How many missions have you been on?
I flew three flights, two as a pilot and one as
commander. The last one was almost three years ago.
What were they?
The first one was a research flight. The second
was a rendezvous docking flight with the MIR space station. The last
flight was another research mission, which I commanded.
What was the purpose of each of those missions?
Well, the first one and the last were for life
science research. The second one was about how the random brain and
nervous systems function in zero gravity. I learned some very
interesting things. We did a lot of dissections with animalsóa couple
hundred dissections of the rats and mice we had on board. One of the
things we found was that the inner ear completely re-wires itself when
in space; the inner balance part, the balance organs, and the individual
cells, which sense the acceleration. They make a new connection, a new
synaptic connection. That was somewhat unexpected--the extent of it was
totally unexpected. Weíve been doing research on the ground on similar
kinds of thingsófor brain injuries, and when the brain sort of
re-wires itself (its called neuroplasticity). The space research was
important add on to that. The results from it were pretty surprising.
That was just one tiny thing out of hundreds of experiment results. It
gives you a flavor for what we look at.
What does a pilot do on a mission?
The pilots are responsible for a lot of
systems. We are responsible for the main engines, the reaction control
system, the orbital maneuvering system engines (which are used in
space), the hydraulic systems, the auxiliary power units (which provide
the force to power the hydraulics), the electric system (which goes
through every system that uses electricityóso itís very important)
and the fuel cells (which generate electricity). Once you get up into
orbit, the pilot ends up having all the "extra" jobs, because
the mission specialists are focused on the science and experiments and
the commander is the "big picture" person making sure all the
jobs get done and so forth. Heís pretty involved with the payload. The
pilot does things like cleaning the avionics filters and all of the
"housekeeping" kinds of things to maintain the order and keep
everything running. We have something called in-flight maintenance. The
pilot and, usually, the commander together fix something if it breaks.
The pilot usually cooks meals more than other crew members, because theyíre
working so hard at the experiments side. The pilot also does observation
photography, again because they have more opportunity to do it than
people working on the experiments. So, itís a range of different
things. We so some calibrations and flight tests on every mission. Some
missions have more than others and the pilots get to fly those. During
rendezvous docking missions, the commander actually makes the docking,
but after we separate, we do something called a "fly around"
where the pilots fly to get experience flying the orbiter in space.
Almost all our missions now are docking missions, because experience is
What does it feel like during a launch?
Itís a lot of vibration, like someone ran
into you from behind in a car wreck. Once you get to second stage, it
smoothes out and you are picking up more acceleration, so itís
pressing down of your chest more. It makes it harder to breathe, but if
youíre in good health, youíre fine. When you get into orbit and the
main engines stop you are in free fall. Your arms float up. You are
still strapped in so you donít come out of your seat, but the
checklists kind of start floating. They are tethered down, so you donít
lose them. It is a whole different world.
Does it get quiet?
Well, even at launch you donít hear much
noise. It is very loud from the outside, but with all of the hearing
protection and helmets, we donít hear much. Plus, all of the noise is
behind you. Particularly once the shuttle gets to super sonic speed. The
noise and vibrations, which would be transferred out through the air
really come in through the structure. They canít catch up to you,
because they are behind you. So all you hear are noises that would be
transmitted through the material of the structure itself. Mostly you donít
hear a lot of that noise because a lot of it is low frequency. But you
do feel the vibrations!
Is there a change when you go into space?
You are in the vacuum of space and you donít hear any real transition.
You feel it. You see it on the gauges. I donít remember a distinct
noise change. I am sure there was one, but there are so many other
things you are thinking about and paying attention to during that time.
How does weightlessness affect you?
Thatís why we do a lot of experiments. We donít
understand many of the ways that weightlessness affects us. In general,
humans can adapt pretty well to weightlessness. Some people get queasy
stomachs and feel sick. Everyone experiences a fluid shift phenomenon.
Itís like when you hang upside-down on the monkey bars. You also go to
the bathroom an awful lot the first few days, because your body is
trying to come up a new fluid balance. Eventually, you get to where your
fluid balance is more normal and you don't feel as if you have such a
puffy head. That takes 4 to 5 days and you feel pretty good after that.
Do you conduct experiments during these first 4
or 5 days?
Oh, yes! We really need to press ahead. So we
take Tylenol or aspirin do deal with the headaches. I tend to have
backaches (another of the things that can happen to you up there), so I
stretch out. This happens because you donít have gravity recompressing
your spine everyday. You actually, stretch out a little each night when
you go to bed and lie down. Of course, in the morning when you stand up
your body kind of squishes down within a few minutes. Up in space, you
donít have any of that, of course, so over 3 or 4 days you stretch
out. It stretches the ligaments and the tendons and the muscles in the
back. You tend to have a sore back and you feel very stiff. Usually, I
can bend down and touch my toes pretty easily. You feel stiff and sore.
It takes a few days to get used to that. You donít feel very well for
the first few days either. You get through it, particularly because you
are so excited to be there. Towards the end of the missions you get
pretty tired. I have had some of my best nightís sleep in space. I
have also had some of my "worst" nights from physical
What is the transition when you land?
