Return To Flight

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Preflight Interview: Soichi Noguchi
The STS-114 Crew Interview with Soichi Noguchi, JAXA, mission specialist

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

This is what I wanted to do for long time, and I'm very happy to be here. I really feel honored to be assigned as a Return to Flight crew.

What is it that you did, in terms of your education and, and your career, that got you qualified to be an astronaut?

STS-114 Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi Image to right: Japanese Astronaut Soichi Noguchi, center, is joined in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory by fellow STS-114 Mission Specialist Andy Thomas and Commander Eileen Collins. Credit: NASA

Well, I liked airplanes; I liked rockets. So I studied aeronautic science at university. Besides that I was a Boy Scout, and believe it or not Boy Scout is good training to become an astronaut. I learned team play, I learned to interact with nature, and those things are very actually important to be an astronaut.

What was it that got you interested in rocketry?

Well, it was just fun thing to see. When I was a high school student I saw the first launch of Space Shuttle, the Columbia, and I was very fascinated by the sight.

Is there one person that you could look at and say, that's the person who was most key to your becoming an astronaut; someone who was your inspiration or your hero?

Well, actually my father is my hero. He was engineer, and he was a good educator, and he taught me a lot about science and also how to interact with nature and other, other folks. He's my hero.

What are your other interests and hobbies? I mean, what do you do when you're not being an astronaut?

I play with my kids. They have all the hobbies, so I just play with them.

Think back, several years now for you -- tell me what it was like when you got the phone call that told you, you were going to make your first spaceflight.

It was April 2001, so it's almost four years ago. I got a phone call from Charlie Precourt. He was chief of Astronaut Office at that time. It was really a blast. I was waiting for that call for four years and learning that I would be flying finally, and going to International Space Station, and possibly do the EVA, that was, that was priceless.

Do you get excited, jump up and down?

Oh, yeah, right, and I had a toast with my wife that night. It was very nice.

Especially since the loss of Columbia and its crew, we all assume that astronauts understand the risks of spaceflight and, and accept them. Can you tell me why you feel this job is worth the risk that you're taking?

STS-114 Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi Image to left: Noguchi takes time to check the tiles on the Space Shuttle during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA

I think the return is really enormous. What we are doing now with the Return to Flight is ensure that we have a great access to space, which enhances our lives for sure. The risk is, is there, but the return is still enormous.

Tell me how you feel that that's enhancing our lives?

You know that will make our communication easier throughout the world, and also the science that will bring us a new technology, new science results, will be very useful for our future.

It's one thing for you to accept the risk of the job you do. How does your family handle the risks that you're taking?

I've tried to be honest and talk about what we're doing, what we're doing to prevent an accident, and also I will talk about the benefits and hopefully they understand that those benefit will be very important for their future.

You know, along with the risks of flight your job requires that you spend a lot of time training in preparation for, for this flight; that's time that you could be spending with your family or doing other things. For you, what is it that provides you the motivation to make that sacrifice?

Time away from my family is one of the big drawback being assigned to the flight. But again, we talk about what I'm doing as an astronaut to train for this mission and hopefully that will be motivation as well to my family, my wife and kids, so that they feel that they are part of the big team for this Return to Flight.

It's been more than two years since Columbia and its crew were lost. Soichi, what was it like for you, as an astronaut, to deal with the fact that an accident had cost the lives of seven of your colleagues and friends?

We were saddened by the loss of Columbia and seven friends. We were very devastated at that time. But we are prime crew and we have to fly the Shuttle again, and we have to prove to world that we can learn from the past accident, past mistakes, and still make space development continue. So we were devastated, but we're trying to overcome and make the Shuttle fly again.

When you think about those seven men and women today, what are your best memories of them?

Well obviously they're all good friends. And, actually three of them are my classmates. We shared good moments and we shared tough moments. As you know, the Pilot, Willie McCool, was good friend of mine, and we play basketball together many times at the gym. When we meet his son after the accident we remember playing at the gym when he was still high school student. Now he's grown up to be a university student, but we talked about it and playing basketball. It's a good memory.

How have you and your crewmates talked about honoring the memory of the Columbia crew and honoring their spirit while you're flying your mission?

