Return To Flight

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2004 Preflight Interview: Wendy Lawrence
The STS-114 crew interviews continue with Mission Specialist 4, Wendy Lawrence; Wendy, thanks for joining us today. It's been almost a year since the tragedy of Columbia and the loss of the crew, and now with you and others added to this crew for the first Shuttle return to flight mission, I'm wondering, for you personally, what the last year has meant in terms of the recovery, in terms of your thoughts about what is needed to get Shuttles back in the air.

It would be an understatement to say it's been a devastating year. As a military aviator I have lost squadron mates before, but never seven at once. It was a loss that was just absolutely overwhelming, and today it still feels that way. I had worked in the Station program as my technical assignment, and the chief of the Astronaut Office told me I had to stay focused on that, and he did not allow me to participate in any of the recovery effort for Columbia, nor in the accident investigation as well. So for me personally, being added to the STS-114 crew, I think, is a way for me to finally get a chance to honor the crew, and to make sure that their commitment to space flight will continue when we return the Shuttles to space flight.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Wendy Lawrence
STS-114 Mission Specialist Wendy Lawrence

What has been the most difficult part of the last year, watching the recovery, the investigation, the findings unfold, day after day, week after week, and then knowing that you've been added to a crew that will have a lot of pressure and a lot of attention placed on it as the next year unfolds?

For me personally, it was having to be on the outside looking in, having to focus solely on keeping the Station manned and making sure that the crews were prepared to launch to the Station and carry out their mission on board, and not being allowed to participate in the accident investigation, and to not really know what was going on with the investigation on a daily basis. That was very frustrating for me. Being added to STS-114, I understand very well the significance of this mission. It's very important for us to get back to space -- that is the mission of NASA -- and if we don't return to space flight I think we will not honor the Columbia crew in an appropriate way, and their deaths will, to some degree, not have very much significance. And, I personally want to make sure that for the families' sake, we continue the commitment that their loved ones so strongly believed in, and that's flying in space and the benefits we reap from that.

Wendy, you've flown in space three times; I'm just wondering, as an individual and as an astronaut, how have you changed as a result of this accident? Do you look at things differently? Do you approach training differently? Do you walk into your office every day with a little bit different mindset about what your job is, what it entails?

I think I was very well aware of the risk, but since the Shuttle is an experimental vehicle and we are continuing to learn things about flying in space and how difficult that is, I'm not sure, on a daily basis, I was aware of all the risks that are out there. I can honestly say that I never really thought that entry posed more of a risk than ascent; now I'm very much aware of that. And as far as commitment to my work, I think the key message that I've taken away from the accident is that we can't take anything for granted. There are still many things that we don't understand about flying in space, many things that we don't fully understand about how the Shuttle has been constructed and how it will perform in the very demanding environment of space. It's a harsh environment, and it's very unforgiving. And I think I've committed myself to being much, much more focused on the jobs that I've been given in the Astronaut Office and really following the issues very, very carefully. When I'm not satisfied with the amount of information I've been given on a topic I'm going to go for it with much, much more effort and make sure that, when it's time for me to brief my management on the issue, I've gathered just as much information as I possibly can and talked with as many people as I can, that I've gotten all aspects of the story, and I can give them a recommendation on how to proceed that is very well thought out and very well informed.

The risk issue is such an important component of this recovery and Shuttle return to flight. When you look at all the things you thought you knew and now all the things you now know you didn't know, is space flight ultimately worth all this risk?

I think it is, and I have to answer that from a personal point of view. As a 10-year-old growing up in Southern California during the height of the Vietnam War, I'm very happy that my mother had the foresight to sit me down in front of a black-and-white television in July of 1969 and had me watch Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon for the very first time. And that was the moment in time that I decided that I wanted to be an astronaut, and it gave me a purpose; it gave me a direction in which to head. In Southern California in 1969, drugs were even in the elementary schools -- one of my sixth-grade classmates got taken away for having drugs -- I could have very easily have fallen into the beach bum lifestyle. But because I had been bitten by the dream of flying in space and becoming an astronaut, I stayed in school. So for me, personally, I think the space flight program has pushed me to be the best that I can be and to get a good education and make something of myself. And I would hate for that not to be available to kids in the future.

Wendy, astronauts are not machines, they're people, and I'm just wondering, in the weeks that unfolded after the accident -- and, as you indicated, you were sort of on the outside looking in with the pain coursing through you because of the loss of your friends and colleagues -- did you ever sit down at home by yourself and start to rethink being an astronaut, what this profession was all about, or did it in some way reinvigorate your desire to press on with your career like this?

