This is the STS-129 interview with Mission Specialist Dr. Robert Satcher, Jr., more familiar to friends, family and cohorts as ‘Bobby’. Tell me about the place that you consider your hometown and what it was like growing up there.
Preflight Interview: Robert L. Satcher Jr., Mission Specialist
It’s Hampton, Virginia and it was fun growing up there. It’s a town that’s right in the Tidewater area of Virginia which is a peninsula so it’s surrounded by water and Hampton itself kind of sits out on the peninsula. My dad was working at Hampton University which is a small historically black college in Virginia and the nice thing about it was it was right there on the water so we had a lot of fun as kids just roaming the campus and going out and playing by the seashore, most of the times unbeknownst to our parents, of course, because they certainly would have been worried that we would fall in or something like that. But, we had a great time and we were really allowed to kind of roam all over the campus and there were a lot of kids around our age that were there, so it was a very, very fun childhood.
How would you say that that place influenced the person that you have become?
I think we were privileged in the sense of being exposed to a lot of educated people and people who were really accomplished and also had a pretty broad experience base, people who had traveled the world and could talk to you about it and tell you what it was like and that really opens up a kid’s imagination and makes them aware of what all the possibilities are. I can remember going out lots of times and just strolling along the seashore and I really got interested in things like history from a pretty early age and I remember my parents bought this set of encyclopedias. That’s what they did back in that day. We didn’t have the Internet. And so I read through all of the encyclopedias and what was good about that was that it kind of got me started thinking about what things were like in other places and I read all about the history of exploration the Europeans traveling the oceans and coming to what we now know as the Americas and so when I would be out strolling along the seashore I would be thinking about that, looking out thinking about what it must have been like hundreds of years before to put it all on the line and to go out and not knowing if you would make it back, not knowing what you were going to find and just how exciting that was and also in many ways risky but just the possibilities outweighing the risk in your mind and just what kind of experience that must have been like. And that really influenced me in terms of wanting to be involved with space exploration because right now that really is the frontier for us and it’s the excitement of wanting to see what’s on the other side of the mountain, the excitement of going out into what’s not known and discovering new things.
Since you brought that up, what does your family feel about that type of risk and you partaking in that?
I think my family’s very excited for me but they’re also aware of the risks. But they know that it’s something I’m committed to and that I really want to do so they’re at peace with it but nonetheless my wife is a pediatrician and so she’s as excited as she is for me, she does worry, too, and it’s understandable and I try to think about it given my background. I’m a physician, too, and we’re kind of trained to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes. I do that. I try to think about that, just how my wife must feel about it and what would I think if it were her instead of me and I think that I can understand that feeling a little bit better because of that but nonetheless my family really has been wonderful and with all the training and things that we have to do and all the demands that that places on you and your family they really have risen up to the occasion and I’m really grateful to them because they’re as much a part of my success as anybody, so…
Talk about the value of education in your life and the doors that it’s opened and the opportunities it’s presented to you.
I wouldn’t be where I am without education. I think it’s something that we as a generation, I would say my generation, I think we kind of undervalue. Fortunately I think that there’s more of a focus being brought on that now. Our current President is really a big proponent of education and my parents and family were always big proponents of education. My grandparents were sharecroppers in Alabama and they didn’t have the privilege of finishing high school. They had to stop going to school for a variety of reasons. I think my grandmother made it to seventh grade and my grandfather made it to fifth grade or something like that. And so, despite that, they understood how important education was and they, all of their kids, and they had a large family of nine children and they all finished college and got college degrees and several of them, of course, went on and got advanced degrees, MDs, PhDs. And so they always stressed that to us and when we were coming up there was no other alternative. We knew, you’re going to at least go to college, and then you can figure it out after that, but that’s a given. And I’m grateful that I was indoctrinated that way because it really does open up possibilities for you and you can, literally the sky’s the limit. You can do anything you want once you have your education and education is definitely the gift that keeps on giving. It drives you to continue to try to make yourself better which, of course, opens up more and more possibilities for you.
Walk through the educational steps that you took after high school.
