“We have brought the program back from the brink,” Garver said. “We inherited a program that was in disarray.”
And so the shuttle era comes to an end amid acrimony. To some extent, the pain and hurt and recrimination go with the territory — because, as Garver said repeatedly, “change is hard.”
But if the critics are right, the final flight of Atlantis will be a flare for a space program in trouble.
‘More left in them’
On a recent morning, NASA let reporters take a peek into the retired space shuttle Discovery, which is headed to the Smithsonian. Right now it’s in a customized hangar, or processing bay, here at the space center. Technicians are “safing” it, stripping it of explosive charges designed to blow hatches in an emergency. A shuttle won’t need those when it’s on display in a museum.
Surprise: It’s cramped inside. Seven astronauts had to pack into a modest crew compartment and, just above it, the flight deck. All the spaciousness is in the rear, in the payload bay, where the shuttle hauled jumbo telescopes and satellites and chunks of the international space station. So when people called it a “space truck,” they were not joking. It’s a pickup. A space pickup.
Discovery first flew in 1984 and has logged 148 million miles in space, which is equivalent to flying to the sun and most of the way back.
“It’s sad. There’s a lot more left in them. The airframes are certified for 100 flights. This one had 39 flights,” said senior mechanical technician Bill Powers, 58, who works for United Space Alliance, the primary contractor for the shuttle. USA already has laid off thousands of shuttle workers across the country. On July 22, the contractor will lay off about 1,900 more people here in Florida.
“It’s not wore-out. It’s just broke-in,” said Tim Keyser, lead mechanic for the orbiters. “It could fly another 20 years. We get into the guts of this thing, it’s pristine.”
The fleet was small, just five spaceships, plus a prototype, named Enterprise, that was used in low-altitude tests but never made it to orbit. Collectively they have flown 537 million miles (but, because it’s NASA, there’s an exact number: 537,114,016). Discovery, Endeavour (also parked in a processing bay here) and Atlantis are the three surviving orbiters. Two of the shuttles met disaster. Challenger blew up in 1986 as it soared into the Florida sky, and Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it returned to Earth in 2003.
The tragedies are recorded in various NASA documents with an identical, to-the-point phrase: “Loss of vehicle and crew.”
A versatile performer
The space shuttle goes into the history books with a mixed record. It was never truly loved. It was confined to low-Earth orbit — LEO — and never flew higher than 384 miles above the surface.