Return To Flight

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2004 Preflight Interview: Charles Camarda
We're talking today to Mission Specialist 5 on the STS-114 crew, Charlie Camarda; Charlie, thanks for being with us today. It's been almost a year since the Columbia accident and the loss of your seven colleagues and friends. How have you, as an individual, an astronaut, and now as a member of this return to flight crew changed perhaps as a result of the accident? What kinds of things are perhaps more in your consciousness today about the art and the risks inherent to human space flight than you may have thought a year ago?

I really do not believe I have changed since the Columbia tragedy. I have always been a dissenting opinion out there, asking questions, asking tough questions. I'm basically an engineer at heart, and so when I see a technical problem I try to solve it. I think that's important. I think we recognize that now how important that is. I've always been aware of the risks. I think every one of us understands that space flight is risky. We feel, and I feel, that it's important that we take those risks for the future of space, and for the future of the development of technology to help us on the planet Earth.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Charles Camarda
STS-114 Mission Specialist Charles Camarda

In general, Charlie, you've been watching very closely, as have all of us, the accident investigation and the work to recover from the accident. What has been your impression of the steps taken in this first year since the Columbia accident, the findings, NASA's plans, its implementation activities to date?

As you know, the tragedy happened when I was assigned as an Expedition 8 backup, and I was training in Russia. We were there for a week and returned the week after the tragedy. And when I returned, I asked to be assigned to the return to flight effort and the accident investigation. I was very pleased to see the hundreds and thousands of engineers that we brought on-line to attack this problem and try to solve this problem. We engaged so many people from around the country to solve this problem and work on this problem, and they were working a tremendous number of hours and sacrificing their time and their family's time, all for one purpose, working together as a team. And I think that was very rewarding, and I was very happy to be able to work with those teams and to continue to work with those teams. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the work they're doing right now, because it's very important.

Charlie, let's take a step back for a minute. Why did you want to become an astronaut? You were born in, in Queens in New York. You know, when I grew up in New York I was busy with Mickey Mantle and Yankee Stadium, and you became a thermal and materials Ph.D., a doctorate and all that stuff. Why did you want to become an astronaut? What lured you to want to fly in space?

Well, I grew up, I'm old enough to remember as a, a young boy the Mercury 7 astronauts, and they were my heroes, you know. And it was a time when space flight was so intriguing and it was a time in our country where it was a tremendous technical challenge. There was this tremendous competition between us and, and, and the Soviet Union at that time, and a race for space. I always enjoyed science and math, and these seven astronauts were my heroes. And so it was natural for me to want to be an astronaut, to dream of being an astronaut. I began work at NASA Langley in 1974, and I applied in 1978 with the first call for astronauts, for Mission Specialist, came out. I didn't reapply for 18 years, and during that time I was engaged in research and technology, work that I love to do. I was lucky enough to be selected to be an astronaut in '96 and, and did it because I wanted to work closer with the operational aspects of a flight vehicle, the hardware, and understand that.

Has anything over the past year dampened that same desire and enthusiasm, or, perhaps, in an ironic way, has it strengthened your enthusiasm to want to fly in space?

It has not dampened my enthusiasm for flying in space, nor do I think it's dampened the need for us to fly in space. I'm as dedicated as I ever was to our commitment to space. And the people working at the different space centers, at JSC, KSC, and, and all the NASA centers and our extended contractor family, I believe have, have always valued and have had this dedication for space. I've talked to many people at KSC and JSC. And when you see the dedication of these people you understand how committed they are and how committed they remain, and will always remain. The tragedy was something that was terrible. It refocused our efforts towards making flying in space as safe as possible. And, and I think we're doing that right now, and, hopefully, we'll continue to do that.

And as a result over the past year, are you more aware of the issue of risks? Do you look at systems that you might have trusted before, and are you taking a second look at things? Has it heightened your awareness of this risk issue?

