Return To Flight

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2004 Preflight Interview: Steve Robinson
The STS-114 interviews continue this afternoon with Mission Specialist No. 2, Steve Robinson. Steve, thanks for joining us today.


STS-114 Mission Specialist Steve Robinson
STS-114 Mission Specialist Steve Robinson

It's been almost a year since the Columbia accident sadly, but work continues towards getting Shuttles and you and your crewmates into orbit once again. If you can for starters, discuss your feelings, Steve, if you will, a year after Columbia, what the last year has meant to you, in strengthening your rededication, to this particular mission and the concept and act of returning Shuttles to flight.

Well, I think along with the rest of the crew, I am very ready to go back into space as soon as the hardware is ready. I think at this point almost a year after the accident, we're emotionally ready to pick up the flame that our 107 crew was carrying, and carry it forward. So I think we're all looking forward to getting back into flight when, when we feel that it's safe to do that.

Steve, just to look back, tracing your roots, what was it that inspired you to want to become an astronaut in the first place? What, what inspires a Ph.D. to want to fly in space?

Well, it came in the opposite order actually. I was very interested in flight when I was just a real small kid, and I don't know why. I think I was born with some sort of fascination with things that fly. I became very curious about how things fly, why some things fly better than others. That's what took me into the science of flight. And that's where my education was, and that's where my work with NASA has been for the last 27 years. So the ultimate experience in flight is to fly in space. That was my goal from a very early age.

Has anything over the past year, dampened that enthusiasm at all? If you've been sitting at home reflecting upon the challenges and the adversity that the agency has experienced and is in the process of trying to overcome, has anything, dampened that enthusiasm for you as an astronaut to, to want to fulfill personally and professionally, those goals?

Absolutely not. No. I am, personally completely committed to trying to bring human beings into the next frontier. And breaking into frontiers is difficult, dangerous, expensive, full of disappointments, and pressures to push back. I think NASA is just full of people who buck that tide and who are pushing forward in the face of all that adversity, especially after this difficult year and all the self-focus that we've been prompted to do by having this accident. I think now we are as motivated as people can be to continue pushing forward, and I am included in that group.

Spaceflight in general, is it worth the risk ultimately?

Yeah, absolutely, for the reason I just said. I think that it's written into our genetic code and our spirit to explore. It's a fact of existence that exploration is dangerous, and we have learned that yet again. But we knew it anyway. We've learned that lots of times over the millennia. This is our big frontier right now, and it is worth it to continue to explore. I'm committed to that.

Steve, are you, a year later, more aware or aware of different sorts of risks than, than you could have conceived a year ago before Columbia's accident? In the sense that, did it open up your eyes about a, a new vulnerability of the Shuttle, new risks that, that are now being worked on to try to mitigate?

No, not really. I've been an aviator since I was 15. People who are in aviation as their career, as their life, learn that it can be dangerous and there are risks. I wish it weren't that way. It's the hardest thing about being in aviation is that you lose people that are precious to you. It is absolutely the hardest thing. But I knew it before this accident. I know it even more so now.

Let's talk a little bit about the mission. You and your crewmates were four weeks away from launching at, at the time of the accident. And, suddenly, the nation, the agency was plunged into a period of mourning; and emerging from that as the months and weeks have unfolded, your mission has taken a different complexion in a certain extent. Do you look at the new STS-114 as a test flight, as a different sort of flight, than you had trained and were prepared to, to launch on?

Yes, I do. I think we're starting over. This is a different flight. We trained for a mission with the crew that we had and we didn't fly that mission. That is not a disappointment. It's kind of hard to understand, I think, but the reason that's not a disappointment is because when the accident happened, I would say every one of us just forgot about our mission. We had more important things to consider by far. Our mission was way down the list of priorities. And so, we focused on the families of the Columbia crew more and each other and our own families and ourselves to try to get through that very rocky period. And then we picked up thinking about our mission some months down the line. In that context, it's appropriate to think about this mission, STS-114 now, as a brand new mission. We do have what we think of as a new crew. We gained three outstanding crewmembers. Some of our objectives has changed. The mix of the way we're going to do the jobs on orbit have changed. And you know what? The whole feeling of flying in space has changed. We lost people that were precious to us. And because of that, it has raised the value of what we do. And so, yeah, we have a new mission. We're going to do it the best we can do it, and we're excited to go and fly it.

