After a successful final launch, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to return back to Earth tomorrow, ending 30-years of historic space exploration. Once its wheels touchdown on the tarmac, the Shuttle will undergo a cleansing process that'll prime it up for a quiet rest in the Smithsonian. Too bad, cleaning her and all of the other Shuttles is quite the pain in the butt.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce had the rare, once in a lifetime chance to experience how Space Shuttles get cleaned up before being shipped off to museums for display. To our surprise, the entire cleansing procedure is about as intricate as prepping a Shuttle for flight.
Down at the Kennedy Space Center, things were a little crazy. Greenfieldboyce said that the Space Shuttle Discovery "was surrounded by so many platforms and pipes and equipment that at first [she] couldn't even see it."
As if that wasn't already sad enough, Greenfieldboyce said:
To make sure no foreign objects accidentally got into the historic spaceship, my rings had to be taped to my fingers, and my eyeglasses had to be tethered to my head. My press pass had to be taken off and hung in a special rack.
Oh, what we would give up to have our fingers taped up! But back to cleaning the Shuttle.
According to Stephanie Stilson, the person who has been in charge of ground operations for Discovery over the last 10 years, "the minute the [Shuttle] lands on the runway, it's a hazardous vehicle that has to be handled very carefully" and that "there are things that could make you feel sick...things that could leak and drip on your skin and cause damage."
We'll take Stilson's word on that. Radioactive space chemicals melting our skin off is nothing to joke about.
We always thought cleaning a Shuttle was as easy as having a team armed with Windex rush in there, wipe it all down, disassemble parts and make repairs, and then scram NASCAR-style. Guess we were wrong.
Once Atlantis gets her bath, it'll be officially over. All the wonderful men and women who have busted their backs over the last 30 years to ensure our astronauts make it safely into space will be put out of a job. To them, DVICE salutes you. You've made us proud, many times over.