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Flight Transforms an Ugly Duckling

“I’m a test pilot, and this is the ultimate in test flying,” Vance Brand, one of the eight astronauts being trained to fly the shuttle, said in his office at the Johnson Space Center. “I'm really excited about this vehicle. On the ground it may be stubby and look like an ugly duckling, but when it gets into the air, it’s beautiful. It’s a true air machine.”

What will it be like to be in the cockpit of this ultimate flying machine? Brand and his seven colleagues helped me imagine being on space shuttle flight one.

The feisty solid rockets make launch seem more like a lunge toward space. The astronauts are pressed hard against their seats, amid more roar and shaking than on any previous manned flight. Two rocky minutes after lift-off there is a bang and a lurch when explosive bolts blow the spent solid rockets away. Speed builds as fuel in the external tank is consumed and the shuttle lightens. Soon the computer pilots have to throttle back the engines to keep the orbiter from exceeding the speeds its winged structure can withstand.

The astronauts are flying upside down now, riding the underside of the external tank. This will help the orbiter separate from the more massive tank with a minimum of thrust and of G-force discomfort. It also gives a stunning view of the blue, cloud-speckled earth. The sky has turned black. But there is little time to sightsee. All eyes must concentrate on the TV monitors that detail the health of the mission.

Suddenly the main engines shut off. Sixteen seconds later more explosives signal that the external tank has been separated. Excess fuel streams from the tank, and it spirals off. Now for a minute and three-quarters, while the tank moves safely away, the orbiter drifts. Astronaut Bob Crippen checks position, trajectory, and systems data to make sure the orbiter will indeed be able to reach orbit. (Otherwise, the crew could abort and fly once around the world and home onto a desert landing site in New Mexico.) Comdr. John Young then gives the autopilot the go-ahead. The OMS engines flare to life. One OMS burn takes the machine on up to orbital height. A second burn 35 minutes later makes its orbit circular.

The main purpose of space shuttle flight one is to test out the spacecraft. So most of the next 55 hours in space will be spent making sure all systems are working. Almost immediately the crew will open the big silver doors of the cargo bay. “We keep the doors open for most of the flight,” says Crippen. “Radiators inside the doors throw into space the considerable heat that builds up from all the electronics on board.”

Later a critical test will be closing the doors again—a must if the crew wants to come home in one piece. The doors could warp from uneven solar heating. Their motors or the latches could fail. If difficulty arises, Crippen may have to don a space suit, go outside, and fix the problem.

On the second day in space the crew will rehearse their deorbit routine. Then they do it for real. Small reaction-control jets turn the orbiter around, engines first. Over the Indian Ocean, the OMS engines burn for two minutes to slow the orbiter slightly from its orbital speed, equivalent to about 25 times the speed of sound. The craft begins to drop and is turned nose up so that its tile-coated belly will absorb the reentry heat when it hits the atmosphere some 35 minutes later over Midway Island. By now the orbiter is banking and flying wide traverses to control its speed. The strain on the structure is tremendous, and NASA has only wind-tunnel data to say that the machine will not fall apart. Nevertheless, vouches astronaut Joe Engle, “We’re going to be concentrating so hard there won’t be time to be nervous.”

Gradually the nose begins to drop. By the time it becomes visible from earth, the orbiter is diving ten times more steeply than a jetliner on its landing approach, and Commander Young is flying it manually. (The autopilot could let Young land with his hands folded, but NASA figures that a manned landing is safest for the first flight.) At about 1,800 feet over the Mojave Desert and a speed of 290 knots, Young lifts the nose and gently pulls out of the dive. At 270 knots he lowers the landing gear, and at 190 knots he touches down, puts on the brakes, and bounces to a stop on the wide-open dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base.

Four months later, Columbia will fly again. After four test flights, landing will be on the much narrower runway at Canaveral. The shuttle will be declared operational.

The bulk of the shuttle’s work will have little to do with flying. So a person doesn’t have to be a pilot to be an astronaut. Actually, in the future, “the best man for the job may be a woman.” That’s what the sign over Dr. Anna Fisher’s desk in Houston reads. None of Dr. Fisher’s new astronaut colleagues would bother to disagree. Initially, there was a lot of media attention, and some new space clothing had to be designed. Otherwise, neither Dr. Fisher, fellow physician Rhea Seddon, biochemist Shannon Lucid, electrical engineer Judith Resnik, physicist Sally Ride, geologist Kathryn Sullivan nor five more recently appointed women astronaut candidates have disrupted the previously masculine normalcy of Building Four, the astronaut headquarters at the Johnson Space Center.

