NASA’s Class of 1996 was the largest ever. And four of the space shuttle Discovery’s seven astronauts came from that group of pilots, engineers and scientists chosen a decade ago.
Among their classmates were three of the Columbia astronauts who died in the 2003 accident, a tragedy that put a halt to spaceflight for two years. Last summer was the first flight after Columbia. Now, as early as Saturday, comes the second space mission.
“Three of our classmates were in the accident, and that’s a personal loss,” said Piers Sellers, a Class of ’96 member along with crewmates Mark Kelly, Lisa Nowak and Stephanie Wilson. Their Columbia classmates who died were David Brown, Laurel Clark and William McCool.
“It was a dark day for the agency...,” Sellers said, “but at some point you kind of have to pick yourself up, take the next step, fix the problem, get back into the saddle, and that’s what the agency has done in the past couple of years.”
The upcoming mission will be led by commander Steve Lindsey, who has flown in space three previous times.
Other noteworthy personal details about Discovery’s seven astronauts:
- Three are rookies making their first space flight.
- Six are parents. Among them they have a total of 16 children.
- Two are foreign-born.
- One will be the second African-American woman in space.
- One will be the first Texas Aggie in space.
Here is a more detailed look at each astronaut:
U.S. Air Force Col. Steve Lindsey, commander
After flying three missions, and with a long line of astronauts back in Houston who have never gone to space, Lindsey said he realizes Discovery’s flight to the international space station may be the last of his decade-long career.
“It will be sad, probably, the last time I walk off the shuttle,” Lindsey said. “But you know, I’ll be going on to something else and I’m OK with it.”
Lindsey is no stranger to high-profile missions. He was the pilot of the Discovery flight that returned John Glenn to space in 1998. That flight drew so much attention that “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey came to NASA in 1995 after 13 years in the Air Force. He is an U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, holds a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering and was a test pilot.
He said he believes NASA has made the appropriate improvements to the shuttle’s external fuel tank, where the risk of foam insulation snapping off during launch remains. The foam poses the threat of damage to the spacecraft — the same problem that brought down Columbia. The issue has been openly debated in recent weeks, and some NASA safety experts contend more changes should be made before the next launch. But they were overruled by NASA head Michael Griffin.
Lindsey said he welcomed the debate. But enough talk.
“We’ve done all that testing,” Lindsey said. “It’s time to fly.”
U.S. Navy Cmdr. Mark Kelly, pilot
Unlike some members of the class of 1996, which had about twice the average astronaut class size, Kelly already has a shuttle mission under his belt. He served as the pilot on Endeavour in 2001 during the 12th shuttle flight to the international space station.
Kelly, who holds a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, will be Discovery’s pilot too. He also will direct Sellers and Fossum during their spacewalks.
“My first time, in 2001, I realized how risky the space shuttle is,” Kelly said. “I was well aware of the risks, and it makes it more real for me this time because of an accident that killed seven of my friends.”
Kelly said he hopes Discovery launches early in the July 1-19 window so he can be back from the mission in time for his youngest daughter’s ninth birthday, which is July 18.
“She’ll be upset if I’m in space for her birthday,” Kelly said.
Mission specialist Michael Fossum
Fossum is about to be the first Aggie in space.
The Texas A&M graduate plans to bring to the space station a university flag which he will bring back for his alma mater. But he may want to hide it from crewmate Stephanie Wilson, who went to graduate school at the University of Texas.
“I kind of wish I was the third Aggie in space,” said Fossum, who has master’s degrees in systems engineering and space science. “It’s not like me to make a big fuss about this.”
Fossum not only will be flying for the first time in space, but he will also make his first spacewalk. The rookie will make at least two excursions outside the space station with Sellers to test inspection and repair techniques on the shuttle. A third spacewalk is possible.
Fossum has been an astronaut for eight years but his service with NASA stretches back to the early 1980s when he went to work at Johnson Space Center after completing graduate work at the Air Force Institute of Technology. It took him several tries to join the astronaut corps.
As a child, he cherished a book on the Apollo program and wrote in it, “I too am going to the stars.” He rediscovered the book a few years ago in a box of childhood items and thought, “My goodness. Look what you wrote!”
U.S. Navy Cmdr. Lisa Nowak,
Nowak’s son was in preschool when she joined the astronaut corps in 1996. The 14-year-old boy now is about to start high school and she has yet to fly in space. But that likely will change shortly.
“It never got to the point where I was frustrated, upset or said, ’Hey, why isn’t it my turn?”’ said Nowak, who also has 4-year-old twin girls. “I was always happy with what was coming and what I was doing.”
That consisted of working as a communicator with shuttle crews at Mission Control, going to Canada for robotics arm training for the space station and traveling to Japan to work with its space agency’s robotics operations during the early years of the space station.
Nowak, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who has a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, will apply her expertise in robotics by inspecting Discovery for any damage using a robotic arm, along with Wilson.
Other astronauts have advised the first-time space-flyer to take time to enjoy the view.
“They told me, ’Make sure you take a chance to look out the window and look at the beautiful Earth and take some pictures,”’ Nowak said.
Mission specialist Stephanie Wilson
Wilson may be a Harvard graduate, but she got her master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas, home of the Longhorns and sworn enemies of Fossum’s Aggies.
“I’m trying to figure out how I can collect all of the Aggie items so they don’t appear (in photos),” Wilson said.
Along with Nowak, Wilson will operate the shuttle’s 50-foot (15-meter) robotic arm, attached to a 50-foot boom, during inspections for any damage to Discovery.
“It’s very difficult to know where all parts of the arm and boom are at any particular time,” said Wilson, who will be the second African-American woman in space. “That sometimes becomes the tricky part.”
Wilson said there shouldn’t be a problem with three spaceflight rookies in the crew.
“In the early shuttle days, they had to fly all rookies on some early flights, and they did fine,” she said.
Mission specialist Piers Sellers
Sellers already is scheduled to lead two spacewalks during Discovery’s mission to the space station. But he’s hoping Fossum and he can squeeze in an additional one to test out a new material for repairing cracked thermal tiles on the shuttle.
“The engineering team has worked this to death,” Sellers said. “They really want to check out this material and the only way to check it out is in space.”
Sellers performed three spacewalks for construction tasks during his only other trip to the space station aboard space shuttle Atlantis in October 2002. He holds a doctorate in biometeorology and did computer modeling of the climate system before becoming a U.S. citizen and joining NASA in 1996.
“Our goal is really to reset the program back to where it should be,” Reiter said of the mission. “If we manage to do that as an agency, then it will be a great success.”
European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter
Reiter’s wife and two sons, ages 14 and 8, have packed him a surprise package which he isn’t supposed to open until he begins his six-month stay on the international space station.
“You can imagine I’m curious to see what they got for me, what I’m getting at the space station,” Reiter said.
Reiter is no stranger to long stays in space since he spent six months in the mid-1990s on Russia’s Mir space station, where he also performed two spacewalks. The former test pilot has a master's degree in aerospace technology and joined the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps in 1992.
He will return the international space station to a three-man crew for the first time since the Columbia accident and become the first European to have an extended stay on the orbiting space lab.
How can he spend another six months away from his family?
“Almost every colleague I talk to has been infected by space. When they come back it seems to be increased, which is the same for me,” Reiter said. “Experiencing zero-gravity is fantastic ... I have never slept as well as I did in space because ... you’re just floating.”