You Talk to Endeavour: Shuttle Crew on Giffords, Tile Damage, Trips to Mars

MILES O'BRIEN: Hello everyone.  I'm Miles O'Brien.  Google, YouTube and the PBS NewsHour have teamed up for this once-in-a-lifetime chance for you to talk to Endeavour.

As the space shuttle program comes to a close, we'll be asking crewmembers questions submitted and voted on by you through Google Moderator.  The response has been, well, shall we say out of this world?  You asked more than 1,800 questions.  We wish we had time to get them all in.  I'm sure you understand our time is a little more limited than that.

The shuttle and space station complex are currently over New Zealand in the Indian Ocean, about 250 miles above us, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour.  And yet we'll be talking to, we hope, five of the crewmembers live as if they are right here with us.  Among them, the commander of Endeavour crew, Mark Kelly. Let me tell you a little about who expect we'll be hearing from in this event in just a few minutes:  48-year-old Greg Johnson is Endeavour's pilot and a retired Air Force colonel.  Everyone calls him by his call sign, "Box" — for good reason – there's another Greg Johnson in the astronaut office.  This is Box's second time piloting a shuttle.  His first flight, back in 2008, was also in Endeavour.

Forty-four-year-old mission specialist Mike Fincke is a space-faring veteran with a lot of time in his log book.  Prior to launch the other day, he had spent 365 days in low-Earth orbit during two stints on the International Space Station.  But get this:  He is a space shuttle rookie.  His other missions were aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.  In fact, he is rated as a Soyuz copilot.  Fincke will be making three spacewalks during this mission. He has a half dozen spacewalks already under his belt.

Forty-eight-year-old Greg Chamitoff is, also a former space station keeper, he spent six months on ISS in 2008, in his case, arriving and departing on space shuttles.  Chamitoff will be conducting two spacewalks during this mission, his first time stepping out in the void.  He is an engineer and a physician – he's also an avid chess player.  Last time he was on board the ISS, he played a game against people back home on earth.

Forty-nine-year-old Ron Garan is a current member of the International Space Station crew.  His stint is slated to last five months.  He launched from Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in early April.  Garan flew to the station for a few weeks on the shuttle in 2008.

Forty-seven-year-old Mark Kelly is making his fourth spaceflight, his second as a commander.  He is married to Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who, as you know, is recovering from a gunshot wound to the head she suffered after an assassination attempt in Tucson in January.  She had an important surgery yesterday and we're told all is well. Giffords made the trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida from a rehab hospital in Houston to watch her husband and crew take the fiery ride to space.

Kelly's twin brother, Scott Kelly, is also an astronaut and was on hand during the launch as well.  Earlier this year, Scott spent five months on the space station.  Were it not for a series of technical delays, the twins would have been in orbit together.  And that certainly would have been a space first.

So there you have it.  These are the five astronauts we expect to be speaking with today.  They are very busy up there, we're not sure if we'll get all five. We'll know very shortly of course.

Before we go live to space, let's do a quick recap of the mission so far.

ANNOUNCER: Four, three, two, one, zero and liftoff for the final launch of Endeavour.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Endeavour hurdled to space from Florida for the last time on May 16.  The launch was scrubbed two weeks earlier because of an electrical problem.  The mission, STS-134, as it is known, is the next to last of the shuttle program before the orbiters are retired and rolled into museums, more than 30 years after the first flight.

The six-man Endeavour crew is on a 16-day mission.  Their primary objective:  Deliver an instrument called the alphamagnetic spectrometer to the International Space Station.  It's a $2 billion experiment.  It's a particle physics detector that researchers hope will help unlock one of the great scientific mysteries of our time: exactly what is the universe made of?

Endeavour is also toting spare parts that will sustain space station operations once the shuttles are retired from service.  Before Endeavour left Earth, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach spoke with Commander Kelly.

