What is the future of the space shuttle?
In April 1981, the launch of Columbia ushered in the age of the space shuttle. Four more orbiters--Challenger (first launched in 1983), Discovery (1984), Atlantis (1985), and Endeavour (1992) --were built, although the fleet is sorely depleted following the losses of Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, and Columbia on Feb. 1. Despite the cost of maintaining the fleet--the shuttle budget in fiscal year 2000 was $2.98 billion--NASA administrators say that the orbiters remain the agency's most viable spacecraft option because of their efficiency and carrying capacity for both humans and cargo.
However, the recent tragedy has led to questions about sending humans into possible danger. Some politicians are calling for NASA to focus on robotic missions, such as the two rovers currently headed to Mars, but NASA officials, such as Office of Spaceflight Program Assistant Associate Administrator John Mankins, disagree with this logic. "If we try to be ambitious, the role for humans becomes pretty clear, because you've got to do hard things to make real progress," he says. "It's vital to have someone present to make sure things happen, and that makes the role of humans not only important but apparent."
As the only heavy-lift vehicle capable of carrying a crew and cargo, says USAF Gen. Michael Kostelnik (ret.), deputy associate administrator for spaceflight, the space shuttle will be vital in the effort to finish the ISS. The orbiters were built to fly 100 missions, but since they have sustained far less wear than anticipated--NASA had originally intended to fly them every other week--Kostelnik says the current plan is to fly them until 2020.
Helping to maintain the fleet is aerospace technologist Henry Schwarz (M.A. public administration'84), who works at Kennedy Space Center's (KSC) shuttle processing directorate, which handles the shuttles from landing to launch. Part of the directorate's responsibilities will be overseeing orbiter upgrades based on the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. NASA has already proposed several changes and its "Return to Flight" team will be looking to improve the areas the board has targeted, such as the foam that insulates the external fuel tank and the vulnerability of the orbiters' thermal protection tiles.
Schwarz's group has also been involved with the search for and identification of Columbia's scattered remains and cataloguing them once they arrive at KSC. "If you go over and look at the hanger where they're bringing the pieces back and realize what a proud machine this once was, it's pretty sobering," he says.
Last year, NASA started its shuttle service life extension program, which will become an annual process, to ensure safety, reliability, and maintainability, Kostelnik says. Future possibilities for upgrades and additions to the orbiters include adding an ejection seat and robotic flying control to the orbiters.
In addition, work continues on an orbital space plane that could be sent to the ISS without a crew and flown back by people on the station as early as 2010. However, Kostelnik points out, the transfer function of the orbital space plane would augment the shuttle fleet, not replace it.
Why continue exploring space?
"Because it's there," jokes Herman T. (H.T.) Everett Jr. (mechanical engineering '66), propellants manager in fluids management, adding that, "Really, it's an unknown, and we're explorers."
Indeed, in the early days of the program, the public was riveted by the idea of exploring space, avidly watching televised launches and flight reports. Today's missions, however, don't receive as much attention, and Roger Crouch (M.S. physics '68; Ph.D. '71), who has served as a payload specialist on two flights, believes that's resulted in part because the complicated process of going to and from space is now perceived to be an easy one.
"NASA makes it look like getting in your car and going on a trip," Crouch says. "People are fascinated by the space travel they see in movies. I believe that when people see that, it's their vision of the future of space travel, being able to go anywhere and do anything. But in reality, we're bound by the laws of physics."
Tim Bollo (physics '73), chief of labs and test beds at KSC, says that while some consider space exploration to be cost-prohibitive, "in no small part, some of our technology advances are due to the space program. My argument is that it's something we have to do, and the return for mankind is there." Just a few of those returns include the artificial heart, automotive insulation, a lab instrument that provides extremely quick blood analysis, an infrared camera, and a land mine removal device. (For more inventions sparked by NASA research, go to www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/facts and select "spinoffs.")
Improving the conditions on Earth is one of NASA's top goals. The agency is currently researching alternate-fuel vehicles and the use of hydrogen for stationary and mobile power units. Everett's group supports programs that "encourage the Department of Energy to have a hydrogen-vehicle fleet," he says, adding that the public will also benefit from the project once hydrogen fuel-cell plans are added to KSC visitor's center.
What questions can the ISS answer?
One ambitious question NASA is hoping to answer, says Crouch, the lead scientist for the ISS program--and the only Hokie to orbit the Earth--is "what is life on earth really about?" because the formation of the universe and evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system are still unknowns for scientists.
For example, before humankind ventured into space, scientists had a theory about the way planets came to be, he says. "We knew that was the way the solar system had' to have evolved. But when we started exploring space, we found only one planet that fit our theory. Until then, the only data point we had was how life started and evolved in a 1G [normal gravity] environment. By gaining new data points, we will learn more."
In the near term, it is hoped that research on the space station will answer questions about the effects of long-term space occupation on humans. Nobel Laureate and Cornell University Vice Provost of Research Robert Richardson (physics '58), who has served on three NASA task forces, says that there are two concerns that need to be addressed.
One obstacle is the basic concept of flying through the solar system. In low orbit, where the shuttles fly and the space station is being constructed, astronauts are protected from solar radiation. To move further into space, however, the level of radiation is "lethal, orders of magnitude more than the acceptable level," Richardson says, adding that he does not put much stake into a medical solution. "People hold up cancer treatment [as an answer], but we're not at the point where you can simply take a pill to reverse the effects. The only solution I can believe in is shielding via a much larger space vessel."
