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Preflight Interview: Chris Ferguson, Commander
JSC2010-E-183276: Chris Ferguson

NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, STS-135 commander, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, awaits the start of a training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: Well I told you I used to draw these little rockets when I was a kid and I followed through as many of the moon missions, I remember a couple more than others, and did that make me want to be an astronaut? I don’t know I was enthralled by it at the time. I think it made me interested in space. It made me want to understand things that are larger than life and I think that’s why I wanted to go fly for the Navy and land on an aircraft carrier. When I was in college I had some co-op assignments in a nuclear power plant. I just had this desire to understand things that just seemed too big to be understandable, and maybe that’s where my desire to be an astronaut came from.

I want to learn more about the whole Chris Ferguson Story. Start by telling me about your hometown and what it was like for you growing up in Philadelphia.

Sure as you said, Philadelphia is my hometown and I was fortunate enough to be born, raised and got to spend all of my grade school and high school years in one place which was really nice. We had a close-knit community in northeast Philadelphia I still keep in touch with a lot of the neighbors and friends from high school. I went to school not too far away in downtown Philadelphia at Drexel, and very fond of those days. I was a big Philly sports fan loved the Phillies, loved the Eagles, loved the Flyers—Go Flyers!— and then when Navy time came we moved out and I have a lot of family back there and we miss the area, but haven’t been back there in about 27 years right now, but a lot of fond memories.

Did you get a chance to see it from space?

Yeah, I did. On my last flight we tried to it was during the wintertime and winter’s are always cloudy but there was a particularly clear day and I noticed just prior to landing we were going to make a pass that was going to take us close to Philadelphia, and you don’t spend a lot of time, you wish you spent more time looking out the window while you’re up there but you just unfortunately don’t have the time to spend looking out the window, but this was an hour that we had and I remember coming up on the Great Lakes and making out the Great Lakes and then thinking, well we’re getting closer but little did I know how close we really were ’cause I was able to look out while we were over the Great Lakes and I saw the Chesapeake Bay, the Virginia coast, I saw Manhattan Island, Long Island, and eventually on my way, and this is over the Great Lakes I was able to pick all this out, and eventually found what I thought was the Philadelphia area and we ended up passing about a hundred miles to the north but it was oblique enough that you could look out and you could make out, so I guess I did find Philadelphia from space.

So you could recognize it even at a hundred miles…

You know what sticks out? The rivers stick out, the airports stick out. You can find international airport, there’s northeast Philadelphia airport. Use the airports, they help; bridges help, too.

How do you feel like the people and the place helped make you the person that you are?

Oh, I owe a lot to my parents, of course. My parents extraordinarily supportive; unfortunately I lost my father at a very young age, I was twenty when he passed away, and a lot of folks have said to me “Well, what would your father think if he could see you today?” he would have loved every moment of this, I’m certain of it. My mom, Mary Ann, she’s, was an incredible source of support. They worked very hard to put me through a parochial school in the Philadelphia area it’s a private school and it’s not trivial. I mean, it’s even more difficult I think today to maintain that kind of tuition going through elementary and high school, but I owe an enormous amount to my parents and I said I went to a parochial school, Archbishop Ryan High School, St. Martha grade school up there, and still to this day keep in touch with several of the teachers and have had a chance to thank them personally for the inspiration that they gave me, although they didn’t know it and I didn’t know it at the time how they inspired me to continue my path where I enjoyed math, science, biology, physics, they were my favorite subjects through school.

Take me on the rest of that, that trip after high school and going on to college and, and your professional career and in the Navy. How did you, what did you do to end up being an astronaut at NASA?

I remember in college I had a big decision to make I was going into the Navy and I didn’t know whether I want to fly or if I wanted to become a nuclear power officer and a nuclear reactor officer on an aircraft carrier or a submarine and it was one of our summer, we call them cruises as a midshipman where they expose you to the various facets of Navy life, and it was after one of those I said, well I think I’d like to fly, so that cemented it right there. About that time a movie like “The Right Stuff” came out and I always had a fascination about naval aviation, and then I learned that a lot of the early astronauts were Navy pilots. They all went to Navy Test Pilot School so I began with the intent of ending up as an astronaut, I began to put myself in these positions so I could go to Test Pilot School, I could get a, an advanced degree at the Navy’s postgraduate school, just to put myself close enough that if the opportunity arose I could apply to be an astronaut, and everything worked out really well. Military service is challenging on the family but my career, those arduous deployments were spaced out just enough that we could recover and ended up doing a 26-year career of course selected to NASA after about 14 years worked out. I was very fortunate with this that things worked out the way they did for me.

