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Preflight Interview: James Voss

The STS-101 Crew Interviews with Mission Specialist 3 Jim Voss.

Jim, before we talk about the details of your mission, talk a bit about the details about you. Tell me why it is that you wanted to become an astronaut.

I'm not really sure exactly when it happened, but I think it has something to do with when I was a child. I read a lot, and my favorite subject was science fiction, and I always thought, when I read these tales what a great job that would be, how wonderful it would be to be able to fly in space, go to different places, different parts of our solar system. And so, I think it captured my imagination when I was a child, but of course, we didn't have astronauts then. And so, when we started having them I thought about it again, though I wasn't really qualified in the early days because they only took military test pilots. And though I was in the military, I was an engineer and I didn't have vision that was good enough to be in the program then. And when they started with the mission specialist program -- the Shuttle Program in 1978 -- I saw a notice about it, and I said, "They've created this program just for me so I can go become an astronaut!" So, I started applying then, and over a period of nine years I applied six times, and finally I was selected.

Were there certain steps in your Army career, certain things that you did that you did with an eye toward becoming more qualified?

No. The things that I did in my military career, I did because they were things I wanted to do like I have with everything I've ever done. They're just things that I thought that I would enjoy doing and work that I would like to do. I think there's some things that helped me. I got to go. I had the opportunity to go to the Navy Test Pilot School as an engineer and I think that definitely helped with my application. But I did that because I love flying and I enjoy aviation, and I thought that would be a wonderful use of my education. I'm an aerospace engineer.

You mentioned, as a child reading science fiction and being interested in the stories that were being told there; were there individuals, were there people that you, in your life, as you think back, that you can see now were instrumental or influential in your becoming the man you did?

Well, maybe Buck Rogers, who I watched in the movie theater as a child. Real people, though, I think that some of the people that influenced me most were those who influenced my military career, who kind of shaped me as a person once I started along that track. Maj. Jack Damewood, who was my ROTC instructor at Auburn University, he was a real influence on my life in general. He was such an enthusiastic, highly motivated person. I decided then that I wanted to be that kind of a soldier and officer, and I tried to do that. Other people that influenced me were my grandparents, who raised me, and I think they just made me the kind of person overall that I am even to this day.

Earlier in your astronaut career, in your capacity as a backup for two of the missions of the American astronauts to the Russian Mir space station, you lived and worked in Russia for a year-and-a-half or more and got a firsthand look at how the Russians and the Americans began learning to work together. From your point of view, how has the experience of the Phase 1 part of the International Space Station Program contributed to the success of the current international effort?

Well that, it's been such a tremendously interesting experience for me. I just really enjoyed going to Russia, learning about their culture, seeing our space program interacting with the Russians the way that we have, and learning and growing together. When we started out we didn't know how to work together with the Russians at all, and I think the biggest contribution of the Phase 1 program was for the Russians to learn how to work with us and for us to learn how to work with them. And we're seeing the benefit of that as we go into the International Space Station, or Phase 2 part of this, because we do know how to work together, we've established working relationships between our specialists here and there, and the people have learned how to get things done working together. And I think that's gonna eventually contribute to our success with the International Space Station.

Subsequent to that, you were named to be a crewmember on the second long-duration expedition to the space station and have been training to do that for a couple of years now. But you and your two expedition crewmates were only recently added to STS-101 - just a couple of months to train for the details of what's going on here. What's it been like to shift gears from training from that one kind of mission to this?

It's been also interesting. I had actually been training for four years, including the Mir time plus the time I've been training specifically for the International Space Station flight; and that's a very long time to train for a flight. Though there's a great deal to learn for the ISS, it still was dragging out and the flight was going to be much later than we originally thought because of delays in the program. We have been at actually, a lull in our training now while the training facilities catch up with us, and so this was an excellent opportunity for us to take a break from that long training flow and do something a little bit different. It also allows us to go and train on the real thing: When our simulators are not ready for us, we can go train on the actual hardware by going up there and working on board the space station. And this will be the best training that we could ever possibly do.

