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Posted September 4, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Amazing journey: Local rocketry expert reflects on NASA's shuttle program

By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- Space travel should never be considered routine.

If it seems that way to modern Americans, credit the space shuttle program, NASA's one-time prodigy, which has been propelling astronauts and equipment into space with the force of a rocket and returning them to earth with the ease of a jet glider for 30 years.

The program's more than 130 missions, which have revolved around the development of the International Space Station, repair work and the occasional recovery of a satellite, generally aren't as sexy as those of its older cousins like the pioneering Gemini or the lunar-landing Apollo.

Now with the shuttle program winding down -- only two more launches are planned: Discovery on Nov. 1 and Endeavour in late February -- it might be easy to look past the aging fleet, particularly as NASA shifts its focus toward robotics-based surface mapping and the search for life on other planets.

Charles Leeper, of Middletown, knows better. The retired engineer, whose 40-year career in rocketry spanned from the development of liquid propulsion systems to ship-based ballistic missiles to nuclear reactors, says the shuttle program has been a resounding success.

"Oh heavens, yes," the 87-year-old says without hesitation, his eyes twinkling like the nighttime sky.

If nothing else, he says, the space shuttle proved that a manned spacecraft could orbit the Earth and then return to touch down safely on a runway so that it could be reused. Before Columbia's maiden voyage in April 1981, astronauts had to land using parachutes.

With the shuttle, "we learned to land using a guidance system as opposed to a joystick," Leeper says.

The shuttle's design allows the craft to take itself out of orbit by firing its main engines then slowing it down so that it won't burn up upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

"When you're up there, you've got gravity pulling on you," Leeper says. "Those three engines proved just right."

In addition, he says, the space shuttle is the only freighter with the payload capacity to transport large pieces of equipment to and from the International Space Station, a laboratory being shared by 15 countries. The lab's other main supply vehicle, Russia's Soyuz, has a limited capacity.

"The [shuttle] program sort of grew up with that lab," Leeper says.

An avid star gazer with a retractable-roof observatory in his backyard, Leeper also credits the space shuttle program for improving the science of astronomy by launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.

"It was designed to fit inside the shuttle," he says.

The telescope's massive light-gathering mirror is "bringing us back news about the 300 or so planets that are orbiting other solar systems," about 30 of which are capable of supporting life, he says.

Of course, the space shuttle program has had its share of setbacks over the years, namely the tragic losses of Challenger 73 seconds after liftoff in 1986 and Columbia about 16 minutes before its expected landing in 2003. A total of 14 U.S. astronauts died.

"It's hard to believe that we lost those crews," Leeper says. "But then [Christopher] Columbus lost a lot of people getting to the Indies. ... Sometimes you learn things the hard way."

The space shuttle program was originally supposed to be retired next year, with the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles and the Orion spacecraft waiting in the wings. However, federal budget cuts have placed the development of those crafts in doubt, and the Obama administration has asked Congress to instead endorse a scaled-back plan for space exploration with heavy reliance on the private sector.

"It's a real challenge to sit with congressmen," says Leeper, who envisions a tug-of-war for federal dollars between transportation and science in the coming years. "They have to think about how much [money] to put where."

As for the prospect of putting U.S. astronauts on Mars in the near future -- a goal of President Obama's prior to his election -- Leeper says that's unlikely. The use of robot caterpillars on the surface of the "Red Planet," where temperatures can reach 190 degrees below zero, makes more sense and "saves wear and tear on human beings," he says.

Whatever form the U.S. space program ends up taking, Leeper plans on being there to witness it.

"I've been working hard to make sure I'll be around," he says. "It's been a good ride."

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