Steamboat Springs Steamboat astronaut Steve Swanson was camping with his family in the Idaho woods when his iPhone sent him an alert early Thursday morning that shuttle Atlantis had landed, bringing a close to the 30-year space shuttle program.
“Right now, I’m still maybe more in denial,” said Swanson, a 1979 Steamboat Springs High School graduate. “It’s a sad day for the space program. Honestly, I’m not thinking about it that much. I’m on vacation, and I’ll deal with it when I get back.”
The conclusion to the shuttle program’s 135th mission to space signaled perhaps what may prove to be a pause in the United States’ superiority in space. For now though, NASA is left without a vehicle to take its astronauts into space and will have to rely on paid rides on the Russian Soyuz rocket.
“I don’t know how many people even pay attention to the space program anymore, but I think the ones who do, I think it was pretty sad. And the fact that we could be giving up their leadership in space is a big deal,” Swanson said. “It’s tough to be a leader in space when you don’t have a vehicle that gets you into space. Giving that up right now, I think it hurts a little bit because we’ve always been the leader in space. But hopefully we’ll rebound from it and come back strong.”
William Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for Space Operations, told The Associated Press that NASA was close to deciding on a plan under which the commercial rocket company SpaceX would begin to deliver cargo to the space station by the end of this year.
Realistically, he said, the capability of private companies to fly astronauts to the space station won’t be in place until 2015 or 2016.
“Hopefully, within not too long of a time, we’ll have another vehicle, either NASA or commercial,” Swanson said.
Swanson said he hopes the United States will figure out a way to move forward with its space exploration goals, such as landing on Mars.
“There are talks about asteroids,” Swanson said. “There are talks about the moon again.”
Swanson has been on two missions to space, his last being in March 2009 aboard Discovery, when he logged 307 hours in space and completed two spacewalks while working on the international space station. His first mission was on Atlantis in June 2007. That was NASA’s 21st mission to the space station and 118th shuttle mission. Swanson spent 336 hours in space on that mission.
“Going to space and building a station, I’ll never forget that,” Swanson said. “The launch is a fantastic thing. It’s quite a ride — lot of power and acceleration in that vehicle.”
Swanson said the shuttle was and still is a great vehicle capable of launching into space carrying large payloads, orbiting Earth multiple times and landing again like an airplane.
“To do that all, that was a fantastic engineering feat, and to have it work so well as it did, it was a great testament to our people who work on this program,” Swanson said.
It’s estimated thousands of jobs will be lost because of the retirement of the shuttle program, but Swanson gets to keep his for now. Soon, he will start 2 1/2 years of training for a six-month stay on the international space station with a departure planned for early 2014.
“I’m definitely one of the lucky ones,” he said.
It still is tough right now because a lot of people are losing their jobs, Swanson said.
“Besides losing the shuttle itself, we’re losing a lot of expertise and knowledge about space and how to build the systems and work the systems,” he said. “When we let go of all these people who have been doing it for years, that’s going to be a tough thing to keep that knowledge as they go onto the next vehicle.”
Swanson said there were many highlights to the shuttle program, but the ones that stood out were its missions to build the international space station and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.
“The biggest accomplishment was making space flight routine,” said Jimmy Westlake, who teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus.
He said the shuttle missions led to the rewriting of astronomy books and made it possible for Hubble to capture images that led to something “new and marvelous every week.”
Westlake said he was fortunate to be able to watch the shuttle program’s eighth launch when Challenger blasted off into the night sky in August 1983.
“When it lit up, it was like an artificial sun going up,” Westlake said.
The ferocious sound of the launch came a few seconds later to where he was standing a couple miles from the launch site along the Indian River. It startled everyone.
“Thousands of fish jumped out of the water at the same time,” Westlake said. “It was unforgettable.”
— To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com