Interview: Rick Mastracchio
STS-106 Crew Interviews with Rick Mastracchio, Mission Specialist
Rick, this is your first shuttle mission as a member of
the flight crew, but you've been working in the space program
for more than a dozen years. Did you always want to be an astronaut,
or did the desire to be an astronaut grow out of coming to work
for NASA and being a flight controller?
say that I always wanted to be an astronaut, but I know that,
as a young boy I was always interested in math and science, especially
space science, anything related to the planets, anything related
to the space program. I also wanted to be a pilot; I was always
interested in flying airplanes. And then when I graduated from
college, I realized that the engineering position I had was, was
only going to challenge me mentally - I also wanted a job that
was going to challenge me physically. So, the astronaut position
covers all these things very well, and it's a great job to have.
Walk us through it, then. In, in your case, what are the
steps from college and through your career that had led you
to finally become an astronaut?
graduated from the University of Connecticut with an engineering
degree, I went to work right away at Hamilton Standard in Connecticut
as an engineer, worked there for about five years. While I was
working there I went to school at night to earn a master's degree
in electrical engineering. About the 1986-, 1987-time frame, I
sent in my first astronaut application; I wasn't selected, obviously,
as an astronaut at that time, but I was offered a job as an engineer
at the Johnson Space Center. So, I picked up the family in 1987 and moved 'em all down to Houston to work as an engineer here
at JSC…worked down here developing space shuttle software,
developing ascent/entry procedures, eventually became a flight
controller in the mission control room… meanwhile, also returned
back to school and got a second master's degree, this time in
space science. All this time, I continuously sent in my astronaut
applications and, eventually in 1992, I was called in for my first
astronaut interview…I was not selected that time, continued
working here at the Johnson Space Center, continued sending in the applications, interviewed again in 1994, again was not selected,
so continued on the same path. Until eventually, in 1996, I was
selected with the 16th astronaut class. So, it took me about fourteen
years of working as an engineer, three college degrees, nine years
of astronaut applications, and three interviews to finally get
selected in 1996.
Along a lengthy course like that there must have been
probably more than one person who stands out in your mind as
being influential and being encouraging in your efforts. Talk
about who some of those people are in your life.
my mother and father had a lot to do with who I am today. And
while I was in high school, I had several teachers - two or three
different teachers - that had a lot of confidence in me and were
very encouraging. And then, of course, working up at Hamilton
Standard I had several supervisors that were great guys and taught
me a lot about being an engineer and doing a good job. And then,
of course, my wife has been with me through all this time, and
she's always supported me in everything I've done.
As we mentioned, STS-106 is your first assignment as a
member of a space shuttle flight crew. Can you give us some
sense, after the course that you just described there, after
a number of years, to finally get the news that you have been
selected to fly in space?
I was very excited, but the way it worked they added the STS-106
mission to the space shuttle manifest kind of late in the flow
due to the delays in the Service Module. And due to the fact that
it was going to have a very short training flow, I didn't really
expect to get selected for this mission - I thought they would
go for all experienced flight crew members. So, when I got the
phone call I was, of course, excited and thrilled to be part of
the flight crew. I wasn't really too concerned about the short
training flow 'cause I had been at the Johnson Space Center for about a dozen years, and I was training as an astronaut for over
three years, so I felt pretty comfortable that we could accomplish
the training I needed in six months.
Well, let's talk about the details of that. As you say
the mission that you're going to fly on has been added to the
schedule on very short notice in comparison to the history of
the space shuttle program, where missions have been on the books
for a year or more before they've actually flown. Talk about
the factors that were involved in the decision to add this mission
to the flight schedule.
we all know, the space station is a huge program. There's over
a dozen countries involved, and there's a lot of hardware and
software involved in the building process. So, things are not
always going to go as planned, hardware is not always going to
be ready on time, launch delays are going to occur. I think STS-106
is a great example of how NASA can successfully recover from these
unplanned events and continue the program to a success.
As you said that because of delays in launches of parts,
other components of the station, this mission's had to be added.
