The End of an Era for NASA

STS-135: The Final (Shuttle) Launch

This morning marked the beginning of the end of an era.  I say the beginning of the end because the era does not conclusively close until next week, when the Space Shuttle Atlantis returns safely the Earth.

The beginning of the end happened at 11:29 A.M. EST as Atlantis’ rocket engines propelled the 4.5 million pound vehicle off the pad and, in eight and a half minutes, out of the Earth’s atmosphere, into space, and up to a speed of 17,320 mph.  (For the astute reader, you’ll note that this means it must be traveling at over 4.81 miles per second as it left the Earth’s atmosphere.)

Ominous weather taunted the launch of this shuttle all week, but all systems were a go this morning, and aside from a slight hold at T-minus 31 seconds (due to the GOX Vent Hood not registering with one of the sensors as fully retracted), Atlantis left the pad and disappeared into the heavy blanket of clouds above in less than forty seconds.

What you may not realize is that, at the time of the launch, according to NASA’s own protocol, the shuttle technically had the red light.  Yesterday, storms were furious around Cape Canaveral, and lightning even struck the ground twice just around the launch pad.  Luckily, there was no significant damage done to the pad or the surrounding area.  The weather, however, persisted.

NASA’s launch safety protocol dictates that precipitation cannot occur within twenty miles of the launch pad during a launch.  This morning, after all launch systems reported back “go”, the weather crew came back without a go.  It wasn’t a no-go, per se.  They just hadn’t reached a verdict yet.  This was at the T-minus 9 minute hold; it was definitely raining within the twenty mile radius.

Ultimately, Mike Leinbach, the Shuttle Launch Director, who gave the launch a go under the assumption that the weather would continue to move away from the launch pad before launch.  This was not a dangerous maneuver, as if weather hadn’t gone as predicted, the launch could have been scrubbed down to the thirty second mark.

The weather was so variable in fact, that Mike Moses, Launch Integration Manager, said in the post-launch press report that the decision to fill the External Fuel Tank (ET) this morning, a six hour process that costs $500,000 to undo, was settled over a game of darts. But the calls were made.  The delays, insignificant.  And after over 1,000 onboard systems were a “go”, STS-135, the final shuttle of its kind, launched safely from Pad 39A this morning.  But this is only the end of one era.  The end of the space shuttle era.  It seems Americans and the media have focused so intently on the ending of this era that they’re acting as though NASA is closing its doors for good.

Nearly one million people were present to watch Atlantis liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center this morning.  That doesn’t include the tens of millions of viewers watching the stream live from all around America and the world.  Certainly this was a momentous occasion—the conclusion of the near $200 billion dollar space shuttle program’s 30-year reign—but NASA has plans to return to space.  They just need a new vehicle to do it in.

The aged space shuttles weren’t originally built to optimal safety standards (you can thank the government for NASA budget cuts on that one), so they’re being retired.  Though the shuttles could continue to fly safely, NASA has brighter plans for the future.  My hope is that the one million people at Cape Canaveral chanting, “U-S-A … U-S-A” and “GO, GO, GO!”, as well as the cubicle-confined fans (like myself) shouting “Get ‘outta here!” from their desk chairs mourn only the conclusion of the shuttle generation, but not the death of NASA.

Eye on the Prize

The Space Shuttle Atlantis was hauling its crew and cargo to the International Space Station, a $100 billion dollar structure in a low-Earth orbit (about 220 miles out).  The Space Shuttle itself was designed primarily for this purpose even—a low-Earth orbit. But what about deep space exploration?  That’s exactly what NASA said.  Orion, the vehicle being built for the future of space travel, is being designed with manned deep exploration in mind.  It’s slated for a completion date of 2016, and it is expected to launch that same year assuming NASA gets a contractor to build a rocket for it and assuming that rocket is also completed by 2016. The Orion space capsule follows the primitive design of the Apollo spacecraft, but with much more of a vision.  Obviously, we’ve advanced quite a ways technologically since the Saturn V rockets boosted the Apollo capsule into space.  The aim for Orion is that she’ll have the reliability and safety the old Apollo spacecraft with the ingenuity and technology of the future.  She’s being built with the purpose of landing a man (or woman) on the surface of Mars.

But … Why Space?  It’s a Money Hog!

A money hog?  Because the space shuttle cost us nearly $2 billion each?  For the $450 million dollar price tag per mission?  Because the shuttle burns more than two million pounds of solid propellant in the two minutes after takeoff?  Because a satellite can cost upwards of $300 million to launch?

Sure, NASA is expensive.  We get it.  But can you name me a way to advance society that doesn’t cost a pretty penny?  You can debate it all you like, and you can argue that the budget for NASA is too large, or that the tax break NASA gets (that’s coming from your pocket) is too much, but the fact remains: NASA paved the way for your current way of life, and space exploration, especially through NASA, will mold the lives of our future generations.

Unfortunately, the advantage of space exploration is currently evading our current administration.  Yet in an economy continually teetering just above and below a 10% unemployment rate, I’d say the jobs created by subcontracted construction of rockets, satellites, space vehicles, space equipment, and research and development projects are nigh invaluable.

Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor for the Orion project, has published posters that boast, “Orion is being built near me!”  And, as a means of spreading out the love (and keeping the primary decision to scrap the project out of the hands of the government), they’ve spread the research, development, and construction work for Orion out over twenty-six separate contractors all over the country.  Not only are they stimulating jobs in the economy, but they’re also inspiring families and the job market alike with the excitement of being involved (directly or indirectly) in the future of the space age.

Don’t Care.  I Still Don’t Need NASA

Perhaps you’re still not convinced.  Maybe you still think you you don’t need NASA, and that NASA has done nothing to personally effect your life and loved ones.  Then I’ll leave you with these thoughts:  well over 1,700 technologies, many of which you use daily, were brought to you from the multi-billion dollar space program and NASA …

… The fibrous material in your tire tread.  Your home’s insulation.  Velcro.  Image processing (which gave you all the technology from a steady cam to image enhancement to HD movies to a personal video and still camera the size of your palm).  Prosthetics.  The GPS in your phone … not to mention the satellite that your phone, television, and possibly even your internet connection talk to … not to mention these satellites are now used to predict weather patterns, tornados, hurricanes, and more.  Health and safety equipment from ventricular devices to help your heart pump blood to more lightweight material that firefighters can wear when entering a burning building.  Cordless tools …

… and much, much more.

Thanks, NASA, for all the work you’ve done not just for our country, but for the entire world.  For inspiring my brother and I to investigate computers, technology, and spacecraft.  For the sense of camaraderie you gave Americans with each other, the rest of the world, and the universe this morning.  For the life changing technology you’ve given us.  Keep shedding more light on the infinite galaxies out there left to explore.