Dr . Ellen Ochoa

Engineer , Astronaut , Inventor


Preflight Interview: Ellen Ochoa

Originally published in La Prensa San Diego.
A couple of weeks prior to scheduled launch, STS-96 Mission Specialist No.2, NASA interviewed Ellen Ochoa as she took some time out from training to answer questions about the mission.

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. (Ellen Ochoa attended school in La Mesa, CA.) 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. 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.

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 up?

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 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 that approach.

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.

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.

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 outside.

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 equipment.

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.

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 high.

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.

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.

See it's painless. No astronauts have been injured during the interviews.

(This interview was provided by NASA. To keep up with Ellen Ochoa and the space flight you can log onto NASA web site and keep up-to-date with the flights activies, including video and audio updates at: http://www.nasa.gov/)