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Space Shuttle Discovery STS-114 Return to flight.

Meeting Space Shuttle Astronaut Eileen Collins

Today I met Eileen Collins, a former United States Air force Colonel, test pilot, instructor and NASA astronaut becoming the first female pilot and first female commander of the Space Shuttle logging over 38 days in space.

Space Shuttle Pilot and Commander Eileen Collins. STS-63, STS-84, STS-93, STS-114.
Space Shuttle Pilot and Commander Eileen Collins. STS-63, STS-84, STS-93, STS-114.

Eileen Marie Collins flew Space Shuttle Discovery as pilot on STS-63 rendezvousing with the Russian space station Mir and pilot of Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-84 again docking with Mir. Astronaut Eileen Collins became the first female commander of a US spacecraft on Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-93 deploying the Chandra X-ray observatory.  Her fourth and final mission was to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) as commander of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-114 which heralded the “return to flight” of the Space Shuttle after the Columbia disaster. During this mission, Astronaut Eileen Collins became the first person to fly the Space Shuttle through a 360 degree pitch manoeuver so astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) could check the belly of the Shuttle and make sure there was no threat from debris related damage on reentry.

Astronaut Eileen Collins
Astronaut Eileen Collins

Starting with a traditional photo shoot, I’m greeted by the softly spoken, incredibly polite and smartly dressed former NASA Astronaut.  Remembering this time to try to engage my brain before my mouth, I come out with “Good afternoon ma’am, I’m Nick, how are you? (She was a Colonel after all.)  “Very well thank you, I’m Eileen and you?”  “Well, I haven’t been this nervous around a woman for a photo since my wedding day” (that was only last year).  She chortles and tells me to enjoy myself.  Her demeanour puts me straight at ease.  Then my brain finally kicks in and I decide to make a swift abort scrub and gear up for the main mission, the lecture.

To be honest, I’m a little unsure what to expect, like many people, I’d thought the Space Shuttle program as routine, even though the Space Shuttle is the most complex machine ever built with over 2.5 million moving parts, becoming complacent thinking low earth orbit as rather mundane and really not sure what to expect from Eileen Collins.  This is my 4th astronaut visit, the heady days of Apollo, men walking upon the moon and Skylab space stations all graced upon on previous visits. For anyone who had second thoughts about attending such an event, and there have been some great speakers in the past, I’m not a man to be easily impressed, then prepare to be blown away, Eileen Collins is absolutely fantastic speaker, the best yet.

Eileen Collins www.space-lectures.com
Eileen Collins www.space-lectures.com

Hello, can everyone hear me at the back?  No!  I feel like I’m in a Space Shuttle launch scrub. My goal and what I’d like to share with you today is the exciting adventure of human spaceflight, human space exploration. Just like our ancestors before us took to the seas because they wanted to explore the planet, discover new places, trade and extend their knowledge. We’re doing the same thing today, just taking baby steps in exploring outer space, leaving the surface, looking back at the earth and out into our solar system.

Initially I’d like to talk about my last Space Shuttle flight which was STS-114, about the mission itself, looking back at the earth from space and what we can learn about our planet from a distant vantage point and then talk about what’s next. We’re not flying the Space Shuttle anymore, we flew it for 30 years from 1981 till 2011 and at that point we had to stop flying, we don’t really have enough money to operate the Space Shuttle and build its replacement at the same time.  Now that the Shuttle isn’t flying, a lot of people think we have given up on spaceflight – we haven’t, we’re putting those funds into what’s next.

The launch of STS-114, flown by the Space Shuttle Discovery.
The launch of STS-114, flown by the Space Shuttle Discovery.

We flew the Space Shuttle mission right after the Columbia accident, but it was actually 2 1/2 years after the accident.  We became a test flight for looking at ways to repair a Space Shuttle in orbit if there was damage to the heat shield.  It was something they were doing in the initial part of the Shuttle program but it was too hard so they gave up on it.  We looked at it at the end of the Columbia accident in 2003, because as the crew came home, there was a hole in the wing, the hole got bigger because a piece of foam fell of the external tank during launch and it hit the Shuttle at high-speed.  This could happen again in the future even though we’d worked hard keep the foam from falling off.  Just in case it did happen again, we wanted a way to repair the Shuttle in orbit.  The first spacewalk we did was in the payload bay where we put a couple of broken tiles and my crew tried to repair those, with the pieces brought back at the end of the flight to put in the heat chamber and test it to see if that repair worked and could be used on future space missions and repair the heat shield in space.