Since 1978, 35 people have been added to the astronaut roster; 19 more are in training. These are divided into two groups: shuttle pilots and mission specialists—the people who will run the experiments and carry out the business of each shuttle flight.

When I visited Houston, the first 35 were in the middle of an intensive training program to gain background in fields as diverse as oceanography and solar physics. “It’s been like taking a drink from a fire hose,” said pilot Dan Brandenstein. “Like trying to absorb three years’ worth of orbital mechanics in three hours.” “It’s an incredible experience,” said Dr. George Nelson, a 30-year-old astronomer. “It’s living out your fantasies.”

Escape Hatches Are Portable

One of the early screening tests for the hundreds of astronaut applicants was a 15-minute stint in an inflatable canvas contraption called a “rescue ball.” This tested for claustrophobia. If the shuttle has a problem in orbit that would keep it from coming home, each specialist could crawl into one of these balls. I tried it. It’s like entering a collapsed pup tent. You sit cross-legged, zip yourself in, and inflate the ball. (Pilots have extravehicular space suits to escape in.)

Rescuers from a second shuttle would rendezvous with the disabled spacecraft, crawl through the hatch, pull the crew members out in their cocoons, and string each ball to a tether. The pressurized balls have enough oxygen to keep their guests alive for three hours. But what if rescuers flubbed, or the ball came untethered? It would be quite a view through the peephole, as one drifted off to become a human satellite in a pod.

Bob Everline, one of the men in Houston who decide how to utilize the shuttle, says the first 40-some flights are sold out. “Through 1986 there’s very little space left.”

The first shuttle payload will be a series of environmental and earth-resources experiments on flight two. One experiment will evaluate whether orbiting radar can be used to make geological maps good enough for oil and mineral exploration. Another will measure ocean color, as a means of locating plankton or good fishing grounds. Other equipment will measure man-made carbon monoxide pollution in the atmosphere and study the structure of lightning from above.

Although flight four will carry up either a science pallet or a military satellite, the main business of the first four flights will be checking out the spacecraft.

Most of the satellites the shuttle carries up will be deployed with a spring, or if they must go to higher orbits, with secondary rockets called upper stages. A few satellites will simply be picked up and dropped overboard by the remote manipulator system (RMS), that skinny 50-foot-long arm with a clever claw. However, the arm’s most important chore will be retrieving payloads from space. The shuttle will pull up within 35 feet of an object, the claw will grab it, and the arm will haul it in.

“Learning to use the RMS could be a career in itself,” says astronaut Gordon Fullerton. “It’s got a bunch of joints—shoulder, elbow, wrist, and grabber. All have to be coordinated. You operate it with two hand controls. It takes a lot of practice. You could bash a hole in your spacecraft with it, so you don’t flail it around indiscriminately.”

The arm will be tested on flight two, and one of its early assignments will come in October 1984, when it deploys—and about a year later retrieves—LDEF, the long-duration exposure facility. LDEF is a big, free-flying space ark with a menagerie of experiments and materials that scientists want to expose for long periods to the uncertainties of space. These materials range from novel composites that could be used in space construction in the 1990s, if they prove space-hardy, to substances that catch cosmic-ray particles and micrometeorites or that absorb interstellar gases.

LDEF experimenters will also send up spores and seeds, bring them back, and grow them to see, for one thing, whether future space agriculture might encounter unusual rates of mutation.

On the mission that carries up LDEF, the shuttle will also retrieve the solar maximum mission, a satellite that has been focusing telescopes and other instruments on the sun’s surface during a period of maximum sunspot activity. This orbiting observatory will be the first to monitor solar flares outside the blurring, obscuring atmosphere.

A Chance to See Farther Into Space

The atmosphere, which dims incoming light and makes the stars twinkle, has long frustrated astronomers. They are overjoyed with the new vision the space shuttle promises. In 1985 the shuttle will deploy the 45-foot-long space telescope, which will train five astronomical instruments on tantalizing regions of the universe. The space telescope will detect objects 50 times fainter than those seen by the best earthbound instruments. We will be able to see seven times deeper into space, and look at up to 350 times the volume of universe now visible.

