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Shuttle launch
Two minutes after liftoff, all that was visible of the shuttle’s final launch was the plume and the shadow it cast from above on the clouds over the Kennedy Space Center. (credit: J. Foust)

Once more, with feelings

The final launch of the Space Shuttle era

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This was a day we had known was coming for over seven years. Ever since President George W. Bush announced in January 2004 his plan to retire the Space Shuttle upon completion of the International Space Station, we knew there would be a day when a shuttle lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center for the final time. And even though that final day slipped from 2010 to mid-2011—thanks to inevitable schedule slips and the addition of two more missions in the last few years—that day has finally come.

No wonder, after nearly seven and a half years of preparation, this launch was still an emotional event.

But having all that time to prepare doesn’t necessarily mean that we were prepared for Friday’s launch. For three decades the shuttle has represented NASA’s human spaceflight program, and even to a great degree the space agency itself; now, after 135 missions, it was coming to an end. For thousands, the end of the shuttle means the end of their jobs, as the long-expected layoffs associated with the end the program ramp up. For everyone else, the end of the shuttle marks the beginning of uncertainty about how the future of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts will develop, and how long before another American vehicle—NASA or commercial—launches from Florida to carry humans into orbit. No wonder, after nearly seven and a half years of preparation, this launch was still an emotional event.

Beating the odds

For much of last week, though, it appeared that the day of the final shuttle launch would have to wait. Forecasts early in the week were not encouraging, and by Wednesday, two days before launch, meteorologists called for a 70 percent chance of unacceptable weather on launch day. A tropical wave slowly moving to the north would keep conditions cloudy and rainy. Weather conditions were forecast to be slightly better on Saturday and improving again on Sunday, but even then there was still a 40 percent chance weather would keep the shuttle grounded.

“It is not looking favorable right now for launch,” Kathy Winters, shuttle weather officer, said at a briefing Wednesday. By Thursday that forecast was coming true, as clouds and rain reached the Cape. At one point, loud peals of thunder could be heard in the press briefing room during another news conference, and the shuttle was almost completely obscured in video feeds of the launch pad. While the storms were not severe, a lightning bolt did strike near the launch pad on Thursday, but caused no damage.

The weather was shaping up to be the only constraint to launch, though, as Atlantis enjoyed a countdown virtually free of technical issues. “The vehicle is in fantastic shape,” Mike Moses, chair of the Mission Management Team, said at Wednesday’s pre-launch briefing. Shuttle managers publicly hoped that they would be able to press ahead on Friday and find a break in the weather that would allow for an on-time launch, noting that in the past weather forecasts have been even more pessimistic—up to a 90 percent chance of unacceptable conditions—and yet the shuttle still launched. “I know of only one way to make it a 100 percent no-go forecast, and that is not to put propellant into the tank,” Moses said.

When asked if the prospect of a lengthy scrub was perhaps welcome—a little reprieve before the shuttle program’s end—Moses disagreed. “There’s no feeling that a scrub is a good thing.”

The plan going into Friday was to continue the countdown as far as they could until either weather conditions made it clear a launch wasn’t possible or a technical problem arose. “I think when we have opportunity, we’re going to take it,” test director Jeff Spaulding said Thursday. Several other factors complicated that decision-making, though. NASA only had access to the Eastern Range through Sunday; after that, a Delta 4 rocket carrying a new GPS satellite had priority through Friday. In addition, the large crowds expected to view the launch—pre-launch predictions ranged as high as one million people—created concerns that launch crews would not be able to get home after a scrub in time to turn around for a launch the next day.

That raised questions about whether NASA might ask the Air Force for an extra day or two, pushing back the Delta launch, or simply wait until after the Delta flew before trying again. Moses suggested that he would be willing to wait for the Delta if weather kept the shuttle on the ground. “At the end of the day, ultimately, there is no harm in not launching in front of this Delta. If we have to go to the other side of it, we'll go to the other side of it,” he said. However, when asked if the prospect of a lengthy scrub was perhaps welcome—a little reprieve before the shuttle program’s end—he disagreed. “There’s no feeling that a scrub is a good thing.”

