I love the notion of bookends, of events coming full-circle… of symmetry, I suppose. We’ve been taught to expect it by stories and movies and songs: lovers separated by decades miraculously find one another again, the boy avenges his father and assumes the throne, the traveler returns home after his adventures abroad and restores order… you get the idea. I think the concept has power exactly because it so rarely happens in real life, where time is inexorably linear, the center usually does not hold, and the road generally does not bring you back around to the place you started from. But every once in a while…
Consider this photo that grabbed my attention earlier today:
The two geezers — er, distinguished older gentlemen — standing in the foreground are Bob Crippen and John Young, the legendary space shuttle (and, in Young’s case, Apollo) astronauts who flew the very first mission, STS-1, way back in 1981. Standing behind them, meanwhile, are the crew of STS-135, the final shuttle mission that ended in July of this year. The beginning and the end of the space shuttle program right there, folks. Symmetry.
If you’re interested in specifics, these people are, from left to right: Doug Hurley (STS-135 pilot); Robert Crippen (STS-1 pilot); John Young (STS-1 commander); Chris Ferguson (STS-135 commander); Sandy Magnus (STS-135 mission specialist); and Rex Walheim (STS-135 mission specialist). I found the photo here, among a whole bunch of different poses; I thought this was the most striking.
Incidentally, that’s not an actual space shuttle they’re standing in front of; it’s a mock-up used for training at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas… you know, the place that didn’t get to host a real shuttle orbiter despite having been a major part of the manned spaceflight program (“Houston, we have a problem…”) going back decades. I didn’t think too much about that when the shuttle disbursements were first announced, but the more time goes by, the more it bothers me. The Intrepid Museum in New York, as cool as it is, doesn’t really deserve a shuttle. Better they go to places that have an actual connection to the program. (Los Angeles qualifies because the orbiter airframes were built there by Rockwell International.)
Speaking of the museum-bound shuttle orbiters, recent photos of them have been somewhat shocking as big pieces of them are currently missing: the main engines, obviously, but also the orbital maneuvering system (OMS) thruster pods that flank the vertical stabilizer, and the forward reaction control system (FRCS). The FRCS is the set of thrusters visible just below the orbiter’s cockpit windows; removing that system has left a big rectangular cavity in the nose that is even more disconcerting (to me) than the missing engines on the back. But now I see that Discovery, at least, has its FRCS back in place after it was thoroughly cleaned and decontaminated in White Sands, New Mexico.
In other recent news you may or may not have heard about, Boeing has signed a lease with NASA for use of one of Kennedy Space Center’s former Orbiter Processing Facilities. Boeing intends to use the building to manufacture and maintain its CST-100 spacecraft, which are under development and will look something like larger versions of the old Apollo capsules, with seating for seven astronauts instead of three. The CST-100 is intended, like pretty much every other manned spacecraft currently on the drawing boards, to ferry crew and supplies to and from the International Space Station, and also possibly to a privately owned station planned by Bigelow Aerospace. Boeing hopes to send up its first CST-100 by 2015.
Meanwhile, NASA has announced its intention to send up an unmanned test version of its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle — another Apollo capsule on steroids — by 2014, as a first step toward sending astronauts beyond Earth orbit again.
But I think the first American spacecraft to get back up there with people aboard is most likely going to be the SpaceX Dragon capsule. There’s a Dragon at Kennedy as we speak, getting prepped for its second unmanned test flight, which is scheduled to launch on December 19. (If you’ll recall, SpaceX orbited a Dragon at this same time last year.) The goal for this next flight was to rendezvous with the International Space Station and then, on a third flight, actually dock with the ISS, but SpaceX is feeling cocky and has asked for permission to combine flights two and three. In other words, they want to go for a docking now. Dragon is currently intended as an automated cargo carrier, but SpaceX has designed the craft so it can reconfigured to carry passengers, and the company is eager to get the vehicle crew-rated. The company’s ambitious founder, Elon Musk, has even said recently he wants to send astronauts to Mars aboard one of his ships by 2020. We’ll see about that — I’ve been hearing my whole life that a manned Mars trip was only a few years off — but after all the melancholy and apparent loss of direction that accompanied the end of the shuttle, it’s good to hear somebody talking seriously about a human presence up there in the black…