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Preflight Interview: Piers Sellers
We are speaking with Piers Sellers, Mission Specialist on STS-121. How was it that you made the decision that you wanted to be an astronaut?

Piers Sellers Image to right: Astronaut Piers Sellers, STS-121 mission specialist. Credit: NASA

It wasn't really a decision on my part. It was more of a hope from a very young age. I remember my father telling me, just after Gagarin got launched, about how this man had taken off and he was going round and round the world so fast that he was flashing in and out of the day and the night and the day and the night, again and again, in his little spacecraft. That vision somehow stuck with me throughout my whole young life, education, and all the rest of it. It was always a dream at the back of my mind that, to get to do that. But somebody else got to make that decision about whether I'd be an astronaut or not. And, that, that happened much later in my life.

Well, let's talk about that evolution. What did you do in terms of your education and career that made you qualify to be an astronaut?

Oh, I think it's partly the interest in spaceflight. Then later, aircraft and physics pushed me towards science. In my teenage years, I was really interested in physics and biology. So, I moved along a scientific track, pretty much, through college and a Ph.D. But I was not targeting myself to become a perfect astronaut at that point, because it didn't seem very likely for somebody from the United Kingdom in those days to be able to do that. But looking back I realize now I never ruled out a branch in the road that would have taken me in that direction. I always tried to keep my options open that would allow that to happen.

Was there any one person who served as your inspiration in motivating you toward becoming an astronaut?

I think a whole lot of school teachers motivated me to try and be a better scientist, against all the odds. You know how it is if you're a teenager: "Hey, I want to teach you about physics," and you're all trying to think about all these other things that, at the time, seem more interesting. So, I, I think I owe an awful lot to a few teachers who tried very hard to keep me on the straight and narrow. But really the inspiration for being an astronaut as such were the astronauts. I watched all that stuff on TV when I was a kid, all the lunar landings, Skylab, and all that stuff, early Shuttle. I watched all that stuff. Mesmerizing. And, and still do.

What are your interests and hobbies? What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?

When I'm not working my hobbies are sleep and home repair right now. Fixing my dryer, fixing my pool, stopping my house from collapsing around my ears. We don't have much time, you know, for much else. Normally, when we're not training so hard, I do a bit of sailing with my son. We've got a sailboat that we fix up and, and take sailing, and I really like to do that.

You touched on the amount of time that it takes to do the job that you do. What provides the motivation to make the sacrifice to do your job?

I think pretty well anything worthwhile, whether it's being an astronaut, being a scientist, being a doctor, is tough to see how you could do it in a nine-to-five kind of an environment. It just can't be done. You have to put in the extra time; you have to master the job. And, even if you put in all the time you can, you sort of have the feeling you don't know as much as you probably should. So, a combination of guilt, fear, and a desire to know more, I think, keeps us going.

Now especially since the loss of Columbia and its astronauts, we know the astronauts understand the risk of spaceflight. And yet, there you are, still willing to do the job. Why is this job worth that risk?

You can't get away from the risks, that's for sure, and you'd be stupid to ignore them. They're there. You can take a couple of approaches to it. One is: "Have we tried to drive down the risk as low as we can," in reasonable terms? And, I think looking at where we are right now with Return to Flight, the agency's made a huge effort to drive down the risk. Second, there still will be risk no matter what. No matter how good your effort. no matter how hard you try, there will always be some residual risk. And, you really have to accept that as being a part of the price for doing this work of exploration. You know, exploration is a risky business.

How does your family deal with those risks that you're taking?

I think it's tougher for them than it is for the crews, to be honest, because we're so involved in, in what we're doing. They're on the outside looking in. So, it's some, sometimes a lot harder for them. Again, I think they look at it as terms of "have we tried to drive down the risk as far as we can?" And then, having done that, try not to think about it too much.

What do the folks back in the, in the United Kingdom think about you and your work as an astronaut?

It's great to go back there and talk, particularly to kids and to students. They're really fired up about this stuff, just as I was as a kid. Those are the people that I really like to try and get in touch with when I get back. It's mainly kids and students, in sciences and engineering who want to see what they'll be doing 20 years from now in their careers -- what's ahead for them; what's exciting. It's a beautiful thing to showcase to guys who are struggling their way through an engineering degree, wondering where they're going to go to do something exciting. This is just a great example of something that could be a lot of fun and worthwhile.

