After Atlantis' Final Launch: As NASA's Space Shuttle Sets, Orion Rises

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Chris O'Meara / AP

The space shuttle Atlantis astronauts (from left, pilot Doug Hurley, mission specialist Sandy Magnus, commander Chris Ferguson and mission specialist Rex Walheim) leave the operations and checkout building on their way to the pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on July 8, 2011

It's never easy to avoid the ghosts at the Kennedy Space Center. They're everywhere, all the time. There's the Challenger Memorial Highway and Columbia Road and Grissom Way — and the name Kennedy affixed to nearly everything. There are the full-size mock-ups of the famous old rockets — the tiny Redstone, the massive Saturn — now taxidermized for public display, decades after the last of them flew.

This week, it's easier than ever to surrender to the ghosts, and it's not just the heavy cloud cover and the torrential downpour that passed through the cape Thursday afternoon, July 7, and included a lightning strike on launchpad 39A, where the shuttle Atlantis is being prepped for flight. It is, of course, what's planned for Friday — that unsettled weather permitting. At some point between 11:56 a.m. and 12:16 p.m., Atlantis will take off, ending a 30-year program that will have included 135 launches (though only 133 returned safely to Earth) and put 777 people in orbit (though 14 of them never came home).

NASA is happy about the global media swarm that's here for Friday's event but would love it if folks didn't focus quite so much on the sense of finality to the proceedings. That's not an entirely realistic wish. NASA programs have come to a close before, but there was always something that came next: Mercury gave us Gemini, which gave us Apollo, which gave us Skylab, which gave us the shuttle. And the shuttle will give us — well, no one knows for sure.

NASA does, however, have a plan, and it's a potentially very good one. Sometime in 2016, money and politics permitting, a sort of grandson of Apollo will fly. The ship will have the same conical shape as the Apollo of old and will launch atop a conventional upright booster like Apollo did, but it will be much bigger — with room for six astronauts, not just three. It will be stuffed with software and electronics Apollo couldn't even have imagined, and it will be rated not just for low-Earth orbit and flights to the nearby moon but also for deep-space destinations like Mars.

"The physics haven't changed since the 1960s," says aeronautical engineer Olivia Fuentes of Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the new vehicle. "The old Apollo guys got that all figured out for us. We're just applying 21st century technology to that original idea." The question is, In an era of shrinking budgets and an uncertain American commitment to space, will the old idea be good enough to fly?

The jumbo Apollo — officially dubbed Orion, and more prosaically known as a multipurpose crew vehicle (MPCV) — has actually been around for a while. It's the last surviving component of the Bush Administration's former push for a return-to-the-moon program, which also included plans for a lunar lander and two new boosters — one for low-Earth orbit and one for deep space. Announced in 2004, the program died in 2009, mostly because of budget constraints and the Obama Administration's lack of enthusiasm for the grandiose idea. The White House agreed to let Orion and the deep-space booster continue in development but scrapped the lunar lander and left it to the private sector to figure out how to build spacecraft and rockets for trips to and from the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit.

Still, in the five years Orion got before the program changed, the engineers made a lot of progress. Last year, a full-size, full-weight model of the capsule took its first flight, blasting off from a launchpad in White Sands, N.M., in an initial test of the vehicle's launch-abort system. The spacecraft flew just a mile up and a mile down range, but all the same, it flew, serving as a stake in the ground both symbolically and technologically.

"We accelerated the ship to 15 Gs and brought it back down safely," says program manager Mark Geyer. "A launch abort is the most difficult thing a spacecraft will ever have to withstand, and this one withstood it fine." To prove the point — and, not incidentally, to help sell the Orion program — that test model is on display in a tent at the space center this week, its interior beams covered with the celebratory autographs of the flight team that built and flew it.

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