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Blackford County is Tied to Shuttle Discovery


Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star.

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Written by Bill McCleery and Eric Weddle

12:37 AM, Feb. 25, 2011

When the space shuttle Discovery blasted off Thursday, it took a piece of Indiana history with it.

Eleven astronauts from Purdue University have flown on 16 Discovery missions since it first flew in 1984, and a Blackford County native was among those who piloted it.

Purdue professors also played a role in testing friction and heating in spacecraft design with the Discovery.

But even with all of Discovery''s Hoosier connections, Purdue President France Córdova said she feels no nostalgia about its upcoming decommissioning.

"I look at all of the possibilities ahead," said Córdova, who was chief scientist at NASA from 1993 to 1996. "It is an aging vehicle, and there are all kinds of wonderful ideas with new technology out there.

"I think one should always be looking ahead and for the next scientific return."

Discovery''s current flight is its 39th space mission and the 13th time it will have traveled to the International Space Station. When it returns March 7, it will have spent 363 days in space and circled Earth 5,800 times.

"It has flown more than any other shuttle and is the oldest in the fleet," said Michael G. Smith, Purdue associate professor of history, who teaches about the history of the space age and aviation.

"It launched the Hubble space telescope and also made several missions to the Russian Mir space station, as well as launching crucial parts for the International Space Station. So it has helped, more than any other in the shuttle fleet, to build America''s dominant presence in Earth orbit, a jewel in the crown of our space architecture."

Smith said the shuttle was also part of "redemption missions," returning to space after the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters.

Purdue astronauts have been a part of the Discovery''s mission since the beginning. Charles D. Walker, a 1971 Purdue graduate, was on the first Discovery mission team Aug. 30, 1984, as a payload specialist. Less than a year later he returned to space on Discovery''s fourth flight.

Another astronaut with an Indiana connection -- Blackford High School graduate Kevin Ford, 50 -- was captain during the shuttle''s August 2009 flight. Ford is a University of Notre Dame graduate.

Purdue''s connection to the Discovery extends beyond astronauts.

Steven Schneider, a professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was part of a team creating an experiment to test friction and heating in the design of spacecraft.

Those experiments are continuing, including on Discovery''s final flight.

"We are trying to understand the laminar turbulent transition," said Schneider, who is no longer involved in the project. "These are kinds of experiments that we can''t do on the ground."

Indianapolis astronaut David Wolf said such experiments are crucial to the space shuttle mission, which he thinks has revolutionized space flight.

"It was an extremely aggressive program in which humans took on a very ambitious vision and pulled together the best minds available to make it happen," he said. "We''ve had to overcome a whole series of unanticipated difficulties, and that''s the essence of innovation and advancement."

Wolf, who had four missions aboard the Atlantis, Columbia and Endeavour, remains an active astronaut. He has logged 168 days in space during his missions but currently spends much of his time training other astronauts, particularly for space walks.

Like Purdue''s Córdova, Wolf sees nothing but bright days ahead for America''s space mission. He is heavily involved in NASA''s biotechnology research programs.

"All of us at NASA and the whole country have taken part in a first-class space program," Wolf said, "the results of which we will be riding on for decades. We'll miss it greatly."

NASA''s two other shuttles, Endeavour and Atlantis, are scheduled for their final voyages later in the year.

Wolf anticipates that NASA's next generation of spacecraft might look more like the space capsules of the 1960s and 1970s than the current fleet of space shuttles.

"Some of the concepts do utilize shuttle-derived components, but it will almost surely not be a winged vehicle," he said. "The winged vehicle, while very capable in its ability to refly and offer control during phases of flight, has proven to be difficult to manage, particularly in terms of the heat shield, the tiles. . . . It''s also just turned out to be nearly impossible to eliminate the debris field generated at launch."

Debris at liftoff damaged the space shuttle Columbia's heat shield tiles, he noted, causing that craft''s demise.

"The next vehicles will likely be on the tip of the booster and may not have reusable heat shields," Wolf said. "The one-time-use heat shields are much more robust and unlikely to sustain damage. The 3,000-degree temperatures upon re-entry are really difficult from a material science point of view.

"So (the next generation of NASA spacecraft) may be more capsulelike -- reminiscent of a grown-up Apollo capsule -- but utilizing modern technology," he said, "much of which would be derived from the shuttle."

Call Star reporter Bill McCleery at (317) 444-6083.

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