Interview: Steve Robinson
STS-95 Crew Interview with Steve Robinson, mission specialist.
Discuss for a moment your thoughts on this flight; how complex
it is and what you expect to derive out of it.
flight is a very busy, science-focused mission. We have a scientific
and a communications satellite on board; we will deploy both of
those and retrieve one of them. We have a laboratory on board, a
huge compliment of scientific and engineering payloads -- in all
these ways this is somewhat similar to my previous flight, STS-87
back in August of 1997. I also have the same commander as I had
last time, which is a real pleasure for me. We have the robot arm
on board and a number of robotics experiments. So we are fully challenged,
and blessed, with a full compliment of things to do in space.
us a little bit about the multi-disciplinary nature of what you
and your crewmates will be accomplishing, scientifically during
exactly right, the flight is very multi-disciplinary. We have, depending
on how you count, between seventy-five and eighty payloads and experiments
to do, and this is really a lot of exciting work for us. We have
work to do from the basic science, pure science, all the way up
through applied engineering, to test technology that's currently
scheduled for use on upcoming missions such as International Space
Station construction, or Hubble Servicing Mission Number 3. On the
science side, we have life sciences, we have fluid and materials
sciences and we have astronomy -- and a very broad range of work
in all of those. And on the engineering and technology development
side, we have things for robotics -- a number of robotics tests for
construction of this International Space Station. We have new things
on the orbiter itself: the orbiter has new navigation techniques
using GPS technology, we're testing some of that. We have communications
tests for the spacesuits for an EVA, even though we're not doing
an EVA we're testing some of the new communications sets. And so
many more things that I wouldn't want to list them all right now,
but, we have a very exciting compliment of work to do.
crew has two medical doctors you're privileged to fly with, Chiaki
Mukai and Scott Parazynski. How will you work with them in terms
of focusing in on biomedical studies, and what are some of those
experiments that we'll be hearing a lot about?
a third of our total experiments and payloads can be thought of
as life science or biomedical; about a half of those, or somewhere
around a dozen, will be tests and experiments that will be done
on the crewmembers themselves. Some of these will be done before
and after the flight, and some will be done during the flight, and
several of them will be both. We will be studying the things that
change in the human body when you go into space. The vestibular
system, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, muscular-skeletal
system, blood chemistry -- we will be taking data and trying to study
the changes that occur when you go into space and when you come
back. The beneficiaries for this kind of research are both people
who will do further spaceflights in the future, especially long-term
spaceflights on International Space Station or maybe eventually
going to Mars, but also the very many people here on Earth who suffer
from disorders. Clinical disorders of some sort that are very similar
to what happens to healthy astronauts when we go up in space, and
so I think there's a very broad benefit to mankind in general for
doing these biomedical experiments on STS-95.
have gathered data on much longer missions than yours coming up,
which is only a nine-day flight; in terms of the human response
to weightlessness and so forth. What may be unique about what you're
doing on STS-95, or is it just another set of data that's being
I think what's
unique about the data that STS-95 will be taking is that we have
the benefit of the previous flights to learn from, and so we're
standing on a higher plateau of scientific knowledge -- to go and
test and study the various experiments and crewmembers on STS-95.
So when we come back, our level of knowledge will be just that much
higher, and also the combination of medical experiments that we're
doing is unique for the flight. So we have a lot of unique things;
hopefully every flight we fly is unique and special, and required
for the furthering of scientific and engineering knowledge. We really
think that STS-95 is.
people will be interested in the geriatric studies that will be
ongoing during the course of your flight, specifically with Senator
Glenn acting as a subject for many of the experiments. What are
we trying to learn, in terms of this unique opportunity, to test
the effects of spaceflight on a septuagenarian?
