Iowa native Jim Kelly says his thoughts were on the lost crew of the space shuttle Columbia when he piloted the shuttle Discovery back to earth earlier today (Tuesday). The Columbia disintegrated as it made its way back to earth two-and-a-half years ago, and Kelly, a native of Burlington, says he knew just a moment’s hestitation when the mission’s commander hit the switch for landing. “For me, there was a moment of trepidation right before Eileen hit the execute…because once you do that, you’re coming home. You can’t stay up after that point,” Kelly says. He also had a “moment of reflection, thinking about the Columbia crew…wishing they’d made it all the way home.”Kelly says that moment of reflection is to be expected because he’s “only human.” Kelly did adjust what he looked at during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, when the Columbia broke apart, checking to make sure the things that happened to Columbia weren’t happening to Discovery’s jets, props and other systems. “I had that display up to watch it longer than I normally would…to see if there were any warning signs coming, whether or not you could do anything about it,” he says. One of the other astronauts said flying the shuttle, for Kelly, was like flying a jet by watching television. After landing, Kelly paid tribute to those he worked with on the ground as he flew Discovery. “We’re the tip of the pyramid of thousands and thousands of people and you can’t sit up here without trusting the folks (who) put the vehicle underneath you,” Kelly says. “We had a much better idea on this flight of what kind of shape we were in and we owe that to the Columbia crew and the sacrifice that they made that we were able to have the sensors and the pictures and all these maneuvers to make sure we were fine.” Kelly says what he’ll miss most about being on the shuttle is just watching the world go by. But he’ll also miss the exhilaration of the high-intensity work atmosphere. “Flying in space and doing the things that we trained to do on the ground…and translating that in space can be very difficult, very rewarding, very challenging and especially in this mission where we had a lot of, you know, game-day changes in what we were doing,” Kelly says. “I really thrive on the challenge. That’s one fo the reasons I really love this job.” For example, after about a day of preparation while in flight, Kelly ran the robotic arm that helped astronauts examine the outer surface of the shuttle. At those moments and others, his fellow astronauts and NASA workers on the ground referred to him not as Kelly, or Jim, but “Vegas.” During a news conference in California, where the shuttle landed, a reporter from Las Vegas asked Kelly about his nickname. Kelly says it’s a “call sign” he picked up when he was a military pilot. Once a pilot in the military earns his combat-ready designation, he or she gets nicknamed just after they return from their first assignment. Kelly’s first assignment was in Korea, and with a sticky political situation underway during that time, he and the other pilots in his squadron spent most of their time on the ground, playing poker. “I ended up being relatively lucky on that trip, so that’s where it comes from,” Kelly explained.
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