Off the Press

May 10, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Finding the right stuff in the right place

The day after NASA announced the museums fortunate enough to receive retired space shuttle orbiters, I talked to the former astronaut responsible for leading The Museum of Flight’s bid, Issaquah resident Bonnie Dunbar.

Warren Kagarise Press Reporter

NASA passed on the Seattle museum and instead selected sites in California, Florida and New York for the grounded fleet. The orbiter Discovery had long been promised to the Smithsonian Institution.

The Museum of Flight had hoped to add Atlantis, Endeavour or Enterprise to a custom-built gallery near the prototype Boeing 747 and a needle-nosed Concorde.

Instead, the museum is due to receive a space shuttle simulator built to the same dimensions as the real deal. Dunbar, only the seventh American woman to reach space, turned disappointment about the shuttle announcement into genuine excitement about the big-ticket consolation prize.

“If you went down to the next tier below the actual vehicle, this would be it,” she said.

Every astronaut, including Dunbar, climbed aboard the simulator at Johnson Space Center to train for flight. Starting next year, museumgoers can replicate the experience and, perhaps, depart just as excited as a space-bound astronaut.

The orbiters, built using Nixon-era technology, did not quite succeed in turning spaceflight into a routine occurrence, as supporters had hoped early on.

Still, the public — so often focused on terrestrial concerns — came to regard space shuttle launches as commonplace, even boring.

The last time I observed a shuttle launch up close, just before Thanksgiving 2008, I stood amid mangroves along the Indian River Lagoon as Endeavour rocketed skyward, en route to a construction mission on the International Space Station. The thundering booster rockets caused the ground to rumble along the lagoon, 13 miles from the Florida launch pad.

Moments after the shuttle departed from the pad in a stunning nighttime launch and trailed a molten arc across the sky, Endeavour, then little more than a distant pinprick, reached orbit.

Many adjectives fit such a scene, but boring is not on the list, even after the 10th or 20th time.

I landed on Florida’s Space Coast at age 12 and lived 30 miles from the launch site at Kennedy Space Center until I left for college at 18. (I graduated from Satellite High School — yes, really.)

NASA launched shuttles more often then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Just before each liftoff, I stood in the driveway, often in humid air as sticky as caramel, sometimes before sunrise, and looked northward.

I acted as a driveway spectator during Dunbar’s last shuttle mission, a 1998 trip aboard Endeavour to the rickety Russian space station Mir. I realized as much last month, as I researched the space shuttle program for a piece about The Museum of Flight.

The assignment sparked other memories: The day I glimpsed Discovery up close on a behind-the-scenes tour, before the craft carried then-77-year-old John Glenn into orbit, and the afternoon a modified 747 and a piggybacked orbiter swept low along the beach en route to the space center.

The announcement from NASA last month doubled as the elegy for the space shuttle program. Come late summer, Atlantis is due to return to earth for the last time.

NASA is turning to commercial companies to ferry crews and cargo to the International Space Station.

Issaquah claims a pioneer in the latest space race, too: Councilman Tola Marts, a mechanical engineer at Blue Origin — a Kent-based aerospace company toiling to create next-generation spacecraft.

The shuttle program is almost history, but the right stuff endures.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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