“Houston We Have a Podcast” is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, the home of human spaceflight, stationed in Houston, Texas. We bring space right to you! On this podcast, you’ll learn from some of the brightest minds of America’s space agency as they discuss topics in engineering, science, technology and more. You’ll hear firsthand from astronauts what it’s like to launch atop a rocket, live in space and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. And you’ll listen in to the more human side of space as our guests tell stories of behind-the-scenes moments never heard before.
On Episode 20, “Special Delivery,” we team up with the NASA in Silicon Valley Podcast to talk about space cargo. Shane Kimbrough, NASA Astronaut, described his role in capturing and unloading cargo as well as its importance to the day-to-day operations of the space station. Dennis Leveson-Gower, Senior Project Scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, talks about designing scientific experiments for the space station and for its journey on a cargo vehicle to get there. This episode was recorded on November 14, 2017.
Gary Jordan: Houston, We Have a Podcast. Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, episode 20, Special Delivery. I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your cohost today, along with Matt Buffington, director of public affairs at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, and the host of NASA in Silicon Valley Podcast. Matt, what’s up?
Matthew Buffington: Hey Gary, we’re doing great, so glad we could team up on this. This is also concurrently episode 69 for the NASA in Silicon Valley Podcast. There’s a ton of overlap between our listeners, so I’m really glad we were able to make this happen.
Gary Jordan:Yeah, me too. Today is a very special episode, because we’re teaming up with NASA in Silicon Valley Podcast to talk about some of the things we can find in a cargo vehicle when it’s shipped to space, which is perfect because SpaceX will be sending its Dragon Cargo Vehicle to the International Space Station here soon. So, who do we have from Ames, Matt?
Matthew Buffington:Over here we’re bringing in Dennis Leveson-Gower. He’s a project scientist here over at Ames, and has tons of experience working on cargo, working on payloads, and sending them on up to the space station. How about over there in Houston?
Gary Jordan:We’ll have Shane Kimbrough. He’s a NASA astronaut who recently spent about six months on the space station and landed earlier this year. We’ve actually had him on the podcast to talk about his landing experience back in episode three. But while he was up there, he had quite a few cargo vehicles visit the station. He had the SpaceX Dragon, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Japanese HTV, and the Russian Progress all within his six-month stay aboard the station. So, it’s fair to say he knows what cargo on station is all about. He performed hundreds of experiments with the science that was delivered on some of those vehicles, and even got some fresh food, so I’m excited to ask him about that experience.
Matthew Buffington:Awesome. I’m really excited to get the different perspective on both the science, on the space station, so we can see the astronaut’s point of view, and the people who actually design those experiments.
Gary Jordan:Yeah, this is going to be a good episode. So, with no further delay, let’s go light speed and jump right ahead to our talk with Shane Kimbrough and Dennis Leveson-Gower. Enjoy.
Okay, all right, it looks like we’re all connected, ready to go. How about this, Houston We Have a Podcast and NASA Silicon Valley combined?
Matthew Buffington:Yeah, this is going to be sweet.
Gary Jordan:Sweet, I know, I’m pumped. And we’re doing this remotely, so here in Houston, I’m in the studio with NASA astronaut and no stranger to Houston We Have a Podcast, Shane Kimbrough. Shane, thanks for being here.
Shane Kimbrough:Hey, great to be here.
Gary Jordan:Cool, and how about over at Ames, Matt, who do you have?
Matthew Buffington:I’m sitting over here with my buddy Dennis Leveson-Gower. We actually go way back from SpaceX 8, was it Dennis?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:That’s right.
Matthew Buffington:I always remember it because it was the first time SpaceX had launched a rocket and landed it on a barge. And Dennis was nice enough as I drove him back and forth from his office to do press interviews and stuff.
Gary Jordan:Nice enough indeed.
Matthew Buffington:Indeed. We could just, I always like to start our podcast with the question of, how did you get to NASA, how did you end up in Silicon Valley. I definitely want to hear about that from Shane as well, but let’s start off with Dennis. So tell us about, how did you end up at NASA?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:I really ended up here by accident. I was set to be a professor, discover things, have graduate students. I did a Ph.D. in biochemistry. Then I went to Stanford for a post-doctoral fellow doing bone marrow transplantation, graft vs. host disease, immunology. And slowly over the years, I thought, I’m going to go to industry. I’m not going to do the academic track anymore. It was a slow evolution. So I was out there, had my resume posted on job sites and stuff, looking around. Just got an email saying, are you interested in a position at NASA Ames? And I’m like, this is spam. I don’t know anything about rockets, I’m not an engineer. I’m a biologist.
So, talked to my wife. She’s like, you have to apply, it’s NASA. So I thought, all right, at least I can go and see the base and look around, because I saw it on the side of the highway, so I knew there was some NASA thing here. And yeah, it was when I talked to the hiring manager, she really convinced me this was a really cool opportunity. Got me into a different head space of not just doing basic research, but doing applied research, and working with a whole different cadre of engineers and operations and safety.
And I don’t know, it just really appealed to me, so I took a chance and took the job.
