It was in the spring of 2001 that the STS-107 mission first sparked my interest: for two reasons. One was the fact that its crew was so comparatively inexperienced -only three veteran astronauts among the seven-strong team - and the other was that it was the first 'standalone', 16-day scientific research flight carried out by the Shuttle for almost three years. With most of the missions around it exclusively committed to hauling hardware into orbit for the International Space Station, Commander Rick Husband's flight seemed strangely out of place.
Four years later, I am glad that I took an interest in STS-107. I already intended to write about the kind of research that Husband and his crew would be doing during their fortnight aloft, but the reaction of one space magazine surprised me. ''Why do you want to write about that one?'' they asked. ''It's just a research mission.'' It was true: Columbia's 28th flight would not feature any 'glamorous' spacewalks, but my curiosity as to why NASA still needed research missions now that the International Space Station was operational led me to arrange an interview with Husband himself.
We spoke for half an hour on 3 April 2001, over the telephone from his Houston office, and I could scarcely have imagined that in less than two years he would be dead; killed, along with his crew, in the second Shuttle disaster as they hypersonically knifed their way back through Earth's atmosphere after an otherwise highly successful mission. A decade and a half after the painful loss of Challenger, the reusable spacecraft had never achieved its 1970s goal of flying once every two weeks, but nonetheless its record as one of the world's most successful launch vehicles seemed assured.
Admittedly, the 'controlled explosion' of liftoff remained one of the most hazardous portions of any mission and even as recently as July 1999, seconds after STS-93 left the pad, everyone was reminded that it was still an experimental, phenomenally complex and temperamental ship, although one with such redundancy that it was able to push on to orbit regardless. The end of a mission, however, was considered quite the opposite, even though the thermal extremes of a high-speed atmospheric re-entry were well known and the consequences of a major failure of the protective heat-resistant tiles and blankets did not bear thinking about.
''I really don't enjoy launches,'' said Mike Anderson, one of Husband's crewmates on the STS-107 mission, before blasting off, ''[but] entries are a little bit better. It's a little quieter ... not quite as violent [and] you can enjoy it a little bit. But still, for me on this flight's entry, I'm just going to sit down in my seat and hopefully reflect on the 16 days on orbit that we've had ... just anxious to get back to Earth and give the scientists all their research results. I'll be happy to have the flight behind us.''
Both Anderson and Husband had flown once before STS-107; the former on a docking flight to the Mir space station, the latter on an assembly mission to the International Space Station. When Husband was named to the Commander's position in December 2000, it came as a surprise to many, as it would only be his second flight: to gain experience, most Commanders typically flew two or even three times as a Pilot before being promoted to the coveted left-hand seat in the Shuttle's cockpit.
Some observers speculate that Husband was simply one of NASA's best pilots, having turned in an admirable performance on his STS-96 flight in mid-1999, but combining it with a humble low profile. In Husband's mind, however, he owed his position exclusively to ''God's blessing and provision'', which had already gained him the place as an astronaut that he had dreamed about since boyhood. He was joined on STS-107 by one of the most culturally and academically diverse Shuttle crews ever selected: an Israeli Jew, an Indian woman, an African-American man, two medical doctors and a former US Navy test pilot.
The awesome challenge facing any Commander does not just encompass the mission, but also requires the ability to bring together a group of highly qualified, highly motivated individuals and knit them into a virtual 'mini-family'. One of Husband's methods was to take his crew, in August 2001, on a team-building excursion sponsored by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). ''This was a course where ... the seven of us went out into the mountains in Wyoming with two instructors from [NOLS] and backpacked with 60-pound packs for nine nights and 10 days out there,'' he told an interviewer before lifting off on STS-107.
''We got to see some incredible scenery. We got to learn a lot about how each of us, as individuals, deal with the kind of situations that they put us into. It's a physical challenge with the backpacks and the walking up and down. It's also a challenge learning how to keep track of all your equipment personally [and] then learning to work together, pulling together and learning more about each other, so that when you come back . . . you know each other's strengths and weaknesses and so you can maximise that during the rest of your training flow.''
The trek took them through dense areas of the Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests, which feature treeless peaks in the 3,600-metre range and high mountain lakes. Their guides led the expedition for the first few days, then the seven astronauts elected a new leader each day and evaluated each other's performance at nightfall. Despite the serious, team-building nature of the excursion, the crew nevertheless treated it with aplomb and humour, even phoning Houston from the 3,960-metre Wind River Peak to inform their fellow astronauts that they had ''landed''.
Said John Kanengieter, one of the two NOLS guides: ''They have a terrific sense of humour and they're really good fun. These guys are all business, for sure, but man, they have a good time doing it!''
Nevertheless, Husband's team was inexperienced for a Shuttle crew, making them the butt of good-natured jests, some of which they invented themselves. ''We joke around sometimes, saying that before Jerry Ross flew his seventh mission, he had six flights to his credit,'' added Husband. ''Our crew had only half that amount of flight experience, but after our flight we'll have caught up with him and then some!'' Added STS-107 Pilot Willie McCool: ''He's got us beat by a factor of two, [but] when we come back, we'll have 10 flights among all of us and we'll jump ahead of Jerry.''
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