The first female pilot of the Space Shuttle, Eileen Collins, lands Discovery on STS-63.
The first female pilot of the Space Shuttle, Eileen Collins, lands Discovery on STS-63.

Our number one priority was to take logistics to the International Space Station (ISS).  The ISS has been in orbit, permanently manned since 2000.  By the time we had flown our flight, only the Soyuz was supplying the ISS because the shuttle had been shut down due to the accident. We took up about 15000 lbs of logistics, science experiments, water and other supplies top help the crew on the ISS operate.  There were only two crew members on the space station.  The commander at the time was Sergei Krikalev, a Russian. The command of the space station alternates between the nations that are the international partners.  Sergei Krikalev had flown on the Shuttle previously and he has the most missions in space of any person.  The science office was John Phillips, a geologist.

The thermal protection system on Space Shuttle Discovery
The thermal protection system on Space Shuttle Discovery

My crew, there were 7 of us, myself and my pilot Jim Kelly, we were both test pilots, the two of us shared the flying duties and he was also the arm operator.  Soichi Noguchi is a Japanese citizen and his first flight with us.  He practiced his space walk in our 25 feet deep pool.  Steve Robinson is an aerospace engineer and he was doing some repair techniques. Andy Thomas is from Australia, also an aerospace engineer, he operated our shuttle robot arm and in charge of the inspection duties.  Wendy Lawrence was a Navy Captain, oceanography is her background and in charge of the transfer of all the goods to and from the ISS.  Charlie Camarda is a structures engineer.

We had been in medical quarantine for 3 weeks, studying and preparing for the flight.  On flight day we walk out to the astrovan to ride out to the pad.  We strap in about 3 hours to launch, you lay on your back, it’s very uncomfortable but we have techniques to handle that but you’re also very busy throwing switches, talking to the launch control centre, checking your checklist, suit and equipment.  At main engine start, the engines start 6 seconds before lift off, it gives them time to fully come up to speed and a t-minus zero the booster light, you know you’re moving, there’s a lot of shaking going on, a lot  of acceleration, accelerating at almost 3 G’s.

Discovery as imaged by the ISS crew during rendezvous and docking operations.
Discovery as imaged by the ISS crew during rendezvous and docking operations.

We had over a hundred cameras on our launch, including the solid rocket boosters that fall back into the ocean and reused.  We rolled to heads up at about 5 minutes into launch, at 4-8 minutes the main engines burn out, we separate from the fuel tank, which is the external tank, that crashes into the Pacific Ocean and is not reused.  Basically at this point, we start our rendezvous, firing jets, targeting the ISS to rendezvous with them on flight day 3.  Meanwhile we opened the payload bay doors, got the robot arm with the extension on it and we used this to do a survey on the outside of the shuttle.  We looked at all the tiles, especially the orbiter’s nose which is where most of the heat is on reentry.

Taken by astronauts aboard the ISS showing Space Shuttle Discovery STS-114 to check the condition of the tiles that act as the heat shield on reentry.
Taken by astronauts aboard the ISS showing Space Shuttle Discovery STS-114 to check the condition of the tiles that act as the heat shield on reentry.

The rendezvous is all hand flown by the shuttle commander, you could automate it but we hand fly it because we have more control, its little more soft and the docking little more accurate.  We were the first crew to do the (RPM) rendezvous pitch maneuver, which is very slow, the only part of the rendezvous we flew on autopilot.  The crew on the ISS then photograph the entire underside of the shuttle.  When we’re docking with the space station, I’m not looking out the window, I’m looking at the laptop where there is an image from the camera in the docking ring, closing at .1 feet per second and when we get just two inches away, I fire jets to get a firm docking, then we equalize the pressure and open the hatch.

The ISS crew were very happy to see us, we were bringing them all sorts of supplies.  Sergei Krikalev gave us some brown bread which is a tradition in Russia.  Soichi Noguchi picked up the camera and did a survey from one end of the space station to the other into the different nodes from the American side to the Russian side.  its one space station but its controlled by the two separate ground controls, Houston and Moscow.  The service module is the command and control for the entire Russian side of the space station.

