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Preflight Interview: Michael Fincke, Mission Specialist
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NASA astronaut E. Michael Fincke, mission specialist. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: When I was three years old I remember watching people walk on the moon, and I knew right then and there that was something I wanted to do. So what NASA does is to inspire the next generation of explorers and, I’m living proof, and this happens all the time. We have such a captivating mission in what we’re doing, and people around the planet know who NASA is, who we are and what we do, and it’s great to be part of that team and I was really thrilled to know that there’s room for me at NASA. And I’m hoping to be able to say to everyone out there that there’s room for you at NASA; got to study hard, work hard, and hopefully what we’re doing now inspires even the next generation of explorers.

Well let’s use your story as an example here. Start by telling me about your hometown and what it was like for you growing around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, finest city on the planet Earth, and, it’s a great place to grow up. People work hard and value education; there are so many cultural and educational resources in the city, and I was the oldest of nine kids. We didn’t have a lot of money but we were still able to spend time in planetariums and the museums and the science centers that are all over the city; had a benefit and blessing to be able to go to a private high school—I had to work on the weekends to make it happen but the school made it work, too—and I had a great excellent education in high school studying science and math and all the things that really excited me as well as English and language—turns out that those are important, too. And so I was able, through an Air Force ROTC scholarship, to attend MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where we really started to get into rockets and airplanes and I couldn’t have been happier, and then the jobs that I’ve had in the Air Force, flying in, in high-performance airplanes, attending the Air Force Test Pilot School as an engineer, and then getting to go to work here at NASA. I mean, it’s been one dream job after another.

It sounds like you have a pretty strong feeling that the people and the place where you grew up were instrumental in making you the person you are.

I was the eldest of nine kids. My parents worked very hard to make sure that we had the best education possible, and I’m always very thankful to my parents and my grandparents as well as my friends and family along the way and, then there’s always the special teachers, the mentors that we’ve all had that we remember and, so my goal now is to be that kind of a person and help the people that come after me, to be as good of a mentor, or to give encouragement, be an inspiration, and that’s how I can pay back those teachers that had patience and, boy, they had a lot of patience with me.

Did you get a, you must have had a good chance to see the area from space…

Oh, my goodness.

…being up there for a year?

Yeah, we would fly over and I’d try to catch a, a view of a Pirates’ game or Steelers’ game in the new stadiums that we have but, I was able to take some really nice photos of the area. It’s kind of tough finding any particular spot on the planet when you’re traveling 17,500 miles an hour, but if you’ve been up there for a while, like we were on the International Space Station, you get to know our planet pretty well and know some of the tricks. So we would be screaming in, coming from the north to the south over Lake Erie and I could find Interstate 79, I-79, and find the Three Rivers and the greater international airport, Pittsburgh International Airport—click click—so I was even able to see my mom and dad’s house from space and, so that’s one of my treasured photos.

You mentioned that you went to a private high school in Pittsburgh and from there out into the world. Tell, fill in the details on that—tell me about your education and your professional course that led you to becoming an astronaut.

I try to share this with kids. Find something you like and then just go for it and be the best at it. I really enjoyed rockets and airplanes, that’s all I could think about, so I wanted to go to this high school because they had a good science program and maybe they’ll teach me about rockets and airplanes. They didn’t teach me so much about rockets and airplanes but the fundamentals that I needed to have like algebra and calculus, and once I got those then all of a sudden I could understand the rocket equation and go from there, and other things that turn out to be really important in my life, for example, the fundamentals of language, how do we speak English and what are the parts of a sentence. Why do I need to know that for rockets and airplanes? Well, because I understood language and because I had a strong background for languages even though I didn’t do very well in my grades, but by taking that background, the fundament is really important. because, five years of Latin helped me understand Russian and because I understood Russian, though, my first opportunities to fly in space were with the Russians aboard the Soyuz spacecraft because it turns out that language is really important and the ability to communicate. So that was something that wasn’t right in my mind of rockets and airplanes directly, but I learned Russian so I could talk about the Russian rockets and Russian airplanes and that was my in to NASA. So whatever academics you have, you’ve got to really do your best at and learn the most because the more you know the more opportunity you have, and the more opportunity to do the things that you like. So I studied really hard, tried my best to get good grades, and I got a couple D’s in there and a C once, so it’s not like I’ve always been perfect, but it’s along the way that you learn from your mistakes and learn how to rise above it that gives you some really good lessons in life because nobody has the perfect smooth life. It’s how we handle defeat sometimes that defines us.

Well, that got you ready for the next step. Take us through those next steps on to college and the Air Force.

