NASA's next space shuttle mission, the first to fly since the Columbia accident, has been a long time coming for three astronauts set to conduct the flight's spacewalks.
As the first crewmember assigned to NASA's STS-114 mission aboard the Discovery orbiter, Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, lead spacewalker for the flight, has spent the longest time waiting for his space shuttle - since 2001.
"This has been a really exciting four years," Noguchi told reporters this month. "I feel honored to be part of this crew and this is a great achievement of the U.S. space program in bringing the shuttle back to life."
Together with NASA astronaut Stephen Robinson, Noguchi will stage three spacewalks from Discovery's airlock to test potential thermal protection repair methods and support the International Space Station (ISS). In addition to testing two techniques to fix cracks in thermal tiles and carbon carbon panels, the astronaut pair will swap out one broken ISS control moment gyroscope (CMG), restore power to another and install new equipment to the station's exterior They will work under the watchful eye of STS-114 mission specialist Andrew Thomas, himself an accomplished spacewalker, who will serve as the flight's intravehicular activity crewmember during each EVA.
"They're very well trained," Thomas said of his crewmates in a preflight interview.
The shuttle Discovery is slated to carry Noguchi, Robinson and Thomas spaceward no earlier than May 22 as NASA's first return to flight mission. The mission is flying with several orbiter modifications as a direct response to the 2003 loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew, which broke up during reentry. Investigators later found that damage to Columbia's thermal protective skin, caused at launch by debris from the shuttle's external tank, led to the shuttle's destruction.
A long time coming
Part of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut corps, Noguchi, 40, was selected for flight status in 1996, and soon after began training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Discovery's spaceflight will mark his first launch into orbit.
"It's been a great learning process," said Noguchi, an aeronautical engineer by training, of his preparation for STS-114's return to flight mission. "And not just for me but also for JAXA, which is heavily involved with the space station, in order to learn how NASA has evolved from the accident so that we can also prepare for such scenarios."
Together with Robinson, Thomas and other STS-114 crewmembers, Noguchi has conducted more than 60 simulated spacewalks at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, where a mockup of the shuttle payload bay and space station sit at the bottom of an immense pool.
"We've never had the same thing twice," Noguchi said. "So it's never been a boring time."
During the first STS-114 spacewalk, Noguchi will test an emmitance wash applicator designed to coat damaged heat tiles to improve their effectiveness.
"Hopefully, everything works as advertised," Noguchi said, adding that it will be the second spacewalk that is likely to be the most challenging. "EVA 2, with the CMG repair, is actually the most difficult task because it requires a lot of coordination from the two EVA astronauts, the one intravehicular crewmember, that's Andy Thomas, and two robotic arm operators."
Even before rocketing into space on his first flight, Noguchi is already looking toward his next - hopefully longer - orbital trip.
"My next goal after flying this mission is a long-duration flight, so I can play with the Kibo hardware," Noguchi said, referring to the JAXA experiment module for the ISS. "That is my future home."
Don't forget your lunchbox
Finally stepping out into black space after countless hours underwater is a relief that Robinson has his eyes set on.
Most spacewalk crews practice their EVAs six or seven times per mission, not the 60 plus for STS-114, NASA officials said.
"I've been underwater so much, I am so ready to go outside," Robinson said. "What's really cool about spacewalks is, that with all this technology...it requires human hands, eyeballs and brains to make it all work together and that really appeals to me."
Robinson, 49, has been part of NASA since 1975, when he joined NASA's Ames Research Center as a university student only to sign on as a research scientist four years later. Selected as an astronaut in 1994, he has flown aboard two shuttle flights during the STS-85 and STS-95 missions and also served as a backup crewmember for Expedition Four to the ISS.
In addition to supporting the ISS, Robinson will test an experimental material known as NOAX, a sort of black putty that bubbles before fixing in place, for its effectiveness filling in cracks in carbon carbon panels.
"It's not just what we're doing outside, it's this whole mission," Robinson said, adding that the orbital boom and thermal protection inspection activities are vital. "What we learn here is really essential...because while this is going to be the safest mission ever flown, the next one after us should be safer."
While Robinson admits that the three STS-114 spacewalks are full of activities, he doesn't believe they are too busy. So much, in fact, that the astronaut hopes to find some time to fill a shutterbug itch.
"One of the things I like to do is take stereo photographs, so I'm going to try to take some of the shuttle on EVA," he said.
And, of course, riding up with Robinson will be his trusty Tom Corbett, Space Cadet lunchbox - from the 1950s television show - which he has used to store bandaids, muscle creams and other spacewalks supplies throughout the years of training.
"Some of the guys who played those roles in Tom Corbett are still out there and they saw me with the lunchbox and sent me pictures of themselves," Robinson said, adding that one image depicted an actor in a lavender EVA suit labeled 'Spaceman's Luck.' "So they wished our crew spaceman's luck."
An inside job
While Thomas's role during the three STS-114 spacewalks is an inside job, he has no shortage of work prepared for his flight. The Adelaide, Australia native, the most accomplished space flyer of the EVA team, will also serve as the robotics lead during the mission and will conduct the vital tests of Discovery's new sensor-tipped orbital boom that will scan sensitive orbiter areas for damage.
"We've added a lot of additional work during this mission," said Thomas, 53, during an interview. "And that is all the inspection and survey work of the orbiter, using the boom and robotic arm...and al of that is on Flight Day 2."
Thomas began his career as a research scientist before being accepted into NASA's astronaut ranks in 1993 and riding three space shuttles into orbit. He flew aboard the Endeavour orbiter during the STS-77 mission 1996, and aboard Discovery twice - first during 1998's STS-89 flight to the Mir space station where he served as flight engineer, then during ISS-bound STS-102 spaceflight. It was on that last flight that Thomas spent 6.5 hours working in space to install new components to station's exterior.
"I would have liked to been on [these spacewalks]," Thomas said. "But these guys have been training for so long...We've rehearsed these EVAs so many times that I'm pretty confident about them."
Thomas said that the loss of the Columbia orbiter and STS-107 astronauts has not affected his preparations for STS-114.
"I don't think that the preparations for me personally are that much different from past flights," he said. "The reality is that this flight is probably the safest I've ever flown."
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