We've talked about it and we'll probably have a moment to honor their spirits, their courage, and their achievement during our mission.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board pinpointed the physical causes of the loss of Columbia and pointed out some mechanical fixes to make flying Shuttles safer. From your point of view, assess for me the improvements that have been made to eliminate launch debris, and then to detect and repair the damage to the orbiter while it's in flight.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi Image to right: Noguchi wears a Space Shuttle launch and entry suit during a training session at the Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

After we received the final report from the CAIB, and we take those recommendations as gold standard. Since then there have been a lot of major improvement in the Space Shuttle. Obviously the most important improvement is the external tank. The tank was shipped to Kennedy Space Center early this month and we are certain that this new tanks will prevent the, the foam from falling off during ascent. That's the main improvement over the last two years. And the other side of the improvement is to make sure we can detect any falling object from the tank or anything during ascent. We have a lot of ground cameras. We have also radars and also on-board cameras to watch out for those debris. And for the last resort if we found any damage to the orbiter we have ways to repair and also we can evacuate to Station for a short period of time, waiting for the rescue vehicle. But the bottom line is we are confident that the fixes on external tank will prevent the, the damage caused by the falling foams, just like the Columbia.

You know, there are thousands of people, literally, across the country who have been working for more than two years now to make a safe Return to Flight possible. What are your thoughts about the contributions and the efforts of all of those people?

We really appreciate all the sincere effort by the, the workers and technicians all over the country. We made a lot of visit to Michoud and we are very happy to see they are highly motivated to fix the tank, and I think those effort really pay off.

Tell me what it's meant for you when you've gotten the chance to visit at Michoud or other, the NASA Centers around the country and talk to other members of the Return to Flight team.

They are really nice guys. They are highly motivated, and it's really nice to see that all the folks are working together to make this Return to Flight successful. Actually, we are encouraged to continue by watching those people work. So it's really nice to see them work and to talk directly with them.

You mentioned a moment ago about the repair procedures, which you're going to have a hand in testing on this flight. The repair procedures that came out as a result of the CAIB recommendations, those procedures are still being fine-tuned and some of them are still being developed. But 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 position?

I am comfortable. As an EVA crewmember I have realized that a lot of attention is going to the EVA repair capabilities of damage to the Thermal Protection System, but I think the fixes on the external tank are really promising, so I don't expect any, to see any the big foam falling off the tank like, like Columbia did. So that is the bottom line of the recommendation of the, of the CAIB Report. So, I'm happy to see those improvements.

Beyond the physical causes of the accident, the Board also cited organizational and human factors within NASA that are bearing some of the responsibility for the loss of Columbia, too— the management system and the safety culture. Do you see a change for the better in those areas in the past two years?

I definitely see the change. Of course no organization is 100 percent perfect, and it's a continuing process. We will have a new administrator, and we are changing our organization and the culture definitely changes. We had a long talk with the flight director and they are listening to us, and also we are listening to all the technicians or the engineers. And the communication is really a key to the success of changing the culture.

STS-114 is called LF-1. What does LF-1 mean? What are the goals of this flight, and what are your primary jobs?

LF-1 is Logistics Flight, and we're going to bring logistics support to the International Space Station. Since the International Space Station has been operating for five years with a, a resident crew, there's a vast need to supply the foods and clothing and new equipment. So in the assembly sequence there are a couple of flights dedicated to the logistics support, and we are the one of the flights. We have an MPLM, a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, in the cargo bay, bringing a lot of supplies to the Station. So that will be the main goal. Also this is a Return to Flight, so we have a couple of added tasks to demonstrate our capability to detect possible damage and also possible demonstration of a repair capability of the Thermal Protection System. My main job is lead EVA, and I will conduct three spacewalks along with my EVA crewmate, Steve Robinson.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi Image to left: Noguchi, left, receives a briefing at the Space Food Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA

For you, you're also the second Japanese astronaut to go to the International Space Station. Can you give me a sense of the importance and the excitement that your flight has generated within the Japanese space agency and the Japanese people?

You are right. I will be the second Japanese to visit ISS. Koichi Wakata visited the ISS in STS-92, and he created a lot of interest amongst the Japanese folks about the space development, also International Space Station. Hopefully, all the Japanese will have the same level of excitement as they had five years ago.