I was always aware of the risk, as most of us, almost all of us, have been. We always knew that space flight was risky; we always viewed it as risky. I've never viewed it as something that was routine or operational. I think the risks are necessary, like I said earlier, and I think they're well worth the taking. When I go out and, and talk to kids in schools, I feel like I'm very lucky because I knew at a very young age what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be. And I tell the students that it's important that whatever they decide what they want to do in life, they have a passion for it and they go after it. That will ensure that they'll be successful. We have this passion to fly in space. We feel the need, and we feel that it's important and it's well worth the risks for the rewards we get from it. And like all explorers in the past, when you start out in a new endeavor it's always dangerous. Maybe it's not even more dangerous than other jobs that other people have, like firemen and policemen in big cities like we've seen after the terrible tragedy in New York and the Twin Towers. But I and the rest of the astronauts feel that our job is well worth the risk that we take.

Since you've been assigned, what kind of things have you talked to your family, your wife and your kids, about as you started your training for this flight, started discussing the issues, the personal aspect of you going up on this first mission?

Unfortunately, I have been consumed in the return to flight effort, so my family, my wife and children, are used to me coming home and discussing work. So they knew a lot about the engineering details of why the tragedy happened and what we were doing in order to ensure that it does not happen again. We would discuss this between my wife and myself over dinner or in the car, and the children would listen, and they would pick up on it. And it's amazing that they have a positive attitude towards my flying in space. When we sit down, we discuss it at the, at the dinner table, the kids typically and volunteer ideas for solving the problem, which really are outstanding and, and are right in line with some of the ideas we're looking at right now. When I talk to kids in schools around the country, I notice that the children now are asking the question, "Is it dangerous?" In seven years being an astronaut and talking to the kids in school, I've never had that question. And they ask me, "Well, isn't it risky? Are you afraid?" I tell them, "No." My children and my stepchildren do not have that fear, I think because we discuss it with them. This was a picture that my youngest stepson, Alex, drew, and he did it on his own, just after listening, I guess, several days in a row to us talking about the accident and what happened. It was his view of what the next space flight would look like. And it's a tremendous schematic of a space vehicle with two engines, and two astronauts, and you notice the astronaut in the window and the astronaut hovering above the space vehicle. Both have smiles on their faces, which is a good thing, obviously. Alex believes that the next space flight is going to be a happy event. I was wondering what those two things were, protruding from, from the astronaut's shoulder, and I asked Alex. He said, "Well, those are wings -- this is an angel astronaut." In his mind, that astronaut---that angel astronaut -- would be looking over the crew, and the crew's safety, so in his mind he feels comfortable with the work that we're doing for return to flight. It's seal of approval, that he feels comfortable.

The anniversary coming up, Charlie, obviously is an emotional milestone for the agency, for all of us involved in the recovery and the return to flight. As 2004 unfolds, what do you envision as the most challenging aspect of your training, the crew's, the agency's preparation, for this flight, that has so many new things involved, so many new issues to contend with, to package within a 13-day time frame?

You asked a very tough question and basically cut right to the chase and hit the nail on the head. What we learned after the Columbia tragedy was that it is very important for us to be able to inspect the vehicle to ensure that we do not lose another crew. It's also important that we have the ability, if we see damage to the vehicle that we think is unacceptable, to go EVA and repair the vehicle. This is a very, very tough problem. The materials we're talking about, (my background is in thermal structures) carbon-carbon, was never designed to be hit by debris in space. We know very little about how that material is going to perform when it's damaged, yet we have to get that knowledge before we fly again. We have to be able to look at a damaged wing, a damaged portion of tile, and be able to determine whether this damage is acceptable or unacceptable, because putting a crew out in space on an EVA to repair the vehicle is also very dangerous. We're risking the EVA crew; we're risking potential further damage to the vehicle. Having said that, we have a very daunting problem and a very big challenge in front of us. I alluded to the teams that we put together and have been putting together, which really make up engineers and technologists and researchers across the country who have volunteered to be members of the team and are working tirelessly, day and night, to gain this knowledge. Just to give an example: We did not understand or could not physically model impact damage to the leading edge. We now have that capability, and we were able to develop that capability by drawing from the experts out there in the field and focusing them and their attention on that one particular problem. We now have that capability. We are now looking at solving the other very daunting challenges, such as the inspection and repair capability. I would say at this point I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm very happy with what I see in the technical community and the way it's responded to solve these problems, and I feel confident that we will develop the techniques that we will be able to use to hopefully prevent such a tragedy in the future. But I must caution us against feeling too comfortable with the success of our flight, or succeeding flights. Spaceflight will always be an experiment; it will never be an operational, routine venture, and we need to learn from every flight. We need to improve and make sure that we're ever-vigilant that we can make this vehicle as robust and as safe as we possibly can.

