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Preflight Interview: Michael Lopez-Alegria

The STS-92 Crew Interviews with Michael Lopez-Alegria, Mission Specialist.

Q: We are talking with Michael Lopez-Alegria, Mission Specialist on STS-92. And first off, why did you want to be an astronaut? Was there any particular event or person who inspired you?

A. I think, well, when I was a kid-I mean, a young kid-I wanted to be an astronaut probably like a lot of young kids. But I changed my mind many times. You know, that was about when I was 5. And, I thought about it again when I was 25. I was reading an article in a magazine about Naval Test Pilot School, which is something I had just become interested in. And there was a sidebar that talked about graduates from that school who had gone on to become astronauts. And I think that's kind of what gave me the idea that, "Hey, maybe I could do this" again.

Great. Now, give me an overview of your education and career. What got you to this point?

Pretty standard for, you know, a Naval astronaut. I went to the Naval Academy, engineering degree. Pilot training. Test Pilot School after getting a graduate degree. And a couple of years as a test pilot, and then I got picked up to come here. A little bit unusual in that, within that sort of typical Navy mold, I was not in a tactical jet squadron. I was in a heavy propeller reconnaissance squadron. So, there aren't very many people, in fact, there are no people out of my particular aviation community that have either gone to Test Pilot School or come to NASA. So, that was kind of a change in focus, I guess, sort of halfway through my career.

All right. Now, let's start talking about this flight, this mission here. You're beginning a series of missions that involve some of the largest and most critical hardware for the International Space Station. If you would, discuss this flight's pivotal role in the assembly sequence and talk to me a little bit about what's going on after you guys go up there.

Well, this flight is really no different from almost all of the assembly flights in that every one is critical. It's like making a first down in football. If you don't make a first down, you give up the football and that series is over. The difference is, we don't get four downs. We only have one down to do it in. But, every flight has to be a success, or every flight afterward cannot even be launched. So, we are, as you know, bringing up two major elements: the Z1 Truss and the PMA-3. The PMA-3 will be used as a future docking port for flights downstream including the one right after ours and the next two, as a matter of fact. The Z1 Truss is a large framework that, in addition to being a structural piece upon which the next major element-which is P6, a solar array holding element-will be placed, also has some communications antennas and Control Moment Gyros which provide some attitude maneuvering capability for the station and some ammonia sort of reservoirs to provide cooling to the Lab module. So, it's kind of a, I guess, I would consider it like when you go to a new construction site, they build a small building which is where they start running all the operations out of. And they put in telephone lines and air conditioning. And then, once the building is done, the construction site is done, that building is not really that important anymore. But you can't really go anywhere without it in the beginning.

What have been some of the biggest challenges for you and your crewmates as you train for this flight?

Actually, it's been pretty easy. We've had the benefit, if you will, of having had a lot of delays due to lots of, you know, complicated problems in flights before us. As a result, our training flow has been extended over a much longer period than is typical. And we've also had the advantage that the tasks on our flight have not really changed that much. So, we've had a combination of a fairly stable agenda with a lot of time to prepare for it. So, in that regard, it's been pretty nice.

Now, what's the process of installing Z1 Truss? How does that happen?

Our arm operator, Koichi Wakata, will be in the aft flight deck sort of looking out the aft windows towards the payload bay. Unfortunately, he won't be able to see very much of anything because the part of the station that we dock to will be really occupying almost his whole view. So, through the aid of cameras, he will grab hold of the Z1 with the arm. I'll actually unlock the four locks on the payload bay seal, as well as the one on the keel; and once that's released, he will lift it, you know, very gingerly out of the payload bay. We will get a chance to look at the seal, that will be eventually attached to the ISS through one of the cameras on the aft bulkhead of the payload bay. Then he'll lift it up higher. It does basically a 180-degree spin or a yaw, and he'll swing it into place. Now some of the difficulties are, as I mentioned, he'll have no direct view; and not only that, but he won't have any views using direct view cameras. In other words, a camera that would actually be looking at some kind of a target, either on the Z1 or the place it's going to dock to. So, everything we do is going to be sort of as a secondary cue from other cameras. So, to overcome that, we have a system called Space Vision System, which uses a pretty complicated technique of photogrammetry. You'll see a bunch of different little black-on-white dots or white-on-black dots that are used to basically, in 3-dimensional space, locate the payload, locate the place it's going to go, and give you a solution to get there. And that's what he will use as his primary cue to actually bring in the last couple of feet of travel of the Z1 into the mating position.

