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Preflight Interview: Lisa Nowak
We are speaking with Lisa Nowak, Mission Specialist on STS-121. Lisa, how did you make the decision that you wanted to be an astronaut?

Astronaut Lisa Nowak Image to right: Astronaut Lisa M. Nowak, STS-121 mission specialist. Credit: NASA

Well, when I was growing up, I remember when I was about 5 years old the moon landing and watching those astronauts and I thought that was very exciting. As I was growing up I watched the development of the Space Shuttle Program and particular when they started including women in the program. It started to look like something that I really could do. I didn’t necessarily plan what I did after that with the specific goal of getting there, because it seemed like such a long shot, but I kind of had it in the back of my head and after I graduated from the Naval Academy I had the opportunity to come and work here at NASA for six months for temporary duty before going off to flight school and I got to meet everybody in the program here -- not just the astronauts but everybody that works in all the different jobs. It seemed really exciting seeing it up close. I thought if there was a chance to be able to come here that I would love to do that.

Tell me more about that educational and work experience that got you qualified to be an astronaut.

I went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and learned about a lot of different things. I majored in aerospace engineering and later after temporary duty here for six months went to Naval Flight School as a Naval flight officer. That’s the person in the Navy airplanes that does communications and weapons systems and navigation, things like that. From there I went to an operational squadron and then went to graduate school and got some more education in aerospace engineering. Then I went to the Navy’s test pilot school where I learned about testing new aircraft systems, particularly new aircraft systems, navigations systems and weapons systems for me. Later I worked with acquisition of aircraft, Naval aircraft and then got selected to come here.

Was there any one person who was particularly influential along the way in helping to get where you got?

Not one person in particular. I think that time when I was here for that six months what impressed me was the whole idea that everybody was so into what they were doing and excited that each of their parts was so important. I think that is probably the biggest thing that excited me was that all of the people were so into the mission and knew they were a big part of it.

What are your interests and hobbies? What kind of things do you like to do when you’re not working?

I have a lot of those and probably not enough time to do most of them. I like reading a lot and doing crossword puzzles, those sorts of quiet hobbies. Also I like taking care of indoor plants, I have a lot of African violets, and outdoor activities. I like bike riding a lot and sailing. That’s just a subset, I could probably think of 10 more things and they’re all fun to do.

You mentioned being so busy, not having time for those things. What about this job makes you willing to make the sacrifice of those personal things?

Well, you’re right, there’s not time for a lot of those and, and less time for family, of course, and this mission’s very important. All the space missions we do are very important because exploration’s important for all of us. But you’re right; it’s a sacrifice for our own personal time and our families and the people around us. But I do think it’s worth it because if you don’t explore and take risks and go do all these things then everything will stay the same. People aren’t like that. We want to explore and expand and know more about the place around us.

Now, especially since the loss of Columbia and its astronauts, we know that you astronauts understand the risk of human spaceflight. Why are you still willing to do this?

It's because, as I mentioned, exploration is just part of our destiny. It’s what we feel inside of us that we have to go and find out what more there is. Just to stay here and do the same thing day after day … In some ways we still do that in our jobs even as astronauts. We do some of the same things, but that’s all with the bigger goal of exploring around us and farther out.

That’s one thing for you to be willing to accept those risks. How does your family deal with that sort of risk?

Well, of course, you can say we accept the risk in general, but when it gets down to somebody personal it’s a little bit harder. But they also have the same view of exploring and that bigger goal. It will be hard for them I know with that day that I’m out there in that Shuttle getting ready to launch or the day we come home. But because we share the same goals they know that it’s, it’s worth doing that.

Where are you from? Tell me about the place that you come from.

Well, I grew up in Rockville, Maryland. It’s about 20 minutes outside Washington, D.C., and my family still lives there, a lot of them, in that area. They’re all excited about the mission.

As you get to tour around NASA, have you seen a, a change in the last couple of years in the way people approach their work on human spaceflight?

I’ve always seen very dedicated, enthusiasm from everybody the whole time I’ve been here. But in the past couple of years there’s been even more of an emphasis on safety and attention to detail. Those are things that we had before, but because of the Columbia accident, accident we’ve all been paying a special attention and making sure every detail is taken care of.

Do you get a chance to talk to many of the folks behind the scenes and if so, what do you get to say to them?

Well, behind the scenes. I think of everybody as part of being in the scenes. We talk to our trainers and the people in Mission Control fairly often during the course of our training. As far as going to other sites and visiting people that are building and maintaining the hardware and things like that, right now during our training we don’t get to do it that much because we’ve spent so much time training. But I have done that over the years that I’ve been here and it’s very rewarding because again, because they know how important their piece, each one of those pieces, of the Shuttle and the work that they do is. And it’s very motivating to see that from every person out there.

STS-121 Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak Image to left: Lisa Nowak, foreground, inspects the Space Shuttle with STS-121 Commander Steve Lindsey. Credit: NASA

Your mission is the second Return to Flight mission. What does that mean, being a Return to Flight mission, essentially a test mission? What does that mean?

