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Preflight Interview: Charlie Camarda
The STS-114 Crew Interview with Charlie Camarda, mission specialist

You have a job that lots of kids dream of having, Charlie. Is being an astronaut what you always wanted to do?

I'm sure if you've asked this to the other astronauts you get almost the exact same answer. It's one of the first things I ever wanted to be. I only wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I grew up with the, the Mercury 7 astronauts. They were my heroes, and that's, and that's what I wanted to do. So that basically guided my path towards science, math, and engineering.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Charlie Camarda Image to right: STS-114 Mission Specialist Charles Camarda dons a training version of the Shuttle launch and entry suit prior to the start of a mission training session at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credit: NASA

Tell me about the steps along the way. What did you do that led, ultimately, to your being qualified to be one?

I worked hard, and did very well in school, especially in science and math, Because that's where my passion and my interests were. I went to a good engineering college, did my undergraduate work, and actually had the opportunity to do an internship for two months in the summer between my junior and senior year at NASA Langley Research Center. That's when I realized that I really wanted to do research work as opposed to basic engineering work, and that I wanted to work for NASA.

So, you went to college, you got a degree ...

Got a degree and came to work for NASA right after graduation. I proceeded to get advanced degrees while I was working for NASA where I got to work on a lot of interesting, different programs. When I was at NASA for three years I applied to be an astronaut. I had a bare minimum for requirements and was not selected. I really loved being an engineer; that was my true calling and that's what I loved to do. So the dream of becoming an astronaut kind of got pushed down in the, in the background a little bit. I really loved doing what I was doing, the work I was doing at Langley. And I was at a senior management retreat at Wallops Island and met a bunch of people that became good friends that worked here at Johnson Space Center. I told them, yeah, I always wanted to be an astronaut. I remember talking to Estella Gillette and she said, "Well, why don't you apply, you know you have two weeks." So I got back to Virginia Beach, filled out the forms, and the rest is to my surprise was, was history. And I got selected and here I am.

In your life are there, is there a person or persons that you look at as being your inspiration, your hero?

I couldn't pick just one hero. There were several heroes. My parents, of course, my mother inspired me, allowed me the freedom to explore when I was a child. My father gave me that inspiration to give it a try, to go after your dream and give it a shot. He was a minor league baseball player when he was a kid, and he tried for the pros. So, I always had that in me as a child, that push, that drive. I had an uncle that was working for Grumman Aerospace Corp. out in Bethpage. As a child, we made rockets together, we made fireworks together, and he took me to see the lunar module. I'll never forget that one summer I spent with my uncle out in Long Island. The astronauts, the Mercury 7 astronauts, were my heroes and, and in particular, right now, probably John Young is my hero.

Tell me about what your other hobbies and interests are when you're not busy being an astronaut.

That's a tough question. I really am probably a boring person because, when I'm not an astronaut I enjoy being an engineer. I really enjoy working with engineers in solving problems. So, I guess, probably like a lot of other astronauts, I am kind of a workaholic. I do like sports. I do like to go to the gym. I like to lift weights. I used to enjoy playing racquetball a lot, and that's about it.

For somebody who's wanted to be an astronaut all their life, I can't resist asking you what it was like when they came to you and told you that you'd been assigned to your first spaceflight -- you were really going!

I had been working as an astronaut for almost nine years. It was after the Columbia accident; it was on Columbus Day, and I was at my desk working. Kent Rominger called me up and told me. I was, as you can imagine, very surprised. It wasn't something that was in the front of my mind at, at the time. I was really working on engineering problems concerning the accident, and I was really surprised. To be selected to be on this crew, with the crew that we have, I mean, it's just been an exceptional experience.

Particularly since the loss of Columbia, we assume that all astronauts understand the risks of spaceflight and they accept them. Tell me why you think this job is worth taking that risk.

Well, you know, there are risks in every job. This job has more risks. I believe, and have always believed, that technology was the answer to a lot of our problems here on Earth, and I firmly believe that problems with respect to the environment, with respect to fuel shortages, can only be answered with technological solutions. We can't turn back the hands of time. I believe it's very important for our country, for our nation, and, and for the world to basically continue to explore. That's why I do it, and that's why I would support anyone else that does it, because it's so important for our children to have a goal, to have a dream.

It's one thing then to take that risk for yourself; how does your family deal with the risk of what is your job?

