The STS-114 crew interviews continue today with the 114 pilot, Jim Kelly; Jim, thanks for joining us today.
2004 Preflight Interview: James Kelly
STS-114 Pilot James Kelly
We're coming up on the anniversary of the Columbia accident. It's been quite a challenging year for everybody involved, particularly, I'm sure, for the 114 crew -- you were just weeks away from launching when the accident occurred, and now you're facing a long stretch of training for a very different type of flight. Before we go into the flight itself, if you could discuss your own feelings a year later, what the last year has meant to you, how you've approached, perhaps a rededication, to this mission that you're the pilot for, and the whole issue of returning Shuttles to flight.
Yeah, well, obviously the Columbia tragedy for me was both a personal and professional tragedy. Starting on a personal level, I knew the whole crew and especially three of them were classmates of mine -- Laurel, Willie, and Dave. I'd been with them for more than six years at that point and knew them very, very well, and had flown with all the rest of them in T-38s and so obviously I knew all of them. For me it was just like a sock in the gut. I was actually taking my son that Saturday morning to a band concert and got the call to show up at the office right away. Of course, you know right away what's going on 'cause I knew the landing was happening right then. With the aftermath of that, obviously, there's a lot of sadness, there's a lot of emotion that goes along with that, and I know the families pretty well; some better than others, but dealing with them and, and having time to spend with them has really been precious this last year as they go through this, watching them as they overcome the tragedy and as they work forward towards a future. So for me, that has gone from sadness into kind of a hope for the future, being able to watch the families and how they reacted to the tragedy and, and carried on, and the message that they're trying to carry through. And so, for me, looking at the year later, I'm trying to, trying to kind of build on, on what the crew of 107 really wanted to do, which is return to flight, keep pushing our boundaries, keep finding more out in the realms of science and exploration and so I'm kind of looking at the new year, as we turn over one year later, there'll be a, a lot of sadness related to the one-year anniversary, but also a lot of hope for the future, looking forward and hoping that we'll do what they really wanted us to do and what the families want us to do, which is, kind of learn everything we can from what happened with Columbia, not only what happened physically but also from the spirit of the crew, and take that and carry it on forward into the future.
Jim, time is a great healer, of course, but clearly in the weeks and months that unfolded after the accident, I'm sure there were moments at home when you had moments to yourself with your family that you had your own personal thoughts about what this all meant and what the future could hold for you. How tough was it for you personally to absorb the whole issue on, literally on the verge of your own launch just as the accident occurred, to absorb this recovery that has been unfolding over the last year and, and to respond to the changing nature of what your flight is going to become?
Well, I'll tell you, interestingly enough, when it happened, my flight just kind of vanished from our mind at that point. Like you say, we were, we were four weeks away from flying, so we were supposed to launch on the 1st of March; so four weeks after the Columbia accident occurred. But as soon as I got the phone call to go into the office and started working, my flight vanished from my mind for pretty much the better part of a month and a half. I, I was deeply involved with the families, because that was a job that I was chosen to do by one of the crewmembers of Columbia and so my own personal life, my own professional life, it all went away. So in looking back at it, I really didn't process a whole lot of it that first month and a half because that, my job was to help the families and, and help with the aftermath of the tragedy, so I kind of closeted all of that, and didn't pull it out until later. And to tell you the truth I didn't give a second thought to our flight or even for that matter I didn't talk to my commander -- I talked to her once in the four weeks after Columbia. So, it pretty much immediately got put on the back shelf and, and, and wasn't even a thought until later on in the summer. So, in the immediate aftermath there wasn't any of that, and since then, I've actually had some time to process, and so I had to, I didn't get the immediate processing that probably would have been good, but since then I've thought about it long and hard, done a lot of talking with folks, and with my own family, and kind of come to the end of it, hopefully knowing more about myself and more about what happened and, and once again, hopefully, to use some of that for the future, realizing also that that's going to make our mission much tougher from that aspect. Not necessarily on the crew -- I think once we get going, it's going to be like anything else I've done in my life, most of us have done, as a professional, get ready to go do a job. Things start happening, you do that job, and, and that part of your brain pretty much gets turned off while you're doing it. I think it's going to be very, very difficult on the teams down here on Earth and especially the families down here on Earth as they watch and, hope that things go well throughout the mission all the way down to landing.
