Currently a CAETE (online) student at CU-Boulder in the Engineering Managment program, working on Masters Degree.
What is your current employment?
I am currently certified as an “EVA Task” instructor and Flight Controller at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. My duties are to instruct astronauts on how to work in the suit during an “Extravehicular Activity” (spacewalk) and perform maintenance and repair on the International Space Station using a variety of specialized tools and techniques. We train predominantly in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (a large pool) and also with Virtual Reality.
How did you get your current position?
I started out as a Co-op student while I was earning my bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. I worked in three different groups alternating semesters at school. I have been working full-time in the EVA group since 2009.
How did you become interested in space?
That’s a great question. I don’t think it was one single event that inspired me, but an ever-growing interest since I was a child to graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to working at NASA JSC Space Center. My dad and I shared an interest in aviation and would frequent air shows and air museums. Every time anything flew over our heads we looked up to the sky to see what it was. I also recall sitting in a high school Chemistry class watching STS-95 launch with John Glenn on board.
Astronauts on a spacewalk are called EV1 and EV2. What does that designation mean?
Spacewalks are always conducted by two astronauts at a time. Much like SCUBA diving, you always have a buddy there to assist you in an emergency. EV1 is generally considered the more experienced spacewalker in a spacewalk team, but not always. Yesterday, Reid Wiseman was EV1 and Alex Gerst was EV2, however, both crew were spacewalk rookies. EV1 is also designated by wearing red stripes on the legs of their EMU Spacesuit and EV2 wears white stripes.
Are spacewalk details generally planned out and trained for before astronauts even leave the ground?
We have two different types of spacewalks: Planned EVAs and Contingency EVAs. When an astronaut is assigned to a spaceflight expedition, we begin their EVA training about 2.5 years before they launch. We start with a refresher no EVA tools and the suit and then get into ISS Maintenance NBL runs.
Each crew will perform a minimum of 9 six-hour simulated spacewalks in the NBL covering a wide variety of spacewalk scenarios. The 9 NBL runs are designed to give the astronauts a broad skillset and familiarity in order to tackle most of the possible EVA contingency scenarios.
Back in the Space Shuttle days, we used to train a crew on a very specific EVA timeline, practicing a single EVA 7-10 times in the pool before ever performing it in space.
With the complexity of the space station and the myriad of possible failure scenarios and ever-evolving maintenance needs, we now train our astronauts to be “skills-based” instead of “task-based.” At any moment, the ISS could have a critical component failure, which would only be resolved by performing a Contingency EVA. The Pump Module EVAs performed last December and the MDM EVA performed last April are examples of contingency EVAs, which were required in order to restore the ISS to nominal operations.
We will train crew members for “Planned EVAs” if there are specific components in need of repair or installation which fall during the crew member’s time on-orbit. Over the next few years, there are several planned EVAs on the books, which will include adding several Commercial Vehicle docking ports and antennas, relocating the PMM module, and upgrading the Space Station’s aging batteries. These are all examples of planned EVAs. Crew members that are scheduled to be on-orbit during the next 2 years time will all receive specific EVA training on these components.
How large is the team that assists behind the scenes of a spacewalk?
The group that I work in is Extravehicular Activity Opertions. We have 39 engineers, about half of which are “EVA Systems” experts and the other half are “EVA Task” experts. The systems engineers focus on the spacesuit and ISS airlock systems and the Task engineers focus on spacewalk tools and performing maintenance and repair tasks in the suit.
Outside of my group, there are many other engineers that support EVA. There are Boeing engineers who designed and built hardware, spacesuit design engineers, tools engineers and safety engineers, all of whom support us when we are executing EVAs from Mission Control.
When it comes to actually executing a spacewalk, we man MCC (Mission Control Center) 24 hours a day a few days prior to and after a scheduled spacewalk. The day is broken up into three shifts – two planning shifts and the execute shift.
Each shift consists generally of an EVA Task flight controller, EMU (systems) flight controller, Airlock flight controller, and an EVA officer to oversee the team. The EVA officer sits in the main Flight Control Room (FCR-1) and the others sit in a “backroom” or Multi-Purpose Support Room (MPSR). The Task, EMU, and Airlock Flight conrollers report directly to the EVA officer, and the EVA officer reports directly to the Flight Director.
Another important position within MCC during an EVA is the Ground IV (Inter-Vehicular). This person was traditionally a crew member onboard the Space Shuttle, but now is performed on the ground. The Ground IV functions as the “quarterback” reading the procedures up to the crew and directing them through a spacewalk. When a problem arises during a spacewalk, or we find ourselves in an off-nominal situation, the EVA team will come up with a workaround and provide direction to the crew via the Ground IV. The Ground IV functions as the “one-voice” to the crew, much like the CAPCOM, but focused solely on the EVA.
