Interview: Susan Helms
STS-101 Crew Interviews with Susan Helms, Mission Specialist 4.
we begin with the details of this mission I want to ask a few
questions to get details about you. Why did you want to become
an astronaut? Where does that come from in your life?
like to be able to say that I was born with this burning desire
to become an astronaut, but it didn't really happen that way.
What ended up happening was I sort of grew into the idea over
several years. I'm a career military officer in the U.S. Air Force.
When I was last working somewhere other than at NASA, I was performing
a job as a flight test engineer, and that particular career assignment
means that I ended up doing a lot of technical analysis on airplanes,
flying in airplanes themselves, doing a lot of operational duties.
And I just ended up catching the flying bug in a big way. And
as I was getting a chance to fly in a lot of neat airplanes, like
F-18s and F-15s and Canadian Tudors and T-33s and all these other
kinds of airplanes, I thought, well, I would just like to keep
trying to fly in a lot of cool things, higher and faster, than
I've ever flown before. And at the same time, I started to get
an interest in what they were doing down here in the space business,
because it was also operationally oriented. And eventually I came
to the realization that if I were to come here and be an astronaut,
it would basically be a continuation of the kind of work I was
already doing, only I'd be going a lot higher and faster than
I had been in the past. And, after talking to some people that
were in the business, I realized that it really did fit in with
the kind of thing that I wanted to do and to keep doing. And so
I ended up applying as a result of this newfound knowledge of
what was going on down here, and I ended up getting selected.
I had other plans for neat things I could do in the Air Force
in the event that didn't happen, but as it turned out it did,
so I put a lot of my Air Force plans aside while I came down here
to do the NASA job.
I understood your answer correctly, you were already an Air Force
officer before you got real enthused about flying. That sort of
Again, I think most people probably are coming out of the womb
wanting to be astronauts, and I just wasn't one of those people.
people who really love to fly go into the Air Force rather than
the other way around.
not pilot qualified, so my entrance into the Air Force didn't
have anything to do with the flying bug. In fact, when I got interested
in going into the Air Force, I definitely wanted to be an engineer,
and in fact, that's the career field I ended up in was engineering.
I have very bad eyesight, so I never had the opportunity to even
become an Air Force pilot. And, I was in the Air Force already
-- I think about seven years -- before I realized that there were
jobs available where engineers could fly. And they don't fly in
the front seat of an airplane, of course, they don't fly in the
pilot's seat, but they have other seats on some airplanes where
an engineer can end up performing a role as part of an aircrew.
And, it was when I went to test pilot school as a flight test
engineer that I realized that was the kind of role that I felt
like I was born to play.
attended and graduated from the United States Air Force Academy,
as well as the series of jobs that you've referred to in the Air
Force. As you look back all the way to your childhood, who do
you see as being a handful, a couple, of the really most influential
people who pushed you in what turned out to be the direction you
interesting you mention that because there are several people.
It wasn't just one single person, but I think it was sort of a
synergy of several people that ended up heading me off in the
right direction. I have to give credit to my parents. They have
never held me back, ever, of anything I wanted to do. They never
indicated in any kind of way that it couldn't be done. I also
had a junior high science teacher that I was really impressed
with, and she ended up being, whether she meant to or not, a big
role model for me. In addition, I had a wonderful guidance counselor
in junior high, and I had a group of peers that I hung around
with in junior high and high school. And all of those people,
I don't remember any of us ever coming up with any kind of thoughts
that said there was something we couldn't do. And, so I only had
positive pushing from all the various contacts that I had in that
part of my life, and I think that had a large part to do with
where I ended up because I've never been told there was something
I can't, I couldn't do. Or if someone tried to tell me, I figured
they didn't know what they were talking about.
your time as an astronaut at NASA, you've worked in a variety
of different kinds of jobs. On your most recent shuttle mission,
Life and Microgravity Science Spacelab mission, in 1996, it was
a cooperative effort of five different space agencies, and there
were contributions from all around the world -- a dozen countries.
Has the experience, do you think, of those kinds of international
missions in the past paid dividends as NASA has worked with these
partners in working on this international cooperative effort,
the International Space Station?
