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Preflight Interview: Catherine Coleman
JSC2010-E-042774 -- Expedition 26/27 Flight Engineer Catherine Coleman

Expedition 26/27 Flight Engineer Catherine Coleman participates in an Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit fit check in the Space Station Airlock Test Article in the Crew Systems Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Q: Why did you want to be an astronaut?

A: [laughs] I grew up in a family, with a dad who did undersea exploration. He was part of a program when we first designed habitats where men could live under the sea and just have that be the place that they lived, and so I actually thought that exploration was normal, and when I started to, to pick a course of study and a career, I was interested in being in the military, I was interested in science, I loved chemistry, and at the same time I always wished for just a little bit more adventure than just the laboratory, and something that had just caught my eye was the space program. When Sally Ride made her first flight, after, right after that she came to MIT and she talked to the women students, and I just looked at her and I thought, I want that job. And you never actually think that you will get selected for that job, but here, she was somebody that it seemed to count that she was educated and that she really liked learning as much as she could about things that she was passionate about, and so she was a scientist and at the same time she was also, somebody that was helping to explore the universe, and she got to fly jets, scuba dive, all these things that I loved, and I was actually just so inspired to meet her and it made a big difference to me to have met her that day. She doesn’t remember meeting me—we’ve talked about it since—but for me it was significant because I’d seen a lot of astronauts on TV, in pictures; none of them looked like me. It was a bunch of guys that seemed a lot older to me and they didn’t have much hair, and it just didn’t really make me think, that could be me, and then I meet somebody like Sally Ride and I think, maybe that could be me.

I’m going to ask you a couple of questions to get you to tell us the Cady Coleman Story. Tell me about where you grew up and what that town was like.

My dad was in the Navy so we moved around the country, and I was born in South Carolina, lived in a number of places around the country—San Francisco, Virginia Beach, Washington outside D.C. for quite a bit of it, and that’s where I think I did a lot of my growing up, so to speak, from sixth grade on, and I was very lucky to grow up in a place with great, great public schools, where it was expected that kids would go on to college, and I had a lot of great role models around to inspire me to go on to college.

You, you have a sense that those places and the people there contributed to making you the person that you are?

In an environment like the D.C. area there’s a lot of different kinds of professionals and through both my mother and my father’s work I met a lot of different kinds of adults who did things that they were interested in and I got to find out how they felt about their jobs and what they liked about them and what they thought was boring, and I think it really helped me understand some of the things that I’d like to be thinking about when I chose a career.

Did you get a chance to see your various hometowns in your, in your previous flights?

I’ve looked down from the shuttle and gotten to look at a number of these places. Some of them are easier to pick out than others. San Francisco, pretty easy, just the D.C. area, pretty easy; and just a lot of neat places to live.

Tell me about the, your education and your professional career. What was the path that led you from, from high school on into becoming a member of the astronaut corps?

I loved chemistry, so when I was at MIT I majored in chemistry and I was also in the Air Force ROTC program and expecting to go and start my active duty time immediately after college. But then the Air Force and I worked out a deal where I actually got to go on to graduate school in a field that I really was very interested in, which is polymer science and engineering. And, and if chemistry is the chemistry of like, little bitty molecules, each of which are the size of a pea, then polymer chemistry is hundreds of thousands of these little peas all strung together into giant spaghettis, and so it’s like the spaghetti, or the chemistry of spaghetti versus the chemistry of little bitty marbles, and I found that to be, there’s a lot of differences, and I found that to be really fascinating, mostly because with these polymers you make things. Almost all plastics are polymers. So I was in graduate school I got my, my, doctorate in polymer science and engineering, and then went on to start my commitment to the Air Force, and actually ended up staying, twenty-something years in the Air Force because I really liked what I did there. I spent my first four years in the Air Force at the Wright Patterson Air Force Materials Laboratory, and, doing work as a polymer chemist, and from there I was lucky enough to apply to NASA and get selected to come here to the Johnson Space Center as an astronaut in 1992.

So astronaut was more exciting than polymer chemist?

I will not say [laugh] days when you have a reaction that you’ve waited for a long time to get every little bit right, when that goes right, that can have real implications on the way people live and work as well, and it’s something I’m real proud of, and at the same time personally, I’ll go to space any day of the week.

