Houston, we have a problem: The U.S. Space Shuttle program is shutting down. After 30 years, two tragedies and 130 successful missions that seemed to make space flight almost routine, the shuttle program is coming to a close. What's next in human space flight for America is unclear.
The command crew of Endeavor STS-134 is scheduled for lift-off in February 2011. Before then, members will go through hundreds of practice runs in a flight simulator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"We go in the office, and we'll say, 'OK, what do we want to do today?'" says Steven Messersmith, who directs the flight simulation team. He says the team's role is to come up with a script of possible malfunctions and deliver those malfunctions to the crew in the simulator with the tap of a button on a touch-screen computer.
In this simulation, they kill one fuel cell and then another.
"Oh, that's not good. That's not good," one crew member groans, before the team coolly proceeds into a sequence of actions to conserve power and bring the simulation home safely.
The simulation is an exact mock-up of the flight deck that never leaves the ground — but shakes, rattles and rolls with some of the sensations of space flight. The run-through lasts for almost two hours and ends with a successful landing, despite the onslaught of problems.
But not every practice is perfect. Cmdr. Mark Kelly, who will command Endeavor's final mission, says sometimes mistakes happen.
"Not frequently," he says. "I did have a couple of weeks ago an incident where it was unrecoverable. We lost control, and if it happened in flight, we would have died. That's something you don't like to happen."
When that does happen, Kelly adds, it can be a good thing, because the crew won't be likely to make that mistake in space.
The Last Mission
The crew of the last Endeavor mission expects to be busy during their 10 days in space. They will deliver supplies to the International Space Station where Kelly's twin brother, Scott Kelly will be aboard. They will install a glacial freezing module, conduct space walks and experiments and launch a $1.5-billion dark matter detector into space.
As commander, Kelly will sleep on the deck in a sleeping bag — with heavy duty blinds since the sun sets and rises every 45 minutes while the shuttle's in orbit. Unlike the space station, where the crew has a little more room to spread out, the shuttle is not exactly a large ship.
So what makes a good crew mate?
"Somebody that you'd want to go camping with," Kelly says. "Respects personal space and the impact their actions would have on other people. Somebody that can do their job well is really high on the list."
Kelly says this mission — Endeavor's last — will be harder.
"If this does turn out to be the last flight of the space shuttle, it would be a little sad. I mean, the shuttle's been the workhorse of the U.S. space program for 30 years, nearly. And it will be sad to full-stop on the runway that last time," he says, "and see Endeavor carted off to a museum. But it's important that we do that so we can move on and do other things."
A Hope For The Future
John Shannon, the shuttle program manager at NASA, has a child's paper cutout of an astronaut with strawberry curls in his Houston office. He got it after a local school asked 7-year-old students to draw a picture of what they wanted to be. His daughter Sarah was the only one who answered astronaut.
"She's the princess astronaut there," he says, pointing at the cutout. "But I put it up on my wall just to remind me that some of the youth of America are relying on us to get this right."
Shannon hopes America will still be ambitious enough to seek new achievements in space.
"I do worry. Just like everybody else, I think, involved in space flight right now, with the hazy future, we can't let the gap ... get too big or the workforce — which is incredibly talented and can be used in many different industries — we'll lose them," he says. "It is not a fluid workforce; they will go and it will be very difficult to get them back. So what we have to do is come up with the plans and the projects to keep that team together. And I think we're starting to see that now."
The man who keeps the little paper astronaut that his daughter drew has seen 40 space shuttle launches and knows that for many, they've become just one more routine miracle. But he urges Americans to watch this next launch.
"It's a feeling like no other," he says. "It's awe-inspiring. It makes you proud that America can do something like that. And that we have the courage to do something like that, because it takes courage to go fly in space."