JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, TEXAS — There's an Air Force test pilot, a triathlete, a Japanese engineer, a lead guitarist in a rock band, an Aussie named Andy, and a scientist from Queens who holds seven patents. And wrangling them all together is the commander they call "mom."
These are the astronauts of shuttle Discovery - America's "return to space" crew. Most of them have been working together on this mission for years, becoming one of the best-prepared shuttle crews in history. They've also had longer than most to bond.
That's because the majority of the group was one month away from liftoff when their ride to the International Space Station, the shuttle Columbia, disintegrated over east Texas Feb. 1, 2003. Since then, NASA has been studied from the inside out, its purpose questioned, and its mission restructured.
For the astronaut corps, the time has also been one of deep soul searching. They say the Columbia disaster has taught them a bit more about their fallibility and a lot more about their commitment to space exploration.
The accident "affected different people in different ways," says Discovery's commander, Eileen Collins. "For me, I rededicated myself to our mission. But I will always be mindful of actions that can have ultimate consequences."
While the mission will only be 12 days, the astronauts will have much to do. They will be delivering much-needed supplies to the space station, performing maneuvers never done before in space, and testing new safety measures for future flights. But most important, they will be heralding from the heavens America's return to space.
With all the varied tasks the astronauts do, it's natural to wonder what goes into the picking of a shuttle crew. NASA says it considers the mission goals and objectives, and then matches the astronauts' skills to the chores at hand.
For instance, if there will be a lot of external repairs, an astronaut who is adept at spacewalking will likely get chosen. Or if there are plans for heavy use of the robot arm, someone who is good at maneuvering the mechanism might be picked.
But there is much more to it than that, experts say. Politics, personality, and position also play a role in selecting a crew. In fact, during the Apollo missions, crew selection was as secret as "picking the next pope," says Alex Roland, a space historian at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
While the characteristics that make a good astronaut are constantly being refined, NASA has long understood some of the key traits: highly skilled and willing to constantly hone those skills, a strong leader and good follower, a risk-taker who knows his or her own limits, unflappable, patient, and easy to get along with.
Indeed, making sure they get along in a group is something the space agency is only just beginning to fully grasp.
It's not as important when picking a shuttle crew that may only be in space a week or two. But with US participation in the International Space Station and plans to return to the moon and then Mars, being cooped up in a tin can for months, even years, requires more attention to the psychological dimensions of space travel.
"The social and psychological character of astronauts is rarely, if ever, taken into consideration when putting together a shuttle crew," says Lawrence Palinkas, a professor in the department of family and preventative medicine at the University of California at San Diego and an adviser to NASA. "That's because shuttle missions last between seven to 14 days and most of your personal quirks can at least be tolerated by fellow crew members for that long."
While NASA has been quietly trying to learn about interpersonal relations in space from past moments of friction among astronauts, the Russians have been actively studying the issue for decades. From the moment a crew is chosen, the cosmonauts begin living together. They are then sent to Siberia for team-building and survival training.
There have even been changes in staffing after Russian space officials discovered that certain cosmonauts did not work well together. That's important because "when interpersonal problems arise, you can't go back," says Sheryl Bishop, an expert in extreme-environment social psychology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. "NASA has not gone far enough, but at least there is a tacit awareness that they have to deal with this messy human stuff."
On May 1, she participated in a Mars Desert Society project in Utah, which, among other things, will probe how well people work together in isolated environments. Another group-interaction study is being conducted by Jack Stuster, a psychologist in Santa Barbara, Calif.
He is asking US astronauts aboard the International Space Station to log their personal thoughts in an electronic journal, which is privately reviewed by Dr. Stuster, vice president of Anacapa Sciences Inc. in Santa Barbara.
He says the astronauts who have participated thus far have been very candid in their comments. "Group interaction is still No. 1 when it comes to an astronaut's concerns," says Stuster. "Whether you are a part-time scientist, an engineer, or a pilot, you're still a human relating to another human - and that's full time."
For their part, the seven members of the Discovery crew say they get along well and display a fondness for one another in personal interactions. "The only thing that makes me sad is that someday this crew is going to break up," says one of them, Charlie Camarda.
They also say being the first group up after the Columbia disaster doesn't cause them much anxiety. Right now, their biggest concern is making sure they haven't overlooked anything and are prepared for liftoff. "Up until launch, we will continue to ask ourselves, 'What did we miss?' " says Jim Kelly, Discovery's pilot. In private, his prayer is much simpler: "Dear Lord, please don't let me screw this up."
But second thoughts may come closer at T minus 10 seconds, says Norman Thagard, one of the first astronauts back in space after the 1986 Challenger accident. He says the first mission after an accident is usually the safest, but that didn't stop his last-minute butterflies.
"Just as we were coming out of our last hold before liftoff, there were a few seconds of wondering why I was doing it," says Dr. Thagard. "But that passed and I began to get more and more excited. I didn't want anything to stop the launch."