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.

Fire in the hole

This is the third in a four-part series on the construction of America’s first space shuttle in 1979 and its impact on human space flight.

Security is tight at Pad 39A. This is where Columbia is scheduled to launch in November 1979, seven months from now. (It will launch seventeen months later, in 1981.) While we’ve worn our security badges all day, to enter the pad area we must leave them on a large board by the guardhouse.

“It’s like coming home,” says George Diller, the public relations contractor working for NASA. “Just like in the old says of Apollo.”

Cape Canaveral 72Why leave our badges? “In case of fire or explosion on the pad, they know who’s up there, and who didn’t come back.”

Diller commandeers an elevator and we ride the orange and gray Fixed Service Structure until we tower 247 feet above the flame trench, clearly visible as the Mobile Launcher Platform and shuttle have yet to arrive. Flames have blasted the trench black, turning its sandstone walls to glass. Parts of the tower remain from the days when all Apollo launches except one blasted off from Pad 39A.

Affixed to the tower is the Rotating Service Structure, a jumble of tubes and girders that contain the payload change out room. The payload canister is placed in the change out hold, the service structure rotated on a railroad track to mate with the cargo bay of the shuttle and the payload transferred.

When the shuttle is ready, giant crawler transporters will lift the Mobile Launch Platform from the Vehicle Assembly Building and trundle eleven million pounds of shuttle and platform 3.5 miles to Pad 39A, where Columbia will undergo outdoor tests. Then, at T minus 3.5 seconds, water will flood the deck of the launch platform to suppress the roar that might damage the cargo, pouring 900,000 gallons a minute through the flames and into the trench below.

Cargo bay loader 72The shuttle will take off vertically, with both the solid booster rockets and three orbiter engines firing. The boosters will separate at an altitude of twenty-five miles and descend by parachute for recovery. Columbia will jettison its external fuel tank as the craft enters orbit. The tank will fall to Earth but will not be reused, Diller says, because it is cheaper to build a thin tank and throw it away than a sturdy reusable one and burn the extra fuel to boost it into suborbital space.

Columbia will orbit at an altitude of 600 miles and stay aloft for seven to thirty days. It will reenter the atmosphere as most spacecraft do, at an angle of twenty-three degrees and a speed of 500 miles per hour. But a microwave beam landing system will trim the angle of descent to one degree. Columbia will glide to a powerless landing at 210 miles an hour on the 15,000-foot runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The first four missions require Columbia to land on the air base runway, which provides extra room by way of an adjacent dry lake bed. After that, Columbia will land on the Kennedy Space Center’s 17,000-foot runway, which exceeds the length of the longest commercial aviation runway in the world, 14,727 feet, at JFK International in New York.

Once on the ground at Cape Canaveral, Columbia will be towed into the Orbiter Processing Facility, where crews will remove residual fuels and payloads and refurbish heat tiles, landing gear, propulsion and other systems.

To explore new worlds
What is the future of the space shuttle program? Good, at this point in 1979. Each orbiter is designed to fly up to 100 missions and NASA has three more orbiters planned after Columbia: Challenger (under construction with a delivery date of 1982), Discovery and Atlantis. Columbia will make the first fifteen flights and then alternate with Challenger.

Astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen are schedule to fly Columbia on its first orbital voyage on November 9, 1979, but NASA insiders say the space agency won’t launch until December at the earliest. (They’re right. The maiden flight won’t take place until April 12, 1981, exactly twenty years after the first human space flight, when the Vostok 3KA spacecraft powered cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into orbit.)

The trip for Young will be nothing new. He flew in Gemini 3 in 1965, commanded Gemini 10 in 1966, flew in Apollo 10 in 1969 and commanded Apollo 16 in 1972. Onboard Columbia he will serve as commander. Crippen, an Air Force research pilot, will serve as shuttle pilot.

Columbia will carry instruments to measure the orbiter’s performance and stresses during takeoff and landing. In future missions NASA has its own form of Henry Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy. One of Columbia’s missions will be to place the European-financed Spacelab into orbit. Spacelab will provide facilities for four specialists, who will conduct experiments in medicine, manufacturing, astronomy and pharmaceuticals. They will look for purer alloys, lenses and drugs whose manufacture can benefit from the zero-gravity environment of space.

NASA is also stating that with a force of three G’s on liftoff, any healthy person should be able to shuttle into space, opening a new world for those outside the scientific realm.

Tomorrow: Thirty years later, George Diller, the voice of space shuttle launches, talks about the legacy of the program and the future of human space flight.

In race to space, NASA changes course

This is the second in a four-part series on the construction of America’s first space shuttle in 1979 and its impact on human space flight.

It stands like a sculpture of a gull, blazing brighter than the concrete runway in the heat of April 1979. NASA tour buses pull up to the yellow ropes. Tourists scramble for a quick picture of a bird that will never fly by itself.

