To go where no one has gone before

This is the last in a four-part series on the construction of America’s first space shuttle and its impact on human space flight. The shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off today at 2:20 p.m. EDT.

He is the voice of launch control. When the space shuttle takes off in a blaze of fire, the sound you hear over the roar of the rockets is George Diller, a former radio journalist turned spokesperson for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

I met Diller thirty years ago on a runway at the Kennedy Space Center, at the dawn of the space shuttle program, when women and men dreamed of space flight as routine as taking the train to work. As a journalist I’d landed in Florida to cover the construction of the first shuttle that would fly into space, the orbiter Columbia. Diller, a contract public relations specialist assigned to show me the inner workings of KSC, gave me a glimpse at that future, and the vehicle that would take us there.

After thirty years we met again, this time by phone, for an interview about the legacy of the space shuttle program and the future of human space flight.

JW: When people write the history of the space shuttle program, what will they say?

George Diller-passportGD: I think it will be recalled as a storied program because the space shuttle has had so many different roles and mission objectives during the thirty years it’s been flying. Initially we looked at it as something that would take everything into space, both commercial payloads as well as NASA’s planetary spacecraft. At that time the International Space Station was still on the drawing boards.

The shuttle started by taking a combination of payloads, commercial payloads on a cost-reimbursable basis and then the other things that NASA wanted to put in low-earth orbit. As a stepping stone to the International Space Station we had Spacelab, designed to lay the groundwork for the space station. Some of our most historic payloads were deployed from the space shuttle bay, and they included the Hubble Space Telescope, the Galileo probe to Jupiter, the Magellan mission to Venus and the Ulysses mission to the sun.

After we resumed flying after the Challenger accident we had a very different objective. We looked to one day commercializing the space shuttle. We would move to the moon or Mars, leaving the private sector to do the lower-orbit missions. That is almost exactly what will happen under President Barack Obama’s mission. The Columbia accident also caused us to think of what the long term mission of the shuttle would be. We divested ourselves of the idea that the shuttle would be a commercial vehicle we could launch every two weeks, more as a delivery truck, and doing space science missions as well. We took it back to being a research-and-development spacecraft.

There are three more launches, including the one on May 14. The final launch will be in November but we’re still talking about one after that.

JW: What is the legacy of the shuttle program?

GD: The space shuttle gave NASA and human space flight the flexibility to do things that no other vehicle had done. Because of the size of the shuttle and the volume of payloads it could take into space, nothing else we can see can haul things that weight as much or are as outsized. The shuttle gave us a capability that we never had before and won’t have in the future.

JW: What has the shuttle program contributed to science and society?

GD: That’s what Spacelab was all about. We wanted to prove the kind of science we wanted to do on the International Space Station, in terms of developing new pharmaceuticals, computer substrates and metals. We were also testing whether humans could survive in space for long periods of time—six months or more. That has spun off to us here on the ground. We can take full advantage of that scientific and commercial innovation.

JW: You’re one of the voices of the launch of the shuttle. How do you feel when it takes off?

GD: For me it’s not much different than it was thirty years ago when we launched the first one. It is such an awesome feeling to see that power, to hear the sound and feel its effect on your chest. The visual effect is particularly alluring during a night launch. It is still thrilling to watch, fascinating and breathtaking.

JW: How do you feel when it’s coming in for a landing?

GD: It’s pretty neat to watch if it’s in the daytime. You see it coming overhead like a silver streak. It’s dropping like a rock, extremely fast. As the wheels come down and the parachute comes out you’re dropping from thousands of miles an hour to about 200 miles an hour in a few minutes. When it goes by it sounds just like a jet.

JW: Do you get anxious when the shuttle comes in for a landing?

GD: I feel like we have a capability since the Columbia accident to know whether we have anything to be concerned about. I have a little apprehension in the launch control center while we’re waiting for Kennedy to make contact. We don’t have communications until 500 miles out and 12 minutes before landing. When we had Columbia going over Texas we were waiting for that contact to happen. We were having communications problems. We know in reentry there can be brief blackout periods. None of the acquisition systems here at the Cape could pick it up.

JW: What’s next for NASA?

GD: It’s still a little hazy. We know that President Obama has cancelled the Constellation program, which offered a smaller version of the shuttle to go back and forth to the space station and a larger version to go back to the moon. Obama has penciled out the craft to the moon. Astronauts will go on commercial rockets in about five years. Since the moon is not in the president’s vision for the agency, we might be going to an asteroid. But we have to have a vehicle different from the one that would go to the moon.

We’re developing technologies that that would go beyond the moon, and that’s going to take about five years to do. We have to decide what kind of rocket that is going to be, who is going to design it and who is going to build it. We need to develop new propulsion technologies.

The rockets that go to the space station will be owned by commercial interests. In the long term all things will be commercially launched by commercial space taxis. It’s not far from NASA’s mission of twenty-five years ago. It wanted to move on to higher programs. It can’t own and maintain all launch vehicles. Commercial rockets will be reconfigured so they can carry astronauts back and forth to the space station. We’re going to reconfigure Complex 39 and Cape Canaveral Air Force station for commercial low-earth orbits.

JW: What’s the future of human space flight?

GD: In the near term the International Space Station is where it’s at. The capabilities that NASA is going to help the private sector develop will create more human potential in low-earth orbit. Beyond that it’s a little hard for me to see. This change in direction from what we’ve be doing over the past five years is a 180, a completely different approach. You have to design and build a new propulsion system. You have to have funding. The legislative process has to weigh in. The Congress feels we need more answers. We’re going to need more time to see. In the meantime our geophysics loads will continue to be launched on unmanned vehicles. We’ve got some exciting planetary flights and earth observation satellite launches planned. That will all continue without missing a beat.

JW: You were there at the inception of America’s space shuttle program. How do you feel when you look back on it?

GD: I feel like I’m privileged to be with NASA. At some point in history we’ll look back at the shuttle much as we did the Apollo program. I was there for the first one and I’ll be there for the last one.

JW: Thanks. I’ll see you in another thirty years.