Interview: Ellen Ochoa
STS-96 Crew Interviews with Ellen Ochoa, mission specialist.
Ellen, you've got a
job that an awful lot of people around the world could only dream
about having. What was it that drove you to want to become an astronaut?
Is that something that goes back to when you were a little girl,
or something that came later in your life?
I was definitely interested
in space exploration when I was little, and the Apollo program was
going on when I was in elementary and junior high. But at that time
women were excluded from becoming astronauts, so I never thought
it was a career I could grow up and pursue. But that changed when
I was in college, and in the meantime I was getting a degree in
physics, had decided to go on to graduate school and look at becoming
a research engineer. And when I was in graduate school, some friends
of mine were applying to the astronaut program, so that's when I
decided to find out more about the program, and I became real excited
about doing it, once I realized I would be eligible to apply. And
it just seemed like such a great way to combine my interest in research
and engineering as well as space exploration.
Did those friends who
were interested in the astronaut program make it in, too?
No, they didn't make it
in, unfortunately, but hopefully I'm sharing a little bit of what
I've gotten to do with them.
You are now training
for the second of many Shuttle missions that will assemble the International
Space Station. Before we get into the details of your mission, tell
us about the Space Station overall. How can you describe the complexity
of the job of assembling this massive Space Station 200 miles straight
I think it really is a
complex job and there are a number of reasons for that. One of them,
you know from our point of view, of course, is that each flight
will involve space walks and moving the robotic arm around and often
with very little out-the-window view to be able to see what you're
doing. And so that makes it very challenging for the astronauts.
Secondly, there's no way to do end-to-end tests of the equipment
on the ground because you're launching it in stages. So everyone,
the astronauts onboard and the people on the ground, have to be
prepared for surprises along the way. And I think one of the other
complex aspects of this whole project is that all the hardware and
software is being developed at many different places around the
world. Just trying to do the integration of all that and the schedules
and making sure the right people are talking to each other is a
very challenging task.
The first Station assembly
mission brought up to orbit half of the Station that is there now.
Your mission is not bringing a huge piece of equipment. How do you
gauge the complexity of the STS-96 mission in the overall scheme
of assembling the Station?
I think that everybody
involved in operations understands that each one of these missions
is complex and critical to the Space Station overall. Any time you
do a rendezvous and a docking or a space walk, you have to be prepared
for all kinds of contingencies; I think that's where a lot of the
complexity comes in. Now in our mission, we're not going to be moving
around large modules or mating large modules like some of the other
missions are. But we are doing the first docking to the International
Space Station and we're doing it with the Station still in active
attitude control, so the timing constraints and the approach constraints
are very critical.
We'll get to the details
of the rendezvous in a moment. Well, let's get to the details of
the rendezvous right now. The Flight Day Three is, as you say, when
you are to conduct the first-ever docking with the International
Space Station. Describe the operation and what's involved, and tell
me what you'll be doing on the flight deck while Kent and Rick are
actually flying the Shuttle to this rendezvous.
My role during the rendezvous
is to operate a program on a laptop computer that plots our trajectory
using various different navigation sensors including the Shuttle's
rendezvous radar, a laser ranging device that we have in the payload
bay called TCS. And then there's also a hand-held laser that Tammy
will be operating from inside the cabin. And this program that plots
the trajectory is then used by our Commander, Kent, and the pilot
to have more situational awareness. And it also plots trajectory
predictions, which is helpful, too.
If you would, then,
talk us through the approach, say as, you know, in the last hour
or so as you close in on the Station and the kind of activity that'll
be going on on the flight deck.
There are four of us, primarily,
that are working together during this part of the rendezvous and
docking. And the Pilot and Commander, Kent and Rick, are doing all
the flying actions and particularly Kent is at the controls. Tammy
operates the hand-held laser and will also be operating the docking
mechanism. I'm at the laptop computer making sure that we have a
good view of our trajectory and that it's giving us good information
about where we're headed. And we're all basically talking to each
other and backing each other up on each action that we're performing
during that time; we're sort of approaching from below the Station.
