The crew on the current mission to the International Space Station has been training together for five years and Commander Mark Polansky says its members are a like a second family to each other. Five of the seven crew members are first-time flyers. This is Commander Polansky's second flight.
Commander Mark Polansky
Polansky knows what to expect and he is excited about sharing the thrill with the rookies on his team.
"I am so looking forward to the opportunity to expand the club, if you want to call it that. So I hope it is more and more frequent that people get to do this, I would love everybody to get to experience this. For those five individuals who have worked really hard, it will be very satisfying to me personally to watch them smile when they first get to see the Earth from up in space."
Mission Specialist Joan Higginbotham
One of the rookies on this flight is Mission Specialist Joan Higginbotham. She is one of the two African American astronauts on this team, and she knows for many young girls she is a role model.
"I always tell people I am not necessarily an intentional role model. I try to live my life so that I do a good job. I try to be a good citizen. I try to work hard; I try not to embarrass my parents or my family, that kind of thing. In those things, if there is something that someone can look at me and say I like this aspect of her, I would like to emulate that, I think that is wonderful."
This is Robert Curbeams second flight. He is carrying the load on spacewalks, because he is scheduled for all three of them. It will be a grueling pace, but he says he is ready for it.
"I don't find it very physically tiring. I find it mentally exhausting. There is so much to think about. There are no-touch areas. There are keep-out zones. Then, of course, you have to remember the tasks you are doing, the order in which to do it, what's good, what's bad, what's indifferent, what you are supposed to be looking out for. My brain is just fried when it is done."
Sunita Williams is hitching a ride up to the International Space Station on this shuttle flight. She will be one of the spacewalkers, and she says those spacewalks may look easy on TV, but the training is intense and the spacesuit that keeps an astronaut alive also makes a spacewalk difficult.
"I think what you have to remember is the spacesuit is pretty big and bulky, and it needs to be that way because it is its own spacecraft. So to keep that in mind. You are not on an umbilical which is giving you oxygen or coolant from the space station. All of that is provided from your backpack, which is called the personal life support system. … It has to also withstand radiation and micrometeriorite protection with you inside of it. Parts of it are very hard. It's made out of a very hard plastic. And then there is a rubber bladder, which is keeping it pressurized. So the suit is at a differential pressure than the outside vacuum environments. So it is pretty stiff to work in. It's a great suit. It's protecting you; you have a beautiful view outside of your visor. But the suit is very big and very heavy and hard to work in."
Christer Fuglesang is the first Swedish astronaut to fly into space. He wasn't sure what to anticipate most, because the list is so long.
"The first thing I am looking forward to is the solid rocket boosters, when they light up and you know you are going. The next one, 8½ minutes later, main engines cut off and you are in space, and weightlessness. You soon see outside, and you see the Earth passing by underneath. And I am sure I will spend a lot of free time -- there won't be a lot of free time, but some of it -- watching Earth. And the highlights for me are the spacewalks."
Nicholas Patrick will be working night and day on the complicated robotics critical to this mission. He says he is aware of the risks of space flight, but he believes the rewards make the risks seem worthwhile.
"Space flight will always be risky business. It was a risky business before Columbia, as well. It is just, as you say, we weren't quite as aware of it. I think the rewards are huge, both personal and national. Everybody gets something out of space flight; I don't worry about the risks at all. I think what I worry about actually is whether I will remember what I am trained to do right when I need to remember them."
Shuttle Pilot Bill Oefelein
Shuttle Pilot Bill Oefelein once was a baggage handler for an airline in Alaska. One day he will command a shuttle, and he hopes even to fly the next generation space vehicle going to the moon. He wants to know what else is out there.
"I am sure we are going to find some pretty neat things. We know some of the things that are out there. And we just hope that we can find them, and continue to expand, and make ourselves smarter, and bring all those benefits of exploration back to the betterment of all people's lives on Earth."