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Preflight Interview: Jeff Williams

The STS-101 Crew Interviews with Jeff Williams, Mission Specialist No. 2.

Jeff, why did you want to be an astronaut? Where does the desire for a career like that come from in your life?

Well, I think the desire to be an astronaut has evolved over my career. I can remember way back to my childhood being interested in science and having a couple of key people that influenced me to develop that interest. And doing things like trying to make gunpowder and invent the rocket, and I remember having several of them burn on the pad wasn't too successful at that. But then, I went off into the military, and specifically to West Point, and became exposed to aviation there and became interested in that immediately and went to flight school and spent my career in the Army in aviation; to include an aspiration to go to test pilot school and be a test pilot. And back in the late '70s when I was beginning that career in the Army, I became aware of the opportunity to be an astronaut, so that became my aspiration about that time, when I was in the Academy, and my career just took me down the path to make me competitive to do that.

Most people's careers usually don't lead them, people drive their careers. What were the steps in your career that have lead you here, say, from West Point on?

Well, I'm not sure. I guess I did a little bit of driving on my career, but there was also opportunities that presented themselves for whatever reason to get me here. Being able to go to flight school and join the Army Aviation Branch was definitely a key step in that. Several years into my Army career, I got the opportunity to go on to grad school, which I wanted to do but I didn't know if I could fit it in anywhere. But it happened to fit just right. So, I went and got a master's degree in aeronautical engineering. And I started applying to NASA about that time. And I got my first look by NASA at that time, and got the opportunity to come here to Houston on an Army assignment. And I spent a little over four years here working with the space program. So, that got me to know the space program and also, got NASA the opportunity to get to know me. After that, I went on to test pilot school and worked in flight test for a while. And all of those things, I think, built on my credibility and my qualifications to be able to enter into this job.

You look back throughout your life, do you see certain individuals who you realize now were perhaps the most influential in you getting to where you are now?

Yes, there's certainly individuals that influenced me as I grew up and I almost hesitate to mention some of them because I know I will miss some also that are equally significant. But I would put on the top of my list my father. He was a high school teacher and a guidance counselor. And he didn't push me so much as he showed me opportunities out there and kept me honest as I went through school in grades and what not. But he also made me aware of opportunities like the Academy. I grew up on a farm in northern Wisconsin, and we don't get exposed to a whole lot of things like that. And it was through that education and also his encouragement that lead me down the path that I did. I would also include several teachers. One of them, a sixth-grade science teacher, was a very influential in inspiring me in the area of science and in the area of life in general. There was a shop teacher in high school: As a matter of fact, he is coming to the launch, and I'm very honored to have him come and represent the school district in that visit to Kennedy. There was another machine shop program that I went through as a senior in high school, and I think the instructor there was very instrumental in me. Those are a few of the people back in my hometown that were instrumental. There were several people when I went through the Academy also that influenced me in my development as an Army officer, in the duty that I had to the Army and to my country in that role, and also in inspiring me in the aviation branch and on to flight test and certainly here in Houston, also. I've had a long string of people that have influenced me in that way.

Your NASA biography also notes that at West Point you competed on the sport parachute team, and subsequently have qualified as a jumpmaster and an instructor. What is sport parachuting? Is that different than skydiving? How do you do it as, and how do you do it as a team?

Well, it's essentially as the same as skydiving. It's just sport parachuting as opposed to military parachuting, but it also is a competitive sport. It's not just going out for fun and jumping out of airplanes and going through the free-fall. When I was in sport parachuting, which was the late '70s and early '80s, there was three main events that we competed in. One was the accuracy event, where you had a four-inch disk in the center of a pea gravel pit on the ground, and you jumped out of the airplane and came down under your canopy. And the objective was to hit that disk, and you got scored by the distance away from the disk you were. I remember one competition I was in, we had four jumps to hit this disk, and the first three I had dead centers every time, so I had a score of zero, which was good. And the fourth one I choked on and got almost a meter, and I ended up in third or fourth place. But that was one of the events. There was another event that was called style, which was an individual event, where you went on and in free-fall you did a series of turns and somersaults in a specific order. And you did it in a minimum amount of time that you could, and that was the competition -- the time -- and if you messed up the sequence, then you were disqualified from the event. There was a third event that we competed in and it was called relative work. And that was a multi-person event; in groups of four or more. But the smallest was a group of four, where you went out and you made a series of formations with your bodies for time. Or there was another event where you just had one specific formation you had to get into when you jumped out of the airplane and you were timed on how long it took you to get into that formation. Those were the events and looking back at doing that at the Academy, we traveled around, mostly up and down the East Coast, but we also went out West on occasion. And I think that was the out for me to get me away from the stresses of the Academy, and I think, looking back, it was what kept me there at least the first couple of years, which were the hardest years.

