Space Shuttle Memories – A Boy’s Dream

July 18, 2011

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Editor’s note: a few weeks ago, Martin Kelly and I were discussing the end of the space shuttle program.  Both of us have a fascination with space exploration, although his knowledge of the topic makes mine seem miniscule in comparison.  During the discussion, it was suggested (I forget by whom) that he write a series of articles about his memories of the space shuttle and his own experiences working alongside NASA personnel – to run during the days of the final mission.  I now turn the floor over to Martin.  – Kosmo.

The following is a remembrance of the United States Space Program as I have lived it. I will restrain from naming specific people except historic figures and the actual crews of missions I have witnessed or supported. My qualifications for writing this memoir are; a BS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas, three tours as a Co-operative engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center, and nine years as an engineer supporting the Space Shuttle and Space Station programs for what eventually became the United Space Alliance (USA) on the Space Transportation System Operations Contract (STSOC). For those who are interested, technical summaries of each Space Shuttle flight can be found at the NASA web site. All NASA manned missions can be viewed in the archive.

Although I was old enough to watch, I do not remember the early missions of NASA. I was born in 1964, which put me after the Mercury and Gemini missions. My first solid memory of the United States Space Program was being woken up by my parents to watch the first moon landing. It was a grainy black and white picture and I was mesmerized. I stayed up watching long after my brothers and sister went back to bed and even after my mother and father fell back to sleep. It was June of 1969, I was almost five years old, and I was sure that I was going to be an astronaut.

I watched every broadcast from NASA, every special on PBS and read every magazine and newspaper article I could find. I credit the space program with both my ability to read and my continuing passion for reading. I was fascinated that the moon was mostly nickel and wanted to know what that metal could be used for. I wanted to know how the astronauts trained. I wanted to see the next mission, but mostly I wanted to know what we would do next.

When I say “we” I mean the United States of America along with a few trusted allies; the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This was the 1970’s, the cold war and Vietnam. The Soviet Union was the enemy at every level, including space, the only exception being Pavel Chekov on Star Trek, and I was not too sure about him either. The Apollo-Soyuz project was a necessary evil, but was a win for us as the Astronauts piloted their vehicle with the adaptor module attached to dock with the Soyuz, the Soviet Cosmonauts could not get it done. This effort along with Skylab seemed to be a pull back from the great reach to the moon, and in a way it was.

Werner von Braun had a space travel dream that he brought with him from Germany. He wanted a space station to launch other missions to the moon, mars and even further. That plan would save significant costs in energy by starting from Earth orbit rather than from sea level. The plan was temporarily bypassed to get to the moon before the Soviets. Now that the race was won, the old school space men tried to drive back to that plan. The problem is that with the race won, the funding was reduced. At the same time the von Braun crowd were gathering the leftovers of the Apollo program to get the first American Space Station in place, the politicians were throwing every penny they could find into a giant leap in technology that would become the Space Shuttle.

Many people believed at the time and still believe today that the Shuttle was supposed to save the Skylab. Even if the Shuttle had launched in time to rendezvous with the Skylab, there was never any adapter designed or funded that would have allowed attachment to or boost of the Skylab. The Shuttle program was separate from and competing for funding with the Skylab program. I watched all of this haggling through high school. It helped to shape my political values and drove my continued interest in space. If it were not for the un-manned NASA activities during the same time period (Pioneer, Voyager and Viking) I could have become disheartened with the political intrigue and apparent lack of vision in the U.S. space program. The problem that I saw was that there was no continuation plan as the Apollo program shut down.

I was almost out of high school and planning a career as an astronomer when the first space shuttle launch occurred. I had watched the drop tests using the Space Shuttle Enterprise, which had no engines and was lifted and dropped by a modified Boeing 474 jumbo jet. I still do not understand why Star Trek groupies pushed so hard to name that vehicle Enterprise since it would never fly in space, but they did and they succeeded. The drop tests were interesting from an engineering point of view, but seeing the flame and watching the Columbia launch into space was just breathtaking. Many of my readers may not understand just how much better television quality is now compared to the early 1980’s but that was still dramatically better than what was available twelve years earlier when man first stepped on the moon.

The first Shuttle launch was a first in many ways. The biggest first was that a vehicle was launched with men on board with out completing an unmanned test. When John Young and Robert Crippen climbed on board, they were indeed sitting on top of a bomb on national, or rather world wide, television. This could have been the single bravest act ever captured on film. The mission was only two days, but it was considered a complete success. The Space Shuttle was the most complex machine ever built and it worked the first time.

The engineering part of my brain really enjoyed the experience of first flight. The adventurer in me protested that we were limiting ourselves to near Earth orbit activities. Where was the return to the Moon, manned flight to Mars, the colonization of the Moon? It seemed that all our frontier spirit had been dropped for technological gadgetry. Entering college, I was still looking at Astronomy as my field of choice, but the scholarship money was in engineering. The opportunities to become an Astronaut were actually expanding as NASA grew the corps. For me, the opportunities were limited. My eyesight was such that the rules for becoming an Astronaut would have to be really relaxed for me to be selected.

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