Saturday, May 28, 2011

Shuttle Pilot Looks Forward To Station Flyaround

The Endeavour astronauts will depart the International Space Station late Sunday and fly a giant loop around the outpost, giving the world its first big-picture view of complex after 12 years of American assembly.

"It's going to be a really exciting flyaround," Endeavour pilot Gregory "Box" Johnson said today in a space-to-ground interview with Florida Today and other Gannett newspapers and television stations around the country.

Johnson, who will be at the controls, said he aims to do his best "to try to maintain a good position so that we can get great photos of one of the final flyarounds of the space station."

The joined crews of the station and the shuttle will gather at 6:56 a.m. EDT Sunday to say farewell and close hatches between the spacecraft. Endeavour is scheduled to back away from its docking port on the U.S. Harmony module at 11:55 p.m. EDT Sunday.

It will be Johnson's second station flyaround. He guided Endeavour through another on his first shuttle flight in March 2008.

The $100 billion station has grown significantly since then. The Japanese segment of the outpost has been completed along with the station's $2 billion central truss -- a girder-like backbone that stretches 335 feet.

Glimmering gold, all four massive American solar wings now are unfurled, slowly rotating, tracking the sun, generating the solar power that runs station systems. The U.S. Tranquility module had been added along with the Cupola observation deck, and the Leonardo storage unit.

"The station is huge. It's much bigger than I expected," Johnson said. "It's much bigger than it was the last time I was here about three years ago."

Mission commander Mark Kelly and Johnson are scheduled to land Endeavour at Kennedy Space Center at 2:35 a.m. EDT Wednesday. Touchdown will mark the shuttle's 25th and final return to Earth.

The shuttle program might be ending, and the fleet might be heading off to museums. But Johnson thinks the day is coming when everybody will be able to fly in space.

"You know, within the next 50 years, I think we’ll find spaceflight is quite commonplace. And just like the airline industry, people didn’t fly much in the 30s, and now for a week’ salary from a regular minimum wage job, you can fly across the country," Johnson said.

"And so I’m hoping that space transportation will grow over the next five decades to a century and we’ll all be flying in space."

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