NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Jennifer Ross-Nazzal
Murfreesboro, Tennessee – 9 May 2011
Today is May 9, 2011. This interview with Rhea Seddon is being conducted
in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the JSC Oral History Project. The
interviewer is Jennifer Ross-Nazzal, assisted by Rebecca Wright.
Thanks again for making time to sit with us this afternoon.
You’re very welcome.
We certainly appreciate it. Last time we had talked about your first
flight, but we didn’t talk about the Toys in Space experiment,
and I thought you’d like to talk about the toys that you experimented
We had a lot of fun with that. Bo [Karol J. Bobko], wanted us each
to choose a toy that we thought would be fun to use and demonstrate
in space. Of course, Carolyn Sumners from the Houston Museum of Natural
Science sponsored the experiment. She brought a bunch of different
kids’ toys, so we all got to select one. I took the Slinky and
jacks, because they were toys that I was familiar with from my childhood.
So we had to demonstrate what they did on Earth, and they filmed that.
Then we took them into space and played with them there. Of course,
the Slinky didn’t slink. It wasn’t much fun at all, but
Jeff [Jeffrey A.] Hoffman and I stretched it out, and it had some
very interesting waveforms when you shook it. The waves reflected
upon each other, so it was kind of fun to see a different way to play
with a toy that obviously wouldn’t slink in space.
The jacks were a lot of fun because I had played a lot of jacks as
a young girl and had my rhythm down, how to throw the ball and collect
the jacks. Of course the first time I released the jacks in the middeck
when we were in space, they flew all over the place. Just that small
amount of momentum from your hand and they went everywhere, so I had
to go collect them all up again. Then I learned how to release them
very slowly, and I got that part of it right so that they would stay
in one general area.
Then I was perplexed by the fact that the ball wasn’t doing
what I expected. Usually in jacks you throw the ball up, then it falls
down and bounces and you catch it as it comes back up. Well, I was
standing in the middle of the middeck. I’d throw the ball up,
and it took a long time for it to get up to the ceiling and then a
long time for it to bounce back to the floor and come back up. I’d
be standing there with a jack in my hand, and the ball was sort of
drifting around. I tried just throwing it at the floor, but then my
hand wasn’t quite positioned right.
So what I ended up doing was just throwing it up to the ceiling, picking
up a jack and catching it on the way down. Then, of course, I would
release it and try to get two jacks, and then finally, after a little
bit of practice, I managed to get all ten of the jacks in my hand
at once. As soon as I’d let them go, they start drifting apart,
so it was really hard to get all ten of them before the ball came
It was, again, illustrating gravity. You get so used to it and you
get used to interacting with it in a certain way, and then you go
into space and you have to learn how to react differently. But we
had a lot of fun.
I think Bo selected a spinning top and a gyroscope because he wanted
to show gyroscopic motion. It was a nice demonstration, of course,
of why our satellites would spin up. He would spin the gyro and then
bump it to show that it stayed pointing in the same direction. He
used that as a teaching moment about gyroscopes and why our satellites
Jeff Hoffman had some magnetic marbles that were fun. He would put
one out and then throw another one near, and they would clump together.
You know, a lot of kids aren’t sure whether magnets would work
in space. Will magnets work in weightlessness? Well, of course. Adults
would say, “Yes, of course, magnetism works without gravity.”
But if you ask kids, they don’t really know. So this was a nice
demonstration. Plus, he could get three or four of them in a string
and then pass one nearby but not quite near enough to join up, but
it would move the long string of marbles that he had. So that was
a nice demonstration too.
He also took a car and a circular track. He would start the car going
on the inside of the track, and it was really using centrifugal force
to hold it on the track. He could demonstrate that as long as the
car was moving, it had enough centrifugal force to keep it in the
track going around and around. Once the car slowed down, it would
just drift slowly out of the track. So, a nice demonstration of centrifugal
Dave [S. David] Griggs had a yo-yo, which was a lot of fun, and it
took a good bit of practice for him to get it going at the right speed
where it would come back. Originally he’d sling it out there
and it would just drift around, but he got pretty good at it. He had
a lot of fun with that.
Jake [Edwin Jacob Garn] had a paper airplane that the Smithsonian
gave him to fly, and, again, it took a little bit of practice to get
the right kind of momentum to get the air going over the wings so
that it had a normal trajectory. If you didn’t throw it hard
enough, it just sort of floated.
So they were all very nice demonstrations to kids, and I’ve
used it in schools before and asked kids to predict what would happen.
It’s very interesting to hear what children will postulate,
because they don’t quite understand physics principles, but
these were learning tools kids could relate to, and we had a lot of
fun playing with them. It was a fun experiment.
Some of the photos looked interesting, so I was curious about that.
Was that used in Houston classrooms, or was that used in the museum
I think it’s been used widely. People could request it. They
did, actually, a whole series. Our was the Toys in Space I, and I
think they did several others, but I think that’s in the NASA
educational armamentarium that schools could request. I think they
did a narrated version and had a study guide that went with it, just
one of those fun things that NASA did for education and continues
to do for education that connect kids to space.
Our flight ended up being very complex in many different ways, and
we had a lot of things going on, and so the toys was kind of a respite
from the stressful stuff. It was just the playing-around stuff, and
we had a lot of fun doing it.
You mentioned the complexity of the time period, and I don’t
know if you recall this moment, but I was reading through an article
that talked about how Dave [David C.] Hilmers, the CapCom [Capsule
Communicator], congratulated you on your sewing ability. Apparently
Sally [K.] Ride was there, and she jumped in and said, “Well,
she didn’t get that sewing ability as a homemaker; she got those
skills as a surgeon.”
I think the quote, or at least what I heard, because I obviously wasn’t
there, Dave said something about, “You’re a good seamstress,”
and Sally said, “No, she’s a good surgeon,” something
along those lines, which I appreciated very much, but I would have
taken the kudos as a seamstress, too, because I’ve done that
in my lifetime. But that was very nicely put by Dr. Ride.
I was just curious what you had thought of it at the time. I thought
it was very interesting.
I didn’t hear about it till I got back. [Laughter]
You were too busy making the flyswatter.
But I told her I appreciated it.
I thought I’d ask you about the Astronaut Science Support Group
that you formed with Jeff Hoffman and Bonnie [J.] Dunbar and Jerry
[L.] Ross, some of those folks after Challenger [STS-51L].
As we got into a more mature phase of the Shuttle Program, we came
to realize that scientists who either wanted to propose experiments
or had proposed experiments frequently designed both the hardware
and the experiment itself before they ever had crew members that they
could work with. We likened it to saying, well, they’ve designed
this experiment to be a “flying brick.” In other words,
the only switch on there is the on/off switch, and the only indicator
on there is a light that comes on when it’s on. If you take
it to space and you flip the switch and the light doesn’t come
on, there’s nothing you can do. It’s sealed up. They didn’t
design it to be repaired. There’s no way to understand what
went wrong, no insight into the mechanisms. We felt that was unfortunate,
because crewmembers are more than willing to learn everything there
is to know about an experiment. They take the responsibility for it.
For instance, scientists I knew were designing life sciences experiments,
and they were told, “We can’t guarantee that you’ll
have any physicians on the flight or anyone that knows anything about
life sciences.” So again, they would dumb-down the experiment
or they would worry about it or they wouldn’t propose it. Or
they would do something that they ordinarily wouldn’t do, in
order that any person could do it.
So we wanted to go out and tell them the capabilities that people
had. Even if you were an astronomer, you could learn to draw blood.
Even if you didn’t understand a lot of the complexity of the
payload that you were operating, you had the opportunity to talk to
the ground. A lot of times you could do the mechanics of it and do
it very well and understand how it could go awry without understanding
how the telescope was built or what the internal workings were.
So being a resource to scientists was something that we felt was useful
for us to be doing. I think in the time after Challenger all of us
were trying to look at not only how to recover from the mechanical
problem that happened on Challenger, but how we could use this time
to improve the product of our office. We could make ourselves available
to scientists who didn’t understand, for instance, how to work
in zero gravity.
Scientists would say, “All this experiment requires is that
you draw blood and that you collect urine.” We would remind
them that we didn’t have a lab centrifuge on board, and we frequently
didn’t have a lab refrigerator on board. So something that sounded
pretty simple, would have been very simple here on the ground, like
collecting urine was hard to do with the things that we had in the
space environment. But we would let them know there are flights that
you could stow the urine-monitoring system on board; they might want
to group their experiment with some other people’s so that they
could assure that that equipment could go on board to support several
So it was that kind of interaction, and we all enjoyed it. Most of
us that were working on the support group had flown, so we understood
what weightlessness was like, what you could and couldn’t do,
what equipment you had or could have. So it was earning our keep as
good scientists to go and share some of what we had learned and what
we knew about the Shuttle Program.
Now, I understand that you put together a film. Did you star in one
of these films?