You didn’t go to be a Navy flyer so you could become an astronaut…


…as I understand it.

No absolutely not. I wanted to land a jet on an aircraft carrier. I wanted to see if I could do that and that worked out really well. Spent some time, met some fantastic people in two different squadrons VF-11, VF-211 in the Navy, and I just enjoyed the living daylights out of that, enjoyed the engineering aspects, enjoyed being a test pilot and the whole science side of flying; worked in, with weapons separation there’s a whole science to making sure that a missile or a bomb separates correctly from an airplane because the aerodynamic forces are very high that could cause to push it back up, and you don’t want anything like that. Just loved the aerodynamic side of things, but didn’t do it to be an astronaut. It was just something that fell out.

The Navy career that you had has its share of dangers; you ended up in a job as an astronaut that has its own unique set of dangers, too. Chris, what is it that you think that we’re getting or learning as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth doing this?

JSC2011-E-023124: Chris Ferguson

NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, STS-135 commander, attired in a training version of his shuttle launch and entry suit, participates in a training session in the fixed-base shuttle mission simulator (SMS) in the Jake Garn Simulation and Training Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

I think we’re explorers by nature. You look at the early, Magellan, Columbus these people have this inherent desire to understand the unknown, so they get in a ship and they go, and they’re just going to see what they find. We have done fantastic things in space. I mean we’ve brought the globe together in space in the form of the International Space Station where we formerly had these conglomerates in Russia and Europe, Japan, the United States, that had their independent space programs, but we’ve managed to bring them all together so we speak a common language; the interfaces all work together we all did that because we agreed to cooperate internationally on the space station as far as what ultimately I’d like to think, number one, it inspires a generation of young folks. I mean, I was inspired by what we did in Apollo. I can hope that young folks today see what’s happening on the space station, the medical research that we’re doing, the research that we’re doing on the environment, our ability to clean our own air, to take urine and recycle it and reuse it, these closed system things, are very consistent with some of the environmental issues that we’re going to face on the Planet Earth over the next hundred years or so, and we’re pioneering all these in space right now. We’re learning how to support humans in very unforgiving environments. I mean, I could continue the list goes on we have a home up there and we’re destined to be up there and we’re destined to go beyond low Earth orbit, perhaps set up a colony on the moon and go on to Mars.

You’re one of four crew members on the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis. Chris, give me a summary of the work that’s planned for STS-135 and what your job’s going to be.

Sure. Of course, 135 wasn’t really a planned mission, until very recently, it was supposed to be a rescue mission. Since the orbiter was ready, they were stacking and processing it just like it was a regular flight, and they said, well if we put an MPLM [multi-purpose logistics module] in the back and we load it up with cargo, we can probably get an extra year’s worth of provisions up to the space station. I think that’s how the evolution of STS-135 came about. As far as what we’re doing, big picture, we’re delivering about 17,000 pounds of cargo in an MPLM. We’re also going to deliver a robotics refueling module which is a Fisher-Price play toy, if you will for the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, and we’ll be bringing home a pump module that failed on the space station about six months ago. That’s the big picture. We’re also going to bring back a lot of cargo and spare things that have been in the space station, in an effort to clean it out a little bit. There’s a lot of space shuttle related items that we keep up there permanently from flight to flight; after this flight’s over there’ll be no reason to have them up there so we’ll bring a lot of those home as well. So largely it’s a cargo mission. It’s an effort to posture the space station for about a year, put it in a good position until we can get our commercial cargo resupply system up and running.

So you’re making the most of the shuttle’s capacity both up and down?

Absolutely the final numbers are not in but I’m under the understanding that this’ll be one of the heaviest MPLMs that have ever gone up, and it will be the heaviest MPLM that will have come back.

Now there are only four people on the crew for this mission. What, that’s unusual. What’s the difference?