Well, I went to high school in South Carolina, Denmark, South Carolina, which is a small town of about three thousand people, rural South Carolina and not a whole lot of my classmates went to college, to tell you the truth, but again that’s where the family influence was really a determinate for me. I mean, I knew I was going to go to college and I also knew I was interested in math and science and, so I wanted to kind of go as a lot of young men and, I guess, young ladies do, too, but I wanted to go somewhere where I hadn’t been before, just that sense of adventure and wanting to go far away. I also knew I wanted to go to the best school I could get into and fortunately I got into a number of good schools but I went to M.I.T. for undergraduate and that’s because at the time I was thinking, “Yeah, I want to major in engineering” and I just knew, “Okay, M.I.T., I think that’s the they’ve been ranked as one, the top school or one of the top schools for how many, many years so I think I’ll go there.” So I actually went there without ever visiting the campus. I just went there at a pretty young age, too. I was sixteen when I went off to college and fortunately it wound up being a good decision. It [was] a very formative four years for me but I managed to really focus and stay focused on my academic work and really put my all into it and learned a lot, had a very good experience and that really, I think, set the ground work for everything else that I did. Around the third or fourth year I had to decide what I was going to do, after college so that’s are we going to work? Are we going to go to grad school? What are we going to do? And I was thinking about medical school, hadn’t completely made up my mind and decided to go out and work a couple of summer jobs with a couple engineering companies just to see what I wanted to do and as it turns out from that I figured out I wanted to go to medical school because I was working with, at a DuPont plant actually and found the work to be very intellectually stimulating but you’re working out kind of in the middle of nowhere. You don’t have that much interaction with other people and that’s what I found to be missing from that and also the other aspect of it was you were doing something that was going to benefit an industrial process, probably benefit the company but you were far removed from where it was actually going to impact individuals and so from that I said, “Well, I really want to do something where there’s more direct contact between you and other people and where you can see that what you’re doing is actually being helpful. So medicine, that’s what helped me to make up my mind to go to medical school and I wound up staying in Boston for medical school going to Harvard Medical School and while I was there I missed some of the engineering things I was doing during my medical school days so I decided, “Well, I’ll go to grad school” at which point my parents thought I was really crazy, but I was like, “I’ll go to grad school” so I can do the research stuff that I was doing when, or I got exposed to while I was in undergraduate school and so I stayed there for grad school, too, wound up going, of course, back to M.I.T. for grad school and getting a PhD there and then finishing up my medical training. And then at the end of the medical training you either decide that you’re going to do a residency and specialize in something or you’re going to work as a general practitioner maybe after going and doing one year of internship or you’re not going to practice and just do something research related. I, of course, wanted to practice because I really enjoyed treating patients and I had had a number of experiences that had reinforced that. One of the most interesting experiences that I had during medical school was I went to West Africa and spent four months working in a clinic in Gabon, which is kind of a small country in West Africa and had the opportunity to deliver healthcare to groups of people who really had not had the privilege of a reasonable, what I would say is just a reasonable healthcare infrastructure. Most people in that country and, unfortunately, in a lot of countries that are the poorer countries in the world, they don’t have access to regular healthcare so you know people can go their entire lives and never come in contact with a doctor. So problems that we take for granted ‘cause you have access to healthcare in this country fortunately, can become major impairments for people and when you go somewhere like that you have people who will travel for like days and weeks when they hear that there’s going to be some group of physicians around that are going to dispense some healthcare. They’ll travel for like weeks because this will be their only opportunity to be seen and get treated for whatever it is. And, I think it’s experiences like that that just made me realize that being able to have that kind of impact in areas where it’s needed was something that was not only a privilege but also, for me, was very satisfying and very motivating for me. So I knew I wanted to continue to treat people and be able to provide care for people. I came back and I ultimately got interested in surgery and finally in cancer care and my specialty became musculoskeletal oncology so I did an orthopedic residency and then a fellowship in oncology in order to be able to do that. And that area, of course, kind of combines all these things for me and I sort of realized that having the benefit of hindsight, from an intellectual perspective it’s very satisfying because you’re treating patients who have cancer and who have a difficult road ahead of them and a lot of times you have people come in and they have like a tumor or a lump somewhere in their leg or in their arm and you have to go through the process of figuring out what that is and working with them and working through that and so that’s at least intellectually, it was, it’s like a detective story almost. And then it’s also an area where I think your presence and ability to help people is obvious and you know, obviously people are very appreciative for what you do and it’s very rewarding that way. So that’s what I was doing when I got the call one day saying that, “Hey we’re looking over your application and are you still interested in coming down to NASA for an interview?”