Enterprise, or Orbiter 101, gained notoriety in 1977 when it flew piggyback atop a NASA 747 eight times in captive flight and underwent five drop tests of its structure. After subjecting the craft to a year of vibration tests at Huntsville, Alabama, NASA flew Enterprise to the Kennedy Space Center during the second week in April 1979. Orbiter 102, Columbia, was ferried into the spaceport on March 24.

Enterprise 300Enterprise won’t make it into space because it weighs too much. All those tests enabled engineers to trim the orbiter’s weight, allowing for heavier cargo. In a state rich with tourism, it is an attraction that helps to draw more than 1.2 million visitors a year to the Kennedy Space Center. And it is a symbol of the new era into which NASA has entered, an era of cutting costs and boosting support. While NASA’s budget for fiscal 1979 is $4.5 billion, NASA’s George Diller says the space program is a good investment, returning $7 for every $1 spent.

The price of a shuttle launch will be a quarter of ordinary launches, he says. Placing a satellite into orbit using an expendable Atlas Centaur rocket costs $24 million (in 1979 dollars). Launching the same payload into orbit using the space shuttle will cost $6 million. (In today’s dollars, NASA estimates it costs $450 million for each shuttle launch.)

NASA plans to cut costs by reusing the orbiter up to 100 times, retrieving the solid rocket boosters and even washing and repacking the parachutes. Computers have trimmed the number of people needed to launch a mission. Part of the cost savings will come from the use of standardized parts.

“This [space shuttle program] was a logical development to give us routine access to space, to make it usable,” Diller says as we drive from the orbiter’s runway. “It’s kind of hard to keep going to Congress and asking for more money.”

NASA has high hopes for its new fleet. The shuttle will place into orbit satellites that will warn of crop disease and potential forest fires, scan the oceans for the best fishing areas and search for geologic formations associated with untapped oil and mineral reserves. The craft will launch satellites that enable more accurate weather forecasting and better communications, repair damaged satellites in space or bring them back to Earth for maintenance. It will launch several classified projects for the U.S. Department of Defense, although NASA doesn’t advertise that fact.

The shuttle program has also stabilized the workforce at the Kennedy Space Center. In 1975, during the last manned launch, the spaceport employed 26,500 people. By 1979 that number has dropped to 7,700. Diller expects the workforce to climb and hold at 10,500 once the shuttle gets off the ground. That stability, he says, saves talent and boosts morale.

Orbiter Columbia in VAB 72The inner sanctum
Inside the Orbiter Processing Facility—a sophisticated aircraft hanger near the shuttle runway—Columbia is buried in scaffolding as technicians install the remaining 7,800 heat-dispersing tiles. Each measures six inches by six inches, costs $500 and is made to survive temperatures of up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA believes that reentry should not damage the tiles but rain drops can, so Columbia will take off on clear mornings.

While the heat-dissipating tiles are sensitive, the technicians installing them are touchier: they will not allow people to distract them by taking pictures of their work. We have to take photos from a distance.

Columbia itself costs $500 million. It’s about the size of a DC-9 jetliner and weighs seventy-five tons. The cargo compartment is fifteen feet in diameter, sixty feet long and can carry payloads of up to 65,000 pounds. The orbiter can carry a maximum of seven passengers, although NASA plans to launch Columbia with only two crew members for the first four missions. The first non-pilots to ride the space shuttles will be scientists.

What about journalists, photographers, poets?

“It’ll cost you a million dollars per ride,” Diller says as we leave the Orbiter Processing Facility. “You want to buy a ticket?”

Firing Room No 2 72On the firing line
NASA’s cost-cutting moves have trimmed the number of people needed to launch a spacecraft from 450 for Apollo missions to forty-five for space shuttle flights. But more and larger equipment needed to pull off that feat will still fill two firing rooms, as in the days of the moon shots. Countdown time is shorter. With Apollo it was 28 hours; with the shuttle, it will drop to 2.5 hours.

In Firing Room 1 technicians are running tests of the computers that will monitor every electrical circuit, fuel system and heartbeat onboard Columbia. During testing this day in 1979, the onboard information scrolls across video consoles throughout the room: blue for normal mode, green for all systems “go” and red for trouble.

The screens are awash in blue. Then they begin pushing out lines of red type. “That would have stopped the countdown,” Diller says.

Tomorrow: fire in the hole.

Space shuttle America: last ride to final frontier

The six astronauts that will ride space shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station are now at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in preparation for launch on Friday, May 14. The final flight of the program is scheduled for November 2010. This is the first in a four-part series that looks back on the construction of America’s first space shuttle in 1979 and its impact on human space flight.

For Americans, Alan Shepard Jr. started the countdown. In November the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will pause the clock. That’s when NASA will retire the fleet of space shuttles formally known as the Space Transportation System.

