Preflight Interview: Wendy Lawrence
The STS-114 Crew Interview with Wendy Lawrence, mission specialist
You have a job that a lot of kids must dream of having. Is being an astronaut what you always wanted to do?
It was my childhood dream. I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut when I watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. It's hard to say what it was about that moment, but there was something that just absolutely captured my imagination, and I can still remember saying to myself, as I sat in front of the black-and-white television, I can remember saying, "That's what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be an astronaut, and I want to fly in space."
So what did you do in going to school and, and in your career that got you qualified to do what you always wanted to do?
I was actually probably more fortunate than most other kids in that my dad was involved in the selection process for the original group of astronauts, so I had some inside information, I guess you could say. But his very wise advice to me was, follow in the footsteps of the first several groups of astronauts. Obviously they had all finished high school, they had gone on to college, many of them were in the military. I grew up in a Navy family -- both my father and my mother's father were Navy pilots -- so I decided to go to the Naval Academy and get a good, good education. I majored in engineering, and I also had the dream of flying. So I decided to become a Navy pilot as well.
Image to right: STS-114 Mission Specialist Wendy Lawrence wears a training version of the Shuttle launch and entry suit during a training session at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credit: NASA
And you flew for many years in the Navy.
Yes. In my younger days, I flew helicopters.
Is there a person that you could look at now and say that they were the most important to you, your hero or your inspiration?
No, not one person. When you pursue a dream you need a lot of help, and I had some great teachers -- my high school physics teacher in particular is coming to my launch, I hope; he's still very influential. My high school English teacher as well was a great motivator for me, and, a variety of the coaches and friends along the way.
What are your other interests and hobbies? I mean, what do you do when you're not an astronaut?
Well..., you probably spend all your time on the weekend trying to get caught up from everything you can't get done during the week, particularly due to our long training hours right now. When I first got here I had enough time that I was able to pursue some athletic activities: I was running marathons and doing triathlons, but I just don't have that time right now. So, unfortunately, most of my weekend is spent trying to get caught up on things around the house. I'm a little boring right now.
Especially when you're assigned to a crew and are training, there's a lot of time spent that that you could be spending on other things. For you, what is it that provides you the, the motivation to make that kind of sacrifice?
How many people can say that they're living their dream? To me that, in and of itself, is a huge motivation. It's really refreshing to get up in the morning and to look forward to going to work. I tell that to young people. I say, "You will be very, very blessed if you can find a career where you get up in the morning and really look forward to going to work; where you have a job that you would be willing to pay to do, rather than be paid. I firmly believe in the value of the space program. It has had a huge impact on my life, a very, very positive impact. I believe it can have that same impact on other young people. To me, that's my motivation to get up in the morning and spend however many hours it's going to take that day to get the job done; sometimes it's 15, 16 hours.
We assume, especially since the loss of Columbia and its crew, that astronauts understand the risks of spaceflight and, and are willing to accept that. Tell me why you think the job is worth the risk?
Well, as I said before, it's had a very positive impact on my life. I grew up in Southern California during the late '60s. It was a very troubled time for our country, and it would have been very easy for me to slip into somewhat of a, a laid-back lifestyle. Most of my friends were interested in going to the beach and learning how to surf. But I got bitten by the space bug, and that's what kept me in school and that's what kept me pushing myself to be all that I can become. I really think the space program can still do that for the young people in this country -- it can really push them to stay in school, push themselves beyond what they think they can accomplish. Why I stay involved in the space program is the benefit it has for this country and its youth.
It's one thing to accept that kind of risk for yourself; how does your family deal with the risks of your job?
Well, my family has been dealing with the risk of my job ever since I went into Naval aviation. My mother, as I said before, her father was a Naval aviator and he was actually shot down over the Philippines in World War II. So my mother has dealt with the risks of a flying career most of her life. My father was a Navy pilot and he also was shot down, in Vietnam, and was a prisoner of war, so both my parents very well understand the risks of the career that I've, have chosen, and both are also very huge supporters of the space program.