This, exactly the next thing I wanted to get you to talk about in a sense, is your expertise on the systems of this station, by virtue of the fact that you've been studying it for some time, is that helping ease the transition for you and Susan and Yuri to work with this other group of astronauts?

In fact, it is. And that's one of the reasons that we were assigned to this flight was because we do already have the training required to go up and operate and repair and work on the part of the space station that is up there. And because of that we don't really need to train on that, in fact, Susan went to Russia and joined Yuri over there for some training, and the Russians certified them, that they were ready to do the repair work on the FGB. Well, they also included in their certification letter that I was also prepared because of my Mir and the ISS training that I've done over there, so without doing another day's worth of training they certified I was OK to go and do the repair work. And I think that's the case with much of what we're going to be doing. It's things that we've already learned the skills for, and we've prepared a long time for, and we're just going to go and apply that knowledge that we've gained over a period of several years.

Let's begin to talk about some of this in more specific terms. Why is NASA flying this shuttle mission at this time? What are the major goals of STS-101?

Well, as you know, the Service Module - the habitation and the control part of the International Space Station - has been delayed because of problems with the launch rocket in Russia. Because of that delay, the flight 2A.2, which was going up to outfit the space station, wasn't properly phased in with the timing; it would have to be after the Service Module launch. Well, there are also problems with the part of the station that's up there right now. Specifically, the main problem is with batteries that we use for electrical power. They've been failing and they need to be repaired, and we can't wait until the Service Module is up there to go up and repair them, so we had to have another flight that goes before July, when the Service Module is launching. So, they decided to create a new flight to go up and specifically to repair the FGB and to do some outfitting while we're up there, but the main thing is to get it back a hundred percent before we launch the Service Module up there. And then, the flight after that will continue to outfit it and prepare it for the first crew to come on board.

Historically, this is quite different: NASA has planned out shuttle missions for years in advance before sending them up, rather than months, and astronauts and ground crews have spent much longer training for the specific details of what was to be done. But all of that was before there was always a space station on orbit - is this a sign of what it's going to be like from now on?

Well, I think it's a sign of great thinking on the part of NASA management. Now, actually, we were sort of forced into doing this. We had to have a flight pretty quick, and the crew that was already in training for a flight, we needed some of them for the later flight, and they needed to be in training continuously. They couldn't go off and do a flight and come back and then prepare for the other one in time. So, they had to add some people very quickly, and they looked around and they saw that the space station crews are the ones that are fully trained already to do the space station repair work. We have the skills and the knowledge to do the things, and so they decided that the right thing to do is to send us up there. A lot of things came together to make that happen at this time, and I really believe it's the right thing to do for repairing the space station with a crew that you have to put together very quickly. And you're right: This is very unusual for NASA. I think the crew will be ready, it's just a question of whether or not the rest of the program is going to be able to pull everything together and have the shuttle ready, all the products that we need to have on board, if everything will be prepared for the flight. But I think we're going to do it.

A couple of days after the seven of you launch on board Atlantis and are to rendezvous with the space station, you will do so in a way that's very similar to what STS-96 did on the last station assembly mission last year. Tell us what you're going to do and talk us through the events of rendezvous day.

Well, rendezvous day for me is going to be a pretty easy one. I'm going to be doing other things most of the day. Fortunately, the core crew -- the commander, pilot, and the other two MSs, who have been training for 18 months for this flight - are prepared to do the rendezvous. My station crewmate Susan Helms is going to assist them by operating the computers that help us in understanding what we're doing during the rendezvous. But, she was previously trained on rendezvous, and so it's very easy for her to step in and do that. I'm also rendezvous trained, but we don't need another person so I'm going to be preparing some of our extravehicular activity tools and equipment to get ready for the EVA that's coming up soon after we dock. And so I'll be doing that during a lot of the rendezvous, and then as we get closer I'll do Photo/TV operations. I'll take pictures and set up cameras and do things like that, just to assist the crew, and I'll be a general helper doing anything that's necessary to assist the rest of the crew while they do their part of the job.