But then we do a flyaround, so that we don't interfere with any
of the antennas on the Station, which need to be in contact with
the ground stations, so that during the final part of the approach
I will be coming in from above the Station. So basically the Station
is between the Earth and us. Should be some great views as we do
STS-96 is described
as a logistics and resupply, or supply, mission maybe since it's
the first time. Fill that in for us. After you have docked, what
is it that you and your crewmates will be doing during the several
days that Discovery is attached to the Station?
Once we're docked, our
primary goal is to transfer equipment and supplies, both internally
and externally, from the Shuttle to the Station. And these are supplies
that are needed by the first crews that will actually live at the
Station and operate the Station. So we'll be transferring things
like crew clothing, computers, cables, medical equipment, camera
equipment and important electronic spares, for example. And also
during the EVA, Tammy and Dan will be transferring two cranes, as
well as some other tools that will be used on future assembly flights.
Then let's take that
and put it in the context of the overall assembly and why that's
important. For instance, why is the work that is being planned and
that you've been trained for and are going to execute on your mission,
necessary to be done before the next missions can come or before
the first crews can come?
The equipment that we're
transferring will be needed by the first crew that operates on the
Station, so it has to be there ready for them to use by the time
that they get there. And we're still negotiating and working out
exactly when that first crew is going to arrive. There may not be
another opportunity on a shuttle, even if there are other shuttles
that go there, they are also full with equipment or tasks that needed
to be done prior to that first crew being there.
You made reference to
the fact that things are changing. Since you began training for
this mission, the mission has changed, some tasks have been put
off 'till later missions, and some things are still changing only
a couple of months before you're supposed to fly. How did changing
flight plans impact the training in your preparation — yours and
your crewmates? Preparation to fly this mission?
In a big-picture sense,
we're still training for all the same major tasks, rendezvous and
docking, doing a space walk, operating the robotic arm and, of course,
just the general operation of all the systems on the Shuttle, in
the SPACEHAB, and on the Station. What has changed is some of the
more specific tasks, and I think that will probably continue to
change even as we get closer to launch. And I think that is really
a reflection of operating, where we actually have a Station on orbit
all the time now and the situation onboard the Station can change;
that will always affect shuttles going up to dock with the Station.
One of the things that
your mission is the first, or will be the first to do, is fly with
the Integrated Cargo Carrier, which we hear is referred to as ICC.
Tell us about this apparatus. For what items is it being used to
bring to orbit?
The ICC allows us to attach
a number of pieces of hardware out in the payload bay that Tammy
and Dan will then take over and attach externally to the Station.
And primarily that includes two cranes, an American crane and a
Russian crane. Then there's also a big box on the ICC that has a
number of bags of tools inside it, and we'll be transferring those
tools during the space walk as well.
Is the advantage the
fact that they are outside and close, or the fact that there's no
room for them inside the Shuttle?
As long as we're going
to be transferring them through a space walk, it's handy to have
them outside; otherwise you'd just have to do that much more work
to take them outside with you and they're sort of all located in
one area. So it's an easy way to know exactly where all your transfer
equipment is as you proceed through the space walk.
Let's talk about that
space walk. As you've mentioned, Tammy Jernigan and Dan Barry will
be going outside to do the work on the exterior of the Space Station.
But you're going to be very heavily involved because you're operating
the mechanical arm that Tammy Jernigan will be riding. Describe
the tasks that are planned for the space walk. Take us up there
with you and walk us through; and tell us what's going to happen
and how you have to coordinate your activity inside with theirs
The equipment that we're
transferring during the space walk — most of it is pretty large.
And so there's really no way for the EVA crewmember to hold onto
the piece of equipment and also use their hands to translate along
the Station and take it where it needs to go. So that's where the
robotic arm comes into the picture. We can have the crewmember on
the end of the arm holding onto the equipment and then let the arm
do the work to get them to where they need to place it on Station.
So as we proceed through the space walk, what you'll see is the
arm going from the ICC, where Tammy and Dan will then unlatch the
equipment, and prepare it to be transferred. Then I'll move the
arm with Tammy and the equipment up to where we're going to place
it on the Station. Meanwhile, Dan will have translated himself up
to that point as well, and then both Tammy and Dan will be able
to tie it down or attach it to the Station. And so you'll basically
see the arm going back and forth from the ICC to the two different
points on the Station as we transfer different types of pieces of
Then, how about a rundown:
what are the different pieces and where do they go? What areas of
the Station are we going to get to see?
