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Endeavour astronauts talk about shuttle coming to L.A.

October 11, 2011 |  8:50 am

Mike Fincke, Greg "Box" Johnson and Drew Feustel, three of the six-member crew of the space shuttle Endeavour, discuss the legacy of the craft at the California Science Center. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles Times)

The California Science Center museum near downtown Los Angeles will formally accept ownership of the retired space shuttle Endeavour on Tuesday morning.

The Times on Monday sat down with three of six crew members aboard Endeavour on its last mission and asked them about the future of the space program and what they thought about their shuttle coming to Los Angeles, rather than Houston, home of NASA's Johnson Space Center and Mission Control.

The three crew members — pilot Greg "Box" Johnson, 49, and mission specialists Mike Fincke, 44, and Drew Feustel, 46 — are expected to join mission commander Mark Kelly for the ceremony.

PHOTOS: Space shuttle history | 1972-2011

This interview is edited for clarity.

Q: Why did you guys come on out here?

Mike Fincke: We're here to give the title to the California Science Center. Mark Kelly said it best when we landed. He said the mission of Endeavour isn't over. It's going to inspire new generations of explorers and this is a beautiful place not too far from where Endeavour was born, right here on the West Coast, to inspire students. It was built in Palmdale, at Rockwell, and Downey.

Q: Where do you think the future of the space program is headed? Do you think you will be able to go into space again?

Fincke: First, we still have a space program. People say they think it's canceled. That's not true.

Greg "Box" Johnson: We have an International Space Station. [During] our flight on Endeavour, STS-134, we completed the assembly of the space station. So the space station, although we've been building it for over a decade, it's now complete. And so now we're going to use that just-completed space station and we're going to go another 10 or 15 years, or maybe even more, with this one-of-a-kind zero gravity laboratory. So there's three people up there right now, and there will be six, and they're up there 24/7. We've had a permanent presence up there since 2000.

Fincke: So there has been 11 years of people being continuously aboard the space station. And we're looking forward to at least 11 more.

Q: Were you the last crew to finish up the station? Did the shuttle after you finish up the station?

Fincke: They were resupply.

Q: So you guys finished the construction.

Fincke: That's exactly it. And their resupply is actually a really neat story. They bought more time by sending up more supplies so that the next generation of cargo ships can go up. These next generation of cargo ships are also going to be able to take human beings upward.

Johnson: There's a lot of civilian contractor companies that are getting involved in the commercialization of space. Which is a natural evolution. Look at airplanes. Airplanes commercialized. They were very rare about a century ago, and now they're commonplace. Hopefully in a century we'll look back and see that everybody's going to space.

Fincke: And airplanes were invented in America. The first airlines were an American innovation. We're hoping to do the same with American innovation in space.

Q: Apart from missions to the space station, where do you hope NASA's missions will go next?

Drew Feustel: So the future of the space program is commercial companies helping to supply vehicles to get the crews to the International Space Station. That's going to allow NASA to focus on building more capability to either go to the moon, or asteroids or ultimately onto Mars. So the focus is trying to take the burden of the routine flights to the space station off of NASA so NASA can develop capabilities further than low-Earth orbit.

Fincke: Yeah, the space shuttle could only go up 300 miles. And we want to go farther.

Johnson: But the new vehicle that SpaceX, and Boeing, and the other companies are competing to develop -- they're going to crack that nut and figure out how to do that so that we don't have to rely on the Russians. Because right now, the Russians are the only [way] we can get to and from the space station.

Q: There was a problem with the Soyuz in August, when an unmanned Russian rocket carrying 6,000 pounds of supplies to the space station crashed after takeoff. Has that issue been resolved?

Fincke: That's what I've been working on for the past couple of weeks. On Oct. 30, the Russians are going to send up another cargo ship just like the last one — well hopefully not just like the last one. I think they figured out the problem. It was an accident in manufacturing. They think they have it figured out, and they're going to launch another Progress.

Q: So it's the Progress, not the Soyuz?

Fincke: In Russia, we have same names for different things. The name of the rocket, the rocket carrier, is called the Soyuz. The name of the capsule that sits on top is also the Soyuz. So they have a Soyuz rocket with a Progress resupply ship, which is the same thing we lost a while back. The Russians think they have that fixed. We're on track for an Oct. 30 launch of the next Progress. If that works out, we'll probably launch the next crew in mid-November.

Q: Do you envision seeing yourselves being able to go up into space?

Answer: Who wants to go back into space? [All three raise their hands.]

Fincke: We're all sticking with the program for now.  We want to go up again.

Johnson: The opportunities to fly in space right now are a little bit more limited than they have been. So when we send one or two Americans every three months, the line is long. So we recognize that. I'm the oldest of the three of us, so I have less time than these guys do. But he [Fincke], by the way, is the American with the most time in space. He's spent 382 days in space.

Q: How would you guys foresee yourselves going into space again? Aboard a Soyuz rocket?

