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Crew Interviews
IMAGE: William McCool
Click on the image to hear Pilot William McCool's greeting (146 Kb wav).

Preflight Interview: William McCool

The STS-107 Crew Interview with William McCool, pilot.

I want to start off, first of all, asking you to briefly give an overview of the STS-107 mission. And maybe kind of outline what the goals of the mission are.

In a nutshell, we're going to launch, hopefully, on July 19th into an orbit 150 miles above the Earth. We'll configure the Orbiter into a microgravity science platform and do microgravity science for the next 16 days. We'll operate 24 hours a day in two shifts: a Red shift and a Blue shift. Our goal for the mission will be to accomplish, hopefully, all of the science objectives that each of the principal investigators have outlined for us for their particular payloads. At the end of 16 days, we'll deorbit. We'll come back and land slowing from 17,000-plus miles per hour down to 200-plus miles per hour. Rick Husband, our Commander, will make a smooth landing, and the mission will be over.

Now there, this is obviously a mission with a multitude of experiments on it. Can you talk about what disciplines or categories the experiments fall under? And give some insight into why those areas of research are important?

Yeah, I will. We have a smorgasbord of experiments. There's no one principal focus with all of the payloads that we have on board. And folks frequently ask, "Well, how many payloads do you have?" And officially, if you're trying to count each one of them, you might come up with a number in the 30 to 40 range. But, within each payload are multiple investigations. And if you try to count those up, they go into the hundreds. So, I'll try to break down by category a little bit about what it is that we're doing.

Okay.

We do have some science technology kind of research looking into ways to do things better for long-duration spaceflight. An example would be a payload called Vapor Compression Distillation (VCD). It's just learning how to convert urine into potable drinking water. Something you'd want to do on a long-duration space mission. We have payloads that are geared towards Earth science. Observing the Earth and the human impacts that we have made on our Earth. An example would be a payload called SOLSE, measuring the ozone from a different aspect and to more detail than we currently have with our satellites today. We're doing a lot of biology and life science type payloads. Those are looking at, in detail, the impacts on the human physiology, on animal physiology, on plant physiology, again trying to develop technology and countermeasures for areas where we have concern with long-duration spaceflight. We've got a lot of medical-related (and I'm not talking about keeping folks in space for a long time; I'm talking about developing medicines). In particular we have a lot of protein crystal growth experiments. And we can, in zero-g, develop nice three-dimensional protein crystals that pharmacists use to develop drugs to counteract diseases and viruses. We're doing a lot of work with cancer research and osteoporosis. We've got some basic core physics type experiments. And an example of that would be one that we call the Mechanics of Granular Materials (MGM); and that one is looking at studying the g-impact or the g-component (the gravity-component) in developing models for earthquake analyses. So, if you're going to build buildings close to areas where there's sandy, loose soil, understanding the component of g is really important for folks who develop analytical models because they want to use these models to construct buildings that are safe in these conditions. So it's just kind of core physics-type work. I think that's about it.

Okay.

Five areas there that I discussed.

And obviously this research is being conducted in space and some of it's also being conducted here on Earth. What's the advantage to taking some of this research up to space? What advantage does microgravity give in studying space?

I know of three reasons why. Number one: folks who are developing analytical models to study systems would like to strip out gravity so they can understand what it is that gravity does. So, if they do an experiment here on Earth and they do the same experiment up in space without gravity, they see the difference and they say, "Well, the difference must be due to gravity. Then we can model what it is that gravity's doing. A second reason is: there's things that we just can't do here on Earth in the presence of gravity. I discussed earlier growing three-dimensional protein crystals for the development of medicines. We can't do that here very well. But, in a microgravity environment, protein crystals grow real nice. They grow big. We bring them back down to Earth, and then pharmacists use them to develop medicines. A third reason is: if we're going to go on long-duration spaceflight in a microgravity environment, we've got to test things out. And you don't test them by taking a two-year voyage to Mars. You test them by doing them here, close to Earth, and making sure they work and making improvements. And once they're ready to go, you go for the long-duration space mission.

This is going to be the first extended-duration mission since STS-90 and it's going to be your first spaceflight, too. First of all, what thoughts have you had about your first spaceflight being an extended-duration flight? What's that going to be like?