Do you think it's a test flight in, in the sense that part, a very important part of what you're going to be doing, aside from visiting the International Space Station and delivering critical supplies, do you think part of it now is a test of, of how, not only your crew, but future crews will be prepared to perhaps save an orbiter and themselves if required?

Yes, it's a test flight. But you know, every flight of the Shuttle has been an experimental flight. The Shuttle is not a derivative vehicle. It was an invention, really unlike any other kind of flying machine there ever was, and it's only had a little over a hundred flights. That's not all that far into a test program for an extremely complex, big-leap vehicle. The X-15 had right around 200 flights in its test program. I think that this is a test flight, just because of the nature of the Shuttle. And, the specific character of this mission and the time in history that we happen to, does make it an experiment all in itself. One of the reasons is that we will be experimenting on how to inspect our orbiter once we get up there. We want to know more about the vehicle before we come back than anybody has ever known before. So that's one form of testing we'll be doing. We won't learn it all in just one flight either. We will start with our flight. That's the nature of test flight. It's an iterative process. We expect that. We'll also begin to learn how to repair a vehicle if we, during the inspection process, find something that needs to be repaired. We should know how to repair it. That's difficult. We're not sure how to do that. We have some very good ideas, but they haven't yet been tested in space. So we can't say we know how to do it yet. That's another aspect of the testing. There will be more, too. So in a sort of layered way, we would look at this as an experimental test mission.

You and your colleague from the Japanese space agency, Soichi Noguchi, will be conducting three spacewalks on the mission. And, the very first one that is currently contemplated is to test those techniques to assess and repair thermal protection, with purposely-damaged tiles, out in the payload bay. Tell us a little bit, even though the process and the techniques are still evolving and will be for some months yet, tell us what you know at this point about what you and Soichi will be doing out there, and how difficult is all this in the end run?

Well, this is very early on to say. This is very much the experimental part of our mission. We will be going out into the payload bay. There are two fundamental types of thermal protection systems on the Shuttle. There are the tiles, or the insulating-type material; and then there's the reinforced carbon-carbon that's on the leading edge [of the wings]. It's the light gray material you see all down the leading edge, kind of a "U" shape, and on the nose cap. That is sort of a super-duper space-age fiberglass, reinforced carbon-carbon. It's just that. It's a laid-up fabric, really, when it starts. If it takes damage, like the conclusion was in the Columbia case, it can actually break if it's hit hard enough, with the right or wrong size piece. How do you repair something like that? Well, that's something we hope to know a lot more about that by the time we're done with our mission. There are quite a few ideas out. Of course, we're trying to test more than one idea, because we're not sure which is the right one. And it may be that different ideas will be appropriate for different types of damage. That's for the reinforced carbon-carbon. For the tiles, it may be more of a kind of a space caulking gun where we inject, kind of a gooey material into any tile damage. And we very carefully use some pretty low-tech tools to tamp it into place and make it a smooth surface. This will not be an insulator; it will be an ablator. So it will actually be burned off as we come back through the re-entry phase of the heating, where the heating is high. So these will be challenging spacewalks. Nothing like this has been done before. On the other hand, we have a tremendous number of people working on this, thinking about it, and beginning to develop, training procedures, under water, in the KC-135 for zero-g parabolas, and so we have a lot of effort being brought to bear on this. Once we finally get to do it, I think it will have a very good [chance] of success.

The second and third spacewalks of the mission will be, of course, familiar to you since you had previously trained for those. And, those are Space Station-related. Tell us a little bit about, the complexity of swapping out a huge gyroscope called a control moment gyro, the one that's failed, on the Space Station's Z1 truss, and how you and Soichi go about swapping that out for a healthy one.