And, as a result, Charlie, thoughts are turning toward a Shuttle successor. Where we would go beyond the Shuttle era? What do you think is ahead for us in space years down the road? What do you envision is the long-term future for human space flight?

I think the Shuttle is a magnificent vehicle: it's the only vehicle that can fly to space and return and be reused. It's the only reusable vehicle we have. It's fragile in many ways, in that its thermal protection system is fragile, but we've designed and we, and we operate the vehicle in such a manner that it is safe and, and we rely on the thousands of people on the ground that constantly pamper this vehicle and ensure our safety. But, like I said, it's, it's a racehorse, it's not a Clydesdale. The future vehicles, we need to look at designing them to be more robust, most resilient, to incorporate the technologies that we're developing right now and using for return to flight, like integrated health monitoring. On our vehicle, we will have sensors to detect if we have a hit, and to assess the damage. We will have sensors that will look outside the vehicle to also help us to assess that damage. I look at where we are since the Columbia tragedy and view this, and, and take this terrible, horrible tragedy and, and, and hope that we can turn it around and get a lot of positive benefit from it and, and view this as an opportunity. We're doing that -- we're learning, we're not taking a step back, we're not slowing down. We're basically learning, and we're moving forward. We're developing the technologies that we need for future vehicles, for future, more robust vehicles. And hopefully, that, that is one of the things that's out there on the horizon. I look at the development of a new, more robust vehicle, I look at our investigation of using the Shuttle vehicle and developing the technologies to use it as an autonomous vehicle that could launch, dock, undock, and land completely unmanned to the Space Station, so that we can then use that vehicle as a hypersonic test bed to develop better thermal protection systems, better structures, better guidance systems, better propulsion systems, to be able to use that as a test vehicle so that the next vehicles we do develop are more robust. Techniques for interplanetary space travel, advances in propulsion, advances in, in hypersonic technology, such as the aerospace plane of the '80s, so that hopefully we can make space flight as routine as, as aircraft flight is today. So that when the common person, when every individual has access to space, we will then be able to fully realize the benefits of space as we have of aircraft.

Charlie, you've talked about the thousands of people on the ground that are working towards getting Shuttles back in the air. You and your six crewmates, as is every flight crew, wind up being the most visible symbol of the mission. If you were addressing NASA employees as they work towards the issue of returning Shuttles to flight, what would you say to them as we get beyond the anniversary and press ahead to another long year of work to try to get you and your crew up in the air?

I heard Dave Brown, my classmate and 107 crewmember, say at an interview one time that we are the lucky ones, the astronauts. We get to fly, and we get to receive the glory of space flight. But really, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The thousands of people who really do the work ensure that we have the technology, we're able to fly. These are the people that are really the unsung heroes and are out there, working, like I said, tirelessly, day and night, to make sure that we are safe and we fly safe. And we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude, and we should definitely recognize their accomplishments, because the true, they truly are their accomplishments. It's a team effort.

Charlie, the accident investigation board and so much, so many others have talked over the past year about NASA's culture, having to change the culture of this agency. What do you think this agency has learned culturally from the accident that will serve it well in the future to address issues, to hear concerns, to do everything humanly possible, within the scope of human nature, to address everything that needs to be addressed from flight to flight to flight?

