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Preflight Interview: Michael Barratt, Mission Specialist
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NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, STS-133 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, participates in a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-133 interview with Mission Specialist Dr. Michael Barratt. Mike, tell us about your hometown, what it was like growing up there and how that place influenced you.

My hometown was Camas, Washington, up in Washington state in the southern, southwestern area around the Columbia River, very beautiful, very green farming community and it was just a perfect upbringing, just working on the farm and going to school. We learned about building and repairing and maintenance and taking care of animals along with just the standard educational stuff and it was just a perfect place to grow up.

So that, the opportunity probably to have hands on with doing things, I’m sure that helped?

Oh, absolutely. On the farm you’re always fixing things and the same is always more or less true on space station (chuckle) so I think it definitely prepared me well. We grew up knowing how to use tools and both of my parents worked in spite of having a farm so we also grew up knowing how to prepare meals and run a household so I think for my two brothers and I it was perfect preparation for a lot of different paths.

Did you have a chance to see that region from space at all?

Oh, I sure did. Any chance that I got, I would pretty much look at the passes that we would be taking over the Pacific Northwest and I was always ready with a camera. It’s, called the evergreen state for the reason. There’s quite a bit of rain there and that keeps our forests beautiful so it also makes it very difficult to photograph much of the area. But fortunately, I was up there throughout the summer and I was able to take lots of photographs during really clear weather. I could see my hometown, the little lake I grew up on so, yeah, lots of good imagery.

What was the reaction the first time you saw it and just realizing, “Hey, I’m way up here and I was there”?

Well, first reaction was, “Gosh, we’re going over this awfully fast.” You get your camera ready and you take a couple of pictures and you’re already gone. But, the good thing is that it looks just as beautiful from space as it does from the ground, from where you’re living there so it’s just, natural beauty of that region of the world is just wonderful.

Recount for us the steps that you’ve taken in your professional career that have led you here to NASA.

Well, interestingly I probably have a story common to a lot of the people in the astronaut corps in that we go through career crisis because we have so many broad interests. A lot of us are interested in science and technology but we’re also interested in flying and engineering and practical things and I don’t think I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up until I was in my mid-thirties or so. I wanted to be a marine biologist at one time, an astronomer, an archaeologist and when I went to undergrad at the University of Washington, my focus was marine zoology. I met my wife in undergrad and we both went to medical school together. I started developing an interest in human physiology and probably late during my undergrad years I started getting interested in space and the more I went through medical school I realized that space is a field that puts so many things together that I love and I ended up in specializing in internal medicine mostly to learn pathophysiology well that I could then apply to the space program and then I went to a formal aerospace medical program in Ohio at Wright State University and Wright Patterson Air Force Base and the closer I got the more I realized that my suspicions were correct, that nothing puts everything together like the aerospace industry and having spent about nine years as a flight surgeon here and then coming to the astronaut corps, that strengthened all of those suspicions. We use earth observation, ocean science, engineering, flight, biomedical science, of course. All of these things are rolled together into one job. There’s nothing better than that.

Then that obviously made it very attractive then because you had all these interests.

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And I think I found my peers here like a lot of us have. We find people the same way who really didn’t know what they wanted to be necessarily because everything interests them and again, this rolls it all together so with a bunch of people who have solved their career anxiety by coming to Johnson Space Center.

What then was it that motivated you to want to apply, to go into the astronaut corps and tell us that story?

Well, I came down here to do space medicine. My express interest and passion, and it was space medicine, is space medicine. To me it’s just one of the most amazing specialties that you could possibly imagine and it was really when we started working the long duration flights with the Russians and the shuttle MIR program that I came to a couple of realizations. First of all, if we want to get somewhere out of low earth orbit, it’s probably going to involve long periods of space flight and particularly long periods of weightlessness, going to Mars, going to asteroids and further. And that’s why the long duration flight experience with the Russians and, of course, eventually the International Space Station really started to interest me. The second thing was that to really understand this environment you really need to experience it yourself and that’s what really motivated me to apply. Obviously I had been close to the program, met a lot of the astronauts in the office and got to understand what their job was like. I could potentially see myself fitting into that job although I didn’t think there was much of a chance with being accepted. But that was really the draw.