Can you describe the main goal of STS-106? What is it that you
and your crewmates are going to do on this mission?
goal is to install several pieces of equipment in the Service
Module - life support systems, exercise equipment, medical equipment
- and also to stow a lot of equipment, removing it from the space
shuttle's SPACEHAB cargo, putting it on board the Service Module
and the FGB and the Unity that are already up there, stowing food
and water, clothes and supplies, for the first Expedition crew.
So our primary responsibility is making sure that the space station
is ready to receive the first Expedition crew that will be docking
with the station, hopefully later this year.
As you've mentioned and just described, that's quite a
lot of things to do, and you folks have had some six, seven
months in order to get prepared. From your point of view, have
there been special challenges involved for all of you in getting
ready to fly this mission, in having just those number of months
to get ready to do so?
team at the Johnson Space Center and the folks in Star City, Russia, have been great supporting us. All the facilities have been at
our disposal, all the folks have really paid a lot of attention
to allow us to train in a timely manner, so everything has gone
really well. I guess some of the bigger challenges have been in
the EVA training and maybe in the ingress and egress of the space
station training. And I only say that because half of the hardware
is here in Houston, in the United States, where the Unity and
part of the FGB are mocked up, and we'll perform some of the training
here, and then a few weeks later we'll have to go to Star City,
Russia, and perform the second half of that event, continuing
the training overseas. So, there's a big discontinuity in the
training between here, the United States, and Russia, which is
something, of course, we won't see on orbit. But I don't think
it's going to be a problem - I think once we're on orbit everything
will go smoothly.
One last question on the circumstances of your coming
to this mission. As we've said, it's a compressed training flow,
as it's referred to; is there an excitement for you about being
involved in something that is new and is movin' right along?
I said, when I was first named to this crew I was thrilled, and
very excited about being part of it. Every training event has
been very enjoyable; being part of a crew has been a great experience.
And I know some folks say I haven't stopped smiling since then.
I'm really enjoying it.
Your flight is the first shuttle mission that will dock
to the International Space Station with the Service Module and
also a Progress supply vessel attached to it. The rendezvous
similar to, but not exactly the same as, the previous shuttle
dockings to the station. Talk us through the steps that are
involved on rendezvous day. What is going to go on, and in the
course of doing that, tell us about what you will be doing while
Terry Wilcutt is flying Atlantis to this rendezvous and docking?
of the crew has a very specific task on rendezvous day; we all
have been trained for these tasks. The space shuttle will approach
the space station from below; we'll get to within about 500 feet
of the space station and then perform a maneuver around the space
station, coming in from the top. At that point, we'll complete
the docking as we come from above the station down to docking
with it. From the Earth's perspective the space shuttle will be
upside down, facing down, the station below, and then the Earth
below that, so from the flight deck we're going to have a great
view of the station and the Earth in the background. My specific
task is going to be, positioned at the overhead window inside
the space shuttle, pointing a handheld laser at the space station
to determine the range and range rate with the space station in
relation to the space shuttle. I'll be passing that information
over to Terry Wilcutt, who will use that information to fly the
approach and docking with the station.
Is there a reason why the shuttle's not just flying up
from Earth and docking? Why does it have to fly around and come
down to hook up to the front end of the station, that PMA on
the front of the Node?
the space station is configured is we're going to be docking with
the Node, the PMA attached to the Node, which will be pointing
up in relation to the Earth. All the antennas that are used to
communicate with the Russian ground sites are located on the Service
Module and the FGB on the bottom portion, so we want those clear
of any structure, pointing towards the Earth, for a clear path
of communication with the Russian ground sites; that forces us
to fly over to the top of the space station and dock with the
Node, which is pointing up.
Now, once the docking is complete you don't get to enter
the station right away…in fact, the day after that docking
is the day that Ed Lu and Yuri Malenchenko are to venture outside
of Atlantis. It's going to be just the second space walk ever
from the shuttle to be conducted by an astronaut and a cosmonaut.
