The Last Shuttle To Leave Earth at Night

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An hour after the orange glow of Endeavour's liftoff lit the Kennedy Space Center press site on Feb. 8, NASA officials beamed at the bit of bright news illuminating an otherwise tough couple of weeks.

The smooth countdown for STS-130 and the relatively few technical problems -- a bit of foam loss, but nothing judged too serious -- shifted the tone of the press conference to one that joked about workers missing the Super Bowl .

"While I was getting evil glares for making them come in -- I don't know why it was my fault -- they were happy with the result," said Mike Moses, the shuttle program's launch integration manager, as journalists chuckled.

Yet the excitement of the launch will only temporarily distract workers from their worries. In the days before STS-130 began, KSC employees ranging from security guards to pressroom assistants told SpaceRef they wonder what they will do in a year once the shuttle program closes out.

With news earlier this month that President Barack Obama plans to cancel the Constellation moon-to-Mars program, NASA must now walk a delicate line.

In the coming months, officials will need to safely close out the shuttle, help guide its existing employees into new careers and also convince the public -- the taxpayer -- that it's worth it to go a commercial route to launch humans sometime in the future.

Tweetups and blogs

The front line of that battlefield is garnering an army of supporters with social media. In concert with STS-130, NASA extended tweetup invitations for the seventh time to ordinary members of the public.

It's a tradition they've been building upon for months. For example, the last launch in November saw 100 people watch Atlantis from the KSC press site. The meeting for this human spaceflight will be at JSC this time around, held just days after another tweetup for the Solar Dynamics Observatory launch. The plan is to spread the excitement of NASA to a more engaged audience, rallying its supporters at a time of great transition for the agency.

"I think in general they become great ambassadors of the agency," said NASA press official John Yembrick of the people attending tweetups and linking to the dozens of Twitter accounts promoting agency centers and missions.

"We're going to keep doing this. It's one of the things NASA is doing because we realize things are changing."

For years now, NASA has informally opened the press site to bloggers as well as traditional journalists. STS-130 is the first specifically to mention bloggers in the invitation to media because the agency wanted to make it clear they are moving in a new direction, Yembrick said.

'I was stupid; I admit that'

Given that the European Space Agency was the prime contractor for Node 3 -- the last major hub set to launch to the International Space Station -- it was little surprise to hear some journalists speaking Spanish, German and Italian in NASA's tall Kennedy Space Center pressroom during STS-130's launch. Among other things, this node will house the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT) and the urine recycler system, two items already well-beloved by media when trying to bring space to the public.

It makes the launch an easy sell. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, however, had a tougher line to give the press in a briefing on Feb. 6.

Many voiced worries about lost worker jobs and squandered opportunities with the shuttering of the Constellation program, once hailed as the next generation of spaceflight after the shuttle finished. Bolden said he had once believed in it too, but had gone against the advice of senior managers in the program by throwing his support behind the moon-to-Mars program first announced by former president George W. Bush in 2004.

"Why wasn't the NASA workforce better prepared for this? I will take the heat," Bolden said. "It was because I didn't listen to people to how we should roll this out. So we rolled out everything at once, and the workforce was not was not well prepared, and I apologize. I was stupid; I admit that. I didn't do it right."

Commercial pathways

International partnerships and renting commercial spacecraft -- perhaps even crew, Bolden speculated -- would be the way he hopes to see NASA in the future.

The new plan would see the first commercial flights reaching the ISS by 2013, and heavy-lift vehicles flying between 2020 and 2030.

NASA's push into Twitter and also push towards commercial spaceflight is due to a new generation of managers -- those who grew up in Apollo -- reaching the echelons of senior ranks and trying to do things differently than the generation before, says Bob Richards.

"This is a completely different world -- you couldn't do Apollo again. It's completely different circumstances," Richards said.

NASA's new direction will bring it away from being a "trucking service" and open it up to doing science and exploration beyond earth, he says.

Yet shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach couldn't disguise a bit of wistfulness in his voice when talking about this liftoff, the last night launch of the program.

"It was like every other launch," he said at the post-liftoff press conference. "People were ecastic to get the vehicle into orbit. It was a great night, and we are going to cherish that."


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