Matthew Buffington: That’s pretty awesome. I always say, when people think of NASA, they think of rockets and telescopes. Biology is a huge part of that. Speaking of that, sometimes we have humans up in space.
Gary Jordan:Excellent segue. All right, Shane, how about you? How did you become an astronaut?
Shane Kimbrough:I came — there’s several obviously avenues to be an astronaut. I came through the military. I was an Army officer, Apache pilot my whole Army career. I took a little detour toward the end of I would say my conventional Army career when I went to graduate school at Georgia Tech, and then I went to teach math at West Point for a few years.
And then from there, I was called to come work down at Johnson Space Center for a few years. I had applied to be an astronaut that year, didn’t get selected. But the good news was, I was I guess somewhat in the highly qualified category, so the Army detachment down here asked me to come down here and work for a few years. And that was to really get ready for the 2002 astronaut selection. Guess what, that selection never happened. So, we went through the whole thing, interviews and everything, and it never happened. Congress decided they didn’t need a class that year.
So, we hung around for another couple years, which in a way was somewhat rolling the dice on my Army career. But my wife and I felt it was where we wanted to be and what we wanted to do, so stuck around, and was lucky enough to get selected in 2004.
Gary Jordan:Lucky and persistent enough.
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, persistence is a big trait, I think. It was my fourth time to apply.
Matthew Buffington:I was going to say, isn’t that normal for astronauts? Because we had Steve Smith a while back on our podcast, and I think he had applied three or four times as well.
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, I think at least it used to be the norm. A lot of times these days, at least in the last couple classes, we’ve had a lot of first-timers. But yeah, for folks a little older like myself, I think three or four times is pretty normal.
Gary Jordan:I remember talking with the 2017 class, and a couple of them applied multiple times. I know for sure Raja Chari did, but you’re right, a couple of them are first-timers. But then you’ve got folks like Clay Anderson, who applied like, what, eight or nine times or something? So yeah, right.
Gary Jordan:Exactly, persistence, and it works out too. This is perfect, to combine forces for the podcast today — Houston We Have a Podcast and NASA in Silicon Valley — because today’s topic is cargo, and cargo going to the International Space Station. And Shane, I feel like you’re the perfect person to have on the podcast today, because you’ve seen your fair share of cargo vehicles on your last mission, right?
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, we saw everything, and we saw Cygnus twice. We had a lot of vehicles coming and going. And really cargo, when you think about it, it’s the way we handle the logistics problem on the space station. It’s a big logistics problem, if you think about it, to get equipment and clothes and food and experiments to that orbiting laboratory. So, how do we do that? We used to do it with the space shuttle. It was nice and easy, it could haul a bunch of stuff. Now, we can’t do that, so we have these cargo vehicles you’re talking about.
Gary Jordan:That’s right, because on your way to the space station, you can bring stuff, but now you need stuff delivered. It’s a huge complex. It’s the size of a five-bedroom house, it needs stuff — food, supplies, all that kind of things.
Matthew Buffington:That’s one of the funny things as we were coming in, especially as we’re getting closer for the SpaceX 13 launch coming into it. We see there’s the both sides — there’s the people up at the space station working on receiving the cargo or even science experiments, but also on the flipside of, how do you get that stuff prepared? That is a feat in and of itself.
Gary Jordan:That’s true. So Dennis, what do you have to do to prepare stuff to go on cargo missions?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:That’s a big question, because I mean, it really starts one to two years ahead of the launch, if you think about it, or more, because after you have an experiment defined, you’ve got to prepare exactly what the science requirements are, then you’ve got to start making a plan, then you’ve got to start assessing what the hardware needs are, and the kits’ needs are, then you have to design those, then they have to get through safety, you have to plan operations, you have to plan how everything’s going to be labelled.
And then, usually I think somewhere between three and six months before a launch is when we’re going to actually have things prepared, off-gassed, tested, H-fit, label committee, all those things, and do the early load. And then we start preparing the late load chemicals and perishables that have to be loaded 25 hours before launch. And we do that out at Kennedy Space Center for SpaceX launch, anyways.
So, there’s a whole experiment development cycle that happens, and that’s just for one payload. And if we have five or six payloads from Ames coming out, that’s a lot of work from a lot of people to send a box of something.
Matthew Buffington: It takes a village for it, gathering all that stuff up. But I’m always curious on your guys’ side, Shane, for you guys, when you receive this cargo, how exactly does that happen, or how does that work? Like, you’re unpacking a trunk from a trip?
Shane Kimbrough:No, we’re always excited to open up the hatch and get new stuff. It’s kind of like Christmas every time we get one of these vehicles up there. But the way we go about unpacking is very organized, and it has to be that way. We have a great team on the ground that gets us ready and prepared with all kind of documents, and keeps us organized with charts and things on how they want it to be unpacked. And so, we follow that religiously.
We’ll have somebody in the crew is going to be called the loadmaster, and that person’s responsible for that vehicle. If we just start pulling things out and stowing things where we want to stow them, that’s not the way it’s going to be, because we’ll never find that stuff. We really have to be disciplined, and put things where they’re supposed to go. A lot of times, that means we’ll take one bag out, and the bag will have 100 different items in it. And we have to go put those 100 things somewhere.