As you look around this agency, have you seen a change in the way that folks approach their work on human space flight?

I've seen a huge change in the last couple of years. People are working very long hours, and they have been doing it for nearly two years now to, to try and get ready for these Return to Flight launches. It's colossal effort, a large amount of dedication from people, attention to detail, a lot of sleepless nights, frankly, for people working very hard on every aspect of these launches. I've seen more seriousness, and a lot of tension, frankly -- and a lot of dedication to the task.

Do you get much of an opportunity to talk with those folks behind the scenes?

Every day. Every day, we're dealing with people who are dealing with the technical content of our flights, the Training Division people, the Mission Operations people. When we go to the Cape, we talk to the people who are working on the vehicles. We see these people every day and, talk to them about how they're doing, how hard they're working, generally speaking. We talk to people who haven't had days off for, for, you know, weeks at a time, trying to get the vehicles ready. A colossal effort. Huge effort.

What can you say to them to help inspire them and to, just to say thank you?

Well, "Thank you" is a good start. And then generally we talk about our shared interest in what we're trying to achieve here. "This will be great. Can you imagine? We're nearly there. Isn't this good?" Those are the kind of things that the people who work on the vehicles, you know, that they bounce off you. We share the same feelings, most of the time, about where we're going. It's a joint effort.

STS-121 Mission Specialist Piers Sellers Image to right: Astronaut Piers Sellers, STS-121 mission specialist. Credit: NASA

This mission of yours is the second of two Return to Flight missions for the Shuttle. What does being a Return to Flight mission, a test flight, what does that mean?

It means a couple of things. First, and obviously, it's a test of all the changes that we've made to the vehicle to improve the safety; in particular the External Tank has had substantial modification to stop foam falling off it during launch. There's an on-orbit inspection. There's some on-orbit repair techniques that we're going to test as well. So, that's all the test part of these two flights. The other part of the flights is to try and make up all the ground that's been lost on Station over the last 2 1/2 years while Shuttles haven't been going there. We're replacing some worn-out units up there. We're pre-positioning some spares, like getting a new spare tire for your car and, and putting it there, and doing some repairs. So when these two flights are finished, the assembly sequence can start off from where it was interrupted. We're doing tests and basically getting the program back on track so the assembly sequence can start again.

How is your flight different from the flights that are going to follow yours? Will NASA no longer be doing those sort of detailed inspections that will be done during your flight?

That kind of depends on what we find, I think, on these two flights. I would imagine that, if all goes well, we'll have found that some aspects in inspection, the more time-consuming aspects, we can either skip or abbreviate. That will make less of an impact on the missions. So, we'll end up with probably a core set of inspection tasks for subsequent flights that are very well honed down to the, the task, I would think. That's, that's where I would imagine this will go.

Are the inspections occurring on your flight identical to what occurred on the first Return to Flight mission? And tell me about the kind of inspections that'll, that will occur to ensure that Atlantis is in good shape.

They're very similar to what 114 will be doing, several things. One is during launch, we have cameras pretty well everywhere and airborne cameras tracking us during our launch trajectory to see if any debris is being shed from the tank. We're photographing the tank as soon as we can, to see if anything has fallen off it and how much. Then before we dock, we're deploying this large boom on the end of the Shuttle arm and we're using that to look around underneath, at all the difficult-to-see places on the Shuttle, and scan the leading edges of the wings, look at all that. And then, as we come up to Station, we're going to do the somersault underneath the Station so that Station crews with cameras can image the underside of the Shuttle and look for damage like that, too. So, it's really comprehensive. I mean, every square inch of the Shuttle will get looked at.

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

I don't know. (laughs) Well, it means it's not an assembly flight, and that's part of it, I guess. Utilization and Logistics – "logistics," we're taking stuff up to Station; "utilization," we're doing these other tasks. It's kind of a generic name for the flight. But it really means we're not an assembly flight. We do have some, toting and carrying to do; and we do have some other stuff to do, namely the test objectives. So, 114 and 121 are breaks in the sequence of assembly flights for obvious reasons, and they're there to get us back on track.

Give me an overview of what you'll be doing on this mission.

The main job for me is spacewalks. We're doing three spacewalks during the docked phase of the mission. I have a few other tasks basically to get up to orbit and, and back again, helping the crew. But, I don't have any, responsibilities on the flight deck this time. So spacewalking is the main job.

