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Space Shuttle Discovery Powers Down

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.”

 

Employees service the lifts above space shuttle Discovery's cargo bay in the Orbiter Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center. Photo Credit: Jon Brack

 

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.

 

Photo Credit: NASA

 

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

Comments

  1. Discovery Powers Down « The HabitableZone
    December 20, 2011, 1:06 am

    [...] Discovery Powers Down December 19, 2011 10:06 pm by RobVG Here Control PanelLog [...]

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  3. Paul
    December 19, 2011, 4:51 pm

    @Don

    Your content-free insult shows you don’t really have a clue to what the shuttle program cost the country, or what could have been achieved with alternate development paths.

    It was known from the 1960s how to make expendable launchers much less expensive, by optimizing the vehicles for cost rather than performance. The shuttle never came anywhere close to the economic potential of these simpler vehicles. Now, four decades later, Space X is showing how well that approach works. We could have launched far more into space, at much lower cost, had the complex and expensive shuttle millstone not been weighing down NASA.

    Ultimately, Don, it’s people like YOU we have to blame for the lack of progress in the past thirty years. You’ve been unable to think for yourself, but have just acted as a cheerleader for a fundamentally dysfunctional and dead end program. Doesn’t it ever both you how little was actually accomplished, or how the grand promises of what the shuttle would do just evaporated?

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  7. mit
    canada
    December 19, 2011, 8:20 am

    why they shut down.?
    whats next future technology will be used?
    curious abt it pls answer.

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  11. [...] Space Shuttle Discovery Powers DownNational GeographicFriday 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” …NASA shuts doors, pulls plug on shuttle DiscoverycollectSPACE.comDiscovery's historic cargo bay goes darkSpaceflight NowJSC, Texas A&M Mark Move of Space Shuttle Motion SimulatorSacramento BeeFlorida Today -Hindustan Timesall 37 news articles » [...]

  12. BARKLEY
    OUT THERE
    December 19, 2011, 12:23 am

    hay, sickpear, ya ever hear of einstein?

    ftl cannot exist because objects approaching the speed of lite contract in lenght to zero and their mass becomes infinite…

  13. kt
    lalaland
    December 18, 2011, 10:38 pm

    Er.. Chester…. >>>”The SR71 Black Bird plane flies no more, we quit building supersonic transports such as the Concorde, etc…”
    Really? The Concorde? Whee, US of A!!!
    I congratulate your people on having invented something like that. (Of course, those twerps from UK and France think it was theirs and that the US of A was the one cribbing about sonic booms and permissions to fly at supersonic speeds over mainland America. What do they know? Pfft!!).

  14. Neel Gupta
    India
    December 18, 2011, 10:08 pm

    The entire space programme was undoubtedly fabulous, and required sheer genius to conceive and execute it. However, until the problem of empty stomachs and the resultant misery and suffering are wiped off the face of the earth, luxuries like space shuttle obiters will have remain powered down. It’s a question of an enlightened sense of priority.

  15. Chester
    December 18, 2011, 9:23 pm

    I agree with Hank when he said that America and the western world are slipping. The SR71 Black Bird plane flies no more, we quit building supersonic transports such as the Concorde, etc… We’re so caught up in deficit-panic that we forget that the best way forward is to invest in new programs, especially in high-technology. We don’t have an economic crisis, we have a crisis in confidence! The multiplier effect combined with full employment will more than pay down the deficit… It always has, even when we had the largest real-dollar deficit ever, during WWII!! (Yes, triple that of the Depression!) The very same (WWII investment) led to the greatest economic expansion in our history!! Go, space program, go jobs, go courage, and go the great US of A!!

  16. rrusston
    December 18, 2011, 9:09 pm

    I think it’s ridiculous they apparently don’t have an external power connector if they need to power up fuel cells to run the motors to shut the cargo bay doors. It would be easy enough to wire in external power one would think.

    In reality, the Shuttles were expensive white elephants. Think about it: they stayed in service from 1981 to 2011, thirty years. It would have been like using World War II aircraft in the closing days of the Vietnam conflict or Korea era jets in the first Gulf War.

    After Challenger, a new shuttle design incorporating a detatchable crew capsule should have been built. Such a design would have saved the Columbia crew. Many other aspects of Shuttle design were found to be obsolete within the first few launches, but keeping the same old fleet going was politically expedient.

    After each flight, the required rebuilds were so extensive that building a new shuttle would have not been all that much more expensive. The basic structure isn’t the expensive part, it’s the systems and the design and verification involved. That’s also what generates the jobs so it can be considered part of the “stimulus” if one cared to do that.