That’s right, the first two flights instead of just bringing up supplies or assembling part of the Station, which are all very important; are dedicated to testing out some new repair methods that we might have if something, something did hit the Shuttle during a flight. We'll be testing out certain methods to repair it possibly on orbit, and different ways of doing that. We have a new boom that we’re attaching to the robotic arm. That’s something that we’ve never used before. So testing out a bunch of new techniques and also the possibility that we might, if there was some damage that we couldn’t repair, that we might need to stay on the station for a while and wait for a rescue. Those are all new concepts that are being exercised on these two flights. Once those are tested out then we’ll make decisions on how much of those the inspections and things like that will need to be continued on other flights.

How is your flight different than the flights that are going to follow it? Will NASA no longer be doing the kind of detailed inspections that they’ll be doing on your flight?

That’s one of the decisions that they’ll make after our two flights. We, 114 and 121, as you mentioned, will be doing very detailed inspections. In fact, flight day 2 is almost exclusively dedicated to those inspections and there’s, there’s some on the other days. The leading edges, the underside -- when we first get to Station showing them the underside so they can inspect it -- we have a lot of time dedicated solely to those. We’ll take the data from those flights and analyze them and decide at that point how much would need to be done on the follow on flights. So we don’t really know that yet.

Are the inspections occurring on your flight identical to what is happening with STS-114? Could you kind of just take me through a little more detail on what’s happening with the inspections?

The inspections for our flights are pretty similar. We’ll be, we’ll be inspecting the leading edges of both wings, and the nose cap. Also when we get to the station before rendezvous the Shuttle will actually approach and do a, a flip all the way around so they can see the underside where all the tiles are, and take pictures for about a minute and a half. And these are all new techniques, but they’re similar between 114 and our flight. The new boom we have, the Station arm will actually pick it up and hand it to the Shuttle. So we’ll be doing all those detailed inspections similar to what 114 is doing.

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

Well, in the original sequence when they started numbering them, that’s the name that fell out. STS-114 was originally ULF-1 and ours got put in the sequence after them after some other flights were named. So when they do that they call it a dot flight. So we were 1 dot 1. As far as the Utilization and Logistics, we’re bringing up some supplies to the Space Station. We’re not doing any assembly because we’re a test flight. We will be bringing up some spare pieces to put up on a pallet that some later flights will use for assembly but our main goal of this flight as a Return to Flight mission is to test the new safety features and repair techniques. The supplies we're bringing up are much needed just in general for the crew. We'll also have two replacement boxes, we call them ORUs, Orbital Replacement Units, that we’ll put up on a pallet outside. Another crew later that’s coming up later will use to help assemble the Station.

What are your main duties on this mission?

I’m Mission Specialist 2 or MS-2 so one of the things that take up a lot of my training is what you might think of as a Flight Engineer on ascent and entry. I sit behind and between the pilot and commander and help coordinate things and keep the big picture. And if it comes down to a lot of different malfunctions like we see in simulators I’ll primarily help the commander out, and MS-1 who sits next to me will primarily help out the pilot. During the bulk of the mission while we’re in orbit, most of my duties involve robotic operations. We have a lot of detailed robotic operations on this flight. It’s very exciting from a robotic standpoint. Some things actually that have never been done before, and that’s using both the Shuttle’s robotic arm and the Station’s robotic arm.

This will be your first mission. What do you think is going to be the best part of it?

Probably the best part in the big picture is knowing that I am contributing to our space effort and our whole exploration that all of us feel inside of us is so important. Probably from a personal point of view, I’ve just heard how wonderful the view is from up there. You can look at a picture and that’s one thing, but everybody’s told me that when you experience it yourself it’s something that you feel; it’s not something that you see. You just feel it. And I’m really looking forward to that.

Your crew’s taking up a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module to the International Space Station. What are you going to be taking up to the station?

STS-121 Mission Specialist Lisa Nowak Tons of supplies basically. As you know, the Shuttles haven’t been flying for several years and they can only take small amounts of things up in the Progress modules that come up every so often. We’ll have lots of things to transfer. Basically while we’re doing all the other things; the three spacewalks we have and all these robotic operations; we’ve got to fit in transferring all these supplies back and forth. It’s a very detailed timeline in getting all these things done and keeping track of them all.

Image to right: Astronaut Lisa Nowak, STS-121 mission specialist. Credit: NASA

What kind of joint operations will you be doing with the International Space Station crew?

The transfer, as you mentioned is something that we will all be participating in. They’re certainly interested in the things we are bringing up. It’s probably best that they participate in that because then they can put it somewhere and, and, know where it is. They’ll also be helping us to load the MPLM back up. And some of the robotics operations we’ll be doing together. There’s one part where we’re taking the Station’s robotic arm and it can walk off from one place to another. It can attach one place and then attach in a new place and have that old base be the new end. It moves around. And I’ll be doing one of those walkoffs, with one of the Station crewmembers.

