Polansky: Without a doubt, it was the last – STS-127. And the short answer is that it was much more complex and had much more on its plate than my first two. At the time, of course, when I flew STS-98 as a pilot, it was my very first one and I thought that was pretty challenging, and it was. Then on STS-116 we had a lot to do where we were basically doing a lot of work from the ground, redoing the electrical system and then having to deal with a solar array that didn't retract as it was supposed to.
This mission, STS-127, actually went fairly much by the book compared to my first two, but we had five spacewalks, intricate robotics that were interwoven with the spacewalks every single day of the mission, and we had three arms going, so it was a sprint from start to finish. I barely had time to come up and catch a breath.
NTB: Speaking of this last mission, you helped set a record by being one of 13 people onboard the International Space Station at one time, more than doubling its normal capacity. What were the living conditions like with that many people in such a confined space for eleven days?
Polansky: Great question. Actually it's not that confined a space. It's pretty big. Since my last visit we've gotten a couple of extra modules. You have a Node 2, and connected to that are the Japanese laboratory and its logistic module, and on the other side is Columbus, the European laboratory. So with all of that, and when you get back to the Russian segment with two Soyuz and it's got a docking compartment, there's really a lot of room to go ahead and spread out.
When you come aboard and it's just during the normal day, you rarely find more than two people in one place at any time. The only exceptions would be if you're preparing for a spacewalk there's going to be a lot of activity around the airlocks and, more importantly, when it's mealtime we try to get together as much as possible. Then it would kind of crowd a bunch of people into one area, right outside the airlock in Node 1, but for the most part, even with 13 people, I found it very roomy.
NTB: As Endeavour's mission commander, what were your duties while the shuttle was docked at the International Space Station? I'm sure you didn't sit around all day reading NASA Tech Briefs.
Polansky: No. The main thing was just to sort of keep track of what was on the plate for that day – spacewalks, robotics, and everything, and just be there to offer any help that I could and make sure that things were going smoothly, push a little bit here and there where it needed to be, or offer a hand here or there.
For the robotics side of the house, I pretty much had the job of being the backup person for the shuttle robotic arm, and then I also did some of the robotics for the Japanese robotic arm. But primarily I just tried to keep a really big picture and then get out of the way of all the folks on my crew who were trying to do their jobs, because the worst thing you could have is some micromanaging, overachieving commander trying to go ahead and dictate what's going on when they didn't really need me.
NTB: As we look to the future, having flown on Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour, how do you feel about the space shuttle program being phased out now?
Polansky: Well, you know, it's bittersweet, and there are a lot of different thoughts and emotions on that. Certainly, I understand that nothing flies forever and that there is always going to be a time when you have to move on and do other things. I never thought I'd see the day when I'd see F-15s on static displays, on pedestals, outside of Air Force bases, but there you have it. That's just the natural evolution of things.
It doesn't mean that I won't be sad to see it go, because I got to fly in three of them and it's a pretty amazing vehicle. I know that it's had its warts and that we've had some catastrophic results twice, but it does something that no other vehicle can do right now, and it's kind of a shame that this has to happen – the retirement I mean – in order to go ahead and make way for other things. But, you know, you just can't have everything you want in this world, so I just accept it for what it is.
NTB: What advice would you offer to young people who might be interested in pursuing a career with NASA as an astronaut?
Polansky: Well, the first thing I would sit there and say is, don't get fixated on being an astronaut. That's easy for me to say, having been one, but what I try to tell folks when I go out to visit schools and other things is to, number one, make sure you realize that you have to go ahead and put in a lot of hard work. You've got to study really hard; you've got to get those degrees; and then you need to find things that you really enjoy doing. You cannot go out there and say, "What do I have to do that's going to make me look good on a resume to become an astronaut?" The cookbook approach does not work. So I tell folks, if you enjoy scuba diving and skydiving and all those kinds of things, go for it, but don't do it just because you think it's going to make you look better. You tend to do well at the things you really have a passion for.
Once you go and do that, then the other things that I advise folks are a) patience, and b) perseverance. I applied four times and interviewed three times before I got the call, so do not be surprised if they don't ask you the first time around.
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