The International Space Station has been kept supplied using Russian launch vehicles for the last two years, but the comparatively small cargo capacity of Progress and Soyuz have posed some challenges. Is the Return to Flight of the Shuttle and its larger cargo capacity critical to the future of the Station?

I think it is very critical to bring Station back to the normal pace of operation. Right now the Station is operated by two crewmembers versus three crewmembers before the Columbia accident. So we're trying to bring a lot of supplies and also do some key maintenance to the Space Station so that the Space Station can go back to the nominal three-person operating scheme.

As we walk through your flight from the beginning ... in the first hours of the flight you're going to be confirming some aspects of the redesign of this external tank. Talk about what's involved in getting the data to the ground from the wing leading edge sensors and from the cameras that are going to be both inside and outside of the crew compartment.

Right after we get into orbit, it's actually at just two minutes after the main engine cutoff, my first job starts. That is to film the external tank right after separation from the Space Shuttle, and we will use the camcorder and also digital still photography to film the external tank, to make sure no huge debris are falling off, or huge parts are missing in the tank. That's the first job right after we get into orbit.

And this is different from the way it's been done before?

Yeah, it's a new procedure. Before we took pictures about five minutes after the separation and by that time, the tank is fairly far away from the orbiter. This time we take pictures only two minutes after separation so that the distance between the tank and orbiter is much closer than it used to be. We can take a much more detailed photography of the foam and other parts on the external tank.

And how do you get that data down to the engineers on the ground?

They are all waiting for those images. We will downlink digital photos through the PGSC, the, the laptop computers, and we downlink the camcorder video through the digital downlink, which is also fairly new, so that the ground folks can start analyzing the, the imagery. And also we also will downlink the wing leading edge sensor, which is kind of a motion detector on the leading edge of the wing, and that will also be downlinked by the laptop computer.

You're going to also be the first crew to perform another new task on Shuttle missions. In this one, you're going to be inspecting the exterior of the orbiter for damage from any launch debris. First, would you describe for us the new Orbiter Boom Sensor System, and talk about how it's designed to learn whether or not the Shuttle's Thermal Protection System has been damaged.

We have a new extension boom, on the starboard side of the orbiter. And that boom has a couple of sensors on the tip, and our crew, Jim Kelly, Andy Thomas, and Charlie Camarda, are the arm operator for the inspection boom. They will grab the new extension boom with the Space Shuttle robotic arm, and the sensor will basically scan the surface, back surface, of the orbiter and the wings' leading edge, to make sure there is no critical-size damage. That will take almost a full day on Flight Day 2, which is right after we go to orbit and wake up and we start the survey of the orbiter.

Is the survey from the boom simply a visual one?

It is actually a laser scan. We're using those two specially designed pieces of equipment at the end of the boom, and we also have a camera just in case those new equipment fails, and there's a couple of backup method to make sure we have an inspection complete before we actually dock to the International Space Station.

That inspection on Flight Day 2 is going to take quite literally all day long; some people might even call it tedious. What's the plan to ensure that there is going to be at least one set of sharp eyes on duty all the time while you're working at that for so many hours?

It's actually a very long procedure and long day, but we're now training to make sure we don't make any mistakes during the survey. We have three excellent arm operators on board, and I'm pretty sure we will not make any critical mistakes and that the ground folks will be happy to see the good survey at the end of Flight Day 2.

The next step in the inspection comes during the final phase of your docking to the Space Station itself. Tell us about the plan to inspect the upper surfaces of the orbiter and, and then later how you're going to flip the orbiter around to give the Station's cameras a good view of the bottom of Discovery.

This is also a new procedure in the rendezvous profile. We will be basically stop at about 600 feet below the Space Station, and the Space Station crew will take photos out their window from the Service Module. We will basically flip the orbiter so that we can show the top surface and bottom surface of the orbiter. And the Space Station crew, using a long lens, will basically map the surface of the tiles, and also they are downlink the images to the ground folks who do the imagery analysis make sure there's no the big damage to the tile. So that will be a new procedure as well.

It must be something to think about being on hand, then, when after the docking occurs and you'll be there for the first time the hatches are opened between the Shuttle and the Station again.

