Boston Astronauts, Scientists Reflect On NASA Shuttle

By Luke Boelitz and Jess Bidgood

Jul. 22, 2011

A videographer records post-landing activities as space shuttle Atlantis is readied to be towed at the Kennedy Space Center. (AP)

BOSTON — Earlier this year, a group of students at Boston University’s engineering school decided to skip a few days of class. They were all members of the BU club Students For The Exploration of Deep Space, and they wanted to make sure they got a chance to see one of the last U.S. Shuttle missions take off.

“There was this sense, ‘Oh no, is NASA not going to do this kind of space research anymore... this is what we were gunning all our lives for and we were getting degrees so we can work there, now what?’” recalled Professor Sheryl Grace, an associate professor of engineering and aeronautics at Boston University. “They took off for Florida.”

The students did get to see one of the final launches of a NASA space shuttle for at least the near future; the program wound to a close this week when the space shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Center early Thursday morning.

Cosmic as it was, the program hit close to home for members of the Boston area’s academic and private aerospace communities. BU and MIT both have aerospace and aeronautics programs; and many of Boston’s research universities have sent microgravity experiments on the shuttle. The shuttle carried other experiments built in Boston, like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer that went up on STS-134, and the Boston area is home to a number of private companies that do aerospace and aeronautic engineering.

“It’s quite a vibrant community around here in the aerospace area and I don’t think we usually recognize that we have such a strong component of aerospace. When it comes to small spacecraft and science missions, this is quite a hotbed of space activity,” said Darryl Sargent.

Sargent is now the vice president of programs for the Cambridge’s Draper Labratories. When he started work there in 1979, he was immediately assigned to a team developing the guidance, navigation and control systems for NASA’s new space shuttle. He spent the next 25 years refining these systems for the specifics of the shuttle’s varied missions.

“I have to say that I’m very sad to see the end of the shuttle program. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to have built the vehicle that can launch like a rocket and land like an airplane,” Sargent said.

Jeff Hoffman is a professor at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He’s a former astronaut himself, having flown for the first time on STS 51-D in 1985 — and then flying four missions after that. In 1993, he performed three of the five space walks needed to repair the optics of the Hubble Space telescope.

Hoffman laments the loss of the versatility of NASA’s space shuttle, but he says that, in some ways, an end to the program is actually a new beginning, both for NASA and for space travel.

“If NASA can launch astronauts to the International Space Station for less money and not have to provide the entire infrastructure, which now costs about a third of its entire budget, that would leave more money for exploration, which is what I would really like to see NASA doing in its human space flight program, and not just run a taxi service back and forth to the International Space Station," Hoffman said. "Leave that to private industry."

NASA has already begun contracting with private companies to begin flights to the ISS. SpaceX hopes to send their first cargo flight up before the end of 2011 and predicts they could be flying manned missions by 2014. Still, the private space flight industry is young, and Hoffman expects lean years ahead while it finds its feet.

Grace, the BU professor, says a new reliance on private industry could actually provide more opportunities for the Boston area’s aerospace scene. “Raytheon still has things going on here, Miter, Lincoln Labs, Draper, we have FAA here, we have Volpe,” Grace said. “I think there are a lot of professionals who do aerospace-related engineering.”

She worries, however, that the absence of such a high-profile public space program could make access to aerospace-related professions feel more elusive — and might reduce student interest in aeronautics. NASA public relations campaigns have historically shown people from all backgrounds getting into space travel.

“If it comes from the commercial side,” Grace said, “I think that not as many kids will be exposed to it and not as many kids will have that feeling, ‘I can do this too.”

Sargent said he's concerned the an American space program could be losing momentum.

“My fear is that the without a very strong NASA contribution to building vehicles the nation will lose interest in space and we’ll begin to lose our edge,” Sargent said. “I’m looking for more leadership from them to define the new crew capsule and define the new heavy lift vehicles so that we can get back to the job of building the next generation of space vehicles.”

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