As the end of the shuttle program looms near, various means of sending the program out in style are occurring at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. Though I have not had the opportunity to work Shuttle, I have lived within a stone's throw (OK, within about 40 miles) of launch complex 39 for about 16 years. So, I have been taking the opportunity to bid farewell when I can.
Most recently, I took a floor-level tour of the Orbiter Processing Facility 1, which is the current home to the Atlantis Orbiter. According to SpaceflightNow, Shuttle Discovery is scheduled for November 1 and Shuttle Endeavour is slated for February 26th. Atlantis is currently only being prepared to "rescue" the Endeavour crew should trouble befall that orbiter during its mission. There has been lobbying and talk of launching Atlantis regardless, but the outcome of this debate remains to be seen.
Anyway, the tour was a great chance to walk under the 39,000 unique tiles which cover the belly of the orbiter (see my picture above). I learned some new and interesting facts which I will regurgitate here for the enjoyment and marvel of all….
For example, who knew that it takes about 200 person-hours to inspect, repair, and/or replace a SINGLE TILE! Well, I'm sure plenty of people do know that, but I found that impressive. The leading edge of the wings and nose are made of RCC, or "re-enforced carbon carbon" for the less educated such as myself. This material is much more resistant to the intense heat which is seen at these locations, but is also more brittle. This makes the leading edge of the wings more susceptible to damage and was a major factor in the loss of Columbia in 2003.
Some other interesting facts…
Many may know that the tires on the orbiter's landing gear are only used one time. Something I didn't know was that the landing gear is fitted with "roll-around tires" which are used during processing. Also interesting to me is the fact that the landing gear descends from front to back, unlike on commercial airplanes which have the landing gear rotate from the back to the front. The configuration on the orbiter would allow the aerodynamic forces (basically, the wind) to assist in pushing the landing gear down into position should there be some sort of malfunction. The landing gear is critical because, again unlike an airplane, the orbiter cannot pull back up and fly around for a while and try to fix the landing gear. Basically, when it makes it's second de-orbit burn (i.e. fires it's thrusters to take it out of orbit), it is coming down with or without landing gear.
I'm always intrigued by the intricate details of the shuttle program. Whatever your thoughts are on the closing of this chapter of human spaceflight, it is undeniable that NASA's shuttle program has stretched the limits of what is possible. I hope that our lawmakers and fellow citizens can be inspired by the accomplishments of the US and its partners in near-earth orbit, and can see the immense potential for future missions out of the grasp of Earth's gravity.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go put on my commemorative Space Shuttle shirt and dream about hitching a ride to the moon on the next human-rated US space vehicle!!!