I don’t even remember. I may have. You’ll have to tell
me about it. There’s so many pieces and parts of work that I
have done that every once in a while I think, “I wonder whatever
happened to that?” I vaguely remembering doing something like
that, or one of the crewmembers will ask, “Do you remember what
we did about so-and-so?” And I have no memory of it. I had a
question for Jeff Hoffman about something. “Did we roll that
camera out or not?” And he said, “I have no idea. I don’t
even remember that that was the problem,” or something like
that. We each remember pieces and parts, and parts of it are gone,
not in the memory bank anymore. If you tell me we did a film, I’ll
I know you all did a film. I don’t know if you starred in it
or not, but I was curious about that.
I’m sure I didn’t, but I’m sure I contributed.
Were there any groups or universities that you worked with on experiments
at this point?
Can’t really recall, but, you know, all of the experiments were
somebody else’s. Some of them were from JSC, but many of them
were from other places and some of them were sort of good ideas that
people wanted to talk to somebody about, and we were happy to either
talk to them on the phone or send them pictures or descriptions of
equipment or go there. They would invite us to come and talk about
something to their graduate students and, in the meantime, come to
their lab and help them figure out what was the best way to design
the control interface with some experiment. I remember doing that
quite a few times. It was just part of our work and something we certainly
Back then, astronauts were kind of special people, so the investigators
frequently liked to have the nice P.R. [Public Relations] parts of
that. The local newspaper would come and take pictures, and we could
talk about how wonderful their university was for proposing space
experiments, so it was a win-win for everybody. There were grad students
that were thinking about becoming astronauts, probably some that did
become astronauts. Every once in a while, someone would say to me,
“Oh, I remember when you came and talked to my school.”
Now I see grownups that say, “I remember you talked to my first-grade
class.” But, again, going out and helping and talking to people
was part of the responsibility of the job.
Would you tell us how the office changed as a result of Challenger,
in terms of leadership, management, those sort of things?
Of course, Mr. [George W.S.] Abbey moved, I think, to Washington [DC,
NASA Headquarters] after that, but we had different leaders. I think
that things were a little bit—how shall I put it—more
straightforward as far as crew assignments, as far as job assignments,
as far as where everybody was going. We had a little bit better idea
of where we stood and whether we had done a good job or not done a
good job. The one thing I remember that changed significantly was
the Family Support Plan, and I don’t remember whether we talked
about that before.
No, I don’t think that we did.
Pinky [George D.] Nelson was tasked with putting together what they
called the Family Support Plan; I think they realized with Challenger
that no one was really looking out for an astronaut’s family.
We were all kind of on our own, getting family to the Cape [Canaveral,
Florida], finding a place to stay, figuring it all out if the launch
slipped, changing your condo. The spouses could ride down on the NASA
plane, but what did you do about your kids? There was concern about
how expensive it was for a lot of people to go to Florida, having
a flight delayed at the last moment, having to go back down again,
flying the kids down several times, flying Grandma down so she could
be with the kids. It was just very disorganized.
And after the Challenger explosion, where are the families? Where
are the kids? Because we need to round everybody up. We need to make
sure that if the kids stayed at home, there’s somebody with
the kids. It was just this sort of horrible realization that we always
had family support people from our office, two people that were there
to help, but suddenly, after Challenger, where were they all? Where
were those spouses and families staying? How do we get into their
hotel rooms to get their things so we can get back to Houston? It
was a mess, and I think they realized that they needed to organize
it. There needed to be more support for families. We needed to know
where people were. We needed to have a plan if things went awry. We
had to do a lot of different things. Pinky Nelson put together a terrific
plan, put it together at the right time, and after that, it was just
Of course, I got to see both sides of that coin. I got to be the flyer,
and I got to be the spouse. I can remember when I was the person flying,
the concern I had for my husband, my children. I’d worry about
how are they were going to manage. Of course, “Hoot” [Robert
L. Gibson] could manage making hotel reservations and renting a car
and getting himself where he needed to go, but there were a lot of
wives for whom it was very difficult to figure all that out. They
did it by word of mouth. They’d talk to somebody that had done
it and found a good place to stay. Did the condo or hotel have anything
available, will they have anything later, would they slip the reservation
if the flight slipped?
Afterwards, the plan was in place; everything was taken care of. They
did some very practical things like helping people to make sure that
they had a will. They instituted something that they called the CACO
[Casualty Assistance Call Officer]. That wasn’t the family support
who accompanied a family to the Cape; that was the crew member’s
representative. If anything happened to you, they were the liaison
between the family and NASA. They actually had those people for the
Challenger families, but they were named after the fact. It was much
nicer if you could go to your best friend and say, “Will you
be my ASP [Astronaut Support Person]? Will you be my support person?”
And find out whether they felt like they could do that or not. I don’t
think anybody ever turned anyone down. I was a support person for
people and had good friends that were support people for me. As a
close friend you could ask the tough questions. Where’s the
will? What do you want me to do about this? Have you thought about
whether you want to be buried at Arlington [National Cemetery, Virginia]
or in your local cemetery? Questions that are very difficult sometimes.
I think they found with Challenger that not all of those questions
had been discussed within families, so it was nice to have this other
person that could walk you through some of the questions that needed
to be asked and the things that needed to be settled. It made it a
whole lot easier. All of that got taken care of well in advance, and
you didn’t have to worry about it as much.
So the Family Support Plan was part of what happened during the time
after Challenger. We, again, were looking for how we could do things
better, and to my way of thinking, that was one of the really fine
things that NASA did.
So NASA now rents the condos for the family? Is that correct?
Yes, they take care of that for you. It was financially very difficult
for people to manage on their own. Of course, we were a two-income
family, so we managed, but I don’t know how some of those families
did it. When you went down for launch and spent a week waiting for
it to go, have many days of delays and then fly home and have to go
back down again, it was really costly.
For Hoot’s second flight, [STS]-61C, we went down several times,
and we stayed in Florida for several weeks waiting for that flight
to get off the ground. It was very expensive, not to mention stressful.
Of course, the families all try to take that worry off of the crew
member, because they have other things that they need to be worrying
about, so we were told, “Don’t worry your husband with
all these things.”
Again, it was much better after they had a formal plan. Your bags
were packed when you went out for the launch, and the people knew
where to collect your stuff. They knew where you were. You were asked,
“Where’s the astronaut’s parents, and where are
your parents? Where are your support people if you need them?”
So it was just much more organized.
I think later on, the Columbia accident [STS-107], I don’t know,
but I would guess it was much more coordinated. They were ready. So
that’s what NASA’s very good at—where are our failure
modes, and how do we plug those holes so that that doesn’t happen
You brought up a subject that I was going to ask you at the end of
the interview, but since you brought it up—you, of course, flew
as an astronaut and then Hoot flew five times. It’s my understanding
that the spouses of the astronauts who are flying have to host parties
and do a whole bunch of other events for the crew. Can you talk about
that, being on both sides?
Yes. Of course, Hoot flew first, so I got to see the spouse side of
it, and there were certain traditions. Of course, once you’re
named to a crew that becomes your closest social circle. The spouses
get together, the crew members get together, and then you all get
together with spouses, kids, at somebody’s house and have dinner
every now and then. So you really get close to the people that are
flying with your spouse or flying with you.
There is a tradition that a party is thrown for the spouses right
before they go to the Cape, and it’s thrown by the next-crew-up’s
spouses. So it’s sort of this rolling thing, and it started
out to be kind of a ladies’ get-together. Then when there were
male spouses—I guess Sally’s was the first [Steven A.
Hawley]—it became a spouse party rather than the wives’
party, so that tradition changed a little bit, and it went from being
a ladies’ party to being a Happy Hour or something. It was a
little bit less feminine, I guess.
The other thing that the spouses had to work on, usually spouses gave
a reception down at the Cape the day before the launch. Because most
of the venues were reasonably large, you would frequently pair up
or triple up or something so that there would be two or three of you
that would have a party together.
For Hoot’s first flight, I think Ron [Ronald E.] McNair’s
family and somebody else’s family, there were three of us that
had something at the Officers’ Club. That all had to be planned
out. You had to get invitations and send them to your guests that
were going to be at the Cape and organize all of that.
At the time, if you needed you could rent buses. NASA would give you,
I think, one bus for your guests. If you invited more, you had to
rent buses. I can remember for Hoot’s first flight, renting
buses for extra guests. Then, of course, when you had family coming
down, Grandma and Grandpa and everything, you had to direct them as
to where you were going to stay or where was a good place for them
to stay. So there was a lot of coordination of the social part of
flight. And, of course, your spouse was gone most of the last couple
of months. They just get really, really busy, and it’s up to
you to plan all of that out. We printed up notecards with the crew
patch on it to use for stationeries and thank-yous, and sometimes
we printed invitations on them. There were a lot of sort of social
things that were part of the tradition of flying. I’m not even
sure I remember them all.