Yeah, it’s very unusual. I think the last time we’ve done this was back in the mid-’80s, STS-6, I believe, we had four crew members. Now that’s half the answer. We’ve, had shuttles that have been crewed by four people—they were space station rotation missions, in addition to the four shuttle crew members we also had three space station crew members, there were seven bodies on board the shuttle, but three of them were destined for rotation on the space station, so you really couldn’t consider them a full-time shuttle crew. But we’ll only have four bodies there, all four will be on the flight deck, so this will be the first time that the middeck will actually be empty for launch—at least devoid of astronauts, we’re going to fill the seats with bags, if you will, just take more cargo up there. But this is very unusual and it brings a lot of interesting challenges associated with it a lot of emergency procedures that we practice, for example, have some actions on the middeck and we’ve had to work around those a little bit with the limited number of crew members.

Why just four this time?

Well, it has to do with the fact that there is no rescue shuttle for this flight. Of course, since Columbia we’ve had a very engaging program of inspection and the capability to rescue a crew in the event that the shuttle incurred some launch damage like Columbia did back in 2003. Since there is no backup shuttle for this, we have to rely on an alternate means to get the astronauts back, and they will be through the normal rotation of Soyuz vehicles that come up to deliver new crew members. Now we launch about four Soyuz’s per year with the alternating crews of three on them so there’s always six people aboard the space station. In the event for some reason Atlantis does incur some type of damage that would prevent it from being a successful re-entry vehicle, we’ll stay aboard the station and we’ll wait for that rotation of Soyuzes to come up. Instead of coming up with three people, however, they’ll come up with two which will leave an empty space for one of the shuttle crew members to get back. It’s a well thought out but lengthy rescue process. The first crew member would return about 80 days after the space station, the space shuttle was stranded, and the last crew member would be about 340 days, so close to a year on orbit, but it’s a very low-likelihood scenario if you believe the statisticians, about one in 560 is what they calculate the need for shuttle rescue would be.

So like, then, one at a time, you and your crew members would take advantage of that empty seat on the Soyuz to come down. How do you feel about flying on the, possibility of flying on a Soyuz vehicle and of spending a few extra months in space?

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NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, STS-135 commander, undergoes a fit check of his Sokol spacesuit on March 29, 2011, at the Zvezda facility in Moscow. Photo credit: NASA Photo/Houston Chronicle, Smiley N. Pool

Well, I think we take these things in stride. I mean, we’ve all accepted this. I think it would be an interesting way, it would be an easy way to get a space station increment without the year and a half of, or two and a half years of training that we would want anything like that because there are people that have trained for years for those positions and we certainly wouldn’t want to take them from them. But as far as the preparations that have gone on to get us ready the, NESC, the NASA Engineering and Safety [Center], has put together an excellent plan that showed off, the space missions directorate, that we are ready to do this. We have extra Russian language training, we’ve received extra space station systems training we’ve been fitted for Sokol suits and IELKs the seat that we return in on the Soyuz. This has been well thought out, we’re very well prepared. We wouldn’t necessarily be considered fulltime Russian Soyuz crew members, but we could fulfill a role as a rescuee with very little difficulty, so it’s a well thought out plan.

You’ve been asking people about what it’s like to come home on a Soyuz?

I have and it floats around our office a little bit, what it’s like to come back. I think it would be an interesting experience. Of course, we’d much rather come back on our space shuttle but we’re prepared to come back on the Soyuz if we have to.

Each of the members of your crew has been to the space station at least once before, and Sandy Magnus has completed a long-duration mission there. How’s all that experience helped you guys in getting ready for this flight?

Sandy’s experience on board has just proven to be invaluable. She went up with me and our crew on STS-126 so I’m very familiar with Sandy and she really brings a wide array of skills based upon her time on board. If Sandy says something about the space station, we generally listen to it. Every other crew member has also been to station. Now, the configuration has changed a little bit over the years, so I think we’re all eagerly anticipating seeing what the space station looks like today. But we have been able to, waive a little bit of our training by virtue of some of the experience that we’ve had and that’s also been kind of a crucial component of having this crew of four is that we do, since we do have some experience on the station already, we’ve been able to absorb a lot of that added training and actually cancelled some of it because we’ve been up there before and we are familiar.

What are you looking forward to about, that’s different on the station, to see this time around?

I want the million-dollar view out of the Cupola, that’s what I want to see. When I was up there last Node 3 wasn’t there, the Cupola was not there, the PMM [permanent multi-purpose module] was not there, station has expanded in a lot of great ways, but of course that Cupola is a view to behold and I’m looking forward to, to experiencing that.