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

Oh, without, I mean, education, of course, gives you the tools to act on your interests. I think you don’t have to come from an educational powerhouse to be educated enough to pursue things that really interest you and pursue your dreams, if you will. I came from a fairly small community with good solid schools, no question about it, not wealthy schools but very good idealistic teachers and they empowered me to really act on all those various interests that I had and nurtured when I grew up. Education is the absolute right to people. Everybody should have the right to pursue those dreams and again just to be empowered to do that, so education is absolutely key.

In 2009 you spent some time onboard International Space Station as a member of the Expeditions 19 and 20 crew. Talk about that time, how it was living and working on ISS and how actually getting to that environment, like you said, and experiencing it for yourself, what were your thoughts about that?

Well, that’s a great question. It think flying in space is a wonderful experience for anybody no matter what their background, but as a space medical specialist my flight experience was like a dream come true. First of all, it was a good long flight. I spent a 199 days in space and I had a tremendous crew. We saw the transition from three people to six people as a permanent crew so that was very interesting, but also very fortunate for me, I saw twenty-two other people during my flight experience besides myself so I was able to personally look at my own adaptation process, both physiologic, what the body does in response to zero gravity and behavioral, how you learn to operate and perform in zero gravity and then I saw that in various other people as well, people who had had rich flight experiences, had spent over a year in space like my commander, Gennady Padalka, people who were doing their first space flights and being there only for a short period of time and all of these folks had, I think, a fairly wide envelope of performance capabilities and flight experiences, all of them very successful. But it allowed me to make some observations and recommendations, if you will. It, I think, allowed us to systematically write down some of these milestones that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do without being up there and seeing so many people and hopefully to pass on some of these little pearls to others who fly and help them get a little bit ahead of this curve and, and be good performers quicker.

Although you’ve been on ISS before and you’ve been up there for a bit, this is going to be your first shuttle flight.

That’s right.

Tell us about that, the anticipation with that. What are your thoughts about that?

Well, again it will be my first shuttle flight. First of all, I never expected to have a shuttle flight. When I went away to Russia to fly on the Soyuz, we already knew that the shuttle program was winding down and I actually recycled all of my shuttle training materials before I got on the plane to go to Russia because I thought that door had been closed so I was very, very surprised, honored, shocked if you will, to be assigned to a shuttle flight before I even landed and then, of course, I had to scramble to find my training materials. But there’s two things, the chance to fly on a brand new vehicle and to learn a new system obviously was, was a wonderful thing and I’m really enjoying that right now with my crew. The other thing is that I’ve already been in space so a lot of anxieties about being in zero gravity and how will I handle my first washing, my first bathroom use, preparing my first meal, all of that is pretty well alleviated so when I go, I go at least with that confidence that I’ll be able to function on the space station fairly well. But flying the shuttle will be a tremendous experience. It’s massive compared to the Soyuz which is a great little spaceship but that’s the operative word is it’s fairly little. The shuttle has a different mission and it’s just huge to be able to carry the load to orbit that it does, the number of people that it does. It’s a very complex machine and I’m really looking forward to flying in that.

Everyone on this crew has been to space before, including three crew members including yourself who’ve spent time on ISS. How much of a benefit is it going to be having that experience base to successfully completing this mission?

I think it’s tremendously beneficial to have veteran crew members on a flight and our flight happens to be all veterans. It’s a bit of a luxury in a way. The experience for Nicole Stott and Tim Kopra happen to coincide with my flight so not only do we all have that long duration experience. We know how each other works, how one another works up there and how to work together and so I think that’s a tremendous benefit. As we start doing training events together, we already know how to communicate with each other. We know one another habits and I think we work very effectively and efficiently so training in preparation for this flight has been very smooth largely because of that.

