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Crew Interviews
IMAGE: Steve Robinson
Click on the image to hear Mission Specialist Steve Robinson's greeting (593 Kb wav).

Preflight Interview: Steve Robinson

The STS-95 Crew Interview with Steve Robinson, mission specialist.

Discuss for a moment your thoughts on this flight; how complex it is and what you expect to derive out of it.

Well, this flight is a very busy, science-focused mission. We have a scientific and a communications satellite on board; we will deploy both of those and retrieve one of them. We have a laboratory on board, a huge compliment of scientific and engineering payloads -- in all these ways this is somewhat similar to my previous flight, STS-87 back in August of 1997. I also have the same commander as I had last time, which is a real pleasure for me. We have the robot arm on board and a number of robotics experiments. So we are fully challenged, and blessed, with a full compliment of things to do in space.

Tell us a little bit about the multi-disciplinary nature of what you and your crewmates will be accomplishing, scientifically during the flight.

Well, that's exactly right, the flight is very multi-disciplinary. We have, depending on how you count, between seventy-five and eighty payloads and experiments to do, and this is really a lot of exciting work for us. We have work to do from the basic science, pure science, all the way up through applied engineering, to test technology that's currently scheduled for use on upcoming missions such as International Space Station construction, or Hubble Servicing Mission Number 3. On the science side, we have life sciences, we have fluid and materials sciences and we have astronomy -- and a very broad range of work in all of those. And on the engineering and technology development side, we have things for robotics -- a number of robotics tests for construction of this International Space Station. We have new things on the orbiter itself: the orbiter has new navigation techniques using GPS technology, we're testing some of that. We have communications tests for the spacesuits for an EVA, even though we're not doing an EVA we're testing some of the new communications sets. And so many more things that I wouldn't want to list them all right now, but, we have a very exciting compliment of work to do.

This crew has two medical doctors you're privileged to fly with, Chiaki Mukai and Scott Parazynski. How will you work with them in terms of focusing in on biomedical studies, and what are some of those experiments that we'll be hearing a lot about?

Well, about a third of our total experiments and payloads can be thought of as life science or biomedical; about a half of those, or somewhere around a dozen, will be tests and experiments that will be done on the crewmembers themselves. Some of these will be done before and after the flight, and some will be done during the flight, and several of them will be both. We will be studying the things that change in the human body when you go into space. The vestibular system, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, muscular-skeletal system, blood chemistry -- we will be taking data and trying to study the changes that occur when you go into space and when you come back. The beneficiaries for this kind of research are both people who will do further spaceflights in the future, especially long-term spaceflights on International Space Station or maybe eventually going to Mars, but also the very many people here on Earth who suffer from disorders. Clinical disorders of some sort that are very similar to what happens to healthy astronauts when we go up in space, and so I think there's a very broad benefit to mankind in general for doing these biomedical experiments on STS-95.

We have gathered data on much longer missions than yours coming up, which is only a nine-day flight; in terms of the human response to weightlessness and so forth. What may be unique about what you're doing on STS-95, or is it just another set of data that's being collected?

I think what's unique about the data that STS-95 will be taking is that we have the benefit of the previous flights to learn from, and so we're standing on a higher plateau of scientific knowledge -- to go and test and study the various experiments and crewmembers on STS-95. So when we come back, our level of knowledge will be just that much higher, and also the combination of medical experiments that we're doing is unique for the flight. So we have a lot of unique things; hopefully every flight we fly is unique and special, and required for the furthering of scientific and engineering knowledge. We really think that STS-95 is.

Many people will be interested in the geriatric studies that will be ongoing during the course of your flight, specifically with Senator Glenn acting as a subject for many of the experiments. What are we trying to learn, in terms of this unique opportunity, to test the effects of spaceflight on a septuagenarian?

Senator Glenn will be acting, as most astronauts do on a scientific-type flight, as both an operator -- an onboard scientist and experimenter, and a subject. Many of us -- all of us, in fact -- will be test subjects of some sort and all of us will be operators of some sort, and Senator Glenn will participate fully in that. We, the scientific community, is taking advantage of this opportunity; of having a person that is medically this well-documented for over forty-five years, and being able to judge what happens to this body when he goes up into space and comes back and readapts to Earth's gravity. There are many things in the aging process that are similar to what happens to astronauts when they leave the planet and spend some time in microgravity environment, and this will be a first data point in that collection of data. We don't expect that this one data point will solve any problems in itself, but we do have to start somewhere and this is our start.

Let's talk about two of those types of experiments,if we could. One involving protein, I believe, Protein Turnover I think it's called, the other involving sleep studies. Can you give us a fill on both of those?

