Q: There are hundreds of thousands of pilots and scientists out there in the world, but there are only about 100 American astronauts. What made you want to try to become an astronaut and be one of those people that flies in space?
Image to right: Astronaut Sunita L. Williams. Image credit: NASA
Preflight Interview: Suni Williams
A: Oh, good question. In my mind, I think everybody wants to be an astronaut. I’ve sort of found out maybe that’s not so true. When I was five years old or so, I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and thought, ‘wow --that’s cool.’ I mean, that’s what I would like to do. Subsequent to that, all the TV shows about going to space sort of set a bit, I think, in everybody’s head that, that would be a great career. I never really thought that, that would happen in my life. It seemed too far out there, something that I could never achieve. Really didn’t touch base with me and hit home until I went to Test Pilot School in Maryland. I’m a Navy pilot, helicopter pilot. In one of our field trips, we came down to Johnson Space Center. It was me and a couple of other helicopter pilots sitting in the back while all the jet pilots in my TPS [Test Pilot School] class were all sitting in the front, listening to John Young talk about the shuttle and about flying to the moon. I remember him talking about learning how to fly a helicopter to land the lunar lander. Something just clicked in my head, and I said, ‘wow,’ you know, maybe there’s a use for helicopter pilots, if we’re going to go back to the moon. So, I sort of said to myself, the only one who’s telling me I’m not going to be an astronaut is me. I did the research on what was required, and I got my master’s degree and applied, and, lo and behold, the second application, I got an interview. So, I think I’m very, very lucky.
You grew up in Massachusetts. Tell me about Needham, Massachusetts.
It’s a great town. It’s a little, as I called it during my astronaut interview, a small town which I was quickly, corrected that it’s not so, so small—there was about, 500 kids in my high school graduating class, but it seems like you know everybody in a town that size. Close enough to Boston, a big Red Sox fan, Patriots fan. When I was growing up Bobby Orr was playing hockey, so, of course, a Bruins fan, and, Larry Bird was playing basketball, so a Celtics fan. A great sports town to grow up in. I grew up as a swimmer, speaking of sports; I spent a lot of time before school and after school swimming. I would contribute whatever discipline I have and direction I have to competitive swimming. It takes up a lot of your time and then you’re trying to fit in, doing your homework and having a social life as you’re growing up. Needham, Massachusetts, close enough to Boston. It was a great place to grow up.
Do you see, in yourself, how that place and the people in that place, helped make you the person you are today?
Oh, yeah. I think I am a smart aleck because I grew up close enough to Boston and most people from Massachusetts talk fast and I have a little bit of a wiseacre, and I think I’m a little bit like that. But seriously, where I swam was at, at Harvard, and so we spent a lot of time in the Cambridge area. My father’s a doctor. He taught at Harvard Medical School and BU [Boston University] Medical School and worked at a bunch of hospitals in the Boston area. I think growing up there, it just becomes commonplace that you feel like everybody around you is going to college; I’m going to go to college. That is never a question in your mind. It’s a great place to grow up, just because things are ticking and so many colleges around, so many universities, hospitals around that just taps into your interest.
Well, let’s talk about the educational and career path of Suni Williams.
I graduated from my high school OK. Not, not absolutely number one, I was just OK. Then, my brother went to the Naval Academy, and that’s how I got interested in the Naval Academy. My biggest worry was I had long hair, like I do now, and I thought, oh, man, if I have to cut it, I’m not really sure I want to go to this school. I applied to a bunch of other schools, a couple in the Boston area, a couple in New York. My final two choices were Columbia and the Naval Academy. Columbia scared me because it’s right downtown in New York City. So I opted for the Naval Academy. I went to the Naval Academy, did OK—wasn’t, number one student there, either. As a result of your grade point average, that’s what you pick for your career field. I wanted to be a diver. One of my good friends, who was a professor there was a saturation diver. My grades didn’t allow me to get to become a diver so I became a pilot. But that was OK. I wanted to do something, and I had 20/20 vision, and, of course that was the time frame when “Top Gun” came out, so everybody wanted to be a jet pilot. Of course, I wanted to be a jet pilot. At the time, women weren’t flying combat airplanes so there was only a couple of billets for women. I didn’t get my first choice—I got my second choice, which was helicopters. I flew helicopters, and I loved flying helicopters on the East Coast when I did a couple of deployments out to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. I bring up all these little failures because it’s one of those things that I tell kids that maybe you want something, but you get something else, but if you make the best of it, things sorta work out.