Before we talk about the details of what Ed and Yuri are going
to do, tell us about what is learned from doing a combination
American-Russian space walk? What
is it that can be learned that can, perhaps, be applied toward
future space walks from the International Space Station?
we work so closely with the Russians or any of our international
partners in such a joint venture, we're going to learn a lot from
them, they're going to learn a lot from us. For example, on this
EVA we're going to be using United States-built space suits, the
EMUs; all the equipment that we're going to be installing on the
exterior of the station is going to be Russian-built equipment;
the tools that Yuri and Ed will be using are going to be a combination
of Russian tools and U.S.-built tools. So it's going to be a mixture
of both United States and Russian tools and techniques that they're
going to be out there using. And the space station is not just
an American venture, it's also the Russians and many other countries
involved. We're going to have to learn to work with the other
countries, we're going to have to learn how, their tools and their
techniques that they use in space, so the more we practice this
with them the better off that we're all going to be. Like anything
else, the more you do it the better you get at something.
Now the space station now, with the Zvezda and a Progress
vehicle attached to it, is going to be some 140 or 150 feet
long from the payload bay of the shuttle, straight up, and the
space walkers have jobs that will take them from right outside
the aft flight deck windows all the way to almost the end of
that. You're going to be heavily involved in that as the operator
of the robot arm on this mission, moving them around. Talk a
little bit, first, about the complexity of trying to coordinate
the work of these two men who are outside and you're inside
watching them on television and helping them work in areas that
you can't really see directly with your own eye.
Ed and Yuri are outside performing the space walk, Dan Burbank
will be coordinating all their tasks from inside the space shuttle;
he'll be standing at the aft station of the space shuttle. I'll
be standing right next to him controlling the robotic arm, and
Scott Altman will be backing me up in the robotic arm operations.
About halfway through the EVA Scott and I are going to swap positions,
just so we both get a little bit of time at the arm. But yeah,
there's a lot of coordination that has go on between Ed and Yuri,
Dan, as the IV crew member, and the arm operator, myself in the
beginning of EVA. Like you say, it's going to be very difficult
to see what the crew members are doing with our eyes, so we're
going to rely just about a hundred percent on the television cameras
that are in the space shuttle's payload bay and the cameras that
are on the arm, at the robotic arm itself. Dan's primary task
is going to be to keep an eye on the EVA crewmembers, watching
their tasks, making sure they're getting everything accomplished,
seeing if they need any help; we're going to be also assisting
him in that but our primary concern, as we're moving the robotic
arm, is to make sure we're moving the arm in the proper location,
staying clear of structure. So one of the big coordination tasks
between Dan and I is just over who's using what monitor: We're
only going to have two television monitors, so they're going to
get a lot of use there. The other coordination tasks are while
we're moving the arm with Ed and Yuri on it. One of the things
we're going to be doing is, while Ed and Yuri are in the space
shuttle's payload bay, they're going to pull all their tools and
equipment out of the toolbox, mount them onto their EMUs, and
then, we're going to use the robotic arm to lift them out of the
space shuttle's payload bay up to the forward end of the FGB,
some forty or fifty feet. This is going to save them a lot of
hand-over-hand translation, and it's going to save a lot of energy
that they're going to need for the rest of the EVA. So, of course,
we're going to have to coordinate the movement of the arm, make
sure we have a nice, smooth movement - we don't want to shake
anybody free - and so there's a lot of coordination there. But
we've been practicing in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, up at the NBL,
and in the other simulators, and things have gone pretty well.
Have you gotten any tips from the arm operators on previous
station missions? They got any clues for you about things to
look out for or things that will make this job of yours easier?
talked to several folks who have experience on orbit using the
robotic arm, and the folks that have worked on the space station,
and hopefully, in combination with all the time I've spent in
the simulator with the trainers, there should be no surprises
Let's talk about the work to be done during this space
walk. Ed and Yuri are outside; you're running the arm inside
- talk us through the roster of work that's planned for this
OK. As soon
as Ed and Yuri leave the shuttle's airlock, they're going to make
their way to the toolbox, where they have several pieces of equipment;
wire cable spools, a lot of their tools. They'll remove all their
tools and their equipment, placing them onto their EMU; I'll come
along with the arm. They'll attach themselves to the arm. I'll
lift them up to the forward end of the FGB. From that point, they're
going to start working their way up the stack, the space station
stack. We'll be pulling the arm away, and our second big task
that we need to accomplish with the arm is, because they're going
to be going to positions where the television cameras in the payload
bay just don't have a good view of what they're doing. We're going
to be positioning the robotic arm in various positions using the
end effector camera on the arm to sort of look over their shoulder,
assist them in any way we can with their tasks, and just make
sure everything is going smoothly for them. Once they start their
way up the stack, they're going to be routing cables for power
and data to connect the Service Module to the FGB, they're going
to be installing a magnetometer, which is a attitude sensor for
the space station, and performing several other small tasks.