STS-114 Mission Specialists working on Discovery's cargo bay on the first EVA.
STS-114 Mission Specialists working on Discovery’s cargo bay on the first EVA.

On flight day 5 we started flying the robot arm, which is actually flown off laptop computers, you can’t actually see the robot arm, you have cameras outside and images inside and be able to translate the arm in which way to go.  Steve and Soichi get ready for their spacewalk, spending hours getting their suits ready, I got to go in the airlock and put their helmets on at which time I said “Now boys, you need to be home for dinner, 6 hours, no more play.”  They were both excited because it was the first spacewalk for both of them.  They went out the shuttle airlock and into the shuttle payload bay where they tried to repair broken tiles, thermal material using a dispenser with goo and letting it cure in space where it was then brought back home where it was shown to be successful.

On our second spacewalk we changed a gyroscope on the space station.  The ISS has 4 enormous gyroscopes about as big as your arm length which weigh 600lbs on Earth but in spaces is weightless so very easy to carry.  The way we did this change out, Soichi got on the robot arm and he held the gyroscope for 45 minutes while Wendy flew him from the shuttle up to the station. Using the powered screwdriver and the bolts and changed it out, brought the old one back and stored it in the back of the shuttle.

Astronaut Stephen Robinson removing gap fillers between the orbiter's heat shield tiles.
Astronaut Stephen Robinson removing gap fillers between the orbiter’s heat shield tiles.

On the third spacewalk on flight day nine, Steve was on the robot arm underneath the nose of the shuttle.  We’d took pictures of the shuttle during the RPM maneuver, 2 gap fillers had popped out between the tiles and Steve was removing those.  It looks like a piece of cardboard but the glue had failed, we brought those back and the engineers at Kennedy Space Centre had to change the process to make sure they don’t pop out. If they had popped out they could hit the back of the shuttle and damage the tiles.

On flight days ten and eleven we tested some tools and installed the Human Research Facility which was installed by John Phillips on the space station.  This is really the main part of the experiments we do on the space station to study the human body where astronauts use themselves as guinea pigs in those studies.  During the time we were up there, we were constantly moving stuff, we also took up 17 bags of water which is a by-product of the chemical reactions in the fuel cell.  The space station doesn’t make water so they need it for drinking and cooling.  when it was time to go home, we packed up all the junk, had a goodby ceremony, signed the logbook, placed our sticker on the wall, hugging and kissing.  Quite frankly, they wanted to get rid of us, we’d turned their house upside down.

The International Space Station (ISS) as seen by Space Shuttle Discovery STS-114 .
The International Space Station (ISS) as seen by Space Shuttle Discovery STS-114 .

Jim Kelly flew the undocking and fly around which is actually very tricky, you have to separate at a certain speed and at 440 feet you start circular fly around of the space station for a photo survey.  We had a few days off before we came home, you kind of have fun before the end of the mission.  we wrapped up all the garbage, made it small with tape and then you play football with it.  We close the payload doors and its time to come home, takes a long time to get all the equipment put away, get suited up.  The orange suits are used only for launch ascent and reentry. We did the de-orbit burn that starts us coming home and as we come home we are going 25 times the speed of sound, mach 25.  We gradually slow down, you can see out the windows, it turns pink, yellow and green and its the hot plasma that develops outside the shuttle as we heat up to almost 3000 degrees on the nose and wings which is why we have the heat shield and the tiles to keep us from burning up as we come home.

We gradually slow down and cool off. We come down at a steep angle, about 7 times steeper than what you would fly in a commercial airliner.  We land at various speeds depending on our weight, touch down at about 250 mph on a 3 mile long runway but have to put on our drag parachute.  We run checklists and it takes about an hour to get out of the shuttle, have a walk around, look at the tiles, the shuttle was in good shape as we come home.  The astronauts on the other hand are not in great shape when we come home, always in great shape when we go up.