will be acting, as most astronauts do on a scientific-type flight,
as both an operator -- an onboard scientist and experimenter, and
a subject. Many of us -- all of us, in fact -- will be test subjects
of some sort and all of us will be operators of some sort, and Senator
Glenn will participate fully in that. We, the scientific community,
is taking advantage of this opportunity; of having a person that
is medically this well-documented for over forty-five years, and
being able to judge what happens to this body when he goes up into
space and comes back and readapts to Earth's gravity. There are
many things in the aging process that are similar to what happens
to astronauts when they leave the planet and spend some time in
microgravity environment, and this will be a first data point in
that collection of data. We don't expect that this one data point
will solve any problems in itself, but we do have to start somewhere
and this is our start.
talk about two of those types of experiments,if we could. One involving
protein, I believe, Protein Turnover I think it's called, the other
involving sleep studies. Can you give us a fill on both of those?
Turnover Experiment is to look at what happens to the evolution
of protein under both the stressed environment of the flight, and
the zero-gravity environment of the changing and differing blood
chemistry. For the Sleep experiment, we're looking at what happens
to people's sleep patterns when they're in space, and also the effect
of melatonin on those sleep patterns. It's a substance produced
by the body naturally; it seems to control our circadian rhythm,
or the time when we want to go to bed and get up, and we're trying
to see what more we can find out about that. We know there are some
effects, it seems to be quite different from person to person, so
we will have to take lots of data in the future. STS-90 pioneered
this kind of study and we're going to continue on STS-95. The study
Senator Glenn will participate fully in will require him wearing,
I believe it's twenty-eight different electrodes and sensors on
his body, for four of the nights during the mission. Our other Payload
Specialist, Dr. Mukai, will also participate that way. Scott Parazynski
and I will be the people who will fit all the sensors on the crewmembers'
bodies, and then they will sleep in what we call sleep stations.
These are kind of little boxes -- nice private, quiet, dark, insulated
places so they can optimize their conditions for getting a good
sleep, and get some good data on them.
Payload Commander, you're obviously in charge of choreographing,
along with your Commander, Curt Brown, much of the activity on board.
How do you expect to accomplish your scientific goals on this flight?
Do you think that the timeline is a bit overstressed, or is it a
Before I ever
became an astronaut, I thought about what it would be like to do
this kind of job. And this is what I thought it would be like: I
thought it would be a fully challenging collection of exciting things
to do across the spectrum of science, technology, and applied engineering;
that, to me, seemed like the best possible thing, and that is what
this flight is. It's very exciting, I think we're doing something
new here. We're trying to see, in some ways, just how much we can
do in space. This is very appropriate for our level of maturity
in flying the orbiter in space and it will help us in the future.
I think it'll be a stepping-stone in knowledge to go on to the International
Space Station and think about, well, how should we really schedule
something this complex; there's many ways of doing it, we don't
really know if there's one right way. We think we've come up with
a right way for this mission. It will change as we go, but we think
we've got a good plan in hand. We're all pretty happy about the
full challenges of the mission, and when we come back and we've
got success on all these seventy-five different experiments, then
we'll really be happy.
the kind of science you're doing on board, and given the multi-national
complexion of the crew, are we looking, really, at a kind of miniature
form of a space station mission here?
Well, I think
that STS-95 has the look and feel of a space station, I really do.
We have an international crew, we have an international compliment
of payloads, sponsors, and participants from all over the world
are involved in our mission. And the reason we're going up and flying
is to learn things we didn't know before, the same reason we're
going to fly International Space Station. We want to know things
about astronomy, we want to know about what happens to the human
body in challenging conditions, we want to know about whether these
machines, techniques and things that we've invented for remote sensing
and remote operation of a very complex vehicle really work in the
challenging environment of space. These are all things we're doing
on STS-95, all things that'll be major challenges for this International
Space Station. So, we do feel very much a link with the space station,
and we're very excited to sort of precede it into orbit.
discuss what you and your crew will be doing during the deployment
of SPARTAN, you being the chief robot arm operator. Give us kind
of a bird's eye view of what will happen on that day.
