Friday morning marked a sad and permanent milestone in the ongoing decommissioning of the space shuttles at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with the closing of the payload bay doors and the final power-down of Discovery.
Earlier this week Walter “Buddy” McKenzie, an Orbiter Operations Manager with United Space Alliance, took us on a tour of Discovery and Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF). He considers today to be Discovery’s final day, saying, “It’s like a eulogy. Once we power her down, you’ve drained the life out of her.” Then he became quiet for a moment, overcome with the emotion of that statement.
Every employee we encountered at Kennedy Space Center throughout the week became overwhelmed with emotion and pride when discussing the end of the shuttle program and their role in making history as part of this team. It was not about the all-too-present reality of possibly losing their jobs, but rather sheer sadness at seeing these amazing ships, each with their own personalities, no longer having life left in them.
One employee servicing a crane above the then open cargo bay of Discovery said, “Astronauts crawled through that airlock and into this bay, and this was their work area in space. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.” He paused for a moment and added quietly, “These are our babies, it’s been an honor to work on them.”
On December 16, the massive payload bay doors closed over an empty cargo hold that once held the Hubble Space Telescope on its ride to space. To latch and secure the doors completely, Discovery had to be powered up, a process far more complicated than plugging her in or turning a key. The shuttle’s power comes from fuel cells, and as computers come online, an intricate system of radiators cools the electronics just as they would in space. In the forward crew module, a circulating water system does the work. Elsewhere and away from the astronauts, the more hazardous but efficient freon is used. When powered down, those and all other remaining liquids are drained from her systems.
There was a time not long ago that space shuttle orbiters were never left alone. A dedicated crew of hundreds in their white “bunny suit” clean-room uniforms worked around the clock in three shifts processing the spacecraft from its previous journey and preparing it for another payload of cargo and astronauts.
With the landing of Atlantis on STS-135 in July, the shuttle program ended. Current preparations are no longer for spaceflight but only to ready the orbiters for display at a select few museums around the country. Discovery, the oldest of the three remaining orbiters, is destined for the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy National Air and Space Museum in a Washington, D.C., suburb, where she will be seen by millions of visitors in hopes that a few are inspired to invent the future generations of manned space flight.
The Smithsonian has decided to display Discovery sitting on the floor of the hanger as if she had just returned from space, stopped on the runway and cooling from the massive heat that reentry generates. This positioning means her massive payload bay doors are closed, likely never to be opened again. The doors are not engineered to withstand gravity, only functioning normally in the zero gravity of space, where their carbon fiber construction doesn’t require extensive support to operate.
Only a small media presence was expected to document the quiet end of an era in Orbiter Processing Facility-1. No protective suits and masks are required these days—just booties on your shoes to keep dirt and dust under control. At the three o’clock shift change, when the afternoon crew would have arrived during the shuttles’ working days, no one comes. They were laid off months ago. Discovery will wait quietly at Kennedy Space Center for the upcoming trip to the Smithsonian and an eternity in posterity.
– Jon Brack and Susan Poulton