So, it’s not as easy as pulling a bag out and stuffing it somewhere. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s not. So, we’ve really got to make sure we’re all helping each other out. And it’s always better to, as I’ve found with all these cargo ops, to do it as a team versus doing it individually. You’re much more efficient, and you can have one person reading the book, keeping control of everything, and the other couple people running things around. And that really worked well for us.
Gary Jordan:So, everything has an order and a destination, right? You’ve got to unload this first, and put it in this location, and it’s all scheduled that way. How long does it take you to unload completely?
Shane Kimbrough:I think we actually set some records for unloading vehicles the quickest, which is a good thing I guess. But, we really — and we did it by working together as a team. And that’s the only way. Thomas and Peggy and I would knock out a vehicle, no kidding, in a day and a half or two. But, that’s pretty unusual. That was kind of if it happened to show up just before a weekend, we used the weekend to do it, so it was a freebie. Where if they had it just playing out during a normal week, it would take a week to two weeks sometimes depending on the vehicle to get it unloaded.
Gary Jordan:That’s right, because you’ve got to fit it with everything else you’re doing. Wow, amazing.
Matthew Buffington: Yeah, and a lot of that, I’d imagine it’s already complicated enough, and I’m sure it’s crazy complicated even just within NASA, but then you start throwing in all these private companies and different groups. Is everybody, how do you keep — maybe you guys could talk about, how do you keep everybody on the same page on how things get prepared. Because Dennis, you’re preparing this stuff for these companies, but then . . .
Dennis Leveson-Gower:I think they all go through NASA. You’ll have private hardware developers, but the manifest is controlled through NASA, and the crew procedures are controlled through NASA. Shane, correct me if I’m wrong, but at some certain point has to be layered into the controlled process of NASA, even if it’s like — so, you could think of it as NASA buying things from different vendors, but they’ll manage how it goes up, or they’ll manage it through SpaceX how it goes up.
Shane Kimbrough:Totally agree. We saw differences, of course, because the vehicles are all different inside, so the way they, location coding is all different, and where things might be on one is different than another. That’s the only difference, but bottom line is, you’re going to get a bag, you’re going to take it somewhere, you’re going to take it apart, and take those things somewhere. And if we keep it pretty simple like that, it made it easier on the crew.
Gary Jordan:Definitely. You’re the pro mover when it comes to cargo missions.
Shane Kimbrough:I’m going to get a reputation here.
Gary Jordan:So what are some of the main differences, then, in terms of, Dennis, on your end, for qualifications, and we can start with that — what’s the difference to get it on that vehicle? But then Shane, for unpacking it, some of those little tiny things?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:The biggest thing for us is always safety. We go to great lengths to try to have chemicals that will not interfere with the life support system, that won’t be toxic to the crew if they’re spilled. Everything that has a tox level will have certain levels of containers and containment that have to be layered onto how it’s packaged and how it’s stored.
Then, we have human factors. We have to make sure that the 5 percent Japanese female and the 5 percent American male can handle the things. And then, even right before it’s loaded, there’s an expert that comes in with gloves on and feels everything, to make sure there’s no sharp edges on anything, and that it’s not going to hurt anybody when they start pulling them out of the packages. That’s what I’ve seen on my end, big picture.
Shane Kimbrough:I’d say from our end, it’s very similar, like I mentioned before. But there are some things. Every vehicle that gets there, there’s some critical items that need to come off first. And we’re well aware of what those are, based on the ground team prepping us for that. And most of the time, those are delicate experiments or things like that that have to come off, or are time-sensitive. We’ll obviously hit those first, and then after that we’ll follow the script that the ground lays out for us, so that we’re all on the same sheet of music, and everybody knows what’s going on. Even if we’re doing it in our spare time, where the ground control team might not be following, we can update them with, hey, we did sections two, three, and four, whatever it was, and they’ll be caught back up with us when they get back on console.
Gary Jordan:Yeah, like if you’re doing it on a weekend or something. Sweet. So, what’s an example of time-critical, since you unpacked so many vehicles, what’s an example of a time-critical experiment you had to unpack?
Shane Kimbrough:We had some rodents onboard, so that was one thing we had to get off. Those are always time-critical, just to get them setup in their habitations on the space station. That’s one. I think some that just showed up today actually on the space station were things like pizza on ice cream. If you get things like that, those are time-critical, because you need to eat those quickly. Anyway, there’s plenty of different, a wide range there I gave you from rodents to ice cream.
Matthew Buffington:And I have to chime in on that, because this isn’t just the sad, dehydrated stuff you buy at the museum. This is a legit pizza.
Shane Kimbrough:This is the real deal, apparently. It’s the first time I’ve heard of a pizza delivery going to the space station, so whatever company got that is going . . .
Matthew Buffington:30 minutes or less.
Dennis Leveson-Gower:It’s not going to be the best pizza, but it’ll probably taste good to you guys.
Shane Kimbrough:Ice cream’s legit, though. Of course, we didn’t have any when I was there, but shortly after I left, they got some, and they’re getting some today.
