CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The seven astronauts who will brave the unknown on NASA's return to space have explained the shuttle safety improvements to their children and tried to calm their spouses and parents.
Among them, they have four wives, one husband and 13 children who are understandably nervous about their loved ones being the first to fly on a space shuttle since Columbia's catastrophic re-entry in 2003.
"It's going to be much worse on the family this time than it was before," said Discovery's pilot, James Kelly, pointing to the conventional wisdom before the Columbia accident that most of the risk involved the launch — not the return.
Yet the families are all supportive.
That's because commander Eileen Collins, co-pilot Kelly and the rest of the crew strongly believe Discovery is safe enough to ride into orbit — or they wouldn't climb aboard. At the same time, they realize spaceflight is risky and that anything can go tragically wrong from the moment of liftoff until wheels stop at touchdown.
For the Discovery seven, exploration is worth the incalculable risks.
Here is a brief look at each crew member:
Commander Eileen Collins isn't the least bit worried about leading NASA's first space shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster.
She shows no emotion, only incredible focus. She developed the ability to screen out distractions and pressure long ago.
Collins was the second woman to enter Air Force Test Pilot School, the first woman to become a space shuttle pilot and the first woman to command a U.S. space mission, in 1999 — all this despite a fear of roller coasters.
The 48-year-old commander, married to a commercial airline pilot, has assured her 9-year-old daughter that she'll return safely. Her 4-year-old son is too young to understand.
"I'm doing this mission because this is something I believe in and we need to carry on the mission of the Columbia crew," Collins said she told her daughter.
This will be Collins' fourth shuttle mission and probably her last. She recently retired from the Air Force as a colonel and may go back to teaching math. She is from Elmira, N.Y.
Pilot James Kelly says his concept of the dangers of spaceflight did not change after the Columbia accident. That's because he walked into the astronaut job in 1996 fully aware of what happened a decade earlier with Challenger.
Kelly was attending the Air Force Academy when Challenger blew up. One of his classmates was the son of the Challenger commander.
His wife Dawn has had second thoughts, though, about his career choice.
"I've been flying high-performance airplanes and things like that" for nearly two decades, said Kelly, 41, a lieutenant colonel and former test pilot from Burlington, Iowa. "She'd much rather I didn't do any of this stuff probably."
He's discussed the technical aspects of the Columbia accident with his two teenage sons. With his two young daughters, he's gently explained "why I do what I do, why I love space, why I think we need to be out there."
Kelly — whose nickname is Vegas because of a lucky poker streak years ago — will be making his second visit to the international space station.
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi says the Columbia tragedy did not affect his lifelong desire to fly in space.
"I'm more aware of the risk involved," said Noguchi, 40, who will be taking his first rocket ride. "But I think it's worth the challenge for us to continue the exploration to space."
The engineer will have a major role aboard Discovery: As a spacewalker, he'll test repair methods devised by NASA in the 2 1/2 years since Columbia was destroyed by a hole in the wing.
He's tried to be honest with his three young daughters about the catastrophe, explaining the improvements to Discovery and his job in space.
Noguchi is one of eight Japanese Space Agency astronauts, and he will be only the fifth of the group to fly in space. With so few of them, Noguchi says it's little wonder they're treated in Japan like NASA's original Mercury astronauts were back in the 1960s.
His appearance at a NASA news conference in the spring attracted a Japanese pop singer who wanted the astronaut on his TV show.
Stephen Robinson considers it extremely unlikely that Discovery will suffer severe damage from falling foam insulation at liftoff. But just in case, he's trained to make repairs — and he'll actually test some patches during a spacewalk.
"What we're trying to do is not brain surgery," said Robinson, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. "We are trying to trowel on a Spackle in a crack, or bolt on a moly bolt patch ... the complicated part comes in the material science."
In other words, the material for filling cracks or holes in a shuttle's heat shield doesn't always work well on Earth and may not work at all in space.
Robinson, 49, last flew in space with Mercury astronaut John Glenn in 1998. He's worked at NASA for 30 years and been an astronaut the past 10. This will be his fourth mission.
He plays lead guitar in an astronaut rock 'n' roll band. His musical resume also includes a stint as an early-morning radio DJ back in the 1970s in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif.
In his early astronaut days, he worked in Mission Control and woke up his colleagues in space by beaming up music. "So you never know where the DJ experience is going to take you.
As deputy chief of the astronaut office in 2003, Andrew Thomas found himself caring for grieving families of the Columbia astronauts. By the end of that year, he found himself assigned to the shuttle crew that would return NASA to space.
"We need to get back to flying," he said. "You just can't leave these vehicles on the ground indefinitely. They will suffer and you'll have a problem with them ... Philosophically, we need to do it, too, because I think the taxpayers who pay for this program expect all this."
The Australian-born Thomas, 53, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, became an astronaut in 1992. On his second spaceflight, he logged nearly five months aboard Russia's Mir station. This will be his second visit to the international space station.
During Discovery's transit to the station, he will use a brand new inspection boom with lasers on the end to check the shuttle wings and nose cap for any signs of launch damage.
Thomas is a newlywed: Just this spring, he married astronaut Shannon Walker.
Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence says she and her family understand the risks of spaceflight, perhaps more than most.
Her naval aviator father was shot down over Vietnam and didn't return home for six years. Her grandfather, a World War II naval aviator, was shot down over the Philippines but was rescued. As for herself, she lost Naval Academy classmates to crashes during flight school.
Still, the 46-year-old helicopter pilot said she never fully appreciated the dangers of a space shuttle's re-entry until Columbia crashed.
This will be Lawrence's fourth space flight. She flew twice to Russia's Mir station in the late 1990s and was even supposed to move in. But she was yanked from the lineup because at 5-foot-3 she was too short to fit in a Russian spacewalker's suit.
Since then, she's been nicknamed "Too Short."
The Jacksonville, Fla.-born astronaut is featured in a military survival-training video in which she cooks and eats grasshoppers. Her recipe: Pull off the legs and torch the rest with a match to kill parasites.
Charles Camarda was at the cosmonaut training base in Russia when Columbia went down. He quickly returned home so he could help fellow engineers uncover the cause of the accident and come up with solutions for holes in a shuttle wing.
He'd worked at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia for 22 years, where he specialized in thermal structures, a key part of the return-to-flight effort.
Camarda was a late addition to Discovery's crew, which came as a surprise even though he'd been waiting for a flight assignment since becoming an astronaut in 1996 at age 44. Now 53, he will be one of the oldest first-time space fliers ever.
"I love research. I love engineering. I hope to go back to it," said Camarda, who has a Ph.D. "This was an opportunity to do something completely different."
Camarda expects his 80-year-old mother may need some Valium to get through his launch and landing. "I've been scaring my mother ever since I was a kid growing up in Queens (N.Y.), and she's a typical Italian mom and that is never going to stop."
He says his 18-year-old daughter, three stepchildren and wife don't frighten as easily.
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