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Preflight Interview: Frederick W. Sturckow

A couple of weeks prior to scheduled launch, STS-88 pilot Rick Sturckow took some time out from training to answer questions about the mission.

Rick, STS-88 is going to be your first trip to space, something you've been working for for years; what do you expect you're going to feel as you experience your first space shuttle launch?

Well, I've really been looking forward to this for a long time. The training has been going on for two years since we were first assigned, so when it finally happens it's going to be a great day in my life and I'm really looking forward to it. Obviously I'll be focused on doing my job and doing it right, following all the right procedures and not messing anything up.

Let's take you back beyond even that. What is it that made you, want to become an astronaut in the first place?

I was looking for a challenge. I think it was a natural progression from being a, military, Marine Corps F-18 pilot and then being a test pilot, and when I was at test pilot school, all my buddies were applying for it so I put in for it and was selected.

You know, most first time flyers, up until this point, have launched on shuttle missions that have gone to, what Terry Wilcutt once described to me as a place called low Earth orbit; you're going to another place-you're going to the International Space Station. Is there a special kind of feeling for knowing that you have a destination like that to go to?

Well, it's very exciting. You know, this is a great project, it's going to be one of the greatest peacetime endeavors, in history to this point is the construction of the International Space Station, and you bet, it's exciting and I'm looking forward to it.

You mentioned a moment ago that it's been two years since you and your crewmates were named to STS-88; you're now closing in on the scheduled launch of that mission. Can you tell me what your feelings are now as you realize that that launch is really getting closer? Do you almost really, you feel that it's becoming more real?

It is becoming more real and it hadn't always been that way. Before every slip was a rumor and, you've got to just keep training, you gotta keep your nose to the grindstone, but it doesn't make it any easier. And when you feel like you're really going to go do this, things just go a lot more smoothly, and I think the whole crew is kind of picking up on this, that we're finally going to go do this and we're, we're ready.

As you mentioned, there have been two delays in the launch, both times because of delays in getting hardware ready to go to the station. Have the postponements for you and your crewmates served as a source of frustration or as an opportunity to be better prepared when you do launch?

Well, there's definitely some frustration in there. On the other hand, there have been greater preparations both on the engineering side of the house (they've made modifications that, wouldn't otherwise have been possible) and within our own operations, in our crew planning. We've thought of ways to do things better and more efficiently. We've developed more of our backup scenarios, if somethin' isn't going right I think we're going to be better prepared to deal with it and have a better plan of how that might happen.

Now over the course of that two years or so, you've been working as part of a group of five people as this crew. Recently your crew has been swelled with the addition of Sergei Krikalev; how will this change in your crew, this addition to your crew, which is coming relatively late in the game for the five of you, how is that going to have an affect or an impact on how you all get prepared to fly?

I think it's going to be a real bonus having Sergei on there. I read his bio and, it's just very impressive: the amount of experience he brings to the team and his knowledge of the Russian systems, it can't do anything but help us. He's flown on the shuttle before, something I've never done, and, so I think it's just going to be super having him on board. Colonel Cabana has already assigned him many duties because of the training he's had, and it'll help to offload us during critical phases of flight so we can just focus on one thing at a time instead of having to jump back and forth.

Do you think it makes sense, from the point of view of symbolism, that the first mission to assemble the International Space Station has a multinational crew?

Well, I'm sure it does and it makes operational sense, too; it's a good idea.

Let's talk about your mission. First in a more of a big picture kind of way, STS-88's primary mission is the first assembly of pieces of the International Space Station. To you, what's the historic significance of this flight? I mean, why should we be building a space station in Earth orbit in the first place?

Well, it's like a lot of other things that we've done in space, trips to the moon and all the spin-offs that have come out of that. A lot of those we didn't know going in the benefits we were going to reap, and it's the same thing with the space station. We know the kind of things that will be studied on the space station. All the microgravity research, materials, and human factors, all these things will be studied, but we don't know what we're going to learn. And that's, to me, the historical significance - that after it's been up there ten years people will stop and look back and say, "Wow, if we hadn't had an international space station we would've never had this." And I don't know whether that's going to be a cure for cancer or, a new material that helps us do things that were never possible. It will hopefully be the knowledge we need to travel to Mars and beyond, we'll learn from having people inhabit the International Space Station.

So if somebody insisted, "Rick, which is it: an orbiting laboratory or a jumping-off point to leave Earth orbit?" your answer would be "Both"?

