A Sigh of Relief and Sadness

E-mail Melanie Martella

So, hands up if you were really relieved when the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed safely in the early hours of Thursday morning. And how many of you are bummed that we've got to wait an unknown amount of time before the U.S. is back sending astronauts into space using its own launch vehicles rather than renting space from the Russians?

There are some wonderful articles available online that talk about the history of the shuttle program, its successes and failures, and its emotional and technological impact. I'm particularly fond of the materials available at NASA's History Program Office that spell out the history of the program and list just some of the groundbreaking novel technologies that were key to creating a reusable vehicle for manned spaceflight. It is still incredible to me, and this after the 30-year span of the Space Shuttle program, just how complicated and audacious an endeavor it was. So many contractors working on so many subsystems and it all had to fit together and work! Not to mention some of the crazy operating conditions: for instance, for the main engine the liquid hydrogen fuel was –423°F before ignition and after ignition the combustion chamber heated up to a whopping 6000°F. That may be ho hum to those of you who really are rocket scientists, but to me that is an insane temperature span, especially for a reusable engine.

Kevin McCaney, writing for the Government Computer News has a great article, "Space shuttle technology that fell to Earth" listing just some of the technologies that may have started life in the Shuttle program but ended up in our daily lives. And that's before you include what those various Shuttle missions accomplished: launching space-based instruments such as the Hubble telescope, enabling a raft of experiments in space, and helping to build the International Space Station (ISS). In the light of such a positive history (even with the catastrophic and heart-breaking losses of Challenger and Columbia) it kills me that the end of the Shuttle program also means thousands of people are going to lose their jobs. Just because I understand why, doesn't mean I have to like it. Now NASA is outsourcing the task of moving people and materiel up to the ISS to commercial vendors. On the one hand, I'm sad to see NASA get out of that aspect of the space business but on the other, watching companies like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) do their thing is deeply exciting. Overall, it looks like it'll be an interesting next few years as the commercial spaceflight folks get their craft built and tested and ready for prime time.

While we wait for that next era of Americans in Space to arrive, I give huge kudos to both the army of people who built and maintained the Space Shuttles and made such crazy complex beasts work and work well as well as to the Shuttle crews who manned the missions. Thank you.