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Preflight Interview: Steve Bowen, Mission Specialist
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NASA astronaut Steve Bowen, STS-133 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit, awaits the start of a spacewalk training session in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Q: Steve, you were just named to the crew of STS-133 less than two months before the targeted launch.  Tell me about the circumstances of this unusual selection and how you got the news.

A: It was actually a sad story.  Tim [Kopra] had worked for well over a year putting this thing together and had an accident.  He’s unable to make the launch time frame as it’s currently scheduled; we needed to find somebody to fill his role as EVA, he was actually the EVA lead, EV1 for this flight, as well as MS2 [mission specialist 2], and so I was actually the chief of the EVA branch for the office, and he had the accident on Saturday, I came in Sunday, Monday, looking at the options as to how to fill the EVA role for his flight, and we came up really with three major options and the third option was actually a list of names I had, I felt obligated to put my name on the list because I’m among those qualified, but I was fifth of six names I had on that list and I’m not sure how they whittled through those first two options which I thought were really good options, and ended up with me.  That’s the management decision and that’s what they get paid to do, that’s their job, that’s their prerogative, and I don’t envy them—actually I’ve, watched the iterations that they have to go through to make the mechanisms work for flight assignments it’s not easy, it’s not pretty and you can never make everybody happy.  I actually left Monday night expecting a different answer than Tuesday when I got the news, and started studying.  It was not what you expected, not what you want.  Tim worked really hard.  And I won’t be filling the MS2 role they’re going to take Al Drew and Nicole Stott and make them MS 1 and 2 up and down.  They’d both been on the flight deck so that’ll work out easier for the team up on the flight deck.  I get to concentrate on just the EVA portion.  Tim and Drew—B. Alvin—had put together a great plan.  I literally told the EVA team don’t change a single word of the plan I’m going to follow what he wrote I’ve been watching the videos of what Tim did in the NBL and I’ve been talking to Tim as well and learning how to do these EVAs.

He’s still around and available to help coach.

Absolutely and he looks so healthy it’s the part that makes me shake my head when I talk to him and he should be the one on this flight and if things get delayed long enough, you never know with the way shuttles launch, he could be back in this seat and I could be watching from the audience as I was planning when they tried to launch in November.  I was there as a family escort, ready to see them on their way, and it didn’t work out then.

You flew on the previous shuttle flight and that was less than a year ago.  Did that figure into your being selected to, to take Tim’s spot?

I have no idea. I don’t think I looked back over a couple years when I was collecting names and looking at the experience we’re losing a lot of experience in the office as you can imagine, people are moving on to other jobs the numbers weren’t huge but there were a fair number of people who have had recent experience in the past few years. I didn’t look back six months and we didn’t look back six months.  We looked at who could fill the role. I don’t think that had much to contribute to the selection as people may assume.

Well you mentioned that some of Tim Kopra’s other jobs are being reapportioned.  Tell me what those other jobs are going to be so that you can concentrate on the spacewalk part.

Well, he was going to be the flight engineer, MS2 for the mission, and I have done that in the past, I did that on STS-126, however the time would not allow me to fill both those roles and that’s a huge learning curve, but Nicole and Al Drew were both on the flight deck as MS1, one up, one down, so they understood and they’ve been a part of that flight team from the beginning. It made sense and Steve [Lindsey] moved them over so that they’re both going to be on the flight deck, up and down; they’re just going to swap roles, which I think is a really good way to fill that position.  Then there are some other things.  There was a little bit of robotics that Tim had to do that they picked up within the crew that I won’t be doing.  I’m going to focus mostly on EVA.

Well, and of course, shuttle crew members spend a year or more training for a flight; you don’t have that time.  So what are you going to concentrate on during this extremely compressed training flow?

