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Military Astronauts Prepare for Discovery Mission

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 12, 2005 – The Defense Department will be well represented when Discovery launches into space July 13, with three of the seven crewmembers from the military, including the commander, retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Col. James Kelly, left, and retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, right, two of three military astronauts on the Discovery crew, join NASA support personnel after completing practice runs on the Shuttle Training Aircraft at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

As the clock ticks toward the scheduled 3:51 p.m. EDT liftoff, crews are making final preparations, and NASA officials report that all details appear to be "go."

Discovery's crew includes three seasoned military astronauts. Collins and Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence, mission specialist and logistics manager, both have three previous spaceflights under their belts. Air Force Col. James Kelly, who will serve as Discovery's pilot, was a member of the March 2001 resupply mission to the International Space Station.

Collins became the first women pilot of the Space Shuttle on the first flight of the joint Russian-American shuttle-Mir program in 1995, and later, the first woman to command a shuttle mission, in 1999, according to NASA officials.

She's logged more than 6,280 hours in 30 different types of aircraft, with more than 537 hours in space.

Kelly has logged more than 3,000 hours in more than 35 different aircraft. In 2001, he piloted the 8th shuttle mission to visit the international station aboard Discovery, NASA reported.

A naval aviator since 1982, Lawrence has flown more than 1,500 hours in six different types of helicopters and made more than 800 shipboard landings.

Collins said she's confident of her crewmembers, who have been training for this mission for the past two years. "I have a fantastic crew," she said during a preflight interview with NASA. "The seven shuttle crewmembers have been so professional in the work that we have done up to this point."

During the 13-day mission, the Discovery crew will travel to the International Space Station, test new safety procedures and deliver supplies and science equipment to the orbital outpost.

As members of the first shuttle mission since Columbia exploded over Texas in February 2003, killing all seven crewmembers, the three say they and their families recognize the risks involved.

The crew's loss was "absolutely overwhelming," Lawrence said. "It's hard enough to lose one friend, and as a naval aviator, I've lost squadron mates and friends before. But to lose seven of them all at once is just absolutely devastating."

Yet as the daughter and granddaughter of military aviators, Lawrence said she and her family understand the risks. "My mother's father flew in World War II. He was shot down over the Philippines and, fortunately, was rescued," she said during a preflight interview with NASA. "My father was shot down over Vietnam and didn't return until six years later. So my family understands the risks."

"Coming from my background as a fighter pilot, I've lost friends in the flying world, and so you realize that the next flight of anything could be the last flight you're on," agreed Kelly. He acknowledged that flying in space is riskier than travel in other aircraft, but said it's a risk he's willing to take, and that he hopes he's prepared his family for it as well.

What drives, him, Kelly said, is "holding on to that dream" - a dream he said he's had since he was 5 years old and became enamored with the Apollo moon missions.

It's the same dream Collins said she had as a child growing up in Elmira, N.Y., dubbed "the soaring capital of America" for its rich history in flight and collection of period planes. And the dream Lawrence shared as a 10-year-old when she watched images of the first man walking on the moon on her family's black-and-white TV set.

During Discovery's "Return to Flight" mission, the crewmembers say they recognize the contribution they'll be making to the U.S. space program.

"I understand very well the significance of this mission," Lawrence said. "It's very important for us to get back to space."

In addition to moving the space program forward, Lawrence called the upcoming mission a way to honor the memories of the Columbia crew and their commitment to space exploration.

By building on that commitment, the astronauts say they believe they're becoming a part of something bigger than themselves.

"If you look through history, you see that the explorers and the countries that were doing the exploring, where the ones that were making the world a better place to live in," said Kelly. "That's still true."

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