In the early morning hours Friday, after shuttle managers decided to go ahead with loading liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants into the shuttle’s external tank, the conventional wisdom was that NASA would press ahead with the launch as long as they could, then scrub and try again Sunday, when the weather was forecast to be better and also allowing plenty of time for shuttle workers to make their way home in the traffic and return for the next launch attempt. Then came a complicating factor: an updated forecast early Friday showed weather improving for Saturday, but getting worse for Sunday. Would NASA scrub the launch early in order to preserve a launch attempt Saturday?

But a funny thing happened: the weather on Friday morning was actually getting better. The torrential rains of Thursday had not returned, and skies showed some breaks in the clouds, and even a bit of sun. As the morning progressed, and the countdown continued, forecasters called the weather “dynamic”—sometimes green, or go, for launch, and sometimes red. Yet there was a growing sense of optimism, among shuttle officials and observers alike, in the final hours before the scheduled launch that the weather would hold.

In the final poll near the end of the T-9 minute hold, only one weather-related issue remained: a small disturbance near the Shuttle Landing Facility that could develop into a storm cell that could pose a hazard to the shuttle in the unlikely event it would have to perform a return to launch site (RTLS) abort. Managers decided that, while that weather was no-go by the rules, they would issue a waiver. Afterwards, they explained that the storm, had it developed, would have affected only one end of the runway, and the shuttle could have approached from either end in an RTLS abort. That information, said Moses in the post-launch briefing, “allowed us to go beyond the printed rule and take that extra exception at the end and go ahead and launch today.” And, he added, as it turned out no storm developed in the area during launch after all.

“Any time we get to T-0 and get to launch safely is good by me,” said Leinbach.

With the weather constraints overcome, spectators turned their gaze to Pad 39A as the final minutes in the final shuttle countdown ticked down—only to suddenly stop at T-31 seconds, the point at which the shuttle’s computers take over the countdown. For the many hundreds at the press site, out of range of loudspeakers broadcasting the countdown, the hold was mystifying and worrying: with a launch window of only a few minutes, any hold might well lead to a scrub for the day. After about two and a half minutes, though, the countdown resumed, all the way to T-0 and a successful liftoff.

Moses and shuttle launch director Mike Linebach explained in the post-launch briefing that the hold was triggered when computers received an indication that the gaseous oxygen arm that extends from the gantry to the top of the external tank had not fully retracted. They visually verified that the arm was in place and that there was no danger of it swinging out after launch, and then gave the go-ahead to proceed, launching with just under a minute remaining in the window. Leinbach said they had a procedure in place to deal with that issue. “We put the procedure together figuring if we do that, we’ll never get that failure,” he said. “Well, of course we got the failure.”

Leinbach added that the weather and technical challenges the team faced leading up to the launch didn’t necessarily make getting the shuttle off any more satisfying. “Any time we get to T-0 and get to launch safely is good by me.”

Shuttle launch
The shuttle Atlantis lifts off Friday on STS-135, the final mission of the Space Shuttle era. (credit: J. Foust)

A grand finale?

With hundreds of thousands of people coming to see the final shuttle launch, filling up hotels as far away as Orlando and Daytona Beach, vendors did brisk business selling t-shirts and other merchandise commemorating the flight. Many of those items featured, in addition to the shuttle’s name and mission logo, the phrase, “The Grand Finale.”

Yet the launch did not have the feel of a grand finale, a final big celebration of the shuttle program and its 30 years of service. Most of the NASA-sponsored media events at the space center that didn’t directly focus on the mission itself instead looked ahead to both robotic missions as well as commercial crew development and NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). Moreover, NASA administrator Charles Bolden stayed away from those events, appearing only at a signing ceremony for a Space Act Agreement between KSC and Sierra Nevada Corporation, one of the four second-round Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) awardees.

