Discovery Complete - Two Crewmembers Discuss the Orbiter's Last Mission
Dryden employees gained insight into Space Shuttle Discovery's final mission when its commander and a mission specialist visited April 26.
STS-133 Commander Steve Lindsey and mission specialist Alvin Drew explained elements of the 13-day mission that entailed attaching a new storage module to the International Space Station, bringing spare parts and preparing the orbiting laboratory for future research.
Lindsey and Drew are familiar with Edwards Air Force Base; both were assigned to the Air Force Test Pilot School. Drew is a veteran of two shuttle flights, both on Discovery. Lindsey is a veteran of five shuttle missions on three orbiters, three on Discovery and one each on Atlantis and Columbia.
Discovery's final crew also included pilot Eric Boe and mission specialists Michael Barratt, Nicole Stott and Steve Bowen, who was a late replacement when lead spacewalker Tim Kopra was injured and could not make the flight.
One mission task called for teaming up with the space station crew to move an equipment platform out of the shuttle's cargo bay and onto the station's truss. Barratt and Stott operated the space station's robotic arm and handed it off to the shuttle's robotic arm, which Boe and Drew operated, and the platform was maneuvered to its permanent location on the station's backbone.
Drew described some of the maneuvers with the robotic arms on the shuttle and ISS as "break-dancing maneuvers." The platform, called the Express Logistics Carrier, had been loaded on Earth with spare parts for the station, including a radiator to cool station systems.
During the mission, Drew and Bowen left the station's Quest airlock for two spacewalks. Working outside Discovery's cargo bay and on the station, the two completed installation of the Italian-built Leonardo module, which was retrofitted with meteorite shielding and other gear. Now called the Permanent Multipurpose Module, or PMM, it is essentially a closet for storing equipment and supplies.
Barratt and Stott used the robotic arm a second time to attach the new module to the station's underside, connecting it to the Earth-facing side of the Unity module.
Also among the host of new science experiments and hardware was the Robonaut 2, the first dexterous humanoid robot in space. Its first priority is testing its own operation in microgravity, but upgrades are intended that will develop it as an astronaut assistant for dangerous or boring tasks.
The astronauts answered questions about their best memories in space and their experiences with the space shuttles.
"What really sticks with me was the first time I looked out the window on my first mission," Drew said. "I was stringing some coaxial cable for a local area network when I looked out, and it was one of those 'you're not in Kansas anymore' moments, especially when a satellite whizzed by about one kilometer away."
Lindsey agreed that the view from space is extraordinary.
"I think something that sticks with you no matter how much time you have in space is seeing Earth from space," he said. "It's spectacular, and it never gets old. Every time you look at the Earth, you see something different even if you've flown over it a thousand times."
Drew related a story about the STS-133 mission patch, which originally was commissioned to aerospace artist Robert McCall. McCall completed several mission patches, including the one for STS-1, and also created several murals and paintings on display at Dryden, the most recent a painting of Neil Armstrong.
Just before the artist's death, he was at work on the STS-133 patch and Drew didn't expect to see the preliminary designs. After McCall died, the family sent the patch designs and NASA commissioned another artist to combine two of the variations.
Another query concerned seeing meteor showers and color in space.
"You see meteors below you, which is really cool," Lindsey said. "Through the window, you look down at Earth and you can see the meteors entering the atmosphere. As for colors, you can see all kinds. Every hour-and-a-half, you orbit the Earth so every 45 minutes you see a sunrise or sunset. As opposed to just seeing the sky dim, as you do on Earth, you can actually see multiple color bands in the atmosphere.
"I think, one time, I counted 12 or 13 colors. At night, if you turn off all the cabin lights so there are no reflections you can see unbelievable stars in all kinds of different colors that you don't see even in high-altitude flight. It's pretty spectacular."
Concerning training, Lindsey said the timeframe is usually about a year, but delays with STS-133 made it more like a year-and-a-half. Having to replace a member of the crew four months away from the launch presented a challenge, which was met by having the new crewmember focus on the spacewalks and dividing other duties among the rest of the crew.
In addition, American astronauts for decades have had to learn Russian as part of their training so as to be able to communicate with the Russians on the ISS, but also because American astronauts have been hitching a ride to the ISS on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz for more than six years, Lindsey said.
The shuttle commander thanked Dryden employees for their roles in shuttle support.
"We need shuttle support here [in order to] to fly out there," he said. "From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for making Discovery's last flight a success."
The landing at Kennedy Space Center marked the conclusion of Discovery's 39th mission to orbit; it is the first space shuttle to be retired by the agency. Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle in the fleet, carrying the Hubble Space Telescope to orbit and sending the Ulysses robotic probe on its way to the sun. It was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Mir Space Station, and delivered the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the ISS.
Among the 180 passengers it carried was Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot and, on another mission, the first shuttle female commander. Bernard Harris became the first African American spacewalker and Jake Garn became the first sitting member of Congress to fly in space, on STS-51D, in April 1985.
The two Discovery crewmembers said that although the vehicle will no longer travel into space it will continue to inspire young people as they reach for the stars.
By Jay Levine