Can you give us a brief word picture of the major steps that are involved in trying to bring these two massive ships together?

Sure. We're catching up with the station as we fly, and as we get close that day, we come in sort of underneath the space station. And then we fly up around it, and then we move in to dock. We get within just a couple of hundred feet, do this flyaround, then we actually rotate the shuttle 90 degrees to get the lighting all set up just right for it. A great deal of planning has gone into getting everything right and to have us to know exactly what we have to do - even down to the point of where the sun is going to be and the correct lighting for the docking. And then, Jim Halsell, who's the commander on the flight, will fly the space shuttle in closer and closer as we go. And during this time that Jim will be flying, Scott Horowitz will be controlling the operation by reading the checklist and keeping Jim straight on how fast he's supposed to be going at particular times so Jim only has to focus on the flying. Jeff Williams, who is our mission specialist 2, the flight engineer, will be keeping track of the space shuttle systems and making sure everything is OK there and taking care of any problems that come up. Mary Ellen Weber will be assisting Jim with the cameras that we use for our docking and assisting him with displays and things like that, and Susan Helms will be operating the computer. Yuri Usachev will be operating a handheld laser to provide range and our closing speed with the station as we go, as a kind of a backup. And when we get within about 30 feet, Jim will just go straight in at a very slow rate We have a docking ring that we have on the shuttle and one on the space station. Those will come together at a relatively slow rate, and Jim will put it right in the place it needs to be using a target by looking out the window at the station, and then we'll dock. And then, Mary Ellen will actually do the steps necessary to make the docking secure and for us to be firmly attached to the space station.

The day after all of that is successfully concluded is the day that you all are to begin your work -- the work of bringing new things to the space station, starting with the things that need to go on the outside of the station.

That's right.

You have gotten the spacewalking assignment, along with Jeff Williams, on this mission.


Talk through the schedule, as you know it at this time, of what you and Jeff Williams are going to be doing on the outside of the International Space Station.

OK. Of course the spacewalk is probably my main job up to this point on the shuttle flight. And the reason I was assigned this is because of my previous experience with an EVA on STS-69, and I've been preparing for EVAs on space station for the last four years. When Jeff and I go outside, we will be transferring over some things from the space shuttle onto the station. One of the things is a crane - it's called the Strela, it's a Russian piece of hardware, it has an extendable boom that you can use for moving people or equipment around on the space station. A piece of it is already up there; we're bringing up the boom itself and an extension to the boom. We'll assemble pieces of it in the payload bay of the space shuttle, and then we will move it up to the space station, assemble it there, and then we'll move the entire thing over to a new location where it's kind of out of the way for future construction that's going to happen. After we've moved the Strela, then we have some other tasks that we have to complete. There are some handrails we're going to install, a cable for a centerline camera for future docking flight, and we've got something that's been added fairly recently, and that's a repair or, a look at possibly repairing a U.S. crane that we put up there on the last flight. There is something that is not working quite right on it; it's rotating freely - and we're going to look at the interface where this crane plugs into a socket on the space station and see if we can fix it. Now, we have several different things we might try: hopefully the easiest thing is just take it out, put it back in again and it'll lock in place this time. And if it doesn't, then we have other contingencies of trying other places or perhaps even bringing it into the station so that we can look at the mechanism and see what's wrong with it.

And at some point, I think there was also a plan to change out an antenna to a communications system.

That's correct. We have a communications antenna on the space station that's called the Early Comm or Early Communications System, and one of those antennas -- one of the two -- has had part of it that's failed. They're still able to use a piece of it, but it's not fully functional. So, we're going to change out one of those. Luckily, it's one of the tasks that I was already doing part of for our space station flight that we were scheduled for, so this was a relatively easy one for me to train for. And we will change out that antenna, just replace it with an identical one, and bring back the old one for repair.

