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Preflight Interview: Scott Kelly

Scott, before we talk about the details of what you and your crewmates are going to do on the mission that you're preparing to fly, I'd like to learn a little bit about you first. Why did you want to become an astronaut? Where in your life did the desire either to fly or to be an explorer come from?

I think that comes from my childhood. When I was a kid, I think I always liked to do the things that were difficult, and I think as I got older, those desires really, really peaked in me. So I always, sort of, was the type of person that looked for a new challenge, and I think being an astronaut is a very challenging job. It's certainly exciting as well, and I think, even more important than those two aspects of it, is its [importance] for our country. It's something I'm really proud to be able to participate in. I think NASA does a lot of great things. There are a lot of great people working in the space program, and I feel really privileged to be able to work with them.

You say that you were a kid who always looked for the challenge, the thing that you couldn't do, maybe; were there memorable people or events that encouraged that kind of feeling in you?

I can't really think of any people in specific. I guess if you're asking me do I have any role models or someone who inspired me, I think I'm inspired by people in the U.S. military. I think we have a lot of folks, hundreds of thousands in the American military, that really sacrifice a lot. Some have given the ultimate sacrifice, and I think those are the people that really inspire me. A lot of those folks, some I even knew, didn't really have the chance to do things in life because of unfortunate circumstances that happened to them. So whenever I think I'm working too hard, I try to think of those people and it lets me push myself a little bit further.

Of course you're in the military yourself, in the United States Navy. Talk about what made you decide to choose the Navy and the career path through the Navy that has now led you to the Astronaut Corps.

I decided I wanted to become a Navy pilot because I wanted to land high performance jets on aircraft carriers, and the bottom line is that the only place you can do that is the United States Navy. So that's why I chose the Navy. When I was in college, I was in the ROTC program, and that's how I got my commission. Once I graduated, I went on to flight school in Pensacola. [I] learned how to fly the T-34, which is a small propeller-driven airplane. Then [I] went on to Texas where I learned to fly jets and got my initial carrier qualifications. From there, I flew the F-14 Tomcat for several years in a fighter squadron on the east coast, and following my tour there, I went to Test Pilot School. After Test Pilot School, while I was working as a test pilot in Patuxent River, Maryland, I applied to the Astronaut Program and was fortunate enough to get accepted, so here I am.

STS-103 is your first flight assignment. Can you explain to those of us who aren't astronauts and have never gotten a flight assignment what it is like, after all the years of preparation, to get the news that you're going to get to fly?

I like to tell people, especially kids, that I've been going to school almost continuously since I was in kindergarten, so it's obviously a very long road to get here. Naturally I'd be very excited about having this great opportunity to fly in space. It's also very humbling, however, because there are certainly nine other pilots in my class that could've been assigned [to] and flown this mission just as well [as] I could. There are also a lot of other people out there-a lot of people in the military-[who] are just as qualified to be astronauts. It's unfortunate there are just a limited number of slots for astronauts in the space program. So when I think of that, I think of how lucky I am, and it's certainly a humbling feeling as well.

Among all the other achievements and historical aspects of this flight, there's the historical footnote, in that you, along with your brother Mark, are the first set of twins to become astronauts, and you're the one that gets to fly first. How does having someone who is as close to you as a twin around, and being involved in the same business, help you as you're training for your mission?

In the Astronaut Office, we're all very busy, so, during work hours, I really don't see him any more than I see any other individual, with the exception of my fellow crewmembers. I don't see him any more than I see anyone else. The instructors that work for NASA are very good, so from a technical aspect, you really don't need anyone helping you prepare for the mission. NASA does a very good job teaching us how to fly the shuttle and teaching us how to accomplish the mission, so I don't look to him or anyone else for any kind of help in doing that. I think we have a great program here for that. However, there is some overhead involved in a space shuttle mission. Typically you have guests that come to view the launch, and he can help with some of that administrative stuff that can take up a lot of people's time. It's obviously nice to have someone who's very familiar with the space program to help with those kinds of things.

Does the fact that you got a flight assignment before him mean that you've won the sibling rivalry?

We are competitive people and have been competitive our whole lives, in sports and, as a kid, in things that we have done, from the time I was in high school in New Jersey. However, we don't seem to be very competitive amongst ourselves. We certainly encourage each other to do our best, but, if one person is better at certain things than others, it's really not a big deal to us. So I don't think I've really won anything in that respect.

You're now assigned to a shuttle mission that's being pulled together on relatively short notice, as far as shuttle missions go, for an early servicing trip to the Hubble Space Telescope. Summarize for us, first, your role on this flight and what it's like for you to be a part of this particular shuttle flight.

My role is the Pilot of the mission, and the Pilot's job…well, first of all, "Pilot" is sort of a misnomer for people who know about airplanes. We're more of the copilot, and the Commander actually does most of the hands-on flying of the vehicle. He is the Commander of the mission, so he's certainly the person in charge. The Pilot does a little bit of flying, but his primary job is to assist the Commander in the operation of the vehicle and performing the mission. The Pilot's main job in the space shuttle, I think, is on ascent and entry because he has most of the orbiter systems that are critical to those phases of flight on his side of the cockpit. He has to be the system expert on those systems and be able to operate them effectively. Once we get on orbit, the Pilot assists the Commander with the rendezvous of Hubble, the grapple of the telescope, and then assists in monitoring all the EVA operations we do. There are many other things that occur while we're on orbit. Then, once we're done and the Hubble is fixed and sent on its way, we prepare to come home, and the Pilot plays a critical [role] in that phase of flight as well.

