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The U.S. Return to Flight: Perspective from NASA Astronaut Nicole Stott

The pilot of the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery previews what the Crew Dragon launch means for the future of space exploration.

Out There iconOut There
By Corey S. Powell
May 30, 2020 7:00 PMJun 1, 2020 4:20 PM
Retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott left her mark aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
Retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott left her mark aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)


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After a nine-year gap, the U.S. is once again flying humans into space on its own. The big moment was supposed to happen this past Wednesday, when NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley were scheduled to board the Crew Dragon capsule and take off from Cape Canaveral's historic Launchpad 39A atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Bad weather aborted that launch, but NASA and SpaceX are trying again today.

The event (being covered live via NASA and via National Geographic's Launch America event) is repeatedly touted in the media and in agency press releases as "the first launch from U.S. soil since 2011." It's more than that, though. It represents a new kind of public-private partnership, with SpaceX building the rocket, the capsule and even the spacesuits on behalf of NASA. It portends a future of cheaper, more efficient spaceflight — and, we enthusiasts hope, much broader and more regular access to space. To orbit, to the moon, and beyond.

Millions of people will be watching this historic flight, but few with quite the inside perspective of Nicole Stott, a veteran NASA astronaut who flew aboard the final mission of the space shuttle Discovery in 2011. Stott is an engineer, an artist and a passionate believer in the importance of space exploration. She also happens to be friends with the crew of the current flight (Crew Dragon Demo-2, or DM-2), whom she causally refers to as "Bob and Doug." I spoke with her about her thoughts ahead of today's big launch. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Q: What are the key things you watch for during the launch?

A: That’s a great question. There’s my personal connection to the people, because Bob and Doug are both classmates of mine from the astronaut class of 2000, which also makes their wives, Megan and Karen, classmates of mine, so it’s really a family thing. It’s a lot more difficult to be the family member watching someone you love strap in than to be the person strapping in.

Robert Behnken showing off his fancy new suit (Credit: NASA)

I watch for the same kind of things I would have paid attention to when I was watching someone launch on a shuttle: booster separation, max q, all of the critical milestones along the way in the progress of the flight. It’s a little bit different than it was for the space shuttle. I do the same thing when I watch my friends on Soyuz, too: "That segment went well, now they’re good. Is the mission progression to what the expectations are?" That’s what everybody is doing, even if they’re not looking at the checklist of expectations.

Q: What will you watch for on their return in a couple of months?

A: First of all, that they splash down safely into the Atlantic Ocean. I’m really interested to see how quickly they get out of the spacecraft. You know, how much vomiting will really happen? That will be a good tell for what will happen in the future, like with Orion landing in the water.

Douglas Hurley, ready for orbital action. (Credit: NASA)

The length of time we expect crew members to be bobbing around in a spacecraft in the water, I think, is just too long. The way SpaceX is working there is much more expedited. I’m just looking forward to seeing their smiling, post-vomit faces as they get out of the spacecraft. That’s always a really comforting feeling, to see the humans as humans again.

Q: Do you feel any jealousy or envy that you don't get to be the one trying out the new Crew Dragon space capsule?

A: Heck yeah! Anybody in this business would love to do that. I also know that Bob and Doug are a great choice for the two who will be occupying those seats to make this happen. I don’t know, whatever the positive words of jealousy and envy are! Could you put me in your stowage or your baggage and take me with you? I’m happy to be ballast.

Q: It's been such a long time since astronauts rode aboard a U.S. flight How does it feel to be back?

A: First of all, I would have loved to never see the shuttles retired. As a person who walked off the final flight of Discovery on the runway, this beautiful spacecraft had performed so perfectly, I felt, "How are we taking it to a hangar to dismantle it and send it to a museum?" We all knew in our guts it would take longer to get to where we are than what was initially expected. I think three to five years was the initial estimate. We all knew it would be longer.

In hindsight, it took the length of time that it needed to. That’s what we all need to reconcile ourselves to. This is rocket science, these are different ways of doing things. We needed the length of time that it took to do it right. But, yeah, it’s really, really exciting that we’re going to be launching U.S.-built rockets from U.S. soil again. And not just because of that whole U.S. focus, but as this international community we’ve developed — with the space station program and with how we’re planning to go back to the moon.

We’ll absolutely be transporting U.S. astronauts on these spacecraft, perhaps U.S. citizens on these spacecraft who can afford to do it, but also my guess is that just as we do on the Soyuz now, we’ll be flying our international partners to and from the space station as well. It allows us to partner on a future that opens up even more opportunity for all of us.

Q: What do you want that future of space exploration to look like over, say, the next 10 or 15 years?

A: I see a natural extension of where we are now. We’re discovering that these public-private partnerships are a way to help things happen. I don’t think SpaceX could have done it on their own, I don’t think Boeing would have done it on their own. I think it requires this cooperation between the two kinds of entities.

I also can see us having these purely private spaceflights now. I see Virgin Galactic doing their thing — it’s not just Virgin Airlines anymore — where you’re getting from place A to B in a spacecraft instead of an airplane. I see more and more people getting that view out the window, which is so impactful and positively motivating. I see us living on the moon. I see myself living on the moon with my family, because of what we’re doing. And that will make those trips to Mars happen.