I really can't speak for what NASA has learned and is learning. I think the accident investigation board did us a great service. I talked with several members that were on the board, such as Adm. Gehman and Gen. Barry, and several of the other board members. I watched them go through a very difficult process, of trying to determine what the cause of the accident was. It was a very difficult problem, and it took several months, but I really think they were able, and we were able -- to put our finger on exactly what was the cause of the problem, technically. We can fix that, and we're working on that. That's one of the simpler challenges that we have. I think the more difficult challenge is the cultural issue. What we have learned from this, from this board and from this outside look and at our own agency, is that we have some work to do. There are things we can do better. And I believe with every tragedy, with every accident, I think you can point to the culture and you can say there are changes that can be made that can, hopefully, prevent that in the future. I think they did us a great service. I absolutely believe that we should encourage and seek out dissenting opinions. We should view outside evaluation of what we're doing. We should whole-heartedly accept outside help with open arms. And, and we should value every person's voice and take advantage of every individual that we have. There were several areas that the board pointed out where we could improve and how we could improve. I think we are looking at those recommendations and we are taking them very seriously. When you look across this center, you see the, the findings of the accident investigation board on display, and we are encouraged to look at them and to learn, learn from those problems that we have and that they found. And I think we're doing that. I think it'll take leadership at the top in order to implement those recommendations, and in order to make sure that those changes occur, those changes in culture, and that's very critical. We need strong leadership, and we need to make sure that the message gets down to the engineers and the working people that we are making a serious commitment to changes in that culture. One of the other items that was brought out was our operational culture. I believe this center was founded on an engineering culture. We took the first forays into space; we made those steps from this center by the tremendous engineering effort, by teams of people at this center and other centers across this country. We had a tremendous respect for the engineering culture and what that meant. We based our decisions on good, sound engineering judgment and research. I think we need to never forget that, and we should view this Columbia tragedy, we should hold it in our memory and we should keep it and, and never forget the importance of the workers out there that are doing the sound engineering work that should be used to make critical decisions. The other item that was brought out by the accident investigation was the need for independent assessment and peer review, a technical, an independent technical authority. I think that's critical. I think we had good engineers working at this center, and we had a tremendous contractor team working at this center. Hand in hand they looked over, and they made sure, that no mistakes were made. It's only natural when you're talking about humans and you're talking about analyses. Mistakes are very easy to make. And it's amazing how much and how many mistakes you can find by just having a separate set of eyes. We, as astronauts, do not perform any critical functions by ourselves on, in, in the vehicle and in orbit; we always have a second crewmember there following us, looking at what we do. A separate set of eyes, making sure we do the right thing. I think that's important.

Charlie, you talked earlier about your training as a Space Station crewmember, your time training in Russia. You've spent a lot of time on console as a Space Station spacecraft communicator, or CAPCOM, so you're intimately familiar with the International Space Station. The STS-114 flight is dubbed the “return to flight” mission. Lest we forget, at no time has space been unoccupied -- not only since the accident, but since the fall of 2000 when the Space Station was first occupied. Continuous human presence in space has been ongoing and it has been through the concerted effort of the international partnership that the accident did not change the ability to continue to man the Space Station as an American and Russian fly together today. Tell us a little bit about the dedication and the effort of this partnership that has kept human space flight alive through this down period for Space Shuttles, and has kept it thriving during a very difficult and challenging year.