we launch the SPARTAN satellite is parked safely in the payload
bay; it's bolted down and latched, and so is the robot arm. We have
a fifty-foot robot arm on board, which is a fantastic six-degree
of freedom machine, and when it comes to deploy day for SPARTAN,
we'll unlatch the arm, reach up, and then back down into the payload
bay with the end effector, or the tip of the arm. Then we will latch
firmly onto the satellite, drive some latches which unlock the satellite
from the payload bay, freeing it to come out, and then we will draw
it out firmly attached to the robot arm. We'll lift it high above
the payload bay into what we call the deploy position, or location,
and then we will turn the satellite on and test it. If it checks
out OK then we will hit the release button on the robot arm, back
the arm away from the satellite, and leave it hanging there, with
zero relative motion between the satellite and Discovery; and then
Curt will fly the shuttle away. The whole crew, or at least the
four of us in the cockpit, are very, very involved in this deploy
sequence; it's rather delicate, it's carefully choreographed. Curt
will be in charge of flying the Discovery, moving it around relative
to the satellite. Steve Lindsey will be backing him up; watching
shuttle systems and making sure that everything that we need both
for the arm, the satellite, and the shuttle are all in good shape.
He'll also be helping us out with some of the data on the robot
arm. Scott and I will be in charge of actually deploying the satellite.
Scott's primarily responsible for the health of the satellite itself.
I'm primarily responsible for the operations of the arm itself,
and we back each other up … we think that's a good teaming strategy.
I'll have my hands on two controllers, I've got one in each hand -- it's kind of like flying an airplane only you've got a stick in
each hand. You do have six degrees of freedom, and three are controlled
by each hand. So I will be operating and moving the arm, and Scott
will be following everything I do. He'll be reading me the numbers
that I need, giving me camera commands and inputs, and also watching
for any kinds of malfunctions or problems and be ready for what
to do next.
November the SPARTAN didn't do what it was supposed to do after
the robot arm released it, leading to the necessity of manually
capturing the SPARTAN and bringing it home. What have you and the
crew learned, and what changes have been made both in crew procedure,
insight into the satellite, and the technical end of SPARTAN that
will likely ensure success this time?
we do things in space we always learn from what we do, whether it's
successful or not. We've made some very minor changes in the software
which will make, I think, a big difference in the crew's insight
as to the health of the satellite. When we send the satellite a
command, we will know whether the command has been sent; the previous
crew did not have that insight. Clearly that's not an optimal situation;
it's been fixed and improved. It was an easy fix, and I think it
will make sort of the critical difference. And so we will be watching
carefully to make sure that the satellite has gotten the right commands
before it is allowed to be released. Another thing is once it is
released, once it is turned on out on the end of the arm, we will
have more than one hour to recycle it if need be. Now, the previous
crew, when they had to go back and recapture the satellite, they
were down to a little bit less than an hour, so they had a bit of
a time pressure to do that. So now if we need to sit and wait for
better lighting conditions, or some sort of better attitude, then
we have the leeway to do that. So these are the small but important
things that have come out of our learning process that I think will
ensure success on STS-95 for the SPARTAN deploy.
kinds of things are we trying to learn about the sun from this boxy-looking
very big but it's very powerful: it's about four feet on a side,
with a long cylinder through it, which is a series of telescopes.
The idea is to try to learn quite a bit more about the temperature
of the sun's corona and the origin of the solar wind. The solar
wind is this huge efflux of electrons that effects a lot of things
here on Earth. The thing that we are concerned most about is communications.
It has a lot to do with the electromatic environment around the
Earth, and we'd like to know much, much more about that. There's
a number of baffling mysteries about the sun's corona and the solar
wind; we hope this mere forty-eight hours of SPARTAN being out there
will really make a big dent in these mysteries and help us eventually
us an overview -- from your perspective, handling the robot arm,
of the rendezvous and the retrieval of SPARTAN.
