The space shuttle: So flawed, yet so inspiring — so human

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As the U.S. space shuttle program comes to an end with today’s launch of the Atlantis, there’s been a lot of looking back at the modern space program, including our own collection of memories from a number of GigaOM staff. As I mentioned in that post, my memories of the shuttle come not just from watching the Challenger explode in 1986 but also from covering the launch of the shuttle Discovery in 2005, the first launch after the explosion of the Columbia shuttle two years earlier. What struck me most about that event was how jury-rigged and flawed things seemed, especially for a multibillion-program aimed at putting people into space — and yet, how inspiring it all was at the same time.

The so-called “Return to Flight” mission in 2005 (STS-114 in official terms), was a pretty big deal, even for NASA. After the Columbia blew up on re-entry over Texas, killing the entire crew, an investigation found that a small piece of foam had broken off the vehicle’s main propellant tank and then hit the edge of the left wing, damaging the protective shield that protected the wing during re-entry. NASA engineers said later they knew this had happened and that it could cause problems, but the agency didn’t mention it because there was nothing they could do at the time.

NASA spent two years working on the foam issue, and getting ready to go back into space, and I could tell just from walking around the Kennedy Space Center and listening to briefings before and during the mission that there was a huge amount riding on the mission (the space agency spent much of the time between launches working with the manufacturer of the Canadarm robot arm so the shuttle crew could use it to inspect the exterior of the shuttle after they were in space).

Everyone was very aware of how much was at stake, especially a couple of the astronauts I spoke with at the time — such as Canadian commander Chris Hadfield, who talked a lot about NASA’s duty to honor the memories of those who were killed in the Columbia disaster. And the pressure intensified when the launch was postponed after some faulty sensor problems in one of the external fuel tanks.

The crew of the Columbia

The subtext to many of the discussions about the shuttle and future launches was the knowledge that the shuttle program was approaching the end of its life — and not just that, but the knowledge that despite all the billions that were poured into it, the shuttle never managed to fulfill the initial dreams that fuelled the program, even if it did contribute to the development of the space station.

Many of the science and space experts on hand for the launch (and even one or two astronauts, off the record), pointed out that the shuttle was essentially flawed from the beginning because it was a hybrid beast: not really a plane and not really a rocket, but a fusion of the two with all the associated problems of both (including no escape route for the crew). More than one person noted that the Russian space program — which went with the old-fashioned capsule and rocket method — had an almost spotless record of sending people into orbit, and was substantially cheaper as well.

But during the days I spent there between the original launch date and when the shuttle actually lifted off, that wasn’t what people talked about in the back halls and trailers around the Kennedy Space Center. What people like Cmdr. Hadfield talked about was the human elements of the program — the little jokes and tributes that the mission specialists on the ground would send out to the astronauts while they were in orbit, including playing the on-duty astronaut’s favorite song or national anthem as the shuttle passed over their home country; or the long hours spent lying on their backs waiting for the shuttle to launch and the off-color jokes they told to pass the time.

What struck me about these kinds of stories was the same thing that hit me when I got to the Kennedy Space Center and noticed the somewhat run-down looking nature of the facility — from the 1960s-era chairs and decor in the media building (black Bakelite rotary telephones!) to the battered rental trailers that still made up much of the Center’s administrative quarters, even in 2005. Far from being some kind of monolithic, glossy, Star Trek-style venture, the shuttle program seemed more like a startup in some ways: underfunded, making do with whatever it had, just a bunch of smart engineers and eager pilots engaged in trying to do something incredible.

Yes, the idea of the space shuttle never really panned out, and maybe it was a flawed idea to begin with. And it certainly had more than its share of problems, some of which were probably avoidable, and suffered from the usual military and government bureaucracy to boot. But it still managed to achieve something pretty inspiring — and when it came right down to it, it was the human beings at the center of it all who mattered most, not the billions of dollars in technology. That’s something worth remembering.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Gabrie Coletti

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