CAPE CANAVERAL -- Theseven astronauts who will return the space shuttle to flight got rock-startreatment as they took a quick spin through Kennedy Space Center on Friday.
Reporters andphotographers lined up to meet members of the crew in front of their T-38planes at the shuttle landing facility.
From now until shuttleDiscovery's expected launch in May, the spotlight only will get brighter onthis crew, which will carry the hopes of the space program to the increasinglyneedy International Space Station.
Despite the notorietyCommander Eileen Collins knows well from her stint as the first female shuttlecommander in 1999, she said she focuses on one thing: doing her job.
"We have got todream, and we've got to encourage our children to dream, and who knows what thepossibilities could be," she said, adding, "Our flight is a huge stepin the continuation of getting people off the Earth and back into space."
The astronauts' visitfollows the arrival at KSC of the new external fuel tank, which has beenmodified to prevent the loss of big foam pieces like the one that doomed Columbia two years ago.
The station has beenmissing its shuttle lifeline since before the Feb. 1, 2003, accident. OnlyRussian ships have kept the station supplied with limited food, water andparts, and as Collins put it, "it's time for us to go fly."
"It's important,but it's not absolutely time critical," crewmate Andy Thomas said of theurgency of their flight, "but as we get further into the year, and if wewere to be subject to more delays, it would get more and more critical."
The station has beenpopulated by two-man crews since the Columbiaaccident to stretch out supplies. Their struggles with logistics and repairsare good lessons for future trips to the moon and Mars, Collins said.
"We're going tohave to have astronauts that are really good, hands-on mechanical engineeringkind of guys and gals that can go in there and fix things," she said,"and we're doing that kind of stuff on the space station right now."
Not only will Collins'crew have to resupply the station; it must do threespacewalks. One will test a repair for heat-protection tiles on the orbiter.
"What we've learnedover the last two years is that it doesn't take a large amount of damage tocause a potential catastrophe to happen," said rookie astronaut andheat-protection expert Charlie Camarda.
The repairs NASA isdeveloping should take care of cracks and small holes, he said, even if theywon't fix a large hole like the kind that probably allowed the heat of re-entryto destroy Columbia.
The second spacewalkwill replace a faulty gyroscope, one of four that keeps the station stable, andthe third excursion is for installation of an external stowage platform.
The other astronauts onboard will be pilot Jim Kelly; flight engineer Steve Robinson; logisticshandler Wendy Lawrence; and first-time flier and spacewalker Soichi Noguchi of Japan.
The crew has severaltraining simulations ahead, and it will be making more trips to Kennedy Space Centeras the Discovery flight nears.
"You should see andfeel the excitement in these employees here at Kennedy," Democratic Sen.Bill Nelson said in wishing the crew well.
The astronauts returnedto Houston onFriday in their T-38s, except for Robinson, who switched seats with Camarda after Camarda's jetsprung an oil leak. Robinson planned to take a commercial flight home, a NASAspokeswoman said.
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