Preflight Interview: Rick Sturckow, Commander
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While seated at the commander's station, astronaut Rick Sturckow, STS-128 commander, participates in a post insertion/de-orbit training session in the crew compartment trainer (CCT-2) in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Sturckow is wearing a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-128 interview with NASA astronaut C.J. Sturckow, also the mission commander of this mission. You are from Lakeside, California. That’s San Diego area.

I am. It’s eastern San Diego County. When I grew up there in the 1960s it was a pretty rural place back then and I actually grew up on a ranch about five miles outside of town.

Take me back there. To that point when you were growing up, what did you like to do? What interested you back then?

Well, like I said, I grew up on a ranch so we had a lot of animals that we took care of there, just kind of the usual barnyard animals. We had horses. We did a lot of riding. Just to the northeast of our ranch was an Indian reservation and you could ride for twenty-five miles out there without ever crossing a paved road. It was a neat place to grow up.

Do you have a sense of how that place influenced who you’ve become?

I believe you are a product of your roots and I like to think I learned a work ethic growing up on a ranch and hopefully a little bit of common sense.

Have you, on your previous missions, had a chance to actually see that area from space and what was…

I have. We flew over and we got a picture of the whole area. It was kind of neat to see that from space.

Tell us about what you did professionally before you came to NASA.

I was a Marine Corps fighter pilot and a test pilot.

Okay. And talk again about your educational background and, first of all, why you chose to study what you did in college.

Right. I was working as a lube boy in an International Harvester dealership greasing trucks, changing oil, brake jobs, that sort of thing and I was on the weekends on a pit crew and off-road racing and I decided, one day I saw a truck go by that said Cal Poly on it and I learned it was put together by a bunch of engineering students up there at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, so I decided that I’d like to go there and become a mechanical engineer so that’s why I chose that field.

Who or what was it that made you realize the value of education in life?

I think primarily my parents and also some of the great teachers I had growing up. I had just some excellent teachers.

Is there anybody in particular that inspired you, teacher-wise or…

I don’t think so. I think they all leave their own little mark on you and it adds up to make you who you are.

What was it like when you first discovered you’d been selected to come to NASA? What was that like?

It was a great feeling. I had just been out flying a test mission at Pax River and the Operations Officer was waiting for me when I walked back in from the jet to fill out the paperwork and at first I deny whatever reason he was standing waiting to accuse me of, but he said, “Hey, we got this phone call from this guy at NASA and they want you to call ‘em back.” So that’s when I learned that I’d been selected.

And then what did you do from there? Was there a celebration of any sort or…

Well, my wife was teaching elementary school so I just called and left her a message to call me and then when she called me back I told her that I’d been selected and we were going to be moving down to Houston.

And to that point in your life, how did that accomplishment compare to whatever your biggest achievement may have been?

I think it was just kind of another achievement. You know, I’d been fortunate to get to do a lot of different things in the Marine Corps and I just kind of viewed that as one more exciting thing that I was able to do in the Marines so it’s worked out very well.

Tell us about, if you can recall, the time when you found out you were going to make your first space flight. What was that like?

That was a great feeling. I was working out at NASA/Ames working in the VMS out there, the simulator that we practice shuttle landings and Colonel Cabana who was Chief of the office called me up and told me that I was going to be flying with him on the first space station assembly mission so that was really great news. It was very exciting.

Are there any particular moments from either of your previous space flights that, that really stand out to you?

Well, I think the best thing about flying in space, people ask that a lot and for me the best thing is when you come back from the flight and you realize that you accomplished the mission and there’s always things that you could do, could have done better but that’s the best feeling is that you just went up there and did what you set out to do and accomplished the mission.

You’ve been training for this mission for a bit, what’s it been like training with this group of astronauts on your crew?

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Astronaut Rick Sturckow, STS-128 commander, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is a great crew. I think from the very beginning we got off to a good start and we’ve maintained a good pace throughout the training syllabus and still manage to have some fun together doing it so I’ve really enjoyed training with this crew.

And in training you travel around to different centers to work with some of the folks who are on the support staff, thousands of folks who ensure the safety and success of the mission. What is it like when you get a chance to meet those people?

It’s one of the best parts of our job I think, getting out and thanking the people who build all this hardware and even the design folks, all the maintainers it takes to keep the support equipment going, just the whole big picture. We’re very fortunate that we get to see a lot of little pieces that make the whole shuttle program and the station program work, the integrated picture, if you will. And so it’s really neat for me to be able to get out and thank those people for the great job they’re doing and we appreciate it very much.

Give us a brief rundown, if you would, of what the key objectives of this mission are.

Our main objectives are to dock with the International Space Station. We’re going to install the MPLM, the Multi Purpose Logistics Module. We’re going to transfer the racks that are in that module. We’re going to rotate the expeditionary crew members so we’re going to take Nicole Stott up and bring back Tim Kopra, going to transfer some water and then a bunch of other food and supplies that they need up there on the space station.

And as Mission Commander you have responsibilities just like everybody else on the crew. What are your big picture and some of your specific responsibilities?

