In 2010, the windows of Kennedy Space Center will no longer rattle with the sound of space shuttles on their way to orbit. The launch pads will fall silent until around 2015 – then a new era will begin.
In theory, the process would go something like this: after the shuttle lifts the last segment of the International Space Station into orbit and completes the last Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, the last three shuttles – Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour – will be retired.
Five years after their retirement, NASA plans to launch its first newly designed spacecraft in decades, Orion. This change presents an opportunity that Jose Porteiro, an engineering professor at USF, said, “should not be passed up.”
Porteiro worked as a NASA contractor at Texas A & M University on shuttle-related projects and has been with USF’s engineering program since 1984.
“If a student landed a job at NASA, they would be paid to do what others would pay to do,” he said. He said he advises students to seek a solid degree and, above all, to be patient.
Orion is completely unlike the shuttle. It is not a sleek space-plane. Rather, it is a throwback to the capsules of the Apollo program. The craft will be perched atop the rocket, whereas the shuttle is slung alongside it. This is an added safety feature for Orion, as falling debris from the external tank doomed the shuttle Columbia in February 2003.
“Orion is a much safer design than the shuttle, as long as there aren’t any cut corners,” said Porteiro.
Though the Orion and its counterpart, the Altair lunar lander, have clearly defined differences from the shuttle, the mechanisms that lift them into oribit are similar. For Orion, the rust-colored external fuel tank and one solid rocket booster (SRB) – as opposed to the shuttle’s two – will be the platform of choice that sends the Orion capsule into orbit. This gives the vehicle a thin appearance, according to safesimplesoon.com.
The lander, Altair, will be sent skyward by a system similar to what launches the shuttles. The lander will be in its casing atop the orange external tank and there will be two SRBs attached to either side of the tank. A difference from the shuttle will be five RS-68 rocket engines attached to the base of the external tank. According to safesimplesoon.com, the images of the new spacecraft, however, belie problems the program has suffered. The Ares I launch system consisting primarily of a modified SRB has been a cause for concern lately because of the shaking induced by heated gases, according to the Associated Press.
America will lose the ability to launch astronauts into space for a span of five years, between the last shuttle launch in 2010 and the first Orion flight scheduled for 2015.
This hiatus last happened in the 1970s, between the Apollo and shuttle programs. Cutbacks in the program’s budget caused NASA to push back the first launch of Orion, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
NASA launched the first American into space in 1961 and eight years later, they landed a man on the moon, according to nasa.gov. In those eight years, NASA designed, tested and flew four new spacecrafts. From 1981 to present, NASA designed, tested and flew just one – the shuttle.
Some feel that the Orion spacecraft has the potential to push America’s boundaries out into the solar system once again, increasing awareness and overall knowledge of the universe beyond the planet Earth.
“Space exploration is a very worthy cause that opens windows into our understanding of the solar system.” Porteiro said.
Jason Rhian is a senior majoring in Mass Communications and has interned with NASA.