Preflight Interview: Piers Sellers , Mission Specialist
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NASA astronaut Piers Sellers, STS-132 mission specialist, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for an ingress/egress training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-132 interview with Mission Specialist Piers Sellers. Tell us about the place that you grew up, your hometown, and what it was like growing up there.

Well, actually I kind of grew up all over the place because I was a British Army brat. My dad helped patrol the Mediterranean and the Middle East and then Europe for quite a while so we hopped around with him -- always interesting hot places like Malta and Cyprus and Yemen and then Germany, then all over the United Kingdom. So we hopped around quite a bit. It was a lot of fun.

Any one particular place influence you more so?

I have to say that since we moved around so much, eventually sent us all to boarding school. The boarding schools are a little bit like what Dickens would have imagined a boarding school to be, plenty of porridge and stuff like that, but the education was fantastic. With really great teachers and not much else to do, we studied a lot. I think the schools had the biggest influence on me.

You’ve been to space a couple times before. Any particular area that you had a chance to see that there was a connection with while you were up there, just to say, “I’ve been there” and then “It’s cool to see that place from up here.”

Actually I like all the places I haven’t been to yet either. I think, “Oh, I got to go there!” But it’s a beautiful thing to see something on a map or on Google and then see it like a map from space, complete with clouds and little jet contrails moving around, signs of life in the cities and city lights and things like that. So all the places I’ve been to instantly recognizable and then all the places I haven’t been to, you know, still mysterious and interesting, places I still want to go to.

They’re still on your list?

Oh, yes. It’s very, long, very, very long list.

What memories do you, that stand out the most in your mind from your previous space flights?

I think pretty much the same as everybody’s. It’s the business of spacewalking is the closest you’ll ever get to being in the space environment. You’re actually in it as opposed to looking through a window. You’re in the aquarium, swimming around in it. And the views -- I think of the Earth, of slowly moving under you and the station just sailing over the world, sun slowly moving over your head, very, very beautiful, larger than life.

Tell us about how you would characterize the value of education in your life.

That’s critical. Every person who works in this business needs to know what they’re doing and it’s years and years of education to just get you ready to be able to participate. You can’t do this by winging it. You can’t do this by improvising. You have to know what you’re doing so education’s key for everybody involved.

Walk us through, if you would, the educational steps that you took, your educational background, that started after high school basically.

Actually high school’s probably the most critical part for me because I had three tremendous teachers. They taught me math, physics, biology and gave me a love for sciences that kind of lasted my whole life. After that I went to do a Ph.D., more on the biology, ecology side. My first degree was in biology and ecology and then for my Ph.D. I went over to climate physics. So I bopped around a little bit but I’ve been fortunate enough to run into some very interesting people on the way who helped raise my consciousness. After all that, I basically got stuck into scientific research.

Tell us about that research. You’ve mentioned the climate science.

That was pretty much what kept me busy for most of my useful working life. I did a lot of that at Goddard Space Flight Center up near Washington, D.C. I was there for about 13 years. We were trying to make better computer models of the Earth and the atmosphere. We found out that our models weren’t very good so we spent a lot of time out in the field trying to collect data to improve them and also on how to use satellite data to calibrate the models and check on how we were doing. So we were a very, very busy group. We spent half our time making computer models, half our time out in the field, driving aircraft and taking measurements and things like that, another chunk of time looking at satellite data and trying to bring it all together. And we succeeded. We made better models as your weather forecast will attest, right?


They’re better now than they used to be.

When was it that you first recall getting the notion to become an astronaut?

Very early, about 7 years old. My dad came and told me that there was this man flying around the world in a little spacecraft. That was Yuri Gagarin and he was getting around so fast. My dad had an orange and he showed the light coming from one side and he said, “Here’s the world and he’s going so fast. He’s going round and round in, into night and into day really quickly.” And somehow that caught my imagination, this man was up there zipping around the world, flashing into day and night and watching the whole world go by and it was a vision that stayed with me ever since. So always in the back of my mind thought I would love to be an astronaut. I would love to go see that. But I think the most important outcome of all of that was that it did, it pushed me toward science and mathematics and stuff like that which I’ve loved, too.

