An Iowa native will be piloting the space shuttle Discovery when it lifts off this afternoon at 2:51, NASA’s key “Return to Flight” mission. Hundreds of schoolkids will watch the launch projected live at the Science Center of Iowa’s “Star Theatre” dome.
Kristian Anderson, the center’s space science educator, says the space agency has made numerous important changes since the February 2003 crash of the shuttle Columbia. Anderson says “People need to remember that spaceflight is risky, it is dangerous and it’s never routine and it probably never will be routine like airline travel. If we try to make it perfectly safe, then we’ll never get off the ground and we’ll never get anywhere. Think back to times when we were settling our country. If things were perfectly safe, those wagon trains never would have gone west.”
Shuttles haven’t flown since the Columbia disaster that killed all seven astronauts. While two-and-a-half years is a long time in the lifetime of a child, Anderson says kids in central Iowa haven’t lost their affection and obsession for the final frontier. He says kids are always interested in space exploration and space travel and events like today’s help to maintain the excitement, adding, most kids are interested in at least one of two things: dinosaurs or space exploration.
This will be the second space mission for Burlington native Jim Kelly, Discovery’s pilot. Anderson says Kelly is the latest space hero from the Hawkeye State. He says there’s a sense of pride in Iowa, sending a native son into space, but he points out another astronaut, Peggy Whitson of Mount Ayr, lived aboard the International Space Station for several months a few years back. Whitson was the first Iowa woman in space.
Besides Kelly and Whitson, three other astronauts from Iowa have flown aboard space shuttles: George Nelson of Charles City, David Hilmers of Clinton and Loren Shriver of Jefferson. Also, back in 1968, Walter Cunningham of Creston flew aboard Apollo 7.