Now, give me an overview of exactly what the Z1 is for. What's its purpose up there?

The Z1 has two different communications antennas, neither of which will be active on our flight. They'll be activated a few flights later. It has Control Moment Gyros, which are basically great, big flywheels that, due to their angular momentum, will be able to…you know, using a gyroscopic effect. So, you take a bicycle tire. You hold on to it. You spin it real fast, and you notice that it doesn't want to move. Well, using that same principle, we can actually move the station around those gyros almost. That's kind of how we use them. So, for small attitude changes, that's what we'll use. Now eventually, when you get to a certain degree, you can't rely on them anymore and we'll have to use actual small rocket engines, which are on other parts. But, for the small attitude maintenance that's what'll be used eventually for the station. It also has a lot of electrical conditioning boxes because the module that goes on top, the P6, will be bringing electrical power which is just converted from solar power. And all that stuff needs to be converted and conditioned. And there are some ORUs, we call them - Orbital Replaceable Units - which are basically black boxes that do that kind of thing. It has some accumulators for ammonia, which provide cooling to other modules, particularly the Lab module once it gets up there on flight 5A, two flights later. And lastly, it has Plasma Contactor Units which are used to dissipate static electricity. Again, none of that stuff is going to be active on our mission. But, we work around it so we know that they're there.

You mentioned earlier the Pressurized Mating Adapter that's going up during the second EVA. A little bit of work's going on there. What is Pressurized Mating Adapter-3, and where is it located?

Well, PMA-3 is sort of crudely described as a conical mating adapter with a hole that's about, I don't know, 3 or 4 feet on one end and 80 inches on the other end. And it's used to dock the shuttle. And it can be put on various ports on the station. We are going to bring it up in the payload bay and take it out, as you mentioned, on EVA 2, and install it on the nadir port. That is the sort of Earth-facing port, on the Node. And it will be used for future flights. Flight 4A and flight 5A will both dock to it instead of the one we're docking to, which is PMA-2.

Okay. Now, you and Jeff Wisoff will be performing the second and the fourth space walks of the flight and on your first trip outside, you'll be assisting with the PMA-3. Tell me exactly, what will you be doing? What's the course of what happens during that EVA?

Jeff and I will egress the airlock. We'll head back to the SPACEHAB pallet upon which there's a flight support equipment and the PMA-2 or -3 is actually bolted on to that thing. Kind of like a tire on your car. So, there are 16 bolts that attach PMA-3 to the structure. We will…first of all, Jeff will go up and cycle some latches that are actually are not holding it in place-the bolts are-but will be used later as we release it to sort of constrain its motion. We'll cycle that and make sure it works okay. And then each of us will start releasing the torque on these 16 bolts, kind of opposite each other, as we go, kind of like on a clock face. Once the torques have been released, we'll go back through and, using a Pistol Grip Tool-which is basically a very complicated, glorified, cordless screwdriver-we're going to continue to unbolt each of those bolts until the PMA is actually free. Of course, before any of that happens, Koichi will have grappled the arm to the PMA; and once it's been released all the way, we will open the latches again that Jeff had cycled previously. It'll back away. And, while it's being maneuvered into its installation position, we're going to go off and do some other tasks. I'm gong to be relocating two sets of Circuit Interrupt Devices, or CIDs, on to, out of the starboard tool stowage assembly in the shuttle payload bay on to the Z1 for use on future flights. And Jeff will be removing some launch restraint caps that are on a couple, on four different attach points that the P6 Truss will be set on top of the Z1 Truss. In the meantime, the Z, the PMA-3 will have been maneuvered into position. And then Jeff and I are actually going to position ourselves close to the interface and give Koichi any cues that we think he needs as to how it's lined up. So, we're going to use sort of man-in-the-loop visual feedback, you know, like the guy in the garage that tells you to bring your car back. Kind of a guidance. Once that's done and we have four latches indicating ready to latch and once they're latched, Jeff and I will again go off and do some other tasks. He will continue releasing the other two of those launch restraints. And I will go and relocate some APFRs, which are, APFR stands for Articulating Portable Foot Restraint, which are things that we use to stand in to give us some stability when we're trying to do a certain task. In this case, they will be positioned on the Z1 under the future location of some toolboxes, which we'll be bringing up on a later EVA. Once the PMA-3 has been bolted on to the Node, then we will start, Jeff will start setting up the arm can ungrapple the PMA. It'll be maneuvered over onto another location where Jeff will start installing the equipment necessary for him to ride the arm on top of one, or in one of those APFRs. In the meantime, I'll be releasing some, two sets of cables that are attached to PMA-3, which will end up being eventually plugged into the Node. And those are for power and data. And, Jeff will actually at that point have gotten on the arm, ridden over there, and the two of us together, I'll basically be his helper. I'll look at the cables, make sure the pins are okay, hand him the connector, and he'll actually make the connections. At that point, we'll, I'll try to do some tidying up, making sure the cables are lying, you know, nicely against the structure while Jeff tears down the arm. And then we'll both ingress the airlock, and that'll be EVA 2.

