America's space shuttles might not say "Ryder" on their cargo doors, but for the next 12 months, they'll be little more than galactic moving vans - and NASA couldn't be happier.
The shuttle Atlantis's trip to the International Space Station last week inaugurated a year of unprecedented activity for America's manned-spaceflight program. Along with the Russians, it is planning 15 space-station launches in the coming year - and the four US shuttles are expected to be the workhorses.
For NASA, the prospect of hauling modules and ferrying work crews 230 miles into space has meant a clear sense of purpose, something lacking since 1986 Challenger disaster ended the shuttles' role as the nation's primary satellite-launch system. But this renewed sense of mission also brings with it the threat of increased risk. Indeed, the Russians - veterans of space-station construction and maintenance - are proceeding with more-cautious enthusiasm.
The mood on the International Space Station last week, however, was nothing short of gleeful, as astronauts wielded wrenches and hammers to ready the station for its first live-in crew, which arrives in November.
"It's absolutely beautiful," said Atlantis commander Terrence Wilcutt, describing the Zvezda module after he first floated through its hatch.
The naturally reserved Marine Corps colonel even granted himself the privilege of a sleep-over on the station. He spent at least one night in one of two broom-closet sized state rooms, where astronauts float perpendicular to the deck. It's like "sleeping on the softest mattress you can imagine," he said.
Shuttle pilot Scott Altman, after several days in the cramped quarters of the shuttle's mid-deck and flight deck, marveled at the 13-story space station, an ungainly collection of tubular segments and knobby nodes. "You can get lost in here," he said.
The exuberance goes beyond contentment with the the new space station, though. There is also the feeling throughout NASA that the program has finally uncorked the potential of the space shuttle.
"This is the most intense period of flight operations human spaceflight has ever undertaken," said Jim Van Laak, NASA's deputy space-station program manager. "We're very excited about it, but I think we're all awed by the challenge."
Perhaps the greatest challenge is presented by the sheer number of planned flights. Between now and the station's scheduled completion in 2006, NASA plans to launch 45 shuttle missions and conduct 150 space walks. In 1998, before the first station-related shuttle mission, NASA acknowledged a high degree of probability that there would be at least one catastrophic accident during the construction phase.
NASA is trying to make the program safer, adding 500 new positions, redesigning shuttle systems such as the cockpit and main engines, and refining the training program for spacewalkers.
Still, it is hard not to notice that Russian cosmonauts, who have been included on every space-station shuttle mission thus far, are more muted in their enthusiasm than their American colleagues. It comes from long experience with space stations, dating back to the 1970s.
Sergei Krikalev, a veteran of 15 months aboard the Russian station Mir, which has survived fire, power failures, decompression, and collision with a runaway cargo ship, is a member of the three-man team that will take up residence in the station this fall, and he is succinct in describing his mission.
"We think we will face something unexpected," he said. "We think not all systems are going to work as they are supposed to, or as they have been designed. We are going to face malfunctions."
And it may be more than hardware that malfunctions. Spending four to six months aboard a space station, limited in the number of faces you see, isolated from family and friends, while living and working in an environment that is often noisy and uncomfortable, can lead to other problems.
Mr. Krikalev and American colleague William Shepherd have both been given first-aid training, but officials know they'll have to be flexible.
"We believe that we understand [the challenges arising from these situations], and we're prepared to deal with [them]," says Mr. Van Laak. "But I assure you our responses will change over time."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society