during that time period; you’re also expecting to add another Russian segment to the station in November. Tell me about this Russian Mini Research Module and the capabilities that it’ll add to the International Space Station.
OK. It’s called the Mini Research Module, but I think what we’re really looking for that module to do is act as another docking port for the space station. And you mentioned the three Soyuz on board and that’s what we’re going to be moving to in the future with the six-person crew and with shuttle going away as a means for transporting crews to and from station. At any one time we’ll have two Soyuz docked to the space station, and then, when, like Max and Jeff show up and before Gennady and Mike go home, we’ll have three station, or Soyuz docked to the station, and so we need this additional docking port to allow that to happen.
Now, right after the MRM-2 arrives is when you’re expecting to see the second shuttle visit that would be STS-129. What’s on the agenda for that mission?
Well, they’ll be there a little while before they get to take me home but during that time they also have some tasks involved with continuing the final assembly of station. They have two what we’re calling external logistics carriers, I believe, ELCs [EXPRESS (EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to the Space Station) Logistics Carriers], and those are just two big platforms that will be attached to the truss module of the space station, which will allow us to have equipment out there, staged, just in case we need to replace it if something breaks or fails on the station. So I think of it kind of as two, like little logistics depots that will allow us to have spare parts available to us. And they’ll be doing that through three spacewalks, and then, like I said, at the end of their mission they get to take me home.
About three or four months, somewhere in there…
…is where you’re scheduled to be; does that seem like a right time, length of time, for a mission?
I think it seems like the perfect length of time for a mission. I’m totally prepared; we all come into this in expedition training, with the expectation that it could be on par, or on order of six months, and three to four months seems just right. I think my family will be OK with that, and I’ll be OK with being away from them for that amount of time.
We’ve mentioned that you’re going to be part of a milestone in human space exploration in getting this planet’s space station operating with a larger and more-multinational crew. Nicole, would you tell me how you see human exploration of space proceeding in the years to come, and the role that this space station is going to play in advancing that?
Well, I think the space station program has played a huge role in that and will continue to do so. Six people on board, with Expedition 20 we have six people on board that represent all of the international partners involved, which I think is a really amazing thing that it just kind of worked out that way, that Expedition 20 has all of the partners represented. I don’t see us going forward with this space program without being involved as an international community in space. I think the space station program has demonstrated that this is a good way to go; I think it benefits us globally not only from a space program standpoint but also because we have positive relationships with all of these different countries now, and I think that has definitely had a positive influence on just the way global issues have been resolved, and the partnership that we have on Earth as well as in space, and I think for human space exploration that’s just the way it’s going to continue.