The Space Shuttle as Artifact

Discovery on Launch Pad 39A in November

In November, we traveled to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see Space Shuttle Discovery’s final launch. That mission is now scheduled for the end of this month. After Discovery lands back at KSC, or perhaps at Edwards Air Force Base in California, that shuttle will make its way to the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum. The pieces of the Space Transportation System will become historical artifacts.

All three surviving orbiters will find their final permanent homes in museums across the country after their retirement. NASA has not made the final decision as to where Atlantis and Endeavour will end up. The San Diego Air & Space Museum is vying for one to be permanently back home in Southern California.

The shuttle is not the only piece of Southern California history in need of preservation. A few months ago, at North American Aviation Day in Torrance, we spoke with a former engineer. He described the demise of the Trisonic wind tunnel. The area that the Trisonic occupied is now a parking lot. We were reminded that not all of California’s aviation and aerospace history comes in museum-sized pieces. Yes, the Space Shuttle Enterprise (now at the National Air & Space Museum), the Spruce Goose (now at Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon), and countless other artifacts are housed in museums and in library archives. In fact, Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University, where we work, has begun a program of collecting NASA material, focused pieces that astronauts and engineers may have used on a daily basis, including Shuttle computers, training models, book tethers, and so on. But these projects and others that don’t fit inside a building live in the memories of the men and women who made these endeavors real.

NASA is currently in a period of transition, hoping for the Constellation project that would take us once again to the Moon and beyond to Mars. Guest blogger Allan McDonald advocates travel to an asteroid and figuring out how to destroy it, for he sees an asteroid impact as an even more serious threat to Earth’s population than climate change. The concern at Kennedy Space Center is that the lack of funding for any new project will lead not only to immediate job losses in an economically hard-hit area of Florida, but to the longer-term loss of technological know-how built up over decades.

Director of Johnson Space Center Michael Coats, who grew up in Riverside, California, remembers vividly when the first seven astronauts were selected. He was thirteen years old. “The space program for the last fifty years has inspired. It inspired me,” Coats told us in a one-on-one interview. He feels “very privileged to have participated in it in one form or another.” He sees math, science, and engineering as vital if the United States is to remain competitive in the future.

Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham sees the situation differently. “I do not see NASA currently doing much that’s inspiring,” he said. “It has to do with pushing the boundaries, and having people out doing things that have never been done before, not even dreamed of.” Cunningham fears that we have become risk averse as a nation and are unable or unwilling to envision next big thing.

Space Shuttle Endeavor STS-113

Once the space shuttle is retired next year, it isn’t clear when—or whether—the United States will next launch astronauts on American-made spacecraft. Despite efforts by two private corporations to build and launch reusable spacecraft, Endeavour’s launch in April could well be the last manned blastoff for a very long time. That mission will mark a moment in which the present forever becomes the past.

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