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NASA astronaut Michael Fincke, STS-134 mission specialist, participates in an EVA simulation session in a space station mock-up in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

All right, so I needed to go to college. I wanted to go to college to study rockets and airplanes so I looked through the course catalogs and there were a couple colleges that fit the bill, and then, but I had to figure out how to pay for it because I didn’t have any money and the Air Force was offering scholarships at the time, saying, four years of college and you serve with us for four years and you have a job as soon as you get out. We’ll pay your college, you have to come up with room and board. I said, fine, I can flip hamburgers for room and board and, the Air Force paid my tuition, and it was amazing because I got to study about rockets and airplanes and planetary science in there, too, because that was a lot of fun, but the Air Force paid for that. They also gave me leadership training and a job when I got out, so I went off to pilot training right away from the Air Force, from college, and it turns out after six or seven months, the Air Force and I both agreed that I wasn’t going to be God’s gift to aviation that I thought I was going to be and I wasn’t destined to become a fighter pilot, so I washed out of pilot training. Can you imagine how disappointing that was? It was on my birthday, too, and so I picked up the pieces and I asked the Air Force, well, fine, try to make me an engineer. So I went and started working on spacecraft engineering in Los Angeles and, just as bad as I was as a potential fighter pilot, it turns out that perhaps I was that good as an engineer and I found my niche and what I was able to do and Air Force agreed and they said, well, you’re pretty good at this engineering stuff, why don’t you become a flight test engineer, help us fly and test new airplanes. So I was able to do that for a while as a student at the Air Force Test Pilot School and, so that was amazing. I knew I was in the right place because, you know, I like rockets and airplanes. They said, alright, your job today is to come up with a plan. We’re going to give you an F-16, fully loaded with gas, a front-seater, a guy to sit in the front to take off and land. You get to do everything else. That was my job for the day, was to go fly an F-16, go supersonic, go low level and to put the airplane through its paces and understand what it is to fly in a high performance fighter so that I could be a better engineer in testing out the F-16. So I knew I was in the right spot. I mean, how many kids who are, you know, 22, 23 years old get a chance to do that? So that was an amazing step, and so we were testing new airplanes. I was testing F-16s and new things that went on to F-16s, new radar systems and things like that, and then the Japanese were building a version of F-16. Well, this ability to communicate in other languages came to play and the Air Force said, wait a second, you test F-16s and you speak Japanese—so they sent me over to Japan and I was working with our Japanese partners in the F-2 program over there, flying, first test flights of a brand new airplane, across the plan, you know, somewhere the other, halfway around the world was really exciting. At that point NASA said, “Why don’t you come work with us and go fly in the space shuttle?” So now and then I reflect on my birthday that it happened when I got washed out of pilot training, and I think it was for the best.

You ended up being in a job where, not unlike maybe some of your previous jobs, where there’s a, a certain element of danger to what you’re doing that is not, not there for most people. Mike, what is it that you feel that is, that we get as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?

You know, it’s only recently since I’ve had children of my own that I realize that what I’ve been doing is dangerous. I mean, I understood it but maybe not inside, and, then I would tell my mom, for example, about some of the things I was doing because I thought it was fun—she says, “Oh, that’s so dangerous,” and I said, “Really?” So, in fact, you know, she would become more nervous about it than I was, and now I kind of understand that and I understand that what we do is a big risk that wouldn’t just affect us but our families, our loved ones, and our whole team if something bad were to happen. But you know what? This danger, this risk that we’re taking has high benefits, high payoffs. Already, you know, the technology that we have here with our little smart phones and everything like that and personal computers and wireless Internet and all these things that we worry about now, all of that technology really came when we invested in our space program, and when we had to miniaturize our electronics, and this is providing a strong engine for our economy, it’s making life and productivity better on planet Earth. My children have a longer range of educational opportunities from the Internet and from educational TV shows that we’re able to record on a DVR at home—even 10 years ago we wouldn’t even know what DVR was. All this technology has a basis in the space program. So these risks that we’re taking are making life on planet Earth better, and we’re going to continue doing this in the countries like the United States that take this risk, we’re going to benefit the most.

Mike, you’re a member of the crew of STS-134, first time on a shuttle flight. Summarize the goals of this mission and tell me what you’re going to be doing on the mission.

Absolutely. I’ve been here at NASA for 14 years. I spent a year in space, but I’ve never launched on, or landed on, a space shuttle before, so it was with great surprise and pleasure that I got assigned to STS-134, commanded by Mark Kelly, and got a really great crew. My job on the mission is to be, first and foremost, MS1. What does MS1 mean? Mission specialist No. 1. I sit up on the flight deck in the cockpit and help with launching and landing of this complex aerospace vehicle. It’s really amazing what the shuttle can do. So I like to think that some of the skills that I learned in flying as a flight engineer in the Soyuz, I’m helping my shuttle friends work on. I’m also privileged to be a spacewalker on this mission, EV2. So we have Drew Feustel as our lead spacewalker. I’m right after him, and we have Greg Chamitoff, who I flew with on Expedition 18, and the three of us are going to perform four spacewalks on STS-134.