After all of that work, and after a night's sleep, comes
the day that you all get to enter the International Space Station
for the first time - first group of people who will enter the
Service Module while it's on orbit. Got any sense, at this point,
of how you're going to feel about being there for this historic
course, every hatch we open, every new module that we enter is
going to be a new and exciting for me, this being my first flight
and my first time on the space station. But entering the Service
Module is going to make me very proud to just be part of the crew,
the first crew, to enter the Service Module on orbit, and of course
I'm very proud just to be part of the whole NASA team and the
International Space Station team.
The Service Module, named Zvezda, is the, perhaps, the
focal point of this assembly mission. Help us better understand,
help us get to know, the Service Module: What is it that Zvezda's
presence does to permit human habitation on the station? What
kind of equipment does it carry? What functions will it perform?
That sort of thing.
Module provides just about everything you need to live on orbit.
Right now, the current modules - the FGB and the Unity module
- do not provide any life support systems. So, the Service Module
is going to provide all the life support systems necessary for
the first, all the early, crews to live on board the station:
oxygen generation, CO2 removal. It's going to provide all the
equipment necessary for the preparation of food and to supply
drinking water to the crews. It's going to provide them living
quarters. It's going to provide them a bathroom. So, it's very
important to the early space station configuration and the crews
that are going to be up there in the early days. But not only
that, it's also a primary control. It maintains primary control
of the space station. It has all the guidance and control systems
necessary for the early days of the space station. It's a very
important and crucial module for the program.
Now, is it arriving on orbit with all of the neces, all the equipment
that it needs in order to do that - has it got all the life support
equipment in it, ready to go, or is that a big part of what your
mission is about?
That's the main reason for our mission. Our main reason for flying
is because Zvezda is such a big module and it was so heavy, they
could not install all the equipment in it and launch it with all
the equipment in place and all the supplies in place. Our primary
goal is to go up there, complete the installation of all the life
support equipment and other equipment, and stowage of the food
and water and supplies necessary for the first Expedition crews
and subsequent crews to live on orbit.
A lot of the equipment that's to be installed inside Zvezda
is being brought to orbit inside the space shuttle and inside
the SPACEHAB module that's flying in its payload bay. You've
drawn the job of organizing the movement of cargo out of the
SPACEHAB during those docked operations. Give us a sense of
what's going to happen there: What kind of supplies and materiel
are you and your crewmates bringing up with you? What are you
delivering to the station?
that we're going to be delivering to the space station run the
whole spectrum: again, life support equipment, such as lithium
hydroxide canisters that are used to scrub the carbon dioxide
from the atmosphere; we're going to be sending over exercise equipment,
the treadmill that I spoke of; food, clothes for the first Expedition
crews, office supplies, personal supplies for the crew members
themselves; we're also going to be filling up a large number of
bags of water, using the space shuttle's water supply tanks, filling
those up and stowing them in the space station where the station,
early station crews will use them for drinking water.
Now, your job inside the SPACEHAB as the so-called loadmaster
there, is to make sure, I take it, that all the right things
get out and get on their way to the right place. Describe what
your responsibilities are on this one end of the supply chain.