As you’ve said, this flight carries, well, a shuttle-full of supplies for the International Space Station. Give us a sense of the kinds of different things that you and your crewmates are bringing to orbit this time.

We have the MPLM the MPLM will have about 15,000 pounds of cargo inside it. We have the middeck and the middeck will hold about another 8000 pounds of cargo. In the MPLM, I looked at the list yesterday, we have a lot of clothing, a lot of food—to the tune of about 4000 pounds—and of course we want to put the space station in a good position to be self-sustaining for up to a year and that’s about what it takes. We’re also taking a lot of environmental supplies. We have the urine processor on board and that requires a fairly scheduled and systematic delivery of filter tanks they call them RFTAs [recycle filter tank assembly] it’s a urine collection tank we’ll be taking six or seven of those a lot of other components for the environmental system, I think a hydrogen dome on there which was a part of the OGA, the oxygen generating assembly other components just for daily life aboard the space station. We’ll be bringing back an awful lot as well. We’ll be bringing back a heat exchanger and then, as I mentioned, a lot of the components that were stationed full time aboard the ISS, just to support the space shuttle. We can bring that all back with us like I said, in addition to delivering an awful lot of cargo we’re also hoping to offload trash, maybe things that could be repaired and sent back up on the ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle] or the HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle] at a later date.

The logistics modules, the MPLMs, have been installed on the underside of Unity, lately on the underside of Harmony on the Node 2, but this will be the first time you have to install one while that PMM is in place. How does that, or does it, change how you go about installing an MPLM with that new component there?

The installation procedures are very similar. What’s interesting, and I didn’t realize this until we got into the planning of the mission, is that the space station software was never designed to accommodate more than one logistics module. It always assumed there would be one on board. With the PMM there permanently that is one logistics module, so we’re going to add another one and we’ve had to perform a little sleight of hand to get the space station to believe that there’s actually two logistics modules on board and I think the ultimate plan will be that we’ll time-share communication with them so we can turn one on so we can be monitored for health and status by the ISS computers and then we’ll turn that one off and turn the other one on. That’s been the one interesting facet, but as far as procedurally we’re going to pull it out of the payload bay and install it on the Node 2 which is the most, forward-most module, on the nadir port, on the bottom, which will be, it’ll look just like the PMM, it’ll be about 40 or 50 feet forward of it.

So it doesn’t interfere with the arm operations or…

No, no, we don’t anticipate it.

One other big event that is happening on this flight, on Flight Day 5, is going to be a spacewalk, although this one is going to be conducted by two of the station crew members rather than shuttle crew members. Why the change in assignment?

Yeah, again we get back to the four crew members: we just don’t have the resources. Usually when you stage an EVA when a shuttle is there it’s an all-hands evolution with six or seven crew members; if you just kind of count the bodies you have, someone has to suit up the EVA crew members to get them out the door, somebody is usually the choreographer of what we call the IV, intravehicular officer aboard the shuttle that’s two, we usually have two more bodies supporting the EVA for robotics ’cause most EVAs do need some form of robotic support and this EVA is no exception, you can see just by counting we’ve already used up our four crew members right there. We thought what a, better resource to use the station crew members that are already there which, of course, are Mike Fossum and Ron Garan, and it was a kind of a marriage made in heaven—Ron and Mike have done an EVA together before they’re very accustomed to one another, they’re experienced, it just seemed to work out perfectly to bring the station crew members into the shuttle docked operations and let them do the EVA that’s how we focused on that.

When shuttle crew members have done spacewalks, station crew members have been part of the team as well so it’s just a rearrangement of the assignment?

Yes. Well in a lot of these EVA situations, some of the station crew members will progress during the EVA with their normal timeline and not be too involved. Occasionally we will bring them in and they will be involved, however, usually in a suit up and the IV portion of things. But now we’re one integral team, all eight of us, if you will while we’re on board.

OK, so what’s going to happen during this spacewalk, when Fossum and Garan go outside, what are they going to do, and what part are you going to play?