You’ve got cargo to deliver to the station, too, right?

It’s a very important mission in terms of science. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer is going to sit on the outside of the International Space Station and collect some amazing data, so we get to carry the AMS, Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, up into space. We pick it up with the robot arm, hand it off to the station robot arm, and dock it and sit it on top of the International Space Station, and it’s going to look up to the heavens and just receive whatever super particles decide to arrive. We’re going to be able to detect some things that we’ve never seen before and understand the universe a lot better thanks to AMS.

Almost everyone on this crew has been to this space station, and you and Greg Chamitoff have both done long-duration missions; you’ve commanded the space station before. How does that kind of experience benefit this crew as you get ready to, to fly this mission?

It’s definitely a privilege to fly with people with a lot of different experience, and together we have a really strong team, and we have a lot to do in a short amount of time so having everybody up on their level of experience, up on their abilities to handle spaceflight, is really going to help us ensure success for this mission.

Having completed two long-term missions on the station, what are your expectations as you think about making a short visit this time?

It’s definitely a different life flying aboard a space shuttle, and one of the biggest differences is that we’re in it for the sprint. We used to say the space station missions are more like a marathon; you know, pace ourselves for six months, get a lot done, but don’t burn yourself out because six months in space is a long time. And I saw that twice. But for the space shuttle mission we only have 12, 13 days to get everything done and there’s a lot on our plates, so every minute is accounted for and we’re going to be busy. We won’t have time to stop and smell the roses, get weekends off and things like that, like we do aboard the International Space Station. It’s going to be very exciting, going to be very busy, and I’m really glad that my colleagues all have had experience before so they know what to expect. When you’re up in space, your body behaves differently, you might get space sick for the first couple days; well, we all know where we stand with that and we’ll be able to hit the ground running, or floating.

Now the station’s going to be a little different than when you left it, too, right?

Well, I think the biggest difference, two biggest differences for me, are first, there’s going to be six people aboard the space station. My crew, Expedition 18, we were the last three-person crew. Now, there’s six people aboard the space station and I’m really proud of that but it’ll be great to see it. But we’ll also be able to see outside a lot better with the Cupola on Node 3, and looking out above our planet Earth with a full panoramic high definition video—well, it’s not video, is it, it’s the real thing—and that’s going to be a real treat. I think that’s where, if Mark Kelly needs to find me somewhere, I think he’ll know exactly where to head.

Let’s talk a little bit more about what you’re bringing up to the space station, what you’re delivering to the space station. You’ve got the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier 3. Tell me about what that is and what it’s going to do.

Well, it has one of the most exciting names in the business, EXPRESS Logistics Carrier No. 3, but it’s really important for the space station and we have, obviously by its name, we have other EXPRESS logistics carriers, and what we’re doing is setting up the space station to last until 2020 and perhaps beyond. So in order for a large aerospace complex vehicle like the International Space Station to last a long time without a heavy lift vehicle like the shuttle to deliver spares, spare parts, because things do break over time, we have all the spare parts of the station already bolted on to the outside of this big frame structure, and then our job—in fact it’s one of my jobs as a robotic arm operator—is to take the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier No. 3, ELC-3, out of the payload bay, hand it off to the station arm, and then it gets docked onto the outside of the International Space Station and it’s going to just stay there. It has power and data so we can keep, keep track of all the things on the outside of it, but just say something breaks on the International Space Station, we’ll be able to, with the combination of robotics and extravehicular activities—spacewalks—we’ll be able to fix whatever breaks on board the International Space Station. So we’ve got all of our spares sitting on our back porch outside.

Is that a, as, comparatively speaking, is that a complicated robotics task for you to, for, to hand this off to another robotic arm?

Well, for me, robotics is always tough but, no, actually the task itself, thanks to our great robotics team here on the ground, is going to be relatively easy. The trick is that we have to thread the needle between the sides of the payload bay. We have the docking structure in front of us, the multi-billion dollar Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer behind us, so the tolerances are really tight. So we’re going to be kind of a glorified crane operator picking up the ELC No. 3 and handing it off, but we don’t have very much room for error.

We talked a min, minute ago about the AMS; I’d like to get you to give us some more details. What is the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer do when it gets installed up on the starboard side of the truss?

