A few weeks prior to scheduled launch, STS-81 commander Mike Baker took some time out from training to answer questions about the mission.

 

Q:Mike, in the most basic of terms please

tell me the complexity of this mission.

 

A: This is typical of any rendezvous mission. We'll be

rendezvouing and docking with the space station Mir. Probably

the most complex part of our mission I think is going to be our

our cargo transfer that we will be doing for the five days that

we're docked to Mir.

 

Q: As commander, how tough is it to choreograph a mission

this complex?

 

A: Well, in my case I've got an outstanding crew. They're all

experienced space flyers, very competent and each one of

them has their assigned task and they've taken the ball and

run with it and I'm very confident that they're going to perform

their jobs just like everything needs to be done.

 

Q: There have already been four successful dockings with

the Mir. Is there anything unique or different about this time?

 

A: No, I don't think so. This will be the fifth one. We'll be

transferring crew members; we'll be taking out Jerry Linenger

and bringing home John Blaha, and transferring a lot of cargo,

food, water, and experiments. So in that respect I think it's

very much similar to the previous missions.

 

Q: Let's walk through rendezvous and docking. Give me a

bird's eye view of what will be going on, the different stages

the orbiter will be advancing towards the Mir, from the R-bar

through hard mate.

 

A: As we approach the R-bar, we're in the neighborhood of

2500 feet away from the Mir space station, we start our

braking gates. Be approaching at that point somewhere around

2-1/2 feet per second. We'll go through the R-bar to help us

save some gas, out maybe 15 degrees beyond the R-bar, and

let the orbiter come back in towards the R-bar, slowing down,

braking that entire time. Looking to be back onto the R-bar, or

actually about 75 to 100 feet in front of the R-bar, and try to

stabilize our X velocity at that point, getting ready to perform

our tail forward maneuver. And that's in a maneuver where

we'll be maneuvering without being able to make any inputs

essentially for six minutes, and if we do that just right, we

hopefully will end up kind of on the R-bar at the completion of

that tail forward movement maneuver, at approximately 400

feet distance from the Mir. We'll continue in to 170 feet for

stationkeeping, and for final go for docking with the Mir, make

sure that the solar arrays are in position and that the Mir is in

attitude for docking. We'll continue in to 30 feet, again

stationkeeping to insure that our lineup is correct and our

attitude is correct. And then continue on in from 30 feet for

docking. It takes about 45 minutes from 175 feet to docking.

 

Q: STS-79 had to deal with that newly installed cooperative

solar array on their docking. That was a new twist. How did

that go, and is there any concern about the solar array here?

 

A: As far I know that went well, and of course it will be in

the same position during our docking. These are very similar

flights so I don't foresee any problems with the solar array.

 

Q: STS-79 also proved to be a pretty emotional reunion and

exchange with Shannon and John. Do you think emotions be

running high as the hatches open and the two crews come face

to face and see John?

 

A: Oh yeah, I'm sure there will be a lot of emotions. John,

I'm sure will be ready to come home and will be happy to see

his friends, as well as I'm sure the cosmonauts, Valeri and

Sasha, I'm sure will be happy to see any visitors that arrive

after their long stay in space. And Jerry, of course will be

happy to see his new crewmates, ready to get on with his work

in space.

 

Q: Do you think perhaps the process of swapping out bodies

on the space station Mir to continue the scientific agendas

will ever become routine?

 

A: Of course we'll be doing that into the next couple of

years with the Mir station and then in the International Space

Station that will happen fairly often. I think that with space

flight in general, docking with another spacecraft ... I'm not

sure it will ever be routine. But we're certainly learning how to

do it a lot better. More people are more familiar with it. We're

continuing to refine the way we do it, and it's obviously

becoming more safe but probably never will be routine.

 

Q: Let's skip forward here to undocking and fly-around. If

you could give me the same bird's eye perspective as you did on

rendezvous and docking.