  17. Hank Williams
    Texas
    December 18, 2011, 7:00 pm

    It’s sad. America and the whole western world are slip sliding away. The SR71 Black Bird spy plane flies no more, “they” quit building the Concorde style passenger jet… feels like we are slipping backwards instead of leaning forward.
    Now we get “Air Buses” — flying cans of Sardines.

  18. ND
    December 18, 2011, 6:53 pm

    J Waggoner,

    What’s wrong with the capsule design? What the benefit of a shuttle? Over other proven human transport systems?

    If a shuttle style ship is designed, I hope it’s dedicated to just human cargo and does not include a large cargo bay. This way the ship can be placed on top of the rocket instead of on the side. The top is the safest place to put humans on a rocket. That was the biggest design flaw of the shuttle.

    I have always been impressed with how something as complex as the shuttle was able to get off the ground and return for 130 some odd missions. It’s probably the coolest space craft ever built. But we would have been better off putting hardware into orbit using a separate system, rather than together with people.

  19. Don
    December 18, 2011, 5:59 pm

    @paul
    “The greatest tragedy of the shuttle program was that it wasn’t terminated years ago, or never funded in the first place.”

    You sir, win stupidest quote of the comments section award. Congratulations on this fine achievement.

  20. BlueFlameCandle
    December 18, 2011, 5:53 pm

    Time to get started on the space elevator. please and thank you.

  21. geek
    December 18, 2011, 5:00 pm

    We would have been better off building a craft and launch system that made sense! Many forget the Shuttle was a terrible compromise from the get go, with NASA not getting the funding it wanted or needed after we successfully landed man on the moon. We were stuck with the Shuttle and then coming up with missions to justify its continuation.

  22. J Waggoner
    Etown, KY
    December 18, 2011, 4:26 pm

    All this design flight stuff is nonsense. Those shuttles were originally designed for a 20 year period at most. Sure if they’d built 8 instead of 4 like originally thought they’d still be fine. The major problem was not the shuttle, it was the SRBs and the ET tank that killed Challenger and Columbia, driven by managers that didn’t want to hear NO when it came to safety. The lack of leadership for NASA still continues. SLS could be killed anytime within the next couple years. If Obama gets reelected I’d say that could happen. He tried to kill SLS this spring, the liberals hate NASA and want to still its budget for manned spaceflight. How about restoring funding for the James Webb telescope, then tell me how great a vision Obama has.

    We could redesign new shuttles right now and the industry would make them capable and much better than what we have, SLS may be a long term goal, but Washington has a way of changing every 2 years, so be prepared.

  23. [...] Space Shuttle Discovery Powers DownNational GeographicFriday 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” …NASA shuts doors, pulls plug on shuttle DiscoverycollectSPACE.comDiscovery's historic cargo bay goes darkSpaceflight NowJSC, Texas A&M Mark Move of Space Shuttle Motion SimulatorSacramento BeeFlorida Today -Hindustan Timesall 37 news articles » [...]

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  25. sam
    San Antonio, TX
    December 18, 2011, 2:01 pm

    I agree with Rob on this, SpaceX and all the other agencies will spark a revolution of spaceflight that will make heads spin, maybe form a new space agency where they can freely share ideas and grow.

  26. [...] Space Shuttle Discovery Powers DownNational GeographicFriday 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” …Discovery powered down after 28 years – NASATruthDiveDiscovery's historic cargo bay goes darkSpaceflight NowJSC, Texas A&M Mark Move of Space Shuttle Motion SimulatorSacramento BeecollectSPACE.com -Florida Today -Hindustan Timesall 36 news articles » [...]

  27. Paul
    December 18, 2011, 12:06 pm

    The shuttle was a monstrously expensive turkey. It utterly failed to achieve the cost reductions that were its reason for existence in the first place. The greatest tragedy of the shuttle program was that it wasn’t terminated years ago, or never funded in the first place.

    Now that it’s gone, private companies using a variety of launch systems are driving down the cost of getting to space. This could have happened decades ago if the shuttle had not been there.

    Maybe the shuttle fans will see the light eventually and get over their aerospace equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. I’m not holding my breath, though.

  28. [...] Space Shuttle Discovery Powers DownNational GeographicFriday 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” …Discovery's historic cargo bay goes darkSpaceflight NowJSC, Texas A&M Mark Move of Space Shuttle Motion SimulatorSacramento BeeNASA shuts doors, pulls plug on shuttle DiscoverycollectSPACE.comFlorida Today -Daily Mail -Hindustan Timesall 34 news articles » [...]

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  31. Rob
    Los Angeles, CA
    December 18, 2011, 12:25 am

    @syncdram, it was President Bush who, in 2004 (well before Obama took office), announced the end of the shuttle program.

