Santa Barbara County was once home to the space shuttle. It was to be launched from the California coast only weeks after the Challenger disaster forced the military to give up the program. A rusting tower recently pushed over by bulldozers at Vandenberg Air Force Base marked the last remnant of what might have been.
But before the program was cancelled, thousands of people put 10 years of their lives into building a world-class launch facility, working round-the-clock toward the end of the program. The project was fraught with problems, but it left a legacy of sorts.
North Santa Barbara County is rather like a collection of gold rush towns. They fill up with each new project at the base and empty out with each cancellation. Over the years the economies of Lompoc, Santa Maria and Guadalupe have diversified. The ebb and flow of scientists, engineers and military personnel is not as great as it once was.
A few people remain from the Slick Six shuttle program and this weekend’s tragedy holds special meaning for them.
Orlando Severo was the shuttle project director at Vandenberg in 1985 and later the commander of the Western Space and Missile Center before his retirement in 1991. He described his reaction on Saturday.
“You get a sinking feeling,” he said. “The same sinking feeling I got when we lost Challenger, because I was running the shuttle program at Vandenberg at that time. All of us knew the astronauts on board Challenger. We had worked with them, because some of those astronauts were going to fly the first mission from Vandenberg. So it’s the same kind of sinking feeling. You have kind of a lost part of your family, even though I didn’t know the astronauts on this mission. When you’ve been in the program for 10 years, it’s a loss. There’s no doubt about it.”
Engineer Marty Waldman worked with the Air Force astronauts on flight crew systems at Vandenberg. He now runs the Endeavor Center – a day camp for children interested in NASA and space flight. He went out every evening to watch the shuttle pass overhead.
Lompoc was fogged in the day of the crash.
Waldman’s enthusiasm for the shuttle has outlasted his career with it. He helped students at the Endeavor Center create an experiment that flew on the shuttle several years ago and he still remembers his days as a shuttle engineer, which color his experience of Saturday’s tragedy.
“I felt really close to the situation,” he said. “I’d sat in Columbia and been in the engine compartment. I’d been up and through it a lot of times. It was like a personal thing, really personal, just kind of knowing what it would be like to all of a sudden [have] it not be protecting you in the situation that they had on Saturday.”
Waldman said he wishes Columbia had carried some sort of backup system for emergency situations. Although no one knows at this point whether the shuttle’s heat-shielding tiles were the cause of the accident, Waldman thinks better precautions could have been taken to protect them.
“They have this little thing that they’ve flown on one or two past flights. It’s this little camera that’s radio-controlled that they can fly around the orbiter. They can look at – see what’s going on on the underside or whatever. I think at minimum I would have had that developed a long time ago and flown on every flight to survey all the tiles. And then have some kind of at least rudimentary repair kit,” he said. “It was kind of disappointing that they said there was nothing they could have done about it anyway, even if they had found a cracked tile. Boy, to me that kind of forces a decision for them to say, ‘Well, I guess we couldn’t have done anything anyway, so everything was OK.’ But who knows? I think no one knows at this point.”
Waldman said the Columbia was entirely flightworthy.
“They account for every inch of everything,” he said. “Columbia had less flights on it than most of the other orbiters, too.”
Still, he wishes it had been decommissioned earlier.
“I really felt strongly that the Columbia should have been retired a long time ago,” he said. “Not because it wasn’t flightworthy, but because it was a national asset, kind of like the Wright Flyer. It’s very historic – you know it was the first orbiter that ever flew. I really felt that they should have treated it more accordingly and given it a special place in history for people to see it as opposed to keeping on flying it and upgrading it. … My only feelings are that they should have put it in a museum just because it was a famous piece of American heritage. Unfortunately, they probably will now. It’ll just be little pieces.”
Waldman said budgetary issues kept NASA from retiring Columbia and that money is a key safety issue for the space program. In the last decade the number of people maintaining the shuttles has dropped from 3,000 to 1,800 and the space program’s budget has been cut.
“You know, everyone else gets cost-of-living increases. That program, I’ve always said, is such a centerpiece of the country they really should pad it a little bit more. It shouldn’t be ‘work right to the wire,'” he said. “People should be pampered a little bit and there should be a little more breathing space to keep pressures from building up. You can mess up with your job in other realms, but if you mess up with this, it’s an international news story. … They should treat it in a special way. But it’s really not. They just ask them to do things ‘faster, better, cheaper.'”
Severo and Waldman both said the space program is in for serious changes – and that the number of shuttles in service will be a key issue.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out,” Severo said. “There are huge budget concerns for the president’s budget and how it’s all going to play, because now we’re down to three orbiters. I mean, we have the Discovery, the Atlantis and the Endeavor. We have a three-fleet mix to continue to service the space station. So now it’s going to be some really tough questions in Congress. How do we fund? Do we need another orbiter? How do we do that?”
“They’re really going to have to look at the big picture right now because it’s right at a crossroads,” Waldman said. “Yeah, we can limp along on three now, but the next generation of manned vehicles needs to be seriously studied.”