- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

HOUSTON (AP) — Eileen Collins, commander of the shuttle Discovery and the only mother on board, has been sending messages every day from space to her young son and daughter.

The e-mail is calm and reassuring, “telling them what I’m doing and telling them that I love them and that I miss them and not to worry about us.”

Nine-year-old Bridget is old enough to think about what happened to the Columbia astronauts. But her dad has shielded her and her 4-year-old brother, Luke, as much as possible from some of the periodically unsettling news that has come during Discovery’s mission.

“I don’t want them to be worried,” said Mrs. Collins’ husband, Pat Youngs, an airline pilot.

It’s been an emotional and bumpy ride for the families of Discovery’s astronauts, “almost like a soap opera,” Mr. Youngs said yesterday.

At the International Space Station yesterday, it was far from a soap opera, with Discovery’s astronauts fulfilling the tedious task of filling a cargo container with a 21/2-year backlog of trash and old, broken equipment and transferring it into the shuttle for return to Earth Monday.

It was their biggest task of the day, coming just one day after NASA cleared Discovery to come home and one day before today’s departure from the space station. The contents of the cargo container, which was slowly anchored into the shuttle’s payload bay by a robot arm, will either be junked once it’s back on Earth or returned to engineers for analysis.

One call from Mission Control went unanswered for a few minutes as the astronauts worked.

“Sorry to ignore you,” astronaut Stephen Robinson radioed as the crew secured items in large white bags. “We all have our heads down in bags.”

NASA yesterday gave the go-ahead for Discovery to return to Earth, concluding there was no need to send the astronauts out on another spacewalk to repair a torn thermal blanket near a cockpit window.

Mission managers could not guarantee that a piece of the blanket wouldn’t rip and slam into the spacecraft during re-entry, but said the chances were slim.

“We have assessed the risk to the very best of our engineering knowledge and we believe that it is remote, small, whatever adjective you want to put with that,” deputy shuttle program Manager Wayne Hale said. “And the remedy that might be called for to try to make this better would be worse.”

Mr. Youngs is satisfied that all of the shuttle problems have been addressed and he is confident of a safe homecoming for his wife and her six crewmates.

Nonetheless, his daughter knows about the big piece of foam that came off Discovery’s fuel tank and during liftoff, and she has watched the mission’s spacewalks on NASA TV, including the one to repair Discovery’s thermal shielding.

Mr. Youngs, who flies Boeing 767s for Delta Air Lines, has been apprehensive each time his wife has returned from space and he expects Monday’s re-entry to be no different.

Astronaut Wendy Lawrence’s stepfather also expects to be nervous.

“In light of the fact that previous shuttle was a disaster, of course there’s some level of anxiety. This is a very dangerous environment and NASA knows that,” said Ralph Haynes of Junction City, Ore.

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