When was it that you first actually got the serious notion that you wanted to be an astronaut?
It’s probably during residency and the inklings were there throughout the years, but I didn’t really think it was a realistic possibility and I think part of the thing that convinced me that it was a realistic possibility was seeing other people who I related to that were astronauts. I had the privilege of meeting Ron McNair; he came to M.I.T. a few times when I was there as a student, and I knew about his story. He actually was from South Carolina also and got his PhD at M.I.T., and then came to NASA and became an astronaut. During residency I actually met several physicians who were astronauts - Scott Parazynski, a couple other people and just got the opportunity to really get to know them and it was kind of that process and them sort of saying, “Hey this is something that you should seriously consider.” That was really the thing that kind of got me to the point of going on and finally deciding to apply for it.
What kind of time period are we talking about from the time that you first applied to when they gave you the call?
I think it was maybe five years or something like that. It was because the Columbia disaster intervened; prior to that they had been interviewing classes pretty regularly every two or three years. There was a pause, of course, because of that for several years and I had submitted an application maybe two years before that happened and quite honestly had just sort of forgotten about it because there was uncertainty as to if they were going to take another class and if so when; so I was in Chicago just practicing in a very fulfilling position and had just kind of forgotten about NASA and the possibility of being an astronaut, so when they started that process up again they gave me a call to see if I was still interested in being considered, and it really did kind of come without warning out of the blue, and so I told them, yes. My wife had agreed to that several years before and I think she didn’t think that it would happen sort of similar to what I thought. I thought, “Oh, it’s not going to happen so it would just be sort of a fun little side adventure or maybe I’ll get as far as getting an interview or something, but I’ll never get selected.” But, of course I was fortunate being chosen.
Do you remember where you were at that moment when you got that call, what you were doing and what your reaction was?
I remember getting the call saying I had been selected. I was working in clinic. I had just a regular work day in Chicago and I was working at Northwestern University in my clinic seeing patients and basically I got a call on my cell phone, stepped out of, I think I was talking with a patient and just stepped out of the room for a second just to see what it was and it was the call saying, “Hey, we’ve selected you and we’ll give you a couple days to think about it and you tell us what you want to do.” So…
Did you need the couple of days …
Well, personally, no, but I needed to talk with, of course, my family because that’s really the thing. It’s a big change then moving here to Houston and my wife she was working at University of Chicago and actually in a position that she really liked, too, so it was having to move here to Houston and so it was a big deal from that perspective but we have really enjoyed being here, so…
I’m going to ask you about an event with similar circumstances. Tell me about the moment that you first found out you were going to be making your first space flight after you got here. What was that like? What were you doing and tell me about the reaction.
