Astronaut Drew Feustel is scheduled to fly aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery when it makes what is projected to be the final manned mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Feustel will perform three of the five spacewalks planned for that mission.
NASA Tech Briefs: You have a Ph.D. in geological sciences and your professional career before coming to NASA involved seismology in the mining industry. How does one parlay that kind of experience into a career as an astronaut?
Drew Feustel: Well, I'm still trying to figure that one out. Most of us, as astronauts, are hired for our ability to learn new things and new techniques. Most of us also have a technical background, so we have a good understanding of how tools and hardware and equipment operate. Also, in my field, I was able to get a lot of operational field experience with seismology and the mining environment installing hardware, making repairs to hardware in the field, looking at design issues, and that sort of thing. All of those skill-sets that you would need to do that job carry over quite nicely to being an astronaut, but the actual job itself as a seismologist doesn't correlate directly unless you look at potential missions back to the Moon and on to Mars.
NTB: You are scheduled to fly on what is proposed to be the final Space Shuttle mission to refurbish the Hubble Telescope. What will your duties be on that mission?
Feustel: I will be performing three of five spacewalks over a period of five days. Specifically I'll be involved with replacing some of the scientific instruments on Hubble, and repairing two others.
NTB: When NASA cancelled the Hubble servicing mission planned for 2004 following the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003, and they began studying the feasibility of using robots to carry out that task, what went through your mind? Did you think you would ever get an opportunity like this?
Feustel: I wasn't really involved in that aspect of the Hubble and Hubble repair missions. I've just been involved since the re-establishment of the manned repair missions. At that time in my career I was looking for an opportunity to fly on ANY shuttle mission, to the Space Station primarily. Really, when the opportunity to fly to Hubble was presented, it was gladly accepted and looked upon as a great opportunity and a great experience. But in terms of the early planning phases and the decision to go ahead and do the manned mission, I really wasn't involved or following those decisions too closely at the time.
NTB: This will be your first mission into space, correct?
Feustel: That's right.
NTB: Considering it's the last Shuttle mission to Hubble, what does being part of such a historic mission as this mean to you on a personal level?
Feustel: It's pretty special, and the closer we get to the flight and the more excitement there is about it just makes it that much more important for myself and for my family and friends. The best part about it is being able to share it with those people and allow them to see aspects of the space program and the excitement that surrounds this mission.
You know, Hubble itself has provided some amazing scientific information, as well as the beautiful images that it returns of the cosmos. We've learned so much more about space that we would never have known if it hadn't been for Hubble and its discoveries. And really, just creating new questions for us as scientists in the world community to try to answer for ourselves, and how that all relates to our civilization.
NTB: This mission was formally announced in October 2006, which means that if all goes well it will be roughly two years from the time you first learned you were going until the actual launch. A lot can happen in two years that is out of your control. How difficult is the waiting period on an astronaut?
Feustel: I waited six years before I was even assigned to my first flight, so waiting another two is pretty insignificant for an astronaut who has been with the program since about 2000. We are accustomed to waiting a long time. We understand how the program is designed, how many flights we have left, and what the flight rate is, so it's not hard.
I think there's a little bit of an expectation when you come into the program, at least with us and the classes that have followed us, that you will be waiting for a longer period of time than you may have waited in the early 1990s before you get an opportunity to fly. Flying in space is really the icing on the cake; what's important about this job is being excited about what you do day-to-day and just loving the job itself, while looking forward to the flight opportunities that come later.
NTB: What kind of a training regimen does one have to go through to prepare for a mission like this?
Feustel: We train regularly. As you said, we will have been assigned for almost two years and we've been training, slowly getting more and more intensive in it. The last eight months to a year have been pretty intensive and involve a lot of simulations for the Shuttle flight itself – the launch, the entry, the orbital phases. And then, of course, we train on a monthly basis at the neutral buoyancy lab for the EVA (extravehicular activities) space work. Here at the neutral buoyancy lab in Houston, we have mock-ups of the Hubble Space Telescope and we train in our spacesuits under water for those tasks we'll be carrying out during EVAs.
NTB: Shuttle missions are normally launched into an orbital trajectory that allows them to rendezvous with the International Space Station in the event of an emergency, but because Hubble is in a different orbit, that won't be possible with this launch. That makes it a little more risky. Does that concern you at all?
Feustel: What you said is true about the inability to rendezvous with the Space Station. However, in terms of the rescue capabilities, we're going to be using the very same planning that we would for a Space Station rendezvous mission. We will have a vehicle on the other pad at Kennedy Space Center ready to go when we launch.
The difference between our mission and a Space Station mission is that a Space Station mission crew can remain on Space Station for a certain number of days before the Shuttle has to come and rescue them and bring them home. It's no different between them and us. The only difference is the vehicle on the pad has to launch much sooner to get us. We have about 25 days that we can survive in orbit before our cryo – the fuel we use to create electricity – runs out and the Shuttle becomes uninhabitable.
The Space Station is exactly the same. They eventually run out of consumables like food and water if they don't have a vehicle coming up to re-supply those people that would be onboard during that timeframe. So the impacts are the same. The difference is they can wait a little longer on Station, but we'll have a vehicle on the pad, ready to go when we launch should the need arise for them to come and get us.
NTB: Earlier this year you got to go to Daytona International Speedway to participate in a joint celebration of NASA's 50th anniversary and the 50th running of the Daytona 500. You met with some of the crews, you got an up-close look at some of the cars, and I understand you even got to take a few laps in a Stock Car. Having been a mechanic when you were in college, how does some of the technology you saw there compare with the technology you see every day at NASA?
Feustel: The similarities are that the techniques for fixing one vehicle are the same as they are for fixing another. They all involve tools and human intervention and human ingenuity to get the job done. I guess the difference with the Hubble Telescope, specifically, is that the tools are very different. They're designed for astronauts in large spacesuits with limited mobility and dexterity to work on interfaces in a vacuum. With a mechanic, of course, you have much better dexterity, you're typically wearing very thin gloves or using your bare hands, and working on much finer instruments.
The similarities are there in terms of the skills, but the techniques and the tools are very different.
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