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Aboard Columbia: Nancy Currie

Moving astronauts: 'My technique is to be very deliberate'

Mission specialist and robotic arm operator Nancy Currie:
Mission specialist and robotic arm operator Nancy Currie: "Hubble has always been this icon in terms of a mission assignment."  

(CNN) -- An industrial engineer, Nancy Currie is at the controls of the space shuttle's robotic arm each day, as her Columbia crew mates make their spacewalks to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

While one of the astronauts works as a "free floater" (although he's always tethered to something), the other is usually standing on the foot platform of the payload bay's 50-foot arm -- and being moved to various work positions by Currie.

Before her departure on the Hubble mission, the veteran of three space flights spoke with CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien.

Here are some highlights of their conversation.

CNN: Is this more fun or less fun than last time you flew on the shuttle. That flight you went to space station. This one you aren't. Does it matter?

Nancy Currie: Certainly my last mission had a lot of rewards and being on the first-ever station assembly mission and putting the first two pieces together and being one the first individuals inside the new international space station -- I mean those memories are just fantastic and I think some of us did think, well, "What are we going to do to top this?"

But certainly being assigned to this mission and being involved in the Hubble project is really rewarding. I can't think of another mission where a flight engineer and arm operator is more gainfully employed than a Hubble mission.

I'm very busy and that's what you want to be during a mission. You want to be fully engaged in absolutely everything. (To be) one of the senior astronauts at this point -- and to have all those duties -- is really very challenging. And that's what makes this one more fun in particular.

Precision person placement

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CNN: What is the skill required to be good at what you are doing?

Currie: I think pilots make good arm operators, because you're used to manipulating an aircraft and sort of always knowing where you are.

I think what makes a good arm operator to support EVA guys (extra-vehicular activity, or spacewalking) is for the arm operator to know the EVA as well as the EVA guys do. That was probably the hardest part in the training flow for me. These guys had a jump of at least a year. And in John Grunsfeld's case, years because he flew on the last Hubble mission.

So I really had a lot of catching up to do and I firmly believe that the best support you can give is to know exactly what bolt they need to go to, exactly what orientation they have to be in.

We spend many, many hours developing those positions but it really is up to me to know exactly where I need to put this guy for him to work best.

So I tend to not try to fly the arm on the fastest mode possible. I actually don't think that's a very good way to fly the arm, although some people do.

My technique instead is to be very deliberate in my movements but to know exactly where they're going so that when I stop and say, "How does it look?" they say, "It looks great." They start working. They don't say, "Move me three inches up," "Move me a foot over here," whatever.

'It doesn't get any better'

Here's a long view from the shuttle out along the 50-foot robotic arm that Nancy Currie operates -- on the end of it is a foot platform where an astronaut can stand to be moved around by Currie during his work.
Here's a long view from the shuttle out along the 50-foot robotic arm that Nancy Currie operates -- on the end of it is a foot platform where an astronaut can stand to be moved around by Currie during his work.  

CNN: How do you prepare for an EVA?

Currie: If you ask me when I'm hovering a helicopter, "What inputs are you putting in?" I couldn't tell you because I'm just responding to the aircraft. Same thing here. I'm just responding to where I know they need to be placed and flying them there.

CNN: Is it a lot like flying a helicopter in that sense?

Currie: I think so. The feel of the arm -- the control inputs in terms of the force of the inputs -- are very minimal. The kind of fine touch on the controls that's required, it's very similar to flying a helicopter.

CNN: Hubble is a great story. Does that make things feel more special for this crew?

Currie: I do. I was selected as an astronaut in 1990. I had the privilege of seeing Hubble at (Cape Canaveral) before I ever even considered being assigned to a flight. It's funny I'm kind of kicking myself now for not taking a closer look at it. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be on a mission to service Hubble. I mean Hubble has always been this icon in terms of a mission assignment.

To have a mission, you have 12 days and for the entire mission, you're doing an ascent, you're doing a rendezvous, you're doing five consecutive days of EVA -- possibly a sixth -- getting ready to come home and then doing a landing.

It doesn't get any better than that.


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