Military astronauts prepare for Discovery mission

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
The Defense Department will be well-represented when Space Shuttle Discovery launches into space July 13, with three of the seven crewmembers from the military, including the commander, retired Col. Eileen Collins.

As the clock ticks toward the scheduled 3:51 p.m. EDT liftoff, crews are making final preparations, and NASA officials report that all details appear to be "go."

Discovery's crew includes three seasoned military astronauts. Colonel Collins and Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence, mission specialist and logistics manager, both have three previous spaceflights under their belts. Col. James Kelly, who will serve as Discovery's pilot, was a member of the March 2001 resupply mission to the International Space Station.

In 1995, Colonel Collins was the first woman to pilot a space shuttle – Discover STS-63 – on the first joint American-Russian mission, and included a rendezvous with the Russian Space Station Mir. In 1999, she was the first woman to command a shuttle mission.

She has logged more than 6,280 hours in 30 different types of aircraft, with more than 537 hours in space.

Colonel Kelly has logged more than 3,000 hours in more than 35 different aircraft. In 2001, he flew the eighth shuttle mission to visit the international space station aboard Discovery, NASA reported.

A naval aviator since 1982, Captain Lawrence has flown more than 1,500 hours in six different types of helicopters and made more than 800 shipboard landings.

Colonel Collins said she is confident of her crewmembers who have been training for this mission for the past two years.

"I have a fantastic crew," she said. "The seven shuttle crewmembers have been so professional in the work that we have done up to this point."

During the 13-day mission, the Discovery crew will travel to the international space station, test new safety procedures and deliver supplies and science equipment to the orbital outpost.

As members of the first shuttle mission since Columbia exploded over Texas in February 2003, killing all seven crewmembers, the three said they and their families recognize the risks involved.

The crew's loss was "absolutely overwhelming," Captain Lawrence said. "It's hard enough to lose one friend, and as a naval aviator, I've lost squadron mates and friends before. But to lose seven of them all at once is just absolutely devastating."

Yet as the daughter and granddaughter of military aviators, Captain Lawrence said she and her family understand the risks.

"My mother's father flew in World War II. He was shot down over the Philippines and, fortunately, was rescued," she said. "My father was shot down over Vietnam and didn't return until six years later. So my family understands the risks."

"Coming from my background as a fighter pilot, I've lost friends in the flying world, and so you realize that the next flight of anything could be the last flight you're on," Colonel Kelly said.

He acknowledged that flying in space is riskier than travel in other aircraft, but said it is a risk he is willing to take, and that he hopes he has prepared his family for it as well.

Colonel Kelly said what drives him is "holding on to that dream" -- a dream he said he has had since he was 5 years old and became enamored with the Apollo moon missions.

It is the same dream Colonel Collins said she had as a child growing up in Elmira, N.Y., dubbed "the soaring capital of America" for its rich history in flight and collection of period planes. It was the dream Captain Lawrence shared as a 10-year-old when she watched images of the first man walking on the moon on her family's black-and-white TV set.

During Discovery's “Return to Flight" mission, the crewmembers said they recognize the contribution they will be making to the U.S. space program.

"I understand very well the significance of this mission," Captain Lawrence said. "It's very important for us to get back to space."

Besides moving the space program forward, Captain Lawrence called the upcoming mission a way to honor the memories of the Columbia crew and their commitment to space exploration.

By building on that commitment, the astronauts said they believe they are becoming a part of something bigger than themselves.

"If you look through history, you see that the explorers and the countries that were doing the exploring were the ones that were making the world a better place to live in," Colonel Kelly said. "That's still true."