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NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, STS-133 mission specialist, shakes hands with Robonaut 2 (R2) during media day in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

And speaking of the training, the content of the mission has changed since you began training and it’s, as we speak, I’m sure probably being solidified. Has it been, have there been much, many challenges, I guess, adjusting to those changes at all?

Well, the changes are good news for us because our flight has been extended. We have an eleven day mission now rather than an eight day mission and that’s because the addition of two spacewalks that Tim Kopra and Al Drew will be doing so we’re actually very happy to get those and the training flow hasn’t really extended that much. We’ve added six weeks or so and the pace of training is already fairly comfortable and, so to get that extra time to fit these training events in I think helps us out a lot. We’ll have a good pace but not an exhausting pace in getting ready for our flight. So we’re actually very happy to have the additional spacewalks and some of the robotics activities that go with that.

Tell us how you would characterize the contributions of the thousands of people who work behind the scenes to ensure the success and safety of the crew and every mission.

As we’ve prepared for our shuttle mission we’ve certainly gone to visit some of these places. We just got back from the Kennedy Space Center here recently to look at Discovery. We went to Michoud to look at our external tank and met with the workers who are getting that all prepared and the one thing that really strikes you, aside from the fact that they’re very professional experiences, that they’re very dedicated and almost everybody there is working extra hours and going extra miles to make everything work and this is not a new thing. That’s their standard operating curve. Everybody keeps their head in the game and the orbiters have been looking very clean recently, largely because of that. When you look at the fact that the program is winding down and everybody’s aware of that, but then you look at the quality metrics, if you will, the indicators that tell you what shape the orbiter and its parts are in, they’re very, very good. Nobody has, let me rephrase that. Everybody is just maintaining an incredibly high, if not higher standard, of professionalism to keep this program running so we have nothing but admiration and gratitude for what these people do. It’s, I would have to say that of all that NASA is, our hardware, our technology, our exploration, it’s our people and our brain trust that probably constitute the greatest treasure and, you know, these people who process the orbiters and our payloads are certainly among those.

If your launch schedule holds, you’re scheduled to be on orbit right around the time of the tenth anniversary of the arrival of Expedition 1, that’s the crew that established continuous human presence on ISS. Discuss the significance of their milestone and the future of how space station’s going to help the future of space exploration.

Well, I think ten years is a huge milestone and it’s not just an anniversary of a platform we put up there and, and put people on and they did work. This program, this platform has grown tremendously during that ten year period. It continues to add in size and complexity. It’s been continually manned through that ten year period which is an amazing thing and the maturity of the program, I think, is what really shows after ten years. You have a tremendous challenge in front of you to plan out every turn of a screw, every push of a button, every opening of a power channel that makes the space station work. It’s the things that you don’t anticipate that really challenge you and after ten years we have learned how to work in space and how to solve problems that we didn’t anticipate and only experience teaches you that and the ten years of experience we’ve accrued on space station has just made us so much better. You can look at the maturity by just the day to day operations right now and filling six people’s timelines with science and maintenance activities and all the people on the ground that have to come together to make that work. It’s like conducting a symphony and it works very well right now. So aside from the fact that we did what we said we were going to do, we’ve also done a lot of things we didn’t anticipate that we were going to do and, and are very much richer for it and that’s the kind of experience that you need to go further when you are fielding new systems and fielding new operational procedures, if you will, plans. You really have to have that base of experience to do it confidently and station has given us that and will continue to give us that.

Tell us if you will in a nutshell what the key objectives are for STS-133.