You have no problem sleeping, because you are
exhausted. When you are walking around, you are fighting so hard to keep
up with gravity. You just want to lie down and take it easy. It takes a
few days to get over that and feel normal. It takes awhile to get back
in the same physical condition. If you go into space in very good
physical condition, you lose more and you lose it more quickly and it
takes longer for you to get back to where you were. If youíre a couch
potato, you can feel pretty good after a couple of days, because of your
physical condition wasnít as good to begin with.
About how many people work on a mission?
It varies from mission to mission. If you count
all of the people at who plan and put together missions, you have
thousands. Here at Kennedy Space Center, alone, you probably have 3,000
people working on space shuttles and many others who work on things
other than the shuttles such as communications and infrastructure,
nurses and doctors. All of these people contribute to it and it would
not be possible without them. Most astronauts donít know much about
what goes on around here and it is a lot more than you would ever
How long are the astronauts in the spacecraft
before a launch?
Well, the commander is in the spacecraft about
three hours previous to the launch. The rest of the crew is on about two
and a half-hours before launch.
About how much do you get paid for each launch?
Youíre paid a salary because youíre a
government employee. If youíre a military officer you get paid the
same amount as any other officer. You get flight pay, which is career
incentive pay to keep you there because airline pilots are paid much
more. A 747 pilot makes up to two times as much as what an astronaut is
paid. So, that was the key reason why I retired, I needed to put my
daughter through college. The government doesnít pay very well, but
there are many intangibles to this job. We donít do it for the money.
What are some of those intangibles?
When you get to the main engine cut-off, itís
a sigh of relief to realize youíre there. Itís great! Especially for
the pilot, "wow" we can forget all that main engine stuff.
Your brain is just full of it all. It is exciting to look out the window
and see the planet Earth. I mean you know its going to be beautiful. All
your crewmates who have flown before tell you about it. "When you
get up there, youíre just not going to believe it." You get up
there and you just donít believe it. Its sucks the breath right out of
you. Itís so beautiful, so incredible. Itís unbelievable when youíre
there. You canít believe itís happening. It feels as if it is a
dream I had and I still havenít woken up.
What do you do prior to launch?
The whole experience actually starts out in a
relaxed pace. You just spend the time having other people do work. All
of the work of the space shuttle itself is controlled by the center.
They are getting all the information in the systems working properly.
The crew basically sits there and lets other people strap them in and
they check all of their personal equipment, and make sure that all
things are working right. They check that the oxygen is functioning and
all that. They do some communications check with the control center here
and back in Houston to make sure everythingís functioning. At some
point, the strapping crew leaves, and they close up the hatch. The
commander has to do some pressure checks with some switches. Itís
really quite simple and you donít do anything unless the ground calls.
Itís much slower pace than flying an airplane with all the checklists
youíve got to do. The last few minutes before launch it starts to get
busy--especially for the pilot. He has to start the auxiliary power
units and verify that they are working right. He has to make sure the
hydraulics are working. Thatís the point where you really start to get
serious about this. The two minutes before launch, when you lower your
visors and turn on your suit oxygen, then it really gets real. There is
a certain sequence of things that happen all the way down that to 31
seconds, when the computers take over on the countdown. From that point
humans can stop the countdown, but they donít run the countdown. If
something goes wrong, they can flip one switch in the control center and
it can stop everything. There is also a switch in the cockpit that the
commander can throw and can stop everything. But other than that youíre
just kind of along for the ride. The main engine starts 6 seconds prior
to launch. If they are working right, the solid rocket boosterís
light. As soon as they light, there is no turning back. "Now this
is it. Here we go."
How long does training take?
It is usually about a year for a shuttle
flight. That varies some. Some of the recent missions have a shorter
period of time for training. Also, it depends on the experience of the
crewmembers. Newer crews take longer to train.
What kind of training do you do?
Most of it is more boring than Space Camp would
have you believe. We do some exciting things, like the deep-water
survival training. We get to splash around in these life rafts and go
parasailing, dropping in the water. The commanders and pilots get to fly
the T-38 jets all the time. We also fly the shuttle trainer aircraft and
we spend a lot of time in this little box called a
"simulator." It is smaller than a room, but big enough for
four people. Thatís where we practice the fire scenarios over and over
again. Itís fun to do if youíve never done it before. You get to go
for a simulator ride and you are really jazzed about it. Itís great!
But when you have been in if for hundreds and hundreds of hours, Ugh!
Some of those runs we do so many times in our suits and itís just hot
and sweaty and we just have to do it. There are a lot of meetings and
studying, using computer-based training (or single system training). It
is not as exciting as some of the other stuff. We literally have a
pre-training catalog from just one mission. Itís a list of all the
different events you have to do and the proficiency you have to get. On
a balance, itís pretty fun. Training for a mission is a lot more fun
than being an astronaut who IS NOT trained for a mission.
What does it feel like to look down on the
Earth from space?
For me it was very humbling. It is just so
overwhelmingly beautiful and there is an immensity to it. There is a
difference to looking at that view than any other view I have ever seen.
