Diverse Shuttle Crew Is Poised to Put US Back in Space

Article excerpt

There's an Air Force test pilot, a triathlete, a Japanese engineer, a lead guitarist in a rock band, an Aussie named Andy, and a scientist from Queens who holds seven patents. And wrangling them all together is the commander they call "mom."

These are the astronauts of shuttle Discovery - America's "return to space" crew. Most of them have been working together on this mission for years, becoming one of the best-prepared shuttle crews in history. They've also had longer than most to bond.

That's because the majority of the group was one month away from liftoff when their ride to the International Space Station, the shuttle Columbia, disintegrated over east Texas Feb. 1, 2003. Since then, NASA has been studied from the inside out, its purpose questioned, and its mission restructured.

For the astronaut corps, the time has also been one of deep soul searching. They say the Columbia disaster has taught them a bit more about their fallibility and a lot more about their commitment to space exploration.

The accident "affected different people in different ways," says Discovery's commander, Eileen Collins. "For me, I rededicated myself to our mission. But I will always be mindful of actions that can have ultimate consequences."

While the mission will only be 12 days, the astronauts will have much to do. They will be delivering much-needed supplies to the space station, performing maneuvers never done before in space, and testing new safety measures for future flights. But most important, they will be heralding from the heavens America's return to space.

With all the varied tasks the astronauts do, it's natural to wonder what goes into the picking of a shuttle crew. NASA says it considers the mission goals and objectives, and then matches the astronauts' skills to the chores at hand.

For instance, if there will be a lot of external repairs, an astronaut who is adept at spacewalking will likely get chosen. Or if there are plans for heavy use of the robot arm, someone who is good at maneuvering the mechanism might be picked.

But there is much more to it than that, experts say. Politics, personality, and position also play a role in selecting a crew. In fact, during the Apollo missions, crew selection was as secret as "picking the next pope," says Alex Roland, a space historian at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

While the characteristics that make a good astronaut are constantly being refined, NASA has long understood some of the key traits: highly skilled and willing to constantly hone those skills, a strong leader and good follower, a risk-taker who knows his or her own limits, unflappable, patient, and easy to get along with.

Indeed, making sure they get along in a group is something the space agency is only just beginning to fully grasp.

It's not as important when picking a shuttle crew that may only be in space a week or two. But with US participation in the International Space Station and plans to return to the moon and then Mars, being cooped up in a tin can for months, even years, requires more attention to the psychological dimensions of space travel.

"The social and psychological character of astronauts is rarely, if ever, taken into consideration when putting together a shuttle crew," says Lawrence Palinkas, a professor in the department of family and preventative medicine at the University of California at San Diego and an adviser to NASA. …