I feel blessed to have an extended-duration spaceflight from the standpoint of just having more opportunities to absorb the whole experience. We'll be very, very busy. This is a jam-packed 16 days on orbit. And if it were a jam-packed eight days on orbit, I just wouldn't have any time probably to look out the window. So, at least this way I get an opportunity to smell the smells, see the sights, write down some notes, and bring back some of the experiences to share with people back here on Earth.

Okay.

As far as concerns: I think that the biggest concern I have about the long-duration mission is not so much the duration but the density of the whole mission. It's very tightly choreographed. And there's so many payloads. And each one, in terms of time, has interdependencies on the other one being done or partially being done. And if there are any hiccups or delays, it's just going to ripple through the timeline. And the real test for the team on the ground and for us up on orbit will be: how do we react and reprioritize to make the experiments go as planned and achieve the objectives despite the hiccups?

And how long have you all been training as a crew for this mission?

I was assigned October 27, a year and a half ago. And some of the payload crewmembers were assigned just over two years. It's been quite a while. I think it's, again, another blessing there. Because there's just so much to do. We do have a lot of first-time fliers. Four out of the seven are first-time fliers. Three of the others, out of the seven, have only flown once. So, combined amongst the seven, we have three flights. And we joke amongst ourselves that Jerry Ross, who just flew recently, has, by himself, seven flights. So he's got us beat by a factor of two! And we're hoping that when we come back from our mission, we'll be beating him, combined, and we'll have 10 flights amongst all of us and we'll jump ahead of Jerry!

That's one way to do it.

Yeah.

And what's the training been like? I mean do you think it's given you a true sense, I guess, [of] the schedule and working with the payloads and knowing what it's going to be like? Has it given you a true sense of what to expect?

It really has. You know, it started out coarse. I think because in many instances these are new payloads and new folks involved. And we're new! But, as we reiterate and reiterate and do things over and over again, the fine-tuned details start to fall in place and really are starting to come together quite well. As I'm speaking here right now, the Red Shift, who, as I mentioned, we're working 24 hours, they're working right now with an on-orbit sim. I'm supposedly asleep right now. But before I left to go sleep, I mentioned to Rick, our Commander, just how pleased I was that the pieces and parts are really starting to fall together. And I think he in turn is also very happy.

Let's talk about the dual-shift thing. Why is it necessary to have a dual-shift workday on a mission like this?

First of all, we just don't do a whole lot of science missions. Lately, we've been dedicated towards constructing space station. So, this is kind of a once in a long while type of mission. And there's a lot of folks who want to do microgravity research. And so there is an effort to pack as much as we can into the 16 days that we're on orbit. And if we didn't work 24 hours a day, we'd be giving up eight hours of sleep time that could otherwise be used for science. So, the intent is to pack each minute of the 24 hours that we're on orbit with science. And that's what we're doing.

The research on this mission comes from various parts of the world. And you guys as a crew have been to these places to kind of get familiar with the research and the experiments. What has it been like for you to go to these places and to know that you're fostering maybe knowledge of other places, between other places, of other places? And maybe helping reap some benefits for those places.

To tell you the truth, it's been transparent to me; the whole mission seems to be borderless in a way. I'm so used to because of our work with space station and working with the international partners, dealing with folks from different countries that this is nothing new.

Okay.

We've got payloads from around the world, as you mentioned. And the fact that we're traveling and interfacing with folks from different countries really doesn't feel any different than it would if all the payloads were here from the United States. So I really can't say that it's any different. I'm just pleased that we have the opportunity to share what we're doing with so many folks around the world.

What kind of sense does it give you, does it give you a sense of how much more it's becoming a global community?

Yeah, I think it's just a part of, and it's an extension of, the way technology is driving the world into being one world rather than independent, isolated countries. And what we're doing here at NASA is just a manifestation of improved technology and communication and the ability to travel around the world either electronically or in person in short periods just makes it very simple to do what we're doing. And it just seems like the right thing to do. And again like I mentioned before, it's transparent. Instead of traveling from here to California, you travel from here to Europe and you deal with the same sort of people. And let's face it: folks all around the world are the same.

