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Aboard Columbia: Scott Altman

'I am going to hold my breath'

Scott Altman:
Scott Altman: "As the commander, I've realized that going through the whole training flow, your focus really widens out and you're responsible for so much more."  

(CNN) -- The commander of Columbia's Hubble mission, Scott Altman, is a veteran of two space flights. He piloted a 16-day scientific mission in 1998 and an international space station assembly mission in 2000.

Earlier this year, before the March 1 departure for the Hubble servicing mission, Altman spoke with CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien. Following are highlights of the conversation.

CNN: What's the transition like from pilot to commander?

Scott Altman: It's a big transition. My last flight was with Terry Wilcott and he was a great person to learn from. But I realized as I moved to the left seat (when Terry and I flew together, and then I sat in the right seat as the pilot), that (when Wilcott was piloting) there were a lot of things that would happen and I just would say, "Well that's not involved in my little world and I'm not going to worry about it." I could just kind of maintain a certain focus on things.

The space shuttle Columbia blasted off early Friday on a mission to renovate the Hubble Space Telescope (March 1)

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CNN's Miles O'Brien reports on NASA's mission to upgrade the Hubble telescope to reach astonishing distances (February 27)

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Now as the commander, I've realized that going through the whole training flow, your focus really widens out and you are responsible for so much more.

I guess it's the mantle of command -- so many things to think about. You think about how training is going, how the crew is doing together, what our performance is like in the sims (simulators). And then try to coordinate all that and produce a polished product.

CNN: The fact that it's Hubble raises the stakes a bit, doesn't it?

Altman: I think it does. The (NASA) administrator (Sean O'Keefe) pointed it out to everyone: Hubble is an international icon. People recognize it all over the world.

And it's working right now. Our mission is important to expand its reach but we're going up to a working instrument and we're going to power it all the way down. And we need to make sure that when we turn the switch back on, it powers back up. It takes a lot of attention to detail every single minute we're in space.

Legacy in orbit

CNN: What do you think of bringing Hubble back and putting it into the Smithsonian Institution?

Altman: I think it would be a great idea, to bring it back and replace the mock-up that's in the Smithsonian with the real Hubble that spent all that time in space -- right there where everybody who comes to the museum would see it.

There will be a couple more (Hubble-related) missions, at least. And the other thing is you have an asset that's working and it's going to work even better when we get done with it, extending the reach by about 10 times farther with the Advanced Camera Survey. It's hard to want to turn it off when it's doing so well.

CNN: What moments of the mission have you holding your breath?

Altman: The rendezvous, when Hubble comes into view in the payload bay. I think, when we go over to the dome simulator where you get sort of a 3-D presentation, it's huge -- but you know it's just a screen.

I know when I look in the bay and see the real Hubble hanging right there, I'm going to hold my breath, making sure everything goes just according to the plan. We grab it then, putting it into the payload bay, birthing it.

Then all the EVAs (spacewalks) -- five straight days of spacewalks that are all packed to the gills. You know from the briefings today, that we really (have to) maintain that level of focus: We can never let up.

'A human presence in space'

CNN: When Hubble goes, employment for astronauts will go down. I assume that will be a sad day. And should there be something else like this for astronauts to work on?

Altman: I think Hubble is kind of the poster for why we need humans in space. If you launched in the beginning out to an orbit that's unreachable, it would be pretty bad. And then the fact that we've been able to take advantage of technology as it goes along and extend our reach by a constant improvement process -- seems to me to be a great argument for why we need to do things like Hubble.

Now, the space station is another step in that evolution: You have a human presence in space, 24 hours a day. You can change things out, decide if you want to re-do experiments.

But human servicing missions of equipment in space? -- I think they'll always be able to justify themselves, just for the flexibility it adds. You don't make that final decision the moment you decide to light the rocket to launch whatever it is to space. You've got an out that you didn't know you had.


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