GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. -- It is time to say "goodbye." For three decades, Americans have watched with interest and,sometimes, absolute horror as the Space Shuttles zipped back and forth from low Earth orbit. Now it comes to an end, a day of reflection for Minnesotans in particular.
The flight of the Shuttle Atlantis, scheduled for Friday, July 8, is to be the last shuttle mission. Pilot Doug Hurley is the husband of Astronaut Karen Nyberg of Vining, Minn. She has already flown on a shuttle mission and is to fly again, but this time on a Russian launch vehicle in 2013.
Nyberg spoke with KARE 11 from space in 2008, describing lift-off. "Sitting on the pad was very much like being in one of our simulators, but as soon as the full rocket boost is lit up, you definitely felt it. (I) tried to get a mirror and look out the windows as we were going and it was an incredible ride."
There are only four astronauts on the final ride. Usually there are up to seven. Seven seems to be a lucky, or unlucky, number for NASA. Originally there were the Mercury Seven, America's manned space pioneers. They were the men celebrated in "The Right Stuff" book and movie. One of them, although he never flew in the Mercury program, was Deke Slayton of Sparta, Wis., who achieved a B.A. in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Minnesota in 1949.
The late Mr. Slayton was found to have a heart condition in 1959 that banned him from space. Slayton had been scheduled to be the second American in orbit after John Glenn. Slayton was grounded until the Apollo program in 1975, when he participated in a Russian/American, Apollo/Soyuz docking mission. At that time, he, at 51, was the oldest man to fly in space. Only when fellow Mercury Astronaut John Glenn flew at 77 was that record surpassed. Slayton retired from NASA in 1982 and succumbed to a brain tumor in 1993.
Seven Astronauts, including Christa McCauliffe, the first teacher in space, died shortly after lift-off, when the Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. Seven others died in 2003 when wing damage on lift-off doomed the Shuttle Columbia on reentry into Earth's atmosphere. Still, the program endured after years-long breaks following each disaster.
Dale Gardner of Fairmont, Minn., flew on two shuttle missions early in the program in 1983 and 1984. He was to be onboard for the first shuttle launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. However that mission and future launches from California were abandoned after the Challenger disaster.
George "Pinky" Nelson of Wilmar, Minnesota was in the first crew to climb aboard Shuttle Discoveryin September, 1988 and renew the shuttle program after the Challenger accident. The already veteran astronaut was known for spectacular "space walks" or EVAs, as NASA calls them for "Extra Vehicular Activity."
During one of his flights, Nelson spoke about the joy of his job. "A Space Shuttle is not magic. It is a machine that was designed and fabricated by people's hands. So, you are sitting on mankind's Endeavor. It is an honor for me to be sitting there, riding it."
Colonel Robert Cabana, USMC, of Minneapolis, became one of Minnesota's most frequent space travelers, logging four separate shuttle missions from 1990 to 1998, involving more than 1,000 hours in space. He was Mission Commander in December of 1998 as NASA began to assemble the International Space Station in orbit. Cabana become the Director of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Cabana often spoke to groups of youngsters about being in space. "The very best part about being in space is looking down on the Earth from 160 to 200 miles high. It is a beautiful, blue planet and space is just the blackest, darkest void you can possibly imagine."
Lieutenant Colonel Duane "Digger" Carey, USAF, of Saint Paul, flew on Shuttle Columbia in 2002. That mission serviced the Hubble Space Telescope . Carey, famously, returned to motorcycle touring in 2004.
Captain Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, USN, of Saint Paul became the first Minnesota woman in space. Her two shuttle missions in 2006 and 2008 dazzled Minnesotans with her daring EVAs, helping to expand the International Space Station. In all, Captain Piper completed 5 "space walks." She retired from NASA in July 2009 and returned to the United States Navy. She works at a Navy lab in Bethesda, Maryland.
Piper is nostalgic, but pragmatic about the passing of the Shuttle program. "It is a similar feeling that the people in the Navy have when your ship gets decommissioned because you feel like you were just on board and you know it is a great vehicle. As I heard somebody mention, the Space Shuttle is very akin to a pick-up truck. Once you are done moving, or in our case, once we are done building the Space Station and bringing supplies, we are not carrying 50,000 pounds every time. Then, it is a little bit much (more) than what you need it for. It would be like taking a delivery truck to the grocery store."
She also believes that America's Space Program should continue and set new goals. "I think someday we should go to Mars because I think someday we can go to Mars. Can we go there right now? No, I do not think it is feasible. There is a lot more that we need to learn. There is a lot more that we need to be able to take people and safely send them to Mars. We cannot do that right now."
Only a few Minnesotans have experienced the weightlessness of space, but thousands have helped with the "heavy lifting" so others could get there. Many worked at the ATK Corporation, headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
"ATK has been involved in the Space Program since its inception," said Brian Grace, ATK spokesperson. "ATK developed the solid rocket motor that powers the Space Shuttle Program and launched NASA satellites before that point in time."
Approximately 2500 of ATK's 18,000 employees work in Minnesota. The actual rockets are built and maintained at a facility in Utah. Space Launch observers would note that ATK designed and built both the dual rockets on either side of the large external shuttle fuel tank and the explosive devices that cause the rockets to separate from the shuttle about a minute into flight. They then fall into the ocean to be recovered and reused.
Not only has ATK been involved in launching space shuttles, the company took on the responsibility of designing a way for the shuttle to safety return to space after the Columbia accident in 2003.
"NASA needed a repair kit that would repair the leading edge of the wing should there be damage on a future flight, so that it could land safely," said Grace.
According to Grace, ATK is working hard on the next phases of manned flight for NASA. "There are two answers to 'what is next?' One is Space Launch System, SLS, which is a heavy lift vehicle that will allow us to go explore beyond lower Earth orbit. That will be a NASA-run program. The President has also decided to put delivering humans to lower Earth orbit, especially to the International Space Station, into the hands of commercial companies.
"ATK has partnered with a French company to create a brand new launch vehicle called 'Liberty'," said Grace.
As for the SLS, which would enable future manned flights to Mars or Asteroids, "For the next phase of space exploration, we have added a fifth segment," said Grace, referring to the four segments of rocket engines currently used for shuttle launches, "It will look something like the shuttle. In that, right now, it will have two ATK boosters on the side of it, we expect. The center segment will be based on the same size as the external tank for the shuttle program, except that the space shuttle main engines will be at the bottom of (the large structure in the middle of the boosters) and it will have a flat top with the payload," explained Grace.
With the program coming to a close, what is to happen with the four remaining shuttle spacecraft? They are to become museum pieces at various locations around the United States.
Atlantis will go to the Kennedy Space Center, Endeavor to the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Discovery to a Smithsonian Institution branch in northern Virginia and Enterprise, the trainer used on test flights in the 1970's, will be part of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)