Your crew is taking up a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module to the Station. What are you going to be delivering to the Station?

A lot of supplies, food, clothing, other consumables, some research racks for the Station. A lot of equipment and spares for the interior of the Station.

The MPLM will be taking up a lot of things to the Station, and you're going to pack it up with things to come back to Earth. What will be coming back with you from the Station?

Several things coming back. I think we're taking back a rack or two. We're taking back a lot of used clothing and stuff like that that's been stashed on board Station, so hopefully this will relieve their stowage problem. So, everything that's not really necessary, that's been accumulating for two years in the U.S. segment. We're doing a house-cleaning and bringing a lot of that back.

STS-121 Mission Specialist Piers Sellers Image to left: Astronaut Piers Sellers, STS-121 mission specialist. Credit: NASA

You're one of the spacewalkers, as you mentioned. You're working on worksite stabilization during that first spacewalk. What is that demonstration for? And, can you step us through what happens during that EVA?

The worksite stabilization test is very interesting. We have this 50-foot boom, which we're going to grab with a 50-foot arm, so you've got a very long stick indeed sticking out the back of Shuttle. The idea is with that, you could stand an astronaut or two on the end of it and you could reach any part of the Shuttle you wanted pretty much. The idea is then to see if you could do a repair while standing on the end of this. The problem is, of course, that it's a very long, bendy fishing pole with somebody standing on the end, so it's not a completely stable platform. It sways around a bit; we've tested it in virtual reality, we've tested it on an air-bearing floor. We know that it has some motion, some sway, associated with it. I think it's a bit like trying to paint the side of a house when you're standing up at the top of a tall, bendy tree. You have to be careful that you don't swing in and out. So we're going to test this. Mike and I will be standing on the end of the boom. We're going to deploy to different configurations. There are some configurations that are stronger than others. For example, if you bend the arm like this, it's quite strong, whereas if you extend the arm and boom all the way out, it's much weaker and much bendier, if you like. We're going to see if we can get some quantification of how stable this is as a work platform and how feasible it is to use it as a platform to repair the Orbiter in flight.

During a second spacewalk, you'll be contributing to the construction of the Station. What equipment will, will you be installing, and what's the significance of these components?

The main things we're doing are transferring two big units that we'll bring up on Shuttle and stashing them on a special stowage platform on the Space Station. The first is a pump module. It's large; it's like the size of two freezers or something, several hundred pounds. This is used to pump cooling fluid around the cooling system on Space Station, so it's pretty vital you have a spare up there. We have two up there on the trusses right now on Station, so we need a spare. And then, we have a large box, which has spare cold plates for some of the external units. This box is about as big as a, I don't know, a stove, a range, something like that. We're stowing that on the same platform. We're doing some other tasks, replacing some broken units on Space Station and pre-positioning spares.

That second spacewalk will also test some thermal protection system repair techniques that have been in development for quite some time. What will that work involve?

Right now, we've got a slot in EVA-2, to test the CIPA, the Cure-in-Place Ablator, tile repair technology. For those of you who are not familiar with it, you have a large backpack, which has got two components of different kinds of fluid that, when you combine them, they're like an epoxy resin. You have a, a material that will then cure pretty quickly. A little pump combines these two materials together when you're ready, squirts it out a gun, and you should get some kind of goop that will stick and repair a tile. We're going to take two damaged tile samples and try and do a little model of an in-flight repair with the CIPA apparatus. It will be interesting to see how that goes.

A third spacewalk will demonstrate inspection and repair techniques for the reinforced carbon-carbon, the RCC, part of the Shuttle's leading edge. What sort of work is being done during that EVA?

Actually, right now we're doing two things during that EVA. The main focus is to evaluate repair techniques for cracks in the carbon-carbon material that makes up the leading edge of the Shuttle. This is hard, black material; it's laid down a bit like fiberglass layers of carbon matting with resin, then matting, then resin built up in layers. This was the material that got damaged during Columbia's launch. So obviously we're very interested in trying to find a fix for it. We're going to take up some materials and plugs and test different techniques for repairing these on a special set of samples in the back of the payload bay of the Shuttle. That's going to be the bulk of the content of that EVA. But we're also testing an infrared camera which, basically it sees heat or the disturbing of heat flows in materials. We can see how well that does at picking up cracks in the carbon-carbon. If you have a crack in this material, it may be very thin and you may not be able to see it very well with your eye. But, the heat will have to flow around the crack; it can't jump across the crack. So, the surface temperature is distorted. And, hopefully, the, this IR camera, infrared camera that detects heat will be able to see some changes in heat flow around crack fields. So, we're going to test that as well.