It's been more than two years since Columbia and its crew were lost. Wendy, what was it like for you, as an astronaut, to deal with the realization that an accident had cost the lives of seven of your friends?
Oh, it's devastating. It's hard enough to lose one friend, and as a Naval aviator I've lost squadron mates and friends before -- but to lose seven of them all at once is just absolutely devastating.
When you think about those seven men and women, collectively or as a group, what are your best memories of them?
Image to left: Lawrence checks the instruments in a T-38 jet at Ellington Field, near the Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA
Watching them train together as a crew; watching them show the excitement they had about their mission. They were very, very enthusiastic about the experiments that they had planned, and they were very, very dedicated during their training flow. I think at some times they understood the experiment just as well as the principal investigator for that experiment. It was fun to watch them interact as a crew. They were extremely close.
Do you and your crewmates have a plan for honoring their memory and, and their spirit?
We do. We will very much make them a part of our mission. We're still finalizing the details of how we're going to recognize them and, and honor them, but that will be very much a part of our mission.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board pinpointed physical causes for the loss of Columbia and specified some mechanical fixes to make flying the Shuttle safer. Assess for us the improvements that have been made to eliminate debris and to detect and try to repair damage to the Shuttle.
Well, as most everybody knows, the debris did come from the external tank. A piece of foam broke off and hit the leading edge of the orbiter and that's what we think caused the accident. So obviously, a lot of attention has been given to the external tank, specifically to trying to figure out how to keep that foam from coming off the tank. I have to give a lot of credit to the workforce at Marshall Space Flight Center and Michoud, where they manufacture the tanks. Marshall's responsible for the overall external tank program, but the workforce at Michoud is the ones who carry out the day-to-day manufacturing of the tanks, and they have done a tremendous job in trying to understand why foam came off in the first place. They've been very, very creative in coming up with ways to minimize that. People will hear about the repairs to the bipod ramp -- that's the area that we believe the foam came off from and struck the leading edge of Columbia. They've removed foam from that area, they're going to put heaters there instead to minimize formation of the ice; we think that's going to be a very, very successful fix. The workforce also spent an inordinate amount of time dissecting the foam that they spray onto the tank: some areas are machine sprayed, other areas are sprayed by hand, and by very, very carefully dissecting that foam where it's been sprayed all over the tank they've been able to figure out where there have been air pockets and where they have been successful in applying the foam without air pockets. The workforce, the guys who do the daily work have been able to figure out ways to perfect their task, because it is an art. They do a lot of this by hand, and they've practiced and practiced and practiced. They have now come up repeatedly with an application technique that will minimize those foam pockets, because that foam, with an air pocket underneath it, at times will pop off during ascent. I have to give those guys credit. It's been a long, hard road for them, but they kept their nose to the grindstone, and I think they're going to be very, very successful in the new application techniques that they have.
There are thousands of those people around the country who are, have been a big part of this. What has it meant to you, when you've had the opportunity to go to Michoud or to other NASA Centers and visit with other members of the Return to Flight team?
It's very rewarding. Oftentimes people will ask you, "Are you afraid of, of launching into space?" And when you get an opportunity to meet the workforce, the people who do the day-to-day, hands-on interaction with you on the tank or the Space Shuttle itself or the solid rocket boosters, when you get to see how committed they are, how dedicated and professional they are, how they view you as extended members of their family, how they very, very much care for your safety, it keeps you from being afraid. I actually am not afraid to fly on the Space Shuttle. I think it's a very, very safe vehicle. Every time I get to meet the workforce which, unfortunately, is not often enough, it just solidifies my belief that the Space Shuttle is a very safe vehicle to fly on.
I'd like to rephrase and get you to talk about that very thing. The repair procedures that came out as a result of the CAIB recommendations are still being fine-tuned, and some of them are still in development. And yet the Shuttle program is confident in returning to flight even while those procedures are still being tested and still being certified. Are you comfortable with that?