I think that
the more you get to work with internationals, the better off you're
going to be. There's no question that they come to the table with
their own unique perspectives. And I think, in a lot of cases,
even though a given country may not have the space flight experience
that we have, they do have a lot of really good perspectives about
how to approach space flight that, I think, deserve to be listened
to. And in the case of LMS, my last flight, I certainly thought
we had a lot of really smart people from different countries that
were coming together and putting together a really great mission.
What NASA probably looks at, though, when they see those kinds
of previous flights, is they're looking at them being the primary
partner, and then these internationals that come to the table
being sort of subpartners and I think with the space station that's
a totally different ball game. I think that working with the Russians,
you're talking about equal partnerships. And in the past, NASA
has been sort of a service provider to an international customer,
and now we're in this relationship where, in fact, we are copartners
of the same organization. And, so I don't think you can say that
what we've done in the past is exactly like the future, but again,
the fact they worked with internationals at all had to make it
better than it could've been.
you've been working closely with Russians, training as a member
of the Expedition 2 crew for a couple of years now…
Yes, I have.
added to the STS-101 mission with only a couple of months to specifically
prepare for that flight. What's it been like to shift gears from
training for a long-duration mission that was still over the horizon
to one that is coming up pretty quickly?
definitely was a surprise. I know that this is probably something
NASA hasn't done very much in the past, taking one shuttle mission
that's very close to flight and split it into two. I was pleased
to see that they didn't fly the same people more than once. Because
I think we have so many astronauts that need experience in the
office, that it was, I thought, a good choice to go ahead and
distribute the opening crew positions among other people in the
office. Having said that, because one of those missions had openings
that popped up within two-and-a-half months of flight, there probably
weren't a lot of people in the office that could have stepped
in there and been able to accomplish what they needed to do, given
the fact they only had two-and-a-half months to go. And because
of that situation, it really did dictate you had to put experienced
people into those three openings that appeared on the STS-101
mission. And, when you look around at people in the office, I
think that the people that have been training for the space station
mission - primarily those of us that have been in the increment
crew training flow - I think we have already had a huge portion
of the amount of training that you'd want to have on STS-101:
understanding of the space station, understanding of the computers,
some knowledge of how we plan on doing these, this docking and
undocking, egress and ingress, working with the FGB, the functional
cargo block - all these things are things that we, the increment
crews, have been training on already…and in fact for most
of us the training's been going on for two or three years. So,
we were a natural fit, I think, with the mission; it would've
been difficult to have taken an astronaut that had never flown
in space before and given him two-and-a-half months to go and
do all the things that they really needed to do. So, I think between
me, Jim and Yuri and the experience base that we have from previous
missions, you know, we don't have to have as much training because
we've already done a lot of this in space already, but at the
same time we had specialized training that has recently been accomplished
that you needed to know for this flight. So, it was a good fit.
you mentioned, it's very unusual for NASA to try to fly a shuttle
mission without many months if not more than a year's worth of
planning and training on the specific mission. But all of that
happened before NASA was involved with an International Space
Station, too. Is something akin to what's happening with STS-101,
in terms of its preparation time, is that, do you think, going
to be the way things are going to be in the future?
I think that,
in the future, there's probably going to have to be more emphasis
on skills as opposed to task training. In the shuttle world, we
basically lay out all the tasks and then the crewmembers will
train to the very, very detailed specifics of that task, and any
time there's any kind of perturbation in the task it seems like
they need, they feel a need to retrain. And I think that, for
the space station, clearly the way it needs to be is we need to
go more with skills. We have people in the increment corps that
have been developing generic skills: skills on how to operate
the robotics, skills on how to do EVAs, skills on how to work
with in-flight maintenance, which would be remove and repair or
replace of boxes inside any part of the space station modules.
And the beauty of space station flying is that you're not in such
a rush. You've got, basically, months to accomplish what you try
to do in about five days on a space shuttle flight. And so we
really don't need to do this high level of task training for the
space station that we have felt compelled to do for space shuttle.
And, so maybe the question is how much task training is too much.
And maybe there's, perhaps, an opportunity here to demonstrate
that those of us that have been more of a skills-based training
flow can step into a shuttle flight and demonstrate that that
actually is not a bad way to go for a shuttle flight, either.
That would be something I'd like to prove.
talk about this shuttle flight. Tell us why NASA is flying this
mission at this time. What are the main goals of STS-101?
