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Preflight Interview: Nicole Stott, Mission Specialist
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NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, uses the virtual reality lab in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center to train for some of her duties aboard the space shuttle and space station. This type of computer interface, paired with virtual reality training hardware and software, helps to prepare crew members for dealing with space station elements. Photo Credit: NASA

This is the STS-133 interview with Mission Specialist Nicole Stott. Nicole, tell us about the place where you grew up, your home town and what it was like growing up there and how that place influenced who you’ve become.

Well, I grew up in Clearwater, Florida, which is on the west coast, on the Gulf side there. Beautiful beaches, I have fond memories of that and, of course, flying back from Houston to Clearwater, it just gets more and more beautiful each time I see it. When I think about Clearwater, though I think about my family and the time I had there. My family is still in that local area so it’s nice to go back and visit and the one thing that sticks out for me is the time as a family that we spent at the local airpark because I think that had a huge influence on kind of the direction I took for school and then a career so it had a huge influence. I enjoy going back and seeing the people and one of the things about getting to fly in space before was that it let me see just how enthusiastic and excited that local area was about my mission and following me flying in space so I really appreciate that.

What was it about the airpark that time period? What was it about that really influenced you?

Well, I think my dad had a real passion for flying that he shared with us as a family and he built a couple airplanes, small aerobatic airplanes that started in our garage and then would move to the airport and it was just a little local hometown airport and, in fact, after this last flight I went back and visited them. I try to go back there once a year for their open house but they invited me back after the flight and I got to see a lot of the people that are still there, people that were friends of my dad’s years ago growing up so it was my first exposure to flying and it kind of really, I mean it got in my blood there and that’s kind of what really helped me choose what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do something with flying and it just kind of evolved towards the aerospace side of things for me.

Did you get a chance to see that area from space on any of your time…

I did. We have quite a few passes over that area, the Florida Panhandle and I would always look for it. I actually got some pretty good shots of that whole Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay and the beach area there it was pretty neat. I sent some back to the people there and they’re using it as their desktop, screensavers now.

Every accomplishment begins with some form of motivation. You’ve been an astronaut here now for about ten years?

Um huh.

Tell us about what it was that motivated you to want to pursue this line of work.

Well, a couple things motivated me. The first being that family experience I had sharing, kind of the joy of flying with my dad and getting those first flights in a small airplane and just seeing how really cool and exciting that is. It definitely influenced my university choice for sure with aeronautical engineering and living in Florida you have that space coast right there and out of high school I was watching shuttle launches and throughout college and that’s what kind of really pushed me finally towards wanting to apply and work with NASA.

Recount for us, if you would, the steps that you took to basically make it to NASA and kind of weave in your education where you went and some of your professional experience.

Okay. Well after graduating from high school I actually chose sort of a non-traditional path. I stayed in the local area and went to the local community college because they had this really great program called Aviation Administration. It’s kind of a, a business degree that allowed you to get your pilot’s license in parallel with it so I worked on that and I think that was a really big stepping stone towards what I did further with my education, moving on to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for the engineering degree and I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Aeronautical Engineering there and that school is great because you’re hands on. You’re right on an airport. You go into a class and you talk about theory and then you’re out with the hardware itself and I’m really a, a hands-on person when it comes to learning. And then from there I applied to NASA out of college. They were on one of the standard hiring freezes that would happen every few years and instead I accepted a job with Pratt and Whitney down in West Palm Beach, Florida, working as a structural design engineer there and really enjoying what I was doing there but I always was always hoping that the spaceflight thing, the working on spacecraft would come through with NASA and after about a year at Pratt and Whitney it did. They came off their freeze and they tracked me down there and I started working for Kennedy Space Center in shuttle processing and had just a fantastic experience there. I mean, you are right there. You walk down into the hanger and there’s an orbiter above you and the opportunity to get in the crew module or work inside the payload bay and with the engineers and the technicians all very hands-on and working every aspect of processing from landing to launch and just a really great experience.

And once you, then take us from there to how you actually then became an astronaut. When did you make the application and how far, how much time elapsed in between when you finally got the call?

