Mark Polansky enjoyed a successful 14-year career as an Air Force fighter pilot before joining NASA as an aerospace engineer and research pilot in 1992. Selected as an astronaut candidate in April 1996, he has since flown three space shuttle missions to the International Space Station, piloting the space shuttle Atlantis in February 2001 (STS-98), and serving as commander aboard Discovery in December 2006 (STS-116), and Endeavour in July 2009 (STS-127).
Mark Polansky: Well, I was at a point in my career where it was time to decide whether I was going to go ahead and take some non-flying jobs. At the same time, I had a friend of mine that was out here [at NASA] who told me that there were some flight opportunities opening up, so I decided to pursue some goals to stay in the cockpit and keep on flying. The job here at NASA looked pretty attractive, so I decided to move over.
NTB: When you joined NASA in 1992 as an aerospace engineer and research pilot, your primary responsibility involved teaching astronaut pilots space shuttle landing techniques, even though at that point in your career you had never flown the space shuttle. How did your experience with F-15 and F-5E fighter aircraft prepare you for that assignment?
Polansky: Well certainly flying fighters is a pretty high-paced job; it keeps you really sharp. You're moving really fast, pulling lots of Gs, making some split second decisions. A lot of work that I had done at Eglund was with some weapons testing and development, so it involved doing a lot of high-angle passes to the ground. When I transitioned over to the shuttle training aircraft, it was actually very similar to flying what we used to call "low-angle low-drags," which was a 20-degree dive. Coming in at the shuttle speed of 300 knots was actually kind of slow compared to doing a 30-degree dive bombing, which is more like 400, 450 knots, so the two kind of married up very well.
NTB: For the adrenalin junkies in our audience, how does flying the space shuttle compare to flying an F-15 fighter?
Polansky: It really doesn't. To me, the thing is that when you're actually at the controls of a shuttle and you're coming in, you know that you only have one shot and you've got to get it right because there are a whole lot of people watching. And, of course, you haven't flown it in quite a few weeks, since your last training mission in a shuttle training aircraft, so you definitely know that you've got to get it right. The F-15 is just a completely different atmosphere where the flying isn't the big treat; it's what you get to do with it.
NTB: You've flown on three space shuttle missions to date – one as the pilot and two as the shuttle commander. Can you explain for our readers the breakdown in responsibilities between these two positions and how they typically interact during a mission?
Polansky: Sure. The commander is kind of easy. The commander is basically in charge and responsible for everything, so even though I might delegate a lot of things to other people, ultimately I feel that it's my responsibility for how the mission gets executed. So from an operational perspective, you need to know everything that's going on around you.
As far as the shuttle itself, we sort of divvy up the responsibilities for the systems. The commander historically takes charge of all of the computers on board, the data processing system, and the environmental systems for the most part. The rest of the shuttle systems are controlled by the pilot. But any commander will tell you that he or she remembers everything they learned as a pilot, so they're very in tune to what's going on on that side of the cockpit as well.
The pilot, besides backing up the commander for everything, is primarily responsible for some of the major systems onboard the orbiter. The auxiliary power unit, which controls our hydraulics systems; the electrical power systems; the orbital maneuvering system; propellants; the reaction control system, or RCS jets; all those things are given to the pilot.