Final Thoughts... For Now

Here are my notes from Monday

Following Sunday's landing, we catch a late afternoon flight out of Orlando; by the time I finally walk in my door back in Maine, it's 1am.  I've been on the road for 17 days.

Monday morning I attend the Memorial Day parade in my little town, and am overwhelmed with culture shock.  I chat with my neighbor, who makes his living as a logger.  He's an extremely intelligent guy, but he's not had much opportunity to travel in his life.  He's pretty skeptical about the space program, doesn't understand why we send people into space, or what they do once there.  And he's not real supportive of continuing it.

In that respect, he's probably far more typical a citizen than I am.

After the parade, sharing coffee and conversation in the general store of a small rural town, I think about what America has done in space, what we're about to do, and what it all means.
The shuttle is about to be retired; there are only eight flights left.  I used to think the shuttle was boring; true space adventure, I felt, ended with the last Apollo flight to the Moon in 1972.  Apollo went somewhere, explored an unknown place; the shuttle only goes around and around in earth orbit.

I was excited when NASA was given a new mandate in 2004, the Vision for Space Exploration (a plan to return to the Moon and eventually go to Mars).  I believe in exploring space; watching my first shuttle launch, I was moved - witnessing all that awesome power, I felt proud of what humans can do when we put our minds to it.

After following this mission so closely for so long, I've learned a lot more about the shuttle's capabilities.  It has flaws, and will never be completely safe - but it's really an incredible machine.  And I'm not sure any rocket can ever be made completely safe.

The fact is, when the shuttle is retired, the world will lose the ability to do the kinds of things that were just done on Hubble.  As currently designed, America's next generation space vehicle will not have a giant robotic arm, or a huge cargo bay, or even an airlock to do spacewalks.

No spacewalks???

This Hubble mission has dramatically raised the bar, establishing a new benchmark for what humans can do with their hands working in the vacuum of space.  Even Hubble's designers - who intended it to be serviced by astronauts on spacewalks - never dreamed that the kinds of things that happened last week could ever be possible.

And now, just as we reach an apex in our capacity to use fine motor skills out in space, doing delicate and complicated things with our hands (isn't that one measure of what makes us human?) -- we're about to turn our backs on it.

When this mission was canceled after the Columbia accident, some of the Hubble team began working on a plan to build a robot to service Hubble.  And maybe a robot could have done some of what astronauts just did.

But a robot couldn't have replaced Mike Massimino on spacewalk #4.  When the handrail on STIS (the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph) wouldn't budge, Mike did what every shadetree mechanic or weekend project person in the world has done one time or another - he yanked on it until it broke off.  Then, and only then, could the repair of the multi-million dollar instrument proceed.

What I've learned in the past two years is that the "shuttle program" that is about to end isn't just a vehicle - it's a body of knowledge and expertise contained in the brains of thousands of people.  And I wonder: with the end of the shuttle, what will happen to that knowledge, and to those people?

In 1972 when Apollo ended, unused Moon rockets that had already been built and paid for were left to rust.  People that, collectively, knew how to send humans to the Moon, moved on or retired. 

Fast forward thirty years: now, as NASA plans a return to the Moon, some of the engineers are turning to retired Apollo veterans to pick their brains, to learn why they did things the way they did.  The pity is, many of Apollo's brilliant managers and engineers are now gone forever.

It strikes me as a little sad.  I think the American spirit is a restless one, and while I love our energy when we're inspired, I do lament what often seems to be our short national attention span.

Hubble's images will live on; that is certain.  And it seems equally certain that with the telescope's new capabilities, there's much more exciting science still to come. 

But working on this film has taught me that there's more to Hubble than its images and the science that results from them - there's the people who refused to let Hubble die, and so invented new tools, techniques, and possibilities in order to save it.

I worry what will happen to this incredible Hubble team, some of whom I've gotten to know, now that there will be no more manned servicing missions.  I wonder what will happen to the remarkable expertise they've acquired, especially on this mission.

And I wonder if, twenty or thirty years from now, NASA will be trying to locate these folks, now retired, to try and re-learn some of what they know after accomplishing such amazing things on last week's spacewalks. 

I hope that the knowledge and wisdom this team has acquired will not slowly be forgotten, and that decades from now, a new generation of engineers and astronauts will not have to re-learn what has been lost in the interim.

Time will tell...

User Comments:

That wsa an interesting post. Having just seen the show on NOVA, I wanted to ask something about the robot you mentioned. Could it not have pulled that bar off? How much force did it take to do that?

David, good question. The RMS (arm) backdrives at 25 lbs. The force required by Mass at the end of the handrail was close to 60 lbs. The force is a little less when you work the handrail back and forth, but it would have taken a long time.

blog comments powered by Disqus