For me, it reinvigorated it, mainly because I wanted to make sure that we did not allow the crew to die in vain. Being a military aviator, you have to deal with the risk from the get-go. I mean, as you're going through flight school from day one, you're exposed to the fact that people are going to die flying airplanes. Same with space flight; it is a very hazardous environment. I lost classmates from the Naval Academy during flight school in aircraft accidents, so very early in my career I knew that I had to sit down and look very, very seriously at the risk, talk to my family about it, make sure they were comfortable, make sure I was comfortable with it, and then decide that this was really the career I wanted, and of course at that time that included trying to become an astronaut. So, yes, you think, rethink it time and time again, but for me, after the accident it propelled me to stay in this job and to, as I said, really focus on the issues, pursue them vigorously, make sure that I was getting the information I needed, and to keep going, putting one foot in front of the other, day by day, and to make sure that I could do everything I possibly could to keep us flying in space on the Station and help us return to flight on the Shuttle.

The past year, of course, will be punctuated by the accident investigation board's findings and now NASA's ongoing efforts to implement those findings. What has been your impression of the investigation and the implementation to date?

I think Adm. Gehman and his board did an outstanding job. I am grateful that they were willing to put their personal lives and their professional lives on hold for many, many months to really get to the bottom of the accident and to not be satisfied with just a cursory look. I think their recommendations are very well thought out, very detailed, wide-ranging. I know that it's been difficult for NASA to really understand how to best implement their recommendations. I'm encouraged by the fact that there are many, many people working on it. There are vigorous discussions going on about the best way to implement the recommendations. And I still think it's a little early for us to fully understand if we're at the point we're going to implement a good solution for the recommendation or that we're still kind of halfway there. I'm encouraged by the fact that we are willing to talk about it, freely and openly, and to brainstorm and to bring people in from the outside and to challenge one another on what we think is a good solution, to challenge ourselves to think critically about it, and not be satisfied with the first solution that comes along as the possible one to implement.

About the mission itself, is it a little strange, if you will, to be part of a flight that is essentially a work in progress -- as opposed to a flight that you're assigned to and it has a flight plan, and that's the flight plan, and you know exactly what you're going to do -- because of all of the things that have been added to STS-114 in its characterization as a developmental test flight, as part of what the objectives of the flight are all about?

I'm sure that it's difficult for the four crewmembers who have been on the flight now for two years; for the three of us who've just been added everything's new. And I think, at least for myself, I feel like I'm playing catch-up, trying to make sure I understand what's going on during the second EVA and the third EVA, where we're changing out the CMG and we're going to install ESP-2. Myself along with Jim Kelly will be the Space Station robotic arm operator, and at least for the second and third EVA those procedures are very, very well developed. I will also be flying the arm for the first EVA, in which we hope to demonstrate tile repair and RCC repair techniques. And I think from the robotics operator point of view, I'll have somebody at the end of the arm, and I'll be flying them around in the Shuttle payload bay. And eventually we'll work all that out, so I don't think it's as difficult for me at this point since my job responsibilities are fairly well defined and are not necessarily deeply involved with some of the Shuttle DTO objectives that are being added, like inspection capability and TPS repair, other than just, like I said, driving around somebody at the end of the arm.

Let's talk for a moment, if we can, Wendy, about that portion of the mission. You know your four previously named crewmates were four weeks away from launch when the accident occurred, and they've told us in these interviews that they simply put the mission away, obviously, and focused on the issues at hand after the accident. The flight was -- there is no "garden variety" flight -- but it was to have been a fairly well understood logistics and cargo delivery flight, and the spacewalks that you have described. And now it's turned into a different thing, which is validation of concept for what we hope will never happen, and that is, at least the opportunity for a crew to repair its orbiter and, perhaps, come home safely and give itself a chance to land safely if damage occurs. How critical is this tile inspection and repair capability right out of the box, first flight, when on the flight itself, although the odds are slim, you may actually need to employ this very technique that you're actually demonstrating for the first time?

That's part of the CAIB recommendation, that we develop to the widest extent possible TPS inspection and repair capability. So, I think it's critically important for us to demonstrate that on the first flight, to show the board, to show Congress and the White House that we have listened to the recommendations and we have done our absolute best to implement them. And you're right, to a large degree our mission could be divided in half: the first part will be dedicated to showing that we have an inspection capability, that we can determine the health of the Thermal Protection System, and, if necessary, we have techniques that we can use to repair tile and repair the RCC. I think we have to do that on the first mission to show the country that, yes, we've listened -- this time NASA has listened, and we have implemented the recommendations to the best of our ability.