During most of the time of this six-hour-and-something-minute spacewalk, you're going to be riding on the end of the mechanical arm.

That's right.

Does that mean that you have the easy job?

I think it probably is pretty easy to do. Neither of them is particularly easy, but neither is particularly difficult. None of the things that we're doing are particularly out of our normal box for extravehicular activity. We do a lot of bolt turning and moving things around and installing things, and this is the same sort of activity. That's why it's relatively easy for me to train for this. Because of my previous experience, the training that I've been doing and doing a few practice runs now to prepare for it will be adequate to have me ready to do my part. And, yes, I will be riding on the arm for a good bit of the EVA. It will be there to give me a foot restraint so that I'm fixed in place. I will be able to use both of my hands to do operations and then I'll be able to hold on to things to move them to the new locations where we're going to install them. And Jeff will be scurrying around the space station - moving from one place to another, doing things - and then meeting me at the new locations to help install the new equipment where it goes.

Have any of the folks who have already done spacewalks outside this station given you guys any tips or warnings about what it's like and what to look out for?

Well, of course, we've talked with people and gotten some advice on some of the things, like the crane, the U.S. crane that we're operating. I guess they're calling it now the OTD, the Orbiter Transfer Device, on orbit, or ORU transfer device - it's an acronym within an acronym - Orbital Replacement Unit transfer device. I've talked with the people who installed it before to ask some things about the handling of it and what they thought might possibly be the problem with the socket that it's placed in. And I've discussed just generally the EVA with a couple of people that were up there earlier in the program to see what they thought about it. There, the space station has a lot of things sticking out of it: antennas, cables, all sorts of things that make the translation there a little bit more difficult, and you have to be a little more careful than you normally would be, just so that you don't damage equipment on the outside of the space station.

At this point in its life, when a shuttle docks to the space station the end of the Unity Node pretty much covers up the windows on the back of the flight deck. How intricate is the kind of cooperation or the code that you have to learn to work out with, in this case, Mary Ellen Weber, who's operating the arm you're riding?

Yes. Well, we depend on Mary Ellen to get us where we need to go and to operate the arm and not run us into structure. And we do have to work out a special communication and a system for telling her which way we want her to go, because her view is very severely limited. She'll be using cameras to see where we are, and that adds further complexity because the camera view is different from her view, which is different from my view. So we've worked out a system to use. At first, it was a little bit difficult for me because we're using orbiter coordinate systems instead of the station, and I was used to working with a station coordinate system after all this time. But it was very quick to go back to the orbiter system, and, usually, we tell her to move us to either the port or starboard side of the space shuttle, or up and down within the bay, or we can tell her "closer to structure" or "further away from structure," and she can take any of those inputs and move us in the correct direction. And we constantly communicate so that she knows how close we are, how far we need to move. And she's trained a lot on this and done a lot of development work so she knows where the arm is supposed to be going anyway for different positions and for different operations, and so she already knows kind of where we're going to tell her to go, and she just listens to us as we get closer in to structure.

The day following this spacewalk is the day that the work inside the International Space Station is to begin. After these years of preparation, do you have any sense at this point of what you're going to feel, the first time you float inside this space station?

I think I'm going to be really excited. I have been training a long, long time. When I started this four years ago, I thought I was going to spend a year in Russia, then a year back here training for my flight and then fly to the International Space Station. So, it's been a long time and I am really excited about going up there to see my future home. We'll only be there about 10 days this time, but it'll allow me time to get really familiar with the Node and the FGB, the functional cargo block, that we're going to be living in while we're up there. And we're going to transfer a lot of equipment over there, so I'll see a lot of the things that we'll be living with while I'm up there for my long-term stay. So, I think I'll be pretty excited when we open up that hatch.

