HOUSTON — After more than 30 years, NASA’s space shuttles will no longer orbit the Earth, but their journey and purpose did not end with their last landings.
The space agency’s three remaining orbiters — Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis — are now each promised to museums for public display. Their new role, to inspire and educate future generations, is set to begin next year but not before NASA takes the opportunity to learn from the well-traveled spacecraft first.
Each of the shuttles flew one last mission to the international space station this year, completing its assembly. Atlantis, the last to fly, touched down July 21 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, culminating the 135th and final mission of the space shuttle program.
Hours after landing, the now permanently grounded Atlantis was towed back from the runway to a nearby processing facility — the same hangar where after its 32 previous missions it was readied for its next flight. This time, however, the end result will be to leave the orbiter no longer spaceflight-worthy.
Safing and studying
Inside Kennedy’s Orbiter Processing Facility-2, Atlantis will first undergo a several week servicing process that otherwise resembles its more usual postflight preparation. Its three main engines, orbital maneuvering engines and smaller thrusters will be removed and sent off to other facilities to be cleaned of their toxic propellants.
Technicians will work to remove Atlantis’ payload — roughly 2,700 kilograms of refuse and unneeded equipment returned from the space station inside a mutlipurpose logistics module — a large cargo canister — called Raffaello.
Atlantis’ crew cabin will be pulled apart — its bathroom removed for cleaning, and its stowage lockers to be unpacked — as shuttle workers scour the flight- and mid-decks following 13-days in space.
But once that ‘standard’ work is complete, engineers will turn their attention to digging into the hardware and systems they usually would not touch — either because of their location being so deeply embedded in the vehicles to be impractical for interim flight inspections or because the access was not needed if the end goal was to launch the shuttle again.
The end goal now is to safely display the shuttles in an enclosed, environment-controlled building.
So while the thrusters and engines have been removed as a matter of course, so must their supporting pipes and feedlines. Contaminated over the decades by harmful chemicals, even the soft-goods — the insulation and thermal blankets that surrounded the piping — must be cut out to ensure museum-goers are not exposed to slowly out-gassing, propellant-stained shuttle parts.
Further, NASA is looking to save components that might be reused for future spacecraft or which, once removed, can still teach important lessons for the next-generation vehicles.
The space agency is retaining all of its space shuttle main engines for example, which it plans to use for the core stage of its new Space Launch System heavy-lift booster. The shuttle’s general purpose computers — the primary computers that controlled the orbiter’s navigation and systems on-orbit — also are under consideration to be saved.
Other parts, like the hydraulic systems that powered the shuttle’s flight surfaces after it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and flew as an unpowered glider to a runway landing, will be dissected to see how 30 years of spaceflight has affected the hardware.
One more flight
Though the shuttles’ final flight servicing will be more invasive, it will still leave the orbiters in flight condition — just not for flights into space.
NASA selected museums to receive its orbiters that are spread across the nation. Discovery will be displayed by the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center located at Dulles International Airport just outside of Washington; Endeavour will be exhibited by the California Science Center at the yet-to-built Air and Space Center to be located somewhere in Los Angeles; and Atlantis will stay in Florida, to be displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Enterprise, the prototype orbiter used for atmospheric approach and landing tests in the late 1970s, will be moved from the Udvar-Hazy where it is currently displayed to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York.
With the exception of Atlantis, which will be rolled down the road, the shuttles will need to be flown to their new destinations using NASA’s modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. Once at their host cities, the museums will further need to move the orbiters from where the ferry flight lands, with proposals including barges and over-land tows.
According to the space agency, the first such flight — with Discovery — is targeted for April 12, 2012, one year to the day after announcing the new homes of the retired orbiters and the 31st anniversary of the shuttle’s first launch.
Dropping off Discovery at Dulles, NASA will pick up Enterprise and fly it to New York. At both locations, the agency will position large cranes to hoist the shuttles onto and off the 747.
Those cranes will then be flown west to support Endeavour’s delivery to California in late 2012 or early 2013, followed at last by Atlantis, which will go on display at Kennedy’s visitor center that summer.
For Atlantis’ last commander, that will mark the start of the shuttles’ new mission.
“We’re going to put Atlantis in a museum now, along with the other three orbiters for generations that will come after us to admire and appreciate,” STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson said a couple of hours after returning to Earth. “And hopefully, I want that picture of a young, six year old boy looking up at a space shuttle in a museum and say[ing], ‘Daddy, I want to do something like that when I grow up.’ Or, ‘I want our country to do fantastic things like this for the continued future.’
“And if we set those steps right now and they continue with that next generation of space explorers, then I consider our job here complete,” said Ferguson.