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).
NASA Tech Briefs: Before joining NASA you enjoyed a distinguished 14-year career with the Air Force as a fighter pilot, test pilot, and flight instructor. What made you resign your Air Force commission to pursue a career with NASA?
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.
NTB: Which of your three missions to the International Space Station would you say was the most challenging, and why?
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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