Jim, as an individual, an astronaut, and of this very important Return to Flight crew, have you changed at all your outlook on life, your outlook on your job, as a result of the accident? When you sit in meetings, training sessions, do you start examining things differently; are you a little more introspective, perhaps, than you were before?
Yeah. I would say, people who know me and I'm sure that if you interview other folks they'll tell you that I've never been a shy person about my opinions on what I think needs to be done here and there, but this has reinforced it even more. And I guess what you really have to do after something like this is, is what I would say is turn down your "stupid filter," which means that a lot of times you won't ask a question if you don't have the whole information; you go, "Well, I can't ask it because I'm not sure if I totally understand." You have to turn that filter down now as we go to Return to Flight. And if you don't completely understand that, that doesn't mean that the question you're going to ask isn't the perfect question to ask. And maybe it's not, so maybe you do ask some dumb questions. You ask some questions that aren't germane, and that's OK -- we need more of those right now and we'd rather have a whole bunch of extra questions so long as we get the right ones to be asked. So where it's really probably changed me professionally is I'm more aggressive than I was about going after things that I don't understand or things that I see happening that maybe aren't going what I think is the best way or that we as a crew, through our commander, Eileen Collins, thinks is not the way for things to go, so we're a bit more aggressive about that. And then, on a personal side, obviously after something like this, it happens to people so close to you, you just take more time enjoying your family, enjoying when you're doing things with them, and obviously, it means a little bit more. You know, you just, you get that understanding that as you're watching your kids do a concert or, or a sporting event or something like that, you take more, you take more pleasure in doing that and you relax a little bit more. So I found that I've, I've been able to relax a lot more, especially over the last couple of months. I don't get to relax as often 'cause we're so busy, but when I do it's a lot easier to turn all that off and just enjoy the moment.
And in that regard, what kind of issues have you discussed with your family, as you have trained for this flight, as you've emerged from the shock and the sadness into this rededication that you mentioned a moment ago, that is different than even four weeks before your, you had been scheduled to be launched?
Right. I talked to my family the whole time, even before this, and I will tell you that my conception of the risk hasn't changed all that much from Columbia. I come from a flight test background and, and flying fighter aircraft in combat -- not in actual combat but in combat training -- and things like that, so it's a dangerous environment and my wife and I have lost friends through the years in aircraft accidents so it's always been something that we've lived with. Not on the same scale, obviously, but that type of thing. What the real difference is the public aspect of it. Just what you see the families having gone through through the past year really brings it home where we stand in the U.S. community, you know, in the high regard that they held for the crew and also for the families. So that makes it a completely different dynamic for the families, especially for our Return to Flight: whether it's successful or not there's going to be a whole lot more emphasis on, on how things are going for them, but obviously if something bad were to happen, you know what the aftermath of that would be. So, that's been a, a topic of discussion -- not so much the risk as all the media flurry that goes around it. And then with my kids, they're of differing ages, so we've talked about, I've talked about all the technical aspects with the older kids especially, because they're both interested, my two boys are both interested in engineering, science. One would like to follow in my footsteps, that kind of thing. So we've talked it all through with them, and I asked for their opinions, what they think, and I want them to be comfortable with what's going on. And I would never put it on them what they think I should do, but I want them to be fully aware of what I'm doing and why I'm doing it so that when I'm up there they understand why I'm up there. And, and God forbid if something tragic happened again, they'd understand why I went and, and, and why it was worth so much to me.
And in that risk assessment, both from a professional and a personal point of view, Jim, do, do you look at what happened a year ago and do you think to yourself, the next problem that may occur is something that I couldn't have anticipated any more than, than what happened to Columbia -- in other words, are, are, in looking at risk, you try to cover all the bases but Columbia taught us that there are bases that you can't even fathom that, that might be a problem that, that could catch you at any given moment. Do you look at risk assessment any differently in that regard?