Three spacewalks are on this mission. The first one deals with worksite stabilization. What is this demonstration for and can you kind of talk us through what is happening an, on that spacewalk?

From a robotics point of view that’s one of the most interesting spacewalks we are doing. We’re doing some things we’ve never done before. We’ll be using the Shuttle's robotic arm to go and get that large boom, that’s actually as long as the robotic arm itself. In fact it was built from pieces that were originally going to be another robotic arm. So, we’re going to have a very long extended arm to work with and the idea that is that the extended piece would then be able to inspect different places of the orbiter that we couldn’t reach or see with just the robotic arm itself. But a new thing that we’re looking at is putting an EVA person on the end of that arm with the idea that they might be able to, say, repair a small piece of damage on the Shuttle somewhere. But we’re going to test if that long extended arm and boom can handle the loads of a person on it moving around and, say, smoothing out an area that they had fixed. And we’re going to move them to what we call a strong position where we think it’s relatively a strong position of the arm that we think is probably OK take those loads. Then we’re going to stretch it and to what we call a weak position where we’re not sure. That’s why we’re doing a test. Then we’re going to bring that person back and for the first time put somebody else on there. We’ll have two EVA crewmembers on there, and go through these different steps again. They’ll be moving around and simulating doing a kind of repair. We’ll have loads being measured to see that then if we really needed to do a repair, could the arm and its extended boom handle that.

The second spacewalk that’s going to be contributing to the construction of the Station -- what are the pieces of equipment that are being installed on the International Space Station and what do they do?

The things we’re bringing up in our Shuttle payload bay are called the pump module and the SHOSS-ED. They’re basically pieces of equipment that will help later with the Station’s cooling system. The pump module is for pumping ammonia for the cooling system. The SHOSS-ED has some cold plates that are involved with the cooling system. The EVA people will take these boxes, unbolt them, and then hold them up, one of them on each side, and present each to us to grab with the Station’s robotic arm. We'll move it up to the pallet on the Station that we’re putting up. They in the meantime move themselves up there and then we’ll hand it back to them and they will actually install it onto the Station. The reason we’re doing it this way with the EVA help, instead of just grabbing it directly and putting it on directly, is because the loads analysis. They weren’t sure if it could handle being grabbed directly by the arm and being moved up there. So by having the EVA people handle it they know that the loads will be gentler.

Let’s talk a little bit about the third spacewalk. It’s going [to] do some repair techniques for the reinforced carbon-carbon, the leading edge of the Shuttle. What sort of work is being done during that EVA?

Mike and Piers as the EVA crewmembers will actually be doing the sample repairs. And from a robotics point of view I’ll be driving the Station’s robotic arm in this case, and assisting them to move around to different places. There’ll be a pallet near the back end of the Shuttle that has some samples of surfaces of the orbiter with the kinds of damage that we would be interested in trying to repair. They will actually go out and take their repair materials and try different methods of fixing the samples from this pallet. We’ll be assisting them by moving them around with the robotic arm.

There’s a lot more work testing tile and RCC repair on this mission compared to STS-114. What are you hoping to learn from these spacewalks that can lead to perfecting techniques in the future?

The goal of both the flights, and some of the things we’re doing on ours just because they weren’t ready to go on 114, is to evaluate whether these materials and techniques are going to work in space. We can only test so many of them here on the ground and some of them may react differently in space. It may be that it’s too hard to make a smooth surface or something like that, so we’re going to test and evaluate these methods while we’re up there and then make decisions as to whether these would be viable techniques in case a section that did need repair. If we think that they’re not, and, and a better option would be to wait on the Station for another crew to come get us -- that would be, that, that would be the kind of thing we need to decide after these two flights.

Understandably, a lot of attention has been focused on STS-114 and getting that flight ready to go. Are you confident that the right amount of attention’s been given to your flight and making sure that you guys are prepared and safe?

We definitely feel we've gotten the right amount of attention from a safety and training standpoint. We’ve been training just as hard as 114 has. Certainly 114, because they’re the first flight back, is getting a lot more attention from the outside. But internally we’ve been given just as much training and attention and detailed simulations and all those things. So I’m confident that we’ll be ready and I think once people see that we are getting going again then they’ll be excited about all the flights that are coming up.

Now, you’re going to be returning to work; this is only the second time we’ve come back since Columbia. A lot more attention is on the entry and landing. What are you going to be thinking about as you prepare for entry and landing?

We, the crew, probably have the easiest job because we’ll be concentrating on the jobs we’ve been trained to do and that will be the focus. I think the harder part will be for the people back here waiting for us to come back because that’ll be even harder I think. But we’ll be focusing on our jobs just like we always do, just like during our simulations and training.

What’s the significance of this flight in fulfilling the nation’s Vision for Space Exploration?

Well, our Vision includes getting back to flight, first of all. And as a Return to Flight mission we certainly fit that category -- helping toward getting the Station built and eventually toward exploring farther, back to the moon or Mars or wherever we would like to go.