Interview: Donald Pettit
International Space Station Expedition Six Crew Interviews with
Flight Engineer Donald Pettit.
Don, you're set to begin about a nearly four-month-long mission
in space. Tell me, what is the goal of this expedition to the International
A: The goal
of any mission to space station has several facets to it. Certainly,
one goal on this mission is to continue the construction of space
station, because it's still an entity that's very much under construction,
we're in the process of building it. So, we want to continue the
construction. We need to maintain the outpost and the human presence
there. We need to keep the crew working on station, we need to keep
them happy, supply them with materials they need in order to stay
there. They need to do repair and maintenance and keep the space
station working properly. And then, there's also the scientific
payloads and other observations that can be made from an orbiting
platform that we will be doing.
for your crewmates, launching from the planet is nothing new, but
for you, this is your first trip to space. Tell me what your reaction
was when you got word that you had been named to the prime crew
for Expedition Six.
'cause I had been training for backup for over a year-and-a-half.
You realize that something like this can happen, and I was surprised
when it did happen. I'm ready to go. The training programs here
are good, so there's no surprises in terms of the skills needed
and the tasks that are going to be asked of me to do.
has it been like for you to step in with Ken and Nikolai, and move
along with the training?
it's been smooth. I see Ken and Nikolai a lot in the course of our
training anyway. And, we're all professionals about this. And if
something comes out so a new face shows up, you just keep on working.
mentioned you've been involved with this mission for more than a
year, you've been training as a backup since early 2001. From your
point of view, is this a pretty good example of why it's a good
idea to train backup crews?
I think it
is an example of why you have backup crews. Any time you have a
mission where there's a long period of training and a lot invested
in the crew classically you have backups: We did this for Apollo,
the Russians have done this for their long-duration space missions.
It's a smart thing to do 'cause things can operate outside of your
control, and you may need to have a backup crew come in, and here
the circumstances, is it the fulfillment of a lifetime dream to
finally be, have those words told to you, you're going to fly?
myself an explorer. And you can explore in many different ways,
whether it's under the stage of a microscope or running off in a
laboratory and making other measurements. I've been an explorer
for as long as I can remember…exploring space is just one aspect
of that, it's something that I've been interested in since I was
a little kid, and now I'm doing it, or going to do it.
you remember why it is, in your own life, that maybe even as you
were a kid that you wanted to be an astronaut in the first place,
or, as you say, to be an explorer?
I think it
just comes from the fabric of who you are, the curiosity you have.
I've just always wanted to explore, whether it's looking at oil
drops on a mud puddle or, [an] anthill that you happen to be walking
by. All of this is exploration, and exploring space is just a part
of one of the many topics that you could work on as an explorer.
you, tell me about the path that you took to become an astronaut.
In terms of your education and your career, what did you do that
led you to become a person who was astronaut material?
I went to
undergraduate school at Oregon State University in chemical engineering,
and from there I went to University of Arizona to do my graduate
work … not with becoming an astronaut in mind, but because these
were fields that I wanted to study. And then it wasn't until I was
graduating from graduate school that I thought of putting an application
in to the program and applying to be an astronaut. And from graduate
school at University of Arizona I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory,
where I functioned as a staff scientist there. And eventually, I
got an invitation to come in for an interview for astronaut.
that a nerve-wracking experience? Or is it just so thrilling, that
you seem to be moving ahead in that pursuit?
and thrilling. It's more thrilling to be able to come in and do
an interview for astronaut; it can be nerve-wracking if interviews
and things like that tend to make you a little bit on the nervous
you look back over all of those things, can you point it to the
people who either were or maybe still are the most significant influences
in your life?
my parents were huge influences, and my brothers, and then college
professors, particularly some at Oregon State University and then
at University of Arizona, had a huge warping of who I am today.
Yeah … trying
to change you into somebody that can get to the crux of a complex
technical problem and come up with a solution.
been since 1996 since you've been an astronaut and been around the
Johnson Space Center, from a time when the Shuttle-Mir Program was already under way and, as we'd mentioned, you've been training for
this mission for more than a year now. From your point of view and
seeing what you've seen during that time, do you see that the nations
that are partners in the International Space Station program seem
to be succeeding in the goal of learning how to work with one another?
work with one another, particularly in an international program,
is sort of like an onion in that you have all these layers, and
you peel another layer off and you think you're making good progress
and then you realize there's another layer yet for you to peel off.
