Shuttle program successful despite problems

astronomy, ken tapping, DRAO Herzberg Institute

By the time you read this, the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis will either be about to happen or in progress. It might be a bit premature to call this the end of an era, but it must at the very least be a special moment in space exploration.

Back in the 1970’s my family and I sweltered at Ottawa Airport on a typical Ontario summer day to see the beginning of a new age in space flight. Enterprise, the first Space Shuttle was paying a visit. This shuttle was not designed to go into orbit. It was a test bed for its unpowered glide to landing, the best way to transport it and for other investigations. All these problems needed to be solved before putting a shuttle into space.

Even if Enterprise was not a true spaceship, it was the herald for a new line of spacecraft and a new way of accessing and working in space. Seeing that black and white “arrowhead” sitting on top of its specially modified 747 approaching and then landing at a Canadian airport was very exciting. It was worth braving the heat and humidity.

Now, 30 years and 135 trips to Earth orbit later, it is easy to dwell on the shortcomings of the space shuttle. It cost more than predicted, reusing the vehicle turned out to be more complicated than expected, so that preparing the shuttle for the next flight was a bigger job than anticipated, and last but definitely not least, two shuttles were destroyed in accidents, taking their crews with them. Challenger exploded during launch due to problems with the solid-fuel boosters, and Columbia was destroyed during re-entry due to damage to one of the wings by insulation coming off the main fuel tank during launch. At supersonic speeds, a large lump of insulation can inflict a lot of damage.  Space travel is still a dangerous business, and despite our best efforts, technology can fail. However, if someone can find a seat for me…

Now, let’s look at what the shuttle has done for us.  We’ve all seen images of communications and other satellites floating out of the shuttle’s cargo bay, being manoeuvred using the Canadarm, and of astronauts upgrading and repairing satellites. Then there was the shuttle’s huge contribution to building the International Space Station “our log cabin” on the final frontier.

One shining example has to be the shuttle’s role in the Hubble Space Telescope Project. Shuttles delivered it to Earth orbit, took astronaut engineers up to the telescope to fix engineering defects, and then to install upgraded instruments. Not only has the HST proved to be an amazing research instrument, it has produced some of the most beautiful astronomical images ever obtained. We don’t have to be astronomers to appreciate them.

Two purposes of the shuttle were to provide convenient and frequent access to space, and while in space to provide a base for astronauts to work.  Instead of the usual minor fixings and instrument deployments, astronauts could really use tools to make things, or to do major repairs and upgrades. These are the skills we will need for our first manned mission to Mars. Bon voyage Atlantis!

Look for Mercury low in the western evening sky. Saturn is visible in the southwest during the evening. Jupiter rises about 2 a.m. and Mars about 3 a.m. Venus is vanishing in the sunrise glow. The Moon will reach First Quarter on the 7th.

.Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, and is based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.