There's obviously no rendezvous, no docking or undocking on this mission. Can you talk a little bit about what your duties are and what goes on in the Orbiter? What the other people are going to be doing on the way up and to get ready, and on the way down.

Sure. On the way up and on the way down, we're no different than any other mission, except we're not going maybe as high in altitude. But what we do in the cockpit is no different than other missions. I'm sitting in the right seat as the Pilot. And that's kind of a misnomer. I'm really the copilot. Rick Husband, who is our Commander, would actually fly the vehicle. And there's another misnomer. For the most part, it's automated, hopefully, if everything goes well. Certainly, the ascent is automated. And our role, as Commander and Pilot, is to monitor all the systems, monitor the guidance, and make sure everything's going right, and be prepared to react to any off-nominal situations, should they manifest themselves. Same sort of scenario during the deorbit and reentry. The only difference is: Rick Husband, our Commander, will in fact fly, once we get subsonic, all the way down to landing and touchdown. On orbit, different story. We're much different than the typical space station missions that you've seen that involve docking and rendezvous and working with space station. We're split into two shifts. We're kicking into gear right from the get-go. Immediately post-MECO to activate payloads, to configure the Orbiter, and do a science platform. And that involves opening the tunnel to get in to access the Spacehab module, where we have most of our payloads. And we just get up and go. We turn on payloads, and start working through procedures that are outlined for us in this 24-hour red shift/blue shift mindset. And that'll go on like busy bees for the next 16 days.

And even before activating, I know other people are going to go and start activating stuff before you actually get involved. And what are you doing while they're doing that?

The Blue Shift goes to sleep four hours after main engines cut off. So, we've sleep shifted, basically, 180 degrees out of synch with the red shift. So, for them, it's morning and they have a full day ahead of them. And they'll have the brunt of the activation-type work once we get into orbit. For the blue shift (and myself included), we'll be concerned more with just some Orbiter configuration - computers, for example - getting a couple of the simple payloads activated, getting ourselves ready for bed so if things like the galley, the WCS (which is the toilet), our personal gear, our personal hygiene gear, just kind of in place so that when we get up six hours later, we're ready to get up and go and put in a good, hard second day's worth of work.

Do you think, with this being your first flight and I guess presumably some adrenalin going on and being excited, how much sleep do you think you're going to get that first night?

I'm going to try to be disciplined and get six hours of sleep. Six hours is not a lot, especially, just like you said, I'm probably not going to sleep too well the night prior to launch. There'll be some butterflies in the stomach, and there'll be a lot of thinking through procedures and rehearsing like we're doing. Before every sim, I find myself feeling some of those butterflies, and reenacting, in my mind, the procedures. So, I suspect that'll happen. But, I know that that six hours of sleep that first day is very, very important. So, I intend to be very disciplined and do everything I can to make sure we get to bed on time or early and get the sleep that we need. So, we'll see how it turns out.

Let's talk now a little bit about some of the experiments you're personally going to be working with. Based on the information I have, anyway. If I'm wrong, please correct me. First of all, SOLSE: the Shuttle Ozone Limb Sounding Experiment. What is that? And how does it operate? And what's the objective of it?

Okay. SOLSE is a payload that's mounted on a truss platform in the payload bay called FREESTAR. It's managed by Goddard Space Center. And it's a payload that's designed to confirm a new technique for measuring ozone. And it provides a depth profile of the ozone quantities. The satellites that we have nowadays look nadir down (straight down) and measure the ozone. This is something different. It's going to look across the horizon line, basically at a 90-degree aspect, as the Sun rises and sets, and it's going to measure the ultraviolet scatter of light to develop a depth-type profile of the ozone. And hopefully, if the technique works (and folks think it will), it will be the next-generation technique that satellites will use for measuring in detail how our ozone is doing here on Earth.

That different angle of looking, will that be used in conjunction with the satellites that look straight down? Or, is that just to give a different--

This is more of a technology demonstrator. And we are correlating the data with satellite and ground stations to validate that the results are indeed correct. But the ultimate goal is not necessarily to provide immediate feedback. The ultimate goal is to prove the technology so that folks who develop satellites designed for measuring ozone can use this technology in the future.

