Saturday, June 11, 2011

Shuttle Nostalgia

Today I was looking at some of the great ISS-Endeavour photos taken on May 23 by the ISS Expedition 27 crew from their departing Soyuz spacecraft (there's a wonderful NASA gallery here, cool video here). What a beautiful sight! This got me thinking about the fact that there's only one shuttle flight left, coming up in less than a month if things stay on schedule. Of course this is not shocking news for space enthusiasts, but it is still sad to think there will be no more flights of this amazing spacecraft.

This nostalgia carried me to Amazon where I started to look at shuttle books and videos before realizing, hey, I've already got some great shuttle books and videos that I haven't looked at in ages. Not that this will keep me from buying more (especially this 30 year retrospective coming out in late August), but I ended up re-reading most of the astronaut anecdotes from Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years -- The Astronauts' Experiences in Their Own Words which was published in 2002 (looks like it's out of print now - available only from third-party sellers). This is a fantastic book with a great selection of photographs and reference material on all the shuttle flights through STS-102 in March 2001.

But what makes it special are the astronauts' own words about their experiences, from the mundane to the sublime. Some comments are technical, like John Young discussing the very first reentry on STS-1, "It was a pretty good test flight, and we discovered a lot of things. For example, coming into the atmosphere at Mach 25 we got a really bad sideslip that we didn't expect, where the orbiter slipped sideways four degrees and dropped in altitude. Fortunately the software canceled it out. If it hadn't, we wouldn't be here." Some are humorous stories, like the crew of STS-95 (1998) teasing Senator John Glenn (77 at the time) about being a shuttle "rookie" and staging a little gag involving a fake "Shuttle boarding pass" that Glenn didn't have. There are a number of stories about illusions and other effects coming about from zero-G (like dropping some object just after returning from orbit, subconsciously expecting it to float). Many astronauts comment about the amazing views of Earth and on how the view of the "whole Earth" changed their lives.  It's a wide range of subjects - about a third of the more than 250 people who flew on the shuttle from 1981 to 2001 responded, and they were told to talk about whatever experiences they chose.

It's hard to pick a favorite, but there's a cool one that shows how it's all relative. Joe Edwards was the pilot on STS-89, and he talks about thinking that he was born too late for Apollo and too early to make it to Mars. At a memorial service for Alan Shepherd in 1998, he was talking with some other "younger generation" shuttle astronauts about this "born too late" idea when veteran Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell walked over. Jim wanted to say hello and to tell them about his discussion with "Neil, Buzz, and Gene" in which they decided they were born too early. Huh? Lovell said, "Well, you guys get the opportunity to go up to the space station. You get to fly the only reusable spacecraft that's ever been built, and you get to do all of these difficult and challenging things. We were just born too early. All we ever got to do was Apollo."

Well, Jim, that was still something. Apollo is history and in another month or so, the shuttle program will be history too. But I'm sure there will still be some difficult and challenging things for the next few generations of astronauts to do.

1 comment:

Eric M. Collins said...

I have that book too. I pull it off it's shelf every few months to look through the photos and stories. It's a really neat collection.