Well, I actually took a, a different viewpoint on that. I think that looking back, we had more than enough warning, which I missed along with everybody else. I looked at the underside of vehicles when they came back and saw the dings to the tiles and, and always thought, oh my gosh, that's going to be tough to fix -- without putting two and two together and backing it up to, "is this ever going to be too much for us to come back with," so I'm just as guilty as everyone else is in the aftermath of Columbia, from certainly at my level, not being a loud enough voice to ask those questions. But I think that it points out more that we had all the information, we read it wrong, and we weren't open to new ideas coming in and saying, hey, maybe this isn't right. I think that's something we've got to change. I think that our duty to the future, not only Return to Flight but down the road, our duty is that the next time that we have an accident, 'cause there will be a next time -- we're, we're going to fly forever, from here on out I think we're going to be flying Shuttles, whatever the follow-on vehicle is -- Moon, Mars, the rest of our planets, hopefully other solar systems whether it's next decade or next century or, you know, 10 centuries from now, I think that humans are just going to keep pressing on there -- sometime in there we are going to have more accidents; when we do, we owe it to the Columbia crew and to everyone, all the families and to the astronauts and everyone on the ground, all the ground teams, that when it happens, it's one of those, "there's nothing we could have done." It's like the tornado that all of a sudden comes out of nowhere and just, you know, wipes out the farmhouse. No one could have seen it coming, nothing like that. With Columbia we can look back and say, "Hey, we've been having tile damage since flight one; we've been having stuff come off the external tanks since flight one," there were a lot of things. So what we need to do is find those other hidden things that are actually sending us messages. And, like the Columbia Accident Investigation Board said the weak signals that are out there, we're not real good at picking those up because we're real concrete -- hey, we've got this data which points to that. Well, if we don't have real good data, we need to go out there and find more and see what those things are. And that's really what we owe. You can't stop the tornado that comes out of nowhere and knocks out the farmhouse, that you don't have the technology to see coming. What you can do is listen to your aging equipment and see what it's telling you, and aggressively go after fixes to make sure that we fix everything that it's talking to us about.
And, in regard to the accident investigation board, their work over the past year has been the main focal point of what this agency have been involved in as we press toward Return to Flight. What has been your impression of their findings and the work that NASA's currently actively involved in, in implementing those findings?
From my level, the view I have, and of course I don't have the global view that they have of the whole NASA organization, but from my level what I saw of the, the findings was that they were right on. I looked at it and I go, "Yeah, they hit it right, the nail on the head." And many of them had been things that had been said before, by folks at my level and folks above my level, about things that were happening and different, cultural issues and suppressing of voices and things like that, that, that was well known throughout the agency. So I think, in many cases, they nailed it head on. I would like to see us implement what they did; I would like to see us go in that direction, I see many hopeful signs that we're doing that. So, we should be using this. I'm hoping that most folks are, and everybody should be, looking at this as an opportunity to kind of stop and start doing a lot of things more the right way. I think in a lot of ways we're doing things a good way, but not the best way and I think the CAIB report, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report, kind of gives us a good outside viewpoint roadmap to that's where you want to go. We weren't headed directly there, but I'm seeing a little bit of skid on the turn to getting this huge bureaucracy moving in that, in that direction. We still have a ton more work to do, and honestly, there are still some folks out there that aren't helping us to move in that direction. And as we get further away from Columbia and closer to Return to Flight, we're going to have to be scrubbing the organization to either get the training for people that they need to do a better job where they're at, get new people in, or move old people out if they're not driving us in the direction we need to go.
Turning a page back in your own personal chapter, why, what was it that, that inspired Jim Kelly to want to become an astronaut? Why did you want to fly further, faster, higher than, than kids you grew up with, perhaps?
Well, you know, I think I had the same dream that almost every kid my age did. I was 5 years old when the first Moon landing happened, so you're very impressionable. Some of my earliest memories are from that year or two around that time frame. And I remember vividly, not so much the, the Moon landing (I remember parts of that) but I remember the family coming together around the TV and everyone talking about it, my dad taking me out in the yard and pointing to the Moon when there were men walking around on it, not just in '69 but the years after that. I grew up in Iowa right across the cornfield from the airport so I got to see planes taking off and landing every night. I used to go to sleep with my window open just looking at that. So I think it was a combination at an early age of watching those things. As I grew up I got interested in science and science fiction. I'm just in love with the idea of getting off this planet. I mean, I love the Earth, but I, I'm in love with the idea of going to other places, whether it's just off the surface of the Earth to low Earth orbit and the Space Station, or going back to the Moon, or on to Mars, anywhere we can go. I just think that, for me, that's been a yearning I've had since I was a small child, to go somewhere new, to go do something new, to, to go new places. I think we're destined to do that; I think as mankind, we are destined to go out and do that. So I think I just caught that bug early, and I think the only real difference maybe is that it stayed with me, whereas for a lot of kids my age maybe it didn't, they got interested in other things -- and of course I got interested in other things as well, but that one kind of stayed with me as a core interest, throughout my life.