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, it’s really amazing. It was made by the same team, it’s an international collaboration, all over the world; I mean, it’s a planetary group of scientists that are really trying to understand the universe around us. This group is kind of stationed at CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research], which is the center for European research for particle physics, but it’s even beyond Europe, and those guys are really experts at making particle detectors. So the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer actually is an incredible puzzle how they put it all together, of six or seven detectors that can detect different things about particles that are traveling close to the speed of light. Some of them have a charge so you have a magnetic part that can trap them, trap them or at least deflect them enough, and by how much they deflect you can tell how big they are and what they’re made out of, but some are not charged. I mean, they have no charge so the magnet part won’t affect them, but yet we’ll be able to detect particles that are going so fast and have so much energy or so much mass, maybe even antiparticles such as antimatter, we’ll be able to detect little, little pieces that are going super, super fast, and learn more about the universe. As it turns out, we only know about 15% of what the universe is made of. There’s 85 percent of the entire universe that we don’t know. Now a hundred years ago, scientists were saying, we know everything. Now the next hundred years of physics we’re just going to be, you know, sharpening our pencils for the last decimal point. Now the particle physics and physics in general are really, really flabbergasted; they are very frustrated in how much they don’t know. And yet, the more we know about the physical world around us, the better it makes life here on planet Earth. The guys that, you know, Benjamin Franklin out there with his kite and finding out about electricity in the 18th century, we started to understand electricity, now all of our houses have electricity; we take that for granted, made life better, and that happened just in my grandparents’ lifetime. And then in the early 20th century, we decided, we learned about this thing called an atom and the nucleus. Now we have nuclear energy which helps make life on our planet better by giving us a source of power. Who knows what AMS is going to decide, or who knows what the AMS is going to find?

What is it looking, is it looking for anything in particular or just to characterize whatever happens by?

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NASA astronaut Michael Fincke, STS-134 mission specialist, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, participates in a training session in the crew compartment trainer in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center Photo credit: NASA

Whatever happens by, because we don’t even know what’s out there. We know some of the stuff, but there’s other stuff that we don’t know. We spent, we as humans, mainly the folks at CERN in Europe, have this huge atomic collider and they’re spinning charged particles in a big circle and putting them together and seeing what comes out and they’ve got some really high energies but the energies that they’re making, which is, you know, world record, and really amazing, is nothing to compare to what happens when you clash a neutron star into a white dwarf or two galaxies colliding. So those kind of things we can’t even replicate on planet Earth, and there’s no way we can. But, you know, it’s happening out there in the cosmos and we’ll have now an instrument for particle physics to be able to look and peer and learn more about our universe.

I’ve read that they’re looking for data to help “understand the origins of the universe.” Is that a fair way to characterize the significance of what’s happening here?

That’s only one of the aspects-- not just the origins of the universe but what the universe is even made out of. We have this whole quandary now in particle physics of this dark matter and this stuff called even dark energy. We have a name for it but we have no idea what it is. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer will help us understand all of that better.

The mechanics of it, how does it get out of the payload bay and up where it needs to go to do the work?

I have to really commend the engineers and the scientific teams that have put together, about as plug and play as you can get. Once the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer launches with us in the payload bay, a few minutes after we get into orbit, I have the privilege of opening up a laptop and connecting it, turning it on for the first time in space, and then, when we dock to the International Space Station. So we’ll take care of it for four or five days aboard Endeavour, and then once we dock with the International Space Station, my colleagues will reach in with the robot arm, the shuttle robot arm, and just like we did with ELC-3, lift it out of the payload, stick it out into space, then the station robot arm will come and grab it and put it on the outboard truss of the International Space Station. The station was designed with universal adapters so it has a little claw that grabs, pulls it in, and then electrical and data connectors come right up and connect and it’s plug and play, ready to go; you have power and data and that’s what made the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer possible. They could not have built a spacecraft, unless it was the space station, large enough to support the power and data needs that the AMS has just to detect all the things that it does, but yet, it’s just another payload for the International Space Station which is so big and large and it provides space station even more science for life on planet Earth.

You mentioned a moment ago that the plan for this mission calls for four spacewalks. They’re going to be conducted by three different pairs of spacewalkers and you’re involved in that. What is your role on the team as it, as it relates to all four of these EVAs?

I really liked how Commander Kelly put the team together and how he built off of all of our strengths and the things that we don’t do so well. So we have an amazing spacewalking team. There’s only three of us and yet there’s four EVAs and each EVA, each spacewalk, requires two people, so the person who isn’t outside doing the spacewalk is actually inside kind of running the spacewalk, managing the timeline, reading the procedures, looking ahead to see what to do in case of a contingency and managing the timeline. When we go out, especially for American spacewalks, we don’t have the procedure in front of us—we have a lot memorized but we don’t know everything, and we don’t have a wristwatch to know how much time we have left. So the person inside coordinates all of that and works closely with our wonderful EVA team on the ground and all of us work together to accomplish the mission. And I’m very impressed with the complexity of shuttle-based spacewalks. We have a lot of time as a shuttle crew to really get ready for some spacewalks. We’re practicing nine or 10 times in the pool for each spacewalk that we perform. As a station guy, as a former station guy, each spacewalk we had maybe one or two practices in the pool and then we went out and did it. They weren’t as complex or as difficult as the spacewalks we have for the shuttle-based, so it’s definitely I think a higher, the next level of focus, and we’ve learned that through the shuttle program over time. So on the first spacewalk I get to be the IV, in-vehicle, I guess…


…intravehicular, so I get to be inside and help Drew Feustel and Greg Chamitoff to go out and work on our first EVA. That’s Greg’s first EVA, by the way, ever, and Drew had some time on the Hubble Space Telescope, and I had, you know, six spacewalks from the International Space Station. So this is Greg’s first spacewalk and I promised him, even when we were flying together on Expedition 18, it’s like, I’d love to be there for the first time you get to go out—we never knew that he was going to actually have that chance so I can’t wait to give him a welcoming speech.

