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Preflight Interview: Michael Fossum
Speaking with Mike Fossum, mission specialist for STS-121. Mike, how did you make the decision that you wanted to be an astronaut?

Mike Fossum Image to right: STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum. Credit: NASA

Oh, boy; for me the decision about wanting to be an astronaut really turned into a dream. I shared that dream with about every other 12-year-old kid in America back in the early days of the space program. My family really thought the space program was important, my dad especially, and he made sure that we all knew what was going on and watched it on TV. I dreamed about doing that someday. But I really forgot about that as I grew up. I got older and decided real people don't do things like be an astronaut. And so I kind of forgot about that dream and went on through college. It wasn't until later, when I was back, the Air Force had me assigned to NASA Johnson Space Center, right here, as a, as an engineer working Shuttle mission ops in the early days of the Shuttle Program. During that time I worked down the hall from the Astronaut Office. I got to know a lot of those people and found out that they weren't, they weren't gods or something. They were pretty much normal people. Now, some were more normal than others. But I just realized they weren't that different than me. That kind of reawakened that dream in me and caused me to strive a little harder at the things I did to try to accomplish it.

Give me a little more detail on the specifics about what made you qualify to be an astronaut. What in your education, what in your experience led you to the point where you said, "Boy, I really can do this!"

The qualifications to be an astronaut vary a lot. There are so many different backgrounds in the people in the office. For me, my background was engineering. I started off with mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University. The Air Force sent me to graduate school, where I got a master's degree in systems engineering. For me, my whole career led up and bits and pieces came together. I worked in Mission Control and, again, that kind of work experience meant a lot because I understood a lot about the space business and the Shuttle Program. Then I went off to Air Force Test Pilot School. I learned the flight test business, trained as a flight test engineer to fly in the back seat of jets and run test programs, put things together. I got another master's degree in physical science, space science, from the University of Houston at Clear Lake. So those kind of education things came together for me. But really it was many years of working hard and striving to do the best that I could do at everything I tackle.

Was there any one particular person along the way that helped nudge you toward being an astronaut?

Probably the one person that made the biggest difference in there, who helped reawaken the dream for me, was Ellison Onizuka. I knew him in the early days, before his first flight. He sat me down and talked to me and said, "Look, you've got this great background and you've got this great attitude. What you need to do is leave NASA." He convinced me that I needed to apply to the Air Force Test Pilot School, flight test engineer program. He had been through that himself, before he was selected to come here. It seemed like kind of a backwards thing, because I was ready to stay at NASA as a civilian and work here for my career. But, he convinced me to, to go out and to do that, and, you know, to enjoy the experience and the opportunities that it might open up.

What do you like doing when you're not being an astronaut? When you're not here at work, what are your hobbies? What do you like to do?

I'm a, I'm a family man. You know, a lot of people might think astronauts have some kind of glamorous life, but it's a very normal thing. On any given Saturday you might find me working in the yard or going to my kids' ballgames and helping out. I have four children; and a lot of kids' activities going on. I like working on cars and I'm renovating a house right now. I'm also very active in Boy Scouts. I'm a Boy Scout leader in two different Scout troops, and so I enjoy doing those things, especially the high adventure things. The last couple of summers, I've taken Scouts into the wilderness in Canada canoeing, and into the mountains in New Mexico backpacking. I like to kid with them that I'm just getting ready for my next high adventure trip now.

Getting ready for that trip, being an astronaut, especially one training for a mission, takes up a lot of time, time you could be doing these other activities. Why are you willing to make that sacrifice?

Preparing for a mission does take a lot of time. For me, there's always a balance to things. I'm blessed with my family. They understand. They've lived with this dream of mine for a lot of years. It takes a little more time than normal away from home. But I try to make the best of the time that I have to continue to do things with my family and share my love in life with them.

You mentioned you were friends with Ellison Onizuka and especially since Columbia more recently, we know the risk of flying in space. You know this very well. Why are you still willing to take those risks?