I have had the opportunity to work with the Russians and to train with the Russians in Star City. I have also had the opportunity to work in Italy and work with the Italians, Alenia, and the Italian Space Agency in some of the work that they were doing in developing pressurized modules for the Space Station. I think having an international partnership has been crucial to the success of the International Space Station. Without a doubt, we realized how important it was after STS-107, and that drove it home to many people. If they didn't already know it, it was perfectly clear after the tragedy. We would not have a presence and a continued presence in space if it weren't for our Russian partners. They have stepped up and have launched on the Soyuz vehicle the last two crews to man Space Station. And, and they remain very solid partners. The, the Italians are building almost two-thirds of the pressurized modules that make up the International Space Station. Our class was the largest astronaut class we've had -- nine international astronauts were selected in our class from seven different countries -- and so we get to work and train with some of the best people from all the countries, all the different countries around the world. I think it's very important for us to gain a different perspective and to learn from our partners how each different culture, how each different country approaches solving the similar problem. The Russians have a different technical view on how they build and design their spacecraft. They're robust, they're durable and they're very simple. Maybe we can learn a lesson from how they design their spacecraft when we go back to designing our next, and our future spacecraft. And, and the Italians and, and the rest of the European community have been outstanding players in developing of the MPLMs and the other pressurized modules such as the Cupola and the COF. The Canadians developed the arm that's been working so well, don't forget the Japanese partners that we have -- of course, Soichi is on our flight, and he's a classmate of mine.

Let me press on, Charlie, if I might for a minute, with a final set of questions here. In a big picture sense, you talked about that it's going to be important to, to maintain the vigilance, the dedication for flight after flight after flight, many flights beyond yours, but your flight is the first, and I'm just wondering how significant and how important is STS-114, your flight, in getting this agency physically and psychologically back in the saddle, back in orbit, as far as Space Shuttles are concerned?

Well, I hope it's going to be a tremendous boost, psychologically, to this country and to the space effort. I mean, we really need it. And we need to get back to flying, and we need to get back to flying safely. Along those lines, we're training very hard. And as I mentioned, over and over again, teams of people are working very hard to make sure that we have the tools and we have the capability to ensure that future missions are safe. Now you have to remember that these next couple of flights are very much experimental flights. Like I said, we're looking at new technologies and we have to ensure that these technologies will be suitable, if they're ever called into action, if we never, ever need to use these technologies that they will do the job and we will be able to return crews safely and we'll, we will be able to, return the vehicle safely. We only have a couple of chances to make sure that these technologies are fully developed, and our flight is, is one of the first, and we're going to learn a lot from it. But like I've said, every one of these flights is an experimental flight, and we need to continue learning from it. Our flight is just the beginning. And I think we know that. The rest of the missions will be viewed as experiments, and, hopefully, we'll be learning as much as we can from every one of these flights.

As the anniversary of the accident approaches, Charlie, and you and your crewmates press on in your training for returning the Shuttle to flight, how do you reflect on the past and the loss of your friends on that crew?

Since I came back from Russia I've been working almost constantly on the return to flight effort and the accident investigation. I don't think a day goes by that we don't think of the STS-107 crew. We have their pictures up, and we see their faces, and we think. And it just gives us that much more motivation ... to work as hard as we possibly can to make sure that this tragedy never happens again. And, we also recognize that when we do fly, it's what they would've wanted; it's what they dedicated their lives for.

Back in 1988, on Discovery's Return to Flight from Challenger, on STS-26, Rick Hauck and his crew basically turned their flight into a commemoration of the crew of Challenger on board: They paid tribute to their friends and colleagues as they carried the torch, if you will. During your mission, how much do you think you and your crewmates will be thinking about Columbia's crew and what they sacrificed to make your mission and those beyond STS-114 possible?

Practically our entire mission is a result of the Columbia tragedy. And, like I said, the technologies that we're going to be investigating and verifying in space are to prevent a similar tragedy happening in the future. Along those lines, their presence will be strongly felt throughout our mission. But we have to be focused on our mission, and it's very critical these technologies. It's a very packed and demanding flight, and with an awful lot of work to do: the inspections are going to take a tremendous amount of time, and we have to be focused, very focused, during that time because very routine operations could turn out to be very dangerous operations. The routine operations of eight to 12 hours of inspecting a leading edge, if you don't have that focus on your mission, on that job at, and that task at the time, could lead to a potential, dangerous situation. And so, we have to always be ever-vigilant and maintain that focus. But the presence of the crew and the thoughts of the crew ... will always be on our minds.

+ Read Camarda's 2005 Preflight Interview