May 18, 2010
On Friday afternoon the space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from the Florida coast for the 32nd and, probably, the final time. As the space shuttle program draws to a close, many people are eager to see one of the pyrotechnic behemoths soar into space while they still have a chance, and 40,000 spectators were on hand at Cape Canaveral. On Sunday Atlantis docked with the International Space Station, and began unloading its cargo, including a Russian-built "Mini Research Module." Six astronauts were aboard, rather than seven as usual, and in a striking departure from recent practice, every single one of them is a white male. (Just like the good old days of the 1960s!?) The mission is scheduled to last twelve days, after which Atlantis will retire -- in Florida, which is a very popular state for retirees! See NASA.gov.
The space shuttle program went through big ups and downs over the years. In the early years of the 1980s, engineers were stumped with the recurring problem of heat shield tiles falling off. Little did they realize that the two defects that proved to be fatal. First, the faulty O-ring that cracked in freezing weather, allowing hot gas to leak from the side of the solid fuel booster rocket, thus causing Challenger to blow up on January 28, 1986. Second, the foam insulation on the huge liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen tank that kept crumbling during liftoff, somehow damaging the heat shields on the wing of the orbiter Columbia on February 1, 2003. (It's striking that those two disasters took place within three calendar days of each other.)
In terms of good karma, one of the biggest highlights of the shuttle program was when the first American to orbit the earth, John Glenn, went up with the space shuttle Discovery in October 1998. At age 77, he was the oldest human ever to go into space. I was curious about the frequency of space shuttle flights over the past three decades (!), so I looked in a book I have and browsed through NASA's Web site. I compiled the data on number of flights for each of the five shuttle orbiters in the table below. Endeavour was built to replace Challenger, but when Columbia was destroyed in 2003, it was decided not to build another one. It was becoming clear that the shuttle program would never be as cost-efficient as originally envisioned, and something better was needed for the long term. Anyway, here is a summary of the five orbiters, of which three still survive:
|No. of flights||28||10||38||32||24|
* : STS-107 Columbia was incinerated over Texas during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven astronauts.
** : STS-51L Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all seven astronauts.
Back in the late 1970s when preparations for the space shuttle program were getting underway, everyone assumed that there would be a large-scale space station built by the end of the 1980s, commercialized space travel, and return trips to the Moon (and perhaps even Mars) by the turn of the century. Remember the movie 2001: A Space Oddysey? My, how things have changed! Obviously, the disasters of 1986 (Challenger) and 2003 (Columbia) put a damper on dreams of making space flight routine, but another key reason is the advance in technology itself. As computers have become smaller and smaller, robotic devices aboard space craft can perform as well or better than humans in many situations. What's more, with sophisticated software, remote space probes can adapt to changing conditions, and in some cases even sense internal malfunctions and make minor corrections. Just consider the two robotic vehicles that landed on Mars in February 2004, and have been touring the Martian landscape ever since: Spirit, which is in hibernation mode, as its last communication was in March, and Opportunity. Ironically, however, their spectacular success poses a rather awkward question for us fans of space exploration: Who needs astronauts??!
I grew up enthralled and inspired by the U.S. space program, and vividly remember watching Walter Cronkite on the scene at Kennedy Space Center in the 1960s, covering the launches of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. It is almost impossible to convey to young people today the drama and uncertainty of it all. Most of them seem to take for granted the spectacular technological advances such as pocket-sized computers and tiny cell phones with multiple functions beyond what James Bond could have ever dreamed of. It's a terrible shame that the sense of wonder and discovery that were so powerful in motivating my generation to learn and accomplish things are almost entirely absent in the youth culture of today. "Lunar landing? What-ever!" That attitude of ennui may explain a lot about what kinds of policies our national leaders are pushing, or not pushing. (See below.)
And so, just two planned space shuttle missions remain: STS-133 Discovery, and STS-134 Endeavour. After that, no one knows. I've only been to Cape Canaveral once in my life, in the early 1980s when the space shuttle program was still brand new, but I didn't see a launch. This might be a good summer for a return visit...
As we reflect on the glorious past and uncertain future of the U.S. space program, I thought it would be appropriate to reproduce the "pre-blog" entry which I posted on my old mac.com Web site soon after the tragedy over Texas seven years ago:
"Let's not forget the seven brave astronauts who perished so suddenly aboard the space shuttle Columbia on February 1:
And while we are remembering, here are the names of the seven astronauts aboard Challenger who died during liftoff on January 28, 1986.
As part of its budget measures, the Obama administration has effectively killed the Ares - Orion U.S. manned space program, at least for the time being. Obama claims to be encouraging private firms to develop new launch rockets, but he is not exactly known for being a fan of free enterprise. Perhaps some ambitous private investors will come up with a feasible launch system, but to me, it sounds like a feeble excuse for inaction. Does this really mean the end of U.S. manned space flights for the foreseeable future? Unless there is a big public outcry that might lead to a drastic change of plans, apparently so. By next year, we could well be relying on Russia to get our astronauts into space, "hitch-hiking."
On Capitol Hill last week, two former astronauts lobbied on behalf of restoring the manned space program. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, as Commander of Apollo 11, was joined by Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan in testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee. Armstrong criticized the secretive way in which the President was advised, and Cernan said, "this budget proposal presents no challenges, has no focus, and in fact is a blueprint for a mission to nowhere." Ouch! See the Washington Post. The space program shouldn't become a partisan political issue, but at a time when our nation's values, purpose, and sense of identity are being challenged, it is not a good idea to abandon one of the vital national missions that make us all proud. I hope that congressional leaders in both parties insist on restoring funds for the manned space program.
President Obama recently paid a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, supposedly to express appreciation for the workers and engineers, but in fact only a select group of sympathetic officials was allowed to hear the President speak. If he wanted to reassure them and regain their confidence, the effort almost certainly backfired. As a flimsy "consolation prize," he is appointing Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as co-chairs of a task force to "develop a $40 million job-creation plan for the Space Coast." To me, it sounds like a bunch of lame seminars in how to develop job-search networking skills. Somehow, I don't think that is going to be of much use for the highly skilled and dedicated workers. About 8,000 space-industry jobs are expected to be lost after the shuttle fleet retires, and that will have a very depressing effect on the economy of that part of Florida. See floridatoday.com.