I enjoyed that. I think it was a little more difficult in the Shuttle
era because many of the wives worked. I think prior to that, a lot
of the wives didn’t work, and so the social part of it was sort
of their bailiwick and something they knew how to do. All of us were
trying to work and raise kids and throw parties and plan events. But,
luckily, all the spouses were good people. I think the only time that
it was difficult was when on one of Hoot’s flights there were
only three spouses. That was on Spacelab J.
Yes, because Curt [Curtis L.] Brown, the pilot, wasn’t married,
and [N.] Jan [Davis] and Mark [C. Lee] were married to each other.
I think it was Mae [C. Jemison]. She was single.
Mae was single; Momoru [Mohri]’s wife [Akiko] had the Japanese
delegation and Japanese things that were all kind of taken care of
for her, not that we didn’t include her in all our things, but
E.B. [Eleanor B.] Apt and I were sort of only two people to plan all
the social stuff for people.
But Jay [Apt] was great. Before the flight, you had to plan the post-flight
party, and Jay said, “Oh, I’ll take care of that.”
I thought, “How are you going to do that with all the stuff?”
But he did. He planned it all out. After you do it a few times, you
get pretty good at it. You know where you can throw the party and
how you get the invitations out and who you have to invite.
Did you find it complicated things having two astronauts in the household?
Definitely, but, you know, I guess we were lucky in that our flights
went on different years. I don’t know what we would have done
if we had had flights close to one another. We probably just wouldn’t
have done some of the social stuff. We would have just had to say,
“Too busy.” We did it one year after another, and Hoot’s
pretty good. He’s not real good at party planning and how to
find invitations and things like that, so I sometimes had to do some
of the spouse stuff for my own flights. But he was pretty good about
pulling a lot of it together, so that helped. So, yes, in some ways
it was complicated and it got a little crazy at times, but we just
worked it out.
I was just sort of curious about that. We just talked to Anna [L.]
Fisher, and she talked to us about how she left the office for a time
just to stay home with her children, because things had gotten so
Yes, and I’m sure I have guilt feelings about the times when
I didn’t have enough time to spend with my kids and I didn’t
get to see some of things they were doing, or I wish I’d been
there for some of those things, but it turned out just fine and they
don’t remember those things anyway.
I do want to ask you about the role you played in the NASA Aerospace
Medical Advisory Committee. Can you tell us about that group?
Oh, you have dug deep.
I was assigned at one point to the Aerospace Advisory Committee. I
wasn’t quite sure what my role was, but I felt like it was like
being part of the Science Support Group. You bring a different perspective,
and you understand what the issues are within NASA about flights.
Advisory committees, I have learned, frequently are only told about
things that someone wants them to know about, and while I felt that
I was useful in many ways, I got a little frustrated by having sometimes
a different perspective on what the burning issues were. I felt like
an outside advisory committee could do a good job of discussing issues
and providing some input as to what was the right thing to do scientifically,
but frequently those were not the issues that were presented to them.
That was a little frustrating to me, and eventually I got busy and
I didn’t feel like I was making the right kinds of input or
being very useful, and so I didn’t continue with it. It was
an eye-opener for me, and it reminded me that later on when I was
on different kinds of advisory committees, that probably whoever was
briefing us sometimes had an agenda or sometimes only brought up the
things that they wanted the advisory committee to talk about. I think
there’re sometimes a limited role for advisory committees, or
it’s sometimes the responsibility of an advisory committee to
dig a little deeper.
Can you give an example or two?
After I left NASA, I was put on an Institute of Medicine Committee
looking at astronaut health. I’m trying to remember some of
the issues. There was a question about whether astronauts should have
to be given informed consent before they were assigned to a flight
that required them to participate in certain experiments. There were
a number of scientists who felt like if you sign up for the astronaut
program, you sign up to do those things. I had worked on some committees
at NASA, and we basically said informed consent for scientific experiments
is informed consent. You can’t tell someone they have to do
anything that you later assign to them as part of their job. That’s
not fair. It might something like, “Oh, it’s just drawing
blood,” or, “Oh, it’s just giving them this radioactive
substance,” or, “Oh, it’s just testing their eyes,”
“Oh, it’s just putting an EKG [Electrocardiogram] monitor
on them when they’re doing a spacewalk,” and if they could
get irregular heart rhythm, then you don’t let them ever fly
So astronauts have a very different perspective on what they’re
willing to do, and that’s fair. That’s the scientific
principle behind informed consent. Someone needs to agree, understanding
what the side effects might be or the repercussions might be or the
fallout might be. They need to agree to participate, and not just,
“Yes, I agree to fly on that flight, and I’ll take whatever
is on there.”
So the Institute of Medicine Committee, they were leaning toward saying
that astronauts should sign basically an unlimited informed consent
when they signed on to be astronauts. There was someone who told them,
“Well, the reason that we need to do that is that astronauts
don’t agree to participate in experiments.” They’d
had a detailed supplementary objectives program before Challenger
that were NASA experiments that were assigned to flights. “Here’s
a bunch of experiments. Which ones do you want to do?” And some
of the scientists said, “We have trouble getting people to sign
up for them.” That was sort of presented that, “We have
trouble getting astronauts to volunteer.”
And I said, “You know, that’s not what I remember.”
That’s, again, where the difference in perspective and having
someone in the Astronaut Office who can say, “Wait a minute.
Now, the NASA people told you this, but let’s dig a little deeper
here and look at how many of those experiments were completed. You
had three on this flight and two on that flight and one on that flight.
You didn’t get everybody from the same flight.” And when
they looked at it, that was true. Astronauts were volunteering.
There were a couple of things that were very difficult to do or people
felt might compromise their career. I had someone tell me on one of
my flights they didn’t want to do an eye test, how close up
can you read, because this person was afraid that it might affect
their assignment to flight, because they might need to wear bifocals
I found that on my later flights some people are willing to take a
risk where you know whether or not there’s a side effect right
away, and there are other people that don’t want their flight
to get messed up because this experiment made them sick, but they’re
willing to take the risk of a 1 percent increase in cancer risk over
your lifetime. That’s okay with them, but they don’t want
to do something that might make them sick on the third day of the
flight. So everybody’s comfort level was different.
Again, getting back to the advisory committee, I think it sometimes
is helpful to have someone like that on the advisory committee. I
think that there were people on other advisory committees who got
frustrated. I won’t name names, but a friend of mine was on
an advisory committee, and the advisory committee kept advising NASA
in one direction, and NASA just didn’t take the advice. So that’s
another kind of frustration. If you’re going to have an advisory
committee, then you either need to do what they say or explain to
them why that’s not going to work and how can you do something
different. So I learned a lot about advisory committees by being on
that one, and I think I was useful in many ways and perhaps I was
a rabble-rouser in others.
Did that committee focus solely on human spaceflight, or were you
also looking at things like animals experiments?
As I recall, we were looking at life sciences overall, so it included
the animals. I don’t remember whether we did plant stuff or
not. I was particularly focused on the human part, but I think they
had other groups that were more focused on the other parts of life
So you had a chance to work with people over at Ames [Research Center,
Moffett Field, California] and some of the other Centers that were
Probably a good thing for your other flights.
Yes, definitely. Definitely.
Let’s talk about that first Spacelab Life Sciences flight. The
Roundup says you were selected in ’84, and you didn’t
end up flying until ’91.
So tell us about working on that flight, essentially for seven years.
I’m guessing in between you were working on other things as
Actually, I worked even longer on that flight. When I first got to
NASA in 1978, I sort of noodled around to see what I was interested
in. We were learning about all of this other stuff: flying airplanes
and propulsion systems. I really felt like one of the reasons that
I was there was because of my medical background. Even though I got
my medical license and I practiced medicine on the weekends, I really
wanted to figure out how I could be useful to NASA in the life sciences.
One of my best mentors was Joe [Joseph P.] Kerwin, and I went and
talked to him about what was going on. Even back then they were beginning
to think about the Spacelab payloads, and Joe invited me along to
a number of the meetings that he went to. We first went out and talked
to scientific groups about proposing experiments, you know, “Here’s
the Space Shuttle. Here are the people that have been selected to
be astronauts. Here’s the platform. Here’s what Spacelab
is supposed to look like,” and we just went out and met people
and talked it up, you know, “You ought to propose experiments.”
Then I guess the research announcement went out in probably—might
have been ’80 or ’81, so people began to propose experiments.
Joe sort of kept me up to date on where things were and what people
had proposed, and he was following the life sciences payloads. At
the time it was called Spacelab 4. So I got to meet people and learn
about it and follow it along as much as I could, from a distance.