There's also an experiment called MEIDEX, which calls for the Orbiter to be in different attitudes at different times during operation. What happens from the flight deck during that experiment? What kind of things will you and--

Well, if you talk about attitude changes: first of all, I'll touch on that real briefly. In the 16 days that we're on orbit, we currently have, I believe the count right now is 342 maneuver changes. So, between Rick and myself, that equates to about one attitude change per hour. And a lot of those maneuvers do evolve around MEIDEX, as you mentioned, and many other payloads. MEIDEX is geared towards looking at aerosols, dust pollution particles in the atmosphere. Targeting in particular the Mediterranean basin and the west side of Africa, where you get Sahara desert sands blowing out over the Atlantic Ocean. So it's an opportunity to see those aerosols and study them in depth using fancy cameras and correlating that data with ground-based observations that are being made by aircraft on the ground. MEIDEX also, by the way, has something a little bit neat. Neat I should say, and unique. It's looking at upward-directed lightning. Something I didn't even know existed until we got assigned to this flight and we started learning the payloads. But there are lightning phenomena that go upward. And they have names like elves, blue jets, trolls, and it's something that only recently folks didn't know existed. And there are very few images of them. And so, we'll be pointing the MEIDEX cameras again at the horizon line. Not straight down at the Earth, but the horizon line, where we think there might be thunderstorms. And we'll just run the cameras; and hopefully, capture some images in detail of the upward-shooting lightning.

Biopack. It's my understanding you're going to [be] working with the, I guess the backup on--

I'm the Blue Shift prime. And we have two Red Shift primes.

Okay. Tell me about that experiment. What's it about? And what do you do?

Biopack is a fun payload for me in particular because it's like being in high school doing a high school biology experiment. This particular payload is sponsored by ESA (the European Space Agency), and folks there have put together eight separate investigations using centrifuges and incubators and freezers and coolers. But most importantly, we have a glove box that we hook up, and we do glove box operations on biological specimens to activate the specimens, to fixate them, we will be transferring them into the centrifuges and basically moving them around to the different storage containers. So, it's operator intensive. To give you an idea of, I won't talk about all eight of them. It would take too long. But, I'll just give you a flavor. We've got a couple of them that are looking at bone cells. And we're just starting to see how the bone cells either deteriorate; or we're looking at the bone-forming-type cells to see how they operate in space. It's a real problem that we have with astronauts who suffer essentially osteoporosis. The same symptoms as folks here on Earth have. It's bone loss. It's accelerated in space. So, the space environment is a great opportunity to see in fast motion how bone-building and bone-unbuilding cells operate. So, we have two investigations that are looking at that. There are others along those lines that are looking at cancer, are looking at bacteria. So it's a fun payload.

That's a pretty labor-intensive one.

Labor-intensive. But, again, a fun one.

And there's a student experiment, too. Can you give me some idea, and you don't have to go into detail, about the experiment itself. But, just why it's important to fly experiments thought up by students on shuttle missions. What's the benefit?

We actually have four payloads that I know of that are carrying student experiments. One called S*T*A*R*S Bootes, which is mostly creatures like spiders and ants and cocoons. One called STARNAV, which is looking at an algorithm to enable orienting the space vehicle based upon looking at star patterns but no other information. There's one on the FREESTAR pallet. I don't know what is in there, but there's 10 containers that are available for students. And there's another commercially available student experiment that's part of a CIBX payload. And there's just great initiatives, you know, to get kids involved and then motivate and excite them about science, space, and technology. Let's face it: the things that we're doing now, for the most part, aren't going to reap benefits tomorrow or next week or next year. Most of what we're doing is enabling technology for the future. And the folks who are going to use that technology and then continue the wheel turning are the children today. And I'll tell you what: there's just no greater experience, at least in my career thus far, than to see the excitement and the eyes that light up when you talk to kids about experiments. And when they really get a chance to go hands-on with them, boy, yeah, the wheels really starting turning! The fires get going. And it's just a great opportunity to foster that experience for them.

Spacehab Research Double Module. We talked about it a little bit. Maybe just an overview of what advantage flying this module will have for this mission. What's it lend to the mission? What's the benefit of it?

