At times, the Discovery mission conjured up memories of Apollo 13 for the ingenuity required of the astronauts and flight controllers. In an ever-changing, ever-challenging flight, NASA chief Michael Griffin called this group of seven astronauts true test pilots — and brave.
The crew and what they did:
The first woman ever to pilot a space shuttle, commander Eileen Collins adds to her string of firsts by heading up this test mission returning NASA to space after the Columbia disaster.
The 48-year-old former test pilot and retired Air Force colonel performed unprecedented twist-and-flip maneuvers so the shuttle's belly could be photographed by space station residents for possible damage. This from a woman who hates roller coasters.
Collins' 1995 flight as the first female shuttle pilot sparked intense interest among girls and women and got her into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Her debut as shuttle commander in 1999 drew first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and daughter Chelsea to the Florida launch site. This was her fourth shuttle mission and probably her last.
Collins was the only mother aboard Discovery and e-mailed her young daughter and son every day from orbit. Seemingly unflappable during the worries about potential damage to the shuttle by pieces of flyaway fuel-tank foam and other problems, Collins remained confident of bringing her crew home safely.
"We are staying focused on the mission and we know we are in good hands with the people on the ground," said Collins, who is from Elmira, N.Y. "I love being in space. It's magical up here."
Pilot James Kelly flew Discovery to the space station in 2001. Now he's made the trip again, flying an improved, but not perfect, Discovery.
One of his tasks during this mission was carefully operating the international space station's robot arm, along with a crewmate, so astronaut Stephen Robinson could make his daring repair job. He also flew the shuttle in a final loop around the space station for picture-taking of the orbiting outpost, before heading for home.
Kelly, 41, an Air Force colonel and former test pilot from Burlington, Iowa, said while still in orbit that he did not have any concerns about re-entry.
"We had a lot of folks on the ground looking very hard" at all the data gathered during the flight, he said. "And I guess you have to thank the Columbia crew. The sacrifices they made allowed us to get a lot smarter about it, get a lot of tools on board that we could use to go fix it."
Before going up on Discovery, he discussed the technical aspects of the Columbia accident with his two teenage sons. And he explained to his two young daughters "why I do what I do, why I love space, why I think we need to be out there."
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi took three spacewalks during this, his first space flight.
"Oh, the view is priceless," he jubilantly declared as he rode the international space station's robotic arm to Discovery's cargo bay. "I can see the moon."
Noguchi worked with spacewalking partner Stephen Robinson to test new repair materials and techniques should they be required on future shuttle flights, and he helped replace the space station's broken gyroscope. In the mission's final spacewalk, he watched from 75 feet away as Robinson gently pulled out two protruding pieces of filler material from Discovery's belly, a source of considerable concern for re-entry.
"Steve, we trained for four years. You're going to spend the next four years signing autographs," Noguchi said.
After learning that he would not need to take part in a fourth spacewalk to repair a torn thermal blanket, he responded: "That's, I would say, good news."
At 40, Noguchi, who has three children, is the youngest member of the crew. He is one of eight Japanese Space Agency astronauts and the fifth of the group to fly in space.
In one of the morning wake-up calls that NASA plays for the astronauts, Noguchi was treated to a school chorus that included his own children.
Stephen Robinson was the hero of the day with his deft tug on a couple of pieces of protruding ceramic-fabric that fill gaps between the shuttle's thermal tiles. It was the only in-orbit shuttle repair job.
"It looks like this big patient is cured," Robinson said to everyone's delight.
Although a pilot, Robinson was designated chief handyman for the mission. He got to test in space with Noguchi a new gooey material that might be used for an in-orbit thermal repair on future shuttle flights. The two also spent hours devoted to tedious bolting and unbolting to replace the space station's broken gyroscope.
"This is just like putting in an airplane engine," said Robinson, who was born in Sacramento, Calif.
Robinson, 49, last flew in space with Mercury astronaut John Glenn in 1998. He has worked at NASA for 30 years and been an astronaut the past 10. This was his fourth mission.
In his early astronaut days, he worked in Mission Control and woke up his colleagues in space by beaming up music. "So you never know where the DJ experience is going to take you," he said before the flight.
As deputy chief of the astronaut office in 2003, Andrew Thomas found himself caring for grieving families of the Columbia astronauts. By the end of that year, he found himself assigned to the shuttle crew that would return NASA to space.
During Discovery's transit to the station, he used a brand new inspection boom with lasers on the end to check the shuttle wings and nose cap for any signs of launch damage.
"The mission has achieved some pretty important goals," he said from orbit. "It has shown that we can inspect the orbiter. We've got tools on board that allow us to do that. That's a first."
The Australian-born Thomas, 53, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, became an astronaut in 1992. On his second spaceflight, he logged nearly five months aboard Russia's Mir station. This was his second visit to the international space station.
"We need to get back to flying," he said before the flight. "You just can't leave these vehicles on the ground indefinitely. They will suffer and you'll have a problem with them. ... Philosophically, we need to do it, too, because I think the taxpayers who pay for this program expect all this."
Thomas is a newlywed: Just this spring, he married astronaut Shannon Walker.
Discovery's crew found a taskmaster in Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence.
The helicopter pilot was responsible for getting thousands of pounds of supplies onto the space station and thousands more pounds of discarded equipment, trash and other unneeded items off for return to Earth aboard the shuttle.
The Jacksonville, Fla.-born astronaut got e-mails in orbit from friends who said she and her crewmates made everything look easy. She said that was not the case and that it was the busiest of her four shuttle flights.
"Every day brought a lot of challenges that we had to meet and overcome," she said.
Lawrence, 46, flew twice to Russia's Mir station in the late 1990s and was even supposed to move in. But she was yanked from the lineup because at 5-foot-3 she was too short to fit in a Russian spacewalker's suit. Her subsequent nickname: "Too Short."
Before leaving the international space station, Lawrence agreed to help flight controllers check audio levels. "The short person will do a short count, 3-2-1," she replied.
Whenever a shuttle problem cropped up, astronaut Charles Camarda sent reassuring e-mails to his wife that she knew were probably the best assessments of the situation. After all, he spent two decades specializing in thermal structures, a key aspect of NASA's return-to-flight effort.
"This flight was an engineer's dream," Camarda said from space. "We are collecting so much data. We are looking at several different types of sensors. We are doing things we never imagined we would be able to do."
The native New Yorker was a late addition to Discovery's crew, which came as a surprise even though he had been waiting for a flight assignment since becoming an astronaut in 1996 at age 44. Now 53, he was one of the oldest first-time space fliers ever.
He helped haul supplies and equipment into the international space station and take trash and broken machines out.
His 80-year-old mother worried the whole time he was in space and had everyone she knows praying for his safe return.
"I'm sure if you ask any mother, they would feel exactly the same way," he said from orbit with a chuckle.