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Discovery Crew Pays Tribute to Challenger Astronauts on Last Day in Space

October 3, 1988

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Discovery’s astronauts delivered a poignant salute Sunday to their fallen Challenger comrades, eulogizing them as fellow sojourners and friends, and saying ″At this moment, our place in the heavens makes us feel closer to them than ever before.″

Said astronaut John M. Lounge: ″It’s good to be back to where they wanted to go so badly.″

As they beamed down spectacular views of the mottled blue and white Earth miles below, the Discovery astronauts spoke about the Challenger - America’s last manned space venture - which exploded on liftoff 32 months ago tragically killing school teacher Christa McAuliffe and six others.

″Those on the Challenger who had flown before and seen these sights, they would know the meaning of our thoughts,″ said astronaut George D. Nelson. ″Those who had gone to view them for the first time, they would know why we set forth.″

Discovery is to return home from its four-day, one-hour, 65-orbit flight Monday, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California at 12:37 p.m. EDT.

The shuttle will be greeted there by an expected 100,000 or more people, including Vice President George Bush who will be waiting at the foot of the ramp when the astronauts climb down. The weather looked fine for landing and thousands were camped there already on Sunday.

The astronauts may be a bit warm on their 10,000-mile glide home; a cooling system problem has plagued most of the flight may still not be working.

Gathered in the Discovery’s middeck in front of a photograph of the Challenger crew, the crew took turns reading portions of the statement they had written.

″Today, up here where the blue sky turns to black,″ said commander Frederick H. Hauck, ″we can say at long last to Dick, Mike, Judy, to Ron and El, and to Christa and Greg:

″Dear friends, we have resumed the journey that we promised to continue for you. Dear friends, your loss has meant that we could confidently begin anew. Dear friends, your spirit and your dreams are still alive in our heart.″

The seven who died aboard Challenger were Richard Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe and Gregory Jarvis.

In a 20-minute news conference with reporters gathered in a Mission Control auditorium, Hauck praised Discovery’s performance, saying ″I’m not sure that we’ve had a mission that has been this trouble-free with an orbiter before.″

Lounge was asked what he would say to the two presidential candidates to convince them to support the space program. He answered it this way:

″This is a very important flight simply because it’s the first step. I would hope that all of the enthusiasm that we’ve seen throughout the country for this flight is sustained for the dozens and dozens of flights we have ahead of us if we’re going to make this program grow to the point that it needs to grow to to get us on the path to the future.″

Sunday was pack-up day for the astronauts. After the news conference they set about the task of stowing the dozen scientific experiment and other gear they used in the flight.

Early Monday, Hauck and pilot Richard O. Covey will fire the shuttle’s two huge steering engines to slow the craft so it will glide, unpowered, halfway around the world toward the desert runway at Edwards.

″Many emotions well up in our hearts, joy for America’s return to space, gratitude for our nation’s support through difficult times, thanksgiving for the safety of our crew, reverence for those whose sacrifice made our journey possible,″ astronaut David C. Hilmers said.

And Lounge said:

″Gazing outside, we can understand why mankind has looked toward the heavens with awe and wonder since the dawn of human existence. We can comprehend why our countrymen have been driven to explore the vast expanse of space and we are convinced that this is the road to the future, the road that Americans must travel if we are to maintain the dream of our Constitution to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.″

As part of the buttoning-up exercise, the astronauts tested flight control systems. They reported no problems as they briefly switched on the auxiliary power units that will control the movement of wing flaps, rudders and speed brakes during re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.

They got an early-morning song-and-patter routine that’s become a hallmark of the flight. Comedian Robin Williams again did the honors.

″Are you awake yet? Why? Because it’s time to eat breakfast through a toothpaste tube,″ said the tape-recorded voice of Williams sent into space from Houston.

Then, eight undergraduates from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., parodied the school’s fight song for Nelson, an alumnus.

Mimicking the old Mickey Mouse TV theme, the group sang: ″H-A-R-V-E-Y, M- U-double D.″

″There’s not a dry eye in the house,″ Nelson said.