STS-114 Mission Specialists, from left, Steve Robinson, Charlie Camarda and Soichi Noguchi Image to left: Camarda, center, shares a moment of microgravity with fellow mission specialists Steve Robinson, left, and Soichi Noguchi aboard NASA's KC-135 aircraft. Credit: NASA

My family is very, takes it very well. I'm kind of a workaholic; I bring my work home with me and I discuss it over the dinner table with the children. So they know the technological aspects of why we fly, how we fly, how safe it is to fly, and they also understand the dangers. But they feel comfortable with the fact that I'm flying and the risk that I take because I assure them, that those risks are as minimal as possible.

It's been more than two years since Columbia and its crew were lost. Charlie, what was it like for you as a fellow astronaut to realize that an accident had just claimed the lives of seven friends?

Well, as you can imagine it was very difficult. I was separated from the Astronaut Office at the time. I, Leroy Chiao, Bill McArthur, and Mike Foale were training. I and Leroy were training as backup to Expedition 8, of which Mike Foale and Bill McArthur were prime crew. So we felt kind of isolated. It was a shock to us when we got the news. We all gathered in one cottage, huddled around the TV, and we just were in shock. I went through all the different stages of grief from shock to anger to sadness. We were watching it and we couldn't, couldn't believe it.

In the couple of years that you've been training with the crew that's going to bring the Shuttles back to flight, how have you and those crewmates talked about honoring the memories of the last Shuttle crew?

We've discussed it. We're definitely going to do something. The [STS-]107 crew will be on our minds right before the launch, during the launch. They'll be in our memory, of course. We realize that we're flying as a tribute to them, because it's what they would have wanted us to do. We have not decided exactly how we will honor that crew but we are definitely planning to do that. We look forward to doing that during our flight, and we know they'll be looking over our shoulders.

You know, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board pinpointed some physical causes for the loss of Columbia and specified mechanical fixes to make flying the Shuttle safer. I want to ask you, briefly, to assess the improvements that have been made to eliminate debris and to detect and make repairs to a damaged Shuttle.

First I want to say that the CAIB commission did us a great service. They were an outside investigation board and they were able to look at our culture here at JSC and throughout NASA, and at what happened during the accident. They really were a great help to us to address the problems that we have as an organization and also to help solve some of the tough technical problems and get us back flying again. And so I want to thank them for what they did. I think right after the accident, about a week after, I got back and started working on different aspects of Return to Flight. Kent Rominger allowed me to do that. One of the first trips I made was to Michoud, and I got to meet the engineers and see how they were doing and how they were gearing up to address the problem. I was very happy to see real engineers sitting down, looking at ways to figure out what the cause of the problem was and how they would address it. They were doing all the right things, and they continued with a good engineering culture and approach to solving the problem. I think they've made several significant advances in how they apply the foam, how they inspect the foam for damage, and so the procedures and quality control have improved. They've identified areas, and actually identified what the cause of the foam release was. I think they've pretty much nailed that down technically and they understand it. I think the techniques and the technical changes they have made around the flange region of the intertank, between the hydrogen tank and the oxygen tank, in order to prevent release of large pieces of foam from that area, have been very significant. They've eliminated, as you know, the large pieces of foam, like the bipod, which basically came off and was the cause of the Columbia tragedy. They have completely eliminated it and applied, basically heated that joint to prevent ice from forming. And they've made significant other advances. We feel now that if foam does come off it will be in small enough pieces that it would not cause damage to the leading edge. We feel pretty confident that that's the case. As you know, the purpose of our mission and STS-121 will be basically to inspect the tank right after launch and determine if any foam has come off, inspect the leading edges with the sensors in order to determine whether, if foam did come off, it caused any kind of damage. We also have included wing leading edge sensors so that if we take a hit from debris, any kind of debris we would know by the instrumentation in the wing leading edges that we did receive a hit and then we can inspect more carefully in those areas to see if it caused any damage.

You talked about going to Michoud. There are thousands of people at NASA Centers all over the country who have been involved for more than two years, working to make the Shuttle Return to Flight safer. What are your thoughts about the contributions that have been made by all of those people?

