Interview: Scott Altman
STS-106 Crew Interviews with Scott Altman, Pilot.
Scott, you've been a Navy pilot your whole professional
life, as a test pilot and a fighter pilot, right up to the time
you were selected as an astronaut about five years ago. Did
you become a pilot as a means to become an astronaut, or was
astronaut just a late bonus in your flying career?
thing I remember is from the time I was three years old, I turned
to my parents and I said, I want to be a pilot…you know,
I want to fly. I think I was watching the old Sky King TV show;
it had a pilot in it as the star of the show, and that's what
I wanted to be and they encouraged me all the way along. There
were some times where things didn't look like they were going
to work out, but I kept pressing ahead, finally became a Navy
pilot, and as I moved through my career I found that there were
different challenges I wanted to try for, like becoming a test
pilot. And then after I became a test pilot I got to know some
of the astronauts down here and I realized, you know, just how
much fun that was and how possible it might be with the background
that I'd accumulated up to then. And I made that my next goal,
and now here I am. It's amazing.
fill that in for us: how does becoming a test pilot suddenly open
you to meeting astronauts?
of the things we did during my test pilot school class, it's about
a year long, and you take a field trip for about a week where
you tour different test sites. One of the places that you come
to is here in Houston and visit for a couple of days with the
astronauts who are here and talk to them. A lot of the astronauts
do have a Navy background, so you talk to them and you realize
they've had a career similar to what I'd had so far and you see
them as people instead of just sort of an idea that seems almost
impossible to reach sometimes. But when you meet people and talk
to them and realize they are real people with a career a lot like
mine it seems to become, you know, a credible goal that you could
set for yourself and that's what I did: applied a couple of times.
It's not easy, you didn't get picked up the first time but, after
two or three applications, finally made my way down here.
help set an example, then, for people who might be looking at
that as a career, talk about your professional experience; what
are the steps in your career that got you to this point?
the Navy, back in 1981, became an F-14 pilot and flew in the fleet
for a couple of cruises off the ship, then applied for test pilot
school. That was probably the real key to opening the door, like
we mentioned, becoming a test pilot and, having that background,
because all the pilots at NASA who fly the shuttle have a test
pilot school background. That combination of the engineering and
the piloting techniques is [what] NASA thinks is essential for
shuttle pilots. So that was really the big key that opened that
up for me. After test pilot school I worked as a test pilot for
a couple of years, then went back to the fleet, did another cruise
on the ship, and was actually at sea in the Persian Gulf when
NASA called, to ask me to come back for the interview.
mentioned your parents earlier on and their encouragement in your
desire to be a pilot. Are there other people-and I don't mean
to exclude your parents in this question, but who are the people
that you look at and see that they're the people who were pretty
influential in your life, that helped you turn out to be who you
parents really are key. They always encouraged me that I could
do whatever I wanted, that there were no limits if you really
worked hard and dedicated yourself to a dream. I remember my junior
high school guidance counselor, Steve Huey, worked together with
me a lot, and he encouraged me in the same way. He was a pilot
himself, and he and I went flying in small planes a little bit,
and we just became close friends as the years went by.
mentioned that you're one of the many astronauts who are a test
pilot and have been fighter pilots, too. But you're one of the
very few who's had the whole world look over your shoulder while
you were doing that. Talk about what it was like for you to fly
the scenes in the movie Top Gun, and how you got picked for that
Gun was a real thrill. I still remember that so vividly. The word
was going around town that Hollywood was coming to Miramar, where
I was stationed, and they were going to do a movie, and we were
all kind of excited. My squadron had just gotten back from a seven-and-a-half
month cruise about a week-and-a-half before, so our airplanes
were at home, we were available, we weren't too highly tasked.
And it turned out they picked my squadron to supply the F-14s.
Then the skipper got together and tried to pick four guys that
he thought, were mature enough, I guess, to handle, you know,
the capability that they were being given in working with the
movie, and all the things that were required. And the director
wanted to have a small cadre of people that he could work with
so you develop an understanding of what the movie folks want versus
what we can do and how to try and balance those two requirements.
