Atlantis pilot:
shuttle 'too valuable to discard'

Friday, October 11, 2002 Posted: 5:00 PM EDT (2100 GMT)

Portrait of Pam Melroy
Pam Melroy is the lead spacewalk choreographer and serves as the backup robot arm operator.

(CNN)—Before astronaut Pam Melroy blasted off with five crewmates on October 7, the space shuttle pilot talked to CNN Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien about how it feels to fly into orbit. Melroy, an Air Force colonel, became the third woman to pilot a shuttle when she rode aboard Discovery in 2000.

Miles O'Brien: What do you remember about your last space shuttle flight?

Pam Melroy: I tried to recall my training because it was the only thing that was keeping me grounded in reality. I had performed the drills 500 times in a simulator, so I went into automatic mode. It became difficult because of the incredible things going on all around me. You just can't ever be completely prepared. When the cloud deck flew by it looked like a leaf blowing in the wind. It looked incredible, like it couldn't be happening. We saw the sunset from the air. All the colors in it were magical, unlike any of the pictures I've seen.

O'Brien: Have you listened to the tape from that launch?

Melroy: The human mind is an amazing thing, but you can't live every day replaying special moments. By listening to the launch tape it all comes back to me. I love listening to the landing tape because we landed at Edwards Air Force Base, where I was stationed for a few years, and I loved being there. I loved being a test pilot, and Edwards was a place where I felt really fulfilled in my job. That made our landing really perfect for me. When we hit wheel stop I realized that we had made it through this dream come true and I hadn't made any mistakes. I don't think I came down from that high for two months. The tape brings back that incredible sense of euphoria. There are very few moments in your life that are as perfect as that.

O'Brien: Tell me about launch day.

Melroy: The clock just seems to tick so slowly before launch. It seemed very surreal. I walked out onto the pad and people just melted away around me. They all peeled off until it was just me and the crew out there. It struck me as strange, that while everyone else was running away as fast as they could, we were headed out there. Once I got to the pod, I realized that there was nobody there to help anymore. It's kind of scary. I closed my visor at two minutes, and all I could hear is the sound of my own breathing. Then the engines lit up and there was a giant roar. There was a huge jolt, like being in a traffic accident. The jolt felt so huge that for a second I was sure something was wrong. I was going 100 miles per hour before even clearing the tower. I had to force myself to refocus my attention on the inside of the shuttle and look at the controls. And then the solid rocket boosters separated. The glare was so intense, like fireworks going off right in front of the window. Then they settled down and the ride became smoother. I thought, "Okay, I'm on my way to space now".

O'Brien: Is there still anxiety to meet NASA's schedule?

Melroy: There is always anxiety. People started to think about alternatives right away after the discoveries of the cracks, but there was never any pressure to fly. Other ways to get up there and other ways we could bring the crew home were discussed.

O'Brien: Were you impressed with NASA's handling of the aging shuttle?

Melroy: Hugely. I think that this is a part of the culture that NASA has built. Every step on a checklist is written in blood, because each step refers to a mistake that someone has made. We analyze every mistake and decide how to prevent it from reoccurring. The engineers overcompensate to get things perfect. That is very typical in the space program, and it makes me feel very comfortable.

O'Brien: What does an old, aging shuttle say about the fleet?

Melroy: As a military pilot, I realize that certain assets are too valuable to be discarded. A perfect example is the B-52 that is more than 40 years old and still flying. Sure, the shuttle has problems, but the engineering that initially went into it was so advanced that it's still golden.

O'Brien: There are always ways to fix things, but is there an alternative on the horizon that could replace the entire system?

Melroy: I spent years in government acquisitions, and getting a project off the ground isn't easy. People want guarantees that aren't always there in developmental projects. It is truly a reflection of our political system, not of the space program.

O'Brien: Are you concerned for the future of the space program?

Melroy: We need to be thinking about something different. The shuttle has a niche forever. I would like to see us explore other niches, like Mars, the moon, or some other type of shuttle vehicle that can have a certain degree of flexibility.

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