STS-133 will be delivering a multipurpose logistics module which is being converted into a permanent module and that will actually stay on the station. Normally these modules take cargo up and bring them back. This one is being converted into a closet, if you will, a really magnificent closet that will allow storage and we really need storage room on the International Station so the PMM as it’s called will be attached to Node 1 and stay there. It’s probably the last largest U.S. piece that will add to the station’s structure. We’re also taking up and Express Logistics Carrier with a large radiator on it and we’ll be attaching that to the truss and that radiator will be available as a spare for the station as we need it and a lot of cargo transfer as for every shuttle that visits the station now, we bring pressurized cargo from whatever modules we’re taking up and we transfer that to the station. We bring water to the station which we produce on the space shuttle with our fuel cells and very importantly the shuttle will be able to return things from the space station to the ground, a lot of science results, for instance, consist of frozen samples which we’ll be transferring to our glacier freezer on the shuttle mid-deck and bringing those down to the ground for analysis and that helps us to complete a lot of our biomedical science. So our mission has a lot of diverse aspects about it, the things that really make spaceflight wonderful, cargo transfer, new modules, the big logistics carrier and science transfer.

And as Mission Specialist 3 on the flight, tell us what some of your key responsibilities are for the mission.

My responsibilities are a bit diverse. I think like everybody’s and again that’s what makes the flight experience quite wonderful. I’ll be doing a lot of robotics activities, helping to install the PMM into its permanent place and I’ll be actually flying Tim Kopra around on the station arm as he goes about his EVA work which, for me, will be a very interesting and very exciting. I will be in charge of the after launch, what we call the post insertion plan and getting the orbiter ready to be a spaceship rather than a rocket ship that goes through the atmosphere and then at the end of the mission helping to turn us back into an airplane, a space plane to get ready to de-orbit and land. I’ll be obviously the crew medical officer onboard doing some science experiments as well and various other sundry things, can’t think of too much else. Food guy!

That’s always important! Tell us a little bit about how the PMM differs, I guess, in form, how it’s been outfitted or retrofitted to be different from an MPLM to make it a permanent part of the station.

Well, the MPLMs, of course, are designed to take cargo up and bring them back so they never spend much more than ten days or so, on station and so they’re, they’re built accordingly. To leave one up there permanently, and these when they go up are roughly twenty-two thousand pounds, so we’re talking about a fairly large module. To leave one permanently, you have to shield it against some of the harsh aspects of the space environment that you didn’t need to for a short period of time. We had to add some shielding for micro-meteroid protection. There’s a lot of debris flying around in low earth orbit and we have to give it a little better shielding to stay up there permanently and also we had to condition it for the heat cycles and a few days of heat cycling between the extremes of being in the sun up there which can give you a 150 degrees Centigrade and then being in shadow which can be minus 150 degrees Centigrade, you have to protect against that if you’re planning to keep a module up there continually. We’ve had to change some of the ventilation in there and change some of the electronics and the control aspects of it but for the most part the MPLM was very amenable to this kind of change and all that I mentioned has not taken the Italian Space Agency very along to effect so it tells you that the modules are already fairly robust and were quite amenable to leaving up there on a permanent basis. And I believe that the Leonardo module that we’re taking up has already flown seven times so this is a very experienced module. Its final flight, I believe its eighth flight, will be to park it and become a big part of the space station so…

Your crew is also scheduled to deliver Robonaut, R2. Tell us what you know about its purpose and the plan for it.

Well, Robonaut, R2, is very interesting. We’ve been looking at ways to help the human in spaceflight and it’s probably no coincidence that as you look at the human tasks that are required for spaceflight and you look at a machine, if you will, that will help with that, it starts to resemble a human for the higher fidelity support that it can give the human. So Robonaut 2 indeed becomes the first humanoid robot in space, so we’re very excited about that and unfortunately we won’t be able to unpack and use it. It, it’ll be a complex process and will go on for, for future station crews. With any luck, some of us will get back on station and be able to see it. But Robonaut becomes the first test bed to really see what a, a dextrous humanoid robot can do in space. Robonaut is, is very impressive to me. As a medical doctor, I was able to look at it, shake hands with it and one of the first things I noted was that the control actuators in the fingers are very alike to the tendons in the human hand and they can vary the sensitivity in the grip on this just like a human could do when it’s doing different, different tasks. Some things require more manual dexterity, less force, some things obviously a little bit more force and Robonaut can be smart enough to know when to use more or less force. So I think it’s very exciting to be able to test bed these concepts with Robonaut 2, with R2 rather, and see what it can do. I think we will see the beginning of a very long and fruitful life as we develop the, the technologies to make a humanoid robot useful in space.