Well first, since my part comes in early we’ll get them all suited up in the airlock and we’ll get their tools on board, we’ll let them get out, and then I’m essentially free for this, the balance of the six hours of the spacewalk. I’ll probably go into the MPLM and start transferring a lot of the elements out. What Mike and Ron are tasked to do, with Rex Walheim acting as the IV, who will be on the shuttle, he’ll be the choreographing the EVA for them. Their first task is to get a, a pump module that failed on the space station several months ago and bring that back, put it in the payload bay so we can bring it back to Earth and do a post-mortem on it and find out how it failed. We’ll also take this robotics refueling module that I’ve mentioned this activity center for the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, and we’ll put that on the space station after we put the pump module in the payload bay, and then they’ll relocate that robotics refueling module to put it in temporary location. After that, a lot of the tasks have been up in the air. Right now we’re scheduled to change a camera, one of the station cameras has a zoom issue we’re going to change that; there’s also an issue with another small payload, we’ll need to open it up and expose it to space. A lot of priorities have been coming and going, I have a feeling that the final EVA won’t completely come together until just weeks before the launch.

And that’s not out of the question, or out of, that happens a lot.

It does this is not unusual and the crew has been trained. Interestingly Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus are our EVA crew members in the event we need an EVA for any reason. It’s not planned right now but you always have to have that capability just in case. [Ron] and Mike are essentially gone either in Russia or on orbit now in the case of Ron, we are continuing to develop this EVA for them, that Sandy and Rex will continue to develop the procedures and the plans and run in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab to mature this EVA completely in the absence of the people who will actually do it. We have the capability to continually adjust our agenda during that spacewalk right up until we launch.

It’s a nice flexibility to have.

It’s actually a very nice plan, yes.

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NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, STS-135 commander, is pictured during a tools and repair kits training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

As you said, and after the spacewalk, pretty much everybody’s going to be devoting their time to the transfer work, which almost sounds like packing up a whole house and moving it while you’re moving another whole house in at the same time, what is involved here in terms of not just moving items but knowing where they’re supposed to go and what is where at any given time?

Yeah, as I last counted it was about 15,000 pounds of stuff needs to come out, something like 12- or 13,000 pounds needs to go in and it doesn’t come in large one thousand pound chunks. It comes in a series of small 20 pound bags in terms of transfer items, this MPLM will have about 50% more items, just by item number, and how do you keep track of all that? that was the question that you asked. I’ll tell you, there’s an outstanding team of folks on the ground who know exactly what’s in the MPLM. They’ve labeled everything appropriately. We have daily list updates and we take the bag with the location code on it, we go put it in that location in the space station; typically while we’re there, we’ll pick up something else that’s labeled for return, we’ll bring it back and we’ll stage it so we’ll try to slowly transfer things out of the MPLM while simultaneously bringing things back in. It’s an incredibly efficient process, but you would never know it to look at it on the first couple days. It’s only until the last day or so that it really begins to come together and you realize that slowly but surely, bag by bag, you’re doing this giant dance as you get things in and out of the MPLM.

And it’s complicated, as if it needs to be complicated, by the fact that in the MPLM things are packed in front of other things and you’ve got to move stuff out in order to create room for the things that are coming back.

Yeah exactly. They try to pack the MPLM such that the things that you need first are in the front and you want to pack the things that are in the front as soon as you remove the transferred item before you can rotate these racks down to get access to the things that are on the back and what has actually made this MPLM more unique than others is that typically you can move things in thousand pound chunks by taking an entire rack and moving it out and installing it in a location on the space station, and for the first time in my memory, we are actually not transferring a whole rack. This is all bag by bag by bag by bag; all the racks that are in the MPLM will stay in there, no big packages, they’re all small packages.

It’s going to take a lot of coordination and this is going to go on for several days?

We have about three and a half days devoted to it. If you had to tally it up in man hours, it’s about a hundred and forty man-hours. We have some support from our Russian crew members ’cause we’re just flat short-handed up there it’s a multinational event to get that MPLM emptied and refilled again.

When that’s all done, the joint timeline is over, you and your three crewmates are going to mark a milestone with the last undocking of a space shuttle from the International Space Station. Is there anything special on the plan for the undocking operation itself as Atlantis finishes the shuttle’s mission at the station?

Well we do have one thing on the docket that is unique and for the undocking we’ll back out to about 600 feet and these plans are well in work and I think it’ll actually come to fruition—at that point the space station control team will yaw the space station 90° for the first time in a very long time and maybe forever, we’ll have a real nice view of the side of the space station. We’ve all been very accustomed to these views where the space shuttle will do a 360° flyaround but it always flies around along the axis of the station, we have great views but they’re the same repetitive views from the same axis.

