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Science and Technology


Bittersweet memories of orbiter and final countdown
NASA family remembers crews lost and close calls in 30 years of shuttle missions
by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Valerie Brown | 89.7 WKSU A proto-type of the next generation of transport vehicle adorns the entrance to NASA Glenn research center in Cleveland.
Courtesy of Valerie Brown
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After 30 years and 134 missions, the Space Shuttle program will - weather permitting - come to an end this week with the final flight of Atlantis.  
 
The 4 member crew will deliver supplies to the international space station, where astronauts are conducting on-going experiments in zero gravity.  

Several of those experiments are run from earth by engineers at NASA Glenn Research Center, where many are monitoring the countdown with mixed emotions.

Jeff St.Clair and the last shuttle

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Three things to know about NASA

The first thing you learn touring NASA is how to enter a clean room.

First the shoe buff.

Then the shapeless blue gown.

The funhouse blower.

And the sticky pad on the floor…

Even when there’s nothing particularly clean about the room you’re entering, such as the exercise counter measures lab.

Gail Perusek is director of studies in keeping astronauts healthy.  Her building is one of 150 in the sprawling NASA Glenn research center complex covering 300 acres near the Cleveland Hopkins airport.

The second thing you learn about NASA is the love of acronyms.  Perusek and her team works with the…

“eZLS, that’s the Enhanced Zero-gravity Locomotion Simulator.  And that gets complicated, so we just say vertical treadmill”

The treadmill was renamed the COLBERT on the space station, which stands for …

“Combined Operational Load-Bearing External Resistance Treadmill.”

Perusek says astronauts lose one to two percent of bone mass each month in space, so they spend hours each day excercising.   But without gravity there is no resistance, so they need to be strapped down while running using the harness her team designed -

“It’s got a buckle at the sternum, [click] and a buckle at the hip [click], and they don it like they would a backpack…This was a real innovation and it came out of a challenge…”

A universal passion for overcoming challenges is the third thing obvious at NASA. 


Return to flight 

The spirit still prevails even after two devastating set-backs in the shuttle program  -  first the Challenger disintegration shortly after liftoff in 1986, and then in January 2003, when Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry.

Glenn engineer Kelly Carney was on the team investigating what went wrong with Columbia.  He says the agency went through a period of emotional as well as technical recovery –

“It did cause a lot of people to work very, very hard and try to focus that negative emotion into something positive which was to return to flight safely.”

Carney heads the team that monitors debris on the launch pad, like the piece of foam that punched a fatal hole in the wing of Columbia.  He says for each system on the shuttle, engineers must evaluate countless potential problems –

“Not all of them are catastrophic, some of them will cause little failures which are not going to blossom into larger ones.  If you treat every single failure as potentially catastrophic, you won’t get anything done, and not only that, you won’t be able to focus your attention on those problems which could be catastrophic.”

One of the lesser known areas NASA has to watch is the purge and vent subsystem, which is monitored by Glenn’s Diana Centeno-Gomez.    She says air inside the shuttle must be purged before lift-off because, otherwise, in the vacuum of space… she waves her hands  …

“It just goes….it explodes because it has nowhere else to go and needs a release.”

After 20 launches Centeno-Gomez recalls the thrill of her first countdown  –

“It’s at t-minus 9 that they poll all the subsystems to see if you’re ready for launch…you know we’re looking at our system … and they look at me and say ‘are you go, or no-go’ and I’m like wow!!!”

With only four members on board instead of the usual six or seven, the Atlantis mission has the smallest crew since the first days of the program.  That’s because as the last shuttle, a rescue mission is impossible.

Ceneno-Gomez says peril is part of the bargain in space travel.

 “It’s a very high-risk environment.  At any moment, anything can happen.”

Throughout its history, one of the main goals of the shuttle program has been to do science in space.  And in his three decades with the program,  Glenn’s Ron Sicker has designed many of the experiments.  He’s humbled by the bravery of the shuttle astronauts.

“Anybody who’s worked long enough in the program that the program realizes that the crew is really taking a calculated risk with their life and when you realize that they’re taking a calculated risk with their life to do your work.”

Along with the seven members of the Columbia crew, one of Sicker’s experiments was lost in that disaster, but, he notes, there were survivors from that failed mission.

“Small biological samples -  small worms called C. elegans , and they survived re-entry.”

These worms were recovered and,  as a tribute to the Columbia crew,  were sent back to space to complete the experiment, testing a remote microscope now on board the International Space Station.


Ongoing experiments in space 

We’re back in another NASA clean room. This one is five stories high, originally built to house the space station’s solar array.  And it’s here that Sicker designs experiments to be conducted in space, which rely on computer relays.

“When I wiggle or click the mouse, it travels to New Mexico and then goes up 22, 000 miles, comes back 22,000 miles, comes back to Cleveland and when it gets in the building instead of going to one room goes in the other room.”

Working remotely from Glenn’s telescience center, Sicker and other Glenn researchers study combustion in zero gravity, which may help usher in a new generation of fuels. 

They’re also working on how to make materials mix better in liquids, research that could affect everything from detergents to intravenous drugs.

Glenn scientists say the shuttle made this and other work possible.

But engineer Kelly Carney says the risks of the aging shuttle fleet have finally outgrown the benefits.  As head of the group that ensures a safe reentry, he says it’s time to move onto a program that does not rely on a mosaic of heat shields to protect the crew.

“It’s just an incredible pity that we’re not going to be flying them anymore, cause it’s just an amazing machine.”

The final shuttle mission is expected to cost $1.2 billion dollars. 

NASA will outsource the next generation of shuttles to private contractors, although a rocket-based crew module is in the works.

But for now, after Atlantis, astronauts in space will rely on the Russian Soyuz capsule to make it home.  

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