I cannot say enough good things concerning the armies of people around the country, of real engineers sitting down, rolling up their sleeves and solving very tough technical problems. Before we flew we did not understand and could [not] predict what kinds of damage we would experience if pieces of foam hit the leading edge. We had very crude knowledge of how to model that damage and how to predict that damage. Within three months after the accident we put together a team a team of researchers from the research centers like Glenn and Langley, and other folks around the country like Boeing Helicopter, to solve that problem and understand, using these very complex computer programs to model the impact dynamics of different pieces of material hitting the leading edge structure. We were able to do that in three months, to be able to replicate and predict the type of damage that the leading edge could potentially have. And that's only one small example of how, when you have the right skills and the right group of engineers, you put them together and you let them do their work. Across the board -- from the impact analysis group to the damage prediction group to the folks that were, that are working on the repair effort and the folks here at JSC that developed the wing leading edge sensors -- they've done an outstanding job. It wasn't a simple job because, number 1, we never expected to have damage; the wing leading edge was not designed to experience any kind of damage. So we have learned more probably in these last two years about the wing leading edge and its impact tolerance capabilities than we knew probably the first 30 years that we've used this material.

What's it meant to you to get the opportunity to go to all the different NASA Centers and meet other members of the team you're on?

STS-114 Mission Specialist Charlie Camarda Image to right: Camarda participates in a payload training session in a simulator at Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

To me, that's one of the best parts of my job. I love to work with the engineers, I love to pat them on the back and tell them how much we appreciate what they're doing because they are really the unsung heroes. We get to fly, we get to walk out there. We get to have interviews like this nationally, and people get to see us. But the real heroes, in my mind, are the engineers, all the people that are out there working on the vehicle, making sure that it's safe. And it takes an army of people, because, as you know, there are millions of pieces, there are millions of complicated parts of this vehicle, and any one of them could be critical at any given time.

The repair procedures that we've been talking about that have come as a result of CAIB recommendations are still being fine-tuned; there are some that are still in development. But the Shuttle program is confident to Return to Flight even though procedures are still being tested and certified. Are you comfortable with that approach?

In my mind it's not the optimum approach. I believe we all would have liked to have had certified repair techniques before we fly. But this is a very difficult problem. Just processing the leading edges on the ground takes tremendous care. Imagine trying to repair them in orbit. The leading edge, for example, bears the brunt of the, of the heating during entry. It sees extreme temperatures, greater than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It basically relies on a very thin coating of silicon carbide, which is converted from the carbon-carbon, to basically protect that from burning up during re-entry. What we have learned in the last year is that if you lose about a thumbnail-sized piece of the external surface of the leading edge, it could potentially be catastrophic. Now, we have to make sure that we can repair that in such a way that we protect the rest of the leading edge from oxidizing or burning up as it enters the atmosphere. We also have to do it in such a way that we do not have any kind of any small protuberances, which would increase the heating significantly and burn up in a matter of seconds. So it's a very, very difficult problem to solve on the ground. When you realize that you have to put these tools in the hands of a suited astronaut in space, you have to design those repair techniques so that you're able to do that with precision, and so the EVA astronaut could do that in space. And to their credit the teams on the ground have been working tirelessly, and I believe, I believe, and I'm very hopeful, that the techniques we have, although they won't be certified per se for re-entry. If we see damage, in the case of an extreme emergency two failures deep and we had to come home on that vehicle, we would have something that I think would give us a, a good chance of survival to come home. And hopefully, as we continue to advance and mature these concepts, I would hope that in a year's time we would have something in repair for both the leading edge and the tiles that would be certifiable, so that we do not run the risk of potentially losing an orbiter and potentially really seriously hurting the, the Shuttle program.

STS-114 is called LF-1. What does LF-1 mean? What are the goals of this mission?

LF means it's a logistics flight. One of the key goals of our mission is to resupply the Space Station, supply it with consumables like food, water, spare parts for equipment, to fix equipment in space and so we're, we're carrying up an MPLM, a module which was designed for us by the Italians to basically be our little storage container, take up to space, take the spare parts, the tools, the hardware that we're going to exchange and bring to resupply the Space Station. At the same time we're going to be taking hardware and supplies back that need to be refurbished.

Now, the International Space Station has been kept supplied using Russian launch vehicles during the last two years, but the Progress and Soyuz have comparatively small cargo capacities as compared to the Space Shuttle. Does returning the Space Shuttle and its larger cargo-hauling capacity to flight, is that a critical step in the future of the Space Station?

