Saying goodbye to shuttles is future's only certainty
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: May 12, 2010
And then there were three. Just three flights remain for the space shuttle, a sobering reminder of the tumultuous times surrounding America's space program.
But enthusiasm for the Ares rockets and Orion capsule born from Bush's vision didn't captivate, proper funding wasn't there, schedules slipped and the dreaded gap between the end of shuttle and introduction of the successor grew longer.
A savior for the shuttle program never stepped forward as production lines fell silent, painful layoffs began and ending the program remained the unwavering policy for the past six years.
"The space shuttle, as a machine, is the single-most incredible machine humanity has ever built," said Ken Ham, commander of Atlantis' upcoming mission.
"The fact of the matter is, though, if we want to use our national assets to do space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, you can't do that in the space shuttle. So there is a logical side in all of us that realizes the program has to come to an end at some point."
Now, the stark reality of shuttle retirement is knocking at the door with little rational hope of being reversed. But the unanswered question is what comes next?
President Barack Obama wants to cancel the Ares/Orion duo that's still years away from being fielded, instead advocating commercial companies burst into human space travel.
"There is an anticipation of where we could go in the future. There is a frustration of where we are now in terms of mixed messages we seem to continue to get from Headquarters," said Jerry Ross, a former astronaut who flew on seven shuttle missions.
"There is in some people's minds a fact that we should continue to operate the vehicles. The shuttles seem to be flying as well as they've ever flown. We are flying longer missions and having less problems on-orbit than we've ever had on the vehicles.
"My own private, personal opinion is that the shuttle has run its course, it's time to press on with something different."
The International Space Station will keep circling the planet for years to come. However, Russian Soyuz capsules will be the only way for astronauts to get there for the foreseeable future, at least until some commercial company comes along to fill the void in American access to orbit created by no more space shuttle launches.
"There is uncertainty in the future as we try to figure out how to implement the President's vision, which I'm sure we're going to do. But that leads to uncertainty and uncertainty is always a little bit scary," said Ham.
Once the three shuttles -- Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour -- complete their final flights and become museum pieces, the vast workforce will be disbanded through layoffs and retirements.
"Let's take ourselves back in time maybe a year or maybe 18 months or so when we were talking about the end of the program and a lot of people didn't believe it and were in denial. They thought 'heck, you know, the program can't end, we're going to fly forever.' Well now we know that's not the case. The program will end. People have absolutely come to grips with that," said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach.
Despite the shuttle workers knowing their unfortunate fate, NASA officials remain confident the technicians and engineers will continue to prepare safe vehicles that the astronauts' lives depend upon.
"Everybody is really focused and they are very excited about getting to do what they normally do. They know about the end but they're enjoying as much as they can in this last activity to do something that's really special. I see the tank guys, the solid rocket motor guys, it is program-wide. This is a really special workforce that has this ability to stay focused, to compartmentalize that when it comes time to do this work," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief of space operations.
"The guys, when they are working on the vehicles, are absolutely committed to their tasks and they do them properly. If you start getting into the question about if they are distracted, when they are working on the vehicle, no. When they are in the lunch room, they are talking about the future, that's when they start to vent a little bit about the end of the program. But when we're working on the vehicle, they're absolutely focused and dedicated on that machine," said Leinbach.
Ham and his crew recently visited with workers around the Kennedy Space Center and heard what those people are going through.
"We talked to a lot of folks who are down there working on the vehicle, working at the launch pad, working in launch control. Almost every time you have a conversation with someone, some sentence in there ends with 'if I still have a job.' This is because the future is somewhat uncertain right now. On a very personal level, that affects their paycheck, their ability to pay their mortgage and all that.
"As you can imagine, that's pretty scary. However, every single person we met down there has a smile on their face and is motivated to do the best job they can do. That attitude is present here at the Johnson Space Center, and I think it's a testament to the caliber of the folks that work in this program. I think the folks that want to get involved in space exploration aren't in it for the money, they're in it for space exploration. They're true professionals, they're working it all the way to the end."
"I want the teams to figure out what they want to do and we're going to keep it low-key and we're going to stay focused. It's just another shuttle flight and we're going to do the absolute best we can and just keep moving forward. But in your heart remember this is a special time and cherish a little bit what you're getting to go do because it is a unique experience that may not be repeated for a little while."
"I think from the beginning of human spaceflight to where we are today may someday be referred to as the golden age of space travel. It's this really unique time where there was a national will to access space, to get to low-Earth orbit, get to the moon. We're at a point right now where, from a national perspective, we're trying to figure out what to do next," said Ham.
"I think we're faced with a little vacuum of progress, where we're going to sit and figure this out as we watch other countries develop."
MISSION STATUS CENTER