And despite the historic nature of the launch, the event turned out surprisingly few A-list VIPs. Among politicians, just over a dozen members of Congress attended, as well as the governor and lieutenant governor of Florida, according to a list distributed by NASA. President Obama, who came to KSC for the scrubbed STS-134 launch attempt in late April, did not return for the final mission; the administration was instead represented by Attorney General Eric Holder, outgoing Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, and science advisor John Holdren, plus several other officials. And the “entertainment industry” attendees read like the lineup for the next season of Celebrity Apprentice: reporter Geraldo Rivera, actor Kevin Sorbo (of “Hercules” fame), retired NFL coach Joe Gibbs, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak were among the grab bag of personalities at the launch.

The launch did not have the feel of a grand finale, a final big celebration of the shuttle program and its 30 years of service.

While the finale didn’t seem so grand, emotions were clearly running high for the launch. If the shuttle program is coming to an end—dying, if you will—people are working through several stages of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief in parallel. While that initial stage, denial, has since passed, the launch saw a mix of anger and denial. Anger at NASA, the current administration, the previous administration, Congress, or just Washington in general—the default root of all problems—for ending the shuttle program without a detailed new plan in place (although NASA would argue, and attempted to do so during the run-up to the launch, that there was such a plan in place, with both CCDev and SLS/MPCV allowing for human access to LEO and exploration beyond Earth orbit, respectively.) And there was plenty of depression as well, about both the impact the end of the shuttle program will have on the local economy and broader concerns about loss of national prestige.

Not surprisingly, these strong emotions made their way to hyperbolic statements, claims that the launch of Atlantis marked the end of NASA’s human spaceflight program (ignoring not just CCDev and SLS/MPCV but also NASA’s continued presence on the ISS) or even of the space program itself (ignoring all the other robotic space missions the agency is undertaking.) One particularly egregious example was a press release issued by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) a few hours after launch, claiming that the end of the shuttle program “the end to America’s ability to access space for the foreseeable future.” That ignores the unmanned rockets—Atlas, Delta, Falcon, and so on—that launch satellites for government and commercial customers, an omission that is particularly ironic since Posey’s district includes Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, where many of those rockets launch from. (Later in the press release it’s clear he’s talking about human spaceflight, but a simple qualifier in his statement’s title and opening paragraph could have eliminated any confusion.)

“To me it looked like it was lifting off in slow motion,” Moses said. “It was very moving, it was very beautiful.”

There’s also been a little bit of bargaining as well: a week before the launch, the odd couple of Chris Kraft, the retired director the Johnson Space Center, and Scott Spencer, a Delaware-based transportation consultant, released an open letter to NASA, calling on a postponement of the STS-135 launch and “emergency legislation” by Congress to stop NASA from preparing the orbiters for retirement, all in an effort to keep the program alive at a limited level until a replacement enters service. Despite having several notable cosigners, including Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, Gene Cernan, and Bob Crippen, neither NASA nor Congress acted on the letter.

Acceptance, that final stage of grief, has also been hard to come by. A few noted that, after 30 years of service, and given the shuttle’s failure to meet the overly ambitious goals set for it back in the 1970s, now was time to close out the program and look ahead, as tough as it might be. “It is both joyful to see such an expensive, unsafe program end and tragic to see such an accomplished, ground-breaking program end,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), one of the leading advocates for commercial human spaceflight in Congress, said in an op-ed in the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill the day of the launch.

The deep emotions associated with the shuttle program’s end were also evident among the NASA officials managing the program. In the post-launch press conference, an affair where reporters typically ask technical questions about often-arcane aspects of the launch, the questions this time around focused much more on how managers felt about witnessing the final launch.

“To me it looked like it was lifting off in slow motion,” Moses said. “It was very moving, it was very beautiful.”

Leinbach described standing with another launch controller, watching the plume from the launch slowing drifting to the north long after the shuttle punched through the cloud deck and disappeared from view. “We put our arms around each other and looked at it and said, ‘We will never see that again.’”