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Discovery crew marveling over their reception

Their safe return gets applause from all quarters

SHARE Discovery crew marveling over their reception

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The seven astronauts who fearlessly got NASA and its space shuttles flying again are still marveling over the world's passionate reaction to their safe return.

In the 1 1/2 weeks since Discovery delivered them back to the planet, commander Eileen Collins and her crew have been swamped with e-mails, phone messages and interview requests. They have been hailed as heroes by their colleagues and the president, and heard from long-out-of-touch relatives and friends, even total strangers.

Perhaps most touching, they have been in close contact with the families of the seven astronauts killed aboard Columbia and visited with the commander's deeply religious widow and her two children. Collins e-mailed the Columbia families from orbit so they would feel connected to the mission.

"She was praying for us — everybody was praying for us," Collins said in an interview with The Associated Press last week. "That's another reason I knew we were safe."

It turned out to be one dramatic, roller coaster of a flight.

In a frightening dej vu, a potentially catastrophic 3-foot section of insulating foam tore off Discovery's fuel tank during liftoff July 26. It fell away without striking the shuttle. Oversized pieces of foam came off the redesigned tank in four other spots.

Then two strips of filler material were found dangling from Discovery's belly, a defect that could have led to a Columbia-type disaster during re-entry. The pieces were removed in an unprecedented spacewalk. Then a thermal blanket beneath a cockpit window was found to be ripped, posing a potential debris hazard for descent.

Collins said the prospect of a fourth spacewalk to remove the torn blanket worried her, more than anything else on the flight. Her crew was weary — the two-week mission was nearing an end — and it would have meant a rush to learn new, unfamiliar procedures. NASA concluded, rightly, that the blanket was safe for the ride home.

It was the foam, though, that had the astronauts in disbelief.

Collins' co-pilot, James Kelly, was angry that everyone, himself included, had missed it as a threat and done nothing to fix that part of the external fuel tank.

"When we strapped into the vehicle, that was our tacit approval of everything that had been done up to that point," he said. "Certainly, if I thought that a 3-foot piece of foam was going to come off, I wouldn't have strapped in. I would have been fighting hard for us to fix it."

Kelly said "the odds were very well stacked in our favor" since NASA had taken care of most of the fuel-tank problems in the 2 1/2 years between Columbia and Discovery's flights. He acknowledged, though, that luck played a role in getting the crew back alive.

"I am perfectly happy to be called lucky for the rest of my life because that means I'm still around," he said. "But certainly we don't want to rely on that and we need to go out and keep working the problems."

Because of Discovery's foam loss, space shuttles are grounded until at least next March.

Throughout their mission, all seven astronauts wrote or called their families to reassure them that the shuttle problems were being handled properly and that Discovery was safe to come home. They truly believed that — in interviews with the AP last week from Houston, not a single one of the astronauts expressed any fear or misgiving about re-entry.

They pointed out that they knew more about the condition of their spacecraft than any other crew in 24 years of shuttle flight, thanks to all the photography, laser inspections and data collection put in place following the 2003 Columbia tragedy. Everything indicated a clean ship.

Nonetheless, there seemed to be "an edge" of tension when it came time to head home on Aug. 9, said astronaut Andrew Thomas. Kelly, for instance, experienced a moment of trepidation right before Collins hit the button for Discovery to drop out of orbit.

The mood was serious during the hourlong descent, with most if not all of the conversation centered around shuttle maneuvers and the various phases of re-entry. The four upstairs on the flight deck — Collins, Kelly, Thomas and Stephen Robinson — provided a blow-by-blow account of what was happening for the benefit of the three down in the windowless middeck.

Astronaut Soichi Noguchi had rigged up a camera near the pilot's window and attached it to a small monitor so he, Charles Camarda and Wendy Lawrence could get a glimpse of the scorching orange plasma enveloping the shuttle.

The most intensely hot portion of re-entry lasted about 15 minutes, "and so we were clocking down those minutes and those seconds," Camarda recalled. Kelly, meanwhile, was intently watching the displays to make sure what happened to Columbia wasn't happening to Discovery.

It wasn't until touchdown that their emotions surfaced.

"After we landed, when we were rolling out, I really thought about my pals on Columbia," Robinson said. "I thought, 'We got to do this and they didn't.' "

After 14 days of keeping calm order in orbit, Collins choked up when she saw the smiling faces of the California landing convoy.

"I couldn't help but have a little tear come to my eye," she said. "They were all happy with these big smiles, waving at me through the window, and I just thought about all the work that had gone into making that flight."