Space Shuttle: The End of An Era

Posted on Wed, August 10 2011

I had my first glimpse of the end of the shuttle era in April, three months before Atlantis touched down from the final shuttle mission. Discovery had just completed its last flight, and I had an opportunity to visit Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) Bay 3, which for years had been Discovery’s home for between-mission servicing. Discovery did not return to Bay 3 after STS-133, moving instead into Bay 1 for post-flight work.

Servicing home of Discovery Servicing home of Discovery
badge board Badge Board, normally filled with badges of workers on duty in the Orbiter Processing Facility

I noticed the difference immediately. The empty slots on the badge board on the wall leading to the entrance signaled that no one was at work inside. The check-in desk was vacant, with only a few papers strewn about. The central space normally filled by Discovery and three stories of surrounding work platforms was an empty cavern. With work stands and protective pads stowed to the side, tool boxes closed and locked, computers idled, the hangar and its warren of work areas normally humming with activity stood eerily silent. OPF3 felt suddenly abandoned.  It reminded me of Pompeii.

Idled orbiter servicing bay Idled orbiter servicing bay

Closed buildings and the wrenching loss of employees who spent most of their careers working on the space shuttle are perhaps the most poignant signs of the end of an era that changed the character of spaceflight. The space shuttle made spaceflight seem a more routine, normal part of our nation’s activity. It enabled the United States and its partner nations to make near-Earth orbit a home and workplace.

To fulfill its variety of missions, the versatile space shuttle required crews with more skills and abilities than piloting, thus opening opportunities for scientists, engineers, women, and people of color to join a demographically more diverse astronaut corps. The space shuttle democratized and internationalized human spaceflight. It enabled the growth of new disciplines in microgravity science—biological and physical sciences that explored the fundamental nature of anything in an environment without the dominant influence of gravity.

The last three missions flown in 2011 prompted much commentary about the legacy of the shuttle era. No doubt the evaluation will continue for some time. But in the empty Orbiter Processing Facility, I spotted one authentic assessment scrawled on a whiteboard, probably by someone soon to be out of work:   “Goodbye people. It’s been awesome!”

Whiteboard “Goodbye people. It’s been awesome!”

Valerie Neal is the space shuttle curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.