The "going to space" part of the job that you have now is a part that does carry some risk with it. The question then, Cady, is why, what is it that you think we get or that we learn as a result of flying people in space that makes it worth taking that risk?

To me, it’s hard to measure and compare, but the fact that we can do science experiments up in space that we simply cannot do down here means it should be done. If we can do it and we can do it safely, or as safe as we possibly can, then we should go there and we should do these things. We can do fluid physics experiments down here on the ground, we can find out some things about how liquids behave; but in order to see how they behave not just when they’re in some container or in a puddle on the ground, we have to find a way to make them be sort of little drops that are floating in space even though they can’t do that down here. Well, they can to a certain degree—we can actually put some energy into them using son, sound waves and actually levitate them, but then we heat them up and so we distort our experiment. It’s hard to find out the answers down here to some questions that I think are really important, and they are basic physics and chemistry questions: fluid physics, combustion—so much of what is affected by our lives every time we breathe is combustion—how to have cleaner factories, how to understand pollution and how pollution is made. These are experiments that we can do up in space that cannot be done down here, and I think they’re really, really important to go and do.

You are a member of the International Space Station’s Expedition 26 and 27 crews. Tell me what the overall goals are for your time in space and what your main jobs on orbit are going to be.

We have built a space station that is operating science experiments 24 hours a day and some of those operations happen automatically but a lot of them need the crew, one of the crew, to help them, and so I will be one of the science operators on this flight. And we also have some pretty interesting events coming up on our flight, especially early on. We will have the ATV [Automated Transfer Vehicle], which is the European supply vehicle, is going to come up just shortly after we arrive, and that vehicle actually docks to the back of the space station and we’ll spend about six months unloading and loading that vehicle. It’s got new experiments, it’s got all sorts of equipment that we need, spare equipment. It’s really a great addition to the space station. In January we will have the HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], which is the Japanese supply vehicle, and that vehicle does not dock but instead comes up to the International Space Station, hovers there, and Paolo Nespoli and I will catch it with the robotic arm—it’s got a grapple fixture and we just catch it—and that will have a number of experiments, spare equipment, the same kinds of things, just more of it, and we’re also going to have a shuttle mission visit our, our Expedition, which is STS-134.

You’ve made two shuttle flights yourself although not to the space station before. What are you looking forward to about this opportunity to spend six months off the planet?

Getting to go on a shuttle mission is an amazing thing: leaving the planet in the space shuttle, doing whatever work there is to be done, but it’s short. And what I cannot wait for is to be up there and really live in space and be one of the people that helps carve our path forward as we learn how to live and work in space and go on to explore the universe. On my mission, on my first mission, STS-73, if you look at our patch, you’ll see actually the shape of the Cupola, and, on our patch, and it’s because we were a 16-day experiment mission, one of the longest, actually the longest shuttle mission at the time, and our job was to go and pave the way for space station science, to understand how to do science experiments up there, how to get the data from up there down here, how to allow scientists to really maximize the resource of microgravity up there, both with somebody like me to help and when an experiment needs to operate on its own, and so for me, to go from that mission back in 1995 to a mission where I get to spend six months operating these experiments which are all operating at the same time, sending tons of data down to the ground, getting to operate some of them, some of them operating all by themselves, which I’m extremely proud that we’ve developed those capabilities, it’s just nice to know that all that hard work back then on STS-73 for so many people, not just the crew, has paid off into a laboratory where we live and work in space.

Well, let’s talk about the place you’re going to do that. Describe the International Space Station for me as it exists up there right now with all its laboratories and other modules and all the other equipment that’s there, that you’re going to inhabit for six months.

The space station is actually huge inside. Where, I tell people it’s like a bunch of trailer-sized vehicles that are all docked together in a row and some of them actually coming out from the sides, and in each of those there’s different kinds of jobs that we can do, and some of, some of those modules hold equipment for us to live and breathe and exercise, sleep, and some of them hold experiments. Some were built by different countries: we have the European module, the Japanese module, the Russian segment, and the United States operating segment which includes all those other international partners, so it’s really a large place. It’s got a place for everything we need to do to live up there for basically as long as we’d like to and it’s just a place that we are living aboard, observing the Earth and also looking further out in the future.