Wendy, with a fresh set of eyes, being recently named to the crew, do you look at 114 as a complex flight, if you look at it in context, or have you flown on flights in which the science that you've been involved in, going to the Mir space station as you have twice before, that those flights were similarly complex in their own right?

Oh, I think STS-114 is orders of magnitude more complex and more busy than my flights to Mir. Those were also logistics flights; on STS-86 we did one EVA. But on this flight we've got three EVAs during the docked time frame, and we have an entire MPLM to transfer. And, I know from the Station program with the stowage program, with their lack of ability to get large items back down to Earth, it is very, very important for us to spend absolutely as much time as possible reloading that MPLM and the Shuttle middeck so we can get many, many of the things back to Earth that the Station program wants to have returned. And that includes results of science experiments.

Over the past weeks or so, since you've been named, what kind of things have you talked about perhaps with your family, about being assigned to this very critical flight, the potential for risk, all of the things associated with being at the vanguard of trying to get Shuttles back into space? What kind of things have you talked about with those close to you?

I think in general my family is very pleased for me that I've been added to this mission. They very well understand the importance of it. They know that my next year is going to be extremely busy, busy for myself and the rest of the crew. I think I'm fortunate in that my father was also a Naval aviator; he flew in the Vietnam War. My mother's father was also a Naval aviator and flew in World War II. He was shot down over the Philippines and, fortunately, was rescued. And my father was shot down over Vietnam and didn't return until six years later. So, my family understands the risks. And, again, as I said earlier, you know, as a military aviator I had to sit down with them early on and make sure they were comfortable with the risks of the career that I had chosen. And they are very, very supportive. And, I know that I won't be able to get through the next year with the workload that we're going to have and the significance of the flight that we're going to have without their support and, I know that I have 100 percent of their support.

And what do you think will be the most challenging aspect of preparing for this flight? Is it that need to be flexible as the training and some of the issues involved in the mission unfold? Is it the glare of publicity that you and your crewmates, inevitably will be focused on as you actually operate and execute this flight under a microscope?

Well, training for a space flight is always a balancing act, and at different points in the training flow different things occupy your time. For the first several months you're really focused on learning the Shuttle systems again and training for the major objectives of your mission. Later on in the training flow you start focusing on who you're going to invite to launch, which guests are going to come down. I think for this training flow we are going to have to be flexible, because we're already in training while NASA is simultaneously trying to figure out how to implement the recommendations of the accident investigation board. So, for that first EVA, how we're going to conduct it and exactly what we're going to do, that will probably remain unknown for several months to come. Fortunately, we're going to get to participate with the engineers, side by side, in determining how we carry out that first EVA and what exactly we do. But it won't be like many flights, where from the nine-month point on, as you start your training flow, you pretty much know exactly everything you're going to do. We're going to have many unknowns for several months, and we're going to have to be flexible. And we're also just going to have to recognize the fact that since we will be the first Shuttle to fly again after the accident, it's very, very important for us to speak to the media and to speak to the country and let them know how we feel about the flight and how we feel about NASA's effort to implement the recommendations of the accident board.

At the time that you do fly, the Shuttle will be almost a quarter-century old in its operations. It's a magnificent spacecraft, it's done great things, but its frailties obviously and too painfully are well known. Why continue to fly the Space Shuttle?

Well, let's see: the Shuttle will only be 25 years old, so it will still be a lot younger than most of the helicopters I flew out in the Navy, some of which were manufactured about a year after I was born. Yes, the Shuttle frailties, so to speak, have been discussed widely; but the Shuttle is a one-of-a-kind spacecraft, and that was proven time and time again during the Shuttle-Mir program. It's the only spacecraft that has been built that can bring back as much to Earth as it can take to space, and that is critically important for a viable Space Station program and to have a flexible, wide-ranging, and robust science program. The scientists need to be able to get their results back to Earth, and the Shuttle, with its tremendous capability for stowage both in the middeck and the MPLM or out in the payload bay, allows you to do that. So if we are going to continue the development of the Space Station and allow the Space Station to fulfill its promise, we have to have the orbiter and we have to have its one-of-a-kind capability to bring items home.

And as we look down the road a bit, what do you personally envision is the long-term future for human spaceflight?