Well, I think
that the original 101 flight was meant to fly after the launch
of the Service Module. Obviously when they split the flight in
two, it became obvious that one of those two flights was going
to end up going beforehand. And, so I think you could safely say
that the mission that we have now in front of us is to go up and
do some lifetime extension tasks on the pieces of space station
that are currently in orbit without the Service Module. There
have been schedule delays for the Service Module. There have been
a number of reasons for that, both on the Russian side and the
U.S. side, but the bottom line is that the FGB and the Node are
flying autonomously longer than anyone had expected when they
originally launched them. And so, there're some pieces up there
that need some lifetime extension, and our mission goal is to
go up there and do that. We're going to end up swapping out a
lot of boxes, is what I'll call them, and by doing that, we'll
be able to take the FGB and turn it into something that's about
to exceed its lifetime into something that can keep going until
the Service Module arrives.
want to try to go through this sort of in order and talk about
the details of what's going to happen. The first major thing after
launch is going to be for the shuttle to rendezvous with the station.
The approach is apparently similar to what was conducted by STS-96,
the most recent shuttle-docking mission to the station. Could
you talk us through, in general terms, what happens on rendezvous
day, and what you'll be doing while Jim Halsell flies the shuttle
and the other crewmembers will be doing their jobs?
on rendezvous day the goal obviously is to take these two space
vehicles and turn them into one. So, we will be doing a number
of burns, starting from probably right after launch. We'll be
setting up for that a couple of days early. And then as we end
up playing catch-up with the space station already on orbit, we'll
be tweaking the maneuvers all along the way. Jim Halsell will
clearly be flying the vehicle manually all the way up to the docking.
Scott Horowitz will be doing an enormous amount of support --
following the timeline -- making sure that we're setting up the
orbiter properly to perform each and every maneuver; and then
I'll be doing management of some of our rendezvous tools. We have
a lot of computer applications that we can use simultaneously
with the flying in order to help Jim get better situational awareness
of how his flying is going, and I'm the primary mission specialist
in charge of those tools. So, I'll be very busy with Jim and Scott
on the flight deck, working with them in an integrated sense.
And, in addition to the two of them, Yuri will also have a key
role as the person who's holding the handheld laser. I had to
chance use a handheld laser on a previous mission, and that is
not an insignificant task. If we end up losing a lot of our rendezvous
tools because a computer gets hung up and the radar that we have
ends up getting too noisy, Yuri, in fact, will be the key person
'cause he'll have something that's very simple to use, yet very
reliable and effective, and that's the handheld laser. And so,
part of my job will be to take his output from the laser and integrate
that into the big rendezvous picture if, in fact, it turns out
we need to rely on that.
talked about how the shuttle will be "catching up to"
the station and apparently coming up to the station, but near
the end the shuttle flies around to what, for lack of a better
descriptive term, is "above" the station.
does the shuttle need to come down on the station instead of come
straight up to dock?
bring up a good point. I did mention that we play catch-up, but
when we get within several hundred feet of the station, we'll
be basically coming up below it, and if you were to look up at
the station at that point you would not see the docking port.
The docking port, in fact, is on what I would call the topside
of the space station. And, the space station, as it is right now,
will have some kind of attitude control up until the very last
moment. The solar arrays will be feathered, which means that they're
probably not in a prime condition for feeding power to the space
station. So, we'll have a very timely maneuver we need to make
that is to take the orbiter from below, out to the front of and
then finally on the top of the space station. And then fly down
and meet up with the American docking port, which, in this case,
is going to reside on the topside of the space station relative
to the Earth. So, we'll have to perform that maneuver - Jim will
perform that maneuver manually - and all along the way we'll be
watching to make sure we're not too close, too far, that we're
coming in on the approach in a very controlled way. The docking
port itself has, apparently, very strict constraints on speed
and attitude for doing the matings between these two space vehicles.
