Skip to main content

As Shuttle program ends, astronauts want to keep flying

By John Zarrella, CNN
  • Many astronauts want to keep flying
  • With the Shuttle program ending, they wonder how
  • Pilot says the shuttle "has done its job"

Kennedy Space Center, Florida (CNN) -- For the commander of Space Shuttle Endeavour, Mark Kelly, there was good, no, wonderful news, leading up to the launch. His wife, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is there to watch less than four months after a bullet tore through her head and nearly took her life.

At one point, it was uncertain whether Kelly would even stay on to command the mission. This bitter sweet love story has seen Kelly continue training while spending nearly every evening at his wife's side.

A few months ago, before his wife's shooting, Kelly told me, "Flying in space is a very difficult thing to give up. I remember after my last flight thinking well maybe this is the last time I'm gonna do this. And you know, you go a couple of months out and you're like, oh, I really hope this is not the end of my flying career." Kelly added, " I know when I get back from STS 134 from this last flight of Endeavour, I'll be thinking the same thing, I can't really give this up. I've got to figure out a way to get back into space."

As the Space Shuttle program winds down with the last launch scheduled this summer, many in the astronaut corps are wrestling with what to do next. For the foreseeable future, Russian rockets will be the only way for U.S. astronauts to get to space.

Mike Fincke, an Endeavour Mission Specialist, has spent a year in space but is flying for his first time on a shuttle. "I think all of us with all the changes that (are) going on with our country's space program and NASA, all of us professional astronauts are looking into our hearts to see what we're gonna do next," Fincke said.

He doesn't want to leave, "I really want to stay. I want to stay here at NASA. I believe in what we are doing. It's pretty amazing taking people off the planet Earth and hopefully exploring the solar system."

Drew Feustel, also a Mission Specialist, is flying for the second time. His first flight was to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. His background served him well then. Feustel grew up in Detroit. His father and uncle were both mechanics. "I started at an early age with motorcycles and bicycles and then eventually bought my first care before I was old enough to drive it and took it apart in my garage.

"There's at least one or two projects in the garage," Feustel said. He was hoping to get it done before the flight but at last check there was still some work to do.

There will be a lot of work to do on this mission as well. Four spacewalks are planned for this mission. All of the walks are in order to get the station ready for the time when shuttle crews can't get up there. The space walkers will retrieve experiments, install new ones, refill tanks and lubricate parts.

In its cargo bay Endeavour is carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. At one and a half billion dollars it is the single most expensive piece of equipment a space shuttle has ever carried.

The AMS is designed to capture space particles like anti matter and dark matter which scientists know very little about but believe exist in the Universe. The AMS will be mounted outside the International Space Station. If it's successful, it could lead to a better understanding of how our Universe began and evolved.

For the astronauts, the two week-long mission will be the last time they fly on a shuttle and it will be the end of the space road for Endeavour. The vehicle was build as a replacement for Challenger which was lost in 1986.

Endeavour flew its first mission in 1992. It's flown numerous space station construction missions and the first Hubble servicing mission. Endeavour and the other orbiters have been remarkable flying machines says Pilot Gregory Johnson, "We have put satellites up into orbit. We have done mapping of the whole topography of the Earth. We have taken up the Hubble Telescope and serviced it several times. And we've built this huge space station. The vehicle has done its job."

When Endeavour returns it will be cleaned-up and made ready for its journey to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, its new permanent home.