The National Air and Space Museum was once again honored to host a space shuttle crew this past Friday. This visit was special because it was the STS-135 crew of the shuttle Atlantis, the historic final mission that returned on July 21. The crew was only four astronauts for this last flight, smaller than the normal seven. Commander Christopher Ferguson explained that it was originally a contingency mission but in the end NASA decided that it was needed to deliver supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).
A surprising number of people in the audience had attended the launch and the energy in the room was palpable. The audience included students visiting from Peru and a class from Bristol, England via videoconference. Against a backdrop of a space shuttle model under a stunning projection of the limb of the Earth, the crew told about their trip and acknowledged its emotional impact. All were veterans of other missions and knew this may be their last trip to space. Commander Ferguson admitted he found it difficult to leave to return to Earth and that the last night in space they all took time to reflect on their experiences as astronauts. They shared a group photo taken in space with a small U.S. flag that had been aboard STS-1, the first shuttle mission 30 years ago. They explained that they left the flag on the ISS in hopes that a future crew will return it to Earth and then take it again into space. [See video of the full presentation.]
Astronaut crews are great at answering the many questions that they receive from curious Museum visitors. This time the questions included: What’s next for NASA? What’s a typical day like for an astronaut? Is the US going to the Moon again? Why go back to a capsule design? What is the food like in space? What does it feel like to return to Earth after being in space for several months? (Mission specialist Sandra Magnus answered that one because she lived on the ISS for four months). My favorite question was “does the shuttle get hot inside during re-entry?” Pilot Douglas Hurley said astronauts don’t feel the inside cabin get warmer. They maneuver the shuttle to keep it cool before the descent to Earth and he said it feels like winter in the cabin. Most fascinating was his description of the pink and orange plasma that lit up the darkness around the shuttle on re-entry. Because the landing happened at night, the light show was spectacular.
As they ended their presentation they showed the final photograph taken of a shuttle in space. Of thousands of spectacular photos taken of shuttles in space over 30 years, perhaps this one is most poignant. It represents the end of an era.
Fortunately, there is another chapter to the shuttle story. The shuttle fleet will be preserved and on display in museums around the country. The National Air and Space Museum looks forward to receiving Discovery next year. If the shuttles could talk they would have many stories to tell. It is left for historians to tell those stories and next year the Museum will complete installation of Moving Beyond Earth, a new exhibition devoted to the story of human spaceflight in the shuttle era and beyond.
And, of course, the Museum looks forward to hosting the next astronaut crew, whenever that will be.
Do you have memories of meeting shuttle astronauts? Share your story.
Tim Grove is Chief of Education for the Museum in Washington, DC.