 

A: We will all set up and ready for undock in the cabin. We

will have all the cameras set up, our handheld lasers ready,

our tools for rendezvous and proximity operations basically

will all be set up. Jeff will be at the control panel for the

docking module, and we will undo the hooks, and those springs

will give us some velocity away from Mir. Once we get two

feet away, we'll go into an inertial attitude hold and perform

four pulses that will give us an opening rate from Mir. Then

we'll just begin to open from Mir and begin the fly-around at

that point, kind of in a natural orbital mechanics - due to

orbital mechanics we just kind of naturally fall out in front of

Mir up towards the V-bar. When we are about 50 feet away,

I'll hand over controls to my pilot, Brent Jett, and he'll conduct

the remaining portion of the fly-around. Once Brent gets out to

475 feet, he will start braking to maintain 475 to 575 feet from

Mir, and continue just to fly around Mir. In the meantime we

will be taking lots of photographic coverage of Mir to discover

any damage that may have happened and to look at damage

that has happened before and see what the effects of time, or

more time in space, has done to that damage.

 

Q: How many revs will you fly-around the Mir?

 

A: Right now, we're planned to do two. At twice orbital rate,

which means that we'll perform two fly-around's of Mir and

one normal orbit which would be about 90 minutes.

 

Q: We've flown around the Mir several times now. What are

we learning? What are we documenting more and more as we

do that?

 

A: What we're really looking at when we fly around Mir is

detailed close-up pictures of solar panels of the Mir's

structural skin, checking for new meteorite hits or other

possibly space debris hits, learning or trying to verify and

update our models for orbital debris. This is going to help us

decide how strong we need to make a space station so that it

can survive these sorts of hits. And also we can learn more

about materials, what materials we should be using and how

they degrade on orbit, in the space environment. Every four

months we get to view Mir again to see what changes have

taken effect.

 

Q: One of the obstacles the crew of STS-79 said they had to

kind of overcome was the replacement of Mir-23 cosmonauts

with Korzun and Kaleri, the obstacle being that they didn't get

to train very much with them. Do you have any concerns in

this regard?

 

A: I think our situations may be a little bit different. We

were saddened when we found out that Gennadiy and Pavel

would not be on board when we arrived, because we were

looking forward to that. At the same time though, when we

conducted our training in Star City we met Valeri and Sasha.

And we also had the opportunity back here at Johnson Space

Center during their training here to meet with them. And I had

the opportunity to be the Director of Operations over in Star

City last year for about 7-1/2 to 8 months, so I got to know

Valeri very well. We've trained with this crew, we know the

crew, and we are definitely looking forward to seeing them

onboard Mir.

 

Q: Could you comment on the progress of the joint

cooperative activities between the Russians and Americans?

How is the process evolving as we move closer to International

Space Station?

 

A: I think one of the things that the shuttle/Mir program or

the Phase I program has done has clearly gotten Americans

and Russians together. The counterparts working on both

sides of the ocean have gotten to the point where we know

each other, we know how the other one works, how they live,

and what their space programs are like. It's just making it a lot

easier for us to understand each other and to move ahead into

the International Space Station program.

 

Q: How do you view the Shuttle/Mir activity as a stepping

stone to those types of operations, the knowledge we're

gaining?

 

A: I think the biggest thing that we're learning is just how to

work with the Russians, how to communicate with them...

interpretation, getting through the language. Their people are

learning English, and people over here are learning Russian.

Getting to know each other I think is the biggest thing that we

can do for the program. And I think that we've set a really

good foundation for that in Phase I. Getting together working

on schedules of launches, and crew training, having people live

over in Star City and Moscow, working together, and the same

thing, we've got Russians over here working with us. It's been

a tremendous boost for our joint program. To me, that's

probably the most important thing that we've gained out of

this.

 

Q: Having served as Director of Operations in Star City,

could you comment on what you think the state of the Russian

space program is right now?

 

A: They are obviously going through some tough times right

now, economically, mainly and financially in support of their

program. But the Russian people are very proud of their space

program. They have a very robust program, a very strong

program, one that they really want to continue. In Star City, I

think you see how healthy it is - there's lots of people working

there, lots of things going on, lots of cosmonauts training, lots

of activities with the Americans, and the same thing in Energia

and some of the other manufacturers, around the Moscow

region. So, I think they are very strong, but again, they do

have some financial problems.

 

Q: Let's talk about the primary objective of the flight, which

is the exchange of Jerry Linenger for John Blaha. What have

we learned about transporting a passenger who has spent an

extended period of time in microgravity?