The Protein Turnover Experiment is to look at what happens to the evolution of protein under both the stressed environment of the flight, and the zero-gravity environment of the changing and differing blood chemistry. For the Sleep experiment, we're looking at what happens to people's sleep patterns when they're in space, and also the effect of melatonin on those sleep patterns. It's a substance produced by the body naturally; it seems to control our circadian rhythm, or the time when we want to go to bed and get up, and we're trying to see what more we can find out about that. We know there are some effects, it seems to be quite different from person to person, so we will have to take lots of data in the future. STS-90 pioneered this kind of study and we're going to continue on STS-95. The study Senator Glenn will participate fully in will require him wearing, I believe it's twenty-eight different electrodes and sensors on his body, for four of the nights during the mission. Our other Payload Specialist, Dr. Mukai, will also participate that way. Scott Parazynski and I will be the people who will fit all the sensors on the crewmembers' bodies, and then they will sleep in what we call sleep stations. These are kind of little boxes -- nice private, quiet, dark, insulated places so they can optimize their conditions for getting a good sleep, and get some good data on them.

As Payload Commander, you're obviously in charge of choreographing, along with your Commander, Curt Brown, much of the activity on board. How do you expect to accomplish your scientific goals on this flight? Do you think that the timeline is a bit overstressed, or is it a doable timeline?

Before I ever became an astronaut, I thought about what it would be like to do this kind of job. And this is what I thought it would be like: I thought it would be a fully challenging collection of exciting things to do across the spectrum of science, technology, and applied engineering; that, to me, seemed like the best possible thing, and that is what this flight is. It's very exciting, I think we're doing something new here. We're trying to see, in some ways, just how much we can do in space. This is very appropriate for our level of maturity in flying the orbiter in space and it will help us in the future. I think it'll be a stepping-stone in knowledge to go on to the International Space Station and think about, well, how should we really schedule something this complex; there's many ways of doing it, we don't really know if there's one right way. We think we've come up with a right way for this mission. It will change as we go, but we think we've got a good plan in hand. We're all pretty happy about the full challenges of the mission, and when we come back and we've got success on all these seventy-five different experiments, then we'll really be happy.

Given the kind of science you're doing on board, and given the multi-national complexion of the crew, are we looking, really, at a kind of miniature form of a space station mission here?

Well, I think that STS-95 has the look and feel of a space station, I really do. We have an international crew, we have an international compliment of payloads, sponsors, and participants from all over the world are involved in our mission. And the reason we're going up and flying is to learn things we didn't know before, the same reason we're going to fly International Space Station. We want to know things about astronomy, we want to know about what happens to the human body in challenging conditions, we want to know about whether these machines, techniques and things that we've invented for remote sensing and remote operation of a very complex vehicle really work in the challenging environment of space. These are all things we're doing on STS-95, all things that'll be major challenges for this International Space Station. So, we do feel very much a link with the space station, and we're very excited to sort of precede it into orbit.

Let's discuss what you and your crew will be doing during the deployment of SPARTAN, you being the chief robot arm operator. Give us kind of a bird's eye view of what will happen on that day.

Well, when we launch the SPARTAN satellite is parked safely in the payload bay; it's bolted down and latched, and so is the robot arm. We have a fifty-foot robot arm on board, which is a fantastic six-degree of freedom machine, and when it comes to deploy day for SPARTAN, we'll unlatch the arm, reach up, and then back down into the payload bay with the end effector, or the tip of the arm. Then we will latch firmly onto the satellite, drive some latches which unlock the satellite from the payload bay, freeing it to come out, and then we will draw it out firmly attached to the robot arm. We'll lift it high above the payload bay into what we call the deploy position, or location, and then we will turn the satellite on and test it. If it checks out OK then we will hit the release button on the robot arm, back the arm away from the satellite, and leave it hanging there, with zero relative motion between the satellite and Discovery; and then Curt will fly the shuttle away. The whole crew, or at least the four of us in the cockpit, are very, very involved in this deploy sequence; it's rather delicate, it's carefully choreographed. Curt will be in charge of flying the Discovery, moving it around relative to the satellite. Steve Lindsey will be backing him up; watching shuttle systems and making sure that everything that we need both for the arm, the satellite, and the shuttle are all in good shape. He'll also be helping us out with some of the data on the robot arm. Scott and I will be in charge of actually deploying the satellite. Scott's primarily responsible for the health of the satellite itself. I'm primarily responsible for the operations of the arm itself, and we back each other up we think that's a good teaming strategy. I'll have my hands on two controllers, I've got one in each hand -- it's kind of like flying an airplane only you've got a stick in each hand. You do have six degrees of freedom, and three are controlled by each hand. So I will be operating and moving the arm, and Scott will be following everything I do. He'll be reading me the numbers that I need, giving me camera commands and inputs, and also watching for any kinds of malfunctions or problems and be ready for what to do next.