Has the accident or anything since then either dampened your enthusiasm for what you do or what you're about to go do, or, or in an ironic sense did it, did it strengthen your willpower to go do this because it's your destiny to, to go fast and far and high?
I wouldn't put it personally, it's my destiny; I don't really put it in that terms because I'm fully aware that, that I'm replaceable, as we all are. It's not about me, personally, going into space. But it is about the United States and it's about the international partners and it's about the world going into space, so from that point of view I do see a destiny. I do think it strengthened, because like I said I had a, you know, I knew the Columbia crew personally and I know many of their families personally, and I know what they wanted and I know what the families want is for us to get back out there, to strap another rocket back on, go back into space, be successful, and safe, and get out there and do the work that, that we were doing with Columbia and all the ones before, and continue on with the International Space Station, getting it up to a full capacity and, and doing science up there, and then pressing on from there further out in our solar system, and out into the universe. So, from that perspective, from kind of a, a global destiny point of view, yeah, I think it's strengthened.
Is space flight worth all this risk?
Absolutely. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think so; if I didn't think so I would have left the day after Columbia and said, hey, you know, just lost seven friends, this is stupid, I'm out of here, we're wasting too much money. But we really aren't. I think if you look through history, you see that the explorers and the countries that were doing the exploring were really the ones that were making mankind better and the world a better place to live in. I think that's still true, and I think the minute that we turn off our eyes that are looking heavenward and our voices that are talking about going to other places, as soon as you cut off those voices and say, well, we need to only be looking inward, I think that's the time when we start falling back. And if we don't do it I think China will go on and do it, I think Japan will, I think the European countries will -- someone's going to go out there and do that, and I think if we're not on the forefront of that as our great nation, then I just think we're missing the boat. And while you probably on a piece of paper maybe it's very difficult to come up with two plus two equals four, that it's exactly what we should be doing, I think that the majority of the, the people in America feel that it's the right thing to do. And it's hard to put a price tag on, it's hard to match it against all these other competing priorities, but I think that everyone knows, and almost everyone I talk to out there in the public believes it is the right thing to do, it's something we have to do, it's something that's written in the character of our country.
Let's talk a little bit about your mission. Before the accident, STS-114 was designed as what I would call a "garden variety" delivery mission of supplies and logistics and science gear to the Space Station, with external outfitting and spacewalks and those types of things. And it's a very different mission now. Some have called it a test flight, because there's all of this new technology to help save orbiters and crews that will be demonstrated on your flight as the first flight back from the accident. Tell us a little bit about what you consider to be the most challenging aspects of the new STS-114, and the things that you, Jim Kelly, will be doing on that flight as part of all of this new activity and this demonstration activity that we'll be seeing.
Well, we were a "garden variety" flight ... which is how we ended up with a "garden variety" pilot, so that's why I'm here. We have changed, although I will say everyone's calling us kind of a test mission now, I was always a big believer, and this is something I agreed with the Columbia board on, that we never were an operational vehicle. I come from a test background and, and the amount of things that change every flight on a Shuttle, has made us a test flight every flight we've ever taken. So, for me, that's not a big change in, in mental thinking about that, because I always looked at it as a test flight: Every mission we do new things; we do different things. Now on this flight, the Return to Flight with STS-114, we're going to do a significant number of new things in a lot of new areas that we had not done before, and so that makes it probably even more of a test flight and, and so that's why I think we're hearing more of that now with our flight, as well as, obviously, post-Columbia. I think the big things that we're really struggling with right now coming up with the right answers for, obviously fall in a couple of different areas. Number 1 is, for the test part of it we're going to be taking up an external tank that has a lot of changes on it, and obviously the external tank foam is ostensibly what killed the Columbia crew, so that's a problem we need to fix. Well, there's no way for us to test the full-up system of the external tank until we fly. I mean, we can test parts of it, we've got a lot of facilities that we can look at thermal stress and all those kinds of things, but I don't personally think we're going to have the real answer until we test it a couple of times. The only way to do a full-up test is to strap a Shuttle on there and send it up into orbit. So we're going to be the first full-up test of the external tank. Because of that, we're going to be doing a lot of things -- inspecting visually with cameras and with robotic arms, with maybe with lasers and things like that, to see, first of all, if anything came off, mostly with cameras on launch and on board, taking a look at the external tank and the underside of the Shuttle. Then on orbit we're going to have to see if anything hit. We're going to have to see if it hit, where it hit, how badly it hit, anything like that. The inspection part right now is the biggest piece that we need to solve, and there's two parts to that, two major parts. One is you have to decide what's critical damage. We've taken a lot of hits -- if you've seen the underside of the Shuttle coming back from a