Let me interrupt you for a second ’cause, as you mentioned, you’ve got spacewalking experience, you did six of them, but they were all in Russian spacesuits off of the International Space Station. In, as you look toward doing them now in the American spacesuit, what, what’s the big difference that you, that you foresee?

I definitely am privileged to have had a chance to be in the Russian Orlan spacesuit and have had a chance to perform six spacewalks. I never thought I was going to get one spacewalk ever, much less six in a Russian suit. But the amazing part of it is that the Orlan is very robust, it’s very capable, and the Russians have been working with Orlans, versions of Orlan, since 1970s, and so it’s a very trusted and veteran spacesuit. It runs on the inside, though, when you pressurize, about six pounds per square inch. The American spacesuit is called the Extravehicular Mobility Unit; “mobility” is the key word for me with the American spacesuit. When I put on the American spacesuit it’s only running about four pounds per square inch and all of a sudden, I got a lot more mobility. The gloves, the American gloves are handcrafted by our team from the East Coast and they fit like a glove; the Russians are pretty much size one or size two disposable gloves These American gloves, they cost more but they give us so much more ability to manipulate things. So when we’re building the complex parts of the space station we needed an EMU, whereas Orlan is good for routine maintenance on the outside where you don’t need to have such dexterity. So it’s each suit has its role, each suit has its benefits, but now I get a chance to be in an American suit to go outside.

Well as you say, for the first spacewalk you’re going to be inside helping Greg and Drew as they work. Describe what’s on the schedule for EVA #1.

Yes. One of our highest mission priorities is to retrieve and set up new versions of an experiment called MISSE [Materials International Space Station Experiment], which is a materials experiment aboard the International Space Station. In the past, you might recall, NASA along with our industry partners, have been able to put materials out into space and to test new materials and new computer chips and things like that to see how they would handle spaceflight and the radiation environment as well as, you know, what’s going on in the high temperatures, cold temperatures. And we had the Long Duration Exposure Facility back in the early part of shuttle days, and so these MISSEs have been really able with the space shuttle, by sticking them out on the International Space Station, really low cost but high benefit. The industry has been able to make better satellites and better materials for the satellites, all the way from solar arrays to the paint that they use on the outside of satellites, so it’s helped our industry a lot by understanding how the materials behave in the space environment. So we’re going to take MISSE No. 7 home. There are two of them, 7A and 7B. They’re big suitcases; they fold open and close like a book, and Greg and Drew are going to put them off on their body restraint tether, BRT, on the side and go back to the shuttle payload bay and put them on the outside of the payload bay, so we’re actually bringing cargo home and scientific experiments home. And then we’re going to take out two new MISSEs, MISSE No. 8 which is a regular size MISSE; then we have a smaller one that doesn’t require any electrical power; it’s called Mini-MISSE, and Drew’s going to put Mini-MISSE in as well as MISSE No. 8 and we’re going to continue on with that, that round of experiments.

So when they finish then with the MISSE exchange, their next task is to get ready for the second spacewalk, right?

The second spacewalk we’re going to charge our ammonia lines for the International Space Station, so we’ll talk a little bit more about that later but we’re going to do some set-up tasks, get a few jumpers ready, and then we’re actually going to upgrade our wireless communication system aboard the International Space Station. One of the things when we were designing the space station, we had no idea what was to come in the future of wireless communications, and now we’re able to communicate with all of our payloads that are on the outside of the space station wirelessly and it saves us mass and energy and things like that, just like most people at home have a wireless network, and we certainly do here at NASA. So on the outboard of the space station, we have to add some more antennas for our wireless network system so we can talk to things such as the payloads aboard ELC No. 3. So Drew and Greg are going to open up a few panels on the lab from the outside and connect some, some wires, run the cables up to the antennas, connect the antennas on the outside of handrails, and that’s going to take a couple hours to do something like that. That’s relatively routine maintenance but it has a big impact on the space station communication.

And when it comes time for the second spacewalk a couple days later, you’re going to swap spots with Greg and you’re going outside with Drew, so what are, what are the jobs for you and Drew Feustel when you go out on EVA #2?