When was it that you put that plan into motion to start applying to become an astronaut and how long did that take? What time period was that?

It took forever. I hope that people in the NASA office now are listening because it took an awful long time. I had to come over to the U.S., become a U.S. citizen first before I could apply and that took about nine years from landing in the U.S. So it was a long, long process. I never closed the door on the possibility of doing the astronaut thing. But en route I found out that I was really loving the science and getting more involved in the scientific research on climate and stuff so by the time I actually swapped over to do the astronaut job it was quite a race, you know. I made such good friends and we were doing so many good things. I’ll go back one day probably.

Were you at Goddard when you started applying?

That’s right.

Tell us about some of the projects that you’ve worked on since being selected as an astronaut up to when you were first selected for your first flight.

We lucked out. Our class showed up in ’96, right at the very beginning of the whole space station business before the first launch. So I went out to Russia with a gaggle of people for a couple of years, a month there, a month home, for about two years. I was working on the computer software system which was more complicated than it sounds because the U.S. computers weren’t talking to the Russian computers. We had teams of people looking at all that, so resolving that was an interesting, a lot of fun. I got to know a lot of Russian people and how they do work over there in Moscow, so that was great. That was probably one of the best jobs I’ve had since coming here.

Let me step back, even before that. Do you have a good story about when you finally got the call to say, “Hey, still want to be an astronaut and, and come on over to the Astronaut Office?” What was that like? Where were you and what was your reaction?

Actually I was coming down from a field campaign in northern Canada and I had just dropped off the plane that we were using and was wandering through Minneapolis airport. A voice comes over the speakers, “Piers Sellers report to the Information Desk.” I kind of knew what this was about, ran down and find the Information Desk and I was told that if you got a call from the secretary, that meant it was thanks, but no thanks from NASA, and if you got a call from Bob Cabana, you’re in. So this lady answers it, “Hello, is that Piers Sellers?” I said, “Yes.” “I’m the secretary. I’m Bob Cabana’s secretary.” I went, “Oh.” She says, “Bob will be talking to you in a minute.” I said, “OK.” So that was very nice.

You are considered one of the most accomplished spacewalkers in the Astronaut Office. Do you recall…

I think, to be more accurate, I’ve got one of the highest times. Let’s go with what we can quantify.

OK. Do you remember your first spacewalk and what it was like?

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NASA astronaut Piers Sellers, STS-132 mission specialist, participates in a training session in the simulation control area in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) at the Sonny Carter Training Facility near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Very vividly. Something I tell all of the new guys is that the first time I went out the hatch I thought I was completely mentally prepared for everything and I was, as far as I could be. But just dropping out through the hatch headfirst into the empty universe there with China spinning below me, I had a tremendous sense of inversion, somehow up was down and down was up, left was right, right was left. Everything was very disorienting -- very, very bright sunlight, I mean, almost blinding sunlight -- very disorienting. And that lasted for about 30 seconds and somehow everything just sorted itself out, locked into place and sort of looked like it does in the NBL except, instead of a dirty pool bottom, there’s planet Earth. It was a very confusing moment but beautiful to see the real thing.

What’s it been like training with this particular group of crewmates?

Oh, a lot of fun. They try and have a good time no matter what and the training team is terrific too. We spend a lot of time together. We’ve been out playing pool matches and things like that. The training team is slightly better than us, it turns out.

I did forget to ask you about, going back to growing up, what kind of interests did you have growing up? What kinds of things did you like to do, hobbies, sports, things of that nature?

