CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - The flight crew of the final shuttle mission, scheduled to launch in late June, have a surprise up their sleeves. Everyone on the last flight of the Space Shuttle Program have agreed to end it with a bang, but hopefully not too big of one.
"It's something that I have always wanted to do on one of my flights, and the crew have all decided that this would be something extra special, since it is the last mission on the slate." said Ed Horton, commander of the STS-135 mission that will conclude the shuttle program and an important chapter in manned space exploration. Launch is scheduled for June 28. Space Shuttle Atlantis has been selected to be the vehicle to take man one last time into space using this 30 year-old technology.
Although NASA won't comment on the exact details of what the crew have planned, inside sources have provided information about a possible trick landing when the shuttle comes home for the final time.
As the story is told, Horton and his crew plan to bring Atlantis down after re-entry to Edwards Air Force Base in California as if it were just another landing, but with a twist this time.
Apparently, when Atlantis comes out of the critical phase where it enters the Earth's atmosphere at 17,000 mph and heats up to over 2000 degrees on its underside, it will slow down to just under jetliner cruising speed of 600 mph. At this point, Horton will slowly flip Atlantis around until it is traveling essentially backwards. Horton is confident that, even though the Space Shuttle wasn't designed to fly in reverse, it will.
"Aerodynamically speaking, it is assumed that the craft would fly like a brick if turned backwards," Joseph Salazar, pilot for the STS-135 flight, explained. "but we think it would operate just fine flying rear first. Since it is nothing more than a glider with no engines to get in the way, it would be quite simple to swap ends and control it while looking out the cockpit windows at where we have just been."
The question was raised about how one would see to land the shuttle if it is pointing backwards. Salazar responds in a way only a pilot could. "That's what sideview mirrors are for!"
The mission commander concurred: "Although the craft wasn't built to do this kind of thing, in light of the circumstances, we feel like throwing caution to the wind and going for something daring on this last trip back. What could be more daring than risking your life and the lives of others by committing to attempting something that nobody has ever tried before? It takes big brass balls to do this kind of thing, and buddy, we got 'em!"
In 133 previous space shuttle missions, only two have failed because of malfunction. On January 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven aboard, having never reached orbit. The cause was later determined to be the failure of a seal in the external fuel tank. Then on February 3, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia, the first shuttle in the fleet, disintegrated during re-entry when tiles damaged from foam dislodging and falling from the tanks during launch did not adequately protect the shuttle from the intense heat of re-entry. All seven aboard that flight also perished.
If the Atlantis astronauts make it back safely from space and attempt this trick landing and fail, it would be the only shuttle to crash upon landing, a fact that doesn't sit well with Commander Horton, but he is not overly concerned. "Yeah, we're aware it is a big risk, but this is the last of its kind, so why not go out with style?"
Some proponents of space exploration have argued that since the Apollo era, when the primary goal of the manned space program was to get man to the moon and back safely, NASA has shrunk in its ambition to explore rather than grow. "Instead of aiming for Mars after we got to the moon, we regressed in our focus and scaled back the scope of our objectives, relegating astronauts to low earth orbit busywork and ignoring the pioneer spirit that got us so very far in the sixties and seventies." commented an employee who wished to remain anonymous.
Because of this "blatant lack of progress" towards establishing a permanent presence in deeper space, such as an outpost on a neighboring planet, Commander Horton and his crew all agree that this backwards landing will be an appropriate symbol for an admittedly backwards space program. "Since NASA has decided to no longer pursue the dreams that made it what it is today, we want to give the shuttle program a fitting conclusion that sums up perfectly what the entire manned space program has done since Apollo 17 returned from the moon in 1972, and that is fly in the wrong damn direction."
Let us hope that Atlantis doesn't end up at the end of the runway in a mangled heap, or we probably won't ever see the stars again, at least from the totally unique vantagepoint enjoyed by the astronaut.