Yes, building on the success of EVA 1 we hope, we’re going to go out and we have two main jobs for EVA No. 2 and both of them are for the long-duration maintenance of the International Space Station. Since we’re the last shuttle-based EVA, we’re doing things in advance for routine preventative maintenance just like with our automobiles, so while Drew is working mainly with charging our ammonia system, and this isn’t your household cleaner ammonia. This is high-grade industrial ammonia so we have to be super careful not to get it on us or to spill it because it’s quite dangerous if we brought it back inside. But we’re going to recharge the ammonia lines so, for our air conditioning, not internal air conditioning but mainly it’s the external thermal control loop and, so we have a small leak in there that’s been known for a long and, just like any car you have to recharge your air conditioning system every couple years. Well, we won’t have the shuttle in a couple years so we’re preemptively going to charge up, fully charge up our ammonia system while we can ’cause there’s a series of jumpers that we have to go across including the rotating Solar Alpha Rotary Joint so we have some jumpers which, connecting two lines, so we have a series of hoses that will fully charge our ammonia system. While Drew’s doing that, I get to do a lubrication job, add some grease, some Braycote, to our Solar Alpha Rotary Joint. We found the original design had some extra friction that we weren’t expecting and it started to grind our joint, so we’ve, since then, every couple years, started to add some grease on it and it rotates great. However, we won’t have that ability so much in the future, so while Drew’s working with the ammonia system I’ll be lubricating the outside of the Solar Alpha Rotary Joint so it can last another five to ten years, no problem.

That’s going to get you out on a part of the station where you haven’t been before.

Absolutely not. And all of these, you know, all of our work on EVA 2 is very far out on the port truss, so it’s a long way to get there and a long way back, but the view’s going to be amazing.

For EVA 3 you and Drew are going to be trying out a new protocol for the prebreathe that’s designed to help purge nitrogen from your bloodstreams before the spacewalk begins. Describe a little bit about what this new procedure is going to be.

Yes. When, as I mentioned earlier, the American spacesuit runs at roughly a pressure inside of four pounds per square inch—normal atmospheric pressure here on planet Earth [at sea level] is about 14.7 pounds per square inch—so we’re running at a lower pressure, but it’s pure oxygen. So like most deep sea divers, we have to be careful as we go from a higher pressure to a lower pressure and back, so that the nitrogen that’s in our bloodstream doesn’t bubble off like a can of soda would pop when you open it up, the bubbles come everywhere. That would give us the bends. So in order to avoid the bends from running a suit at four pounds per square inch, we have a prebreathe protocol where we breathe oxygen for a period of time. Well, we’ve gotten smart about this. It used to be that we would have to just stay in our suit, mind our own business and sit there for four hours breathing pure oxygen; that was the old, old kind of protocol. Then we realized that we can actually take, if we did this work in an environment that was like a higher altitude, so to speak, or less, less air, so less pressure of air, air pressure, like at 10.1 pounds per square inch instead of 14.7, that would make our prebreathe time in the suit less. Well, now we’re even smarter saying, well, if you actually exercise while you’re on pure oxygen you can even have a smaller prebreathe time, and now we’re taking it even to another level for this where we’re actually doing some exercise while we’re in the suit so we’re combining the best of both worlds and hopefully save the amount of prebreathe time, the amount of oxygen that we’re using, which is a consumable—every molecule of oxygen we have to bring up with us in one form or another, up into space—so this way we’re going to save our time, save our oxygen, and still be just as safe, and so the science, medical science, continues to amaze me.

So the tryout of this new procedure comes as you get ready for spacewalk number three. What are you and Drew going to do outside on that adventure?

It’s amazing what the Canadian robot arm, Canadarm No. 2, can do aboard the International Space Station. Both ends are fully functional, and not stationary, so you can actually inchworm across the space station; we have a little train for it so the arm can grab onto a grapple fixture and then the other end can grab onto a grapple fixture. The arm moves back and forth, up and down the truss; it’s really amazing. It’s an incredible crane that we need to help build the space station. Well, the problem is the truss ends at a certain spot and we can only reach to some parts of the space station; we can’t reach to the other parts, especially the Russian parts. Well, some really smart engineers on the Russian side and American side said, yeah, well, we can just put a grapple fixture out at the right on the FGB, which is the Functional Cargo Block [Zarya], which is pretty much where the American and Russian parts of the space station meet, and then we can actually reach out and help our Russian partners with new modules and extend the reach of our robot arm. So Drew and I are going to go out and take a power, data and grapple fixture, a PDGF, and install it on the outside of the Functional Cargo Block, the FGB. Compared to our other spacewalks, this is just going out the door and moving along outside for a very short period, very short distance, but PDGFs are very big so we’re going to actually tend it between us because there’s no weight, right, so we’re going to float it between us, make sure it doesn’t float away. We’ll have some tethers on it, and take it to the outside of the FGB and bolt it down, and then the tough part is for the power and data. So we have to connect the power and data lines, long cables back to the American segment and Node 1 and the Lab. So it’s going to be pretty exciting to do that. It’s going to be a shorter spacewalk, I think, in terms of complexity but its importance to the space station, I think, is going to be shown in the future when the Canadarm is helping out, touching things on the Service Module [Zvezda]. That’s amazing.