MIKE LEINBACH:  OK, Mark, looks like a great day to launch Endeavour for the final time.  So on behalf of thousands of proud Americans who have been part of her journey, good luck, Godspeed, and we'll see you back here June 1.

MARK KELLY:  Thank you, sir.  On this final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour, we want to thank all the tens of thousands of dedicated employees that have put their hands on this incredible ship and dedicated their lives to the space shuttle program.  As Americans, we endeavor to build a better life than the generation before, and we endeavor to be a united nation.

In these efforts, we are often tested.  This mission represents the power of teamwork, commitment and exploration.  It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore.  We must not stop.  To all of the millions watching today, including our spouses, children, family and friends, we thank you for your support.

MIKE LEINBACH:  Outstanding words, Mark.  Thank you, sir.  And to do that, you are clear to launch Endeavour.

MARK KELLY:  Copy that, thank you.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Endeavour reached the International Space Station Wednesday morning, Eastern Time.  Before it docked, it performed a backflip that allows station crewmembers to get some close-up photos of the heat-resistant tiles to ensure there's no damage and Endeavour is cleared for reentry.

There are four spacewalks slated for this mission.  We will be talking to two of the spacewalkers, Mike Fincke and Greg Chamitoff.  They have a long space "honey-do list."  During two six-hour spacewalks, they'll do some maintenance work.  They plan to swap out experiments and transfer Endeavour's robotic arm extension, the orbiter boom sensor system, to the station.  The boom will live permanently on the station and will help future spacewalk work when it is needed.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Now, that boom may come into play on this mission for a so-called focused inspection. Need to tell you about a little bit of tile damage that NASA engineers are poring over right now.  As you probably know, during the approach and docking phase of a shuttle to the International Space Station, crewmembers on board the International Space Station, a pair of them, have cameras – one with a 400-millimeter lens, one with an 800-millimeter lens.  They take very close-up, detailed, high-resolution pictures of the heat shield, the thermal protection system – in particular the tiles on the belly of any approaching space shuttle.  This is post-Columbia, back in January of 2003, of course.

Now, take a look at this graphic.  You see those red dots there?  There are about eight areas of concern where there is some damage to the black tiles, some of them very close to the landing gear area, the starboard landing gear or right-side landing gear.  Now, anytime you get near one of those landing gear doors, that gets the attention of the mission management teams.  So let's take a look at close-ups of some of the ones they're looking at right now.

These dings – there are eight of them in all that are areas of concern, as I said – three of them appear to be relatively big.  You see anything that is white there indicates some sort of damage to the black outer shell of those tiles.  The question is – there's a series of questions that they have to put through their analysis.  How deep are those gouges?  How long are they – that sort of thing?  What sort of temperatures might they expect to see on reentry, during the fiery reentry to Earth?  And what impact might that damage have?

So what happens next?  Today probably – a little later today – the mission management team will make a decision as to whether to have what's called a focused inspection, using that orbital boom system we were talking about, which ultimately will be docked on the International Space Station.  If, in the case of that focused inspection – there's damage, which causes additional concern, so much concern they think it might be a problem – the crew does have the capability of performing minor repairs in space. So that's way down the road here. We don't know if that's the case, but today the mission management team for NASA will make a decision as to whether there will be a focused inspection on those portions of tile that were damaged on ascent for the space shuttle Endeavour.

As you know, we lost the Columbia crew back in February of 2003 after a big piece of foam struck the left leading-edge wing, causing a hole, which caused the vehicle to disintegrate on reentry.  So this is a big concern.

MILES O'BRIEN:  And there's the crewmembers right now.  It's good to see them.  Let's do what we've got to do, which is say hello to them.  And so, what I do is this:  I say, Endeavour ISS, this is Miles O'Brien with Google.  How do you hear me?

MARK KELLY:  Miles, we have you loud and clear.  How do you hear us?

