STS-123: Endeavour’s trip to the International Space Station, a night launch and landing, took place from March 11-26, 2008. It was the 25th Shuttle/Station assembly mission.
|Commander Dominic "Dom" Gorie Photo Credit: NASA
Endeavour’s seven person crew delivered both the Japanese Experiment Logistics Module Pressurized Section, the first component of JAXA’s Kibo Laboratory, and the final element of the station’s Mobile Servicing System, the Canadian-built Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator, also known as “Dexter.”
Five spacewalks were performed while on the station. The STS-123 crew also delivered Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Garrett Reisman, and returned to Earth with ESA’s Léopold Eyharts. The mission was accomplished in 250 orbits of the Earth, traveling over 6 million miles in 15 days, 18 hours, 10 minutes and 54 seconds. The crew included Dominic Gorie (Commander); Gregory Johnson (Pilot) and mission specialists Richard Linnehan, Robert Behnken, Michael Forman, and Japanese space program’s Takao Doi.
InterspaceNews.com spoke with Commander Gori following his return to Earth at the conclusion of the STS-123 mission - here is what he had to say:
Question: Welcome Back to Earth. Did you have a good flight?
Answer: It was about as wonderful a flight as you can imagine being a part of.
Q: Can you talk about making history on a couple different fronts?
A: Yes we did set some records -- on EVAs, five in all, and for the longest duration in space (for a Shuttle at ISS) and robotics. It really was a great flight to be a part of.
Q: This was your fourth time being in space. Anything different this time or did you see anything you haven’t seen before?
A: (Laughter). Yes, a bigger space station! The solar rays have dramatically changed the look of the station. Before (when I was there) there was just one of them. The vertical ones are just standing out there and when you are coming in they fill up more than a window view and then when you get a certain distance away from the space station, they look magnificent. Then the size of the elements of the station, once you dock, have changed dramatically also. There is a lot more open volume. It was quite different. And of course the view of Earth is always spectacular. On a flight this busy, you don’t get as much time to look out the windows.
|ISS as seen by the STS-123 crew. Photo Credit: NASA
Q: What time of the day did you get to look out?
A: This time we launched at night and landed at night so it put us over the United States at night so it was dark and all we could see was lights when passing over it. Every time we flew over the United States we would see lights and outlines of cities and the coastline. During no passes over the U.S. did we see a whole lot - but we did see Africa and Australia a lot.
|STS-91 crew aboard Mir Photo Credit: NASA
Q: Let’s talk about STS-91 (Discovery), your first mission, when you docked with MIR. Can you talk about the contrast between MIR and ISS?
A: The big difference of course when you come upon them to dock is the size of both. It’s like climbing into a car with Mir and a motor home with the ISS, there is a size difference.
Inside the MIR, it was very clear that that space station had been up there a long time. It was cluttered and not clean looking. Their (Russian) choice of colors was not what we would have picked. At the ISS, you can tell when you are in the Russian section. The U.S. and international sections are white and very clean. The Russian’s is more of almost a cloth covered surface and off-white, like yellow with blues, and it feels very different.
Even now the Russian segments are not designed with as much stowage in mind. The U.S. and its international partners have more storage on the walls. Theirs has a more cluttered feeling to it.
|Commander Gorie floates inside the Russian segment of the International Space Station Photo Credit: NASA
But the difference between the ISS and MIR is you would be bumping into things at MIR, the walls and modules. You couldn’t fit some of the larger bags through doors on MIR without knocking into things. Now at the ISS, it is roomy and beautiful. It is hard to make an analogy without offending the MIR people but it is like being in a subcompact old car vs. a huge, new motor home.
Q: Moving on to your next mission STS-99 (Endeavour) in 2000. It was a topography mission mapping 47 million miles of Earth’s land surface. You didn’t go inside the ISS instead you were in the shuttle the entire time. What was that like?
A: It was a low altitude - pretty high above Hubble inclination.
That mission was working around the clock so half the crew was sleeping while the other half was working. We had this long dome with radar on the end of it in the payload bay so we were able to have two radars with two sets of eyes instead of one so it built a three dimensional map of the Earth.
