MILLEDGEVILLE — The end of the Space Shuttle era was an economic disaster for many employees at Kennedy Space Center. The considerable workforce needed to maintain and refurbish the orbiters, boosters, parachutes and everything else connected to the program was a busy bunch — every shuttle turnaround required shits that worked around the clock.
Many workers got laid off during the last few flights, and at the end it was lights out for many more. If you’re a space shuttle technician you’re probably a highly-trained individual, and you’d be able to work on just about anything, but what if you’ve lived and worked in Florida pretty much all your life, what are you supposed to do? Uproot the family and move somewhere else — that’s the name of the game.
A few lucky ones, though, got to stay on and switch over to the Orion crew capsule. The first space-going unit is being built by Lockheed Martin right now, and when it gets transferred to KSC a small army will start working on it round the clock, installing critical components to ready the capsule for its maiden flight in late 2013 or early 2014.
With the ever-shrinking budgets available, thriftiness is the name of the game. So this first capsule will not get to move on to a much-deserved quiet museum job somewhere —it will be reused for an abort test scenario.
Just like the crew capsules of the old Apollo moon rockets Orion will have a special escape system — a set of small but very powerful rockets attached to the top of the spacecraft. If anything goes wrong with the large rocket during the launch the capsule will disconnect from its body and the escape boosters will pull it to safety.
This is exactly the system that would have saved the crew of the Challenger. When explosive decompression ripped the shuttle’s external tank apart the crew had no choice but go down with the orbiter. Early designs of the orbiter considered a pull-apart section of the spacecraft, where the crew compartment could have been separated from the rest of the stack and boosted to safety. Alas, it was determined to be prohibitively expensive, and so the idea was never pursued. Still — how do you put a price on a human life?
The Apollo program never needed to use the escape system, although there were moments when they came close, and all the astronauts were perfectly trained for the possibility. Everybody hoped that it would never come to pass, because in order to escape an exploding rocket you have to go pretty fast yourself. Such acceleration would almost certainly lead to crushing g-forces and subsequent blackout for the crew. But they would be alive and able to recover.
In its looks and design the Orion capsule is a spitting image of the Apollo era crafts — a cone-shaped structure atop a large booster. However on the inside it will be so much more sophisticated. Still, it’s hard to deny the innovation the Apollo program brought about. Electronic miniaturization is a direct result of it, and we’ve all benefitted from it.
So it’s nice to know that some of the people who took such good care of the shuttle are able to carry on with Orion. After all, a lot of prestige rides on this program.
And we really need to resume human spaceflight again in the US.
Learn more about the Orion spacecraft at http://www.nasa.gov/orion/
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org