That's it, you are right; it's both. And we need to study all these things and that's a good place to do it.

Now you're well aware that there are those people who criticize the idea of the United States working with Russia or any of the other international partners, to build this International Space Station; how do you respond to that criticism?

I try and tell them that space exploration is not cheap and everybody knows that. And we need to not just make this a U.S. effort or a U.S. versus Russia effort like it was back in the 60's. The exploration of space is now going to be an international effort and that means getting the best players we can from all over the globe, uniting them and getting on with this. And I think having these other countries involved is the right thing to do.

Specifically, the United States and Russia, the major spacefaring nations of the world, have been working together for some four years now on Phase 1 of the International Space Station program, to get ready to do the task that your mission is going to begin. What do you think are the major or the most valuable lessons that have come out of the Shuttle/Mir program?

The most valuable lesson has been learning to work with the Russians. The cultures between what we know here in the United States and what we have in Russia are very different. It has probably been as big a learning experience for them as it has been for us to understand the different ways of doing business. Both have been successful in the past, but if we're going to have this cooperation in space we needed to learn to work together, and I think that they have made major advances in that direction. And we've gotten to know their people, both their cosmonauts and their mission control folks, all super people. They are just as interested in space as we are, but we need to understand them and they need to know where we are coming from so we can work together. And that's the biggest advance. Also, the lessons learned from doing the rendezvous, the dockings, the joint EVAs that we have done, and the long-duration flights, are all big lessons learned. But if you can't work together, you can't do all those other things either.

One of the flights in the series STS-74, the shuttle crew used the shuttle's robot arm to pick the Docking Module up out of the payload bay and put it on the Orbiter Docking System in preparation for docking to Mir and delivering this piece. It's an activity that, at least to the layman, looks pretty similar to what you folks are going to do when you install the Unity node on the ODS in preparation for linking up to the Zarya control module. How important is the activity that they did on STS-74 in getting ready for what you folks are going to do on STS-88?

I think it was a very important learning experience. Jerry Ross was on that mission and one of the things when you're the new guy is you have to listen to everybody else's story. I counted up my crew and they've got stories from twelve different space shuttle flights. When Sergei gets on there that'll be thirteen different space shuttle flights. I've got zero to talk about so I've done a lot of listening. Frequently, when we're talking about how we're going to do something Jerry will bring up "This is the way it was when we did this on 74." Whether he's talking about the arm operations, the docking system operations, or even using an IMAX camera, were all very similar to what they did on, STS-74. That's for the Node install; once we get beyond installing Unity onto Endeavour, the rendezvous with Zarya is going to be a little different than what has ever been done before and we'll be ready for that, too.

I want you to tell me in some more detail about that in a second. Before we describe how that's going to go, to make sure that everybody is up to speed on the details, the primary mission of STS-88 is to mate the first two pieces of the space station in orbit, the Zarya control module and the Unity node. Now you spent an awful lot of time studying these two pieces of hardware and their systems; can you describe for us what these pieces of hardware are and explain their significance-what do they do in the International Space Station?

OK. The Unity, which is also known as the Node, is a connecting piece, and it's joining many other segments, which will come on follow-on flights. It's also the union between the U.S.-built hardware and the Russian-built hardware. So that is its main function. The FGB, or Zarya, initially will have all the power generation responsibilities. It will have the pointing and attitude control and also some reboost capability until it's joined together with the Service Module.

Now in studying the pieces of hardware and all that you have to do on the first of many many assembly missions, you have an understanding of the complexity of planning that whole sequence that's going to take place over years, and then to execute that whole sequence. It might look to some of the rest of us that it's simply, you know, grab two pieces, plug 'em together and go home; I'm guessing that that's not the truth. Tell me how difficult this really can be.

This is going to be extremely challenging and it starts off after the Node's installed. With the rendezvous (this will be the first-ever blind rendezvous) where Colonel Cabana, as he flies Zarya down into the payload bay, will not have a view of it other than he'll be able to see the solar arrays sticking out from the side of Unity. But he'll basically be doing a blind rendezvous using only cameras and some sensors that we have on board. Then, Nancy Currie will grapple Zarya using the arm, and again, she will not be able to view it directly or the grapple fixture. So those are two things that I don't believe have ever been done before and they'll be very challenging for both those folks. Once Zarya is installed, and again this is not going to be a trivial or easy matter, there will not be any direct camera views to align Zarya with the Node. So as they're joined it'll only be by combining several views and using what we've called a Space Vision System, which is built in Canada, to get those two pieces perfectly aligned before we fire the thrusters on Endeavour and force the two pieces together. And that momentum is required to make the docking system function properly. If they're not aligned that's going to be a bad day, so we've worked very hard at making sure we have a number of different ways to get them aligned.