Aviation actually was a long, long interest besides spaceflight, you know, as I followed all that but things to actually do, I spent a lot of time on aircraft models, the ones that fly, wooden and paper, big. I designed these big gliders, some of which worked, most of which crashed. And then there was this kind of cadet program. I became aware teenagers can learn to fly, first on gliders, then powered aircraft and I did all that and that was wonderful.

What age was that when you did that?

Gliding, I think 15, 16 and then powered flight, 17, 18 and then through University. It was a great, great opportunity and thank you Royal Air Force for it.

How would you characterize the contribution of the thousands of people that work behind the scenes to ensure the success and safety of the crew and every mission here at NASA?

Well, the longer I am here at NASA, the more I find out about what people do and the more I’m in awe of how the whole thing works. People’s enthusiasm and dedication for the job is incredible and they keep at it. Particularly this whole business of making space station has been a pretty long, exciting but tiring process for thousands of people. To me it’s remarkable how many people have stayed through the whole thing, from the beginning, the first unit, you know, flown into space right up to assembly complete which is where we are almost.

What are the key objectives of this mission?

A couple of things. We’re the third to last mission. We’re delivering a large Russian module which we’re going to plug into the Russian segment. That’s a docking port and that’ll make life easier in the out years for transport vehicles to come and go. That’s probably the main objective. The other thing is a whole lot of servicing tasks to basically set up the station -- sort of brand spanking new condition for the post-shuttle period -- changing out some batteries, putting in some new communication stuff, basically little upgrades across the station so it’s in good shape for the long haul.

You are a Mission Specialist 4 for this flight. Can you give us an idea of what your key responsibilities are in that capacity on this flight?

Mainly I’ll be working with the station arm, supporting the spacewalks. While the guys are outside I’ll be moving stuff around for them, sometimes moving them around and also be helping Garrett move this Russian module from the payload bay in the shuttle all the way across to the Russian segment, plugging it in. I’ll be on the little Russian laptop talking to that thing, trying to make it do jobs during that process. One of the things I’m really looking forward to is on the way home I’ll get to sit on the flight deck with the flight crew. I’ve never done that before so it’s, that will be interesting.

Ken Ham mentioned that when the crew was put together he came to you to ask you to do the arm as opposed to spacewalking. He said you were great with it and is a new challenge for you. Are you looking forward to it?

I’ll tell you I found it tough. This is a complicated piece of machinery and I’ve really had to work at it. It’s been a challenge but I think I’ll be OK.

Give us your best description, if you would, kind of introduce us to the hardware that is going to be in Atlantis’s payload bay and a little bit more in depth of what the purpose of each piece is, the ones that you, that you know in depth, MRM1, let’s start with that one.

If you mention the payload bay -- big truck space volume, 60 foot long -- right at the back taking up about half of the payload is this MRM1, Mini Research Module 1. It’s big piece of Russian hardware. It’s about the size of a small Winnebago. It’s a bit cylindrical and when it’s plunked onto the bottom of station it’ll basically have a docking port that’s much lower than the rest of the bulk of station so the vehicles can come in and dock without getting into this little zone of other hardware on station. It’s like a standoff. The Russian company, Energia, has been making that. It’s converted from a previous piece of hardware that they had lying around so they’ve been busy making that for the last couple years. We’ll fly that up for them, that’s the main thing. Then forward of that there’s a big pallet. That’s got spare batteries that the guys are going to swap out, an antenna, a big S-band antenna which will give us redundant communications that’s on a big pallet and then that’s pretty much it. The rest of the payload bay is empty.

What involvement will the station crew have in the docked ops and how critical are they to the successful completion of the mission?

While we’re up there, Tracy Caldwell will be on board and she’ll be working with me. We’ll be working very closely together for all of the robotics operations, so crucial. They’ll be integral to our mission.

The day after you make it to orbit you are scheduled to do a limited inspection of the shuttle’s exterior tiles. Tell us about what involvement you will have in that and kind of give us an idea of how that will proceed.