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NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, STS-133 mission specialist, uses a communication system during a simulation exercise in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

On the day after you make it to orbit the crew is scheduled to do an inspection of the shuttle’s exterior tiles. Tell us about your day that day. What are you involved with at that day?

The second day is a very busy day, a lot of different activities, mostly getting ready for the docking and the transfer activities that we’re going to be doing on the next day. My job among other things is to get the network set up on the space shuttle and most of that I’ll do on Flight Day 1 but I’ll be completing that network setup on Flight Day 2. We will be checking out the EMUs, the spacesuits that Al Drew and Tim Kopra will be using and, and that’ll take a goodly bit of time, something I’m really looking forward to. I did that on space station several times and to do that on the shuttle now will be, I think, very interesting for me. I will be checking out the rendezvous tools that we’ll be using the next day and I’ll be kind of driving the overall big picture for rendezvous for Flight Day 3 so Flight Day 2 will give us a chance to make sure everything is connected and works right and that’s something I’m very interested in as well, plus some science activities. We’ll have the vaccine experiment and the cells experiment on the mid-deck of the shuttle and I’ll be checking after their health and making sure that they’re functioning properly and just the day to day maintenance on the shuttle, cleaning filters and making sure we’re shipshape.

And then the following day, rendezvous and docking as you mentioned, walk us through if you will what you will be doing on that day.

Well, docking day, as we call it D-Day is a very big day for all of us. It involves the entire crew. All six of us will be involved in that. Steve Lindsey and Eric Boe as the Commander and Pilot will obviously be doing all the dynamic flight operations. My job will be to follow the entire docking timeline along with those two gentlemen and make sure that all of our navigational sensors, the things that allow us to come together to make our correction burns and eventually to dock with the station, are all working in an integrated fashion. We have rendezvous radar. We have a laser range finder, which helps up out. We’ve got the overall navigation information that goes to the shuttle. All of those come together on a laptop-based program we call RPOP and I’ll be, as we call it, the RPOP driver, making sure that all of those sensors are giving us a coherent picture which feeds all of our flight activities and I’m really looking forward to seeing all of that work together. We’ve been training very hard to make sure that if one of those navigational sensors drops out, we can use the other ones to make our rendezvous work but overall it’s again like conducting a little symphony of information and making sure that we get a good sound of it and end up with a good docking at the end.

And once you dock the work doesn’t stop there. You’ll then have to get right into getting that logistics carrier, ELC4, out of the payload bay. Talk us through what’s going to happen and how you’re going to accomplish that.

Okay. I’ll do my best because again I’m not scheduled to do it and I don’t, I haven’t trained on it but here goes.


Well, you’re right. We’ll have to be very busy immediately after docking. We’ll be able to get a quick handshake without crewmates on station. We’re really looking forward to seeing them. We’ll get a quick safety briefing and make sure that everybody knows how to be safe on that magnificent stack up there and then we’ll go right to work. The ELC4 does come out on that first docked day and it’ll be a very interesting time because it requires coordination between two robotic arms which is always kind of exciting. We’ll be using the station arm to actually remove that Express Logistics Carrier from the shuttle payload bay and that’s a pretty big piece of equipment, by the way, with the radiator on it. Without the radiator, weighs about ten thousand pounds and so it’s actually fairly massive. Once we pluck it out with the space station arm, we’ll then hand that off to the space shuttle arm while the space station arm then can walk off from where it is attached originally, which is on Node 2. It will then attach itself to our mobile base servicer which is an arm carrier, if you will, that goes along the truss and once it’s established on to that mobile base, it will then take again the ELC from the shuttle arm and then we’ll be able to park it in its final parking place which is down on the starboard truss. So it’s a bit of choreography. It’s a testament really to how capable we are, if we want to get something from point A to point B and point B is a long way away, but we have to do it precisely and accurately and fairly quickly because all of these things can’t stay out in the space weather too long without being connected to power, this is how we are able to do it. So we’re very excited to be able to do this.