I'm really looking forward to that moment, after those inspections and the flip maneuver. And still we have a lot of exciting tasks ahead of us.

Well, for starters, there's cargo on the Shuttle's middeck that's going to get transferred almost immediately after you folks arrive. What is it that's so important that it gets moved over onto the Station right away?

Well, there are a couple of critical spares that should be brought to the Station. But from my point of view we have to bring the two EVA suits to the Station side, because they are Station suits are basically out of life, expired, so we're going to bring the two new spacesuit to the Space Station.

Next day, after the docking, the schedule calls for the installation of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, that you mentioned earlier, onto Unity. Describe that operation and, and what part you're going to play that day.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi Image to right: Noguchi climbs a rock wall in the astronaut gym. Credit: NASA

The MPLM, the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, is stowed in the cargo bay. Wendy Lawrence and Jim Kelly will be the arm operators that day. They will move to the Space Station, they will manipulate Space Station arm, grab the MPLM and attach it to the nadir side of the Unity module. My job is operate the CBM, that's the common berthing mechanism, the attachment device of the modules. So I will coordinate the move with Jim Kelly and Wendy, and once they move the MPLM close to the port nadir side of the CBM, I will start operating the latches and the bolts to connect those two modules.

After the MPLM is installed there are still some other robot arm operations scheduled that day to prepare for a later inspection of the Thermal Protection System on the Shuttle. Describe for us what's being planned there.

After docking there might be a call from ground to inspect a certain area of the orbiter based on the findings of the first two days' inspection, Flight Day 2 and Flight Day 3. The arm operators will be asked to move the inspection boom on the certain point on the orbiter -- for instance, on the back side of the orbiter or the certain point on the leading edge. So using the Space Station arm, they will grab the boom and move off the Space Station arm, to the Shuttle arm, so that they are ready to perform the inspection if they are asked to do that.

A big part of your training for the past two years has been focusing on the EVA techniques for repairing damage to the Space Shuttle, which is something that was called for in the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report. How involved have you and your crewmates been in the development of the techniques that you will then be using on orbit?

Steve Robinson and I were heavily involved in the development of these repair techniques: tiles, RCCs, and also a couple of inspection, backup inspection method using the SAFER backpack and also digital photography. And right now we are still refining the final process of the repair and the demonstration of the repair capability. But we are happy to do any kind of a task that we finally called upon.

And a lot of your work has been involved in the development of that technique as well?

That's right. I would say this is part of still in the process of development. We probably will have some kind of a test samples in the cargo bay, and we will demonstrate the possible repair techniques on the first EVA.

Well, let's talk about that and, accepting the fact that exactly what might happen by the time you get there could be different, as it's understood right now describe the procedures for the Detailed Test Objective that you and Steve will do on the first spacewalk.

On the first EVA, first spacewalks will be mainly dedicated to demonstration of the repair techniques. Steve and I will move to the cargo bay, the very back portion of the cargo bay, and there is a special box dedicated to this demonstration. It's about 4 feet by 3 feet. We will open this big box, and inside the box there are tiles with simulated damage and possibly RCC, the leading edge panel. We will be performing the repair using a special repair equipment. And what we like to do is shoot the goo into the grooved area of the tile and see how it cures and how we can operate the equipment under the zero g and other vacuum environment. And once we come back to ground then engineers will put them onto the arc jet test facility to make sure they will withstand entry profile.

Now let me ask you to describe a little, some of the technical language that you used for us, starting with “goo.” What is the material like? What is it designed to try to do?

Yeah, material is called STA-54, which is basically like a caulking gun. It's really like a foam, and it will cure up within 24 hours, and withstand the heat of re-entry. And it's supposed to be easy to manipulate and once it's cured up there will heat resistant, also will support some kind of structural support onto the, the tile as well.

Is it easy to manipulate? Has it proved to do that?

It's, it's getting better. And we still have a couple of months to go, so by the time we fly, we have a much better results.

Now, you're planning, both of you, to, to take turns at, at simulating these repairs, right?

Yeah. And probably one person will do the shooting the goo, other person will reshape the goo on the tile.