Well, I personally would like to see us move on beyond low-Earth orbit and go back to the Moon, learn how to live on the Moon, and get us ready for a major mission to Mars. Now, I'm a child who grew up watching "Star Trek," and part of me wants to see that "Star Trek" fantasy become a reality. I'd like to see us move away from low-Earth orbit and begin to explore the solar system, just like we've done for centuries exploring the Earth. We are by nature explorers: you can look at the centuries of histories where people were committed to finding new worlds and establishing them. And now I think it's time for us to turn our direction on beyond low-Earth orbit and do the very same thing.

Wendy, there are thousands of people working to develop your flight, to develop all of the techniques for flights to follow yours -- all of the implementation work that's going on, thousands of people that are working right now in this ongoing recovery and implementation phase post-Columbia. Yet, not only for your crew but every flight, the astronauts who will fly that mission are the most visible symbol, if you will, of that mission, as you and your crewmates will be for 114. What do you say to the employees out there, the NASA folks, the contractors, who are working extremely hard to conduct this recovery and to lay the foundation upon which you and your crewmates will safely launch in the future?

I would say to each and every one of them that we need you. We desperately need you. Yes, the astronauts are the tip of the iceberg, but if you look at an iceberg, it's got a very wide base to support the weight. We, the astronauts, the ones who will be seen on television, we need that support base. And that comes in the forms of the thousands of workers, here at JSC, KSC, other NASA centers, and at the contractor facilities, who are working day in and day out to implement the recommendations of the board. We cannot succeed without them. And I would ask each and every one of them, as they come to work on a daily basis, to recommit themselves to excellence, to attention to detail, to being the best that they can possibly be in their area of responsibility, and to periodically think about the Columbia crew, and to recognize that the best way, I think, that they personally can honor them is by doing their work with excellence and to do everything possible to implement the recommendations of the board so that we can safely return the Shuttle to flight. We need each and every one of them to contribute so that we can get back in the air safely.

Your mom sat you down in front of a black-and-white TV to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon; for kids who are out there, who many have been pained by Columbia, who may be a bit confused about the difference between fantasy and reality and what lies ahead, what do you say to kids about where we're at today and where we need to be?

I think I would have a message to both kids and to their parents. I'd tell the kids that flying in space is an amazing thing. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be able to look out the window of the orbiter and see this most beautiful planet below us. I'd tell them that it is worth the effort to see your dream come true. I would encourage them to continue to dream big. And maybe their dream isn't flying in space, but whatever their dream is, to dream it and pursue it with their heart, their soul, and mind. And if you're going to dream big, I would also tell 'em you've got to be willing to work hard. And I would hope that some of them would still want to work in the space profession, because it's exciting, it's challenging, it's demanding. But the rewards that you get back from watching a vehicle launch, watching the crew go into orbit, accomplish their mission and come back, those rewards are very wonderful, and I don't think you find them in that many other professions that are available to people today. To the parents I would say, we need the space program. We need to offer something to our young people today that is exciting, that is challenging. We need to offer them something that they can dream about and want to pursue. As a young person I feel so fortunate to have had an idea of where I wanted to head as an adult, and I feel very strongly that we need to offer that to our young kids today. We need to offer them something that will push them to be the best that they can be, that will encourage them to stay in school and get a well-rounded education, and to go on to college and to find a very rewarding profession. I think the space program meets all of those things.

Wendy, much has been made -- not only by the investigation board but internally about NASA's culture -- of what it may have contributed in the root causes of the accident and how it needs to be changed, fixed, altered. What do you think this agency has learned culturally from the accident that will serve it well in the future?

It's very difficult to take a long, hard look at yourself, to have that introspective look and see things that you don't like. I think it's even harder to figure out how to fix them, and I think NASA's in the process of doing that right now: taking that long, hard look at itself, asking some other people to come in and help them take that look, and then figure out how to fix it. I think right now it's a little early to assess exactly where we're going with respect to fixing the culture. I do think people have recognized that it needs to be fixed, but the hard part is still in front of us, of determining the best way to fix it. But at least we are taking that long, hard look. We're continuing to do so, and we're talking actively about what we need to do to fix the culture, to make sure it's a safe one.

When we talk about return to flight, I guess it needs to be amended to say Shuttle return to flight because the reality is is that humans have been in space, unbroken, without interruption, for over three years now aboard the International Space Station. The permanent human presence in space, in the wake of the Columbia accident, has been made possible by the work of the international partnership. You have been so deeply involved, so intimately involved in Space Station operations with expedition crews and Russian operations, Wendy, you've flown twice to the Russian Mir space station in the past. Tell us a little bit about what the last year has meant, in the wake of the accident, in terms of the partnership pulling together to ensure that this unbroken string of a capability to keep humans in space has been kept intact.