Well, the rendezvous,
I always liken it to sort of a cosmic dance, you know. You start
out many miles away from the satellite, and you spend most of the
day slowly kind of sneaking up on it, using computer controls, radar
sensors, and eventually, once we get it in sight, Curt and Steve
will actually fly manually up to the satellite itself. On our way
in we will do a series of tests of a robotic sensor that will eventually
be used for automated docking procedures on space station. After
we complete those tests, we will go all the way in, and Curt will
bring the shuttle right to within thirty feet of the satellite.
Within range for me to reach out with the robot arm, and as you
say, with kid gloves, very carefully and slowly, we will attach
the end of the robot arm to the satellite. Scott and I will work
together on that, where he is working as a systems guy and feeding
me numbers and data and camera stuff, and I will just reach out
very carefully and put the end effector around a pin on the satellite
and then close the latches.
you personally, do you feel any pressure about this operation because
it didn't go well last year, and because a lot of attention will
be focused on making sure it goes right this time?
I don't think
that makes any difference at all to me. Every time you do something
in space that is delicate and requires a lot of careful training
for many, many people … I'm just the lucky guy that actually gets
to run the arm, and I have a lot of confidence in everybody who's
been involved up until now. We've learned more about SPARTAN on
this flight than I think we have in preparing for any other flight.
We all have a lot of confidence in the way things are going to go,
and so the pressure is just the same as it always is for any flight,
which is do your best and try to make the mission successful.
major payload on board is the International Extreme Ultraviolet
Hitchhiker experiment, which is kind of a scientific potpourri of
things. You flew with this same experiment on your first mission;
give us a little glimpse as to what IEH is all about.
Well, IEH is
kind of a workbench of experiments. It did fly on STS-85, my last
flight, and it had kind of a different suite of tools and experiments
on board than it has this time. This time it has seven different
experiments, and they're mostly astronomy-type of experiments. There
are a couple that are looking at the ultraviolet radiation from
various sources in the heavens -- other galaxies, hot stars, Jupiter's
moons, and also the Earth's atmosphere. There's also a small satellite
called PANSAT, which is an experimental, digital communications
satellite which will be deployed as part of IEH; there are just
a variety of types of smaller, astronomical things. There's an experiment
to look at the solar constant, the total radiation from the sun,
to help calibrate other types of solar astronomy experiments on
the ground and in space. So it's an exciting potpourri, as you say,
of astronomy experiments.
was your reaction when you were selected to fly with Senator Glenn,
and your thoughts on his place in history?
ever you're selected to fly for any mission your reaction is one
of joy and elation, because flying in space is the best thing that
you can possibly do. This particular mission is special in a whole
bunch of different ways, and the Senator being on board is one of
them. When I was a kid, I clearly remember his first flight. I remember
drawing pictures of his rocket and entering them in art contests,
you know, developing my skills as an artist. When I was involved
in designing the patch for this mission, one of the other crewmembers
pointed out, "Here you are still drawing pictures of John Glenn's
rocket thirty-six years later," so it's kind of funny how things
have come around. I think if you had told me a year and a half ago
that my next shuttle mission would be in October of '98, and by
the way, one of my crewmembers would be the first American to orbit
the Earth, I would have said that is just impossible, squared. So,
you never really can predict how things are going to go, but I'm
very happy about it.
an historic perspective, what do you think the significance of him
returning to space is, a sort of link between the past and the future
I think Senator
Glenn's return to space is indeed a link between the past and the
future, in terms of progress of the human race in space technology.
When Senator Glenn first flew there was, I think, thin confidence
that we were going to be able to send fragile human beings up into
space and have them survive the ascent, the orbit, and the descent.
And Senator Glenn was a large part of the proof that that really
could be done. And so here we are … because he and his colleagues
were able to do what he did, we are where we are here today. I think
it's a fantastic opportunity for us as a human race, to use this
second flight on one of the pioneering humans in this field, to
kind of remind ourselves of the tremendous progress we've made in
thirty-six years. Thirty-six years is not so long, and look what
we currently consider completely doable; things that have become
not exactly an everyday occurrence, but not Earth-shattering either.