Gary Jordan:They waited until right after you left? Oh, man.
Shane Kimbrough: Apparently so.
Dennis Leveson-Gower:After SpaceX 8 launched, all the guys on the ground at KSC had all these Klondike bars filling the freezer. And I’m like, where did these come from? And they go, the CMC team, the cargo team, when they were packing all the cold stowage, if there’s any empty areas in the freezers, they start stuffing ice cream bars in there, as a surprise for the crew. So, we have extra boxes of Klondike bars.
Shane Kimbrough:Always a welcome treat.
Matthew Buffington: But, when you’re unpacking during this, are you in constant contact with the ground, and they’re walking you through it, or it’s just a mix of sometimes you are, sometimes you guys get your to-do list and you make it happen and update them later on?
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, we have a couple meetings beforehand, of course, before the vehicle gets there, and there’s a whole choreography they want us to do, and the order they want us to do it in. And so, we’re disciplined and follow that to the T. A lot of times we’d have questions, or something wouldn’t be where it was supposed to be, and that’s where we’d call down real quickly and touch base with whoever was on console for that, so that we weren’t getting out of their choreography, even if something wasn’t there. But they were always there if we needed them. Usually, we would just tag up at the end of a day, end of a cargo day, and make sure to tell them exactly what we did so they were up to speed on everything.
Gary Jordan:I don’t know if you got any Klondike bars. Was there any missions that gave you some nice treats?
Shane Kimbrough:I think almost every vehicle had care packages from our families onboard. Those are always a surprise, so that was kind of cool. We didn’t get any ice cream, but we got a lot of fresh fruit, and that was kind of cool. That’s another thing I think they hold onto, and if there’s any extra space they’ll cram them in there. But, some apples and oranges and things like that were really delicious after not having them for quite a while.
Gary Jordan:I was going to say, definitely a treat compared to — it’s fresh, it’s literally fresh.
Shane Kimbrough:We ate those really quickly.
Gary Jordan:You kind of have to.
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, don’t want them to go bad.
Matthew Buffington: I’m wondering, if you get into the coordination that’s needed, and even thinking on the side when, we have researchers, scientists who are creating science experiments, it’s hard enough doing it in a lab on your own. And so, when people are — I’m wondering, Dennis, from your perspective as people design and put these experiments together, but then Dennis — or, Shane, on your side, actually conducting these things. Talk a little about that, what goes into making an experiment for someone else to do, and your instructions on how to do it? It seems very complicated. I’m looking at you, Dennis.
Dennis Leveson-Gower:Okay, what I’ll receive is basically a grant proposal that had a very high science score from a panel of reviewers. And then I’ll start looking at it and saying, can we actually do this in space? Because, crew time is very precious. You cannot do things as quickly in space as you can on the ground. We add a 1.4 margin of how long it would take us on earth, at a minimum. It’s all got to be done in a self-contained glove box volume. And, I start working to make little tweaks and adjustments — like I said, can we replace this chemical with a nontoxic one? Can we simplify this procedure? What’s the tolerance of the timeline? Because, if they have to do an EVA, we can’t have a time-critical part of our experiment at the same time they’ve got to be outside the station.
So, we start looking at every single factor, and it takes month to organize that. But then, eventually we get that down into a set of crew procedures, just like written, step-by-step, everything to do, and it should be simple as possible, even though these astronauts are super well trained and super smart. We make these super simple documents to send them. It’s kind of funny. And then the training happens at JSC, where an experienced scientist will go and work with the astronauts, and make a fighter pilot into a biologist.
And then we send everything up. And then on my end, we’re sitting in a control room watching a live video of the astronauts. It’s very cool. And, talking to them. And usually, there’s one designated person with the best speaking voice talking, and then there’s five people in the room behind them with total chaos, yelling it’s storage locker 5B, 6-Alpha, and they go, storage locker 5-6-B-Alpha. And then, we just are in their ear, pretty much, walking them through what we need them to do.
I know there’s simpler payloads, where I think Shane would say you just follow written instruction, but for some of the more complicated things, we’re actually talking to them, walking them through it.
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, it’s very helpful to have Dennis and his team there talking to us. These scientists in general have spent many years creating whatever the experiment is. The last thing we want to do is mess it up, or mess up any of their data. So, we want to be very careful in all that whole process Dennis explained about getting the experiment approved and then what he’s got to do to get it in a crew procedure. That takes a lot of people a lot of time. And so, by the time it gets to us, it’s pretty well refined. It’s not perfect, because I haven’t seen that procedure, and I might read something differently than Dennis would read it. So, it is so nice to have them on the horn, so to speak, right there talking to us in case we have any questions, so we don’t mess up any of the experiment or any of the data.
Gary Jordan:That’s true. And then off of Dennis’ point of making them as simple as possible, a lot of it has to do with the fact that, you’re right, these scientists spend so much time getting these procedures ready for this experiment, but that’s not the only one you’re doing. You are doing quite a few experiments.
