Robert Parker: STS-9 Mission Specialist
NASA astronaut Bob Parker spent 10 days in space as a Mission Specialist on the STS-9/Spacelab-1 mission in November 1983.
Dr Robert A. Parker was selected as a scientist-astronaut by NASA in 1967. He served on the astronaut support crews for Apollo 15 and 17 and was programme scientist during the three manned Skylab flights. A veteran of two Spacelab missions, Parker was a Mission Specialist on STS-9/Spacelab-1 and on STS-35 (with the ASTRO-1 ultraviolet astronomy laboratory).
The Spacelab people had just really started to come in from Europe at the time that we were finishing up Skylab. And as a crewman, I felt a need to just keep my hands in this operations stuff and how it works. There were some Europeans in there, and that’s when ESA was ERNO. That’s when Spacelab stuff started to come into it; so I can remember flying to Bremen to be part of a Spacelab meeting.
For Spacelab, as all vehicles, every now and then in comes a review team, so from time to time I would go on one of those teams, and they’d be big reviews. There were also more specific things from time to time, like for the crew it would be the crew interface reviews, where the crew would look at the switch panels and look at the displays. At this point we’re talking in the 1970s and computer displays are coming into their own. How do we want the displays?
How are we going to control the experiments? We had the European experiments, and we had the American experiments. They had their philosophy about how to turn things on. We had ours. And Marshall, in particular, because they were doing most of the experiments, had their philosophy about what we were going to do.
I remember, the Germans (shouldn’t pick just on the Germans), the Spacelab people had this scheme where if you wanted to turn on a switch or a pump, you did it by software, because the software normally managed it. You could override it, but you had to type in an eight digit and letter command, and it would turn it on, and eight digit or letter but one or two digits different command to turn it off.
We weren’t doing things like that. It didn’t mean that we were doing them right, but we weren’t doing things like that in the Shuttle at all, because we had displays with all those commands showing: “Pump On,” “Pump Off.” And you clicked on “Pump On,” and the computer sent the eight-digit command to do it. And the Germans, they just have this thing, “Well, are you going to give us a phone book so we know those things?” Well. So we threw a fit and they changed that.
But we (Owen Garriott and I were the two, and we didn’t have backups) spent a lot of time going to Europe and went to Japan once. We’re training on experiments. First European mission, so we had to go to every European country that had a piece of it in ESA. So we went to Denmark to look at this little small experiment that they were doing, and we went to two or three places in France to look at this or that. But they were sort of centralised in Germany, so we spent most of our time in Germany.
A couple of things were different from during Apollo and Skylab. Here everybody was a bona fide astronaut. And the CapComs were the only ones who talked to the crew. Along came Shuttle, and the new communications satellite, the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite, which I guess we on STS-9 were the first to really use, and suddenly the airways were open the entire time, or up to more or less 90 percent of each orbit. And we have real, more current scientists on board, the payload specialists. So they know more about the science, and because time is more available on communication channels, the PIs now can talk to the crew. All this is very different than it used to be and a big improvement, a huge improvement.