The flying was incredible. You know, most Navy pilots don't get
to buzz the tower like in the movie-if you did you could just
peel your wings off and, throw 'em at the door because you probably
wouldn't be flying anymore-but, since it was Hollywood, you know,
they wanted the scene. I had to buzz the tower. And, of course,
they wanted nine different takes so we did it nine times!
of your Navy career?
was certainly, one of them but, I think, flying off the ship was
something that you just can't duplicate. That thrill and, sometimes,
sheer terror at night when you're coming back to the ship, and
then flying over Iraq in some combat ops are really the highlights
of my Navy career.
mentioned it's been about five years or so since you were selected
to the Astronaut Corps, and in your time as an astronaut, and
before that, the space shuttle program has planned missions years
in advance, and flight crews and ground crews have spent a year
or more training for them. But you were named to the crew of STS-106
only a few months before the mission was scheduled to fly. Help
us all understand-talk about the factors behind the decision to
add STS-106 to the shuttle schedule.
know, building an international space station is a very complex
undertaking. And I think NASA's really found that out. To me,
it's a big, positive for NASA to be able to have a schedule like
this and still retain the flexibility to add a mission on as requirements
change. You know, it is a complex process, putting the station
together, and what we found out is, as different pieces weren't
ready right on time, support was needed for the station that was
up there right now. So they took one mission and said, OK, we're
going to fly these guys up there as we had planned, and all of
a sudden we need another mission to jump in here, with about six
months' time. So our crew was gathered together-we actually pulled
three folks from the previous mission to slide into our slot,
to help us have the experience so that we could be ready in about
six months to go fly in space.
we see more missions on short notice, if you will, like this…it's
not your father's space program anymore?
Things, I think, are changing, both as we become a little more
mature in space shuttle operations and as we realize the flexibility
that's going to be needed to service the emerging requirements.
You know, when something breaks in space and you have a permanent
outpost up there, you've got to go deal with it. And I think we
will see some shorter time frame turnarounds for missions.
I ask you to talk about the differences: your first mission, you
had quite a long training template, on this one rather short.
What are the biggest challenges that you see, both for you and
all your crewmates, as you go on this compressed schedule to get
ready to fly?
of the biggest issues is just time. When you only have six months
instead of a year to get ready and you try to squeeze everything
that you did in one year into six months, it can take up a lot
of time. The days get long; you get very busy with the training.
But I think what we're doing is reviewing our training and coming
to the point where we know exactly what's required and trying
to cut that down to what we need to put all the crews through
to get them ready to fly in space.
this fun, this sort of, "Ooh, let's go fly a space shuttle
mission"? Do you enjoy the excitement?
This is a
tremendous excitement and really a lot of fun. And to think that
it could be so soon, so quickly after being assigned to fly, is
just a real thrill at the same time. It's hard for me to believe
that we're getting as close to flying as we are sometimes. It's
like, you know, pinch me-is this really happening? Are we going
to go flying in a couple of months?
flight is the first shuttle mission to go to the station since
the arrival of the Service Module, and you're going to be docking
at a station that, not only has an additional piece-the Service
Module-but a Progress supply ship docked to it as well. I'd like
to get you to talk us through what's involved on rendezvous day:
describe the role that you, yourself, will be playing as Terry
Wilcutt flies Atlantis up to meet this newly-configured space
as the skipper, is the lead of the rendezvous effort, but it is
a team effort. There's going to be, really, all seven of us on
the flight deck doing different things, and each person has to
play his part, and if we don't, the rendezvous may not be as successful
as we want it to be. What I'll be doing is sitting in the front,
basically computing the different burns that we have to do with
the shuttle in order to maneuver it into position where Terry
can take over in the back and actually hand-fly it. And we're
going to come up from underneath the station, looking at it from
the bottom, and then do a flyaround where we basically go 180º
around the station to dock from the top coming down. It basically
sets us up to do that so that the station can be in full communication
with the ground sites from Russia that are going to have to command
the station to let go of attitude control as we dock so that the
two pieces aren't trying to work against each other.
you describe it, it seems, similar to the previous shuttle [mission],
rendezvous profiles to the station, although this time the station
will be a different shape, different-
bigger size than before. Does that play any particular difference
for the jobs that you have to do on the flight deck?
jobs on the flight deck are pretty much the same as they have
been, even with the addition of the Service Module. The thing
that changes, of course, is the site picture out the window, because
now you've got a 150-foot stack-basically, tube-that's out there
that we're trying to rendezvous on and fly around. So it's so
much bigger, so much more mass now, as we dock to it. The Service
Module is really going to be the brains of the station at this
point, commanding the control, so it is a lot, a new element.
You kind of wonder if everything'll work just perfect, but we're
trained to be ready for any little surprises.
day after you dock to the station is the day that Ed and Yuri
are to venture outside of Atlantis on a six-and-a-half-hour space
walk. It's only going to be the second space walk ever from the
shuttle by a team composed of an astronaut and a cosmonaut. What
is it that we learn from a joint excursion like that, or from
the U.S.-Russian space walks that have come from the Mir space
station? Does it help us better prepare for space station space
walks in the future?
