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Preflight Interview: Susan Helms

The STS-101 Crew Interviews with Susan Helms, Mission Specialist 4.

Before 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?

Well, I'd 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.

If I understood your answer correctly, you were already an Air Force officer before you got real enthused about flying. That sort of seems backwards?

That's right. 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.

Or people who really love to fly go into the Air Force rather than the other way around.

Well, I'm 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.

You 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 took?

Well, it's 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.

In 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.

Well, 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.

…but 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?

Well, it 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.

As 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.

Let's 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.

I 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?

OK. Well, 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.

You 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.


Why does the shuttle need to come down on the station instead of come straight up to dock?

Well, you 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.

So, 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 that vehicle?

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.

You 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 that task.

Well, we 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.

On 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 mentioned?

In fact, 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.

In this case, are we talking about changing out components because they broke, or because they simply have lived out their expected life?

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.

When 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.

The last crew that visited the International Space Station experienced some degradation in the air quality during the time...

Oh, speaking of headaches!

... 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?

Well, not 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.

After 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.

Assuming that the Expedition 1 crew doesn't move it on you.

Well, that'll 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.

As 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.

Well, actually, 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.

We've 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.

IMAGE: Susan Helms
Click on the image to hear Susan Helms' greeting.
Mission Specialist, STS-101
Crew Interviews

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/07/2002
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