Space Shuttle Discovery after safe landing at Edwards Air Force Base
Space Shuttle Discovery after safe landing at Edwards Air Force Base

In space you get a fluid shift, your face gets very fat, legs get very skinny and your brain thinks its over hydrated and because of that you lose your appetite.  Its a lazy fun environment, you don’t use your legs and when you get back on earth, all those fluids that were up in your head are now being pulled back down by gravity and it becomes very easy to faint when you come back.  I had to drink 24 ounces of salt water to keep you from fainting and that works but you still need the doctors to help you out the shuttle.  The other thing that’s going on, other than  gravity, is your inner ear is confused so it’s very easy to fall over.  For a shuttle flight it takes about two weeks to get fully back in shape and do the things you normally do.  The space station astronauts are up there for 6 months or a year.

The other fun side of going into space is looking back at the earth.  People ask me what the stars look like, we don’t normally do that because it looks a lot like it does on Earth except stars don’t twinkle because there’s no atmosphere.  So we look at the Earth, you’ll never see that view again unless you go into space again. At this point, Eileen shows various images of the Earth. There is a website, Astronaut Photography of Earth.

STS-114 Commander astronaut Eileen M. Collins goes over a check list dealing with rendezvous and docking operations.
STS-114 Commander astronaut Eileen M. Collins goes over a check list dealing with rendezvous and docking operations.

Soichi Noguchi took a picture of the southern lights, it goes way above the shuttles altitude, we were flying through these beautiful lights, caused by solar particles interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.  It’s very pretty but I was concerned about radiation we were getting.  it was OK but the crew didn’t have to take cover.  When we start flying deep space flight, we go beyond the Van Allen belts, astronauts are going to get more radiation so one of the challenges for future space flights how to protect not only against solar radiation but also cosmic background radiation.

The shuttle does not go that far from Earth, about 200-300 miles above the planet, we’re in a low earth orbit. The atmosphere of the Earth is very thin, breathable atmosphere is only about 10000-12000 feet.  the atmosphere is like the apple skin on an apple.  Airplanes fly up at about 6-7 miles and you become an astronaut if you go over 50 miles.  Those that flew the X-15 program got their astronaut wings through their military services.  We fly around the planet every 90 minutes, in and out the shadow, so every 45 minutes you get a sunset and 45 minutes later a sunrise.  So you have to put up the curtains when you want to sleep and when you’re awake, keep the lights on so you don’t get your circadian rhythm confused.  That’s something else we’re learning about sleep cycles.

Eileen Marie Collins 25 April 2015
Eileen Marie Collins 25 April 2015

I’d like to talk about how astronauts keep in touch with their families on earth especially in a time of crisis.  Astronauts don’t have phones but they have laptops where they can call anybody on Earth if they had your number, you can’t call them because everything has to go through Mission Control so they need to know the number ahead of time, though they try to keep that to a minimum.  They have internet access, email, movies, twitter, a lot of contact with the ground. It’s good for the psychology part of flying in space.

The Space Shuttle has flown its last mission and we’re building new rockets to take humans into space, we haven’t shut down the space program.  Unfortunately since we’re not launching out of the United States, we send our astronauts to Russia, they have to be fluent in Russian and train in Russia and launch on the Soyuz.   We still have the Space Station with many science experiments taking place but we’re hoping that in 3 years we’ll be launching that out of this country.

Space Shuttle Discovery docked to the Destiny laboratory of the ISS.
Space Shuttle Discovery docked to the Destiny laboratory of the ISS.

There’s two tracks of human spaceflight, one of those tracks is low earth orbit, the Space Station, 200-300 miles.  there are two companies in a contract with NASA, Space X and Boeing, building capsules that sit on top of a small rocket and think they may be ready in 2018. So hopefully in about three years from now we’ll be able to launch our astronauts to the ISS and back, international astronauts and Russians because it should alternate between our rocket and the Soyuz.

The other part of space flight is deep space, so NASA is building a traditional rocket that is like Saturn V like the Apollo program, a very large rocket, up to 130 tonnes eventually to go to deep space.  The moon is 240,000 miles away, takes 3 days to get to the moon, so NASA is planning on going to the asteroids, back to the moon and eventually going on to Mars.  That’s the future, it will happen, its very frustrating for us because its taking a long time, because it’s expensive and space flight has to compete with all the other things government is committed to which is why we like to see private companies go into space.  If they see there is a return on their investment, which they will some day, they will mine the asteroids, mine the moon, something worth going for other than human exploration.


Eileen now takes questions from the audience.