Well, that’s also a very exciting time. We go through the first year-and-a-half and that’s basic training and then you’re waiting to get assigned to a flight and that’s the next thing, the next major milestone to reach and when we first came in, the prognostication I would say was not positive. It was, “Oh, well, you might not fly. You might have to wait many, many, many years. You may never get to fly.” And that’s what they told us when we came in. Now we chose to be optimistic, of course, and even though I realized that there was a possibility that it might not work out, said, “Well, we still have some work to do with the space station.” I knew that and so if the shuttle gets back flying again regularly, because when we came in we hadn’t returned to flight yet, but if the shuttle gets back flying regularly just if you kind of thought about it, at least to my thinking and that fortunately turned out to be right, but it was like if you thought about it, “Well we might possibly get on some of those last few shuttle flights.” So, there was a period of time, probably for the first year to year-and-a-half, where we really didn’t know how things were going to work out and you were doing it all on faith, and I think it makes things a little bit more challenging but, at the same time, I think the upside of being here is, and what you realize is it’s a nice community of people here and it really has provided another chapter in terms of being part of a community that you know, I never would have imagined I could of been a part of and also being able to learn about things that are very interesting to me personally but also put you in a position to kind of broadcast this message to everybody else of the importance of science, engineering, math, which really is I think one of the most important things that we can do and it really can’t be overstressed. You know, we as a nation I think have taken a lot of this for granted and that’s the reason why we’re feeling sort of a sense of having lost our way a little bit right now. So we can really be at the forefront of putting that message out and have the opportunity to speak to a lot of kids and adolescents and people who I think if they hear it they’re at the stage in their lives where it can have an effect on them and maybe you won’t get to everybody but it’ll maybe make a few people change their mind and dedicate themselves the way that they should. So even though we didn’t know we were going to fly, you were aware of being able to be a part of that effort and fortunately, after about a year or year-and-a-half the news started trickling down that [it] looks like you guys are going to have an opportunity and so then at that point it was just finding out which mission you were going to be on and I found out probably about this time last year, in 2008, that it was going to be this mission and it was a very exciting time. I think probably the people who were most excited were my family and my wife because they had sacrificed the way that they had to give me this opportunity and so, very special time and kind of represented the fruits of a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice, so this November is going to be a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to it and I know my family is really looking forward to it, too, and that’s what really makes it really special for me, too.
Tell me about your impressions of training and kind of compare and contrast training as an astronaut candidate and training for mission specific after you were assigned to a flight.
The best way for me to frame it is in terms of my medical training ‘cause I think it was kind of analogous in certain ways to that. Astronaut candidate training, I’m so used to saying ASCAN, is really more of a generalized training. It’s the introductory training. It’s when you’re coming in, you come in from all walks of life and they got to get you on the same page and get you focused on what you’re going to be doing as an astronaut. So it’s really learning about just what’s about the space shuttle, about the space station, just generally what are the systems on these that you’re going to have to know and it’s learning about all the other aspects of our training like flying T-38s, training in the simulators, doing NBL training and so you’re going through the introductory stuff for that and also learning about the culture here at NASA and in the office. So the approach is more from a general perspective and it’s not really focused on specifically what you would be doing on your mission. So for me, from a medical training – it’s more sort of like the last couple years of medical school where you’re rotating through the hospitals doing different clerkships in different areas in internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery, where you sort of learn the brass tacks, the nuts and bolts of those areas and learn how to function in a very general way. Mission training, of course, is very focused because then you have a role. You’re either a Mission Specialist or a Pilot or Commander and you have specific tasks that you’re going to have to do and your training is geared towards those tasks so it’s focused and I think, for me, it’s more enjoyable because of that focus. The analogous thing is residency, I think, or maybe even fellowship in medical training because you knew that these are the things you need to do when you’re going to be actually out there practicing as a physician and, for us this is what we’re going to be doing when we go on our mission and so it’s you know, it’s very tangible and because of that it’s interesting and a lot of fun.
What’s it been like training with this specific crew? What observations have you made about the crew as a whole and some of your crewmates?
We have a very fun crew, I would say. I think our personalities tend to complement pretty well and there are four guys who are from a military background and two from a civilian background and we have a good time together and I think that’s probably the most important thing is being able to have a good time and laugh and a lot. I mean, at the same time you’re working really hard and you’re wanting to do your best and you’re focused on what you’re doing, but when you can do that and be around people that you actually enjoy being with that it just makes it all the more special and so I feel very fortunate that way to have been put together with a fun group.
What about going around to the different centers during training? Thousands of people work behind the scenes to make the mission a success, to ensure the crew’s safety. What’s it been like when you’ve had a chance to meet those people, see what they do, observe the passion they have for what they do?
