Friday, July 08, 2011

Thirty Years of the Shuttle

Well, I knew I wasn't going to get through today without some sort of retrospective thought on the Space Shuttle. So, here it goes.

Just to age myself neatly, I was just about 12 years old when the first flight of Columbia occurred, April 12, 1981 (the 20th anniversary of the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin). I was 12 when STS-2 flew in November of that year. My dad arranged for a car pass for the causeway six miles away from the launch site (Launch Complex 39A, as I recall). I was a nutcase. Florida, in November, and with a chance to get away from junior high for a couple days? Perfect!

STS-2, November 12, 1981

Near as I can recall, Dad had a friend with a condo on the beach near the Cape. I got awakened at sunrise and was treated to a splash of gold across a placid sea. Spent a lot of time reading, as I recall. Dad got me the STS-2 press kit, which I held onto until my late 20s ("NEVER loan a pretty girl anything!" became my new motto on that for awhile), so I stayed entertained until launch time. I came well equipped: a pair of binoculars and two cameras. I looked like an overachieving tourist, which I was. Anyhow, come launch time, my jaw dropped, cameras and binoculars forgotten. I needed to see this with my own eyes. Meanwhile, as Columbia ascended skyward, my dad was trying to grab the camera from around my neck and take pictures. I was already a Star Wars fan by that point, so I had John Williams music going through my head as the mighty beast roared into the air. I think I was shuddering for a couple of days.

So okay, fast-forward 30 (yep, 30) years later. Through various twists and turns, I've found myself living the dream that my 12-year-old self scarcely believed was possible: writing for NASA. I know how the rockets work now. I have more reasons to get keyed up and nervous as the time approaches T-minus 1 minute.

I've got divided duties now: part supporting Marshall Space Flight Center, part supporting the SERVIR program, and I split my day 50/50 between them. Unfortunately, the launch occurred when I was at SERVIR. I say that because Marshall is the place where they design and manage the Shuttle propulsion systems: the four-segment solid rocket boosters and the three Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), fueled by thousands of tons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen from that big, orange external tank. There are lives, careers, and a great deal of pride tied into those things that make fire and smoke.

As it was, a couple minutes before launch, I went downstairs to watch the big TV, where maybe a dozen others had the same idea. As zero time approached, I found myself fidgety, even emotionally stirred (okay, yeah, I was holding back tears). My eyebrows raised as the countdown stopped at T-minus 31 seconds and listened to the radio chatter, quickly clueing in on the fact that they were worried about a d@mned camera. Nothing critical. And sure enough, the countdown restarted, and the fire started. I was so glad I emailed my sister and got her to have her kids--7 and 5--to watch the launch. They needed this feeling.

STS-135, July 8, 2011
Atlantis headed up into the clouds. Much to my surprise the cameras stayed locked on for much of the ascent. My eyes are watching the details like a professional now: are the SRBs doing anything funky? How much foam is coming off the external tank? Is the bird getting all the way to orbit? (And there I had a media-criticism moment, as these TV people think once the fire and smoke is no longer visible from the ground, the "launch" is over. It isn't, people: the bird has to get all the way to orbit, Main Engine Cutoff--MECO--before the job is done.) So I hauled myself back upstairs and watched the rest of the ascent. The tank fell away clean, though I did see some other little bits of junk flying off of it. At the end of it, I was comfortable enough to think to myself, "Well done, guys," and relax. Maybe the media will get their coverage right when SpaceX starts launching people to orbit, but I'm not holding my breath.

And there we are. Thirty years later, and the Space Shuttle program is about to come to an end. What does this mean for NASA, for the future of human spaceflight? I'm going to offer some Bartish thoughts here, none of which is particularly controversial, but some of which will still irritate one or another friend of mine in the space business.

In the near term, any future astronauts, experiments, or food and water will be shipped up to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard Russian Soyuz and Progress rockets. In the next 2-3 years (hopefully), American private-sector companies like SpaceX will be launching crew and cargo. But for now, there is nothing on this continent to replace the Shuttle, and the Constellation program to send human beings to the Moon and Mars has been scrapped, taking thousands of jobs with it. We have lost something critical to our national character, but I don't think everyone has felt it yet.

Do I want the commercial guys to succeed? Absolutely. The sooner the better, because as soon as the Shuttles are sent off to museums and the workers laid off, the price for a seat on the Russian rockets will probably (pardon the expression) skyrocket. But I liked Constellation. I wanted the U.S. committed to a 20- or 30-year plan to establish bases on the Moon and Mars. That is now not to be. The future is uncertain. Is it improvable? Yes. But that won't stop those of us who like the Shuttle from feeling that, yes, we're losing something important.

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