UCL Astronomy weekend – lectures

The Space Shuttle: Final Mission & Legacy
Dr Kevin Fong
University College London

His talk started with his background, he did an astrophysics degree then medical degree, then worked with NASA after having applied to the Johnson Space Centre for funding.  This lecture was to cover the extra footage he would have liked to have included which the BBC thought too much.

{curly brackets contain slide descriptions} 
{Random guy on beach with big tshirt with this logo on it}

 This picture summed up the spirit of the area in the week preceeding launch, a big wonderful nerd gathering.

{STS-135 crew on runway}

Explained STS-135 only carried 4 crew as they had to have space to bring
trash down. Taking extra 3 people would have meant extra food, life
support, all extra weight, sending only 4 meant they could have more
upmass. They also had to revise emergency procedures. This wasn’t
originally going to be a shuttle mission, it was added.
Explained the provisional Soyuz rescue plan, and how Doug knew he would
have had to spend a year on the space station under the contingency
plans and was a little apprehensive.

“The idea that shuttle is re-usable is overrated”.

 {outside VAB}

First thing you need is a massive building. Condensation forms in the
roof and clouds and rain falls. Nothing around gives you perspective of
the building in this photo. The tours will tell you you can drive a bus
up the stripes on the flag. As you drive towards the east gate it never
gets closer as you drive at it, it appears in the horizon from such a
long distance away but you drive miles without it getting bigger.
“Most amazing thing is – someone in 1960s thought up this biggest
building ever – just one of those things that needed doing to get people
into space”.

{inside VAB – from high up, looking down on crane which has just raised Atlantis vertical}

You can get very high up in the VAB, and there are just walkways into
empty space, the director said “just walk over there” and I kept
wondering if I was about to fall off.
After each flight, shuttle comes back dead to the OPF, where it is
processed before stacking in the VAB.

{crushed rocks from crawlerway}

The crawler used to roll the stack to the pad is a “ridiculous piece of
engineering”, it has a top speed of 1mph but doesn’t use it as it would
be ridiculously fuel ineffcient. It uses 70 gallons per metre. The tyres
alone weigh 500 metric tonnes. Quoted from some movie, about how most
people would bring a mobile launch platform to the shuttle/vehicle, not
the other way around, considering the weight of a stacked shuttle.
The rocks used are special in that they crush in a certain way and don’t
spark, they’re not from cocoa beach, they are shipped in from just two
places in the USA.

{manual labelled “malfunction procedures”}

Whilst shuttle is being prepared, the crew trains for all possible what ifs and sims at mission control.

{room with SIM at mission control}

“Watching the organisational orchestration of the sims was amazing”,
Richard Jones was heading mission control for an abort scenario where
they had lost two main engines – needed a TAL (Transoceanic Abort
Landing) as they didn’t have enough fuel to get to orbit or complete a
circuit of the earth.

{world map showing area shaded where they had enough fuel to get to, to land}

“Its going to end up in err well Bristol!”. Explanation of Zaragoza
being the usually favoured European site for such a scenario. Explained
weather has to be good at ALL the abort sites for launch. Takes about 40
minutes to get to Europe, barely time to tell abort site its coming,
luckily never used. Described RTLS scenario – “noones entirely sure that
it would have worked”. There was only ever one abort to orbit, which
didn’t affect the mission, in 135 flights.

{Rex smiling in spacesuit in neutral Buoyancy pool}

This is Rex in the pool practicing space walks. None were planned on the
mission but in case of contingency, he practiced a lot of space walks
for 6 hours at a time. “I don’t know why he’s smiling, those suits are
horribly uncomfortable. I’ve been in one. It feels like a fibreglass
tshirt. You look up inside it and think you don’t want to put it on,
someone encourages you, you dislocate your shoulders to get in and then
wonder how you will get out”.

{shuttle training aircraft}

“The shuttle training aircraft may not look like much, but its essential
to rehearsing the landing. Shuttle is a rubbish aircraft, at low
altitude its like flying with a door open. The short wing design is for
For the STA they had to “try to make an aircraft fly as badly as
shuttle. They do this by putting the gears down, engines into reverse at
28,000 feet, and then turn into a heavy alignment cone”. Then they have to try to turn enough of an angle to land
it straight.
He was lucky enough to go on it, “it was, quite, a ride”. One journalist
didn’t get out of his seat the whole flight, saying he was “too young
to die”. Once they were up they were allowed to walk about/do anything
they wanted, “once you’re past the NASA red tape they don’t give a
monkeys”. It was very steep, he was standing right up against a glass
door, which if it wasn’t there, he could have fallen straight into the
cock pit. “That would be bad, wouldn’t it?!”. Quoted some safety guy who
told them about the air step release “don’t pull on that”.
Landings are incredible to watch – 7 times as fast as a conventional
plane, flares at the last moment. Chris Ferguson practiced around 1400
approaches, but only gets one try on the day.

