Shuttle diplomacy

For a variety of reasons, this feature on the final Space Shuttle launch was never published.

By Nick Miller

New York

A Space Shuttle launch isn’t just heard and seen, it is felt.

Witnesses describe a thunderous rumble that presses against them, pulsing pressure waves that make eyelids flicker, as the intense orange glare of the rockets attacks the eyes and the mind struggles to comprehend a 20 storey building pushing up into space.

 

“The Earth shook to the sounds of man, three miles away,” wrote a reporter in the late 1990s. “The candle lit. . . only someone stripped of awe can leave a launch untouched.”

Some, however, are awed for different reasons. A Republican senator described the “great plume of fire” at the bottom of the Shuttle as “the most efficient method of destroying American dollar bills as has ever been devised by man”.

Since their first tentative test flights 34 years ago the Space Shuttles have symbolised space flight, carrying the American flag – and all it implies – into orbit more than 100 times. With Atlantis’ last launch this month, new emotions will follow the Shuttle’s plume into the Florida sky. The end of the Shuttle flights has triggered a debate over the cost and role of the USA’s space program, concerns over what it means for science, and a patriotic fear that the end of the Shuttle marks the terminal decline of the USA’s space empire – a five decade rule that began with John F Kennedy’s Cold War–fuelled dream “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”.

 

NASA, of course, insists it is not the end of a dream. It is the beginning of more. Four missions to launch before the end of the year will look for the building blocks of the solar system in the gases of Jupiter, gaze at black holes across almost unimaginable distances, peel back the internal structure of the moon and land a car-sized robot on Mars to search for signs of life.

In comparison, the end of the public-funded Shuttle program is merely the privatisation of a bus route that has become little more than a meals-on-rockets for the International Space Station.

“When I hear people say … that the final shuttle flight marks the end of U.S. human space flight, you all must be living on another planet,” NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden told the US National Press Club last week. “Do we want to keep repeating ourselves or do we want to look at the big horizon? My generationtouched the moon … today, NASA, and the nation, wants to touch an asteroid, and eventually send a human to Mars.”

But even at NASA, doubts are being expressed. An official review warned of the dangers of a droop in morale and a brain drain at the organisation, and a potential change to a “B-team” culture that could lose the ability to innovate, or compromise safety.

In May, Michael D. Leinbach, the launching director for the Atlantis, reportedly told his launching team after a safety drill “The end of the shuttle program is a tough thing to swallow, and we’re all victims of poor policy out of Washington”. For half a century, he said, his country had a program to put astronauts into space, with one program ready when another expired. “Now we don’t have anything,” he said, to angry applause.

In a way, though, the end of the Shuttle program is a testament to its success. It was never designed to inspire. The president who signed it into existence in preference over a Mars mission, Richard Nixon, had a more prosaic vision.

A reusable orbital vehicle, Nixon promised in 1972, would “routinise” the trip into space, making it “safer and less demanding for the passengers, so that men and women with work to do in space can ‘commute’ aloft”.

Rather more soaring rhetoric came later. As the first launch neared, politicians linked the Shuttle to that other great American dream, conquering the wild frontier. “The shuttle tomorrow is truly like laying the last spike on the transcontinental railroad, only much more so,” California governor Jerry Brown said in 1977 before the first test flights. “There are people alive today who will see manufacturing in space from moon materials or from asteroids.”

Though it never quite made space travel routine, the Shuttle has achieved plenty in its 135 missions. Five ships travelled half a billion miles, launched spaceprobes, deployed communications satellites, built the International Space Station and housed research in physics, medicine and material science. They deployed military satellites that some credit with winning the cold war, and the Hubble telescope that has changed our view of the universe (after asecond mission to fix its flaws).

 

But it also met tragedy, twice, with the loss of two shuttles and 14 crew.

 

In 1986 Challenger disintegrated just a minute after take-off. The disaster was traced to an ‘O ring’, a rubber seal designed to prevent fuel escaping from the booster rockets during the incredible pressures of a launch. As the metal rocket bulged and gaped from the stress of take-off, the cold, overly-rigid O-ring was too slow to fill the leak, and pressures blew the Shuttle apart in a fireball of fuel. Investigators believe some of the astronauts on board survived the blast only to be killed seconds later as their capsule fell to Earth at high speed. There was no escape system.