You mentioned a few moments ago that during your Army career prior to being an astronaut you were assigned to work at the Johnson Space Center. Tell us about what you did then.

Well, I came down here after grad school and during the Return to Flight period, after Challenger and STS-26, and I had several assignments when I first got here. One was the build of Endeavour out at Palmdale, and I was assigned to go out there and follow that and represent the Flight Crew Operations Directorate in that process. And that took the better part of my time here, all four years, and it started out with the basic structure of the vehicle - mating the wings on the midbody - all the way to the final acceptance test before it got shipped to the Cape. Additionally, I was assigned the task of working with the solid rocket boosters, which of course we were very interested in at that time, and the postflight assessment of those boosters after STS-26 and 27. I had a variety of other tasks that I worked on. The Magellan payload was one of my highlights, having the opportunity to work with the processing of that payload at the Cape all the way through launch, and send it off for its mapping mission of Venus. I also, later on about halfway through my tour, got the opportunity to fly the shuttle simulator here, the SAIL simulator we call it -- Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory -- which is used to test out the flight software, and it gave me an opportunity to really learn the shuttle systems and that was very rewarding.

You said before also that during that time you were already interested in becoming an astronaut yourself; that happened for you in 1996. Can you describe your reaction, the emotion that you felt, when you got word that you were going to become an astronaut, and then later when you got your first flight assignment?

Well, the word that I was going to have the opportunity to become an astronaut was I don't know how you'd describe it. I had been applying for about 10 years. I had interviewed three times with NASA. So, I'd suffered some disappointments in the endeavor, and I'd gone on with doing the things that I would normally do in my Army career, and I was enjoying them. At the time I got the call, it was in 1996, I was at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, which was probably the only time in my career I had kind of a break, frankly, because I went to school and I was home early afternoon most days. In fact, I think my wife saw too much of me that year. But I came home on a typical day there and got the message from my wife that I got a phone call from Houston. So, I returned the call and of course the heart was beating. I'd had several phone calls previously over the years, and this time, it was inviting me to come down here. So, the emotion can be described as elation, naturally. Although I maintained my cool on the phone, I think. But it was very exciting for me as well as the family. I remember my kids came home that afternoon, and my younger son, I turned to him. He walked in the door, I said, "Jason, I got some news today." And he said, "We're going to Houston!" Right away, he guessed what it was, and I said "Yes." And he ran across the room and leaped into my arms. So, he was really happy. I think during the years when I was applying and did not get accepted, that the disappointment was not so much not being accepted, but that the greater disappointment was turning to everybody that had been encouraging me and waiting for the answer, too -- my family, my parents and whatnot -- and saying, "No, I didn't get picked." So, to be able to share the excitement with them was also very exciting.

You've been busy for some time now training for your first flight assignment. You recently got word that you and some of your crewmates would be flying a revised mission, with some new crewmates -- three new crewmates -- and only a short time to prepare for it. Tell me your reaction to the news that you would now be part of the station mission 2A.2a.

Yes, needless to say, our crew has been through some unique experiences in the last year. On the original crew, even during that period of time, our mission was changing often; the details of the mission. We were a little anxious about that because naturally you want to go and you want to go do a good job and you want to accomplish the mission objectives, and if the mission objectives are changing, that adds a little bit to the anxiety perhaps. We saw it coming. I think that's, in large, the nature of the program now, with building of the space station, where every mission is dependent on all the missions flown before it. And we're going to have some failures on orbit, we're going to have some things that come up that were not planned for, and the program and we in the crew are going to have to react to that. We are concluding that we're going to have to become more of what we call skills-based, as opposed to task-based. In other words, we need to go up there with a set of skills that will enable us to do not only what we planned to do but on those things that come up on short notice, as opposed to training for specific tasks that can be well planned ahead of time. When the changes came to the crew, It was an emotional time on the crew, I think. It's a crew training for over year. It's kind of like ripping a family apart. So, it's bittersweet. It's bitter in that the crew got split on the two missions. But the sweetness is the new folks coming on board, and having the opportunity to fly with them. And we'll go on and we'll go do the mission and the other part of the crew will go on in the next mission and do their job. But again, I think it's a key change for the program in the way we do business.