So, you’re flying helicopters in the Navy and at some point you came to the Johnson Space Center. Tell me how [you] became an astronaut from there.
Well, while I was in the Fleet, one of the things I really liked to do is, when the airplanes went in for maintenance, they had to come out and have a test flight. There was a couple of qualifications to become a test pilot for your particular aircraft. I really liked doing that, and that got me interested in the idea of going to Test Pilot School, where we test not only your specific flight, your Fleet aircraft, but a myriad of other airplanes or helicopters that the Fleet will be flying in the future. So I said, oh, I want to apply for this, so I put in my application. With my background in my Fleet airplane of testing, I got into that. When I went to Test Pilot School, that’s when we came to Johnson Space Center. And I ended up seeing John Young and listening to him talk and getting a positive influence from him.
This mission is your first flight assignment. What was it like when they told you you’d been assigned to a mission to fly to space?
I was overwhelmed. Charlie Precourt was the Chief of the [Astronaut] Office at the time, and when he told me I think he was waiting for this reaction, like jumping up and down or something. And, I was just so like, ‘wow.’ I was assigned in the winter of 2002, so it’s been a little while ago, and at the time that, we were look, focusing on a very accelerated construction of the space station. At the time I was the backup for Expedition 10, which would be, installing Node 2. And again, another EVA-intensive type of time frame up on the space station. So I was pretty overwhelmed with, ‘I can’t even believe I have the opportunity to train for something this complicated.’ After the Columbia accident, things got a little bit sorted out and it fell into this 12A.1 time frame, which again I’m amazed and very pleased that it fell into a very intensive time frame. I think every space shuttle mission during this construction is going to be full of this type of construction and intensive activity. So, I think we’re all pretty, pretty lucky.
The “flying in space” part of being an astronaut has shown that it can be pretty dangerous. What is it that you see as the advantage that we get from flying people in space that makes you willing to do it yourself?
Oh, I think just the appeal of people in space, and people on the ground being able to relate to those people in space really makes people start to wonder, ‘wow, what else can we do?’ So many people in the Astronaut Office are from different countries and cultures, and every time someone goes up that can identify with a group of people on the ground, you get that group of people wondering, ‘wow, maybe that could be me one day.’ There are a million possibilities out there. For instance, I am half Indian and I’ve got a, I’m sure, a group of Indian people who are looking forward to seeing this second person of Indian origin, flying up in space. So it’s nice to know that everybody brings along with them a group of people from all over the world that get interested in space.
You are the Flight Engineer on Expeditions 14 and 15 to the International Space Station. Give me a summary of the goals of your flight, and your main responsibilities.
Oh, wow, it’s a lot to cover. Expedition 14, when I get up there, will be midway through its expedition...hopefully, knock on wood, sometime in December. During that time frame, I’ll be flying up with STS-116. Their goal during that time frame is installing an element called P5 out on the end of P3/P4 solar array, and that’s a spacer which will allow P6 to later be transferred to that place. So, robotically, I’ll be part of the crew that will install the P5. Subsequent to that, they will also be doing a major power reconfig[uration]. I’ll be part of the support robotic team to help them along with that. They’ll have three EVAs, and their third EVA, if everything goes well on the first two EVAs, I’ll be doing a third EVA with Bob Curbeam, and we’ll be doing the second power reconfiguration. So, that’s a lot for one small shuttle mission in the beginning of my mission and right after that, once they leave, Michael Lopez-Alegria, me, and [Mikhail] Misha Tyurin will be living up on the International Space Station. While we’re up there, pretty shortly after [STS-]116 leaves, we have a thermal reconfiguration that we’re going to do to the space station. That reconfiguration along with retracting some radiators up on P6 and then removing some thermal shrouds out on the P3/P4 section will take about three spacewalks. So, probably about two months, if all goes well again—knock on wood—, we’ll be out doing three spacewalks in the first two months that I’ll be up there for, for the Expedition 14 time frame. Now hopefully, if that all goes well and the shuttle launch schedule stays on time, we’ll be expecting another shuttle mission to come visit us, STS-117. And they’ll be bringing up the S3/S4 solar array. So we’ll be part of that crew to help install that solar array. In the meantime, while that’s all going on—I’ll be part of the robotic team with that. In the meantime while that’s all going on, we have a bunch of science experiments and a major computer reconfiguration we’re a part of. Then the Soyuz guys, the Expedition 14 guys, will be leaving in time, when the Expedition 15 guys will be joining us, and I’ll be there for all of that. Once the Expedition 15 guys show up, we potentially have a PMA-3 relocate, which is another robotic op, all in preparation for when Node 2 arrives. Then I’ll finish up the rest of my time up on the space station with the Expedition 15 guys, with the culmination of 13A.1, which is STS-118. Lots of numbers; sorry for the confusion. But they’ll be putting up the sister element that 116 put up…P5; they’ll be putting up S5. So, luckily, if all works out well, I’ll have seen this P5 installation, which will be mirrored by the S5 installation, so I’ll just be able to help out with the spacewalks and the robotic ops for that.
