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[b]Before we get into your background and your training, I feel like we really need to address the elephant in the room, which is that you're supposed to be in space right now. So can you tell us about the mission that you were supposed to be on?[/b]
I was supposed to launch this past June 6 to do about a six month mission and around December I was removed from flight after completing all the backup flow in Baikonur and in Star City and completing all of that.
[b]This was supposed to be your first flight, right? You were selected as an astronaut in 2009, you've been training for a long time and you've been waiting to go to space. This was going to be your first flight?[/b]
I joined the astronaut corps in 2009 and went through two years of astronaut candidacy. We all graduated in November 2011. So we went through all of that training and I've been training ever since.
As far as being assigned, you have to be certified in all areas, the spacewalk training, robotics, Russian language, and so by the time you are assigned, especially after waiting eight years, or seven years, you're pretty much ready when it comes to the Houston training. And then once you're assigned, you have to go over to Russia. I did language immersion and then went over to Star City to start training. And then you also go to Germany, to Cologne in particular, and Japan, and you have to do all the training there as well.
[b]So it was in January that you got pulled from the mission?[/b]
That was when the public announcement came out.
[b]What can you tell us about what you know about why you were taken off?[/b]
I can't speculate in this forum why that was done, but it was a decision of my management and it is something that we're going to try to work through. I'm back in the corps now, I am working on the NASA Orion program, which is really the Space Launch System, which is a mission to go back to the moon to build a lunar orbital platform called the Gateway, and to basically get astronauts back to the moon and develop technologies there that would help take us to Mars. I'm still flying the T-38, I'm still capcom'ing in Mission Control, and so I am just back in the office during the same things that I was doing for the eight years I was waiting for a mission.
[b]So has something like this happened before where a crew member is taken off the mission and no real reason is given for it?[/b]
Well people have been removed before, but not in the same fashion that this was done, partially because I was so close to launch and I completed the entire backup flow. We pass all of the exams in Star City and then Baikonur was really what you get to do after you pass all of your exams in Star City.
I passed everything in Cologne for the specialist. I was trained to the specialist level for the Columbus module on the space station. And I did the same thing in Japan, in Tskuba, where you train to the specialist level for their module on the ISS, which the JEM module. So with all of the training I had done and completed in Houston, Russia, Germany, Japan, everything was completed.
And so to be removed while you're in Russia and different things like that, it hadn't been done. Other people had been removed because of a medical thing, an accident. One person broke a hip and had to be removed from flight, of course. But I didn't have any medical conditions or anything like that. And I didn't have any family issues at all, either.
[b]Do you know when you might get an answer about what happened? Is there any kind of internal investigation going on?[/b]
I don't know when I will get an answer, and hopefully it will come soon. I am hoping by the end of the summer. Because I think what is happening soon is that we're going to run out of Soyuz seats, because we are building commercial crew vehicles through Elon Musk's SpaceX and through Boeing. Those ships are to take astronauts to space. We have a SpaceX Dragon that takes logistics up to space, but the next follow-on, he's going to take our people up to space.
So with that happening, we won't need the Soyuz any more. So we will have fewer and fewer seats on the Soyuz. And so I am not sure if in the future, if I am assigned a mission, it will be on a Soyuz even though all the training for Russia has been completed. It was phenomenal training.
[b]Do you even know who made the decision? Is it possible it could have been a political decision. Do you even know it was NASA or possibly the Russian partners?[/b]
I seriously do not believe it was the Russians, our Russian colleagues, partly because I've been through the training with them and I think I was able to develop really good working relationships with everyone there. A testament to that is that I think some of the people there may have known that NASA was thinking of doing this, but they were adamant that I had to complete all of the training, even down to out in Baikonur, doing the leak check for the suit that was made for me. And the seat liner that was made for me. They wanted to check everything and check it inside the Soyuz, so they know if and when I fly that my suit fit was good and the seat liner that they made for me was a good fit, so I would be comfortable in the right seat of the Soyuz.
There were even several Russians who defended me, in the sense that it is not safe to remove someone from a crew that has trained together for two years, or for a year at least, and went through all of the final exams and things like that. So for safety reasons, I think some people, especially the Russians, were a little concerned.
Besides that, I don't know where the decision came from and how it was made, in detail and at what level.
[b]I think a lot of people were really excited for your mission, in part because you were going to be the first African American crew member to live on the space station in its, what, almost 20 year history of having astronauts continuously living there orbiting Earth? And because there hasn't been any reason given, a lot of people have been left wondering if this was ultimately like a racist or sexist decision. Is that something you are wondering too?[/b]
It is something that I live with every day and I don't live with it thinking about it every day. To me, I think as with anyone who is a professional, the goal is get to the job done and do as well as your colleagues and make sure you are a contributing member to whatever team you're in and make sure you are doing your part, and if things do happen, you can participate and make sure things get back on track as a crew, as a teammate, as a person living on the station no matter what happens, you are part of the team. And you want to really make sure everything is done.
To me, within that framework, there's no time to really be concerned about sexism and racism and things like that, because we have to perform. And if comes into play, then you're hindering the mission and you're hindering the performance. So whether or not it is a factor, I can't speculate what people are thinking doing into this forum unless I have a little bit more information. I don't want to speculate what people are thinking, especially in this forum, because to me, it takes away from the mission and the things we are trying to do. And if that is the reason that things like this have happened, to me it is even worse.
I kind of ignore a lot of stuff and I don't speculate, so I don't know what to say that at this point. It is something that a lot of people have asked me and I haven't commented yet and so I am waiting to see what comes of all of this.
[b]So what has it been like getting back to work after all of this?[/b]
Getting back to work, it is like business as usual. Getting back in the T-38, doing the same things, we have requirements of so many hours that you have to fly per quarter. Getting back to working in Mission Control as the capcom. Trying to make sure I am getting back in the pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and working on spacewalk training. And really that is the primary thing, and apart from that you have a regular job. My regular job is work in the exploration branch where the Orion is being developed.
That's basically it. I do know getting back was interesting because working with my trainers, a lot of them were really concerned. They thought something might have happened to me because we never saw this coming. So it has been an interesting experience to see the response and the impact that this whole thing has had on other people. And of course I am impacted, but to know that other people are impacted, too, it was a pleasant surprise, even despite everything that has happened. I didn't know that people felt that way, if that makes sense.
[b]I imagine that is a frustrating experience to go through something like this and not have a lot of answers. It must be a little isolating in general to just be an astronaut, because you are part of such a small club, and as an astronaut who is also a woman of color, you're part of an even smaller club. So when you're going through something like this, where there are not a lot of people who can understand your experience, how do you take care of yourself? Who do you have to lean on for support?[/b]
That is part of the surprise that I had coming back. There were a lot of people who were really supportive, former astronauts and people like that, who reached out and were really helpful just talking to me, trying to figure out a way forward and what happened. So in a situation like that, the pleasant thing was some of the people who I never expected to come through and to really have my back in a lot of crazy situations that have happened. I didn't have to do this alone, in other words. So I was very happy that I found out that I had more friends than I thought, and I think going through something like that you kind of realize who you're real friends are. And it is important to know that because it is interesting and different and difficult to go through. So having people like that really helps.
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