Now this third EVA was a relatively late addition to your flight. What were the circumstances on orbit that forced this job onto STS-134?

Well, the expedition crew aboard the International Space Station last summer was getting ready to do the exact same spacewalk but then, right before they were about to go out the door, one of the pump modules for our space station air conditioning system went out, so we sent Doug Wheelock and Tracy Caldwell [Dyson] outside with Shannon Walker running the robot arm inside and they were able to save the space station and make that major repair in real time. Well, unfortunately Doug and Tracy didn’t have a chance to do the original spacewalk that they were planning for, so we were able to extend our mission and complete this task because we had time in our training schedule and a chance to, it fit right into our schedule, so we’re able to do that.

Then the fourth spacewalk is for you and Greg to go outside. What’s on the schedule for this last planned spacewalk and, in particular, your leaving the Orbital Boom Sensor System behind?

JSC2010-E-185503: Michael Fincke

NASA astronaut Michael Fincke, STS-134 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

Well, my previous spacewalks on this mission, I’ll be going out with one of Hubble’s finest, you know, Drew Feustel, who’s an experienced spacewalker for sure and our lead spacewalker. But Greg and I, we’ve flown together before, for months aboard the International Space Station, and I knew that was one of his dreams to go out on a spacewalk. Little did I dream that I’d be going out on a spacewalk with him, for his second spacewalk. So I’m excited about this. The OBSS, Orbiter Boom Sensor System, we’re going to be focusing on the boom part and most people can remember the excitement we had a few years ago when we were extending a solar array and it ripped, and we sent Scott Parazynski way out on the solar array which is far away from the space truss structure on, not just the robot arm, but the robot arm was holding this long boom, kind of a stick, and then Scott was at the end of the stick and we were kind of moving the arm out so he could work on the solar array and we had some pretty insightful managers say, hey, you know, that, the boom system is not just good for examining the outside of the space shuttle, doing the inspection so we can come home safely, but maybe it’s also good for the space station. So when the shuttle program is ending, they’re saying, “Well, you know, hey, you need one of those, that boom thing that you’re carrying around? You mind if we keep it?” And the shuttle guy said, “Well, we’re not going to need it.” So we made provisions to leave it aboard the International Space Station. We have to do some surgery on it, and that’s where Dr. Chamitoff comes and will shine the most because we have several different kinds of grapple fixtures—we have a shuttle arm-based grapple fixture which is kind of small and then we have the larger Canadarm2 kind of grapple fixture. So once we get the boom on these racks on the outside, on the truss of the space station, it’s going to sit right there proudly on the front top of the truss of the space station, and once that’s set, then we’re going to go get another big payload data grapple fixture—I don’t know why I’m carrying so many of these on this mission—but we’re going to get another large grapple fixture and we’re going to carefully unbolt the one that’s up there, the shuttle-based one, and we’re actually, they’re actually let us use scissors on this mission, space scissors. Well, you have to be careful ’cause you don’t want to cut your suit; that would be bad. So I get to hand Dr. Chamitoff the scissors and he’s going to carefully cut the cord, the electrical power cord, off of the shuttle-based grapple fixture. We’re going to then bolt on the big station-based. So now the station arm could be able to grapple this boom, not just at the middle but also at the end and extend our reach. So some day, we don’t know when we’re going to need it, but some day it may be very useful to have this extra reach for our arm to help repair the space station. You never know what’s going to happen.

And all that’s going to be after the shuttle is done using it for the inspection.

Sure, so that’s why it’s our last spacewalk, so right before our last spacewalk we’re going to use the boom to inspect Endeavour, the thermal control system so that we, so we can come home safely. Once we’re sure that we have a nice clean inspection then we’re going to put the boom on the station the very next day and leave a couple days later.

During the rendezvous and docking on your arrival, but then again during undocking and the flyaround, you’re going to be gathering data for a Development Test Objective that’s known as STORRM, which stands for Sensor Test for Orion Relative Navigation Risk Mitigation. Now this’ll include something brand new—this, the shuttle is going to re-rendezvous with the station after it flies away. Fill us in on what this what this test is about and, and how you’re going to go about gathering the data.

