By Kevin Kelley
Astronaut Chris Ferguson, who commanded the recent, final flight of the space shuttle, said he was struck that in today’s busy world, much of the country and the rest of the world stopped for a moment to take note of the final shuttle launch.
Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialist Sandy Magnus spoke to employees at NASA’s Glenn Research Center Sept. 20 to discuss their bittersweet mission. The fourth member of the crew, Mission Specialist Rex Walheim, did not visit Glenn due to scheduling conflicts.
Ferguson said he was impressed with the professionalism with which launch control personnel dealt with a last-minute glitch at 31 seconds before launch. The issue, whether the gaseous oxygen vent arm had fully retracted, was resolved quickly, leading Ferguson to conclude that NASA has never been better at launching the shuttles.
“I guest that’s the irony of operating a system for three decades, is that it’s never quite as good as it is on the day that it retires,” he said.
Due to some initial uncertainty regarding which mission would be the final shuttle mission, the four Atlantis crew members spent an unusually short but busy 12 months training for their mission. The four were originally assigned as a rescue mission crew for the previous mission.
Once their mission was given the green light, the four had to undergo training to serve on the International Space Station. That’s where they would have been stranded for several months had Atlantis been damaged during the ascent and been unable to return to Earth. They also took two training trips to Russia, because had they been stranded, Russian Soyuz spacecrafts would have ferried the crew back home, individually, in separate flights over several months.
Because of the limited contingency plans, the Atlantis crew was limited to four instead of the ordinary six or seven. This increased the work load on the crew, Hurley said.
“With four people, it really did add a lot to our plates, because I think the program expected us to do the work of six or seven people anyway,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of free time in space.”
“It was a very busy mission,” she said. “It was a blur.”
During the eight days Atlantis was docked at the station, crew members from Atlantis and the space station spent much of their time unloading 9,400 pounds of supplies and equipment from the shuttle, as well as an additional 2,200 pounds stowed on the shuttle’s middeck. For the return trip to Earth, the shuttle was with filled with 5,700 pounds of equipment and material no longer needed at the station.
In addition, to having the privilege of flying on the final space shuttle mission, Magnus said it was also a special experience to return to the space station, where she spent four and a half months between November 2008 and March 2009.
“It really is a magical place,” Magnus said of the space station.
She described her sense of awe as the shuttle approached ISS, which first looked like a point of light but got bigger and bigger – as big as a building.
“We’ve got a building orbiting the Earth,” she said. “People are living on it.”
Visiting the space station once again, she said, was like coming home.
The hardest part of the mission for Magnus was leaving the space station without knowing if she would ever have the chance to return.
She told the NASA employees at Glenn to be proud of the work they do for the space station, which is scheduled to remain operational for at least another decade.
The crew encountered one problem with the ISS when they arrived. The space station’s toilet was malfunctioning, Ferguson said, creating some “interesting aromas” that made their way to Atlantis. The shuttle commander recalled telling a space station crew member, “Your space station is stinking up my space shuttle!”
Life as an astronaut means one day you may be doing a spacewalk, then next you’re fixing a toilet, Ferguson said.
The three astronauts also commented on the space agency’s future now that the shuttle has been retired. Under the Obama administration, NASA has chosen to focus on deep-space exploration while encouraging private industry to take the lead in transportation of astronauts to and from low Earth orbit, where the space station is.
Ferguson seemed impressed with the recently announced Space Launch System, a heavy-lift launch vehicle designed to carry astronauts to an asteroid and, eventually, Mars.
“It sounds like it’s an incredible vehicle,” he said of the proposed rocket system.
It’s true that NASA laid the foundation for aeronautics, which private industry later came to dominate, Ferguson said. But he said he would have wanted NASA to wait another decade before handing off low-Earth-orbit flights to private industry. He also said he hopes those companies don’t underestimate the technical challenges of spaceflight.
Mirroring the current NASA line, Magnus said the stated approach allows the space agency to “do the hard things” and set goals for exploration beyond earth orbit.
Hurley said the nation can’t afford to keep changing goals.
“Our country has got to make a decision,” Hurley said. “As an agency, as a country, we’ve got to pick a program and then not change it four years later or eight years later.”