NOTE: We have a piece called “Nostalgia for the Small Airport” up at Airplane Reading, a venue dedicated to “a kind of storytelling that can animate, reflect on, and rejuvenate the experience of flight.” After you read our post here, check out our story there too.
On April 19, 2012, the space shuttle Discovery was installed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, and Lofty Ambitions was there. To see the whole series thus far, just click on the tag “Discovery Departure” in the tag cloud in the right sidebar.
Between the outdoor ceremony of speeches in front of the nose-to-nose orbiters and the actual placement of Discovery inside the James S. MacDonnell Hangar, several museum and NASA bigwigs wended their way down a press receiving line and gave Lofty Ambitions a chance to ask a few questions one on one.
The oldest and most recognizable of the VIPs was, of course, 90-year-old John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth and a longtime senator of yesteryear. Doug asked Glenn about his remarks during the ceremony that NASA had stopped flying the shuttle too soon. Glenn’s response was immediate and forceful: it wasn’t NASA that made the decision to stop flying the shuttle. Of course, it wasn’t; in 2004, President George W. Bush set the termination date for the space shuttle program, though Glenn didn’t name names.
Glenn went on, obviously exuding great respect for NASA and the job the agency has done. He called the shuttle “the most intricate, complex machine people have ever made.” But he is also clearly frustrated that NASA had been given marching orders to go to Mars without receiving any budget increase to fund such an effort. The shuttle program had to end in order to free up resources that can now be used to work toward manned Mars exploration.
Glenn’s responses were earnest, whole-hearted, and unexpected in the context of the day’s scripted events and positive public relations. Very few of NASA’s anointed ambassadors have been willing to say that the United States should still be flying shuttle. The most vigorous defense of shuttle by NASA’s chosen few came when it was already too late. In September 2011, four months after the last space shuttle mission ended, 82-year-old Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the Moon, and 77-year-old Gene Cernan, the Moon’s last human visitor, testified before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to advocate that the shuttles be returned to flight status.
Wanting to see how NASA viewed Glenn’s frank remarks, Doug posed a variation of the same question to Charlie Bolden, the Administrator of NASA—NASA’s top guy and also a Discovery commander. Bolden flew twice in Discovery, in fact, on STS-31, which launched the Hubble Space Telescope, and STS-60, on which a Russian, Sergei Krikalev, flew as a mission specialist. In this respect, Bolden was an integral part of the space shuttle program’s most admired accomplishments: Hubble and its scientific achievements as well as the International Space Station (ISS) and the global cooperation that made it happen.
Bolden was in a very delicate position with regard to his response to our question, with Glenn, who had also flown aboard Discovery in his return to space, just a few paces away and the nation’s capital just a few miles away, where Congress controls his agency’s purse-strings. Bolden needed to respect NASA’s past in the form of Glenn and also respect the agency’s current reality in these times of economic constraints—he has a difficult job.
Bolden indicated that he had no desire to “put words in Senator Glenn’s mouth,” but that he was certain that the former senator was fully supportive of NASA’s current program of exploration and research. Bolden then took the opportunity to reiterate some talking points that he often touches upon: namely, he’s passionate about manned space exploration and the work on the ISS. The only part of Bolden’s response that directly touched upon the shuttle’s former role was his reaffirmation of the belief that it is time for the private sector to handle low-Earth orbit.
One obvious point to make concerning Bolden’s remarks vis-à-vis those of Glenn is that the senator could easily be in complete accord with NASA’s program of exploration and research, yet still think that the shuttle fleet should not be museum artifacts. And that is, of course, exactly what the first American to orbit the earth said.
Aside from Charlie Bolden, Eileen Collins was one of the few Discovery commanders to make her way down the press receiving line. Several news outlets wanted her time, and it’s no wonder, since she was the first woman to pilot the shuttle and, later, the first woman to command the shuttle. After Collins finished telling one reporter that Hubble is Discovery’s greatest legacy and was waiting for a reporter to finish up with another VIP, Anna asked her favorite question once again: “Discovery—great shuttle, or the greatest shuttle?” Collins smiled, and her eyes revealed before her words did that she didn’t want to be caught playing favorites. She pointed out, “I flew Discovery for my first mission and my last mission.” Then, as we’ve heard from others, she added, “But I will say I have a special place in my heart for Columbia.” The older shuttle astronauts may remember Challenger in these terms. Many of those who weren’t in the astronaut corps before 1986, when Challenger broke apart on ascent, flew Columbia and tend to mention that lost orbiter fondly whenever they have a chance (as some did in their video interviews with Lofty Ambitions).
Our conversations at Kennedy Space Center with the last-ever Discovery crew and our Q&A with several VIPs at the Udvar-Hazy Center were great experiences and gave us a range of insider perspectives on the past and future of manned spaceflight.