Just like everything else
on the mission, we're still working out the order of how we're going
to transfer these pieces of equipment, and there may be other tasks
that are added as well. But right now it looks like we'll be transferring
the American crane to a place that's basically up on the top of
the node where PMA1 is. We'll be transferring the Russian crane
to a place that's maybe about halfway up Zarya, so it's quite a
high position in terms of the robotic arm. We're basically at the
very edge of the reach limits of how high up the arm can go on the
Station stack. Then we'll also be transferring some bags of equipment,
of which some will go on the top of the node, again, near the node
PMA1 interface. But some of them are actually forward of basically
our position in the cabin, so the arm will be transferring forward
rather than aft.
You have experience
operating a robot arm in space — each time previously deploying
and retrieving satellites. That's not what you're doing this time,
but does the experience of having operated, or as they say, flown
that arm help you get ready to do the task you have to do this time
Oh, it's definitely a benefit
to have flown an arm before in space, and I feel very comfortable
at the controls. But there are some different aspects about the
task I'll be doing on this flight, as opposed to what I did earlier,
which was deploying and retrieving small free fliers. One of the
main differences is that we don't have a good out-the-window view
of the arm or the person on the end of the arm that we're moving
around. So we're relying quite a bit more on camera views as well
as callouts by the other EVA crewmember to make sure that we're
moving safely and efficiently. One of the other differences is,
because of where the Station stack is docked in the payload bay,
the arm is very often in awkward positions and near its reach limits.
So, in some cases, you'll have to move very slowly to make sure
the arm doesn't hit a reach limit and is unable to move one of its
joints in a particular direction.
Is it like an out-of-body
experience to be moving the arm around when you can't see it? You
can't see it yourself directly?
It does help to have more
computer tools to help visualize that, and that is another difference
about what I'll be doing on this flight: we have a couple of new
computer tools. One that allows us to view each of the joint angles
simultaneously and another one that sort of gives us a bird's-eye
view of the actual configuration that the arm is in. And I think
those will help a lot in providing situational awareness of where
the arm actually is.
I assume that you've
talked to your colleagues who have been to the International Space
Station, the crew of STS-88, gotten their firsthand experience of
what it's like, and Nancy Currie's experience of operating the arm
around the Station. How helpful is hearing from those folks in getting
you ready for your job?
It's really helpful to
talk to the STS-88 crewmembers. So many of the things that we're
doing are very similar to what they did. We've certainly talked
to them about the space walk. I've talked to Nancy about some of
the arm operations, rendezvous, ingress/egress into the Station.
Those are all tasks that we share a lot in common. And we've only
had a few months to train; we didn't have nearly the opportunity
to view the hardware on the ground before it was launched. Hearing
their suggestions about training is really helping us.
It's scheduled for the
day after the space walk, the day that you and your crewmates get
your opportunity to enter the International Space Station. Do you
have any sense yet of how you're going to feel when you first float
into this Station that you've been studying for so long?
I spent two years coordinating
all the Astronaut Office support of the International Space Station
prior to being assigned to this flight. So I see this flight as
a culmination of all that work that I did, and I think I'll feel
a very personal attachment to the Station. I expect I'll also be
thinking about the people I worked with, especially the engineers
who support the crew office and all the hard work they did to make
this a reality.
Discovery is scheduled
to spend several days docked to the International Space Station,
mostly transferring materials onto the Station. Give us a sense
of the plan for the supplies transfers: what you folks will be doing
and the kinds of materials that will be moved from Shuttle to Station.
During the days that we're
docked and transferring, I'm mainly going to be in the SPACEHAB
module, and my job is to basically coordinate all the transfers
of the equipment over to Station. So we'll have long checklists
of every single piece of equipment we need to transfer. I'll be
unbuckling them and getting them off the walls and out of the racks
where they're stowed in SPACEHAB. I'm staging them for taking them
over. Of course, the order that we do that in is pretty critical,
in terms of my having access to them and the SPACEHAB. But it's
also critical in terms of where we want to stow them on Station
to make sure that we maintain access to all the areas in Station
that we need to get to. So that's part of developing the whole plan.
And then we'll have other
people on the crew who are basically carrying the equipment from
SPACEHAB into the Station and then stowing them in Station. And
Julie, at the other end in Station, has the job of ensuring that
all the equipment gets stowed in the place that we had planned.
