The Discovery shuttle crew is raring to go

July 12, 2005|By John Johnson Jr. | John Johnson Jr.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

One is as famous as a rock star in his native Japan. Another is a veteran military pilot once rejected as undersized for a Russian space flight. A third is an Air Force colonel who is about to take her fourth trip into space.

To one another, they are "Squeegee," "Too Short" and "Mom." To the rest of the world, they and their colleagues are a bunch of not-quite-average Americans, plus a Japanese, who will be the first to take the teeth-rattling ride into orbit since the Columbia space shuttle accident about 2 1/2 years ago.

As ambassadors for a humbled NASA, the seven-member crew of Discovery - scheduled to be launched tomorrow - has become the most photographed and interviewed set of spacefarers in nearly two decades.

Past crews sometimes found dealing with the media irritating. This one appears to have embraced the attention. "We are aware that the whole world is watching," said Eileen Collins, the shuttle's 48-year-old commander also known as Mom.

They have seized the platform to urge the public and the government not to lose faith in space travel because of its risks.

To Collins, astronauts are a lot like ancient seafarers who went searching for new lands in rickety wooden ships. "I believe space exploration is safer than what people were doing hundreds of years ago," she said.

But their role as cheerleaders for space exploration has not prevented Discovery's crew from being among the most outspoken in the history of the space program. The astronauts have not been shy about publicly questioning their superiors, something that almost never happened in the old, buttoned-down National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Discovery's crew has talked and talked. Crew members have appeared on Good Morning America, Today and a Discovery Channel documentary. International media, particularly from Japan and Australia (mission specialist Andrew Thomas was born in Australia), have dogged their every step.

Some of them, such as flight engineer Stephen Robinson, 49, have seen it all before. "I was on the John Glenn mission," said Robinson, referring to the highly publicized 1998 shuttle trip by the former astronaut and Democratic senator from Ohio.

Others, such as Soichi Noguchi, 40, a Japanese astronaut whose call sign is Squeegee, are learning how to deal with the hoopla of spaceflight.

As one of Japan's eight astronauts - four of whom have flown in space - Noguchi is a celebrity back home. "It's like the 1960s in the U.S." when astronauts were larger-than-life embodiments of a nation's technological prowess, he said.

An aeronautical engineer by training, Noguchi has one of the riskier roles in the mission. He is one of two crew members scheduled to perform a space walk to test repair techniques for the shuttle's insulating tiles.

The focal point of this diverse crew is Collins, a former Air Force pilot who has made three trips into space, accumulating 537 hours in orbit. Her resume includes a number of firsts for female astronauts. A veteran of the 1990 astronaut class, she was the first woman shuttle pilot, as well as the first female commander of a shuttle flight.

"I hope I can be a model to young women," Collins said. Though recognizing her gender "may be meaningful to the rest of the world," she said, it's not a big deal to her. Her only concern when she takes the controls is "the $2 billion spacecraft in my hands."

The other woman aboard is a mission specialist, Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence, a helicopter pilot who has made 800 landings on ships at sea.

Lawrence, 46, was tagged with her nickname when she volunteered to travel to the Russian space station, Mir. The Russians at first turned her down because she was about 2 inches under the minimum height allowed on the station. A colleague was turned down for being too tall. Lawrence and her companion became linked in NASA lore as Too Short and Too Tall. "We were both Russian rejects," she said.

The Russians eventually relented and allowed both on board.

Thomas, who has made three flights into space, said manned space flight is as important for the nation as for the astronauts' personal dreams and ambitions.

"This country prided itself on human space flight," the 53-year-old mechanical engineer said. "You can't leave these vehicles sitting on the ground."

But for all the gung-ho talk of space travel, the Discovery astronauts have been unusually candid in their criticism of NASA and the shuttle program.

Unlike past generations of astronauts, they have made it clear they are unwilling to be the smiling public face of NASA when they are the ones putting their lives on the line.

Mission specialist Charles Camarda surprised reporters several months ago when he said he had doubts about the insulating-tile repair kits that would be tested during the Discovery mission. Rather than attempt a repair, he said, he would prefer to wait in the International Space Station for a rescue.

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