Well, I think
it really does. If you look at the future of the space station
and the number of space walks that we're going to be doing on
there, it's just incredible the requirements that we're about
to set before ourselves. And to use someone like Yuri, who has
the experience of two space walks on a space station in orbit,
along with Ed, and to each sort of balance the strengths that
they bring to this and the things that Yuri's learned from being
outside before, I think makes this an even better program. You
know, drawing from strengths instead of trying to just go and
do everything, one way that you may have learned, you can just
expand your knowledge base a lot by using resources other than
what we have…you know, using the Russians and their background
have trained for the space walk to some extent in Russia, in their
space walk training facilities, even though they will be wearing
American spacesuits when they do it. How is that training, do
you think, been of assistance to them?
has really been interesting for the space walk because we don't
have the whole station in one place right now. We've got the Node
and the FGB in the pool here at NASA, and then they've got a Service
Module mock-up and a piece of the FGB over in Russia. So, for
them to train for their entire space walk, we have to break it
up into chunks where we practice the early part of it here, and
they had to practice the Service Module part of it over in Russia,
and then try to put that training together, mentally, after we
got back. So, really, the Russian facilities were essential to
being ready to go outside on this space walk, as were the U.S.
facilities. You know, it was, again, a total team effort.
talk about the details of this particular space walk that you
are going to have to watch from inside…you don't get to go
out…but talk about the tasks that are planned and what you'll
be doing inside the shuttle while this work is going on outside.
job that I'll be doing is basically assisting, and maneuvering
with the robotic arm. Rick Mastracchio's going to be prime for
the arm, and I'll back him up and move the arm at some points
in the thing. And the arm, basically, gives the astronauts an
elevator ride up the stack-you know, it's a hundred and forty-some
feet long, and they're going almost to the end of it as part of
their space walk. So, we're going to use the arm for them to grab
a hold and kind of give them a ride about seventy feet up to the
point on the FGB where they can take over and walk their way up.
It's hand-over-hand using a Russian tether protocol-something
that we've learned from the Russian space program-as they go out
and install a magnetometer on the outside and hook up a lot of
the data cables that are going to allow the Service Module to
get power and data back and forth from the rest of the space station.
Talk about some of those things. For
instance, a magnetometer - what is that? Why do we need one on
the outside of the space station?
magnetometer basically detects the flux of the magnetic lines
that are around the Earth because of the Earth's magnetic field.
And it turns out, if you have a sensitive, magnetic sensor, you
can determine what attitude the space station is in just by how
you're going around the Earth's magnetic flux. So, it's a backup
attitude sensor, basically, to determine the attitude of the station.
Now they have star trackers and they have horizon sensors, but
it's basically a third system that can tell you what your attitude
is oriented to the Earth. It's important to have that capability
just for the times where you can't see the stars or the horizon;
it's all appropriate to have that level of redundancy. But the
thing with the magnetometer is in order for it to sense those
magnetic fields you don't want it next to a big hunk of iron,
like the space station. So Ed and Yuri are going out there and
they're getting a big pole out, and they're going to mount that
on the side and put the magnetometer out on the end so it can
sense magnetic fields without the interference of the station.
also referred to them connecting data cables. It occurs to me
that this is, at least to an extent, similar to what Jerry Ross
and Jim Newman did on their space walks, to connect the Service
Module to the rest of the station; is that a good way to characterize
that's exactly right. Every time you add another piece to this-since
we don't want cables running across hatches, we've put our cables
on the outside-so every time you add a new module, you need to
send somebody outside to go out there and hook up all the power
connections, you know, plug in all the extension cords, and get
the data lines hooked up so that power goes each way and that
data can flow back and forth, so we're all connected.
day after that space walk is completed is the day that you all
are scheduled to enter the International Space Station, and you're
going to be among the first people to ever enter the Service Module,
Zvezda, on orbit. Do you have any sense at all at this point of
how you're going to be feeling to be there for that event?
it is hard to describe what that's going to feel like, but you
just look forward to that moment when the hatch opens up and you
start to go through into a place that you've never been before,
floating through the Node and the FGB and then into the Service
Module, to see it in orbit, really for the first time. I think
it's going to be an incredible thrill. I'm going to be manning
a camera to try and document what Terry and Yuri are doing as
they go through so we can send that down and basically take everybody
along with us as we enter into the Service Module.
all heard the Service Module described as being the early living
quarters for the long-duration crews that will be on the station.