Well, it is a very humbling experience to tell you the truth ‘cause you realize just in what a privileged position you’re occupying. There’s a lot of very smart people, very dedicated people at all the centers that really put their heart and soul into making sure that you’re successful and you get sort of a glimpse of that when you’re first coming in ‘cause you travel around to all the different centers. You know, it’s a little bit removed and a little bit abstract ‘cause you’re not actually assigned yet, so you don’t know all of what’s going into a successful launch of the space shuttle. Once you get assigned though and you start training and all of that stuff, you realize and just all the detail and attention to detail and the intricacy and just how complex it is. You realize that really takes thousands and thousands of people and millions and millions of hours of work and effort and as I said it’s when you really start to think about it clearly it is a little bit overwhelming because it’s a really spectacular effort that’s being put forth to make these things happen. The other thing is, I think most people really don’t understand that, you know. Unless you have the good fortune to be able to do it, it’s not anything that you’re going to see and I try to talk about it as much as I can when I go out and talk to people in the public because I think most people don’t really understand just how much effort goes into it and how hard it is to make all these things work so…
Tell me about the key objectives for this mission, STS-129.
We’re sort of transitioning from, or building the space station to maintaining the space station so we’re bringing up two ExPRESS Logistics Carriers or ELCs, we just call them ELCs. They have lots of replacement parts and spare parts for different components of the space station. We’re also bringing up a large communications antenna, couple other antennae, if I did that right. My mother’s an English teacher so I’m always thinking, “Is that the right plural?” (chuckle) And we’re bringing up a gas tank, for instance, a high pressure oxygen gas tank which will provide the atmosphere for the International Space Station. So we’ll be doing a lot of maintenance work on the space station, a lot of re-supply work on the space station and we’re, of course, bringing up a couple of experiments, too, material science experiments that we’ll be putting out that will be brought down by a future shuttle mission. So it’s going to keep us very busy. We’re going to be on the Atlantis which does not have the power hookup to the station so we only have our consumables and because of that, instead of it being like a fifteen or sixteen day mission we can only be like an eleven or twelve day mission, hence we can do only three total EVAs, which of course we’re happy with. But we’re always happy to have more. We’re spoiled that way. Anyway, as I said I think big picture-wise, it represents we’re in this transition phase and we’re going to have to keep the space station going. It’s a six-man crew now on the space station so it becomes all the more important that we have the capacity to repair the station and maintain it.
And as a Mission Specialist on this crew, talk a little bit about what the key activities are that you’ll be involved with.
I will be doing two EVAs and then I’ll be doing some robotic arm operation. If we have to do focused inspection, I’ll be flying the main robotic arm on the space station. Then also I’ll be flying the JEM RMS which is the Japanese version of the robotic arm which is on the Japanese segment of the space station. On my first spacewalk I’ll be doing some maintenance work on those two arms or actually the POA which is a specific end effector essentially that’s on the base called the Mobile Transport Unit for the space station arm. So some work on that and also some work on the Japanese robotic arm which will be positioned so that I can get to it and after that spacewalk we’ll need to move the Japanese arm back to its normal resting position so I’ll get to do that. And then outside of that, my main responsibilities will be as a crew member. I’ll be serving as a proxy scientist for a number of the experiments that we’re doing. I’m the Crew Medical Officer and then there’s a number of things that we do as Mission Specialists that are just everyday operation of the ship like reconfiguring the ship when we’re getting ready to dock and when we’re undocking and the deorbiting. I’ll be involved with the activities that we have to do in order to do those things so it’s a full plate and we’re a crew of six and a lot of times they have seven crew members so we’re all a little bit busier as a result of that but I’ve found that at least in terms of the training that it’s a lot of fun. I anticipate that it will be as much fun when we go on orbit because I hear that from my fellow astronauts and I’m definitely looking forward to it.
Okay. Let’s talk about some of the activities specifically for docking, for rendezvous and docking. You guys will launch. You’ll configure the orbiter for its stay in space but then comes the barrage of activities on docking day. What exactly are you going to be doing on that day?
