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.