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June 03, 2011

Welcome Home STS-134

I am fortunate to live just down the road from Ellington, the airport where NASA houses the T-38s and the C-9 “vomit comets.” Hangar 990 is also the place where the hometown crowd gathers to welcome home astronauts returning from space. Despite the near 100-degree heat, a few hundred people gathered there on Thursday (6-2-11) afternoon at 4 PM to greet and cheer the STS-134 crew.

JSC Director Mike Coats, himself a former shuttle astronaut, noted that the crew’s circadian was completely out of sync with ours—that 4 PM was actually in the middle of their sleep period for the past three weeks. I wondered why we didn’t just move the ceremony earlier—it would also have been cooler. But for some reason, these events have always been at 4 PM. The time does work well for those who bring their children, though most of the children were more interested in playing with toy rovers and spacemen that were for sale by the JSC Exchange store than in listening to the astronauts.

This welcome home is one of the few times the crew have to publicly thank the team of people who provided their training, supported their families while they were away, and prepared the shuttle and its payloads for the mission. Commander Mark Kelly thanked them all and especially his two daughters, Claudia and Claire, who were there. Noting some of the science team in attendance, he also thanked Dr. Ting, the lead scientist on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and said he was grateful that he’d given his team a break from analyzing “50 million particles a day” to attend the event.

Commander Kelly counted the opportunity to interact with children “from my wife’s district in Tucson” as one of his personal highlights of the mission. He said that an important part of the Shuttle Program is to inspire students, and that “we always appreciate the chance to do that.”

Kelly then introduced the pilot, Greg Johnson, nicknamed “Fox.” He’d been asked to discuss ascent. He said the “vehicle on the launch pad is like a live animal.” He said his view of the ocean to the east was very peaceful, and those moments of solitude just before liftoff were in sharp contrast to the experience of launch. Launch “is a sight and a feeling that I can’t describe fully, but is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Next to speak was Mike Fincke who now holds the American record for time spent in space: 382 days. He did his ninth spacewalk on this flight. He said, seeing “the whole world in 90 minutes is amazing.” He also mentioned the joy of doing some “Iron man maneuver” that somehow I missed, and hope to hear more about at the more formal post-flight event at Space Center Houston in a few weeks. As a former space station commander, he said the “station is in my heart,” and reminded everyone that three men remain there now: Ron Garan, Andrey Borisenko (commander), and Alexander Samokutyaev.

Italian astronaut Roberto Vittori thanked the rest of the crew for giving him a new nickname “Ricky Bobby” which he said had something to do with watching a movie together? This is another story that I hope to hear more about at another time. He said “reentry was a very special part of the flight” for him, and very different from a return in the Soyuz which he’d done before.

Drew Feustel was one of the spacewalkers, along with Finke and Chamitoff. He had previously worked on the Hubble repairs, so this was his first trip to the space station. The size of it really impressed him. “Hubble is a lot smaller.” Like all the others, he thanked his family, and then delighted the crowd by saying, “Happy anniversary, honey,” to his wife Indie.

Drew introduced Greg Chamitoff, who, along with Fincke, had previously been a space station crewmember. He said that “Greg and Mike tried to stow away,” prior to undocking.

Chamitoff said the all-male crew had “become like brothers” and shared “an adventure together.” He recalled when Fincke had joined his station crew that he’d followed him around so he could speak English again. He said the two of them really enjoyed being in space together and that Fincke would often wake him up enthusiastically in the morning by saying, “Greg, guess what?! We’re in space!”

Chamitoff and Johnson challenged the world to a game of chess during the mission, and he thanked NASA’s Public Affairs team for setting that up. The Earth team won, by the way. The Phd scientist waxed quite eloquent about his spacewalk to install the AMS that will address the “fundamental questions of the universe.” He said the view from the top of the platform outside was “breathtaking,” and called the International Space Station “the greatest achievement of our time.”

Seeing the station with the backdrop of the Earth behind it got him thinking about technology and nature and how many people think the two are at odds with each other. But what he saw “was not a clash. It was a perfect blend. The station was an extension of Earth.” He was overwhelmed with the feeling that “we belong there and this is our future.” He closed his remarks by congratulating everyone for the successful completion of the International Space Station.

It took more than 1,000 hours of spacewalking time and 36 shuttle flights over 13 years. But it’s done. Assembly complete.

The international laboratory in space is now fully operational. Some say the shuttle’s greatest legacy is the Hubble repair missions. Repairing the Hubble was a perfect demonstration of what humans can do in space, and the Hubble certainly has forever changed our view of the universe and our place in it.

But I believe the Shuttle’s true legacy is as the builder and enabler of the International Space Station. This first true stepping stone to living and working in space would not have been possible without the workhorse of the shuttle to bring large pieces up with large crews to assemble them.

As we move on to the next phase of space development, operating and sustaining a laboratory in space with the aid of new commercial vehicles, it’s important to stop and look at what we’ve accomplished, like Chamitoff did from atop the station. Look. There really is a new star in space that shines a beacon of light on all who take the time to view it.

Welcome home to the star builders. My sky is brighter now because of you.

Marianne Dyson
NSS Advisor

Posted by m_dyson at 06:04 PM


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