We always see the front, we always see the back…

…and you see the top and the bottom. Now what we’ll do is we’ll rotate the station 90° to the side and we’ll fly around that way so we get to see the side views and I’m sure they’ll make some spectacular photos but it also has very sound engineering value in that prolonged exposure to the space environment it does eventually wear on these items. There’s little micrometeoroid orbital debris hits around station that we can document very well, but we haven’t seen the side of station in quite a while we’re certainly hoping that this will come and I think it will be a nice cap because we just really won’t have many options like this in the future, and being that it’s the last shuttle to leave, we should take full advantage of it.

Along with that documentation, is there anything else you’re going to be keeping your eyes peeled for as you make the last fly around in the final separation?

Well, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of inspirational reflections on the history of the shuttle. The space station couldn’t exist in the current form that it is today without the shuttle, that did the lion’s share of the heavy hauling up there. As far as what we’ll be keeping our eye out for, we want to make sure Sandy’s on the right side of the hatch. She enjoyed her time on space station but we’re really going to need her, we’re going to be very busy after we undock and want to make sure everybody’s on board. It’ll be an emotional moment for a lot of folks who have seen the shuttle essentially build the better part of the space station, and to know that this will be the final time it leaves, and I’m sure we’ll have some good words for that.

When you were assigned to this flight it was a rescue flight for the last shuttle mission and it was supposed to have already flown by now, but schedules have changed, of course. What was your reaction as you realized, that hey, I’m on the last space shuttle mission?

Well there wasn’t a hallelujah moment, if you will. I mean, this came in a whisper that perhaps we would try to fly this last flight but it wasn’t funded, it was a long shot you’re going to train for a rescue mission and then maybe we’ll upgrade you somewhere near the end, and it eventually built in a crescendo that occurred over a period of maybe nine months, well even after we were assigned in training as a crew at which point I would say we were 50-50 at best. Now as we approach launch, I’d say the odds are slightly better, but I still won’t believe it until the SRBs [solid rocket boosters] fire and we’re on our way. The realization and the significance of being on the last space shuttle flight, it’s an honor, but it’s not one that I think anyone of us felt like we’re particularly qualified for, certainly. I mean, there’s a lot of great folks in our office, any one of which could assume this role and some of which could probably do a much better job but being what it is, this is where we are. We’ll rise to the occasion and we do consider ourselves extraordinarily fortunate.

Well, people would want to know, is there a special sense of honor or responsibility of being the last crew?

I’ll tell you, pulling off a mission with a crew of four is going to be challenging. That said, we’re heads down and marching forward. Someday the realization that this may, and likely will be, the last flight will hit us. I would like to defer that emotion until after the wheels are stopped on the runway because at that point I think that the finality of everything will truly hit us. Are there inklings of that right now? Do we see that right now that, hey this could likely be it, and we might luckily be on the final shuttle flight? Yes, it’s starting to creep in, but we try to push that to the side, and we want to execute this mission as safely as any shuttle mission that has preceded it.

Now the end of the program does mean a lot of changes at NASA, including some layoffs and including shutting down some historical facilities and you are seeing that every day in your training. What’s your feeling about the decision that was made to stop flying these vehicles?

Well, let me touch on your point about the layoffs. I’ve underestimated a few things about this flight, one of them was the impact of watching a lot of friends and watching a lot of people who you know have worked long and hard on the shuttle program move on and it has actually added a little bit to the workload, if you will, because there’s a certain compulsion, you want to thank everyone you want to tell them that their time and their service has been so appreciated and they know that but you still feel like there’s a certain part of you that wants to thank them for what they’ve done, and we do try to take the time out to do that. Just recently we were at an evolution at the Kennedy Space Center called CEIT, it’s crew element integration test; while we were there a rather large layoff occurred and we were in a room where that morning was going to be the last day for several people who invite, who introduced themselves to us as I’m so-and-so and I’ve been working here at the Kennedy Space Center for 43 years, and that just takes you back. It’s like, wow, after 43 years. It’s been an emotional time for the people who are getting ready to leave, and it’s been emotional for the crew, too to see them go because you know they have families. A lot of them have, they’re well provided for and, all they have very marketable skills, they’re finding jobs, but it does affect you. I hope I’ve answered your question in there somewhere.

Well, recognizing all of that, which is undeniable, how do you feel about the decision that was made, OK, it’s time to stop flying these vehicles?

