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Shuttle crew honors fallen Columbia astronauts

Space shuttle Discovery Commander Eileen Collins said Thursday she is confident about returning her crew to Earth safely, despite unprecedented orbit repairs to her ship.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The first shuttle crew to fly since the Columbia tragedy paid tribute to their fallen colleagues Thursday with a moving ode to the spirit of exploration.

Speaking in turn, the nine astronauts aboard Discovery and the international space station quoted poets and President Kennedy in reflecting upon the “human price that has been paid” as humanity has sought to ever push the limits of its knowledge.

Columbia broke up upon re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts aboard: Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool and Ilan Ramon.

“We became lost in our own hubris and learned once more the terrible price that must be paid for our failures. In that accident, we not only lost seven colleagues, we lost seven friends,” said astronaut Charles Camarda. “They knew the risks, but they believed in what they were doing. … They knew that in order for a great people to do great things, they must not be bridled by timidity.”

The nearly nine-minute tribute, spoken in English, Japanese and Russian, also recognized previous space tragedies, paying tribute to the crews of Apollo 1, Soyuz 1, Soyuz 11 and Challenger.

Quoting from Kennedy’s famous 1962 “to the moon” speech, astronaut Wendy Lawrence said “We choose to do these things not 'because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ And certainly, space exploration is not easy and there has been a human price that has been paid.”

Shuttle commander Eileen Collins ended the tribute by quoting from the World War I poem, “For the Fallen”: 

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.At the going down of the sun and in the morningWe will remember them.

After the astronauts finished, NASA observed three and a-half minutes of silence.

A picture of the Columbia crew has been displayed on Discovery’s flight deck since it lifted off last week, and on Thursday the crew wore Columbia mission patches on their shirts.

Investigators determined that a 1.67-pound (750-gram) chunk of foam fell from Columbia’s external fuel tank when it launched, tearing a hole in the shuttle’s left wing. That proved fatal upon re-entry when the superheated gases of re-entry melted the wing from the inside out.

NASA spent two and a half years and an estimated $1.5 billion on safety upgrades after Columbia and was dismayed to see loose foam at Discovery’s launch. The New York Times reported Thursday that an internal NASA memo warned in December that deficiencies remained in the way foam was being applied to the fuel tank and warned “there will continue to be a threat of critical debris generation.” A NASA spokesman told the newspaper a response to the memo had been written, but could not be released because of confidentiality rules related to export restrictions.

In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, NASA has tried to devote more attention to safety — and as a result, Discovery’s astronauts have spent a majority of their test flight mission inspecting their ship, making repairs and testing out new repair techniques.

On Thursday, astronauts tested a method for patching small holes in the carbon panels that line the shuttle’s wings in Discovery’s mid-deck. That repair technique was the last of three set to be tested on orbit by Discovery’s crew.

Also Thursday, NASA decided that a fourth spacewalk would not be needed to deal with a torn thermal blanket below a cockpit window.

The concern was that a roughly 1-foot (30-centimeter) section of the blanket could rip away during re-entry, whip backward and slam into the shuttle, perhaps causing grave damage. But engineers decided that the blanket actually posed no threat.

Commander confident
Collins said Thursday she is confident about returning her crew to Earth safely, in part due to the unprecedented repairs to her ship while in orbit.

“We have looked at everything,” Collins told the Associated Press. “I wouldn’t fly this flight if I didn’t think it was a safe thing to do.”

Collins said her crew had thoroughly studied the procedures for Wednesday’s spacewalk, when astronaut Stephen Robinson removed two worrisome pieces of filler material from the shuttle’s belly. NASA engineers thought the material might cause the shuttle to overheat during its descent through the atmosphere and lead to another Columbia-type disaster.

It was the first such repair job in space and Robinson told NBC’s Tom Costello that he “was just all eyes” as he approached the belly of the shuttle.

“I was doing my own inspection of the tiles and it was pretty easy to see those gap fillers sticking out,” he said. “It was a thrilling moment for me.”

“We were clapping and cheering on the flight deck,” Collins told NBC. She joked that Discovery’s crew had asked Robinson “to check the oil and check the tires and everything else for us before we come home.”

“This flight was an engineer’s dream,” Camarda told NBC. “What we saw as just the tip of the iceberg as far as our abilities and capabilities in the future to actually repair the vehicle.”

When Costello asked what, besides their families, they missed most in space, Camarda admitted to “a few cravings for pizza.”

Food also came up later in the day, when Collins and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who asked about an instant noodle dish specially developed for consumption in space.

“Mr. Noguchi, I tried the space noodles, but how did they taste in space? Were they good?” Koizumi asked.

The dish of noodles in a jellified soup was jointly developed by Nissin Food Products Co. and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

“Space noodles were one of the things I was really looking forward to,” Discovery’s lead spacewalker Noguchi replied. “They were surprisingly close to the delicious taste of noodles on Earth,” he added.

The conversation took a more serious tone when Collins commented that the astronauts could see from space the effects of environmental destruction on Earth.

“Sometimes you can see how there is erosion, and you can see how there is deforestation. It’s very widespread in some parts of the world,” Collins said, adding that it was clear the Earth’s atmosphere must be protected, too.

“The atmosphere almost looks like an eggshell on an egg, it’s so very thin,” she said. “We know that we don’t have much air, we need to protect what we have.”

Koizumi told Collins he watched her on television every day and was extremely impressed. “In every respect: ability, courage, patience and sense of duty, you are not a spacewoman, but a superwoman,” he said.