There are three spacewalks planned for this mission. The goal of the second one is to replace a Control Moment Gyroscope in the Station's Z1 module. Tell me what a CMG does, and why one needs to be replaced.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Soichi Noguchi Image to left: Noguchi practices a spacewalk procedure in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Credit: NASA

CMG is Control Moment Gyro. It actually controls the Space Station's attitude. Now there are four CMGs on the Space Station, and one of them failed about three years ago. And that was actually an added task to our mission prior to Columbia. We have trained to do this repair for almost three years. And we will bring the new unit in the cargo bay, and we will install the new unit into the Station, bring home the failed unit so that the ground folks can analyze what happened on the failed unit.

Now this is a large piece of equipment, and it's located fairly far away, so tell me about the choreography that's involved to carry out the exchange.

We actually start from the Station side. Its four CMGs are located on the back side, aft side, of the Z1 truss, which is right over the Unity module. Steve and I will translate to the work site, and actually I will be on the arm, Station arm. Steve Robinson will help me remove the failed unit, failed CMG. It weighs about 600 pounds. I will hold with my hands, and the Station arm will move me from the back side of the Z1 truss to the Shuttle cargo bay. And then Steve will just translate to the cargo bay, we will temp stow the failed unit and get the new unit from the support equipment and then make a return trip back to the Z1 truss. We'll install the new unit and we will clean up the, the work site, and that's almost a seven-hour process.

There's a third EVA on the plans that's centered around installing what's called the External Stowage Platform. What is that piece of equipment for? It's got equipment on it, too, right?

That's right. ESP-2 is External Stowage Platform No. 2. It has a couple of critical spares on it like the main bus switching unit. There's also a pump module and a couple of stanchions for the, the Station cameras. Steve and I will install the special attachment device onto the Station and then the robotic arm will pick up those ESP-2 -- it's like a big pallet on the cargo bay -- we'll pick it up from the cargo bay and attach it to the special attachment device which will be mounted on the side of the Station airlock.

What else is there on the schedule then for the third spacewalk of this mission?

Since this is the, the last of three EVAs, spacewalks, we have a couple of small tasks. One is to retrieve the two material science project, called MISSE. It's kind of a suitcase that open up to vacuum. There are two MISSE on the airlock. We will retrieve those two and bring them back to the ground for the scientists waiting to see the results.

The day after your third spacewalk you all close up the MPLM. The day after that you undock. The last big event of your flight, though, the landing, is going to get more attention than probably any other landing in Space Shuttle history. What are your thoughts about that part of your flight?

I think by that time we are fully confident that we don't have any debris, we don't have any damage to the orbiter, we completed all the tasks, so I think on the landing day we will be fully enjoying the, the mission and just waiting for Eileen [Collins] to make a perfect landing at KSC.

I've heard it said that STS-114 opens up a new chapter in space exploration, one that's going to transform a Vision for Space Exploration into a reality. What do you think?

That's right. We are opening new era, and I firmly believe this Return to Flight is a first step of the new space Vision. We will bring the Shuttle back to life, and the Shuttle will continue the assembly of the ISS, and later we continue a journey to, to moon, Mars, and beyond. But the very first step of this new space Vision is this Return to Flight.

Of course, building a Space Station just a few hundred miles above Earth isn't the ultimate goal of the partner nations in this project. From the perspective of somebody who's about to leave the planet to go there, tell me how you see the International Space Station helping achieve the Vision and pave the path for future exploration.

The International Space Station is a great test bed for the future missions, both technically and also philosophically. Technically, we have a lot of new improvement for humans to stay on orbit for long duration of time both for habitation and also for the logistics support. Philosophically Space Station provides a great test case amongst the international partners to work together and jointly solve the problems for the big project. If you are going to go to Mars and beyond, I think international cooperation is really vital to the success of the big projects, so we can learn it from this ISS projects.

We wouldn't fly a Space Shuttle mission if we didn't have a good reason to, but do you think it's an exaggeration to say that STS-114 is critical to the future of the International Space Station, to our, to our future as explorers of space?

I think every mission is critical, and STS-114 is also critical to the future of spaceflight. Our mission actually opens the doors for all the subsequent flights. In that sense, if we don't make a successful flight, there may be no other flights following us, so in that sense, our mission is very critical to continue our journey to space.

+ Read Noguchi's 2004 interview.