After 14 days in flight, the final mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle program landed at Kennedy Space Center on July 21. Yesterday, the four person crew of STS-135 was in town and stopped by the Air and Space Museum to talk about what it’s like to live in space and discuss the future of the space program. I trailed along and eavesdropped as the four talked to some visiting school groups and museumgoers.
The primary purpose of the flight—the last of 33 missions of the shuttle Atlantis—was to help transfer supplies to and from the International Space Station (ISS), and over the course of the ten days docked at ISS, the crew transferred roughly 10,000 pounds of cargo. “It was really hectic the entire time we were docked, just keeping track of what was going in and out” said Sandy Magnus, mission specialist on the flight. “If you can imagine something the size of a football field in orbit, that’s the space station.”
Despite their busy schedule, the STS-135 crew made sure to have dinner together with the ISS astronauts every night. During the question and answer session, Chris Ferguson, the mission commander, said that the group ate everything from thermostabilized chicken and seafood gumbo to fresh foods like apples, crackers and peanut butter. “In space, peanut butter keeps everything in one place so you can pop it in your mouth,” he said. “It’s the ultimate space food.”
Even for a short mission, the crew said, finding time to exercise in space was crucial, because the body’s muscles otherwise atrophy in the absence of gravity. “If you stay in space for any long period of time, you have to exercise two hours per day,” said Magnus. They used treadmills, exercise bicycles and a simulated weight training system to stay fit. Even so, upon returning home, Magnus said “my balance was off. You approach a corner, and you’re not good at judging when to turn, so you hit the wall.”
The astronauts also found time to appreciate what a special opportunity they had, simply in being able to look down at the earth from such a great distance. “You have to look out the window when you’re in space,” said Doug Hurley, the mission’s pilot. He showed the audience a time-lapse video of the Aurora Australis, or southern lights, with green ribbons snaking across the globe rapidly, resembling something out of a CGI movie. “They’re just absolutely spectacular,” he said.
The trip marks the end of NASA’s shuttle era, which began 30 years ago with the Columbia, in 1981. Budgetary reasons and plans to design transport systems for missions past low-earth orbit—to the moon, asteroids or mars—meant the retirement of the shuttle was necessary. As the crew prepared to descend back to earth, they took a moment to reflect on being part of the final flight.
“We couldn’t help but sit down and think about what the shuttle has done for the country,” Magnus said. Its contributions include radar mapping missions, earth observations and countless satellites and telescopes launched and serviced. The shuttle program was essential for constructing the International Space Station, in particular, carrying it up piece by piece on 37 different flights, Ferguson said. “We consider this to be the crowning jewel of the shuttle.”
On the final day of flight, the crew’s wake-up music was “God Bless America,” dedicated by NASA to “all the men and women who put their hearts and souls into the Shuttle program for all these years.” Ferguson reflected on being part of the last crew of this storied space program. “Part of it made me sad, but part of it made me feel extraordinarily proud to be part of the last mission.”
As the shuttle program is retired, NASA is at work planning future missions. Several commercial companies are designing transport systems for NASA to use to get to ISS; in the meantime, Russian rockets will be used to transport American astronauts to the space station. Meanwhile, attempts to reach destinations such as the moon or mars, Ferguson speculated, will be done with capsule-based systems, because trying to return from such distant locales requires speeds greater than a shuttle can safely withstand.
The astronauts encouraged the school children to follow their dreams into space by keeping an eye open for the right opportunities. “Our love, when we were youngsters, for things like science, space and rocketry was cultivated in places life this,” Ferguson said. “If you’re interested in what you see, we’re always looking for fantastic astronauts, mission controllers, engineers and people to build equipment.”
Although the shuttle is entering retirement, Ferguson assured the students that the capsule-based launch systems currently in development would mean that the need for astronauts would continue. Current plans indicate that the system will be ready by 2017 for unmanned missions, and 2020 for the first man missions. “This will be just in time,” he said, “for when you guys will be starting out as astronauts.”