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April 01, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, April 01, 2005

Astronauts train at Ames Astronauts train at Ames (April 01, 2005)

Pilots of next shuttle mission say craft is ready, safe

By Julie O'Shea

NASA is planning to launch a new crew of astronauts into space next month in its first man-led mission since the Columbia shuttle tragedy two and a half years ago.

Cmdr. Eileen Collins and pilot James Kelly were in Mountain View last week to test out their landing techniques in the Vertical Motion Simulator at Ames Research Center. The simulator, considered the most sophisticated in the world, offers real-time piloted simulation, giving astronauts a chance to experience and react to emergencies they might encounter during their 13-day mission to support the crew aboard the International Space Station.

"I am optimistic that we aren't going to have what we call entry-critical damage, but if we do, we have a plan for that," said Collins, who has logged more than 6,280 flight hours in 30 different types of aircraft.

In an effort to boost public enthusiasm for the space agency's "return to flight," Collins and Kelly held a brief press conference March 23 to express their confidence in the safety of the mission and to encourage youth to consider careers with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"I think we are all very proud to fly this mission, and we are taking the memories of the Columbia crew with us," Collins added. "We are going to fly the shuttle again, and we are going to finish building the International Space Station."

The space shuttle Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1, 2003, shortly after it reentered the Earth's atmosphere. When the Columbia launched from Cape Canaveral on Jan. 16, a piece of insulating foam fell of the craft's external fuel tank and struck the underside of left wing, knocking off some of the shuttle's heat protection tiles.

Officials saw the debris fall, but didn't think it had caused significant damage to shuttle -- a fatal oversight that became apparent when the wing began to burn up upon Columbia's reentry into the Earth's atmosphere. The tragedy, the first NASA disaster since the 1989 Challenger explosion, killed all seven crew members and grounded the federal government's shuttle program.

"We've done everything we've been able to do at this point that has really helped us to be safer than Columbia was," said Kelly, who has logged more than 3,000 flight hours.

Kelly said he can't imagine not continuing space exploration but realizes that there are still heavy risks involved in the job.

"It's a dangerous thing to do," he said. "We are a safer flight than Columbia was, but it's not completely safe."

NASA will no doubt lose another crew along the way, Kelly noted. However, it is up to NASA scientists to make sure these tragedies aren't frequent occurrences.

The Discovery mission is scheduled for launch between May 15 and June 3. Collins and Kelly still have two months of training ahead of them before takeoff. The two astronauts, who are stationed in Houston, fly to Moffett Field every six to nine months to train in the research center's flight simulator. They spent three and a half hours inside the simulator last week and probably won't be back again before next month's launch.

The simulator allows crew members to practice "landing" in various situations, including night landings or landing with a flat tire.
E-mail Julie O'Shea at [email protected]


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