NASA’s shuttle program counts down ’til the end
An excited yet wistful space reporter gets ready for the second-to-last shuttle launch.
By George Musser

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER—If I’d jumped, I could have touched the belly of the Discovery. Of course, I would have then been escorted unceremoniously from the Orbiter Processing Facility. But I was that close. What a strange mix of thrill and melancholy it was to see those heat-shield tiles, the swoop of the delta wing, and the snub nose wrapped in black. This was the spacecraft that launched the Hubble Space Telescope and made its last trip into space in February. Next year it’ll be off to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of.

With Discovery’s twin, Endeavour, set to embark Friday on the shuttle program’s second-to-last mission, the collective journalist storyline has already coalesced around how everyone feels about the program’s imminent end. If you know space reporters, that’s jarring. These guys out-engineer the engineers. They’re usually asking about RTLS to the SLF, not emotions. Now they commiserate with NASA types they’ve known for years, decades, who are getting their pink slips. Asked at this morning’s press conference how he felt, shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said, “It’s kind of sad to see it end, but we’re dealing with it.” The next question concerned turbulence in the boundary layer during re-entry at Mach 18, but then it was back to how Leinbach felt. “It’ll be a lot less fun to be working in,” he said. “It’s like breaking up a family.”

Stephanie Stilson, the engineer in charge of getting the Discovery safe for mass consumption, told us about how the spacecraft that looks so sleek on the outside is a veritable Superfund site on the inside. They’ve taken out all the rocket engines, tanks, fuel cells, even the toilets—anything that might contain hazardous materials. The nozzles that museum visitors will see are just for show. The payload bay doors will have to be supported by steel beams—they were designed to be opened in zero-gravity. But inevitably the conversation came around to how Stilson feels. When Discovery rolls out next year, it won’t be back. “It’s like having a child go off to college,” she said.

When our press tour got to pad 39B, one of the two Apollo and shuttle launch sites, one reporter exclaimed, “It’s so sad.” The gantry is already half dismantled. While we were there, we saw bits of metal pipe fall to the ground. It looks nothing like what the old pictures show. The project manager, Jose Perez Morales, described how future rockets—whatever they may be—won’t need a fixed service tower. They’ll have a mobile tower that will roll out with the rocket.Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC at sunset

The shuttle program had to end. It was magnificent yet flawed from the start. “In all those 30 years, we never ventured more than 300 miles from the surface of the Earth,” notes Jim Ball, the NASA manager who’s trying to figure out what the Kennedy Space Center will do next. Though he didn’t say it, it’s an unenviable task. No one knows what comes next.

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