Well, the Space Station controls its attitude, the way it points itself, using these big gyroscopes. And they are large. There are four of them on board. One of them has failed. The other three are fine. The Station only needs three. But if we have one more failure, then we have to go to a backup system, which is thrusters, which uses fuel. It's important to repair or replace this gyro. We're going to put one in the payload bay, bring it up with us, and, conceptually this is very simple -- like changing out a light bulb. You take this new one out of the payload bay and you swap it out with the old one up on the Z1 truss on the Station. Well, it comes out to be a lot more difficult when you're dealing with doing this in space. You're outside doing an EVA and you're using robot arms. It should be a good, solid 6 1/2-hour to seven-hour spacewalk, where we go up to Z1 and pull out the broken one. Soichi will be on the Station robot arm. He'll be attached by the feet to the robot arm, and he will be holding this huge, 600-plus-pound mass in his hands. I will be what's called free-floating, which means I'm crawling around on the Space Station with my hands. And he will travel down to the payload bay of the Shuttle, on the arm. I will crawl down there and meet him there. And we will swap the new one for the old one, and go back up and install the new one. And so, conceptually, it's quite simple. When you get down in the details, like everything else, there's quite a bit to it.

The final spacewalk, with an eye toward future Space Station assembly, is the installation of a stowage platform, on the outside of the Station. Tell us a little bit about that task, that will wrap up your trio of EVAs.

Okay. The ESP-2 is exactly that; a stowage platform. It's like a garage for the Space Station to carry spare parts. Spare parts have to have power for heating to withstand the rigors of the cold cycle in space. So any spare parts are usually some form of large box that is plugged onto this platform and have power applied to it. This platform goes up in the payload bay. It is removed from the payload bay with the robot arm and installed on the side of the Space Station airlock. It will be wired up by hand basically, by Soichi and I. We will take the power cables from the ESP, the stowage platform, and plug them into the power receptacles on the Station. And, again another mechanical operation is conceptually very simple, but when you get down to the details there are a lot of things that have to go right. There are bits of hardware that haven't been tried before exactly in the form that they are. And there's a lot of hand work. I know I've got a 42-foot cable to string. That can be a real armload of snakes if you're not careful. So we've been training for that a lot underwater.

Steve, your previous flights have been very heavily science oriented. Now you're actually visiting a platform for science in the International Space Station. How much are you looking forward to actually reaching a so-called destination, to conduct your work?

You know, when I was 9, I had this great lunchbox that showed these space guys out on an EVA building a space station. I used to dream about both building a space station and working in a space station as a scientist. I worked as a scientist for NASA for many, many years before I came here to join the astronaut corps. For me, this is fulfillment of a long-held goal. I've never seen the Space Station, at least not up close. I did train as a backup Space Station crew for more than two years, so I'm pretty familiar with what goes on inside. I am more than ready to go see it myself. I can't wait!

If you look at STS-114, Steve, aside from the glare of its aura as Return to Flight, if you look at the mission itself, all of this new work that you and your crewmates will have to do to validate concepts for repair, protection of the orbiter and the crew, if you look at what will be going on in the, down on the ground in terms of the mission management team, the evaluation of imagery, evaluation of the health of the orbiter, what, what do you foresee as the most challenging, the most complex part of this mission? Is it just getting off the ground? Is it wheelstop finally to breathe a sigh of relief? What do you think it's going to be?

The most challenging part of any mission is its preparation. I think it's before we fly. This is where the decisions are made. This is where the priorities are set. This is where you decide, "Hey, we've got too much to do! What are we going to not do?" We've got people that need to be trained to do this, but they don't have time. Or we have overlapping training that we need to do. There are many, many difficult and complex decisions that involve sometimes the International Partners, worldwide telecons. This is the hard part of the mission. This is the part of the mission that's done largely by the unseen players of NASA who are really, really working hard and making this program work. Now, when we go up, we fly on the products that they have created. When we succeed in a mission, we succeed because they have done their jobs so well. That's the hard part of this mission.

All of those people you've just referred to are working tirelessly to work their way through the problems, fix the problems, to enable you to have the foundation in which to launch and conduct your flight. You know, a flight crew winds up being the most visible symbol of any mission, particularly this one coming up that you're on. If you were to address all these employees at NASA, contractors, as they work towards the Shuttle's Return to Flight, what's your message to them?

My message to the people who are enabling this flight and enabling the country to get back flying into space in the Shuttle is: We are working for you. If you're building this, if you're getting the Space Shuttle prepared to go back up, and you're looking at every last detail that only you're an expert on, then we are working to bring your good work back up into space. We're going to bring it back to you in good shape. If you are working in mission management, if you're an engineer, if you're dealing with safety issues, if you're dealing with medical issues, we're going to work, do our very best to make sure that all of your hard efforts pay off. So we are the hands and eyes and fingers of you who are working on this.

