posted October 11, 2003 11:13 AM
Ah, okay... you were there last week. Neil was the guy who gave Duffy a Russian language booklet; I was the one in the psuedo-leather jacket with the blonde lady (my office manager from the paper.)
I was disappointed that Hieb didn't talk at all, so I was fortunate that I was able to interview him (I wrote this at 02.00 today, so any mistakes are probably due to reading my handwriting at that hour):
Hieb recalls his days as an astronaut
By Hartriono B. Sastrowardoyo
PHILADELPHIA-“I wanted to do something important for my country and the world,” explained Richard Hieb, on why he became an astronaut and stayed by his decision following the Challenger accident.
Hieb, a three-time shuttle flight veteran who was selected in 1985, was at the Franklin Institute on Friday, Oct. 10 as a speaker in some of the museum’s “World Space Week” events. Fellow astronaut classmate and Lockheed Martin employee Brian Duffy was also at the museum the previous week, also talking about life in space.
Stephen Thorne, who was also part of the class of 1985, died in a private plane crash the following year before he could make a spaceflight. Of his classmate, Hieb said, “He was a nice guy, and quiet. You didn’t know how smart he was until he started asking questions, and then you realized he had been reading up on the subject. His callsign was ‘Fox,’ and I liked to fly with him. He would have been a great shuttle commander.”
For Hieb, his start in NASA began in mission control, as part of the ascent team for the first shuttle flight. But that’s not where and when he wanted to become an astronaut. “I always wanted to be an astronaut,” he began, “but in second grade I had to wear glasses. This was in the early ‘60s, when to be an astronaut you had to be a pilot, and to be a pilot, specifically a military pilot; you had to have 20-20 vision. So my dream was deferred in elementary school.
“I would tell anyone who wants to be an astronaut not to wrap themselves and their lives on ‘being’ an astronaut. Most everyone says you have to be lucky.
“I always wanted to be a part of the space programme, and in 1977 when the call came for shuttle astronauts, I read the description for what they were looking for in mission specialists and said, ‘They invented the perfect job for me.’ For mission specialists were technically capable generalists, not specialists.”
However, at that early period in the shuttle programme, the eyesight requirement was still too stringent, Hieb recalls. “It wasn’t until 1983 when they were interviewing people for the following year’s class that I decided I could just make it, if they didn’t look too closely. However, I didn’t expect to be selected,” and Hieb wasn’t, and didn’t get in until the following class.
“My lucky chance came during the Solar Max mission,” a 1984 flight to capture and repair the ailing Solar Max satellite. “The problems they had gave me a chance to perform under pressure, and they could see that I could bring something when they were looking for answers.
“I would tell anyone who wants to be an astronaut to go and make a difference in the space programme. You could go through the military and become a pilot,” as Duffy did, “but that path wasn’t available to me. You’ll need some sort of technical background, and you’ll have to find a way to get involved. Getting involved in operations such as mission operations is pretty important, as they can see how well you work. And obviously, do something that you’re happy with.”
When asked if the Challenger accident, which postponed shuttle flights for two and a half years and suspended training as well, caused him to rethink his decision on becoming an astronaut, Hieb said yes. “A lot changed following 51L,” Challenger’s flight. In 1983 I wasn’t married and had no kids. In 1985 I was selected, and in 1986, the year of the Challenger accident, I was married and my wife was expecting her first child.
“I had to step back and think about it. We said and knew intellectually that this was dangerous, but it was another thing to see and feel it. Why am I doing this? I had to make sure it was for the right reasons.
“I felt it was important for my country and that I could do something important for my country and for the world.
“I couldn’t imagine saying to my kids, ‘It’s your fault I didn’t pursue becoming an astronaut because I was worried about you.’
“And,” he concluded, “This may sound arrogant, but there was a need to do a job, and I felt that I could do it well.”
That Hieb could do a job well can be seen in the three flights he served as a mission specialist and/or payload commander. In 1991 he flew on Discovery/STS-39, an unclassified Department of Defence flight, which conducted proximity operations on the Infrared Background Signature Satellite. His last flight was in 1994 on Columbia/STS-65, the second International Microgravity Laboratory mission.