Our knowledge of the universe should take off like a solid rocket as we zoom in on mysterious objects such as quasars and pulsars and locate black holes and perhaps the borders of the universe itself.

The shuttle will also take up infrared-measuring instruments that will study dense dust regions 17 trillion miles and farther away, where new suns may be forming. X-ray emissions from white dwarfs, black holes, and other collapsed stars across the universe will be detected much more easily. In one year of observation, astronomers expect to discover more than a million new sources of intense X-ray emissions.

The cream of the shuttle’s scientific payloads, however, is called spacelab, which, when it flies, basically turns the cavernous payload bay of the orbiter into an all-purpose laboratory. Spacelab features a 23-foot-long habitable module, where people can work in shirt sleeves. Spacelab also has five ten-foot-long pallets, which attach outside the module and carry experiments that can or should be exposed to open space. The module and all five pallets cannot fit all together in the orbiter bay, but spacelab is flexible. Depending on the mission, NASA can break the module in two and fly half of it with varying numbers of pallets. Spacelab will stay in the orbiter bay throughout its mission, which will typically be seven days.

Spacelab brings the first European accents to the U. S. manned space program. It was built by a consortium of companies in member countries of the fledgling European Space Agency. Moreover, a German, a Dutch, and a Swiss scientist are being trained as astronauts.

“Spacelab is very well known now in Germany, very popular,” said a spokesman for ERNO, a West German firm that assembled the system. “We in Europe are convinced that space is going to be a good business.”

Many of spacelab’s experiments will focus on understanding earth’s atmosphere and remote-sensing its environment. But the Germans are most intrigued by the prospect of using the nearly zero gravity of space to manufacture materials that cannot be made on earth. These include purer crystals for electronics components—and hence faster, smaller computers—along with better drugs and unheard-of alloys of metals that simply will not mix on earth. And so, among its trove of laboratory equipment, spacelab will have many furnaces for materials processing and incubators for biological experiments.

Rivals for the Northern Lights

There is disagreement and often pessimism in this country about the prospects for industrializing space, but the attitude I picked up in Europe was that zero gravity is such an unusual environment that it would be highly abnormal if the unexpected—and potentially very profitable—did not occur there.

Spacelab’s most spectacular piece of equipment is being developed in Japan, another country that is eager to glean some of NASA’s space know-how.

“We are going to send up a very big electron accelerator,” explained Professor Tatsuzo Obayashi in Tokyo. “In one experiment we will eject some plasma gas into space and shoot a beam of electrons into it. We hope to produce artificial auroras borealis—perhaps over Tokyo or Washington.”

A careful eye would be able to detect these auroras, which would be several miles long and sixty miles high. Spacelab sensors will see them in detail. The data they record will help verify our theories about how discharges of electrons from the magnetosphere cause natural auroras. Other spacelab accelerator experiments are basic physics: How do charged gases called plasmas and electron streams interact? The sun is a giant electron source, and the upper atmosphere is rich in plasmas. Spacelab experiments could help us understand how the sun’s cycles affect our long-term climate.

Spacelab does have its drawbacks. A single spacelab flight costs 26 million dollars. And so, for those who cannot afford this price tag, NASA administrator John Yardley came up with a low-cost alternative—the getaway special.

A getaway special is simply a canister, which can range from two and a half to ten cubic feet, and which NASA will fly standby when it has space available. Whatever is in the canister must take care of itself, with its own microprocessors, batteries, and controls. The shuttle crew will only flip a switch to turn the experiments on or off.

The getaway special is the obsession and almost a second career for an irrepressible Ogden, Utah, engineer named Gil Moore. Moore practically bounds around the country promoting the specials, pursuing civic groups, school boards, businesses—anyone who can raise the $3,000 to $10,000 getaway fare in order to give some kids in their town the chance to put an idea into space. So far more than 300 specials have been reserved.

From Solar Sails to Weightless Farms

Moore introduced me to dozens of students in northern Utah working on getaway projects. I heard a deluge of ideas. University of Utah students are planning to send up a solar sail, a membrane that would catch photons from the sun as a means of propelling a spacecraft. They were displeased that NASA had abandoned solar-sail research and want to demonstrate its feasibility.