On docking day actually, since we have an EVA the next day, we’re going to be in a time crunch to get ready for that EVA, so it’ll be myself and Mike Foreman that are going out on the first EVA so we’re going to be focused on getting ready for that EVA. We have to get all of our tools and suits ready so that we can just kind of quickly transfer that over to space station and we have a few hours before we have to go into what’s called Camp Out so that means we’ll be in the crew lock over on space station and they reduce the pressure in there and we have to be breathing oxygen to get all the nitrogen out of our system to prevent, or reduce the chances that there’ll be any problems with that. So it’s really a fairly hectic few hours right before you dock and right after you dock so that you can be ready to, to do that spacewalk the next day.
And that will be the first of three EVAs scheduled on that mission.
It’ll be you and Mike Foreman as you mentioned. That’ll also be the first EVA of your career. What, how exciting…
And of my life!
…and of your life, what’s the excitement level with and the anticipation like for that right now?
That’s going to be the highlight I think of the flight for me. Going out and really stepping out and seeing the vastness of the view of the Earth and the space station and the shuttle and then, of course out beyond. That is going to be spectacular. So, I don’t know that I can fully anticipate what that’s going to be like. I hear people describe it and they all say that it has a significant impact on their perspective over all and it’s a life changing event. I’ve heard a lot people say that and so there aren’t too many things in my life that I’ve experienced like that so I’m really looking forward to it and just taking it all in.
Tell us about you and Mike are scheduled to do during that first EVA.
We’ll be taking up antenna called the SASA. It’s the communications antenna. Then, be doing some maintenance work again on this POA actually just, essentially lubing it, putting some grease in the end effector part which is responsible for grappling, doing the same thing on the Japanese space arm which is the JEM RMS. And then Mike is actually doing some rerouting, and they’re, of course, going to be installing some components, Node 3 and on a future spacewalk, so there’s some rerouting of wiring that has to occur for that and so he’s going to be doing a lot of that on this spacewalk. And that’s what we hope to get done during the first spacewalk. That’s going to take a full at least six hours, probably more like seven. I’ll spend most of the spacewalk actually flying on the robotic arm so it’ll be a pretty incredible view because the arm kind of takes you away from structure and you’re kind of hovering above everything, and so I’m going to try to take as many photographs – I’ll have a camera on me -- as I can, as I’m flying over to the space shuttle and I just anticipate that that’s going to be pretty spectacular.
And you mentioned Mike doing the rerouting of cables. That’s going to happen on Node 1, right, for these…
…future installation of Node 3, okay. On the second EVA it’s going to be Mike and Randy Bresnik outside.
Tell us about what they’ll be doing outside and what you’ll be doing inside during that EVA.
On our first EVA Randy Bresnik will be the IV so he’ll be the guy that’s sort of the conductor, I guess, of what’s going on, if you think of it that way. He’s the conductor and we’re the orchestra with two people outside. So he’s kind of coordinating what goes on. He’s communicating with ground and with the folks who are on station making sure that everything runs smoothly especially since I’ll be on the robotic arm. There’ll be two other crew members who are actually flying the robotic arm and everybody’s got to be coordinated and in communication appropriately to make it all go off smoothly. So he’s the guy who really is overseeing all of this and making sure it all goes off smoothly. So I’ll be playing that role on their EVA and they have a lot of things that they are taking out and putting out. There’s an antenna that they’re going to put out on the Columbus module and then they’re relocating an antenna stanchion from the starboard side of the station to the port side of the station. Then they’re also going to go and do what’s called a PAS Deploy which is basically deploying part of the station so that you can stow things like pallets and other things and it has a grapple fixture on it and as the station went up, it’s basically kind of in an origami kind of way folded on the inside of the station and so, that’s so that they could fit in the cargo bay of the space shuttle. You get it out there and then you have to reconfigure it by unbolting some things and then sort of doing this origami move and all of a sudden you’ve got this thing that sticks out and it’s got grapple fixtures on it that you can attach things, so it’s a very clever design and so they’ll be doing that on the second spacewalk and there won’t be any we’re not actually flying the arm on that spacewalk so it’s a little bit less complex in that sense but the fact that they are reconfiguring this part of the station adds a certain level of complexity and we know that doing those deploys can be pretty challenging. So we’re looking forward to the challenge and I know we’re up for it so it’ll be a very important thing for us to pull off.