Let's get into STS-101. Tell us why NASA's choosing to fly this mission at this time, and what the main goals of your mission are.

Well, the main goals are to ensure that the station that's flying right now continues to fly and continues to operate with necessary redundancy until we get the next components up, specifically the Service Module as well as prepare for the first increment crew, which will arrive hopefully later this year. We have objectives, as you know, outside and inside; the EVA, installing several components, which we can talk about in a, in a minute. Inside, we've got to repair some components that are failing. We're also going to replace some components, whose expected lifetime is about to expire, so that we ensure that the FGB, Zarya, specifically, continues to function all the way until the Service Module gets there. We will also do a little bit of outfitting with equipment and logistics supplies for the first increment crew.

Your rendezvous with the International Space Station is going to be similar to what the STS-96 astronauts flew on the last shuttle assembly mission last year. Could you talk us through the events of rendezvous day and describe the role you'll be playing while Jim Halsell is flying Atlantis to meet up with the ISS?

Well, I'm one of the crewmembers that's not rendezvous-trained, so I don't have a direct role in the rendezvous. Instead, I'll be supporting it. I'll be monitoring the shuttle systems and assisting Scott, specifically, in that endeavor while Jim performs the rendezvous. I'm also going to document the time with a Photo/TV. So, I'm specifically timelined to take pictures and video and whatnot, and make sure that we document that event. I will also be doing a few tasks in parallel with the rendezvous in preparation for docking.

What does that entail?

Well, preparing the vestibule and the airlock for docking. The centerline camera, which is a critical piece of hardware for the actual docking; I'll be installing that. Right before docking, we have to close up the airlock, the hatch, so that we have isolation during the docking procedure. And then right after docking, I'll be going into the airlock and preparing the vestibule area for ingress.

The day after the docking, though, is the day that your timeline calls for you and your crewmates to go to work to start to make some of these changes and updates to the International Space Station. Some of this work is to be done on the outside of the station, and you have the spacewalking assignment. Talk us through, and as you said, things change, things are fluid, your plans are, but, as you understand it now, as we talk today, talk us through the timeline of the spacewalk that you and Jim Voss are going to make. What tasks do you have to perform?

Well, I have to admit that probably up until that day, even though I'm doing other tasks, my thoughts are going to be thinking ahead for this EVA. The greatest honor of this flight assignment and the mission is the opportunity to go EVA. Right now, the current plan is to go out the door, Jim Voss and I, and our first task will be to remate what we call OTD -- it's basically a crane to move equipment for subsequent work on the space station. Recently in postflight picture analysis from STS-96, it was discovered that this OTD had been moving -- had been rotating about its base -- and that's not the way it should be performing. It should be fixed, and there's a definite concern that this object could come loose, specifically during the docking to the Service Module, and jeopardize that operation. So, that has become our highest priority, to go and reseat that or secure this crane, so we will do that first. And the next thing we will do then is assemble the Russian arm, which we call Strela. It's a manual arm that will be used to aid in subsequent EVAs, and we're taking several components up to mate with one of the components that STS-96 took up last year. And we will assemble that on PMA-2, and then relocate it on PMA-1 so that it is out of the way for subsequent missions as the assembly process continues. We will also replace the port Early Communications antenna, on the port side of the Node, Unity and install some handrails and some cables for subsequent missions.

Sounds like a lot of heavy lifting.

Well, yes, it would be heavy lifting. It's heavy lifting in the pool without the aid of some Styrofoam to lighten the metal. Obviously, it won't be too heavy in space, but we'll take things slow because we don't want to bang those heavy components against the station.

Have you got any sense yet, if we can talk about a couple of the details, of what it's going to take to get the OTD to be firmly affixed to the PMA?

Well, there's several scenarios that may play out. Hopefully, it will just be a matter of unmating the interface from the Node, inspecting it and then remating it and seating it in its locked position. Hopefully, that's the way it will work out. If it's a problem with a specific interface on Unity, we will try a second interface adjacent to where it is right now and lock it in that place. If that doesn't work, we're still developing some options. One of those options is to bring it back in the airlock for subsequent repair, but again, our hope is that we can just reseat it in place and put it in it's locked position.

You mean to bring it in the airlock and bring it home?

Well, be, hopefully we will just be able to reseat it in it's current location. The worst case is to have to bring it back in and bring it home.