It was early this year that you got the word you would be a part of this mission. Since the mission was flying earlier than had originally been planned, four spacewalkers had already been assigned. What was it like for you to step into a mission in progress, if you will, where there were four spacewalkers who had already begun training and for you and Curt Brown and Jean-François Clervoy to get up to speed with them?

Well, I think, first of all, it's really critical to our training that the spacewalkers had already been involved in training for those spacewalks before we got assigned to the flight. However, I think our transition into the crew was pretty seamless. I thought there would be more hurdles to overcome in that, but I think we've really done a great job getting ready for this mission. I certainly think we will be thoroughly prepared when the time comes, and I don't think it's anything that people should ever look back on and say, "You know, it's not something that could be performed well, integrating a crew at six months prior to flight." I think it's certainly something that's very doable, and I'd love to do it again.

To help us set the stage for understanding what you and your crewmates are going to be doing, let's talk for a moment about the mission of Hubble itself. What is it that the Hubble Space Telescope can do that many other telescopes on the ground or already in orbit can't do?

I am not a scientist. I'm a Navy test pilot. I usually leave the Hubble questions to some of the physicists we have on board. However, I think the thing that's really important about the Hubble Space Telescope is [that] it's above the atmosphere of Earth and, by being above the atmosphere of our planet, has much, much better resolution than telescopes that we have here on the ground. That's why we can get these spectacular pictures from it.

For the non-astronomer, for the layman, how do you characterize the value of those pictures that we've seen and the data that's been brought back and presumably will continue to be brought back after you folks are finished with your job?

I think it's really not very hard to understand the value of the pictures that Hubble has given us. They've certainly let us see further into our universe than we ever have before. [I] think that kind of sheds new light on who we are as a species and our place in the big scheme of things in this very large universe.

Hubble is a part of a program, one of four components of NASA's Great Observatories program, [and has] already been followed to orbit by the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and, just recently, the Chandra X-ray Observatory. An infrared telescope's on the way. Four telescopes looking in four different parts of the spectrum of light. What is the value, or perhaps the necessity, of having telescopes that can look at those different pieces of the spectrum?

There are all different spectrums of light and radio waves and x-rays, and, from each piece of those, we can learn something different about our universe. I think the Chandra X-ray telescope will really open up new discoveries, just like the Hubble did.

To continue the work that it's been doing, Hubble is about to receive its third on-orbit service call. This one is earlier than was originally planned due to the failure of some gyroscopes on board-that's what's prompted you folks to be going when you're going. What is it that the gyroscopes do? Why has their failure prompted NASA to take the unusual step of flying a mission earlier than scheduled?

As you can understand, to take those really incredible pictures that Hubble takes requires very precise pointing. The telescope has to be able to point at a very small area in the sky and maintain that very precisely as [it] is flying around the Earth at seventeen thousand miles an hour. I recently read somewhere that the pointing required of Hubble is similar to [if] you were standing in Washington, D.C. and pointing [a] laser pointer at a dime in New York City. That's how precisely Hubble has to point, and to do that takes these gyroscopes. There are six of them on Hubble, and it needs three to do science. Currently it has three remaining, so if it has one more failure of one of these gyroscopes, it won't be able to perform any science. That's why we need to go up there as soon as possible and fix it, because it's such a very high-value asset.

To do that, on the third day of your flight, you and your crewmates are going to approach the giant telescope and snatch it out of orbit and plop it down in the shuttle's payload bay. Talk us through the procedures of that day: rendezvous with, and grappling and berthing of Hubble, and if you would, highlight what you will be doing as a part of that team of seven people.

The rendezvous with Hubble actually starts when the solid rocket motors light, and over the next three days we slowly catch up with the telescope. On the third day we do some engine burns, and some of them are using the orbiter maneuvering system engines, the larger reaction jets on the vehicle, to adjust our orbit to either catch up or adjust our phasing or our height in relation to the telescope. Then, [for] some of the burns, we use the smaller reaction control jets, of which there are forty-four. We use those to do the orbital adjustment burns. Once we get very close to the telescope, the Commander will start flying the vehicle manually. Prior to that, we've kind of traded off on who performs some of the burns, but, as we get closer, I jump in the Commander's seat. I'll perform the last few rendezvous burns. Curt will get in the back of the vehicle, preparing to fly the orbiter manually. We'll come up from below Hubble and slowly decrease our closure rate until we're traveling at a very slow closure and to close proximity. Then we'll stop the orbiter right when Hubble is practically in the payload bay. From that point, Jean-François Clervoy, who's the robot arm operator, will maneuver the arm close to Hubble and then close in for final capture of Hubble's grapple fixture. At that point we'll take the Hubble, and we'll put it on a platform in the payload bay that provides data, allows us to see the health of the Hubble, provides power, and allows us to rotate it so, later on the EVA, crewmembers can work on the telescope.