{Kevin by pad 39A after retract, in red raincoat}

“The weather is rubbish in Florida. Launches are held hostage to the
weather. The BBC had scheduled the prog to air 2 days after landing. I
had to explain that it might not launch on time and might not land on
time. We didn’t have much spare time, the prog may not have been made if
it had been delayed.”

{black/white picture of lightning hitting pad before launching STS-127}

“One difficult decision, that I wasn’t aware of at the time”, related to
the fact you can only fuel a tank 6 times, due to the stresses of
contraction/expansion of the extreme temperatures on the tanks
structure. One had already been done as a test, so once they decided to
tank, they really wanted to launch. If they fuelled 6 times without
launching, there were no more tanks and would be no more mission.
Despite “waves of tropical storms forecast” people there seemed
relatively relaxed, “have launched in worse conditions”.

{night shot, 3am arriving at press site on launch day}
Couldn’t quite imagine anyone would get it off the ground. He’s seen 3
launches and all went on time, but thats not most peoples experience.

{astronauts walk-out to astrovan}
“This is the famous walkout. They smile and wave walking out to the
astrovan”. [I missed the numbers he gave on total staff employed at JSC
and KSC], he mentioned a huge fraction were getting laid off in the
weeks surrounding the final launch.
“None of them wanted to do that walk more than once, it was like death row, walking to gallows”.
{overhead camera view of press site}
press site

They’d missed the time when they were suppose to request their
press-pitch, so ended up as the end pitch where the water makes a right
angle, behind some bushes. The main clock and PA system were in the top
left of this photo so they couldn’t hear from where they were. Data, 3G
etc were useless 2 hours before launch, so “embarassingly, we had to
rely on the guys next to us, who had an audio feed”. His director
Lawrence was laid back, saying theres 45 minutes to launch, Kevin double
checked and found Lawrence’s watch was slow! Explained the 10 minute
launch window limitation.
Count came down to 31 seconds and held. He knew they had about 2 minutes
to fix it. He’d never known a hold at 31 sec, he thought he was going
to have to think of something clever to say, and there probably wouldn’t
be a program at all. He said he had seen some footage of everyone in
launch control screaming to move the camera in the right direction(?),
and then they verified it, and it launched.
He talked to Piers Sellers immediately after launch, who “couldn’t
believe it went that day, noone could”. Kevin said “They didn’t break
any rules but they were bloody close”. Kevin’s director wanted him to
talk about how loud and how bright the launch was – Kevin didn’t really
remember this as he apparently had category 4 sunglasses and earplugs
previously, but decided it was time to ruin his sight and hearing for
the final launch.

{shuttle overhead having launched}

You know academically how big, how heavy it is, you have an expectation
of how fast, but it still sprints away from the pad. Can’t quite
understand the speed as you have no conception. 2000 tonnes from
0-17,000mph in 8 minutes. Saturn V’s weren’t so fast because they had
liquid fuel and bigger and heavier.

{Kevin with smoke plume}


ISS is legacy of shuttle – not well understood by people.


We now rely on the Soyuz to get to the ISS.

{Atlantis landing in the dark, from behind, with blue contrails}

Atlantis came down in the dark so landing was slightly anti-climatic. This was a great photo of the blue contrails.

“That was STS-135 and the last shuttle mission. Someone has uploaded the
BBC documentary illegally on youtube, its hard to find but its there”.

He pitched the idea for the prog to about 20 different organisations,
trying to fight to make them understand shuttle wasn’t just 4 missions
(first, last, challenger, columbia). “The tragedies are burned into the
memories of all the workers but it is not what defines them. Tens of
thousands of people were defined by 135 missions”.

{Apollo slide}

Hilarious 60 second summary of Apollo, and the crazy goal set in 1962
which was achieved seven years later. End of it: “Going to land on the
moon with 2 people, whilst leaving one to circle the moon. Then fly back
up from the moon, dock further away from earth than anything has
travelled except maybe alien kidnap victims, fly back at 25,000 mph,
hope they don’t incinerate on re-entry, land in the ocean, and hope our
armed forces get to them before the Russians.”

{Astronaut on the moon}

“Then, in 1969, in a studio in Hollywood, I mean, on the moon, they did
it”. Huge feat of accomplishment, impressive anyone would go after a
goal like that.

Cited people in the pub, who would make comments like “shuttle, well,
obviously that was a major design flaw”, because they read popular media
and don’t understand. There were flaws in design but it was mainly due
to the huge requirements list which was drawn up in the 1970s. Shuttle
needed to be:
– reusable
– have a huge payload bay
– huge lift capacity
– 7 astronauts on board
– launch, go to orbit, be a science lab for 6 days
– needs to re-enter atmosphere at supersonic velocity
– capability to steer at Mach 5
– reconfigure to act as a glider for landing
– everyone must live
We probably won’t see anything as complicated again, at least not an orbital vehicle.

{Enterprise in 1970s}

This picture shows NASA delivering the future on the back of a flat bed
truck. No-one had seen anything like it before, though Moonraker had
come out 2 years previously.

