A profile of the Space Shuttle Endeavour crew -- none of them well-known -- with the important, high-stakes mission of delivering the second piece of the International Space Station.
“Unknown” Astronauts Don’t Have Fame, But Do Have the Right Stuff
MATT LAUER, co-host:
Important undertakings sometimes pass unnoticed and remain hidden away in a dark corner of history. Tomorrow morning, before we even come on the air, another such event will begin in darkness. Here's NBC's Bob Dotson.
BOB DOTSON reporting:
Twenty-four hours a day, critical, often secret technology propels us into the next millennium.
Mr. BOB CABANA: There's an awful lot of folks working really hard around this country that nobody knows.
DOTSON: Because the stakes are so high, literally the future of mankind, high tech requires high achievers and high security, so, we must be on the lookout for people like these. Would you recognize them on your post office wall?
Mr. CABANA: I like to think of myself as a nice guy.
DOTSON: That's what they all say.
Mr. RICK STURCKOW: So, is this going to take the two minutes, or is this going to...
DOTSON: Still don't know?
Mr. STURCKOW: Movement executing static burn.
DOTSON: They're anonymous heroes.
Mr. STURCKOW: OK, there's LBLA.
DOTSON: The space shuttle crew that follows John Glenn.
Mr. STURCKOW: One, two...
DOTSON: Their mission is tomorrow morning.
And yet, my mama doesn't know you.
Ms. NANCY CURRIE: That--that's OK.
Mr. JERRY ROSS: That's just fine with me.
Mr. STURCKOW: I don't want her to know me either. Around NASA, there's a saying that, if you're famous, it's because you did something wrong.
DOTSON: Big change from the beginning of America's space program. Back then, doing the right stuff made John Glenn famous. There were only seven astronauts. Today, there are 141 virtual unknowns.
Mr. JIM NEWMAN: Let's be honest. If you were the crew serving with John Glenn, then you were known as the crew that served with John Glenn. But we're the flight after John Glenn. It helps to have a sense of humor.
DOTSON: Especially because their mission is scientifically more important than John Glenn's.
Ms. CURRIE: Every mission's a great mission, but some are better than others. And to be made a crew member of such a unique and historic flight was really a dream come true.
DOTSON: Historic because if two and a half years of training pays off, these unknown astronauts will begin building the first international space station: Mission commander Bob Cabana. Shuttle pilot Rick Sturckow. Robot operator Nancy Currie. Spacewalker Jerry Ross. Computer whiz Jim Newman. And Russian Sergei Krikalev.
Mr. CABANA: It's truly a team effort.
DOTSON: They'll carry into orbit a 12-ton base for the space station.
Mr. CABANA: It's important.
DOTSON: Link with an even larger piece the Russians put in orbit just before Thanksgiving.
Mr. CABANA: It's really fun.
DOTSON: The beginning of a giant Lego-like construction project.
Mr. CABANA: It's very rewarding.
DOTSON: The home of mankind's next generation of space science. The space station will take at least five years and 35 shuttle flights to complete.
Ms. CURRIE: There's probably nothing here on Earth that's similar to what we're about to do.
Mr. STURCKOW: We need to go up there and do our job and do it right, and that's all there is to it.
DOTSON: Not quite. If this first mission has problems, the new space station may never be built. Building all this isn't cheap. The price of the space station, once pitched at $8 billion, has ballooned to $100 billion. Some in Congress think that's too expensive. So the job that these astronauts do may well determine America's future in space.
So how do you handle that pressure?
Mr. CABANA: Thanks, Bob, I didn't need any more pressure. I already know that, if we don't succeed, it's the future of the whole space program. You're making me say it, you know. I mean, I could have done without that.
DOTSON: Despite the pressure, that future is brimming with promise. The space station could springboard us to Mars and beyond.
Unidentified Man: Holy cow, what a view!
DOTSON: These five Americans have already been in space a dozen times. They deserve to be more than faceless heroes.
Man: Excellent job.
DOTSON: Bob Cabana.
Mr. CABANA: I didn't get into flight school on the first try, or into test pilot school, or become an astronaut on the first try. So, if anybody asks me `How do you become an astronaut?' I tell them `persistence.'
DOTSON: Jerry Ross.
Mr. ROSS: And every once in awhile, I get to go have a lot of fun and do a lot of work on orbit, viewing God's beautiful creation from 200 miles up.
DOTSON: His faith prompted Ross to help create some beauty of his own, rebuilding a church in Costa Rica. Army colonel Nancy Currie has an engineering PhD.
Ms. CURRIE: Probably the most important three initials I have are M.O.M.
DOTSON: To her daughter, that spells adventure.
What a great person to take to show and tell! `My mom and the robotic arm.'
Ms. CURRIE: And she's done that.
DOTSON: An astronaut's child learns early to handle the fear of a parent who leaves home for the unknown. Nicki, Jim Newman's son.
Mr. NEWMAN: He told his mother, Mary Lee, my wife, `I'm going to Florida with Daddy, and I will go in the rocket with him, and then I won't be scared.'
DOTSON: But little Nicki will likely sleep through Daddy's launch. NASA has scheduled tomorrow's flight at 4:00 AM, insuring these astronauts will remain virtually anonymous in the shadow of John Glenn.
Mr. ROSS: If I can walk in his shadows, I'll be proud to do that any time.
DOTSON: The sun doesn't shine on all our heroes. History hides in shadows, too. For TODAY, Bob Dotson, NBC News, at the Johnson Space Center.
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