NASA launches last Space Shuttle

Former NASA astronaut Bernard Harris
Former NASA astronaut Bernard Harris Courtesy NASA

NASA launched its final Space Shuttle mission Friday from Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Atlantis mission marks the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, and a temporary halt to U.S. manned spaceflight. This ends a three-decade program that’s sent more than 300 astronauts into space.

Retired aeronautical engineer Dale Jensen of Lawndale comes off bitter about the end of this era.

“We have the Space Station up there but we have no access to space," said Jensen. "So we can’t even get to the Space Station.”

Jensen’s career in aeronautics spanned half a century, much of it in Downey at the North American Aviation Missile Division. He worked on NASA’s top manned spaceflight projects including the Apollo program, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

He’s 84 now – and the man who once worked with booster rockets is still a big rocket booster.

Jensen says the Bush Administration acted irrationally when it canceled federal funds for the Space Shuttle program several years ago.

“I think it was premature," he said.

To be fair, President George W. Bush ended the Space Shuttle program so the U.S. could move toward manned spaceflight back to the Moon and to Mars. President Barack Obama has scaled that back.

Southern California has played a huge role in the aerospace industry for several decades. As the Space Shuttle program transitions out, Jensen says local engineers and other workers may see their jobs go.

But Jensen says this doesn’t have to be the end of manned spaceflight. “The NASA administrator should be directing NASA... the president, everybody should be directing NASA to first develop an advanced performance rocket engine," Jensen offered.

Jensen says building a more efficient rocket engine would reduce the cost of going into space. That’s what the Space Shuttle was supposed to do, but repairing a shuttle after a return to Earth and prepping it for another mission turned out to be far more expensive than NASA figured. The entire Space Shuttle program cost nearly $200 billion over 40 years – double NASA’s estimates.

“I think when you bring in private industry and commercialization, then the economic forces are going to be driving the market," says former astronaut Bernard Harris.

Harris has flown on a couple space shuttle missions and was the first African-American to walk in space more than a decade ago. Harris says he’s looking forward to the role private firms will play to keep American manned space exploration going.

“This does not mean the end of NASA," Harris maintained. "I think when you see job losses, you automatically think the program’s going away. It’s not.”

In fact, U.S. astronauts plan to travel during the next several years to the Space Station via a Russian craft. And a private company, Hawthorne-based Space X, is building launch vehicles and space capsules to get them there.

The end of the Shuttle program brings to mind the 14 astronauts who launched with past missions and didn’t return alive. One of them was Ron McNair, a laser physicist NASA assigned to work with longtime CBS reporter David Dow when Dow covered the space program.

“Ron was our NASA consultant," says Dow. "NASA very generously gave each of the networks a consultant to work with them in each one of the Space Shuttle missions, and Ron McNair was ours. He was very generous spirited and a very gifted talker in terms of explaining technical aspects of flight.”

McNair was a mission specialist on Challenger 25 years ago. He and six others – including Christa McAuliffe, the first schoolteacher in space – lost their lives shortly after liftoff.

In 2003 seven more astronauts died when Columbia exploded on its re-entry.

Dow covered the first Space Shuttle landing in 1981 at Edwards Air Force Base, the first landing of the Shuttle Columbia.

"It was an amazing event," says Dow. "It seemed like it was almost impossible that you could take this 100-ton spacecraft from more than 150 miles above the Earth and bring it down to Earth as a glider, if you will, and have a pinpoint landing, a perfect pinpoint landing, albeit on a rather generous runway."

Dow says that watching that "was like watching a miracle unfold."

Former astronaut Harris, who’ll travel to the Southland this month for his youth summer science camp program, believes kids are eager to pursue careers in space technology.

“These are young minds excited about space, excited about their future in what they can contribute to the space program," says Harris.

They’ll launch from a foundation of a half-century of U.S. manned spaceflight and, with the Space Shuttle retired, a clean slate ready for ideas.

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