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Behind the ScenesMeet the People

Todd May,
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

Space station airlock manager set his sights on the stars as a boy

July 30, 2001 - As a boy growing up in Fairhope, Ala., Todd May gazed at the stars and dreamed of space exploration.

“I’ve loved space as long as I can remember,” said May. “When I was just five, I remember climbing on the roof of my grandfather’s house on Fort Morgan Road in Gulf Shores to watch a lunar eclipse. From then on, I was hooked.”

Today, May leads the team that built a “doorway to the stars” — a new airlock that is making it easier to exit the International Space Station for Extravehicular Activities, also known as EVAs and space walks. On July 20, May and his team watched as astronauts Michael Gernhardt and James Reilly conducted the first space walk from the Station using the new Quest Airlock — manufactured at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“I felt a real rush of emotion when I saw Mike stick his head out of the airlock hatch for the first time,” said May, airlock element manager in Marshall’s Flight Project Directorate. “It was like our team scoring the winning touchdown.”

The Quest Airlock makes it easier for crews to perform space walks, and allows both Russian and American spacesuits to be worn when the Shuttle is not docked with the Space Station. American suits will not fit through Russian airlocks at the Station.

“I knew our team had done its best to prepare the Quest Airlock for a safe flight,” said May. “Once we got the high-pressure oxygen lines safely filled, our engineers working in the control center breathed a sigh of relief. We knew the airlock was ready for its debut space walk.”

The new robot arm, delivered to the Station in April, was used to pick up the airlock from the Space Shuttle Atlantis’ cargo bay and attach it to Unity, a node or passageway that connects to Destiny, the U.S. laboratory module. During the STS-104 mission, while the Shuttle was docked with the Station, astronauts performed three space walks to complete airlock installation and activation.May and his team supported the flight activities from the Payload Operations Center located at Marshall and the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas
To build and test the airlock before its delivery to the Station, May worked with a team involving more than 12 contractors from two countries, as well as three NASA centers — Marshall, Johnson, and Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Boeing Company, the Space Station prime contractor, built the 6.5-ton (5.8 metric ton) airlock and several other key Station components in the same Marshall building where the Saturn V rocket was built that carried people to the Moon.

“It’s was a tremendous pleasure to watch the NASA and Boeing team transform an empty shell into a flight-worthy component of the Space Station,” said May.

The Joint Airlock Module is spindle-shaped, consisting of two cylindrical, pressurized chambers. It is 18 feet (5.49 meters) long and has a diameter of 13 feet (3.96 meters). Inside the large chamber attached directly to the Unity node, astronauts from every participating nation can suit up for space walks to assemble the Station, perform maintenance or install experiments.

In the large chamber, several crew members don suits and perform other activities to prepare for extravehicular activities. Just before the start of a space walk, crew members close a hatch and move to the smaller part of the airlock. Here, pressure is reduced, so the crew can safely go outside and work in the vacuum of a space.

“Communications and acoustics testing, thermal and structural analysis and mechanical evaluation and testing, and safety are just a few of the areas Marshall team members have supported,” said May. “Marshall also provided manufacturing facilities and performed program-critical tasks.”

Graduating from Auburn University in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in materials engineering, May started his career at NASA in 1991 as an engineer at the Marshall Center’s Materials and Processes Laboratory, leading work on the Space Station module. Then, he worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, leading a team that evaluated materials and processes used for the Space Station. Later he became deputy manager of the team working with Russia on the Space Station.

In 1998, May returned to Alabama to lead the team constructing the airlock. May his wife Kelly and their three children, Carson, Madison, and Harrison, reside in Huntsville.

All text and photos for this story were provided by Marshall Space Flight Center.


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 06/23/2003
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