  • If the shuttle was in orbit and there was an emergency return to Earth, was it true a shuttle could land at Elvington Airfield near York?

I can’t say yes or no for sure.  We normally need 3 miles of runway, 15,000 feet, can go as short as 8000 feet if we’re lightweight, if you’re heavy you don’t want to burn off the end of the runway and as narrow as 150 feet, so if the runway has those then we can land there in an emergency.  But the shuttle really needs landing aids, we have precision approach lights, we have MLS which is like ILS (Instrument Landing System), we could have landed with very accurate approach guidance.  We knew that we could land the shuttle in Europe because we had more southerly landing sites, the manages hated the thought of getting it back to the US.  We’d have to put on a 747, and fly the whole crane over and build it to put the shuttle on top of the 747.

Soyuz on route to the ISS
Soyuz on route to the ISS
  • How proud are you that helped foster East-West relations with Mir and ISS?

Our relationship with Russia in the Mir and currently the ISS program is very, very good.  you hear about what’s going on in the world, tensions between Russia and other countries, I want to say we’re above that.   The space program, the people, not just the astronauts and cosmonauts, the managers and the engineers, the people that work and support the space program, love what they’re doing, we have a kindred spirit with the Russians.  I have seen some of the engineers with tears in their eyes loving their space program.   I think that one of the things that keeps us together is the space program.  There are non-proliferation pacts saying that the US will not trade with Russia until they stop supporting rogue regimes, we have a waiver to that in the space program. We pay the Russians up to 70 million dollars for one American astronaut to be launched on the Soyuz.  To pay the Russians, NASA has a waiver to this law and have to renew that every 3-4 years. if we did not have the Russians, we could not get to our Space Station.

Mir space station
Mir space station
  • You mentioned about high solar activity and you have a shelter, could you tell us more about that, the materials its made from.

On the shuttle we didn’t have a shelter, the space station has ways to shelter.  When you knew a solar storm was coming you’d take shelter, the best shelter from radiation is water, even a very thin layer of water will bounce the radiation out but what the astronauts do now is go to the space station inside a little compartment where you have more layers of protection.  The outer shell of the space station is extremely thin aluminum, when I first saw it I was like “Thats the only wall between us and the vacuum of space,” which had me worried about getting hit by orbital debris, if we had a hole, we’d get a leak, which hasn’t happened yet.  We have put extra layers of protection outside to protect against orbital debris, it doesn’t protect us very much from radiation.  What I told my crew to do, was to put water bags out there and we’d just go inside of those.  Very crude, we don’t have a certified engineering way to protect against radiation but we’re in low earth orbit and got the Van Allen belts but once you go outside the Van Allen belts you’re more at risk solar cosmic background radiation.

Going to Mars we’re concerned about radiation which is probably the number one risk.  In long duration space flight, some astronauts are getting problems with their vision, the retina is getting intracranial pressure. distorting vision.  We’re worried about bones, lose calcium if you don’t get weight on them all the time and worried by orbital debris, getting hit  by stuff out there.  They are the hazards to overcome, its expensive to figure out how to develop countermeasures, that’s what we’re doing before we go to Mars, that’s one of the reasons its taking so long.

NASA's space shuttle Discovery at Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Centre
NASA’s space shuttle Discovery at Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Centre
  • In case of emergency, if people were stuck on the space station, was it possible to robotically send the space shuttle on autopilot, like the Soviet space shuttle, computer controlled?

You could design the space shuttle to fly like that.  The way we flew it, you could automatically fly the ascent, on orbit and automatically fly it from the de-orbit burn all the way to landing. But what you couldn’t automatically do, you need the astronauts to set the switches and valves and turn them back for the on orbit burns and we never did have a way to uplink to moving those valves.  After the Columbia accident, we were wondering could we have gotten the astronauts and brought them home on another shuttle, could we have gotten Columbia home.  We could have but they would have had to flip all the switches in certain positions so that ground could uplink the command to do the de-orbit burn to get the home.  It can be flown auto but there’s a few places where you still need a human, you could design it go fully auto.

  • During the STS-93 ascent, how aware were you and your crew of the issues that were going on at the time and how soon after you were in orbit, made aware of what had happened?

