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Preflight Interview: Stephanie Wilson
Stephanie Wilson Image to right: Astronaut Stephanie Wilson, STS-121 mission specialist. Credit: NASA

We are speaking with Stephanie Wilson, mission specialist on STS-121. Stephanie, how did you make the decision that you wanted to be an astronaut?

I became interested in being an astronaut when I was about 13. I was first interested in astronomy when I was given an assignment in school to interview someone in an, that worked in a career field in which I was interested. I interviewed a local area astronomy professor. I was very fascinated with his work. Later, though, I became interested in engineering and so I thought that studying aerospace engineering would be a nice combination of my interest in astronomy and in engineering.

Give me some more details on your education and your experience that lead you to being qualified to be an astronaut.

I have a bachelor's degree in engineering science from Harvard University; and a master's in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. I worked for the former Martin Marietta astronautics group, on the Titan 4 launch vehicle. I did dynamics analysis. I also worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the attitude and articulation control group for the Galileo spacecraft. So for me, working here at Johnson Space Center as an astronaut has been a natural progression from working on the dynamic response of launch vehicles to controlling and testing robotic spacecraft to now having a chance to fly on the Shuttle.

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do when you're not working, and not being an astronaut?

I enjoy snow skiing and stamp collecting.

Being an astronaut takes a lot of time that you could dedicate to other things, things you enjoy doing. What provides the motivation to make that sacrifice of your personal time?

Well, many careers have a sacrifice and there are many people who work very hard here at Johnson Space Center and at Kennedy Space Center. We're all just part of a larger team, working to complete the objectives of the mission. And so, motivation to me is to be able to complete my part successfully.

Now, especially since the loss of Columbia and its crew, we know that you astronauts understand the risk involved with human spaceflight. Why is this job worth that risk?

Well, humans have always had a, a need to understand, a quest for knowledge, and a, a thirst for exploring the unknown. I believe that space exploration is something that we must do. It's important to our future. That makes the risk worthwhile.

What [do] the folks in your hometown back in Massachusetts think about you and your career as an astronaut?

Oh, they're very excited for me. They're very anxious to hear when I return from this mission all about my experiences. My hometown has been very supportive, and they look forward to seeing me fly in space.

You get to tour around, go home and talk to those folks sometimes, and you also get to tour around and visit the other NASA centers. Have you seen a change in the last couple of years in the way folks approach their work on human spaceflight?

I have seen a change in the enthusiasm and the dedication. It has always been there, but it is now with renewed vigor that people are attacking the redesign of the vehicle or the changes in the processes that we are doing. Everyone is very dedicated. They're very committed and they are also sacrificing, working very long hours, working weekends and holidays. We, of course, are very thankful for their work and for their effort.

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

Do you get much of a chance to talk to those folks that are supporting your mission?

I have a little bit of a chance to talk to the people that support the mission, I talk mostly with our training team. They're getting us ready for our mission to fly in space. Since I‘m also responsible for the transfer activities, I work quite a bit with the people in charge of transfer. So I have an opportunity to work closely with those groups.

Are the tests or the inspections going on, on your flight similar to what was done on STS-114 and can you just give me an overview of what those are?

The inspections on our flight are very similar to the inspections that will happen on 114. I will be inspecting the vehicle, the wing leading edge and the tile. There will be ground-based photography that will happen on launch or during ascent, and there will also be onboard cameras that will do some imagery. And as we approach the Space Station for rendezvous we will do a maneuver that will flip the vehicle, and the crew on the Space Station will take photographs. So we'll have all of this imagery to analyze, to determine if there's been any damage to the vehicle.

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

It is my first space mission, and I'm looking forward to so many parts of it. I think the best part will be having a chance to visit the Space Station and to see the work that previous crews have done to assemble it and to see the work that's been ongoing, on the Space Station and to visit with the Space Station crew.

What are your duties on this mission?

My duties on this mission include robotics. I'll be the one to unberth and install our Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, and to demate it and reberth it into the Shuttle payload bay. I'm also supporting the robotics for the vehicle inspection and our EVAs. I'll also help in preparations for the EVA with the airlock operations. I'll also be on the flight deck for entry, I'm MS-1 for entry, and so I'll be assisting the flight deck team, assessing any malfunctions that we might have in determining impacts for landing, I also assist with photo/TV. I'm a member of the rendezvous team. I'll be operating our hand held laser so that we can get range and range rate information as we approach the Space Station. I'll be operating the docking system, for docking and undocking, and coordinating the transfer activities between the Shuttle and the Space Station crews as we transfer the logistics that we're bringing, and then reporting to MCC on the status of our transfer. So there's much to be done on this mission.

You mentioned the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. You're obviously quite involved with that. What is the MPLM and basically what are you taking up to the Space Station in it?

We will be taking to the Space Station a new cycle ergometer. They are in need of some new exercise equipment. We'll also be returning the old treadmill. The STS-114 crew will take up a new treadmill and the Space Station crew will replace it and pack the old one for us to bring home.

What is the Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer for ISS?

That is a facility that's used for cooling and storage of low temperature samples and experiments. It holds and keeps them cool until they can be used on orbit or until they can be returned to Earth.

You're going to be docked with the Space Station for several days. What kind of joint operations will you be doing with the Space Station crew?

We'll be heavily involved with the Space Station crew during our docked operations. We'll be working with them on our robotics, with our spacewalks. They'll be helping us, with the airlock preparations. We'll also be working quite a bit with them on our transfer operations. And I hope to have a common meal or two with them so we can hear about their experiences.

Once the MPLM is unpacked there'll be plenty of room to bring things back from the Space Station. What sort of things are you bringing back in the MPLM?

We will bring back the treadmill that they will replace with the one the 114 crew is bringing up. We will also bring down experiments that have completed, and other logistics that they no longer have a use for.

STS-121 Mission Specialists Stephanie Wilson and Piers Sellers Image to right: STS-121 Mission Specialists Stephanie Wilson (left) and Piers Sellers take an up-close look at the wing leading edge of Space Shuttle Atlantis Credit: NASA/KSC

Understandably, there's been a lot of focus on STS-114 and their Return to Flight. Are you confident that enough attention has been paid to your mission to make sure it's successful and safe?

I am confident that people are paying attention to all of the missions that will follow 114. There has been such a renewed vigor here at NASA, with a Return to Flight. There is certainly a focus on the first mission. There are many teams that are working on the subsequent missions and so I see that the focus will remain for our remaining missions.

Since the loss of Columbia there is a renewed focus on entry and landing of the Shuttles. What will you be thinking about on that day, on landing day?

On landing day I will be preparing myself to help the flight deck crew, to assist the commander, the pilot and the flight engineer, with any malfunctions that may occur. I'll also be reflecting back on the success of our mission and wishing the Space Station crew well as they continue with their mission, and looking forward to returning home and sharing my experiences with my family and friends.

When you think about STS-121 in the bigger picture, what's its role in helping fulfill this nation's goal of space exploration?

Well, I believe the role of STS-121, as with the subsequent Shuttle missions, will be to complete our phase of low Earth orbit. We will not be going to the Moon or Mars during this phase, but we certainly have learned a great deal about re-engineering and redesigning our systems; about upgrading our processes for developing or maintaining our vehicles here on the ground and interfacing with Mission Control. We will need to be able to do all of these things on a lunar or Martian mission. And so we are really just validating our processes and our techniques that will be applicable for our lunar or Martian mission.