And much the same as you just did with the ELC4, if you would describe how you’re going to get the PMM out of the payload bay and attached to the station and tell me your involvement with that and any activation activities after that.

Okay. Well, the PMM will be a little simpler than the ELC4 because we’re using only one arm to do it but it, by its sheer size, will be quite an amazing thing to see. We have a lot of experience taking the MPLMs out of our shuttle payload bay and docking those to station and obviously this is a one way trip. We’re going to take it out and attach it to Node 1, almost in the center of the stack and, of course, we’ll leave it there. Tim Kopra and I will be doing that task, Tim being the lead robotics officer for PMM, and we will grab onto it. We’ll make sure that the shuttle guys undo the latches and unlock it so that it’s free floating and we’ll take it out and back it off from the shuttle payload bay and then we will fly it quite a distance actually from the very front of the station to the middle of the stack and attach it to Node 1. Now a couple of differences are that when I was there last there was no Cupola, which is a big domed wonderfully windowed extension on Node 3. We actually have a robotics work station there, so aside from our camera views, we’re going to have this magnificent view of the PMM coming out of the shuttle payload bay and we’re actually docking it almost right next to us on Node 1 so we’ll have that view and I think it’s going to be wonderful. And again it’s a one way trip. When we put it there, we think, probably for the station lifetime and once we get it there then we’ll be able to do some of the outfitting we need so that the leak checks for instance are done. We know that the ventilation circuit is good in there. We’ve powered it and eventually we’ll be able to crack the hatch and go inside, so very much looking forward to getting that on station.

After your work on station is complete, you’ll undock and prepare for your trip back home. It may be one of the last opportunities for anybody to see the station from the vantage point of inside the shuttle. As you sit here today trying to imagine what that’s going to be like, what are your thoughts about that?

I think that the view of the space station from the shuttle, from everything I’ve seen from returned crew members and the videos, has to be one of the most breathtaking sights available today and that’s probably one of the things I’m looking forward to most as we approach the station. Coming away from the station we will have made it bigger. We will have been with our friends for about eight days or so. We will have worked very hard and I think we’ll hopefully be whooped but very satisfied with the work we did and I think all of that is going to add to that view as we pull away and fly around it. I just imagine that it’s going to be breathtaking and I’m sure that I won’t be disappointed. It will be kind of bittersweet to see that view and to pull away from it, knowing that it will be a long time before we see a view like that again.

The mission’s also scheduled to be one of the final space shuttle flights. What does it mean to you to have been part of this program that seems to be coming to an end by all accounts?

Well, quite frankly, it’s a very emotional experience. I have a few ties to the Discovery anyway. As a Flight Surgeon I worked a few missions that involved Discovery. STS-60 was the first shuttle/MIR flight that we did where we flew a Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, on the space shuttle and that kicked off a program which was very fruitful for us. STS-91 also aboard Discovery was the last space shuttle mission I worked as a Flight Surgeon. It was also the last shuttle mission to visit the MIR space station and, of course, Discovery itself as a wonderful ship has launched many satellites, has helped to build the space station, has produced a wealth of science. I’m really honored to be flying on that ship during what may be its last mission. The shuttle has given us so much and to be involved at this stage as it’s coming to a close, it gives you the incredible vantage point to look back and see how much it’s contributed, not what you hope it will contribute in the future. I mean, we know solidly that this program, this vehicle and this program have returned so much to us in operating knowledge and scientific knowledge and it’s just an amazing see the program come to completion.