Friday, July 31, 2009

Wakata, Endeavour crew glad to be home

Astronaut Koichi Wakata today made a surprise appearance at the STS-127 crew news conference following shuttle Endeavour's landing this morning at Kennedy Space Center.

After a 138 days in space - the first long-duration flight by a Japanese astronaut - he wasn't expected to feel well enough to participate while readjusting to the pull of Earth's gravity.

"I'm feeling great," Wakata said. "When the hatch opened I smelled the grass on the ground. I'm just glad to be back home."

Wakata said he felt a little shaky walking, but was looking forward to a sushi lunch.

Wakata was joined at a dais by Endeavour commander Mark Polansky, pilot Doug Hurley and fellow mission specialists Chris Cassidy, Tom Marshburn, Julie Payette of Canada and Dave Wolf.

The crew completed a 16-day, 6.5-million mile assembly mission to the International Space Station with a 10:48 a.m. landing.

Wolf, who completed his fourth spaceflight and spent 119 days on the Russian space station Mir in 1997-8, said astronauts are returning home in better shape than ever because of improved exercise and understanding of microgravity's effects.

"We're beating this long-term space problem," he said, and that will make long trips to the moon or Mars more doable.

Wolf and Payette, who along with Polansky were making return trips to the International Space Station, said they were deeply impressed by the 85-percent complete complex.

Seeing the space station come together, an international orbiting laboratory, conducting research that can't be done on Earth, laying the foundation for the future while still resting on the foundation laid before us, this really topped them all," he said. "It was hard, it was long and it was fulfilling."

"My first mission 10 years ago was to a very small space station that had only two modules and nobody on board," Payette said. "We visited a fully functioning laboratory which is absolutely extraordinary. It's a feat of engineering that we were able to do this up in one of the most hostile environments possible, the void of space."

Several problems cropped up during the mission to challenge the seven shuttle astronauts and six station residents - a record 13 people on an orbiting spacecraft.

The station had to dodge some space debris, a toilet broke down and a carbon dioxide scrubbing system overheated.

"We did have lots of small things," he said. "Though people think that flying in low Earth orbit on a space station is maybe somewhat routine, and some people don't find it very exciting, it's tremendously exciting to us, it's tremendously challenging. Since you are in a very, very unforgiving environment, seemingly innocuous things become huge things. Not just ourselves, but teams of people have to work all these problems in real time before they become huge impediments to the mission."

NASA managers also praised the mission's achievements while handling on-orbit problems.

"We got everything accomplished on board space station that we needed to," said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for space operations. "The teams that worked through this mission and worked through the problems that occurred on orbit just did a phenomenal job."

The crew plans to fly home to Houston Saturday afternoon.

"Made it home!" Polansky wrote in perhaps the mission's final post on Twitter. "Now relaxing in Cocoa Beach, FL, and return to Houston tomorrow. Will share incredible adventure in the near future."

NASA is quickly getting ready for its next shuttle mission. Discovery, targeted to launch in late August, could be rolled out to launch pad 39A on Monday morning.

Its payload, including an Italian-built cargo container called Leonardo, was delivered to the pad Thursday and lifted into its changeout room today.

No comments: