|Astronaut Stephen N. Frick Photo Credit: NASA
A veteran space flier, Navy Cmdr. Stephen N. Frick, will command the STS-122 shuttle mission to deliver the European Space Agency's Columbus Laboratory to the International Space Station on Dec. 6. Navy Cmdr. Alan G. Poindexter will serve as pilot. Mission specialists include Air Force Col. Rex J. Walheim, Stanley G. Love, Leland D. Melvin and European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel. Poindexter, Love and Melvin will be making their first spaceflight.
Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Daniel Tani, who flew to the space station on STS-120, will return home with the STS-122 crew and be replaced by European Space Agency astronaut Léopold Eyharts.
STS-122 is the 24th shuttle mission to the International Space Station.
Interspacenews.com spoke with Cmdr. Frick in late October about his mission to the International Space Station. Here is the interview.
Question: Let’s talk about STS-122. What are you doing to gear up for it?
Answer: We are five weeks out and getting ready for it. We are excited about it.
Q: What are some of the challenges of this mission.
A: The top priority of our mission is to deliver Columbus to the space station. Every crew thinks their mission is exciting and important, as do we. Earlier missions brought up truss segments and they were important because they are the backbone of the international space station and provide power that is needed to run the ISS. But it is very exciting to actually bring up a laboratory module with pressurized control. We will be able to install it and go inside and help get it up and running. It will be used in the future for research. I feel like we are really taking a great step with the space station to help them out with its capabilities.
Q: What else will take place during the mission?
A: Well, the thing weighs about 25,000 pounds and will use up most of the payload area to get it up into orbit. There are a couple of other (smaller) payloads we are taking up that will mount onto Columbus, which our spacewalkers will have to go outside to install. One is a telescope that will be mounted on the top of the Columbus module and the other is EuTEF, which is a real science experiment that will test radiation (levels) and materials in the vacuum of space. Those are mainly the things that we will carry in the payload bay and that will be installed in space. The other thing is a nitrogen tank, which is a big huge box. Hans Schlegel and Rex Walheim will move it around on their space walk. It will replace one that is on the space station already but has been used up. Plus we have a couple of thousand pounds of hardware in the mid deck that we will move by hand and bags stowed away inside of the area we will live in. Once we dock with the station we will move that over and hopefully take some stuff off their hands, which they are not using anymore and bring it home. It gets pretty crowded up there after a while.
Q: How many EVAs (space walks) are planned?
A: We have three, which is about normal for a space station mission. The mission that is up now (STS-121) has what we call a power transfer station, they are able to actually use power from the station so they can stay up a little longer. Atlantis doesn’t have that so we are limited to about 12 days for a total mission so three EVAs is about the most we can fit in. We could probably fit one more in if we had to. Three is about right for us.
Q: You mission has an international crew, two are from the European Space Agency. Have they been training with you?
A: Hans Schlegel has been training since the very beginning and is an astronaut from ESA. He actually flew in 1993 so he is an experienced flyer and he is doing the space walks with Rex Walheim, who is experienced also. Rex and myself actually flew together on our last mission (STS-110 in April 2002, Atlantis). We were both rookies on that flight. Rex did two spacewalks and I actually did the piloting of the shuttle. It will be great flying with him again. Hans will do a great job, it is his first space walk. He has been in Houston since 1998. Leopold Eyharts is also with ESA and has been training for long duration space flight and he has done a lot of training on the space station side as well as with us in Houston. We will bring him up to the space station and he will replace Dan Tani who will be coming home with us. We will swap out crewmembers.
Q: Do you also have rookies – first time flyers – on the flight?
A: Yes we do. It is interesting when you look at our crew. It really is not as experienced as some other crews (in the number of flights to space). I have one, Rex has one and Hans has one. And Leopold, although he has not flown on a shuttle flight, he has flown on the Soyuz and has been to the MIR space station. The pilot (Alan Poindexter) is a Navy F14 pilot and has been in Houston since 1998 as an astronaut but has not flown before. But while we have a number of guys who have not flown in space, they have plenty of experience and have been at NASA for almost 10 years. Their experience level and knowledge about people and space flight is much more than someone who hasn’t flown yet. They have done a great job in training and they are going to do great in space.
Q: What does the crew do after the launch to get ready for docking with the International Space Station?
