Saying goodbye to the space shuttle

By Fred Watson 11 July 2011
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Professor Fred Watson looks back over 30 years of NASA’s space shuttle program.

WATCHING THE TV IMAGES of the hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered at Cape Canaveral, in Florida, on Friday to watch Atlantis lift off on NASA’s final space shuttle mission, I was struck by the emotion written all over their faces. A potent mixture of elation, national pride, and sadness at the end of an era. A few folk were weeping openly, and some pretty tough-looking, all-American guys were biting their lips fiercely as the emotion threatened to spill over. If anyone needed evidence that America still has its heart in the space program, this was it.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of its fiscal enthusiasm. With each trip costing close to US$1.5 billion, continuing the shuttle program would strain NASA’s resources beyond its limit, even if you could ignore the 30-year-old technology and ageing airframes of the shuttle fleet. When Atlantis touches down after its 12-day mission, the program will slide into history.

No-one can deny its effectiveness, however, despite the tragic loss of two shuttles and their crews in accidents that stand as continuing reminders of the dangers of human spaceflight. Challenger, lost on 28 January 1986 as a result of a leaking seal on one of the craft’s solid-fuel boosters, forced a rethink of many of NASA’s procedures. And despite all those revisions, it was a minor mishap on a launch – a piece of foam insulation dislodging a critical heat-shield tile – that resulted in the disintegration of Columbia during re-entry on 1 February 2003.

Space shuttle legacy

The most significant legacy of the shuttle program is clearly the International Space Station (ISS), an ongoing icon of advanced science and engineering that is sure to be seen by future analysts as pivotal in humankind’s emergence as a spacefaring species – despite recurring criticism that it does nothing but circle the Earth. The shuttle has been the workhorse of the Space Station’s construction, ferrying component modules to orbit in its cavernous 23-tonne-capacity hold.

Discovery in orbit, with Earth as the backdrop. (Credit: NASA)

Since the very first shuttle launch (of Columbia on 12 April 1981), there have been 134 missions, flying some 355 individuals into space, many of whom have made multiple flights. When Atlantis touches down, the total distance flown by the fleet will amount to nearly 900 million kilometres – the equivalent of three return trips to the Sun. The three retired shuttles – Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis – will then find their way to various American museums, along with the non-orbital test shuttle Enterprise.

What will happen to the Space Station, now the shuttle program is no more? In a turn-around of Cold War rivalries, its six crew members will be ferried to and from orbit by Soyuz capsules of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos. Supplies will be lifted to the station by Russian and European uncrewed vehicles, together with commercial rockets.

NASA’s next step – reaching for Orion

Meanwhile, NASA’s next-generation spacecraft, Orion, is on-track for deployment in 2016. Freed from the onerous burden of maintaining both the shuttles and an overambitious Bush-era scheme to land humans on Mars (canned last year), NASA can at last devote resources to the highly innovative and far-sighted R&D that it does best. In my view, that decision by the Obama administration was the correct one for NASA.

However, it does leave a sense of uncertainty among the American public about exactly where their nation is going in space – and when. I suspect that was one reason for some of the emotional faces we saw at the launch of Atlantis last week. But they should take heart. Prior to the start of the shuttle program in 1981, there had been a six-year span with no American presence in space. What followed was undeniably a triumph. And the same will happen again.

Fred Watson is Astronomer-in-Charge of the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Coonabarabran in north-western NSW, and well-known to ABC radio listeners. He has written a regular column in the Australian Geographic journal for many years.