ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Observations

Observations


Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

NASA’s shuttle program counts down ’til the end

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



Kennedy Space CenterKENNEDY SPACE CENTER—If I’d jumped, I could have touched the belly of the Discovery. Of course, I would have then been escorted unceremoniously from the Orbiter Processing Facility. But I was that close. What a strange mix of thrill and melancholy it was to see those heat-shield tiles, the swoop of the delta wing, and the snub nose wrapped in black. This was the spacecraft that launched the Hubble Space Telescope and made its last trip into space in February. Next year it’ll be off to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of.

With Discovery’s twin, Endeavour, set to embark Friday on the shuttle program’s second-to-last mission, the collective journalist storyline has already coalesced around how everyone feels about the program’s imminent end. If you know space reporters, that’s jarring. These guys out-engineer the engineers. They’re usually asking about RTLS to the SLF, not emotions. Now they commiserate with NASA types they’ve known for years, decades, who are getting their pink slips. Asked at this morning’s press conference how he felt, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said, “It’s kind of sad to see it end, but we’re dealing with it.” The next question concerned turbulence in the boundary layer during re-entry at Mach 18, but then it was back to how Leinbach felt. “It’ll be a lot less fun to be working in,” he said. “It’s like breaking up a family.”

Stephanie Stilson, the engineer in charge of getting the Discovery safe for mass consumption, told us about how the spacecraft that looks so sleek on the outside is a veritable Superfund site on the inside. They’ve taken out all the rocket engines, tanks, fuel cells, even the toilets—anything that might contain hazardous materials. The nozzles that museum visitors will see are just for show. The payload bay doors will have to be supported by steel beams—they were designed to be opened in zero-gravity. But inevitably the conversation came around to how Stilson feels. When Discovery rolls out next year, it won’t be back. “It’s like having a child go off to college,” she said.

When our press tour got to pad 39B, one of the two Apollo and shuttle launch sites, one reporter exclaimed, "It’s so sad." The gantry is already half dismantled. While we were there, we saw bits of metal pipe fall to the ground. It looks nothing like what the old pictures show. The project manager, Jose Perez Morales, described how future rockets—whatever they may be—won’t need a fixed service tower. They’ll have a mobile tower that will roll out with the rocket.Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC at sunset

The shuttle program had to end. It was magnificent yet flawed from the start. "In all those 30 years, we never ventured more than 300 miles from the surface of the Earth," notes Jim Ball, the NASA manager who’s trying to figure out what the Kennedy Space Center will do next. Though he didn’t say it, it’s an unenviable task. No one knows what comes next.

Images: The Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC, George Musser





Rights & Permissions

Comments 1 Comment

Add Comment
  1. 1. scoaster90 12:56 am 04/28/2011

    This is very bad for us here in Brevard County. I know many people working for the Space Program, at least one of whom already knows he is going to lose his job. While I agree the shuttle program should be retired, we had hoped there would be a replacement soon enough to keep our residents employed and our economy stable.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Special Universe

Get the latest Special Collector's edition

Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, Future

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X