This year marks a very special year for NASA, and it is, rather unfortunately, a sad one too. It all started long before I was born on the 12th of April 1981. On that day 2 men, one an ex-Apollo astronaut, found themselves strapped into a new vehicle, a vehicle that would launch them 166 miles upwards at a speed of 17,500mph, a vehicle that would protect them whilst orbiting our pale blue dot, and a vehicle that could withstand 1500°C of heat whilst re-entering the atmosphere and slowing them down to less than 300mph before touchdown. This vehicle is of course, the Space Shuttle.
Since then the Space Shuttles have carried out 131 missions over nearly 30 years, all of these very different. It has been used to send the Galileo orbiter on its course to Jupiter, to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, to carry out scientific research and, more recently, to build the magnificent International Space Station. This November, however, will mark the last ever flight of the Space Shuttle. It is being retired from service; it’s at the end of its operational life.
Earlier in May this year I sat down to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis on its final voyage to space. Little did I know what would be happening a month later. This mission, known as STS-132, was a mission to the, now permanently manned, International Space Station to fit a new module, a Russian research module known as ‘Rassvet’. On this flight was a British-born (but now American citizen) astronaut called Piers Sellars. Piers was a mission specialist on this flight, operating the robotic arm on the space station to help with attaching the new module whilst 2 other astronauts were outside on a space walk. During the 12 day flight other maintenance, and experiments were carried out before the shuttle undocked for its fiery return to Earth.
A few weeks later, after browsing around the internet, I found out that the crew were going to carry out a European tour, starting in the UK! What an opportunity, the last year of the space shuttle and they were coming here to tell people about it. I sent the organisers a request to see if we could go, and we went!
The astronauts were in Portsmouth for the weekend to kick start their tour, we were invited to the finale event at Portsmouth football club. 5,000 people turned up, and we were the only air cadets there! The astronauts showed a video of their recent mission accompanied by some fitting music from Muse. The video showed everything from before launch, to the space walks, to drinking floating bubbles of water in zero gravity, and back to landing. They then went on to take questions from the enthralled crowd.
Word had filtered through to the astronauts that we were the only cadets at the event, and they agreed to come over and speak to us personally. The shuttle pilot, Dominic Antonelli, came over to talk to us first before we got the chance to talk to Michael Good who carried out some of the space walks, and Garrett Reisman, who had previously spent 3 months aboard the station on Expedition 17. Questions were asked, answers were given. But the one thing the astronauts wanted to get across was that they were normal people doing an extraordinary job. They wanted to share their love of science, maths and engineering and get young people interested in these fields. If you work hard, they said, you can do anything. That famous phrase I’ve been hearing since the day I started at cadets springs to mind – ‘The more you put in, the more you get out’ – and it’s true, it really is. One of the cadets asked about the benefit of the Mars500 mission which is currently taking place (in a car park in Russia). The astronauts said this mission was hugely important, showing how people can live and work in confined spaces with the same people for the duration of a Mars mission (520 days!) and learning from the problems that arise when we do finally go to Mars.
It didn’t end there. A British company called EADS Astrium were also present and had a new shiny toy to show off. She was called Bridget, a gold foiled covered, 6 wheeled Mars rover being created for the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission set for launch in 2018. It wasn’t small either, in fact, it was taller than (I)CWO Honeywill!
It was a fantastic day. To be able to speak to these people who do such an extraordinary job, but what next? Only 2 more shuttle flights remain and Space Shuttle Endeavour will mark the end of an era in November as the last ever flight. So what do the astronauts do now, with NASA having no way to get into space?
President Obama has recently cancelled NASA’s next step in space exploration, the Constellation Program, designed to return humans to the Moon, and send them onwards to Mars. The shuttle replacement, Ares I has also been cancelled.
Astronauts and cosmonauts will continue to fly to space, but only from the ageing Russian-Soyuz rockets. The space station will continue to be manned by these means, but for the time being that’s it. Humans will be confined to near-Earth orbit until we create new technology, new science, and new engineering and until we finally decide to move on and explore our amazing Solar System. So could you be the Earth’s next scientists, engineers, and astronauts?