Atlantis landed very early July 21, 2011. This is the end of the longest period of human space flight. While the International Space Station still orbits, we have less control of our space transportation fortunes. The landing of Atlantis was very uneventful, and for the most-part, quietly observed. At the launch a few days ago, I provided a few memories from 30 years ago as the first Shuttle, Columbia, launched in 1981. As the last mission lands for the last time, I can’t help but look at the present, and gaze to the future. My memory was slightly flawed from those naive days in 1981. I hope my view of the future is just as flawed and has some subtle, dare I say, pleasant, surprises.
It is fitting that the landing – the whole mission – of STS-135, went off without a hitch. We got it right, just as the press, politicians, and much of the cynically vocal public have accused NASA of creating its own bloated problems. NASA’s problem is that the vast majority of the time, we get it right…quietly. When it goes wrong, or if people ask questions about why resources are necessary to get each detail right, then there are ignorant rants about waste.
I noted one person on Facebook this morning, paraphrasing an aerospace periodical, sharing confidently that SpaceX was about to launch a mission later this year to the Space Station, achieving two milestones, docking with and resupplying the ISS in one fell swoop. A fellow aerospace worker deadpanned that those in the know were just as confident that it wasn’t going to happen this year. “If it was that easy, everyone would be doing it.” It’s not.
As thousands of aerospace workers are turned loose, it will be interesting to see how they are absorbed into the workforce. So far the word is that the petrochemical industry is waking up to the quality of the workforce. In the wake of the BP oil spill last summer, many energy industry executives are scrambling to make prudent investments in maintenance, safety, and risk management. The stories are trickling in about how veteran aerospace engineers, technicians and managers are making a positive impact bolstering the energy industry. I’m not surprised.
NASA is trying to shift its resources to more fundamental investments in innovative space technology – automated exploration, advanced propulsion, efficient ground support processes. It will take years to get practical results, but there will be something coming from it some day. There are and will be too many creative, visionary, and stubborn people working on it. I know the type….
The good news for my little institutional safety part of the NASA world is that when we wrestle with trying new stuff and tinkering with things that burn, go boom, or make sudden motions, there are challenges doing it in a way that doesn’t hurt people. Keeping things from going boom, or more appropriately, avoiding the worst consequences when they do go boom, takes a lot of work from my folks. We’ve got the hang of it, and we’re taking some prudent measures to avoid problems. Been there… Done that.
So, I guess it is fitting that, as the Atlantis mission came to a smooth conclusion, I was working on my new house this week. We’ll be here for a while, so I might as well get the family comfortable. We’ve got more work to do…. NASA has a lot of tinkering to do, much of it on the ground. That’s where my job is…. Perhaps as my little girl gets going to school, we will have made some progress and we’ll be ready to go back up. She will need something to look up to…. besides her daddy.