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Preflight Interview: Steven Smith

Before we talk about the details of what you're about to do, let's talk a bit about what you have done. Steve, why do you want to be an astronaut? Where in your life did the desire to be part of the space program or to be an explorer come from?

The desire's been there for about thirty years now. When I was growing up in San Jose, California, my father and mother took me to the local airport to watch the airplanes take off and land. We'd sit at the end of the runway and watch those airplanes, and that really first grabbed my aviation interest. We also used to camp a lot so that kind of grabbed my exploration interest, interest in going out and exploring places. It turns out in about the third or fourth grade, I started drawing rocket ships and spacewalkers, and this is, again, about thirty years ago. I drew that over and over and over again, and my parents are a little bit of pack rats. They actually saved all those drawings, and I still have them. So that dream really started way back then, and it carried itself through high school and on to college. I learned to fly. I learned to scuba dive [and] came and worked at NASA as a flight controller, again wanting to be involved with this great exploration initiative and, of course, always hoping to be an astronaut but also being happy as an engineer and a flight controller. And the dream finally came true.

To fly an airplane or to scuba dive is one thing. Flying in space is something entirely different. What is it in your mind that makes you think that that's important to be done?

From a personal standpoint, it's the ultimate aviation experience, the ultimate exploration experience. But probably more important, why do we fly in space? We fly in space to make people's lives better; that's the bottom line. When I come to work every day, the ultimate goal of my job, and of all the people working in the space program, is to go out into space and to gather information that not only helps us resolve current problems and questions that we have here on Earth, but also to help us understand our lives and our challenges for the future generations. I have two children-a two-year-old and a six-year-old-and I'm very confident that their lives are going to be better because of what all the people in the aerospace and aviation industries are doing today. So we fly in space at a reasonably small cost for a huge gain, and that's to make people's lives better.

You referred, a few moments ago, to your parents taking you to watch airplanes take off and land, part of what led you to where you are today. Are there other memorable people, or perhaps events, in your life that you would credit with your desire to get to where you are today?

There have been events and people. The events, of course, are the Apollo era. My parents used to let me watch the Apollo flights on TV all the time, no matter [what] time of the day it was. We had a small Polaroid camera that gave the instant pictures at the time, and I actually still have the pictures that I took of the television showing the people walking on the moon, not knowing at the time that of course you could just order NASA pictures. In terms of other aviation events, of course, I was not alive when Charles Lindbergh flew across the ocean, but learning about his adventures and his philosophies was also very inspirational. In terms of exploration, I used to watch "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau" all the time. Again, that exploration influence was very strong, always watching those shows. And kind of the final event or person has to do with Lloyd Bridges and "Sea Hunt." I used to watch that show all the time, also. On the more personal side, of course, there were huge influential factors in my life. You mentioned my parents already. [They were] very positive influences. My sister, who is older than I am, also [a] very accomplished person. She's an FBI agent now and has always been a very positive influence. My high school calculus teacher (His name is Mr. Bud Lanborn.) really pushed us very hard, even at that early age. I had calculus at Leland High School in San Jose with him. I remember taking that class and being very inspired to understand math and technology just by his incredible interest. To this day, we still communicate, I'd say, three or four times a year. He's been to both of my previous launches, so Mr. Lanborn had an incredibly positive influence on me, also.

From high school to here is a number of years; it's not a path that anybody gets to briefly. What were the career stops on your path that brought you to the point today of being an astronaut and preparing for your third mission?

The first stop would be Stanford University. I spent seven years there getting three different degrees -- an incredibly positive career stop along the way. Great education, great overall growth there. I then went and worked for IBM for seven years. My father still works for IBM actually, after almost forty years now, and that was an incredibly positive experience because of the engineering techniques that I learned there, the management techniques, etc. After I left IBM I came here as a flight controller and, for three years, was a payload officer in Mission Control. I'd hoped that that job would teach me about how to do spaceflight operations and how the shuttle works, etc., and that's exactly what it did. It really taught me a lot about the whole operational world here at NASA, so that when I became an astronaut I actually felt like I had a very good base knowledge of how NASA works and [how] the shuttle works.

And now you are assigned to a shuttle mission, one that's been pulled together on short notice, comparatively speaking, for an early servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. Summarize for us what your role is going to be on this mission and what it's like for you to be a part of this particular shuttle flight.