MILES O'BRIEN:  Five-by-five, Commander Mark Kelly.  Good to see you guys.  You look hale and hearty.  Congratulations on installing the alphamagnetic spectrometer.  That's great news.  I wanted to – before we get to the questions from folks – there wasn't a lot of time for folks on Google Moderator to weigh in on the tile damage.  I'm curious what your thoughts are on what you've seen.  How concerned are you about these dinged tiles on the belly of the shuttle?

MARK KELLY:  Yes, so we took a look this morning at some of the photos and the message traffic that came up.  There's three areas that, you know, are a little bit of concern.  The team on the ground will decide over the next couple days if we have to take a closer look at it.  But the current damage doesn't seem – I mean, we've seen this kind of stuff before and it's not too big of a concern for us.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right, good, good.  Without further ado, let's get to some of our questions.  Folks on Google Moderator weighed in with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of good questions.  And the first one is a video question that comes from Spencer Kelly – I think no relation – in Miramichi, Canada.  Let's roll it.

SPENCER KELLY:  Hi, Commander Kelly.  I am Spencer Kelly but I don't think we're related.  I live in Miramichi, Canada.  I was wondering:  After four times going to space, what do you look forward to most in going to space?

MILES O'BRIEN:  Mark, I don't know.  Could you hear it?

MARK KELLY:  Hi, Spencer.  We have an honorary Canadian on board next to me.  Yeah, we heard the question, Miles.


MARK KELLY:  After four times in flight, what do I look forward to the most?  Well, you know these missions are very, very challenging and very rewarding.  There's a lot to do.  You know, I particularly like looking at the Earth in the small amount of chance we get, but also flying through the space station is an awful lot of fun.  So you know, those two things are high on my list.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right, let's go to question number two.  This one is a text question – actually a couple of questions for you, Mark.  One of them comes from Watertown, New York, the first one.  "An observation from an old Marine to an old sailor."  I don't know if you like the old part.  But he's a sailor for sure.  "Come back safely.  What's in store for our space program remains to be seen.  It will be exciting but not as exciting as seeing Gabby back on her feet at full throttle."  And then this one from St. Mary's, Ohio.  This one, he says, "Mr. Giffords, it is difficult – is it difficult leaving your wife even though she's doing well?  I think she would want to be where you are now.  God bless you and your wife and the whole crew."  And Mark, I'll just button it up with, I know Gabby had surgery yesterday.  I assume you've had some updates.  How are things going?

MARK KELLY:  Well, I had the chance at the end of the day to call her mom and her chief of staff and my brother periodically through the – as the surgery was going on.  And she's doing really well.  Everything went as planned.  Her neurosurgeons are very happy.  She's recuperating.  And she's actually getting back to therapy today.  So it went really, really well.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Now, of course, Gabby was at the launch.  I understand you're carrying her wedding ring with you.  I don't know – do you have it on you?  And also, I'm just curious; I know you have a busy day up there.  Oh, you have it.  Let's see it.  That's great, right around your neck, OK.  In the course of –

MARK KELLY:  It's right there.

MILES O'BRIEN:  In the course of your busy day, obviously, you have a lot to think about up there.  Your thoughts must go to her as well?

MARK KELLY:  Yeah, obviously this has been a long road since January 8 for us.  It – her having surgery yesterday was not planned all along.  But she was ready and the doctors, you know, wanted to do it then and didn't make sense to wait a couple weeks until I got back.  So I've been thinking a little bit about that.  But it's a pretty common surgery and it went really well.  She was really excited to be at the launch, really enjoyed it a lot.  She was there with not only my kids but all the children and spouses of the rest of the crew and they really had a great time despite the fact that we went through some clouds there in about 20 seconds.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Yeah, I think it was about 20 seconds after launch you guys disappeared.  I tell you what:  pass the mic over to Ron Garan.  Ron who is a space station keeper and has spent a little bit of time up there.  You tweeted a photo of the Mississippi River the other day and NASA has been sending images as well.  What's it like to see the devastation of that flooding from space?

