Mixed emotions as space shuttle program wraps up

DOWNEY - Despite the threat of bad weather, space shuttle Atlantis roared off its Cape Canaveral launching pad at 8:29 a.m. one last time on Friday, July 8, towards its rendezvous with the International Space Station, with the main purpose of resupplying the multi-purpose, multi-nation space lab which has for some time now been orbiting the earth some 245 miles up.The three-minute delay (the launch was originally scheduled for 8:36 a.m.) was caused by a minor glitch. The schedule of tasks to be performed during the space hook-up includes the unloading, now ongoing, of over 8,000 tons of food, spare parts, and other supplies to sustain the station (it currently has six residents) for at least six months. The tight agenda also included, among other things, a space walk (which was accomplished last Tuesday) to retrieve a broken pump from the ISS and install an experiment to determine the feasibility of NASA satellite-refueling stations run by robots. The final four-member crew is headed by flight commander Chris Ferguson, 49, a retired Navy captain. The pilot is Marine colonel Doug Hurly, 44, while the mission specialists are Sandra Magnus, 46, and Rex Walheim, 48. All are space flight veterans. A "larger than usual" crowd of 172 space enthusiasts, including a mother and daughter who were visiting from as far away as Mt. Fuji, answered the invitation from the Columbia Memorial Space Center to its Friday launch party. They were accompanied by the eldest son, who had just received his Ph. D. in experimental science from UC-Berkeley (he previously earned his master's from the University of West Glasgow, and his bachelor's from Caltech). For $5 apiece, the party participants viewed NASA's 135th and final shuttle launch on its wall-size media screen and sent Atlantis off on its adjusted 13-day mission with a thunderous chorus of wild clapping and cheers of their own. Also soaking in the emotionally-charged event were twenty card-holding center members and seven ASTC members from out-of-town who get in free wherever events like this take place, as well as local residents who expressed their wonderment upon seeing the center for the first time. Roughly a third of the crowd were young and older children, all agog and wide-eyed at the center's many hi-tech attractions, and who watched the liftoff with the same, if not more, excitement and exhilaration as their elders. Additional chairs had to be hastily provided to the overflow crowd, who cheered lustily every time a significant stage was reached (e.g., solid booster separation, engine ignition, main engine cutoff, external tank separation, then, finally, reaching of intended orbit after eight minutes), especially during the critical two minutes of the shuttle's arcing ascent across the Atlantic. Guiding proceedings with the help of staff and volunteers was administrative assistant Kaili Rowland. Providing commentary, as well as fielding the questions at the Q&A period at the conclusion of the event, were activities specialist Jared Head and volunteer/consultant Jim Busby. . The feelings and reactions to the end of the NASA space shuttle program were mixed and are well-documented. While nurturing feelings of pride in NASA's accomplishments, for example, the astronauts are sad the 30-year program is ending. A few have expressed their concern about the loss of thousands of jobs that will ensue after the Atlantis finally makes its final landing on July 21. There will be the wastage of valuable scientific knowledge and technical expertise accumulated over the decades, they say. There is a big question mark at the impending fates of thousands of support personnel: welders, engineers, seamstresses, sprayers, truck drivers, fuel-tank builders, technicians of all stripes, etc., who have each contributed to the NASA program over the years, and are almost certain to lose their jobs, if they haven't already. This is directly attributable to the administration's budget cuts and the end of the program. The role of Downey in the NASA space program and the whole aerospace industry has, of course, been visibly preserved for posterity with the formation of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, which was built on the site where the moon-oriented Apollo command and service modules were designed and fabricated, as well as the testing of the lunar lander. Downey is often referred to as the "birthplace of the Apollo space program." One of Downey's enduring legacies to the space program was its development of what LA Times reporter W. J. Hennigan described as "computer-aided autopilot flight controls similar to today's systems that allow mammoth Boeing 747 jumbo jets to almost fly themselves." The Columbia Memorial Space Center of course honors the memory of the space shuttle Columbia's disintegration upon reentry in 2003, and the crew members who perished in the tragic event. The other great tragedy in NASA's space program occurred in 1986 when Challenger exploded after liftoff. All told, the two tragedies claimed the lives of 14 astronauts, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Edward White II, and Christa McAuliffe among them. . After the final chapter of the 30-year space shuttle program is written, NASA as well as other countries will now have to depend on the Russian Soyuz space vehicle to ferry their astronauts to the $100 billion ISS. Not a few have been openly critical of this arrangement, but until NASA can develop better and more cost-effective space vehicles and thus once more achieve the capability to proceed where it left off, it has no choice but to pay the tripled price Russia is poised to ask for the essential service. NASA seems caught between an inflationary rock and a hard cost-spiral place. In the meantime, in development are competing space technologies whose designs have been farmed out to a few space-oriented firms such as Hawthorn-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp., otherwise known as Space X, from which NASA will make its final choice for transporting cargo and humans to the ISS. This is without prejudice to NASA's (budget permitting) long-range plan to send humans to the moon (once more) and beyond. NASA is optimistic good things are bound to happen with the nation's space program, if the will to again seize the upperhand in a developing space race is there. The Columbia Memorial Space Center is planning to again host a 'landing' party on July 21, the day Atlantis is due to land one final time.

********** Published: July 14, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 13