And, if for some reason that doesn't work out, then, of course,
we'll be working with the ground to determine a new spot and make
sure that gets recorded. Julie and I will tag up at the end of day,
make sure our lists match exactly and then we'll be checking with
the ground to let them know exactly what was transferred that day.
During the course of
those docked operations, you are scheduled a couple of times, I
believe, to spend some time with an experiment called the Volatile
Removal Assembly, VRA. That is something that's planned for the
future life of the Space Station, too. Can you tell us what it is
and then what you'll be doing with it during these docked operations?
Yes, VRA is part of a system
that will eventually be used on the International Space Station
to reclaim recycled water and make it useable for drinking water
again on Station. And so obviously part of that is removing contaminants
from the water, and VRA is specifically involved in removing certain
organic contaminants. And there are aspects of that operation that
need to be verified in zero G because there's no way to really verify
that they will operate on the ground. So we're taking it up on our
flight and it's going to go through its operations. We'll be taking
certain samples as it operates, and they'll be analyzing them later
on the ground to make sure that the removal occurred as they expected.
You made reference earlier
to the fact that things are changing and that's perhaps the way
that we'll have to operate in the future with the Space Station
flying all the time. With that in mind as you look at your mission,
can you set a bar for success? What things have to be done on your
mission for you to consider it a success?
I think we all are hoping
that we'll be able to transfer all the equipment that we've planned
to transfer, and for any repair maintenance tasks that we have on
Station, that we're able to complete those. Of course, that all
depends on doing a successful rendezvous and docking, so that's
kind of the first big milestone. And also doing a successful space
walk to transfer the external equipment as well.
So pretty much everything.
We always set the bar very
With your work done,
time will come for Discovery to release its hold on Unity and leave
the International Space Station. Describe what you'll be doing as
the Shuttle undocks, views the Station, and begins its trip home.
During the undock, I have
the same job as we do on the rendezvous and docking. First I'm working
with Tammy: she actually operates the docking mechanism, and I'm
monitoring a computer display to look at the telemetry to ensure
we get a successful undock. And then I'll be operating a program
on the laptop computer that plots our trajectory using the navigation
sensors and also gives some good predictor information. Rick will
be using that as he flies the separation and the flyaround, where
we do a photo survey of the Station as we leave.
Explain why it's important
to do a photo survey on this mission, inasmuch as the overall configuration
of the Station won't have changed substantially since STS-88 departed.
You said you're leaving some items on the outside, but it's essentially
the same, isn't it?
The items that we leave
outside, though, are important because they are going to be accessed
by future crews on assembly missions during their EVAs. And we've
been absolutely poring over the pictures that STS-88 took of the
outside after they left, because it affects what we do on our space
walk. So we are looking toward those future space walks and trying
to bring back pictures as detailed as we can, so they know exactly
how we left the configuration of the outside of the Station.
Is there going to be
any time to just look at the Station and take in the sight?
I hope so. We are busy
during the undock and flyaround because, again, anytime you're anywhere
near any other object in space you're always very careful to make
sure that everything's operating correctly and that you know exactly
what each of the navigation sensors is telling you. So we do have
tasks to do, but I know we'll all also be spending some time at
the window because it will be an incredible sight.
In your experience as
an astronaut, and you've referred to it, you've spent a number of
years working in one capacity or another in relationship to the
International Space Station. You know more about it and what it's
there for, why it's going to be there than most people do. So I
want to ask you finally to help the rest of us understand it. What
is the role that the International Space Station is going to play
in the future of spaceflight, the future of space exploration?
I see really three main
roles that the International Space Station plays in future exploration.
One of these is that much of the research is directed at Earth.
When we finally assemble the Station and we have all the laboratories
up and working, we'll be looking at medical advances, at new materials
research, at environmental sensing. So we're going to be learning
about a lot of new technologies in that sense and they should benefit
people here on Earth.
Secondly, we're using it
to test technologies that can be used when we advance human space
exploration, including possible trips to the moon or Mars.
And third, it's really
leading the way in terms of international cooperation where countries
are all working together focused on a common goal that benefits
people around the world. And I'm sure that will be a hallmark of
all future exploration activities as well.
See it's painless. No
astronauts have been injured during the interviews.