It was supposed to fly in early ’86, and so it came close to
time to name a crew. I think I probably didn’t go talk to John
[W.] Young; I probably talked to George Abbey at a Happy Hour or something
and told him that’s the flight I really had been interested
in, that I really wanted to go on, and I was sorry that at that point
in time I was already assigned to another flight. I was supposed to
fly the summer of ‘84, and they were naming a crew, like, in
April, and I told him that I was sorry that I was already on another
He said, “Well, Spacelab flights take a long time. That might
not be a problem.”
So I was named to that crew in, like, March, I think, of ’84.
In early ’84, we were supposed to fly in August of ’84,
and so we were getting close to that flight. So there wasn’t
a lot I could do with the Spacelab crew. I did a few training items,
met the other people, went on a couple of tours of scientists’
labs, but I really didn’t have any time to do any of that, but
they were all taking care of it. We had four payload specialists,
two of whom were going to fly with us, and we had the rest of the
payload crew. We didn’t have a flight crew yet (commander, pilot,
and flight engineer). So it was Jim [James P.] Bagian and me and then
the four payload specialists who were working the flight.
It became even more complex as my flight slipped from August of ‘84.
It was supposed to be in February of ’85, and then it ended
up being in April, a third different payload. So I did what I could,
but it was all kind of a scramble, because I didn’t have much
time to devote to it. So it was a most interesting flight. It turned
out to be what we called oversubscribed.
What does that mean?
There was too much to do, too many things, too many experiments, too
much crew time required. Neither Jim and I had flown before, so we
didn’t know how to plan timelines. We didn’t know how
to look at it and say, “The crew says, ‘This is not going
to work.’” So it was mushing around out in there.
Then after I got back from my flight in April and everything kind
of settled down, by the summertime the flight had slipped, I believe,
into ’87 so we had a little bit more time, but there was a lot
of work to be done as we realized we needed to descope. What they
ended up doing was dividing it into two missions. All the experiments
were good, the scientists were on board, everybody was happy, but
they broke it into two separate missions, which worked out well. We
were glad we had extra time because the animal cages that were supposed
to fly on missions had not performed very well on their first flight,
so they kept being on the flight, off the flight, on the flight, off
the flight, so that was an uncertainty.
So at first we were training for everything that could have been on
the one flight. We saw we didn’t have enough time, and we really
didn’t have a timeline that we thought was doable. There were
a lot of pieces of equipment that were new and different and weren’t
performing well or had the potential to not work in flight, and just
a lot of stuff going on. But that’s basically what I did the
last half of ’85, plus getting Hoot ready to fly on his mission
that was supposed to go in December.
So it was a long journey getting to SLS [Spacelab Life Sciences]-1.
Of course, I remember sitting with our crew members in a training
session in January of ’86, saying, “We were supposed to
fly in January of ’86.” Then we turned on the TV and watched
the Challenger explode. Then everything became an unknown. What’s
going to happen. The payload specialists all went back to their other
jobs until things settled down, and then we watched our flight on
the manifest getting later and later and later. There were other priorities,
to get military missions completed, to get the TDRS [Tracking and
Data Relay] Satellites up. There were just other things that were
ahead of us in the manifest. The science all got shoved downstream,
and it kept being later and later. We kept training more and more,
and it got pretty frustrating.
We tried, for a period of time, to get together once a month or every
two months and do some sort of training and in the meantime look at
the checklists or timelines, so I think we got smarter as we went
along, but it was years, years in there. I think probably around ’89,
when the Shuttle was up and flying again, the manifest had settled
down and we decided it was time for us to get back together. I think
we were supposed to fly in ’90. It was time for us to get back
together and nail everything down: the timeline, the equipment, what
we could do, what we could sign up to do. So we had worked together
for a long, long time. One of our payload specialists dropped out
early on, well before Challenger.
Was that Bob [Robert W.] Phillips?
No. I’ve forgotten his name. We didn’t train together
very long. Bob Phillips stayed with us. Then Bob Phillips developed
a medical problem that disqualified him for the flight, but he agreed
to stay around as our backup. He really wasn’t a backup, but
he trained with us, he knew everything we knew. He was going to work
in the Payload Operations Center [Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville,
Alabama], the science people who monitored us during the flight, which
we were very grateful for. We just thought the world of Bob, so we
were pleased that he was going to stay on with us. He could have very
easily have said, “Well, if I’m not qualified to fly,
I’m going back to Colorado.” But we were kind of a team
at that point in time, so we were happy that he stayed with us. Millie
[Hughes-Fulford] took his place.
So we trained in earnest. I think we were still a little concerned
that it was a very ambitious timeline with lots of pieces of new equipment,
things that had never flown before that had a high likelihood of having
a glitch of some sort. And there were stresses that developed amongst
the people. I think it’s just that anytime that you spend a
whole lot of time with people, things that you could get along with
in the short run can become very difficult, and so we had some stresses
within the crew members and we worked hard on that.
We got our flight crew, which helped. Bryan [D.] O’Connor became
our commander, just one of the best. If you asked people, “Who’d
you like to fly with?” Bryan was one of them, straight-laced,
hardworking, knowledgeable, good fellow. So I think that helped, to
have a leader. Sid [Sidney M.] Gutierrez and Tammy [Tamara E.] Jernigan
were also named. They didn’t have payload commanders before
that, so there was nobody in charge, and we were all in charge. That
sometimes became part of the stress. So once we got the flight crew
and we began training as a real crew, not just a science crew, things
came together a little bit better.
I’m trying to think back about all the things that happened
and occurred. I had a baby along the way. Is that right? Yes, Dann
was born in March of ’89. I went to Hoot’s flight in late
’88 six months pregnant, so I was dealing with pregnancy and
all that kind of stuff in the meantime.
One of the jobs that I had, I guess right before I got pregnant with
Dann, I became the Bubba. You ever heard of the Bubba? I was the Bubba
for a while. I was the first female Bubba that they had, and I got
pregnant shortly after I became the Bubba, so I was a very female
Bubba. So I was working on that while we were training, but that was
good management experience.
Eventually the flight got pulled together, and we got off the ground.
I think we had some delays, glitches along the way getting off the
ground, as usual. But it was a very interesting flight. It was stressful
in that we had pieces of equipment that didn’t work very well
that we had to worry about. The one that worried us the most was that
the refrigerator/freezers kept shutting down, and we had all these
specimens, blood and urine, I mean the whole metabolic panel of things
was going to be lost if we lost those specimens. So Jim and Drew [F.
Andrew Gaffney] did most of the work on the refrigerator/freezers.
It had to do with the fact that they could only use a small amount
of Freon in them. Something would glitch, and we would have to turn
them off and then later we could turn them back on. Sort of serendipitously,
we learned—turn it off, something happens, and when you turn
it on, it’s okay for a while. They finally figured out that
the failure mode was getting some frozen Freon in the line.
We had the same problem with the gas analyzer. All our breathing stuff
had to go through the gas analyzer, and it would shut off. We tried
a variety of different things, and finally we found out that if you
just hit it, it would work okay. What happened was, the gas got sucked
through a small orifice to go into the analyzer part, and there was
apparently a little dust in there. You don’t think about that
on the ground at all. The dust is all down at the bottom of the box,
and the tube that it goes through is up at the top. But apparently
dust would float around in there in weightlessness and then when stuff
got sucked into the analyzer, some of the dust would get up there.
So again, you could beat on it and it would dislodge that dust for
a while, and then it would work for a while.
We had a number of things, just minor things, and everything worked
out pretty well, and we got just about everything that we had hoped
to get. We had a good time. I think we brought back some very important
scientific data. It was the first time that a flight had been dedicated
entirely to life sciences. They were looking at every system so that
you could put it all together when you got back. Frequently they had
done one experiment. They had done a blood experiment or they had
done a heart experiment, but you didn’t know what was happening
in the rest of the body. There are fluid shifts. Are the kidneys doing
what they want to do? Does the chemistry in the blood change such
that it changes this other system? So now they had more of a full
picture, and they had it on men and women. Skylab data from the ‘70s
was all men. So I think they were able to put the picture together
about how all of the different systems worked in unison to create
this picture of what human physiology is like in weightlessness.
The animal cages worked well. We were pleased about that. One of the
things we did, we got the ground to let us pull one of the cages out,
take it over to the workbench, and take one of the animals out. We
wanted to handle the animal, to see what the rats would do, because
I knew on Spacelab Life Sciences 2 there would be experiments on the
rats, but nobody had ever handled rats in space before. They didn’t
know whether the rats would get fritzy or if they got away, whether
they would be hard to get back into the cage or whatever, or what
they really looked like when you pulled them out of the cage and what
they did when they were free to float around.
So we were able to talk the ground into letting us do that, and I
think we learned a lot about animal handling that we put to use on
SLS-2. So the animal part of it was a success, and, of course, they
could compare the humans to the animals, and I think they got some
really good data on the things that they could test the animals for
when they got back. But, of course, the animals had all gone through
landing. They were back in 1-G for a while, and by the time they got
them out, got them back to the lab, they had been back in gravity
for a while. There was this question about did the landing change
their data. So we got some answers, but we got some more questions.