space flight, we've taken hits on every flight. I mean, there's been dings, there have been gouges, there have been as much as a missing tile before, so we've seen a lot of stuff. What we need to identify is, what's critical damage, because we have to decide if something needs to be fixed. Well, it's almost as bad to not fixing, some, to, to not fix something that needs it as to fix something that doesn't; you're, it's dangerous both ways. So we have to determine what critical damage is, both to the tile and to the reinforced carbon-carbon in the leading edge and the nosecap of the vehicle. So that's a very difficult part we're doing a lot of testing on. Most of that's happening on the ground. For our part on orbit, we have to come up with an inspection technique that will match that critical damage. We need to be able to go look at it and say, "Hey, we found this, and it's not critical damage so we're going to go ahead and enter as we normally would and fix it on the ground, and we found this other thing over here. It meets critical damage criteria so we have to go fix it." Which leads to the third part of it, which is coming up with a way to fix both tile and the reinforced carbon-carbon. That's another thing that we're going to be testing out on our flight with our extravehicular activities, our spacewalks, to go do. So the inspection and the EVA are test objectives to go out and try to fix something and then bring it back and test it and make sure it worked. They're the biggest new things that we're probably doing on our flight. From my own personal involvement, the question with that is primarily on the robotics side of the house both during the inspection process, which right now is kind of going along the lines of taking an extra boom that'll attach to the end of the Shuttle robotic arm so you end up with roughly a hundred feet of arm and boom out there with a sensor package at the end of it. With it you can go out and take a look at all the surfaces and measure for that critical damage, and then the other part of it is the EVAs, the spacewalks, and I'll be working with, well, on the Shuttle arm I'll be working with Andy Thomas and Charlie Camarda. We'll be the three operators during the inspection, and it takes more than one person, it looks like it may take as many as three full time to be doing this whole inspection process. On the Station side, with the Station robotic arm, I'll be working with Wendy Lawrence and Bill McArthur doing all the tasks that, that are required, up there for that arm, including the EVA. Wendy will be flying the arm for the, the EVA that does the test for tile repair.
Is all of this robotics work physically challenging and mentally challenging? Many, many, many hours are going to be set aside on the second day of the flight, imagery is going to be a crucial component, you may need to do yet a second or third inspection after reaching the International Space Station; how, how challenging both to executing a flight plan and for the crewmembers who are involved in that precise activity of robotics, how taxing is all this going to be?
Well, my viewpoint on it right now, not having flown it yet, of course, and we haven't of course totally simmed it yet because a lot of it's still in work, they're still figuring out a lot of aspects of this, but I would say that right now it's going to be by far the most mentally demanding task I've seen done on orbit. And so, it kind of takes you in two different directions. One is, we're pushing hard on the system -- I know I am -- to come up with better ways of doing this, faster ways, better sensors, a better plan for doing this because I think we need to concentrate, first, on the ground with coming up with a good system, good procedures, good operational habits to make this as, as low of a taxing operation as possible. Once you get up there in flight, then we're going to have to find ways to mitigate that. No. 1 is, we've got three different operators, and so we can rotate through on actually physically watching the arm or flying the arm, and so that downloads a little bit of it but it's going to be very mentally demanding for the other ones to be watching all the cameras, adjusting all the cameras, taking all the data, sending all that stuff to the ground, so it's going to be a very demanding task. It will also require a lot of effort on the ground as well. We're going to have to be a very good working team with the ground, something we've never done before in this aspect of data back and forth, what do we need, do we need to go back and get a point. The other thing is that obviously the arm was not optimized for this task, it was never thought of as something that we'd have to do, go inspect the whole underside of the vehicle, leading edges, nosecap, all those kind of things that we might need to go all those places. So we're kind of coming up with brand new things that the arm's never done before, and we're finding some things that don't work out as well with the arm, so we're working on those. so there is a ton of work that needs to be done on the ground before we go launch into orbit. But once we do, there's going to be a lot of emphasis on it. I think it's going to be a very difficult -- not physically demanding, although it's the second day of the mission which, you know, universally has been the day when if people are going to feel bad, that's the day they feel the worst, so it's not necessarily the best day to be doing all this stuff -- but we will have plenty of help on the flight. By then we'll have a lot of good training to go along with it, and we'll come up with ways to do it. But I think it's going to be incredibly mentally demanding, especially if it goes out to the eight-, ten-, twelve-hour point. To a certain extent it can get like watching paint dry; it's like being on the highway ... "Hey, when did we pass Oklahoma City?" You know, you've been on the road for 10 or 11 hours driving and you know you were paying attention as you went through, but you have no memory of it, and that's what I'm worried about is keeping your mental acuity sharp throughout the whole thing, is going to be a very difficult task and we're going to have to come up with good ways of trading people in and out, taking breaks, and on the ground as well, to make sure that people stay sharp through the entire process.