During STS-93 which was my third mission flown in 1999, we had two major problems on launch.  One of them was an electrical short, AC1 phase A bus shorted out, we found out after the fact that the insulation on a wire had rubbed off and because of that there was intermittent loss of electricity which caused some of our pumps to slow down causing too many issue controllers to completely fail, and some other components.  We knew about that immediately because 5 seconds after launch we had several lights in the cockpit, a fuel cell message, a light go off on the water pump, we had a beep and the ground callers call and say “AC sensors off” which is a protective measure.

Chandra X-ray observatory , the world's most powerful x-ray telescope, in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-93.
Chandra X-ray observatory , the world’s most powerful x-ray telescope, in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Columbia on STS-93.

The second problem was a leaking engine, you could see it on the lift off if you were watching the shuttle lift off.  With a close up camera you could see a streak coming out of the engine. These old phase 2 engines had a pins within the injector and one of the pins came out while we were shaking on the launch, came out and hit 3 of the cooling tube, which are cooled with hydrogen, opened them up and hydrogen was leaking out. We couldn’t see them onboard because it was a very small leak and didn’t have sensors onboard so we didn’t know we were leaking at all during the entire ascent until main engine cut off.  There is an indicator that comes across my computer display that had shut down early, that wasn’t right, and we had a 15 foot per second speed which is small but significant enough you have to change your next burn.  So we knew something was wrong but didn’t know what had happened.  We had to deploy the Chandra X-ray Observatory, so my positions was “well, we’re in space, everything’s fine, let’s get to work”.  That night before we went to bed, the flight director sent us a picture of the leak, we knew we were safe and nothing to worry about but they never flew the phase 2 engines again, never flew the injector pins again and the shuttle was grounded for several months. they inspected it on landing and they found out that on the electrical problem the reason the wiring was bad was because the maintenance people had been stepping on the wire and had rubbed the insulation away.

  • Just looking at all the objects flying around in the space station, although they are weightless, they still have mass.  How easy was it to get injured?

I have been injured, it’s usually that the mass is yourself going too fast.  I was injured on the Mir space station, cut my leg when getting ready to close the hatch as it was the end of the mission.  i didnt have my checklist in  my kneeboard, I can’t fly the rest of the mission without this kneeboard.  So I went flying into the Mir, at that point I was pretty well adapted to space, twirling around and flipping.  The US has something called a sharp edge inspection, anything sharp get filed down or covered, I don’t think the Russians do that, cut  a gash down my leg.  you can hurt yourself, it’s very rare, the bigger items need a lot of force to get them started and then their inertia takes over.  When I was the safety office, I got a phone call from someone at Mission Control who said that the astronauts on the space station are spinning themselves and we’re worried they are going to hurt themselves, could I call them and tell them to stop.  I said Ok and hung up, said to myself I am not calling them.  You’ve got to have fun.

  • The last NASA selection was 50/50 men and women, how long do you think there’ll be an all women crew and is it actually a good idea?

Oh what a question, I could tell you stories….we had a lot of jokes about it, within the women ourselves.  I don’t think NASA would ever had flown an all women crew in the shuttle era and I didn’t want to fly an all women crew.  When I was a Commander, Pam Melrose was a pilot, along with plenty of other mission specialists, we could have flown all women crews, but the problem is everytime that every little thing that broke would be blamed on the women.  The fuel cell failed, well its not the crews fault, you put all those women together.  On my first mission, there were high seas, a stormy February night, we launched, the boosters came down and hit the water, the crew has nothing to do with the boosters once they separate, they towed them back in, there was dent in the booster, it was the way they hit the wave.  I heard after the fact that that they were all joking “look what happens when you get a woman driver.”

The crew of STS-114
The crew of STS-114
  • How different did you find the transition from being Pilot on the second mission to being Commander on your third knowing you have someone else as your pilot?

I felt very prepared to move into the Commanders side, mostly because when I was in the Air Force I was the aircraft commander and had moved into that, previously being an instructor pilot, you are the aircraft commander as the instructor pilot as there’s only two of you.  Then I flew cargo on the C141 (Starlifter), had flew quite a while as co-pilot, had seen a lot, had seen enough experience as commander and we would take a crew of 7 around the world in the C141.  For the most part you were the decision maker on the flight, you let the crew do their job, come to me if you have a problem.  So when I went to the shuttle program, I felt philosophically and mentally I was ready for the commander position, I just needed to learn the technical side because the commander also operate the computer and life support system, the pilot does everything else.