Very good. Now, EVA 4. You'll be working with the Z1 Truss. What will you and Jeff be doing during that space walk?

EVA 4 will start out…this time it'll be my turn on the arm. So, I'll actually ride the arm up to a location where I'll do the same buildup process that, you know, has been done on every flight, on every EVA, I should say, during the flight. And my first task will be to move a grapple fixture, which is sort of a large plate with a big pin sticking out which is used to actually handle the Z1 by use of the arm. So, the arm comes down on this thing, closes in on it. Its location is great for moving it around, but then it ends up being in the way. So, we have to unbolt it and stick it in a different spot. The next task will be to deploy the utility tray, which is on the…on one of the faces of the Z1. It's a large, I would say probably 4-foot square metal tray that has cables and also fluid lines connected to it. And it basically is hinged on one side. And it will open through about, I don't know, 120 degrees or so-kind of like a door, in a way- to allow those ammonia lines to be connected to a future…module which is not there yet. That will include me on one end, on the arm. Jeff free-floating on the other end will pull some pins. I'll basically…talk Koichi through the motion to get the door deployed, or the tray deployed to the other side. Jeff will put the pins in, and then I'll be…releasing 32 bolts that hold those 4 fluid cables or fluid lines in place. Now, this is all preparatory work for downstream flights. After that, we'll be relocating a PFR with a work stanchion, again just in preparation for the arrival of a future EVA crew. And then we're going to do something very interesting which is a SAFER DTO - Detailed Test Objective. And what that's going to involve is the first ever sort of point-to-point free flight. Jeff will be the first to try this. He'll be…first of all, we'll do some tether protocol so Jeff will always remain tethered. The SAFER guy will always remained tethered during the whole operation. But the eventual goal is, we're going to start him up on the stack, as we call it, so somewhere around the FGB-and he will aim toward the aft bulkhead one of the cameras. And, basically, I will be tending him on the arm. At one point, I'll be in the arm, basically, in a foot restraint, holding him. And I'll back away. I'll let go of him. And he will orient himself using the hand controller and then try to actually fly as if he were doing a self-rescue. Maybe I should give you a little background on SAFER. Its purpose is to, you know, in the old days if somebody were to break free of his tether, which we always have on the shuttle, if somebody were to break free from that tether, the shuttle would just go get him. But now we're docked to the station, we can't very well get the whole station over to go get him. So, we have to have some means of, you know, saving ourselves if that should happen. Keep in mind that the odds of that happening are very low. But, if it does, you'd like to be prepared. So, NASA developed a backpack sort of device called SAFER - Simplified Aid For EVA Rescue. It's a pretty simple system of cold gas, basically nitrogen, that fires out one of, or several of 24 jets which are facing in all directions to help you get where you want to be. So the scenario is: you come off of this, the shuttle with some kind of a rate-maybe a rotation rate as well as a translation weight rate-separating you. First thing you want to do is energize this thing. Turn it on. It will stop any rotations you have automatically. Your next task is to find the shuttle, because you may not be looking at it. So you have to do some maneuvers to point yourself at it. And then, finally, when you do, you want to give some translation pulses to get yourself going back in the right direction. Obviously, it's hard to train for that. We train for that in a virtual reality lab. And the thing that we noticed in that lab is that you may think you're looking at the shuttle and pointing in the right direction and pulsing to get to the right direction, but, in fact, you may not be. So, what we want to do is actually try this in space and see how well we can correlate where we think we're pointing to the direction that we're actually going. So, that's the whole purpose of this test.

