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Future of Kennedy Space Center falls on Orion

Orion space module

By Tom Flanigan


Tallahassee, FL – The final U.S. Space Shuttle flight is next month. But that will not mean the end of the Kennedy Space Center. The designation of the American part of the International Space Station as a national laboratory could mean more space craft taking off from Florida. Meanwhile, Tom Flanigan reports there's a new NASA launch vehicle for manned flight under development and a push to attract more private space business to the center.

That Space Shuttle Atlantis flight, known officially as "STS 129", was in November of 2009. NASA Astronaut Charlie Hobaugh was at the controls as pilot, as he'd been on two previous Shuttle missions.

"I've seen the Space Station start from nothing and go all the way through final assembly. It's been pretty exciting, so you know, when you're not flying yourself, you're supporting those that are and you're happy for everybody who gets to go and you just want to make sure they all go right and do your best to make them go right."

Now there's only one last flight to get right. Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to again take to the skies on July twelfth. It will be the final shuttle mission.

"The shuttle's really the last manned vehicle the U.S. has produced. Orion and some of the commercial companies are trying to do space flight is important as demonstrator technology. You know, understanding the environment and just getting going to actually building something again in space. So it's all a progression and Orion will hopefully be a part that gets us there."

That's a NASA official was showing off a full-size version of the new Orion spacecraft to a group of Tallahassee area school kids. NASA Engineer Dave McCallister was also on hand to explain what was what.

"It's actually what we call a flight-test vehicle and it was designed to test our astronaut rescue system."

The new ship, also known as the "Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle". From the outside, it's a cone-shaped capsule that looks very much like the old Apollo moon mission command module. But Orion is half again as big as Apollo externally, is more than twice as heavy and has nearly three times the internal space. NASA Engineer Dave McCallister says there are other differences, too.

"It really is Apollo on steroids. We're taking it to the next level. We're taking all those advancements we learned from the Apollo days, from the Shuttle days, and everything else we learned in NASA and trying to tie in some extra capability in that vehicle."

To literally, McCallister says, take human space exploration where no Shuttle has gone before.

"The Space Shuttle's a fantastic machine. It's really an engineering marvel, but we're really limited to low-earth orbit. We want to step it up a notch and really go beyond low earth orbit and the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle gives us that flexibility."

Meaning a return to lunar missions, visits to a wandering asteroid or even a trip to Mars someday. NASA expects the first unmanned flight of Orion from the Kennedy Space Center to happen in 2013 with a crew flight not long after. McCallister says that's close enough in the future that at least some of the seven-thousand workers employed by the Shuttle program may be able to stay on .
"My hope is as many as possible. I'm not sure of the numbers, what they're planning for out there, but we have a lot of really experienced, highly-trained personnel down there we'd like to keep on board."

There's someone else who hopes to keep as many of those Kennedy Space Center people working as possible. He's Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida. That's the public-private partnership charged with, not just maintaining, but growing Florida's space-related endeavors.

"And we set a goal to triple the size of the space industry in the state by the year 2020, which is a very aggressive growth goal for this industry, especially given the downturn that we're likely to face with the retirement of a major program, the Space Shuttle program."

DiBello thinks Space Florida's growth goal is realistic because private industry needs access to space for any number of commercial applications.

"Agriculture and food production, environmental monitoring, coastal monitoring for interdiction and coastal protection, advanced materials, space tourism, bio-life sciences and there are many, many areas like these, all of which represent an application of space technology to new products and services and new companies. That's what we're after through diversification."

To foster more of that diversification, Space Florida has taken over some former NASA-owned property at the Kennedy Space Center. Part of it will become a space research industrial park where private companies can set up turn-key operations. There are also the spacecraft launch pads themselves. Space Florida has assumed ownership of what was NASA's Launch Complex Thirty-Six where the Pioneer, Surveyor and Mariner probes took off for the heavens. Space Florida is also building a new Launch Complex Forty-Six to boost its private spacecraft liftoff capability. In short, it appears there may still be considerable activity at Florida's Kennedy Space Center after the final Shuttle liftoff next month.