I'll answer the second question first. Being a part of any Hubble Space Telescope mission is wonderful. Being a part of any space shuttle flight is also wonderful. Hubble, though, has this allure to it and this little magical feeling associated with it, so any time that you're on a Hubble flight, it really is kind of a magical experience. My specific role is I'll be one of the five Mission Specialists on board. We are the ones that run the payload systems, do the spacewalks, run the robotic arm, and, also, help the Pilot and Commander run the space shuttle. More specifically, I'm Mission Specialist Number 1, and I'm kind of the lead spacewalker. So based on my STS-82 experience, where I did three spacewalks on Hubble, I am kind of bringing the spacewalkers together for this flight, in which we have a planned four spacewalks. It's been very helpful having that experience. I hope I haven't overwhelmed my crewmates with knowledge from that flight, but there have been certainly some things we learned on STS-82 that have been helpful in organizing the spacewalks and payload operations for this flight.

I want to get you to tell us what some of those are in a moment. We were talking about your getting prepared. You and your three spacewalking colleagues were all assigned to this mission more than a year ago, expecting that you were going to have two years to prepare for a mission that was going to have six spacewalks. Earlier this year, you found out that that was going to be different. Tell us how you got that news, and how the reality of that change has affected your preparations.

In the second half of last year, 1998, we spent a lot of time in the water working towards this six-EVA Hubble flight. Most of the tasks we worked on were very difficult tasks, very new tasks, that [ended] up not being on the flight that we're going to fly this year. So when we finally got the news, in about January or February of this year, we were in a meeting called the Cargo Integration Review, and, just on the voice loops from Goddard, we heard that Hubble had suffered another gyroscope failure. And so it was at that moment-I'll never forget it-that I thought to myself, "My gosh, I don't think they can wait for us to go back up in the year 2000." Although Hubble was still working perfectly well, it was a greater risk now, so it was just in a normal meeting that I heard over the voice loops that Hubble had suffered a gyroscope failure. And we met the news, of course, with disappointment for the Hubble community because we knew that their gem was now at a lower level of redundancy. But we have to admit that, in a personal respect, we thought, "My gosh, we're gonna part of this historic, rush, launch-on-need effort to go restore Hubble's redundancy."

You've referred to the fact that you have seen the Hubble Space Telescope up close before, and touched it before, on STS-82. [Will] your firsthand experience with the telescope help you and your crewmates get prepared for the task that you now know you're going to do on this mission?

Having been to Hubble before has helped me [tremendously in preparing] for this mission because there are several things which I will see on the mock-ups in the water, for example, or in the flight hardware that we see at Goddard, which I understand more completely because I've been on the real Hubble Space Telescope before. I'd like to think that that's helped my crewmates, also. I've tried to bite my tongue in certain cases and not give them too much information that would overwhelm them, but certainly there are some lessons learned that my crewmates and I learned on STS-82 that will help their lives now. So I've tried to be selective and pass that information on to the crew that I'm with now. I think for the most part it's been helpful.

Help me set the stage for us all to understand better what you and your crewmates are going to do when you get there. First characterize, for the layman, the value of what the Hubble Space Telescope does-the images and the data that it's already delivered to us and presumably will continue to deliver to us.

From a layman's perspective-I'm not an astronomer-but from a layman's perspective, the Hubble Space Telescope has been like a time machine. It's given us views of things that have happened years ago in far away places, and in that respect it is kind of the thing of fiction. It is a time machine. It has given us an insight into things that have already happened before we were even alive, and some of the views have been absolutely incredible. The Hubble Deep Field view is my favorite image. It was taken about two years ago. Hubble was pointed towards what was considered a vacant piece of the sky for ten days, which is very unusual. Usually, when the telescope is looking at an object, it can see the image, but as it goes behind the Earth it loses sight of that image. In the Hubble Deep Field view they tilted Hubble up to look over the North Pole of the Earth and allow it to see the same image of the sky for ten straight days, a very vacant area, supposedly. When they got the image back, in this very small piece of the sky, about the size of the sky that you would see looking through a straw, they found one thousand, five hundred galaxies just like the Milky Way. And if you expand that finding over the entire sky all around us, the implications are incredible. They believe there are between fifty and a hundred billion galaxies now, some numbers that are just absolutely mind-boggling. And of course, in each galaxy there are billions or hundreds of billions of stars. In our own galaxy there are two hundred billion stars. So there are some implications from that information that are really mind-boggling, and the only unfortunate part to me is that that incredible finding may have gone right over the public's head because, if they were to really think about those numbers and their implications, I think it would be pretty intriguing. Back to the question about, on our mission, what we will do. The second day of the flight, after we wake up, we'll check out the spacesuits and check out the robotic arm and, also, close our distance to the Hubble. On the third day we will actually rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope. Curt and Scott will fly the shuttle within about five or eight feet. Jean-François Clervoy will then grab Hubble with the shuttle's arm, so that will be the end of the rendezvous and grapple stage. Jean-François will then put Hubble in the payload bay where it will stay for the next five days. The next four days after the grapple, we will do four spacewalks, each about six hours in length. Our primary goal is to not only replace some equipment that has degraded, but also, replace some equipment that's still working fine but is old, and I can go into more details on those.

