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Mission’s end for the American space shuttle

By 최남현

Published : June 22, 2011 - 18:56

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“Roaring into space on two mighty blowtorches and a magnificent column of steam, the space shuttle Columbia was given a go-ahead Sunday to complete the 54-hour mission that is expected to open a new space frontier. The liftoff ― the world’s most spectacular space launch ― awed veteran space watchers at the Kennedy Space Center here.” ― Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1981.

Thirty years ago, space shuttle Columbia arced into the sky at Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying aloft America’s hopes for a thrilling sequel to the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Challenger. Discovery. Endeavour. Atlantis. Columbia. Those shuttle names conjured the spirit of exploration and the risks that came with exploring uncharted ― and unforgiving ― territory.

NASA promised the shuttle would be like no other spacecraft ever launched. And it was. It launched like a rocket, circled the globe and swooped to Earth like a jetliner ― a symbol of American technical prowess. From 0 to 17,500 mph in just over eight minutes.

But other NASA promises didn’t pan out: The shuttle didn’t pay for itself by reaping millions of dollars from private companies eager to score scientific bonanzas in zero gravity. And that ambitious shuttle schedule envisioned by NASA, launching a mission just about every week? That proved to be laughably optimistic.

If all goes as planned, Atlantis streaks into space on July 8, the 135th and final shuttle mission.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Sure, there were thrills along the way. Those amazing spacewalks. The triumph of sending into space the first American woman, Sally Ride, and the first African-American, Guion Bluford, little more than a month apart in the summer of 1983. The launch of the dazzling Hubble Space Telescope to help unravel the mystery of the Big Bang.

But the shuttle more often fizzled in the Igniting-America’s-Imagination department. It was always in the shop for repairs. You never knew when it would launch or land because the weather had to be just right. The craft’s technology showed its age: Flight deck computers often used outdated chips, “the sort of pre-Pentium electronics no self-respecting teenager would dream of using for a video game,” one critic wrote.

And where, exactly, did it go? Into low Earth orbit, a glorified 18-wheeler in space, hauling astronauts, spare parts and scientific equipment to the international space station. Astronauts also fixed balky toilets. And on one shuttle flight, Coke and Pepsi convinced NASA to do an experiment to determine if carbonated beverages could be dispensed in weightlessness. They could.

What Americans will remember most are the disasters.

Challenger, 73 seconds into its January 1986 voyage, exploding. Tendrils of smoke and a plume of debris against an ice-blue sky. The words of a stunned Mission Control public information officer: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.” Seven crew members died, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

A national commission pinpointed many problems that were fixed. But one wasn’t: A NASA culture that often valued an aggressive launch schedule over safety.

Then Columbia, 16 minutes to landing, in February 2003. Debris landed in a wide swath from Texas to Louisiana. A different culprit: A briefcase-sized chunk of foam insulation that broke loose during launch and damaged a few of the 24,000-plus bricklike heat-protection tiles on the shuttle’s belly.

Engineers had identified ― and fretted over ― that Achilles heel since the first launch.

On the day after the Columbia accident, the Chicago Tribune said it “should teach children and adults alike more than the calibrations of danger and loss that can reduce life to an exercise in caution. ... It is crucial, too, to cherish the joy of exploration that propelled these seven Columbia astronauts aloft ― and that boldly survives them in the clear blue sky.”

So ... what now for the American space program? There’s still plenty of adventure, even without manned flights. NASA will send a probe hurtling into Jupiter’s orbit to learn more about the planet’s origins. Another Mars rover will assess whether Mars is ― or ever was ― able to support microbial life, a step in determining the planet’s habitability.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a giant supercooled magnet, will probe for signs of mysterious “dark matter” that physicists believe pervades the universe. It could solve a cosmic mystery about the stuff of the universe, or, as one report suggested, it could become “a $1.5 billion hood ornament on the international space station.”

And what of all those astronauts-in-waiting, those intrepid souls who signed up to get slung into space on a glider bolted to a rocket? What happens to those with the right stuff ... at the wrong time? They’ll have to be very patient. Or find another line of work.

We don’t know when a generation of astronauts will push into deep space, to Mars or beyond. But we do know it will happen. It will happen because peeling back barriers, despite the dangers, or maybe because of them ... is tangled deep in human DNA.

“A spacecraft is a metaphor of national inspiration,” author Gregg Easterbrook wrote in Time magazine in 2003: “Majestic, technologically advanced, produced at dear cost and entrusted with precious cargo, rising above the constraints of Earth. The spacecraft carries our secret hope that there is something better out there ― a world where we may someday go and leave the sorrows of the past behind.”

Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour will join Columbia and Challenger at rest.

The shuttle ends. Not the journey.

(Chicago Tribune, June 15)