I want to get you to help fill that in for us a little bit. What
is it that Zvezda will provide that will permit human habitation
of the station? What kind of equipment does it house or control
systems does it provide? What are the activities that would go
on inside of that? What makes this so important?
kind of like having your office, where you work, and then you
have your house, where you go home to, and Zvezda is both an office
and a house. You think about the things you have at home: you
have, you know, a bed to sleep in, your little bedroom, and it's
got sleeping quarters for the crew; you have a place to eat, a
place to store food, a place to prepare it-that's all part of
Zvezda, that's not up there until the Service Module arrives with
that kitchen capability. Then there's the things that we get for
free down here on Earth that you don't have that you have to worry
about in orbit like air to breathe, you know, recycling that air,
cleansing it, and, of course, you need to have a bathroom; that's
part of the Service Module as well. So it's really the big piece
that allows people to live and work in space-the office space
and the house that you live in.
also going to, at this point, take control over how the station
flies, [isn't] it?
It then becomes the brains of the station at this point. It's
going to control the attitude, where you are, and basically all
the functions that's going on like the oxygen regeneration, the
attitude of the station, and all the rest of that.
talk about some of the priorities for this mission in the outfitting
of the Service Module. First of all, talk about the installation
of batteries and some related electrical hardware-what is it that
you all have to get installed in there in order to get Zvezda
ready for the first crew?
are the batteries, as you mentioned; basically, the Service Module
launches with launch weight constraints so you can't fill it up
with everything or it wouldn't get off the pad. Now we're going
to come along and bring all those extra little pieces to outfit
it and get it really ready for people to live in. We're going
to put batteries in, we're going to fill up the water tanks on
board so that there's water for the people to drink and use when
they're preparing meals, we're outfitting the toilet, actually,
getting that ready to go for the first residents, and transferring
equipment. We're also going to install the ergometer, the bicycle
that they ride on to stay in shape, and put together the treadmill
that's going to go in the back of [the] Service Module.
you looking forward to spending a lot of time hauling stuff back
it looks like. We'll be spending a little time as pack mules,
taking things from the SPACEHAB over there, and then finding the
place to put it because we don't want to just throw these things
across the hatch and leave them there for the first Expedition
crew to come and try to make sense of. So we're going to work
really hard to put things where they belong, you know, put away
our toys, and make sure that we stow things in a place that the
crew can get to when they're up there working.
this point, you're scheduled to spend about five full days working
inside the station. Can you summarize the goals of the work that's
scheduled during that time? What are the things that you expect
you are going to be doing?
have one person who's sort of the loadmaster on SPACEHAB and one
person who's the loadmaster in the Service Module and on station.
So, those two folks will be in their respective position, and
I'll be one of the folks who takes things back and forth and,
makes everything, the transfer, go smoothly. So, one of my goals
is to make that happen: basically, be wherever they need me as
things are happening to facilitate the loads process. But the
other thing that goes on at the same time, even though we're all
focused on the space station, is we still have a space shuttle
up there, and it's got to be taken care of and monitored and made
sure that everything's healthy aboard it. So, I'm going to spend
a lot of time on the flight deck, working with the shuttle systems,
doing everything that we have to do on every shuttle flight, even
when we're not docked to a space station.
each of us, referred to it, but in this case, you're going to
be moving supplies onto the station from two different directions
for the very first time-not only from the shuttle, docked to one
end, but from the Progress supply ship that's going to be docked
to the other end. What's the strategy here for keeping track of
everything that's moving in at least two directions?
is a big challenge to choreograph all that equipment as it moves
in each direction, to make sure that it all goes to the right
place. And our strategy is basically to have one person sort of
as the loadmaster on the Service Module [to] say, "OK, everybody
check in with me before you move something, and I'll make sure
you put it in the right place, and then I'll check it off on my
master list." That's our strategy for dealing with all that
equipment. You know, you are going to have traffic flow in both
directions, and we're trying to choreograph that some so that
there's not interference, or as little as possible, with all those
might be looking at it that way.
mentioned a couple of pieces of equipment that were involved;
specifically, tell me, does Zvezda arrive on orbit with all of
the necessary life support equipment that it has to have? Are
you delivering and installing some, and others coming later, or
is it going to be fit for human habitation when you are done?
of all, it's not launching with everything installed due to the
weight constraints; it just would be too heavy to get off the
pad, so a lot of the equipment we're going to put in. Now, they're
looking at our timeline, and we're so busy right now we may not
be able to get to the point where we have everything ready to
turn the switch and have it ready to go, but the big pieces will
be installed. The Elektron oxygen generation system will be there,
but it won't be fully operational until the first increment crew
gets up there. All the life support systems like that are going
to have some work done by us: smoke detectors, water transfer,
filling up the tanks, things like that. So, it'll be just about
fully ready for them to come in, but they might have to do a little
more work than flipping a switch.