Well my recent experience having flown in the previous year or so that does help as far as the, how to function on a shuttle.  I’m fortunately flying with four classmates of mine as well.  It’s rare that you get people you’ve known very well for ten years and put them on the same crew and Steve Lindsey was head of the office and so we all know him that part of the crew I think fitting in while I won’t be as integrated in the team as, probably Tim would be, I won’t be shunned either—I mean, we’ve known each other for a long time and it’ll work out just fine.  The other aspect especially on the EVA side what you really concentrate on for that year are looking at the tasks and looking at the team that you’ve got and how to integrate all the robotics and the ground team and putting the tools together and the IV [intravehicular] work and actually executing the plan. My assumption and I’m sure it’s a good assumption, is they’ve already asked all those questions.  They’ve literally asked all the questions that you need to ask before you go outside. You were ready they were ready to go outside in November. I consciously looked at their plan I had at least been familiar with what they were going to on a higher level from my previous job they’ve got a good plan.  I’m just going to execute the plan that already existed the developmental part I’m skipping, and I know they put a good plan together I’m going to execute what they did.  For me that’s a little more difficult because I wasn’t there for the development.  It’s always easier because you understand all the what ifs and hows and whys. When I have a big why question, I call Tim up, or I ask Al or Art [Thomason], and they tell me this is why.  I’m trying to keep a lot of those right now as I work my way through the procedures and through our NBL runs so that I can understand the whys, ’cause that’s really a big part of it.  You can’t put every single word and every single action and every single movement in the plan if you have a why, that why was probably already asked and answered, so don’t go changing things, don’t go reinventing the wheel.  I’m literally going to try and step in and do what they were already going to do and sort the rest of this out as I go along.

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STS-133 Mission Specialist Steve Bowen attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, uses a communication system during a training session in the fixed-base shuttle mission simulator in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

Still it’s important for you to know the whys so you know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

That’s why I ask it, I ask these questions but when you’re executing a plan you’re doing something, especially when you’re in this role the impetus would necessarily go in and make it work for you.  I don’t feel I need to do that.  I think that they had a really good plan my options are take it as it is and not ask those questions.  Well, I’m not going to do that because I’m going outside in space I like to understand why I do things and I understand all the background that goes along with it.  Some of that stuff is obvious from experience we have a number of spacewalks under our belts now within the office, and that experience exists and we can understand that the task level of that just from the ten years we’ve all been working on it from my class and, longer for the other classes that knowledge is in the office.  The specifics, however, they’ve already knocked out, and I’m trying to whittle my questions down to those specifics and ask the whys.

Tell me more about the, the job that you and Al Drew are going to do outside.  What’s on the plate for these EVAs?

Well, we have to set up a cable, when we first go outside, we have to set up a cable so they can put the PMM [Permanent Multipurpose Module]—that’s the right acronym, correct?— we have to attach it, so we have to set up a cable. That one is sort of integral to the mission and we’ll get that installed and moved around right off the bat.  Then after that, I’m going to take the failed pump module and relocate it back down to ESP-2 [External Stowage Platform], hopefully for a later mission to take home, which’ll be nice.  And then after that there are a number of tasks around space station that we’re just going to go and do.  On my last flight and on the next flight, there’s not a lot of time to do all the tasks that have just built up over the past year.  Originally when this flight was assigned, there were no EVAs on it but they wisely saw they had the talent with Tim and Al and Mike [Barratt] and Nicole to put a good team outside and use that talent to get some work done.  These were two EVAs that were not originally in the plan, that they’ve taken advantage of the fact that they have these guys on board. They’re going around and we will be doing a lot of items, a lot of stuff.  It’s going to be busy I won’t be going out to the end of P6 this time but I will be all over the station, and Al goes pretty much both ends I think out to both SARJs [Solar Alpha Rotary Joint] we’re sort of all over station doing a lot of work.

How does this work compare to the spacewalks that you’ve done on your flights, on STS-126 and 132?

The biggest change for me is I will now be riding on the robotic arm.  I’ve watched others do that on both my previous flights.  I think Garrett [Reisman] spent three-quarters of our first EVA on 132 with his feet in the end of the arm out there I’ve seen it done and I’m usually the one crawling around on station going back and forth.  This time I get to take a ride.  I’ll have a big pump module in my face I won’t be able to see anything that’ll be a little bit different.  That’s the one task that’s probably a little bit different and that’s key, that was one of the things we looked at and when we were talking about the assignment process is that coordination between the EV and the robotics operator is key that’s been a big part of what I’ve been trying to listen for when I’m watching the replays of Tim’s runs in the NBL and talking to Mike Barratt and Nicole, to figure out that communication is integral to successfully operating the robotic arm with the person on the end of it.

So it is something that’s different from what you’ve done before out of five spacewalks.  Just from over your whole two flights in particular, what experiences from your time in space stick out in your mind are most vivid for you?

I really should say the people.  I mean, it’s just incredible to work with such great people on orbit and on the ground, too.  I mean this is a great place to work and great place to see people, and then when you get to orbit to see the process and see how people operate, that’s amazing.  When you look outside and there’s no replacing the view.  It’s that 24 hours a day, 365 days a year “Grand Canyon” moment, as we say, and that’s truly incredible.  But it’s really you’re getting to do this and share this with other people.