We know there are risks associated with spaceflight. We've seen that recently with the Columbia disaster, and before that the Challenger disaster. They really served as very poignant wake-up calls to all of us in the space community and really everybody in our country. But for me personally it's a calculated risk. I believe it's important to our nation. It's important to us as American people, the grandsons of the pioneers and the explorers that opened up this country. That kind of spirit of exploration and discovery is what makes us unique in many ways, I believe. My forefathers came over from Norway and other countries in Europe about 130 years ago to find a new land and to open up new opportunities. They faced a lot of risks in doing that. I just like to think that I'm carrying on my part of that family tradition of exploring and discovering. Today most of our work is on the International Space Station. When I came back to NASA 12 years ago, I worked on the Space Station redesign team. I was involved in those wild days as we went through lots of options to pull it all together and come up with the design that we have today. For me, the opportunity to go and actually be part of that Space Station Program, to get to visit the thing that I helped design, and get in small ways to help to build it and prepare it to continue its mission -- man, that's just a great opportunity.

It's one thing for you to accept those risks and, and take part in these adventures. How does your family deal with the fact that you have a risky job?

Well, my family recognized that it's a risky job. Our whole family had friends that were affected by the Columbia disaster and they recognize that. But my family also recognized those risks associated with my job when I was in flight test at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It kind of comes with the turf. We love each other; we hold each other tight. They give me the freedom to go and do the things that I need to do. Mostly, they're excited for me. The dream of being an astronaut, for me didn't come to reality on the first try. It was a lot of years with ups and downs. Mostly my family's excited for me and, you know, excited at the adventure.

What do the folks back in McAllen think about you and your career as an astronaut?

I think most of the people back in my hometown of McAllen are still in shock that, that I'm doing something like this. I didn't stand out as a kid in high school back there, as being the top scholar or top achiever. Those that knew me knew that there was a fire that burned inside and, and aren't that surprised. The people that didn't know me as well are probably still in shock to see this on the news and to see that one of the local boys is going up in space. When I was growing up down there, I was very active in Scouts around the Rio Grande Valley. But I had a lot of other jobs, too, that don't sound like astronaut. I worked in, in a bicycle repair shop. I worked as a church janitor. I worked on orange-picking crews. I worked for an insulation construction company one summer. Those don't sound like astronaut jobs. But, they're real jobs and I worked with real people, getting my hands dirty, and I learned a lot in the process. Those kinds of jobs are hands-on things. You learn the value of hard work. You learn, maybe, that you want to continue your education. You learn how to do things. Those kind of skills that I learned doing the hands-on jobs, the jobs working with people, working with teams -- those are invaluable. That kind of training was spacewalk training when you get down to it, because we're using tools. You have to learn how to handle large, heavy objects, and follow procedures carefully. It's the same kind of thing. That was my early preparation for being an astronaut really.

You've had a long history here at NASA, here at the Johnson Space Center. Have you seen a change in the last couple of years in the way folks approach their work?

In the last couple of years, there has been a change at NASA. I think you see people are very serious. We've always been serious. And, I say "we" because I'm one of them. I've been in the trenches here. I've always been serious about what we do. But, it's been another wakeup call that we, as humans, are fallible, and that things can escape us -- .things that we're responsible for we still somehow miss, didn't catch, didn't understand. Early on, after the disaster, there was a lot of self-doubt and a lot of self-questioning about all that. I think that as we have dug in to learn the answers, learn what we missed, learn what to look for next time, everybody's matured in that process. Everybody understands better, not just in the particular areas of damage from foam. All across the Shuttle Program and the Station Program people have been challenged to relook, rethink their assumptions. That's matured us in ways and just made us a better Agency.

STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum Image to left: STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum participates in emergency training. Credit: NASA

As you've trained for your flight the last couple of years, have you had much of a chance to talk to the folks and, that are working to support your mission? And, if you do, what do you say to them?

We have had the chance to, to, meet and talk with a lot of the people working in the background for our mission, and I really like doing that. There's nothing I like more than to walk into the, walk into a shop, without a crowd of people, and really talk to the people that are doing the work. First just to see what they think is going on, to understand from them the details of their part of the program. And, second, to thank them personally, because, again, I've been in the trenches, I've been in the backrooms, and I really appreciated it then and I know they appreciate it now when, when, you know, when we understand what they're doing and, and value their contribution. Because, you know, this is not just a crew of seven that makes a Shuttle fly. There's thousands of people that are lifting her up on the, up into the air on their shoulders, and I know that.

