A Walk on the Wild Side

In 2005, while tethered to a robotic arm 220 miles above the surface of the Earth, Sacramento native and UC Davis grad Stephen Robinson made one of the most famous—and dangerous—spacewalks in history. His mission: to remove debris from heat tiles on the belly of the Space Shuttle to prevent the craft from burning up on re-entry. On Feb. 7, our hometown astronaut returns to space for his fourth, and likely last, NASA voyage. He’s living proof why, yes, sometimes it really does take a rocket scientist.

Anchored to a foot restraint on the International Space Station, Robinson orbits the planet.

Anchored to a foot restraint on the International Space Station, Robinson orbits the planet.

Photos courtesy of NASA

Gap fillers.

GNo matter where you were living at the time, there’s a good chance you remember that term from Stephen Robinson’s last adventure in space. On Aug. 3, 2005, as the shuttle Discovery hovered about 220 miles above Earth and an entire planet of people held its collective breath, the Sacramento native went for a spacewalk to perform the first-ever in-flight repair to a shuttle’s exterior. With his feet clamped to the end of a 58-foot robotic arm attached to the International Space Station, Robinson carefully eased under the shuttle’s belly to remove two small pieces of fabric—better known as gap fillers—that were stuck between thermal tiles. The fabric chunks posed a potentially catastrophic threat: A damaged thermal protection system had caused the shuttle Columbia to disintegrate over Texas during its re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, killing the seven-member crew. But if everyone else was on edge, Robinson stayed as cool as outer space itself. After gently tugging free the gap fillers, he quipped, “It looks like this big patient is cured.”

The live TV coverage of his performance as shuttle surgeon turned Robinson into a global star. More than that, his successful mission restored faith and national pride in a space program that had been grounded since the Columbia disaster. Not that you’ll hear the down-to-earth spaceman talking up his accomplishments. “We were just doing our job,” he says.

The 54-year-old Robinson will carry that same humble attitude on his latest—and likely last—space voyage when the shuttle Endeavour blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Feb. 7 for a 13-day mission. On his fourth trip into the heavens, he plans to stay indoors, serving as “the orchestra conductor” to his five crewmates as they perform an array of tasks inside and outside the International Space Station. (Fellow UC Davis alum and “Aggienaut” Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who went to the station in 2007, will return in April on a non-shuttle mission as part of a combined U.S. and Russian crew.)

For Robinson, who as a boy moved from Sacramento to the Bay Area town of Moraga, returning to space offers a chance to fulfill his childhood dream once more. After graduating from UC Davis in 1978 (he later earned a master’s and doctorate from Stanford), he joined NASA the following year, working at its Ames Research Center in Mountain View. He began applying to the astronaut program in 1989 and persevered through annual rejection before finally being selected in 1994. Three years later, he made his space debut aboard Discovery, and in 1998, he went back up with a crew that included one of his boyhood heroes, John Glenn. Now, five years after making history as the gap-filler fixer, Robinson discusses the mission ahead, the thrill of seeing Earth from way up there and whether his next career frontier might involve a return to Davis.

What’s the purpose of the Endeavour mission?
We’re a construction crew and we’re taking up a large module to the space station. You might call [the module] a room if you were building a house. It will be the home to many of the life-support functions for the space station—the [oxygen], the water, the air pressurization—so all that equipment has to be moved in and hooked up.

Sounds complicated.
Well, most of it’s not complicated and anyone could do it. But then there are the parts that surprise you and you probably use all the training you’ve ever got, plus a fair amount of ingenuity. The thing you realize after working in this business for a while is that everything we’re doing is experimental. This module we’re bringing up is the first one like it built; it’s not like a car that’s been manufactured for many years and all the bugs have been worked out. If there are any bugs, they’ll be there for us to [fix], and you’re a long way away from spare parts—Home Depot is not quite in sight.

Robinson makes history when he removes two gap fillers trapped between thermal tiles on Aug. 3, 2005.

