Discovery, Space Station Crews Pay Tribute to Columbia
HOUSTON--In a brief service, the nine astronauts aboard the shuttle Discovery and International Space Station (ISS) remembered the NASA's lost Columbia crew and all other astronauts and cosmonauts who have given their lives in the pursuit of spaceflight.
"We would like to share with you a tribute to fallen astronauts and cosmonauts," said Eileen Collins, commander of Discovery's STS-114 flight, during the audio message.
Space is an unforgiving environment where mistakes are not treated lightly, the astronauts said. The loss of Columbia's seven STS-107 astronauts during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003 drove home a message that had been learned repeatedly by Russian and U.S. space agencies in other accidents over the last 30 years. Discovery's STS-114 mission is NASA's first shuttle flight since that fatal accident.
"Tragically, two years we came once more to realize that we had let our guard down," STS-114 mission specialist Charles Camarda said during the service. "We became lost in our own hubris, and learned once more the terrible price that must be paid for our failures."
Columbia's STS-107 flight, commanded by Rick Husband with Willie McCool as pilot, was cut short 16 minutes before the shuttle was expected to land at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Mission specialists Michael Anderson, Dave Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark and Ilan Ramon--Israel's first astronaut--also served during the ill-fated mission.
"We are reminded that it is upon the completion of the journey, and the arrival at the place from whence we came, that we can say that we know ourselves," STS-114 pilot James Kelly, adding that Columbia's crew, as well as the astronauts lost in NASA's Challenger and Apollo 1 accidents, and Russia's Soyuz 1 and Soyuz 11 tragedies, did not have the chance for that homecoming.
Columbia was struck down by a 1.67-pound chunk of foam that fell from its external tank at launch and pierced the heat shield panels along its left wing. As the orbiter reentered the Earth's atmosphere, hot gases entered the damaged area, destroying the orbiter and killing its crew.
NASA worked for two years to prevent such foam loss from endangering its shuttles again, but found a similar problem during Discovery's July 26 launch when a 0.9-pound piece fell from its external tank. That foam did not strike the orbiter, though shuttle officials pledged not to launch another orbiter until it is addressed. Engineers are also examining a damaged thermal blanket on Discovery's hull to determine whether pieces could rip off during reentry and potentially damage the shuttle. Shuttle officials are unsure whether the blanket can be left as is or will require any action, such as an unplanned, fourth spacewalk, to repair it.
"Space exploration is not easy, and there has been a human price that has been paid," said STS-114 mission specialist Wendy Lawrence. "As we step out into these new frontiers we find that it is very unforgiving to our mistakes."
Earlier today, Kelly, Lawrence and Camarda tested the third heat shield repair method of their flight--a plug for holes in reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) panels--inside Discovery to check its performance in the absence of gravity. The carbon silicon carbide patch can be affixed over small holes in RCC panels, and carefully screwed down until it is flush with the panel surface. Discovery spacewalkers tested two other repair methods for the shuttle's protective tile and RCC panel heat shield during their first spacewalk.
ISS Expedition 11 flight engineer John Phillips thanked the lost astronauts for their dedication and courage, adding that they will be deeply missed, while STS-114 mission specialist Andrew Thomas reflected on their sacrifice. ISS Expedition commander Sergei Krikalev offered a statement in Russian, while Discovery astronaut Soichi Noguchi, of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), did the same in Japanese.
NASA has spent more than two years and $1.4 billion to enhance shuttle flight safety and develop new tools for orbiter inspection and repair. Some of those tools, including an orbital inspection boom, have already been put to practical use during Discovery's flight during preparations for an unplanned repair to the shuttle's heat shield that sent STS-114 mission specialist Stephen Robinson under Discovery's belly - a first for NASA - to remove space-filling strips jutting out from its tiles.
"The spirit of exploration is truly what it is to be human," said STS-114 mission specialist Stephen Robinson. "Previous generations went first on foot and then on horseback, and then wooden sailing vessels and today we have aircraft and spacecraft. We have shrunk the world in a way that early generations of explorers could never have imagined."
"For those who venture into the sky...there is a revelation of things never dreamed, such are the ways of explorers and the surpassing ways of the sky," Collins said. "We will remember them."
Discovery's crew is taking advantage of some off-duty time after completing nearly all of its cargo transfer activities between the ISS and shuttle. They are scheduled to land at KSC on Aug. 8.
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