As the Space Shuttle returns to regular flight operations with the first International Space Station (ISS) assembly mission since Columbia set to launch at the weekend, it will also mark the beginning of the end for what are still the most complex machines ever built by man.
Atlantis’ launch on Sunday will be another step in finalising the Shuttle’s final legacy before retirement, according to Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Robert Lightfoot, manager of the Space Shuttle Propulsion Office.
‘The most visible legacy will be the International Space Station. When it’s completed, we’ll see it as a star in the sky, even during the day,’ noted Lightfoot in MSFC’s internal magazine Marshall Star. ‘It will be huge, the size of two football fields. That, plus the hardware we’ve developed through the program. And that continues with the Constellation Program.’
MSFC’s role in NASA’s future has already begun, with their leading role in the development of the Ares I, under the guidance of the aforementioned Constellation Program, which is incorporating Shuttle workers who are already making the transition.
‘A less visible legacy is the workforce we leave this agency to go on into the future. It’s the workforce that, through positive and negative experiences, has learned a lot and is prepared to take the next step,’ he added.
‘The Constellation Program is exciting, real cool, and it will present some pretty big challenges. Our success will enable their future and we know we need to be successful.’
Looking back at the ‘amazing’ Shuttle, Lightfoot described the vehicles as an ‘enabler’ – which will live on with the Constellation Program, through the lessons learned during the three decades the Shuttle has flown.
‘There are the great observatories we’ve been able to develop – Hubble, Chandra – because of this remarkable vehicle. We’re still learning things about the shuttle, but we owe a debt of gratitude to those who designed it back in the 1970s. It’s truly an amazing machine.
‘The shuttle itself is an enabler. It enabled us to build the station. We get 13-14 days in space with shuttle and we’re just one day away from home. When we complete the station, we’ll have people on orbit six months and still just one day away from home. Farther away, the longer it will take to get home.
‘But the research in low-Earth orbit prepares for how to live on the moon and Mars in the future. How we do maintenance on station is directly applicable to how we do maintenance on the moon. The shuttle is an enabler of all that. Once it’s retired, it will be known as the only vehicle capable of that. And all that will have happened in only 30 years!’
The Shuttle has its critics, mainly due to the huge costs associated with what is still very much a test vehicle. This led Lightfoot to note that while the vehicle’s legacy deserves to be noted, work will continue to be required to ensure a safe finale to Shuttle operations – all the way until wheel stop on the final mission in 2010.
‘It’s pretty amazing, especially when you think it was just over 100 years ago that we took to flight for the first time,’ he added. ‘One of Wayne Hale’s favorite sayings is, ‘We put the agency at risk every time we fly.’ But our success is a predecessor to every success coming. That’s not pressure, but a responsibility. It’s what we’re supposed to do and folks accept it with open arms.
‘When we finally finish in 2010, I think it will be incredibly sweet, but maybe more bittersweet. We have forged a great many friendships and established personal relationships we’d never otherwise be able to. We know at the end things won’t be the same again.
‘But for now we don’t want to focus on our legacy too much. We’re so busy trying to finish what we’re doing and we’ve got lots to do between now and then. And we’re not going to stop until the wheels stop on the last mission.’