Johnson Space Center Reflects On Shuttle Program

The end of the shuttle program is being felt exceptionally hard at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Thousands of people there worked on the shuttle and related projects — and the center is a major economic force in the city and the region.

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The end of the shuttle program is being felt exceptionally hard at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Thousands of people there worked on the shuttle and related projects, and the center is a major economic force in the city and the region.

NPR's Wade Goodwyn paid a visit recently and he found that there's some sadness but there is also hope for the future.

Unidentified Man #1: T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five...

(Soundbite of shuttle engines)

Unidentified Man #1: All three engines up and burning. And liftoff. The final liftoff of Atlantis...

WADE GOODWYN: At the Johnson Space Center, as the last shuttle climbed into the sky, it was a sad, wonderful moment.

Unidentified Man #2: Houston now controlling the flight of Atlantis...

GOODWYN: The engineering, the research and technology development of the space shuttle and the space station, all happened at the Johnson Space Center.

The space shuttle will soon be a memory of triumph, sacrifice and underrated achievement. For the astronauts who flew them, the big old space trucks will be remembered with love.

Dr. MIKE GERNHARDT (Astronaut, NASA): The very first time I looked back at Earth, it took my breath away. And you're just up there floating around, completely free to move wherever you want to. It definitely changes your life.

GOODWYN: Astronaut Mike Gernhardt has logged 43 days on the shuttle, including 23 hours and 16 minutes walking in space. You'd think a 55-year-old astronaut would be satisfied with a cold beer on the back porch, telling about that time he had to take three spacewalks to install the space station airlock. But, no.

Dr. GERNHARDT: So my dream has always been to go to the Moon and I've worked the last five years tirelessly to develop the architecture, the operations concepts, this new Rover that you might have seen that we actually live in for like two weeks at a time. And we get into the suits that are hanging off the back on suit ports...

GOODWYN: The end of the shuttle program has been years in the works. What wasn't expected was the cancellation of the Constellation Project by President Obama. Constellation was about building the next generation of rockets and space craft.

But its cancellation has not thrown Gernhardt for a loop. Now, instead of going to the Moon, he's working on landing astronauts on a giant passing asteroid.

Dr. GERNHARDT: I'm not one that goes off and cries in the corner. So, I'm not happy about that and, at the same time, me and my team are attacking, working on the asteroid, very novel ways to anchor and translate on an asteroid surface.

GOODWYN: If they cancellation of Constellation doesn't have Gernhardt crying in a corner, others are.

Mr. BOB MITCHELL (President, Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership): Well, I'm very angry. And most of the people here are very angry because this administration still has not come up with a mission.

GOODWYN: Bob Mitchell is the president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, which includes 51 local aerospace companies. Mitchell says that while thousands of engineers and scientists are losing their NASA-related jobs, many are finding new jobs in Houston. The energy sector is extremely healthy. And while not as glamorous as exploring the final frontier, exploring for oil is nevertheless pretty lucrative.

Mr. MITCHELL: The fortunate part of it is these are highly educated, well-trained, highly skilled employees that other industries are wanting to keep in this region.

GOODWYN: Not having a specific mission to Mars or the Moon doesn't mean there's no missions at all. For example, NASA scientist Jon Olansen heads up the Morpheus Project.

Dr. JON OLANSEN (Manager, Morpheus Project): The Morpheus Project is a integration of different technologies that we've been pursuing here at Johnson Space Center; liquid oxygen, liquid methane propulsion, as well as autonomous landing and hazard avoidance capability for landing on an extraterrestrial body.

GOODWYN: Got that? New escape pods, rovers that will have wheels for the Moon or a jet propulsion sled for asteroids; same rover different undercarriages for different missions.

Don't get astronaut Mike Gernhardt started about the new rover, which he's already testing at White Sands.

Dr. GERNHARDT: I describe it as a combination between a sports car and a spacesuit. It's a very nimble vehicle. It can actually turn 360 and circle in crab mode. The front of it looks like a helicopter; it's got great windows so we can make...

GOODWYN: If there's no money right now for a mission to the Moon or Mars, most at NASA understand Washington politicians and their priorities come and go. In the meantime, they're getting ready.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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