CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - Two NASA astronauts are preparing for a multitasking mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery when the orbiter rockets into space later this year.
Veteran astronaut Wendy Lawrence and first-time flyer Charles Camarda have a busy flight ahead of them when they launch aboard Discovery, NASA's first space shuttle to launch since the Columbia accident.
"Quite honestly, the hardest thing about flying in space is that you can't fly there routinely," Lawrence told reporters in a preflight interview. "If you're trying to design a new aircraft, you can fly a whole bunch of test flights, but unfortunately for us, we have to rely on computer models for spacecraft...and it takes awhile to do the correct engineering analysis."
In fact, NASA has delayed Discovery's flight, STS-114, from a May 22 target to no earlier than July 13 to allow additional time for launch debris verification analysis and external tank adjustments. The shuttle is set to be NASA's first return to flight launch since Columbia broke apart while reentering the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, killing its seven-astronaut crew.
A captain in the U.S. Navy as well as an accomplished helicopter pilot, Lawrence, 45, is no stranger to space shuttle flights.
The Jacksonville , Florida native was selected as an astronaut in 1992 and has flown aboard all three of NASA's remaining space shuttles. Two of those missions, STS-86 aboard Atlantis and - most recently - STS-91 aboard Discovery, flew to the Russian space station Mir. She also trained for a four-month stint aboard Mir, and has amassed a total of 894 hours in space.
For STS-114, Lawrence will serve as Mission Specialist 4, operating of the space station robotic arm to maneuver a cargo module laden with supplies from Discovery's payload bay to an ISS port. She credits her helicopter experience, which totals about 1,500 hours of flight in six types of rotorcraft, with preparing her for the robotic arm work ahead.
"When you're flying, you always have to think in three dimensions, and flying the robotic arm is the same thing," Lawrence said. "You have to get used to both your arms making control inputs."
Lawrence also serves as STS-114's loadmaster, in charge of negotiating the meticulous transfer of about 2,600 pounds (1,170 kilograms) from the Raffaello cargo module into the ISS, then filling the empty pod up with trash and other unnecessary equipment. Included in her duties is overseeing fellow shuttle and ISS crewmembers in the cargo transfer, as well as making sure Discovery astronauts have much-needed items in the event the orbiter suffers critical damage and its crew must take refuge aboard the space station.
"It's like packing for a long trip, we have a lot of hygiene stuff," Lawrence said, adding that she took care to make sure that additional waste collection units were included in Discovery's cargo manifest. "What scares me the most about staying on station is, well, think about living in a house with nine people and only one bathroom."
That's Dr. Astronaut to you
Making his first spaceflight with the STS-114 mission, Camarda is one of three STS-114 astronauts with an engineering doctorate - Stephen Robinson and Andrew Thomas are the others - and a veteran working inside NASA.
Hailing from Queens, New York, Camarda, 52, joined the space agency's ranks in 1974 as a research scientist at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. After serving in the Thermal Structures Branch of the Structures and Materials Division, Camarda was tapped to head the department in 1994 and, two years later, reported to Johnson Space Center as an astronaut candidate. He has served as a backup crewmember for Expedition 8 to the ISS.
With an expertise in thermal systems for the STS-114 mission, Camarda will serve as Mission Specialist 5 during the spaceflight.
During the upcoming shuttle flight, Camarda will not only support cargo transfer between the Raffaello module and the ISS, but will also help operate Discovery's new orbital boom, a sensor-tipped extension to the shuttle's robotic arm designed to scan sensitive thermal protection areas for damage.
"This is really drawing on my own background," Camarda said of the mission during a preflight interview, adding that STS-114's goals of demonstrating repair methods for thermal protective tiles and reinforced carbon carbon (RCC) panels are breaking new ground. "[Before now] we never thought we'd be able to repair the orbiter in space."
During one of the three spacewalks scheduled for the STS-114 flight, Camarda's fellow mission specialists Robinson and Soichi Noguchi will try to demonstrate two methods to repair tile and carbon panels. Camarda has said he doesn't believe NASA's current repair methods are mature enough to ride home on if they are needed during STS-114. However, the additional preparation time due to the launch delay could help move the efforts forward.
"We have other [thermal protection system] repair concepts," Camarda said during a press briefing at Discovery's Pad 39B launch site Tuesday, adding that with the proper prioritizing and funding, progress could be made. "I think we would be able to mature some of these concepts."
But regardless of whether tile and RCC methods mature in the next two months is Discovery's STS-114 mission, like its successor STS-121, is still a test flight at heart.
"Our job is to collect as much information as possible," said Camarda, a father of four. "And I hope to come back and help use that information to ensure that we have a safe vehicle for the future."
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