This article presents views of John D. Olivas on achievements of humans in space. Olivas recalls the STS-117 mission in which various problems and challenges were systematically overcome by a team of managers, engineers, and technicians as well as the on-orbit crew to make the mission seem outwardly flawless. The mission encountered a shutdown of the main command and control computer system of the space station, loss of a power channel, headache-inducing carbon dioxide levels, compromised Shuttle thermal protection, unexpected orbital attitude control configuration, and reconfiguring a solar array damaged by the wear and tear of the environment that is space. Despite these challenges, hundreds of humans worked hand in hand to perform whatever heroic feat was necessary to achieve success. Olivas also thinks that despite all these achievements, there remains much more for humans to learn and much more to do.
As the Space Shuttle program draws to a close, I am grateful for the opportunity in which I was fortunate to take part. I’ve long had a passion for space. Since my early days, gazing up at the clear skies of far west Texas, to my present life of applying my trade to the field that still inspires me, I feel privileged to be a part of a proud time in American space exploration history. Two years have passed since my last space flight yet the sights, sounds, smells, and sense of awe I experienced are forever burned in my memory, and I’m confident they will remain deep within my soul until the end.
Astronauts are often asked about their most memorable moments in space. For me, the question is tantamount to asking a child which grain of sand on a beach is the most significant one to making the beach a beach. From the vibrations felt as both man and machine rip away from our terrestrial bounds, to the serenity and peace one experiences working feverishly outside the spacecraft, like so many worker bees tending to their hive, every aspect is a jewel in the treasure trove of the experience.
One in particular comes to mind from near the end of the STS-117 mission. A flight which embodied what NASA has become known to embrace, problems and challenges were systematically overcome by a team of managers, engineers, and technicians as well as the onorbit crew to make the mission seem outwardly flawless.
The mission encountered, in no particular order, a shutdown of the main command and control computer system of the space station, loss of a power channel, headache-inducing carbon dioxide levels, compromised Shuttle thermal protection, unexpected orbital attitude control configuration, and reconfiguring a solar array damaged by the wear and tear of the environment that is space. All this was on top of the planned pressures of mission objectives—most notably adding the largest truss segment ever attached to the space station, deploying a new set of solar arrays, installing critical environmental life-support hardware, and delivering key personnel—which needed to be satisfied as well.
Despite these challenges, hundreds, if not thousands, of humans worked hand in hand to perform whatever heroic feat was necessary to achieve success. At any given time, a technician, engineer, manager, or astronaut found himself or herself on the very pointy end of the spear of human exploration. With no choice but to rise to the challenges, the team unwilling to accept failure as an option beat into submission those challenges to assure mission success. Collectively, “Murphy” and his law were suitably contained regardless from where he poked his head or how he chose do his mischief.
As we departed the International Space Station, the football-field-size structure, which represents the preeminent engineering challenge humankind has ever faced, rapidly decreased to no more that a bright dot on the horizon. Against the backdrop that is our universe, this engineering wonder became virtually indistinguishable from the millions of dots that light our sky from stars many light years away.
It was then that I realized that, as awestruck as I was about the engineering marvel in which I just had the privilege to participate, this testament to human ingenuity and dedication over 50-plus years of exploration represented less than a mere drop in the ocean of universal knowledge; less than a grain of sand on the beach of what is possible; significant and proud, yet insignificant and humble.
We as humans think we may have come far and are on the very cusp of total knowledge and enlightenment. Yet, I know in my heart we know and have done so very, very little.
And the piece I treasure? The knowledge that there is so much more to learn, there is so much more to do. Humans are curious and creative. These two facts will remain so long as we remain. I am confident that so long as we are willing to ask the question “Why?” we will thirst for the answer.
Yes, seeing ourselves from a vantage point that few humans ever have, is a humbling experience. I am forever in debt to my colleagues, the program, and its supporters for having given me the opportunity.