The other challenge is that human bone mass degrades by one percent per month in microgravity. "If you're talking a 36-month mission to Mars, that's a drastic problem. A 30 percent loss [in bone mass] over 36 months is substantial," the physicist says. "Think of all applications on Earth, like for osteoporosis, where there have been no real medical interventions. So how do you get around that? You might be able to put human beings in a spacecraft with a centrifuge with low gravity. If you're talking about a spacecraft on a Mars mission, you would need a craft with a centrifuge for the crew to stay in and one with a lot of shielding."
Which is why Richardson believes that the highest priority for research on the ISS has to be the life sciences. "There have been some intriguing results--studies of microscopic biology, for example, suggest that the rate of cell propagation might be faster in microgravity." Overall, he believes that humans have to learn to circumvent the environment before moving forward into it.
"We don't have the capacity to go to the moon in a year right now if we wanted to," Crouch says, which creates another challenge that has to be met in low orbit before moving further into space: finding the technology to get there. After the Apollo program's moon flights, NASA stopped building large rockets with a small capsule that could travel to "outer" space and decided to first study low Earth orbit, leading to the genesis of the space shuttles. Crouch hopes the technology that will allow humans to move past lower earth orbit will be developed--mostly due to research from the ISS--over the next 10 to 15 years.
Why not sooner? "Right now, the ISS is a construction project," he points out. "If you were building a lab at Tech, you wouldn't be conducting a lot of research when it was under construction. So we're doing more rudimentary experiments now." The space station is scheduled to be completed approximately two years after the shuttles begin to operate again.
So what's the next step?
Looking toward the future, says Lyons, "It's not so much the long-term plan that has been hugely affected [by the Columbia], it's more the near term, the next year to two years, that is problematic. In fact, this is probably the only time in history that it'll be easier looking down the road than it is the short term." When she began working at NASA, Lyons says that the agency was planning to return to flight for the first time after the Challenger accident with its 1988 launch of Discovery and that "it was a very exciting time to be here. There were a lot of targets set, a lot of things to look forward to." She anticipates that feeling will be the same when NASA returns its shuttle fleet to space. NASA officials say that the earliest possible launch date for the next shuttle, Atlantis, is this fall. It will be the orbiter's 27th mission.
The good news, Kostelnik says, is that there is strong support in the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill for continuing plans with the space station. "We went into the budget '04 request comfortable with funds," he says, but with the advent of the Columbia tragedy, there are unknowns in terms of "what we have to pay for now, including the accident investigation and the resulting delay in ISS construction."
A more promising budget outlook, John Mankins says, makes "now a good time to begin putting into place the building blocks that would allow us to undertake our ambitious goals."
Mankins, whose role is to plan for the future of the space shuttle and the ISS, says that NASA has no clear plan of action but several prospective visions, including "revolutionary new concepts that would allow us to pursue ambitious space missions, including the development, maintenance, and servicing of extraordinary space stations, human sorties, and outposts beyond lower orbit, going from Earth's neighborhood to the moon--and beyond."
Just what lies beyond? Although it may be several decades away, there is no question that humankind will undertake a much-anticipated mission to Mars.
Tech grads have the right stuff
Numerous alumni are part of the NASA team, from astronauts to engineers to strategic planners--and many of them say that a Virginia Tech education is behind their achievements at the agency.
"Tech was a good time in my life," says Tim Bollo (physics '73). "It gave me the opportunity to go in the military and fly airplanes, which I loved doing and still do. It also gave me a technical background that let me do this, so I think a lot of my success is due to my years spent at Tech." Bollo's gratitude to Tech extends to his being devoutly anti-Miami--a hard stance to hold in the lower reaches of Florida. "I can't tell you what I really think of Miami," he says. "You wouldn't be allowed to print it."
Friend and co-worker H.T. Everett (mechanical engineering '66) says, "Thinking back upon what I've done since Tech, certainly it gave me a great background and opened doors to go to NASA at Whitney and other jobs. In comparison, since then I've done some post-bachelor work, a master's in business, for example, and the technical stuff is just a lot more fun for me, so I attribute that to Tech."
Accepted at both Virginia Tech and U.Va., Jennifer Webb Lyons (aerospace and ocean engineering '86) says she was "just allured more by VT, by the culture, by the location, and by the renown of the engineering school. The engineering curriculum was so diverse compared to some of the other schools that just offered basic mechanical and electrical engineering and maybe two or three other disciplines."
Former astronaut Roger Crouch (M.S. physics '68; Ph.D. '71) says, "For someone to be as lucky as I have been, there are many factors that contribute. But I can say the education I got from Virginia Tech has been an absolute necessity to enable the path that my life has taken. It is hard to imagine how different things would have been had I not had that experience."
Henry Schwarz (M.A. public administration '84) received his degree through the VT Northern Virginia (NOVA) center--which, he says, "was wonderful"--while working for the Navy in Dahlgren, Va. "I have an undergraduate degree in astronomy from Penn State, and I always wanted to work with the space program," he explains. "I thought that an MBA would be a great compliment to a technical degree. The public sector equivalent of an MBA is an MAPA, which they offer at NOVA." Schwarz, who moved to Cape Canaveral as part of the Navy's Triton missile project, says the master's degree helped him get his job at NASA. "My job is a dream. Every day is an adventure."
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