It’s a dramatically different place than the Expedition 1 crew found when they arrived there ten years ago. What do you think’s the most important thing that’s been accomplished in this first ten years of the International Space Station?

The most important thing is to live and work in a vehicle that is safe. Now we all understand that there are risks to spaceflight but we all also want to return home to our families, and it’s the right thing to do for us as a people to have built a place to live and work in space that is safe and people can expect to return home, and that is what we have done over the past bunch of years. It’s not only safe, that’s a given, but we have built a place where we can do science experiments that cannot be done down here on the ground, and the International Space Station has got all of the major modules attached now. We’ve got power, we’ve got the ability to have people live aboard and clean the air, all those life support kinds of things, and now it’s a place that supports tremendous science.

What would you like to see happen in the next ten years of the space station’s life?

In the next ten years I’d like it to be a little more defined what we really have to do up there so we know what we have to train people to do, and that would make it easier to learn how to go and live on the space station and work on the space station. Right now it takes a long time to train and learn, and often people say, well, gee, aren’t you worried about living away from your family for six months, and actually, for my family, to have me live in, in one place for six months will be quite a relief. I mean, I’ve been traveling the world for a couple of years now learning all the different modules all the different part of the space station in, that are built by our international partners and, and ourselves here in the United States, and so I would like to be able to define our work up there to make it easier for folks to get ready and go up there. What that means is that more people can go to space. That means that more different kinds of people with different kinds of spill, skills can go up there and really understand what the space environment offers.

The space station now has a crew of six people and more modules, as you described a moment ago, which means there’s going to be more of an opportunity of the science work of the station to be accomplished by the crew members. A lot of that science work is figuring out what it takes for people to live in that environment. Give me a sense of, of what things you and your crewmates do to contribute to this human life sciences research.

JSC2010-E-104212 -- Expedition 26/27 Flight Engineer Catherine Coleman

Expedition 26/27 Flight Engineer Catherine Coleman participates in a docking timeline simulation training session in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

I like to tell people that we are lab rats [laughs] and I don’t mind being a lab rat. I mean, it is part of what we go up there to find out. How does space really affect us? One of the really exciting areas I think is osteoporosis—what happens to bones and bone health as we get older. Up in space we don’t necessarily get older any faster but we do by floating around in, in microgravity, we don’t actually put stress on our bones and we lose bone mass at a very high rate, much higher than your average 70 year old woman with osteoporosis, and that means in just a few months, we can understand what happens to bones when they start to, quote-unquote, dissolve, and how do they rebuild themselves, and how can we prevent that from happening. Here on the Earth we can look at those questions but they take a few years to look at, and we’re looking a population that often has a number of different kinds of health problems in addition to osteoporosis, whereas we as astronauts often have a fairly clean medical history, and this opportunity where we do actually lose bone up there gives the medical and science community a look at how does this process really work in somebody that doesn’t have some of those complicating medical factors in their history.

That’s one example; you, you guys are the lab rats, as you, say for lots of different kinds of research. It’s not just bone loss that’s a problem.

One of the things that we look at is the circulation system. Everybody’s got a heart, everybody’s heart beats, and you’d think we’d understand all about that, but it’s actually a very, very complicated process, and when we go up to space where our hearts do not have to actually pump blood from our feet all the way up to our head, or at least they do that but they don’t have to do it against the force of gravity, and it means that we can observe our hearts under some different circumstances that allow some of those really subtle factors to be better understood, and so on our mission we’re doing a very comprehensive experiment called the Integrated Cardiovascular Experiment, and it’s a whole bunch of different investigations all over the body that have to do with circulation, with breathing, with blood chemistry associated with those, with the physical effects on your organs. We’re going to do ultrasound on each other to look at our hearts when we first get up there, after a month, after two months, after three months, because this different behavior of the heart up in microgravity means that it’s going to actually start being a different size, perhaps, have a different strength in muscle volume, and we are doing a number of tests to measure all those different factors, and we’re measuring, well, gee, how hard can that heart really work, by doing some tests like being on a bicycle and pedaling just as fast as, as you can up to your maximum heart rate, and doing some of those observations at that heart rate. So, a lot of really intricate and involved experiments to investigate our circulatory system.

