Nebraska astronaut on Shuttle's legacy

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July 6, 2011 - 7:00pm

The Space Shuttle, Atlantis, is on the launch pad waiting to lift off for a final mission. After 30 years, the shuttles will be retired by NASA and placed at museums in Cape Canaveral, New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. Grant Gerlock of NET News talks to Nebraska astronaut, Clay Anderson, for his thoughts on the final launch. Anderson spent time on Discovery and Atlantis in his two trips to space to work on the International Space Station.

CLAY ANDERSON: Yeah, the Space Station, if we had tried to build it without the Shuttle we would still be in the very early phases of construction and who knows how long it would take to execute. So the Shuttle, one of its main legacies is it has been the U-Haul or pickup truck that has enabled us to put a complex machine in orbit that is the size of 2 football fields and a benefactor of 16 different nations. The Shuttle has been a hugely impressive vehicle. The most complex piece of machinery built by humans. It has a great legacy. I think that the history books will be very kind to the Shuttle program.

GRANT GERLOCK: Is it an emotional thing to know that this is the last time one of these vehicles is going up?

ANDERSON: I think it is emotional. You know, I don't know how I'll react to this one. We've launched a lot of shuttles, and of course being on one is pretty emotional in itself. So, I'm hoping we'll get a chance to watch it. I would like to be there with my family in person, but we weren't able to swing that this time and with a million visitors expected at the Cape it's likely to be quite an extravaganza.

GERLOCK: Do you know the crew members well?

ANDERSON: Well, Chris Ferguson is a classmate of mine, in the Class of '98. He was in my interview group, or I should say I was in his interview group back in 1998 when we came to the Space Center for our week of interviews and tests. Doug Hurley I spent some time with when he was in Russia as the Director of Operations in Russa. Sandy Magnus was a fellow Space Station flyer but we didn't really train together or fly together. But we've exchanged thoughts and ideas on the Space Station program plus I've dealt with her when she was in orbit I was one of the capsule communicators that got to speak with her on a regular basis. And Rex Walheim, he and I have swapped baseball bats for our kids in little league.

GERLOCK: So for this last crew to go up on a Shuttle, is that a bittersweet honor for them? Do they even have time to think about it?

ANDERSON: Yeah, I think they do. The media attention for them has been tremendous over their training period of 9 months. It got kind of hectic toward the end so they're probably enjoying their time in quarantine at the Cape where they can focus on the mission at hand and not have to think about all the extraneous things that go along with being on this flight. But I think they're all very proud and honored to be a part of this last flight. I think they feel some pressure to execute it as perfectly as possible which I know they will do. Hopefully we'll see them on the ground in about 12 days after July 8th with another successful mission under their belts.

GERLOCK: So you've been on Discovery twice and Atlantis once?

ANDERSON: Right, my first trip I went up on Atlantis and came home on Discovery and then my second trip, STS-131 was all on Discovery.

GERLOCK: Do the different Shuttles have different quirks at all? Do they have different personalities in any way?

ANDERSON: Discovery did. Discovery had a locker. It was the upper left locker on the aft middeck. And as soon as you went into space something happened with the structure and it kind of warped. So it was very difficult to close and open. We'd end up having to pack it with duct tape on the outside to get home. Other than that, I wasn't on Atlantis long enough. I was only on Atlantis 2 days before we docked so I really don't have any kind of indication if she has any quirks of her own.

GERLOCK: Here after 30 years of the Shuttle program, do you think this is the right time for NASA to bring it to an end or are they pulling the plug too soon?

ANDERSON: That's a tough question to ask a working astronaut. All things being equal with each Shuttle having been designed for 100 flights, I think we're probably stopping a little early. But then you have to consider the fact that all of this is being done with taxpayer money and you just simply can't afford to do everything all the time. So people way above my pay grade are getting the opportunity to make some decisions. I'm sure they're making them very thoughtfully. We've chosen to change the direction NASA goes, and unfortunately the Shuttle is a byproduct of those decisions. In order to keep the International Space Station flying until 2020 that takes a lot of time and effort and money. And in order to go on and do the next thing, that takes time and money and so something has to fall off the table. You can't just keep stacking it up in the middle.

GERLOCK: Do the Shuttles show their age at all or do they seem like brand new vehicles?

ANDERSON: No I wouldn't say they're brand new vehicles. They do show their age. You know the space environment and the launch environment, those are tremendously difficult places to put complex machinery. So they're like anything. They show their age with time, but if you maintain them well - for example our fleet of T-38s at Ellington Field, we have some of the oldest jets in the United States that are still flying and well maintained. So you have to make sure you're doing all the right things and changing the oil and keeping the wiper blades fresh and all that good stuff to allow them to safely operate. So I would say they're aged vehicles but they're in pristine condition.

GERLOCK: So after Atlantis gets back the Shuttles will be decommissioned and placed at museums around the country. Will it be difficult to view them as museum pieces?

ANDERSON: Yeah, probably for a while it will be. You know, having flown and lived on a couple of them it will be very interesting to see what goes through my mind the first time I see one of them in a museum. I imagine it will be several years for me, but yeah, it's difficult to think that those are hugely capable vehicles that probably could have flown in space some more and yet we're putting them on a pedestal in a museum. But the good part of that is people around the country are going to be able to see them and understand hopefully the legacy of what they've brought to the United States and to the space program. So that's one of the great aspects. You know people can't see them and can't touch them now, but hopefully they will be able to in the near future.

GERLOCK: What are you working on these days?

ANDERSON: Well, every astronaut that doesn't fly is tasked with working on the ground to help those that are flying. So right now I'm working in the area we call the International Space Station systems branch. So we worry about things that are happening in orbit that are breaking or need to be repaired or replaced. We work on procedures for the crew to run through those on the ground prior to them seeing them in orbit such that we hope we can work out all the bugs and all the details. And we're looking for ways to make their life better in the space station as we work here on earth. So I'm kind of a jack-of-all-trades right now.

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