 

In tribute to the seven astronauts lost, Ronald Reagan gave one of his best speeches. “We will never forget them,” he said, “nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch theface of God.” He pledged the program would continue, telling NASA employees “Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”

 

But it soon appeared the disaster was a symptom of problems at the space agency. Engineers had warned the O-rings were untested in the icy temperatures that accompanied the January launch, but were ignored in the push to launch on time. It has since become a case study in engineering courses across the world, demonstrating the dangers of ‘groupthink’. Leading theoretical physicist Richard Feynman told a commission of inquiry that for successful science “reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled”.

 

NASA redesigned the rockets and established a new Office of Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance. But disaster came again, seven years later, when Columbia burned up on re-entry. Again, human complacency and organisational flaws were blamed. On take-off, a chunk of insulation the size of a suitcase fell from the big fuel tank – an event that was cause for alarm in previous launches, but gradually become accepted as routine.

 

This time the insulation had hit the Shuttle’s wing. Video captured the moment, but in vague detail that raised fears in a few engineers, who failed to persuade administrators that a satellite or a space-walk should be used to check for damage.

In fact, the damage to protective tiles on the wing was severe enough that it could not stand the 1500 Centigrade heat of atmosphere re-entry. About 70 km from Earth, travelling 22 times the speed of sound, the Shuttle began to come apart. Less than five minutes later, over Dallas, it disintegrated, killing all seven astronauts on board.

This time the reaction was stronger. The Shuttle program was again suspended, and two commissions examined the cause of the accident. They found that lessons from Challenger had not been learned, processes were flawed and safety compromised by the way NASA made decisions.

 

Some leaped to the defence of NASA, saying risks were a part of space flight. Frank Borman, an Apollo astronaut who found a new career at a commercial airline, said it was impossible to make a space rocket as safe as a 727. “The shuttle is a hand-made piece of experimental gear,” he said.

 

But politically, the shuttle program was fatally wounded. Within a year President Bush announced a new space policy in which the shuttle would be retired by 2010 once the International Space Station was complete, to be replaced by a new Crew Exploration Vehicle with the more ambitious destinations of the Moon and Mars. The CEV was never completed, replaced by two other planned vehicles, neither of which have yet been built.

 

Some are celebrating the end of the Shuttle program – even those with an abiding love of space and science. Professor John Logsdon, of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University wrote recently that the Shuttle design was flawed at the start – rather than a low cost commuter, it was “an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely.” As a result, its achievements were never worth the US$209 billion price tag. “The shuttle’s cost has been an obstacle to NASA starting other major projects,” he said. “If we learn anything from the space shuttle experience, it should be that making choices with multidecade consequences on such short-term considerations is poor public policy.”

 

But one of the space program’s most revered sons, John Glenn, says an America that cannot put a man into space worries him. “I don’t like this at all,” he said in a recent interview. It is more than just the practical problems of having to rely on Russian launches to get to the space station, and the loss of a unique research site. It’s about national pride. “I don’t think that’s very seemly for the world greatest space faring nation as President Kennedy termed us,” he said. “Sure, there are scarce dollars. You can always say that it was scarce dollars when Lewis and Clark wanted to go to the West Coast and explore the West,” Glenn said. “And people complained about it I understand from a reading of the history books.”

Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director, describes a bitter-sweet reaction to reports that hundreds of thousands of Americans are flocking to Florida to watch the final Shuttle launch.

 

“[It is a result of] pride in the program, pride in America,” he said. “I’ll be honest with you I wish it had picked up years ago, because I think we have lost the interest of some of the American people. When you see it’s the last one you want to race down to Florida to check it off your bucket list. And that’s good, that’s fine, [but] I wish we had been able to maintain the interest of the American people a bit better. I don’t think we have done it as good as we could.”

 

Waleed Abdalati, NASA chief scientist, says NASA’s mission to explore space will continue because it answers one of humankind’s basic urges.

 

“There’s a kid in all of us that’s looking up at the heavens and wondering what’s up there, what’s it like, is there life out there,” he says. “That sense of wonder never leaves us.” And the adult in us expresses that wonder as a need to understand the universe around us, and our place in it. “These are fundamental questions at the core of the human spirit.”

 

Michael Moses, launch integration manager for the Space Shuttle Program, was asked this week if his team was tempted to use weather as an excuse to linger on the final Shuttle launch, to put off the final moment.

“No,” he said. “It’s time to go.”