Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Say Good-Bye to the Shuttle

On May 11, the space shuttle Atlantis will blast off towards the Hubble Space Telescope for the last time.

The shuttle’s crew of seven will be the last team to upgrade the 19-year-old Hubble, extending its life to 2014. The shuttle mission to the Hubble has been delayed for over six-months, but will be an unusual and demanding one.

This mission has five back-to-back space walks scheduled to add new instruments, replace broken gyroscopes and old batteries as well as attaching a docking mechanism for robot vehicles. The astronauts will also attempt to fix equipment not designed to be fixed in space.

This will be the first visit to the telescope since 2002. NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, and has sent astronauts to repair or upgrade the robotic observatory four times via the shuttle fleet of spacecraft.

However, the space shuttle is going to be retiring in 2010, replaced with a rocket which will blast astronauts into space, much like the original rockets used to put Buzz Aldrin on the moon in the 1960’s – though it is much more advanced than that rocket was.

I’ll miss watching the space shuttle explode off the launch pad at Florida’s Cape Canaveral. I remember rushing home from school to watch liftoffs on the television back in the 1980’s. Back then, space shuttle launches were the thing to catch, because they were so new, and amazing.

It was like something out of Star Trek, where we actually had a spacecraft which we could launch into outer space, and then watch it come back home to planet Earth.

I loved watching the return landings of the space shuttle too. Watching them on television, as regular daytime programming would be interrupted for this breaking news story.

These days, they don’t consider shuttle liftoffs or landings breaking news unless something goes terribly wrong. That’s too bad, because it is still a miracle of modern science that we have anyone orbiting the Earth in space.

The space shuttle’s first “flight” wasn’t really a flight – it was bolted to a specially constructed Boeing 747 and was flown from the hanger where it was made to NASA’s launch facilities in Florida in 1977. The first actual shuttle mission STS-1 (Space Transportation System) was on April 12, 1981 by Columbia.

I remember the picture in the newspaper of the shuttle attached to the Boeing 747 – it looked like a mother bird giving a free ride to its child.

The space shuttle fleet wasn’t supposed to last this long – originally it was only supposed to stay in service for 10-years, and by then, NASA was supposed to have a better way to transport people back and forth from space and planet Earth.

Due to accidents, budget cutbacks from the various American administrations, and corporate management issues, NASA never did develop a true replacement for the shuttle.

Oh, I’m sure the new rocket will be just as awe inspiring to watch blast off. But it isn’t a true spacecraft, designed to carry people back and forth. The rocket will launch astronauts into space, and they will return in a pod, which is cushioned by a giant parachute.

It would have been nice if NASA could overcome all its obstacles, and have designed a spacecraft which was faster, safer and could go further than the space shuttle. There is so much more to outer space than the moon, and it would have been amazing if going to the moon was passé, as we’d have long since been going back and forth to Jupiter, Mars, or even further.

Missions to Mars are still in the works, but without a true spacecraft – like the shuttle – those missions are still very much the stuff of dreams and science fiction.

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