I think that’s one of the hardest things, is actually convincing yourself that you should fill out the application and send it in. That took a lot for me. I was not one of those people who from the time I watched the moon landing said, “You know, this is what I’ve got to do.” I always thought it was really cool but never thought it was a reality kind of thing, a possibility and it really wasn’t until I was working at Kennedy Space Center that several of the people that I considered to be mentors there encouraged me to apply and I did and again it took a lot to think that they were right and fill out the application but I applied and I got an interview on that first application and went through the whole process, of course, looking around me at the twenty other people who were interviewing with me and saying, “Okay, I don’t stand a chance. There is no way. These are very smart people doing cutting edge stuff and I just don’t have it.” And they did not select me that time but they offered me a job out here at Johnson Space Center as a Flight Engineer on the shuttle training aircraft and that was an amazing experience learning some crew coordination skills, working in an operational aviation environment which is very much like what you have on the flight deck of the space shuttle and I did that for two years and I could have done that, I loved it. That’s one thing about NASA. The jobs that I had all along the way, everyone of them was interesting in its own way and I could have seen spending years doing any one of them. And while I was there I applied again and after that application was selected in the Class of 2000.

Do you recall where you were when you got the call? Tell us that story.

(chuckle) I do. That was the day that I had my instrument rating flight set up to go do that day, my flight check for my instrument rating and that morning I got the call about the astronaut office selection and then I had to go off and do my, (chuckle), my check flight which went great but it was just like the whole time you’re thinking about something else. It was just a really cool day and it was also in July and we had an anniversary of the moon landing on that same day so it was kind of neat to have that in parallel with the announcement of our class.

How would you characterize the value of education in your life?

Huge. It’s one of those things you look at and you say, “You know, there’s absolutely no way I would be sitting here talking to you today if it wasn’t for the education that I received” and I think that started straight from elementary school and all the way up and having teachers that maybe see something in you that you don’t necessarily see in yourself and just subtly directing you in certain ways and I certainly had that happen to me and that was more in the kind of science and math area where I never really thought that I had any skill there and some teachers thought that I did and kind of pushed me in that direction which helped me know about things like aeronautical engineering and that those opportunities were out there.

Do you recall speaking of the, the science and math thing, you say that wasn’t something that was always…


…do you recall what it was like when you got it, when you just really got it?

Well, I, I recall figuring out that, “Wow! This is, this is fun.” And I think that’s a big part of it, is finding something that you enjoy doing and pursuing that and I’m thankful to this day to those teachers for kind of showing me that direction because otherwise I don’t know that I on my own would have ever realized it maybe too late but it certainly was a huge influence.

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Attired in a training version of her shuttle launch and entry suit, NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, participates in a post insertion/de-orbit training session on the middeck of the crew compartment trainer (CCT-2) in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

In 2009 you spent some time on board the International Space Station as a Flight Engineer. What was it like living and working on ISS and what are you most looking forward to on your return trip there?

It was amazing. I know we use that word a lot but it really was and I think now I’m really excited to go back. It’s going to be kind of strange ‘cause it’s going to be for such a short time. It’s going to be, I think like a blur but I’m looking forward to that expanded view out the Cupola window. I think that’s going to be magnificent. I’m looking forward to see the crew that’s up there our friends that have been there for a little while and how they’re enjoying the experience and just working on our mission. I think it’s going to be a really fun time. We’re doing some valuable stuff for station to keep them going for the next years and just seeing station outside that window again as we approach is going to be pretty impressive.

Prior to your first spaceflight you also spent some time on underwater, on an underwater mission for the NEEMO Project. What was it like spending time in that underwater habitat and how much did that prepare you for your time on space station?