To continue the work that Hubble is to do, it requires on-orbit servicing, scheduled and earlier than scheduled, if you will, in this case because of the failure of gyroscopes, as you mentioned. What is it that the gyroscopes do? Why has the failure of gyroscopes prompted NASA to take the unusual step of flying this mission earlier than was anticipated?

The Hubble Space Telescope has to point very precisely to gather its science. It's looking at faraway celestial objects, so it has to be pointed very finely. The gyroscopes are what tell Hubble's computers where it's pointing. It's what we call the Hubble Space Telescope's attitude. It tells the computer where Hubble is pointing in terms of pitch, yaw, and roll, for example. So if there's a star up there that it wants to look at and the telescope is pointed over here, those gyroscopes are used to help Hubble turn and look at that star. Hubble has six gyroscopes. Three of them are currently operational, which is the number that we need to perform science. So science is continuing to come from Hubble, but those other three have failed. So we need to restore Hubble to a six-gyroscope complement so that it can safely operate and gather science.

You referred to the fact that, after the successful launch and you check out [the] spacesuits, you and your crewmates will sidle up next to the giant telescope and snatch it out of orbit. Talk us through the events of that particular day, and tell me about what you will be doing as part of the team that will rendezvous with, grapple, and berth this satellite.

On the rendezvous/grapple day, the first thing I will tell you is, from STS-82, I remember the first moment that Ken Bowersox said, "There it is." I remember flying up to the overhead window and kind of laying against the ceiling with my nose pressed to the window and seeing this very bright star right in the center of the window. Of course, for the next several hours, [I] watched it get larger and larger. The other day I was reading through my flight notes from my STS-82 experience, and I wrote about two paragraphs about that incident-how beautiful it looked, and as it got closer and closer the arrays, which are gold, really kind of sparkled. I'd always heard that, once you see Hubble, you'll never forget it, that it really is this magical-looking spaceship. And it really is just a spectacular sight to see. And huge, much larger than I had ever - could ever - have imagined. Most of us who have gone to the Hubble Space Telescope have never seen it before, and that was my challenge before STS-82. So even though we have mock-ups of it, it just doesn't look the same in the water. In fact, in the water it looks smaller than it does in real life. During the rendezvous phase, Curt will be flying from the aft windows. Scott will be in the Commander's seat actually using the keyboard to make several computer inputs. Jean-François will be at the arm. John Grunsfeld will be using the laser to send laser pulses to Hubble to tell us how far away Hubble is. Mike Foale will be doing some Photo/TV work, and I will be at the front computer sending commands to Hubble. It's not a great number of commands but it's a number of commands that are very time critical. I'd like to think that all seven of us are also kind of keeping the scorecard of what's going on. It'll be a little bit hard not to scramble to the back window to look out at Hubble as [we] rendezvous with the telescope because I know how exciting the view is, but I will be in the Pilot's seat communicating with Hubble when necessary, sending commands.

The next day, you and John Grunsfeld are to exit the airlock and kick off a series of spacewalks that are going to keep Hubble in shape to do its job, first and foremost, to include the replacement of the failing and ailing gyroscopes. Talk us through the timeline for the first spacewalk, and explain what you will be doing during those approximately six hours out in the payload bay.