Your Shuttle mission, STS-121, is the second Return to Flight mission. What does being a Return to Flight mission, essentially a test mission, mean?

Well, 121's the second mission after we return to flight. In many ways, it's been called a test mission. We were added into the lineup. Our mission was not originally on the manifest, and we were added in. The biggest reason is to help us finish the testing objectives that we need to understand all of the modifications that have been done to the external tank's foam and our ability to, inspect and repair, you know, any possible damage that might exist. So, it really, it took another mission to get all of these things accomplished. There are three main things to what we're doing. The first, which is being done on the ground, is redesigning the foam on the tank to make sure that big pieces don't come off. We still expect very small pieces, very probable that we'll shed some of those. They don't pose a threat; we're looking out for the big pieces. The second part is inspecting, knowing, knowing if you have damage. That starts right off the pad when we'll have dozens of cameras focused on us on the ground.; we'll have an airplane in the air with cameras on us; we'll have more cameras on board, looking at the tank, looking at the orbiter. Everybody's looking for the possibility of foam, impacts. We have sensors in the leading edge of the wing that will sense impact, those little raps of an impact. All of these things to help us gain insight. Once we get into orbit, we continue another part of the inspection with the new 50-foot boom, the Orbiter Boom Sensing System or OBSS. We'll carry that up in the payload bay, grab on to it with the Shuttle arm, and then pull it out of the bay. And then, there are sensors on the end of this boom that will run along the leading edge of the wings and around to the Shuttle's nose to inspect, very carefully, for any signs of damage. So, that's the second part. OK, all of inspection, from the ground up on to orbit when we're looking. The third part of all this, is being able to, is being able to repair any damage that you might find. And so, we're doing a couple of, tests to, evaluate the, the, the current state of our ability to repair damage to the Shuttle's tiles and to the leading edge. We hope we'll never get there. And I don't think we will. I think we've done all of our work early enough to prevent the damage from happening. But, we're working on the capability to do repairs if we should need them.

You gave us a good overview there of the kind of inspections that are happening on your flight. Are the flights that follow yours going to do the same level of detail in their inspections or will it be something different?

The first couple of flights we'll do a lot of inspections to make sure that we really understand the changes that have been made to the external tank, and that the sensing system that we're adding to the leading edge of the wing are really working properly and telling us what we need to know. After we get more comfortable with that, with the tank, with the modifications that we've made, my understanding is that we'll be backing off on some of these inspection requirements. But a lot of them are here to stay because we understand how important it is.

Your Shuttle mission is designated Utilization and Logistics Flight-1.1. What does that mean?

We're called Utilization and Logistics Flight-1.1. That's kind of a complicated NASA-ese, way of describing our part of in the assembly sequence of the Space Station. Every mission has a designation. Utilization and logistics mean that we're bringing up payloads, scientific payloads and logistics for the Station, and the "dot one" means there was already a "one," so we were added in. That's just the nomenclature to show that we were an additional flight that fits that kind of description. It, it does tell, in a nutshell, what we're doing, too. We'll be bringing up some new scientific equipment and logistics to support the Station, to help make up for the, downtime that we've had -- more food, more water, more spare parts, simple things like that.

A lot of those logistics are coming up in the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. What is that? And just give me a general idea of what's being taken up to the Space Station.

The Multi-Purpose Logistics Module we'll be carrying up in the payload bay is used for large cargo transfer. When I'm describing it to people, I like to refer to it as the "U-Haul module." It comes up in the back of the payload bay, and from there we'll use the Station's robot arm to reach down into the bay, pluck it out, and then move it up and install it on the Space Station. Once it gets attached to the Station, then we can open the hatches and get access to this very large volume. The MPLM, as we call it, is full. There are some scientific experiments, scientific racks, that are in there, and some smaller payloads that will be installed in their proper location in the Station. There's just a lot of the simple logistics stuff that you and I might have in a U-Haul if we were moving cross country. They do have food, clothing, all of the things that it takes to really supply and keep the Station up and running.

What are your duties on this mission? Give me a big picture of what it is that you're going to be doing.