You guys, of course, will spend, for some other experiments you will be the operators of experiments rather than the lab rats, and these are experiments in a number of different scientific disciplines. Give me a sense of what other kind of research you’re going to be working on while you’re on board.

We’re going to be doing a lot of different samplings, so to speak. We will actually sample urine, we will sample blood, we will do, and that’s to go along with some of the tests that are a little more integral to really what happens to the body up there. If bones are dissolving, where do those bones go? So we measure the blood chemistry and the urine chemistry. But we also look at some other things that I wouldn’t have thought about. How do you, how do your eyes change? How does your perception of how far away things are change when you’re in a place where you actually seldom look far away except down at the Earth, out the window, and in a place where we float around and there is no up and there is no down, at least not all the time; what is our perception of up and down and, and how can we describe that, and so we do a number of different kinds of perception tests to test those things.

Apart from the human life sciences experiments there are other kinds of research that you guys will be working in the various laboratories on. What, what other kinds of, of scientific experiments are you going to be involved in while you’re up there?

One of the experiments that really fascinates me is actually quite simply done and it’s about fluids, and what fluids do in space is actually one of our favorite games, really, where, I can take my drink bag and squeeze a little water out of my drink bag and I will have a blob of water, and down here on the Earth, because of gravity, that blob of water would fall to the ground and be a puddle on the ground. But up in space, without gravity, we can really look at some of those very tiny, very subtle or seemingly subtle forces that have to do with liquids, and what it affects is their behavior whenever a liquid is being forced through a pipe, and that means almost anything that we manufacture down here on the Earth has to do with putting some sort of a liquid through some sort of a pipe to end up making some sort of a something. And so if we understand what those liquids are really doing, what all the forces are, not just the major forces, we can understand more about how to manufacture things down here on the Earth. A very interesting space application of looking at the behavior of liquids is, we’d like to go to Mars and we’d like to go to the moon and I for one don’t want to run out of gas on the way to doing that, and one of the applications of looking at fluid physics up in space is understanding how to build fuel tanks for vehicles on their way to other planets and how to measure how much fuel is left. And one, and an amazing thing that we’ve figured out so far, and I’m interested to see what else we find out, is that if we have a container up there and it’s got a corner like this and there’s liquid in the corner, it’s going to make that liquid want to go to a certain destination, and if I change this angle by just the tiniest amount, a few degrees, it can actually direct the flow of that liquid. And so finding out that such a small difference in the shape that we make our fuel tank, is really I think astounding and helps us in our research for exploration, but the other thing that is really important to me when going to these other places and these other planets is I am probably going to have to go to the bathroom on the way there, and one of the things that we spent a lot of time making sure it’s working exactly right is the bathroom, because, I mean, in a technical sense if that waste is not contained going into the tanks it needs to go into then we could have a medical and health problem on board. So what if we had a bathroom that didn’t need a pump or something that, something mechanical that actually ran that made all those fluids and all those things go in the right place? What if we actually merely had to change the shapes inside the hose that we had little maybe serrated edges there and the angle of that serration actually controlled the fact that everything from me went into the place that it’s supposed to? So this, this very subtle experiment of looking at liquids filling containers, taking video of that, sending it to the ground, has some really far-reaching implications for how we live in space, how we explore space, and what we understand about manufacturing almost everything down here on the ground.

It must be exciting to get to be there as the station really moves into what they call the full utilization of it as a science laboratory rather than just a construction site.

I am going to the space station at exactly the right time for a person like me who grew up really loving science, thinking that chemistry and, was just interesting and, and even just cooking, throwing things together, I love to find out what’s going to happen if we do this. And so far on the space station we’ve been a little limited in our time and in our resources like power, crew time, to do our science. Now is the free-for-all. It is the time for somebody like me to be able to spend a lot of their day not just taking care of the space station but actually carrying out these science experiments which have been getting done in small pieces as we go along, but now it’s time to really make some mileage and spend a lot of hours on science, and I can’t wait.

