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Atlantis Crew Details Spaceflight
STS-122 Commander Steve Frick signs a crew photograph at Kennedy Space Center. STS-122 Commander Steve Frick signs a crew photograph at Kennedy Space Center following his crew's presentation about the flight to the International Space Station. The mission delivered a new science laboratory to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

View Hi-Res Image The crew of STS-122 talk about the launch and mission. The crew of STS-122 listen as crew member Rex Walheim, with microphone, describes the feelings of vibrations and other sensations during a space shuttle launch. The astronauts returned to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to share the details of the flight. The group included Commander Steve Frick, left, Pilot Alan Poindexter and Mission Specialists Leland Melvin, Walheim, Hans Schlegel and Stanley Love. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

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Six of the seven astronauts who installed the European-built Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station returned to NASA's Kennedy Space Center on April 17 and brought with them some amazing descriptions of liftoff and the jarring ride into space.

Mission Specialist Rex Walheim did not notice the "twang" of launch on his first flight in 2002, so he was determined to watch space shuttle Atlantis’ nose push forward slightly when the main engines ignited during the launch of his STS-122 mission in February.

But the swaying was not the gentle move forward and back before the twin solid rocket boosters ignited that Walheim expected. Instead, the three main engines on the back of Atlantis rattled the whole orbiter, just as they do on every launch.

"Suddenly you're riding a wild animal," Walheim said. He punctuated his description with a pantomime of holding onto handles near his seat and the best audible impersonation of the shaking sound he heard. "You realize this is it."

Commander Steve Frick echoed the sentiment.

"It's amazing when the main engines just shake you up and then the solids just throw you in the air."

A few seconds later, when the shuttle made its regular roll to put the orbiter on its back for the climb into orbit, Walheim said he noticed more sensations that people don't expect when they see what looks like a gentle turn from the ground.

"You know what the end of a cracking whip feels like," he said.

First-time flier Leland Melvin described an energetic pace just after passing through the phase of liftoff known as maximum dynamic pressure. As planned, the shuttle's engines throttled down so the air that built up around the shuttle at high speeds wouldn't damage it. Once through, the engines throttled back up to full speed and pushed Atlantis up to 17,500 mph.

"It felt like I was in a human slingshot pulled back about a mile and then let go," Melvin said.

Frick said the ride didn't necessarily end when Atlantis reached orbit.

"(With the acceleration of launch), you're pushing to breathe," he said. "Then it's like a roller coaster at the top of a hill, just before you start the big drop, but it doesn't drop, it just keeps going."

European astronaut Hans Schlegel unbuckled quickly from his lower level seat and raced to the upper deck to film the external fuel tank after it was jettisoned. He found himself in a weightless world he last encountered in 1992 as a member of shuttle Columbia’s STS-55 crew.

"I realized, hey, your body knows this," he said. "It was really a great feeling to be back."

After docking to the International Space Station two days later, the crew set about installing Europe's space-based laboratory. Melvin had the duty of reaching into Atlantis' payload bay with the space station's robot arm to pull out the 23-foot-long module and place it gently onto a space station hatch. With no direct sight of the arm and module, Melvin relied on three video monitors as he navigated Columbus around the station and shuttle complex and locked it into place.

"My video game skills helped me out a lot on this," he said. "It was a beautiful, beautiful moment."

Stanley Love, also making his first flight during the STS-122 mission, had some moments of his own, particularly opening the hatch and heading outside on his first spacewalk.

"It was going to be 200 miles down and watch that first step," he said.

Love, Walheim and Schlegel conducted three spacewalks during the mission to outfit Columbus and service a couple components on the outside of the space station. Then it was time to leave.

Pilot Alan Poindexter used small jets on Atlantis to back away from the station and then fly around it.

"It flies better than the simulator," he said.

To other crew members, the jolt of the thrusters was apparent.

"It sounds like cannons going off," Walheim said.

Once back on Earth, the pull of space didn't release its grip on the astronauts quickly.

"You do feel real heavy. It's wobbly. You're doing the "Big Foot" turn," Walheim said, demonstrating by turning his whole body slowly before walking again.

The sensation should have been more severe for astronaut Dan Tani, who rode onboard Atlantis for his return home after four months on the space station. But Frick said Tani bounded out of Atlantis and "was doing better than I was."

Steven Siceloff
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center