Return To Flight

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2004 Preflight Interview: Andy Thomas
The STS-114 crew interviews continue with Mission Specialist No. 3 Andy Thomas. Andy, thanks for joining us today. Coming up on a significant anniversary, of course, a somber one, the anniversary of the Columbia accident. I'm wondering as you approach this one-year mark what your feelings are one year after the accident, what the last year has meant to you in perhaps strengthening your rededication to flying in space, and, since you've been named to this crew to flying this particular mission of such importance?

What the last year has shown us, I think, is that if we're going to continue in this great adventure of human spaceflight, we've got to do things differently. We can't continue down the path that we had been following. I think there has to be a positive legacy of some kind to come out of the Columbia accident, and I think that positive legacy is that it will forever change the way this country approaches human space flight. It'll be a change for the better, and it'll make us more determined to undertake this great adventure with success.

STS-114 Mission Specialist Andy Thomas
STS-114 Mission Specialist Andy Thomas

How have you, as an individual, an astronaut, and now a member of this crew, of this return to flight crew, changed as a result of the accident, Andy? How do you approach your training every day, the methodology of getting prepared for human space flight? What's different now?

Well, for me, of course, being assigned to the flight late in the sequence and being assigned unexpectedly, for me it's all very new. For the other members of the crew who had been assigned prior to the accident, of course, they were very much in the routine of being assigned to a flight and training for a flight and working towards it. For me, that aspect's very new, because I haven't been through a training flow in nearly three years. And it was a somewhat unexpected privilege to be assigned to this flight. And it's an adjustment, I have to say -- it is a big adjustment to have to think in terms of understanding the technical problems, of assimilating all the technical materials, reading all the manuals, attending training sessions, participating in simulations, and so on. And that is a big adjustment. It's one I'm enjoying, but it's an unexpected adjustment -- I wasn't expecting that I would be in this position, but I feel very privileged that I am, because I think this is a flight of great importance.

We all march to the tune of the accident investigation board in preparing for return to flight these days. I'm just wondering initially what your impressions have been over the course of the last six months or so of the findings of the accident investigation board, and the Implementation Plan that NASA is working its way through to bring everybody back into orbit via Space Shuttle.

The thing the board was able to bring was that they had autonomy and independence, and no preconceptions. So, they were able to look at all the issues facing this agency that contributed to the Columbia accident with a clean slate, in effect, and really make some very strong determinations of what went wrong and why. And we determined, of course, that it was not just a technical accident, but there was some policy and managerial policies that led to the accident. I think that's a refreshing view for us as an agency to be able to have that. The big challenge now is to correct the problems that they did with the return to flight plan. I think correcting the technical issues are actually very easy to do, because the technical problem was well understood and making corrections to fix the engineering will not be that difficult. I mean, there are challenges, but we can do that; we know how to do that. The big challenge facing this agency is the human challenge, which is to change the culture so that the flow of information required to avoid an accident like that is present and an accident like that won't happen again.

We'll talk culture again in a moment or two. Why did you want to become an astronaut in the first place? What was it about human space flight that lured you from academia, the matriculation that you had gone through, to want to do this for a living?

Well, people of my generation, of course, were raised in the Golden Age of Space Exploration, if you like, when it first started with the first human space flights in Russia and in the U.S., and, of course, the spectacular undertakings of the Moon landings. And I, like many people, had my imagination captured at an early age with this great adventure and I just thought, wouldn't it be extraordinary to be involved in that kind of program, and to go into those environments and do those kinds of things. And through a certain amount of hard work and dedication, I've been able to make that happen; I'm very fortunate that I've had the flights that I've had, and I've had the experience that I've had. It's certainly been a very rewarding career. But the passion for it, I think, was laid down at a very early age.

And, Andy, is that passion any different today than it was following the accident? Did it give you pause to think about whether you wanted to fly again, and more so, perhaps, to try to carry on a legacy to prove the perseverance of the human spirit?

Yeah. I think if you asked that question of most astronauts I don't know of any that would say that their passion for human space flight has in any way been diminished by this accident. It's perhaps given us a sense of resolve, more than anything else, to continue. But we know that we have to continue with a different philosophy and a different culture if we're going to do it properly. And that's the big challenge we all face -- we as astronauts, and as well as the managers and engineers who support the flight program.

Why, to you personally, is space flight worth the inherent risks that it entails and that you accept?