    I grew up while the shuttle program was going strong and will miss it greatly. That said, I do not blame Bush for making the courageous decision to end this costly and increasingly dangerous program. The shift of space travel to private enterprise will make for a new revolution we can only imagine.

  32. sibz
    India
    December 18, 2011, 12:11 am

    It is another chapter added to the glorious book of space exploration. only when we empty a cup do we fill it again with something NEW.

  33. Don Lind
    December 17, 2011, 10:57 pm

    SicPereantOmniumMeumInimici – The US Navy still has one sailing ship active: The USS Constitution is still a commissioned US Naval Vessel and they still sail it around. See: http://www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/

    Not saying we should keep a shuttle flying, though. Although its sad to see the US with NO manned spaceflight capability of our own right now.

    @syncdram – Umm… The shuttle program was killed by Bush, back in 2004, not Obama. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_for_Space_Exploration The schedule said the shuttles would stop flying “by 2010″. Obama extended the shuttle program by about a year, but the end still happened. Get your facts straight.

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  36. [...] Space Shuttle Discovery Powers DownNational GeographicFriday 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” …NASA to begin moving shuttle simulator to AMHouston Chronicle (blog)Discovery's historic cargo bay goes darkSpaceflight NowJSC, Texas A&M Mark Move of Space Shuttle Motion SimulatorSacramento BeecollectSPACE.com -Florida Today -Hindustan Timesall 30 news articles » [...]

  37. syncdram
    December 17, 2011, 6:35 pm

    All Obama has done is kill, kill, cut, cut and kill some more. He’s taking our country to a level of distress never seen before. Its time to move on? to where? or what? He has destroyed the american way of life

  38. Yuri
    Russian Federation
    December 17, 2011, 3:36 pm

    The shuttles were extremely cool, but I think the US government has the right plan to outsource orbital flights to private corporations. They can do it cheaper and they can compete amongst themselves, thus spurring continuous innovation.

    It’s a shame that Russia still flies the Soyuz. The old mentality of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” needs to go. When the first US private companies start flying their modern spaceships, the Russian space program will look like it’s frozen in time.

    What the US is doing is absolutely the right way to go. Let NASA concentrate of bigger and better things and open up the Earth’s orbit to everyone else.

  39. David
    Houston
    December 17, 2011, 2:19 pm

    The sad thing is that ending the Shuttle program was done in the name of cost savings, which is a fantasy. It will cost about the same to send astronauts to the ISS using the Russian Soyuz, except now the money will go to the Russian space program, and thousands of American workers that have now lost their jobs. The remaining vehicles had barely reached 1/3 of their life expectancy of 100 flights each. The cost of flying the Shuttle was not in material or expendables – it was all in the salaries of American workers with good jobs in cutting-edge technology. It is an ecomic lose-lose situation, and a technological total surrender.

  40. John Coryat
    United States
    December 17, 2011, 11:19 am

    The end of the Space Shuttle is not a terrible thing nor a mistake. What the sad thing is and also a huge mistake is the gap left between the end of the Space Shuttle and the “next” space transportation system. We’re paying $50 million per seat to the Russians to use their Soyuz, that’s the really sad and terrible thing.

    Our treatment of space in the last decade has been an absolute disgrace and shows a disregard for the future. We should have started funding a replacement for the Space Shuttle ten years ago.

    I hope the private sector is going to come through and replace short sighted political gains with true vision. Otherwise, the first Moon and Mars bases will have Chinese flags. That would be a real shame!

  41. Xudong Gao
    Nanjing,China
    December 17, 2011, 5:38 am

    It’s an ending,it’s also a start!

  42. SicPereantOmniumMeumInimici
    N. Carolina
    December 17, 2011, 1:27 am

    Whoa, whoa, whoa, let’s just breathe for a minute and calm down here. Yeah, I grew up with the STS’s and thought they were cool, but it’s time to move on to the next thing. I’m sure some people were sad when the U.S. Navy decommissioned it’s last sail-powered ship, so we should’ve kept using sailing ships for sentimental reasons? If we keep looking back, we’ll never get our first FTL craft designed and built. To the stars!

  43. [...] Space Shuttle Discovery Powers DownNational GeographicFriday 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” …NASA powers down Discovery for the final timeThe HinduDiscovery's historic cargo bay goes darkSpaceflight NowNASA shuts doors, pulls plug on shuttle DiscoverycollectSPACE.comMarketWatch (press release)all 22 news articles » [...]

  44. Gina
    December 16, 2011, 11:50 pm

    overwhelmingly and utterly sad day that this country has put these missions and explorations to rest.