A: It is a sprint from day one. After you launch into space you only have a couple of hours to get the needed flight data and convert the vehicle from a launch vehicle over to a space vehicle. We have to tear down and stow away stuff used during launch and make it livable because for the next few days you live in it. About five hours after launch you go to bed and then we start the race to get all the preparations we need to get done before we dock with the space station. That means checking all the thermal protection systems and get the hardware all checked out because we need to have it all ready for the minute we dock. There is just a tremendous amount of things we need to get done on that second day of flight. Then on the third day we get to dock with the space station and it takes the whole first half of the day to get the rendezvous and docking sequence finished where it is done accurate enough so we can have a successful docking. As soon as we dock we have some immediate things we have to do in preparation to go inside so when we go to bed that night we are ready for the next day. Rex and Hans have a space walk the next day and we have to get them in the airlock and depressurized so they can get nitrogen out of their systems so they can do their spacewalks. So the first three to four days are just a race. It has been interesting. Every time we have bad accidents, and we have had some in the past, we learn about something more you need to do to have a safe flight. So every time one happens we have to add something else to the space flight. After the Columbia accident we realized how delicate the thermal protection system is so we learned what we have to do so we are confident that there won’t be problems when we reenter when the mission is done. So one of the things we have to do is inspect it very closely on orbit and that takes a number of hours and three or four people working together on that inspection thoroughly enough so that we feel confident about it. We also look again the day after un-docking to make sure we didn’t get any damage while on orbit, like from a meteorite or other things that can hit during launch.
Q: Let’s talk about the dangers of being parked at the space station. Do you hear space debris if it hits the shuttle while in orbit?
A: No, you usually don’t hear anything. On the first flight for Rex and I, we took a hit to one of our windows and luckily the windows are more than one pane – they are very thick – and a micro meteoroid, probably the size of a speck of dust, was going so fast that when it hit us it was probably traveling at thousands of miles per hour and it damaged us. We were just floating around one day inside the shuttle and we just happened to look at a window and we saw what looked like if you pick up a rock from the road that hits your window, you see a ding to the glass. That is what it looked like – a pockmark with a little shattering around it. The window didn’t break but it was obviously damaged. We didn’t hear it at all. Now they do have something in the wings since the Columbia accident. They have sensors in the carbon part of the tip of the wing, which is the most vulnerable and most important part of the wing for reentry. The have accelerometers to measure the impact when it happens. So they do periodically pull this data down from the orbiter to the ground and look at it real closely to see if anything hit during this period. And then they know if they have to go look at a panel more closely.
Q: It is amazing to think they can check data from 250 miles above the Earth from the ground.
A: Yes it is. NASA engineers have done a great job coming up with solutions. It is always hard to take a vehicle that has been flying for a number of years and add stuff to it that wasn’t put in the original design. They have come up with creative ways to let us keep flying it. Space flight is always dangerous and the crew understands that, but certainly we feel confident at launch to know that there are so many folks that are trying as hard as they can to make it safe as it can be to fly.
Q: What kind of sleep time do you get while in space? Is it hard to fall asleep?
|Stephen Frick Inside Atlantis during TCDT. Photo Credit: NASA
A: We get about 8 hours of sleep each day. Everyone finds it different. I have the one flight under my belt, so for me, it was easy because we worked so hard during the awake hours. I know, it is hard to say you work hard when you are up there floating around and the physical side is pretty light (without gravity). But, it is like having the busiest workday you have ever had and you have it for days and days in a row. You get cleaned up, and then dive into the work of the day and work for up to 16 hours of wake time to try and get everything done that is scheduled for that day. You get done and you have maybe a half-hour or hour to unwind and get yourself prepared to sleep. I found for myself, that boom, when the lights go out at the beginning of the eight-hour sleep period, I fall asleep right away. Remember that you are essentially floating in your sleeping bag bouncing off the edge of the shuttle and you are trying to wind yourself down, getting your mind slowed down enough to get to sleep. I found that you get so tired from the mental strain of working through that schedule day after day that it really tires you out and you fall right to sleep. I hope I am the same on this mission.
Q: Is it dark in the shuttle when you go to sleep. After all, the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes.
A: What we do is cover up the windows, so when the sun comes up every 45 minutes it doesn’t wake us up. We cover them the best we can and we turn the inside lights out so it is dark and of course there are eye covers you can put on. We actually have iPods that we can turn on, we use to have tape players, so we can listen to music to help us fall asleep. You listen to something nice and quiet and it works for most of us.