And as I'm getting older, I'm finding a lot of things in life are
like an onion.
there are a lot of layers, then, in the relationships among the
lot of layers in terms of learning how to work with each other.
And it can always get, there's always ways that you can improve
how you are working, and you can look back, though, and see that
you've made a lot of progress because you've dug through a lot of
order to complete this mission, the members of the flight crew have
to possess a range of talents in order to do all the jobs. So, tell
me what are some of your main responsibilities as a member of Expedition
to be doing a lot of the maintenance and repair on station during
this increment. I'm going to be the science officer, so I'm going
to be in charge of making sure all the scientific payloads get done.
And then, I'll be the main robotic arm operator.
robotics are going to play a big part in the first act of your mission,
if you will, when you and your crewmates are delivered to the station
by Jim Wetherbee and his crew. The first day of docked operations
of that shuttle mission includes the installation of the P1 truss
segment, which requires the use of robot arms. Tell me about what
happens that day, and point out, if you will, what your responsibilities
as part of that team are going to be.
OK. The P1
Truss robotic arms operation is going to be done by the current
crew that's up there, so I won't be partaking in that. I'll be doing
the robotic arms operations involving the EVAs after the truss has
far as the P1 installation, though, can you describe for us what
is going to occur in order to complete that job?
You need to
latch onto the arm, latch onto the P1 Truss with the arm, and pull
it out of the payload bay and move it into position and latch it
onto the end of the S0 Truss. And basically, that's it in a nutshell.
this is an undertaking, if you will, that's going to involve that
unusual aspect of having two robot arms working at the same time.
there's a handoff. You pull it out with the shuttle robotics arm
and you hand off to the station robotics arm, and then you put it
in place with that.
you're not scheduled to be doing either of those tasks, I'm sure
you've been around while they've practiced it. Is that as difficult
as it looks to those of us on the ground?
have to concentrate on what you're doing. It's a pretty well-scripted
and pretty well-practiced operation.
day after the P1 installation is the day that you and Ken and Nikolai
are scheduled to officially move onto the station. What has to happen
in order for that exchange to be finalized?
You need to
transfer the lozhiment, the Soyuz couches, and you need to make
sure that your Sokol suit, the launch/entry suit you wear in the
Soyuz capsule, those two items have to be transferred. That's the
main criteria for crew handover. And this allows you to use the
Soyuz spacecraft as the emergency escape vehicle and come back down
special about the equipment that you're bringing that makes that
Sokol suit is custom-fit to you, and chances are no one else is
going to be able to fit into it. And, same thing with the couch
-- the Soyuz spacecraft has a rather hard landing, and you have
a formfit couch that's fit to your back to keep you from getting
injured during that landing. And it would be ill advised to land
in a Soyuz capsule with someone else's couch.
the many days of docked operations on this shuttle mission, there's
time set out for an activity that's called handover, involving you
and your crewmates and the Expedition Five crewmates. What is it
that you folks do and talk about during this period, and how is
it going to help you guys get off to a running start, if you will?
Well, in crew
handover, they talk a lot about stowage, in terms of where things
are. And you can imagine going into somebody's garage, it's jam-packed
full of stuff, and saying, here you go, and then giving you a task
list where you have to find a hundred and fifty items and put 'em
together for an experiment; it's going to take you a while. And
so, much of the handover involves with going over where things are
stowed and how to find things. Another aspect of handover is learning
the little nuances of operating the equipment, which you don't learn
when you're on the ground. And sometimes you read about the design
of equipment, and they say the green light comes on before the red
light, but then the way it really operates the green light doesn't
come on at all, and only the red light comes on. And you don't know
these kinds of things until you get into orbit, and that's part
of what the handover is about.
shuttle crew, who is going to head home with your predecessors and
leave you three to settle in and get comfortable with your routine
on orbit, assuming there's such a thing as "routine" life
240 miles above the planet? Can you describe what, if there is one,
is a "normal" day in space?
Well, I can
answer this question better after I come back. In terms of how we
simulate routine days on orbit, I basically start off in the morning
with a cup of coffee and you look at the timeline that was uplinked
that tells you what you're going to be doing that day, and then
you have a short powwow with the ground to go over any questions
that you might have, and then you just roll up your sleeves and
start doing all the things they want you to do, which will be a
mix of maintenance items, maybe replacing filters or checking fluid
levels in tanks or something like that or setting up and doing payload
experiments, or getting things pre-positioned for the next day's
you work five days a week? Seven days a week?