Jim, there are literally thousands of people, working on the ground to try to work their way through return to flight and get you all back into orbit and Space Shuttles back into orbit. The flight crew always tends to be, however, just by human nature, the most visible symbol of any mission, particularly for this one that's coming up because of all the attention that will be focused upon it when the time comes. If you were addressing NASA employees or, frankly, contractors, any, any employee, right now involved in the arena of human space flight, what would you say to them about the importance of what they're doing, the importance of getting Shuttles back in the air?
I would say that now is the time, post-Columbia, pre-Return to Flight, for everyone to take a really close look at themselves and everything they're doing. What we're doing right now is absolutely critical to the future of the space flight program, because if we can't get the Shuttles back up and operating safely then that has a direct impact on what we can use the Station for and everything down the line from there. So, I would say that, while the vast majority of people all the time have been doing a, a tremendous job, it's always a good idea to go back and look at your, look at your personal habits on the job. Look at your procedures. Look at the professionalism by which you do everything. And, if you have any questions on anything that you've done in the past, and most areas that we go to and talk to, like you say, we're some of the most visible members, so we get about and talk to a bunch of people, they'll come up and they'll say, "Hey, when you take a step back." We're normally so busy because it's flight after flight after flight after flight, and you're just rolling, now there should be a little bit of time to step back and go, hey, we've been doing this years and it never made sense to me, I would say to everybody out there, if there's something in your head that you've been saying for a long time -- I don't really know why we do this this way -- go back and take a look at it, because we may be doing it wrong. It may be something that will bite us in the future. So take it as your own personal quest to go out there and find those things and fix them while we've got the time now, because once we start rolling again, there'll be probably even more, more responsibilities put on everybody because of all the extra things we're going to have to do on Shuttle flights. So, do that now. I would also say, do not worry about when we go back to flight. It talked about in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board about schedule pressure being a big deal -- well, it still is. I'm here to tell you that we haven't fixed that yet; we need to, we're working on it. So, as individuals out there, please don't make any decisions based on schedule. If you see something that is wrong, it's technically wrong, I'm on the next flight, I don't care if I have to wait another year, let's get it fixed; let's turn it around, talk to the folks above you, and press those issues, and don't be turned off. If the guy above you doesn't listen to it, then do what Sean O'Keefe's been saying -- go to the level above him, go outside your organization. If it's critically important and it impacts safety, take it as a personal crusade to make sure somebody listens to you. It may turn out some of those people are wrong; they may think they're right and they may think we have to do this, and it turns out we've got ways to mitigate or a different solution. That's fine. I'd rather have a few people crying "wolf" than miss the ones that actually cry "wolf" when it's there. So what I would say to all the people out there is, is each one of us holds in our hands the opportunity to make us safer to go back to flight, and we have to take that as a public trust, to make sure that our voice is heard when it needs to be heard to fix those problems.
And, on a very different level, for kids, I think you talked about how you communicate with, with, with your family, and what you've taken in terms of your interpersonal communications with your kids. What about the message to kids who are looking at space flight, who hopefully are not jaundiced by what has happened. What do you say to them about where we are today and what we need to do?