Of course, the first thing we'll do is set up the payload bay for the following four EVAs, so we have an initial setup where we put a post in between the Hubble Space Telescope and the bottom of the cargo bay so that it rigidizes Hubble. We will also be extending some translation aids that help us get up to Hubble for the rest of the four EVAs, so we have an initial setup period. The next big task will be to replace all six of the Hubble Space Telescope's gyroscopes. The side of Hubble that will be facing the cockpit is the side that we'll be working on. There are two large doors that we'll open. John will then grab my feet and ankles and kind of insert me into the telescope while he's on the back of the arm. It's very tight quarters, there are several very fragile pieces in there, so rather than just having me climb in there John will rotate me on my back and stick me into the Hubble Space Telescope. What we'll do then is replace the six gyros. In essence, John will use a large power-driven tool on the end of the arm to loosen bolts. I will loosen connectors. I will grab the box and hand it out to him. He will put it away and grab a new one. Then, he'll hand me the new box in, and we'll reverse the connectors and the bolts. That should take about two-and-a-half hours. After we've completed that, we'll do just a little bit of work on NICMOS. NICMOS is the infrared camera that we installed on STS-82. It weighed about seven hundred pounds. It was an exciting EVA to do, and it has a cooling system that we're going to fix on the next Hubble mission. In preparation for that, there are a couple of valves that I will turn to make sure that its nitrogen system is fully depleted for the next mission. That's about a twenty-minute job. So, after we've finished the gyroscopes and the NICMOS valve work, we'll close those doors, then move up a little bit. In this case, I will be on the arm, and John will be the, what we call, free-floater. We'll install six very small items called Voltage Improvement Kits, or VIKs. They're about the size of a VCR tape, and those six VIKs protect Hubble's batteries from being overheated. The batteries are now ten years old, and we want to make sure that they never overheat when they are being charged. The VIKs are also necessary in preparation, again, for the next mission, when we put much higher efficiency gallium arsenide arrays on Hubble. That will conclude the first EVA. We will then close up the payload bay to make sure that it's safe, should we have to let Hubble go during the night, and go ahead and ingress the airlock. The one other thing I might mention is that, when I come out of the airlock, I'm just going to watch John come out slowly and just listen to his voice and see the look on his face because it's going to be his first spacewalk. It's going to be a really special moment for him.

The following day, scheduled for Flight Day 5, you and John Grunsfeld are to stay inside while Mike Foale and Claude Nicollier take their turn out in the payload bay. Describe for us the job, the part, that you will play inside the orbiter while the other two spacewalkers take their turn outside.

When Mike and Claude go outside, I'm what I will call the conductor. I'm the person that keeps the "big picture" in mind for the spacewalks, so I will be at one of the two windows facing the payload bay, speaking to them the entire spacewalk. My job is to make sure that they do everything as we had planned, and if they have any Hubble emergencies or any suit emergencies, I immediately tell them what they should do. So I am kind of the conductor of their spacewalk. We've practiced that way any time we go to the pool here to practice our spacewalks. When Claude or Mike are in the water, I sit up in the control room and play that role. So I'm kind of the conductor for their spacewalks.

You and John Grunsfeld are slated for a second excursion into the payload bay on the day after Mike and Claude's first. As you did a moment ago, talk us through the timeline of your second scheduled spacewalk, and describe the jobs, the tasks, that you'll be doing.

