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Astronauts return home from amazing flight

The crew of STS-124 returns home to Houston, from left to right: Mark Kelly, Ken Ham, Karen Nyberg, Ron Garan, Mike Fossum, Aki Hoshide and space station flight engineer Garrett Reisman.
June 16, 2008 — "Exciting." "Incredible." "Phenomenal." "Amazing." Such were the words chosen by the STS-124 crew to describe their mission to the International Space Station, where they delivered the Japanese Kibo module, the largest science laboratory to be added to the outpost, before returning to Earth Saturday and home to Houston on Sunday. The seven astronauts shared their incredible and amazing experiences with a crowd of several hundred friends, colleagues, family members and the public who gathered to celebrate their homecoming at Ellington Field.

"We're really happy to be home," said commander Mark Kelly. "It was a very exciting mission for all of us. It was especially... a great privilege to be involved in a mission that has such an international cooperation aspect to it."

"And really, as far as the space program is concerned, I think it is kind of a historic event, the partnership between the United States and Japan with the space station is something that made this mission extra exciting for all of us," he said.

"We got to grapple the JEM [Japanese Experiment Module], the Kibo module, with the space station robotic arm and got it installed on the space station," described Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Aki Hoshide. "The very next day, we got it activated, opened the hatch, went in and I guess you all saw what happened inside with all of us in there, we had a great party for a brief moment," he said of their acrobatics in the large lab, which had been broadcast to the ground.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide
"And then we want back to work and the next day. We got some [science] racks in and pretty much all of the racks we transferred that day, so that big empty module became a laboratory. It wasn't activated yet but sure enough it is ready to go now," Hoshide stated proudly.

"The Japanese folks have been waiting for [this moment for] 20 plus years. The dedication and hard work that the people that manufactured that module, the flight controllers back in Tskuba in Japan, who is probably on console right now, and also the training folks who prepared us for this mission, I'd like to say thank you for them."

The incredible, phenomenal ride to orbit

"What a fantastic journey! I don't think I have the words to describe it, especially being an engineer. It is probably impossible to describe," said mission specialist Karen Nyberg, who was the 50th woman to launch into space.

"The ride up, absolutely incredible."

Pilot Ken Ham and mission specialist Karen Nyberg
Pilot Ken Ham, who like Nyberg was making his first trip to orbit, agreed with his crewmate.

"I've been in the Navy for a little over 20 years. Probably spent eight years flying strike fighters, four years testing airplanes and another 10 here [at Johnson Space Center], hearing from other flight crews what it is like to go into orbit, and ride that ride, if you will. And I think I've heard all the stories. And I had an imagination in my mind what it was going to be like but the actual experience was so much more," Ham recalled.

"We're sitting on the launch pad, and my window points east, towards the Atlantic. Beautiful sunny day, sitting up there, looking out the window, watching the waves and the seagulls. Those poor seagulls had no idea what was about to break loose. Those engines lit and seven million pounds of thrust was phenomenal. We rolled over on our back, I checked the engines for about a half a second and then I looked out the window again. And it seemed like in a blink of an eye, the sky turned black and I was looking at the coast of North Carolina, which has got to be a 200 mile trip up the coast in a blink of an eye. It was phenomenal. And the Gs just continue to build. And over that eight minute ride to orbit you get this sensation that you are going really, really fast."

And then the engines shut off.

"After MECO [main engine cut off], we have a lot of things to do and I got really busy and at one point, we had flown into night. And I looked down through the front window, because we were in a nose-down attitude at one point, and I saw some city lights in the darkness, which is a view I have never had before. I think it might have been Spain, I'm not sure. And I saw a couple of meteors go by below us and all of sudden you get this reality that you're in orbit. It's pretty cool," said Ham.

The 'simply amazing' space station

"The space station is absolutely amazing and I wish all of you could get up there to look at it. It is hard to realize exactly how amazing it is until you see it with your own eyes," recounted Nyberg.

"I'll echo the words that Karen said, it is just an incredible facility," said spacewalker Ron Garan. "It is just amazing that humanity has created this wonderful orbital laboratory and from the moment we opened the hatch and floated inside it was apparent that we were in a very, very special place."

"I had the very fortunate opportunity to be able to ride the space station's robotic arm over the top of the station in a complete arc," said Garan of a part of his third spacewalk that had been nicknamed by controllers as the 'windshield wiper' maneuver.

