Friday, 20 April 2012

The Past, Present and Future of US Space Exploration

Space Shuttle Discovery orbiting Earth (source: topnews.net)

by Jeremy Thomas

Seven pupils from PGS have recently had a unique, first-hand opportunity to consider this issue, during an Easter holiday visit to the USA. They visited Johnson and Kennedy Space Centres, as well as Rice University in Houston, and met a whole host of top people in the US space industry. Amongst these were Jay Honeycutt, former director of Kennedy Space Centre; Bill Crawford who is CBS News’s Space Consultant; and a number of astronauts who have flown on the Space Shuttle or lived on the International Space Station.

Anyone visiting Kennedy Space Flight Centre and taking a tour of the Historic Launch Pads cannot fail to be gripped by the pioneer spirit and heroism of the early days of US space exploration. Concrete bunkers housing launch controllers stood only yards from the launch pads, where astronauts Al Shepherd and Gus Grissom sat, alone in tiny capsules strapped to the top of barely modified ballistic missiles. Shepherd’s flight, lasting only 45minutes, was a gut reaction by the US only three weeks after Yuri Gagarin had put the Soviets ahead in the ‘Space Race’. It should not be forgotten that Cape Canaveral itself is an Air Force station, home of the 45th Space Wing and that much of the work done there was, and still is, linked to testing ballistic missiles and launching military surveillance and communication satellites. Much evidence of the Cold War era still remains.

At Kennedy we also had a very special encounter with the Space Shuttle ‘Discovery’, inside the Vehicle Assembly Building for the very last time, before being flown to a permanent home at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington.  
As there will be no more Shuttle flights, many people in the area around Cape Canaveral have lost jobs, especially in highly specialised areas such as fixing thermal protection tiles to the orbiters. No future spacecraft will use this method, so these jobs are gone for good. There is therefore a lot of pessimism concerning the future direction of US manned spaceflight. This was reinforced in conversations with CBS’s Bill Crawford, whose opinion was that the programme was aimless at present. He felt that it would remain so until politicians took the bold step of naming a target – an asteroid perhaps, or eventually Mars. Even the Moon again?

JFK made his ‘we choose to go to the Moon’ speech in 1961 in the Rice University football stadium, so it was fitting to visit the Rice Department of Physics and Astronomy in Houston to talk to British ex-pat researcher Dr.David Alexander and NASA astronaut Dr.Mike Massimino, or ‘Mass’ to his friends. Mass was amongst the team of four spacewalkers who carried out the last servicing mission on the Hubble Space Telescope. He is now overseeing NASA research programmes at Rice, so what do these involve? Well, David Alexander is a Solar Physicist and is interested in predicting the solar storms that not only affect power and communications on Earth, but will pose a substantial radiation hazard to astronauts spending long periods on inter-planetary missions. This is a problem NASA must be able to deal with before sending astronauts further.

At Johnson Space Centre we visited the Historic Mission Control, of ‘Houston, we have a problem’ fame. This is now inactive, although resonant with echoes of  ‘Eagles landing’ and ‘Failure not being an option’. Only metres away though, down a few corridors, space exploration is alive and well and moving ahead in the 21st century. Another room, in the same Christopher Craft Mission Control Center, houses the US Mission Control for the International Space Station. A team of men and women, all highly qualified engineers and scientists, monitors operations 24 hours a day, keeping six astronauts permanently in orbit and exploring the practical issues involved in long term space missions. Also at Johnson, we visited two other locations where future space exploration was evidently being taken very seriously. Firstly, at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory we witnessed a de-brief taking place where US Astronaut Scott Kelly and European Space Agency Astronaut, Tim Peake, had just finished spacewalk training in the world’s largest swimming pool. Tim is a local boy, educated at Chichester High School for Boys and the University of Portsmouth, followed by Sandhurst and the Army Air Corps. Secondly, we visited the Space Craft Mock Up Facility where astronauts do ground training on simulators. In this huge workshop a central place was taken by the training module for the Orion capsule which will take NASA astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and on to other planets. One end of the workshop was taken up with various designs of rovers, manned and unmanned, for planetary exploration. Quietly, in the background, NASA’s manned space programme is definitely looking to the future.

On the last night in Florida we were joined at dinner by Col.Scott Henderson (USAF retd.) who is Mission Integration Manager for SpaceX corporation, due to fly the first commercial spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, to the Space Station on April 30th. Sat alongside him was Jay Honeycutt who had directed Kennedy Space Centre through the glory and tragedy of many of the Space Shuttle Missions. Past, present and future came together in an inspiring and optimistic instant for all the PGS seven to witness for themselves. NASA may be stepping back from routine, servicing missions to the Space Station, but we saw plenty of evidence of much bolder preparations for the future.

With thanks to Chris Barber and Michelle Ham of the International Space Schools Educational Trust

1 comment:

  1. Cantius enjoyed Mr Thomas’ interesting article on the recent school visit to the Kennedy Space Centre and especially the last sentence regarding ‘bolder’ preparations for the future. Today’s Daily Telegraph (24 April 2012) also has an article headed: Planetary Resources unveils cosmic plan 'to boldly go' and mine asteroids for gold and platinum. These are inspiring times as the excitement of space travel remains firmly on the agenda of our small planet. A United Federation of Planets and the challenges of the Prime Directive may be closer than we think.

    ReplyDelete

Comments with names are more likely to be published.