Six months. Don’t you have anything else to do?
I think it’s going to be pretty busy. But, it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I’m absolutely lucky to be in this place at this time. And one thing I forgot to mention is when Expedition 15 comes up there, I’ll be the one American up there with two Russian crew members.
Well, your travel arrangements are a little different than they’ve ever been. You’re going to arrive on ISS on the space shuttle mission to replace the European astronaut, Thomas Reiter. Do you think it’s going to benefit you to arrive at the station to find two crewmates who are already set up and been in business?
Oh, absolutely. I think I’m really lucky, ’cause then, they’re going to be there to help me with any time of, turnover things that I don’t understand. I’m a rookie; never flown before. These two are both experienced space fliers; and them, having lived there for about three months before I get there, I think if I have any questions, they’ll be the perfect people to show me the way. And, like I just mentioned, that’s pretty needed for when they leave and I’ll be up there, the sole U.S. member of Expedition 15 for a while.
This rotation of this International Space Station crew, just a portion of it at a time, is the first time that it’s been done in this program. Does that make it more difficult for you in training and having to work with two different station crews as well as a variety of shuttle crews?
It does add a lot of complexity. Luckily enough, the complexity falls on the amazing training team that we have, because they are the ones who really have to shuffle the cards and figure out how we’re going to get the required training for us crew members. Our schedule’s just filled with training that we’re going to need to make sure that we are totally trained, ready to go, for all the specific construction activities that we are required to do while we’re up there.
OK; a great question. Because when I show my family the part “P5” on the whole view of the space station, they always go, ‘wow, that’s so little,’ so it’s quite funny when I’m pointing out exactly the part that I’m particularly involved with installing. But, it’s a needed part. It is a part that goes, P5 and S5 is a part, that [goes] between the two major solar array wings. Without them, the two wings would be too close together to actually operate. They’re a pass-through for all of the thermal, electrical lines going out to the end of the truss and absolutely critical. Like I said, for the completion of the second set of solar arrays on either side. S3/S4 is the first solar array on the starboard side; hence the nomenclature “S.” And that will be installed during the STS-117 mission.
So, the “5” parts are not just glorified spacers.
No. No, they’re absolutely critical to make sure that the two big solar array wings will be able to operate.
Well, let’s talk about some of those operations that you referred to earlier, not only EVAs but robotics operations. If you could talk us through those operations on STS-116, on the mission that’s going to deliver you to the space station, because part of that is also your role as a spacewalker.