Of course, the crew is still responsible for taking care of the station, inside and out. During your time on board there are currently plans for Russian spacewalks to be conducted in January, February and in May, that Russian crew members are going to go outside. What is it that the other crew members are going to do inside the space station while you have colleagues who are working outside on the Russian segment?

What you do inside while your friends are outside either repairing or maybe installing something new actually depends on where your rescue vehicle is located. We always make sure that there are no closed hatches between us and our rescue vehicle, and when we do a Russian EVA or spacewalk we actually end up closing one of those hatches to part of the space station, and so for my colleagues, for Scott, for Scott, Scott Kelly and Ron Garan when they’re up there, their Soyuz is actually at the far end of the space station behind that closed hatch, and so they will actually be in their Soyuz monitoring the spacewalk from there, whereas Paolo and I will actually get to be just hard at work on a regular day in the U.S. segment of the space station because our Soyuz, our rescue vehicle, is located between the EVA hatch and, and where we’ll be working.

The current launch schedule says that you should see one visit from a space shuttle during your time on board, as you mentioned a couple of minutes ago. What are the plans for the operation when shuttle Endeavour arrives for mission STS-134?

Yeah, I am looking forward to being up there with my crew of three, with my crew of six, with the other crew of six that we become after Scott and his crew leaves and Ron comes, but when a shuttle comes, that is a really exciting time from what I’ve heard, partly because they come with a mission where there is a lot to get done in a short amount of time, and we are the residents of the space station who probably, most importantly, understand where stuff is. It’s just, it’s important. It’s the thing that takes you the longest time when you are packing for your trip to go on vacation or whether we are getting ready to, for somebody to go and do a spacewalk during a shuttle mission, we are the folks that can get everything organized so that when they come on board we are just ready to go to work, send them outside and do the maximum amount of work out there, and that includes doing robotics work inside.

Does that mean that you will be involved with some of the robotics work during their operations?

I will get to do some of the robotics with Greg Johnson. While some of their folks are outside, he and I will actually be working the robotic arm from, from the inside and moving them around to the different positions they need to be in. We’ll actually be stowing the Orbiter Boom Sensor System that’s used to inspect the shuttle, and also moving some other big pieces of equipment around. It should be fun.

You going to get to run the arm from in the Cupola?

I would imagine we will be running the arm from, with the Cupola. I think that on the space station we will have folks who have been to the station before the Cupola and after the Cupola, and “after the Cupola” means that you have a view of the Earth and of the space station that a lot of folks have, have never seen who’ve been up there, and it’s one thing to know in your heart of hearts that you are inside a space station and it’s a pretty cool place to be, but it’s another thing to be able to look out and see the rest of the space station, because the Cupola is actually in a, shaped in this way and you can have your head right in here and look out and see the rest of the space station. It’s really important to our crew because we will have the Japanese supply vehicle, the HTV, and that will approach and it will approach right below that Cupola window, and from the Cupola window we can actually see the entire robotic arm, the part of the robotic arm that we will use to capture the HTV, which is huge, and also the HTV itself. And it’s one thing to see those views on a camera, on a video monitor in front of you, and it is really another one to just have part of yourself just understand, the physical, the physical size of everything and how close everything is to everything else. It just makes it a lot easier to operate, and a pleasure.

STS-134 is the last scheduled flight of the space shuttle Endeavour. What are your thoughts about the shuttle’s place in the history of human space flight and its role in building this space station?

Getting to go to space, the fact that, I have a ten year old and, A, his mother’s an astronaut so he thinks it’s kind of normal to go to space, but the kids in his class and the kids in his school think that as well, and it’s amazing to me, that the girls in these classes don’t think anything different about whether they want to be an astronaut or whether a boy wants to be an astronaut, and a lot of those big, huge changes that I think have a really large effect on our society are brought about by something like the space shuttle, where we have a vehicle that has been to space how many times, I mean, so many times, and done so many interesting things. I mean, the mission that I was a part of, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, where we put Chandra out there in space to learn what we could about black holes—understanding black holes is considered just one of the things that we understand a lot about now, and it’s because of a telescope like that, and having a delivery system where you’ve got the back of the payload bay and you can put really big things in there has made it so that we have a space station. We, we carried some of those pieces up in the back of that space shuttle. We have a space station up in space. We have telescopes, we can repair telescopes, and all those things have so many long-reaching effects right down here on the Earth. And from the U.S. point of view, all that comes from flying the space shuttle. But I would say that all that comes from people who have an idea about where they want to go and they want to get there, things they want to do and they’re going to get them done. The vehicle happens to have been the space shuttle since the early ’80s; we will have new vehicles because those people are us and our children, we still have places we want to go, and we’ll need vehicles to get us there. We have things we want to do and we’ll be doing them, just with different vehicles.