 

A: We have developed a recumbent seat for the middeck,

where we return those crew members that have been onboard

Mir for extended stays. To my knowledge it's been working

out great. It allows the doctors to get some medical data that

they'd like before the crew members really get up and around,

and it insures that the crew member is safe on entering. I don't

think there's really anything to it. So far, the folks that are

coming back with us on the shuttle are all experienced shuttle

flyers and I think they have also been a big help to the crew,

trying to clean things up after the transfer.

 

Q: How has John been taking care of himself physically to

keep in condition?

 

A: They have a couple of exercise periods every day

onboard Mir, and I think he's running mainly on the treadmill

for about an hour each session. That's two hours a day, which

is quite a bit, and of course I know he is eating well and

keeping his fluid levels up.

 

Q: Is there a certain irony here, in that you're flying home

the man that was your commander on your first space flight

on STS-43, and has there been any kidding about that?

 

A: Well, so far John and I haven't talked about it. But yeah,

I think it is a little bit strange if you want to put it that way,

that I get to fly while he gets to sit on the middeck, and of

course I got to sit in the pilot seat while he flew on my first

flight. So it'll be a little bit different for John, I'm sure. It will

be the first time that he's been without a window for ascent or

entry.

 

Q: At what point does John actually become a shuttle crew

member again and Jerry becomes a Mir crew member?

 

A: Soon after we open the hatch and have our welcome

ceremony, one of the first things that we do is transfer the

seat, Jerry's seat, over to Mir. And at that point they install it

in the Soyuz and that's the official time when they change

crews. So, within a couple of hours after docking, John will

become a shuttle crew member and Jerry will become a Mir

crew member.

 

Q: What is the relevance, how is it significant of

maintaining a permanent U.S. presence in space?

 

A: I think it's extremely significant for us. It allows us to do

some scientific experimentation and do some of those things

that we have been wanting to do on space station. So we've

gained that advantage, and we also are gaining some insight

into the effects of long periods of zero gravity on the human

body. We are also learning how operate long term in space to

help us out with our training and our timelining for the

International Space Station when it comes online in a few

years.

 

Q: Let's get a rundown on payloads. First, what is Spacehab

and what is the significance of the double module?

 

A: The Spacehab double module essentially is just a volume

that we can store things in on these particular missions. That is

where most of the transfer items will be stored. And in addition

inside the Spacehab we will also have a biorack, which is a

glovebox facility, for some scientific experiments that we will

be doing.

 

Q: Is one of the modules more exclusively devoted to cargo

transport than the other?

 

A: No, I would say they're both about the same. The

forward module has most of the subsystems in it, and it also

has the biorack and the communications system. The aft rack

is actually just more volume for lockers and things like that.

But they essentially both have space for transfer items, both

things that we're going to transfer to Mir and things that we're

going to to pick up from Mir and return home.

 

Q: Let's discuss the complexity of cargo transfers. Both

STS-76 and STS-79 were very busy with transfers. How does

your mission compare in terms of amount of cargo transfers

and what have we learned from them to make this easier?

 

A: Marsha Ivins is going to be our load master, or cargo

transfer guru, and she's got a big job. She's trying to

understand what all the requirements are, what needs to be

taken over to Mir, what needs to be brought back from Mir.

That cargo list is being changed all the time. For instance now

we're being asked to take more food containers and more

clothing up. Where this goes and how it is all choreographed is

up to Marsha. The list is changing; it's a living sort of

document that she's trying to track every day. She will be

tracking that all the way up to launch, I'm sure. She's got a

master plan and one of the other things that's going to be

helpful, that we've learned through the other flights, is that

we're going to be talking with John and the Mir crew several

times before we fly to let them know what our plan is for

transfer, what we think what we'd like to do, let them take a

cut at it and respond and say, well maybe they'd like to do

something a little bit different. So we'll have that

communication between the crews and hopefully when we

arrive things will go nice and smooth and we both know what to

expect. We have changed a little bit from previous flights on

how we stow things in the Spacehab. A lot of the stuff is stowed

in just a bag that we can pick up and transfer over. The biggest

problem is going to be finding the manpower and the space to

temporary stow these items to make space for their home on

the return. John is going to have all his bags ready, I hope.