Can you describe the International Space Station?
If you’ve ever been in a big building and for some reason had to look up above the ceiling tiles, there are all kinds of wires and hoses and ducts and structural compounds. That’s kind of what the space station looks like on the inside. It’s absolutely covered with equipment and cabling. The pressurized part, the part with people in it, is this long tube and each module has a hatch—kind of like a submarine hatch—that you can seal because the thing was put together in pieces. Sticking out the sides are great big structural beams with solar [panels] because that’s where the electricity comes from.

And it is an international space station. Half of the long tube is Russian and the other half is built by the United States. There’s a Russian airlock for doing spacewalks and a U.S. airlock for doing spacewalks. Then there’s a laboratory built by the European space agency and another big lab built by the Japanese space agency. But so far you don’t need a passport to go from one end to the other.

Unlike your last mission, you’re not scheduled to do any spacewalks this time around. Are you at all disappointed about that?
Oh, no! I get to do all kinds of other cool stuff. I’ll be on the inside being kind of the orchestra conductor—I will be walking [crewmates] through tasks, and when we get to problems, I’ll try to play a role in solving those problems. I’m doing stuff I’ve never done before. That’s really exciting.

Your spacewalk to remove the gap fillers in 2005 drew international attention. Did you realize how big the story had become back on Earth?
Oh, we had no clue—thank goodness. I would have been so nervous if I knew everybody was watching! Being the first mission after the terrible accident we’d had with [Columbia], we felt that we really had to have our greatest problem-solving hat on. So when something came up that looked like it was a threat to the shuttle, we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about, “What if?” We just said, “How are we going to fix this?” So in the best NASA fashion, a bunch of smart people got together—both on the ground and in orbit—and put together a plan. Not too simple, not too complicated. We did something that nobody had ever done before, but we’re in the business of doing stuff that nobody’s ever done before, so that didn’t seem like such a big deal to us.

What did seem like a big deal to us was that in all of our training, we had always been of the mind that you do not go near the belly of the orbiter because those tiles are so delicate and you weigh like 700 pounds—your mass does—and you’re covered in metal. And here I am—right up against it! But on the other hand, I felt pretty comfortable there. Shoot, I’ve been working on airplanes for most of my life as a mechanic, and when I was young and starting with NASA, I worked as a wind tunnel mechanic on the early designs of the space shuttle. I remember very clearly looking at the shape of the belly and the subtle, complex curve it has to have to handle the re-entry heating. It was so odd to be there 25, 30 years later looking at that same curve—only this time, the Earth was coming up behind it. And I had the first digital camera that we’d ever been allowed to take outside [the shuttle]. I had a great time taking photographs.

How did you end up getting chosen to do the walk?
Well, there were just two spacewalkers on board and we were both out there. And I don’t know how, but I ended up being the one on the arm. There was [a reason] that made sense, but “I grew up wanting to fly in space and I never stopped,” Robinson says. I can’t remember what it was—it was something to do with the training. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if it was me or Soichi [Noguchi, the second spacewalker]. We couldn’t have done it alone. We do everything as a team.

It’s probably impossible to put into words, but what’s it like to be in space?
One of my goals someday in life is to paint Earthscapes that I have seen in photographs from space, which would give me a broader language with which to communicate this. But there’s maybe three ways to look at being in space. One is what it’s like to be in space with other people. You have an element of teamwork that goes way beyond the sports analogies we always rely on; basically, it comes down to you relying on your crewmates for your life.

Then there’s the experience you have with yourself—what you see and what you feel. The differences in feelings and your surroundings are just indescribable. You’re not really far away from Earth, but you’re going really fast, so you see a lot of it—you see the light and the clouds changing rapidly. You see such a large part of the planet that has been home to not only you and everybody you know, but every human being that has ever existed. There’s something unifying in that. Looking down, you don’t see the boundaries and you don’t see the conflicts. You see the home for humans. That’s pretty powerful.