On your prior flights you flew on Endeavour and Atlantis .  Now you’re going to be on board for the final flight of Discovery .  What are your thoughts about the contributions of these three spaceships to America’s space exploration effort?

Well, I don’t think we really have grasped what this era of spaceflight has contributed to society as a whole, and I don’t think we necessarily understand what we’ve learned yet.  It’s obvious if you look at the public up until sort of recently a lot of times people don’t even know shuttles are up there.  I go out and I talk to school children all the time and I have the third graders and younger raise their hands because they really belong to a different, I won’t say species but they’re a different version of humanity because as long as they’ve been alive people have been living in space, and one of the original reasons space shuttle was built was to build the space station.  We’ve done that it’s met its primary objective.  The research that was done throughout the years on space shuttle we’re still learning from.  There’s stuff going on in the office right now where experiments were done 10, 12 years ago people are revisiting because what we learned then we may actually be able to utilize now.  It’s really exciting to have been a part of that.

What was it that got you involved in this?  I mean why did you want to be an astronaut?

When you’re a little kid and you’re watching people walk on the moon, and the space program in the late ’60s, early ’70s I think that’s pretty standard for people my age.  And I often tell other audiences that every day the people in Washington, D.C. should be bowed down to by the Silicon Valley people because if it weren’t for ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency], DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], NASA the changes that were made in the late ’60s, the investment in the space program and the computer and communications they wouldn’t have jobs.  It’s incredible the amount of payback we’ve gotten from what excited me to become an engineer.  You never think you’re going to become an astronaut, at least I never thought I was going to become an astronaut.  I just went to school and learned real early to study hard and do well because then you have all these options; I like to keep my options open.  When I graduated from high school I ended up going through the [U.S.] Naval Academy, it was great school offered me employment, and I really enjoyed my time in the submarine force which is what I got choose to do because I did well off at the Naval Academy.  After that I went to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] for grad school because the options were open to me, and I never really fathomed that I’d become an astronaut.  I ran across one person back in 1987, ’88, I guess it would have been ’88, who was at the prototype I was at for school—we learned how to operate nuclear reactors—and he said he was applying to become an astronaut, and I said, oh, that’s kind of neat I never really thought too hard about that.  Then I was on deployment in ’96 and the Navy message had come out, and by the time I got back to port the opportunity to apply had gone away because we don’t get to see all our messages on a submarine, at least we didn’t back then.  I was actually on shore duty in ’98 and the Navy message came out—and what that means is that NASA’s looking to hire a class, and so all the services put out a message and we apply through our services—and so I applied through the Navy while I was at Special Operations Command and I got selected and it actually took me a while when I applied, I actually sat there and thought about it why should I go and become an astronaut? Is that going to necessarily be (if I were to become an astronaut, which what’s it, .87% or something, .7, some incredibly small selection rate but just to go through the application process made me think) is it worth it? Are the contributions that NASA is making as great as I feel the contributions that my small part of the Navy are making as well?  I obviously answered that yes and so I applied. Then when they called, I asked the same question, because at that point I was executive officer of the pre-commissioning unit in Virginia which was a fantastic job— right there at the very beginning of a brand new class of submarines, and you get to establish the tone that will carry on throughout that class, and that was just a fantastic job I actually hesitated to say yes when they called because I felt what we were doing was important there, and it is but I also feel that what we’ve done here in the past 10 years has been important.  That’s how I became an astronaut; I’m not sure I actually answered your question but that’s sort of how I got here.

Well, let me get you to fill in some of the back of the story ’cause you got to NASA, as you said, from the Navy…


…and into the Navy from a small coastal town in Massachusetts.

Yes, I did.

Tell us about your hometown, what it was like growing up there.

Cohasset?  Cohasset’s a tiny little town by numbers up there about 6000 people at the time; right on the coast, it’s sort of actually geograph, geologically it marks the end of the, the rocky coast to the sandy coast.  Actually there’s a rocky beach and a sandy beach and there’s a large granite outcropping in the middle there it’s an interesting area and it’s right on the ocean so I spent a lot of my time sailing and in the water and at the beach, and it’s a fantastic little town.  I went back up there just a couple months ago and talked to the schools I just enjoy the area a lot. That’s where I grew up.

