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Preflight Interview: Scott Altman

The 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?

Well, the 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.

Help fill that in for us: how does becoming a test pilot suddenly open you to meeting astronauts?

Well, one 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.

To 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?

I joined 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.

You 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 are?

Well, my 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.

You've 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 job.

Well, Top 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!

Highlight of your Navy career?

Well, it 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.

We've 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.

Well, you 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.

Will we see more missions on short notice, if you will, like this…it's not your father's space program anymore?

That's right. 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.

May 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?

Well, one 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.

Is 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?

Your 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 station.

Well, Terry, 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.

As 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-


-a bigger size than before. Does that play any particular difference for the jobs that you have to do on the flight deck?

Really the 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.

The 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 in space.

They 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?

The training 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.

Let's 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.

Well, the 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?

Well, the 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.

You 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 it?

That's it; 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.

The 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?

You know, 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.

We've 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?

Well, it's 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.

It's also going to, at this point, take control over how the station flies, [isn't] it?

That's correct. 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.

Let's 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?

Well, there 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.

Are you looking forward to spending a lot of time hauling stuff back and forth?

That's what 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.

At 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?

Well, we 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.

We've, 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?

Right. It 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 requirements.

One-way streets?

Yes, you might be looking at it that way.

You 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?

Well, …first 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.

It sounds like it's going to be five very full days for you and your crew.

We think 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.

At 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.

Well, traditionally, 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.

For 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?

Well, there's 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.

What 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.

The 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?

Well, the 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 to make.

Image: Scott Altman.
Click on the image to hear STS-106 Pilot Scott Altman's greeting.
Crew Interviews

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