Yes. Well the first EVA, which is the P5 install. Me and Joanie Higginbotham will be operating the robotic workstations. We’ll be taking the P5 Truss from a handoff position from the shuttle robotic arm and we’ll be moving it to the end of P3/P4 for the installation. It’s a little bit of a tricky installation because the clearances to get the P5 into its position are pretty tight, about three inches or so. Some of the issues with that is the P3/P4 solar array wing is live at the time, so there’s going to be some black boxes on the end of P3/P4 that are live powered. And so with that clearance, the biggest worry is that you don’t hit the box that has the live power on it, ’cause that’s going to cause a lot of problems. So, we’ve practiced this very intensely with the spacewalkers Bob Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang. They’ll be out on opposite ends of the P3/P4 truss, guiding us in and talking us in. So this is a very complicated, entire-crew-involved event to try to get this guy installed. Likewise that’s going to happen on S5; I’m not part of the robotic team for that right now. I’m the M3, as you might call it—the person who’s watching over this with lessons learned and experience to help those guys after, with my knowledge from P5 installation.
And, on this P5 installation, when you’re running the station arm, is it out? It’s not based back in the middle anymore?
You’ve got to run out on the railcar to reach that far, don’t you?
Yeah, it’s out a little bit toward the port side. Moved out to the port side so we can reach that far.
Are there arm ops supporting the rest of that first EVA operation?
Image to right: Astronaut Suni Williams participates in a training session at the Sonny Carter Training Facility near Johnson Space Center, Houston. Image credit: NASA
Yes. Part of that EVA is also starting up the main bus power switching units, MBSU, and while we’re making sure that that’s all starting up correctly, the two spacewalkers, Bob Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang, will be moving the equipment carts, CETA carts, to the opposite side that they’re on in preparation for the next solar array, which is the S3/S4 installation. So, we’ll be working with the spacewalkers again as we’ll be picking them up and driving them over to the truss, while they’ll be grabbing on to the, what we call CETA carts. We’ll be flying them over to the other side of the transporter system, the MBS.
We see that same kind of move done on an earlier mission.
Exactly. To get ready for this P3/P4 installation. So, now we have to get ready for the S3/S4 installation.
All that’s EVA 1?
That’s EVA 1.
So, the main part of EVA 2 is the power recon, first power reconfiguration. So, once those main bus switching units are all up and working on line, then we’re going to work on the power reconfiguration, which is the strings 1 and 4. Again, Christer Fuglesang and Bob Curbeam will be out working on that, and Joanie and I will primarily be helping them out in case there’s any issues with the boxes that we’re starting up. Then EVA 3, which I’m part of at this moment in time, is the second power string power up, which is the [strings] 2-3 power up. On that spacewalk both Bob Curbeam will be out on the front truss, I’m back between what, in the place we call the “rat’s nest”, the Z1 and the S0 and the Lab—it’s a small area that comes down into a “V,” it has lots of electrical connections and fluid connections there. I’ll be working a couple of electric connections back there to get that power reconfig[uration] done with Bob Curbeam. The second part of that EVA is moving some Service Module debris panels, which will be installed later, moving them from the payload bay in the shuttle over to PMA-3, which is on the port side of the Node, getting that ready for a later installation by the Russians. So, that’s a pretty interesting task: it involves the shuttle robotic arm, and I’ll be on the end of the shuttle robotic arm for that EVA.
It is unusual for a station crew member, which you will be by this time, to be one of the spacewalkers during docked operations. What’s the reasoning behind having you do this spacewalk?
That’s a good question, and I think it’s been up for debate for a little while. But it’s sort of a preventative measure and a little bit forward thinking, in my opinion, because I will be, like I mentioned earlier there, I will be up there initially with one other American, Michael Lopez-Alegria, and Misha Tyurin, the Russian, and then my second part of my increment I’ll be up there with two Russians. And after 12A.1 occurs, there’s a lot of big boxes, for example, a Pump Module and a flex hose rotary couple on either side, which allows fluid out to the radiators. Those big boxes will be started up for the first time during 12A.1. Now, any of those big boxes can fail at any time. Also those main bus switching units I talked about, the MBSUs, those can also maybe have a problem, and all of those big boxes will require a spacewalk to do a replacement. So at any point in time after 12A.1, we need to be ready and have all of the Expedition crews trained to be able to do these changeouts. Luckily enough I’ve been set up on this third EVA during the 116 mission to give me a little experience. Like I said, I’m a rookie. This is my first flight. And need all the experiences that I can to be EV1. Part of that question is also, well, you’re going to do three EVAs, potentially with, Michael Lopez-Alegria during the docked ops, but the thing is, we don’t know exactly when the launch date is for 116. And [if] the launch date slips too far to the right and into the end of Expedition 14, we may not have enough time to get the three EVAs done during the increment. So this is a little bit of a protection, just in case those EVAs slip in to Expedition 15, I’ll have already gone out the door, as they call it, with an experienced American, and so I’ll be a little bit more comfortable with doing an EVA as EV1.