{Star trek cast by Enterprise}


 The future of space flight – multi-national crews wearing flares.

{Enterprise gliding on test flight}

How they didn’t kill anyone in testing was amazing. People that don’t
know say shuttle is dangerous, killing 14 people. Thing is, its 2 crews.
You don’t get a situation where a couple die and a couple live. If
there is an engineering failure, the crew is lost. Soyuz has had two
catastrophic failues, one decompression, and one failed parachute. Less
people in number terms, but same number of engineering errors, over less
flights. Could argue that shuttle is the safest vehicle ever built.
Soyuz is reliable, but it is not comparable to shuttle.

{Shuttle docked to Mir}

Soyuz is a single purpose vehicle, so might be safer because single purpose, just a capsule to transfer people.

After Challenger in 1986, 110 flights afterwards were all safe, and they
do believe they can safely use SRBs on human rated vehicles.

Shuttle will be remembered for USA & Russian co-operation.

ISS – not perfect, massive cost overruns, never achieved full 7 crew
scientific capacity. Biggest multi-national engineering feat.

“Scientific record from ISS is decent but not enough to justify it”. The
real legacy of shuttle and ISS is multi-national co-operation. No
single nation is going to be able to easily explore further in space,
not even China. Conglomerate of 16+ nations out of recession in the
future may be possible.

Further legacy of ISS – spacewalks – 116 were done to build the station,
very dangerous. They had “the wall”, a graph of number of walks over
the shuttle years, which increased hugely as the ISS started being
built. The risk assessments said they expected to lose one astronaut on a
spacewalk, incredible that they didn’t.

{Constellation capsule upside down}

“This is an iconic slide.” The Constellation capsule test was rushed
forward, to try to prevent it being cancelled. The parachute test failed
– the main parachutes worked out but the programming chute failed,
which was needed to pull it into the right trajectory. People in
Washington DC took one look at this and cancelled the Constellation

 {Virgin Galactic}

“This is not space exploration, its suborbital.” You only need Mach 2.5.
For orbit you need Mach 25, which means scaling up the energy required
by the square of the difference – creating a whole different set of
engineering problems. “Disingenous to compare with shuttle” as so
frequently done in the popular media.

{Nerdy picture of Elon Musk}

“He’s so rich hes had all bad photos of him removed from the internet,
but I found this one. He made claims such as he’s
sure he can build better rockets than NASA in his garage – and he did –
but his garage is a little bit better than yours and mine.”
He didn’t do anything clever – he took existing knowledge from NASA and
upscaled what was already known. Operating along the “Keep it simple,
stupid” (KISS) line. Doesn’t allow you to innovate but can allow him to
get there.

Russians will buy up the ISS and patch it up for years.

What NASA should be doing is continuing to serve up the future, like the shuttle on the back of a truck in the 1970s.



Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket. This would cut down
the 6-9 month one way journey time to Mars, to one month. Not ballistic –
thrust control. Franklin had a model, hooked into normal electricity
supply. To scale up, you would need nuclear fusion. “Its a power
problem, but we’ll get there. You laugh, but I think we can get there,
its only 2011, the century is young”.
On the boundary between science fiction and science fact. Back then you
would never have imagined what has happened in the last 50 years, let
alone the fact that we went to the moon.

Quoted Ed Mitchell: “When I was five, my father did [something] which I
thought was amazing. My son was five when I walked on the moon, and
didn’t think it was a big deal.”

Elon Musk believes he can make space flight cheap and succeed in his
goals. However we feel about it, there has to be commercial input with
space. “We have to hope Elon Musk is right, because if he is, it
changes things forever.”

[End of talk, start of Q&A.]

He’d love to make a sequel program with all his spare footage, he’d also
like to make a prog about SpaceX.
He wonders if we are at a turning point in history, where we might fall
back to earth forever. History will look back and say what point was
there in going to the moon.

Elon Musk is a “much better showman”. Orbital sciences have good
pedigree but aren’t like Musk. There is a big difference between
predicted failure rate and actual failure rate for rockets – need to
prove Falcon reliable. One successful test doesn’t prove greatness, one
failure doesn’t prove disaster.

The role of an organisation like NASA is to “explore” and do the things
that the commercial sector can’t see any point/benefit/commercial gain

He was part of a 9 month review of the UK’s position on manned space
flight [UK do not fund anything for manned space flight], with large
hadron collider and royal astronomical society people. The others
started with the view that human spaceflight was pointless, but changed
their minds by end of the nine months. When asked how LHC made their
case to government for funding, they said “nuclear war is everything,
knowledge of particle physics is king”. RAS people justified a trip to
Antarctica through “the Falkland Islands being key, got to look after
them” with research plans. Have to be able to cure cancer, thats the
way the treasury works for funding.

Greatest hope is that the space program is still a massive jobs program in America – then there is also China and India.

No single justification for shuttle, nothing you can print as a quip on a t-shirt.

UK spend only 300,000 from government on space, despite UK having a space industry worth over £1bn.