sounds like it's going to be five very full days for you and your
it will be very challenging and very busy, just morning till night,
keeping busy with doing things, but it's going to be a real thrill,
as it is a challenge.
the end of those five days it'll be time to close the hatches
and to go home, undocking from this very long station and flying
around this very long station. Take us through that with you up
on the flight deck as you take control of the space shuttle and
leave the space station.
the program has had the Pilot do the flyaround, to get a little
bit of extra "stick time," we call it, flying around
the station, and a chance to do a photo survey as you look at
the station as you go around it, and typically two times around
before we do the separation burn, and leave. So I'll be standing
at the aft station, basically, you're looking out an overhead
window up at the station and watching it go away. And it's not
like it's a long ways away-it's right over the top of your head
as you undock for the first time. It's really amazing when I looked
at that in the simulator and I just know it's going to be even
more so when I see the real thing right there in front of me.
So, we push the buttons, and after a minute or so, we undock and
just slowly start drifting away. We're going to go out to about
400 feet and then start this flyaround where we go all the way
around the station two times. Now, there's some orbital mechanics
effects that you have to deal with that makes it a little bit
more of a pilot task, to make sure that we stay in the right place
all the way around, so it's a challenge I'm really looking forward
to and think will be an incredible, incredible event.
those of us who are not pilots, forgive us: is it as simple a
job as nudging the shuttle into its orbit around the station,
or are you going to have to be on the sticks the whole time?
some input, basically, all the way around; it's not automatic,
it's not done by the computers at this point. Rendezvous flying
is all hands-on, basically, pilot task, more like what I used
to do when I was at the ship. …Docking is a lot like tanking,
you know, plugging in and then unplugging, and that's what we're
doing as we go around, hand-flying it; an input here, an input
there, based on inputs, that I get from the other crewmembers.
Using a handheld laser to tell me how far away we are, a little
computer program that helps assist. And we're all working together
as a team, talking about, well, I think we need to do something
now, or oh, we can just let it drift for a little bit, but constantly
tweaking and evaluating and updating your plan about what you
need to do to make everything work very smoothly as we go around.
I didn't ask you is the reason for this flyaround. Why is it worthwhile
to spend the time and the propellant to orbit a space station
from just a few hundred feet away?
Well, I think
the biggest reason is this is the first time that the Service
Module has been added on to the stack, and it's a chance for us
to fly around it and basically see that from different angles,
different perspectives, as we go by. Photo-document it, you know,
use our still cameras and our video cameras to document everything,
the place that's it in. We've already discovered from flyaround
photos, you know, when things moved, like the crane that was attached.
You saw it in different positions as we moved around. And that
was data that came directly out of things like the flyaround.
success of this mission is going to be critical to establishing
a permanent presence of people from our planet in space on board
this space station. The fact that you're willing to fly in space
and do the work yourself tells us that it's something that you
really believe in. Tell me why-finally, what's the importance
of establishing this space station? Why do you believe, what do
you believe, it's going to lead us to in the years to come?
International Space Station is important on many different levels,
I think. From one perspective you could say this is our chance
to have a permanent outpost in space, a laboratory up there. You
know, we use the space shuttle. My first flight was a Spacelab
flight and we had sixteen days of experiments that we could do
up there, but now you've got instead of sixteen days maybe seven
times a year. You've got a lab that's up there twenty-four hours
a day, every day of the year, that you can do so much more experiment-wise
to learn things. And not just about how astronauts adjust or what
it's going to be like to go to other planets-although I think
that is a key part of the space station, learning how to live
and work in space and getting us ready to take our first steps
out to another planet, back to the moon or on to Mars-but at the
same time we're doing experiments that are going to help us understand
humans, how our bodies work, and add to our knowledge base and
help treat people here on Earth. It's not just space-based and
pointed outward; it's also looking back at the Earth. There's
also the idea of the International Space Station being a place
for the whole world to come to do those experiments, benefit from
the experiments, and also learn to work together, on a project
like that. It's being built all over the world, pieces coming
from all over, people coming [from] all over to man it and work
together. It really is amazing. I remember my Navy career, where
I started out flying an F-14; Russian bombers would come out to
look at the ship. They'd have bombs on board; I'd have live missiles
on board. And I would join up and fly wing on them-that was my
first Russian cooperative venture. To think of that, at the beginning
of my career, and now Yuri and Boris are going to space with me;
we're working together. It's just amazing for me, and I think
a really positive sign of the progress that the world is beginning