The top-priority tasks for this mission have been characterized as the repair of equipment in Zarya, the first element of the station, which has been on orbit since late 1998. Talk about some of the equipment in Zarya that is targeted for this repair or replacement, and what's involved for you and for all your crewmates to carry out this on-orbit work.

OK. As I mentioned before, there are batteries on board. We take energy from the sun through solar arrays, and we bring it in and store it in batteries while we're in the sunshine. The other half of our orbit, when we're in darkness, we use that energy from the batteries to run all the systems on board the space station. That's how we do our power - we bring in some, and then we use it. The batteries are starting to fail; they're having some problems. They've been up for a good while now, and traditionally, these batteries have lasted about a year to 18 months and then they've started experiencing problems and needed to be replaced on the space station Mir, and these are the same kind of batteries. So, some of them are already not operational. Others are starting to indicate that they may be starting to fail, and we're concerned about them. And so, because of this degraded performance, we have to replace the batteries with new ones. They also have electronic components that are failing or suspect, and we're going to replace those, also. Sometimes we think that the early failure is due to the electronics that control the flow of electricity into them and out of them again. It's sort of like rechargeable batteries that you use: Sometimes those last for years, and sometimes, after just a few months, you can't keep a charge on them. Well, it's the same thing with these batteries, and it oftentimes is the electronics that controls the energy going in and out of them, so we're going to change out some of those components as well. A few other things that have failed are smoke detectors - that's very important to us, should there be a fire we need to know about it immediately - so we're going to replace smoke detectors. And we're replacing some of the ventilation fans that are on board, and just installing some other new ones while we're there. So, there's a lot of that work. Now, Yuri and Susan are prime for doing those things and I'm going to help with them, because they've had the most recent experience, though I am trained on it, so I'm going to be assisting them. And I'll be bringing a lot of equipment to them, and I'll be changing out things as necessary. It's a juggling act while we're doing all of this, because there's a lot of equipment stored on board the space station, and we have to move things around, and there's not much space right now because of all the things stowed there. So, you can't be working on all the things at one time. You have to pick a spot, work there, and then go to another spot and work. So, we'll all be helping each other to move things around, get access, change out the equipment that needs to be changed out, and then move things back in place again.

You, I think, have already referred to some of the items in Zarya that may simply be, were scheduled to be replaced after this much time on orbit. The module's been up there and was supposed to provide electrical power and motion control only until the Service Module arrived, and it, according to that schedule, should have been there already. Hence, another portion of the tasks on this mission are tasks that are designed to extend the life of Zarya until past the Service Module's arrival. Talk about what some of those different tasks are.

Well, I think that's some of the smoke detector, the fan change outs. There's also some electronic equipment that is being installed now that we'll use later on for the docking of the Service Module, and that's about all I can think of offhand. But most of it is associated with the batteries and the electronics that are associated with them.

And along with the tasks that you have talked about, then there are a lot of things stowed in the SPACEHAB module that have to be moved from one place on to another, logistics that have to be transferred and work on other systems inside. Try to fill out the rest of the timeline for the docked days of this mission. What jobs will you all be doing?

Well, there's a great deal of transfer operations that have to happen. We are outfitting the space station in bits and pieces because we can only carry so much up there at one time. So, we're bringing up a lot of things that will be installed later or will be used at a later time. Even things like clothing, food, water, a lot of things that we will need once we have a crew living on board. So, these things will come up in bags, we'll strap the bags down somewhere - on a floor, or a wall, or a ceiling - and we will leave them there to be used on a later flight. We're even bringing up some printers for the computers for us to print out things when we need printed information, so there's a lot of equipment - just box after box after box of equipment that we have to haul over there, find the right place, install it, strap it down and then leave it for later on. And we're bringing over water, also - we make water on the space shuttle when we generate our electricity - well, that's good water, we don't want to waste it. And water is something that we need on board the space station, so we're putting that in bags, taking it over also, and storing it on board, getting it ready for Bill Shepherd and his crew to come up and use it.