Between those two, he flew on the maiden voyage of shuttle Endeavour, STS-49, in 1992. Endeavour, which was Challenger’s replacement, was launched to capture and repair Intelsat VI-F3, a communications satellite. Problems with the capture led to the first three person spacewalk, which included Hieb, as well as an almost eight and a half hour spacewalk, beating the record held by the moonwalking Apollo 17 astronauts.
That mission, and Hieb’s thoughts on it and his spacewalks, has been well documented elsewhere. But what about his first and last flights? “Each one was special in their own ways,” Hieb recalls. “The first mission was memorable in at least two ways. We used the Canadarm [the shuttle’s robotic arm] to deploy and retrieve a satellite. There aren’t many opportunities to grab a free flying object. Secondly, I had a background in proximity operations. We would deploy the satellite, then fly away from it, and then fly towards it at a different angle. It was a culmination of sorts for me, because rarely do you have a mission that exactly matches your skills.” Upon graduation from the University of Colorado, Hieb went directly to NASA, where he wrote the procedures to be followed in case the robotic arm couldn’t be stowed. Because the use of the Canadarm for proximity operations wouldn’t be used until the STS-7 flight, he worked in mission control, where he helped out in other areas.
As for STS-65, “That was an analogue to STS-107,” the recent shuttle accident, which also occurred on Columbia. “It was very similar – two weeks in length, a Spacelab in the payload bay, round the clock operations. Even the number of experiments – 80 – is almost the same that was carried on 107,” he said.
“After my second mission I was asked what kind of mission would I like to do. And I chose a science mission, though not that particular one. I had never done a flight like that. And I believe that they are important, as things that happen in labs change life.
“There’s stuff going on that doesn’t make the press,” Hieb continued. “but they’re discoveries that bubble up and can be applied to real life. Down the road we’ll improve life because of scientific work and not know how they came about, other than that work was involved.”
Yet, for someone who seemed to well matched to NASA, why leave after three flights? “I was too tall for Soyuz,” the Russian mainstay on getting to and from space,” so I couldn’t go to Mir, although I would have loved to done so.” NASA conducted nine flights to and from Mir, the Russian space station, and the Soyuz was intended to be used as an emergency escape vehicle if the need arose. In one instance, American astronaut Norman Thagard flew to Mir by the Soyuz craft, and a modified version is used to get to and from the International Space Station given the current shuttle downtime. However, Hieb says he is still too tall to fit inside the Soyuz.
As well, “The kids were getting bigger, as did the reasons not to fly, and the reasons to fly were getting smaller.” Hieb explains, “I was 39, and I was young enough to go to industry and learn. If I waited too much longer, I’m not sure of my value to industry, because I would have been there just long enough for them to teach me and then I would have had to retire.
“I had in the back of my mind to learn the industry side as well as the government side. I didn’t know what was different, and I would not hesitate to tell anyone to get into industry.” Currently, Hieb is vice president, science, engineering, analysis, and test for Lockheed Martin Space Operations. He was involved in the analysis of the Columbia accident – Hieb says they did the “it came off the spacecraft” work, in regards to the piece of external tank insulation that struck the orbiter – and he is also involved in the building of tools for spacewalks. “We’re developing the goop to patch the tiles, and also the analysis work to rotate the shuttle so it could be looked over by astronauts on board the space station.”
What does Hieb see for the future of the US’ space programme? “The International Space Station is worth doing, and worth having,” he says. “We will discover things with respect to science which will change life on Earth and allow life to be better. That’s what we need to do. The question is, how to support that?
“There is a law that says we can’t buy services directly from Russia. As well, their rockets don’t carry as much payload as compared to the shuttle. There are components waiting in Florida to be launched, and there’s not much we can do without the shuttle. So the shuttle is needed for the short term in carrying crew and supplies, and in the intermediate term for finishing building ISS. But beyond that..?”
Hieb paused. “You have to remember that the shuttle was built before cell phones, before DVDs. The first PCs came out the year it was launched. We want to do better than the shuttle, and that’s what’s happening now with studies for the Orbital Space Plane.
“We’re sure to be going back to the moon, on to Mars, and explore other things in the solar system. There are lots of places where we want to go. There will be a follow-on to the shuttle, but it will be different than the current shuttle. The shuttle can’t do everything for every purpose, we have to evolve. The people, White House, Congress and the technical sides have to get together. The political side will listen to the people and do what we want them to do, if that is indeed what we want.”