"Just looking down on this made-made structure and the beauty of it, knowing what it was designed to do and the benefits that the world is going to reap from this creation was just amazing against the backdrop of the beautiful Earth and the darkness of space. It was just the most amazing moment, I think, of my life, was to see this all come together."

STS-124 spacewalkers Ron Garan and Mike Fossum
Garan's spacewalking partner, Mike Fossum, expressed similar thoughts about the station.

"There it is in its stark beauty, hanging in the vacuum of space, with this disturbing kind of blue and white and sometimes green and brown ball rotating underneath it. It takes your breath away and you really don't have much breath to spare. Simply amazing."

The phenomenal, amazing sights of space

"A few days before we went into quarantine, a fifth grader at Ward Elementary School, just south of Ellington Field here, asked me what the stars look like when I am out on a spacewalk," said Fossum. "And he stumped me. I don't get stumped very often but I had never seen the stars because I had never been away from lights and turned off my helmet lights."

"And for him, I wish I remembered his name, I did have that opportunity. I was out on one of the remote corners of the space station and there's no lights out there. It is kind of dark and lonely. I turned off my helmet lights, which is not normally an advisable thing to do, and I just looked up to see the stars. How stark and clear they were, instead of through multiple layers of glass on the station and the shuttle, just through a couple of thin layers of plexiglas in your helmet. To see the stars bright and vivid, to see the MIlky Way, just so clear and easy to distinguish. To see the couple of planets and the Moon hanging there, it was amazing."

Fossum paused once more during his last spacewalk to appreciate an orbital sunrise.

"I kind of hung at the bottom of that airlock and watched as the horizon showed the first signs of gray, and it's a large piece of the horizon. And then you see the blues start to creep in, and pretty soon it is the yellows and reds are starting to build as it is beginning to turn into this big thick layer with lots of colors. And suddenly the Sun comes just exploding up! It is just this brilliant white thing that washes out the colors. It was just phenomenal."

"I do have to say about the colors there is still some disagreement on the crew that the most predominant one of those reds is a kind of funny burnt orange or maroon, if you catch my drift," said Fossum with a smile, giving out a 'Whoop!' to his fellow Texas A&M University 'Aggies' in the crowd.

Exceeding expectations

"A lot of people ask me, 'What was it like on station for three months? Did it meet your expectations?'," Garrett Reisman said, having returned with the STS-124 crew on space shuttle Discovery after 95 days in space. "And the answer is, no. It vastly exceeded my expectations, in many, many different ways."

"That is not to say it was always easy, especially when our toilet broke. You know, 'A tree, a tree, my station for a tree!' but we got through that and I have many, many cherished moments and some really wonderful times that I experienced aboard the station."

"Some of that time was after dinner, on just a typical day," explained Reisman. "On a daily basis I would finish up, say good night to my crewmates, and head over to the American side to go to sleep. And as I be floating through, I felt good about the day, the day was over, I had accomplished all my tasks, and as I come down the adapter that joins the American to the Russian sides of the station, I would shoot down this kind of like a ramp and there would be a handrail there that I could grab and then snap off of for a few somersaults on my way to bed. I can tell you that is one of the most fun things to do all the time."

Garrett Reisman: "A tree, a tree, my station for a tree!"
Reisman, who said several times just before returning to Earth that he missed his wife the most, turned his focus to another of his sources for support.

"I am not going to get all mushy about my wife Simone, I'm not going to do it, I'm just not, cause I have already embarrassed the heck out of her in public too much, but instead I'm going to get mushy about my crewmates, if you will indulge me for a moment. And I had 19 of them!"

"You know I was really lucky to fly with these 19 people and I really, really value the time I spent with all of them. It was such a good group and I got so lucky, not only to fly in space and to be on the space station, but much more important than what I did, was who I got to do it with and I was really, really, fortunate," said Reisman of the STS-123 crew he launched with, the Expedition 16 and 17 astronauts and cosmonauts he lived on the station with, and the STS-124 crew with whom he returned to Earth.

"To be a part of this crew, and Mark and everybody make me feel so comfortable even before the hatches opened and integrated, it was really special. I think over the past two weeks we had several moments when we laughed so hard that we would have fallen down, if we could've fallen down."

"Those moments, along with spacewalking and robotics are some of the really precious moments. So thank you for ending my mission on such a high note and for hanging out with me and having such a good time while we did it," said Reisman.

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