Atlantis astronauts discuss misson, NASA's future

July 15, 2011 3:19:57 PM PDT
Just a few days are left in the final flight of the space shuttle Atlantis, the last space shuttle mission ever.

The crew is delivering supplies to the International Space Station, but the mission has not been totally problem free.

Early Friday morning, a computer problem crept up. The astronauts were asleep at the time, but they woke up to an alarm and had to switch up some computers that control their guidance systems on board and got it fixed.

The only real issue is if another computer goes, then they might have a real serious problem and might have to cut short the mission. But no one is anticipating that will be a problem.

For days, the shuttle crews shuttled cargo into the space station, tons of cargo that will supply the orbiting lab for the next year.

But on Friday, they got a break from the back-breaking work to talk with all of us left at home.

They were asked if they had any real concerns about being the last astronauts to leave American soil for a while.

"There are plans underway, we'll be slowly transitioning to commercial companies," Shuttle Atlantis Commander Chris Ferguson said. "It's a little personally disheartening to see the shuttle end. We understand sometimes you need to stop working on what you're working on so you can afford to pay for the next generation of whatever it is and in this case it's the next generation of aircraft."

They even took a call from President Barack Obama, who used his time to remind the nation he has future plans for U.S. astronauts.

"I've tasked NASA with an ambitious new mission to develop the systems and the kind of space technologies that are going to be necessary to conduct exploration beyond Earth and ultimately sending humans to Mars," he told the astronauts.

It's a goal with which this crew would be fine. They just want the country to pick a space goal and stick to it. From 246 miles above Washington, they told reporters they want to keep politics out of space.

"If there is one thing that we could do to focus, if you will, efforts, is to just appeal to Congress to focus on the long term," Ferguson said.

Ferguson also said he hopes Congress will find a way to stick with a 10 to 15 year plan for the space program, rather than focusing on one or two years at a time.

But for right now, it's not all serious. This crew knows it has the best seat in the galaxy to look down at all of us. And look at some of what they saw last night.

"I had a chance to look out the cupula, which is a great window and we can see the aurora, the Southern Lights. We all kinda crowded around and got to see that," shuttle astronaut Rex Walheim said.

The Southern Lights with the shuttle in the foreground, it doesn't get much better than this.

"There's a little part of everyone who looks at something like that and says I cannot believe we're here. This is absolutely fantastic. We absolutely must continue this and we must go beyond," Ferguson said.

As the atmosphere collides with some solar wind, that charges up and creates the Southern Lights.

The shuttle is set to return to Earth next week.


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