It was 10 days in a small shuttle with six crewmembers. It was really busy but not near as exciting as the changing every day like you get on a space station flight. When you dock and rendezvous with the ISS, those are big events! And of course the EVAs are a big thing too. Then you go back and forth with all the transfer items on a space station mission so it is new and exciting every day. However, on the mapping flight, we had beautiful views of the Earth and some spectacular pictures and data. But it was totally a different kind of flight.
Q: Let’s talk again about the ISS. What are your impressions of it now that it is almost 70 percent finished?
A: The size is dramatic – both internally and externally and of course now, with the addition of international partner’s modules. Before it was just Russian and American, now it’s got European and Japanese and it’s truly becoming an international space station. It is more than just a name. Everybody is working and has more of a stake in it.
Q: Is it sad that there is a chance that you won’t get to see it completed?
A; Well, you think it is great that you get to fly one time in space, it is unbelievably rewarding. But to go four times is beyond belief!
I saw an early stage and then a later stage of growth. It is more than anybody deserves. What I have seen will carry me forever. I think we will see movies and pictures of the completed station for years to come and we have plenty of folks who will go up and see if for the first time so I can follow what it looks like when it is completed.
Q: Let’s talk about ST-123 (March 2008). You narrated several press conferences about the mission and the one that stuck out in my mind was during launch looking back from the external tank and seeing the solid rocket boosters lighting up - it was night and very spectacular! Can you walk us through that?
| STS-123 night launch Photo Credit: NASA
A: The big difference for me on this mission was the nighttime launch. At nighttime the ignition is quite a bit different than the daytime. It lights up the inside of the cockpit and is more radical - from darkness to instant lightness! It gets your attention more than the daytime ones. The night launches are exciting and the three guys with me on the flight deck, this was their first time flying so that was (also) special.
We had a few events going on during ascent that were not planned and abnormal for systems. We worked them and that made it even more exciting.
The big difference for me was the explosion of light, and then as we went through (a cloud deck at) 6,000 feet, all that light was reflecting back inside the cockpit and the clouds made it a pretty radical transition as you went through that layer of clouds.
Q: Was that your first night launch?
A: Yes it was.
Q: This mission had five planned spacewalks and set a record for that. And it was an international crew also. Did you learn Japanese?
A: I used all my Japanese words on the launch. I had about five. I know how to say hello and goodbye. We also had one Russian cosmonaut on the ISS also but English is the accepted language on the space station so most folks do talk in it. There are a few guys who learned a few words here and there – food objects, hello, goodbye and thank you in Japanese. We are not proficient in that language by any means.
Q: I heard that you had some Japanese cuisine aboard the ISS. What did you have?
|Lunch time on the station. Photo Credit: NASA
A: We had some food tasting sessions at Johnson Space Center prior to the flight. Takao Doi helped to organize a bunch of Japanese food from his space program to take up with us. Of course it had to be able to be rehydrated in space. We tasted all those selections before we went up and they were all very good. A lot of people selected them for lunch and for dinner instead of what we had to offer.
Q: What kinds of food did you have?
A: All different kinds of noodles, they called them space noodles, with shrimp and some had chicken. There was this shish kabob selection with chicken on a stick. That was really popular. Maybe eight different things you could choose from. They came in a different packaging than American food, so we had to work harder to get them to rehydrate right.
Q: Did you tast anything different?
A: Space Nagima, skewered chicken with seafood with a lot shrimp in it. I ate that a lot. Food up there has more spices in it. You don’t want it to be crumbly, it is hard to eat that way. Meats are hard to replicate what you get on Earth. I loved the breakfast foods.
Q: What was your first meal when you came back?
A: We went out for breakfast. I had an omelet at a place across the street from the hotel. I was really looking forward to a cheeseburger, though.
Q: Talking about spacewalks, what was your role?