In the early portion of your time onboard the station, after the P5’s installed, we’re looking at having long periods when the station’s regular high data rate communications system is not going to be operating. Tell us why that’s happening and how long that might last, but, and I think maybe most importantly, what won’t you be able to do?
Right, good question. This is the Ku-band antenna; it’s in the attitude that we’ll be flying. We may have some issues with heating and cooling as we’re in this little bit unbalanced situation. We have a big solar array wing on the port side and not one yet on the starboard side. So that Ku antenna may or may not be able to work as efficiently as it has been in the past. We’re working on some issues, or some ideas, to try to mitigate that, to minimize the time in which the antenna will not work. But I think everyone doesn’t realize what the Ku does for us. Of course, it gives us a critical part for the IP phone, the internet protocol phone, which we’re able to call back to the ground with, so, we’re not going to have that so everyone just goes, ‘oh, you’re not going to have the IP phone, you’ll be fine—you can talk to the ground on space-to-ground.’ So, but the other parts, there’s tons of other things: we have a bunch of tools and products that the ground sends to us like our timeline, any uplink messages. Anything that gets uplinked, we are not going to have. Anything that changes on our procedures, that’s not going to get updated on a regular basis if we don’t have Ku. And so, the program and a lot of people have been working lots of time to figure out, one, how to mitigate the time which we have Ku outage, if we could put some type of heat shield or something to decrease the time or change the attitude of the space station to allow us to have even heating and cooling on the Ku; and, secondly, how to use the onboard computer systems, which are not affected by the Ku antenna, use that to get some of the products on board. Unfortunately, if we do that, that’s going to take up some crew time to have to sort through the files to get the correct files that we would have had instantaneously if we did have Ku.
You’ve got a lot of activity that goes on onboard the space station, when shuttles are not there. Spacewalks are one of them. Now, of course the plan could change by the time you do it, but tell me about the current plan for station crew spacewalks during your six months onboard.
OK. The time frame for the American spacewalks that I think we’re alluding to is the 12A.1 time frame, and in that time frame we’ll have just finished with 12A, so we’ve got the power reconfiguration completed, and now we need to do the thermal reconfiguration. So that consists of three spacewalks. The first spacewalk will be one of the external power loops. We call it loop A. We will switch it from using a radiator and cooling loop system on the P6 to its more permanent cooling system out on the truss. And that involves changing some electrical connectors in the “rat’s nest,” which is the area, again, between P, Z1, S0 and the Lab. It’s a small area that has a lot of electrical connections and a lot of fluid connections; it’s this very tight space. As it’s planned, both me and Michael Lopez-Alegria will be inboard in this small little area. On the first loop reconfig[uration], I’ll do the electrical connectors then he will follow that with the big fluid jumpers to switch the fluid lines from P6 to the external. Following that, we will be up on the P6 truss; they will retract the starboard radiator, which we’ve been using for the early external thermal control system. The ground will be doing that but our role in that is to cinch it down, ’cause it needs to stay down and compacted, so the radiators aren’t moving around as the space station is rotating. He’ll be up on the zenith side; I’ll be on the nadir side of the radiator. We will wait and watch the radiator retract—potentially it could need a little bit of a push from us at the very end—and then we cinch bolts around the edge of it that we need to, simultaneously, connect to make sure that the radiator is contained nicely. That’s the main portion of EVA number one; the second EVA is really a mirror image of EVA 1 for EVA 2, where we’re changing out the loop B, fluid connectors and retracting, now, the aft radiator on P6. The third EVA involves going all the way out to the P3/P4 end of the truss. The station will be flying in an XPOP [x-axis perpendicular to the orbital plane] configuration, and because of that some of the equipment on the back side of the truss is experiencing some heating and cooling which is undesired. So, we have two big shrouds, out on the truss. And as we switch over the power and then the thermal reconfiguration, we can change the station back to a normal flying, LVLH [local vertical local horizontal] type of attitude. And, so we need to take those blankets off. So most of that EVA will involve taking off some of the thermal blankets, now that we’ve got the station all reconfigured, power and thermal.