We have four tasks on the third day. The first task is a re-wiring of something called the Optical Control Electronics. All it involves is disconnecting a couple wires and re-connecting other wires, and that task is to help us take advantage of what was done on Day 2 when Mike and Claude have installed the new Fine Guidance Sensor. It is an improved Fine Guidance Sensor over the one that was launched, and to take advantage of all its new capabilities, John and I will do this OCE re-wiring, a very quick task. We will then move to another part of the Hubble Space Telescope and replace a transponder that has failed. Hubble has two transponders; transponders are what are used to relay information to the ground. One of those transponders failed about a year-and-a-half ago, so we are taking one that already existed as a spare and replacing that old transponder with the new one. This will be perhaps our most hand-intensive task because it has some coaxial cables on it, the same type of cables that we use at home to connect our televisions to the cable system. We've never done that in space before so [these] will be the first coaxial cables done by anyone on a spacewalk. After we've completed that transponder replacement, in the same bay within Hubble there is a mechanical tape recorder that we are going to take out and replace with a solid state tape recorder. The mechanical tape recorder is just as it sounds: it has two reels in it that have tape on it, and has been working fine for ten years. It's still working fine, but there is more modern technology. That's a tape recorder with multiple times the data storage capability and no moving parts, and since we have added scientific capability to Hubble over the first couple servicing missions, we need more data storage capability. So we'll take the old mechanical tape recorder out and put a new solid state tape recorder in. When that's completed, John and I will put a new covering on the middle part of the telescope on the outside. There's one side of the telescope, which we call the hot side (It's called the +V3 hot side.), that has faced the sun for ten years. Well, over those ten years Hubble has developed kind of a sunburn on that side-the outside multi-layer insulation has become blistered and cracked a little bit, and that MLI is used to protect Hubble from the sun. So it's been compromised a little bit. In order for Hubble to last until at least 2010, which is its current end-of-life projection, we are going to replace that multi-layer insulation with something called new outer layer blankets, or NOBL. They are like big pie tins. Basically, we take these big three-foot-by-five-foot "pie tins" and put them over the bays on Hubble, use four plugs to hold the corners, and that will protect Hubble from the sun for the next ten-plus years. After we've completed that task, we come back in to the airlock.

The last of those tasks that you mentioned are similar to, if not identical to, tasks that were conducted on STS-82-replacing the recorders and patching insulation. Are they just that similar, or do they have some subtle differences that I can't recognize?

The tape recorder task is exactly the same. On STS-82, I took out a mechanical tape recorder and replaced it with a Solid State Recorder; that left two mechanical recorders, so we're going to replace another one of those with a new Solid State Recorder, so in that essence the task is identical. In contrast, the outside of the telescope, the skin, on STS-82 we had to take some spare material that we had with us to put patches on Hubble using wire cables to hold them in place. Mark Lee accomplished that. In this case, we're taking with us these much more sturdy, exact-fitting "pie tins," or NOBLs, that we'll put in place, and in fact we will take the old patches off from STS-82 and bring them back and put the new NOBL plates on. And I know a lot of the scientists are very interested in seeing these patches that have been up there for three years to analyze how they've withstood space.

With the spacewalks concluded [and] the planned improvements to Hubble concluded, it'll be time to send the telescope back out on its mission. In similar fashion to how you grappled it, describe for us the process of releasing Hubble to return to its mission in space.

It's a very exciting time because the spacewalks are over, and we know how excited the Hubble community will be and the scientific community will be to have this new, improved Hubble. So in that sense, it's a very exciting time. What we will do is pull the Hubble Space Telescope out of the bay with the arm. Again, Jean-François will pull it out of the bay with the arm. I will again be seated in the front right sight, the Pilot's seat, to issue commands to Hubble after we release [it] using the shuttle's computer system. After we've released Hubble, we will actually fly away underneath Hubble, so it appears as if Hubble will go from the payload bay right over our heads. That's the exact same way we deployed it on STS-82, and if you were to listen to the cockpit tape of that moment on STS-82, you hear all these incredibly excited, grown men watch this beautiful, twelve-ton spacecraft fly right over our heads. That's, again, what we will do on STS-103, and even in the simulations when we've done this task, watching this pretend Hubble fly over, it's been very exciting. We'll take lots of pictures [from] that standpoint, and we'll continue to track Hubble for, I think, about an hour-and-a-half, we'll be able to see it still.

Discovery then heads home to the Kennedy Space Center having completed another important upgrade to the Hubble. When you're asked about the job that you're doing and about the work with this particular satellite, how do you explain how the mission that you and your crewmates and all the engineers and other people are [involved in] helps further the objectives of space exploration?

We fly in space to make people's lives better, and the Hubble Space Telescope has gathered lots and lots of information to help us understand where we came from, and potentially, where we're headed. So to be part of that is incredibly rewarding. Hubble, again, is part of all the different flights we do. Just as the International Space Station flights will help us explore space, help us gather information, help us establish a residence in space, and again will make people's lives on Earth better, so will the Hubble Space Telescope missions. So all these missions are contributing to better our lives, really, and to be part of that's very exciting. I'm completely confident that our children's lives are going to be better for it, too.

IMAGE: Mission Specialist, Steve Smith
Click on the image to hear Steve Smith's greeting. Mission Specialist, STS-103.
Crew Interviews

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