Well, I think that at the time I thought, “Wow! This is great training. I had never been to space before doing it but just from the experience it seemed like how can it get any better than this. You’re in this confined habitat. It’s in a environment that’s not necessarily friendly to you. You can’t just walk out the door without special equipment very much parallels what spaceflight is like and without having been to space I just assumed, “This has got to be, you know, as close as it gets.” And now, having come back it was the best training I think I had in terms of just a the environment itself and what it’s like to live in a space like that and how you maybe need to change the way you deal with the people around you in terms of respecting the space that you have available to you and having a little bit more respect for the fact that you can’t walk out the door without special equipment and those kinds of things. It was, I think the perfect setup for it. And it was a beautiful experience. I left that with, “Wow! How…”again it’s one of those things where you wish you could have your family there. It was just like on the station. You wish you could have your family there. That’s the one thing missing and it’s just such an amazing thing, such a beautiful place with such different things going on that I thought, “Wow, if I never fly in space I did this is and this is way cool.”

Everyone on the crew has been to space before. As a matter of fact, three of the crew members including yourself have spent time on space station as crew members. How much of a benefit will that be having that amount of experience? How much of a benefit will that be to completing the mission successfully?

Well, I think it’ll be an efficiency thing. I think there’ll be less of an adaptation time. There’ll be a comfort already with how you live and work up there and so I think it’s more about efficiency and I think we’re going to do great. I know all of us are excited about seeing it again.

The content of the mission has changed a lot since you even first started training for it. What’s it been like having to adjust? How much of a challenge has it been to adjust to the changing content of the mission and what’s it been like?

It hasn’t been too bad. The biggest change that we had was, very thankfully, the addition of two EVAs or spacewalks on our flight and so kind of remapping the way we’re going to do the neutral buoyancy lab training is I think the biggest part of the change for us. That’s fun stuff to do. That’s the kind of training you want to be doing ‘cause it’s close again as you can get to doing it in space and so I think there really hasn’t been a real challenge to it other than having to think, “Okay, a couple of our guys are going out the door now and how are we going to work with that.”

How would you characterize the contributions of the thousands of people that work behind the scenes to ensure the safety and success of every mission?

It’s what it’s all about, honestly. We wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for them. I know I get really excited when I, I have a trip back to Kennedy Space Center or to any of the other centers where you feel like you have a connection to the work that’s going on and then when you go to places where some small company that’s building some little part that without it you wouldn’t fly the space station and it just means so much because I think it’s more than just a job to people in the space program. What I’ve seen on the shuttle and the station programs is the people working at it, it’s a heart and soul thing. It’s not just, “Okay, I get up and I’m going to this job every day.” It really is a commitment and a part of their life so it means a lot to go back and visit with them and it certainly is very evident to us that we wouldn’t be sitting here and doing this without them.

If your launch schedule holds, you’ll be on orbit right around the time of the tenth anniversary of the arrival of Expedition 1, the crew that started the continuous human presence on space, on ISS. Discuss the significance of their milestone and what ISS means to the future of space exploration.

Well, I think, the Expedition 1 crew we have to say thank you to them. It was certainly a milestone in the space station program. Those guys went up there and they were in a much smaller space than we are today with this huge volume that we have up there and they showed that as an international crew through our international partnerships, we made this complex spacecraft and this program work. You’re up there now and there’s still signs of Expedition 1. Everybody puts their mission sticker up on a wall in the node and you see that and it’s a really neat reminder of how long we’ve been just actively been working and living on the space station and I think if you say to most people, “It’s been going on for ten years” they might not even realize that two hundred miles above them has been circling this crew for ten years and as far as the future of space exploration goes I think it’s huge. The thing that really impresses me about everything we do up there is that you can find some goodness in it for life here on earth as well as how are we going to do future exploration of space better and that’s a really impressive thing to me that any experiment we do, how we live on station with the systems that we have recycling water and using solar panels for energy, it certainly is how we have to live and work in space but it’s at the same time something that could be helping us improve life here on earth and so I think that’s a huge thing.

Tell us, if you would, what the key objective are for STS-133.