A lot more work on testing tile and RCC repair is being done on your mission than was done for -114. What do you hope to learn from your spacewalks that could lead to perfecting the techniques and materials for the future?

These are going to be some fairly substantial data points for the teams that have been working on these repair techniques. We're hopeful that we're going to get some results out of this and that they'll be able to fold it into the development of what they're doing and the next-generation product will be something that we can rely on. This is a test, in both cases, for the tile repair and for the RCC repair; these are tests that we're doing, during these spacewalks.

For obvious reasons, a lot of attention has been focused on STS-114 and, and getting them ready to fly. Do you think the agency, NASA, will be able to muster that same sort of needed attention for your flight to make sure you're prepared to go?

I've no doubt about it. At every level where we go, talking to people, they're spending as much effort looking at all the missions that are in the pipeline. We have different teams dedicated to different missions, and they're all, they're all going about it with the same enthusiasm.

So you think everyone's had enough training for those tasks and that the training that people are doing to get you ready for your flight has been adequate?

It will have been adequate by the time we get there. We're still chomping our way through a large training template. But we know we've looked ahead, at the schedule, and I'm pretty sure we'll be ready.

Let's touch back a little bit on your spacewalk. You've worked outside the Station before, installing the S1 truss, during, STS-112. Are you looking forward to going outside again? What's going to be different and what's going to be the same?

I'm very much looking forward to going outside again. The Station's a beautiful, magical place, you know, suspended there above the Earth, slowly moving over it. It's an unforgettable sight when you're spacewalking, to see that. Quite, quite beautiful. What will be different? Well, in, on 9A, my last flight, we put on the starboard truss and, after that, our colleagues put on the port truss. So, now the Station looks symmetric. I'm looking forward to seeing the new, bigger, expanded Station. That'll be the main difference from last time, I think, the addition of the other truss.

What sort of joint operations are you and your crew going to be doing with the Station crew while you're there?

We'll do a number of things. Actually, pretty well everything we're doing we're going to be asking for help from the Station crew. One of the first things is that they'll be helping us do our EVAs. John Phillips up there knows a lot about the U.S. airlock, so he'll be helping getting us out the door for the EVAs. For the transfer, obviously it's vital that they're a part of the transfer team to make sure we get everything that we need to give them across, and likewise everything back from them. It's quite complicated, and there's an awful lot of stuff that's going to go backwards and forwards. Then we'll be doing some on-orbit work, some repairs, jointly with them. So, we'll be, we'll be seeing a lot of them.

What is the ROOBA hardware?

ROOBA is a new system that allows us to use the Shuttle oxygen piped through to the airlock for us to do our prebreathes before we go EVA. Before you go outside into a spacewalk, you've got to breathe oxygen for a few hours to purge the nitrogen out of your blood because your spacesuit's at a very low pressure. If you didn't do that, you would get the bends very quickly. So it's important that you manage to get enough oxygen to purge the nitrogen out of your blood. You breathe it through a mask. We're piping oxygen using the ROOBA from the Shuttle to do that.

Since the loss of Columbia, there is a renewed focus on the entry and landing of Shuttles. What will you be thinking about as you prepare to come back to Earth?

I'll be thinking about all the things I've got to do to help get the Shuttle ready for entry and landing. There's a, it's a ferocious race against time, the whole deorbit period when you're reconfiguring the Shuttle to come in for a landing. There's an awful lot of work to do. If my memory is correct from last time, I think I sat down and finally went, "Wow! Did we really get it all done?" And, that, not long before landing, about a half an hour before landing, is a very busy time.

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

Our flight and 114 are the flights that are basically helping to steer the program back onto the track it was before Columbia. So, we're the sort of corrections, if you like, to what happened after Columbia. Hopefully, when we're done, 114 and 121, the program will pick up smoothly from where it was before, the crash of Columbia, and we'll be able to move forward with the assembly. I see our task as basically getting us back on track.