RON GARAN:  Well, Miles, that's an interesting question because, you know, we do have this sense of isolation being up here, you know, living off the planet.  But at the same time, you know, even though we have this sense of isolation, we have the ability to be more connected with things on the ground because we fly over it all the time.  So watching, you know, the Mississippi River flooding on the news and then flying over it are two different things.  And seeing with our own eyes the devastation and the tragedy that's going on in that area of the country, you know, is really something.  And we feel a responsibility to try and document that as best we can as time allows and take as many pictures of that area as we can.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right, our next question is a video question.  It's aimed at Mike Fincke, so while we're playing it why don't send the microphone over to Mike.  And let's listen.  This one comes from Wilmington, North Carolina, from Callie Davis  and Anderson Brandt.

CALLIE DAVIS:  I'm Callie Davis.

ANDERSON BRANDT:  I'm Anderson Brandt.

CALLIE DAVIS:  And we're from Wilmington, North Carolina.  And we were wondering what's the hardest thing about being in space?

MILES O'BRIEN:  The hardest thing about being in space?

MIKE FINCKE:  Hello, from the International Space Station.  Got your question.  And Callie and Anderson, my favorite thing about being in space is flying.  And yesterday, we opened up the hatch of the International Space Station.  And I could really stretch my legs and fly from one end to the other.  And we have a beautiful space station.  I also really like looking at our beautiful planet.  It's the most beautiful planet in the whole solar system.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right.  We had promised to see Greg Chamitoff and Greg Johnson.  Obviously, they're busy doing other things.  Andrew Feustel is there.  Why don't you pass the microphone to him?  And for viewers out there, Andrew flew – we've got – are they going to bring him in?  You're going to bring him in now?  Drew was on the last servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, performed a series of spacewalks out there – has some more spacewalking duties ahead.  And here's a question for you, Drew.  Oh, hey ,we're getting a late add here.  There he – there's Box.  Greg Johnson comes in.

You know, the pilot never gets enough respect.  I'm glad you did that.  That was a good move.  Drew Feustel, this one from "The Grinnin' Man" from YouTube.  The question is:  "How realistic is Obama's promise to visit the planet Mars by 2030?  Do you believe it is possible to do it sooner?"

ANDREW FEUSTEL:  Hi, Miles.  How you doing?  Thanks for the – thanks for the question.  And that's sort of a bigger question, I think, to answer is, you know, what direction we're going?  And I think we're all, as space explorers, interested in eventually getting onto Mars and also visiting the moon, since that's our nearest neighbor.  In my vision, can we do it sooner?  I think we can.  And hopefully with the progress we're making with the commercial launch vehicles and what NASA is doing for heavy lift and with the intent – as long as, you know, we have the intent to make it onto Mars eventually, you know, we will get there.  As humans, I don't think we'll ever stop exploring.  And we're all excited to be a part of the great adventure.  And it's really all starting right here on the International Space Station.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Well, a lot of people who know a little bit about space would tell you the hurdles are not technological; they're more political, right?

ANDREW FEUSTEL:  Well, certainly, Miles, that's one way to look at it.  And there are a lot of challenges that we have ahead.  Of course, one of the great things, as I mentioned, about the space station is that it's international.  And I think all of us support the notion of international cooperation for longer-term space exploration, not only to the moon but eventually onto Mars.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right, pass it over to the pilot.  Greg Johnson, Box, question for you, this one comes from "Hangin' with Joe" from San Francisco.  "At what point during the mission does it sink in that you are one of only the few – one of the only few people on Earth to have been able to see Earth from space?"

GREG JOHNSON:  Well, I think it's a great honor.  There have been quite a few people –

MILES O'BRIEN:  Need to turn your mic on, Box.  Turn your mic on.

GREG JOHNSON:  And the other, OK, sorry about that.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Happens to me all the time.  No worries.  No worries.