Flying into space is something we all know that we can do, and I
think we as humans ought to be very proud of that. And we as Americans
ought to be especially proud that we've had this record of continuity,
of progress in technical development, and also safety.
Glenn, who once played an integral part in the space race with the
Russians; now the Senator flies on the eve of a multilateral cooperation,
with the Russians in the forefront with us, trying to build a new
space station. What about the irony of all that?
I call that
not so much irony, but progress. If anything is progress, it's going
from competing in a space race that had very strong military overtones,
to cooperating and bringing the expertise of two, in fact fifteen,
countries together in a global effort of residence in space -- that
is tremendous progress. I think it's a sign of evolution in civilization
on the Earth, as well as technical progress.
has he done throughout the course of the training for this flight?
Is it kind of like the "old soldier coming back, never forgetting
what he used to do for a living" type of thing?
Glenn says that things are very different now than they were when
he first flew, and in general much better. His energy level is just
tremendous, and his ability to stay motivated, with very long days,
and to be positive about things and not complain, and to always
see the bright side of things … it just makes for another good crewmember
on our seven-person team. It's really a pleasure to have him along.
spry, he's in great shape; he's 77 years old. Any concerns, from
your perspective, for his health, or any aspect of the mission for
Well, my main
concern is that when I'm 77 that I somehow don't live up to the
standard he is now setting for all of us. It's amazing; he kept
up with us in every way, and I guarantee that he will function just
as the rest of us do in space. We are learning a lot from him and
he's learning a lot, I think, from us and the shuttle program. It's
a good opportunity for everybody.
of your crewmates said that working alongside of him has provided
them with more or less a brand new insight, because he brings all
of the history of human spaceflight with him; putting a new perspective
on what you all are doing for a living today. Is that kind of a
brings a lot of things to the mission. First of all, he's been in
the service of his country for his whole career, almost his whole
life. He's flown as a combat pilot in two wars, he still flies his
own airplane, he's been flying for close to fifty years now; any
time you get a chance to fly with an aviator with those kind of
credentials, it is a real honor, and that's without even considering
his pioneering spaceflight. I think it really does put things in
perspective, in terms of commitment to your country, government
service, and just plain courage.
are your own personal thoughts about flying with him; as you say,
an aviation legend, and what impact is that going to have on your
Well … right
now the Senator is a crewmember, and there are seven of us on the
crew and we're all crewmembers; we're working very, very hard together,
to try to get this mission trained up and ready to go just like
we would any other mission. It's a very challenging mission, it
is fully occupying us, and I think the time for reflection about
the historical meaning of this will mostly be after the flight.
But I will say that when we launch, and we pass the time of his
first flight, we will stop and recognize that moment on that first
day. I think that'll be a time for all of us to think about the
progress that's been made since his first flight … this sort of
second time around history-making spaceflight for this unique gentleman.
launch you will be strapped in just a couple feet away from John
Glenn as he and you both lie on your back along with Chiaki Mukai
down on the middeck; you think your mind will go back to those old
grainy black and white pictures of John Glenn, being launched thirty-six
I think they
really will. You know, we all looked at those pictures and wondered
what it would be like. You know, on his first launch when he got
into orbit, and the engines cut off and he was in the weightlessness
of a microgravity environment, there was nobody there to welcome
him to space; well this time I'll get to do that, and I think that
will be an honor.
this the perfect mission for an astronaut? Could you have asked
For me, this
is the perfect mission. About the only thing we're not doing on
this mission is an extravehicular activity, a spacewalk; that'd
be great to do a spacewalk, too. But most astronauts have a technical
background in aviation and engineering, and possibly science and/or
medicine, and I have backgrounds in all of those, to some degree;
and this flight uses up every bit of background I have and more.
It's been just thrilling and educational to learn all these things
and learn them at the rate that we're learning; this is the best
possible situation. And, yes, for me, this is sort of a dream flight
in every way.