How do YOU train so you can aid in training?
Good question. How can I teach someone how to perform a spacewalk if I haven’t done one myself? Well, we do get the opportunity of performing simulated spacewalks in the NBL. We can wear the EMU spacesuit underwater and perform tasks on a full-size mockup of the ISS. It’s not exactly a zero-G environment, but the suits are weighed-out such that they are neutral in the water column; in other words, you neither sink nor float. The blood will still rush to your head and the weight of your body will be on your shoulders if you go inverted, but you can learn a lot about how to work with the suit instead of against it.
I am also an expert in the external components that are replaceable via EVA on ISS. Much of my job involves developing a technique to repair and/or replace a broken component with only the tools that are onboard ISS. Sometimes we have to get pretty creative and come up with off-nominal fixes. Imagine having to maintain and repair your house over the next 15 years without ever going to the hardware store. You only have a small number of tools at your disposal and limited replacement parts.
I work closely with, and rely on, the experience of veteran spacewalkers. Together we develop a training program that can provide rookie astronauts with the skills necessary to perform a spacewalk during their expedition.
How awkward is it to handle tools on a spacewalk?
The EMU spacesuit is pressurized to 4.3 pounds per square inch. It’s much like wearing a suit of armor that resists bending at the joints. Every move you make is pressing against the pressurized bladder of the suit. Hand fatigue is one of the most common spacewalk side effects. Imagine every time you try to grip a tool or handrail, your glove is resisting.
Unlike the name suggests, spacewalking is performed by moving hand-over-hand along external handrails. Unlike walking on the moon, when performing a spacewalk on ISS, you rarely use your legs unless attached to the robotic arm. This puts all the stress and fatigue on the crew member’s hands. After a 6-8 hour spacewalk, translating across the space station, and using hand tools to perform maintenance, your hands are pretty worn out.
In addition, every item taken outside is tethered so that it doesn’t float away. Managing your tool bags and tethers while everything wants to float around can be challenging.
What’s the toughest challenge you face in your role?
NASA’s Flight Controllers have a Creed that says: “Always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.”
On top of that, performing an EVA is one of the most dangerous things we do in human spaceflight. As an EVA instructor and Flight Controller, I have a responsibility to prepare astronauts to perform in a spacewalk. I have to teach them how to work in the suit, how to use tools to repair and maintain ISS, and also be able to respond to emergencies while out on EVA.
I recently experienced what it is like to sit on console as the execute team during an EVA emergency. Last summer, Luca Parmitano had to aboart his EVA due to water intrusion into his helmet. He was at risk of drowning in his own helmet, but performed flawlessly under pressure as he translated back to the crewlock while the water was increasing in his helmet, covering his ears, eyes and nose.
After he was safe inside, and we (the execute shift) had handed over to the next shift, I was struck by how close we had cmoe to losing a friend that day. I was also extremely proud of how Luca responded to the emergency and performed exactly how we had trained him.
So, the responsibility of the job is tough. It’s also challenging to teach smoeone how to work in the spacesuit. Performing a spacewalk is unlike anything else you have ever done. The EMU (Extra Mobility Unit) spacesuit is cumbersome to work in; mobility and dexterity are limited. Astronauts come in many shapes and sizes and from various backgrounds. My job is to make them all qualified to perform a spacewalk.
Did Luca Parmitano’s mission change how you approach an EVA mission?
We learned a lot about our spacesuit after Luca’s EVA. Until that event, we never thought it was possible for water to intrude into the ventilation loop the way it had that day. We’ve spent the last year polishing all of our documentation, training materials, lesson plans, flight rules, etc. to try and rule out any possible failures we may have missed and to better respond to failures we now know are possible. We’ve tested components on the ground and removed/replaced suit components on ISS to better understand the cause of the failure.
What else would you want to tell people about your job?
I would tell people that I have one of the best jobs in the world. OK, maybe the second best job. Astronaut would be the BEST job.
I enjoy my job because it challenges me to use my engineering skills to think outside the box and to apply it to something very few people in the world get to do.
Every day at my job is different. I get to SCUBA dive in the NBL, sit console in MCC, train an astronaut on EVA tools, or help design a piece of spaceflight hardware that will launch to the International Space Station.
I get to be a part of something that is so much bigger than me. I get to help contribute to the advancement of space exploration and work with some of the smartest and most talented people on the planet.
Yesterday, I got to see two astronauts, whom I call friends, step outside of the safety of the ISS for the very first time and perform a flawless spacewalk. I can still remember Reid and Alex’s very first time working in the spacesuit at the NBL, during their first year as rookie astronauts, and here they are whirling around our planet doing it for real – and doing it well!
Sometimes, I’m so excited about my job that I can’t believe I get paid to do it!