You're referring to what I think is probably going to be one of the biggest highlights of this mission, when you and Bob Cabana fly this rendezvous; I say you and the Commander because as the Pilot, you've got a part in that too. Take us onto the flight deck with you and talk through what's going to happen on that day and tell us what you're going to be doing.

When we start the rendezvous, Colonel Cabana will be sitting in the left seat as the Commander, doing a series of burns that we've targeted. Some will be targeted from the ground and then as we acquire Zarya with our on-board systems, we'll be targeting our own burns and he'll be performing those burns from the left seat. I'll be in the right seat monitoring both the data that we are taking in on our sensors, which are the radar and the star trackers, as well as monitoring the performance of the systems during these very critical burns to ensure that there aren't any problems happening. As we get closer to Zarya, he will move to the aft flight deck and look through the overhead windows. I'll move over to his seat on the left side and perform the last two burns prior to manual-phase takeover, so I'll be doing that. As we come up beneath Zarya, I'll move to the aft flight deck also and assist him with monitoring the rendezvous and the manual-phase flying. We'll come up what's known as the plus R-bar. So we'll come up from below and then at about 500 feet we're going to do a flyaround to go over the top of Zarya and we'll actually come down from above with the Earth in the background-it'll be a fantastic view as we come down that way. And it's done for comm sight coverage from the Russian ground site so they are able to send commands up to Zarya as we come in on the rendezvous.

Which raises, I think, another question: during this rendezvous you've got one craft, yours, a manned craft, controlled from Houston, and the other is an unmanned craft, controlled from Moscow; are there some new levels of coordination or communication that are necessary to make that happen?

I don't, really think so. The Zarya will be the target and we'll be the active players in this. It's very similar, to what we do every day in military flying where we take our fighters and rendezvous on a tanker aircraft and get gas; the same sort of concepts apply and so training in that area has really prepared us well for doing this rendezvous flying. They will, at the last minute, put Zarya into free drift, and that's really the only planned coordination required and that'll be right before Nancy grapples it.

I'm sure that over the course of a couple of years that you've all been through simulations of rendezvous and grapple where everything has not gone just the way it's planned, just the way it is in the timeline. You just mentioned the possibility of Zarya not going to into free drift; what are some of the critical failure scenarios that you have trained for, and what are your planned responses to that?

Some of the failures that we've trained for are first of all: When we get up there and possibly Zarya wouldn't be in the attitude that we're expecting to see it in. It's had some kind of failure with its own control system and we've practiced different methods for flying-out these attitude errors so that we can continue the rendezvous and join up and do a safe grapple. So that would be the first problem. After that there are numerous arm difficulties that we've trained for, that Nancy has trained for very extensively. Failures within the arm or failures with the FGB that - I'll let her describe those to you. But, she's very well prepared to handle anything that might come up in that area. And I've already described the difficulty of joining the two pieces together once we've done that.

I wanted to ask you to talk about that in just a little bit more detail. Part of that question is why can't you see where these two pieces go together, and then what is the plan to be able to overcome that difficulty?

The reason you can't tell is because there's not a camera. It would be really nice to have a camera inside the end of PMA-1, which is the Pressurized Mating Adapter, which points up at a docking target on Zarya in the docking system port where these two pieces are going to join. And that's how it's done on Mir rendezvous, it's how it'll be done when we install the Node onto the docking system. She'll have a very nice target, which allows you to not only to align things, but also properly have it clocked and fly-out all the angles in a very precise fashion. That would be the ideal way to do this, but for technical reasons, it was decided not to install a camera in the end of the PMA-1. So it'll be a series using, like I said, cameras in the space shuttle payload bay that'll be used to aim up at the union of these two pieces and determine the alignment.

Once Zarya and Unity have been successfully mated together, Jerry Ross and Jim Newman are going to conduct three spacewalks to complete the connections between the two pieces. Describe your responsibilities inside the shuttle as the intravehicular crewmember, during these three spacewalks; what will you be doing inside to help them do their jobs outside?