Shane Kimbrough:Very true, and in general, we’re not trained on all these. We’re trained generically on experiments. Like Dennis alluded to, making a pilot a biologist for a day. I was lucky enough to have Peggy there, who is a biologist, so she could help me understand something that normally I wouldn’t understand, because it’s not in my background. But Dennis and his team can get some really complicated experiment into a procedure that’s simple, like he said, so that even I can understand it. That’s pretty good.
Gary Jordan:So, what else do you have to train for, besides the scientific experiments? Because Dennis also talked about, you have to train for EVAs, and on this last mission you did four, so that’s quite a big chunk of time that takes away for science. And then you’ve got to train for unloading cargo vehicles. What else are you training for?
Shane Kimbrough:Those are the big ones. Of course, the cargo vehicles when they come up, we actually use the robotic arm to grab them, to capture them. So, a lot of our training is with the robotics team to make sure we do that operation successfully. Grabbing something that’s going 17,500 miles an hour is not trivial. But, with our training, we always train of course for the worst-case scenarios, and the vehicles, at least when I was there, behaved very well. It seemed like it was simple, even though the stress is pretty high, the gains are up, because it’s a real vehicle and you want to make sure we grab this thing and get it onboard. So, that’s another piece of our training we do.
What else? Those are the big-ticket items. Operationally, EVAs, like you talked about, robotics, when we’re capturing these vehicles, and most of the other time we’re doing experiments. That makes up most of our days onboard the space station.
Gary Jordan:Yeah. Was it different to use the robotic arm to capture the different vehicles, or did it translate pretty well?
Shane Kimbrough:There are differences certainly with every vehicle. So, we had Cygnus, we had SpaceX, we had HTV from Japan, and we had a Russian vehicle, but that one docks automatically, so we didn’t have to reach out with the robotic arm to grab that one. But, there are several differences, and the cues you use are different for every vehicle. Again, we get spun up by our training team a week or two prior to each vehicle showing up, so we remember you’re looking here, not here, based on whatever the vehicle was, and using certain cues to help get the vehicle onboard.
Matthew Buffington:I’d imagine no matter how much you train on that, and I’m sure there’s simulations and different things of remoting the giant robotic arm, I imagine once you’re doing that for the first time, it’s got to be nerve-wracking, because you’re like, this is a very expensive toy, I don’t want to mess this up.
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, it was on the first time. And again, we got several opportunities, so I won’t say it became less important, but you got more comfortable with it. But, it is a big deal. And I really wanted Tomas, the French astronaut I was flying with, to get a lot of experiment. So, when we were together, I grabbed the first one, and after that I let him grab all the other ones, to get his experience level up. And he’ll go fly again here in a few years, hopefully, and be able to use all that experience to help his crewmates out when he’s onboard.
Gary Jordan:Definitely. When you’re training to capture these things, like Matt was saying, when you’re in the real thing, it’s a little bit different, but the training, I’ve seen it before. It’s pretty detailed. There’s a projection of, it’s like a, I don’t know, describe the training.
Shane Kimbrough: We have this, we call it a dome facility, because that’s what it is, and the graphics are just fantastic. And it gives you the sense of speed in which things are coming together, and the rats that you’re coming are very good. But, it’s just not the real thing. It’s like our pool. Our pool is amazing to train for space walks, but it’s not the real thing. There are differences. And until you get up there — and now, we’re in the Cupola, we’re flying almost all of these out of the Kupla, which maybe think about you’re upside down flying it, so spatially you’ve got to get your head around where are the arms moving even though you’re upside down, those kind of things. It’s not super simple until you actually get up there and do it a few times, and then it becomes a little bit easier on the mind.
Gary Jordan:I can see why they would put you through the training for it, because there’s a lot to think about, just being upside down, using the controls, controlling something from a Cupola, but then the arm’s over here, I guess.
Shane Kimbrough:Right. So, it’s not necessarily right out your window. It is in this case when you’re in the Kupla, but you could fly it from the lab as well, and you wouldn’t have any windows and you’d just be using cameras. That’s what we used to do. That’s what we did on my first flight. So, things have gotten a lot better in that regard.
Gary Jordan:I’m sure they write these procedures to be as easy as possible, so Dennis, what are some of the techniques you do whenever you’re writing these scientific procedures for the astronauts to make it as easy as possible for them?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:Yeah, I mean, we try to boil it down to step-by-step, but also add in some rationale for why you’re doing it a certain way, so they don’t have to memorize the exact step, but they can know what the end goal is and why they’re doing it, so they know I should make sure I keep this cold, or I should make sure I handle this gently. And then hopefully, that helps.
But I find that most of the time, it boils down to, we have the procedure, but then they say, tell me what to do next, and we’re just talking to them.
Shane Kimbrough:Especially when we’re in the glove box. We’re immobile when we’re in there. We can’t move around and do things.
Dennis Leveson-Gower:Yeah, and how do you read something when you’re doing that?
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, so it’s very helpful to have you guys onboard.