Without a shuttle flying to supply the space station, but you’ve already pointed out that there are other vehicles to supply the space station, the Russian, European and Japanese unmanned cargo ships; there’s also another cargo ship that’s being developed under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program that’s got test flights scheduled while you’re on, on, on orbit. Describe what happens with these, this Dragon spaceship and its flights to the space station.

JSC2010-E-109092 -- Expedition 26/27 crew members

Expedition 26 Flight Engineer and Expedition 27 Commander Dmitry Kondratyev (right background) and Expedition 26/27 Flight Engineers Catherine Coleman and Paolo Nespoli (right foreground) participate in a training session in an International Space Station mock-up/trainer in the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Photo credit: NASA

Dragon is one of the newest supply vehicles, and the schedule is such that while we are up in space Dragon will make its first close approach to the space station, and it’s important with a new vehicle where it’s got new systems, it’s got new engines, it’s got a new way of controlling things, a new way of operating, and we all want to make sure that that happen, all those things are really working, before we get, just physically get too close, and so there’s a number of tests that the SpaceX folks and NASA have agreed that would make everybody feel as if this, this, we are now ready for rendezvous, and we’re going to do some of those tests so that the Dragon vehicle, which has immense capability, is going to be able to actually be captured by the robotic arm on subsequent space station ex, Expeditions and then attached to the space station and unloaded and used as a cargo vehicle. On our Expedition the Dragon vehicle will be doing a close approach to check out all of its systems that are needed when it does an even-closer approach and actually gets grappled by the next Expedition crew. So we’re the checkout crew and we’re going to make sure everything is working right for the Expedition 28/29 folks.

So not only are you going to be there for one of the early flights of this new vehicle, you’re going to be there for the anniversary of some earlier spaceflights. April 12th will be the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s spaceflight as well as the 30th anniversary of the first flight of the space shuttle. What are your thoughts about these milestones of human spaceflight passing while you’re off the planet?

Well, first of all, it’s going to be great to be on board when basically everybody thinks about the fact that 50 years ago Yuri Gagarin made his first flight, and now we think that living and working in space is part of everyday life. I think anniversaries are special because it makes us stop and think about our perspective, and realize that we’ve come a long way and that some of the roads ahead that might look difficult or daunting are roads that we should precede because we can make these things happen. Look at these hard things that we made happen, when you think about the fact that the shuttle program started 30 years ago and look at all the special, special kinds of things that have resulted from the fact that we, as a world, as a country, made a space shuttle that can bring both people and amazing equipment up to space.

There’s one more. May 5th will be the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s first spaceflight. Does that have significance for you, too, for the first American to fly in space?

Being up there when you realize that individual people made a difference…now I’ve been over in Russia and seen the likenesses of Gagarin and understand the inspiration that he left with those people and I think with every cosmonaut and every astronaut, these are the folks that went, were amongst the first to go to space; they led the way, and they led the way as individuals, and what it reminds me is that I have a certain power as an individual, and living up there in the space station, it’s going to remind me that I’ve got some jobs to do, some of them might be tough but I should realize that individuals can make a difference.

Where do you see human spaceflight being 50 years in the future, and how is this space station going to help us get there?

First of all, Mars..it’s going to be like; Mars, people have been to Mars; where are we going next? That’s what I think. I think we’re going to be going somewhere that we haven’t even envisioned yet, and we’re going to be having a capability to live on Mars, to live on different planets ’cause we’ve under, we’ve actually developed the technology to be able to travel to these places safely, establish physical structures in places that people and robots can then operate and explore together. I think it’s going to take both people and robots to do these things. I think we’ll be well established on Mars, and in the folks that are, that really have their hands up high, we’ll be trying to go to places that we don’t even know where they are yet.