The key objectives for STS-133 are primarily positioning the station for future years to come, both inside and outside. We have supplies that we’re bringing for the crew to live and work continuously for the next few years inside the station as well as some large spares or replacement units that we’ll put on the outside of the station for future change-outs of some bigger units that might fail and we’re doing this in a couple of ways. We have a big platform that we’re bringing up that we’re going to stick on the outside of the station that has these spare units and then we also have this logistics module that has traveled to space before but it’s always come home with stuff in it and this time we’re leaving it attached to station. It’ll essentially be another module up there for them. It’ll be filled with all kinds of stuff for living/working on the inside and then it will also act as a storage area for the crew on board which is, as you can imagine, stowage is kind of a premium up there.

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NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is pictured during a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo Credit: NASA

And one of those pieces of hardware that you mentioned, it’s called the Permanent Multipurpose Module. It’s a differently outfitted multipurpose logistics module…


…tell us about the PMM, as it’s called, is different from a regular MPLM. What’s, how has it been configured differently. Why is it different?

Well, the fact that it’s going to be there permanently makes it a different on its own but some of the things they’ve done is modified the shielding on the outside of the container of the module so that, to protect it from micro-meteorite debris so they had to add some different shields, some metal plates on the outside and some additional insulation for it to stay up there for an extended period of time rather than just being up there two weeks at a time and then on the inside, they’ve modified some valves and also some of the internal configurations so that it’s a little less complicated even than it was before. Things that we don’t need to have on it as a temporary module are now removed and simplified so that we can take advantage of as much space in there as possible.

The crew is also scheduled to deliver Robonaut or R2 to the station. Based on your knowledge, what do you know about Robonaut and its purpose on space station for the future.

Well, I think we’re bringing Robonaut to the station as what I like to think of as a technology demonstrator and I think it certainly has an appeal to the public. There’s a very kind of visual aspect of it since it kind of looks like a person and as far as our association with it is concerned, we really don’t get to do a lot with it. We’re delivering it to station. It’ll be inside of the PMM and I think we get to take some of its housing off of it but we aren’t even going to have the opportunity to move it over to station so no real work with it as far as we’re concerned but I think once the crew that’s up there in December will be pulling it out and doing some checkout with the ground operating it and sending commands as well as the crew on board having some interaction with it, but ultimately I think the idea is that it assists crew members with tasks that maybe would put a crew member in a dangerous situation that we wouldn’t want to have them in. That the robot could access places that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to get to and provide an extra set of hands with tools, ultimately I think on the outside of the station.

Stay out there a lot longer than…

Oh, yeah.

On the day after you make it to orbit there’s going to be an external survey of the shuttle’s tiles. I’m not sure if you’re directly involved with that but if you’re not, what will you be doing during that time on that day?

Okay I am not participating in that. I think I’ll set up some of the photo/TV stuff for them but the main thing that the rest of us will be doing is really positioning ourselves for the rendezvous and docking the next day and that’s a lot, just checkout some of the systems the docking system, and then we also have two spacesuits on board with us that Tim and Al will be using for their spacewalks and we’ll be running through the full top to bottom checks on those as well.

Take us through the activities of the next day, the rendezvous and docking phases, and even post-docking or close to post-, I understand you’re going to start even getting the ELC out of the payload bay just pretty much right after you dock. Take us through that if you would.

Yeah, that’s going to be a busy day. We have the whole process of burning our engines to get in the right orbit and plane with the station we can dock and one of the moves that has become very popular with people watching I know is this rendezvous pitch maneuver that we’ll do before we dock with the station where the shuttle basically does a full 360 so that the crew on station can take some detailed photos of the belly and different areas of the shuttle to make sure we don’t have any damage and then we move in for the actual docking and I’m really looking forward to that. This’ll be the first time that I’ve had the chance to like have hands on with the docking system that actually captures the station with the shuttle so I, I’m sure that’s going to be pretty impressive and then we get docked and pretty quickly, once we do all our pressure checks and open the hatches, we’re over there. We have a little welcome ceremony, I think, big hugs I’m sure all around with the, the crew members and then Tim and I are moving right into the ELC 4 for removal from the payload bay and attachment onto the space station so it’s going to be a long, busy day, but what I look forward to as some of the most exciting aspects of the mission seeing the station again for the first time, docking and saying hi to everybody and then moving right into a really cool robotics task.