JSC2011-E-013887: Steve Bowen

Attired in a training version of his Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit, STS-133 Mission Specialist Steve Bowen prepares for the start of a spacewalk training session in the waters of the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory near NASA's Johnson Space Center. Mission Specialist Michael Barratt assisted Bowen. Photo Credit: NASA

Did you get a chance to see it from orbit?

Oh, yeah, I actually, we took a, this is a…a, an opportunity that I get, hopefully get to fix.  We actually set up, we had this great pass up the whole East Coast on [STS-]132 where we started off in New Zealand and it’s nighttime in New Zealand so I’m up there on the flight deck with Piers [Sellers] and we set up all the cameras so we could take shots as we were going over New Zealand, and we get past New Zealand and we come up across Mexico and up the Gulf and we had some interesting shots ’cause at the time the oil spill in the Gulf was going on so we had some shots from orbit of the oil spill.  Then we go right up the East Coast, right over Boston, we’re all taking pictures of Boston and Massachusetts, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cohasset, some really decent shots of that, except we had not set up all the cameras for daytime so our shots were not as fine and nice as we probably could have got ’em, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to correct that this time.  I have seen Cohasset from space and it’s just neat to look down.  I used to do that in airplanes, taking off out of Logan Airport when, if you took off heading south and you’d turn to the right a little bit, I could look down, I could actually spot the house I grew up in ’cause it was right next to a major landmark, but, I can’t spot my house from space.

Does growing up on the coast, sailing a lot, is that what leads one to the Naval Academy?

Probably I really like being at sea, actually; I even like being at sea on submarines.

Well, tell us about your, you touched on, your educational and, and career, professional path that, that ended up getting you to NASA.

Well I majored in electrical engineering at the Naval Academy.  Prior to that, in high school I’d done, as I said, fairly well across the board and I really was interested in engineering, and I chose electrical engineering when I was at the Naval Academy and that actually worked out pretty well.  It sort of continued my interest in communications and acoustics and all sorts of interesting things like that.  I chose the submarine force because I had done a submarine cruise one summer and the people on submarines were fantastic.  I really wanted to, if I was going to spend my time in the Navy, which at that point in time when you first graduate you think you’re getting out in five years, and I thought, well if I’m going to spend five years I want to spend it with people that I can really enjoy spending time with.  Fourteen years later, it made it difficult to leave the submarine force because the people were that good.  And my path through the submarine force initially I was go through a couple years of training and I ended up on USS Parche—she was cut in half and they were refueling her when I got there, but I did all the sea trials getting her back to sea.  Then I went to graduate school at MIT in Woods Hole; once again I got to spend time on the water that was another good deal, where I actually majored in ocean engineering acoustics, did a lot of acoustics research there, and I went back to sea on USS Augusta as engineer.  And that is three years, a couple deployments, ended up down in Tampa at Special Operations Command after that and quickly up to INSURV [Bureau of Inspection and Survey], and from INSURV up to PXO, well, XO PCU [executive officer pre-commissioning unit] Virginia, and sitting there fat, dumb and happy when I got a phone asking me to move to Houston.  The sad part of the story is, actually, is kind of, we were all set to move back to Connecticut, and we loved living in Connecticut when we had been assigned up there before, and literally I had to stop the movers at the door and say, we’re no longer moving to Connecticut.  I tried to cancel the movers but, for some reason the message didn’t take so when I went home that weekend  I was scheduled to go on leave for the move, I literally had to stop the movers at the door and tell them, no no no, we’ll be going the other way but not right now.  So that was a little bit different direction than anticipated at the time.

And now this flight is going to be coming here in the neighborhood of the historic 50th anniversaries of the first human spaceflights by Yuri Gagarin and then by Alan Shepard, and the 30th anniversary of the first shuttle flight.  Spaceflight has changed an awful lot in those 50 years.  As you look ahead to a new era, Steve, where do you think we’re going to be 50 years from now?

That’s a good question.  It’s sort of wide open, which is really exciting.  We have commercial groups interested in flying commercially to space and putting people in space for profit, which is kind of amazing.  It’s a dramatic change and NASA’s role in that, I think we’re still trying to figure that, actually the U.S. government’s role in that, we’re still trying to figure out how that’ll all interplay and how that’s all going to work some people look at chaos and see chaos; I look at it and I see opportunity and excitement.  We really don’t know where we’re going to end up in just the next few years and we’ll end up with some direction and it’ll be an exciting path regardless of what we think today.  I’m looking forward to it actually. I think it’s going to be very exciting, very interesting time.