By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005
HOUSTON -- They are a remarkably chatty lot, even for astronauts, who are not known for shyness. Pilot Jim "Vegas" Kelly talks fast enough to give reporters writer's cramp. Australian-born Andy Thomas uses "patent" as an adjective. Charlie Camarda, from Queens, admits, "I'm not an easy person to shout down."
But while the voluble crew members of the space shuttle Discovery readily display the bravado-spiked professionalism that has defined the astronaut corps since the days of "The Right Stuff," they are also surprisingly blunt in assessing NASA's performance in the aftermath of the Feb. 1, 2003, Columbia disaster, the event that redefined their own mission.
Kelly reproaches the agency and himself for ignoring the beating that shuttles were taking from chunks of insulation that broke off their external fuel tanks during launch -- like the fragment that breached Columbia's heat shielding. "I walked under 12 vehicles in a row," he said. "Never once did I say, 'Did you see the bottom of this vehicle?' "
Camarda, one of two rookies in the crew, said the heat-shield repair techniques that Discovery will take into space are "not ready for prime time." Spacewalker Soichi Noguchi of Japan, the crew's other rookie, suggested that NASA had a habit of imposing solutions from above, although, post-Columbia, higher-ups were starting to "listen to the squawk from the bottom."
Despite all this, all seven said in recent interviews that they are ready to fly and need to fly to test the repair methods and other new shuttle safety features.
"Foolhardy? I know foolhardy," said Steve Robinson, the crew's other spacewalker. "I was foolhardy when I jumped off a cliff on a hang glider when I was 15. This isn't even close."
The entire crew of Discovery has been together since November 2003, an uncharacteristically long association imposed by the prolonged grounding of the shuttles and subsequent delays in the flight, now scheduled for July 13. Three members -- Noguchi, Robinson and Mission Commander Eileen Collins -- have been assigned to Discovery for more than five years.
The long run-up has bred an easy familiarity and a shared, sibling-like folklore among the crewmates. Thomas, at least three of his colleagues noted recently, speaks "the queen's English," while Camarda speaks "English from Queens."
In fact, Thomas speaks Australian English, and quite eloquently. Now a U.S. citizen, he departed Australia after completing a doctorate in mechanical engineering and got a job at Lockheed, in Marietta, Ga.: "It was patent that I would stay" in the United States, he said. Once he made that decision, he decided to become an astronaut.
And Camarda may sound like a New York taxi driver, but he is also a materials scientist and an expert in the shuttle's thermal insulation. He worked at NASA's Langley Research Center for 22 years. He holds seven patents.
The crew has three military pilots. Collins retired as an Air Force colonel at the beginning of this year. Kelly, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who speaks in short, staccato bursts, earned the nickname for which he is universally known -- "Vegas" -- during a stint as an F-15 pilot in Okinawa. "I played a lot of poker," he said, "and that week I won."
The third pilot is Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence, who graduated from Fort Hunt High School in Alexandria in 1977 and the U.S. Naval Academy four years later. She is the only soft-spoken crew member, "and if you saw her in a supermarket," Thomas said, "you wouldn't know that she's done more than 800 landings aboard an aircraft carrier."
And seen a lot. "Having an aviation background in the military, you always prepare" for the possibility that someone could die, she said, recalling Columbia. "The day of the accident was a situation I'd been in before" with pilots who had died during aircraft carrier operations, she said.
Noguchi, a private-sector engineer in Japan, has spent nine years in the United States and speaks colloquial English, perhaps not surprisingly, just like an astronaut.
He and Robinson began practicing spacewalks in the Johnson Space Center swimming pool in 2001 when their only job was to bolt new pieces of the international space station in place. Now, however, they are going to do simulated on-board repairs, install a new gyroscope, collect old experiments and set up new ones. They have been to the pool for training sessions more than 60 times.
"So much of spacewalking is simple and delicate, except the suit makes you 30 percent bigger than you usually are," said Robinson, another NASA engineer and veteran spacewalker. "You can't whistle in a space suit, either, and I've tried."