As the IV crewmember my responsibilities are to make sure they've got everything prepared properly to go out the door and do their spacewalks. So on each of the preceding days we'll have some portion of preparing their spacesuits, pre-flighting some of the tools and hardware they'll be installing. We've got a very busy timeline because there's a lot of hardware that we're carrying up in huge bags on our middeck that has to be ordered properly and placed in the tunnel adapter and tunnel extension and in the airlock itself, before they go out the door. So I'll be helping them get all that ready and it's a very compressed timeline. I'll actually be suiting them up and then, after I've suited them up, during their pre-breathe, I will be placing the last pieces of hardware in the tunnel on my way out. I'll close the hatch and then I'll go up to the middeck and I'm the one that runs the EVA checklist. So as they're going through the spacewalks, I'll be the one that calls out each step and then verifies that they've done everything according to the procedure. These spacewalks have a lot of detail, there's a lot of different numbered connectors and fasteners and launch restraints and other things that have to be taken care of and it's critical that we do everything properly and not miss anything, and that'll be my responsibility. In addition to that, I've trained to be the backup EVA, in case one of the two primary EVAs, Ross or Newman, was feeling sick for some reason, I've trained to go out there and be their backup. And I think that it's very unlikely that they'll be sick on the day they're supposed to do a spacewalk, but that training's been very valuable for me. I've learned what it is they're doing. I've been in their shoes. The training in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab is very demanding in those spacesuits and it's very difficult. To the layman, when I was lookin at them, it just looks like some guys floating around in the pool; and it's hard work. I know- I've felt their pain.

After the second of the spacewalks, there's a day's worth of activity inside Unity and Zarya. You're going to be in the first group of people ever to go on board the International Space Station; what're your feelings about that spot in history?

Well that'll be a very exciting day for us. It'll also be a very busy day as we go in there; we've got a lot of responsibilities. Colonel Cabana and Jerry Ross will be installing the Early Comm system. It'll be a very detailed procedure. Nancy Currie and I will be removing hundreds of launch restraint bolts and removing some shear panels in there. So we'll also be very busy, and getting things set up for the first inhabitants that will follow, so we wanna do a good job on that.

Have you all determined which of you will be the first to go on board?

Yes, the first will be Colonel Cabana, of course, as the Commander and Jerry Ross are responsible for the ingress of the Node, or Unity.

In terms of the sequence that's been laid out to build the International Space Station your mission is the first step. But just how critical is any one step-I mean, would the whole assembly sequence crumble into dust if you don't do everything that has to be done on all three spacewalks?

No, that wouldn't happen. Of course, NASA always is big on backup planning and a lot of that has been done already. I will say that the first day's activities, the first EVA, we have to get at least one path. There's a primary and redundant path for all the electrical connections and we need to get at least one of those completed so that we can activate the Node. There are some critical, time-critical things that need to happen. So that will be a big relief when that's all accomplished and we can press on with getting all the other items taken care of. Some of the other deals relate to thermal reasons, and so those can control for a couple days by changing the attitude of the orbiter, of the docked stack, the mated stack, they will change the attitude if necessary. But, those connectors are critical that we get those done on the first couple days there, on the first EVA.

Once Endeavour undocks from the International Space Station and begins to head home you folks have plans to deploy two more satellites on your way home and your crewmates have all said, "That's Sturckow's job." Describe what these two payloads are, briefly, and what procedures you have to go through to deploy these satellites.

OK. These are both small satellites. The first is MightySat; it's a U.S. Air Force satellite, built at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. The second is SAC-A, which is an Argentina satellite, built in Argentina. They both demonstrate a number of emerging technologies for small satellites. As far as deploying them, they basically involve maneuvering the orbiter to an attitude and then Jerry Ross and I will be throwing some switches inside to deploy them. And there are some requirements to photograph them as they leave Endeavour.

As we wrap up, I want you to think on a more philosophical or a larger scale than the details of what you folks are going to do during your days on orbit. In your mind, what's the meaning of the International Space Station for the future of space exploration? Whether it's do we have to have it to go beyond Earth orbit or go to Mars or elsewhere?

I think we do have to have it. Those are going to be long trips, extended duration flights. We've learned a lot from our experiences with Mir, but there's a lot more to be learned out there. So I think it's essential that we have this International Space Station for future exploration.

Well, if that's the case then, STS-88 is the space shuttle flight that will begin to build it. That will be the first step in this new era of space exploration. How would you like history to remember the role that you and your crewmates play?

I'd like history to remember this crew, that we went up there and we did our job and that we had a successful mission. And that'll be enough.

Image: Frederick Sturckow
Click on the image to hear STS-88 Pilot Sturckow's greeting.
Crew Interviews


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