Nicole Stott's artistic side, as a watercolor painter aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Q: You're not just an engineer and astronaut, you're also an artist. How do you view the DM-2 mission from that perspective?

A: I could talk to you all day about how I think the intersection between art and science is an important communications tool. I think what this does, and it’s what all spaceflight forever has done, is it’s not really all about the science. In the end, it’s about what we’re doing to improve life on Earth. Everything about what we do in space is ultimately about improving life on Earth. That will be true when we go back to the moon, and when we get to Mars. From a global standpoint, that’s really significant.

We’re doing something really complex when we send these guys to space. What I experience when I go into space is the simplest truths that bind us all together. We go up there and we see, “Oh my gosh, I live on a planet!” We all know that. You learn that before kindergarten, probably: We’re all earthlings, and the only border that matters is that thin blue line of the atmosphere that blankets and protects us all.

But it would be beautiful to get more and more people with that in the front of our brains, using those things to help us make decisions to really and truly realize that … it’s not just Bob and Doug who are crewmates on a spaceship into space, it’s all of us that need to recognize our role as crewmates here on Spaceship Earth. In the grandest scheme of it all, that’s what exploring space does. It brings us back to Earth.

Q: The current COVID-19 pandemic is another, very different kind of reminder that we're all part of a single, global system. Is that part of what you mean?

A: In those lessons — we are earthlings, the thin blue line — it’s all about the interconnectivity of it all. We’re all together in space already. Everything about what’s happening on this side of the planet is affecting the other side. This pandemic is not the way we would choose to acknowledge that, of course. Our exploration of space is a very positive way to acknowledge it. Hopefully, between the two, we’ll all come to that conclusion.

Right now, we’re all holed up in our homes, doing what we’re supposed to be doing by isolating ourselves, staying away from the people we care about, because it’s our job as crewmates to take care of the people who are immediately around us, and to take care of all of humanity on this planet if we want to survive. That’s also what we do on a spaceship. Ninety-nine percent of what we are doing up there is, "How do we maintain the life-support systems so that we can survive?"

Q: What do you think of the Crew Dragon as a spacecraft — as a new piece of space engineering?

A: With respect to the design of the capsule, the configuration that Bob and Doug will be in when they’re flying, there’s a new approach to ergonomics and the interactivity of the displays. The information is presented to you in, I hate to say it, kind of a video game way. That's the art side of it. Our brains visually process things in interesting ways, and that’s the intent with those displays and how you interact with them.

If there’s one thing I wonder about it’s about the balance — between the human element and this idea that everything can be automatic, you can just sit back and take a nap while the spaceship flies you and docks you at the space station. I know that Bob and Doug will be running through all of the manual tools that they have available to them if something were to wrong with the automatic system. But they've got balance.

At one point there was this push that, oh, we don’t need any manual backup, we can use automatic systems to back themselves up. I don’t know as human beings if we are there yet!

Q: A lot of people consider the space shuttle a compromised mistake, especially after the long gap in U.S. spaceflight that followed. Now we're back to capsules. Was the shuttle a tangent or a detour in spaceflight history?

A: For me, I hope we get to the point where we’re hearing that chrip on the runway again [the landing sound of the space shuttle]. Human beings should land on a runway when they come home. It’s just the way it should be. I sure hope it wasn’t a tangent.

If you look at the history of the space shuttle: How many designs do you find where there was compromise, where there was this by-committee thing, that then really worked the way they were supposed to? Not many. But the space shuttle — oh my gosh! I don’t know that anyone would go back and want to design it that way again, through all the committees and compromises that did happen; but every role it had, it did beautifully. You look that spacecraft and there’s just nothing like it. And it can land on a runway.

Q: So you think there's a place for a shuttle in the future mix of human spaceflight vehicles?

A: I really see that. I think there is a place for capsules, too, but we need to think about how we get the people back on the planet with those. If you watched the little interaction between Bob and Doug on NASA TV, someone asked them, "What are you expecting after splashdown?" And they said “vomit.”

Now we’ve learned a lot of things, like how you could incorporate rescue systems that allow you to do an abort at any time on a flight profile. I think we’re just at the point where we could technologically do that now with that kind of vehicle. I’m a shuttle person.  

Q: How do you feel about the Artemis project, which aims to bring U.S. astronauts back to the moon? This is a pretty easy question but — would you want to go?

A: Oh, absolutely! How cool would that be, to go to the moon, to see Earth that way? To know that the work that you do there is about turning Earth into even more of a paradise than it is — even though at this point we might not be thinking about it that way. There are so many reasons why going to the moon is a such a good thing, and not just me physically getting to go.

Q: Do you expect that the path back to the moon and on to Mars will follow the same public-private approach as the Crew Dragon flight?

A: I don’t know what the vehicle will be, but that’s going to be part of the approach. Public-private, international cooperation — it’s going to take all of it, especially if we’re thinking about trying to do that in the near-term. I absolutely see the moon, and the permanence we’re going to establish there — I don’t know if it’s the actual launch platform, but it’s the thing that’s will help us launch and get to Mars in a technologically safe fashion.

Q: How important is the moon as a way station to Mars?

A: Even independent of Mars, going back to the moon is something we should be doing from the standpoint of everything it can do for us here on Earth. It’s like this purpose-built space station. It's just waiting there for us to manage that high ground with respect to our planet.

For more spaceflight news and other science updates, follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell.

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