I think the international partners in the Space Station program have been absolutely superb. Within hours of the accident, they were talking to Mr. Gerstenmaier, offering their condolences and simultaneously offering assistance. The Russians, obviously, have really stepped forward with the Soyuz and the Progress vehicles. They recognize that it's time for them to shoulder a little bit more of the burden. They've been working with their government to get the money to do so, and they have been magnificent, as have the Europeans. They recognize that the Russians need to continue to get some money, and to keep the Soyuz assembly line open, as well as the Progress assembly line, and they've offered up astronauts to fly on the Soyuz in the third seat so the Russians can get enough money to pay for that vehicle. The Japanese have been willing to work with us on some of their experiments that they had been slated to be conducted during Russian spacewalks, to rearrange that schedule a little bit, but still make sure the Russians were going to get the monies that they needed. So, across the board, each partner has done what it could do, given its area of responsibility and its level of participation in the Space Station program, they've done what they could do to keep it going, to keep it viable, and I think we're in really good shape.

Let me press on with a final set of questions for you, Wendy, if I might. In a big picture sense, as a member of this very visible Shuttle return to flight crew, how important is STS-114 ultimately in getting the agency not only physically but psychologically back in the saddle in the art of flying Space Shuttles again and returning Space Shuttles to orbit?

I think it's very important. I mean, we are the NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; flying in space is what we do. We have the Station up there, we have Mike Foale on board currently as a U.S. astronaut. But we also fly Shuttles, and to not return them to flight, I think, conveys a message to the workforce that we don't want to convey. I mean, it's very difficult when somebody makes a mistake and is not given the opportunity to correct that. I mean, human nature is that we are going to make mistakes, but human nature also is that we allow people another opportunity to learn from that lesson and to go forward and do their work. And I think it's important for the workers to show that we have learned, and that we have been devastated by the accident, and we never want to see that happen again. But I think it's important to allow them the opportunity to show the country that we can learn from our lessons, that we are committed to excellence, we are committed to flying in space safely, and that we do deserve the opportunity to do that again. The Shuttle really is an experimental vehicle. It would be nice if we had a very clear crystal ball that would allow us to foresee everything possible that could happen while we're flying in space. But, unfortunately as humans, we can't see into the future that well. And our knowledge in some areas is limited. But that's why we're in space, is to learn about that environment, to learn how difficult it is to safely fly there, and if we can’t have that opportunity to learn, we will never be able to open up space flight to the rest of the world, to make it something that's routine, to commercialize it. So I think it's critically important for the nation and the world that we be allowed to get back in space and continue to learn so that we can implement those lessons learned, and we can make space flight something that is very safe and, ultimately, very routine, so that we can eventually explore our solar system.

Wendy, with the anniversary upon us, and as you press into a challenging year of training, how do you, personally, reflect on the past year and the loss of your friends and colleagues?

It's hard not to think about it every day, particularly when you come to work and you walk down the hallway to your office and you see a picture of the crew. Every day I stop and I look at them, and I think about what I can do to make sure that we honor them as individuals, and what we can do to make sure that we convey to their families that their death was not in vain. And, so for me now, as a member of STS-114, I'm going to focus myself on my training, I'm going to commit myself to my training. I'm going to learn as much as I can possibly learn about the responsibilities that I have, and I'm going to try and carry them out to the best of my ability. But I'm going to personally try and honor the crew during the next year by focusing on my training flow and being the best that I can possibly be with the responsibilities that I've been given by my commander.

And, finally, Wendy, when the culmination of that training results in you and your crewmates being on orbit, conducting your mission, how will the spirit of Columbia's crew and those memories of them permeate not only the Shuttle but the Space Station as you go about your complex work?

It will be with us every day. We've actually talked about that as a crew, you know, what we can do on this Return to Flight mission, Shuttle mission, to honor the Columbia crew. We're still talking about that, but we will make sure that they are not forgotten, that they are very visible during the conduct of our mission, and that we honor them in a very appropriate way, and their families as well. I mean, they sacrificed their lives for something they felt very strongly, and that was flying in space. Each and every one of them felt that there were huge benefits to be gained from flying in space, that what we learn in space we can apply back here on the planet Earth to make our lives better. And I think each and every one of us on the STS-114 crew wants to honor their personal commitment to flying in space, and we will try and do that with our Return to Flight mission.

+ Read Lawrence's 2005 Preflight Interview