And so Jim has to maintain very fine control of the whole thing
from start to finish so that we make sure that we don't end up
coming in too fast or coming in too slow, and we have to hit the
attitude just right. So, it's not done by computers. It's done
by humans, and we just have to make sure Jim has every ounce of
support that he needs to make that happen right.
after Atlantis has docked to the station, and after a day of
spacewalk activity comes the beginning of the work inside the
International Space Station. Got any sense at all, at this point,
of how you're going to feel the first time you float inside
Oh, I know
that because I've been training for this for so long, this increment
flight -- which, as you probably know, when I get back from this
mission I'll go right back into that increment flow training -
but I know that when we open the hatch to the space station, I'm
sure Jim and Yuri and I will have the biggest smiles on our faces
you can imagine because we are looking at our future home. And
this may not be the flight where we get delivered to our home,
but the fact that we get an up-front look at it before the big
mission that we got coming down the road will be really exciting.
And, we had an incident happen…Yuri, Jim and I - the three
of us - happened to crawl through the real Service Module together
prior to it being shipped out…and there was an opportunity
where only the three of us were inside that Service Module at
that time. For whatever reason, the engineers and the support
people that were supposed to come with us inside the module were
lagging behind. And so the three of us hopped in there first and
we all looked at each other and said, "This is it; this is
our future home. It's not launched yet, but it will be soon, and
it's just the three of us in here. And that's really cool."
And then Yuri said, "Quick, close the hatch! Don't let anyone
else inside!" Sort of a precursor, if you will, to the time
that's going to be coming when the three of us will be living
up there, just alone, just the three of us. It was really neat
to see our future home, even though it was sitting on the floor
of a factory…to be able to see our future home in orbit already
will be even neater.
referred already to the fact that the top priority for the mission
is a series of tasks that have been characterized as the repair
of equipment inside Zarya, which has been on orbit since late
1998. And these are some of the tasks that you and your Expedition
crewmates are, particularly, trained for. Talk about the equipment
in Zarya that is targeted for this repair and replacement and
what it is that you folks are going to have to do to complete
could probably group the more critical components into two main
groups. One group is, of course, the batteries - the storage batteries
that end up supporting the electrical needs of Zarya. And we've
got some of those components that end up either needing repair
because they've got problems with them or maybe some lifetime
extension work, or they think maybe there could be problems with
them. And, there are several blocks per battery set, and I know
that we'll be removing and replacing an entire block, and then
possibly some extra boxes from other battery blocks. The second
classification of equipment we'll be removing and replacing are
fans, and we've got the Russians inside the FGB; they have a whole
host of fans that are spread out throughout for a number of reasons
- thermal control, environmental control. They've got these fans
all over the place. And, these fans, you know, if after they run
so much, they basically run out of their lifetime, and so we'll
be doing some remove and replace of some fans that end up needing
to be replaced. I don't think there's anything wrong with the
fans that are up there right now, but, they expect that they'll
shortly run into a problem with, you know, resources because the
fans are going to run out of lifetime. And then we've got other
little things we'll be doing. We'll be replacing the fire extinguishers,
we're going to probably replace the smoke detectors - all of them,
I think. I know they've had two that have failed, and we're going
to be repairing all of them. In addition to that we've got some
cleaning that we'll end up doing of filters and, we'll be looking
for mildew and mold, and we're basically going to be doing some
housekeeping skills on top of the remove and replace activities
that we'll be doing.
the subject of the batteries, that is being viewed as the top
priority. How complicated or not complicated is the job of actually
changing out the batteries or the different components that you've
it's really not that complicated. Every battery set has three
or four blocks, not including some of the smaller ones. And every
block has anywhere between a few to many cables attached to it.
And, the task itself basically boils down to disconnecting the
cables, unscrewing the block -- the mounts that go around the
block itself -- removing the block, putting the new block in and
then reconnecting the cables. I mean, as a task, it's really not,
functionally, that difficult. We have to make sure we have all
the right tools that fit. We have to make sure that we have the
support items that we need in order to do this. We need to make
sure we bring in the proper components from the SPACEHAB and put
them in the right place. Those little details can get really complex.
But the actual task of disconnecting cables, removing bolts, removing
a box, putting the box back in and all that kind of thing; I think
the Russians have designed their hardware really well, and Yuri
and I didn't have any problem practicing that when we were in
Star City. And in fact, Yuri has done this on orbit already on
Mir countless times, so we actually have the best possible expert
you could ever ask for, helping us do this.
this case, are we talking about changing out components because
they broke, or because they simply have lived out their expected
In the case
of some of the battery components, I think some of them are in
fact truly not working correctly. In the case of the fans, I think
in some cases they just expect them to have lived out their useful
life. And they've been running them constantly, in some cases,
since Zarya was launched in order to keep the equipment cooled.