That's a question that's actually been asked quite a lot since the Columbia accident because, clearly, the Columbia accident was a huge price to pay. And I remember, around the time of that accident, not long after the accident, there was a cartoon published in one of the major newspapers and it showed this view of -- I'm not sure if it was Columbus or Magellan or one of the other -- great explorers standing on the deck of his ship, heading off into the sunset bravely going where no one had been before. And behind him in a rowboat was some small bureaucrat paddling as fast as he could behind him and shouting, "No, no, don't go! It's too hard! It's too expensive and too risky! We can't do it.” And that cartoon kind of captured, I think, the idea of taking risks, but you do it because you have this vision, this view of something out there that you want to find out, of trying to expand the knowledge and expand the human presence. And that's what human space flight does. I think the legacy of the Columbia accident has to be that we do that better for the sake of that crew.

Are you more aware of risks now than you were perhaps back on February 1, Andy, in the sense that, did that open your eyes to the fact that, my goodness, there's stuff about this orbiter that even I don't know, and, and things out there that could go wrong that I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams?

I think most of us understood intellectually the risks, in a kind of academic sense, what the risks were. But having seen that accident, seen the videos of the accident, you have a much more emotional understanding of the risk, and that changes your perception. The other thing that changes is, you understand much more deeply the consequences of the risks. And that, of course, is very sobering when you do that. What the accident has shown, I think, is that the areas we trained for, where we go into simulations, for example, where we're dealing with multiple failures and so on, we're able to deal with quite well. We're trained for that. But no matter how well you're trained, there can be things that are unexpected, that are unpredictable, and for which you're not trained for, and which come out and can grab you. And, that is inevitable in a program like this, because we are really pushing the envelope, the boundaries of knowledge. And, when you do that, you have to be ready to accept these kinds of risks.

This is going to be a very complex mission when it flies. Robotics, EVA, a lot of people are calling it a test flight in a sense that a lot of the new technologies designed to ensure safety in a greater sense are going to be tested and verified, hopefully, on that flight. As this challenging year unfolds in front of you and your crewmates, what do you envision is the most challenging aspect of your training as you prepare for this flight, which perhaps may have an uncertain launch date attached to it, but yet so much more that is new about it?

The flight is going to be challenging because it's new, but also because we are the first flight back to the International Space Station. It hasn't seen a Shuttle in a long time. It needs the resources that we're going to bring to it, so there's a huge workload facing us just in that nominal aspect of the flight. The big challenge that we're facing, aside from that, is that so many elements of the flight are not yet fully defined. It is a test of the systems that we're going to use to protect Shuttles in future flights, and the makeup of those elements is still not firmly decided yet. So, a lot is going to change in the coming year. We have to be ready to step up to that change, so as a crew we have to be adaptive and adaptable to new demands that are put on us, new systems that we have to train for -- possibly quite short notice -- in order to meet the objectives of the flight. That will be challenging indeed.

Andy, almost a quarter of a century after its first launch, the Space Shuttle has proven itself as a magnificent spacecraft; obviously, its frailties are now well known. Why should the Shuttle continue to fly?

There's certainly a practical reason right now. We have a crew onboard the International Space Station. We've downsized to a crew of two. Want to get back up to a crew of three, and in the future, larger crews, we want the Space Station to meet its own mission goals and do what it was intended to do. We can't do that without the Shuttle. So we need to get the Shuttle flying for that reason. I think we need to get the Shuttle flying also because it is the preeminent space transportation system; it is a flagship of the technology and capabilities of this country. It has been said that this country's Manifest Destiny is to go into space. I think we need to fulfill that destiny, and the Shuttle's the means to do it. This is something that this country needs, and we're going to make it happen.

And in that regard, what in the wake of all of this, and the path that lies ahead, do you envision is perhaps the long-term future for space flight? Human, robotics -- what's the formula here down the road in the next twenty, fifty years perhaps?

Yeah. That's a question we often get, like, why are we doing this -- why should we go out into space? In some ways, it is a bit like asking Columbus or Magellan or Cook, why make these voyages of exploration? To my way of doing it, the future for us in space exploration is going to be to really understand how to work in space, which we will get from the Space Station -- how to work in low-Earth orbit, how to transfer to and from low-Earth orbit, which is the big step to getting into space. That will help us go forward to the Moon, then beyond into the solar system; I think, in all probability, ultimately a human exploration of Mars. And the question, of course, is why would you want to do a thing like that? And I think there are a lot of reasons. I think perhaps the most important reason why we would consider going to another planet, to Mars, is to address the question of the origins of this solar system and the origins of life. There's a lot of very intriguing evidence that Mars has features that are very Earth-like: there's evidence of coastlines, there's evidence of gully-washers and water erosion, some of which may be in quite recent geological time. There's evidence that Mars once had a much warmer climate -- it might have been very much like the primordial Earth, in which case life may have perhaps at one time evolved there. I think if we were to make a journey to Mars and undertake a program of exploration and determine that life had, in fact, evolved independently on Mars under different circumstances from Earth, that information would have profound impact on us as a species. I can't think of anything that would have deeper philosophical, social, cultural or religious impact on us than knowing that life had evolved somewhere else. And I think that more than adequately would justify the risks and the expenditures of going to Mars. I think it is a profoundly important question that we need to answer, for ourselves as a species.