Drew’s experiment, of course, had the concerns about the safety
aspects of having a catheter threaded up your arm to near your heart.
It had always been an issue that people worried about. We went through
many Safety Panel reviews and had to prove different things and had
to do different things to make it less risky. Of course, it became
considerably riskier when they put on the orange suits. You know,
it was designed to be flown under the regular flight suits that we
had before Challenger, and then once you put it under a pressure suit
where you can’t get to the catheter that’s threaded up
at the crook of the elbow, you had to go through another round of
The surprising thing was that it measured central venous pressure,
the pressure of the blood going into the heart, and everyone had proposed
that pressure would be elevated because if you look at astronauts
when they get to space, the veins in their neck stand out. Jim Bagian
with his bald forehead, you could see the veins in his forehead. Your
face gets all puffy. So everybody felt like fluid had redistributed,
there was more pressure in the upper part of the body. Drew got to
space, turned on his little thing to look at his pressure, and it
was zero. Of course, he thought he had an equipment failure, so he
changed out the pieces of the equipment that he could change out,
he flushed the catheter, it was still zero. Again, that was kind of
an unknown, but a data point of one, you don’t know. That was
one of those things that we got some data, but we weren’t sure
what to make of it.
Of course, there were only four subjects, and sometimes data points
were not good. With only four subjects, you can’t get it into
a peer-review journal because the n number isn’t enough, and
sometimes, of the four of us, only three of the data takes for us
were good. Anyway, it opened the door for SLS-2, and overall I think
it was a very successful flight. It started a lot of the studies that
we had hoped to accomplish on the Space Shuttle.
Did you have a sense of the background before the flight about the
Skylab data? Was that something that you had looked at and got a sense
Oh, yes. I looked at that in 1978 when Joe Kerwin said, “Oh,
you need to look at this.” A lot of that data had been published
in a Skylab book, I think. Again, they were, “Here’s what
we found.” But then if you looked a little deeper, you found
that the pressure on Skylab was not sea-level pressure; the oxygen
content had to be higher. I think on the first one it seems like they
lost weight. There were confounding factors on a lot of that data,
so it was, again, a question mark. Yes, we have some data but are
not quite sure what it’s telling us. Scientists would argue,
“Yes, but you know the oxygen content was X percent instead
of Y percent, and the atmospheric pressure was lower and that would
do all of that.” So it gave us some hints, but we weren’t
sure exactly what that meant.
Early on in the Shuttle design, the scientists said, “We want
it to be at sea-level pressure, 14.7 psi [pounds per square inch],
and we want the oxygen to be 20 percent, nitrogen 80 percent, a small
amount of carbon dioxide,” and the life scientists really had
those requirements. “We won’t be able to tell unless we
can keep more of the variables the same as what you would have here
on the ground.” So, yes, the scientists that proposed the experiments,
some of them were repeats of the Skylab, so you could say, yes, that
data is good or, no, there’s a difference.
I noticed that Carolyn [L.] Huntoon was one of the PIs [Principal
Investigators] for some of the experiments.
I know that you had contact with her, obviously, but had you worked
with her on experiments before, or was this the first time you had
worked with her in this sense?
I’m trying to remember. I think that was probably the first
time that I had worked with her as an investigator. I mostly knew
her as the director of the medical lab, and so our dealings were with
that and more on a personal level. She was our den mother. But I think
this was the first time that I had worked with her as one of the investigators.
What was she studying, do you recall?
I think she was doing part of the metabolic experiments, and I’m
trying to remember, probably had to do with fluid balance, but I’m
not exactly sure. They were looking at a number of the components
of the blood, the hormones that regulated fluid balance. Again, faces
got puffy, legs got skinny, fluid was redistributed. They felt like
probably people got rid of some of that fluid the first few days of
flight, but they had not quantified it. They didn’t know what
your salt balance was doing; they didn’t know what hormones
were involved in that, kidney hormones, pituitary hormones. I think
that was what she was interested in. Again, the people doing the metabolic
experiments had to coordinate, because certain of the tracers for
one experiment would not be good for another experiment, or you couldn’t
do the metabolic experiments right after you had done the lung functions
because the gases would change. So it was this big coordination thing,
but I know she was involved with the metabolic on both of my SLS flights.
I had watched your post-flight video that you had all put together
for this mission, and someone had referred to the Spacelab area as
the slave quarters. I know you had mentioned that it was a pretty
hectic flight. Was that something that you recall, that it was just
so hectic, you kind of felt like you were stuck back in that lab?
Yes. Again, we were oversubscribed. We didn’t know how to do
a timeline very well when everything had to be coordinated. Jim and
I, by the time we flew SLS-1, each had flown a flight, but the things
that happened on those flights were pretty much standalone chunks
of time. Deploy the satellite on this day. Film the toys on this day.
Do this on that day. They didn’t interact. The things didn’t
affect one another, really. And suddenly, on this one, I don’t
think we completely understood how things could go awry if one piece
of your equipment didn’t work and they had to re-plan the day.
The ground wanted to re-plan it for you before you took off and did
something else, so you had to wait until they could tell you, “Here’s
what we want you to do.”
We tried to make the most efficient use of our time, but we frequently
worked late. When equipment failed, they would put it off till the
end of the day, and so you’d end up staying up late to troubleshoot
something that wasn’t working too well or some piece of something
that you hadn’t finished because you were troubleshooting something
You know, I think we joked about it being slave quarters, but we knew,
even if everything had gone well, that we had a full day’s work
in the lab. But we did take breaks to go eat lunch in the front, look
out the window. Bryan would say, “There’s a good pass
coming up. Is it time for you all to come have lunch?” And we
would try to do that.
I’m trying to remember whether we had a window. I think we had
a window in the back of the lab. I remember that I made sure that
we had a window in the back of the lab on SLS-2. They were going to
take it out or it wasn’t in there on that lab module, or something.
I said, “Psychological health! We need a window to look out
to see whether it’s daytime or nighttime outside.” There
were times that you could sort of relax, and I think we realized that
we needed to do that from time to time, because it did get pretty
Now, I read that some people slept in the Spacelab. Were you one of
Yes. It was nice and dark and quiet back there. We were doing single
shifts, so the lab was essentially buttoned up for the night. It was
dark and we could cool it down, and so we just hung our hammocks back
there and could sleep wherever we felt like sleeping.
We had the problem of noise. The refrigerators would come on and off.
Seems like you could hear the mice. Because we were close to the tail
of the Shuttle, we could hear the jets, the vernier jets “boom
boom, boom boom,” keeping the Orbiter in the right orientation
but you got used to that. But it was a lot quieter and more peaceful
than the middeck or the flight deck.
One of the things I had read, and I was telling Rebecca about this
as we were driving down, you mentioned several times that you had
to scrub your launch, and I had read that they had to take out the
rodents and put in fresh rodents. Can you explain why they had to
change them out?
I’m trying to remember why, and I think it’s that some
of the rats had been injected preflight with something, or it was
that there was heat back there and they were stressed. I don’t
remember what it was, but we knew that we had a forty-eight-hour window.
We could launch today or tomorrow, but if it slipped to the next day,
they had to change out rats.
So I remember that happening, and we worried about it because they
had to load rats with the Shuttle on its tail. So they had to lower
somebody in a boson’s chair down there with these rat cages,
and there was concern about the person being injured. There was concern
about the rat cages getting dropped—you know going “thunk”—down
to the back of the lab, and people worrying about damage to the lab.
It was more than just, “I gotta go change out these cages.”
Doing it in the vertical, that was a task.
Of course, the lab itself had to stay powered so that the air in the
cages was continued. So that was one of the big advantages of a lab
was that it could stay powered. You know the Spacehab, it was unpowered.
So that was one of the good things and one of things we worried about,
that you had to make sure that the animals were okay because you didn’t
want to lose your animals or mess up all the experiments that they
were participating in. I’d forgotten that.
Did you have to take care of the animals when they were in space,
or was there primarily some pellets that they had and water preloaded?
We had to take care of the animals. The Animal Care and Use Committee
is responsible for making sure that you do all the right things to
take care of the animals, and we had to check on them every day, number
one. I think we had to change out their food bars. I think we had
to refill their water bottle. We had to look in there and look at
them every day and make sure they were okay and not floating around
You were talking about taking care of the rats, changing out their
food and water and checking in on them.
Yes. I think we had some tests of the cages themselves. There was
great concern that the cages wouldn’t work and there had been
millions of dollars spent on redesigning them after they had problems
on the Spacelab-3 mission. So, yes, we spent some time watching what
rats do in weightlessness.
When we first looked in there, when we first got to orbit, the rats
were sort of clinging to the sides of the cage, looking out at us
like, “What’s going on?” Then they got more used
to the fact that they weren’t falling or something, and we’d
look in there and they were sort of floating around. It wasn’t
big enough for them to do a whole lot of acrobatics, but they became
much more relaxed.