And, I think they just want to get a fresh set of ventilators
up there so that they can keep that cooling going, regardless
of whether the Service Module shows up six months from now or
a year from now.
Zarya was launched it was intended to provide motion control and
electrical power to the station until the Service Module arrived,
which at that time was anticipated to be about eight months down
the road and it's now been significantly longer than that eight
months. Is that really what's involved here or what's driving
the need for many of the jobs you folks are doing?
I do think
that they're running some components a lot longer than they had
expected to because, of course, once the Service Module arrives,
it'll take over some of the roles like the motion control system,
for example. And, it'll also end up providing, when the Laboratory
arrives, the Laboratory would've provided with the solar panels
and all that that the Americans are bringing up. We would've provided
some of the electrical services that Zarya probably wasn't expecting
to pick up at this point in time. So, I think yeah, because we've
had these schedule delays, some of the components there are running
a lot longer than they expected them to, and the beauty of it
is it's very easy to go in there and extend its lifetime with
the kind of training that Yuri and I have done. They've built
the system so that this can be accomplished with a minimum amount
of headache. So, we appreciate that.
last crew that visited the International Space Station experienced
some degradation in the air quality during the time...
that they were there. First of all, what is known at this point,
or what is believed to be the cause of that problem. And, secondly
-- and perhaps more important to you -- what's being done to make
sure that you and your crewmates on this mission, and later, are
not going to experience any of those same symptoms?
having talked to the specific crewmembers about the problem, I'm
only conjecturing about what I may think the problem was. In space,
you know, we don't have gravity to take heavier air and pull it
down and have lighter air rise to the surface. In other words,
we don't have the air circulation, naturally, in space that you
would have on Earth with, you know, the weight of air and its
cooling and heating variations. In space, what you do have is
a ventilation system that ends up forcing air to move along in
a way that you can't get without gravity. So, I think that some
of the theories were that crewmembers experienced a bubble of
carbon dioxide around their faces because, perhaps, they didn't
have their head somewhere where they were getting this continuous
artificial ventilation. And by "artificial" I mean it
had to have been driven by some kind of air-conditioning system,
or fans, or whatever. And, if you know that was the problem, there
are a lot of things you can do to prevent it from happening again.
And, one of them would be to carry around your own little fans
in case you happen to be in a place where you're not getting the
kind of artificial ventilation that the system is meant to provide.
Well, then, you can carry along your own little fan, and you can
just sort of aim it at yourself, and by doing that you've got
a natural mechanism to carry away carbon dioxide and that should
alleviate the problem.
repair and replacement of batteries and some of the other things
that you've mentioned, there's also a couple of days' worth of
moving stuff from SPACEHAB into the International Space Station.
Talk about the kinds of supplies that are being brought up, and
are you going to get to spend your time running back and forth?
I am actually
not one of the "pack mules" on this flight, because
Yuri and I are concentrating on doing the repair tasks and that'll
probably run for at least a couple of days. But, I'm very interested
in knowing what they're bringing on board. In fact, it's been
kind of funny because … the rest of the shuttle crew, I mean,
they always saw their role as just bringing over boxes of stuff,
whereas the increment crews are more interested in, well, what's
in those boxes: We're going to have to use these; we'll see these
later; what have you got? And, so it's been a little bit different
perspective for the three of us that have been training for the
increment flight because they're bringing things across. And I
think I probably have more interest in knowing what's in them
and what they'll be used for down the road than any of the people
that are flying on 101 that are not on an increment crew. But,
I do know for a fact, for example, they're bringing over exercise
equipment that is ultimately to be used by the increment crews,
so that's something I'm happy to see come on board. There's probably,
I don't know, some camera equipment, I've heard there are some
computers that we'll end up using for the long-duration flight.