It made me feel very small and insignificant. Itís wonderful. Every
time you look out the window is different. Even if you are flying over
the same spot, there is always different lighting, different weather. It
is different all time. There is a tremendous variety.
Have you ever been on a space walk?
No, you would have to talk to a flight
specialist. Pilots and commanders donít do the space walks.
Many kids say they want to be an astronaut when
they grow up. Did you want to be an astronaut as a kid?
I did, actually. My dad was a pilot in the Air
Force. I knew about military flying and grew up around that. I loved
math and science as a kid. I started doing model rockets in the 6th
grade. From there, I decided that I wanted to major in aeronautical
engineering. I loved studying about propulsion, drag and lift and all
that kind of stuff. That all got me pointed in the right direction. I
saw the first U.S. space walk. His name was Ed White. I saw that on a
color TV liveówhile it was happening. I still never got to do a space
walk, but I got to go to space.
When did you decide that you REALLY wanted it?
It was a dream when I was younger. There were
fewer astronauts then. It was still a new thing. The year I graduated
from college was the first year that they were picking space shuttle
astronauts. I had my degree in aeronautical engineering and I had done
very well in school and the Airforce Academy (where he graduated first
in his class). I looked at some of the backgrounds of the people who
were being selected to be astronauts and thought, "I donít know.
I am part of the way there. Maybe this could happen." It was a
realistic dream at that point. I still knew it was a long shot, but I
just went off to pilot training and graduate school and did the best I
could. I eventually got the chance to go to test pilot school and I did
well. I applied for the astronaut program the year after I finished test
pilot school. I was 33 when I applied and I was 34 when I was picked. It
is not something that happens right out of college. It takes a lot of
What kind of education training and experience
did you have before you became an astronaut?
Like I mentioned, I majored in aeronautical
engineering. My graduate degrees are in aeronautics and applied physics.
I was a test pilot, which requires you to be an engineer and to be a
pilot. I had all the flying training during my years in the Air Force.
That is typical for the pilot astronauts. All of the stuff you do in the
military prepares you for being a pilot. The shuttle is a very high
performance air space vehicle and the people who fly it need to be
military test pilots. But there is so much more to the shuttle program
now. We really need scientists and people who can make a difference with
they payloads and who can make the most of the missions as possible. The
mission specialists come from a wider variety of educational
backgrounds, but almost all of them have Ph.Dís. They have very solid
educational backgrounds. Either route these days is good; research
scientist or test pilot.
How did you find you were getting into
A phone call. The way it works is that you
apply and send in all your paperwork. They pick people to interview.
They will usually interview about five times as many people as they are
going to hire. They pick a class about every two years. You get some
hints that you are in the running when the FBI starts coming around
asking friends, neighbors and co-workers about you. That means they are
doing a background check and they donít do those on everyone they
interview. They do a few more than the number of people they are going
to hire. They have their list already decided with X number of spots.
So, I got wind from my mother-in-law when she said, "Some guy was
asking about you." I was like, "What did you say?" You
also compare notes with people you know. Finally, the phone call comes.
That day, I came to work at around 12:00 noon and the buzz was all
around. My secretary said, "Rick you got some calls today." So
I picked up the phone and called the astronaut selection office and
talked to the guy who runs all the administration. I told him I was in
my office and he told me they would get back with me. If you are
selected, the phone call comes from the head of the selection board and
if you are not selected, someone else on the board calls and tells you
they appreciate you, but try again and stuff like that. So the second
you hear his voice, you know if you were selected or not. It was the
boss! I knew it was the head guy. He was from Texas so he had an accent.
"Well Rick, weíd like ya to come work fer us if yer still
interested." I said, "Whenever you want me there, Iíll be
there!" That was that.
Do you have any advice for students who want to
Yes, I do! Lots of advice. You have to focus on
it, whether thatís being an astronautóor anything. You need to
figure out what you like and what you love, what you want to spend your
time doing, and you need to focus on it. There are so many distractions
for kids these days. They are not all bad. Some of them are very bad.
Some of todayís very popular stars are terrible role models. Some of
them are very rich, so we think thatís someone we want to emulate.
Frankly, a lot of these people are the - - - - of the Earth and you
shouldnít be following them. When it comes to the drugs and things
like that, if you ever do them, and they find out, you will NEVER be an
astronaut. It just doesnít mesh. So kids today, who will eventually be
astronauts, are very good studentsómaybe considered geeks, maybe not.
You donít need to be an athlete, but you do need to be in good
physical condition and you need to take care of yourself. You need to
work and understand that success really comesóin most endeavorsóthrough
long, patient work. It doesnít happen overnight! If someone is really
interested, they have to work hard in math and science and they have to
prepare themselves over the years. I will tell you what I think. They
are going to be hiring astronauts for many years to come. They are
hiring more now than they used to. So, opportunities are out there for
kids that are in the 6th grade now. Fifteen or twenty years
from now, kids who have done the right thing might be the first ones on
Mars. They will be doing things that we are only dreaming about now.
Imagine how excited people will be when the first man steps foot on
Mars--like they were when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. It CAN
happen for you in the future, you just have to be prepared.