Well, one of the most complex things to do in spaceflight is the whole orbital dynamics ’cause you’re going 17,500 miles an hour around the planet and you’re trying to catch up with another thing that’s going 17,500 miles an hour. You want to make sure you get the orbits just right because orbits aren’t perfectly circular and it’s a, it’s a real trick and it’s really high technology, and being able to dock with things in space was one of the things that we had to prove to ourselves in the Gemini program; that was one of the major missions. So now we still do it but it doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. So each and every system that we have, I mean, we’ve used several aboard the space shuttle, the Russians have had to evolve their system called Kurs, to be able to have these rendezvous. Well, with Orion and future space vehicles, we’re actually putting the next level of technology, the next level of sensors into place so that we have something that’s lighter, more capable and costs less power and energy to run, and yet puts us exactly where we need to be in space at the right time for rendezvous. So we’re carrying those sensors aboard with us. So for our first rendezvous it’s important. So we’re going to rendezvous shuttle-style. And we’ve gotten that down pat. We have an amazing team that runs rendezvous all the way from training to rendezvous with all the different sensors we use for shuttle. But those sensors are big; we have to do a lot of work as crew members to integrate them all, but it works, it works great. So we’re going to not mess with success; we’re going to do a normal docking with the normal shuttle systems. STORRM will be there watching, so Drew’s going to be at the STORRM laptop making sure that STORRM is seeing everything and so the engineers and the scientists on the ground are going to be able to get some good data from that. But then, at the end of the mission, since we’ve already docked with space station, got all of our objectives out of the way, did there what we came to do, then we’re going to come back and we’re going to rendezvous in a different way. We’re going to come in and rendezvous kind of the Apollo-style, you know, the old fashioned way which is great for capsules. And for our next spacecraft, it’s going to be more of a rendezvous that way. So the STORRM is going to be helping lead us and we’ll use the shuttle sensors more as a backup and we’ll see where STORRM takes us and we’ll get some great data, some really good practical operations, not just for the sensors but for the team on the ground so that we’re ready for the next spacecraft when it comes.

Now STS-134 is the last flight of shuttle Endeavour. Apart from Endeavour being the shuttle that you fly on, where, what do you see this ship’s place being in the history of human spaceflight?

Well, I take a long view of what we’ve done so far and where we’re going. I firmly believe that human beings will not stay long on planet Earth and that there’s a whole universe out there to explore, and we’re going to send people back to the moon, we’re going to have colonies on the moon, we’re going to go to Mars and, boy, I can’t wait to learn some day that we have human beings in other solar systems. It might be pie in the sky but, you know, our population is already six billion on this planet and there’s just going to be a lot of demand for more room and we’ve got the technology and we have the resources and there’s so many amazing resources out there in space—on the moon, for example—that haven’t been tapped and that will not hurt the environment and won’t hurt other people. I mean, it’s going to be a major change in what human beings are doing. So a really small piece of that story is going to be Endeavour’s last mission, but, the Space Shuttle Program, I think, will definitely be remembered for the amazing things that it has done. Having come from a capsule background with the Soyuz which, if you’ll remember Apollo-Soyuz, they’re roughly comparable vehicles, capsule-based technology; space shuttle was just absolutely amazing in terms of what it can do, how many people it can take up, how much cargo, I mean, and the complexity that it had especially for its time, you know, fly by wire systems, all these things we take for granted today, you know, 30 or 40 years later in our airplanes. Well, the space shuttle was among the first to do it and it did well. Space shuttle also built humanity’s first outpost to the stars, the International Space Station. That’s a great legacy and everything that we’ve learned along the way, all the technology, all of the science that we’ve been able to bring in in these past years with the space shuttle, I think, is going to be remembered very nicely in the history books.

You’re going to be flying this mission right around the 50th anniversary of the first human spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin, which is also the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight right around the 50th anniversary of the first American spaceflight by Alan Shepard. What are your thoughts about you being in space at the time that we’re all thinking about these historic events?

It’s humbling because when I was growing up I was watching people walk on the moon and I looked and said, “Wow, that’s something I really want to do.” And to actually be part of the space program, especially on an historic mission like we are, I could never have imagined that I would be there. So when I’m up there, I think it’s going to hit me pretty hard. We’ve got to focus on the mission and we’ll get our job done but there might be a few moments where I’m probably out there looking out the window saying, my goodness.

Well, we’ve come an awful long way in that 50 years from Yuri Gagarin’s capsule to the International Space Station. How much farther do you think we’re going to go in the 50 years ahead of us?

The sky’s the limit, and I really hope our country understands the value of exploration and the value of the unknown that’s out there. I’ve had the blessing of being able to be in space a whole year of my life; 10% of the space station’s lifetime I’ve been there, and I’ve had a chance to reflect and look how big the universe is and how small our planet is, and looking, saying, “Wow, my goodness, why are we fighting down here when we could be exploring and finding new things and making life better for human beings?” And, as well as the principles that we stand for in the United States in terms of democracy and individual freedoms and rights, heck, that’s something I think would be good for the rest of the solar system, too.