I know that, to these delivery crews, they're probably just containers
with stuff in them, but to those of us on the increment crews
it's more than that. I really would like to make sure I understand
where stuff is being put because I'm going to need to find it
later. Not this flight, some other flight.
that the Expedition 1 crew doesn't move it on you.
probably happen. But, … hopefully we'll get a chance to talk
about where they put things before they end up leaving. And if
not, then hopefully we'll get a chance to call down after Increment
1 lands on Earth with the questions, "Now what did you do
with this? This thing we're looking for, we can't find it."
You know, there is supposed to be some process in place where
we can have a conversation, much like people would call each other
on the phone to try to find something.
you are busy training for this mission and have spent a couple
of years preparing for a long-duration mission, now the circumstance
is changed a little bit, but do you look at this as an extra opportunity
to get a firsthand look at, as you've described it, your new home?
How's that going to help you in the rest of your training for
the long-duration mission, as well as the time that you will spend
on the station with Voss and Usachev.
this is probably the best possible training we could get is to
go up and see the real thing, for real. For example, there was
always a plan to train me, Yuri and Jim on doing ingress/egress
things. And granted the Service Module won't be there at the time
we're going up on this flight but there is the Node, there is
the FGB. We will have to have some understanding of how to evacuate
and then reenter these modules, and now we're doing it for real,
on the real vehicle. So there would be no point in trying to come
back to the ground and training on this because, in fact, we will
have had better training actually going through the real thing
than to come back and go into a simulator in Star City or here
in Houston, and then have someone try to tell us what's it like;
you know, it just wouldn't make a lot of sense. So, we're looking
at this flight as an opportunity to get better training than we
originally would've had, had we not had the chance to visit the
thing on orbit prior to our own mission as an increment crew.
talked a lot about what you're going to do; I'd like to finish
by asking you to talk a little bit about why. One of the top five
news stories of the 20th century was human space flight …
well, you're kicking off the 21st century with a space flight
that is going to help establish a permanent human presence off
of the planet. Tell me why you think that's important to be done.
Well, I think
that there's a lot of material reasons. Payload research would
obviously be a big one. I know that NASA's been working really
hard to get people around the world interested in using this International
Space Station as an orbiting laboratory with an extremely unique
environment they just can't replicate on Earth. And then, there're
also technical reasons: the point of building a space station
ends up sort of feeding the technological engine of the United
States. You know, we're doing, we're trying to do a whole bunch
of things by using the space station as the avenue in order to
develop new technologies. There are reasons like that, too. It's
an extremely minor piece of our overall budget, and it provides
a goal and a purpose to go out there and develop new ideas and
a new way of doing things, and trying to build new pieces of equipment
you've never built before, and being able to use that technology
further down the road for something even better. And so, there
are all these various reasons that NASA wants to have a space
station that the country should be looking at having a space station
working with the internationals - using the space station as a
means to work with people we've never worked with in the past,
to develop sort of a worldwide relationship with people that were
previously our enemies by the Cold War and the international cooperation
involved with that ends up being, you know, in and of itself a
political challenge. And so, we're using the space station kind
of to seed some avenues there. So there is a lot of reasons like
that but actually, to boil it down to simple terms, humans want
to travel off the planet. They really do. Every human being, whether
they're from Japan or Russia or the United States. It's in our
destiny to expect that to happen. We've always been explorers.
From the very beginning of our birth, we have always gone past
the local environment trying to explore new worlds, and we're
just about out of room here on the planet; it's time to make that
breach going to a different planet. And, if you're going to do
that, you have to be able to master certain things. You have to
be able to master how to live off the planet for extended periods
of time. You have to be able to master how to travel together,
as human beings, and to work together and not having the crutch
of being able to just go back home or split up the group or whatever
if you run into trouble. So, there's extreme psychological importances
that we have to be able to work through and understand how to
accomplish. You can't send people into doing something like this
without having some kind of … practice, if you will, on how
to make it work. And, sometimes we can be our own worst enemy
if we're not prepared to do this right. So, the way I look at
this space station, as the ultimate human objective, is to use
as a platform for humans to figure out how to work together as
humans and how to live together as humans, and how to live without
relying on planet Earth, to go out and start doing that next step
of exploration to other planets. And, you know, it really is to
me more of a human destiny thing. It's the next natural step to
taking that leap is have a space station close to home, work out
the kinks, eventually get back to the Moon; there, work out some
more kinks, and then start heading toward Mars. That's obviously
the next place you'd want to go.