I think kids are probably the easiest folks to talk to because they're still the ones that have -- I remember myself as a kid, and I, I've got four kids so I can, I can talk to them -- their dreams; they see their dreams, and so to them their dreams are probably far more vivid than they are to most of us because we get caught up in the everyday of paying the bills and all the rest of that and the dreams slip in the back. So, to the kids out there, I'd say don't lose your dreams; keep them in there. If you were dreaming about going to space, I would say that, that look at what happened with Columbia, look at what's happened with the space program after that, but don't lose that dream. Keep thinking of it, because we are going to keep going into space. We will keep going out there. We're going to do our best to make it safer. It will never be completely safe, and no matter what we do between now and Return to Flight, something could happen on my flight, something tragic could happen that we don't even see coming. It's a possibility that will always be there, but it's worth doing. And like most big dreams, if it's worth doing, it's worth working hard for. So if you're a kid out there thinking about doing something in the space industry, I would say be even more fired up before, because of Columbia. Be fired up to be the person that goes out there and takes a bunch of science and engineering courses, and come on down to NASA -- we can use you. And, dig in deep there and start fixing the problems and bring a new perspective. If you want to go fly in space, then, then pick a career field that you love to do and hope that it turns out later, and hopefully in the next generation there will be a lot more of folks in blue suits going up there and flying. I think it would be nice to expand out there so that more kids that are growing up today will get the opportunity to do it. So, I think as I've always thought, and as NASA's big on, I mean, the kids are our future. We spend a lot of time going out there and talking to the kids and, and boosting education and we've got the whole Educator Astronaut program spearheaded with the first one, Barbara Morgan, and, and bringing more in, and that's specifically to energize that next generation. I hope, if anything, Columbia's done the opposite of put a damper on them; hopefully, it's brought it more to the forefront. There's a lot more people talking about it now, hopefully there will be a lot more that decide that this is the direction they want to go: they want to take our nation and the world further on into space, and they decide to go into those career fields.
Jim, your first flight as pilot, you went to the International Space Station on an assembly flight. When you fly again, whenever that may be, you'll be returning to a vastly larger complex than, than you left a few years ago on your first flight. Although your mission is dubbed Return to Flight, the fact of the matter is, is that we've never not been flying -- astronauts have been in space continuously, every day without interruption now, for over three years. Talk a little bit about, in the wake of Columbia, how the partnership has pulled together to keep crewmembers on the International Space Station, to keep a continuous human presence in space, during what has been an extraordinarily challenging year.
It has been. I, and I think you're right, I think it shouldn't be Return to Flight; if anything it should be Shuttle Return to Flight, and people need to remember, that's what it is, it's Shuttle Return to Flight. The Soyuz, the Progress have been flying ever since Columbia happened, they've been keeping the Station up and orbiting, and they've been taking crews back and forth. Like you say, we've had great crewmembers from both Russia and the United States going up there. We had a crew that got left there that we were supposed to go pick up --Sox [Ken Bowersox], Nikolai Budarin and Don Pettit -- we were supposed to bring home. That had to wait till they got there. And, and those crews have just been absolutely fantastic. They've gone through a lot of changes from, you know, not coming home on the Shuttle when they thought they would to coming home on the Soyuz, later than they thought they would and going through a landing, they had to go a backup mode, so they went through a lot of stuff, that crew. And then, of course the crew after them, Yuri Malenchenko's crew, it got changed -- instead of being a three-person crew, all of a sudden it was a two-person crew, and they had a lot of changes to their flight preparation. They were now going up on Soyuz and return on Soyuz rather than the Shuttle. So the amount of stress that we've put on those crews, especially in training on the ground, getting prepared to go, and then on orbit, because now there are two people essentially doing three people's jobs, has been absolutely tremendous. And you haven't heard a word from them -- there has been not a single word of complaint from all of them. They're all just like, "Hey, we want you guys to get safe on the Shuttle, take as long as you need, we'll pick up the slack." And, we've also heard that from the other countries. We've heard it from Russia and the other international partners that whatever we need to do to keep the Station operating and keep it safely operating while we're getting the Shuttle back up to speed. Which is great, because the last thing we need, on the Shuttle side of the house, when we're trying to fix all these things, is pressure ... We need you next month, next month; forget everything else. Now, if something tragic happens up on the Station and we have to go, we can. But we don't want to do it that way, so we're just blessed that we've got the people that are going up there onto the Station, and the countries involved that they're picking up the slack while we're fixing the problems that we have post-Columbia.