My responsibility is for the safe and successful conduct of the mission.

In Discovery’s payload bay is going to be the European Space Agency’s Multi Purpose Logistics Module named Leonardo. For people who may not be familiar with what that module is, can you just tell us what it is and what it’s used for?

Right. It’s used to carry racks and supplies up to the space station. We can load it on the ground and then it’s installed in the shuttle payload bay. Then once we get to orbit, it’s removed robotically from the payload bay and installed onto the International Space Station and then we open some hatches and go inside there and we can transfer fairly large items, what we call racks, and move those racks over into the space station. So it’s a very useful module.

So in essence a moving van, basically.

Like a moving van.

Many of the items that were delivered in the MPLM and in STS-126 in 2008 were needed to prepare station for the increase to a six-person crew. Now that it is a reality, the six-person crew, talk about the significance of your mission to sustaining that crew.

Right. The items that we’re carrying are critical for sustaining the six-person crew. Some of the heavy hitters besides the food and the logistical supplies, we’re taking up the T2, the second treadmill which is going to be very important and then also an ARS, the Atmosphere Revitalization System rack so those will be used to sustain six crew members.

How much supplies weight-wise would, so you…

It’s about 14,800 pounds worth of supplies from both the MPLM and then the stuff we’re carrying on the mid-deck also that’ll be transferred. That’s a good bit of supplies.

Sounds like it.

In Discovery’s payload bay also is going to be a lightweight multi purpose carrier. Tell us what the significance of that is to the flight.

On the LMC we’re going to be carrying up a new ammonia tank assembly, the ATA, and we will be installing the new ATA on the P1 truss assembly and then we’ll be removing the old ATA tank and installing that back on the LMC. It’ll be brought back to planet Earth and refurbished and refilled and then flown up to station later on.

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

You’re also scheduled to replace something called a Rate Gyro Assembly, an RGA. Tell us about what that is and what its purpose is.

Right. The RGA is used by the station motion control system along with GPS antennas for attitude determination of the space station.

Okay. After launching you’ll eventually get to the point where you will be preparing to dock with station. Tell me about the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight and what your specific duties are for that.

That will occur on Flight Day 3, the rendezvous and docking. We’ll start off by doing a series of burns that will adjust our trajectory to get on the proper profile and then, after that, we will have the manual phase, we’ll take over and fly from the aft flight deck of the shuttle. We’ll fly up underneath the space station and then perform the RPM, the R-bar pitch maneuver where we’ll expose the belly of the space shuttle to the station so they can image it with cameras up there, the station crew can, to make sure all the tiles are in good shape. After that we’ll fly out in front of the station and then fly in on what we call the V-bar approach, fly in and dock with the space station there.

In order to transfer the supplies in the MPLM you have to actually get it out of the payload bay and installed on station. Talk us through the process of that and tell us where it will eventually be installed for the period of time you’ll be docked.

Right. It will be removed from the payload bay by the space station robotic arm, the big arm, and Kevin Ford and Mike Barratt will be flying that arm. They will grapple the MPLM and then Pat Forrester will be working the payload retention latches and they release the MPLM from the space shuttle. Then Kevin and Mike Barratt will fly it out of the shuttle payload bay and install it on the Node 2 nadir, the one that points down toward the Earth, CBM, Common Berthing Mechanism. After it’s installed, then Christer Fuglesang will be driving the CBM bolts to firmly attach it to the space station.

And there’s some steps then subsequent to that, that you’ll need to take care of before you can actually even go in and start taking stuff out. Tell me about that.

That’s exactly right. So after Christer gets done driving the CBM bolts, then he and Frank De Winne will perform the MPLM ingress procedure where they’ll open hatches and they’ll hook up power and data cables and install inner module ventilation ducting to have good air flow inside the MPLM and then they’ll open the MPLM hatch and will go in there and begin the transfer work.

Three EVAs scheduled on this mission. On EVA 1 Nicole Stott, who will be a station crew member by that time, will go outside with Danny Olivas. Talk about the rationale for her doing this spacewalk as a new station crew member.

That’s been part of the plan since we were assigned to STS-128 was to get Nicole this EVA experience so that after we undock, she’ll be a full up round to do whatever needs to be accomplished during her increment. So she’s going to go out there with Danny on EVA 1 and they will remove the old ATA tank assembly and it’ll be grappled by the SSRMS and then Danny and Nicole will remove the EuTEF experiment from the Columbus module and two MISSE experiments and those will all be returned to the shuttle payload bay. The EuTEF will be installed back on the underside of the LMC and then the MISSEs go in the payload bay.

Okay. On EVA 2, the work with the ammonia tank assemblies continues. This time Christer Fuglesang will be outside with Danny Olivas. Talk us through what they’ll do out there.

Right. So Christer and Danny will take the new ammonia tank assembly and Christer will be riding on the arm. Danny will hand him the new assembly and they’ll go on up with the other, the old ATA still grappled by the arm so Christer will be flying up there holding one ATA with another one grappled near his feet. They’ll fly it back up to the P1 work site and install the new ATA tank on P1 and then a maneuver will be performed by the SSRMS where the tank will be presented to Danny. He will hold on to it while his feet are in a foot restraint and then they will pivot Christer around so he can grab the old tank now in his hands, take it back to the payload bay and it’ll be installed on the top side of the LMC.

