Meet the Orbiters
A fleet of winged spacecraft, the likes of which we'll never see again.
- By Michael Klesius
- AirSpaceMag.com, March 01, 2011
(Page 4 of 5)
His favorite spot, though, was being in the airlock, “when we were preparing equipment and getting suited for an EVA” [extravehicular activity, or spacewalk]. He made nine spacewalks.
Ross’s favorite aspect of the shuttle is its reusability. “That’s a pretty incredible accomplishment in and of itself,” he says. “I think another is the incredible capabilities that it gave us to take payload into orbit, to capture things or mate up with things in orbit, to do spacewalks, to do construction.
“The two biggest drawbacks to the vehicle were, one, it has all its reentry protective shields exposed to the launch and on-orbit environment, the RCC blankets in particular, which is the most critical part. The other thing is that its complexity did require a lot of on-the-ground work to get it ready to go each time. It was far from being the commercial airliner, fill-it-up-with-gas-and-go-again kind of thing. But for a first time, this kind of vehicle really was an amazing capability.”
Former mission specialist and three-time flier Mike Mullane loves to talk about living in the shuttle: “One thing that always surprised me about being in space in the orbiter was how the volume above your head became usable.” In his book Riding Rockets, Mullane recounts the first scheduled sleep period of his first mission. Once everyone was asleep in the mid-deck, he floated up to the flight deck and fixed his sleep restraint beneath the windows that were effectively Discovery’s sunroof. As the autopilot kept the orbiter flying along on its back, tail first, Mullane gazed down at the great sphere of Earth passing by. He barely slept.
Like Chang-Dìaz, Mullane has changes he might have suggested during the design phase, such as a better escape system than the telescoping bail-out pole installed after Challenger, good only at subsonic speed below 30,000 feet. “But I’d fly the shuttle tomorrow without an escape system,” he says.
Perhaps this is the lasting impression that the space shuttle will leave behind: That of a marvelous, dangerous creature with astronauts willing to take the risks to enjoy the adventure.
“The orbiter is a completely different vehicle than anything that has ever flown in space,” says John Shannon, program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “It was a work platform, a spacewalk platform, a construction site with a robotic arm, a laboratory, a people mover. It was a complex vehicle operating at the edge of its performance, with very little margin for error.”
With each flight, NASA not only launched a crew to complete a mission but also gathered important information on high-Mach, or hypersonic, aerodynamics in a little-understood environment. “There are a lot of areas where we do not understand perfectly all of the physics that are going on. And the shuttle’s been a good vehicle for testing a lot of that out,” says Shannon. The agency will analyze data from the last mission just as it did all the others; to do otherwise “and think we know everything would be a huge mistake,” Shannon says. “We’re going to have a lot of interesting data. And how does this directly tie to the next program? Well, you don’t know because you don’t know what the next program is.”