way it's going to work is I'll be responsible for everything going
in and out of the SPACEHAB. We will be stowing some things in
the SPACEHAB that we'll be returning to Earth. Boris Morukov will
be responsible for the Progress vehicle, and Dan Burbank will
be responsible for everything that goes in and out of the space
station. Basically, how we're going to run the show is we'll have
checklists of all the items that we plan on carrying up into orbit
with us. As we deal with that item, we're simply going to check
those items off our checklists, each of us will, and at the end
of the day we're going to get together with the ground controllers
and compare notes and lists and make sure that, if I sent an item
over to the space station, Dan Burbank got it and stowed it where
it needed to be. And if there's any inconsistencies we'll have
to hunt that item down and, and make sure it gets to the right
As a crew, you're moving equipment in from the SPACEHAB
but also moving it in from the Progress vehicle, as you referred
to. And that's going to be something new for a crew on orbit,
to have to be keeping track of things moving from two different
directions. Is there a special way, a strategy, that you folks
have to accomplish that?
and that's very different than other crews. Some of the missions
that we sent up to the Mir space station, the stowage items that
we were transferring to Mir, we simply carried 'em off of the
space shuttle and handed 'em over to the Mir cosmonauts and didn't
have to worry about 'em after that. Here it's a little bit different,
we're on both ends: We're both on the sending and receiving end.
We're going to have to remove the items out of the SPACEHAB or
the Progress vehicle and install them or stow them in the International
Space Station. And that's where Dan Burbank, who is responsible
for all of the space station stowage, and myself, responsible
for SPACEHAB, and Boris in the Progress vehicle, are going to
have to coordinate very closely. We're going to have to make sure
if I send an item over to space station, Dan receives that item
and it's stowed properly. And our ultimate check is, we're, we're
hoping on egress day, the last day that we're in the space station,
we're going to be able to go through our complete list of all
the items that we installed and stowed in space station, double-checking
everything is in place and labeled clearly for the first Expedition
crew that will be up there a couple of months later.
With all of that done, as you've mentioned, it's time
for you all to leave the station. Describe what's to happen
that day as you undock and fly around and depart from the International
Space Station, and again, what your job will be during that
day is going to be very similar to rendezvous day - each crew
member has their own job, task and responsibility; the only big
difference is that Pilot Scott Altman will be flying the space
shuttle instead of Terry Wilcutt, who flew it during the rendezvous.
What we'll do is we'll be separating from the space station, pulling
out to about 400 to 500 feet away, and then we're going to perform
two complete revolutions around the space station…if the
fuel and the timing is right, we plan on doing two complete revolutions.
And we're doing that for photo opportunities: We want to photo-document
the complete exterior of the space station, all the work that
Ed and Yuri had done while on their EVA, making sure everything
looks correct, and use it for future crews as they come up and
do work on the station. After our complete two revolutions, we'll
perform a separation burn and move away from the space station
and start heading towards home. My job on undocking day is going
to be very similar to rendezvous day - I'll be positioned in the
overhead window, with a handheld laser, pointing it at the International
Space Station, and I'll be using that to determine the range and
range rate with the station and the shuttle, passing that information
along to Scott Altman as he flies the flyarounds of the space
So, it's your responsibility to make sure that Scooter
doesn't get too close?
I back him
up in anything he does.
The success of your mission is critical to establishing
the ISS as a place that can support a permanent presence of
people from Earth on orbit. The fact that you're willing to
fly in space and do that work yourself says that you think it's
something that's very important. So, finally, let me get you
to tell us why: What is, in your mind, the importance of establishing
this space station, and what do you believe this space station
is going to help us get to in the years to come?
there are a lot of good reasons for building and operating the
International Space Station. For one thing, NASA's going to learn
a lot about long-term travel in space; this information can be
used to build permanent colonies on the Moon, or even go to Mars
some day. I don't think that it's a question of if we go to the
Moon or Mars, it's only a question of when we go to the Moon or
Mars, so this knowledge is going to be very helpful in the future.
The space station is also a great platform for observing the stars
and the planets, including the planet Earth below; long-term Earth
observations are going to allow us to see the impacts that man
has on the planet, help us to learn a little more about weather
prediction, things like that. And of course, the microgravity
environment is a great asset, also: We'll be able to do long-term
experiments on new materials, pharmaceuticals, chemicals that
some day can lead to newer and improved materials, metals…who
knows, maybe some day even lead to cures for some diseases. So
I think the space station has a lot of good reasons for being,
and I think that it's only limited by our imagination what we
get out of the space station.