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Crew Interviews
IMAGE: Curt Brown
Commander Curt Brown

Preflight Interview: Curt Brown

The STS-95 Crew Interview with Curt Brown, commander

STS-95 shapes up to be one of the busiest flights in shuttle history, also one of the most historic for obvious reasons: your thoughts on the mission and its complexity?

Well, 95 is a very complex mission, we do have a lot of payload activities -- about 83 the last I counted. Some of those will be operated from the ground, some of them will be operated by the crew, but it is a very tightly-packed mission with an ambitious timeline. We want to go up and be able to accomplish as much as we can, without any really dead time; so we plan as much as we can get into the mission. I think you're going to see that's the way missions are going to be in the future with the shuttle program. We're doing deploy and retrieve operations, we're doing a lot of science, real hard-core science, in the payload bay in the SPACEHAB -- it's just a big team working together, and I think that's the way you're going to see it as the International Space Station progresses. It'll be a tremendous number of different operations happening all the time, and 95 is kind of an exposure to that multifaceted flight.

Speaking of the space station, between the science and the proximity to the start of station operations, do you see your flight as the real stepping-stone to that program?

Well, true, we are just before the first flight to start the assembly of the space station, but we also have a large comparison in the space station era even without looking at just the flight order. We have an international crew -- we'll have the first Spaniard to fly in space, Pedro Duque; we have Chiaki Mukai, her second flight, from Japan; so we have an international team. We have a lot of experiments ranging from protein crystal growth to life sciences to hard-core science. So we have basically everything that you'll see on the International Space Station, other than we won't be staying up there for four, or five, or six months; we'll be a nine-day mission. We'll be a little bit higher on 95, we're goin' up to 300 nautical miles above the Earth for some Hubble testing. So we definitely have a wide variety of activities, and like I said, we are going to see a lot of flights like this in the future when we start looking at space station.

This flight is very much underscored by the diversity of scientific experiments -- to get a little bit more in detail, discuss the multidisciplinary nature of this mission in terms of the types of science that you all will be covering.

Well, I'll try to give you just a kind of generic overview. We have some operational objectives -- the deploy and retrieval of the SPARTAN; also another little satellite we're deploying, which is basically an operational type. The SPARTAN will be conducting solar science, looking at solar winds while it's free-flying. We have a bridge structure called International Extreme Ultraviolet Hitchhiker, which is going to be looking out at deep space -- at different objects in the extreme ultraviolet range of the spectrum. In the SPACEHAB we have almost everything you could imagine -- plant biology, which Pedro will be operating. A furnace that will be looking at producing new metals, new alloys, and the way that works in microgravity. Trying to learn better how we can do that on the ground and take advantage of some of the properties that microgravity give us. Senator Glenn will be busy collecting a lot of life science data on the aging process through an experiment called Protein Turnover During Spaceflight. Looking at how your body actually handles protein buildup and breakdown differently while you're in space versus on the ground, and how that affects, or how that's related to, aging. We just have a tremendous operation, plus we're also testing some systems that we will be using on International Space Station. Some of our vision systems which are artificial -- a virtual reality way of working in space without being able to look out the window directly at what you're manipulating.

The primary objective of the mission obviously is the deployment and retrieval of the SPARTAN satellite. Discuss what your crew will be doing during the deployment and the initial separation from the satellite -- give us a walk-through as to how that's all going to work.

Well, the actual deployment operation will have a four-person team, and I will be watching the satellite out of the overhead windows as we actually deploy it and while waiting for it to maneuver. It'll do an initialization maneuver to let us know that it's alive. But getting the satellite to that position will be a team effort. Steve Robinson will be my prime arm operator, we call that R1, and Scott Parazynski will be the backup, R2. They will be working together taking the SPARTAN spacecraft from its cradle in the payload bay, moving it up, initializing the spacecraft, which is very important, and getting it ready to be released. Once they get in the correct attitude and everything's ready to go, then we'll release it and back away. Steve Lindsey, my pilot, will be sitting in the Commander's seat, and he will be taking care of the orbiter -- changing the autopilot, changing the way we maneuver, changing our attitude. Then once it's a free flyer, as we move away from it, people change jobs … then we turn into more of a data-gathering group. We will take photos, use a hand-held laser to shoot out the window at the SPARTAN to get range and range rate from the SPARTAN -- Scott Parazynski will be doing that along with Steve Robinson. And we'll be doing a few maneuvers after we release the spacecraft -- we'll be separating away from it, and then later on doing another little maneuver to gain the correct distance from it so the SPARTAN can open up its doors and start the science.

Your pilot, Steve Lindsey, was on board Columbia last November when things did not go right with the SPARTAN. What measures have been taken, both from a crew training and preparedness perspective and from the spacecraft itself, to ensure that the spacecraft will be activated properly?