The Strela, as you mentioned, the first couple of pieces of that, were put together on the last mission. Can you explain why it's preferable to finish assembling it in one location and then move the whole assembly to another location?

Well, it's located on PMA-2 right now, which is not too far out of the payload bay. It's very difficult to move multiple objects in space because of the environment -- it's much easier to put things together to make it one object and then move it there. Jim will be on the shuttle robotic arm to aid in the assembly. So basically, he'll be moving one object at a time to its location and I will be assisting with attaching the boom to the operator post, and then the boom extension to the side of the boom. And there's also a ring that we will install on the end of the boom. Just much easier to manage fewer objects, if you will, at a time in EVA.

Have you had much of a chance to talk with the astronauts who've already made spacewalks on this space station? Got any tips or, any warnings from them about what you can expect to find when you start climbing around on the outside of the station?

Yes, I've talked a lot to a lot of different people, and, of course, now I'm talking quite a bit to Jim because he's done an EVA previously. You learn a lot of tips. You get a lot of comments from different people. I know that from those comments that I'm going to go out the door, and I'm going to take things slow. And I'm going to take a little while to, as a Navy guy would say, get my sea legs out there because there are some things I understand that are easier in space than in the water, but other things are a little more difficult in space than in the water. But the bottom line is they're different. So, I want to take a little time to note those differences. I think it's going to be a mixture of focusing on every detail of what I'm doing, because it is critical to do that. But at the same time, I want to pause and enjoy the experience and realize where I'm at and what I'm doing and the experience of that. So, I don't want to lose that. I will be managing all my little pieces of equipment and hardware in very great detail, but also take the time to look around and see the creation below me.

The day after the spacewalk work inside the International Space Station is to begin. Do you have any sense right now of what you might be feeling when, for the first time you float through the hatches into that station?

Well, I think that moment is going to be pretty awesome, as well. I mean, here we are going from the shuttle, which has flown for quite a few years now, into basically the next chapter of space flight, the next chapter of human exploration in space. As we're still in the beginning stages of assembling this vehicle, I consider it a great privilege and a great honor to have the opportunity to be part of that. So, I think I will have that in the back of my mind as I enter the hatches: That here we are in this new vehicle, in basically its infancy, recognizing where we're going with it at assembly completion.

To get there you're flying this mission, the top priority of which is characterized as the repair of equipment in Zarya, which has been on orbit since November of 1998. Tell us about the equipment that's targeted for repair or replacement. What is involved for you and your crewmates in doing these fixes? Are these all components that were scheduled to be replaced after this length of time in orbit, or are they being changed out earlier than was originally planned?

Well, there was no plan to change out these components in the beginning, and they need to be changed out primarily because of delays in the Service Module and delays in the assembly of the space station. And those delays primarily were caused by some failures of the Russian Proton rocket, that has resulted in the FGB -- Zarya -- being in orbit longer than its intended lifetime, and some failures have been suffered, specifically in the electrical power system. But, as well, there are other components there that, as I said earlier, are going beyond their design lifetime and Zarya needs to continue to function until the Service Module gets there later this summer. So we're going to go up and we're going to replace some of those components, and basically it's going to be opening up panels and safing the system, which will be done largely by ground command from Moscow; demating connectors, undoing fasteners, pulling the box out and replacing it with a new box and putting it back together. And we're going to do that with the electrical power system. We're also going to do that with ventilation system fans and smoke detectors.

Is it all of the batteries that are being changed out now?

No, right now there are components of two battery sets that we're going to change out.

Two of the six that are?


As you mentioned, when Zarya was launched it was only intended to provide the station with motion control and electrical power until the arrival of the Service Module, and that was supposed to have been in eight months' time, and of course, it's been up there much longer than that now. So the second priority of your mission is to execute a series of tasks that are designed to extend the life of Zarya until Zvezda arrives. Describe the work that you and your crewmates are going to be doing inside the station on this aspect of the job, to extend the life of the, module.

Well, essentially it's the same work. Changing out those components are for two purposes. One is to repair broken components. Two is to replace life-extension components whose life has expired with replacement components. And primarily that's the fans that I mentioned and smoke detectors.

And looking down the list, there are also, along with smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, something called FGB enclosures. There's a number of other items on the list. What are some of those things? What do they do?