GREG JOHNSON:  As a late add, I guess I didn't get the brief.

Yeah, as a point of order, both Taz and I were not – we were not AWOL.  We were actually just finishing up with the AMS install.  But to answer your question, I think that any mode of transportation like cars and airplanes progress along.  And in space there's been almost 500 people that have looked at the Earth from space.  And I think in a few decades, there will be many, many multitudes of more people that get to see the Earth from space.  But I can tell you, it's a great honor.  And I cherish every moment.

MILES O'BRIEN: Well, I will say hear, hear to that.  I hope I'm among them.  Send it over to Commander Kelly there.  This is the highest-rated video question of all of the Google Moderator questions.  So we're going to roll the video.  This comes from Ethan from San Francisco.  All the Google Moderator participants voted this the most interesting question.  So here it comes.

ETHAN:  I know Commander Kelly's wife, Representative Giffords, has really worked hard on solar policy in Congress and has led by example, installing panels on her roof in Tucson.  I was hoping to get the crew's thoughts, not just on solar power but the power of space exploration to really challenge ourselves and develop new technologies that not only enable space exploration but also benefit everyone back at home.

MARK KELLY:  Yeah, great question.  So that's one – you know, one of the – it's one of the interesting things about when you do something that's really, really hard like traveling in space.  Getting off the planet and into Earth orbit and going to the moon are very difficult things to do.  And when you do something like that and you push technology forward, you get a lot of benefits.

You know, things that people currently use every day like telecommunications and their cell phones and computers had a lot to do with the United States reaching to put men on the moon and then what we've been doing in space exploration for the last 40 years.  So you know, it's really a technology driver and it's really important for our country.  So obviously, we're here and we're big promoters of space exploration.  But it's one thing that drives our economy.  And it's important for the advancement of science and technology.  But great question.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right, this one – a couple of you can take this if you like.  This one comes from Smith5se from Michigan.  "Commander Kelly and crew," he says, "how do you feel about using social media to share your personal story as an astronaut and inspire others?  Has it been beneficial for you and will you continue to use it for outreach upon wheel stop?"

So the question, you know, the tweeting and all the social networking, the way you connect with people has changed.

MIKE FINCKE:  Yeah, Miles, I've certainly noticed a difference between my last mission two years ago and this mission with social media, including Tweeting.  We were – some of us like myself, Box, and a few others were able to tweet right before our launch.  And we shared our special meals that we had and what it was like to wake up on launch day and everything.  And people really enjoyed it.  And that's how we pay back to the people who pay for our salaries is to share this adventure with them.

You know, another tweeter on board is Ron Garan and I think he's gotten a lot of popularity from showing some of the things he's been able to see from space.

RON GARAN:  Hey, Miles, I think those of us that, you know, have the privilege of flying in space and seeing the Earth from space, we understand that it's a responsibility to share that with everybody as best we can.  And some of the social media that we use – Twitter and we have websites – Fragile Oasis is a blog site that we're using – is a way for us to have people follow along on the mission, not just as spectators but almost as fellow crewmembers and to really participate in what we're doing.  And like I said, we have a – you know, we understand we have a big responsibility to share what we're doing with as many people as we can.  And this is one of the tools that we use to do that.

MILES O'BRIEN:  This can go to – I tell you what – let's go to – send it over to Drew, I guess, for this one.  This one comes from Florida on YouTube:  "When you're in orbit, do you have to make a lot of maneuvers due to satellites, space debris and other stuff?"