Well, STS-14 all along has been designated as a test flight. In the military, you do a lot of test flying, and it's understood that, in order for you to certify a fix, you have to go into the actual environment and demonstrate the technique to fix the problem. So that's been my understanding all along, that the real purpose of STS-114 is to take the repair technique to orbit, apply it in the actual environment -- weightlessness, the vacuum of space -- and then bring it back to the planet, put it in a facility that simulates the conditions of re-entering the atmosphere, and then see whether or not the technique you have to repair the problem will actually survive. So I expected, quite honestly, all along to not have a repair technique that was certified; our purpose is to go demonstrate a repair technique. Hopefully, it will be successful in the vacuum of space, but we won't know that until we're back down here on Earth, after the mission, and we've put that sample into the facility to simulate the entry conditions.
Beyond the physical causes of the Columbia accident, CAIB cited organizational and human factors within NASA that bear responsibility as well: Management system, and the safety culture here. Do you see changes for the better in those areas?
Image to right: Lawrence inspects tiles that are part of the Space Shuttle's Thermal Control System while visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA
We're making progress. I think it's very unrealistic for people to expect there to be overnight change. When I was teaching at the Naval Academy I also had the opportunity to coach crew; I had rowed crew when I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy. The veteran coaches used to tell me that for every one time my athletes did the skill wrong, it would take at least two times doing that skill correctly to fix the problem. And so I view the changing of the culture here as kind of a two-to-one ratio: for however many years that you had a cultural problem, it's probably going to take you twice that long to fix the problem. And so I think at this point all that people can realistically hope for is that we're making progress, and we are.
STS-114 is called LF-1. What does LF-1 mean? What are the goals of this flight?
LF-1 is a Space Station Program designator to describe the mission. The LF stands for Logistics Flight, and that's what we're going to do. Part of our mission priorities are for the Space Station Program, and we are going to go re-supply the Space Station.
What is going to be your primary responsibilities as a member of the crew?
I'm in charge of all the transfer operations, so the LF part of this flight designation is near and dear to my heart. We have a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module in the payload bay that's going to be carrying thousands of pounds of equipment and food and other items for the Space Station. We'll install that on Flight Day 4. Then we'll start the transfer operations and hopefully by Flight Day 10 we've got everything done. On this flight we're bringing more back to Earth than we are taking up to the Space Station.
A function of the fact that there hasn't been a way to get things off for a couple of years.
That's correct. A lot of the equipment on the Space Station is reusable, and it's time to bring it back down to Earth so it can be refurbished and flown again. We're going to be bringing home quite a bit of equipment for the Russian space program, some of the rendezvous radar equipment that they use for the Progress and Soyuz vehicles.
Tell me about some of the other equipment that you're bringing up, things that are designed to advance the science on board the Station as well as support the crews.
Well, actually most of the things that we are doing for the science program is bringing home experiment results, so we're actually bringing home more than we're taking up. But probably the key component that we're taking up for the science program is the Human Research Facility rack No. 2. That will get transferred during our mission and then later in the increment the Space Station crew will do the start-up operations for that rack.
There is a Human Research Facility rack on board right now; is that an additional one or an augment to it?
I would guess that you could call it an additional one. I think in the human research program, from the get-go, wanted to have two racks on board the Space Station, so this is the second rack in the complement.
Since the loss of Columbia the Station has been kept supplied using Russian launch vehicles, but they have comparatively small cargoes compared to the Space Shuttle. Is the Return to Flight of the Shuttle, with the larger cargo capability, critical to the future of the Station?
I think the Space Station program manager would view it in that light. By the time we launch it will have been about 2-1/2 years since we had a Space Shuttle at the Station. The great thing about the Space Shuttle is its ability to bring things back down to the planet. What we're doing for the Space Station more than anything is returning a lot of equipment to Earth so it can be refurbished and used again. Of course the Space Station crew will be excited to see us because we are going to bring them a lot of food and some other supplies like clothing and hygiene items that they need to carry out the rest of their increment comfortably.