There’s a team of three of us who will take us in turn to work the arm and different parts of the procedure. This is a fascinating process. We get the big boom, grab it with the shuttle arm -- it’s got cameras and sensors on the end -- and carefully wave it around all over the shuttle wings and the nose cap to inspect for damage. It’s a very complex set of maneuvers. They’re kind of automatic but the job as crew is to make sure that it, the system really is working the way that it is supposed to because this hardware comes very close to the wings and the nose of the shuttle and you don’t want any slips.

And for the rendezvous and docking phases of the flight, what will you be doing for that?

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Astronaut Piers Sellers, STS-132 mission specialist, dons a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit in preparation for a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. United Space Alliance suit technician Mark Grant assisted Sellers. Photo Credit: NASA

I’ll be helping with the docking system and mainly doing all the photo documentation of the station as we come up.

And after docking you guys will have a chance to get acclimated, say “hi” to the station crew and then it’s right to work.

Straight to work.

OK, tell us about what’s on tap for you on that day, post docking.

The first thing we’re going to do, having said hello and all that, we’ve got the safety brief and all that, is I’ll go with Tracy and we’ll pull the pallet out of the shuttle using the big station arm. So we’ll pull it out of the shuttle payload bay and stow it on board station on one of the carts, on one of the mobile transporters, so it will be ready for ops the next day. Straight to work.

There are three scheduled spacewalks on the mission. On the first one Garrett Reisman and Stephen Bowen will go outside to do some work. Tell us about what they’ll do outside and give us an idea of what you’ll be doing on the inside during that EVA.

This pallet that’ll be already be on board station, you know, attached to a part of station by that time, it’s got the pieces of this new S-band antenna which the guys have to install. So the most important task in EVA 1 is to take these pieces off the pallet and install them right on top of the station, on top of the Z1 truss. It’s pretty much on the top of the mountain if you’re looking at the station. So we’re going to use the arm to basically transport Garrett backwards and forwards. He’s going to be holding these pieces. We’ll take him from the pallet, swing him over, all the way up to the top of the station, (plop), and he’ll plant the antenna like a big flag and then put a big dish on top. That’ll be perfect.

And there’s also a temporary platform installation that day, is that correct?

That’s right. There’s a tool platform for the SPDM, the little Canadian robot so that should improve its performance when we get around to using it later in the year.

Then on the second spacewalk of the mission Stephen Bowen and Mike Good are scheduled to be working outside. Kind of walk us through what will happen for that EVA and again tell us what you’ll be doing for that one.

This one’s good stuff. They’re going to be working all the way out on one extreme end of the space station, on the P6 truss, the port-most point of the space station. The idea is to swap out some batteries; EVA 2 and EVA 3 have got the task of swapping out six batteries. So they’ll go all the way out there and then we’ll take the arm with this big pallet full of batteries and hold it out in front of them. They’ll be basically pulling these big batteries off, each one the size of a cupboard or a file cabinet, take these off and swapping them with the old ones, put the old ones on the pallet and the idea is to swap them all out and then bring the old ones home for refurbishment.

And you’ll do four on EVA 2?

That’s right, four on EVA 2 and two on EVA 3 and a couple of other tasks on EVA 3 which I’m sure will change before we go. That’s the way it is.

The spacewalks are a major part of the mission and you mentioned the installation of MRM1. Can you give us a blow-by-blow account of how that will happen, how MRM1 will get installed?