Well, the fire extinguishers, of course, is a lifetime issue, so we'll replace those so that we have certified fire extinguishers up there. The FGB enclosures are simply structural containers that will go behind panels to be able to stow things in. And we're going to stow some of the logistics, supplies and equipment for the first increment crew in those enclosures. So, there's going to be transfer of a lot of equipment that I talked about. Some of it will be behind panels without enclosures, some it behind panels with enclosures and some of it strapped on top of panels. We'll also be transferring some water that the shuttle will produce for subsequent use with the expedition crews.

Let's go a little more into that. As you mentioned, the transfer of logistics, other supplies, a number of other things that were originally on the manifest for 2A.2 -- your original mission -- that are still going to be carried out on this mission. Tell me what some of those other transfers, that other work is involved, and what you are going to be busy with. What are the other, in terms of transfers and those kind of deliveries, most important things that you're bringing up to the station at this point?

Well, there's the whole spectrum of equipment and supplies -- food, clothing, water, spare parts, tools and equipment The whole spectrum of things that you might think of. The important part of the job will be not so much the contents of what we're transferring, but putting them in a precise configuration so that things can be found again. And there's a lot of folks here on the ground planning that and managing that. And, Jim has asked me to be responsible for the configuration of all that on the station side. Mary Ellen will be transferring the components from the SPACEHAB, and she's responsible from that end in reporting to the ground on a daily basis what we've been able to accomplish. And I'll be responsible for putting it into its precise configuration on the space station side and reporting that back down to the ground.

It has looked to those of us who only saw it on television as though -- particularly Zarya -- had become pretty crowded after only two visits. The station's going to be the same size and you're going to be bringing even more things. Is that module, both of them, going to be packed by the time the first expedition crew arrives?

Yes, I think we're going to take up as much as can possibly be put in the station in its current configuration. Obviously, when the Service Module gets there -- some of the components that we're taking up, are in preparation for the Service Module -- those components will move to the Service Module and free up space in the FGB for other equipment and supplies. And also, the Service Module will have some volume. So, yes, we're pretty much maxing it out right now.

The last crew to visit the space station encountered a degradation in the air quality inside the station. First, what is it that at this point is believed to have been the source of that problem, and two, what's been done on your mission to ensure that none of you or your crewmembers develop any symptoms as a result of bad air quality?

Well, there have been a couple of theories as to what the problem was. One of the theories is a buildup of carbon dioxide in a local area where an individual might be. Another theory has to do more with just a lack of ventilation in a local area where a crewmember might be. Regardless of which one of those theories is correct, the solution is the same and that is to increase the efficiency of the ventilation between the space shuttle and throughout the space station. And the community here in Mission Operations, as well as the engineering community, has come up with some fixes, if you will, to increase the efficiency of the ventilation, and that's going to be one of the first things that we implement after we ingress. And I'm confident that we will fix the problem.

At that point, subsequent to all the work that you described here, you're going to undock, perhaps fly around the station and get good views of it from all sides. As you do that, as you depart the space station, what is it that will have to have been done at that point for you to look at that station in your rearview mirror and know that your mission has been a success?

Well, I hope that we complete a hundred percent of our EVA objectives, and as well as a hundred percent of our objectives inside. I don't see any reason why we won't do that. So, I hope that's the case when we undock and do a flyaround. I think also, I'll be thinking about; it's kind of sad to, to leave the station at the moment, but I will know that I'll be back, I guess. And I'll look forward to coming back, and it'll be in a bigger configuration, if you will, with a few more components and with a little more capability.

Human space flight, from the first flight of Yuri Gagarin to the Moon landing, was recently voted as one of the top five news stories of the 20th century. You and your crewmates are kicking off the 21st century with a mission that's designed to help extend the human presence in space. Why is that important? Why do you believe this work is valuable? Why should we be doing this work to establish a permanent foothold for mankind off of the planet?

Well, I think if you look at the history of mankind, it's the major events in history are those events that have been associated with exploration beyond what we know, beyond where we know. And the exploration of the world with examples like Columbus and Lewis and Clark are obviously in that category. I think space exploration is a natural extension. So we're just continuing, as history has shown in the past, in human exploration. The space station is just the next step -- is the current step we're working on in that endeavor. It's not the end. It's more of a means and more of one step along that path of exploration. I think the agency and we have a wonderful vision to go beyond, to go perhaps back to the Moon and on to Mars. And the space station will give us long-duration experience to prepare us for that. We will do important science and that sort of work on the space station, but I think also, it will prepare us to go beyond low-Earth orbit and beyond to those next objectives.

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

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