Well, anytime we run into some anomalies, or problems, we obviously learn something. And that's one thing neat about the space program: we never quit learning -- and we did learn a lot from STS-87. We probably needed some different specification requirements for our end effector camera, so we have a new camera on the end of the arm which works in all light conditions. They had a little trouble on 87 with the camera blooming and not giving a good image back to the crew, so it made flying and manipulating the arm and the grapple a little bit tougher than normal. We've also looked at the SPARTAN software and re-engineered it a little bit … changed some things so the SPARTAN spacecraft itself will give us more feedback when it's ready to go. On STS-87 we sent a few commands to the SPARTAN and assumed they all got there -- which they did not. So now, after the SPARTAN receives a command, it's going to communicate that back to us. That's pretty much the major changes that we made; a little bit on the camera requirements, a little bit on the software, and obviously, as I said, we learned a lot from 87, so we've trained a little bit differently.

After two days of scientific operations for SPARTAN, it will be time to pick it up again and put it back down in the cargo bay for the trip back home. In terms of going back and getting it, how far will you be separated from SPARTAN? Walk us through the ultimate retrieval day.

We will maneuver out in front of SPARTAN about 40 to 60 miles or so, and that depends on a bunch of different things. But we'll be out in front of it a number of miles, so it can do its science. We don't want to contaminate any of its optics or get in the way, and the orbiter, if you get too close it can do that. So we'll be stationkeeping out in front to allow SPARTAN to gather the science that it's required to get, and then we'll start. We do a little burn to raise our orbit up a little bit so that we start moving back towards the spacecraft …At some point we'll actually fly over the top of SPARTAN and have SPARTAN between us and the Earth and we'll coast back to about eight, nine miles or so behind SPARTAN. At that point we'll do a little burn to basically stop our separation or our travel behind the aircraft, and then start a closure into the final rendezvous. We call that the TI burn or terminal initiate burn but that burn will start us heading into SPARTAN to do the final rendezvous. We'll do three or four or so midcourse little correction burns to make sure we're on a good trajectory; during that time we'll be picking up information about the spacecraft from our radar, its range and range rate, and any movement to make sure our navigation is good. As we move in closer we'll we'll basically be rendezvousing from underneath SPARTAN. In other words, we'll be between the SPARTAN spacecraft and Earth, we'll be coming up what we term the R-bar and moving up to the rendezvous position to grapple the SPARTAN. We are doing some VGS tasks, which is a a Video Guidance System that we'll be testing from about 600 feet on in to a couple hundred feet and then we'll back out; we'll be doing that if we have the propellant to allow us to do that to gain some test data on that system. And then finally we'll go on in to the grapple range and and again, Steve Robinson will use the robotic arm to grapple SPARTAN and put it back in the cargo bay.

Other attached tests will follow with SPARTAN I believe in the next day or so that follows its actual retrieval so SPARTAN serves a variety of purposes for you and your crewmates, doesn't it?

That's true. We we obviously deploy SPARTAN to get the critical solar science that it's designed for, but also we've attached numerous dots on the target; you'll see those as the spacecraft's out flying around. And we'll use those dots to to get information, actually the dots on the payload, we'll move the payload around in relation to some cameras and and different sensors, and that will be the virtual reality system that we'll be testing, the Space Vision System that we'll be testing, and hopefully getting as much data as we can because STS-88, the flight right after ours, will be using that system on the assembly of the first parts of the space station.

You touched on it earlier -- one of the major payloads in the cargo bay is a suite of instruments that will be tested for a variety of reasons for the third servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope a couple of years down the road. You're not a stranger to flying at high inclinations, but flying at this altitude should be quite a treat for you and your crewmates I would think.

Well I'll have to be honest with you. There's one drawback to this flight, and I say this jokingly, obviously, it's a low inclination flight -- this is only 28-and-a-half degrees. All my other flights have been 39 or higher, so they've all been high-inclination, I've gotten to see a lot of the world, so I've been very, very fortunate in my past flights. This flight will be a 28-and-a-half degree inclination, because we had to put all our energy into getting the altitude. We're going up to 300 nautical miles above the Earth's surface; the normal shuttle mission is somewhere around a hundred and sixty, maybe a hundred and seventy nautical miles, but we will be going up to 300 nautical miles which should give us a view of the Earth that I haven't experienced before; it should be more round, more of a globe, the horizon -- the limb -- should be more arched so that will be quite a treat. And the reason we're going up there is for the HOST payload, the suite of instruments that we're testing for the next Hubble servicing mission. But we'll be taking it up to the radiation environment, the magnetic environment, the thermal environment, that that equipment needs to be tested in, make sure it's going to be good for the Hubble mission.

Now in the summer of 1997, on your last flight aboard Discovery STS-85, you tested another complement of experiments called the International Extreme Ultraviolet Hitchhiker. It's back with you again -- some of the same experiments, some different; what is this, this thing in the cargo bay, this truss and all that's that's involved with the so-called IEH?

