The space shuttle Atlantis will have a mix of hands-on experience and first-time enthusiasm at its helm when the spacecraft launches toward the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday.
In the commander's seat will be NASA astronaut Brent Jett, a three-time shuttle flyer who has already led one mission to deliver power to the ISS. His pilot is Chris Ferguson, an accomplished U.S. Navy aviator, who will reach space for the first time during Atlantis' STS-115 mission to jump start ISS construction.
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Pilot: Chris Ferguson
"You know, we have to finish the station," Jett said in an interview. "I think that this is the first return to assembly, and there's a little more scrutiny or a little more focus on it."
Jett, Ferguson and their four STS-115 crewmates are poised to launch toward the ISS at 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT) on Aug. 27. NASA's third shuttle flight since the 2003 Columbia accident, the mission will deliver the first major addition - the Port 3/Port 4 (P3/P4) truss and solar panels - to the space station since NASA's STS-113 flight launched in November 2002.
Solar array veteran
A captain in the U.S. Navy, Jett, 47, hails from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and joined NASA's astronaut ranks in 1992. He admits that human spaceflight was not always on his to-do list even though the early Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts were among his childhood heroes.
"But I did not have that revelation at that early age that some day I'm going to be an astronaut," Jett said in a NASA interview. "It just didn't seem like it was even a possibility for me."
It was the Navy that led Jett to NASA. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1981 as the first in a class of 976 and was designated a Naval Aviator two years later.
After nine years as a test pilot, Jett visited NASA's Johnson Space Center astronaut training center and decided to pursue a spaceflight career. He served as a pilot aboard Endeavour during NASA's STS-72 mission in 1996, then again one year later during Atlantis' STS-81 flight to Russia's Mir space station.
Jett's commanded his third shuttle flight - STS-97 aboard Endeavour in November 2000 - to deliver the first U.S.-built solar arrays to the ISS. The mission hit a snag when parts of the first solar panel stuck together while being deployed, forcing a spacewalk repair.
"Of course, we were pretty disappointed," Jett recalls of that last flight. "We felt like maybe we could have done things a little better had we waited [for sunlight to warm the array], which is kind of what we're going to do now."
Keeping the STS-115 crew together and fit for flight across more than four years of training and delays has been the greatest challenge for Jett.
"We were 12 weeks from flight when the Columbia accident occurred...we were pretty much as ready as we needed to be," Jett said this month. "If you're with a group of folks for an extended period of time you become really like family."
Jett, who is married to wife Janet, told reporters that while human spaceflight is a risky pursuit, there are positive returns on many levels.
"It's also a very personally rewarding experience," Jett said. "Hopefully, once we complete the station, the benefit to folks here on Earth will be worth it.
"When you compare the risks that we take to some of the risks that our colleagues in the Armed Forces are faced with on a daily basis, I'm not sure you can compare the two," he added.
Like Jett, Ferguson - who answers to the nickname "Fergie" - is also a veteran Navy test pilot and sidelines as the drummer for the all-astronaut rock band Max Q. But alas, he said, he'll leave his drum sticks on Earth during STS-115.
"I one more [personal item] left and they said that a pair of drum sticks was two items," Ferguson, 44, said in an interview this month. "So I had to leave the drum sticks back."
A native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ferguson joined NASA's astronaut corps in 1998 and has spent more than four years training for his first flight, which was delayed as NASA recovered from the Columbia accident.
"Well, this is as close we've ever been," Ferguson said of his upcoming launch. "Of course I'm anxious, it's my first flight. If anybody told you they weren't anxious on their first flight, they'd be lying to you."
Ferguson is raising three children with his wife Sandra, all of whom are currently preoccupied with the upcoming school year and not their father's impending space shot. But the 23-year veteran Navy pilot knows that they have a hard launch day ahead when they watch him rocket spaceward aboard Atlantis.
"I sympathize with my wife, she's going to have to put up with that," Ferguson said, adding that he's discussed the risks of spaceflight with his family. "We've talked about the things you'd expect."
But resuming ISS construction, he said, is vital not only to fulfill NASA's international partner obligations, but also to push human space exploration forward.
"I'd like to think we're going to end up on the Moon on at least a semi-permanent basis, and that's a good thing," Ferguson said in a NASA interview. "There's [a] lot to be gleaned from the Moon."
More than an orbital housekeeper
Ferguson has likened his much of his Atlantis pilot duties that of shuttle housekeeper, but he also serves as backup robotic arm operator during the STS-115 mission's vital orbiter heat shield inspections, as well as the P3/P4 truss delivery.
"Shuttle pilots are often the overlooked crewmember on flights," Jett said of his crewmate. "But I'll tell ya, if I was allowed to pick a pilot to fly with, I couldn't have picked a better person than Chris Ferguson. Not only is he very professionally confident, he's just a great guy to have around."
But the personal highlight, Ferguson said, comes when Atlantis undocks from the ISS. If the shuttle's fuel supply is ample enough, Ferguson will get a chance to fly the orbiter around the ISS while his crewmates photograph what is expected to be a dramatically different space station with the new solar arrays unfurled.
"I'm excited," Ferguson said. "I like to think that we're going to get some great shots."
- VIDEO: Shuttle Commander Brent Jett
- Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage
- NASA's STS-115: Shuttle Atlantis to Jump Start ISS Construction
- The Great Space Quiz: Space Shuttle Countdown