Matthew Buffington:And for me, going back, one thing that occurred to me as you’re dealing with some, if it’s a sensitive science experiment or the precious pizza cargo, I wonder, when you’re packing, obviously there’s a little bit of Tetris, where you’re trying to place things into the cargo to be very efficient. But it’s also, launches are quite intense. So I’d imagine, Dennis, I’d imagine things have to be durable enough to survive such a crazy, extreme, launching, and then it’s floating in space, and then the big robotic arm that Shane’s operating is grabbing it.
But then also, on the flipside, Shane, I’d imagine for you, being a human experiencing that sensation as well. But what goes into keeping things safe and packed in?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:Yeah, for especially things like the rodent habitat, we strap it to a table and we vibrate the heck out of it. It goes through launch impact testing, it gets put through temperatures, it goes through pressurization, depressurization. Anything like that goes through rigorous testing to make sure it stands up to things. And then, it’s usually packed in some foam, into a locker. Then, it’s put on a scale so that you can find the center of gravity of that hardware, and also the weight and dimensions. And then from that, some eggheads do some math, and some robots load it into the capsule the right way so it’s all balanced. I don’t understand all that part.
But, we just make sure that we’ve tested everything, whatever. And I mean, it’s pretty excessive. Whatever could possible go wrong, we test, worst-case, and then we treat it as gently as possible. And yeah, then wrap it up and ship it up.
Matthew Buffington:And how is that, Shane, from your perspective being the human inside said rocket, vibrating and going through those intense pressures?
Shane Kimbrough: On the Soyuz, which is what I just flew on, I was very surprised on the launch how smooth it was. I had an experience on the space shuttle before, and it was rocking and rolling and shaking around like you’d imagine, and you see in the movies. But the Soyuz was super smooth. We pulled about 3Gs going uphill, but the ride itself was very smooth. I was very impressed.
Matthew Buffington:So, not only designing the experiments and getting them up, but you’d mentioned before, Dennis, that it could take years in this process. I’d imagine there’s several experiments and ideas that never get into Shane’s hands. Or, great ideas that just, either it’s funding or different things. It’s a competitive process, and everybody wants their cool science experiment to go up.
Dennis Leveson-Gower:Yeah, no, we have a queue of investigators going out to 2022. We’re trying to get them flown off as fast as possible, but we’re limited by launch vehicles and crew time. Crew time is becoming less of a concern, because we’re getting an extra crew member up there. But now it’s launch vehicles, and you can only launch so many experiments at a time. But, there’s a whole list of reserve experiments, of people that have put their heart and soul into something, and they just need 15 minutes of crew time, and they’re just hoping their experiment can get done.
Matthew Buffington:This is stuff that’s already up there?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:I think they have over 100 experiments at a time on the ISS.
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, I think we ended up doing 273, I was told, over the six months. But yeah, at any one time, there can be over 100 onboard, that’s about right.
Dennis Leveson-Gower:And I remember someone saying, Peggy’s going to get every one of those done. She’s going to work through the backlog.
Matthew Buffington: Singlehandedly.
Shane Kimbrough:We took out all the task list and all the things that were backlogged, for sure. So, it was nice.
Dennis Leveson-Gower:Yeah, a lot of people over here appreciate it when you guys give up some of your free time and bang one of those experiments out.
Shane Kimbrough:Glad to do it.
Gary Jordan:That’s true. What else, besides if you were to take the weekend to unpack a cargo vehicle, what else are you doing on the weekends?
Shane Kimbrough:Weekends, generally on Saturday mornings, it’s spent cleaning. So, it’s like your house, about once a week you need to probably do a little cleaning. So, we spend all Saturday morning vacuuming the whole station, wiping things down, and just getting everything back in shape after usually a busy week. And then, Saturday afternoons are generally off, and Sundays are generally off. So, I’m a big sports fan, so I was usually watching games, whether it was football or World Series or anything going on. Tomas got us into watching rugby. So, that was big in Europe at the time. So, we got to watch some of those matches. So, we do that as a crew sometimes, or sometimes individually you’d watch those things. And you certainly can catch up on emails or watch movies or call home or any of those things as well. Or, you can just look out the window, which was always spectacular, something you can’t do here on earth. So, I tried to do that more often, because I can always talk to people or email people when I’m on earth, but I can’t always look out the Kupla window for a rev around the earth in 90 minutes. That was pretty cool.
Matthew Buffington: I’m curious, how is that setup? You don’t have a normal weekend like you would. It’s not like you’re commuting home and spending the weekend with your family. You’re sitting there floating in space, so there’s never really a day off. You’re always on.
Shane Kimbrough:Correct. So I had to, when I was the commander, I made it clear to my crew that we were going to work from DBC to DBC, which is the morning conference with mission control all the way to the evening conference with mission control, but we weren’t going to work outside of that. And there were a few exceptions on the weekends where we’d say, there’s this one cargo vehicle, for example, we want to unload. Let’s do two hours, and that’s it. We’re going to work two hours together. If you’ve got three people, that equates to about six hours of work. And we can do a lot in two hours.
But I would make sure we weren’t working all weekend, because as the commander, I’ve got to make sure the crew is not exhausted, for one, so they can hit the next week’s activities when Monday starts. But also, we’ve got to always be ready for that really bad day, an emergency onboard the space station, where that’s in the middle of the night or during the day. The crew’s got to be fresh enough to handle that. So, I’m always thinking about that as I’m working the crew and the crew’s being worked by the ground. And sometimes, we have to modify what they want us to do in order to keep our reserves, so to speak, to be able to handle an emergency.
