Discovering the men and women of Discovery
Crew prepared for pressure of unique mission
Eileen Collins gives Soichi Noguchi some help while training for his spacewalk.
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(CNN) -- They are parents, as well as sons and daughters; triathletes, nature-lovers and rock 'n' rollers; pilots, scholars and engineers; seasoned space explorers and first-timers.
The astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery are also groundbreakers -- the first to fly since the Columbia disaster in 2003.
Discovery was scheduled to launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, but was scrubbed because of a faulty fuel tank sensor.
NASA hopes a successful shuttle launch will restore confidence in the United States' embattled shuttle program after the loss of Columbia. (Full story)
They share a mission, a close connection to their fallen colleagues and a readiness to risk their lives for space exploration.
"We want to explore. We're curious people," said Eileen Collins, the crew's commander. "Look back over history, people have put their lives at stake to go out and explore ... We believe in what we're doing. Now it's time to go."
The crew hails from seemingly worlds away -- 11,000 miles, in the case of Charles Camarda's native New York City and the beaches of Andy Thomas' Adelaide, Australia.
From Iowa to Japan, they grew up idolizing Neil Armstrong and other earlier astronauts and dreaming of reaching the stars.
For Wendy Lawrence, 46, this is a family business: Her father, William, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and a superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, was a test pilot with future astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepherd. William Lawrence was among 32 finalists in the inaugural astronaut class.
Besides their individual stories, each crewmember also brings their own responsibilities and skill-set to the mission. As taxing as the flight will be physically and mentally, the greatest burden -- for the astronauts and their families -- may be psychological, as they lift off knowing that the most recent shuttle crew didn't return alive.
"There [are] going to be times up in orbit that we're going to think about it, and especially the Columbia crew and families," said James Kelly, pilot of the Discovery mission.
"Until our wheels [hit] down, that heightened level of awareness for our families and the people around us is going to be the same as it is for the ascent. There are going to be a lot of fingernails bitten off."
Full of personality
Despite such concerns, Collins calls the upcoming flight "the safest ... ever flown."
The crew and scores of NASA employees have worked relentlessly to make that the case. Along the way, they look to Collins, 48 -- a veteran of three space flights -- for guidance on everything from emergency situations to media scrutiny.
"Eileen is fantastic," said Kelly, 41. "She has gone through this on ... every one of her missions, being one of the first women to do so many things."
One of Collins and NASA managers' main goals is opening up communication, in urging astronauts to demand answers and participate fully in decisions -- a priority absent in past space flights, according to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
"We're constantly looking at ourselves going, 'Are we missing anything?'" she said. "I want to hear all you people speak up, talk to me, tell me what's on your mind."
Camarda said NASA could use more New Yorkers like him to argue persistently and vehemently, if need be, without being reticent or intimidated.
"You shouldn't have to be nice," said the Queens native, 43. "If someone doesn't want to listen to them, maybe he should speak louder until he gets heard."
Camarda is not the only character in the crew. Thomas, 53, enjoys horseback jumping, windsurfing and strumming a guitar, among other pursuits. Steve Robinson, 49, lead guitarist in a rock 'n' roll band called Max Q (he also plays banjo, mandolin, bass guitar and pedal steel guitar), said, "I still want to be a musician and an artist someday, when I grow up."
Each crew member possesses an astronaut's unique blend of smarts and guts. They are both analytical (interested in and able to grasp space flight's technicalities) and adventurous in their desire to venture into space, despite the obvious danger.
Kelly, nicknamed "Vegas," faced danger daily for years as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot before entering the space program. Pointing to a wall listing fallen astronauts, he said, "If, six centuries from now, that wall is not filled up with names, then we've probably failed."
"Our job is to ... go as far as possible," he said. "The bottom line is we need to take the risk."
A family affair
In training and certainly on launch day, the mission's perils reverberate outside the shuttle, especially affecting the astronauts' families.
Discovery crew members take part in a taste test on some of the food they'll take on the mission.
Collins said she tries to inform and prepare her 9-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son -- letting them in the flight simulator, showing them videos of past missions and introducing them to crewmates' children. Communication is key, said the four crewmates with children.
"I've tried to be honest and talk about what we're doing to prevent an accident, and also I will talk about the benefits" of space travel, said Soichi Noguchi, 39, who has three children.
"I've told them that if something happens, that it will have happened with me doing what I think is the right thing to do," added Kelly, who has four children. "They have to know that."
The support system works both ways, as crew members also lean on friends and family, many of whom will flock to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to celebrate and, equally, fret about the launch.
As real as the anxiety and dangers are, Collins said abandoning the mission would be far tougher for her than carrying through with it, even with the risk.
"For me not to fly this flight, I probably couldn't live with myself," she said. "I look at my crew and all the people I worked with -- they're counting on us to stay together. We're a team, and I'm going to stick with this team."
This team, in spirit at least, will include the seven Columbia astronauts.
"I think about the Columbia crew every day," said Collins, echoing her crewmates. "I feel like we are carrying on their mission."
Crewmembers will bring mementoes into orbit, while much of the mission itself focuses on safety checks and measures related to the crash. Especially given all the time they had spent with the Columbia crew and later with their families, emotions will be running high -- especially on launch and reentry -- the Discovery astronauts said.
The fact this is the first post-crash mission has heightened media scrutiny, further adding to the mental toll.
"There's a lot of pressure with any shuttle launch, [but] obviously this one has been magnified at least one hundred-fold," said Kelly. "If you're the type that worries about pressure, then you're going to fold on any shuttle mission."
On the heels of critical crash investigation reports, the crew has worked to grasp technical details, while guarding against complacency and poor communication.
"Had we listened a little bit more and paid attention to the hardware that was talking to us, we probably could have prevented the accident," said Collins of the Columbia crash."We need to learn from the mistakes we made ... I am continually reminding myself that we're in a dangerous business."
Columbia's demise made crystal clear the perils of space travel. But even with that tragedy fresh in their minds, the Discovery crew nonetheless is raring to go.
"I didn't pick [this flight]," said Camarda. "But if I could have, I would have."
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