The new challenge on being a commander was working with the Russians, thus shuttle became more and more international so we had to learn a little bit of russian.  The commander had to be a diplomat, diplomacy is really a big thing, you wanted to earn the trust of your counterparts in Russia and there are ways to do that.  The Russians are very social people, so we had to socialise with them and really get to know them and the bosses.  Its really changed as the years went by, its a long process, could a person move straight into the left seat as Commander?  Yes, they did in the early days, the commander of the space station doesn’t have to be pilot, they are selected on their leadership abilities, good listener, humble person.  Everyone is treated as fairly as possible, I always told my crew I can’t be 1000% fair, its not possible, two of you are going to do the spacewalk and the rest of you aren’t, everybody wants to do the spacewalk, there are times when you have to say no and still keep your crew motivated.  They are the challenging parts about being commander.

  • A surprising number of astronauts have suffered from nausea and space sickness, is that still the case or are we developing ways of handling that?

It is still the case but not as much as it used to be.  We know that a percentage of astronauts are going to get nauseous, the crew members I’ve flown with, the first time flyers, I’m amazed at who gets sick.  You imagine a pilot that they’re not going to get sick but then they get stomach awareness.  Some people have back pain because your back stretches but the biggest problem is the stomach awareness.  What we do nowadays is to take medicine, doctors let mission specialists take them before flight, anti-nausea phenergan or dexedrine which would keep you from getting sleepy; it works.  Doctors wouldn’t allow pilots and commanders to take it because they thought it might makes sleepy of affect the way we think.  As soon as I got to orbit, I’d take a pill, you don’t want to wait.  If you’ve flown before, you’d probably not going to have it again, your body learns.

Space Shuttle Discovery STS-114 Return to flight.
Space Shuttle Discovery STS-114 Return to flight.
  • You mentioned the work that had gone into gap repair in the tiles, was there any engineering solution for fixing RCC (reinforced carbon carbon) on the leading edge?

We had to accept some risk.  The shuttle pretty much as tiles all over the bottom, the leading edge of the wing and the tip of the nose have this RCC material which can take the highest temperatures. We know that the Columbia crew that had a hole in the wing, we never had a technique to fix a hole that big, we had to accept that risk.  The way we did that was by minimising the amount of foam that was going to fall off the fuel tank.  Small cracks, we had a way how to fix those but we couldn’t fix anything large.  We had a way to inspect so we knew if that there was a big hole, a decision would be made early in the flight, based on all the testing we had done, the crew would come home on the Soyuz or another space shuttle.  For my crew we had another shuttle on the launch pad that was fully processed and ready to go, if we had hole in the wing, launch another shuttle, do a  rendezvous in space and then bring us home.  We had to accept that risk for the rest of the shuttle program.  For the last shuttle flight we had to have another shuttle ready to fly, to bring them home and then we decommissioned the last shuttle.  We developed a risk management process by running flight rules ahead of time so if something bad happens, we don’t have to figure it out, its right there in paper.

Before we close, I want to say a word about the space station in orbit.  The purpose of it is to study the human body in space, that is its number one purpose.  The astronauts volunteer their body, have to do all kinds of tests.  But there are also some interesting things going on up there, all kind of technology development, 3D printing,studying bone loss, research into protein crystal growth to help us develop better medicines, plant and animal growth. Its a laboratory in space, its expensive to get your experiment up there, hoping to develop rockets and make it cheaper and fully utilise the space station.  The ISS has been extended to 2024 and trying to extend it to 2028 and get the international partners to join in.  I hope we turn the ISS over to tourists and let somebody else run it so tourists can go up there and have fun and enjoy being up in space.  That is the human spaceflight program.

It’s been a good day, a very polished presentation from Eileen who has been on stage for nearly 1 and 1/2 hours.  She’s been gracious, attentive and friendly, (playing with the kid who was after my photo swinging him around), what a fantastic ambassador for the space program.  The team at www.space-lectures.com have pulled an absolute blinder.

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Nick Cook

Amateur astronomer, space, history, nerd, extreme dog walker, cat slave, severe tinnitus sufferer. 13.7 billion years in the making - not that much better for it.

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