Former astronaut discusses NASA's last-ever shuttle launch

Jul 05, 2011

NASA's is preparing for its last-ever shuttle launch. Chat with former NASA astronaut Scott Altman about Friday's launch, his experience as a NASA astronaut and what will be NASA's new frontier.

Good morning! This is Scott Altman, online now to respond to questions about the Space Shuttle program and this final launch coming up Friday.

Scott, I'm entering my 1st year in college with a goal of a B.S. in Space Studies. From your observations of the direction of future space missions, what would you suggest my focus be while earning my degree? Scott C. Palmer

Scott, I always recommend to students to try to learn about a broad variety of topics to find the area you are most engaged by. Studying things that excite you is a great way to become the absolute best that you can be in that area. NASA hires people with a wide variety of backgrounds from Engineers, Scientists but also including doctors, veterinarians and Geologists. the one thing they all have in common is that they are at the top of their career field. Good luck!

Why NASA put a lot of effort on the international space station when a base on the moon was a better option for universe exploration ? A base on the moon will open the building and launching spacecrafts at lower costs .The shuttles were the perfect vehicles to do that , in fact the only thing you need is a "lander" you allready have the orbiter and the cargo ship on the shuttle. Tell me, what is your opinion? Ignacio, from California

Landing on the moon actually requires a lot of propellant and mass to slow the vehicle down. It is a harsh environment as well with very sharp moon dust. Having a lab in space close to Earth is a great spot for us to develop technologies to allow us to take long exploration voyages in the future.


With the shuttle program about to end and Hubble coming to an end in the next few years, what missions do you see NASA tackling?

NASA still has a great mission in Low Earth Orbit using the ISS to develop the systems we will need for the next great exploration adventure - sending people to Mars and also Near Earth objects such as asteroids.  We need to develop the space transportation system to give us the capabilities of sending humans on these types of journeys.

Did you know Kalpana Chawla? What was she like as a person? What was she like to work with?

KC was an astronaut class mate of mine and a great friend. My sons and I helped her and her husband JP move into a new house while we all lived and worked in Houston.  She was a great mission specialist - very sharp and was the flight engineer on Columbia. She also had a great sense of humor and was  a lot of fun to be around. We lost an awful lot when we lost Columbia.

Will NASA be abandoning space travel all together or do they plans to use a new spacecraft after the shuttle is decommissioned?

NASA will continue to send astronauts to live and work on the ISS but will be using the Russian Soyuz to get them there and back. NASA is also working on the next generation vehicle, doing design studies and planning since Constellation was cancelled. I am certain we are not giving up human spaceflight and exploration - just working to figure out the best path forward.

Apollo,the shuttle program and building the ISS placed America on a technological pedestal. Have funding cutbacks and public and congressional disinterest relegated us to handing off the torch to those who can commit funding and long term planning such as the Chinese? Is America heading toward has-been status?

We are definitely now at a decision point. America needs to decide - with guidance from the people of America - what our national priorities are. The work we did in the 60's and 70's gave us a great technological foundation for many of the advancements we have achieved. I do think the path we are on can bring us more international cooperation - going beyond Low Earth Orbit is a major endeavor and one that we can work with other countries to accomplish.

What is the current best belief on when it may be possible for a person to land on Mars?

We basically have most of the technology required to conduct a mission to Mars. That said, to develop the specific systems and architecture to get us there and back puts an actual mission out into the late 2020's or beyond.

When finishing up STS-125 was a specific event that you marked your last moments in space? Also, after the master alarm went off on STS-125 right after liftoff was there any concern or do things happen so fast that there is no time for concern?

At deployment of Hubble there was a moment when I paused and thought about how many people had worked so hard to get us to this point with a successful repair and refurbishment of the shuttle. It really was an incredible mission with support from people around the world making it possible. I also knew at that time it was my final flight and it was very special to be able to end it on such a high note.

At the master alarm at liftoff, we went through our procedures exactly as we had trained over the months and years of preparation. I was very proud of my crew and the team on the gr0und for quickly and professionally handling this unexpected problem. fortunately it did not have too many later ramifications for the mission.

Mr. Altman, during STS-125 I was riveted to NASA TV watching your team repair Hubble. It was the most amazing thing! Do you think future vehicles will be able to be used to repair satellites in the same way? I don't know if there will ever be anything as cool as the shuttle in my lifetime. I will miss it. Also, are tall guys like yourself able to fly in Soyuz? I heard there was some kind of restriction. Best of luck to you!

Thanks for your kind words about the Hubble mission. It was a peak experience for me as well. I do think future in space repair will be required and they will build on the success and challenges we experienced in servicing Hubble. Every  mission expanded our envelope for what we could do in space, until our final flight included actual circuit board internal repair of instruments!

Soyuz does have a height restriction and I am unable to fit. It has been redesigned recently to allow more room for astronauts up to about 6'3" or so. Sitting height is a key dimension and mine is pretty tall.

What did it feel like during blast off, and do you remember what your thought are? I have only tried the simulator for g forces, but can only wonder what it must actually feel like to actually lift off.

Lift off is pretty amazing. There is a loud bang and the whole stack starts shaking, rattling and moving. Up until that point it feels very much like all the simulations we have done to prepare - but once the solid rocket light, there is no doubt that this vehicle is GOING SOMEWHERE!!


How fast do you need to go to get to space?

Speed is really the key to getting to orbit. You need to accelerate to a speed that is fast enough so that as gravity pulls you toward the center of the Earth, you are moving so quickly that the Earth isnt there and you are actually falling around it. The shuttle goes up to about 400,000 ft and then basically levels off and goes for speed - hitting about 26,000 ft per second or 17,500 mph at orbit insertion.