ANDREW FEUSTEL:  OK, so Miles, thanks.  I guess that was a question, do we have to make a lot of maneuvers?  And the answer is sometimes.  Fortunately, many of those items are tracked for us.  Well, all of the items that we make maneuvers for are tracked for us.  And so we do – we do that from time to time.  It's not as frequent as some might think.  Obviously, the bigger danger for us is items that are not tracked.  And that's especially true for spacewalkers.  So it's something we think about.  But fortunately, many of those issues are taken care of by the ground control teams that are watching out for us.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right, send it over to Box there.  Greg Johnson, this one comes from "DJ Admiral" on YouTube.  "What kind of Internet connection do you get up there?  Is it fast?  Any restrictions, wink wink.  What's the IP range of visits from outer space?"

GREG JOHNSON:  Good question, DJ.  As shuttle guys, we really don't partake in the Internet.  We've got synchronizations with our emails.  It kind of gives us a pseudo-email or pseudo-Internet to communicate with our families and friends and our associates.  However, I'm going to pass this to Ronnie because on the station, I believe that they have a better Internet than we do on the shuttle.

RON GARAN:  So this is something that is somewhat new is our capability to use the Internet.  And how it works is we can be on a laptop here on the International Space Station and basically control remotely a PC or a computer down on the ground that is connected to the Internet.  So it's – we're limited to when we have the correct communications coverage to be able to be on the Internet and there is some lag in it.  So it does work slower than you're probably used to on the ground.  But it's a very useful tool.  And it really helps us to stay connected with what's going on, on the Earth.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right, let's send this one up to Mike Fincke in the back there.  This comes from "Mondia Blue" in Houston, Texas.  You know that place.  "Do you get to take anything extra on the shuttle like pictures, a teddy bear or maybe a special blankie?"

MIKE FINCKE:  Well, every mission takes a lot of – I mean, we try to carry as much scientific payload and useful things that we can, like resupply for the International Space Station.  So we're very limited to take personal gear.  I did bring some pictures of my family.  I have three beautiful kids and a really nice wife.  She's also beautiful.

I brought a few small trinkets for the kids.  And that's pretty much all that we can bring.  On the space shuttle, we're only gone from home for about two or three weeks, so it's not a big deal.  And so, we don't need to bring any special blankies.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right – (laughs) – do you have any of your personal trinkets with you, on you that you can show us?

MIKE FINCKE:  I was just working along with Drew here on our spacewalking suits, our EMUs that we're going outside with tomorrow.  So I didn't – I don't have any of my equipment on me, any of my rings or any of the other trinkets.  But I think we have some here from the other guys.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Excellent, excellent.  Well, tell me about the blue band.  What is it?

MARK KELLY:  Yeah, this – Miles, this is the "Peace Love Gabby" bracelet.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Wow, wow.  That's pretty special.  I'm glad – I wish I had one myself.  Hey, this one – final kind of – this is one of my favorites from "Innocent Nightmares," Garland, Texas.  "Do you ever actually say, Houston, we have a problem?"

MARK KELLY:  You know, if we had an issue, we would just normally call the ground with "Houston, Endeavour."  And then we would talk about our problem.

MILES O'BRIEN:  All right, that's about all the time we have.  I've got to implore upon you – group somersault.  Can you do one for me?

MARK KELLY:  Yeah, no problem.  I think we can do that, right?  (Group somersaults)

That's certainly not as graceful as it could have been.  That's why we usually hesitate to do those.  But it's certainly fun to do.

MILES O'BRIEN:  Well, I got to say, at least you're having some fun up there.  You're not going to the Olympics with that.  Keep the day jobs, guys – or night jobs on this mission.

MARK KELLY:  Yeah, Miles, and I'll send you one of these bracelets.

MILES O'BRIEN:  I would like one.  Thank you to all of you very much.  I appreciate your time.  I know you've got a busy mission ahead.  You've got the spacewalk ahead.  And thanks to all of you for your time and to be a part of this and for watching us and sending us such terrific questions.

You can see portions of this interview on the PBS NewsHour and the entire interview on the NewsHour's YouTube channel.  For everyone at Google, YouTube and the PBS NewsHour and Space Shuttle Endeavour and ISS, I'm Miles O'Brien.