The first hours of your flight you're going to be confirming some of the aspects of the redesign of the Shuttle's external tank. Tell me about what's involved in getting that data, and in getting it back down to the ground, data from the wing leading edge sensors and an array of new cameras that will be on board.
Actually, most of the cameras that we'll use to look at the external tank are ground-based, so that's easy for the crew -- there's nothing that we need to do. But immediately after we reach orbit Soichi [Noguchi] and Andy [Thomas] will be using both a video camera and a digital handheld camera to take pictures of the external tank. So by the end of Flight Day 1 we hope to get both the video and the digital pictures down to the ground, and that's no more complicated than taking the tape and putting it in the VTR and downlinking it to the ground, or taking the disc out of the camera and loading it into the computer so the ground can bring, bring it down. The information from the wing leading edge sensors is a little bit more complicated in that we have to set up a computer to gather that information from all the sensors that are out along the leading edge. So Steve Robinson will be setting up that computer about two to three hours into the mission and linking it up via a network to the machine that the ground can use to bring that information down to the ground.
We've taken pictures of the external tank before; how's it different now?
It's different in that we're going to be much, much closer to the tank this time. In past missions we've waited five or 10 minutes or so to take pictures of the tank. This time, almost immediately after the engines cut off, Eileen [Collins] will start maneuvering the vehicle to put it into a good position from which to view the tank. Andy Thomas is downstairs on the middeck with me, and as soon as the engines cut off he's going to start handing me his helmet and his gloves so he can get out of his seat, get the cameras, and immediately go up to the flight deck so it's going to be a little bit challenging to get all that done as quickly as they want it to be done.
This crew is also going to be the first to perform another new task on Shuttle missions, which is to inspect the exterior of the orbiter for damage from launch debris. First, can you describe for us the new Orbiter Boom Sensor System, and how it's designed to learn if the Shuttle's been damaged?
Image to left: Lawrence, center, is joined by fellow Mission Specialists Charlie Camarda, left, and Soichi Noguchi on a simulated Space Shuttle middeck. Credit: NASA
The boom is about 50 feet long and it has the ability to be attached to the Shuttle robotic arm. So on Flight Day 2 Andy Thomas and Charlie Camarda will use the Shuttle arm to grapple the boom and bring it up out of the payload bay. On the opposite end of the boom from the grapple fixture are two laser sensor systems that we will use to image the wing leading edge. The lasers give us the ability to detect very, very small damage to the leading edge, and so that information will be sent down to the ground and a team of imagery analysts will be looking at that information to see if they can detect any damage.
The inspection on Flight Day 2 is supposed to take, quite literally, all day; some might call it a tedious affair. What is the plan to keep somebody who's sharp running that boom throughout that entire day-long process?
We're going to use three people to support the survey operations. Again, Andy and Charlie are prime arm operators for that task, and Jim Kelly will function as what we call R3, just a third person to make sure that the data recording is starting and stopping on time. He will also be using some situational awareness software programs that we have to help us monitor where the arm is at in relationship to the Shuttle. And then I'm kind of on backup to substitute in when somebody needs a break. If Andy wants to take a break then Charlie will become the prime operator, Jim will replace Charlie, and then I will replace Jim. So we have a platoon system that we hope to use to keep everybody fresh.
The next day you've got another first as inspections resume during your final phase of docking to the Space Station. Tell me about the, the plans to inspect the upper surfaces of the orbiter and then to give the Station crew and their cameras a chance to look at the bottom.
We haven't quite finalized the plans to inspect the upper part; we may use imagery from the Space Station, or we may take out the Shuttle robotic arm on Flight Day 3 and use the camera that's at the very end of that arm to do some inspection of the tile. I think that's still being discussed as what's the best way to do that. But what's unique during our rendezvous is we get directly underneath the Space Station, we're basically going to rotate the Shuttle 360 degrees. The underside of the Shuttle will be directly pointed at the Space Station. The two crewmembers on the Space Station both will have digital cameras and they've been practicing how to take a series of photos of the complete underside of the vehicle. Then we'll ship those down to the ground so the imagery analysts can analyze them and see if we have any significant damage to any of the tiles.