You make the rendezvous sound like a relatively painless and simple thing, and yet both the telescope and you will be moving at seventeen thousand, five hundred miles an hour. Can you give us some sense of what goes into trying to put together the ballet, if you will, that brings those two orbiting pieces to the same point at the same time?

It's actually a very complex task. It involves a lot of different procedures. It involves a lot of people on the ground that design the flights, involves a lot of people that monitor what we're doing on the vehicle to perform this. So it's very critical that we conduct these burns very precisely because if we didn't, we wouldn't be able to catch up. We could overshoot the vehicle [or] undershoot it. Whether we would be able to recover from that or not is hard to say, so it's a very precise task that we do. However, we're very well trained to do it. We have great people on the ground that are monitoring what we're doing in the vehicle, making sure everything's OK prior to us performing these burns. So it's certainly something I think we'll pull off flawlessly.

The schedule says that on Flight Day 4 Steve Smith and John Grunsfeld will kick off the first of four scheduled spacewalks on this flight. The rest of the crew will have jobs to do inside Discovery while they're outside and likewise when Mike and Claude do their spacewalks. Describe for us what your responsibilities are going to be during the days that your crewmates are outside of the orbiter and whether or not the tasks that you're going to be doing are different from one EVA to another.

[An] EVA [is] a very complicated task. It's kind of unnatural for people to be going out into the void of space in a spacesuit to perform certain functions out there. So it is very critical, and it really requires a team effort, not only from the people that are doing the spacewalks but the people inside the vehicle and the folks on the ground. So our primary job is to monitor things, making sure that everything is going the way it's supposed to, always keeping people's eyes looking out the window. But there are other things we need to do. We need to maneuver the orbiter. Twice an orbit we have to do a maneuver, and those are for reasons concerning the Hubble telescope. Curt and I will trade off on performing those maneuvers. There's also systems maintenance that just goes along with flying a spaceship in space. Just because we [have] people outside doesn't mean everything needs to stop in the vehicle, so we'll have things to do, with regards to orbiter upkeep and maintenance. Then, there is the photo documentation that's required of the telescope, and that's certainly a pretty big task. It's one of my responsibilities on orbit to make sure we get all the photo documentation required for the people that work on the Hubble on the ground and the engineers at Goddard. So a lot of our time is spent doing that. As far as do things change from day to day, not really. We have, obviously, different people inside helping us on different days because the EVA guys are swapping out, but, most of it, from my perspective, is pretty much the same.

On the subject of photo documentation-more specifically, on the subject of looking at that giant telescope-you've got two crewmates who have seen it up close and personal before, and you're going to spend several days taking pictures of it. They've described it to us and to others as quite a beautiful thing to see. What have they told you about just seeing the Hubble?

I had one astronaut who had done an EVA on Hubble tell me that, the first time I see the telescope, it will be absolutely breathtaking. It's kind of hard to imagine people saying that about a telescope, but it's very large - the size of a school bus - and, apparently, from what he says, a very beautiful sight, especially when you look at it superimposed over the backdrop of the Earth. And pointed up at the heavens, it's something you certainly will remember for the rest of your life.

With the spacewalks concluded and planned improvements to Hubble that have been executed, it'll be time to send it back on its mission. Talk us, as you did before, through the plan for what you folks do on the day that you conclude your operations with Hubble.

On that day, Jean-François, our robot arm operator will grab the Hubble again with the robot arm, and we will position it out over the payload bay. When the time comes and the ground's ready and the space telescope is all checked out and ready to be sent on its way, he'll release it with the robot arm. Then, we will perform another series of burns that will allow us to drop below the Hubble, and we'll go out ahead of it and fly away above it as we separate for good.

And it's just that simple? A couple of jet pulses, and you watch it go away?

It sounds simple. [It's] actually a little more complicated. [It] takes us several hours to perform a lot of procedures that need to be checked and double-checked, just to make sure everything's perfect. But, in the big picture, that's sort of how it looks.

At that point it's home and the conclusion of your first space shuttle flight as you folks head for a landing in Florida. When people ask you about, not just what you're doing on this mission but why you're doing it, can you [tell me how] you [will] explain to people how the [completion of the] mission that you and your crewmates are about to embark upon is going to further the objectives of space exploration?

I think the Hubble telescope is very important to scientists all around the world, and it's also important to the American public at large because it really has shed new insight, I think, into our place in the universe. So, from a specific mission standpoint, I think it's very important that NASA flies to the Hubble, repairs it, does maintenance that was planned even before it was put on orbit, and allows it to go on and continue to do its science for a long period of time. I think the other thing that makes our mission, or any space mission, so important is just the complexity and having the capabilities of putting people in space. It's a very difficult task to do that and to do it safely, but NASA does it well. I think it's something that is important for us to do, and it's something we need to do for our future and for our children's future. So I'm very proud and humble to be a part of it.

Greetings
IMAGE: Pilot STS-103, Scott Kelly
Click on the image to hear Scott Kelly's greeting. Pilot, STS-103.
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Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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