CHAMPAIGN – The space shuttle is a "magnificent flying machine," in the words of shuttle astronaut Joe Tanner, with one fatal design flaw – one that cost the lives of seven astronauts in 2003.
So as NASA looks toward post-shuttle missions to the moon and, later, to Mars, it will borrow from a 40-year-old design used in the Apollo space program of the 1960s, the Danville native said Sunday night.
"We call it Apollo on steroids, because it's better," Tanner said at a speech celebrating the 20th anniversary of Parkland College's Staerkel Planetarium.
During the shuttle's ascent into space, its large exterior fuel tank extends higher than the nose of the orbiter that carries the astronauts, said Tanner, who has flown four shuttle missions. So any debris flying off the top of the fuel tank will likely strike the shuttle's nose or wings, damaging the heat shields needed to safely re-enter the atmosphere.
In 2003, a small piece of foam broke off the exterior tank of the shuttle Columbia during takeoff and hit the orbiter at 800 miles an hour, damaging its wing. The shuttle exploded upon re-entry, killing all seven people aboard.
The three remaining shuttles – Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavor – are scheduled to retire after the last shuttle launch in July 2010.
NASA will then turn its full energies to the new "Constellation" program. Like Apollo, Constellation will use an external fuel tank but the crew module will be on top, so its heat shields will be upstream from any debris, Tanner said.
"And yes, we really did it the first time," he said, wryly addressing skeptics who believed NASA faked the first moon landing in 1969.
The first flights of the Constellation program will come in 2013 or 2014, Tanner said.
The Aries 1 module will carry four to six astronauts, but the lunar landing equipment will be launched separately. The two will rendezvous in space, then land on the moon a few days later. Eventually booster rockets will send the crew's module back up to space and return to Earth the way Apollo astronauts did, using friction from the atmosphere to slow the craft and then parachutes to help it land safely on land or water, he said.
The first scheduled moon landing is December 2019. Among other things, NASA hopes to explore the moon's poles for water. "Way down the road," Tanner said, planners envision a lunar lab habitat where astronauts can stay for extended periods. It may be mobile, moving between missions to new exploration sites so new ones don't have to be built each time.
Ultimately, the hope is to go to Mars, "because it's there," he said. "We were born to explore."
As he has in previous talks, Tanner shared breathtaking photos, video and memories of his last shuttle mission a year ago to the International Space Station. His crew delivered solar arrays that doubled the space station's capacity.
Part of Tanner's job was to take detailed photographs of the shuttle's external fuel tank as it drifted away from the orbiter, to make sure nothing fell off that could have damaged the shuttle. Another camera examined the leading edge of the wings and nose for any damage, and the space station crew photographed the shuttle's underbelly as it headed back toward Earth.
As for life in space: Yes, he told the audience, you can wash your hair, but not with water. With no sinks or showers, astronauts use no-rinse soap and shampoo. They sleep tethered in sleeping bags so they won't float away. Food is color-coded for each astronaut and is strapped down to tables with Velcro, straps or air-suction.
And there is such a thing as space-sickness, which can be debilitating for some. Tanner lost his appetite for a few days at the start of each mission.
Astronauts grow anywhere from a half-inch to two inches in the near-weightless environment. As when we sleep, the body's fluids spread out but there's no gravity in space to recompress them, so spinal fluid expands between the vertebrae and makes people taller. The astronauts shrink again after landing back on Earth.
The shuttle crew has little down time, working 15- to 16-hour days. But he said the space station astronauts, who remain in space for six months at a time, exercise, read books, watch movies, send e-mails home or just take in the magnificent view.
"Everyone looks out the window. You can glue yourself to the window for hours," he said.
No longer flying shuttle missions himself, Tanner's job now is to help choose crews for the remaining flights.
"I know they don't need me," said Tanner, 57.
What will he miss most? "The thrill, the fact of being there. ... It's a miracle."
Tanner is eligible to retire next March, though he's not sure he's ready.
"I haven't made any definite plans," he said. "My wife is elated I am not flying anymore. You cannot imagine the stress on families."
They own property in Colorado, but he expects to continue spending time in Houston and the Danville area.
"I'll be back here a lot," he promised.