Well it was a tough one. But the decision was made in 2003 we’ve known this was coming for eight years now. There’s two camps out there. One camp says you can continue flying the shuttles for another ten years, no problem. They’re healthy, they’re, relatively young, they were designed for a hundred flights, some of them have only flown 33, 35 flights. But they were designed to fly a hundred flights over a 20 year period and we’re now 30 years into the program, so there are other issues that you deal with aside from the fact that you haven’t flown as many flights on them that you would think. Obsolescence is a big one. We have a lot of elements in the space shuttle which are difficult to maintain because they were built with technology that was 35 years old. There’s life and fatigue items, there’s some areas of the space shuttle that we really haven’t delved into to inspect in a very long time while you hate to see older planes retire, old airplanes and old rockets do become old and you begin to wonder whether the risk of them getting old is worth the reward of continuing for an additional 10 or 15 years or what have you. I certainly understand the decision. I understand there are many different opinions out there on whether we can continue to fly them longer, but the decision was made eight years ago and we’ve known that, that this was coming. We’ve had time to prepare.

I’m going to ask you about some of the elements in the patch that’s on your shirt. Now that was designed knowing this would be the last mission; some of those elements are, are emblematic of that, right?

Well we tried to, without being overt about it, insinuate that this was in fact the last flight, and hence the omega. Interestingly, the patch was designed by Rex Walheim’s wife, Margie, who just did a fantastic job on it we didn’t want to be too far out there but we did want the subtlety to come through and when somebody looks at the STS-135 patch and say it’s the omega; that’s the last flight.

What do you think are some of the most significant moments in space shuttle history?

I’ll tell you, definitely STS-1. I was a college student at the time and this is a vehicle that the first time it ever lifted off the pad it was occupied by two folks, two brave folks, John Young, Bob Crippen, and you just looked at it on the pad and you said, this looks like no other rocket that I’ve ever seen before. It’s got huge boosters, a tank in the middle, and it’s got the equivalent of an airliner hanging off the side, and even today’s standards it’s very common sight, we’re used to seeing it by the early ’80s standards it was completely revolutionary, and to know that it wasn’t going to fly a test flight—it had flown some gliding landings but it hadn’t flown a real test flight and the first time it was going to fly it was going to have two people on board—that was a major milestone. The shuttle’s also delivered many of the Great Observatories Magellan, Compton Gamma Ray, the Chandra X-ray telescope Hubble some monumental and scientific breakthroughs as far as observatories have been launched, there’s a lot of major milestones.

How does Atlantis stick out in that? What, what’s Atlantis’ place in all that history?

I looked a little bit into Atlantis’ history and it’s very interesting. Its first flight was 1985 and it launched some of these observatories, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory; it launched Magellan. It was actually the most frequent visitor to Mir; I didn’t know that we had a Phase 1 program in the ’90s where we visited the Russian Mir space station and Atlantis made seven of the 11 trips back and forth so Atlantis really became the cornerstone of a docking operations with an orbiting space vehicle, and of course it factored heavily into the construction of the International Space Station; last Hubble servicing mission; there’s a lot of claims to fame for Atlantis, and we’ll try to send her off in good fashion.

On the point about the space station, how, what kind of space station do you think we’d have today if we hadn’t had the space shuttle to use to build it?

It’d be a lot smaller, that’s for sure. I saw an interesting statistic the other day that really hit home with me and I’ll give it to you just because it does factor into this whole space station discussion. Of all the launchers in the world—Apollo, Gemini, Mercury, Proton, Zenit, Long March, from every country, and every space launch that has ever occurred—if you had to add together all the mass that’s been taken into low Earth orbit, the space shuttles have delivered more than half of it. I mean, that is impressive if you think about it, and it gets even more impressive when you talk about what has been returned from orbit. There are very few vehicles that can bring stuff back from space. In most cases, in the case of trash or spent satellites, they usually just burn up as they re-enter the atmosphere, but the space shuttle has the capability to bring a lot back and of all the mass that’s been brought back from low Earth orbit, the space shuttle has brought 97% of it back. To get to your point about what would the space station look like, well, it did the lion’s share of the hauling. I mean, the space station was built with the space shuttle in mind and the modules all fit in the bay. I think space station is close to 900,000 pounds right now, most of it delivered by the space shuttle. I don’t think the station would look anything remotely close to what it does today if it weren’t for the shuttle.