A variety of tasks on EVA 3 for Christer and Danny, some of which involves getting things ready for the eventual delivery of Node 3 which is also named Tranquility. Tell us what they’ll do on EVA 3.

So as you mentioned they’ll start off hooking up the Node 1 to Node 3 cables. These cables are very interesting in their nature because Node 3 was originally supposed to be on the nadir port pointing down toward the Earth and now it’s going to be on the port CBM of Node 1 and it’s also been rotated ninety degrees so a lot of work has been done here at JSC by our great engineers to ensure that those cables are going to be the right length. So we’ll install the half of the cables that go on to Node 1 but we won’t really know until the 20A assembly mission if those cables are going to reach to where they need to be connected so that will be very interesting when all that is accomplished. After the Node 1/Node 3 cables are installed, then they’ll go out and install the Rate Gyro Assembly that we were discussing. They’ll put in two more GPS antennas which are also used to determine attitude of the space station by the motion control system and then they’ll replace an RPCM which is on S0 truss segment.

At some point late in the mission, after you’ve completed your transfers, you’ll have to get the MPLM back into the payload bay. Is there any mystery to that or is it basically a reverse?

Pretty much going to be a reverse; this time José Hernández will be flying the big arm. He will go in and grapple the MPLM and then it’ll be unbolted by Christer and then flown in an automatic maneuver by the big arm to the payload bay and then Kevin Ford will take over manually and fly it, to berth it back into the PRLA on the shuttle. And then Pat will close the payload retention latches and that’ll be that. Tell us about undocking. Who’s going to be doing what during undocking from the station?

Right. Kevin will actually be, Kevin Ford will be, our pilot, will be flying the space shuttle and I’ll be up front with Pat Forrester and we’ll be running through a series of procedures that we have to do to get all the jets in a proper configuration and the timing is pretty critical during the undocking sequence. We’ll have Christer working the APDS buttons as we get ready to perform the undocking. He will command to release the hooks by pushing the undocking button and then about two minutes and twenty seconds later, we’ll have physical separation from the International Space Station. Kevin’s going to fly us, back us out to about four hundred feet on the V-bar again and then he’s going to fly all the way around the exterior of the space station and we’ll have the crew mapping with cameras, photo-mapping the outside of the space station to document its condition.

You were part of the first station assembly flight. Talk to us a little bit about how you’ve seen things progress in the station and what impact that’s had on you, basically.

Well, it’s been interesting just because of the timing of my career. When I started flying it happened to be when they were beginning the assembly of the space station so I have had the opportunity to see it grow from just where we joined the Node 1 with the FGB and undocked from it and flew around, a very small station with only two modules and then on 7A.1, STS-105, the station had grown a little bit. It still had only one solar array truss segment with two arrays on it but it had a service module and had a lab so it had grown a little bit. And then on 13A we were able to haul up the S3/S4 truss segment and attach that so then it was a symmetrical station again with the P6 sticking out the top. And now when we get up there on 17A it’s going to have the four full solar array config and a lot of the international partner modules are now up there and will be installed when we arrive so that’s going to be very exciting to see sort of a final configuration. There’s still many or a few flights left, of course, to bring up more equipment for the space station so we won’t get to see quite the final config but it should be pretty close.

One of the things that, with this being an MPLM flight, delivering supplies, and not an assembly flight, there’s a possibility that you may get asked to do certain other things that may not be on your timeline for right now.

It’s true. The mission in front of us could always have some difficulty with some of the tasks that they’re scheduled. They have five very ambitious EVAs so they could run into difficulty with some of their tasks or there could be a failure on the space station. When we flew the 7A.1 mission there were actually two individual failures, one with, was called the Broom Assembly which is part of the solar array pointing had an issue and there was also an issue with the SSRMS arm joint so we had quite a bit of disturbance to our EVA training as we thought we were going to pick up new tasks which never, in the end, didn’t end up materializing but it kept us hopping for about a month while the station program came to the determination that no, we would do our original tasks. So it’s always a possibility for this mission as well that we could have some late changes to our EVAs and we do have capability to do more EVAs if requested, if the need arose.

How do you imagine space station’s importance will be characterized in humankind’s history some years from now when people routinely travel from Earth to other worlds and back? How will space station’s importance be characterized just because people are able to do that based on some of the stuff that’s happening on space station now?

My hope is that they will look back and say, “Wow, we really learned a lot from building and operating this space station and we could have never done what we’re going to do in the future if we hadn’t done this space station program, you know. It was a key stepping stone to the moon and Mars and other planets some day.” They’ll look back and, you know, probably won’t be the same exact hardware but we’ve certainly learned just a bunch of lessons from the hardware that we are living with every day in space. And I think those lessons can be applied to future systems and future vehicles, so that’s my hope that, you know, we made a small contribution to the future success of space exploration by humans.