Jim, let's press on to a final set of questions here if we can. In a big picture sense, how significant, how important is your flight, this Shuttle return to flight, in getting the agency and the whole spaceflight community around the world physically and psychologically back in the saddle and back in orbit?
Well, as you said yourself before, we're just the most visible part of it. The lion's share of the really difficult work to get us back to flight is happening out in the different NASA centers, at the contractor sites, in the engineering offices and places like that. So there's just an incredible amount of work that's going on out there that's critical to get us back to flight. When we go, however, as everybody knows, it's human nature. Everyone wants that visible thing you can look at, you can almost reach out and touch that says, "Hey, we've accomplished our job." And so, from that perspective, the return to flight is very critical just because it'll kind of be the culmination of only the first part of returning to flight safely, because there's going to be a lot of work that's going to be continuing to be done after our flight, for the flight after ours and for the flights out through the succeeding years. But it's one of those things that along the way, through a long process of doing a really difficult task, you need some highlights, and I think the return to flight will be one of those highlights, where hopefully everyone won't go, "Great, the job's done." Everyone will go, "All right, that's what we're working hard for. Now we need to take a breath from that one, dig back in, and keep working for the future." But from that perspective, I think it's critical -- not only is it visible -- it's also critical by the time we go back up. The Shuttle is the vehicle to serve the Station; it is the vehicle to get things up and bring things home. And we will be stressing out the International Space Station system, so getting us back up will not only be a visible accomplishment of all this return to flight effort, but also, physically, it will get the Station back in a better shape and will start pressing us on to finishing it out. So I think it's critical in both those ways.
And as the anniversary of the accident approaches, Jim, and you press on in your training to go back into flight, how do you reflect on the past year, the loss of your friends and colleagues on orbit, how do you think the anniversary will strike you?
I think it'll be a sad time again. It's hard for it not to be sad; it's hard not to look back at your friends that you miss now and look at the families that are missing their loved ones; it's hard to do that and not feel sadness. So I think for an amount of time there once again, it'll bring it, you know, you'll get hit again with the emotion of what happened a year ago. And I think that's important. I think it's important to remember the heroes that have gone before us. I think it's important to look back and see those things, because it keeps us honest looking towards the future. If you can't put a personal stamp on why you're doing what you're doing, then you're just not going to do it as well. And so I think that's going to be really important. It's going to be a tough time for myself and for my family to look back at that and realize that going forward, we're the next ones to go out. And so it'll be a bittersweet time, and then I think once we get through that time, I think, we'll just start picking up momentum until we get totally ready to go back into space.
When Discovery was launched on the STS-26 mission in September of 1988 as the first post-Challenger mission, Rick Hauck and his crew deployed a satellite, a few hours after reaching orbit, and then the rest of the mission, for them, personally, wound up being basically a commemoration, a dedication to the spirit and the memory of the Challenger crew. When you and your six crewmates reach orbit, as you work your way through a complex flight, how do you think the memory of the Columbia crew will be permeating your thoughts, your crewmates' thoughts, and the flight itself as it unfolds day by day?
Well, I consider everything we do on our flight to be a dedication to that crew. I mean, while it may not be visible, we're talking about the crew, and we're going to do this for them and all those kind of things, the fact that we're carrying out what they wanted to have done, which is to continue man's quest in space, everything we do, all the robotics ops, everything we're doing to make it safer, building the Station, all those things are going to be a dedication to the Columbia crew. We would not be back up there again safely without the sacrifice that they made. And so I think the whole thing will be a dedication. For me, personally, I know that when I get up there, there are going to be moments that I take to reflect on the friends that I've lost and what's happened in the year or two before we go launch and what Columbia and the Columbia crew meant to me, personally. I don't think it'll be a day-to-day thing, because, as you're working operationally you just can't, my mind can't handle that; someone else may be able to. You focus on what you're doing. But they will certainly be with us in spirit the whole time and, we will take time while we're up there to realize the sacrifices that they made and reflect on that. But I do think the whole flight's a dedication to Columbia. You can't feel like going back into space isn't in their memory, to a large extent.
+ Read Kelly's 2005 Preflight Interview