Others want to determine whether spores or primitive bacteria can withstand cosmic rays. If so, perhaps life on earth could have been seeded from elsewhere. One high school student has decided to try to make a light foam form of metals that might be used in space construction. Another simply wants to melt solders and see how they re-form in zero gravity. Several young biologists plan to see how duckweed and chlorella, rapidly reproducing primitive plants that have been discussed as future space foods, grow without gravity.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of these kids came up with some important results,” said Utah State professor Rex Megill. “They don’t have the constraints of conventionality or peer review.”

President Anwar Sadat has reserved four getaway specials for Egyptian students. The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun ran a contest to solicit ideas for its special. In six weeks it received 17,000 suggestions.

Many businesses, too, look at the canisters as a cheap and secretive way to test out space-manufacturing concepts.

NASA, however, does have two regular first-class passengers. One is the communications industry. Even at 40 million dollars a launch, the space agency can hardly send satellites up fast enough to meet the booming worldwide telecommunications demand. The space shuttle should be able to put four satellites in orbit for the current price of one.

Building a New World in Earth Orbit

Not too far down the road are huge telecommunications platforms that would actually be constructed in space. These platforms would be able to carry 250,000 simultaneous telephone calls. On earth special receivers will let viewers tune in almost any TV station in the world. Platforms may make video phone calls commonplace.

Communications revenues from these platforms could run 40 to 80 billion dollars annually by the year 2010. Plans for building the huge structures are well under way.

At Rockwell International I saw ball-and-socket joints that will let remote manipulator arms snap the struts of a space structure together like poppet beads. General Dynamics engineers showed me an antenna that astronauts could unfurl in space as if they were springing open an automatic umbrella. McDonnell Douglas would like to have the platforms assembled by workers in shuttle-borne cherry pickers.

General Dynamics and Grumman are testing prototype machines that extrude triangular beams that can be space-welded into massive shapes. “I can produce a single beam 14 miles long if I want,” said General Dynamics’ Jack Hurt. These aluminum or composite beams are so light I could crinkle them in my hand. Yet in space they could support the weight of an aircraft carrier.

The Air Force is NASA’s other regular customer. A separate shuttle launch facility is being constructed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and a top-security flight-control center for exclusive military use has already been set up in Houston.

The military is the main driver right now for advanced—and mostly top-secret—space programs. They will put into geosynchronous, or stationary, orbit 23,000 miles high, extremely sophisticated surveillance satellites, including antennas up to a thousand feet in diameter. They would also like to begin doing assembly work in low earth orbit by 1985—on what we do not know. By the early 1990s they will probably need a transfer vehicle to take men from the shuttle’s orbit to the ultrahigh geosynchronous levels to assemble or service their equipment.

The Russians reportedly are also building a shuttle-type vehicle, one smaller than ours. They are establishing permanent space stations, and have been working on killer satellites that could destroy enemy spacecraft. With so much of the world’s military and commercial communications going into orbit, space is a logical war front in the future.

Some Earthbound Hazards

Many shuttle advocates are worried that the system will be overly dominated by the military. However, there are other clouds in the space shuttle’s future. One is pollution. At 50 flights a year, emissions from the solid rockets could decrease the ozone layer by as much as .25 percent, letting slightly more ultraviolet radiation reach earth. NASA claims the effects will be insignificant, and that later versions of the space shuttle in the 1990s may well be pollution free.

Between the telecommunications industry and the military, NASA now foresees no trouble keeping all four orbiters, and a fifth one it hopes to build, busy indefinitely. In fact, it will most likely turn the management of the shuttle over to private industry in a few years.

The space program, however, is more than communications and military satellites. NASA’s science payloads are just not getting much money any more. That means spacelab’s future is unclear. Sadly, there are few new planetary missions planned. The agency does not even have the funds to fly a once-in-our-lifetime rendezvous with Halley’s Comet in 1986.

Just where we are going in space and how fast will depend on NASA’s budget. That depends in turn on politics and the national will. Perhaps if the Soviet Union does, indeed, develop a killer satellite, it will spur us more rapidly into space, just as Sputnik did two decades ago. The odds are that the shuttle era will evolve more gradually and that as profitable uses are demonstrated private enterprise will come in with capital.

In ten years the current shuttle surely will seem outdated. In 50 years we will probably look back on it as we do the covered wagons that took us to our first frontier. To me the real importance of the shuttle is that it is maintaining a frontier for us. This country cannot grow without one.

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