As NASA's shuttle program enters its final year, Caltech's three active alumni astronauts are all gearing up for one more flight aboard the rocket-borne space plane. First up is Robert Behnken, PhD '97, who is serving as a mission specialist on the STS-130 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Endeavour. The shuttle lit up the sky on February 8, the last nighttime shuttle liftoff.
Behnken, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, last flew in space in March 2008, also aboard Endeavour. He took three space walks on that mission, including one that called for all his improvisational skills when he grabbed a hammer to force into place an uncooperative case holding a scientific payload. It wasn't clear at press time whether folk anthem "If I Had a Hammer" will be played for Behnken on STS-130. However, he will once again venture out of the shuttle on three always-unpredictable space walks, each scheduled to last more than six hours.
The primary task of this mission and its six-astronaut crew is to deliver to the ISS a new living space, called the Tranquility node, and an observation deck, called the cupola, which will feature seven windows that will provide astronauts with panoramic views of space. According to NASA, these are the last significant U.S.-made modules that will be added to the space station.
Behnken and fellow astronaut Nicholas Patrick will conduct their first space walks on the fifth day of the mission. Their main job on that day will be to help install the Tranquility node, connecting power and data cables from the node to the space station, and positioning jumper lines that will carry ammonia for cooling the node.
On their second walk two days later, they will make final connections on the ammonia lines, wrap insulation around them, and then open the lines to turn on the cooling system, making sure there are no leaks. Besides posing problems for the space station, a leak could also contaminate their space suits, a contingency for which they have trained. Behnken and Patrick will also install handrails and tethers on the outside of Tranquility.
During their final walk on the mission's 10th day, they will install a backup set of ammonia lines to Tranquility and remove insulation blankets from the cupola, folding them up so that they can be brought back to the shuttle. On Earth, this might seem as easy as rolling up a tent on a camping trip, but it's somewhat trickier in the vacuum of space.
They'll also be removing locks on the shutters covering the cupola windows, installing more handrails, and installing 70 feet of fiber-optic video cables. The space station has been under construction for more than 11 years, and it is expected to be 90 percent complete after this mission.
At a news conference that NASA held on January 29 to preview the mission and introduce its six astronauts, the shuttle's commander, George Zamka, described Behnken, who received his Caltech degree in mechanical engineering, as being "always way ahead of events. He's good for telling jokes that go way over my head that I get five minutes later."
Behnken himself was all business, particularly when asked about the strain of conducting a trio of space walks. "The second space walk, when we mount the ammonia lines, will be very physically challenging and very complex," he said, adding that in preparation for these strenuous exercises, "we spend a fair amount of time at the gym. The best way to prepare is to do space walks in the NASA buoyancy lab," where the astronauts, wearing gear that's identical to their space suits except for the life-support system, train in a specially-designed pool, one of the largest in the world, that mimics the zero-G environment. "We've been careful to have the space walks close enough together in training so we'd have the same level of fatigue in training as in space," says Behnken.
STS-130 launched at 4:14 a.m. EST on February 8. In addition to his fan base in Pasadena, Behnken is being watched by two fellow alums whose turns on the shuttle come next. Garrett Reisman, PhD '97, will fly on space shuttle Atlantis in May as it delivers a cargo carrier and a Russian-built mini research module to the ISS. The mission will be Reisman's second: his first took place in 2008, when he spent three months at the space station. In midsummer, Gregory Chamitoff, MS '85, will fly on Endeavour's final mission, delivering a variety of spare parts to the space station. He spent 179 days on the space station in 2008, overlapping for a few days with Reisman.
To date, NASA's astronaut corps has included eleven Techers, including Frank Borman, MS '57, commander of the iconic Apollo 8 mission, which was the first to orbit the moon, and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt '57, the first trained scientist to walk on the lunar surface.