What about kids who obviously love space flight for whatever the reason is. Whether it's the real space flight, or whether it's what you see in the movies and on TV. What do you say to those kids that may have been touched by the Columbia accident and, and its aftermath?

Well, I'd say: First of all, learn about more than just the accident that was Columbia. Learn about what the Columbia mission was. That was one of the biggest science missions that NASA has ever attempted. And they did a tremendous amount of great work on their groundbreaking work. I think that any kid who was shocked like the rest of us and made sad by what happened there, really owes it to themselves and sort of their own future to look at what the Columbia crew was actually trying to accomplish, and how much they did accomplish, and how much great work was really done. That sometimes gets a little lost in the spectacle of the tragedy. But it's very important, not only for the legacy of the crew; but also just because so much good, so much talent and engineering and science, thought went into it. It's very important, I think, that people, especially children, take a look at that and appreciate what happened. It'll give them ideas for the future.

What do you think, the future of human space flight is out there, 10 years, 50 years, from now?

Well, first of all, I think we will be still flying into space. I think it'll still be difficult and dangerous. It's always going to be dangerous because the relative velocity between what you and I are doing right now and what we have to do just even for low Earth orbit is a tremendous change in velocity. It takes a lot of energy to take a delicate human being and get him to that velocity. That's probably always going to be dangerous. The real question is how much it costs. The things we want to do, I think there's almost no lack of, there's thousands of ideas of what to do with our energy and creativity and curiosity. I think it'll continue to be a combination of robotic probes and human presence, one preceding the other. And robots can go places obviously that we cannot. I think that going back to the Moon is a great place to learn to eventually go back to Mars. I think that's the appropriate thing to do. And, it makes sense, too. Because if you think of being in low Earth orbit, you can get back down to Earth in an hour and a half or something like that in a, in an emergency. The Moon is 2-1/2 days away or something like that. Mars is months and months away! So, it's an appropriate place to learn to live on a surface that isn't the Earth. And I think it makes an awful lot of sense. Besides those real big-ticket items, I think that there's a great future for commercial space. In other words, non-government companies, private companies building up the ability to send, both robotic probes and especially humans into space. And this can be for materials processing, medical, materials development, and also for tourism.

You mentioned earlier that you had trained as a backup Space Station crewmember. Some of that training was in Russia. You know, your flight is dubbed the Return to Flight mission. That pertains to Shuttles. But, in reality, we've had a continuous human presence in space for more than three years aboard the International Space Station. Last year, a lot of people were very struck by the fact that a superior effort has been made by the international partnership to maintain that presence, unbroken, in light of the fact that there are no Shuttles available at the moment to go to the Station. Talk a little bit about how that international partnership has worked together in a time of adversity, to overcome adversity and maintain the course.

Well, first of all, you're absolutely right. This is return to Shuttle flight. It is not return to space. The International Space Station has been crewed for the whole down period for the Shuttle. And the reason we've been able to do that is because the international partnership has been functioning exactly as that; it's a partnership in which one country has lost its ability to service the Station and to build and supply the Station. Another country stepped in and filled in the gap to the best that they could. The Russian Space Agency has done a fantastic job of doing that! They've got the hardware. They've got the commitment. They've got the understanding of the international, benefit for doing this. I think that the reason that Space Station has still got a crew on board is because they've come to the table and, allowed this to happen -- and made it happen.

Final question: in a "big picture" sense, how significant, how important is your flight? I talked about you and your flight crew being the most visible symbol of the Shuttle's return to flight, and that's an inescapable human component of what you're about to do in the year ahead. How significant is your mission to getting this agency back in the saddle, back on its feet, and psychologically, back into the arena of human space flight?

I think until it happens, it's very significant. Immediately after it happens, our eyes will be pointed forward into the next missions, and we will quickly have this mission in our past and say, thank goodness we got back on the horse. So I would say, until we fly, it's pretty darn significant; and after we fly, the next mission will be just as significant.

+ Read Robinson's 2005 Preflight Interview