Real Science–On the eve of the last scheduled American manned space flight

On the eve of the last scheduled, American manned space flight it’s a good time to look back… wait a second…can that be right?


Although the 135th and final space shuttle mission–before retiring the space shuttle program–is scheduled to depart Friday, July 8 at 11:26 a.m. Eastern time, like a lot of past missions weather will likely push launch out a few days or weeks.  But once this Atlantis space shuttle mission is over, there are no future American space flights currently in the works.  That said, we do plan to hitch a ride with various future Russian rocket flights to continue international space station projects.  Read that again–the United States will be hitching a ride along flights of the Russian space program going forward.

Does any of this make sense?

When Yuri Gagarin became the first Earthling to pierce the outer ether, it didn’t go over very well back in the States.  In fact it probably did more than anything to catapult the U.S. space program into the stratosphere, so to speak.  To infinity and beyond, or at least to somewhere as ambitious as our moon.  But the good part is we’re working together now with other countries–if not anywhere else–at least as far as space exploration is concerned.  I am still in awe that mankind actually made it to the moon and NASA, a group of America’s best and brightest over more than fifty years, got us there.  But now a great number of NASA employees, including engineers and other scientists, are all out of work, filtering into private industry, college teaching, etc.

Say it isn’t so!  We aren’t even to Mars yet!

I remember getting up early to watch the first space shuttle mission, the launch of Columbia, on April 12, 1981.  My friend had gone with his family for the maiden voyage and brought me back this print a few days later that was on my wall for years:

When you’re watching this next space shuttle flight, don’t just look back at the long and successful space shuttle program but the entire space program before John Glenn and the creation of the Mercury program to Glenn’s second flight as elder statesman to now the 135th and final shuttle voyage.  Last week NASA posted the following on their website, claiming the future of NASA is not as bleak as it seems.  I hope they are right:

“The end of the space shuttle program does not mean the end of NASA, or even of NASA sending humans into space. NASA has a robust program of exploration, technology development and scientific research that will last for years to come. Here is what’s next for NASA:

NASA is designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system, working toward a goal of landing humans on Mars. We will build the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the design for the Orion capsule, with a capacity to take four astronauts on 21-day missions.

We will soon announce the design for the heavy-lift Space Launch System that will carry us out of low Earth orbit. We are developing the technologies we will need for human exploration of the solar system, including solar electric propulsion, refueling depots in orbit, radiation protection and high-reliability life support systems.

International Space Station
The International Space Station is the centerpiece of our human spaceflight activities in low Earth orbit. The ISS is fully staffed with a crew of six, and American astronauts will continue to live and work there in space 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Part of the U.S. portion of the station has been designated as a national laboratory, and NASA is committed to using this unique resource for scientific research.

The ISS is a test bed for exploration technologies such as autonomous refueling of spacecraft, advanced life support systems and human/robotic interfaces. Commercial companies are well on their way to providing cargo and crew flights to the ISS, allowing NASA to focus its attention on the next steps into our solar system.

NASA is researching ways to design and build aircraft that are safer, more fuel-efficient, quieter, and environmentally responsible. We are also working to create traffic management systems that are safer, more efficient and more flexible. We are developing technologies that improve routing during flights and enable aircraft to climb to and descend from their cruising altitude without interruption.

We believe it is possible to build an aircraft that uses less fuel, gives off fewer emissions, and is quieter, and we are working on the technologies to create that aircraft. NASA is also part of the government team that is working to develop the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, to be in place by the year 2025. We will continue to validate new, complex aircraft and air traffic control systems to ensure that they meet extremely high safety levels.

NASA is conducting an unprecedented array of missions that will seek new knowledge and understanding of Earth, the solar system and the universe. On July 16, the Dawn spacecraft begins a year-long visit to the large asteroid Vesta to help us understand the earliest chapter of our solar system’s history. In August, the Juno spacecraft will launch to investigate Jupiter’s origins, structure, and atmosphere. The September launch of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project is a critical first step in building a next-generation Earth-monitoring satellite system.

NASA returns to the moon to study the moon’s gravity field and determine the structure of the lunar interior with the October launch of GRAIL. In November, we launch the Mars Science Laboratory named Curiosity on its journey to Mars to look for evidence of microbial life on the red planet. And in February 2012, we will launch the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array to search for black holes, map supernova explosions, and study the most extreme active galaxies.”

I feel fortunate to have seen a number of space shuttle documentaries on IMAX screens years ago before IMAX films were mainstream and included popular movies.  I saw these on visits to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) at their IMAX theater.  These are still available via DVD and/or Blu-Ray and are worth a second (or first) look to get a close-up of early shuttle missions, and they include voice-overs from the likes of Walter Cronkite to Leonard Nimoy.  Although you won’t get to feel the intensity of liftoff and the sheer scope of vast outer space in the comfort of your living room, maybe you have a big enough screen to get you a decent viewing experience.

Here are a few of the films also available in a boxed set–some on DVD and Blu-Ray:

Hail Columbia!   The exciting first STS mission.

The Dream is Alive  Covers three launches and is thought to be the best space IMAX of its time.

Blue Planet   A study of planet Earth from space.

Destiny in Space  Watch repairs on the Hubble telescope.

Mission to Mir   A tour of the Russian space station.

So don’t miss out on watching the last flight Friday, or or later if delayed.  At a minimum it will be the last manned American space flight we’ll see for a long time.

C.J. Bunce


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