Everything about visiting Space Shuttle Discovery in its Orbiter Processing Facility is a testament to the dedication it takes to keep the spacecraft – which was built in 1983 – looking and operating brand new.
The rules are numerous. No cellphones, even if they’re off. Those modern car keys? Nope, put them in a bin outside the shuttle’s hanger. Radio transmitters could create trouble for sensitive equipment on the shuttle. Loose objects need to be secured or left on the bus. If a camera can’t be worn around one’s neck it doesn’t come in. Wedding bands are taped to fingers. Glasses are put on lanyards and taped to the wearer to prevent them from slipping off.
It’s all an effort to prevent foreign object debris — or in NASA-speak, “FOD” — from finding its way into the Shuttle. Objects bouncing around (or later floating) inside a Space Shuttle can cause serious problems and put lives at risk.
The stringent guidelines are relaxed from how things used to be for the dedicated workers of the United Space Alliance, the contractor that operates the Space Shuttle for NASA. It’s apparent that the chaos of a dozen journalists running around with cameras on the second level of the OPF is something they have never seen in what is usually a sterile and meticulously organized orbiter processing operation.
Watch a video tour given by United Space Alliance employees:
Entering the Shuttle is an event. Press credentials are confiscated so they knew who’s in and who’s out. One last inspection for FOD is conducted to ensure that everything is taped down, attached, or left behind. Access is then granted to “the white room” that attaches to the Shuttle’s hatch. The room is similar to one that’s located at the launch pad.
After stepping on a “tacky mat” that takes dirt and debris off shoes (and in my case an entire shoe), workers then hand out cotton canvas shoe covers for additional dirt protection. We were then given a sharpie marker and asked to sign our names on the wall, a tradition for the lucky few who have been allowed entry to the Shuttle.
After locating an errant piece of FOD (a missing sharpie cap), we were instructed to sit down and “slide on your butt” into the Shuttle’s mid-deck.
Discovery’s usually packed mid-deck serves as the orbiter’s barracks and living room where astronauts share meals and most of the seven-person crew sleeps. It’s small with only about 100 square feet of floor space after everything is packed for a mission. But in the weightlessness of space the walls and ceilings can also be floors, providing a much greater usable surface area. Astronauts attach their sleeping bags to the walls.
Astronaut Dan Tani, who visited the NASA press site earlier in the day, said the more experienced astronauts generally rush to claim their favorite sleeping spot the moment the shuttle reaches orbit. Just like summer camp.
The mid-deck was emptied following Discovery’s final mission, making it appear a bit roomier than it might be otherwise. The storied bathroom just to the right of the entry hatch was pulled out along with the galley area for food preparation. Visible in the forward section were a row of shelving housing Discovery’s computers that pilot the machine into orbit and most of the way back down.
The aft section contains the airlock that astronauts use for space walks and access to the International Space Station. We were allowed to crawl through the airlock to take pictures of the Shuttle’s payload bay and robotic arm.
In the aft section of the mid-deck are two tiny 26-by-28-inch openings that lead to the flight deck above. The flight deck is a tiny place with a low ceiling no more than 5 feet in height. There’s only about 45 total square feet of usable surface area, and unlike mid-deck, the walls and ceiling are covered with knobs, switches, and a few control sticks. It took a good deal of effort to avoid inadvertently bumping into something while looking around.
Shuttle technician Bill Powers met us on the flight deck. Powers worked on every shuttle in the fleet over the last 27 years. He takes great pride in keeping the aging spaceships operating at peak performance.
“It’s been used, but it’s a national treasure,” he said.
After shooting photos from the flight deck, we reluctantly descended the ladder and exited the orbiter. Outside we met Tim Keyser, who works on Discovery’s mid-body, the 60-foot section of the orbiter that includes the shuttle’s payload bay. The Hubble Space Telescope and numerous portions of the International Space Station were all sent aloft in Discovery’s now empty cargo area. Keyser told us that every mission brought with it new challenges and procedures for configuring the shuttle and its payloads.
All of the workers we met told us they knew the Shuttle retirements were coming, but it only took one look at their faces to see the sadness over their beloved orbiters being decommissioned and shipped off to museums while they still have so much life left in them.
“We could go another 20 years if they’d let us,” Keyser said.
It’s a sadness that will be shared by many Americans, not the least of which the millions of Generation-Xers, like myself, who grew up with the Shuttle program. The iconic vehicles ignited a passion for science and technology in me and so many others. Hopefully what’s next will continue to inspire young people from around the country and world to aspire to careers in the space industry and other technology fields.
I also hope the people we met on the tour will be able to continue their service to the space program. Sadly, their long careers may be coming to an end when Atlantis is decommissioned later this year.
What’s next for the U.S. space program? Check out our previous coverage of SpaceX and the rapidly growing commercial space industry.