So this means that the folks flying the Shuttle for a time aren't going to be able to see the target as you're approaching the Station, right?
That's correct. We've practiced it quite a bit in the simulator. We start that maneuver at about 600 feet away from the Space Station. Normally the closest we get is no nearer than 500 feet, and by the time we end the maneuver we're actually farther than 600 feet away so it's a very safe maneuver.
The docking is complete; you're going to be on hand to see Station and Shuttle crews get together for the first time in a couple of years. Have you thought about what that's going to be like?
Well, I had done two trips to Mir, so I have seen the excitement when somebody comes to visit. I'm sure I'll get to see that excitement again. It's always fun when you have visitors stop by although, given the tempo of our operations I think by the time we're done with the docking phase they're happy to see us leave so they can get some rest.
Well, let's talk about that. The next day's schedule calls for the installation of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module to Unity. Describe what it takes to do that and, and what part you play that day.
For this mission, it's going to be the first time that we use the Space Station robotic arm, and I will actually be flying the robotic arm. Jim Kelly will be backing me up. We will grapple the MPLM, and then we'll pull it up out of the payload bay and install it on the Node. It's actually a pretty straightforward operation; there's nothing that's too complicated about it. It will probably take us a little bit over an hour to do that task. Once it's installed we'll back the arm away and then I will get very, very busy because I'm also responsible for activating the environmental controls inside the MPLM so that we can pressurize the two vehicles, open the hatch, and get ready to start the transfer operation. As soon as I install it then I've got to finish the rest of the MPLM installation procedures so we can open the hatch.
What's the reasoning behind using the Station arm to do that task that's been done by the Shuttle arm previously?
Well, long ago, to save weight on STS-114, when it was still a crew rotation flight with an MPLM, a decision was made to remove the Shuttle robotic arm and they decided they would use the Station robotic arm to do the MPLM installation. We're going to keep with that plan because, during the whole docked timeframe, the inspection boom will actually be on the end of the Shuttle arm, because we will continue to do some inspections while we're docked.
You mentioned that you're in charge of getting the MPLM unpacked and repacked. What are the major things that you've got to take into account as you as you move through that task of several days?
Probably the most challenging thing right now is the fact that there's very limited room on the Space Station. Because there hasn't been a Shuttle there in a while, equipment has accumulated. So we're actually going to have to move the returning items into the MPLM before we can take anything out, simply to create an area that we can move the incoming cargo to. That's probably going to be the most challenging aspect, trying to create enough space that we can actually transfer items out of the MPLM and find a place to put them on the Space Station.
It's like one of those puzzles where you move the pieces around and then just have one empty space? A part of the training for your crew for the past couple of years has also focused on the EVA techniques for repairing damage to the Shuttle, which was called for by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. How involved have you seven Shuttle crewmembers, been in the development of those techniques?
The EVA crewmembers, Steve and Soichi along with Andy Thomas, who's their IV crewmember, have tried to be as involved as our schedules allow. Obviously, the Astronaut Office has been involved on a day-to-day basis, and we get a lot of our information from our other astronauts who are working in what we call our EVA Branch. Steve and Soichi have done several flights on the KC-135 to actually test out the tile repair technique, and they've given their inputs, but unfortunately our schedule doesn't allow us to actually do a lot of the hands-on development. But we have had an opportunity to participate.
Although you're not heavily involved in it, tell me about what the plans are at this point for the first spacewalk on the mission.
Image to right: Lawrence trains for mission spacewalking activities at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, located at the Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA
Now that's a great question because the plans are still evolving. It was decided well over a year ago that we would focus on tile repair technique, because we thought that was farther along than techniques to repair the RCC material that makes up the leading edge. We've run into some difficulties, quite honestly, with tile repair. It's not as mature as we thought it was going to be at this point in time. We think the plan is still that we will go out on the first EVA and try and use this technique to repair the tile, although that may change. It's still under discussion as to exactly what we're going to do.
