On Monday, we watched the coupled space shuttle and 747 back out of the mating structure at Kennedy Space Center and then spent some time talking with this orbiter’s last-ever crew. All but Commander Steve Lindsey were part of the astronaut class of 2000, and the bunch looked to have cohered over their final role together.
The original crew included Tim Kopra, who was injured in a bicycle accident after the original launch date but before the actual launch of STS-133. (Read our post on “Astronauts Are Human Too” HERE.) He was replaced by Steve Bowen. Mission Specialist Michael Barratt (whom we’ve interviewed before HERE) explained that most of the STS-133 crew wears two mission patches on the blue flightsuit shoulder, the new one with Bowen’s name sewn over, but just slightly askew of, the one with Kopra’s name. Barratt and Kopra had trained together closely because they had been assigned to operate the robotic arm, with Barratt maneuvering and Kopra to be on the arm itself. “It was quite an impact to our training,” Barratt said. “We understood each other.” Barratt quickly added, “Steve was very accommodating. He knew his stuff very well.”
We followed up on our earlier conversation with Michael Barratt by asking again about radiation and its affects on the human body, particularly during spaceflight. Barratt was unexpectedly thrust into the role of Manager of Human Research for NASA and is a medical doctor, so he has lots to say on this topic. Zero gravity and radiation both pose significant problems, especially for longer journeys like that proposed to Mars, according to Barratt. “We can maintain bone and muscle quite nicely,” he said about progress made with shuttle astronauts. “Deep space radiation is a very different animal than we see in low-Earth orbit.” He added, “We’ve actually got a good modeling of radiation out there,” but he emphasized that we don’t understand how the human body responds to that radiation, especially give the time it would take to get to Mars. “What we want to do more than anything is fly faster.”
In his current role, Barratt is out of the rotation for the International Space Station, so it sounds as if he may want to return to a role in the Astronaut Office at Johnson Space Center, where he spent a few months after STS-133 concluded. Fellow STS-133 Mission Specialist Alvin Drew is hoping for just that opportunity himself. As for going farther, he admits, “Probably not.” Drew remains proud of the space shuttle program even as the orbiters become artifacts, saying “I used to dream about doing this, and now my ship is in a museum.” And he’s also positive about the current position and future: “For us engineers and scientists, it’s really exciting” to be doing “the behind the scenes things” for deep space exploration.
Mission Specialist Nicole Stott also put a positive spin on Discovery’s move to Udvar-Hazy, asserting that this orbiter will touch “people who didn’t know they were interested.” We, too, have found that friends who hadn’t thought about space exploration or the shuttle program just need a nudge. She is also quick to point out, “There are exciting things going on.” Specifically, she doesn’t want anyone to forget, “We have a station up there with six crew members from all across the planet.” Interestingly, Stott also mentioned that she follows space geeks online and was happy to see Discovery’s departure well covered in the blogosphere and on Twitter.
The crew’s sentiments may have been best summed up by Commander Steve Lindsey, who said, “I already said goodbye to Discovery […] when we walked off the vehicle.” This departure was epilogue. Pilot Eric Boe elaborated and put the shuttle program into a larger perspective: “I like to call it the dream machine” and by that he means the dreams of the people who made it and kept it running for thirty years. As we’ve advocated before at Lofty Ambitions, the story is ultimately about the characters. “I think it will inspire people,” Boe said. Mission Specialist Steve Bowen pointed out specifically, “The workmanship and the expertise” will be impossible to capture in a museum exhibit. “That’s that part we’re losing,” he said. “People make it special. People make it work.” And though Bowen pointed out that the lockers were askew on that last flight and needed some nudging, he said, “On that last landing, […] she was pristine.” He added of STS-133, “It was harder walking away from it after it landed.”
Much of the rest of the press spent their time easily eeking out variations of bittersweet from the crew, and it’s clear that this crew thinks shuttle could have had a longer run, perhaps at last until a replacement could take over seamlessly. This crew would be happy to take another flight. But we want to conclude with comments we didn’t expect when we interviewed the STS-133 crew.
Eric Boe could have talked for hours about the T-38s that the astronauts flew from Houston and use in training. These aircraft are crucial to the program, and perhaps to any future manned spaceflight in the United States, according to Lindsey. He asserted that the T-38 “gives us a chance to maintain our skills [or] step up” and that “talking between the seats” is essential training for the interplay necessary for a space-traveling crew. When you talk between T-38s, Lindsey claimed, you have to be more particular, and many skills are transferable to the space shuttle. His enthusiasm for the jets reminded us of Apollo astronaut Charle Duke’s excitement when talking about his flying days.
Lindsey also pointed out, “By having all these different backgrounds […] it gives you a fresh look.” Solving problems, as we’ve pointed out before, requires breadth as well as depth.
Michael Barratt seemed to cover the widest range of topics. He spoke of volcanoes (the shuttle can be the first to report an eruption) and thunderstorms, noting, “Some of the biggest thunderstorms I’ve ever seen on the planet were over Australia.” We’re wondering, then, what Oklahoma looks like from space lately.
Barrat seemed most enthusiastic, though, when another reporter asked him about Bones McCoy from Star Trek. An M.D. like DeForest Kelly’s character, Barratt said, “He was my hero. Now I get to do that. I did not get to meet him, […] but he was my hero.”
We don’t toss around the term hero easily, but we do see that people are in awe of astronauts, that they are excited to be in an astronaut’s presence without knowing that astronaut’s name or mission. We thoroughly enjoyed interviewing the crew of STS-133 this week, in part because they seemed to thoroughly enjoy talking with people about what they did as shuttle astronauts and what might be in store for NASA.