Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Shuttle pilot discusses his March flight aboard Discovery

Col. Boe piloted shuttle Discovery's final flight. (Tony Madden/ FSC)

Space shuttle astronaut Col. Eric Boe, who piloted the final flight of Discovery in March, recently returned to his hometown of Atlanta just weeks following his second trip to the International Space Station.

Inside the education building at the Fernbank Science Center in east Atlanta, Col. Boe sat down for a one-on-one interview with this aerospace reporter on May 6.

Boe spent several years as a teenager at Fernbank under the leadership of Debbie Huffman, who remains at the science center to this day and attended his shuttle launch and landing at the Kennedy Space Center.

In a candid thirty minute interview, Col. Boe discussed with me the events surrounding his two week flight during March -- the final mission of shuttle Discovery.

I asked the two time shuttle flier his personal thoughts on the loss of crew member Tim Kopra from the crew, and what he enjoyed most during his free time aboard the space station.

Charles Atkeison: Now you're back from your second space flight, share with me how the loss of Tim Kopra from your crew and the continued external cracks affected how you and your crew trained in those last months.

Col. Eric A. Boe: "Well talking about Tim, it was very unfortunate he had a bike accident and broke his hip and we were so close to flight that he wouldn't have enough time to recovery by the time we needed to fly the mission.

I can't think of a better team player. (Tim) actually designed those EVA's (spacewalks) so when Steve Bowen who was his replacement came in -- he actually flew on my first flight, Steve did -- didn't have enough time to train, Tim and Steve worked hand in hand to go out the door. And, Tim was in mission control" helping out as CapCom during the spacewalks."

Charles: Moments before boarding Discovery all of us smiled during your crew huddle at the base of the launch pad just hours before lift-off.

Col. Boe: "We had a huddle as a team, we just said a quick prayer and just said looking forward to mission and let us do well. It was a good way to get ready for the mission and to give us some focus before we get on the rocket to go."

Charles: During the launch, talk about what the pilot is doing during the ascent.

Col. Boe: "The pilot is basically operating all the major systems that are on the shuttle. The main engines I have the switches for shutdown the engines, starting the engines; (switches) for any type of leaks or any other thing. I monitor the systems for the main engines as we go up hill.

Also, all the electrical power switches that we have on one side. Auxiliary power units actually provide all the hydraulic power to basically move the engines bells on ascent. We actually move the flight control surfaces to do what we call load relief, but as you're going through the atmosphere because the wings of the shuttle are producing lift because the wind forces blowing on them, we actually move the flight control surfaces as we're going uphill."

Charles: Share with me your feeling of the Cupola node (aboard the space station). I'm a big fan of the Cupola, you have a big 360-degree field of space... Is it a man-cave? How would you describe it?

Col. Boe: "Yes, that's a good way to describe it. It's an awesome facility to see. The 360-degree field of view, you can't say enough good things about it.

One of the things it really helps us do is we do a lot of robotics and spacewalks, and we can set it up to watch through a window. One of the things that great view gives us is the ability to move that (station's) arm around and grab things. And, then a secondary benefit of that is when you have some free time, we have a gym there that's right below it and when no one is in front of you you can actually work out and be looking out and see the planet -- it's such an amazing view."

Charles: What types of music did you bring on board?

Col. Boe: "I brought up a wide selection, I have a a whole bunch of varied songs... I guess, I probably grew up in the 80's, so I have a lot of 80's kinda rock, I have some newer stuff as well. Just a wide variety of different kinds of music. It's very nice at the end of the day you get a little bit of wind down time as you're getting ready to sleep, so a lot of people as they winding down in their sleeping bag usually put their ear phones in and listen to a little bit of music."

Charles: Now after undocking from space station, you had your chance to fly Discovery around the outpost before heading home. What was on your mind as you navigate what I like to call the 'White Dove' on the ocean of space?

Col. Boe: (Laughs) "I haven't heard that term, the White Dove, that's good... well put.

The (station) is amazingly big. We were actually when we were docked probably the biggest the space station is going to be in the near future cause we had the space shuttle up there, and we had the ATV European vehicle, we had the Japanese HTV which we reached out and grapple with... and we just attached the last module that's going on the space station in the near future. And, we also had the Russian vehicles.

And as we're flying around we take the vehicle out, and Discovery flies just a dream, she's a dream ship -- the dream machine is way I like to say -- flies very well very responsive when you put in the controls. The one thing you can't really reproduce on the ground is the 'boom' of the reaction control system jets, it's such a deep bass...

It's a good chance to also survey the vehicle."

Charles: Was the fly around one of your toughest challenges as a pilot?

Col. Boe: "We train over and over again so by the time you do it you feel very comfortable doing it. There's some work involved like most of the tasks on board there very do able... There's the challenge you want to do the best you can do... it's a task you can do it in your sleep is how I like to say it."

In his teens, Boe joined the Civil Air Patrol which is an auxiliary of the Air Force, which led to learning how to fly and later solo at age 16.

Col. Boe: "For me I was always interested in aviation, I'm the person when I'm out there and I hear some noise in the sky whether it's a bird or an airplane I'm looking up there checking it out," Boe stated with a smile. "I was very interested in the military and wanted to be a military pilot and Civil Air Patrol was a chance to see those things. I decided to go to the Air Force academy, and CAP was a good place to start."

Charles: What does Col. Eric Boe's future look like? Will you stay with NASA, are you vying for an future expedition mission aboard space station?

Col. Boe: "I'm taking Russian language and so I'm leaning towards I would love to do an expedition flight. You have to get selected to do that and there's obviously training to do, but if I'm lucky enough I would like the opportunity to fly on an expedition and do a long duration space flight go up on a Russian Soyuz.

For me as a military pilot I was trained during the Cold War days, now we're working together as friends and co-workers up in space. And, if I'm really lucky there's new vehicles that are coming up to replace the space shuttle as we're looking to go beyond low earth orbit. If I'm super lucky I'd love the opportunity to test pilot (the new spacecrafts). I love aviation, I love everything about flying and I'd love the opportunity to do that if I get chosen to go test fly."

Boe was a lot of fun to interview, he carries a great passion for aviation and America's future in space. It was interesting to witness his asking for a nearby recycling bin for his spent water bottle as he demonstrates his care about trash and waste recycling here on earth much as they do aboard the space station.

As 2011 moves closer to the new year, the final space shuttle mission will conclude. NASA astronauts are looking today toward their tomorrow as the American space program prepares for a new chapter.

Several astronauts are leaving NASA for teaching jobs and to work in the private sector of aerospace. A few are staying with the space agency, like Eric Boe, who enjoys not just being an astronaut but a 21st century pilot.

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