Gary Jordan:That’s right. So, as a commander, how much jurisdiction do you have on time, because I know they schedule a lot of things for you, but then what power do you have as a commander?
Shane Kimbrough:Big picture, we’ll talk. I’ll talk with the lead flight director usually before the week, or maybe even two weeks out. We’ll talk about the big picture, how things are going to flow, and what they want to get done. And then, the details just kind of flush out. I don’t really have too much influence on that. I’ll let the flight director know, here’s what I want to focus on. Make sure we get maybe a day here or there because we worked last weekend, and those kind of things, because that happens a lot.
And then in general, if something’s coming up real-time, day-of, maybe an experiment or something is running twice as long as it was expected — that happens. And we’ll just adjust real-time. Maybe I’ll take the activity that Peggy was supposed to do next, if she’s buried in this experiment, or vice versa. We’ll help each other out to get all the things done. And you do that almost daily. You get done with something early, you go help somebody else if you can, or else you take something else off their timeline by knocking out something down the road for them.
Gary Jordan:Sounds like you guys were really tightknit. You guts needed to be a really tight team to get all this stuff done.
Shane Kimbrough:Totally agree, and I was super fortunate to have Peggy and Tomas onboard for about 90 percent of my time onboard. I was with Kate and Takuya for only a week or so, unfortunately for me, because they were superstars as well. But, they left shortly after we got there. So really, my whole mission was with Peggy and Tomas on the US side. And we did really work well together. We thought the same, our work ethic was the same, and we just loved helping each other out and loved being around each other, which doesn’t always happen. So, I was very fortunate.
Gary Jordan:Very true. That makes me — getting back on track to the cargo stuff, I was actually thinking about, we were talking a lot about when cargo comes up, how to get it, how to unpack it, but then, there’s a packing story, and they’re different for each vehicle, because some of them just burn up, some of them have experiments running before they burn up, and then some of them actually come back. What are some of the differences there?
Shane Kimbrough:Yeah, so we had all those. The only one that comes back to earth, as you’re probably aware, is SpaceX. So, anything that’s real critical experiment-wise, or even maybe broken equipment that engineers want to get their hands on to figure out what happened to it, those kind of things we’ll put into SpaceX, so they can come back to the ground. A lot of that has to do with experiments we did on our bodies — blood draws and those kind of things need to come back, as well as rodent research things will come back on SpaceX, because the scientists need to recover them and look at the data and get all that stuff.
That’s one thing. All the other vehicles in general burn up, like you mentioned. So to me, I think of it, that’s how we manage our trash. That’s how we manage trash on the space station. We crate tons of trash, believe it or not, up there, whether it’s food trash or clothes trash or experiment trash or waste, human waste. All that stuff needs to get off at some point. And the way we do that is to use these cargo vehicles that are not coming back to earth. And we can’t just cram things in there, like you might think. It’s a very organized way. And again, we’ll get a plan from the ground team and mission control that lays out how they want us to pack it.
And a lot of times there are experiments onboard that will happen once it leaves the space station before it gets burned up, like you mentioned. So, we’ve got to make sure certain aisle ways are clear, and the airflow is going to be correct, so that those experiments can happen correctly.
Gary Jordan:I see. So, it’s kind of like a supply chain, really, because there needs to be new stuff sent up to the International Space Station, and then you need to take some of the old stuff out. That’s the cycle that keeps the ISS going.
Shane Kimbrough:Correct. And launch delays and things don’t happen, and these launches aren’t always happening on time. So, sometimes your trash backlog gets pretty high on the space station. That’s not a — there are some odors and things that go along with that. So, we always like to have vehicles coming frequently, so we can manage our trash, of course along with doing great experiments as well.
Gary Jordan:But you guys have plenty of food and all that kind of stuff, right? So, even if something gets delayed, you’ll be set for a while, for at least a lot of things.
Shane Kimbrough: Yeah. I think they have about a six-month reserve onboard. So, we can handle a lot of delays, I guess.
Gary Jordan:Dennis, on your end, when it comes to these experiments coming back to earth, and especially on SpaceX, the ones you actually can get your hands on and don’t burn up, what are some of the things you’re looking at for those?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:Looking at getting it back as quickly as possible is usually our priority, especially with rodent experiments, cell science experiments. You’re trying to study the effects of microgravity on these organisms, and the minute you start getting back into the earth’s atmosphere, you’re going to start to experience gravity and see molecular changes. So, the clock is ticking to try to get the samples back. So in the future, hopefully return vehicles can land on solid ground, and we get the samples back even faster.
Right now, it’s taking about a day or two on a boat in the ocean. But yeah, the priority’s obviously for animal experiments, we want all of them alive and happy. And so far, we’ve done it twice and they have been. JAXA has also done it twice. All the mice did really well on return. And, yeah, intact samples kept at the right stowage temperatures and everything, then we’re happy.