This flight will be your first opportunity to do a space walk. What are your thoughts about your first EVA?

I'm ready. I'm excited. I mean, I think, certainly for a Mission Specialist, it's kind of the pinnacle. I think if you're a Pilot, the pinnacle is probably landing the orbiter. For a Mission Specialist, in my opinion anyway, doing a space walk's got to be the ultimate. And you know, being sort of your own little human satellite out there, I'm just excited about it. I think it's going to be great.

And you're also the first Hispanic person to do a space walk. What are your thoughts about that distinction?

Well, you know, I think that the fact that I'm Hispanic doesn't make me any more excited to do it. I mean, I think anybody would be thrilled to have the opportunity. I do think that for other people who are Hispanic, it may be a source of some motivation for them. I mean, it basically proves yet again that, you know, we can do…anything. And it's kind of an honor and a sense of accomplishment for me. But if somebody else can get some kind of a motivation out of it, then even better.

Great. What will you be doing during the other folks' EVAs? Do you have any sort of special task during the time?

I'll be sharing the arm-driving task with Koichi. So, he's the number 1 arm operator and I'm the number 2 arm operator. So, on certain tasks, we have, you know, split up who's going to do what. So, I'll be flying the arm or I'll be helping him fly the arm. Probably exclusively.

Okay. Very good. Now, you also recently served as NASA Director of Operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia. And now here you are, helping to build the International Space Station. What are your thoughts about the role of international collaboration in the exploration of space?

Well, I think it's here to stay. I mean, I think the fact is that space flight is extremely expensive. And it's so expensive that there is no commercial entity that can afford to do it. So, it falls to governments. And not only is it expensive for governments, but we're getting to the point now where no one country can sort of foot the bill by themselves. So, if we can share our resources, which I think is sort of the obvious solution, then that's kind of where we're headed because…it's difficult to make the cost come down to the point where anybody could do it on their own.

Tell us a little bit about life in Russia and talk about the Russians' dedication to human space flight from Gagarin to right now.

Well, life in Russia is obviously a lot different. In our little enclave of Americanism there in Russia, in Star City, on a Russian military base, it's probably the ultimate irony. But, we live there fairly well. We sort of had all the, or most of the conveniences of home. However, it was very easy to see that, you know, by and large, the Russian population does not live in what we would call the same level of comfort. Now I think, obviously for them…that's their way of life and you don't hear them complaining about it or wishing that they had some other situation necessarily. But, the people are very warm once you get sort of beyond a certain necessary level of knowing each other. I think their friendships are probably, they probably have fewer friends but they're deeper friendships, you know. It's just a completely different culture. The winters are cold. The summers are nice. It was a very rewarding experience for me-both personally and professionally. I think I learned a lot about their attitude toward flying in space. They do different things a lot differently in some regards and identically in other regards. But I also learned a lot about, you know, the differences in our culture. I got to learn to speak another language. I mean, it was a rewarding…experience in every regard.

Now, the Russian partners. They've shown a lot of perseverance in getting us to this point in the assembly. Now, what do you think of the contribution so far and what does our partnership entail from this point on?