A lot has happened in the fifty years between Shepard’s suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, and today. The U.S. manned space program has seen tragedy—a fire aboard Apollo 1 in 1967 that killed crew members Gus Grisson, Ed White and Roger Chaffee—and triumph—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon in 1969. A shift to reusable spacecraft has also yielded success and sadness, from the heady days of Enterprise and the shuttle’s first operational flights in 1982 to the heartbreaking disasters that followed, the destruction of Challenger in 1986 and the disintegration of America’s first orbiter, Columbia, in 2003.

Space Shuttle liftoffAlong the way America has taken one small step for itself and one giant leap for all humans who wish to experience the mysteries of space. And while human exploration will continue after November, the controversial space shuttle program will end when Endeavour delivers its final load of equipment to the International Space Station. In 134 missions the shuttles will have made history on several fronts. They’ve launched satellites, repaired the Hubble Space Telescope and achieved scientific and social landmarks, from probes to Jupiter to America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride.

NASA commissioned six airworthy shuttles. Five have flown into space—Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour. A sixth, Enterprise, was created for test purposes. Their construction started the clock on a new era of space exploration, one that gave scientists and ordinary citizens routine access to what the creators of the “Star Trek” series called “the final frontier.”

At the time, it seemed the stuff of dreams, unless you were fortunate enough to stand where astronauts stand.

Star ship Enterprise
On Easter Sunday, April 15, 1979, I find myself walking the hard sands of Cocoa Beach along a stretch where astronaut John Glenn ran while training for the Mercury program, before he became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962. The next day I stand atop the launch tower on Pad 39A, staring into a trench blasted to glass by Saturn V rockets as they flew the Apollo astronauts to the moon—hallowed ground for those of us who grew up in the era of Sputnik, Redstone rockets and people who had the Right Stuff.

As a credentialed journalist I’m able to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the construction of America’s first space shuttle with George Diller, a contract public relations professional with NASA who is now the agency’s spokesperson and the voice of numerous shuttle launches. He issues me a hardhat and a badge, tells me what I can and cannot photograph and we set off on an adventure that tourists will never take.

Runway 72

At the Kennedy Space Center, someone has parked the vehicle that started the program, Enterprise, at the end of a runway. It has undergone several test flights and glistens in the Florida sun, ready for its final assignment. Nearby its successor, the ill-fated Columbia, sits in a hanger, draped with an American flag, awaiting the heat-dissipating tiles that will allow the craft to safely reenter the atmosphere.

The Enterprise will never fly into space. Columbia will have that honor in 1981. But the mating of the solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank with Enterprise this week in 1979 will give NASA and the public a look at the crux of America’s space program, and the new direction it will take.

An explosive situation
Diller punches the button and a red thirty-seven lights up. Through the wire mesh of the elevator’s side panels we watch the floor of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) drop into a cavern of girders and concrete walkways until it disappears and we step onto the blazing white roof 525 feet above the ground.

VAB 72Three Empire State Buildings could fit inside the VAB, where NASA contractors stacked stage after stage of the Saturn V rockets that boosted Americans to the moon. NASA has modified the building to accommodate the smaller space shuttle. Workers have removed upper decks and installed evacuation signs, blue cards with long white arrows pointing into the darkness.

From atop the VAB the Kennedy Space Center stretches to the horizon, a carpet of green moss and blue lakes. Everyone at the center has taken courses on how hazardous places like the VAB will become, Diller says on our way down to the building’s midsection. The solid fuel that will propel the shuttle’s two booster rockets could ignite during assembly. “Everyone would have thirty-seven seconds to get out,” he says. “If there is a chain reaction, this would be the first building on the moon.”

SRB 2 72We step into the Mobile Launcher Platform, a relic from the moon shot days being refurbished to support the two solid rocket boosters, the external fuel tank that powers the orbiter’s main engines and the orbiter itself. The boosters rise 150 feet from the metal deck of the launch platform. They’re filled with inert fuel now but when the real ones are delivered from the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, each one will contain 1.1 million pounds of volatile propellant.

Diller pushes the elevator button for another level. The elevator arrives a good three minutes later, taking us to a bright white elliptical tank 154 feet tall. At liftoff its 1.55 million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen will fuel the shuttle into orbit.

Later, on the deck of the Mobile Launcher Platform, the external tank will be mated with the two solid rocket boosters. The orbiter Enterprise will be towed from its landing strip to the VAB and mated with the tank, boosters and launch platform. Then the entire package will be trundled 3.5 miles down gravel strips for a month of testing at launch Pad 39A.

NASA will not fuel the rockets and tanks for Enterprise. It is making sure that machined parts from all over the country fit together. There are no off-the-shelf, standardized fitting. Not yet.

Tomorrow: NASA changes course.