I think you
work however many days a week you need to work. And, if you get
a day off then you relish that. But the folks on orbit, I think,
you're pretty much working all the time.
are a variety of categories of science to be done during your time
in space. One of them is called Human Life Sciences research. What
is the value of examining how people live as they do in low Earth
OK. When you
do research associated with exploration, you're in a unique environment
and you learn new things about people and new things about nature.
And these in themselves enrich the knowledge for everybody that
doesn't go on the exploration trip. One example I like about human
physiology in exploration is transoceanic exploration in the 14th
and 15th century and the role of diet and vitamin deficiencies.
And, it was this kind of exploration that helped open the can of
worms leading to things like vitamin C and its role in scurvy, and
this information was pried, so to speak, from the souls of the early
explorers. And once you learn this information, then it helps and
benefits everybody back on the continent that didn't get a chance
to go on these trips. And I see this as the goal of the life science
research on space station.
trying to find out how people live in that environment?
several facets. One, you need to find out changes in the body and
the physiology of the body in reduced gravity so that you can enable
future exploration missions of long duration, perhaps going to Mars
and elsewhere, so that's one facet. Another facet is learning nuances
about how your systems in your body work, and knowing that may help
improve the lives of people that are still on the planet.
me about a couple of the Human Life Sciences experiments that you'll
be working with during your mission.
of them is kidney stone formation. It's fairly well known that you
decalcify your bones, your bones lose calcium, and this comes out
in your urine, and you have a greater propensity of making kidney
stones. And so one of the life sciences experiments involves collecting
a number of urine samples over the whole course of the mission and
looking at the calcium and trying to link that with diet.
one, are there other human life sciences experiments that, -
lots of experiments in which we can be guinea pigs for, and I say
that in a positive sense 'cause perhaps one of the better data sets
that will come from space station is 10 or 15 years of the life
science data collected on human beings. We're doing muscle biopsy
experiments, where they go in and maybe not take a pound of flesh
but they take some flesh and they look at your cross section of
slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers. And then they see what
the effect of living for long periods of time in a reduced-gravity
environment does on, for that.
another category of experiments for your mission that's called microgravity
science. Now, while I think everything that you do is microgravity
science, since that's where you are, what's the distinction about
this subset of investigations?
science experiments are generally physical science experiments:
crystal growth, combustion, things like that. And, they are utilizing
an environment where there are small sedimentation forces, no buoyancy
forces or reduced buoyancy forces, things that will allow you to
do containerless processing, where you can have something floating
around without touching the walls of a container, or a high vacuum,
high pumping rate environment like an experiment done outside of
the pressurized modules on an exposure platform.
sort of things in general is it that we're trying to learn here
that could be of value to us on Earth?
observations in science are key around the balance of forces, measuring
one force in the absence of another. And many of the phenomenon
that we see on Earth are governed by the balance of these forces.
So if you remove, say, gravitational force, now all of a sudden
you can see surface tension force. And so, experiments done on space
station are designed around the reduction in the gravitational force
so that you can see other forces manifest themselves and you can
make new observations that are very difficult, if not impossible,
to make any other way.
just the point exactly: that you have to do these in that environment,
you can't do them here, can't do them on the ground.
experiments you can come, you can, you could start some experiments
on the ground-for example, plant growth experiments where you hold
the plant horizontal to gravity and just rotate the base of the
pot; that, the first order can kind of null out the effects of gravity,
but, it's a different regime when you try to grow plants in long-duration
talked about a couple of these general areas of science research
that are to be done, and, these things have been under way since
the first of the Expedition crews arrived. In fact, you're going
to get to the station roughly two years after the arrival of the
Expedition One crew. Two years' worth of human habitation, continuous
human habitation, in this environment. In your opinion, Don, what
is it that you think is the best thing that's come out of this two
years of work on board ISS?
of the two years has been devoted to building the space station
and learning how to run it, and I think everybody associated with
space station is a whole lot smarter now than they were two years
ago on, just, how do you get the crews up there, how do you keep
'em supplied with goods and materials, how you conduct experiments
between folks on orbit and folks on the ground, how you deal with
the international aspect of it where you have people scattered out
on the ground through nine time zones. Just learning how to live
and work together, both in orbit and on the ground, I think, is
one of the biggest lessons we've learned so far.