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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.