Matthew Buffington: On a similar note, and this is a slight pivot, but I love the little catchphrase of working off the earth for the earth. We’ve talked a lot about how it all happens, from an idea, an experiment, it’s created, it’s packed, it’s sent up, then you actually conduct it. But, I’d love to pick your brain, Dennis and also Shane, of the why. Why is doing experiments in microgravity important? Clearly NASA and the international community is spending a lot of money to put this thing up here. And, what can we get out of that that you just can’t do on the ground?
Dennis Leveson-Gower:Yeah, there’s a lot that we can’t do on the ground. My bias is that we want to go to Mars, and we want to explore space, and we want to make Star Trek real, so we should be figuring out what happens to our bodies, what happens to physical processes on a cellular level, really understand the biology and what changes when the vector of gravity is removed.
Of course, there is objectives to benefit the earth, as you say, and one prime example is, you can’t have forced bedrest of research animals, but if they’re in space, all the gravity load is off, and it will mimic conditions where people have extended bedrest or unloading on their muscles.
You also, microgravity seems to have an accelerated aging effect, so you can look at age-related factors. You have fluid shifts, and basically high blood pressure in your brain, and that starts affecting the astronauts’ vision and things like that, and we want to understand how that works.
So, you have a lot of, like, growing 3D tissues in the lab. To be able to do those kind of things, you may be able to do them better in space, and understand the processes better in space. And I think it directly translates into, benefits the earth. Sometimes, you have to connect the dots a little bit to see how that space research affects the ground, but if you look at every experiment we’ve done, it always has spin-off benefits.
Shane Kimbrough:Tough to add much to that. It’s very true. The way I look at it is, everything we do up there is either for future exploration, like Dennis mentioned, or it’s to help humanity in general. If we’re not doing that, I think we’re really missing the boat. But everything we touch up there and I’ve been involved with has met one of those two criteria.
One example I like to think of is, we have this machine up there that makes water. It takes every bit of liquid onboard the space station, from urine to sweat to condensation to anything, and it goes into this machine and it makes water that’s extremely pure that we use for our food and our drinks the next day, so to speak. It’s a great technology for us to have. It’s not something we have to have for the space station, but we will have to have something like that for Mars, or the moon, or wherever we’re going to go deep space. So, we’re working on that now for future exploration.
A side benefit of this whole thing is, we actually use that technology on earth as well. There’s third-world countries that don’t have clean water supplies, and the same technology is helping them get clean water. That’s really a cool thing when you’re helping future exploration and you’re helping humanity.
Gary Jordan:Yeah, especially with, that’s just one example, right? That’s one thing on the station that’s helping in both directions. Matt, I think that’s a really good place to end the podcast.
Matthew Buffington: I think that’s perfect, dude.
Gary Jordan:I think that’s fantastic, because it kind of sums up why do we do all the science, and why the science goes up and down to the International Space Station. Guys, thanks so much for coming on the show, both to Shane and Dennis for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast and NASA in Silicon Valley, the first time we’re doing this together. Matt, I really hope we can do this again.
Matthew Buffington:With our powers combined, it works out. Thanks a lot for helping pull this together. This has been a lot of fun.
Gary Jordan:Yeah, absolutely. Thanks, guys.
Shane Kimbrough:It was great, thanks everybody.
Dennis Leveson-Gower: Thanks for having me.
Matthew Buffington:Huge thanks to Dennis and Shane. Awesome.
Gary Jordan:Thank you.
Gary Jordan:Hey, thanks for sticking around. So today, we teamed up with the NASA in Silicon Valley Podcast to talk about cargo missions, and we had a couple different perspectives with Shane Kimbrough as an astronaut and also Dennis Leveson-Gower as a senior project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.
So if you want to want to check out all of NASA’s podcasts, just go to nasa.gov/podcasts. There’s where you can sign up for the NASA in Silicon Valley Podcast and subscribe to them, and there’s also a new one that just got released – last week I think at this point – called Gravity Assist and it’s hosted by Dr. Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary Scientist. It’ll start with a 10-part series where he starts with the Sun and then goes all the way out to Pluto and makes his stops all along our solar system and then talks about planets beyond. This is going to be a really good podcast, so definitely stay tuned.
We were talking about cargo missions, so definitely tune in to the live coverage of the launch and capture of SpaceX CRS-13. I think SpaceX covers the launch, but you can find the latest times for the capture on nasa.gov/NTV, as in NASA TV, and you can see the latest schedule for when we’re going to be broadcasting that.
Make sure to follow us on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Make sure to use the hashtag #asknasa to submit an idea for the podcast, and make sure to mention it’s for Houston We Have a Podcast if you want it answered here.
This podcast was recorded on November 14, 2017. Thanks to Alex Perryman, John Stoll, Greg Wiseman, Kelly Humphries, Megan Sumner, and Brandi Dean from here in Houston. Thanks to Matt Buffington, Eric Land, Abby Tabor, and Frank Tavares from NASA’s Ames Research Center for teaming up for this podcast. And again thanks to Shane Kimbrough and Dennis Leveson-Gower for coming on the show. We’ll be back next week.