There are, as we've mentioned, three spacewalks. Tell me a bit about what's planned for EVAs numbers two and three. What are the major tasks there?
On EVA 2 we're going to do a little bit of repair work for the Space Station. I guess over a couple of years ago one of the Control Moment Gyros failed, and the Space Station uses four Control Moment Gyros to help control its attitude. Given the size of the Space Station right now it's not as critical to have all four operating, but as we continue the assembly of the Space Station and it grows larger and larger, you will need all four to control the attitude. So, on our second spacewalk, we will change out the failed CMG and install a new CMG.
And on the third EVA?
Third EVA we're taking up what's called an External Stowage Platform. That has some external components that are used for the Space Station, we have some cameras that need to be installed before we continue assembly of the Space Station. We also have some components for the electrical power system, things for the solar arrays to generate electricity. That will be stowed out on those platforms and used in case some of those components, the ones that are already installed on the Station, fail. Then we have some time on EVA 3 to do some science activities. There's a materials science experiment stowed on the outside of the Space Station. We'll be able to install a new one and bring down two of the MISSE -- they're called MISSE -- experiments that have been installed on Space Station now for, I guess, about 2-1/2 years, three years.
The day after that third spacewalk you close up the MPLM, your transfer operations will be done, and you all undock the day after that. But the last big event on this flight, the landing, it's going to get more attention than other Shuttle landings have gotten. What are your thoughts about that part of the flight?
I have no doubt that Eileen will do a fine job, just like she did before on STS-93 when she landed the orbiter. Unfortunately I'm down on the middeck so I don't get a window view, but I'm sure that everything is just going to be flawless. Eileen and Jim Kelly work very well together as a team. I have no doubts that everything will just be fine.
I've heard it said that STS-114 opens a new chapter in space exploration, one that's going to transform a Vision for Space Exploration into a reality. You agree?
Well, I think that's overstating it a little bit, quite honestly. We are going to return the Space Shuttle to flight. That's a very, very important milestone for NASA. Will it affect the Vision that we have for exploration? Certainly, if you're not routinely flying in space then it's going to be hard to explore with humans. NASA, first and foremost, needs to demonstrate again that it can safely operate in space. I think that's the real purpose and goal of the STS-114 mission is to show that NASA has learned its lessons, that we listened very carefully to the recommendations from the accident investigation board, and that we have successfully implemented those recommendations.
Just building a Space Station a few hundred miles up isn't the ultimate goal of the partner nations of the International Space Station Program. So from the perspective of someone who's about to leave the planet to go to that Station, tell me how you see ISS helping achieve the Vision and, and move us on the next step to the future of exploration.
I think it's critically important for us to gain as much experience as we can with respect to operating in space. We've learned a lot from the Space Station -- when things break, how do you fix them? It's not like your car where, if you're having problems, you just go to the nearest mechanic; you've got two crewmembers right now, they are your mechanics -- so if something breaks you've got to figure out how to train them to fix it. That's going to be very, very valuable experience when we're operating on the surface of Mars and a critical piece of equipment fails. We can't return it to its manufacturer; the astronauts and the ground team are going to have to figure out how to repair it or, if they can't, how to continue the mission without it. And I think that's where the Space Station is going to be extremely valuable for us in giving us that operational experience.
Would you say STS-114 is then critical to the future of the International Space Station?
It's certainly necessary. The great value of the Space Shuttle is its ability to take a lot of stuff up and bring home a lot of things. We need to bring equipment back down to the Earth so it can be refurbished and used again on the Space Station. And we need to really re-supply the Space Station so eventually we can add a third crewmember and continue to operate, assemble, and, the Space Station, and conduct vital science on it.
+ Read Lawrence's 2004 interview.