Last November the SPARTAN didn't do what it was supposed to do after the robot arm released it, leading to the necessity of manually capturing the SPARTAN and bringing it home. What have you and the crew learned, and what changes have been made both in crew procedure, insight into the satellite, and the technical end of SPARTAN that will likely ensure success this time?

Well, when we do things in space we always learn from what we do, whether it's successful or not. We've made some very minor changes in the software which will make, I think, a big difference in the crew's insight as to the health of the satellite. When we send the satellite a command, we will know whether the command has been sent; the previous crew did not have that insight. Clearly that's not an optimal situation; it's been fixed and improved. It was an easy fix, and I think it will make sort of the critical difference. And so we will be watching carefully to make sure that the satellite has gotten the right commands before it is allowed to be released. Another thing is once it is released, once it is turned on out on the end of the arm, we will have more than one hour to recycle it if need be. Now, the previous crew, when they had to go back and recapture the satellite, they were down to a little bit less than an hour, so they had a bit of a time pressure to do that. So now if we need to sit and wait for better lighting conditions, or some sort of better attitude, then we have the leeway to do that. So these are the small but important things that have come out of our learning process that I think will ensure success on STS-95 for the SPARTAN deploy.

What kinds of things are we trying to learn about the sun from this boxy-looking satellite?

SPARTAN isn't very big but it's very powerful: it's about four feet on a side, with a long cylinder through it, which is a series of telescopes. The idea is to try to learn quite a bit more about the temperature of the sun's corona and the origin of the solar wind. The solar wind is this huge efflux of electrons that effects a lot of things here on Earth. The thing that we are concerned most about is communications. It has a lot to do with the electromatic environment around the Earth, and we'd like to know much, much more about that. There's a number of baffling mysteries about the sun's corona and the solar wind; we hope this mere forty-eight hours of SPARTAN being out there will really make a big dent in these mysteries and help us eventually solve them.

Give us an overview -- from your perspective, handling the robot arm, of the rendezvous and the retrieval of SPARTAN.

Well, the rendezvous, I always liken it to sort of a cosmic dance, you know. You start out many miles away from the satellite, and you spend most of the day slowly kind of sneaking up on it, using computer controls, radar sensors, and eventually, once we get it in sight, Curt and Steve will actually fly manually up to the satellite itself. On our way in we will do a series of tests of a robotic sensor that will eventually be used for automated docking procedures on space station. After we complete those tests, we will go all the way in, and Curt will bring the shuttle right to within thirty feet of the satellite. Within range for me to reach out with the robot arm, and as you say, with kid gloves, very carefully and slowly, we will attach the end of the robot arm to the satellite. Scott and I will work together on that, where he is working as a systems guy and feeding me numbers and data and camera stuff, and I will just reach out very carefully and put the end effector around a pin on the satellite and then close the latches.

For you personally, do you feel any pressure about this operation because it didn't go well last year, and because a lot of attention will be focused on making sure it goes right this time?

I don't think that makes any difference at all to me. Every time you do something in space that is delicate and requires a lot of careful training for many, many people I'm just the lucky guy that actually gets to run the arm, and I have a lot of confidence in everybody who's been involved up until now. We've learned more about SPARTAN on this flight than I think we have in preparing for any other flight. We all have a lot of confidence in the way things are going to go, and so the pressure is just the same as it always is for any flight, which is do your best and try to make the mission successful.

Another major payload on board is the International Extreme Ultraviolet Hitchhiker experiment, which is kind of a scientific potpourri of things. You flew with this same experiment on your first mission; give us a little glimpse as to what IEH is all about.

Well, IEH is kind of a workbench of experiments. It did fly on STS-85, my last flight, and it had kind of a different suite of tools and experiments on board than it has this time. This time it has seven different experiments, and they're mostly astronomy-type of experiments. There are a couple that are looking at the ultraviolet radiation from various sources in the heavens -- other galaxies, hot stars, Jupiter's moons, and also the Earth's atmosphere. There's also a small satellite called PANSAT, which is an experimental, digital communications satellite which will be deployed as part of IEH; there are just a variety of types of smaller, astronomical things. There's an experiment to look at the solar constant, the total radiation from the sun, to help calibrate other types of solar astronomy experiments on the ground and in space. So it's an exciting potpourri, as you say, of astronomy experiments.

What was your reaction when you were selected to fly with Senator Glenn, and your thoughts on his place in history?

Well, when ever you're selected to fly for any mission your reaction is one of joy and elation, because flying in space is the best thing that you can possibly do. This particular mission is special in a whole bunch of different ways, and the Senator being on board is one of them. When I was a kid, I clearly remember his first flight. I remember drawing pictures of his rocket and entering them in art contests, you know, developing my skills as an artist. When I was involved in designing the patch for this mission, one of the other crewmembers pointed out, "Here you are still drawing pictures of John Glenn's rocket thirty-six years later," so it's kind of funny how things have come around. I think if you had told me a year and a half ago that my next shuttle mission would be in October of '98, and by the way, one of my crewmembers would be the first American to orbit the Earth, I would have said that is just impossible, squared. So, you never really can predict how things are going to go, but I'm very happy about it.