And then we'll start transferring bags over to the Mir to make

holes for John's bags. Then we'll bring those back over. We

also have some experiments that we're going to have to 'power

transfer.' We have several of those that can only be

unpowered for about 15 minutes or so. So we'll have to

carefully timeline those to make sure that we can do the

transfer in less than 15 minutes and get them all hooked up

again inside the Spacehab for return to the U.S.

 

Q: How will differing sleep schedules onboard the Mir and

Atlantis affect those transfers?

 

A: Well, for our current launch date of January 12, it's the

best timeline in terms of sleep periods. We will be going to

sleep and waking up at the same time as the Mir crew, so we

will have the maximum amount of time awake to complete our

transfers. The launch time changes by 25 minutes a day, so if

there are any launch delays things can change drastically. The

worst timeline case or sleep period change, would be if we go

to sleep 4 hours earlier than the Mir crew so our work day

while we're awake together is cut down dramatically.

 

Q: Just for definition, what is a Risk Mitigation

Experiment?

 

A: The space station program has a lot of items that they

would like to fly on the International Space Station. Before

they do that, they would like to fly them on the shuttle, or in a

zero-g environment, to make sure that they work, to work out

any bugs that they may find. So we're doing a lot of those sort

of things. The biggest one is TVIS (Treadmill Vibration

Isolation and Stabilization System). It's a treadmill that's

designed so that it doesn't impart any vibration into the space

station. It has a big gyro on it to accomplish that. It has never

been flown in space before. We are going to fly it on this flight

to make sure that it works, give space station some confidence

that it will work, so that they can go ahead with that program

and put it onboard the space station.

 

Q: What will your involvement be with TVIS?

 

A: Besides kind of overseeing the assembly of it, Marsha

and Jeff will be doing that. I'll be one of the people running on

it for evaluation. Brent and I will be running on it, and John

Blaha, as an evaluation of it. Some of the other Risk

Mitigation Experiments that we have... we have the water

quality monitor, which is something again that will be flown on

space station, but we want to make sure that it works in zero

gravity before we do that. So we're going to test it out on the

shuttle and particularly on this flight. And there are some

other things, Volatile Organic Analyzer. Again, just equipment

that will be onboard the space station that we want to make

sure it works before it gets there.

 

Q: Shifting our focus to a more personal level now, what

drew you into wanting to become an astronaut? When did you

know this is the path your life could take and would take?

 

A: I think for a long time I've known that I wanted to fly.

My father was in the Navy, so I grew up around Naval Air

Stations watching airplanes fly. He was an aircraft mechanic,

so I always knew I wanted to fly. I think during the Apollo

Program I really thought about becoming an astronaut. I don't

know if I ever really forgot about it, but I went on to college,

Aerospace Engineering. Joined the Navy, to fly, which is what

I always wanted to do. Became a test pilot for the Navy, and

then realized at that point in time that maybe becoming an

astronaut was actually within my reach. So, I applied and was

accepted. And I've really enjoyed my time here.

 

Q: What are you most looking forward to accomplishing on

the flight? As you approach launch how do you feel?

 

A: I look forward to accomplishing a successful docking. I

am really excited about this docking mission. One thing I

learned, having been living and working with the Russians, the

rendezvous is going to be exciting, and approaching a large

spacecraft is going to be exciting. I'm looking forward to that.

And the docking is somewhat of a challenge. I'm looking

forward to performing that to the best of my ability, making it

nice and smooth and precise. Being onboard the Russian

Space Station Mir with some of my old friends from Star City

is going to be nice too.

 

Q: What are you most curious about the Mir?

 

A: I don't know if I really have any curiosity. I'm really

looking forward to having that much room to go explore and

float around in and just see what's going on, onboard.

 

Q: On your fourth time into space, what have you not

gotten to do on a personal level that you might get the

opportunity to do here?

 

A: About the only thing I can think of is just performing the

rendezvous and docking. That's something that I have not

done on my previous flights and I'm really, really looking

forward to it.

 

Q: Writing the storyline of STS-81, how do you think the

books will record and view this flight in terms of scientific

knowledge gained? Knowledge, expansion of knowledge, of

the transfer process and the docking processes and such.

 

A: Well, I hope that it will be recorded as one of the highly

successful Mir docking missions. Part of the success, first step

in partnership in space with the Russians, as part of that

program, to me a very important program in our development

into cooperative space programs, which is something I think is

extremely important for our country and for the world.