Astronaut: Kay Hire
Q: How long have you worked for NASA?
A: I’ve been at NASA as a Federal Government Civil Servant employee for 13 years.
Q: What type of training is required to become an astronaut?
A: Definitely, to be considered to apply to be selected as an astronaut, they look for a pretty strong background in math and science. It is so much of what we do; it’s very important. But also a good well rounded education and background. What we do, it’s not just crunch a bunch of numbers, or solve a bunch of mathematical or scientific problems. We, as astronauts, have to operate all the systems onboard the space craft.
We also have to be able to express ourselves well when we’re dealing with the engineers and scientists – to communicate with them well. Good communication skills are quite important. Good with languages. With the international partners we have, foreign languages are also important.
Q: Are there any specific requirements that you have to meet to be an astronaut? I know to be a pilot you have to have 20/20 vision. Is there anything specific that is a flat requirement for everybody?
A: There are. There are not as many as you might think. But we actually have a size requirement to be able to fit into the space crafts that we are currently flying, but space crafts in the future. So you can’t be too large and you can’t be too small. You have to be right in between.
Other than that, there are medical requirements. That’s because we need to make sure that when we send people into space, that they don’t have a condition that can’t be treated in space. Or they have a medical issue that we can’t deal with while they’re up in space. So, the medical requirements are quite extensive.
It’s not too different from a pilot in the military or an airline pilot’s requirements. The funny thing that a lot of people don’t realize is, to apply to be an astronaut, you just go on the government website, USAJobs. Some of our astronauts are federal civil service employees; we also have U.S. military astronauts. We have international partners from other countries that we have agreements with that provide astronauts to us. The two ways to come in as a U.S. citizen is as a civil service employee or as a military member.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about the career path you took that lead you to this point?
A: Well, I tell you I’ve been very fortunate to have so many opportunities come my way. Right out of high school, I went to the U.S. Naval Academy and went into Naval Aviation after I graduated with commission.
I flew with an oceanographic research squadron where we flew world wide conducting oceanographic experiments and collecting data hand-in-hand with oceanographers and scientists.
So, it actually went and set me up very well to eventually come to this career. In between though, I left the Navy and went to work at the Kennedy Space Center as an engineer and I worked on the space shuttle mechanical systems and also integration of all the systems, before I was selected to be an astronaut.
Q: How many times have you been in space?
A: I’ve flown one time so far on the Space Shuttle Columbia; STS-90 is the mission number. (Update: Kay Hire has since flown a second mission. In February 2010, she went to the International Space Station as part of mission STS-130. Here is a pre-flight interview.)
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how that feels as you’re about to step into a space ship and you know you’re going into space? Can you describe that a little bit?
A: The best thing, I think I can compare it to, although I’ve never personally experienced it, is like an Olympic athlete. Because the Olympic athlete wants something, they train very hard on their own; they’re very talented, but they also have a team of people behind them, like coaches and all the support people that help them achieve the best that they possibly can in their own sport. Eventually, they get to the point where they can go to the Olympics and compete.
In a lot of ways, it’s like going into space. We have this tremendous team behind us that put together the space craft that we’re going to fly on. They put together all of the experiments that we’re going to carry with us. They help train us to get ready for that; and they’re all supporting us and behind us until we finally get the opportunity to go execute the space mission. Like an Olympic athlete, finally getting to show up at the Olympics and actually getting to compete.
Q: It must be a cool feeling that you’re one of an elite group, that only a handful of people have been to space. That has to be a cool feeling.
A: You know, it’s kind of funny. That doesn’t really hit us so much as astronauts because the environment we work in, we’re surrounded by other astronauts and very brilliant NASA Scientists. To us it’s pretty common. Several of the children of the astronauts know the other children of the other astronauts; to them, it’s pretty normal to them that mom and dad goes into space.
Q: When you went up in the Space Shuttle Columbia, what were your main responsibilities?
A: I flew as the Mission Specialist #2 and my main job was to act as the flight engineer. I worked with the commander and the pilot to help operate the space shuttle systems, but we also carried 25 life sciences experiments and I participated in the experiments as a test subject and also participated by helping conduct the experiments.
Q: What are your main responsibilities day-to-day when you’re not in space?
A: When the astronauts are not in space, one of the main things we do is continue to train to be ready to be assigned to another space mission. So we keep up all of our training requirements to stay sharp on all of the different spacecraft systems.