Andy, let me change gears for one second. You were born in Australia. On STS-107 there was an intriguing Australian spider experiment that unfortunately was lost.


What's been the interest, since you were named to this crew, back in Australia, the level of intrigue about you representing this symbol, this return to flight crew?

Yes, there has been a lot of interest after the flight was announced, a lot of media interest and a lot of people I know have contacted me to express their congratulations and their wishes, because people do perceive it – quite correctly – as being a very important flight. It is true that on Columbia there was a small experiment that some students had put together. They were tremendously excited by their experiment, and they were there at the launch and were there waiting for the landing, and sadly their experiment was lost. But I think the resolve of people like that and others has not been diminished in Australia for human space flight, and there is a growing group of people -- young people, mostly -- who really believe that Australia should become involved in space exploration; that it's actually in Australia's long-term best interest to do that. And I hope that those young people and other people in Australia will look at my role on this flight that, although I'm not formally representing the country, it does show what can be done and that it might inspire others, a new generation in Australia, to step up to the challenges of human space exploration.

You and your six crewmates, when you do fly, will be launched based on the efforts of thousands of people …

Oh, yes.

… who are working very hard to get over all of the hurdles that lie between now and that launch date. But, you and your crew undeniably are a symbolic icon, if you will, of return to flight just like the Discovery crew was for STS-26. You are the most visible portion of that effort. If you were addressing every employee at NASA, for example, as they work toward return to flight, what do you, as a member of this return to flight crew, offer as a message to them?

Don't be disheartened or disenchanted by the events of the last year. Don't lose your resolve or your focus or your passion. It's terribly hard, when you put so much of your energy and your enthusiasm into a program like we have, and you see a tragic outcome like we saw in February. That can be very demoralizing. But I would say to those people, don't be demoralized—we will go on, and we will do things better, and there will be a positive legacy that will come out of it, and it's up to us to create that legacy. The families of the crew deserve that legacy that we create for them.

And what about kids? You know, despite it all, they always have the freshest view of the world and of setbacks and personal tragedy themselves. What do you say to kids who also are looking toward the future, still with great interest and hope?

Well, you know, it's kind of interesting because when you talk to groups of audience of a wide age group, when you talk to the young people, the kids and even young adults, you don't have to give them sort of any idea of the passion of space flight -- they all believe in it. They love it. They're just intrigued and enamored. And young people just want to see it happen. And they're not the ones that you need to try to bring to understand the value of this program. They're the future leaders, and they will carry that passion into their roles in their future lives. The ones that you really need to convince of the value of it are perhaps more my own generation, the people who are positions of influence now. They don't often understand that these kinds of activities are very sophisticated. They're very long term, they're not easy, they're very difficult to do. As President Kennedy said: "We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard." And they are difficult. And, because of that difficulty, a lot of people, particularly my generation, say, "Why do this -- what's the point?" Young people never seem to ask that question. They seem to understand it, as if it's just, well, of course, you would do it -- it's inconceivable not to do this. It's the older generations that you have to convince.

Andy, as you and your crew work through a year of technical preparation for this flight, the training that will be difficult, the changes to the flight, all of the work that's being done technically to ensure that return to flight for you and future crews is as safe as humanly possible. Perhaps the more difficult fix is this cultural thing that we talked about earlier. The accident investigation board discussed the culture of NASA; many are still studying that report to further understand what that might all mean. In your opinion, what has the agency learned culturally from the accident that will serve it well in the future?

Well, the most important thing is that the flow of information must not be cut off. There must be a free exchange of information up the communication line to management. I myself have to admit that I've been in meetings since that accident and I've now become very impatient when I see someone conducting a meeting, for example, and they're not willing to listen to a dissenting view, or they're not open-minded to a view that's perhaps contrary to their own or contrary to the sort of popular view that they have. I find at times I'm somewhat impatient with that, because I think people do need to open up and listen to dissenting views. You don't have to accept a dissenting view, but you should have a rationale why you don't accept a dissenting view that's sound. And all too often we've seen cases where dissention has been taken to be equivalent to disloyalty, which it's not -- it's just dissention. And the big thing that we've got to learn is that dissention is healthy when it's managed properly.