Well, and after STS-135 it’s, then it’s going to be spaceships from other nations and perhaps private industry to get cargo and crews up there. As an American astronaut, how do you feel about the future for the International Space Station?

Station has a bright future. The construction is done so everything that the shuttle needed to do is done it’s really logistics support at this point and I think our commercial partners can pull that off. They haven’t demonstrated that capability yet but SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corporation], Orbital [Sciences Corporation] are making strides in that direction. Space-X has had a successful orbital flight and it’s actually had a re-entry that was very successful as well where it landed in the Pacific Ocean we are making steps in that direction. We have our international partners, too, ATV, the autonomous transfer vehicle, which is a European product, and HTV is a Japanese product, which have performed flawlessly as well as for the long-term health of the space station, I think it’s positioned very well logistically. STS-135 will get it in that great shape just to hope for the best, plan for the worst we’ll put a bunch of things on station to get it in a good spot just in case we have some hiccups along the way for some of our commercial providers.

STS049-91-026: Three astronauts hold onto Intelsat VI

Three astronauts hold onto the 4.5-ton Intelsat VI satellite after a six-handed "capture" during the STS-49 shuttle mission in May 1992. Photo credit: NASA

What’s your favorite memory from the space shuttle era?

I had to think really hard about this one. There’s a lot of them and a lot of them just involve the thrill of getting to fly on a couple space shuttle flights, but if I think about it in terms of engineering challenge things that were really out there, real time planning, how did the shuttle demonstrate its flexibility as a reusable spacecraft, I’d have to focus on STS-49 where we had a problem grabbing an Intelsat satellite, the grapple fixture that Intelsat satellite was stuck in a bad orbit and we had to go do something about it so we sent three spacewalkers out, unprecedented never done that before, and they just stood in the payload bay and they just grabbed this huge satellite and they plugged it in and they did all the work they needed to do to it and then sent it on its way, and I think that just epitomized the flexibility of what the space shuttle is all about.

How is the work of the shuttle program going to be remembered? Something like that, you think, or…

Well, I think the shuttle program’s extraordinarily flexible. I think when we started we didn’t really have the space station in it was in mind but it wasn’t on paper, and the way that the Mir program was brought in the middle again demonstrates how flexible it was. We had this platform that could go up and down on a routine basis and we didn’t quite know exactly what we were going to do with it for its 20 or 30 or 40 year history, but we have managed to adapt it to be so many different things over the period of years, I think that if you look back on it you would say that its true hallmark its flexibility.

Remember where you were when STS-1 took off?

You betcha, I remember exactly where I was. I was a young engineering student, I was at Drexel University and I was a mechanical engineer; I wanted to be a pilot, I wasn’t a pilot at the time and I was just fascinated by this kind of stuff ever since the Apollo days. I remember being a kid and drawing these Apollo rockets here was something completely different. As I said, it’s a couple boosters and a tank in the middle and this equivalent of an airliner hanging on the side, it was the most ungainly thing you could ever imagine, and, boy, I wanted to see this thing launch I’d go from class to class and I think there was one cancellation where they scrubbed it for 24 hours and try to update myself and I remember watching it on this color television in one of the lounges at school there, and I remember my first reaction. Remember how the Apollo would kind of lumber off the pad? It was this slow buildup of momentum and the space shuttle just jumped off the launch pad by contrast, and then it went through this pre-programmed roll maneuver. Nobody really knew what to expect we had never seen it before, we didn’t know what it was supposed to do, and after seeing it pop off the pad like that and go through this roll motion I was like, I don’t think it’s supposed to do that! Of course, it was and the rest is history, but I remember exactly where I was for the first launch.

Destinations for the space shuttle have changed a lot in the 30 years since STS-1 kicked off that era. Where do you think we’re going in the next era of space exploration?

That’s a tough one I don’t know. If you had asked me two years ago I’d say we’re going back to the moon and we’re going to stay there for a long period of time. That was Project Constellation; that since has been cancelled. I believe there’s an asteroid in our future, don’t really know. I think that the moon is a great destination I think that we should consider that. Ultimately, I’d love to see us shoot for Mars. Mars is always 20 years in the future and that’s where it’s been for the last 40 years, it’s been 20 years in the future. I think we belong on Mars and I assume you’re referring to human exploration, and I’d like to consider that as a long-term goal for the space program, to put humans on Mars.