From an historic perspective, what do you think the significance of him returning to space is, a sort of link between the past and the future here?

I think Senator Glenn's return to space is indeed a link between the past and the future, in terms of progress of the human race in space technology. When Senator Glenn first flew there was, I think, thin confidence that we were going to be able to send fragile human beings up into space and have them survive the ascent, the orbit, and the descent. And Senator Glenn was a large part of the proof that that really could be done. And so here we are because he and his colleagues were able to do what he did, we are where we are here today. I think it's a fantastic opportunity for us as a human race, to use this second flight on one of the pioneering humans in this field, to kind of remind ourselves of the tremendous progress we've made in thirty-six years. Thirty-six years is not so long, and look what we currently consider completely doable; things that have become not exactly an everyday occurrence, but not Earth-shattering either. Flying into space is something we all know that we can do, and I think we as humans ought to be very proud of that. And we as Americans ought to be especially proud that we've had this record of continuity, of progress in technical development, and also safety.

John Glenn, who once played an integral part in the space race with the Russians; now the Senator flies on the eve of a multilateral cooperation, with the Russians in the forefront with us, trying to build a new space station. What about the irony of all that?

I call that not so much irony, but progress. If anything is progress, it's going from competing in a space race that had very strong military overtones, to cooperating and bringing the expertise of two, in fact fifteen, countries together in a global effort of residence in space -- that is tremendous progress. I think it's a sign of evolution in civilization on the Earth, as well as technical progress.

How has he done throughout the course of the training for this flight? Is it kind of like the "old soldier coming back, never forgetting what he used to do for a living" type of thing?

Well, Senator Glenn says that things are very different now than they were when he first flew, and in general much better. His energy level is just tremendous, and his ability to stay motivated, with very long days, and to be positive about things and not complain, and to always see the bright side of things it just makes for another good crewmember on our seven-person team. It's really a pleasure to have him along.

He's spry, he's in great shape; he's 77 years old. Any concerns, from your perspective, for his health, or any aspect of the mission for him?

Well, my main concern is that when I'm 77 that I somehow don't live up to the standard he is now setting for all of us. It's amazing; he kept up with us in every way, and I guarantee that he will function just as the rest of us do in space. We are learning a lot from him and he's learning a lot, I think, from us and the shuttle program. It's a good opportunity for everybody.

Some of your crewmates said that working alongside of him has provided them with more or less a brand new insight, because he brings all of the history of human spaceflight with him; putting a new perspective on what you all are doing for a living today. Is that kind of a fair assessment?

Senator Glenn brings a lot of things to the mission. First of all, he's been in the service of his country for his whole career, almost his whole life. He's flown as a combat pilot in two wars, he still flies his own airplane, he's been flying for close to fifty years now; any time you get a chance to fly with an aviator with those kind of credentials, it is a real honor, and that's without even considering his pioneering spaceflight. I think it really does put things in perspective, in terms of commitment to your country, government service, and just plain courage.

What are your own personal thoughts about flying with him; as you say, an aviation legend, and what impact is that going to have on your life?

Well right now the Senator is a crewmember, and there are seven of us on the crew and we're all crewmembers; we're working very, very hard together, to try to get this mission trained up and ready to go just like we would any other mission. It's a very challenging mission, it is fully occupying us, and I think the time for reflection about the historical meaning of this will mostly be after the flight. But I will say that when we launch, and we pass the time of his first flight, we will stop and recognize that moment on that first day. I think that'll be a time for all of us to think about the progress that's been made since his first flight this sort of second time around history-making spaceflight for this unique gentleman.

On launch you will be strapped in just a couple feet away from John Glenn as he and you both lie on your back along with Chiaki Mukai down on the middeck; you think your mind will go back to those old grainy black and white pictures of John Glenn, being launched thirty-six years ago?

I think they really will. You know, we all looked at those pictures and wondered what it would be like. You know, on his first launch when he got into orbit, and the engines cut off and he was in the weightlessness of a microgravity environment, there was nobody there to welcome him to space; well this time I'll get to do that, and I think that will be an honor.

Is this the perfect mission for an astronaut? Could you have asked for more?

For me, this is the perfect mission. About the only thing we're not doing on this mission is an extravehicular activity, a spacewalk; that'd be great to do a spacewalk, too. But most astronauts have a technical background in aviation and engineering, and possibly science and/or medicine, and I have backgrounds in all of those, to some degree; and this flight uses up every bit of background I have and more. It's been just thrilling and educational to learn all these things and learn them at the rate that we're learning; this is the best possible situation. And, yes, for me, this is sort of a dream flight in every way.

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