We also support the ongoing missions that are happening. For instance, as we’re talking here today, we have the International Space Station circling over us, orbiting the earth. We have a crew up there conducting experiments and taking care of the systems on board the International Space Station. So as part of the day-to-day work with that, we still use the term CAPCOM, or Capsule Communicator, where we interact from Mission Control here in Houston to the crew members of the International Space Station. So we have astronauts fill that role daily as their day-to-day job.
Personally, what I have been for the last couple of years is I serve as Astronaut Support Personnel. I go to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I go down there and I help set up switches and configure the entire crew modules on the space shuttle. At different times I actually go in and strap the crew in and close the hatch on launch day when they’re getting ready to launch. So it takes me back-and-forth between Houston and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and it’s quite exciting.
Q: When you watch a movie, like Apollo 13, and there’s that room where they’re sitting with their phones and computers and looking at the big screen. Is it really like that in Houston?
A: Yes it is, as a matter of fact, they filmed a good number of those scenes right here at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Although, we have updated to a bit newer technology.
Mission Control is here at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and there are a lot of jobs in there, besides astronaut. We have all of our flight controllers, we have different engineers who cover the individual systems on board the space craft, as well as the ground systems. We have to be able to communicate. So we have all of our communications people on ground base. There’s quite a lot of jobs, even public affairs personnel and journalists who help cover what’s going on and being able to get that out to the public. We have medical doctors, flight surgeons who stay in touch with the crew members. It’s an exciting place to work at Mission Control.
We also have the launch control center at the Kennedy Center on the east coast of Florida. They work on a daily basis processing the different vehicles as they’re getting ready to launch; and they go through the entire launch process, until the shuttle clears the launch pad, and then control is handed back to Houston. So we have two different locations where both have very similar jobs, but a little different focus. The folks in Florida processed the vehicle from the time it launches and clears the launch pad to when it lands. The people in Houston basically have it throughout the entire flight.
Q: When are you next scheduled to go into space?
A: Not currently scheduled for a flight right now, but available for another assignment.
We have space shuttle missions still going to the International Space Station. We also have crew members that go up and actually stay on the International Space Station, as Space Station Expedition crew members. There are other opportunities and hopefully I’ll be assigned to another mission.
Q: What’s the favorite part of your job?
A: My favorite part is working together as a team; sometimes it’s a very large team and sometimes it’s a smaller team. When you go into space, on the Space Shuttle specifically, you can have seven crew members, and the bond that we build with that. We train together for years and you just develop an incredible friendship with these people and all the great things that go with that team work.
How you work together and to make sure to help each other out and you actually develop each others skills even better. Not to over play it too much, but I think a lot of people relate support. Again, it’s pretty much a support team that has been together for quite a while. It fits so well together. And that’s really a special thing. It’s not just about, in our case, astronauts or the actual space mission, but about the tremendous friendships that we build with each other and being a member of a very tight team.
Q: And that’s so important too. When you’re bonded with your co-workers it just makes going to work that much easier.
A: Oh absolutely! The job here is challenging. I think some people may think that astronauts are allowed to get up in space and play around and just have fun. The pictures we send back kind of look like that because by the time you have a spare moment to pick up a camera, we like to take a picture of somebody just playing around. When we’re really, really busy and working, we don’t really have time to grab the camera and take pictures.
But that doesn’t seem that bad, it doesn’t seem that hard, when you’re working together with a nice, well built team. It absolutely helps build motivation and you certainly get to the point where you’d never want to let any of the other team members down. Taking on very hard challenges, I don’t know if easy is the right word, but you want to do well on those hard challenges, and you want to do well for the entire team.
Q: Is there any advice that you would give to students to pursue your job?
One of the things I didn’t mention before, that’s an ongoing work that we have, is that we’re working to design our next space craft. The entire program is call the Constellation Program. The space craft that we actually have astronaut crew members is going to be working on it. We’re working very hard on defining the actual requirements for not only building that, but how we’re actually going to operate the space craft. So that’s a very exciting time too.
For the students that are in school now, they will have opportunities to work with the Constellation Program and the Orion Spacecraft. There are opportunities that are definitely going to be available for them.
And so, if they’re interested in that, I would encourage them to make sure that they get a very good solid background in the math and sciences. Don’t blow it off. And make sure that when you have the opportunities, take the math and science courses. Remember to take other classes that are important as well: history, English, communication. All the different disciplines are very important.
Q: Thank you very much Kay, we appreciate you taking time out of your day.
A: Sure – well good luck to you. It’s great that you have a website for kids, because you know they’re all over the computer.