Feustel: We have two options. Right now the space station crews are assigned out to 2014. So it's feasible that one of us could be assigned to a space station flight on the Russian rocket after 2014 or 2015. It's also feasible that by 2015, '16 or '17, the private companies like SpaceX or Boeing or Sierra Nevada or Blue Origins will have a vehicle online that we can fly to the space station with them.

Johnson: And we've had periods of time like this in the space program before. When Apollo ended, there was a gap. And then, Skylab, there was a gap. There's been gaps in the space program. Patience is a virtue, and we keep working at it. We'll get back in our own vehicle eventually. It will just take a while.

Q: I want to get your views on the space shuttle selection process. Did any of you think Houston should've gotten a space shuttle?

Johnson: Of course. Trouble is, there's not enough space shuttles to go around. I know there's a lot of logic going into the thinking. We have a bunch of smart people. The space shuttle was born here in California. There's a population center here in California.

Fincke: This is a bastion of aerospace.

Johnson: So it's a great choice. Did Houston want to have a shuttle? Of course they did. But there were a lot of other places that wanted a space shuttle as well. If we could've had all five -- [laughter].

Fincke: Endeavour saved her best flight for the last. She had no anomalies. Essentially, no anomalies on the mission. She's a beautiful, clean bird. She gave it all so that we had an almost flawless mission. And now we know Endeavour is going to a good home. And like Mark Kelly said, her mission is not over.

Q: What do you think is the legacy of both Endeavour and the space shuttle program? Both the positives and also the negatives. The space shuttle was intended to go on for many more flights than it actually did.

Feustel: The legacy is the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. That's the legacy. And those are the things that are going to live on for many many more years. The shuttle did what it was intended to do. It was a cargo vehicle. It was a lot like a pickup truck in its ability to take things to space and return them. To take astronauts to the Hubble Space Telescope to repair it.

I think the root of your question is, how do we feel about its retirement? Was it the right thing? I think we all believe it was the right thing because we want to do more. Because we don't have the resources or the people or the  finances to support to be able to support that program, the space station program, and some future follow-on missions that allow us to go past low-Earth orbit.

And that's what need to do as a space-faring nation and species. Humans need to learn to live off of this planet. And in order to do that, we need to go past the orbit of the space station. In order to do that, we need money and humans to be able to fly that program. And now is the time to retire the shuttle after it's done its job, which was to build the space station.

Johnson: And I'll continue by saying, it is bittersweet. He cited the positives. But it's sad for us. I'm a professional shuttle pilot. And it's disappointing for me that I won't ever to get to fly the shuttle again. And I know it's disappointing for all of us. However, once again, whatever is out on the horizon is going to be exciting, and we want to do it.

And I would not say that the shuttle has been a disappointment. Some people say, well, it was designed to have, what, 12 flights a year and all these other great ideas. Those are grandiose ideas that happen at the beginning of the program when you look forward. And any complex technical expedition will cost much more than expected, very likely. And what you gain from those expeditions is unknown.

And I'd like to cite the Lewis and Clark expedition. Their budget was $2,500 and their mission was to find the Northwest passage. And they spent $32,000 and they didn't find it. And the politicians at the time might have thought that it was a failure. But we know that's completely false. And the space station, space shuttles are expensive. It's hard to go to space. And the way we find that out is by going to do that.

Q: There was a lot of disappointment in Houston when the White House in 2010 canceled the Constellation program, which was to return humans to the moon by 2020.  If it was up to you, where would you want the next deep space mission to go?

Fincke: NASA has reorganized how we're going to go beyond low-Earth orbit. So any of those disappointments, or whatever, those are all in the past. We have a new big rocket coming called the SLS [Space Launch System]. We'll think of a really sexy name for it in the future.

And we have a capsule called the multipurpose crew vehicle -- the Orion capsule. I want to take it to an asteroid or to the moon. When I first signed up for the program I thought I was going to fly in the space shuttle, and then I thought I was going to go to the moon. I flew with the Russians twice aboard the space station and flew only once on the space shuttle, but the moon is still out there, calling to us. I think it'd be great to help build a base with these guys on the moon.

But the nice thing about our new architecture — it's flexible. It can go to the moon, it can go to an asteroid, and eventually to Mars.

Q: From the same rocket?

Fincke: From the same rocket. I mean, that's beautiful. We're also looking at doing things in high-Earth orbit.  It gives us all these options that we don't have now. And I'll go on any one of those missions.

Q: Is there anything else you want to say?

Fincke: I'm an aerospace engineer. There is not an aerospace vehicle ever like the space shuttle. And Endeavour is in my mind the crown jewel of the fleet. It's the newest one. And this is my opinion — everybody else will have their own opinion — it was almost a flawless mission. There's never been a spaceship like this before, and for a long time, there won't be.

So the kids, the parents, here in California, are really lucky to have a chance to spend time with Endeavour. And I hope that they get inspired as much as we are and look forward to the future. And look forward to engineering and science and math — and all those really cool things that are embodied in such a sexy spacecraft.


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Photo: Mike Fincke, Greg "Box" Johnson and Drew Feustel, three of the six-member crew of the space shuttle Endeavour, discuss the legacy of the craft at the California Science Center. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times