The International Space Station astronauts say they are not concerned about the extra time they'll remain in orbit because of the space shuttle disaster. They say they are prepared to stay as long as necessary.
The three-man crew has inhabited the space station since last November. They were expecting to return to Earth in March aboard the space shuttle Atlantis. But the U.S. space agency NASA has grounded the shuttle fleet while it investigates the February 1 loss of the shuttle Columbia. Crew commander Ken Bowersox says they're happy to stay aboard the space station.
"We are enjoying our mission up here. We enjoy the environment on the space station. And we're going to enjoy the next two-and-a-half, three months here. So the extra stay is not something we consider a negative," he said.
Mr. Bowersox, science officer Ken Pettit, and Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin could go home on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft scheduled to arrive at the station in April. NASA is still undecided about the best way and time to bring the astronauts home.
The astronauts are conducting a range of scientific experiments, including work on how the human body reacts to weightlessness. This work is expected to help future astronauts headed for Mars or on other long-term missions.
Mr. Bowersox says after the Columbia tragedy, their workload was lightened to give them time to grieve for the loss of the seven shuttle astronauts.
"It's important for us to acknowledge that the folks on STS-107 were our friends, and we had a connection with them, and we feel their loss. And each of us had a chance to shed some tears. But now it's time to move forward, and we're doing that slowly," he said. A Russian Progress spacecraft delivered supplies to the station last Tuesday. Those supplies should keep the crew well-stocked through June. But science officer Don Pettit says they're taking some measures to conserve supplies, like using old batteries for less-important equipment.
As for the risks of space travel that the Columbia tragedy has highlighted, Mr. Pettit says astronauts know what they're getting into. "We're aware that exploration is an endeavor that can be at a higher level of risk than a nine-to-five job on Earth. What we're doing here, we've got a mission involving exploration. And for me personally, that's worth the risk," he said.