Discovery Overflies Washington D.C.
“Tisk, tisk, tisk…”
Departing from the Kennedy Space Center, the Space Shuttle orbiter Discovery was riding aboard the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) 905. The orbiter, having been retired from flight with the ending of the Space Shuttle program, was on its way to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy facility near Dulles Airport. It was somehow appropriate that SCA905 should be carrying a Shuttle on its final journey, because SCA905 carried the very first orbiter, the Enterprise on its very first flights during the 1977 Approach and Landing Tests (ALT). The circle is complete. Prior to making its final landing, the Discovery was scheduled to make a flyby of Washington D.C.
Like many other people who are local to the Washington area, I went to D.C. to see Discovery and SCA905 flyby. My vantage point was on the roof of my wife's office building about a block away from the National Air and Space Museum. I found myself among a throng of office workers all armed with an assortment of digital cameras, smart phones, camcorders and binoculars.
Eventually SCA905 appeared in the distance and flew past several miles away. It then turned and vanished behind the skyline for short time before turning back and flying almost directly over downtown D.C. Next it flew far off to the west over Virginia and then made a graceful turn and came toward us. A few in the crowd cheered, many clapped and everyone stood mesmerized as SCA905 and Discovery passed to the south and once again vanished in the skyline. After what seemed like a long time the two vehicles reappeared banking to the north. This time they passed gracefully behind the Capitol rotunda, leveled out and flew low and proud just beyond the White House and off to the west again. In the distance we were given the view of the two vehicles banking again around to the south with their course bisected by the Washington Monument in the foreground. For the final time SCA905 and Discovery came around to an easterly course and this time headed straight for us. "This is the money shot," one person said aloud. He was correct, because this final pass was nearly overhead.
As the two vehicles went by on their final pass, the sound of the SCA’s engines was overpowered by the cheering howl that came up from the crowd. It was a noise that didn't resonate just from our rooftop group, but actually echoed across all of Washington D.C. Looking away from the aircraft for a few moments I saw that every single rooftop within sight was crowded with people. Down on the sidewalks and along the Capitol Mall countless people were stopped with their eyes turned skyward. SCA905 and Discovery had the full attention of everyone in a normally bustling Washington D.C.
While the two vehicles were making their final pass somewhere in our crowd I heard a bemoaning lady say "Tisk, tisk, tisk … All that fuel wasted, just to fly around D.C." At that moment it struck me that some people can still be that shortsighted and ill informed. Here we stood, in the nation’s capital, watching more than one and a half billion dollars worth of spaceflight hardware on its way to becoming a museum piece after having served just one quarter of its designed life expectancy and rather than bemoan that level of waste, some people will focus on the cost of jet fuel needed to move it to the museum.
Others in the crowd wondered aloud why it was that our Space Shuttle program had been ended. There are a lot of different answers to that question from different sources. Often those answers are pinned to the point of view of the person answering the question. Although my answer is of course pinned to my point of view, I think it is the one that history will prove correct.
Following the loss of the shuttle orbiter Columbia a panel was formed to study the accident, determine the cause and make recommendations. Titled the "Columbia Accident Investigation Board" (CAIB), it made the recommendation that the Space Shuttle system should be recertified or retired and replaced. It is important to note that the board did not specify what it would take to "recertify" the Shuttle. Using the CAIB’s recommendation, President George W. Bush proposed a new lunar space program, “Constellation,” with vehicles that would replace the Shuttle. His Office of Management and Budget (OMB), however, did not provide adequate funding for the program leaving it, for the remainder of his administration, with an annual shortfall of approximately three billion dollars. During that time, NASA was forced to make do with the shortfall in order to make Constellation happen. They altered their plan, part of which was a plan to retire the Shuttle in 2010 and use its funding to accelerate development of the Constellation vehicles. In the meantime there would be a three-year gap in human spaceflight during which United States astronauts and NASA's partner nation’s astronauts would rent seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft in order to get to and from the International Space Station. During the 2008 presidential cycle, candidate Obama noted this situation in an August 16, 2008 paper entitled: "Barack Obama : Advancing the Frontiers of Space Exploration," where he promised to make "… the necessary investments to ensure we close this gap…” and "… Minimize reliance on foreign space capabilities." The paper also stated that Obama "… Endorses the goal of sending human missions to the moon by 2020,” or Constellation. When he was elected, President Obama was in a position to extend the Shuttle program, as all of the support structure and spare parts lines were still functional. However, unless the president acted within his first year to stop the deconstruction of the support paths, they would be shut down and the shuttle would have no choice other than retirement. President Obama voted "present" on that issue and allowed the shuttle to die while at the same time he canceled Constellation. Keep in mind that one of the primary reasons for Shuttle retirement was to transfer its funds to Constellation. When Constellation was canceled there was no real reason for retiring the Shuttle.
So here we are, watching a $1.5 billion machine being turned into a museum piece for no good reason other than lack of vision and lack of leadership. Thus, as I watched SCA905 and Discovery fly by, my thought was “Tisk, tisk, tisk… A museum piece after just over one quarter of its designed lifespan. What a waste."