Then we took the one out, once we knew that the enclosed workbench
worked. We took a cage out and took the rat over to the workbench,
and really the rat was kind of like a human. He didn’t want
to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere with nothing to hold onto.
So once we got him in there, when we took him out of the cage, he
would just hold onto your hand, and then once we got him sort of turned
loose, we didn’t want to throw him or anything. We just wanted
to sort of get him off our hand. He floated around until he could
grab onto the cage and he grabbed onto the cage.
The rat was very docile, didn’t really try to bite, didn’t
try to get away, just was a little rat. One of the interesting things
about it, he had a yellow streak down his back. We thought, “What
is that?” What happens, I guess, when they’re in a colony,
when they groom, they can groom themselves except down the middle
of their back, and then their cagemates or something clean down their
backs for them or something. They couldn’t reach the middle
of their back, which was kind of interesting.
They were obviously healthy; they were eating and they were getting
water. The cages worked really well, so that was a nice thing. Plus
we had done this sort of unplanned part where we handled them. When
you carry them around in the lab, they put them in this plastic cone
and then sort of close the back end so that none of the animal waste
can get out. We tried putting them in there, and the animal didn’t
want to go in there. So we knew that on the next flight you were going
to have to really push them in there, because on the next flight we
were going to have to take them out of the workbench and put them
on the animal weighing device, the animal scale. They had to go in
something so that they would be kind of closed up. So we got some
experience with doing that.
I was already hoping that I would be on SLS-2. It was interesting
because we brought back the only video of rats in space, because after
that, they decided that they didn’t want us to do any videos
of rats. So if you go in the NASA archives, as far as I know, that
one rat-handling thing that we did was the only time that you’d
ever be able to see what rats do in space.
Is that primarily because of PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals] and the other animal-rights groups?
Yes. There were probably people that objected to our taking the rats
in space, so we had to be sensitive to how a lot of other people thought.
You had mentioned, I think it was on STS-51B, they did have the problems
with the animal enclosures.
Were you at all concerned, or you had spent enough time with the folks
at Ames and were convinced that the enclosures would work?
Well, you know, the animal cages, like a lot of things that we do
in space, there’s just no way to simulate all of that on the
ground. You can take things up in the zero-G plane and get part of
it, maybe, but, yes, we were concerned about the cages, and we knew
that if they didn’t function well on this flight, that animals
were not going to fly again. We knew that the problem had to be solved.
But we had followed with great interest over this long period of time
what they were doing to the cages. Early on there were people that
said, “We’re not going to spend this amount of money.
We’re not going to fly animals.” And we knew that a lot
was resting on whether the cages did well, so we had a significant
interest in the design. We looked at it, we looked at how it could
go wrong and what we could do about it.
We had some procedures if any of the animals got in trouble. That’s
why we had the sock that we could pull the cage out into when we decided
to take it over to the workbench. So we had some plans. All we could
do was hope that all of the fixes that they had made were what was
needed and that the animals would be safe and well fed and well watered,
that there wasn’t going to be any waste floating around. I think
we probably would have been very careful if anything had escaped from
those cages, to make sure that it didn’t float up to the flight
deck and bother the commander, as it had on STS-51B. [Laughter]
Didn’t sound very pleasant.
Marines don’t like animal poop. [Laughter]
That’s a good quote. We’ll quote you on that. [Laughter]
Tell us about some of the training that you participated in. I’m
assuming you went to Ames and to Marshall. Where else did you train?
We trained in many of the scientists’ labs. The first thing
we did was to go to meet the PI and look at the equipment that they
had designed. They told us we were going to be their hands and eyes
in space, and they really, really, really wanted us to be involved
in the experiment, to care about it, to take responsibility for it,
to know everything about it, to understand.
As I mentioned earlier, they were told, “We cannot assure you
that you will have a life scientist on board.” Well, they were
delighted that they were given credible life scientists who obviously
were already interested in the flight and were bona fide science people,
and we understood what they were talking about. They didn’t
have to lecture to astronomers. So they were delighted to have us
come. Sometimes we spent several days in the lab learning, “Here’s
what we’re trying to get from this experiment. Here’s
what we think you will see when you do this experiment. Here’s
what you can see. Here’s what we can see on the ground. Here’s
how we can advise you, yes, this data looks good or there’s
something interesting going on.”
We needed to understand what might happen, not what was predicted
to happen, but what might happen, so that we could watch for that.
I can remember the pulmonary function study folks, John [B.] West
and his folks in San Diego didn’t completely understand how
the blood would redistribute in the lung in weightlessness. They said,
“Here on the ground there’s more blood in the bottom part
of your lung just because of gravity, and we think that when you go
into space, it will just redistribute so that it’s more homogenous,
but we don’t know that. Here’s what we predict it to look
like. Here’s what it looks like on the ground. Here’s
what you might see in space that we’ll look for and we want
you to look for, because that’s very interesting and we need
to verify on all of you that it happens.” So it was things like
that when we went to the labs.
Frequently the way they had planned the experiment, because Jim and
I had some experience, or the other scientists, Drew, Millie, and
Bob, could look at it and say, “You know, that may not be the
way you want to do that,” or, “It would be very helpful
if we could do this before this.” So there was a lot of back-and-forth
discussion, and I think that the scientists appreciated our being
When we first went to visit, a lot of the procedures were just sort
of in the scientists’ lab book. “Here’s how we do
it in the lab.” And they hadn’t completely thought about
how they would do that in space. So we spent an inordinate amount
of time developing procedures. “How do you want us to do this?”
If you’re a scientist who’s done these experiments in
your lab for years, you just sort of know how to do it. It’s
like talking to old-timey cooks, where they tell you to put in enough
milk that it gets to the right consistency. So we had to say, “Now,
wait a minute. I don’t understand how you want me to do it.”
We developed what we call long-form procedures, so we wrote down every
little detail; you know, go here, do this, stand up, look at the screen.
So there were these long-form procedures that weren’t really
in checklist format.
We did that first and sort of figured out how the equipment worked,
how they wanted us to do the experiment, and then we had to pare it
down into, “Now we’ve done it several times. We understand
it. Let’s get it down into a checklist format.” So how
we do abbreviate it so we have the right cues but, yes, we remember
that we have to do this at this time. So we did that.
Then we had to go back and say, “What are all the malfunctions
that could happen? What might happen? What are the failure modes that
you can envision in your equipment?” That raised a lot of issues
about what kind of backup things we ought to have. Do you have a computer
board that you can put in there that will fix that problem? Should
you have an extra one of these? In that whole evolution there was
a lot of, “Oh, we need some more storage, because we hadn’t
thought about that. That’s a single-point failure, and we need
to be able to replace that part,” or this, that, or the other.
Going through all the failure modes that you could predict was another
iteration that we had to go through. So maybe it was good that we
had seven years to do this.
We would get surprises when we began to do our baseline data collection.
You have to look at people’s normal baseline physiology. Of
course, scientists want eight data takes prior to the flight. “No,
can’t have that many. We’ve got twenty-one experiments.
We can’t give you all the time in the world.”
We had to fit in the data takes. Once we began to do the data takes,
we began to say, “Can we do that experiment right after that
one?” Well, no, you can’t, because it messes things up.
So we got into the timeline of how things could be done so that they
didn’t interfere. Some of the experiments used the same hardware.
We had a strip chart recorder, a gas analyzer, and different pieces
of equipment that were used by several different experiments, so obviously
you couldn’t do those at the same time. We had to spend a long
time thinking about how can we do this. And because the people that
were the subjects were also the operators, you had to timeline who’s
where, who’s on first? Is the equipment available and does it
interfere with something else? If we have to re-timeline, if we get
behind, then how? It was kind of insane.
Most of it we got pretty correct, and most of it we figured out as
we got into space and flew with it. I learned a lot about coordinating
between crew, scientists, engineers, and managers. A lot of times
you had to get them all in the same room and get everybody to agree
what was the best thing to do, because if you just talked to the investigator,
they would say, “No, I’m not going to do that.”
And the managers would say, “But you can’t do this or
that.” And the engineers would say, “Well, that’s
impossible to do so on and so on.”
Sometimes it was only the crew that could see the big picture. Of
course, we were the people that were going to be the subjects, and
we were the people that were going to be the operators, so we had
to know the hardware and the science and what these scientists really
needed. They would write down that they wanted a whole lot done, but
they really only needed a little bit, but you had to sort of persuade
them that they had to be team players, that they didn’t have
to be when doing science in their own lab. And they had to take care
of their subjects because they didn’t have very many subjects.
If they wore us out, the data wasn’t going to be good. If we
didn’t have time for lunch, they might see something that they
weren’t expecting on the metabolic stuff.
