Aboard The Space Station, It's A Beautiful World

Originally published on May 22, 2011 7:17 am

The space shuttle Endeavour launched its final mission this week, a 16-day mission at the International Space Station. It's the second-to-last mission scheduled for the space shuttle program before it comes to an end later this year.

This trip has added significance for shuttle commander Mark Kelly. His wife, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, is continuing her recovery from a gunshot wound received in an attack in January. She traveled to Florida to watch the launch before returning to Houston for more surgery.

On what may be his last trip into space, Kelly tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon that it's sometimes hard to understand all the conflict on such an "incredibly beautiful planet."

"This is a really hard thing to give up," he says of his time in Earth's orbit. "Just looking down, we've got a very fragile and beautiful place to live. We need to take care of it."

Expedition 27 flight engineer Cady Coleman arrived at the space station last December. "You would think that after six months that I might even be tired of it," she tells Simon. "I will tell you that it's always changing."

"During my time up here, we've had the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the conflict in Libya, and the flooding in the South," she says. It's hard to reconcile how hard life is on the planet with the angelic view she has from above. "I'm not looking forward to giving that up."

Time Flies – That Is, It Orbits

Yet life on board the International Space Station speeds the time along. "It's a very busy place," Coleman says. "We've got, like, 130 experiments running — almost at the same time, some of them — up here on the space station."

In fact, the crew just installed a $2 billion cosmic particle detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which will hunt for dark matter, cosmic rays and antimatter galaxies.

"[It's] really a premier physics experiment that's supported by 16 different countries, 600 physicists," Kelly says. "They've been working on this thing — a lot of people — for a long time." Finally having it aboard the space station, Kelly says, is a "great day for science."

The astronauts stay busy keeping themselves in shape, too. "Just to maintain your bone mass, you need to exercise about two hours a day up here," Coleman says.

"So I would say every day is a busy day — and a great day — up here."

Shuttles Grounded, But NASA Can Still Take Off

Those great days are coming to a close — for the shuttle program, at least. Some wonder if the end of the program is NASA's final frontier, too. Not so fast, Kelly says.

"NASA is leading the way and will continue to do so," he says. "We are the lead partner on the International Space Station, and when humans go back to the moon and on to Mars, I'm sure it's going to be the United States and NASA that's leading that as well."

That includes the commercialization of launch vehicles so humans can still travel into orbit after the space shuttle program ends. "That's still NASA that's leading that project," he says, and hopefully it will expand space exploration efforts even more.

"So we're pretty excited about the future of NASA."

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Not every day we get to make contact with the International Space Station.

Unidentified Woman: NPR, this is Houston. Please call Endeavour and ISS for a voice check.

SIMON: Endeavour, ISS, this is NPR. How do you hear me?

Commander MARK KELLY (Space Shuttle Endeavour): Loud and clear, Scott. How you have us?

SIMON: Oh, just fine. How are you, Mark?

Mr. KELLY: I am really good. Cady and I are enjoying a good day up here.

SIMON: That's Endeavour Commander Mark Kelly speaking from the International Space Station. We caught up Commander Kelly and flight engineer Cady Coleman on Thursday. Ms. Coleman's been onboard the International Space Station since December. Mark Kelly arrived this week via Space Shuttle Endeavour. Of course, this is the final mission for Endeavour and the second-to-last voyage before NASA ends its shuttle program later this year.

For Commander Kelly, this journey has added significance. His wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is recovering from a gunshot wound she sustained during an attack in Tucson in January. He and Cady Coleman spoke with us from the space station 200 miles above the earth and told us first about the mission.

Mr. KELLY: We just installed the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. It's a $2 billion cosmic particle detector. Really a premier physics experiment that's supported by 16 different countries, 600 businesses. I mean, it's a pretty big project, managed out in CERN Switzerland. They've been working on this thing, a lot of people for a long time. And today, we got it successfully installed on the space station. It's a great day for science.

SIMON: Cady Coleman, what do you do with your time up there?

Ms. CADY COLEMAN (Flight Engineer): Well, I don't know where the time goes, but I'll tell you it's a very busy place. We've got, like, 130 different experiments running almost at the same time, some of them up here on the space station and then maintaining the space station.

And also maintaining ourselves and doing some of the medical work, some medical experiments. Just to maintain your bone mass, you need to exercise about two hours a day up here. So, I would say every day is a busy day and a great day up here.

SIMON: This might well be your last ride in space. I wonder what your thoughts are as you look down on our earth.

Mr. KELLY: You know, the earth's an incredibly beautiful planet. It's, you know, it's hard to understand sometimes all the conflict in such a beautiful place. You know, it is possible that this is my last flight. You know, this is a really hard thing to give up. It's very exciting to, and it's, to be frank, a big privilege for all of us to have the opportunity to serve our countries in this way. So, it's a tough thing.

You know, but to answer your question, Scott, you know, just looking down, we've got a very fragile and beautiful place to live and we need to take care of it.

SIMON: Do both of you, either of you, have any concern that NASA is no longer going to be leading the way?

Mr. KELLY: You know, I think, you know, NASA is leading the way and will continue to do so. You know, we are the lead partner on the International Space Station and when humans go back to the moon and on to Mars, I'm sure it's going to be the United States and NASA that's leading that as well. As we move into more commercialization of the launch vehicles and getting access to orbit, that's still, you know, NASA that's leading that project and hopefully buying those services.

And this is something, I think, that in the long run could mean, you know, really the expansion of humans accessing space. So, we're pretty excited about the future for NASA.

SIMON: Cady Coleman, when you look down on the Earth, what do you think?

Ms. COLEMAN: You know, you would think after almost six months that I might even be tired of it. And all I'll tell you it's always changing. You know, different kinds of light, just discovering new places. I feel like I've been to these places.

And during my time up here, we've had the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the conflict in Libya and the flooding in the South, lots of things happening on the planet. And it's hard to look at it in that way because when we look from here, it still looks beautiful and somehow remote.

And so, trying to marry up those two things, you know, the reality of how hard life is down on the planet for so many people right now and yet our view is very angelic really. And so, it's hard to marry up those two things. I'm not looking forward to giving that up. It's very hard to give it up.

SIMON: Flight engineer Cady Coleman, Commander Mark Kelly, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KELLY: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.