It's an honor to speak with you.  I am the Director of Aviation Camps in Montgomery County, Maryland.  With about 60 campers in 4 sessions late this month, what should I tell them about their opportunities in space exploration - in both government programs and private initiatives? It's hard to engender the kind of excitement that many of us felt when the space program was at it's most prolific. Your thoughts?

We will still be sending astronauts to live and work on ISS. This is not the end of human spaceflight in the US but a chance to re evaluate and decide what course to follow. I believe there will always be a place for humans to pursue exploration and a program to send them to places we have only dreamed about visiting. It will be incredibly excitiing to see humans on Mars one day!

I watched the first shuttle launch on TV way back in March 1981. Since then, and after the two disasters of the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), what have you learned about launching these vessels, living and working aboard them, and landing them following your missions?

The shuttle has been an amazing and incredibly capable vehicle. The biggest lesson learned is that with humans involved in a system, we need to pay attention to the human management element. Both Shuttle accidents have their roots both in a technical problem and a human management element that succumbs to complacency. That is the lesson we need to take forward - to ensure exceptional oversight and attention to detail on all our future space vehicle.


Is the current plan a "done deal" or is it possible that plans could change midstream, eg, with a change in Administration or the make up of Congress? How would the budgeting change? Would a new appropriation be necessary?

The current plan is really under review with lots of potential options. We recognize we need a heavy lift vehicle to put the amount of mass that physics tells us is required for deep space or planetary exploration. We need a crew vehicle capable of taking humans to those destinations. the details of those designs is what is currently being discussed. And of course it all depends on what level of authorization and funding is approved. Basically though it depends on what the American people feel is a priority and something to aspire to.

Thousands of inventions have originated from the NASA program and Hubble satellite images have shown us alot about our universe and others. Does NASA intend to continue space exploration?

One of the great things about the Hubble program is that it has answered many questions we didn't even know we had before it was launched - such as the expansion rate of the universe. Much of space exploration is like that - the benefits are not always clear and known when we start on this effort. NASA will continue space exploration and continuing to try to answer those fundamental questions about our place in the universe.

Hi! Do you think the current plan to use commercial carriers to transport crew is realistic and possible by 2020? Why or why not? Thanks for chatting!

Commercial crew transport to low earth orbit does seem achievable by 2020. Some companies are making good progress right now towards that goal. The main obstacle seems to be how large the market is to support this investment. NASA always used the commercial sector to build its rockets and vehicles - like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This is taking that another step further but seems like it could succeed. Would you buy a ticket?

Duane Carey called the Shuttle program a "magnificent failure." You learn more when you fail, so why throw away the program? Are we becoming more dependent on potential Russian failure with old technology?

Digger was my pilot on my first Hubble flight. The shuttle is certainly a magnificent machine, and I would only call it a failure if you compare it to the original concepts for rapid reuse and cheaper cost - and of course the two shuttle tragic losses.  We are now flying astronauts on Russian technology that has evolved over time but has been providing safe transport for years.

I know that the last Hubble repair mission of record has been flown, and JWST is supposed to come on-line to replace it. It seems to me that Hubble went from horrible (blurry) to spectacular (great images and data) because of the Shuttle. IF someone wanted to save Hubble again, could astronauts launch on Soyuz with a small payload to do repairs, or was that a unique Shuttle capability? That is, losing the Shuttle, have we permanently marooned Hubble? (I'm thinking orbital inclinations, delta V needed to change orbit, EVA, etc. Yes, I know this is a serious fantasy.)

a robotic mission would probably be the best way to perform a Hubble repair now. Soyuz would have to launch from the pad near the equator to get to the Hubble inclination. Soyuz also does not have a robotic arm system to help with the repairs - or a system to dock with Hubble. I do agree that Hubble was an outstanding example of the ability of human and robotics to work together to save and extend its capabilities.

Greetings, Scott.  Thanks so much for taking my question. I was a youngster during the Mercury/Gemini & Apollo programs and I recall from my youth that it seemed impossible that America wouldn't have a permanent space launch and presence capability. At the end of great shuttle program can you share what you believe lies in America's immediate space future and why/how our country has lost traction in this area?

Shuttle was  success at taking space travel and making it accessible to many more people. As such it came to seem less special over time. It still takes an incredible effort to put people in space and has given us incredible rewards. I do think America will develop new systems to continue this work in the future. I can not believe we will turn our back on wondering what is out there and how can we get there to find out.

Hello, When is the next NASA manned space flight scheduled after your last flight of the Space Shuttle? This does not include Russian Soyuz flights.

We are not sure when the next US vehicle will  fly after this coming shuttle mission.

Thanks to everyone for great questions and for all the interest and support for the space program. I believe it is an incredible story and one that will continue to amaze for generations. All the best to you and Reach for the Stars!


Scott Altmna

In This Chat
Scott Altman
Scott Altman reported to the Johnson Space Center in March 1995 as an astronaut candidate. He was the pilot on STS-90 (1998) and STS-106 (2000), and the mission commander on STS-109 (2002) and STS-125 (2009). Following two years as Shuttle Branch Chief for the Astronaut Office and lead for the Cockpit Avionics Upgrade, he was assigned on temporary duty to NASA Headquarters as Deputy Director, Requirements Division of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. On returning to Houston, and following STS-125, he served as the Chief of the Exploration Branch of the Astronaut Office. A veteran of four space flights, Altman has logged over 51 days in space. Altman retired from NASA in September 2010 to join Asrc Research and Technology Solutions in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Altman has earned many special honors, including Defense the Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Strike/Flight Air Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, 1987 Award winner for Outstanding Achievement in Tactical Aviation as selected by the Association of Naval Aviation.
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