I’m standing underneath the belly of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in the Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The urge to reach up and touch the hundreds of heat-streaked tiles on the underside of the space craft a couple of feet above my head is almost impossible to resist.
If I did, it could be fatal. If the grease from my finger got on to a tile, it could react with the 3000° plasma gases that engulf the Shuttle on re-entry, causing a hot spot that could burn through and destroy the craft and her crew. The ghosts of Columbia stalk this building.
With me, Britain’s new astronaut, Tim Peake. He knows about aircraft – he used to a test pilot for the Army – so he looks at the wing and marvels at its camber and mutters something about steep angles of attack and gliding in to land with only one chance to get it right. But then even he just stops, looks up, and says “it’s incredible”.
Photo courtesy of Dai Baker.
These venerable old spacecraft are flying their last missions. Next year, NASA retires them to concentrate on its next-generation Constellation programme. Except it seems more last-generation than next.
NASA is going back to the old-fashioned concept of a crew capsule on top of a rocket. The Orion capsule is really just a larger, four to six seater, version of the Apollo capsule. The Ares rocket is almost as big as the Saturn-5 that blasted men to the Moon. But it’s inherently safer – the heat shield on the circular flat face of the capsule is protected on take-off because it’s where the capsule is mated with the rocket. The ghosts of Columbia again.
It’s returning to the Moon that is now top of NASA’s agenda. I asked Tim if he’d like to walk on the Moon, and he got that faraway look in his eyes and said “yes, one day. Why not?”
He’ll have to be patient. Patience is what astronauts who have already flown in space say is one of the key bits of advice they can give their rooky colleagues. André Kuipers said so, Michael Foale said so. And then they both paused and said “and enjoy it!”
Channel 4 News Science Correspondent Julian Rush is with the six new European Space Agency astronauts at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where they will witness the launch of the Shuttle Discovery to the Space Station.