And then a third way of experiencing it, which is even harder to describe, is what happens when you look away from Earth. That’s the experience when you’re actually outside on the spacewalk. You see stuff you can’t imagine. The sky isn’t a black dome with white and blue lights on it that twinkle, which is sort of how we see it from Earth at night. Things out there look like they have distance, they have depth. You really feel like you’re looking into a long void rather than at a dark sky, and stars don’t twinkle because you don’t have an atmosphere to interrupt their light path. But even stranger—they’re all different colors. Nobody ever told me that before I went to space. The stars are slightly different colors, from the bluish to a subtle white to a little bit warmer yellows and reds. It’s kind of shocking when you look at the stars and you think, “Hey! They’re not all the same!”

Did you always know you wanted to be an astronaut?
I grew up wanting to fly in space and I never stopped. I was fascinated with a bunch of other stuff, too—I wanted to be a biologist and an artist and a musician. In fact, I still want to do all those things. But it didn’t compare to how much I wanted to go in space. You know, I grew up in the era of [early astronauts] Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom and John Glenn. All the kids on the block wanted to be John Glenn, and so did I.

And then in 1998 you went up in Discovery with him.
It was like science fiction, it really was. Your childhood idol doesn’t seem real, and then, you know, we were strapping into the space shuttle and he was sitting right next to me. It was just amazing. He’s a wonderful man and a good friend and I talk to him often.

“[In space] you see such a large part of the planet that has been home to not only you and everybody you know, but every human being that has ever existed. That’s pretty powerful.”

You live in Houston, but your parents are still in Moraga. When you get back to Sacramento and Davis, what do you like to do?
Oh man, I love to go to the Davis Farmers’ Market. I do! I love to go out to the little university airport, and I love Old Sacramento and the airplane museum up at McClellan. There’s also a great one at Travis. I still consider Sacramento my hometown.

Was there anyone in particular at UC Davis who helped shape your career?
The current dean of engineering, Bruce White, is a fantastic educator and motivator and friend. He was my undergraduate advisor; he isn’t much older than I am. He had a huge influence on the work I did to become a scientist—I was a scientist for a long time before I ever became an astronaut [Robinson earned a bachelor’s in mechanical/aeronautical engineering]. He has the ability to keep a person motivated but also adds guidance. I think I was hugely motivated and excited about lots and lots of things, but I had no direction. I didn’t have sufficient direction to really go and accomplish some major goals. He was very good at sort of polarizing the energy in a couple of different directions and generating the excitement and motivation level.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who heads to the space station in April, is another astronaut with UC Davis ties.
I know Tracy real well. We play in [an all-astronaut] rock ‘n’ roll band together, Max Q.

Speaking of music, you found a guitar stashed on the space station during your last mission and started strumming. What song did you play?
You really want to know? I was playing Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” I wanted to see if anybody would recognize it! It was an aural pun.

This is the last year of the space shuttle program, and you’re on the fifth-to-last mission. What are your feelings about the program ending?
It’s definitely bittersweet. For a lot of us, a big portion of our career has been the space shuttle, and it’s amazing what it can do. But we think it’s time to move on because it’s an old machine. The sad part is that we don’t have something to replace it yet. So when we retire it, we will have to buy rides on Russian space hardware to get to the space station. We’ve certainly done that before—we have a great working relationship with the Russians. But it says something to Americans when America can’t send its own [spacecraft] to the space station.

So is this your last chance to travel in space?
Probably. When the shuttle stops flying, there won’t be more opportunities for a few years until a new space vehicle is ready. And I am ready to go off and [try something new]. I want to be a teacher. I’d like to try to do something about getting younger folks interested in technology and engineering.

At UC Davis?
If I’m fortunate, that could be a possibility—an exciting one. But it’s a big world and it’s too early to be specific about my teaching goals.

Does the fact that this will be your final mission make it more meaningful?
I haven’t had a chance to get terribly poetic about it. I feel incredibly honored and fortunate to be on any mission; the fact that it’s close to the end [of the shuttle program] makes me feel even more blessed. But you know what? I’ve got so much to do, to get right, and so much to remember. I’ll think about the big philosophical meaning of this after we come back. S