Last Chance to See (Part 18)

I’m a scientist and I know what constitutes proof. But the reason I call myself by my childhood name is to remind myself that a scientist must also absolutely be like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you are expecting. ~ Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Yesterday, we made the claim that the day was about shuttle not about the shuttle. By that we mean that, as the critiques of the space shuttle program itself fly back and forth in the media, it’s important to remember that shuttle represents a concept and also a lot of actual people. We’ve written before that science writing interests us because it’s about the people and their ideas and quirks as well as about the scientific findings, processes, or technology.

Atlantis (NASA)

Yesterday, workers at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) said goodbye to the shuttle program and to the orbiters, including Atlantis, which was towed to the Orbiter Processing Facility where it will be prepared for its museum home down the road. All the mechanical pieces of the shuttle program are now, in effect, artifacts.

Today, 1500 KSC employees say goodbye to shuttle as a way of life, as a way of seeing the world, and as a paycheck. Other workers, less necessary to complete the missions safely, were let go already. Still others are able to continue working at KSC, perhaps transitioning to jobs that support commercial space launches there. KSC is now the center overseeing the Commercial Crew Development Program, the very direct descendent of the shuttle program, and KSC is also hopeful for heavy-lift vehicles and programs that will ultimately take us beyond low-earth orbit.

This week, as we noted, also marked the anniversary of the first human step onto the lunar surface. On the evening of July 20, 1969, (at least for the United States) as Michael Collins orbited the Moon alone, Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, climbed down the ladder of the Eagle and took those small steps that seemed a giant leap.

Astronaut Michael Collins

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were all born in 1930 and flew for the armed services (Armstrong the Navy, Aldrin and Collins the Air Force). That was the best year to be born if you were going to be an Apollo astronaut. In fact, if you were born before 1923 or after 1936 or if you are a woman or a person of color, you were not on the crew of an Apollo mission. Only one of the Apollo astronauts, Harrison Schmidt, the last man to set foot on the Moon (though Gene Cernan was the last to leave the Moon), was a civilian, a geologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

When the media recounts the many space shuttle firsts, often the technological advances get attention: first space shuttle mission (STS-1), first man-rated, reusable solid rocket boosters, first mission of a reusable science laboratory in space (Spacelab), first untethered spacewalk, first satellite retrieval, and so on. But many of the firsts we know best and that NASA lists under each mission’s contributions involve the astronauts. The space shuttle program opened space travel to more kinds of people, women as well as men and those with varied racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds as well as varied experiential backgrounds.

That didn’t start right away. After all, the STS-1 crew consisted of a veteran of Apollo born, of course, in 1930 and a Navy captain born in 1937.  By STS-5 in November 1982, though, the crew included a mission specialist, and the program was overtly thinking more broadly about who was best suited to do what in this long-term endeavor. The number of crew expanded from two in the earlier flights to four, which would later often become seven.

Astronaut Sally Ride

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She was born in California (a pretty good place for astronauts to grow up) in 1951 and earned her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. She joined NASA in 1978, after responding to their ad for astronauts in a new program. Though two Soviet women beat her to space, she will always be the first American woman astronaut in space, paving the way for many more in the shuttle program.

On the very next mission, STS-8, Guion Bluford became the first African-American to fly in space. He earned his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and flew on four shuttle missions.

In August 1984, on STS-41D (when NASA was using an unnecessarily complicated mission-numbering system), the first payload specialist flew on the shuttle. The program opened its flights to non-government personnel, people tied to the mission’s payload, in this case a McDonnell Douglas employee who accompanied into space the company’s continuous flow eletrophoresis equipment (he and the company share the patent). Ultimately, Charles Walker was a payload specialist on three missions. A Canadian payload specialist followed on his heels.

And there’s much more.

Astronaut Wubbo Ockles

First Oceanographer in space (1984)

First Congressional observer in space (1985)

First Dutch in space (1985)

First Mexican in space (1985)

First Hispanic in space (1986)

First African-American to command a mission (1989)

First Belgian in space (1992)

First Italian in space (1992)

First African-American woman in space (1992); also on STS-47, the first Japanese astronaut flown by the United States and the first married couple to fly in space

And so on.

Astronaut John Glenn

Some may quibble with this widening of what it means to be an astronaut. Why send a Utah senator to space? Did Bill Nelson get a seat on the shuttle merely because the Space Coast was in his district and perhaps he knew he’d run for Senate at the next opportunity? Wasn’t sending John Glenn back to space at an age when most of us hope to be sitting in the Barcalounger in the living room, tussling the hair of a grandchild and yelling at the dog to stop barking, a carnivalesque publicity stunt? Specific choices may be worth critiquing. But looking at the whole of these firsts—the kinds of people these firsts represent—makes some important statements about larger concepts, about shuttle.

While all sorts of constraints are put on individual lives and we are each born into different circumstances, we are no longer as constrained by gender, race, or nationality as we once were, not all that long ago.

The most important qualifier for astronauts is education, as you have the best shot at the job if you have a Ph.D. in science or engineering. If manned spaceflight is to continue, maybe that means NASA has yet to broaden its qualifications enough so that more educational backgrounds are valued, or maybe the United States needs to make graduate education, especially in fields of science and technology, more accessible and feasible for individuals. In the meantime, as the joke goes, learn Russian because the shuttle program and the International Space Station have redefined space travel as a global undertaking.

Astronaut Mae Jemison on final launch day (photo by Lofty Ambitions)

The space shuttle program, though technically a government operation, became in practice a joint venture with the private sector. An argument can be made that this collaboration diluted the goals of space exploration and forced compromises. But, like it or not, this mutual effort set the stage for the commercial space ventures that are underway now and for whatever future awaits us. In fact, a recent CNN poll reported that half of respondents think ending the shuttle program was a bad decision, and three-quarters want another manned space program to be developed, but more than half want the private sector to handle such a manned spaceflight effort.

Space exploration is no longer about beating someone else to it. We may be nostalgic for that 1960s bravado, and we may fear that we have become risk averse to such an extent that we may already have limited our possibilities for the future as a nation and as a world. Yet, with this shift comes the possibility that space exploration is about the world in a larger sense, a shared global effort, a story about who we are and who we want to be on this planet as well as beyond it. Commander Chris Ferguson, sitting in the shuttle’s crew compartment upon landing yesterday, said, “The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world, and it’s changed the way we view the universe.”

Ferguson thanked each orbiter by name, acknowledging the thirty-year history of the shuttle program. He also noted that, out of the day’s mixed emotions, should come the certainty that America will not stop exploring. Today, NASA named as Mars Day, announcing the destination for its new Mars rover, Curiosity (see our posts on curiosity HERE and HERE and a guest blog Anna wrote for someone else HERE). Next time, perhaps to Mars, why not send a poet? Or two lofty bloggers (who happen to have those handy Ph.D.s)?

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