Q: What is it like when you get home? Do you have a hard time getting back into a routine?
A: When we get home we are pretty tired. Shuttle missions have gotten more and more crowded with activities and when you do it for 12 days, the mission that is up there now is for 15 days, so when you come home you really are exhausted. You need a couple of days to try and recover. But after a week or so you are feeling pretty good. When you are up at the space station for months and when you come back, it takes a lot longer to get back into the swing of things, both physically and just the energy level.
Q: Is it different sleeping in the space station than the shuttle during a mission?
A: It is different. Now I haven’t actually slept there because on the last mission, as the pilot, I was mainly responsible to watch over the systems and to react to any problems with the shuttle, so I slept there. I know people who do sleep on the station said it is bigger inside than the shuttle. I know when you float from the shuttle into the station for the first time it is bigger. I know you have got to think about what you are going to do when you get inside or you might find yourself in the middle with nothing to grab on to. It is bigger and more open and it doesn’t have as many windows so the light isn’t really a problem so most of us find it very comfortable to sleep in.
Q: This will be your first time landing the shuttle. I know as a military test pilot you have landed on a carrier more than 370 times. Do you think that experience will help you bring the shuttle home?
A: It is quite different than a carrier. But they have a system for training us to land the shuttle. They have excellent simulators and we have a shuttle landing aircraft, a modified Gulf Stream, that we fly. It simulates the last couple of minutes from when you go sub sonic and get closer to the Kennedy Space Center. I have well over a thousand landings between the simulators and the shuttle training aircraft as well as reviewing videotapes of previous landings. We have a real good idea of how it is going to feel landing it. We also talk to every commander that comes back and lands it -- how was it different from a simulator, how it was different from the aircraft and they all say, “It flies just like the training aircraft but better. It is much smoother. It just feels great and very responsive.” So, between the training we do with aircraft and training on simulators and talking to commanders we are very comfortable with landing on our first try.
Q: Wrapping it up, with the winding down of the shuttle program in 2010, any thoughts about what you will bring home from this mission, which is most likely your last?
Astronaut Stephen N. Frick, STS-110 pilot, looks through the Earth observation window in the Destiny laboratory on the International Space Station (ISS). Photo Credit: NASA
A: In aviation, you go through a lot of lasts. I went through my last carrier landing and things like that. Every time we fly we think that it is our last mission. As an astronaut, it is also what could happen in your private life or with the space program that could make it your last flight so I treat every one as a really special event. This one is most likely going to be my last flight but you really don’t think about that as much as you think about how are we going to make it through this mission – is it going to be successful and are we going to get all the work done. Once we get up into space, it is really going to be the views of the Earth that makes me think about it. I remember from my first mission that when you look out and look down at Earth and see a spot that has an importance in your life, where you grew up or where you got married or a special vacation or where a friend or family member is living and you look down at the spot and you think about if this is the last time you are going to see it from 200 miles up. You just kind of lock it in your brain, to preserve that moment. I will probably have a few more of those on this mission because it may be the last time I see where I grew up from space. It is a tremendous experience and a tremendous gift to have the opportunity to see the Earth from 200 or more miles up above. I certainly try to absorb it the best I can. I also try and bring as much of the experience back, through video and descriptions. We are always trying to think of ways to share it with folks on the ground. Once space flight gets more accessible, more people can get to experience it.
Q: Do stars look the same up there as they do down here on Earth?
A: It is really a shame because the thing that I remember the most is what the Earth looked like. Most of the time when you are awake you are working and if you are working, you have the lights on inside the vehicle so you can’t see the stars. It is like a night flight in an airplane, you can’t see outside, so unless you take the time and shut off all the lights inside, you really can’t see the stars. The thing I remember is the aurora that I saw on the last flight. When we were getting ready to undock from the space station, and back away, we went through a night pass through the southern hemisphere, right near Australia and the aurora was going through the southern latitude at that moment. There were these green ribbons that were starting below us and coming up through our altitude and higher and we were flying through this green mist that was kind of moving around. It just looked remarkable. It was one of those things that was burned into my memory forever. It is something I will always hold onto. I probably won’t ever get to see that again.
Q: Any last thoughts?
A: Just that we are looking forward to this mission.