So it was a really interesting mission to be on and I learned a tremendous
amount from helping to manage all the pieces and parts of that flight,
and I think that really helped me on SLS-2, really, really helped.
Did you talk with Bob [Robert A.R.] Parker, who was the chief scientist
for Skylab, or Joe, who had flown on Skylab, about how to balance
all of these things? Because you were doing something similar.
I don’t remember specific things, but, yes, I talked to everybody
that I could talk to about how did this work and how did that work
and how did you manage this. But the Skylab flights had a lot more
time. We had nine days. If you’re going to do three data takes
during the flight on each of the experiments, on each of the people,
it’s so tightly interwoven if you lose a data point on day one,
you can’t exactly make it up on day three because the next data
point’s on day four. So they wanted a smooth timeline, so it
was a little bit different. But certainly talking to them about how
they did certain things and how blood draws worked and whether they
had any surprises about this, that, and the other. The experiments
were very different and the equipment was very different, so it was
helpful to chat with them. But I think ours was a couple orders of
magnitude greater in complexity.
I had read in a newspaper article that sometimes it took two or three
people to do blood draws on this flight.
Can you explain why that was the case?
You can see the problem on our post-flight science video. We did one
for a post-flight press conference, and then we put together a twenty-three-minute
I think I saw the first one, just the post-flight video.
There’s a video sequence of a blood draw going on, and what
you’ve got is my arm and you’ve got Jim Bagian putting
the tubes on the catheter and collecting the blood and doing all that
kind of stuff. Then he’s handing off things to Millie, who’s
over here putting the right labels on and putting them in the right
order in the trays. Some of them had to be centrifuged. Some of them
didn’t have to be centrifuged; they had to be refrigerated right
away. Some were for this. Some were for that.
It wasn’t like you just drew a tube of blood and put in the
refrigerator. It was, you have to do a finger stick and get a hematocrit.
You have to draw blood for this and spin it and separate the serum
from the blood. You have to put this one in the refrigerator right
away. It was like you collect six or seven things for each draw, and
then you’ve got four people, so you’ve got lots of different
moving parts. So, yes, it would take three people to do a blood draw:
the subject and two operators, one person to really be the operator,
and one person to keep track of what you’d drawn, what’s
the next tube that you’re going to hand them, what’s the
label that goes on this tube and what do I do with it. So, yes, nothing
was easy in space.
When I read that, I thought, wow, that’s really complicated.
And if you’re not careful, the tube goes floating off and you
can’t find it.
Did that happen?
Frequently you’d say, “Okay, we’ve got to collect
three purple-top and three red-top tubes and one of something else.
Do a hematocrit. I have to do three hematocrit tubes.” So sometimes
you would label them ahead of time, and then if you knew you were
supposed to have three and you’ve only got two tubes, you’d
think, “Where’s the other tube?’” So it was
Again, I learned from that flight. When I came back and the scientists
said, “Oh, you need to do it this way,” and I could say,
“No, you’ve got to have more than one person helping,
and you just have to timeline that in. Sorry.” Or, “It
really helps if you’ll label our tubes ahead of time and put
them in certain places and know where they are. Practice doing it
This was the first flight to fly three women at one time.
Would you talk about that and the gender balance of your crew?
Well, I can remember they asked Bryan O’Connor, “Are you
afraid of having three women on the flight?”
And he said, “No, I’m more worried about having three
doctors on the flight.”
It was nice to have the three of us. I can’t say that we developed
a strong group. We weren’t the girls and didn’t do girls’
night out, but it was just kind of nice to not be all men, which is
what I’d had on my first flight. I think we had a good relationship
and laughed about things and laughed about men, but we were all very
serious about doing what we needed to do and could support one another
in that. If one person was going through a really rough time, you
knew that you had a good support structure out there for you.
Bryan had also mentioned that you were one of the first crews to go
through leadership and communications training.
Can you talk about that and what benefit that had on the flight?
As I mentioned, we had some stress within the flight, just some frictions.
Bryan recommended that we sit down and do the Myers-Briggs personality
assessments, as I recall, and that we learn to work together a little
bit better, and what approach works better with different personalities.
I think that was very useful for us. I think everybody just assumed
that everybody could get along. “Can’t we all get along?”
Sometimes that’s hard to do, especially, as I say, when you’ve
been training together in close quarters for a long time. And everybody
has their own little quirks. I think it was helpful to sit down and
take a deep breath and say, “What’s the best way for us
to work together?” Most of us are not going to change our personality,
but we can certainly change our approach to how we lead when it’s
our turn to lead, how we follow, how we interact. I think that was
very helpful. I enjoyed it, and I think the rest of the crew agreed
that it was what we needed to do at the time.
Earlier you had mentioned the change in suits. In the first flight
you had gone out in the blue jumpsuit. This flight you were in the
launch and entry suit. Can you talk about that and the fit and the
challenges you might have faced?
I hated those things. I hated those things. I hated those things.
And you can quote me three times. I called it suit wrestling whenever
we had to do a training exercise, because when you’re small,
proportionately the weight of those things and the size of those things
and muscling those things around is just difficult the smaller you
are. Basically, you have to have the same amount of stuff hanging
off of you when you weigh 120 pounds as when you weight 180 pounds.
They were uncomfortable. They were hot. We had to train in Florida,
we had to train in California, and we had to train in Houston. All
those places are hot places. The suits were heavy. They were bulky.
You had to just muscle them. And there were certain things you had
to do. I toughed that out and I could do them.
In an emergency landing where you needed to get out the side hatch,
the escape slide had to be lined up, taken loose, opened up and attached
to the side hatch while wearing a suit. Drew wanted to help me, which
was very nice of him, except that you couldn’t fit more than
one person in that side hatch, and I understood that I was either
going to have to say, “You do it. You climb around the back
of my seat and you do it,” or I was going to have to say, “Leave
me alone. Let me figure this out and let me figure out how to do it.”
That’s what I did. I just felt like it was my responsibility
because I was sitting over there near the door. Whatever it was, it
was a very difficult thing to do.
There were a couple of times when—I’m trying to remember
which flight it was—I had trouble activating the oxygen bottle,
because what you do is you grab a ball-type device under your arm
and you pull it all the way out. It’s that last few inches that
activates the thing. Well, my arms are short, and the suit even restricts
your movements. I thought I had turned that thing on and we were running
over in the Cape to the slide wires, and I realize I was not getting
any air. I had to learn how to get the oxygen on with short arms.
We had to be able to climb out the overhead hatch. “Oh, here,
step up on the seat, step up on the back of a seat, and then put your
fanny over the edge of the window.” That worked fine if you
were five-eight. It didn’t work at all if you were five-two.
So it was kind of like, “Okay, I have to pretend like I can
do this, and if it takes somebody shoving me out the overhead in a
real emergency, then that’s what we’ll have to do.”
Even climbing from the flight deck to the middeck down the ladder
was just incredibly difficult. It was kind of like, “Okay, we’re
going to practice this and now when you get down to the ground, run
over there.” I’m going, “Right. I’ll be lucky
if I can shuffle over there.” I felt like we were probably going
to hurt more people with that suit than we ever saved.
The heat in Florida was awful, even the heat on launch for SLS-1.
They had a fan that would just blow air into the suit. Well, your
suit was sealed at the wrists, and so it would try to blow air in.
You had to hold the neck ring open so that air could come out, and
it was all this humid hot air. At the time I had to wear glasses,
so I would pop that neck ring while we’re sitting there on the
launch pad and it would fog up my glasses. I thought, “Well,
okay, I’ll try to open the wrist rings.” I swear I almost
had heat exhaustion when we finally launched. Maybe I’m just
a sissy or something, but I hated those things. I truly, truly hated
those things. And I was worried whether, with the adrenalin flowing,
I could have done what I needed to do in them, but the practice almost
Later people would ask me, “Do you think John [H.] Glenn is
okay to fly in space?”
I said, “If he can make it through the suit training, he’s
perfectly good to fly in space,” because the suit training was
one of the most difficult parts about it for me, a little person.
So, no, I hated the suits.
And we’ll quote you on that.
Those suits were built to be worn by high-altitude pilots, regular-size
guys. If they had problems, they ejected. They didn’t have to
crawl out and run away. They didn’t have to rappel down the
side of their vehicle. Even sitting on the flight deck, the seats
were meant to be for people in little flight suits. Now you’ve
got these big bulky things. Even sitting there, you were scrunched
up. You couldn’t reach things. They had retrofitted a piece
of equipment on there that made it difficult. Even the pilots trying
to look up and reach the things overhead, they limited your ability
to do that too. So I guess it was something that we needed to do,
but it had its own downsides.
What did you think of the crew escape system that was put in after
Challenger? Did you feel like that added some safety, or was that
kind of the same thing with the new suit that you were wearing?
You know, it was just made more complicated by the bulk of the suits.