Well, it's it's actually a suite of pretty complex, hard-core science-type experiments; again it'd take a long time to explain them all, but we flew it on STS-85, as you mentioned, it's out of the Goddard Space Flight Center and a lot of really great folks up there to put all those instruments together, and they worked like a champ on STS-85 and we're looking forward to the same performance on 95. What they're doing is they're looking out at objects in space and looking at their emissions in the extreme ultraviolet spectrum. And in that spectrum we can gather data about the objects that we cannot get from Earth because the atmosphere of the Earth filters out that spectrum. So the only way you can get that information is to do it up above the Earth's surface so, it's kind of a, a neat system because it's a bridge structure and you can put a suite of different instruments on board, and then we use the orbiter as a platform and point the instruments at the different objects in deep space and gather the data. So it's a very robust system in that you can get a lot of data for not much effort and and we're glad to have them on board again.

John Glenn -- your name will be linked in the history books as his commander, thirty-six years after he etched his name in human spaceflight history as the first American to orbit the Earth. When you found out that you were going to command this mission, what was your initial reaction and your thoughts on what his place in history is, and what this flight was about to evolve into?

I have to admit I was very excited when I found out that I was being considered, and then finally got assigned STS-95. But let me be real honest with you: any of the commanders in the office could've taken this mission and done a fantastic job with it, so I think in, in all honesty, I think that I just got lucky and and anyone in the office could have done a good job, so let me make sure that everybody understands that first. But then we make a little joke about this: we say either it's congratulations or condolences, because congratulations meaning, "Hey, you got another flight!" and all that stuff, but the condolences a little bit because of the the attention of the media, which I think is good, don't get me wrong there, but that is not a small distraction from my crew training. We have we have done a lot of media activity between February, when we had our first press conference, and and up to the launch standpoint. And I think it's very important that we do that and we get the word out; I wish every flight in the shuttle program and the International Space Station program, I wish all flights were covered like this because this is what we need. The American people, the people of the world, need to understand what we're doing in the space program, and unfortunately we don't get the coverage every flight. This one is special because we have Senator Glenn on board, and so we're thrilled to have that coverage, we're thrilled to have him on board. How I feel about being the commander of Senator Glenn -- I'll be honest with you, I kind of put that aside, I don't think much about it I know that's probably a boring answer but I try to keep that separate and my job is organize the crew and plan for the mission, get the science done and when I get back I'll kind of think about what's really happened and put the emotional side into it. But we're trying to focus and keep the crew focused and go do the mission, but it's not always easy to keep everyone focused with the media.

Probably not; uh, does that also place additional pressure -- not necessarily that you're not focused all the time as you'd like to be -- but that because there's so much attention, because so many people are watching, because so many people will be at the Cape and here during the flight that things have to go right, that you feel an extra sense of responsibility?

Well, I don't think I worry about things having to go right. I have a very, very capable crew, a very good group of people, and we have a lot of payloads on board we've trained a lot. They've stayed focused -- I'm not sure it's due to my guidance or anything -- but they're a good crew and they stayed focused and they've trained hard and we've taken the Senator from Capitol area whenever we could to get him down here to train, we've worked him very hard, so I think everybody's ready to go fly and I think we'll do a good job. And I don't really worry about not doing a good job because, again, I think everyone's professional, ready to go; I just want to make sure everyone stays focused and, and does the job and not get caught up in the excitement of the event. I've not had to worry about that too much, but that is one of my concerns when when we were training during the past six, eight months.

You know a lot of historians will say you may not like what we write but you can't stop the flow of history. From an historic perspective, what is the significance of John Glenn returning to space at this moment in time, as a link between the origins of human spaceflight and a bridge to what lies ahead with the International Space Station?

Well, you know, I think, I think that's a personal comment, or a personal observation, because, you know, each person is touched different way by events in, in their life. When I see Senator Glenn, you know, I was about five to six years old when he flew his first flight and I remember that, I remember the newspapers because my dad was very interested in science and the space program and so I remember that. So for me personally it's something that I will obviously never forget and it's a big, significant event in my life. Back when we were trying to get the space program off the ground Senator Glenn did something that got us going. You know, it got us on the track to go to the Moon and land on the Moon. We were looking for successes at that time and he was the first American to orbit Earth and that was what we needed and away we went. Not to parallel it too much, but we've been flying shuttles for a number of years now and International Space Station's coming up, and in a few months we'll be launching our first shuttle to go up and start assembling the space station. It's really nice to have this kind of attention on the space program, and Senator Glenn's, in a way, kind of helping us take that next step -- to go on to the International Space Station era, and if we can get the enthusiasm about our International Space Station like we had during the early years of NASA. it's going to really, really help us, and so I'm hoping everyone will get excited about that. I'm not sure everyone knows about what we're doing, so I think this will help get it out to the media, get it out to the general public that we are taking a major, major step here in the next few months to start assembling the station and put people on board and start work. And it's not always easy for the general public to understand why that's important, but as we learn more and more about our space environment and how to do things better in space, those spinoffs, those rewards, come back to the general public.

Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 01/21/2003
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