For EVA 3 it’s going to be you back outside again, this time with Randy Bresnik.
Tell me about what you’re going to be doing on EVA 3.
The major task we’re going to do is installing the oxygen gas tank so we’re bringing up some atmosphere for the space station. It comes up actually on ELC 2 which is going to be stored all the way out on the end of the space station, on the starboard end. So we got to go out, way out there and get it, coordinate with the robotic arm, SSRMS, ‘cause we have to take it off of ELC 2, hold it in position for the arm to grapple it and transport it all the way back over to the airlock where we will go and install it onto the airlock. Now before we can install it there, there’s some MMOD shields which are micrometeorite debris shields that protect the space station from these strikes that we [have] got to move out of the way, so we’ll be detaching those, moving them out of the way and then we can install the gas tank. The other major activity is we’ll be deploying these material science experiments called MISSEs, so we’ll be getting those and actually Randy will be getting those out of the cargo bay of the shuttle and bringing those over to ELC 2 where they’re installed and deployed and I’ll also be doing some rerouting of some cables on Node 1 in anticipation of future install of Node 3. So those are the major activities that we’re going to do and it should take us a full six or seven hours to get that done.
If mission managers decide that they want to take a closer look at the shuttle’s exterior, that’s what’s called a focused inspection…
A focused inspection.
…you’ll do that; it’s currently timelined for Flight Day 5.
Talk about the involvement that you have with robotics that day.
So I’ll be flying the space station arm and for focused inspections, the way that we do it is the space station arm has to come down and grapple the boom which is on the starboard side of the cargo bay of the space shuttle, grapples it and undocks it and brings it over so that the orbiter arm, or the robotic arm, can grapple it and perform the focused inspection whatever area it needs to go. So I’ll be grappling the boom, bringing it over and handing it off to the orbiter arm and there’ll be another crew member who’s flying the orbiter arm, probably Leland Melvin or Butch Wilmore, and then, of course, once the focused inspection is done I’ll need to grapple the boom again from the space shuttle arm, bring it back and dock it back on the starboard sill of the orbiter, so that’s all a nice little dance that goes on and it’s actually pretty complicated when you think about it but we’ve gotten so accustomed to doing it that it is routine.
Late in the mission you’ll start packing for your trip home. You’ll say farewell to the station crew, close the hatch and you’ll spend the night in the space shuttle before actually departing the next day. Tell us about what you’re scheduled to do for undocking day.
You have to reconfigure the ship and my main responsibilities in that are on the mid-deck and with the computers on the ship so it’s reconfiguring the computers and then reconfiguring, putting up chairs and things on the mid-deck. We’ll be bringing Nicole Stott back from station so she has to be brought back actually in a reclined position rather than sitting upright and it’s because she has been on orbit for six months and there are some changes that occur physiologically, of course, when you’re in a weightless environment. If you were to be sitting up and especially when you’re experiencing the G’s coming back in which can be as high as 3 G’s. You’ve lost your gravitational adaptation mechanisms which primarily consists of the blood vessels in your legs squeezing down and making sure the blood stays up in your head and, as a result of that, when you get hit with these G’s, the blood leaves your upper body and you could pass out. So she has to be in a reclined supine position so that doesn’t happen and so we have a way that we configure the mid-deck to accommodate that. The other thing that we do which, of course, is related to that is fluid loading and I’m responsible for coordinating that where basically you drink a whole bunch of water and salt tablets is what it comes down to and that’s build up your blood volume and that’s to combat this effect of coming back into a gravitational field and the tendency of all the fluid to go down into your legs as opposed to staying up in your head. So I’ll also be involved, of course with several experiments that will run throughout the duration of the mission. One of them is looking at the effects of weightlessness on the immune system and so that will involve taking blood samples and…
What’s the name of that one?