I think it is the critical step in completing the Station. There is no way that we can bring up the large modules that we need in order to complete the final core complete design of the Space Station. So, for us to bring up the COF, or the Columbus module, the Italian the European laboratory, the JEM, Japanese module, we need the cargo space in the Space Shuttle to basically haul those last modules back up to complete the Station.

And it's not just those large modules; it's supplies up and down, right?

That's right. That's a big part of it. Space Station can get packed pretty quick and so we rely on the Progresses to take the trash, if you will, and also to change out large instruments and large payloads.

In the first hours of your flight, you're going to be confirming some aspects of the redesign of the external tank. Talk about what's involved in getting the data down to the ground that's going to come from the new wing leading edge sensors and the cameras inside and outside of the orbiter.

We have cameras on the outside of the orbiter and on the ET that will be running during the launch. We also will be taking footage right after ET separation. Andy Thomas and Soichi Noguchi will be looking out with cameras, still cameras and movie cameras, taking pictures of the tank as it falls away from us back to Earth. The video images from those cameras will be downlinked to the ground on Flight Day 1. Also, during the launch, we have an array of sensors in each of the wings, the port and starboard wing, and we will be collecting data, a lot of data. We will take a small percentage of that data and downlink it to the ground for the engineers to get a quick look at what those wings experienced in the way of acceleration loads and vibration loads, potentially to tell us if we did take a hit in a particular location. The engineers will process that data overnight; they will be able to tell us and we will get a story for the next day when Andy Thomas, myself, and Vegas [Jim Kelly] take the robotic arm and start to inspect the vehicle.

That inspection of the exterior of the Shuttle is also a first that you and your crewmates are going to be involved in. Describe for us this new Orbiter Boom Sensor System and how it's designed to tell whether or not the Shuttle's been damaged.

This is one of the great new features that we have on our flight that was designed specifically for our flight. We have two different laser sensors. One is a laser range-finding-type sensor, the other one is more of a laser sensor that uses triangulation to basically look at, look at the surface of the vehicle to determine cracks, large holes, to make a contour map of what it sees on the vehicle to be able to tell us, if we see damage, exactly the type of damage that it is, how wide, how, how long it is, and also the shape of it that, that damage has made in the tiles. They will take a contour-type map, which engineers on the ground would then spend hours of time poring over, analyzing aero-thermodynamically, to see what the flow field is in, in these, in these damaged regions, what the heating is in these damaged regions, and whether, whether or not it's critical or not that we would have to do something. These sensors live on the end of the large boom, a 50-foot boom, which was designed by the Canadian Space Agency and MD Robotics. It's a composite boom with sensors on the end of it. On Flight Day 2, Andy, myself and Vegas will grapple or grab onto that boom with the Shuttle arm. We will then position it and let it move along each of the leading edges and the nose cap in order to let these sensors do their job and basically inspect the leading edge. All that data will then be sent down to the ground on Flight Day 2 while we're sleeping.

That job is scheduled to take essentially all day for you guys on Flight Day 2; that's a laborious examination, isn't it?

STS-114 Mission Specialist Charlie Camarda Image to left: Camarda flashes a smile and a "thumbs up" in a simulator at Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

It's very tedious and it's a slow process. It oftentimes could be a very boring process. Yet it's very critical, and so we have to be very focused. We have to be on top of our game at all times lest something happens that could potentially cause more damage to the leading edge. We'll be inspecting at points very close, like within five feet, of the fragile TPS [Thermal Protection System] areas. So we have to make sure, that we don't bump into structure. We trained for this, hours at a time. We train like we would fly. If it takes nine to 10 hours to 12 hours, very long sims, we train that way. We basically train as a team so that we back each other up. When one person does get tired, we roll people in and out of different positions that are critical, key positions, and we have backups to take our place. It's a, it's easily a three-person job.

The inspections of the outside of Discovery are going to continue during the final phase of the rendezvous as well. Talk about the plan that involves setting up so that the Station crew can look down and see the top and the bottom of Discovery on the way up.

This is really impressive. Eileen [Collins], Vegas, myself, and Wendy [Lawrence] are on the rendezvous team. We position the orbiter beneath the Space Station, about 600 feet below, and Eileen and Vegas put the orbiter into a pitch maneuver, which basically pirouettes or rotates 360 degrees. And when the orbiter is belly up to the Station, Station crew will be taking detailed photographs using a 400mm lens and taking detailed shots of the belly of the vehicle to look for critical damage areas or critical-size damage areas on the belly of the vehicle. It's pretty easy to see because on the bottom of the vehicle you have black tiles, some of them are discolored because of, of the flights and, and the aging on the tiles. And, and if they see damage, then later on in our mission, if we see damage that we think needs a further inspection or a more detailed look, we will take the boom sensor out and we will put it underneath the belly of the vehicle to inspect for damage to the tiles.