Well, my duties on this mission start off on ascent. I'll be sitting on the flight deck. I'll be, designation is Mission Specialist No.1. That means I'll [be] assisting the, the commander and pilot, and MS-2 with basically operations of the Space Shuttle systems. That's a very busy time in the simulators, when the trainers like to throw lots of problems our way and we have the challenge of sorting through them all. For a nominal ascent, which we fully expect, it won't be nearly as busy as it, as it is while we're in training. But it's really overseeing the Shuttle systems and helping work any problems, any system failures that might occur while we're going uphill. Once we get to space, I'm just one of the team that will help activate and turn the Space Shuttle from a rocket ship into the orbiting workshop as we get ready for docking with the Space Station. There are a lot of things – opening up the payload bay doors, activating the rest of the comm system, and, getting ready for the rendezvous in a couple of days. The most unique part of my job during the mission will be doing the three spacewalks while we're attached to the Space Station. My designation there is EV-2, which basically means I'm the rookie. I'm very excited about the spacewalks or EVAs, extravehicular activities, in NASA-speak. An EVA is a very challenging activity, but it's one we've spent a lot of time training for. I'm really looking forward to those. As we prepare for coming home, I'll be responsible for kind of orchestrating the crew's activities during deorbit preparations. I'll have the roadmap for that and help direct that show. And, I'll be coming home, downstairs, on the middeck of the Shuttle for the return flight.

You mentioned that you're a, a rookie spacewalker. This is also your first flight into space. What are you looking forward to most about being in space?

Well, as, as a rookie on my first flight, what I look forward to the most is honestly, the realization of a dream that's lasted most of a lifetime. That's the first emotional thing. Beyond that, though, it's not knowing quite what I'm up against personally -- what this is going to be like. It's knowing that I've got a challenge. I've got a big job to do. I've got a lot of responsibilities. And I know we're going to be busy. I'm not going to be spending much time just looking out the window, watching the world go by. We've got a lot of work to do, and I'm pumped up and excited about getting on with it.

STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum Image to right: STS-121 Mission Specialist Mike Fossum suits up for spacewalk training. Credit: NASA

You mentioned before one of the big jobs you're doing is these spacewalks. Let's talk about that first spacewalk, dealing with worksite stabilization. What is that demonstration about? Can you step us through what happens during that spacewalk?

During our first spacewalk, Piers Sellers, my spacewalk partner, and I will be using the boom, new Orbiter Boom Sensing System. We mentioned earlier that we'll be using that with its sensors on the tip to inspect the outside of the Shuttle for damage. The second thing that this OBSS might be used for (we'll just call it the boom) would be to serve as a platform that we could work off of if we needed to do any repairs to the Shuttle. The belly and leading edge of the Shuttle are very slick. When you're doing spacewalks, it's not really a walk at all. Your feet aren't involved -- it's your hands. You go hand-over-hand from place to place. There's nothing to grab on to out there. So the boom would be used with a foot platform attached to it so we could latch our feet into this boom and then have our hands free and have our bodies stabilized so that we could do any repair work that we needed to do to the Shuttle itself. We've never used anything like this boom with the Shuttle's robot arm. So we will go out and do some tests just to verify the ability of the arm to handle the load of a working spacewalk crewmember on the end of this large extension. We'll go out and start off with just one person on it. Piers will get on it first. First they'll go to what's considered to be a strong position. He'll do some basic moves, pitching his body back and forth, and then watching the way the whole system responds. There are breaks and joints in the arm, and we'll be looking for any slip in those joints as the boom responds to his dynamics. He'll then move to a weak position, where it's expected to flop around more, and do some more maneuvers, bouncing. Simplistically we call it "bouncing on the boom." It's a lot more complicated than that, but he'll be doing representative moves that will put force into the whole system. After we test it out with one person, we'll bring the boom back down to the payload bay and I'll get into the foot restraint. Piers will be hanging on to the boom. This is to simulate the kind of situation where we'll actually [be] doing a repair, where I would be the one in the foot restraint, with both hands free so I can do the repair, and Piers will be moving around the outside. We'll have kind of a tool stanchion and some other support equipment set up, so he'll act as if he's getting tools out and handing them to me. We'll be able to evaluate the stability of the system with both of us moving around and putting force into the whole boom and arm just to make sure that it's stable enough. We'll be doing some basic maneuvers in free space. And then, we'll go down to some structure and I'll actually put force into the structure as if I'm tamping down, the repairs, like for a tile repair that requires a continuous tamping motion to push all of the repair material down into the patch site. We'll just do that to see if it holds us stable enough to accomplish those kinds of basic tasks.