What is the name of the study? I don’t know off the top of my head the name of the study but it basically is focused on what happens to the immune system when you go into this environment and we know that there are changes. We know that it has an effect but we just don’t know what all of the effects are. It’s a high stress environment. It’s more radiation and so it’s trying to get a better understanding of what that is. The other study that I’ll be involved with is one that looks at how your height changes when you go into outer space which is interesting to me because I’m an orthopedic surgeon and we know that you get taller when you go into outer space and it’s thought that most of that change is due to [the] increase in the height of your inner vertebral disks so we’ll be doing some measurements in order to look at that. So I think those are the major responsibilities that I’ll have and there’s also some more ones like just with some everyday living type things on the shuttle, so…
How exciting it is for you as a medical professional to be able to have this space environment as a different laboratory from one G to be able to see the results and compare and contrast?
Well, it’ll be very interesting. I mean we know that the human body adapts very well to microgravity environment and it’ll be fun just to go there and experience it number one and also see what happens with everybody else, and I will be serving as the Crew Medical Officer so it’s actually [a] very interesting responsibility to have because for everybody there’s an adaptation when you go into this microgravity environment. There is a disconnect between what your ears sense and what your eyes see, you know. On Earth here, since we have gravity that’s pulling on everything, that’s the way that we know which way is up and which way is down and your ears have these semicircular canals which sense that so you know when you turn your head or when you’re accelerating or slowing down as a result of that. When you go into outer space you no longer have gravity that’s acting on your ears like that so the signals getting to your brain are initially confusing for your brain and it can lead to several effects – sense of disorientation. Most people feel somewhat nauseous or sort of like being carsick or seasick. You also get these fluid shifts in your body because no longer is the blood being pulled down into your legs. It just sort of floats up and if you look at people the first few days, they kind of look sort of puffy and puffed up and that’s the reason why. But what happens is over time you actually shed a lot of that fluid, you know. You just excrete a lot of the fluid because your body thinks, “Okay. There’s too much fluid on board because there’s so much more which is up in the head and in the chest, so we must have too much fluid on board so let’s get rid of it” and that’s how your body responds. So you actually become dehydrated relative to what you would be on the ground and so everybody’s going through all of this and so it has an effect on your cardiovascular system because your blood volume is changing. Obviously there’s the effects on your neurovestibular system. And then, of course these experiments we’re doing looking at what happens with your immune system and other effects on your nervous system are there, too, so you know, from a medical officer perspective it’s important just to keep everybody functioning at their optimum level and so it’s important to understand what’s going on with everybody and to be in tune with everyone in that way so that people can get done what they need to do. So it’ll be challenging. It’s just some things that I take for granted here on Earth like being able to give somebody a shot for instance. You have to think about that in outer space because you got to make sure that they’re braced against something and you’re braced against something so that you do it without moving around and causing them any undue discomfort so…
Space station is, one of its main purposes is to be a platform in which to carry out all of these investigations of things that you’ve just talked about with an eye towards long duration spaceflight and traveling out there. Sometime from now when we’re able to travel that far, back and forth, just based on what we’ve learned from space station. How do you think that space station’s importance will be characterized in humankind’s history?
I think the judgment of history is going to be very favorable. I think we’re going to realize that it was essential that we built the space station and there’s a body of knowledge and operational experience that we’ve gotten from it that’s indispensable. I mean, we know that we can travel to Mars as a result of building the space station and people go there for six months on the space station and that’s the amount of time that we need traveling to get to Mars. And then just operationally living and surviving in space and all that goes along with it, the spacewalks that we’ve done, the ability to repair, do repairs to the orbiter spacecraft and all of that’s going to be necessary in embarking upon a six-month journey to Mars, for instance, which will be the first planet that we go to. So the judgment of history I think is going to be very favorable for that chapter in NASA’s history. I think right now there’s a lot of criticism over why did we spend the last decade, the last twenty years really, in low earth orbit building the space station and just with shuttle flights as opposed to going beyond. But it’s one of those steps that we had to take in order to be able to go beyond. It’s going to enable us to do this deep space exploration. We’re going to need to go back to the moon, too, because I think that’s going to give us some additional operational experience that we really need to make a Mars trip a reasonable proposition and reduce the risk associated with it.