Cover Story: Space Shuttle: 1981-2011

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It is the swan song of an American icon.  The final mission of NASA's storied shuttle program.  A program that's meant so much over the decades to so many people.

After 135 launches over 30 years, the space shuttle will never streak into the sky again.

Through heavy clouds, Atlantis rocketed into orbit Friday morning.  This is Atlantis' 33rd mission. It's been in service for 26 years.

The crew is delivering a year's worth of supplies to the space station.  But most people are focused on the historical significance.

The retiring of mankind's most advanced machine.

The space program has had such a huge impact on the country and some of your neighbors have had a part in that.

What does a battery-powered drill have to do with the space shuttle?

Dr. Jim Conrad, a professor and associate chair in UNC Charlotte's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, says they do go together.

"It may seem rather simple or silly," he says, "it's an eventual happening.. but they've had to develop a lot of batter-powered tools for use in NASA. That technology went directly into the tools that we used today that are battery powered."

Conrad should know.  For about a three-year stint in the early 1980s he worked for IBM when it was doing work for NASA in the space shuttle program.

Conrad went back to Houston again in 2008 and 2009.

"There have been a lot of technologies that have been discovered, refined whatever in space because of the zero gravity.. there's a lot of things that you can't do here on earth that we learned you can do and do a lot better up in space," he said.

Some of the heat-shielding technologies employed in the shuttle are also used by NASCAR.  In space on re-entry, you need protection against the heat.  Same goes for automobiles.

Space exploration has brought us medical imaging devices, TV satellite dishes and GPS.

It's also inspired a generation of young people to study sciences and engineering.

For Jim Conrad his work on the computer systems used for developing space shuttle software and work in shuttle communications will also hold a special place in his heart.

"Let's put it this way.. it's neat to work in the space program. I could claim to be a rocket scientist," he joked.

When it was conceived four decades ago the selling point of the shuttle is that there would be weekly launches into space.  And that it would be relatively inexpensive and safe.

It was none of those.

What will its legacy.. 30 years be?

"That's a lot of years for a single class of vehicle to be in place," Conrad told us. "The unfortunate thing is there's no replacement that's really on the books right now."

Private companies will take over the business of getting cargo and crew to the International Space Station.

The experts say it'll probably be another 3-to-5 years before astronauts blast off again from U.S. soil.

Two North Carolina research projects are on board Atlantis from UNC Chapel Hill and NC State.

One project from Chapel Hill will help investigators better understand bone loss and the second from State is designed to find out how plants fare under stressful conditions.

What will you remember most about the space shuttle program?  We invite you to leave your comments.  We may use them in a future news story.

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