You and Piers go out for a second spacewalk that's going to be contributing to the construction of the Space Station. What equipment are you installing? Where's that going, and what are the significance of these components?

Our second spacewalk's going to be a very busy one. It's going to have us running back and forth from the payload bay up to the Station several times. We'll have a, a pallet in the back of the payload bay of the Shuttle that has a couple of large boxes on it. Those are basically spare parts for the Station. We'll be moving them from the Shuttle's payload bay over to an external storage platform on the Space Station itself. The first one is the pump module, which will be a spare part for this Station's cooling system. We'll go out and unbolt this pump module - it weighs about 1,500 pounds - and then Piers and I will lift it up, just about a foot or so, and then hold it stable for the Station's arm to come in and grapple onto the pump module. At that point, we can release it. The arm will move this heavy payload over to the Station. We'll race back up to the Station to meet it -- we'll do that very carefully; we won't really be racing -- and then we'll talk them into position where we can grab on to it. Once we have a good hold of it, we'll tell our, our robotic arm operator to release the pump module. We'll, we'll put it down into position and bolt it down. The challenge here is working with the large boxes, the external storage containers that these are in, and kind of tight clearances as you're coming into the crowded Space Station structure. We'll be literally talking them in just like you might back up a truck into a tight, parking space. Also, during the spacewalk, we'll be testing what we call the CIPA. It's a tile repair, equipment and materials. We'll have a test bag that we'll pull out onto a stowage platform near the Space Station's airlock. Piers will be in a foot restraint. I'll install the CIPA on his back. We'll open up this test bag, which has a couple of sample damaged Shuttle tiles in it. Then we'll practice the tools and techniques to actually do repairs to those tiles. We'll leave those out for two days to cure a little bit in the outside vacuum of space before we package them up on our third EVA and bring them in. These tiles then will be used by the engineers and scientists on the ground just to evaluate how well the repair material adheres to the site. They'll be taking some of these samples also and, and subjecting them to the kind of heat stress that the Shuttle has during re-entry. We call it an arc jet facility, where they'll be blowing a plasma jet on these just to see how well the repairs that we perform in space will perform in a test on the ground. That will help us determine how effective this repair is.

You'll be working on more repair techniques during your third spacewalk, mainly concerned with the reinforced carbon-carbon, the leading edge of the Space Shuttle. What sort of work is being done during that third EVA?

Our third EVA focuses on the repairs to the reinforced carbon-carbon leading edge of the Shuttle. This is a completely different environment as far as the repairs go. The leading edge of the Shuttle gets up to 3,000 degrees, and there are not many materials that can withstand that kind of temperature. So for this, we'll be dedicating an entire spacewalk to testing these materials and techniques. We'll have a setup in the back of the Shuttle's payload bay. A large box is back there. We'll flip the lid open on this box, and, in there will be different damaged tiles. We'll have an infrared, camera with us that we'll use to take images of these tiles before we begin to do the repairs. There's a special material, we call it generically "the black goo," that we'll be using to do the repairs. We have a special space caulking gun that we'll use to squirt out a small amount of this repair material. In the vacuum of space, the stuff boils. It's just amazing to see it in a vacuum. The black goo literally, it boils and sputters; and we work it with a putty knife until it settles down and becomes more workable. We'll then use that to make repairs, filling small cracks and holes in the sample tiles. We won't be practicing on the Shuttle's actual leading edge during this. It'll be sample tiles that are back in a test, on a test board in the back of the bay. We'll test a number of different samples using the black repair goo. We'll also be installing one or two plugs for larger holes that you can't really fill with a filler material. We've got some plugs that have been designed to go into the hole and then there's a surrounding kind of a cap area on this, and it's literally a toggle bolt kind of setup just like you might install a towel rack in your bathroom with. We'll use a space drill to tighten this thing up. The toggle part opens up on the backside to hold it flush. We'll use feeler gauges to make sure that the gap is right, and then we'll use some of the same black goo to kind of seal up the edges. What's different about this is we are in zero G; we are in the extreme temperature conditions of space and in the vacuum of space. All of things are very hard to test on the ground. We've done a lot of testing in vacuum chambers and different facilities on the ground, but what we'll do is demonstrate our ability to do end-to-end repairs. We also expect to learn things. That's why we're doing a number of different tiles, because the material has some very dynamic properties. We've learned new things about it every time we've gone into a, a test condition. This really will be a test for us. The challenge for us is to determine what the best techniques to use for making a repair.