Well, you know, when we had Space Station Freedom on the books, it was, we were having difficulty getting different contractors to agree because they all had, as you know, at some point their pieces had to come together and they have, certainly, documents like interface control documents that say, "Okay, it's got to line up just like this. And you have to use this size bolt with this many threads per inch," et cetera, et cetera. Well, imagine doing that with some, with another contractor that not only isn't next door or, you know, a bus ride or even a short plane ride away but across the ocean. And, oh by the way, of a different alphabet. I mean, I can't begin to convey to you the technical complexity that has to go on in some of these technical interchanges. And that's not the half of it! I mean, the international cooperation is always difficult. I think, as I said before, it's the only game in town. We need to learn how to deal with it. But it will never be easy. It just makes the result that much more rewarding.

If you would give me an overview of the role of this flight in preparing the ISS for the arrival of the Expedition-1 crew. This thing's going to be manned eventually, and what's your role in getting it ready for that?

Our flight is dedicated almost exclusively to building the space station without regard to whether it's going to be inhabited or not. So, we're not bringing up clothes or food; we are bringing up a couple of computers for the crew. But by and large, they could come up before us or after us. It…really wouldn't make too much difference. The thing of note is, though, that they are going to launch right after us. So, on our second ingress, which is on Flight Day 9, when we leave the station, it will be the last time anybody closes the hatch on an uninhabited station. So, that's sort of a neat thing to think about. But as far as what we do to prepare the station for their eventual arrival, they could actually launch before us or they could launch two flights after us. It really wouldn't matter. We're really going down a path of building the thing and not sort of furnishing it, if you know what I mean.

What are you going to be doing inside the International Space Station?

We have two ingresses. We're transferring a pretty modest amount of equipment really. One of our main tasks is to-after we attach the Z1 to the zenith port of the Node-we will actually open the hatch into it. It has a, it's basically an unpressurized module. But it has a very small sort of pressure dome underneath it. So, we'll equalize the pressure between us and the dome, open the hatch, and then Jeff Wisoff and Pam Melroy will do some outfitting of things inside that dome. Basically, connecting ground straps, that kind of thing. And, we'll also be doing a couple of other minor cable reconfigurations inside the Node. And we'll be ingressing the FGB, mostly to stow a few items. We will have some 3-dimensional IMAX photography in the payload bay as well as in cabin. And all that, all the camera and equipment are currently stowed inside the ISS. So, on the first ingress, we'll go in and get it out, bring it over to the shuttle side. And our second ingress, obviously, we'll replace it.

What is the importance of establishing the space station? What do you believe it will lead to in the years to come?

Well, I think, you know, basically it's going to be a lot like a big shuttle that can stay up there for a long time. I mean, for years our…the whole focus of the space shuttle has been science. This just performs; it is a better platform to conduct that science because you can leave experiments not up there for 2 weeks but for 2 months or even 2 years. And that distinction alone, I think, everybody is hoping and expecting that we'll get some better-quality science out of it. I think sooner or later we have to turn our sights back to the Moon and on to Mars. And I think the hope is that we're going to use the station to learn things that'll help us prepare for those journeys.

Great. Now yours is also the 100th shuttle flight. If you would, discuss the significance of the space shuttle in human space flight history. Just tell me about its accomplishments and its role in the future.

Well, shuttle's been a workhorse, as you know. I mean, 100 flights over, you know, not quite 20 years is clearly the most that any space vehicle has flown. So, I mean, it's place in history, I think needs no elaboration. The fact that we're the 100th flight. You know, we were supposed to be the 92nd flight. So, it's just…it's just a next in a series, and I don't think it's just like a birthday. You know, what's the significance of your 40th birthday? Well, it's the one after your 39th and the one before your 41st! It's kind of a nice memento, probably, in the future to say, "Yeah, I flew in the 100th shuttle mission." But, I think the fact that we've gotten to 100 is what's significant.

What do you see the shuttle doing in the years to come? What's going to be its role?

Well, for the foreseeable future, it's going to be very busy building the International Space Station. I think that's kind of what it was designed for to begin with. The name "shuttle" implies that you're going back and forth somewhere with some frequency. And, I think that's what you can expect it to do. I know that we're undertaking some pretty, aggressive upgrades to keep it around for a while. So, I think it's going to be around for quite some time.

Image: Michael Lopez-Alegria
Click on the image to hear Mission Specialist Michael Lopez-Alegria's greeting. Spanish Greeting
Crew Interviews

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