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Preflight Interview: Rick Mastracchio

The STS-106 Crew Interviews with Rick Mastracchio, Mission Specialist 2.

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?

I can't 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?

After I 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.

Well, obviously, 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?

Well, obviously 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.

Well, as 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?

Our primary 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?

The training 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?

Well, like 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?

Every member 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 way 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?

Any time 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.

Yeah. While 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?

Yeah. I've 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 on orbit.

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 space walk.

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 event?

Well, of 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.

The Service 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?

The supplies 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.

Well, the 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 spot.

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?

You're right, 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 activity.

Undocking 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 station.

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?

I think 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.

Image: Rick Mastracchio.
Click on the image to hear Rick Mastracchio's greeting.

Mission Specialist 2, STS-106
Crew Interviews

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