Give me a little more detail on what you're hoping to learn as a result of this work that you're doing outside the Space Shuttle, in the payload bay. A lot more time has been budgeted on your flight than for STS-114 to work on these repair techniques. What do you think you're going to learn as a result of all this work?

There's been a ton of work done on the entire challenge for doing repairs to the Shuttle's external thermal protection system since the Columbia disaster. It's a very challenging environment. I mean, the, the tiles that, the heat protection tiles on the Shuttle get up to about 2,300 degrees. The leading edge, the reinforced carbon-carbon panels get up to about 3,000 degrees. It's a tough place to try to make repairs. The original design for the RCC in the leading edge was state-of-the-art at the time and it's practically state-of-the-art today. So, making repairs to it is very challenging. A great deal of effort has gone into finding materials that will stick to these tiles, for instance, that could be used as a filler, that will cure in space with the conditions that we have, things that will work in a vacuum and the cold temperatures in the vacuum. And, try as we might on the ground, you've just got to get into space, into the actual environment, to see how it performs and to see if we have the skills that it takes to make the repairs. We want to identify the procedures and techniques that future crews could use if they had to. There are still a lot of unknowns. We'll try to remove these unknowns and determine the best way to proceed in the future. There's no way to know for sure it will work until we actually test it and validate it by making the repairs in space and then bringing these samples home where they can be properly evaluated in the laboratory.

There has been a lot of focus on STS-114, as the first Return to Flight mission. Are you convinced there's been enough focus, enough attention paid to your flight to make sure you guys are fully trained and are safe?

There's been a lot of focus on 114 as the first Return to Flight mission, and that's natural. They're the first ones out of the block. They're the first ones to deal with all of the changes that have been made, and the first ones to basically prove the changes that have been made to the External Tank, our inspection systems, and begin to look into our repair techniques. On 121, I think, in general we're happy to be, kind of in the shadow of 114, because the press focus is more on them. That leaves us more free to actually concentrate on getting our jobs done. There's a lot to learn. We have had the challenge of responding to a lot of changes that have come along as we continue to refine our understanding. The work for the repairs, especially, has been, very, very dynamic over the last two years. We're still learning new things on the ground, in the laboratories, today that we're folding into what we're doing on our flight. The challenge for us has been to be as prepared as we can be with the stuff we already understand so we've got the ability to respond to the changes that keep coming at us. It is a challenge. I think we're up for that challenge. We'll be ready to go.

One challenge that a lot of folks will be focusing on, since the loss of Columbia and its astronauts, is your re-entry and your landing. What are you going to be thinking about on that day as you come back to Earth?

There has been a lot more focus on the re-entry and landing since the loss of Columbia. I've been asked what I'll be thinking when we come home. You know what happened just two missions before ours. For me, I think I'm gong to have total confidence; I'm just going to be ready to come home and looking forward to seeing my family, giving my wife and kids a hug again. Because I think we will know what kind of condition we're in, and that's a new thing. That'll be different, that we'll know the condition of our ship.

What is the significance of your flight in fulfilling the nation's Vision for Space Exploration?

STS-121 is another one of the cogs in our nation's space exploration program. The big emphasis for the agency, for our nation, right now in space exploration is to complete the construction of the International Space Station. Our mission is to help catch up after the downtime, to help prove that the Shuttle's safe to continue flying as long as it's needed, and to get us moving forward. That's our important part. The Space Station, assembly of the Space Station, and can focus more on the utilization of the Space Station to answer the remaining questions about preserving the long-duration health of humans in space, these kind of things we need to know, and we need to understand real well, before we reach out further. And, that's part of the long-term Vision for sending humans to Mars. Humans will go to Mars someday. I'm confident there will be an American flag flying on that mission. The work we're doing today is laying the groundwork for that mission many years in the future.