This, course, this being your first Space Shuttle flight it's also your first visit to the Space Station. Given any thought to the excitement of seeing that thing flying in space and floating through the hatch and getting to go on board?

I'm excited. We train in the orbiter, of course. When you see pictures of folks in the orbiter it looks like there's, there's a lot of room. There really isn't that much space in the orbiter. So being in large modules like the Laboratory module, getting to work in the MPLM and, and do my cargo thing and transfer all the cargo to Space Station, that's going to be fun.

That's got to be sort of an intricate ballet, too, to move things out of that MPLM and get the right things back into it to take home.

We have one of the best people on our crew to do that job. Wendy Lawrence is going to be the loadmaster, and I'm going to be her drone, she calls me. I'm going to be working like her little drone, taking all of that cargo to and from the Station.

It will give you the opportunity to see the whole Station.

Absolutely; absolutely.

A big part of the training over the past two years for your crew has focused on the EVA techniques for repairing damage to the Shuttle. Talk about how involved you guys have been in the development of those techniques.

The EVA techniques are not really part of my job. I know Soichi as EV1 and Steve Robinson have spent a tremendous amount of time training, and it's just incredible to watch both of them perform in the NBL [Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory]. Each is so well in tune with what the other is doing. Soichi has a tremendous situational awareness in the pool. Both he and Steve are just going to do an outstanding job. They've trained for so many different versions of this mission, because they've been training for four years, and the EVAs have been changing. They've covered almost every potential contingency, and they're going to do an outstanding job.

After spacewalks on this mission, after cargo exchange, the MPLM comes back in the payload bay, you folks undock, the last big event on the flight -- the entry and the landing -- is probably going to get more attention than any Shuttle entry and landing has in quite a while. What are your thoughts about that part of your mission?

I think everyone's going to be thinking a little bit more seriously about the landings for the next few Shuttle flights. I don't think it's going to be as publicized, maybe, as the first Shuttle flight. I remember the first Shuttle landing with John Young and I remember the attention. We've learned an awful lot about this vehicle and have come to be more comfortable with how this vehicle performs. The Columbia tragedy made us see that, hey, mistakes can be made. It's a very unforgiving business. We don't think that's going to happen again. We don't even consider that. We know this is going to be probably the safest Shuttle flight, and it's going to be a routine landing.

I've heard it said that STS-114 opens up a brand new chapter in space exploration, that's going to turn a Vision for Space Exploration into a reality. Do you agree?

I don't think it's going to open up a new chapter in space exploration; I think it's taking baby steps towards what we need to do for the next step in, in space exploration. I think what's exciting about our mission is we're starting to do things that we need to do if we're going to go back to the moon and to Mars, especially if we're going to go to Mars. When you think about it, we could be using the Space Station as a mechanism for repairing the orbiter; it could almost be like a service station in space. We're learning how to repair our own vehicle, something that we never would have dreamed of doing two years ago. And we're addressing it and we're solving these problems with some unique innovations and some creative people out there working very hard. These are the types of things that we're going to have to be able to do if we want to go back to the moon and to Mars. We have to have better spacesuits, we have to have robust space vehicles, we have to have an army of really well-trained engineers that are innovative and creative and, and could develop techniques for us doing that safely. We're learning as we go. Space Station is a very big part of that.

Other examples of how the International Space Station helps us pave the path to the future?

When you look at what we're learning on the Space Station, every time you have a problem on Space Station, we solve it. And we solve it using the EVA astronauts to go out and fix and repair something. We use it with engineers on the ground; we use it with the robotic arms, the Mobile Transporter. We are learning how to fix things in space, how to live in space. These are things that we are going to have to be able to do when you imagine a several-month journey to the surface of Mars, for instance. We have to be able to live and work in space and, and we have to develop the skills that we're going to need as we journey out farther and farther into space. We won't be able to rely on the ground to be there to tell us every step of the way what we need to do.

+ Read Camarda's 2004 interview.