It's roomy. Folks who haven't been in the Orbiter probably don't really realize how cramped it is in the flight deck and the middeck. You see videos and the videos with their wide-angle cameras give you the perception that there's more room than there really is. The double SpaceHab research module is really, as I mentioned, it's a double module. Two modules put together into one roomy environment with power and cooling and all the needs that payload customers might have to run their payloads. And it gives us, the operators, space to operate, to run the payloads. So that's it in a nutshell. Room, power, cooling. Everything you need to make the experiments work.

Let's talk a little bit, just about you. Your background…can you think back about what interest you may have had growing up that kind of put you on the road to getting here?

My father, prior military, Marine, and Naval aviator, had a big influence, I think, on me in terms of just the natural progression. You finish high school, you go to college. I went to the Naval Academy; it just seemed the natural thing to do. And went on, you know, into Naval aviation in my father's footsteps. As a child he was a big advocate of building model airplanes and we flew RSC and control on aircraft. So, I had this natural inclination for flying. And I think it's just something that subconsciously just led me into an aviation career. And as my career progressed, things just worked out in my benefit to lead me into the astronaut program. So I think parental influence is probably the biggest motivator behind everything that's led me to become an astronaut.

How do you think that being part of activities, being part of teams all your life has helped in the transition to NASA? Because NASA is, in essence, one big team.

Well the military and NASA are a lot alike when you talk about working together as a team. In Naval aviation, you work as a squadron. You work with an air wing. I flew the EA-6B Prowler. We had a crew of four. And we advocated crew coordination and working together as a crew. And just as you mentioned all those lessons that I learned in my aviation career and my Navy career about working together as a team just seemed to naturally apply and work well with NASA. NASA does the same exact thing. We operate as a crew in the same way as we did back in my Navy days in the EA-6B Prowler. The Astronaut Office, the folks here at JSC, operate in the same fashion that we had learned to operate as a team within the squadron and within the air wing. So, I think [they] dovetail quite well.

Outside of your time with NASA, what's been the most enjoyable experience of your life so far?

My most enjoyable experience is: I really can't pinpoint one. But I can kind of say as a category my most enjoyable experiences are going out with my wife and my boys back country backpacking in the Olympic Mountains or, you know, the canyon lands in Utah and just enjoying life without outside distractions. And enjoying each other, and enjoying the environment. And we love to do that frequently, whenever we can. Unfortunately, [I] don't get enough of it here, you know, recently with all the training. But those memories prevail. And they're something that I look forward to doing in the future when we get done with this mission.

[You'll] have some more stories to tell after this flight.

Yeah. You bet.

Being the Pilot on this mission, you're going to be working closely with the Commander, Rick Husband. And it's kind of a unique situation. He is a one-time shuttle Pilot. And that's kind of unique. Can you talk a little bit about how that has been? And what role that's played in the relationship you guys have developed?

Sure. Since Rick has only flown once and now he's jumping into the Commander's seat. I think he's in a similar situation that I am in as a non-flier getting into the Pilot's seat. I'm trying to figure out the ins and outs and what my roles are and getting very good at them as the Pilot. Rick is in the same situation, but on the Commander's side of the house. So, it's really made for, I think, a close relationship and bond between he and I because as we sit side-by-side during ascent and entry SIMs, we're both figuring out our roles and really developing together. And so, in that development, we kind of see where each other needs help or needs some prodding. Or, where we're strong. And we just have, I think because of this relationship, developed a very close harmony. And almost to the point where I can feel things on Rick's side without having…him say anything to me. And he can do the same with me. And I find that frequently he'll be reaching across to flip a switch because I'm busy over here, but he just senses that it's time to do it. Or, I'll flip up a display for him because he's busy. But, we've got that harmony now. And it's really because we've developed and grown in our roles together. We have such a new and young crew, and we worked together for so long, that the relationship is something you don't quite understand and you never really will understand until you get assigned to a flight. And we've done so much together and we've been doing it for a year and a half, and we're all kind of in that same boat. Either we've only flown once, or we've never flown, and the whole growth process together as a crew of seven has been something, I don't know. It's just really difficult to describe. It's just a facet of flying in space. You don't really talk about it, hear much about it, because the focus is on doing an EVA or doing a docking or doing a science. But, there's a personal side that really is kind of interesting. I think it's the part of the memory that you keep more than anything else.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 12/11/2002
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