Walk us through if you would the procedure for getting that pallet out of the payload bay. It’s going to be a highly choreographed event.

It is and it’s kind of a neat one because we’ll be working with both the station arm and the shuttle arm and Tim and I’ll move over to the station side and for the first time we’ll be working out of the Cupola as the robotics work station so that’s going to be a really neat thing. Up ‘til now my experience has been working in the laboratory on the robotics work station where you’re looking at video displays of where the arm is and what you’re grappling to and this is going to provide this like 360, beautiful view of the real thing going on out there. Eric and Al will be back on the shuttle working the shuttle robotic arm and with the station arm, Tim and I are going to pull the ELC out of the payload and then we’ll position it so that the shuttle robotic arm can grab it and while they have it, holding it out there in space, we’re going to move the station arm back over to another place on the space station and do what we call a Walk Off which is basically plug the other end in on station and then take the end that was plugged in off and use it as the end effector to grab the ELC again. And then we’ll hand it back from the shuttle arm, station arm will take it and then install it over onto the earth facing side of the space station truss.

After your work on station is complete, you’ll undock and make your way back towards earth. That undocking will be maybe one of the last opportunities for, for anybody to see station from that vantage point, from inside of a shuttle. As you sit here today trying to imagine, you know, just what that moment’s going to be like what comes to mind? What are you thinking?

It’s one of those emotional times, I think. For me leaving station before, it was definitely an emotional thing. I’d lived there for three months. It was like watching your home as you drive away and it’s such a beautiful place. It looks spectacular when I arrive there and it’s another one of those where, how did it get that much more beautiful when you leave and get to see it and I think there’s going to be that same kind of feeling like “Wow, this is just a really spectacular place”, and, just to be blessed with the opportunity to see it through the shuttle windows like that is something I know will stay with me forever. It’s sad, I think that there’s not going to be that opportunity any more.

This mission’s also scheduled to be one of the last space shuttle flights. What does it mean to you to have had an opportunity to have been a part of the space shuttle program?

These words come out sometimes and they might now sound all that sincere but really, for me this literally a dream come true. I thought, while I was working at Kennedy Space Center, how can it get any better than this? How can physically here working on the ground with these magnificent vehicles, how can it get any better? And then just every step of the way, it’s gotten better and to have the chance to have flown on them and to see what fantastic work is being done both with shuttles that had independent flights, not even going to station, the work that was done there as well as the, the joint ops with space station, it’s something that has to go down in the history books as, you know, significant in our lifetime, definitely.

Scheduled to also be the last flight of Discovery, Discovery’s the most accomplished shuttle in the fleet. If you had to compile a list of Discovery’s greatest hits, events, moments what events or missions do you think should be on that list?

Well, I think Discovery definitely had its firsts with satellite deployments and those kinds of things it had involvement with the Hubble telescope missions. But what stands out for me is that Discovery was the vehicle that was there for our return to flight activities. It’s the one that flew in, in both cases, return to flight and it was the name just kind of stands out Discovery, the chance to get back into spaceflight and be flying shuttles again and it’s a special vehicle. And when I think about Discovery I think about my time at KSC and it was the first vehicle that I got to work on there and it’s really an interesting thing for me to be involved with it, have had the chance to be involved with it on the ground, processing, getting it ready for other people to launch and land on and then just be blessed with the opportunity to fly it and potentially on its last flight.

When all is said and done here with the shuttle, how do you think its contribution to space exploration will be characterized in history?

Well, like we said, I think it, it’s a historic thing. This is a vehicle that I don’t think will be rivaled for a long time, really and truly, just a masterpiece kind of vehicle and I hope that in this time of retiring shuttles we’re really taking the opportunity to celebrate how accomplished they have been and from the time where we were working to deploy satellites and everything from civilian to DOD missions and showing how we can operate with EVAs and spacewalks from the payload bay and just how that evolved into the way we’re doing things today on space station and the joint operations with space station it’s part of our history that I think won’t be forgotten ever.