After 30 years and 135 missions sent to Earth orbit, the U.S. space agency NASA ended the space shuttle era with the final landing of shuttle Atlantis on July 21, 2011 at 5:56 a.m. EDT. EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar spoke with astronaut and engineer Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, who made five shuttle flights and helped build NASA’s shuttle program in the 1970s.
What are your thoughts on the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis and of NASA’s shuttle program?
I’m very proud of that program, having been associated with the original development of it in the 1960s, and 30 years of flight experience, having flown five flights myself, and having been an engineer on the shuttle for Rockwell when we built it in the 1970s. I have to tell you, it’s an amazing vehicle. It hasn’t been replicated yet. And I’m sorry to see it stop flying.
Looking forward, what would you like to tell people who feel that gap in hopes and dreams of spaceflight with the end of the shuttle program?
First of all, I’ve heard the comment, why doesn’t NASA do this, or do that. I think this is a civics lesson. NASA works through the President, and it implements programs decided by the nation. It doesn’t decide on its own. It can propose science. It can propose destinations. But the funding for that, the final decision comes through a collaboration between Congress and the administration.
What we do is very dependent upon what the American public wants to do. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So if the American public wants this nation to continue to lead in space, or be one of the leaders, to innovate and pump resources into new technologies and new knowledge, they have to articulate that.
There’s a misconception on how much of our resources go into space. When we were going to the moon, we peaked at about 4.4 percent of our federal budget. And out of that, we got satellites, weather tracking, communications, computers, new materials, new medical technologies ad infinitum. I think the studies show about a ten to one on return on investment. The present cost of our human spaceflight program is less than one-half of one percent. This nation spends more on cosmetics and I think potato chips and pizza than it does on investments in technology and explorations.
I think it’s really important to have an open debate about what we want to be in the 21st century as a nation. My hope is that we continue to lead. Great nations explore. In the process of exploration, they acquire new knowledge and they generate new technologies that go into their well being and their standard of living. And if we pull back now, I think that we should look at the lessons of history. We may not be happy with the results.
As a scientist, what would you say is the most significant contribution to science made by space shuttle Atlantis?
That’s an interesting question. I’d have to back through the manifest.
As a scientist and engineer – having built the shuttle – a huge contribution was just the accomplishment of what we did. We put a lifting body into space, launched it like a rocket, landed it like an airplane. We were to take 50,000 pounds, not just to Earth orbit but bring it back. We sustained up to eight people in space – there were eight crew members on my first flight – that’s engineering achievement.
So just the building and successful operating of the shuttle has advanced us decades in learning how to live and operate in space.
The space shuttle is a platform, and it’s a cargo truck – all those things. Taking objects to orbit, bringing them back, carrying space labs in them so that we can do research in microgravity environments, both biomedical and materials science. Those are small stepping stones, but unless we do those things, we’re not going to continue to explore. You need all of that core technology before you can really explore.
What’s the legacy of the space shuttle program?
I think in the next 50 years, we’re going to be taking a lot of people to space, like Boeing aircraft, Airbus aircraft take people into the air. You’ve got to look at more capacity. And I think that more capacity takes you to winged vehicles. You just can’t do it in capsules. And so what we might see in the future is a look-back at what we did on the shuttle, to be able to carry so much cargo and people into Earth orbit.
You’ve flown five missions on four different space shuttles. What do you remember most about the shuttle era?
That’s a hard one to answer. I was just very fortunate to be part of some of the initial R&D, while I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, in Seattle. This was in the 1960s, when NASA was already working with the universities on selection of materials for the thermal protection system. Then I was very fortunate in the 1970s to go to work for Rockwell, helping to build Columbia. And then to be selected as a flight controller in 1978, as a payload officer. And then in 1980, as an astronaut, then flying the five flights.
So I’ve had an opportunity to look at the engineering, the operations, and the flight part of working on the shuttle. And it’s such a complex but beautiful vehicle that has worked so well. We’re on our 135th flight. Who would have known?
People look back at history and say, maybe it should have been 150. That’s not the point. The point is this is hard to do. The Soviet Union tried to do it with Buran, and they weren’t able to. We should be proud of what the engineering community was able to achieve and know that it’s going to be a platform for the future.
What’s the most important thing you want people today to know about NASA’s space shuttle program?
I want them to pay tribute to the great engineers, both at NASA and with the contractors – this is a real team effort across the nation – to really thank them for what they did back in the 1960s and the 1970s when they built this amazing vehicle that has taken twice as many astronauts into space as any other country has, and has flown international astronauts, gave us the Hubble Space Telescope, helped to assemble the International Space Station, and has probably given thousands of graduate students their dissertations based on the research that was done, and published papers.
I personally thank all of them, and I hope the American public will as well.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.