Andy, you've lived and worked on two space stations, on the Russian Mir Space Station for several months, and on a Shuttle assembly flight to the International Space Station a few years ago. Although your flight is dubbed "return to flight," that pertains to Space Shuttles in particular; space travelers have never not been in space since October or early November of 2000, when the first Expedition crew boarded the Space Station. Your destination on this flight is the International Space Station, again, as you mentioned earlier. Talk a little bit about what has gone on -- the dedication, the efforts, the work over the past year -- to keep human space flight alive and well in the face of adversity, in the wake of Columbia, the fact that not one day has passed without a human presence in space through the work of the partnership.

Well, it's really interesting, of course, because were it not for the international partnership, we would not have been able to support any space station without the Shuttles flying. The fact that we still have a human presence is a direct consequence of the partnership. I've heard it said after the accident, the Russians especially looked at that and said publicly, at various meetings with my colleagues in Russia, when things were tough for us -- "us," [meaning] the Russians -- back in the '90s, the U.S. came forward with the Shuttle-Mir program and helped us; those Russians today said, well, after the accident said, now, it's time for us to help the Americans, and help the U.S. And that's what they've been doing. And, it's actually been a very positive outcome of the international partnership to see the way the international partners have accommodated the loss of the Shuttle and worked to keep the Space Station flying. It's a great thing.

Pressing on to a final set of questions, in a big picture sense, Andy, how important, significant, symbolic, if you will, is your flight, STS-114, going to be in getting the agency physically and psychologically back in the saddle and back in orbit, in terms of returning Shuttles to flight and what that means.

Yeah, the flight: aside from the technical goals of the flight, it is an important symbol to show that this agency is in the human space flight business and has the capacity to launch crews to and from orbit and maintain the Space Station. I think that is very important for this agency to demonstrate that to the taxpayers. The taxpayers are looking for us to give them a return on their investment. And that return is that we show them that we're able to recover from this accident and get back in the business of flying in space as they wish us to do. And the flight is clearly a symbol of that capacity, and it's important for the country that we do that.

As the anniversary of the accident approaches and you press on with your training, how do you, personally, reflect on this past year and the loss of your friends on that crew?

I've worked in various organizations prior to my selection as an astronaut, and there's been times where those organizations have suffered tragedy. But usually it's in an area unrelated to the day-to-day functions of the organization. On Feb. 1, the organization of which I'm a member, the Astronaut Office, suffered a huge tragedy with the loss of seven people, seven colleagues, seven friends. Those people were just doing what we all came here to do. It wasn't a car accident or something like that -- they were doing our function, what we as professionals want to do. That was especially hard on the office, for everyone to see that. You could sense, as you walked around the office, the sense of loss and the sense of confusion that everyone had following that accident. In the months that followed there was a slow mourning and recovery, acceptance of the loss and recovery, within all the members of the office. And I think the office has recovered. It still feels the pain of that accident, and will do so, I think, for many years to come. But it has pulled together and recovered in a way that's actually been quite impressive. And there's now a great sense of purpose in the office that we do have to fly again, we do have to get the orbiter back flying, as a legacy of the colleagues that we lost.

Back in September of 1988 when Discovery was launched on STS-26, on the first post-Challenger mission, Rick Hauck and his crew deployed a Tracking and Data Relay Satellite in a very short mission -- but that mission was all about flying again, getting back in the saddle as well, and there wasn't a moment that went by on that flight where the memory of the crew of Challenger did not permeate the entire fiber of the flight. During your mission, how much do you think you and your crew will be thinking about the seven Columbia astronauts and what they sacrificed to make your mission and those that follow possible?

I think a lot of people will be having thoughts along those lines. For STS-26, when it launched and the SRBs were jettisoned, I think people sort of breathed a sigh of relief. We now know that from launch through to landing is a very dangerous environment -- all of it is -- and you can't let your guard down at any time in that process. And I'm sure that, during the entry of this vehicle, when it comes in for landing, people will be concerned, and they'll be watching it very carefully. And there will be some sighs of relief when the landing is successful, as I'm sure it will be. That's to be expected. I think during this flight many people will be reflecting on Columbia, and especially as we go through the entry and come in for landing. It's impossible that people won't think about what happened, previously; that's just the kind of thoughts that people will have. For us, of course, we're going to have to keep a focus on what we're doing to make sure that we're not distracted during that time.

+ Read Thomas' 2005 Preflight Interview