The pole, I guess that would have worked, and certainly it gave you
some warm feeling that maybe you could get out if you needed to. Again,
you got told if the Shuttle is out of control and you’re trying
to get out, you may be pinned to the opposite wall, so you have to
be able to chin yourself up on all these seats as you work your way
over to the door, to the hatch. I’m thinking, you know, I’m
going to have to practice chinning-up a lot more, because now I don’t
weigh 120 pounds; I weigh over 200 pounds. So I don’t know that
I’m going to be able to do that, nor was there any way to practice
But, you know, there were a lot of sort of urban myths, I guess, for
the Shuttle early on. There was this myth that you could land it in
the water, and we had procedures. You could go and land the thing
in the water. Well, what they didn’t tell you was that the payload,
whatever you had in the back, as you hit the water, was going to come
forward and smash you. None of us really believed that we were going
to be able to do that, but you practice the procedure. “Now,
line up with the waves and do this and now climb out the overhead
hatch.” Kind of like, “Yeah, right.”
I always kind of felt like a lot of the escape modes in flight with
the suits on were urban myths. It gave us—what was it the pilots
say—gave you something to do so you didn’t stress or you
didn’t tighten up. It gave you things to do while you were diving
at the ground. I don’t know. I’m glad we never had to
use them, and whether or not they would have been any use to the Challenger
crew, I don’t know, but it was one of those things that changed
after Challenger, and we had to deal with it.
Do you think that there was more interest in your mission because
of the possibilities for a future Space Station and showing what was
possible or feasible to do in space, with an actual lab?
I guess to a certain extent on my two life sciences flights, I think
we did enough interesting things that it gave people more ideas about
other things that were possible to do, and it also pointed out that
it’s very inefficient to get all of this stuff together, to
spend all of this time training people. They go and they do great
science for a week, ten days, two weeks. Then they come back to Earth,
and we take it all apart again. Then a couple years later, we put
it all together again. It was just an inefficient way of doing science.
Plus, it only gave you a very short window to gather data. SLS-1 was
nine days and SLS-2 was fourteen, and, yes, you can see what happens
over that period of time, and a lot of the systems sort of equilibrate
over that time and you reach your new space normal. But there were
a number of things that hadn’t equilibrated yet or that you
thought might take longer to readapt after you got back if you’d
been there longer.
We didn’t have any control animals. You didn’t have a
centrifuge for the animals in space to have 1-G controls, so what’s
due to the space environment and what’s due to weightlessness?
It said now we could do more sophisticated science, but we can’t
do all the things that we want to do with this vehicle. I think everybody
was excited about having Station and having additional capabilities
and more time and a lab that was up there and usable most of the time.
I think that, at least for us in ’89 and ’91, Space Station
was still far away. We didn’t know what it was going to be like
and how long it was going to stay up and what the capabilities were
going to be and what equipment would be on board and what would be
the focus. It was the next step, but beyond what we were doing at
Now, at the end of this mission, you guys spent about a week at Edwards
[Air Force Base, California] doing some additional tests. Would you
tell us about those?
That was very interesting. It drove some other things, let’s
say. People ask, “Usually Shuttles go at 28 degrees inclination.
How come yours went to 39?” Well, it was because, number one,
we wanted to keep our sleep and wake cycles the same, because changing
circadian rhythms can change your physiology. So we want to be able
to go to bed and get up sort of at the same time every day.
And when we looked at how much equipment we had to have for the post-flight
testing, we really only had one set of equipment, so that said we
needed to plan to go to the landing site that was the most predictable.
And the answer was, yes, we need to go to Edwards. NASA had to bite
the bullet on that, because it cost extra money to get the Orbiter
back to Florida, but it’s more chancy to fly into the Cape.
So they said, “Okay, we’ll land at Edwards, and we have
to go at 39 degrees to keep your sleep/wake cycles the same, and land
you early on landing day so that we can still have time for tests
on landing day.” The early post-flight testing was very important.
That very first day they had to land us so that they had enough hours
at the end of that day to complete the day’s post-flight testing.
So it was all again parts of this puzzle that had to be put together.
We said, “Okay, we’re going to land at Edwards, and will
we get to see our families?”
“Well, yes, for a little while.”
“Well, then what?”
“Well, then you’re going to go over to the officers’
quarters and sleep and then we’ll have you back for more tests
the next seven days.”
We said, “How about you put us up in someplace nice, and our
families can stay there, and we can see our families in the evenings.”
When they looked at it, it made sense, and it didn’t cost a
whole lot of money. So we went to a nice resort called the Silver
Saddles, and our families got to be there. That was wonderful. I mean,
that was just absolutely wonderful. We were relaxed. We could eat
with our families. We could be with the kids, and we could talk about
the flight. It took something that was going to be very onerous and
made it something that was very nice. The investigators could come
and stay there, and we could have a beer with them as long as we recorded
it on our food log and we didn’t have any caffeine before the
exercise testing. There were all these restrictions, but at least
it was in a nice place and not in the rather sterile environment of
Edwards Air Force Base.
So, yes, we stayed for a week. We got really, really tired of doing
those experiments over and over and over again. We began to look like
drug addicts, because they kept drawing blood from us. We completed
it. They got the data that they wanted, and they were happy. I think
all of us were really invested in that flight. We had spent so much
time planning it, working on it, fighting about it, trying to understand
how to do it. You come back from a flight knowing we’ve got
good in-flight data, and you realize that if you didn’t have
the post-flight data, you’re going to be missing an important
part. How do you readapt? We were willing to do it. The flight had
been successful, so I think that made it a happy time too. Post-flight
is always a good time when you come back and you’ve done what
you meant to do.
It was nice to have the investigators there, because they were all
happy about the data, and as they were pummeling us with this data
take or that, they would chat about, “I remember on this day
when this happened.” We had a lot of fun and excitement, talking
about what they did on the ground. They’d ask us, “How
did you do this? How did that work?” So it was fun.
You and Jim Bagian actually received an award after this flight, the
Melbourne Boynton Award.
Will you talk about that? And you had previously won it yourself in
According to the research we have.
Yes. I think there was recognition that at least for the world of
life sciences and aviation and space medicine, that this was an important
flight, and it was nice to get the recognition that we had contributed
It’s strange when you do experiments in flight. It’s somebody
else’s research, and you don’t get your name on the published
papers. So you are subject two in that data. Here it all is, all of
this work that you did and all of this suffering that you went through,
and your name’s not on the paper. You are a subject number.
It’s absolutely important that you are de-identified. In other
words, they didn’t say, “This is Rhea’s data.”
People needed to know that if they looked really strange physiologically,
that it wasn’t going to impact anything or that people weren’t
going to worry about being assigned to another flight or something.
Some of the investigators were very nice. They put at the end, “Special
thanks go to these people who were both subjects and operators. We
really appreciate their help.” That was nice. But it was nice
to get an award or two from eminent scientists and others that said,
“We appreciated what you did, and what you did really was important
to what we are interested in.” You got different kinds of awards
for different things, but I think they were very much appreciated.
One of the things that I saw, looking through the research that we
pulled, was that you had given some testimony after this flight. One
of the committees that I thought was interesting was the Committee
on Budget. You had testified in front of the Committee on Science,
Space, and Technology. But that one just struck a chord with me. I
thought that that was rather unusual for an astronaut. Is that the
It probably was. You know, we didn’t control that. We didn’t
request it. We didn’t say, “I want to talk to these people.”
NASA decided which committees and which people we talked to post-flight.
We always did post-flight, what they called a Hill visit, and they
frequently asked us to go and talk to our own congressional delegations.
I’m from Tennessee; I went and talked to the Tennessee delegations.
You took them a montage of pictures and told them how much their support
meant, and I think they were pleased with that. They had something
to hang on their wall that said they were space supporters. So that
was a good thing for us to do.
We were frequently, depending on what was going on at the time, were
asked to go to speak to different congressional committees. We worked
it out and spoke wherever we needed to at the time. Obviously, there
was probably budgetary considerations going on at the time, probably
for Space Station or for Shuttle funding or for science funding, and
it was very helpful to go and bring the excitement of spaceflight
to committee members and tell them what you had done and why it was
Frequently, even when you went and talked to congressional people,
they had their aide there that really followed NASA. The members of
Congress didn’t know very much about space, and it was the aide
that asked the questions and wanted to know certain things about what
you did. So when we went and talked to a committee, we would tell
them, “Here’s what we did, here’s what it means,
and here’s what the future of that is.” So I think that
was helpful. Again, we did that depending on what the issues were
at the time and what NASA felt like we ought to go and talk about.
We tried to make it understandable and exciting. Whether we changed
people’s minds, I don’t know, but that was part of our
Is there anything you don’t think we covered about this second
flight? I’m trying to be pretty thorough.
You covered more stuff than I ever remembered. I’m glad you
did your homework. It was very helpful to remember those things.
Yes, I think that was it.
We thank you for your time today.