Space Shuttle Memories: Becoming An Advocate

July 21, 2011

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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.

In the fall of 1995, I left NASA. I was still working in the aerospace industry, just not the space portion. I continued to monitor the happenings at NASA and always prayed for the best for everyone working the projects. From my new position outside looking in, I continued my love affair with space. I tried to watch every launch and every landing. I kept in touch with my friends in Houston and had them send me mission patches to add to my collection.

I have always advocated for the space program, not just because of the adventure, but because of the benefits that naturally come from exploration. We have had great advances in material science, medicine and even heat transfer from our experiences in space. The space program is expensive, but it produces products and knowledge that benefit many people and disciplines. Space travel can grab the attention of children and adults, sometimes the whole nation or the whole world at one time. Unfortunately it can also become routine. That is when budgets are cut and people stop watching, reading or caring. That is what happened in January of 2003.

On January 16, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia launched for the one hundred and thirteenth mission (STS-103). I watched the launch, but pretty much ignored the rest of the mission. My brother in law called to ask me if I was watching the landing, that is when I turned on the news and knew immediately that another shuttle and another crew had been lost. When I had worked at NASA the single most dangerous part of all missions was launch. That is when a controlled explosion was used to put the vehicle into orbit. Coming down was easy, slow down and let gravity suck you in, aim for the runway and land. I had been away from the program for more than seven years and did not personally know any of the astronauts lost, but it was still like loosing members of my family.

It was shortly after the return to flight of STS-114 in July of 2005 that I decided how I was going to support the space program from a distance. One of my co-workers’ wife is a teacher at a local middle school. Part of there curriculum includes a journalism segment where the student right about famous events in history; Columbus reaching the Antilles, Washington winning the battle of Yorktown, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the first landing on the moon. I established a K-12 program where I go and talk to the students over a full day of classes. I try to explain the inch by inch method of achieving a goal, we did not just suddenly land on the moon, a lot of work had to be done to get there. More important, we continue that progress today, with potential for each of those young people to have a great affect on the history of humanity.

Every year I speak with these kids and have their attention throughout the day. Some of it is that I am not their normal teacher, some is the fear of misbehaving while their teachers are watching, but some of it is actual interest. Space is cool in every generation. I tell them silly stories about astronauts, I tell them the serious nature and danger of space flight by discussing candidly the Challenger and Columbia accidents. I also do a demonstration of size. I have cardboard constructions of the Mercury and Gemini capsules. I put one volunteer in the mercury mock up, it is very tight. I then put two in the Gemini mock up, also a tight fit. I give one a rope and open the “door” and have them step out. This is to demonstrate how hard it would have been for the craft bound astronaut to get a disabled space walker back into the craft.

So as not to bore them, I break into some video and artifact demonstrations with plenty of time to ask questions and look at all of the space stuff I have collected over the years. Most often the kids ask about the space ships. How big they were (I have a poster for that), how cramped they were (more than just Mercury and Gemini), what the Soviets had. For space within the craft, I showed the Mercury by putting a cone around a single chair and the Gemini by putting a cone around two chairs close together. The Apollo could be shown by having a cone around three chairs close together (there is space behind the chairs for more room). The Soyuz could be shown by having three chairs in a sphere. They had room overhead and beneath the chairs making it a little roomier than the Apollo. The Apollo usually had a Lunar Lander attached when housing three astronauts so there was additional space there. All of these would be considered sub-compact cars when compared with the luxury of the Space Shuttle.

The Space Shuttle has two decks with ample space around the chairs when they are installed. Only the commander and pilot seats are permanently attached. The decks are tall enough to stand up in and when in orbit, you can float into every cubit inch of that volume. When you add a Space Lab module in the payload bay, it is pretty much a resort hotel in space. The space station is even bigger, with private quarters for crew members to sleep and get away when necessary.

I will continue my advocacy for the space program. I am disappointed that the decision has been made to retire the Space Shuttle before a new vehicle is ready. This is the same mistake made in the transition from Apollo to Shuttle. I do not like being dependent on other countries to keep our Space Station fully crewed. I never want to allow another country to overtake the United States in space technology. As the Shuttle program comes to an end, I do feel sadness and even disappointment. I felt this same way when the Apollo program ended. But I am also optimistic. The Space Shuttle moved us forward in so many areas, from Avionics to Medicine to Astronomy. I can only dream about what we will do next. For now, I await with anticipation the next space craft to launch our imagination.


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