As you're well aware, the last crew to visit the space station encountered a degradation in the air quality on the inside; first, can you tell us at this point what it is that's believed to be the cause of that, and, secondly, perhaps more importantly, what's being done to make sure that you and your 101 crewmates aren't going to run into the same problem?

Our environmental control specialists believe that that was because of a buildup of carbon dioxide. You know, when you breathe in space, if you don't have air flow to move things around, the air that you breathe out will just stay right by you. And if you stay in the same place for a long time without good air flow, you can have carbon dioxide build up around your face, and then you can be breathing that and you can start to feel the effects of that - it's like putting your head in a bag and breathing for a long time. So, they think that's what happened, they just didn't have good airflow where they were working. And what they have done to fix that is they've reevaluated the entire air flow in the station, and they're having us reconfigure some of the ducting and cover up some outlets, open other valves, so that we will have a different type of an air flow, to get more air flowing into the back of the FGB and then flowing out to keep it cleared out. They also are flying some personal fans. They're small boxes with a fan, battery powered, and we have one of those for each crewmember, and they would like for us to set those up anywhere that we're working to make sure that we've got fresh air blowing by us and not allow that buildup of carbon dioxide this time. So, we think that they've taken the steps appropriate to resolve this problem, and we don't expect to have the problem on our flight.

We mentioned earlier that your opportunity to fly on this mission and get an early look at your future home on orbit came up only a short time ago. With an eye toward Expedition 2, talk a little bit more about how you think this firsthand look at the station, ahead of schedule, is going to help you and Yuri and Susan, whether it's with your continued training or the mission when you do fly it.

Well, we had seen the FGB and the Node before they launched, but they're in a different configuration now on orbit, and there's a lot of things that are different. And this is going to give us the opportunity to go up and see it in the actual configuration, to work with the hardware on board and to prepare us for something that we can't prepare for down here on the ground. We have mock-ups, but we don't have fully functional everything, because it's just different in space. This will give us the chance to be there, work with the actual hardware. It's the best possible training that we could ever do, and I think it will really help us when we go up there. It gives us an opportunity to go up and work with the systems behind the panels as well. Now, Yuri's very experienced - he spent over a year on board the Mir, and I asked him how many batteries he changed out, and he said, "Too many to remember." So, he's done a lot of this, and he'll be able to share his experiences with us on this early flight, and it'll help us to work better together as a crew once we're on board for the long stay.

You know, recently, as the 1900s came to a close, people compiled lots of lists. Human space flight, from Gagarin to the Moon landings, was among the top five news stories of the century, so the folks say. Well, you are part of a crew now that's kicking off the 21st century with a mission that's designed to help extend the human presence in space. In your mind, why is that important? What's the value of establishing a permanent foothold off of this planet?

I think there's a couple of reasons. One that we talk about a lot is the research that we do there, the experiments that we do, the things that we learn from space that we can only learn there because it gives us a very special kind of a laboratory where we have very low gravity and we can do things there that we can't do on the Earth, or we can do them better in the way of research. We can separate out some of the things that are oftentimes confusing with research: Gravitational effects really affect a lot of the factors that are involved with research of materials and pharmaceuticals and things like that -- growth of plants and animals. And by doing research in space, we sometimes can do it better than we can down here. I think there's another purpose for human exploration of space that is on a little bit higher level. I think human beings are destined to explore. Throughout history, we have been explorers. Human beings want to see what's on the other side of the fence. We want to learn and to grow, and we can do that by reaching out to space, to the rest of our solar system, and we can learn what's on the other side, what's there, and we learn things that you can only learn through human eyes sometimes, too. By going there with people, we can learn, I think, far more than we do with our preliminary probes through cameras and other means we gather some information. The human mind is just so much better at understanding and seeing that we can learn far more by sending a person there to explore and to learn.

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

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