And, of course, throughout your time on orbit, you’ve got science to do.
Image to left: Expedition 14 Flight Engineer Sunita Williams (background) participates in the Human Research Facility Ultrasound proficiency training in the International Space Station Destiny laboratory mockup/trainer at Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. Image credit: NASA
You’ll be the NASA ISS Science Officer for part of it. Primary focus of U.S. science on the space station is research on how people can live and work safely in weightlessness. Tell me about some of the “people” experiments that are going to be done during your time.
Our goal, now that we’re going back to the moon and going to Mars, the main focus of the space station for U.S. science is how people are going to live out in space for extended periods of time. Over a six-month period we’re, definitely going to lose bone and muscle mass. So a big part of the experiments that we’re doing onboard is how to mitigate that. We’re all doing exercise protocols while we’re up there, trying to mitigate the bone and muscle mass [loss]. We do that using the treadmill, the bike, and also there’s a weight lifting machine that we use to work out and make sure our bones and muscles are exercised. Along with that, we’re doing a nutrition experiment, which is something we’ve always done in the past as well as the exercise, to annotate what we are eating so we can keep a log, how the food is affecting our bones and muscles. But we’re adding one other part of that, where we’re taking blood. That way we’ll be able to really analyze how the food is being metabolized and interacting in the body. That’s not going to be a real-time correction type of experiment, but with the shuttles rotating, they’ll be able to take the blood samples down, and then we’ll be able to get some feedback from the scientists on the ground to analyze how our diet is actually working. So those are just a couple examples of the experiments that we’re doing on the body.
With Expedition 14, it’s going to be the first time since the loss of Columbia that there will be an increment crew of three people onboard ISS from the start of the increment to the end of the increment. During that time, there’s going to be multiple spaceships visiting up and down, major assembly tasks are going on. Is the program back on track now? Are we ready to move on to full completion and utilization?
It sure feels that way. I think we had to go through a period of understanding and growing and finding out where our issues were with the shuttle program. I think we’re, we’re ironing that out with [STS-]114 and [STS-]121, which were primarily test flights to really show that we have fixed the problems that we’ve had, and anticipating new problems, trying to look ahead and see how we’re going to fix those. But, now, since those two missions have gone, and particularly 121 being absolutely successful. I’ve heard people talk about Discovery coming back absolutely clean and potentially the turnaround can even be a little bit quicker, which would be great for STS-116, my ride up there. I think we’re into an area almost where we’re all the way up to full schedule or full speed of constructing and completing the space station. The next flight, [STS-]115, will really show us how we stand, ’cause two in a row in a short period of time, two different vehicles, making sure we found all the right things to fix the orbiters, and of course, 115 taking up the next solar array, which is the next big step in finishing the space station. If that all goes well, I think 116 and beyond is really the finishing of the construction of the space station.
Of course, the Vision for Space Exploration sees way beyond this particular space station that we’ve been talking about. Tell me about your philosophy of the future human exploration of space, and the contribution that ISS is making to that.
Good question, because a lot of people go, ‘what are we spending all this money to really only be flying around 250 miles above the Earth?’ When I go to schools and tell kids about 250 miles, they’re a little bit under-impressed. But the second part of why I tell kids about 250 miles, ’cause it makes them realize how small our atmosphere is, which leads into sort of my philosophy on space travel. We’re up there, using the ISS to figure out how to go other places in the universe. I think it’s something we need to do as we’re getting more and more people on this Earth, we need to figure out what happened to Mars, why is there no atmosphere there that’s breathable and livable by human beings, and explore how the planets are formed and, potentially, to understand if there could be some other planet out there that we could reach out to and share our experiences with. So, the space station’s just a stepping-stone to get us to understand space, and how to live and work in space, and then potentially get back to the moon is the next stepping-stone. How to work in a low-gravity environment and how to work in an environment that is not habitable for us that will take us to the next place, maybe Mars and then beyond.