It’s intriguing. This is like a little ballet. The MRM1 is sitting clamped inside the payload bay of shuttle for launch, really securely, so the first thing you do is get the shuttle arm, the small arm as we call it insultingly to the shuttle guys, and they will grab the MRM1. Then we release the clamps and lift it slowly out the payload bay so it’s hovering above them. Then the big station arm comes from the other side and grabs it. The shuttle arm lets go. Station arm swings it all the way over the whole of the belly of station, all the way over, and holds it above a docking port on the Russian side. At that point, we’ll use the laptop to talk to the Russian module, wake it up. It’s got two little brains in there and we’ll ask it to extend a docking probe. It basically has the same docking system that a Soyuz has, pretty much. We’ll extend this little probe and then we’ll push it into the station. As far as station’s concerned, it’s just like another Soyuz coming and docking so we’ll push it in with the arm as opposed to using rockets to drive it in. The probe will go into a cone, latch and then we’ll retract the probe so that it pulls the two pieces together, the station and the MRM1 tight. Hopefully if it will work out nicely and we’ll get a seal and I think sometime, the next day, they’ll open up the hatches and see if anybody’s stowed away inside.

Each mission has its own complexities. How would you characterize how complex this mission’s going to be and what are going to be the really challenging tasks?

Well you’ve been here about the same length of time as I have. These missions seem to get more and more ambitious and complex, more and more tasks get done. I think it’s an interesting mixture of different tasks. Just delivering the Russian module, that’s going to be a challenge by itself. We’re putting somebody else’s hardware onto the station and a lot of collaborative work has gone into this but you never know how it’s going to work out. I’m sure it won’t be a completely smooth process. I’m sure there will be challenges. And spacewalks, you know, that’s always an interesting business. No thing is a sure thing.

And if I’m not mistaken, you are also the Load Master for this mission. Is that correct?

That’s right but I’ve been trying to get other people to do my work for me. So far I’ve not been very successful. We have quite a bit of transfer, not as much as if we had an MPLM or a cargo carrier, but there’s quite a bit.

That can still be pretty involved.

Oh, yeah. Easy to mess up.

You mentioned about on the way home you’ll be on Flight Deck. What kind of tasks will you be doing for the undocking phase of the flight?

For the undocking, I’ll help fill out the computers that we use for navigation for undocking, the fly around and support Garrett on the docking system. Hopefully that will work smoothly. It’s a very robust system. And then, as we fly around the station, we want to get really as much imagery as we can of the whole of station. We’re looking for small damage from micrometeoroids and debris impact all over station. We’re going to try and get a complete health check on the outside of station as we fly around.

STS-132 is the last scheduled flight of Atlantis. It’s a shuttle that has a pretty, pretty stunning legacy basically. What are your thoughts about being part of that legacy and about this possibly being the last flight of Atlantis?

Well, it’s really sobering. I flew on Atlantis on my first flight so I’m familiar with, with the old lady. It’s a tremendous contribution these three shuttles have made to space flight and particularly the construction of station, Endeavour, Atlantis and Discovery. It’s going to be the end of an era. It really will be. I’m wondering if we’ll ever see another space plane, large space plane, made in our lifetimes. I certainly hope so because it’s a tremendous piece of technology.

Are there any shuttle memories that you have, any moments that stick out in your mind, any particular missions that you’ve witnessed or anything that you could…

So, so many, so many memories. Launches are definitely attention getting. It’s a very real experience being shaking around in that thing and being pushed faster and faster and faster, exhilarating. Spacewalks, of course, are wonderful but the thing I think that really sank, sank in over the years was since 90 percent of our time is spent on the ground preparing for missions, helping other people go do missions, how many people it takes to do this, how many dedicated people, and that I’ve enjoyed most of all -- just working with a large number of nice, like-minded, hard-working people for a useful profitable goal. It’s been a lot of fun.

How do you think the shuttle and the shuttle program will be remembered in history in a world where space travel between worlds is going to become as commonplace as airplane travel is today here on Earth?

I hope to see that day. When I was a kid I really thought by this time, by my advanced age now, that we’d by seeing people on Mars and all the rest of it. I still hope to see people on Mars and I think the shuttle will be seen as probably a very long reach in technology. Given the times it was a very ambitious technical challenge which it largely satisfied. Shuttle has some delicacies, as you know, but it’s been a very successful vehicle and has done an awful lot for the U.S. space program -- built the station basically -- and I think that’s what’ll go down in history, that it built space station.