TheyÂ've been soaring through space for more than a week, the astronauts who are putting together the two first components of the space station. When the mission is finally complete, with 90 more launches over 5 years, the world will have its first outer space laboratory: a 460-ton work and living station that will help pave the way for future exploration of the universe.
Correspondent Rita Braver takes CBS News Sunday Morning behind the scenes to talk with the astronauts, their families, and the men and women who are coordinating the effort to forge the new frontier. Her report follows:
At The Outpost, the local Houston honkytonk where hip young NASA design engineers hang out, they know just how much is at risk every time one of the astronauts ventures out to walk in space.
Just ask Bill Duff, who designs space suits: "If an astronaut gets a nick in his glove, his suit could depressurize and his blood could start to boil."
But, at least on the surface, the astronauts who stepped into the cosmos this week to lay the cornerstone of man's future in space are laid-back and relaxed.
They call themselves the dog team, using nicknames like "Underdog" and "Pluto." Commander Bob Cabana, a colonel in the U.S. Marines, is "Mighty Dog." They are NASA's elite.
Says Cabana, "I just wanted to fly airplanes, ever since I was a little kid...I remember going down to the Cape to see Apollo 13 launch and seeing these Saturn 4 rockets stacked to go up to the moon and I just couldn't believe that one day I could do something like that."
Says Currie, "When Bob called me, the words he said were, 'How would you like to go fly?' and I said 'Great. Where are we going?' And he said 'space.' And he caught me so offguard, because I would never have, in my wildest dreams, imagined I would be put on a mission like this."
But Currie, Cabana, and their teammates this week opened a new frontier in space, putting together the first two sections of the international space station, the huge, orbiting laboratory and living space that the U.S. is building piece by piece, with help from 15 other nations. When it's finished in about 5 years, it will glow as brightly as a star.
Frank Culbertson is in charge of coordinating it all:
Braver: "How big is it gonna be? How much will it weigh?"
Culbertson: "It's going to weigh about 500 tons in all, and this is longer than a football field, wider than a football field. While they're living hre, they'll be doing research and engineering projects to improve our knowledge and hopefully make some basic discoveries that will improve our lives here on Earth."
What passes for a private room on the space station amounts to a tiny compartment where space voyagers will sleep - vertically - heads velcroed in place.
But making it all work will take precision timing and intensive training.
Currie did what had never been done before. She used a robot arm to scoop the American node from the belly of the shuttle Endeavour and mate it to the Zarya, the Russian capsule that had been launched into orbit a month ago. It was a maneuver she rehearsed hundreds of times.
Adds Cabana, "And then Nancy's got about a minute and a half to grab it."
Explains Currie, "Very crudely speaking, you need to slap the two elements together."
Concludes Cabana, "And once that happens, it's just, you know, it's gonna feel good."
And, boy, did it ever! But the final connections have to be made by hand, by astronauts doing the exhausting and delicate work of space walking. You saw Jerry Ross and Jim Newman up there this week. But did you know that they'd spent hundreds of hours practicing in their 6-1/2-million-gallon pool?
Ross: "The spacesuits we wear in the pool are basically identical to the ones we wear on orbit."
By the time the shuttle is built, astronauts will have walked in the hostile environs of space for 1,700 hours, twice as long as all previous U.S. spacewalks combined.
Ross and Newman know their lives depend on the designers who construct their gear, and no one cares more than space-glove engineer Amy Ross, Jerry's daughter.
"These gloves have to be able to touch things that are cold and hot. It's a vacuum, first of all. There's no air, and we did have to add heaters to the gloves," Amy Ross says, adding:
"I won't send a new glove design into space without me knowing that it's not gonna hurt my dad. Dad is known for having these weird thumbs. What I'm waiting for are glove comments to tell you the truth. I'm waiting to hear, 'Hey, Amy, these gloves are great' which he hasn't told me yet because he's always [saying]...'After the flight, then I'll tell you how the gloves work'."
Karen Ross, wife of Jerry, mother of Amy, works at NASA too, making astronaut food. Like everyone else at Johnson Space Center, this is a family that deeply believes in the righteousness of the space station idea.
"The world," says Karen Ross, "really hasn't ever cooperated in any one single peaceful task like the international space station program."
But everyone at Johnson Space Center also knows that there are plenty of critics out there who say that the space station is too expensive. The U.S. contribution alone will be $54 billion, and there have been years of cost overruns.
Says CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood, "The critics would argue that te science that's going to come out of the space station can never justify this amount of money. In my view, they don't need a space station as sophisticated as this one to do what they need to do, to go to the moon or to Mars. But it's also the only game in town. If you take the space station out of the picture...you have no manned spaceflight program in this country."
As Culbertson sees it, "You have to take a step, and you have to do something important in order to give your children a future. This space station, at the gut level to me, is giving our children a future in space."
So the dog team knows that there is no real margin for error, that every move every crew member makes in space is critical. It will take at least 45 manned launches to complete the station. As always, as the Challenger disaster reminded us all, the beginning of the mission, the actual launch, is the most dangerous.
That's why space station crews go through hundreds of simulations, preparing for the worst. As Currie explains: "It's not that they anticipate the orbiter falling apart around you. It's, can you handle the stress?"
What would a launch feel like?
Culbertson says: "Initially, there's a lot of shaking and vibrating, and it's hard to read the gauges, and you're being pushed back in your seat. And then it's like being rear-ended by a freight train. The acceleration stops so quick ...and you jerk forward in your seat and everything's floating. But you're going 17,000 miles an hour, and you're in space."
But when you're out there, the hardest is part is thinking about your loved ones on the ground. Before Currie's first launch, she worried if she didn't come back, would her 7-year-old daughter understand why her mother had believed it was so important to venture into space?
Currie says: "So I wrote that all down, and I handed it to my best friend in a letter and I said, 'Be sure you hand me this letter back when I land safely back at the Kennedy,' which she did. ...but I continue to do that, because I want her to hear in my own words why I felt like I took the risks I took."
And when we finally we got to talk to the astronauts, as they zoomed through space, it was clear that they all felt the risks were worth it.
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