A: The commander’s job is usually to manage the different systems that are working at one time.Almost all of our spacewalks had robotics going on. So you like to have someone inside coordinating the walk. We had a rotating trio, two guys would be out (walking) the other would be inside coordinating the spacewalk and then someone else would be on the robotic arm. It is really good to have someone who oversees those operations being integrated. The commander’s job is to sit back and watch it all. There is something to be said for having the big picture of what is going on.
Q: You had first timers out there. What was their reaction after coming in from the vacuum of space?
A: The first exclamations after coming in from outside were, “spectacular!” But other than that, there was no difference between three or four of them. Once they got outside, it was unbelievable to watch how comfortable they really were with everything that we asked them to do. It was remarkable the talent of the guys with the EVAs.
Q: Any issues during the EVAs?
A: There were only a couple of hiccups. There were a few pieces that got stuck and some sticky bolts, fasteners and connectors. They used a little bit of ingenuity and force and they got it all to work. It was really impressive.
Q: What were your thoughts when you were backing away from the station?
A: Well, it was time to come home. When you finished five space walks and spend that long in orbit, you are pretty tired. It was a satisfying (feeling) to know that we accomplish what we had set out to do. We had Léopold Eyharts aboard and we were backing away and it was sad to see Garrett (Reisman) being left there. He was a critical part of our crew and we enjoyed working with him. But in a couple of months he will be back here with us. But it was very satisfying and it (was)clear that our work was done and it was time to head home.
Q: What about landing? It was your first night landing correct?
|Gorie Lands Endeavour at night. Photo Credit: NASA
A: Yes it was. We had trained for that night landing for several months. We were comfortable with that but it is more difficult to land at night and especially at the end of a longer flight it is even more difficult. Your body is tired. The day landings are easier and more people get to see them. At night you can’t see the shuttle until you are on the threshold.
Q: Were there physical changes being up there those extra few days?
A: I felt different after this one than an 11-day flight. Rick also commented it was different. The guys on the flight deck, it was their first mission, so they had nothing to compare it to.
Clearly I think it was related to those extra days. It was a big part of it. You are physically tired, mentally tired and all those things challenge you both on reentry and also when you get out and do normal things for a few days. It is hard. If someone asked if you prefer day or night one, you would be crazy not to choose a day one. Night landings are hard.
Q: What about the boom being left behind. Any concerns?
A: No. We had high confidence in the state of the orbiter when we left the ISS. There was a day or two risk of being hit by meteorites, but that possibility was pretty low to begin with. So the choice was logical that this was the mission we had to do that.
It did complicate the landing inspection, swinging the boom around during an on inspection while still docked at the ISS. We had to be more careful and be aware of the structure of the space station so we didn’t quite get a perfect inspection. That made it a bit of a challenge but it was all right.
Q: How did Dexter look up there?
| Dexter - Photo Credit: NASA
A: It looked like a human bodied robot many different times. A couple of times we had one arm up extended out while the other was down so it looked human-like, like a gunfighter. We were good at coming up with human characteristics for it.
Q: The second part of Kibo is going up on the next mission. During your mission you got to take up the first part of the project. Which do you think will be the most exciting for the Japanese Space Program?
A: We had lunch with some JAXA people when we got back and we tried to get them to say which was more exciting, seeing the first part of Kibo go up or the big JEM module (the end of May). Of course they said getting the first piece up there was more exciting than you can imagine. But getting this next big module there is going to be the largest module up there and that is going to be exciting. They are excellent at building good hardware. That piece that we brought was fine craftsmanship.
Q: Did you get to go into the Columbus module at all?
A: Yes and we had some people sleeping in there. We had them sleeping in there every night. Columbus was nice, but it sill needs to get populated with some more racks, but it still was big and spacious. Several of our media/conference events took place inside of there.
Q: Wrapping up, anything you want to add?
A: We told the story upon coming back that to design a flight that was challenging, you would make it like this one. It was long, five EVAs, and plenty of robotics with a night launch and a night landing – and on top of it all, you would have your hands full with a really demanding mission. The fact that we were able to do all that and come home with five successful spacewalks and leave hardware up there that we planned to leave was rewarding and hard to describe. To see something that we worked on for over a year come to fruition is special.